A Christmas Gathering of Bennets
"Your mother must be touched to be planning such a gathering as this," Darcy exclaimed. "And your father--what is he thinking to be encouraging this?"
"Fitzwilliam, it is not so outlandish a scheme," Elizabeth placated. "Surely you can see that my mother would like to have all her daughters home for Christmas. We should be glad Lydia can not come. No one has yet seen baby Robert except Jane and this will give me an opportunity to see Kitty's little Susan. The house is large enough for us all."
"It is not large enough to keep me out of your mother's way. You know I can not spend more than two nights there without going mad. I should rather stay in London."
"You shall not stay in London! After five years of marriage you are not about to start spending Christmas away from your wife and children. And we are going to Longbourn! If I had to spend Christmas last year at Rosings, you can bear it this year with my mother."
When Darcy saw his wife's eyes flash, he knew it was useless to battle. Besides, he had never been able to deny her anything and knew, after putting up a required protest, he would end up acceding to her wishes. His sister Georgiana was in Bermuda with her new husband and he would miss her presence at Pemberley during Christmas.
Transporting the entire Darcy family south to Longbourn in winter was a nightmare of planning. Two carriages were needed for husband, wife and three small children. Then, even though few servants were coming because there would be no room for them at Lizzy's childhood home, Darcy's manservant and her maid were required attendants as well as a nurse, nursemaid and wetnurse for three month old Robert.
What normally took two days from Pemberley took three because of the muddy roads and frequent stops required when small children traveled. Darcy rode most of the way on horseback. He loved his family dearly but he thought he was a better father entertaining soon to be four year old Anne and two year old Fitzwilliam through the window than he would be confined in a carriage with them.
Finally, four days before Christmas, the Darcy entourage arrived.
"Oh, hurry in, hurry in," Mrs. Bennet breathlessly exhorted when they had alit from the carriage. "Everyone is here already. Oh, what is this bundle here? Is this little Robert? How precious! I have never seen such a beautiful child! And Annie and Willie, how big they've become. Oh, give Granny a kiss."
As Mrs. Bennet bent down to bring her face closer to the elder Darcy children, they shrank behind their mother's skirts.
Mrs. Bennet was a bit affronted at being treated thus by her grandchildren. She whispered to her daughter as they entered the house. "You know, dear, you do not want to encourage such shyness. They may become like Mary and Mary has become very strange indeed these past few months."
Warm greetings to all her sisters present were soon given. Jane and Charles had arrived yesterday with their three children--three year old twin boys, Charles and Henry, and a girl just walking called Elizabeth. Kitty and her husband, the Reverend Edgar Laurence, had been at Longbourn for a week with their baby daughter Susan.
Kisses and hugs, admiration of young nieces and nephews, some seen for the first time, comprised the first one-half hour of the reunion. Darcy stood aloof but smiling proudly at his own children, especially his precocious jewel, Anne.
Mr. Bennet came over to greet his son-in-law. "Well, Darcy, my house has been quite peaceful these past few years with all but Mary gone. What do you mean by bringing all these women back and with youngsters to boot? If I were you, I'd come into the library with me now and join me in some sustenance to help us through the next week. I'll ask Bingley too but not the reverend. He does not approve of spirits, I'm afraid. He's even made poor Kitty quite sober."
Darcy consented. With a whisper to his wife, he left the ladies to their own fun.
When the children and nurses had all been sent away and servants were busy unpacking, the ladies were free to settle in the drawing room and bring each other their latest news. Mr. Laurence found it necessary to join them.
"Where is Mary?" Elizabeth inquired.
"Ah, I told you she's been acting strangely." Mrs. Bennet rolled her eyes. "I think she's quite enjoyed having the rule of the house these past two years and is quite put out to be sharing it again. She has some friends in Meryton or maybe she is with your Aunt Phillips."
"Mother, you can't let Mary be off alone without knowing where she is," Jane said, quite aghast. "It will soon be dark."
"Mary is quite well. She's been off on her own quite a bit before. And it's not like anyone will steal her away. Her looks have not changed any. She will be back for supper."
Elizabeth turned to Kitty. "Here you are, married and with a baby. You know, Mr. Laurence, I tried to marry Kitty off many a time when she would visit me at Pemberley. It appears she needed no help from me for she writes often to tell me how serene and comfortable her life has been with you."
Mr. Laurence smiled graciously. "Thank you, Mrs. Darcy. My wife tells me she was quite in a state of confusion before she met me. But if I may correct you, I prefer her to be called Catherine."
Elizabeth was taken aback by this speech. She had met her sister's husband only once and then but briefly, at their wedding. He was a handsome man, not tall but he had a fine bearing. He had a way though, even then of speaking for his wife. Elizabeth was somewhat surprised more than amused that her younger sister would be so easily silenced.
"Well, I have some news," Mrs. Bennet was saying. "Tomorrow we are to be feted at the Phillipses."
Elizabeth groaned inwardly. She knew it was inevitable to see her aunt and uncle in Meryton but had hoped it would not be a spectacle.
