The Importance of Being Caroline
Nanny Cady was getting old. She had been the girl's wet-nurse, after all. With her finger joints swelled up painfully with arthritis, it was all she could do to give her young mistress an upsweep, much less the artfully tossled curls to frame her face.
It was time to pass on her duties, and to whom better than her own daughter Mary? She gave tidbits of advice and instructions as Mary nervously worked over Caroline's hair.
"You have ten thumbs!" Caroline remarked angrily, watching Mary's progress in the mirror.
The girl cringed, and Nanny Cady spoke up on her behalf, "Miss Caroline, Mary has given you lovely curls all along your neck," and she brushed them lightly with her gnarled fingers.
"That would be well and good," the young woman spat out, "if I wanted the gentleman to address my back."
Nanny Cady lightly squeezed Caroline's shoulders, "Please do not fret, dear. You are lovely as always." She patted her arm affectionately, "And you must not encourage those lines in your forehead. Young ladies must remain calm and serene in the face of any adversity." She gave a low chuckle, "...unless you wish to look like me."
Caroline's glare softened as it often did under the influence of Nanny Cady. The old servant was one of the very few people who could take liberties with Caroline, but after all, she was practically like a mother to her.
"Truly, must you remain here?" Caroline beseeched once again. "Come with us to Netherfield."
"Mary will do better than I, Miss Caroline. I have given her complete instructions as to the care of your wardrobe and the many ways in which she may serve you."
"But this trip is very important to me."
Nanny Cady knew very well that it was of the utmost importance to Caroline, for she would be thrown into the company of Fitzwilliam Darcy repeatedly through-out their stay. "The man must be blind or a fool or both," she muttered to herself, "to not realize the jewel within his grasp. Caroline is the perfect mistress for Pemberley."
Caroline's eyes flickered momentarily to the reflection of her old nurse. She was worried about her. Nanny Cady had not been the same since her husband's accident two months before. "...though to my way of thinking, it should have lifted a burden from her shoulders. Mr. Cady was an inebriated old fool who caused her constant alarm and concern." It was no surprise when the late coachman had toppled off his perch and broken his neck one day. They had only kept him around out of respect for Nanny Cady.
She involuntarily shuddered at the thought of their brood of children. Mary was the youngest of a dozen and the only girl. Her brothers were roughnecks, drunkards, and swindlers all, and scattered to the four winds, thank God. But that didn't stop their mother from worrying about them.
Now, instead of lightening her step, her husband's death had sapped her strength, and beginning today, she was willing to forego her greatest pleasure in life, that of caring for Caroline Bingley.
One glance from her mother and Mary excused herself from the room. Nanny Cady drew a stool close to her charge for one of their customary chats. "Dear Caroline, here is your greatest opportunity, You will go to Netherfield and act as hostess in your brother's house. You will no longer be in the shadow of Mrs. Hurst, and you will have every opportunity to show Mr. Darcy that you are well qualified to take your place at his side."
Caroline would be more than happy to quit the house of her sister Louisa and her brother-in-law, Mr. Hurst. The man had more fashion than substance, and was only interested in cards and drinking. A very dull fellow, and almost more than Caroline could bear. She would have rather had that the Hursts stay at home and not follow her to Netherfield, but Louisa's presence would provide some respite from the dull evenings spent in the country. "Of course, she will not be needed once Mr. Darcy shows his true regard for me," Caroline reminded herself confidently.
Mr. Darcy. She preened at Nanny Cady's last words and stole glances of herself in the mirror. Her dark glossy hair was in striking contrast to her delicate complexion. She gave thanks daily that God had not given her the undistinguished light brown hair shared by her brother Charles and her sister Louisa. She arched one lovely brow and delighted in the effect. She and Mr. Darcy were well-suited. Her coloring, her regal height and bearing, her classic features, all championed her cause. Not to mention her many accomplishments... manners, taste, her appreciation of music, the arts, and literature, and her ability to hold her own in conversation. "Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy," she whispered smugly.
She turned back to her old servant and confidant, "But what of Mrs. Nicholls?" Caroline asked, referring to the present housekeeper of Netherfield. It was so exasperating of Charles to settle on a property to lease instead of purchase. Though, when he did decide on a property on which to build his estate, she hoped that he would take longer than the half hour it had taken him to decide on Netherfield, and that it would be many miles closer to Derbyshire.
Nanny Cady looked at her charge with wise old eyes, "The housekeeper will look for leadership. You must be assertive from the moment you enter Netherfield. Remain strong and keep the servants in their places. Let them know at all time what you expect from them and they will respect you and act accordingly."
Caroline nodded, taking to heart every word of advice. "Be strong!" she admonished herself, "A sign of weakness in front of the servants could prove disastrous to my plans."
Netherfield was a lovely old home with adequate grounds for casual sport and formal lawn parties, but the neighborhood left much to be desired. Caroline was accustomed to the bustle and hubbub of London where an afternoon ride down Grosvenor Street usually provided someone of interest to see and to be seen by. Here, their coach and four encountered only a few carts and one trap, which was just as well because the roads were rude and the puddles wide and deep.
Caroline glanced curiously at the shops and businesses as they drove through, but soon sat back in disappointment. "It is worse than I could have imagined," she remarked ungallantly to Louisa.
The coach came to a halt and they were able to peruse the village and its inhabitants at their leisure for their progress was impeded by a herd of sheep blocking their way.
The smells and sights left much to be desired, and Caroline daintily covered her mouth and nose with a lace-edged handkerchief. Occasionally she caught a glimpse of one or several of the militia pass by and she leaned closer to the window to mark their progress, but more than once, she caught strange young men, country oafs, staring at her boldly. After that, she kept her face averted and her eyes on her traveling companions.
There was a tap on the side of the coach and Mr. Darcy's head came into view as he leaned down from atop his favorite horse, Apollo. "Charles," he addressed his friend, "I believe that you have found the most rustic village within all of Hertfordshire."
Charles laughed, "Perhaps, but you will like Netherfield, Darcy, and it is convenient to Town."
Caroline sighed exaggeratedly, "Dear Brother, I can hardly wait to attend the Assembly that you have gone on about."
