The Importance of Being Caroline
Caroline hesitated over the letter. She had very mixed feelings about what she intended to do, and not a little guilt. "Mr. Darcy is in full accordance," she reminded herself. She pictured Jane as she had last seen her, as Charles had last seen her. Caroline was thankful that it fell to Mr. Darcy to encourage her brother to see the error of his ways. It seems that Charles had fancied himself more than a little in love with Miss Bennet, but his friend had convinced him of the futility of the relationship. The argument having the most influence on Charles was that Miss Bennet did not seem to return his feelings. Caroline blinked back a few tears as she remembered the stricken look on Charles' face after he returned from his conference with Mr. Darcy. She and his friend had been certain that Charles' high spirits would soon return and that his heart would effect a complete recovery in time for the season in London. Now Caroline wondered at the wisdom of their actions.
"No, Mr. Darcy is right," she told herself emphatically. "Even though Jane is a sweet girl, she is not one of our circle.." The thought came unbidden, "...and neither is Elizabeth Bennet."
With the picture of those fine eyes haunting her memory, Caroline made quick work of the letter. She did not wish to hurt Jane's feelings; she had truly enjoyed her company and would not have minded corresponding with her if it were not for Charles and Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth. She had to let her down gently but firmly. She made it clear that they would not be returning to Netherfield for some time. But would that be enough to discourage Jane's thoughts of Charles? No, it still left a window of hope. What she required was "another woman" one so accomplished that Jane would realize there could be no comparison. Feeling rather that it was her own wishes more than reality, Caroline implied an attachment between her brother and Georgiana Darcy.
Now Caroline had other matters to attend to. Upon their return to Town, she and Mary had found Nanny Cady bedridden in the home of her sister, Margaret Fellows, who lived closer to the center of London, just blocks from the Thames. Against Charles' wishes, for he did not like his sister venturing into that part of the city without him, Caroline visited her old servant daily.
"You knew," she accused when she first set eyes on her. It had actually been some moments before she could speak, for Nanny Cady was much changed. She seemed to be wasting away. Poor Mary was in a pool of tears and was thankful for Caroline's strength.
Nanny Cady could not deny it. She beckoned Caroline closer, "The doctor says it will not be long. I don't mind for myself, Miss Caroline. I am tired and want to go home. But I worry for Mary. Has she been a good girl for you? Will you keep her with you...for my sake?"
"Of course," Caroline assured her. "But where are Tom and Jess, and the others?" she asked referring to the Cady boys.
"They are not welcome in my house!" Mrs. Fellows said emphatically.
"But they are her sons!"
"They are thieves who steal from their own aunt, and they go around with the worse kind of thugs. I will not allow them near here."
The woman would not be moved. Caroline stayed at Nanny Cady's side and allowed her dear old friend to reminisce about their many years together.
"I used to think you were a witch," Caroline admitted.
Nanny Cady laughed and gasped for air. "You used to watch me with your big eyes as I mashed up bryony root for your brother's wounds. I can imagine that you thought so, with my shelves of bottles and jars and my big old book of herbal recipes. Though you yourself took a turn with the mortar and pestle."
"I liked the different smells," Caroline admitted. "It was all so mysterious. Especially as I grew older and began to understand their uses, and that the same plants can heal or kill. You have quite an art. Why did you not pass your knowledge on to Mary?"
"One must have a feel for working with plants and herbs, a sense of knowing how to use them, otherwise it is much too complicated to learn. Mary has other strengths. You would have been the natural choice, but God has other plans for you. Your station in life brings you more important duties." Nanny Cady hesitated, then said in a voice husky with feeling, "I am very proud of you, Miss Caroline. You have grown into a lovely young woman with all your goodness to recommend you to the best people..."
Caroline blinked back the tears. The words of this old servant woman had affected her deeply. She realized that the opinion of Nanny Cady carried more weight than that of most of the more illustrious people that she was acquainted with, except for Mr. Darcy. She could not speak except to squeeze her hand and promise to visit her again the next day.
Within a fortnight, Caroline was surprised to find herself holding a letter from Jane. She thought that she had taken care of the matter with grace. Caroline perused the letter with mounting impatience. She should have remembered Jane's generous manner, so like her own brother's. She drew out paper and pen and made an effort to coach her words in stronger language. They would not be returning until after the winter, if ever. Charles regrets that he could not say good-bye but... Caroline stressed their relationship with the Darcy's, and especially Charles' to Georgiana. Something in her could not allow her to be so unfeeling, and against her better reason, she added that she would still wish to correspond with Jane. She folded the paper over and addressed it in firm hand to Miss Jane Bennet. There. It is finished. She could not possibly misunderstand her words now. And Caroline would understand if Jane no longer wished to remain in contact with her.
There was a third letter from Jane, informing Caroline of her impending stay in London at the home of her aunt and uncle, the Gardiners, and with a wish that they may meet. But by that time, Nanny Cady was in a state of semi-consciousness, and the news slipped Caroline's mind.
"You must accompany me," Caroline pleaded with her sister, Louisa. Mary had been staying at the home of Mrs. Fellows as her mother's health worsened, and Charles would not allow his younger sister to go there unescorted. Any day could be Nanny Cady's last, and Caroline was determined to see her.
Louisa finally relented and they made ready to go. A servant met them at the bottom of the stairs with the news that a visitor had come to call, Miss Jane Bennet.
"Not now!" Caroline lamented. "Louisa, finish the arrangements for dinner this evening, and make sure Cook knows that Georgiana is to join us. I will take care of Miss Bennet." She entered the drawing room, a smile pasted on her lips, and took Jane's hands. It was good to see her again, and if circumstances had been different, she would have welcomed the visit.
"I am so happy that you stopped by..." "No, I did not receive your letter informing me..." "Charles has been so busy with Mr. Darcy. In fact Georgiana is to dine here this very evening..." "Louisa and I were just on our way out..."