"And," Mrs. Bennet gleefully continued, "Guess who else will be there! The new Netherfield tenants! A widow with three children--two of them unmarried daughters! I am so happy my daughters are not in that condition. I don't think there are any eligible men left in all the county. Maria Lucas is still single too, you know."
In spite of themselves, Jane and Elizabeth were curious about their mother's new neighbor and asked many questions. Even Kitty spoke up.
"Mama, how old are the daughters?"
"I believe the elder daughter is already four and twenty and the younger but eighteen."
"How nice it would have been," Kitty sighed, "to have them for neighbors when I was settled here."
"But they are not particularly suitable to you now, Catherine," her husband chided. "Not to a married women with a small child."
"Then you must indeed have an ample supply of married women with small children in your neighborhood if only they are to be Kitty's, I mean Catherine's friends," Elizabeth said smiling. "There are so few women near Pemberley at all that I will make friends with anyone."
"You know," Mrs. Bennet interjected, ignoring this whole exchange, "Mrs. Eustace, the lady at Netherfield, also has an idiot son. No one has ever seen him though we know she has brought him. Hill has told me that she heard from the butcher's sister's maid that all he does all the day long is sit in a dark room looking out the window."
"Oh, how sad," Jane murmured though her mother seemed to think it was anything but.
At that moment, Mary walked in. She greeted her newly arrived sister with little enthusiasm, then excused herself to prepare for supper.
The day had been tiring and not long after supper, Elizabeth excused herself to check on her children and then retire to bed. She was still awake when her husband came in an hour later. Because the number of guests exceeded the number of bedrooms, they were forced to stay together in one room, which was no hardship for they usually stayed together both at Pemberley and in London.
"So my darling, did my father entertain you well?" Elizabeth asked.
"Too well, I'm afraid. But you will be proud of me for he is still with Bingley and they are getting quite jolly but I preferred to be with you."
As Darcy began to undress, he muttered," I don't know why I bothered to bring Weston with me for there's no room for him to help me undress. I suppose I shall be fending for myself all week."
"Nonsense, I asked him to lay out your clothes for tomorrow and he will be by at 8:00 to shave you."
"So I suppose we shall have to be out of bed by 7:30. That is much too early on a cold winter morning. I would much rather stay longer under the covers," Darcy said, sitting on the edge of the bed and grinning at her.
Sometimes when he looked at her like that, such a flood of love poured over her she could barely contain herself. But she had one more piece of news to tell him
"We are to be at the Phillipses tomorrow for a party."
Darcy groaned and fell theatrically back on the bed with his arms flung out.
"You knew it would be so," Elizabeth whispered. "Please be quiet, my love. Mama is just next door."
"I knew I would rather be in London. No, Lizzy," he quickly added. "I am joking. There is no place I'd rather be tomorrow than the Phillipses. Except of course, Lucas Lodge. Now give me one kiss."
Elizabeth warmly obliged.
Mr. and Mrs. Phillips considered themselves the social lions of Meryton. They gave more parties, made more introductions, and embraced the latest fashions quicker than any other family in town. While that noble family, the Lucases, may have been more discriminating in whom they invited to supper, the Phillipses invited anyone and everyone who would come. Not everyone would come but they took no notice of that.
This evening, to honor the Bennet girls and their husbands, the Phillipses hired five musicians so there would be dancing. They provided ample meats, sweetbreads, and fishes for consumption and for the gentlemen, a madeira punch and for the ladies, negus.
"Oh, my dear, dear Mrs. Darcy," Aunt Phillips greeted her niece. "I always like to call you Mrs. Darcy, it occasions such respect."
"I am happy to see you again, Mrs. Phillips. There, you see? I can be respectful too."
"Mr. Darcy." Aunt Phillips lowered her eyes and dropped a deep curtsey.
"Good evening, Mrs. Phillips," Darcy responded with a curt bow. Her fawning always offended him.
"Oh, Lizzy," Aunt Phillips exclaimed, forgetting her respect. "Your necklace--so exquisite. Are they emeralds? My, they must rival the crown jewels."
"No, Aunt," Lizzy laughed. "I do not own such priceless jewels. Yes, they are emeralds, but very small, don't you think?"
"Well, I'm sure you could have larger ones, if you would but ask," her aunt responded.
Darcy had had enough of this subject and excused himself.
"And here is Mrs. Bingley," Aunt Phillips greeted her eldest niece. "I will call you Mrs. Bingley, it occasions such respect."
Lizzy did not wait to hear her aunt call Kitty, Mrs. Laurence. She went to greet her uncle who was a very silent partner to his wife, allowing her to have the honor of greeting their guests. After exchanging pleasantries with him and waiting for Jane to follow her, Lizzy approached a new subject.
"I believe that lady sitting by the fire must be the new tenant of Netherfield. She is the only one I do not recognize."
"Yes, yes," her uncle agreed.
"Will you introduce us, Uncle?" Lizzy prompted.
"Of course, of course."
He led his nieces to a refined looking lady. She had iron grey hair, a patrician nose, but a kind smile.