"I have made the acquaintance of some of the local gentlemen and they seem quite nice," Charles informed them, ignoring his sister's sarcasm. "Several are reported to have very lovely daughters who will be in attendance at the ball. Mr. Bennet alone has five daughters. So, Darcy, you may find some diversion while at Netherfield."
"But what does one speak of to these people?" Caroline asked, as she watched the villagers go about their business. "We can have no common interests."
"The weather," Darcy offered, "is a suitable subject in any situation." He looked ahead. "Aha! The road is cleared and we may continue." He nodded to the young ladies and disappeared from view.
The Assembly exceeded Caroline's expectations for being common and tiresome. The volume of noise, both by the music and the loud chatter of the locals, was high, and the bodies too close and warm for her sensibilities. Caroline had taken great pains to remove all dust from her travels the day before, and had Mary assist in washing her long, heavy tresses which were still somewhat damp. She did not appreciate the lack of effort on the part of many of the other attendees and was not disappointed when they left her alone.
She patted down the front of her dress, enjoying the feel of the linen/cotton weave. It was one of several that she had purchased for the season, but its style was wasted here. Even amiable Charles had chided her for the quantities of money that she spent on her wardrobe. "Caroline, if you are not more frugal, you will be wearing your entire inheritance," he had admonished.
"Wait until he sees the green one!" she thought rebelliously. She was saving that one for a special occasion. She could see the long table laden with a variety of foods, testament to the good harvest of the local farmers and the industry of their wives, but decided to forego the temptations. She and Mary had exchanged words when her new dress seemed rather snug around the empire waist.
"What have you done, you inexperienced dolt!" Caroline had demanded to know. "Did you wash it?"
Mary denied adamantly that she had done anything to the dress but hang it up to smooth out the wrinkles. She was close to tears, and thankfully Caroline had relented.
The past twenty-four hours had been a trial for Caroline Bingley. Mrs. Nicholls was close-mouthed and seemed to disapprove of any of her suggestions. Caroline had finally put her foot down and insisted upon the menu that she had created for the week. Within the hour Charles had sought her out and told her to leave the planning to the housekeeper who was more experienced. "Nanny Cady," she hmphed as Charles left the room, "where are you when I need you?"
Her dealings with the maids were no better. The bath water was too cool, the towels scratchy. When she had mentioned this to Ellen, the senior maid, the woman had looked at her coldly and walked away. Such impertinence!
Now Caroline watched as her brother partnered a local young woman through the first dance. "She is decidedly plain," she whispered to Louisa, "and older than he by several years, I would guess."
Louisa agreed as her eyes fell on Charlotte Lucas. "Where are the beauties to entice Mr. Darcy?" she ventured. Her own husband was meeting the neighbor folk over a game of cards.
Speaking of Mr. Darcy, that fellow approached and bowed before Louisa, "May I have the honor of this dance, Mrs. Hurst?" Louisa chanced a sly look at her sister and allowed herself to be escorted to the floor.
Caroline bided her time. She knew that Mr. Darcy was simply being polite by asking the older sister to dance first. Soon, he returned to claim her hand. Caroline's feet barely touched the floor as they proceeded through the dance. She could see curious, admiring looks directed their way. She smiled proudly. Caroline knew that she and Mr. Darcy made a handsome couple.
They passed close by Charles who was escorting a very lovely young woman. By his countenance, it was obvious that he shared the opinion.
"Miss Jane Bennet," Darcy supplied, reading the question in her eyes.
"Oh, one of the Bennets," Caroline said, pointedly looking around the room. "But where are the rest, Mr. Darcy, so you may claim one for yourself?"
Darcy inclined his head toward the far corner of the room. Caroline followed his gaze. Her eyes widened. "That young woman is a sister to Miss Bennet?"
Her partner nodded, barely suppressing a smile, "She is Miss Mary Bennet, and I am told that she is one of the most accomplished young ladies in all of Meryton."
Caroline's eyes danced as she returned his look, "How fortunate that we are included among such distinguished company."
The music ended and she was escorted back to her sister. To Caroline's chagrin, Darcy did not deign to dance again, but appeared committed to perusing the hall from various aspects.
Indeed, Charles was the sole member of their party to benefit from the Assembly. He seemed to enjoy himself immensely as he chatted with everyone he passed by and danced with a variety of young ladies.
"Charles is much too careless," Caroline decided. "A man in his position as head of the family must learn to be more circumspect when forming acquaintances," she confided to Louisa.
She watched her brother accost Mr. Darcy and entice him to join in the dance. Charles went so far as to point out eligible young women in the room, including a young lady seated next to his own first partner of the evening.
"The woman on the right is Miss Charlotte Lucas of Lucas Lodge," Louisa had been told. "The younger woman is Miss Elizabeth Bennet, sister to Miss Jane Bennet."
At that moment the two sisters were invited to dance by two older landowners to whom they had been introduced earlier. As she was led away, Caroline was gratified to hear Mr. Darcy's response.
"Your sisters are engaged, and there is not another woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with. You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room." He looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said, "She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humor at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me."**
After the set, Caroline returned to her spot near Mr. Darcy and pretended to look around the room. She watched his face turn again and again toward Elizabeth Bennet and Charlotte Lucas. "What can be holding his interest?" she wondered. She looked more closely at the two women. Elizabeth's vivaciousness was a study in contrasts compared to Charlotte's complacency, as were their very different colorings. "A perfect foil," Caroline mused. "Charlotte's plain looks enhance Eliza's moderately handsome features." She glanced back and forth between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth but his countenance was too well guarded, and the woman was caught up in a conversation with her friend, though once or twice she sneaked a sidelong glance in his direction.
Caroline had seen her brother dance with Miss Jane Bennet a second time and decided that it was time for Louisa and her to make the young lady's acquaintance. They approached Charles and his partner, and before he realized what they were doing, his sisters had snatched Miss Bennet away.
Every moment in Jane's company assured the sisters of her sweet disposition and they were anxious to further the acquaintance, else their stay at Netherfield would doom them to boredom. They asked Miss Bennet to introduce them to the rest of her family, which she did gladly. Mrs. Bennet was a rather blowzy woman with a voice that carried easily to the corners of the room. She seemed to have a penchant for making tactless remarks, which earned her the attention and laughter of the Bingley sisters if not their respect.