Jane would tell her sister, Elizabeth, that Caroline "was not in spirits' but would not realize to what extent her words were true. The visit was brief, almost an affront to Miss Bennet, but Jane did not think ill of her friend. She was sure that Caroline would soon be in touch.
That evening Caroline retreated to the privacy of her room earlier than usual. She had to face the fact that Nanny Cady was going to die. The woman had been a stern taskmaster, giving her charge as many pokes and prods as needed to teach her how to be a proper young lady. "Young ladies of good families do not..." "A woman of quality always remembers to..." As Caroline learned to adhere to her many rules, she received more and more positive reinforcement from Nanny Cady --- a touch of the hand, a special treat, and an escalating amount of flattery. By the time she was of age to enter London society, Caroline thought that good manners and ladylike accomplishments meant that one was deserving of love and would be guaranteed success. Seeing herself through Nanny Cady's eyes, she considered herself to be the epitome of all that a young woman of class should be.
The attentions that she received at the balls and other social functions confirmed her beliefs, and she was quite content with her lot in life until she realized that many of the young men were interested in her money, not her...but then she had met Mr. Darcy who did not need her money, and as Charles' very good friend, treated her kindly and more respectfully than the other young bucks. He soon became a paragon in Caroline's eyes, the rule by which she judged all other men, and having met perfection, she had little patience with the rest and soon gained the reputation of being haughty and difficult to please.
But her "paragon' seemed to be withdrawing from both her and Charles. Darcy still attended most functions, but did not dance more than once with any young lady, and more often than not, could be found in the group of older men who preferred to stand to the side and discuss current issues. Even when he accompanied Charles on one of his visits to Grosvenor Street, Darcy had less to say, and looked distracted, possibly even melancholy. When questioned, Charles could not say what ailed his friend, but truthfully, he had not noticed, for he, too, was prone to longer periods of reflection.
Caroline had to admit that the absence of Elizabeth Bennet had not improved her own relationship with Mr. Darcy. She had presented herself in the best possible light, and had allowed him a hint of her regard, short of making a fool of herself and threatening the relationship between Mr. Darcy and Charles, but to no avail. Icy fingers slipped around her heart as she realized that her greatest wish was... "No, I will not give up," she admonished herself. "My feelings shall remain steadfast and true. I will be waiting for the time when Mr. Darcy realizes that I am the best choice."
Charles begrudgingly accompanied his sister to the home of Mrs. Fellows. Nanny Cady had not been close to the other Bingley children, as Caroline had been her indisputable favorite. He had hardly exchanged more than a few words with her in the past several years, especially after he became of age and established his own residence. But he could see that Caroline was distraught over her servant's impending death, so he canceled his plans for the evening and found himself at the bedside of the old woman. He had not intended to come in, but Caroline had locked his hand in hers and would not let go. Nanny Cady seemed to hardly know they were there and her words were mostly incoherent as she rambled on in her private world.
The woman revived and saw Caroline before her. Her eyes brightened and her speech became lucid. "Come here, my darling, let me hug you just once before I go..."
Caroline was hesitant as to the propriety of the action, but how could she deny a dying woman? She released Charles' hand and came closer.
Nanny Cady enveloped her in surprisingly strong arms and cooed, "I have wanted to do this for so long. To hold my daughter in my arms for one last time..." She felt Caroline try to pull away in surprise. The woman was mad! She held Caroline's face in both of her hands and looked deeply into her eyes. "You are my own Kathleen," she said. "Dear Mrs. Bingley lost another child in childbirth. I knew it would be too much for her. The depression from the other times had almost killed her. You were only two days old, and I had been brought in as a wet-nurse for the expected child. When I saw that the baby was dead, it was but a moment's work to switch the two of you." She released Caroline and fell back against the pillows.
"But...how could you do that? How did no one else know?" Caroline asked wildly. The woman was raving. She looked around the room. Thankfully, they were alone at the moment. Charles had been only half attending, and was just beginning to realize the import of her words.
"Your father was never home, and when he was home, he was drunk. He surely would not notice. In fact, he was glad to have one less mouth to feed."
"My father!' Caroline's mind screamed out. She could barely hear the rest of the words.
"Your brothers were too young to notice, and not of the kind to care about one infant more or less."
"But what of the Bingleys? Surely they knew!"
Nanny Cady's strength was beginning to fail her. "You were in the room with me, you being so small. I was alone with Mrs. Bingley until the doctor got there. She delivered the baby and I made the switch before he arrived. She was out of her mind with pain, for her labors were always difficult. By the time she revived, you were wrapped up in one of their blankets and ready to be put into the arms of your new mother."
Charles had a supportive hand on Caroline's shoulder. "Let's go," he urged. The woman was hysterical. They did not need to sit there and listen to such lies.
"No, no!" Caroline moaned shaking her head. She stood up to go. "No, I cannot hear this..."
"I did it for you," Nanny Cady gasped. "I wanted you to have a better life than I could give you..."
Caroline did not stay to hear the rest. She shrugged away Charles' hand and ran out into the night.
Charles found Caroline huddled in the chaise, shivering uncontrollably. He quietly drew himself up into the conveyance and sat down next to her. He surprised himself by reaching an arm around her shoulders. It was a testament to her distraught condition that Caroline did not pull back. She and Charles loved each other in their own way, but their family was not overly demonstrative.
"I am deeply sorry, Caroline. As you ran out, Mrs. Cady breathed her last."
Caroline buried her face in his shoulder. After a few moments, she was able to look up. "Do you think anyone else knows?" she asked hoarsely.
Charles was momentarily puzzled, but then he realized that Caroline was not referring to the death of her old nanny, but the revelations that the woman had made at the end. "Caroline, you cannot believe that ridiculous story!"
"Why not? Nanny Cady had no reason to lie."
"She had been ill for some time and was not in her right mind," Charles countered. He grew impatient, both with the direction of Caroline's thoughts, and with the modicum of doubt in his own mind, "Caroline, of course you are a Bingley. And you are my sister!"