"Yes, I have heard of you both, Mrs. Bingley and Mrs. Darcy," Mrs. Eustace responded after introductions were made. "I believe, Mrs. Bingley, you lived once in the house I occupy now."
'Yes, Mrs. Eustace," Jane replied. "I was very happy there in my first year of marriage."
"But a little too close to family, I gather," Mrs. Eustace said with a twinkle in her eye.
Elizabeth marveled at her quick perception.
"I would very much like to meet your parents. Your mother must be that lady with Mrs. Phillips."
Elizabeth turned to her mother and was horrified to see her with her aunt trying to feed Darcy a morsel of goose liver which he detested. She could just hear them.
"You will like it, Mr. Darcy, I promise," Aunt was saying. "Mrs. Bennet tells me it is your favorite dish."
Darcy was murmuring something as he backed away with his mother-in-law following him, dangling the fork in front of her. Elizabeth excused herself to rescue him.
"William, the Lucases are here. I believe we must say hello." This was a slightly less evil than being pursued by her mother and aunt all evening so Darcy obeyed.
"My dear Mr. and Mrs. Darcy," Sir William exclaimed when seeing them approach. "I am so glad to see you here. I hope you and all your family will be coming tomorrow to Lucas Lodge for a small gathering. My daughter Charlotte and her husband arrive to spend Christmas with us."
"Sir, I did not know," Elizabeth said. Darcy remained silent. "Of course, if you invite us, we shall accept." She felt her husband's eyes on her.
" Capital, capital." Sir William clapped his hands.
"Is it not a busy time for a minister to be away from his flock?" Darcy finally put in.
"Mr. Collins has a very capable young cleric helping him," Lady Lucas answered, "and he has most kindly offered to take over all parish business so Mr. Collins can be at Lucas Lodge for Christmas with Charlotte and young William."
"Well, this will be two Christmases we shall see the Collins family, will it not, my dear?" Elizabeth dryly asked her husband. She turned to the Lucases. "I am always happy to see Charlotte and my cousin, too, of course."
As the evening at the Phillips home progressed, the dancing began. Darcy took a turn at a set with his wife twice and Jane once. He even asked Kitty but she declined.
"What is this Laurence about?" Darcy asked his wife during supper. "There is no one I know who likes dancing better than Kitty and now she will not dance at all. I am sure it is her husband's influence."
"I am inclined to agree," Elizabeth said thoughtfully. "It pains me to see Kitty's spirit so dampened. Will you excuse me so I may sit by her?"
Elizabeth made her way to her younger sister's side and sat with her while Mr. Laurence sat across the table next to Mary.
"Have you met the Eustaces yet?" Lizzy asked pleasantly.
"Yes, Mr. Laurence and I were introduced to Mrs. Eustace, but not the daughters," Kitty replied.
"Amelia and Melissa. Such pretty names. They seem pleasant girls," Lizzy continued.
Kitty merely smiled but her husband spoke up. "Not very Christian names. I wonder why they are not yet married."
"Suitable men are not always in ample supply," Lizzy said. "I do not see the idiot son." Lizzy meant to make Kitty laugh.
"Surely they can not bring him out in public," Kitty earnestly exclaimed.
"Oh, Kitty, I am sure he is not an idiot just because he is solitary," Lizzy chided.
"Yes, Lizzy, you are right," Mary spoke up. "A solitary person makes up for lack of company by expanding his mind, reason and very soul."
Elizabeth wondered at Mary's exclamation but thought perhaps her sister was speaking of herself.
"No Mary," Laurence interrupted. "I think a solitary soul is very selfish, not reaching out to others to share his knowledge gained. A clergyman is very solitary when seeking out the word of God but then he shares his knowledge by teaching others."
"You would think that," Mary said abruptly and walked away.
Mr. Laurence shook his head sadly. "She has become an arid, old spinster. Single women of such an age have little value in our world."
"Indeed, sir, you are mistaken," Lizzy stood up, eyes flashing. "Mary is not yet five and twenty and even if she were five and thirty, her value as a daughter, sister and aunt is immeasurable."
Elizabeth had never truly thought highly of her sister Mary but could not stand to hear her criticized unjustly. From across the room, Darcy saw the anger in his wife's expression. He hurried to release her.
"Elizabeth, I thought perhaps you might wish to leave now to check on Will." Darcy turned to Kitty. "He has a cold and his mother worries over every sniffle."
"Yes, I think we should go," Lizzy said, suddenly very tired.
After begging Mrs. Phillips' forgiveness for being the first to leave, Darcy and Elizabeth left in the carriage they had arrived in with Jane and Charles. The Bingleys promised they would be quite comfortable squeezing in with the Bennets and Laurences on their way home. Only Mary insisted on returning to Longbourn with them.
"Mary, what ails Kitty?" Elizabeth asked on the journey home. "She scarcely speaks nor smiles."
"I can not know. We do not write or speak often."
"Then you do not know what ails her husband."
"Only that he is a blind, vain man, not godly at all," Mary said bitterly.
After some silence during which Darcy steadfastly looked out the window, Lizzy asked another question.