Mary Bennet was rather at a loss for words until they began to discuss selections of piano music with her. "Rather one dimensional," Caroline decided, removing the girl from her consideration.
The youngest sisters were cavorting with their peers, Lydia more rambunctiously than Kitty, who seemed to be following in her wake. "Spare me," Caroline sighed.
The fifth sister was Elizabeth herself, and they were finally introduced. Eliza and Jane seemed to have a special affinity, being closest in age and sensibilities, but Caroline did not always know how to understand her. Eliza was given to throwing out casual remarks that could be misconstrued. Regardless, she and her sister Jane seemed to be the more likely companions for the Netherfield women.
Caroline perceived that Mr. Darcy had edged closer during their conversation with Elizabeth Bennet. "What? Is he attempting to listen in?" she wondered. She gave Elizabeth a more careful perusal, and decided that she had nothing to worry about. The young woman was not even in the same social class as herself and Mr. Darcy, and some of her mannerisms lacked decorum.
On the ride home, her opinions were echoed by Mr. Darcy himself. Whereas Charles had never met with pleasanter people and prettier girls in his life, Darcy expressed the opposite point of view, "I perceived a collection of people in whom there was little beauty and no fashion, none of whom raised my slightest interest, and from none did I receive either attention or pleasure." ** He could see the disappointment in his friend's face. "I will allow that Miss Bennet is a pretty young woman, but she smiles too much. I cannot decipher when she is truly pleased, or when she is just being amiable."
"Perhaps you are judging Miss Bennet too harshly," Caroline ventured for her brother's sake. "I, too, have noticed that she is eager to please, and perhaps she smiles out of nervous habit, but I think she is very sweet and I plan to invite her to lunch at Netherfield at the first opportunity."
Louisa nodded in agreement, "Miss Bennet is very pleasant and will help us while away the hours."
Charles grinned at his friend, "The majority has decided."
Darcy kept further thoughts to himself for the time being, but one person in the coach was relieved by his words. Caroline decided that his preoccupation with Elizabeth Bennet must have been more out of curiosity than admiration.
Mr. Hurst, for his part, was grumbling from his corner of the coach. He had not bamboozled the local card players as he had anticipated. It seems that the country bumpkins had a few tricks up their own sleeves, and he had left the Assembly with lighter pockets. His brother-in-law was much easier to separate from his money. He wondered about Mr. Darcy's prowess at cards. Mr. Hurst was eager to make up his losses.
**These are quotations and paraphrases of Jane Austen's own words, to remind us that Caroline's class-conscious attitude and behavior were not unusual for the times and were not limited to her.
Caroline sat at Darcy's elbow as the gentlemen played Vingt-Un. Charles was on a losing streak and about ready to quit. Mr. Hurst was doing quite well, and only allowed Mr. Darcy a hand or two.
"Tell us about your visit to Longbourne," Charles prompted as he threw in his cards. "That is quite enough for me, thank you," he said to the other two gentlemen. He sat back and gave his sister his full attention.
Caroline could hardly hold back her temper, even though it had been hours since the incident. "Miss Bennet is a gracious hostess. She did an excellent job of pouring," she finally said.
"And how did you find the other young ladies to be? And Mrs. Bennet?" Darcy asked as he looked over his cards.
"Mrs. Bennet is very high-strung, which I imagine is why Jane took over her duties," Caroline said, remembering the headache of listening to the woman's high-pitched voice. "She is well able to talk without even a pause for breath, and relates every intimate detail in the lives of the people of Meryton."
"Perhaps she thought that she was doing you a favor," Charles suggested, "helping you to become familiar with the neighborhood."
Caroline laughed thinly, "Brother, some people require food for sustenance. This woman thrives on gossip."
"Now, Miss Bingley, the same conversations go on behind the fans of the young ladies in London," Darcy reminded her.
"But not so one can hear it to the far corners of the room," Caroline countered. "We show some decorum."
"Is it more mannerly to whisper behind someone's back, or to come right out with it?" he challenged.
"You had best ask Miss Eliza Bennet that question."
"And of what are you accusing poor Miss Bennet?" Charles asked, knowing his sister's habit of being hard to please.
Caroline glanced at Mr. Hurst before she explained herself, "Eliza referred to Mr. Hurst's abilities at the gaming tables. She spoke of admiring them."
Charles and Darcy were puzzled and Mr. Hurst seemed preoccupied with shuffling the deck. "Pray continue," Darcy said, "What does this have to do with Miss Bennet's character?"
Caroline looked at her brother-in-law again. "Louisa told me that the evening had not gone well for you..." she said suggestively.
Mr. Hurst reddened and cleared his throat, "The cards are sometimes fickle. It was nothing to remark."
"And that is my point," Caroline finished, "It was nothing to remark, yet Elizabeth Bennet made a point of mentioning it."
Darcy sat thoughtfully for a few moments, then shrugged and challenged Mr. Hurst to another game.
Charles stood up and held out his arm to Caroline. "I am tired of sitting. Let us go for a short walk," he suggested. They crossed the room and Charles halted before the windows. "And now, Caroline, are you going to tell me about the rest of your visit?" he prompted.
Caroline glanced at her brother and realized that he knew something of what had transpired.
"Come now, sister, none of us could ignore the noise coming from your rooms upon your return. I was worried about you and came to knock on your door when Mary came out and almost ran into me. She was sobbing, and tried to avoid conversation with me."
Had Mr. Darcy heard her, too? Caroline wondered. He was busy with his cards and did not look up. "It was that awful Lydia," she admitted. She felt the anger well up inside once again. "Stupid, stupid girl!" Caroline continued, "Lydia and Kitty were late for the tea. They came bursting into the room like hooligans and Lydia stopped short by my chair and made to turn around. Kitty was close on her heels and was knocked against my arm, causing my tea to spill all down my dress. Tea, of all things!"
Jane had just made admiring comments about the fabric, and Caroline was on the point of giving her the address of her dressmaker when she realized that someone in Jane's position would probably never have the opportunity to use the information. She had finished lamely, and there had been an awkward silence in the moments before the younger girls had appeared.