"How can you be certain?" Caroline entreated. "I do not have your coloring, nor Louisa's."
Charles attempted to reassure her and himself, "You look just like old Aunt Agatha did when we were growing up."
Caroline was not convinced; besides, she had never liked Aunt Agatha. But she knew that in Charles' mind, it was now a closed issue.
She rode the rest of the way in silence. Memories of Nanny Cady drifted through her mind, and a few tears for the old woman silently fell.
When Caroline was finally ensconced in her bed and had put out the light of the candle, she found that sleep avoided her. Visions of the Cady clan would not leave her in peace... the alcoholic father, the notorious sons. The scenario could not be worse, nor frighten her more unless...
"What if Nanny Cady confided her secret to someone else? What if Mary knows?' Mary could destroy any chance she had for a successful marriage, for a life that she had been prepared for and grew to expect as her due. Anxiety almost overwhelmed Caroline as she realized that Mary was a potential threat to her very existence.
Caroline's eyes narrowed as she watched Mary in the mirror. It was her first day back after her mother's funeral. "If she knows, she is biding her time and concealing her thoughts well," Caroline muttered to herself. Her nerves were frayed by lack of sleep and worry that dogged her every moment. She soon found fault with every service the girl provided.
Mary, for her part, was still trying to rein in her emotions resulting from the death of her mother. "I'm sorry, Miss," she said, frazzled by Caroline's return to displeasure. She could not help but allow some of her tension to show by clumsy hands and forgetfulness, actions that, in turn, fed Caroline's suspicions.
"If she has nothing to hide, she would not be so nervous around me," she determined, so preoccupied with her own problems that she could not sympathize with Mary. Caroline studied her maid's features, looking for signs of resemblance. "Perhaps the chin," she reflected, then sighed, "But for the grace of God, I could be in her place....'
A startling thought, "Could Mary as easily step into my shoes?' She tried to envision the girl in fashionable attire and a more becoming hairstyle. Mary was rather pretty, but do clothes make the woman? No, Caroline had discipline and training on her side... and heritage? "Where would Mary be if she had my opportunities?' Caroline asked herself with rare honesty. "No, there is much more that separates us. Even if you take away my name, I would still be a lady." She curtly dismissed her maid, aware that Mary had been watching her --- speculating? --- as she sat there deep in thought. Mary soundlessly left her mistress to her ruminations, and prayed that tomorrow would be a better day.
In her heart of hearts, Caroline knew that her name did matter. People needed the reassurance of knowing and understanding each other's origins. Then they would know what to expect as they confronted their daily trials. "The sun may stop shining, Napoleon's long arm may sweep all across Europe, God forbid, but under any duress and in all conceivable circumstances, the true English gentleman knows his place, and what is required of him." No less, the English lady, whose presence was so important in the fringe lands of the British Empire. Caroline Bingley was a firm believer in the class system. And if she was not at its upper levels, her life would be meaningless to her.
Caroline rubbed her forehead and decided to forego the dining-parlor but ask for a tray in her room. The extraordinary mental exercise and stress of the past few days were taking their toll ... and she had no one to talk to.
Charles, who uncharacteristically had been visiting the house on Grosvenor Street daily, came up and asked after her, but what could she say? "Just some malaise," she told him, waving him away. "I need rest...and quiet." Her brother took the hint and left her to her private hell.
The next morning, when Mary came to assist her, Caroline waved her away. "I am unwell," she said. "I am certain that you can find other things to do today."
"Are you sure, Miss Caroline? Let me fill the bath for you," Mary suggested. Her mistress did not seem to be in spirits. Perhaps she should tell Mrs. Hurst, or that nice Mr. Bingley, she decided.
Caroline, for an answer, curled up in her bed and ignored the girl. She heard the door click as Mary let herself out. All night she had been plagued by "what ifs." What if someone comes to her and tries to blackmail her? Her world could fall down around her ears. What could she do about it? What?
She could not pretend that the words were never spoken. It would not be enough to seal her lips. She would ever be looking over her shoulder for the bogey-man.
Killing herself would be romantic, but impractical. "And thou art dead, as young and fair," she quoted, remembering lines penned by Lord Byron, "as aught of mortal birth, and form so soft and charms so rare, too soon return'd to earth." She did not fancy herself a corpse. She must find some other way out of this dilemma.
She had fleetingly thought of finding a new life in India. Many young women boarded a ship bound for the east, and were engaged before it reached the other shore. But Caroline knew that she would not be content with the pasted-together replica of London society that they were trying to create hundreds of miles away.
What other options were there? Governess? Never! Not ever! It could not be borne, not even considered.
Caroline wracked her brains, "There must be a way!" She was interrupted by Charles at her door.
"Caroline, I am calling for a physician," he said from the other side.
"Charles, it is nothing. There is no need..." she responded, but his footsteps were already padding back down the hallway.
"So, how did you become a physician?" Caroline challenged, as the young man gingerly took her pulse. She wanted to know how people got to where they were, how much of it was fate. It suddenly seemed important. "You are not just an apothecary...."
"I am an associate of the Royal College of Physicians," he said sternly, looking at her over his spectacles. "Are you questioning my abilities?" He backed away and rummaged around in his bag which was on a chair nearby.
Caroline noticed his slight limp and found her curiosity piqued. "You're rather young," she frowned.
"Caroline, allow the good doctor to go about his business," Louisa admonished. Her sister didn't seem very ill to her, and she was irritated that Charles had taken it upon himself to call in a physician. Someone would have to pay for him. It was obvious that Caroline just wanted attention. With Mr. Darcy such an infrequent visitor, she was probably bored.
"And you limp. Why do you limp?" Caroline demanded to know. She had taken her time sizing him up while Dr. Phillips had been asking for general information and filling out his forms. He was probably in his late twenties, perhaps early thirties, with unruly brown hair, in the manner of the poets. His clothes were subdued but of very good material. He could not be poor... or he had a wealthy benefactress. That was an intriguing thought.