"And you? What ails you, Mary?"
Mary stared stonily at her sister. "It is not worth mentioning."
The carriage entered the courtyard of Longbourn. Mary alit first and hurried to her room.
Mrs. Bennet came rushing into Lizzie who was sitting in the drawing room with Jane and the little boys. "Lizzy, did you know Mr. Darcy has taken Anne outside for a walk? You must fetch him back if you can before Anne will catch her death of cold."
"Mama, I know he has taken Anne. She would not be stopped for she has eyes only for her papa. He will not keep her out too long."
Mrs. Bennet wrung her hands in worry. "I do not approve of walks in the cold, especially for children. It freezes the lungs. But I suppose no one can tell your husband anything."
Lizzy smiled at Jane for they both knew it was rare that Mrs. Bennet criticized either of their husbands.
"Well," their mother continued, "we must soon get ready for the Lucases so he must bring her in for her supper. I will send Hill to fetch him back if you will not." She rushed out of the room.
"Are you looking forward to seeing our cousin this evening?" Jane asked.
Lizzy rolled her eyes. "I can just tolerate him but two clerics under the same roof tonight will exceed my limit for endurance, I fear." She turned to her young son. "Will, you should give that toy back to Henry for it is not yours." Then back to Jane again, "What will Kitty's lot be like married to her Edgar?"
"She is certainly more subdued. Perhaps motherhood has calmed her down. Charles, please be gentle with Will. He is littler than you."
"I miss the silly Kitty. I am afraid she fell for a handsome face before knowing the man. Her pliant character has been too easily molded in the Reverend Mr. Laurence's vision of a perfect preacher's wife. I wonder if she knows she is unhappy."
"Oh, Lizzy, I am sure she is not unhappy."
"She is the saddest creature I have ever seen." Elizabeth stood up. "Come, Will, I will take you to Nurse for your supper." With a groan, she hoisted her 2 1/2 year old son onto her hip. "My, you are soon too big for your poor mama."
Later that evening, the Bennet entourage was assembled under the roof of Lucas Lodge. It was always a pleasure for Elizabeth to see Charlotte and after admiring her four year old son, William and watching him be taken up to his bed, the two old friends found time to relate their recent news.
"Lady Catherine is very taken with Mr. Cooke," Charlotte said. "She felt it was time he take more responsibility and was quite adamant he give the Christmas lesson at church."
"So I gather Mr. Collins does not need to spend as much time at Rosings as he once did."
"He spends as much time there as ever for he must make sure Lady Catherine's needs are attended to. Now that he is assisted in the more tedious part of his profession, he may provide more attention to the truly important part of his work."
Elizabeth had never heard Charlotte speak so candidly about her husband. Looking over her shoulder, she saw the man himself approach, grinning broadly.
"My dear cousin, I was most gratified to learn from my family that you and your husband would be able to grace us with your esteemed presences, or presence. I suppose after spending Christmas at Rosings last year, this may seem more humble and confined than what you are accustomed to but your sacrifice truly shows your generous Christian nature."
Elizabeth merely nodded, knowing it was useless to interject. Charlotte sat with a small smile on her lips.
"I am sorry you will not be able to hear me give the Christmas sermon again this year. I have offered my services to the Reverend Mr. Dawson but he regretfully had to decline for he is concerned his parishioners will think it mercenary of him to be paid for a sermon he does not give."
"I understand you have a most capable assistant who has taken some of your responsibilities off your heavy load," Elizabeth finally offered.
"Oh, yes, Mr. Cooke. A most diligent young man though still a bit rash. I give him a long leash but every now and then must yank it to keep him in check. Your aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, offers much commendation to me for bringing him to her attention but advises me to watch him closely."
"Your son is growing into a fine boy."
"He is indeed our pride and joy. Is he not, my dear? I take him to Rosings with me once a week and his manners impress even Lady Catherine. Miss Anne de Bourgh herself has even bent down to kiss his cheek."
"He brings much joy into many households," Charlotte said quietly.
Elizabeth acknowledged silently that this must be so. Noting that her husband seemed occupied for the time at cards with Bingley, Lady Lucas and Jane, she sought out her sister Kitty but found only Mary.
"Where is Kitty, Mary?"
"Maria Lucas is showing her a damask cloth just arrived from town."
"Oh. Mary, what are your thoughts on Kitty? Why does she seem so unhappy?"
"There is no reason for her to be so. As the adage goes, she has made her bed, now she must lie in it."
"Do you not feel sympathy for her?"
"Why should I? She is married." When Mary stopped talking, Elizabeth thought no more would be said but Mary suddenly aired her true feelings in a harsh whisper.
"First I thought I might be married--might be the first Bennet sister to marry when Mr. Collins came to visit. But he only wanted you and when you would not have him he went to Charlotte. Then when Mr. Laurence came to town, I thought I would try to catch another moral, pious man and I thought I was successful for we had many quiet talks alone on subjects we both care deeply for. But then Kitty came back from one of her visits, all rosy cheeked and sparkly eyed, and he proposed to her one month later. If she is unhappy now, I can not worry."