"Caroline, were you burned? Are you okay?"
"I am not injured, but my dress is," she pouted. "Those girls are allowed to run free and show no manners," she said angrily. "Lydia was full of news of the militia in town and could think of naught else. She barely paused to apologize."
"She's young," Charles said, patting Caroline on the back. "I am sure that the manners of the other Bennet women made up for her behavior."
"Jane was immediately solicitous and apologized profusely. Even Eliza showed concern for my well-being, though she made some rather flippant comments about the condition of my dress. It is difficult to judge her sincerity."
Charles gave her a brotherly hug. "Dear, dear Caroline. We live our own lives quietly and are not used to the trials and tribulations of a large, boisterous family."
"Manners have no boundaries," Caroline said evenly.
"Give the Bennets another chance. They seem like one of the nicest families in the area. Invite them here for tea, and get to know them better. The younger girls will be on better behavior as guests, I would think."
"Yes, Charles. Louisa and I will try again," Caroline sighed.
Caroline had tried again. She truly had. She and Louisa invited the Bennet women over for tea within a couple of days of their own visit. Nothing happened to change her opinion of Mrs. Bennet, who rattled on through an entire cup of tea. Not even scones distracted her from her monologue. Lydia had behaved herself, though she tended to be a little too rough on the china. Caroline cringed everytime she heard the cup clink against the saucer.
And Elizabeth continued to confuse Caroline with her choice of conversation. This time the woman had brought up the Luddite uprisings to the north. She wondered if they affected any of the towns in Derbyshire or more specifically Mr. Darcy's interests.
"No, I do not believe so," Caroline had replied. "Pemberley is a lovely estate somewhat remote from any large towns, and Mr. Darcy is kept busy with the management of such large holdings. I don't think he has invested in any factories, but even if he had, he so well thought of, that no one would dare to challenge him or threaten any of the area around him."
Elizabeth raised her eyebrows, "I cannot believe that Mr. Darcy would not concern himself with the unrest going on in neighboring shires, unless he thinks of himself as a king within his own castle. Even if he personally is not involved in the factories and how they are run, he must have some opinion on the new bill that some of the Lords are trying to push through."
"Which bill is that?" Louisa asked. She knew nothing about current affairs unless they involved her friends and acquaintances.
"They are calling for the death penalty for anyone convicted of being involved in the riots," Elizabeth explained impatiently.
"You will have to ask Mr. Darcy for his opinions, but I personally feel that they are making a wise decision," Caroline said, "That should prove a deterrent and an end to their illegal activities. Life will be able to get back to normal." By the look on Elizabeth's face, she had met her expectations, and they were not high.
"What do I know of the uprisings?" Caroline shrugged to herself. Her readings of the newspapers consisted of scanning the headlines and she had been appalled at the widespread destruction of machinery by what she considered the rabble. They were impeding progress for their own selfish reasons. Though she did not often admit it even to herself, her family had gained their fortune through trade, and she knew that in business, the bottom line was all important. "And what do the rights of weavers have to do with me? Elizabeth Bennet should show more concern for the workings within her own household and leave politics to the men."
The outing at Lucas Lodge left Caroline with mixed feelings, especially concerning Mr. Darcy. Even at Netherfield he was becoming prone to long periods of introspection. Instead of their proximity drawing them into a closer relationship, they were becoming strangers. As soon as they arrived at the gathering, Darcy had taken himself off to the gaming tables, unusual for him. He returned to the hall, though, in time to see that the ladies of the Bennet family were in fine form.
Elizabeth was encouraged to play a few songs for their entertainment, and she performed adequately. Her voice was pleasing, if not trained, and she received enthusiastic applause for her efforts. Mary was then called upon. Her execution at the piano was superior to that of her sister, but her style and mannerisms were not so admirable. The applause was more polite than energetic, but enough to encourage her to play again and again.
Throughout the musical recital, voices punctuated the performance, distracting attention from Lizzy and Mary. Lydia was off to the side with a gaggle of men in uniform, showing her pleasure at every retort by responding with wild laughter. Kitty was at her side, basking in her sister's light.
Darcy, with Caroline edging along in his wake and unbeknownst to him, crossed the room to get away from the cacophony of the young people. This brought him within earshot of Mrs. Bennet who was excitedly speculating on the Bingley-Bennet match, and more specifically on Mr. Bingley's worth. He turned away and caught sight of Caroline. Their eyes locked and they exchanged a silent agreement as to their opinion of the proceedings. Darcy came to stand by her side and engage in conversation, but they were interrupted by loud music. Mary had been pressed to play Scottish airs as the young people had decided to dance. Darcy was irritated by the intrusion and fell silent. He walked around the room moodily, ready to leave at any sign from Charles. But Charles was pleasurably engaged in a tÉte-a-tÉte with Miss Jane Bennet and refused to catch his eye.
Caroline moved to approach Darcy once again but Sir William Lucas spoke to him first. He encouraged Darcy to join in the frivolities, and even waylaid Elizabeth Bennet in order to provide him with a partner. To Caroline's amazement, Mr. Darcy did indeed ask Miss Bennet to dance, but she, for reasons of her own, declined. "The affrontery!" she thought indignantly, feeling for her injured friend. She flew to his side to offer consolation. "I can guess the subject of your reverie," she began.
"I should imagine not," Darcy replied succinctly.
"Poor man," Caroline thought. "I cannot blame him for being discomposed by their lack of manners." She voiced her feelings on the gathering, thinking that she was echoing his own.
Her heart was cut to the quick by Mr. Darcy's unexpected response, "Your conjecture is totally wrong, I assure you..." He explained that his mind had been dwelling on a pair of fine eyes... those of Miss Elizabeth Bennet.
Caroline saw orange and could not stop herself from wishing him joy on the attachment and for securing such admirable in-laws, but Mr. Darcy would not respond. Caroline's mind was numb with astonishment. "What could he possibly see in Eliza Bennet?" she wondered frantically. "I have the better manners, I have the better posture and carriage, I have better diction and the superior relations. I must have misunderstood."