"Excuse me, Miss Bingley, but are you always so impertinent?" Dr. Phillips replied with a question of his own.
Alfred came to the door with messages for Louisa. She had guests and must be excused, but Mary would stay in the room with Caroline and the doctor.
"I have a right to know something about the person who holds my life in his hands," she said imperiously. She wondered if all physicians had a high opinion of themselves. She was not used to being challenged.
To her surprise, Dr. Phillips laughed softly, "I do not doubt, Miss Bingley, that you hold your own life very firmly in your own two hands. In fact, I do not see anything specific wrong with you. Nothing that a good night's rest will not cure." He handed her a prescription. "Have this filled at the Apothecary's by one of your servants. It will help you sleep." He had been bothered by the hollow look in her eyes, and how fatigued she seemed, when he first looked into them, but as they talked, he saw more signs of life. "I will try to check on you in a few days, Miss Bingley, but I have many pressing cases."
"And you do not consider me one of them," she said drawing her brows together, forgetting what Nanny Cady used to tell her about wrinkles.
"Every case is important to me, Miss, and if you feel it necessary, you may have your servant call for me and I will come as soon as I am able." He hesitated. he knew something was bothering her, despite her attempts to appear normal. Something was lurking behind her eyes. It would not hurt to answer her questions. "I am a second son," he said as though that were enough explanation.
"But they are not usually..."
"Physicians, I know. I saw action in the wars a few years back. A hit to the leg brought me home again. I could have had a desk job upon my return, with limited possibilities of advancement, but I chose a life of active service in another field. Good day, Miss Bingley."
Caroline watched him leave. She could be reasonably happy married to a second son if the family were prestigious enough. Not the good doctor. A man in uniform, the possibility of becoming a young widow... It had a certain dramatic flair. Mr. Darcy had introduced her to a friend of his, a Colonel Fitzwilliam. Wasn't he a second son?
No, what she really needed was protection. She needed to find someone so powerful, so honorable, so above most of his peers, that he would and could defend his wife from any attempts to sully her reputation. She could think of only one man who could offer her that kind of security --- Fitzwilliam Darcy.
Caroline breathed more easily once she had decided on a plan of action. The sooner they were allied, the better. She got up from her bed and hastened Mary to gather together her clothes. It was time to meet the day. It was time to ensure her future.
Jane would confide to Lizzy that Caroline Bingley was "so altered a creature' that she hardly knew her, and Caroline would be the first to agree. The past few weeks had been the most traumatic of her life, but she now thought that she had a chance for survival. If she only had enough time... surely the person would wait until the stakes were higher, until she had something more important to lose.
One of her first acts was to decide that it would be a kindness to end the relationship with Jane quickly; she had Mr. Darcy's sanction, although that gentleman would have denied it. Caroline was able to convince herself that her concerns were for propriety, but if she had looked closer, she would have known that the real reason was fear. She was afraid of what would happen if Jane and Elizabeth found out her secret. She was afraid that perhaps she was beneath their notice, and it was eating at her heart.
Jane was rendered almost speechless by Caroline's visit, one that she had been looking forward to for four long weeks, always giving Caroline the benefit of the doubt about her reasons for not calling upon her. When she finally did arrive on Jane's doorstep, she had expressed no pleasure to see her, and offered no plans to ever see her again. But the mortal wound was when she informed Jane that Charles had almost certainly decided to let Netherfield go.
The wound to Jane was more deeply felt than Caroline had supposed, but she salved her conscience by reminding herself of her conversation with Mr. Darcy. It was for the best...for all concerned.
One evening at cards, Caroline had broached the subject, "What say you, Mr. Darcy? Would you encourage an intimate relationship if you were aware that the person was not your equal socially?"
Darcy attempted to hide his surprise and discomfiture. "Is she referring to Miss Bennet and myself?' he wondered incredulously. "Are my feelings so transparent?' He paused thoughtfully, then answered with what he should say, and ignored what his heart had been telling him for the past few months, "Let us say, Miss Bingley, that I would not look for that kind of relationship. For true communion, the two people must be on more equal footing. Both partners must be able to bring something of worth to the union. In a match that would be so one-sided, it would be more humane to end it quickly."
"And what if someone attempted to sully your wife's reputation, even accused her of being of low birth... or some such ugly rumor?"
Charles was alarmed, "Caroline, what are you at?"
Darcy was confused by the turn of the conversation, but somewhat relieved when he thought he had figured it out, "Miss Bingley, have you been reading one of those Gothic novels?"
Caroline smiled prettily, "You have found me out, Mr. Darcy."
"Well then," he said soberly, "I would not attach myself to a woman unless I was certain of her love, and that I esteemed her above all others. That being the case, and my wife showing herself to be honest and faithful to me, I would defend her with all of my resources, with my life if need be."
Caroline smiled to herself, more than satisfied with his answer. Here, indeed, was her knight in shining armor. Her plan of action was simple, but would be hard-won. She knew that in order to attract Mr. Darcy she must practice strict self-control, and she took as her example Mr. Darcy himself. If she emulated that great man, would he not admire and notice her?
"What has happened to Caroline Bingley? She is not herself!" was buzzed around behind fans at the several social gatherings in the month of February. The same question was bandied about at the gaming tables whenever Charles Bingley was not in earshot. But one evening, Darcy heard their comments.
The ladies were nonplused by her new air of gentility. She strived to make herself pleasing, not normally one of Caroline's strong points, and distanced herself from any form of malicious gossip, the mainstay of entertainment when every gathering was comprised of the same group of people. She was usually the queen of sarcastic remarks, and here she was putting on airs, or so they thought.
The gentlemen were entranced by her new softness, her seemingly serene disposition. When she began to discuss the state of affairs between the United States and Great Britain, they were bowled over. It was as though someone else had taken her place.