"Mary, I am so sorry. He was wrong to make promises to you, even implied."
"Do not feel sorry for me, Lizzy. I do not care for Mr. Laurence nor do I care for Mr. Collins. I am quite prepared to continue with my life as it is now. But perhaps someday I may do something to surprise you all."
"Perhaps you shall. I wish you would talk more to me of what is in your heart."
Mary looked at her sister for a long moment but then seemed to shake her head.
Mrs. Bennet's voice was heard from the other side of the room. "Mary, play some reels for the girls. They want to dance."
Mary obliged, as was her duty.
Alone together in their bedroom before retiring, Lizzy related to Darcy what Mary had told him.
"Perhaps she is planning on killing Laurence. That would surprise us," Darcy jested. "But not distress us."
"Don't talk so. Don't think I hadn't thought of that."
"Oh come, Lizzy. Mary's surprise is probably to show us she has become an authoress--like that woman, what is her name?"
"Fanny Burnie?" Lizzy decided to let Darcy cajole her out of her mood. "Yes, perhaps she writes of romance on the high seas or mysterious locked cabinets in old houses--something she knows much about."
"Lovers eloping by moonlight, mysterious drafts snuffing out candles."
"My dear, you must be reading Fanny Burnie on the sly," Lizzy joked.
"Well, I am relieved that I am able to make you laugh again. Perhaps now you can turn your thoughts to me. Are you ready to come to bed?"
"Whatever your command," Lizzy smiled and blew out the candle.
The day before Christmas dawned cold and dazzling. Knowing her husband was restless, Lizzy agreed to talk a walk with him after breakfast. Other than when retiring for the night, they were never alone and never was that need so great than after spending three days at Longbourn.
Darcy waited outside for his wife as she wrapped herself against the cold. Mrs. Bennet approached her daughter just before she stepped outside.
"Lizzy, dear, should Mr. Darcy be taking exercise today? You did not say so but I could hear he was not well last night."
"What do you mean, Mama? He is quite well."
"Lizzy, I could hear his distress," Mrs. Bennet sharply said. "I believe he was writhing in agony and I heard him pray to our dear God several times."
Lizzy hid her eyes with her hand, her cheeks suddenly bright red. "Oh, dear. Ummm, well, no, Mama. Well, yes, Mama, you are right. But he is much better this morning. Please don't tell him you heard his, umm, his distress. He would prefer not to know he had disturbed anyone's rest."
She hurried out of the house both amused and mortified. Deciding not to tell her husband of what her mother had heard, at least not while at Longbourn, she took his arm and they began their walk.
Their conversation was typical of a married couple with young children for of course that was their most important subject. Anne was begging for a pony and Darcy was inclined to give her one for her birthday next month but Lizzy was adamantly opposed. Young Fitzwilliam had seemed to get past his jealousy of his baby brother and was not as clinging to his mother's skirts as he had been. Baby Robert was the most placid baby they ever had. Darcy worried perhaps he slept too much but his wife was relieved he caused so little irritation.
They found themselves heading to Oakham Mount, a place that held much meaning for it was where Lizzy had first seen her future husband and where he had first kissed her after their engagement.
"As much as visiting Hertfordshire can be a trial," Darcy said, "I never truly tire of coming. This is where you bewitched me."
"And are you still under my spell?"
"Utterly and completely. And you?"
"Are you fishing?"
"You need not." She held up her arms to him as he put his hands inside her cloak and hold her as closely as he could.
Returning to the house Elizabeth and Darcy saw some of the servants busily taking trunks inside.
"Dear God, what does this mean?" Darcy exclaimed.
"More visitors? Mama did not say any were coming."
But indeed more visitors had come for as the Darcys entered the house, they heard youngest sister Lydia's familiar shrill laughter.
Darcy had done no more than bow to his sister-in-law and inquire how she fared on her journey. Then he found an opportunity to leave the room in search of Anne who, it was reported, had cried all morning at being left behind by her parents. Elizabeth stayed with her sister out of politeness and also an intense curiousity to know how Lydia was managing in her marriage to the heinous George Wickham.
Lydia sat in the center of the room holding a small baby born just last month, Lizzy knew. Her three other children were nowhere to be seen.
"I was wild with envy when Kitty wrote me to say you were all to be at Longbourn this Christmas," Lydia replied to Jane's inquiry as to how she had come. "I did not see why I could not be here also. It was a terrible trial to come with all these children and only my maid Dorothy to help. Georgie is of course much too busy to be able to leave his business. I suppose Mama told you, Lizzy, that my husband is now a horse breeder. Many gentlemen come to ask for Georgie's opinion on their own stock and, of course, Georgie has won a few pounds at some races during the season since he knows so much."
Elizabeth had not known that Mr. Wickham was no longer in the army. Jane also appeared quite shocked but no one went as pale as Mr. Laurence, sitting as always with the ladies.
"Your husband is a gambler?" he inquired in a strangled voice.