Caroline was discouraged by her lack of progress with the servants and missed her chats with Nanny Cady. One day, as she sat before her mirror, she began to talk to Mary and to share her thoughts with her, almost as she had with the girl's mother. Mary was a good listener and had suggestions for smoothing the relationships between Caroline and the Netherfield staff. Her first improvement was to have respect for the experience of the servants, which almost immediately changed the mood through out the house. Mrs. Nicholls began to confer with Caroline daily, advising her and explaining her choices. Where the housekeeper led, the rest of the staff followed, even Ellen. She still did not always fill Caroline's requests, but at least she no longer walked away. The young woman began to feel as though this might not be so hard after all.
"My dear Friend,
If you are not so compassionate as to dine to-day with Louisa and me, we shall be in danger of hating each other for the rest of our lives..."
Caroline was feeling out-of-sorts, having only Louisa for company as the gentlemen were gone to dine with the officers. Jane would be a cheerful diversion...but not Elizabeth. She finished the missive quickly and signed her name with a flourish. She would have Peter take it over directly and await her answer.
She looked out at the dreary November sky. The clouds were beginning to gather and it would probably rain before the day was out, but Jane in the family carriage should be able to arrive at Netherfield safely. Perhaps they would do a little sketching later, something besides idle conversation.
Jane arrived in a very poor state, drenched from head to toe, having brought the horse but not the carriage, causing her hostess to question her sanity. Caroline quickly commissioned Louisa, who was smaller, to find something for Jane to change into. They took care of their poor little guest, warmed her by the fire and gave her broth, but by evening she was showing signs of feverishness.
Charles was beside himself with worry, for by that time the gentlemen had returned. They bundled Jane up in a wool blanket and settled her in a chair while they attempted to entertain her after dinner. The rain was coming down in sheets, and it was apparent that their guest would not be returning home until morning. It was also apparent that she was worn out by the day's events. Though she valiantly struggled against it, she was prone to dozing during the conversation. They finally urged her to go upstairs where the sisters gave her a nightgown to use and tucked her in.
Morning broke on a Jane who was coughing and sneezing with alarming frequency. Her temperature soared and they began to fear for her in earnest. Caroline brought her pen and paper so that she could write a note of explanation to her family, and they sent it over to Longbourne immediately. They also sent word for Mr. Jones, the apothecary, to come and examine Jane. Caroline felt despondent that Jane had become ill while a guest in their house, and that her own invitation had been the act that had put it into motion.
They were all in the breakfast-parlor, except for Jane, when an unexpected visitor was announced, Elizabeth Bennet, and in a condition that Caroline would never have thought to witness. Eliza had walked the three miles in the aftermath of the rains and her attire had taken a severe beating. She was windblown and spattered, with a skirt caked black with the mud that it had trailed through. Caroline arose in all astonishment that a young lady would subject herself to such abuse, and came forward to offer assistance. Elizabeth held her off with a frown, yet accepted the solicitations of the gentlemen with good grace.
"Is it me that she is rejecting, or what I represent?" Caroline wondered. "Or perhaps she enjoys wallowing in the attention." By the expressions on the faces of Charles and Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth was fast becoming a veritable hero. Caroline came forward anyway and apprised Eliza of her sister's condition. Again, she petitioned Louisa to provide clothing for another Miss Bennet, and after the woman was once again made presentable, ushered her to her sister's room.
After breakfast, the Netherfield women joined Elizabeth in entertaining her sister. Mr. Jones came and went, pronouncing that Miss Bennet had a very bad cold and must remain in bed. The women took turns applying cold compresses to her aching head, and softly reading passages of poetry to pass the time. The three had never enjoyed each other's company more, and Elizabeth began to feel more kindly toward Caroline, especially, who had shown her sister such kindnesses.
At three o'clock, Elizabeth made to go, but Jane beseeched her to stay. Caroline, feeling compassion for her new friend, suggested that Elizabeth stay the night. Surely Jane would be much improved by morning. She gave Elizabeth the materials to write a letter to Longbourne, apprising their mother of the situation and asking that clothing be sent for both daughters.
At dinner, Elizabeth regretfully had to report that Jane seemed somewhat worse. Everyone clamored to add their wishes for her return to good health, but Charles continued in that vein for some length.
Caroline was feeling tired and dull. Jane had been with them for more than twenty-four hours now and had been ill for most of them. She seemed to have a sore throat and plaguedly severe headache, and Caroline felt sorry for her but didn't know what else she could do for her. Caroline herself was rarely ill but thought that Jane would probably convalesce more quickly with rest and quiet. Now that she had her sister with her, Jane did not really need everyone else running in and out of her room and disturbing her.
Twice Caroline attempted to introduce a new topic at the dinner table, but Charles had not yet tired of soothing Elizabeth's fears for her sister. Mr. Darcy seemed disinclined to discuss much of anything, though Caroline and Louisa addressed him repeatedly. His eyes darted most often in the direction of Elizabeth Bennet, though he did not join in the conversation between her and Charles. Caroline was beginning to feel perturbed. "It is only a cold!" she thought irritably. The third time she tried to talk to Charles, Elizabeth shot her a withering look and her attitude toward Caroline became distinctly chilly.
Elizabeth quitted the room to return to her sister's side, and she was no sooner out of sight than Charles began to say, "Elizabeth says that Jane..."
Caroline had heard enough of both Bennet girls. In her opinion, Elizabeth was selfish and single-minded, and liked to attract all of the attention to herself. She was very successful at it, which stuck in Caroline's craw. If the men would only open their eyes, they would see that the woman was proud and impertinent, and had no conversation other than about herself. She told them so, and her words were backed up by Louisa's.
They then reminded the gentlemen of her unsightly appearance on their doorstep that morning. Mr. Darcy had to agree that he would not wish his sister Georgiana to appear in that manner, but he seemed to judge Eliza Bennet by different rules for it soon came out that he thought her fine eyes had been brightened by the exercise.
Well, none of them could argue in favor of Elizabeth's relatives, and so Caroline and Louisa amused themselves at their expense. Caroline felt that they had made some rather telling points about the Bennet family, but she could not be sure of the effect by Mr. Darcy's countenance. Charles' opinion did not matter, for he could not think ill of anyone.