Darcy had not been a frequent visitor to the Hurst home for almost a month, nor had he attended many of the social gatherings. He was planning a visit to his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, at the end of March, and had several pressing business details to take care of before he left. At the few he did attend, he had not paid much attention to Caroline. That in itself should have struck him as unusual, for Miss Bingley always made her presence known to him.
He walked around the edges of the ballroom, looking for his friend's sister. There she was, standing among a handful of friends, dressed in a gold evening dress of classic lines, with a gossamer scarf over one shoulder and caught at her hip. Her hair was drawn back into a mass of curls and anchored by some kind of leafy tiara, a goddess come to life. Caroline was known for creating her own style, but what struck him more was her countenance. Where were the frown lines, the pursed lips, the look that juggled between impatience and boredom? This surely was not the Caroline Bingley that he knew.
Caroline had caught Mr. Darcy's progress out of the corner of her eye, but her expression did not give her away. As far as he was concerned, Miss Bingley was totally unaware of his regard. Neither of them knew that he was not the only one to observe Caroline.
Dr. Phillips was standing at the elbow of Mrs. Wiggington, one of his elderly patients, and hostess to this gathering. She had decided to take the doctor under her wing and introduce him to her circle of friends. She also knew that his brother, Sir Rupert, had been invited and that they had not spoken to one another for years. It boded well for a stimulating evening. Mrs. Wiggington thought it very dull to know so much about each of her guests, and was looking forward to being entertained by the Phillips brothers.
The doctor excused himself and slowly made his way through the crush and over to where Caroline was standing. Mrs. Wiggington's eyebrows expressed her surprise at this development --- "What is Henry doing with Miss Bingley?' --- and her friends smiled unpleasantly at their hostess's latest protˇgˇ.
Henry Phillips was cognizant of their lowly regard for him, but he did not care, for the introduction had served his purposes. He was here, and so was the object of his attention. "Good evening, Miss Bingley."
"Dr. Phillips," Caroline acknowledged.
The buzz around her grew silent. "How does Caroline know him?'
"I am glad to see you well," Henry said, with a half-smile playing about his lips.
"Through no effort on your part," she bantered.
Her voice was low and pleasant, but Henry could see that the pain was still there in her eyes, hiding, waiting. Some people would probably not even notice, but it was his job to look for any signs of ill health.
"It has been some weeks since your visit, and you have not been back to check on my progress." Caroline continued in the same vein.
Henry responded lightheartedly, "I know when to leave well enough alone!"
Caroline was amused by his retort and joined in his laughter, though hers was somewhat brittle. Henry could hear the tension in her voice, and was bemused. What could possibly affect her over a period of several weeks? "Are you sleeping well, Miss Bingley? Did you use my prescription?"
Caroline made a small moue, "Are you on a call, Dr. Phillips? I thought this was a social event."
"I apologize, Miss Bingley. You are, of course, correct, and if circumstances were otherwise, I would be asking you to dance."
"I see that you are an especial friend to our hostess, Mrs. Wiggington..."
Caroline saw Mr. Darcy approach on her left, and made ready to greet him, but then she was addressed by someone suddenly coming up on her right, "Miss Bingley! I have been looking everywhere for you. Do you not remember that this set belongs to me?"
A rather tall, lanky gentleman dressed in the latest style was at her side. She vaguely remembered him from other gatherings. "Good evening, Sir Rupert..." she began to say, but was escorted quickly to the floor, without the opportunity to address either Mr. Darcy or Dr. Phillips. "Phillips....You are related to the doctor!" Caroline realized.
"He was my brother," Sir Rupert said shortly.
They were preoccupied with finding their places, for the music was about to begin. "I fear that you have me at a disadvantage, Sir Rupert. When did we agree to dance this set together?"
"I cannot lie, beautiful lady. As soon as I noticed you from across the room, it became my sole objective to engage you as soon as possible."
Caroline did not know if she cared for the gentleman's overconfident air. He was not very much like his brother. "I prefer to be asked," she warned him. The old Caroline would have spun on her heel and left him there alone to punish him for his presumptuousness. But she had seen Mr. Darcy's look. It would not hurt for him to realize that she was sought after. She had not had time for a glance at the good doctor, or she would have seen an angry young man. There were reasons why he and his brother had broken ties.
As Caroline turned and stepped to the lively music, she thought about Fitzwilliam Darcy. He was still standing where she had left him, but the doctor had disappeared. Mr. Darcy seemed to have a penchant for young ladies who feigned indifference towards him. So be it. "Let him come to me," she decided. She purposely did not look anymore in his direction, and paid attention to her partner. She knew that Mr. Darcy preferred to be in the company of people he was acquainted with. He would seek her out again.
Caroline, Charles, and Darcy walked out into the night air at the end of the evening. Caroline was in good spirits for she and Darcy had danced the final set, as she had planned. Darcy was surprised when a new barouche pulled up for his friends. He looked questioningly at Charles.
"My sister feels that the chaise is inadequate for us," he explained, gesturing toward Caroline.
:It is quite handsome," Darcy commended. He gave his adieus and turned to go.
"Mr. Darcy!" Caroline called after him.
"Yes?" He was instantly back at her side.
Seeing him in the gaslight like this, she was suddenly surprised to find herself noticing his physical attractions. She had been used to thinking of Mr. Darcy as a means to an end. She paused to allow her heart to resume it's normal beat. "We are having a small gathering in honor of Louisa's birthday tomorrow. I know that she would be pleased if you joined us. Say, at seven-thirty?"
Darcy wondered at Caroline's motives, and was hesitant to accept. Still, she had been a fine dance partner this evening, and truth-be-told, he was feeling rather lonely. "Thank you, Miss Bingley. I accept. Charles, I will see you tomorrow morning as planned."
The barouche had just started forward when Charles said thoughtfully, "I did not realize that tomorrow was Louisa's birthday..."
