Heaven Can Wait
Tomorrow I will marry Mr. Bingley. My Mr. Bingley. Charles.
Tomorrow I will stand before God, before Charles, and I will promise to love, honor, and obey. Tomorrow I will leave this house as a maiden for the last time.
But tonight is mine, and tonight I will weep once more for Gideon. He was my Gideon, and I was his Jane. Before Charles. I had promised to marry him, and he had promised to raise my name to the stars and teach the angels to sing my praises. Once when I was visiting the Peaks with Aunt and Uncle, the year before Charles leased Netherfield, we saw the Northern Lights. It wasn't the first time I'd see them, but Uncle said they were the brightest he'd ever seen. I knew it was Gideon's doing‹he told me he'd come back. He had promised. I knew those eerie purple and green streaks that glimmered and danced across the sky were simply Gideon teasing me again. It's blasphemy, I know. But he did say he would come back, and he always kept his word. Yes, Gideon was a man of words.
I waited for him. Past hope, I waited. Past faith, I waited. And then Charles came, and now it comes to pass that tomorrow I will marry him instead. Past hope. Past faith. Once upon a time I swore that I would wait for Gideon forever.
That was before Marianne gave me his last letter‹the one he didn't finish. Even after I'd read the letter so many times that I knew it word for word, I still couldn't bear to think of telling any other man that I would love him, or honor him, or obey him. But he told me to dry my eyes and let myself love and be loved. He ordered me to let another man step into his shoes. He wrote that it was only right that I should live and love fully, for the both of us. He wrote that I would know when the right man came along. He promised to help me to know. But he didn't. Not a sign of Gideon have I had these three years. And so I muddled along, shielding myself from suitors with my reserve. That reserve, plus my lack of dowry and connections, served me wellŠuntil Charles. Only with Charles did I forget that I didn't want to fall in love again. Only with Charles did I find myself wanting to dance again. Only with Charles did I find myself blushing again under a man's admiring gaze.
And here I am, about to marry Charles, and I don't really know whether he's what Gideon had in mind. How did this come to pass? I know that Mr. Darcy has had his doubts about my heart. Lizzy would never admit as much, now that he has bared his soul to her, but I could see it in his eyes when he would watch Charles and me, when they first came to Netherfield, and later, when they came back. Not that he saw me as a fortune-hunter. No, I think he saw the truth‹that my heart was not likely to be touched by such a man as Charles‹and he tried to protect his friend from unrequited love. But Charles did touch my heart, somehow, and now I would rather die myself than dishonor this sweet and gentle man who braved his sisters and his friends to seek my hand. It would be a dishonor to him if I were still to listen in the darkness for Gideon's footfall or look for his face in the shadows of the moon or reach out into the night to touch his hand, as I am wont to do. I won't dishonor Charles, and so tonight I will say goodbye to Gideon. I will burn this packet of letters. All of them, all his words. All those sweet, passionate, schoolboy words that he wrote to me. Words that he never had time to grow into. Words that I didn't have time to live up to.
Charles blots his words. He writes so fast that he gets ahead of himself like an overgrown puppy. He brags about it too, which makes me smile and love him all the more. Lizzy told me that Mr. Darcy scolded Charles about it back when I was sick at Netherfield and she had come to nurse me. She teased him for scolding Charles then, and as payback he fell in love with her. Those two! Of all the men in all the world, at least she found the one who can match her wit for wit and spark for spark. I thought they would ignite Netherfield Hall the night of Charles's ball, the way they carried on.
Strange, I met Gideon at Netherfield too. "Netherfield Hall is let at last," Mama had proclaimed. Only then it was the Forsythes who had taken the house. Father called on Mr. Forsythe, behind Mama's back, of course, and soon we were intimate with the whole family. Lizzy and I were great friends with Anne Forsythe, and the three of us, plus Charlotte Lucas from Lucas Lodge, had jolly times together. Even with Anne's two older brothers away at university, the house was always bustling with maiden aunts and dashing cousins.
It was Mr. Forsythe who proposed that the neighborhood families hire a dancing master to teacher all the young people. Father and Sir William Lucas went along with the plan. And so he came among us. Gideon Hayes. Thin as a rail and with a shock of unruly hair. He seemed to bounce when he walked and a smile was never far from his lips. But, oh, the man could dress. He took our breath away, he was so elegant. But unlike the ton to whom he was a slave, his elegance never degenerated into rudeness. "Mr. Hayes could charm the stockings off a seahorse," Mama used to say, fanning herself after Gideon had teased her to within an inch of impropriety. "And it's well he can," Father would reply, "considering the odds against him."