After dinner, the Bingley sisters felt that Jane could use some company for a short while, (Caroline knew that she would soon grow tired of being only in Eliza's company!)and stayed until summoned to coffee.
Much later Elizabeth appeared in the drawing-room where everyone was engaged in playing loo. Her presence effectively interrupted the game, much to Caroline's disappointment for she had been doing quite well and had a tidy sum of money in front of her. Elizabeth declined to join them and prepared to settle down with a book.
Darcy was helping Mr. Hurst clear off the table. "Caroline played quite well this evening," he remarked innocently.
Mr. Hurst caught his eye, "Yes, she did, Mr. Darcy." He lowered his voice, "One would almost think that someone was feeding her the cards, but I know that my sister-in-law is above that kind of deceit."
"I am sure she is," Darcy smiled benignly. "Let us just agree that the cards are fickle." He leaned closer to Mr. Hurst, "The real sport is in how the game is played. Are you a sporting man, Mr. Hurst?" Met with continued silence, Darcy said even more softly, "or would you prefer to be a dead man?"
Mr. Hurst startled and almost dropped the cards. He looked at Mr. Darcy in a new light.
Darcy laughed hollowly, "Not I, Mr. Hurst. Country people often have their own laws, and their own ways of securing justice. I am not the only man who has been watching you." He pulled a package out of his pocket, "Here, I have a present for you...a deck of cards. A crisp, new deck of cards."
Caroline approached the table, "What have you there, Mr. Hurst?"
Her brother-in-law quickly cleared off the rest of the table. "Our cards were wearing out. Mr. Darcy was so kind as to secure a new deck for our pleasure."
Caroline frowned prettily, "But I was doing so well with the old cards!"
Charles was chatting with Elizabeth, offering to fetch her a greater selection of books. "I wish that I had more at your disposal, but I am an idle fellow, and have not finished even the few I have."
"Charles, you would do well to follow Mr. Darcy's example. The library at Pemberley is delightful," Caroline suggested. She turned to their guest, "Miss Bennet, you should visit Pemberley. It is the finest home in Derbyshire, and in the heart of some of the most picturesque scenery in all of England. Charles, I wish you would have looked at properties within the Peak District," Caroline admonished.
"There were none to be had, Caroline. I shall have to buy Pemberley itself if Darcy will sell it," her brother teased.
"And force Miss Darcy from her home?" She turned to Darcy, "How is dear Georgiana? How I long to see her again! I never met with anybody who delighted me so much. She is so extremely accomplished for her age! Her performance on the piano-forte is exquisite."
"It is amazing to me,"' said Bingley, "how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are."
Darcy disagreed, "I cannot boast of knowing more than half a dozen, in the whole range of my acquaintance, that are really accomplished."
Caroline agreed and tried to explain to Elizabeth their definition of the word. "A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word," Her eyes met Mr. Darcy's, "Look at me, me," she begged silently, "This describes me, not her." She continued, "and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved."
"And to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading,"' Darcy finished.
Caroline flushed for she knew that she was a "social reader' like her brother, Charles, and did not enjoy books for themselves; whereas, Miss Bennet's intellectual depth came from sharing books with her father from an early age.
Miss Bennet pooh-poohed their standards, as she found them impractical to apply to most women. "I wonder at you knowing any," she laughed as she left the room to check on her sister.
Caroline remarked that the young woman's quips had the sole object of garnering attention to herself, "But, in my opinion, it is a paltry device, a very mean art."
"Any artifice used to entrap another is abhorrent," Darcy countered.
Charles and Caroline said their good-nights and headed for their rooms. At the top of the stairs they encountered Mary with a pitcher of water and extra towels. Elizabeth was waiting for her at the door to Jane's room.
"How is Miss Bennet?" Charles immediately asked.
"She is not well at all!"
"Then let us summon Mr. Jones immediately."
Caroline felt that they should have a more professional opinion, "Let us send to Town for Dr. Smith. He is a very well-known and respected physician in London."
"Oh, no thank you, Miss Bingley, let us see how she is in the morning, and then call Mr. Jones if need be, as your brother suggested," Elizabeth said. "I did not mean to be an alarmist. I am just concerned for my sister's health."
"As you should be," Charles said comfortingly. "At first light we shall see how our patient is doing and decide then."
"Thank you, Mr. Bingley. Thank you very much," Elizabeth said gratefully. "Good night."
The morning found Jane feeling slightly improved, but Elizabeth desperately wished for her mother's opinion. A summons was sent to Longbourne immediately. Mrs. Bennet, accompanied by her two youngest girls, reached Netherfield soon after the family breakfast and almost at the same time as Mr. Jones. They both agreed that Jane should not be moved for at least another day.
Caroline ascended the stairs to invite Mrs. Bennet and her daughters to join them in the breakfast-parlor. The door was ajar and she overheard the mother's remarks to Elizabeth about the success of the rain, and suddenly she felt less hospitable. "To hazard her daughter's good health!" she thought angrily. "That woman will stop at nothing" A tiny voice within wondered if Elizabeth and Jane were accomplices, but she simply could not believe it of the latter.
Charles had been asking Mrs. Bennet of Jane's progress and was alarmed that they had thought of moving her in her condition. "She must remain here," he said, looking to Caroline for support.
"Miss Bennet and Elizabeth are welcome to stay another night," she said, "and Jane shall receive every possible attention while she remains with us."
After Mrs. Bennet had expressed her indebtedness, Elizabeth asked after her friend, Charlotte Lucas, and whether she had called in her absence. This led Mrs. Bennet to a discussion of poor Charlotte's looks and potential as compared to Jane. She had gone on for some minutes, much to her second daughter's chagrin, when she finally decided that it was time for her to return to Longbourne. She repeated her thanks to Mr. Bingley for the kindnesses he had extended to both Jane and Lizzy. He received her words graciously and prompted Caroline to do the same. Caroline bit her tongue and spoke the usual words, silently praying for Mrs. Bennet's imminent departure.
As they waited for the carriage to come "round, Lydia, the youngest Bennet daughter, reminded Charles of his promise, a Netherfield ball.