Caroline sat curled up in a chair in the library with a book of poems on her lap. From her vantage point she could see a desolate winter day and icy rain as it pelted against the window. Her thoughts were not engaged by poetry or weather though, but by her success with Mr. Darcy.
At Louisa's birthday dinner, Caroline was a model hostess and did not give Mr. Darcy any more attention than the other guests. In order to talk to her, he had to seek her out. Since many of the other assembled guests were virtual strangers to him, his reticence prompted him to stay near Charles and Caroline.
To his surprise, Darcy found Caroline to act womanly but not overly flirtatious; she was an interesting conversationalist and possessed of a gentle wit. She entertained him with anecdotes from the season but found ways to keep the attention on her own foibles instead of using mutual friends for sport. This new Caroline was everything that Darcy could wish for in a sister of Bingley's, short of a love interest, for his heart was given elsewhere.
His confused thoughts and warring emotions drove him to visit the Hurst home with more frequency and to find respite in Caroline's company. Bingley was ever present at these gatherings and the three of them grew to anticipate their evenings together.
Before Darcy left for Rosings, the home of his aunt, he suggested that the Bingleys come to Pemberley sometime over the summer, perhaps in early August. His smile of enthusiasm was directed at Charles and Caroline, which gratified the latter more than she could say.
"It will come to pass!" Caroline crowed silently. "At Pemberley he will ask for my hand. The perfect setting! Georgiana will be there, and Mr. Darcy will be able to immediately ask my brother for his consent." She envisioned the wedding taking place before Christmas. "Then I will be safe,' she said, trembling with emotion.
Caroline stuck her finger in the salve, then smelled it's bitter scent. The black bryony had been mashed into wax and she knew it was used to help sores heal. The mixture smelled normal to her. She would keep it.
She and Mary were cleaning out Nanny Cady's stock of herbs and medicinal potions. The girl knew very little about the collection of bottles, jars, and crocks and had asked for Caroline's assistance. Mary dragged them down from their dusty shelves or from among the cobwebs in lower cupboards and wiped them off before handing them to her mistress for analysis. Caroline's knowledge was not much greater. She had forgotten much of what Nanny Cady had told her so long ago. She sneezed, whether from the dust or the beginnings of a head cold, she did not know. Her head was beginning to ache, so she assumed the latter.
Foxglove, flax seed, flowers of mullein in a bottle of oil, meadowsweet...herb Bennett.** "What? Whatever is herb Bennet?" Caroline laughed as she took off the lid and picked some of it up between her fingers. "Ewww! It smells mousy!" She motioned for Mary to throw it away, meanwhile entertained by the thought that something so vile should share Elizabeth's name.
"I should either pitch everything or give it to someone who knows what they are doing," Caroline decided. She picked up another jar and removed the lid. The dried contents smelled mintlike. "Pennyroyal," she read on the label. "I remember that --- your mother used to prepare it in tea whenever I had a cold. I think I will take this with me." She saw that they were halfway through with their inventory. "We shall finish this tomorrow, Mary. I will need to rest before tonight's card party."
"Yes, Miss," Mary said as she retrieved the broom to sweep up the dust they had kicked up. She had noticed an improvement in Miss Caroline's mood of late; she was almost as friendly as she had been at Netherfield. She was not sure, but Mary thought it had something to do with the handsome Mr. Darcy. She fervently hoped that they would form an attachment if he had this effect on her mistress.
Caroline went to her room to lay down. Yes, she was definitely coming down with a cold. She had Mary bring up a cup of hot water so that she could prepare a mint tea for herself. Caroline examined the contents of the jar, and could not decide how much to use. "I shall make it strong," she decided, hoping that it would make her cold symptoms disappear.
While she was drinking the concoction, Caroline began to feel cramps. Before she could finish her cup, she was doubled over in pain. Even with Mary's assistance, she could barely make it over to the chamber pot before she vomited. "Send for Dr. Phillips!" she gasped. "I...I have been poisoned..." She was ill again and again. Perspiration flowed down her face and mingled with her tears. Wisps of hair fell from her bun and clung to her damp cheeks. She could not believe how terrible she felt. She did not know what would happen if they could not find the doctor. "Charles...Charles..." she gasped, wishing that he were there.
It did not take Dr. Phillips long to piece together what was happening. He saw the cup of tea, the label on the jar, and Caroline's pathetic form sagging over a basin. "Mary, fetch me the whites of two eggs," he ordered. He knelt down by his patient and smoothed back her hair.
"You silly, silly girl," he muttered tenderly as he brushed the hair away from her face. She was very pale and weakened by the episodes of vomiting. He helped her up onto her bed, and as he waited for Mary, he checked her pulse and the pupils of her eyes. He found a cloth and wiped the perspiration from her face. She hardly noticed.
When Mary finally came with the egg whites, Henry forced them down Caroline's throat. She sputtered and threatened to make him wear them, but he was eventually successful. He found some medicinal herbs in his bag and gave them to Mary with instructions on how to prepare them. The mixture would help to soothe Caroline's stomach and put an end to her misery. It was highly probable that all of the pennyroyal had been gotten rid of, but to be on the safe side, he set a small bottle of castor oil on a nearby table.
"As soon as she is able, give her this to help her eliminate the rest of the poison," he said to the girl.
"You hate me," Caroline mumbled, peering at him through half-closed eyes.
Henry leaned over to look at his patient. "I have just saved your life," he announced cheerfully.
Caroline shook her head, "Go away," she muttered. "You are laughing at me."
Dr. Phillips gathered together his things. "I have given Mary specific orders, Miss Bingley. Be a good patient, and I will check on you tomorrow."
"Am I "a more pressing case' now?" Caroline asked in an attempt at humor.
Hnery looked at her wan face, the tinges of blue under her eyes. "You are a sorry sight," he decided. "Yes, I will return."