"Lord, no, he breeds horses but that kind of knowledge leads to another kind, as my Georgie says, and if it can make a little profit, why not?"
"So Mr. Wickham is still in Darlington and not able to come?" Lizzy wanted to know.
"That's right," Lydia replied. "But I thought I could have much more fun here at Longbourn. How long it's been since I last saw you. I know I'm fat but little Maud was born but seven weeks ago. Lizzy, you're still a bit plump too but I guess your baby is not much older than Maud." Lydia giggled. "How grand if they would be friends--they're so close in age. Why, maybe someday they may even marry. That would be a fine joke."
"Your other children?" Lizzy asked.
"Oh, they're in our old nursery upstairs along with all their cousins. Nell is four now and quite the little mother. Margaret is three and looks just like her papa. Alice is two and was dreadful in the carriage. She wants me to hold her all the time and I can not be bothered especially when I must carry Maud. What a laugh that all I have are girls. Georgie is quite put out that I can not get a boy."
"How long can you stay, dear?" Mrs. Bennet asked. She loved her youngest daughter but all these people were starting to make her very nervous.
"I hope you'll let me stay awhile, perhaps a month or two. I can not bear the thought of the long journey back. And I need a rest from my Georgie. Just a look from him and, bang, I get another baby."
"Well, you must stay as long as you can," Mrs. Bennet assured her. "We are very glad you came and so brave to do it all alone."
The other sisters murmured their agreement. Only Mr. Laurence looked quite offended.
At Christmas church services that morning, they were all invited to a small party at Netherfield to be held two days hence by Mrs. Eustace. Mrs. Bennet was delighted to accept for all her family and the Bingleys were quite pleased to have the opportunity to visit the house where they had so many fond memories.
In spite of himself, Mr. Bennet enjoyed his Christmas day. When the noise of prattling women, screaming children and his sanctimonious son-in-law became too great, he knew he could find his refuge in his library. Darcy and Bingley found a sanctuary too. After dinner, they went shooting in the fields behind Longbourn.
The older children were allowed downstairs after dinner to spend time with the adults before being sent off for a short nap. Even though only five of her eleven grandchildren were surrounding her, Mrs. Bennet was getting quite unnerved.
"Jane, can you do anything about the twins?" Mrs. Bennet asked, fanning herself. "Haven't you noticed Henry repeats everything Charles says? It's driving me to bedlam."
Jane obediently took her boys aside and whispered to them. But they were not interested in what their mother had to tell them. They were busy prancing around the room on their new hobbyhorses. Cousin Nell was chasing after them begging to be let on. Anne had nothing to do with this and crowed that her papa would soon buy her a real pony. Only little Margaret was silent, sitting on her mother Lydia's lap sucking her thumb.
Mr. Bennet felt he had spent enough time with his family and stood to leave. Idly looking out the window as he passed from the room, he paused and then turned to his wife.
"Here's a sight come up the drive to warm my heart. Mr. Collins himself is coming to pay us a visit. He brings his wife and, my dear, here's another youngster to add to this wild brood, young William Collins."
The Collins family indeed had come to pay the Bennets a Christmas visit. They were soon settled in the drawing room.
"Girls," Mrs. Bennet moaned, "if you do not send these children upstairs soon, I will not be able to concentrate on my thoughts. Master William Collins can certainly go with them. Youngsters have little business downstairs too long. It is an indulgence I do not approve of."
"In that I do agree with you Mother Bennet," opined Mr. Laurence. "I truly believe that children should be seen, and, well, you know the rest."
Mr. Collins was admiring the new curtains on the drawing room windows. "My, they certainly add an air of richness to the room. They are not as fine as those in the drawing room of Rosings but they certainly are nothing to be ashamed of. I suppose they can be of no use except in these very windows."
"Mr. Collins, are you asking if these curtains will stay in these windows after I am dead and the house is yours?" Mr. Bennet sought to see if he could embarrass his cousin.
"Dear me, no," Mr. Collins replied. "But it seems a shame for Mrs. Bennet to have spent such a sum on something she will one day not be able to use. I do suppose you will be using these candlesticks?"
"Of course, they are mine," Mrs. Bennet crossly answered.
"Yes, Mr. Collins. Mrs. Bennet will take the candlesticks and the mantel clock and the silverware after I am gone. But you may have the wallpaper and if I am not mistaken, I believe the fireplaces will stay as well," Mr. Bennet jovially offered.
Charlotte looked pained but her husband seemed not aware that he was being made fun of.
"Please do not think that I am coveting any of your belongings, Mr. Bennet," Mr. Collins said. "As a clergyman, I have little need for material comforts. But one day when this house will be mine, God willing that will be a day long in coming, I will not want to bring a duplication of household goods from Hunsford."
"I did feel a cough in my chest this morning, Mr. Collins," Mr. Bennet said. "Unfortunately, it is gone now so I suppose will not contribute to my imminent demise. It may be a few years longer yet before you need worry about a duplication of goods."