"Indeed," Charles said cheerfully, "as soon as Miss Bennet is well, we shall set a date. We shall have great fun organizing it, won't we Caroline?"
"Yes, of course," Caroline murmured. She remembered Lydia as the one who had caused the tea to spill on her dress, and as the loud, obnoxious girl at the Lucas gathering who flirted outrageously with the soldiers. Thankfully, the carriage came and Mrs. Bennet and her two youngest daughters waved farewell. Elizabeth went inside to check on Jane.
"Our ball will certainly be the success of the season," Caroline remarked irritably, "with the Bennet beauties to grace our halls. They have such fine eyes to go with their fine manners."
Mr. Darcy ignored her words, but Charles demanded to know what her problem was. "Caroline, I wish I could say that this isn't like you..."
Caroline blinked her eyes. "I don't think you know who I am .." she thought angrily, "just as you do not see these Bennet women for whom they really are." She did not say a word but departed into the house.
Caroline was not certain that she could endure another evening with Elizabeth Bennet, and was too distracted to join Charles and Mr. Hurst at cards, so she amused herself by watching Mr. Darcy write to his sister Georgiana. "He must be made to see that Eliza is not one of us, that she never be.."
She watched as Elizabeth took up her needlework, but did not doubt that the woman was all ears. Caroline proceeded to remark on Mr. Darcy's efficiency and style at letter-writing, and wished to be remembered to his sister. "I am already a friend to Georgiana," she signaled silently, "Do you not remember that a month ago you would not have wanted her to associate with the likes of Eliza Bennet?'
In her agitation, Caroline peppered Mr. Darcy with questions, advise, and offers of assistance. She finally noticed that he had ceased to respond to her comments. "Charles is such an indifferent writer," she said, changing her tactics.
During the ensuing banter, Darcy finished his letter and applied to the young ladies for some music. Caroline deferred to Elizabeth but she declined, and so the two sisters sang and played. At first, Caroline thought that it would give her another opportunity to remind Mr. Darcy of her musical abilities, but she soon realized her error, for his attention was not on the performance, but on Miss Bennet, and soon he had drawn near enough for conversation with that young woman. Caroline saw, or suspected, enough to be jealous; and her great anxiety for the recovery of her dear friend Jane received some assistance from her desire of getting rid of Elizabeth.
That night, in the privacy of her room, she shed a few tears of frustration. Caroline was inexperienced in the art of flirtation and more often than not, appeared clumsy. "How do you make someone fall in love with you?' she asked the darkness. She did not question whether she loved Mr. Darcy. She esteemed him. From what she had observed so far by the people around her, love was not the first priority for women who wished to be married well. It seemed to be a luxury experienced by men, and even then, was not guaranteed to last.
The next day, Caroline successfully enticed Mr. Darcy to go for a walk, but once she had him to herself, she was at a loss for words. She had dreamed of marrying him for so long, that it had shaken her deeply to know that her dream may wither and die... because of Elizabeth Bennet. It did not make sense to her that she could lose out to... to someone who was not qualified to be in the running. She would not like it, but she could understand if Mr. Darcy chose Miss Carlyle or Miss Thornton, who were mutual friends within their circle. They had much in their favor. But Miss Bennet?
She tried once more to show him the inequalities of such a match by talking of their supposed marriage and his soon-to-be mother-in-law. She went so far as to mention the new portraits that would hang in the gallery at Pemberley. She snickered at the thought of being confronted by Mrs. Bennet's countenance for a lifetime. "I do not know of an artist that could capture Miss Bennet's eyes though...."
Much to Caroline's personal discomfort, Mr. Darcy had no trouble describing her eyes in detail and was sure that an artist would do them justice.
That evening Jane was finally well enough to be one of the company, and her presence would have injected the group with some energy if Charles had not monopolized her time. Caroline was left to her own devices, and try as she might, she could not gain Mr. Darcy's attention. Books, the upcoming ball, nothing interested him enough to join the conversation. Finally, Caroline asked Elizabeth to join her in a walk around the room. That caught his attention, but not as she would have wished. Elizabeth engaged him with her teasing remarks, and Caroline could see that Mr. Darcy found her intriguing.
The following day, after Elizabeth had petitioned her mother to come for them and been refused, she asked to borrow the Bingley carriage. Caroline saw her brother's agitation at Jane leaving so soon after recovering from her illness and suggested that they stay one more day. But she was almost immediately sorry that her offer was taken up for her jealousy and dislike of one sister much exceeded her affection for the other.
To Caroline's great relief, Mr. Darcy seemed to lose interest in Elizabeth Bennet and barely spoke to her all day. Then on Sunday, after morning service, the separation, so agreeable to almost all, took place. By the time they were well and truly bundled into the carriage, Caroline was able to say her good-byes with real affection towards Jane and civility towards Elizabeth, with promises to keep them apprised of the Netherfield ball.
"Is it true?' Caroline whispered as she pinched her cheeks. Mary had just told her the rumors regarding a soldier named Wickham and Miss Elizabeth Bennet. "Wickham...Wickham...it sounds familiar.." She remembered some bad feelings between a man with that name and Mr. Darcy. Hadn't his name also been linked with Georgiana's in some way? Regardless, it looked as though Miss Bennet would not be fluttering her eyelashes at Mr. Darcy anymore.
Caroline stood and turned from side to side before the mirror. She was wearing the green dress that she had saved for a special occasion, the Netherfield Ball.
"Your dress is lovely, Miss," Mary said softly. She was still somewhat in awe of her mistress, even though Caroline had become much friendlier lately.
"Thank you, Mary. You have done very nicely with my hair this evening. I will be sure to tell your mother that you are working out quite well."
"Thank you. Will that be all, Miss Caroline?"
Caroline turned to face the girl, "Yes, Mary, you may go..." She touched her arm for a fleeting moment and lowered her voice, "But if you hear any more..." she suggested.
"Yes, Miss," Mary bobbed, and left Caroline to her thoughts.