The odds against him. It wasn't until later, when he claimed my acquaintance in London and insisted on calling at Gracechurch Street, did I learn what those odds were. When I met him in Hertfordshire, I only knew that he was the finest young man I could ever imagine.
He taught us all to dance‹Mr. Beveridge's Maggot, Sir Roger de Coverly, The Dressed Ship, Childgrove, Grimstock. He taught us to "dip and dive, "strip the willow," and "honour" each other. The first time he touched my hand as he showed the others how to turn and turn again, I trembled. And then I blushed because behind his twinkling eyes I could see that there burned a soul worth touching, a heart worth holding. I was then but fifteen.
Down the hill from our house is an ash grove, a cool and peaceful respite from the noise and bustle and care of four younger sisters and a fragile mother. It was there that Gideon first enchanted me with his words and made me see what love could be like. He had come upon me suddenly as I was collecting my thoughts after a particularly trying day. Mother was still mourning the loss of Henry, our baby who had died the previous winter, and the burden of running the household had fallen to me while she was incapacitated. Mr. Hayes's dancing classes at Netherfield were the only times when I felt free from the cares of family life that spring, and I treasured them more than anything.
I was sitting on the bench at the far end of the grove, resting my eyes on the honey rays of evening's last light and watching the meadow beyond shimmer with spring flowers and soft tender grasses. New lambs and calves were quietly nuzzling their mothers, and as I watched them I thought of baby Henry and Mama. I knew that he was safe in heaven, but I wondered whether Mama would ever be the same again. I missed her so much it hurt. I missed her softly stroking my hair as she admired my needlework. I missed her brushing my hair and laughing and telling stories about when she and Aunt Phillips were girls. I missed her kisses when she used to tuck me in at night. Is fifteen too old to still want to be tucked in? Is fifteen too young to be ordering dinner and hiring servants and overseeing my sisters' education?
"I thought I might find you here, Miss Bennet," Gideon said, startling me out of my reverie. He held out a thin book. "Have you read An Evening Walk," he asked.
"My father read it to us in the evenings last winter," I stammered, trying to ignore the offer of the book.
"Far from my dearest friend," he quoted, "'tis mine to rove thro' bare grey dell, high wood, and pastoral cove; his wizard course where hoary Derwent takes thro' craggs, and forest glooms, and opening lakes, staying his silent waves, to hear the roar that stuns the tremulous cliffs of high Lodore." Gideon broke off with a blush and then grinned at me, running a hand through his tangle of brown curls.
"As you can see, Miss Bennet, I clearly have too much time on my hands."
"Oh not at all, Mr. Hayes. That was lovely," I breathed.
"Have you been to the Lake Country?"
"Not at all. I've only ever been to London," I said with a sigh, ashamed at the limits of my provincial life.
"Yes, everybody's been to London," he teased.
"Have you been to the Lake Country," I asked quickly to cover my confusion at being teased by so elegant a young man, one who can both recite poetry and dance divinely.
"Many times. My father has a lodge there. It's the only time we can reallyŠ" Gideon flushed as he stopped abruptly, and then recollecting himself, he smiled again quickly, insisting that I take the volume of poetry.
"Read it and maybe tomorrow you can tell me what you think of it," he said. Then he bowed and took his leave.
With a pounding heart, I watched him as he walked back up the path through the grove and round the corner and out of view. Then I sat back down on my bench and opened the book. It's not really a gift. He only lent it to me. And I did love to read poetry. I gingerly thumbed its crinkly pages, anticipating the pleasure it would be to read those wonderful words at my leisure and in my own way, which is very different from Father's. And then, near the end, I found a sheet of paper that proclaimed the following were "Lines on First Seeing Miss Bennet." So that's why Gideon Hayes insisted that I read William Wordsworth's poetry!