After excusing himself, Mr. Bennet finally returned to his library. Mr. Collins sat with his cohort in the servitude of God, Mr. Laurence, and compared their situations. Charlotte sat with Jane and Elizabeth while Lydia whispered to Kitty about her life with horses. Only Mary was missing which was not unusual.
The next morning, Elizabeth was just leaving the children after sitting with them during breakfast when she was greeted at the top of the stairs by a wail sounding suspiciously like Lydia's cry. She hurried down the stairs to see what the matter was now.
"Oh Lord, I knew it, I knew it. My Georgie has gone. He has left me and all our children and gone to America!"
Everyone stood still, shocked into silence. Only Lydia's weeping was heard. Finally Darcy spoke up.
"Are you sure? May someone see your letter?"
Lydia handed her brother-in-law Mr. Wickham's letter and Darcy quickly scanned it.
"It seems the scoundrel has gone and done it," he murmured to his wife. "Perhaps it is not too late to stop him. I can go to Portsmouth at once and try to locate him."
"I will go with you," Bingley quickly added. It was not merely altruistic for Wickham to be found. If Wickham was truly gone, who would be responsible for Lydia and her four children?
"This is indeed a sorry affair," Laurence shook his head. "I am afraid the only assistance I can offer, Mrs. Wickham, is to pray for you."
Jane put her arms around her youngest sister and led her to the sofa. "Dear, dear Lydia, we will help you. We will try to find Wickham and bring him back to you."
Darcy was already out of the room to speak to his manservant. Elizabeth was distressed he would be leaving and hurried after him.
"Must you go? Must it always be you to save Lydia?" Elizabeth implored.
"My dear, I don't know what else is to be done. Wickham has to be found."
"Why can't we just let him go?" Elizabeth whispered. "He will cause us no end of trouble for the rest of our lives if we keep going after him."
Darcy was astounded at his wife's response. He looked at her thoughtfully.
"You may have a point. But I have said already I will go so I must. Bingley will be with me."
Elizabeth held onto his arms. "What if you and Bingley found a comfortable home for Lydia and provided her with a small income for the rest of her life? Perhaps she could even marry again. It is shocking to be divorced but she is being abandoned with small children. Surely, no one will hold that against her for very long. She will only be an object of pity and it will eventually be forgot. We could even settle her somewhere where she is not known and call her a widow!"
Bingley came into the hall. "When shall we leave?"
Darcy looked at him and then his wife. "What about Lydia's feelings? How can we tell her Wickham will not be coming back?"
Bingley looked confused.
"Leave that to me," Elizabeth answered her husband and went back into the drawing room.
"Mother, Jane, everyone. I need to spoke with Lydia alone," Elizabeth said when she re-entered the room where everyone worriedly congregated around her youngest sister.
"What is it?" Jane was concerned.
"All is well," Elizabeth told her. "Come, Liddy, let us go into the sitting room." She held her sister's hand and led her from the room.
Lydia had almost stopped her weeping and sat down waiting for Elizabeth to explain herself.
"Dear," Lizzy began. "You said when you heard Wickham had left for America, that you knew it. Your life has not been easy these past few years, has it? You felt he was not happy and wanted to leave?"
"Georgie can be sulky. He is not always happy but he loves me and our children. What am I going to do if Darcy can not get him back?" Lydia started to wail anew.
"Well, I think what we may do is to settle you in a nice little house with a few servants. We can provide you with a comfortable income and see that the children are properly looked after by a nurse."
Lydia stopped crying and looked at Elizabeth with teary eyes. "What kind of income?"
"Several hundred pounds a year, I am sure. And we will provide for your servants' pay and the cost of housekeeping." Elizabeth was making all this up as she went along but she felt sure her husband would not mind the cost, along with Bingley's assistance.
Her sister blew her nose loudly. "Would I have to be divorced?"
"You could say you were a widow."
Lydia looked thoughtful. "I suppose I might be a widow. It is perilous traveling across the ocean and America is very dangerous, full of bears and savages. I might be a widow and never know it."
"Well, Lydia? Should my husband try to stop Wickham?"
"It might be a journey that would be for nothing if Georgie is already gone. I would hate to put Darcy out. He has been most kind to me. I believe it would be best if he would not go."
Elizabeth sighed. She had gauged her sister's character well and was most sorry for it but at least her husband would not have to chase after Wickham again.
"We must tell the family," she said quietly to her sister. "But no one else must know. It is your decision what you tell your children but be mindful of their feelings."
"Very well. Only Nell and Margaret need know and they will not mind so very much." Lydia was quite composed as she left the room. Elizabeth ruefully shook her head, knowing it was doubtful she or Darcy or the Bingleys would ever be thanked for their charity.
"Has anyone seen Mary?" Mrs. Bennet called down the hallway the next morning as the family was getting ready to go to Netherfield.
"No, Mama, I have not seen her since last night," Jane replied. "Come to think of it, I do not remember seeing her last night either."
"Where is that girl? Kitty, have you seen her?"
"No, Mama. I believe I saw her after dinner last night but she left the room abruptly. I thought she went to bed."
"Hill, Hill! Where is Mary?" Mrs. Bennet asked her housekeeper.