Caroline was flanked by Mr. Darcy and her brother in the receiving line, and so shared the arrival of the Bennet family to Netherfield. Mr. Bennet pushed his wife quickly through the line before half the words were out of her mouth, and Lydia and Kitty were off looking for adventures with barely a nod of acknowledgment to their hosts. Next came Mary who curtseyed solemnly.
"I hope your ride was pleasant, Mary. The weather has been cooperative this evening," Caroline said after she greeted the girl.
"Thank you, Miss Bingley. Yes, my hands were barely chilled on the way here, and I will be ready to play the piano upon your request."
"That is good of you," Caroline said smoothly, though her thoughts were at war with her words. "But perhaps you would prefer to relax and enjoy the evening."
"Oh, I don't mind, Miss Bingley. I am used to playing at all of the gatherings around here. People expect it."
"Perhaps later, then, you will honor us with a brief performance." Caroline ushered her over to Mr. Darcy and prepared to meet the rest of her guests. Jane and Charles were greeting each other effusively and Caroline had to break in, or the line would have stopped right there. "Dear Jane, I am so glad you are here!" Caroline exclaimed with affection. "Look, Mr. Darcy, it is our Jane. Now the evening is complete."
"Caroline, you are too kind," Jane blushed, but she was happy for the attention from Mr. Bingley's sister. The next person made quick work of the line, for Elizabeth Bennet had very little to say to any of them and was particularly cold towards Darcy.
"What have you done to the poor girl?" Caroline asked Mr. Darcy.
The gentleman chose to ignore the question, but instead asked, "Miss Bingley, have you reserved the first dance, or may I claim you as my partner?"
Caroline's cheeks turned more pink than when she had squeezed them, and she accepted with alacrity. She barely heard the rest of the people as they came through the line. All thoughts were on Mr. Darcy.
Playing the part of a good hostess, Caroline wove her way through the room, giving greetings and smiles as she went. Some of the faces were beginning to look familiar to her and her responses were more natural than they had been at first. She was about to go over to Charlotte Lucas, but realized that she was preoccupied with listening to something Eliza Bennet was relating with some animation and many dark looks. Caroline was further intrigued to hear her mention the name "Fitzwilliam Darcy" She was telling her friend about the allegedly poor treatment of Wickham at the hands of Mr. Darcy, but she fell silence when she noticed Caroline nearby.
Mr. Darcy came to claim Caroline's hand just before the music started for the first dance. She glanced around at the other couples. Louisa had actually been able to coerce her husband into dancing...but he had been spending less time at the gaming tables lately. Charles was leading out Miss Bennet, and Jane's sister Elizabeth was in the company of a Mr. Collins.
Caroline and Mr. Darcy had several moments of entertainment by said Mr. Collins as he waxed loudly and eloquently on every subject. Elizabeth looked as though she wished to be swallowed up by the floor, and had to endure two dances with the man.
After the first set, Caroline lost sight of Mr. Darcy as other gentlemen came forward to claim her. She did not see him again until the third set, and almost faltered in her steps when she saw his partner, Elizabeth Bennet. "No!" she began to panic, but then noticed that they were barely speaking to each other. She did not know how they had come to be together, but neither looked particularly happy. Caroline could see other couples whispering and pointing out to their friends the unexpected sight of Miss Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy dancing together.
As she circled around, Caroline drew closer to the couple and just at that moment, their progress was interrupted by Sir Lucas, who chose that time to commend them on their dancing and to make teasing comments about having the pleasure of watching them again at the wedding dance of Eliza's sister and Mr. Bingley.
"Wedding dance!" Caroline exclaimed. She looked around furtively for her brother. Yes, Jane Bennet was in his arms again. He was showing her too much favor. Caroline could see how others might misconstrue his intentions. Charles was a likable young man who thoroughly enjoyed social occasions and a pretty girl. He would not wish to harm Jane Bennet in any way, and would show her a good time as they whiled away the hours at the neighborhood gatherings. But marriage! "Someone must speak to my thoughtless brother immediately" she decided. Caroline glanced in Mr. Darcy's direction and noticed the set of his jaw. He was nonplused by the news also. "Good, Mr. Darcy will back me up," but she could not find her brother's friend after the dance.
Caroline walked around the room and soon found herself near Elizabeth Bennet. She could not help but taunt her about her preference for Mr. Wickham. She thought the young woman a fool to believe George Wickham over Mr. Darcy who was all that was honorable. She as much as told her so, only to be rebuffed. Apparently Eliza did not need nor want her advice. That suited Caroline perfectly.
The evening had been longer than imaginable and that tedious Mrs. Bennet and her family were going to be the last to go. Caroline decided that the London balls would seem boring without her, not nearly so entertaining in some ways. The entire family was beyond belief. First Mr. Collins practically attacked Mr. Darcy in his desire to effusively admire the nephew of his benefactor, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Then, at supper, dear Mrs. Bennet had engaged Lady Lucas in a loud conversation about the merits of her future son-in-law, Charles Bingley. If that were not enough, later in the evening, Mary Bennet claimed everyone's attention with two songs executed in her weak, toneless voice, and was preparing for a third when her father, intelligent man that he was... "Though how intelligent could he be to have married Mrs. Bennet?' Caroline thought maliciously... finally put a stop to it.
Mrs. Bennet tried to interest the Bingley sisters in conversation as she waited for her carriage but they were too done in to respond. "Being around people like the Bennets is so wearing on a person's nerves," Caroline thought. She unsuccessfully tried to suppress a giggle as she remembered the countless references Mrs. Bennet made to her nerves.
Having failed with the sisters, the mother then turned to Charles, who was a willing target. "Dear Mr. Bingley, you and your family must not be strangers. I want to see you all at Longbourne before long." She clutched his arm and leaned closer, "and remember, Mr. Bingley, that you are always welcome at our table."
"Thank you, Mrs. Bennet, I shall be delighted to take you up on your offer, but I must confess that I leave for London tomorrow. I will be away for only a short time, though, and will call on you and your family at my first opportunity."
Mr. Darcy and Caroline looked at each other. Were they thinking the same thing? Later conversations confirmed that they had just thought of how to protect Charles from making a regrettable decision, but they must act quickly. At no time did they dare to ask themselves if there were any other motives for their actions.
Continued inSECTION 2
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