If she had not been so weak, Henry Phillips would have felt a pillow smack against his back as he left the room. As it was, she laid on her side and held the pillow against her abdomen. She would not feel well for several hours. The card party was totally out of the question. Even so, she fell asleep with a slight smile curving her lips.
** Herb Bennet was another name for Hemlock. As a poison it causes paralysis, loss of speech, and respiratory problems to the extent that the person dies of asphyxia. The mind is unaffected through-out the process of dying. It is reportedly the cause of Socrates' death.
The next morning, Dr. Phillips was at her door, as promised. The patient was sitting up in bed, with a tray of toast and tea on a nearby table. She was still very tired and her stomach muscles sore from the night before. Caroline did not know whether she was happy to see him though, because he was scowling at her.
"I have just finished cleaning up the herb cupboard, Miss Bingley. It is gone, all of it!"
"Dr. Phillips, how dare you!"
"I dare because you are my patient, and because you are much too foolish for your own good. Do you have any idea what I found in those jars? You are fortunate to be alive, Miss Bingley."
Caroline turned her head to the ceiling and closed her eyes. "What could you have possibly found that was so awful?" she sighed.
"Belladonna!" he exclaimed, "The entire plant is poisonous. If you had reached in there with any kind of cut on your hands...hmmph!" He was beside himself because of Caroline's close call. "And hemlock..and... elderflowers. Do you have any idea what to do with them?"
Caroline sighed again, "Aren't the elderflowers just for some mixture to put on the skin?"
"At least you know that much!" he bellowed. "If you had ingested it..." he laughed mirthlessly. "You thought you were ill last night!"
Caroline hoped he would be done with his tirade soon. She didn't care what he had done with the herbs. She just wanted to sleep. "Dr. Phillips, thank you for coming so quickly last night...," she said in a small voice.
The quiet words were enough to bring him up short. "What am I doing raving at my patient?' he asked himself angrily. He went over to the bed, "Miss Bingley, I am just thankful that I could be of some service and that you are on the mend."
"You saved my life," she said, looking up at him.
For just a moment she was truly looking at him. For just a moment her eyes were clear of their secret. "Do you know what that means, Miss Bingley?" he asked with a wry smile.
"No..." Caroline was confused.
"There is an old saying," he explained, no longer meeting her eyes, but looking somewhere above her head, "that if a person saves a life, then he is responsible for it."
Caroline's cheeks suddenly showed a little color. "Well, thank you just the same," she muttered self-consciously.
"I must be on my way. I have..."
"Yes, I know. Cases that are more pressing," Caroline finished for him. "Good day, Dr. Phillips."
Darcy had only been gone to Rosings less than a week but Caroline already missed him. Their evening tete-a-tetes had made him into a real person, and she had found valid reasons to admire and esteem him. She rather liked the idea that she could be falling in love with Mr. Darcy, and it would seem like an eternity before she could see him again. It was anticipated that he would spend at least a week in London before he would depart for Pemberley.
Twice during the past month, Sir Rupert Phillips had called at the Hurst house, and lately, at the informal parties and card games, he had taken to standing or sitting near her. She was flattered by the attention and thankful for the diversion, but her eye was firmly set on Mr. Darcy.
She had only seen his brother, Dr. Phillips, once since her episode with the pennyroyal. She was at a musical performance and Sir Rupert had just taken the seat next to her during intermission. Charles had been sitting there, but left to talk to friends. When she looked over the audience, she had seen the doctor watching her. The next time she had looked, he was gone.
That was unfortunate because Sir Rupert had been taking her attentions too much for granted and she had sent him away. Caroline smiled at the memory of the man tipping his hat and saying, "Another day, Miss Bingley," as though they were engaged in some sort of game, and he was conceding to her the round. Perhaps he and his brother were alike in their sense of humor.
Caroline thought over the past season. Her "change of image' had reaped unexpected benefits. She had to admit that when she kept her mouth closed, she learned more about the people around her. She was also beginning to realize that the ability to laugh at herself was more self-promoting than making remarks at someone else's expense.
It had been terribly difficult at first. Caroline was not used to stifling herself, and was sure she would burst from the strain. Instead, whenever she came home from an especially tortuous evening, she would go to her room and break something...thoroughly...smash it into little pieces. She cleaned up after herself, but knew that Mary emptied out the waste bins and was aware of her little secret. Mary responded by bringing in a cheap little glass trinkets to replace whatever was broken. Caroline had no idea where she acquired them, but was thankful for the gesture.
April gave way to May with no word from Darcy. By the end of June, Caroline was frantic. She finally asked Charles whether he had heard from his friend.
"Oh, Darcy is at Pemberley, of course."
"I thought he was going to visit London on his way home from Rosings."
"Caroline, it was in the middle of spring planting. The man probably had enough things to do at home." Charles looked at her suspiciously, "Why are you asking?"
"I...I just had a small gift for Georgiana," she stammered. "I was hoping to send it along with Mr. Darcy."
"We shall see them soon enough," Charles reassured her.
The early summer months were spent on outings with their friends, to the park, to the theater, into the countryside around London. Caroline was apprehensive about the success of her plan and found it difficult to enjoy the lazy summer days.
"Surely, if Mr. Darcy had any true regard for me, he would have written or found a reason to visit..." she pondered nervously. By this time, she did not feel that Mary was aware of her dreadful secret, but she still wondered about Mrs. Fellows or the sons. Several times she was tempted to use the services of a post-chaise and go alone to the woman's house, to ask her what really happened all those years ago.
Mid-July found Caroline being driven to the home of Mrs. Cady's sister. Even before she left the chaise, she was surprised to see Dr. Phillips come out of the house. Without remembering that her own presence in this part of London would look questionable, Caroline hailed the doctor.
Dr. Phillips, in a fatigued trance, and was startled by the voice of Caroline Bingley, the voice of an angel amidst all of this stinking filth and pestilence that was London in the summer. "Miss Bingley, do not step down!" Henry hastily came to the door of the chaise. "What are you doing here? Why are you in London when you should be out in the country or at a resort or anywhere but here?"