Now here I sit on the night before my wedding to Charles holding a bundle of letters in my lap. They're bound by a blue ribbon, and they've been wrapped in a handkerchief and stowed in my chest for years. At the bottom of the pile is the first poem Gideon wrote to me. I read it now and shake my head at his extravagant praise of me, silly little fifteen-year-old girl that I was. In love with the idea of being in love, he was. I remember how scared I felt when I read his words‹I wasn't prepared for such an outpouring of emotion. I had never seen myself as someone who could incite such feelings in another. Lizzy could, certainly. Even at fourteen, she was a fairly determined flirt and never seemed to doubt that all mankind should be at her feet. But I, I didn't have such confidence or expect such homage. Mama has always said I was a beauty, but Gideon was the only one, before Charles, who could make me believe it.
I read Gideon's lines through until I had them memorized. And then I went home and hid them away along with the book he had lent me before I rejoined the family. All that evening my mind was full of Gideon. Later that night, at bedtime, I made the biggest mistake of my life. I told Lizzy all about it. How she laughed. She mocked his praise of me and sneered at his poor rhymes and weak images. She laughingly declared that if I had ever thought of falling in love with him, his sonnet had more than ruined any chance he might have had with me. Never has her wit hurt me more. I didn't speak of him again to her. Of course, she teased me about him while he remained in our neighborhood and winked at him when he danced with me. He never seemed to notice that she was teasing him, though I died a thousand times inside whenever she did.
I never told her that I met him secretly in the ash grove almost every evening, and we talked of Mr. Wordsworth and Mr. Coleridge and a new young poet, Mr. Shelley. He told me that he meant to be a great man someday. A man of letters and a man of science. A builder. A healer. An artist.
"Then why are you a dancing master?" I asked, in all my innocence.
"Because, dear girl, I must earn my bread."
"But your fatherŠ"
"The issue is more my motherŠ"
"But I thoughtŠ"
He stopped my words with his finger. "I am not complaining that I must work. Luckily I have the education to be a master. From here, I go to a family in London. A widow and her son."
"From hereŠ" I gasped, realizing that Gideon was not in Hertfordshire to stay.
"You're fifteen," he said. "I cannot ask you to marry meŠyet. I will wait for you, dear girl. I will come back, Miss Bennet, and that is a promise."
"But I can come to London," I exclaimed. "My aunt and uncle often invite me to stay with them, for the benefit of the excellent masters," I added with a shy smile.
"Do you go to Vauxhall?"
"Often. Aunt Gardiner loves to promenade."
"Then when you come to London, I will find you at there."
And he did. Not two days had I been in London before Aunt and Uncle and I went to Vauxhall Gardens. Aunt was about to enter her confinement and wanted to be in company as much as possible before her lying in. I was to help with the younger children, leaving Lizzy to cope with life at Longbourn on her own. I still laugh out loud when I remember how Gideon introduced himself to Aunt and Uncle, claiming an acquaintance with Father and never letting on how devoted he was to me. They found out soon enough though. But he was so charming that they never denied him entry to their house at Gracechurch Street, they just cautioned his employer, Mrs. Brandon, about his growing attachment to their very young niece. How happy I was during those four months in London. Aunt delivered the sweetest baby boy, and though I cried again when I thought of our poor Henry and my dear Mama, my little nephew brought us all great joy.
Gideon sent me at least a poem a week. And he was happy too. The family with which he was living was wonderful‹Mrs. Brandon soon became my particular friend. I think she felt she needed to protect me from Gideon's ardour, and her son, Robert, then a precocious ten-year-old, was a perfect pupil for Gideon. I'm not sure who got into the most scrapes‹Robert or Gideon, but Mrs. Brandon kept him on so she must have been pleased with him.
And then there was Dr. Gray. Gideon simply idolized Thaddeus Gray‹doctor, orator, and philosopher. It was Dr. Gray who finally told Marianne Brandon that Gideon should be his apprentice and not her son's tutor. It was Dr. Gray who confronted Lord --, Gideon's natural father, and told him that he should be ashamed of himself for letting his brilliant son wallow in mediocrity earning a meager living as a master. It was Dr. Gray who took Gideon away from me, first to Edinburgh and then to Paris. It was Dr. Gray who paid the passage for Molly Hayes to visit her son in Paris. Never was money more ill-spent. She was ill and perhaps Gideon had been hoping that Dr. Gray could conjure up a cure for her. Instead, he was stricken by the same disease that was consuming his mother. Except that her constitution was stronger than his. She rallied. He died.
It was Marianne, now Mrs. Gray, who was with him at the last. It was Marianne who held his hand and mopped his fevered brow. It was she who wrote down his final words as he whispered his goodbyes to me.