"I do not know, ma'am. She did not come down for breakfast."
"Oh, there are too many people in this house. I can not keep track of everyone," Mrs. Bennet moaned, unmindful that it was she who wanted everyone home for Christmas.
"Perhaps she has run away!" Lydia crowed gleefully, forgetting her newly widowed state. "I will go into her room and see if her bed has been slept in." She soon came out looking disappointed. "Her bed is rumpled and here is a note. She says she has gone to Netherfield already."
"Well, that is most ungracious, not letting us know herself," Mrs. Bennet complained. "I will have a word with her at Netherfield. Now Lydia, why are you wearing Mary's black gown? You are not a widow yet."
"Why not? My husband has gone but I did not bring anything black to wear."
"Dear, if you are a widow already you can not go to Netherfield. None of us can go for we would all be in mourning. I think it better that you wait a few weeks when there are no more parties."
"Yes, you are right, Mama," Lydia agreed. "I will change to my red frock. This is too small anyway."
Even during the Bingleys short stay, Netherfield had never looked so festive. Pine garlands festooned all the windows and doors and indoors, the mantelpieces and candles were draped in greenery as well. Jane and Bingley were most eager to explore as much of the house as they would be allowed to see. But when they were ushered into the drawing room, Mrs. Eustace was quite distracted.
"Oh, my dear Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. I am sorry they have done this thing. I hope you will forgive my boy."
"Of what are you speaking, Mrs. Eustace?" Mr. Bennet asked.
Mrs. Eustace's hands flew to her mouth. "You do not know? Oh, I am mortified."
"What, what is it?" Mrs. Bennet shrieked. "Who has done what?"
"My son Mycroft has run away with your daughter Mary. They must have left last night. They have gone to Gretna Green!"
Mrs. Bennet sank backwards. Luckily Mr. Bingley was standing behind her and caught her with some effort before she fell to the floor. Everyone else stood astounded as Bingley carefully settled his mother-in-law on a sofa.
"My daughter has married an idiot!"
Mrs. Eustace was taken aback. "I beg your pardon?"
"Forgive my mother, she is most distressed," Elizabeth soothed. "I am sure you are as distressed yourself."
"How could this have happened?" Mr. Bennet asked.
"Mary comes to visit us every day. We think very highly of her," daughter Amelia spoke up. "My brother is very shy and rarely leaves his room except when Mary comes. They share a deep feeling for philosophy."
"We did not know." Mr. Bennet was ashamed at how little he did know of his daughters.
"We are most sorry for the pain this causes you, Mrs. Eustace," Jane said. "Causes all of us. I hope you can forgive my sister."
"Forgive Mary? She is the sweetest girl. She enjoys reading to us from Fordyce's Sermons and I have never met anyone who feels so strongly about every word she reads," Mrs. Eustace replied. "I hope you can forgive my son Mycroft and please forgive me, you are all standing. Please be seated. Melissa, ring the bell for tea."
Elizabeth moved to her husband while everyone else sat in stunned silence.
"Will I have to go to Gretna Green to stop them?" Darcy asked quietly.
His wife smiled. "I think we may let this one follow its course. Mary did surprise us after all, did she not, my dear?"
"Yes she did though I am sorry she didn't follow my suggestion and shoot Mr. Laurence."
After some consoling from her daughters, Mrs. Bennet agreed that perhaps this was not such a bad thing after all. She never thought Mary would be married and had come to rely on her company but to be settled so near and at Netherfield Hall was solace indeed. Mycroft Eustace may be an idiot but he would someday be a wealthy idiot. Mary had not done so badly after all.
It was still light when the family left Netherfield. Elizabeth persuaded her husband to walk the distance to Longbourn with her rather than constrict themselves in the carriages.
"What do you say about leaving Saturday?" Lizzy asked, squeezing his hand. "I should like to see Mary returned from Scotland but I would infinitely prefer to be alone with my own family again. My sisters and all these children are turning me as nervous as Mama."
"You know I would like nothing better. Will your mother mind?"
"I think she is longing for the day when we are all gone. But you are dear to think about her. You have been wonderful this whole visit and I forget sometimes how much I depend on you."
"Will you be worried about Kitty?"
"I will not worry about Kitty. She has made a foolish choice. Her husband will not leave her like Wickham so she will be forced to live with it. I am grateful I made a much wiser choice. To think, I could have been married to a clergyman too!"
"Not all clergymen are bad."
"Only the two I am familiar with." Lizzy stopped, forcing her husband to stop too. "So it is settled? We shall return to London?"
"It is settled, wife. Come here and give me a kiss to seal it."
She settled into his arms for just a moment. Then she pulled away with a gleam in her eye.
"Shall I race you to Longbourn?"
"You want to run?"
"I have not run in a very long time."
"I will give you thirty paces ahead of me," Darcy said.
"Fifty paces and it is agreed."
Darcy looked around. "Will anyone see us?"
"I do not care if they do."
"Then go. I will be right behind you."
Darcy smiled as his wife ran like a child through the field. He counted fifty paces and followed her.
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