Father called me into his study one fine May morning and there I saw Dr. and Mrs. Gray, standing next to father, looking as if the world had ended. Seeing them there, with the morning sun pouring down upon them, I knew it had, at least for me. Father caught me in his arms before I crumpled to the floor. Of course, he had known about Gideon and me. He was the only one in the family who did know. Dr. Gray had come with Gideon when he called on Father to ask for my hand. Father had agreed on condition. He bluntly told Gideon that he had no intention of marrying his eldest daughter to anyone not a gentleman, but if Gideon could make the grade then he would not object to my marrying him if I still agreed. That was good enough for us. Father promised not to tell a soul, not even Mama and especially not Lizzy, until Gideon was ready to pass for a gentleman. I was then eighteen. Nine months later, Gideon was dead.
I went away that day to stay with the Grays in London. Father helped me pack. Or rather, he kept Mama and my sisters occupied so that Marianne could help me pack. I don't know that Lizzy ever suspected. It would hurt her so if she were to find out that I suffered without her. Somehow after Gideon died, I was even more determined that she never discover that I had loved him and that we had been engaged. Perhaps that's how I came to nurture the fancy that he would return to me some day, just as he had promised.
Tomorrow I marry Charles. Sometimes I feel guilty for letting him love me and loving him back too. I won't dishonor him. Gideon's first lines on seeing me are the first to go. They flame up and in an instant they are gone‹flame, then smoke, then ash. Now the first year‹all the poems and letters from when I was with Aunt and Uncle and he was with Marianne and Robert. The stack from that year is thick‹the weight of all those words almost smothers the fire, but then a rogue flame finds an unprotected corner and the parchment blackens. The center is eaten away by the flames, and Gideon's passion breaks into chunks of glowing cinders that flicker, unsustained, unfed. The second year is thinner but richer and deeper as he finds the words that express not only what he loves in me but the shape of that which he is trying to build. Year three is thick again for he has all of Paris to describe to me‹the poor, the sick, the dancers, the singers, the doctors, the scientists, the poets, the madmen, and the lovers. And now year three is smoke, and now it's ash. Year four is slender, rapt, and incomplete. I place the final stack upon the logs. And now year four is gone as well. Through my tears, I look down to see the blue ribbon that bound his words together lying limply in my hands. It has nothing left to bind, and I no longer am bound to Gideon.
The fire burns awhile longer and then dies down. Soon there will only be a half-burned log remaining as proof that once this hearth glowed with the flames of Gideon's words.
I can hear laughing drifting up from below. Aunt Phillips and Aunt Gardiner and Mama as well as Lady Lucas and Mrs. Collins and all my sisters are waiting for me to come down so they can toast Lizzy and me on the last night of our maidenhood. I know I should go down and smile and show them just how happy a bride I am. If it's not wrong of me to happily marry Charles, it can't be wrong of me to cry once more for Gideon.
A gentle but determined knock upon the door brings Lizzy to my side.
"Come quick," she says. "Mr. Bingley and Fitzwilliam are waiting down below. They say they have a surprise for us."
"Tonight?" I exclaim, reluctant to leave my sullen glow of coals.
"Come, Jane, please," Lizzy smiles at me and pulls me to my feet. "Tomorrow we'll be married women..."
She hurries me down and helps me wrap myself against the cold December night.
Indeed, Charles and Mr. Darcy are waiting for us, grinning, clearly up to something.
"Fancy an evening walk?" Charles asks.
I turn sharply. "What did you say?" I exclaim, surprised at the turn of his words.
We climb up Oakham Mount, just us four. The light from the moon is bright and guides our path well. We've made this walk together, many times in the gathering twilight. At the top we see why Charles and Mr. Darcy have dragged us out into the night. The Northern Lights. We watch a shimmering curtain of purple, green, and gold stretch clear up to Polaris, or beyond. Mr. Darcy talks about how late it is in the year for them to appear, and Lizzy talks about the Merry Dancers, and Charles takes my hand.
I feel the tears cascading down my cheeks, unchecked and unrehearsed. Is Gideon teasing me yet again?
Charles touches my cold, cold check, near frozen with tears.
I look into his eyes and finally see, behind the sparkle that is Charles, that there burns a soul worth touching, a heart worth holding.
"Is it you?" I ask.
He takes both my hands in his and gently kisses my fingertips. Then he looks past my tears and into my heart.
"It always was, dear girl. It always was."