"Good afternoon to you, too, Dr. Phillips," she gently chided. The doctor looked overworked and desperate.
"Forgive me, Miss Bingley. Sometimes manners get lost in a place like this."
"I have come to visit Mrs. Fellows. I hope she is well."
"I am afraid that I cannot allow that. Mrs. Fellows is in health, so far, but Jess Cady is in there with cholera. You should not even be in this part of town. Why did you come?"
Caroline faltered, "Just...I was going to have Mrs. Fellows alter a dress for me," she lied.
Henry looked at her quizzically but did not say anything.
"Why are you here, Dr. Phillips? I did not think that there was anyone in this section of town who could afford you."
Henry stiffened at the implication. "I have been volunteering time down here for many months, Miss Bingley. Why should good health be restricted to those who can afford it?"
Caroline's face suffused with color, "I apologise, Dr. Phillips. That was unfeeling of me."
Henry sighed, "We have not seen each other for these several weeks, so let us talk of pleasant things. I have missed....talking to you." He searched her face for signs of how she really was, and what her thoughts were now that they were face-to-face.
Caroline felt uncomfortable while under his scrutiny. Dr. Phillips was easy to talk to, in some ways more informal than her exchange with Charles, but his intense perusal made her suspect that perhaps his thoughts were not brotherly. "Why must he complicate our relationship?' she asked, distractedly. "Why can we not just be friends?' She looked at him and gave a shy smile, "I have something pleasant to announce, Dr. Phillips. The next time you see me I will probably be engaged, if not married."
Stunned silence, then a low question, "Am I to congratulate you as my new sister?" He kept his eyes lowered, not wanting to hear her confirm his fears.
Caroline did not at first realize the meaning of his words. "No," she reassured him. "Your brother has not asked me to marry him, and I have been given no indication that he will."
Henry did not know whether to feel relieved or sorry. He finally decided that he was relieved for her. "May I ask who is the lucky man, Miss Bingley, so that I may offer him my sincerest congratulations?"
"Not yet, doctor. Not until it is officially announced, which will probably be by the end of August. But I promise to introduce you the next time we are in Town."
"I will look forward to the day," Henry said, his manners lifting him up. "and now, I must be on my way." He looked into her eyes, almost as though saying a permanent farewell, "I wish you much joy, Miss Bingley."
"Thank you, Dr. Phillips." Her bridges were burnt. She had committed herself to being engaged to Mr. Darcy within the month.
"It is August 3; tomorrow I will be at Pemberley. By tomorrow night my fate may be decided," Caroline said to her reflection in the mirror."How will he look? What will he say to me? It has been so many months..." Caroline went to bed, tucked in by her worries, hoping that fate would be kind.
Their arrival at Pemberley was met with much excitement, for Darcy could hardly contain himself. Caroline's smile grew wide as the master of Pemberley approached their coach with such an air of repressed anticipation. He helped Mrs. Hurst and then Caroline to descend, his eyes sparkling as he gave welcome, "Please, a late breakfast is laid out for your refreshment."
After everyone was seated and served, Darcy addressed the group, "I have much news," he began. "Someone who is known to most of you is visiting here in Derbyshire. Miss Elizabeth Bennet is in Lambton at this moment with her aunt and uncle, the Gardiners. I have told them that we will call on them at our earliest convenience today."
Caroline could hardly hear the rest of the sentence for the roaring in her ears. "Eliza Bennet, here," she wondered, then remembered a remark she had made to Miss Bennet long ago, "and at my invitation." She looked closely at Mr. Darcy. "How does he know this? He himself only arrived yesterday..."
"Darcy!" Charles exclaimed. "Count me among the party."
Caroline could see by her brother's spontaneous enthusiasm that his friends in Netherfield had not been forgotten.
"I would very much like for you to be one of the party also, Georgiana," Darcy said gently.
Georgiana acquiesced with a bow of her head.
The next morning the call was returned by Elizabeth and her aunt, while Mr. Gardiner walked the estate with the gentlemen of the group. They were shown into the saloon where they were greeted civilly but with no small amount of shyness by Georgiana. Also in the room were Caroline, Mrs. Hurst, and Georgiana's companion when she lived in London, Mrs. Annesley.
Caroline and Louisa each gave a brief curtsey in acknowledgement of their presence and then left the conversation to the efforts of the others, while Georgiana hovered on the edges.
Caroline sat there and watched Eliza, especially her interactions with Georgiana. "What has happened in twenty-four hours that she is such an esteemed guest?' she asked incredulously. It was not lost on her that Mr. Darcy had specifically asked his sister to be one of the party to welcome this woman to the area. "All will be answered when Mr. Darcy appears," she reassured herself.
They were distracted by the entrance of the servants with platters of refreshments, cold meats, and delicious fruits, and soon after, the arrival of Mr. Darcy himself.
Caroline was almost paralyzed with fear as she watched and waited. Mr. Darcy did not immediately approach either Elizabeth or herself, and his intentions were not clear until he strived to support conversation between his sister and Miss Bennet. "No," she cried out in denial, its utterance banging repeatedly through her head. "Does Mr. Darcy not remember her mother? her sisters?' She had to say or do something, anything to make him remember...
"Pray, Miss Eliza, are not the militia removed from Meryton? They must be a great loss to your family."
The response from the room was confusing. Elizabeth only confirmed that they had left; but Mr. Darcy's face was suffused with color, and Georgiana bowed her head.
"What have I said?' Caroline wondered frantically. She did not realize the affront to the Darcys by her indirect reference to Wickham.
Elizabeth remained unruffled, and Caroline could see Darcy look to her adversary for support and peace of mind. Apparently he found it, for he rewarded Miss Bennet with a smile of gratitude. Soon after, he escorted Elizabeth and her aunt to their carriage.
Caroline could hardly breath. His smile had been a deathknell. Her deathknell. She turned to Georgiana and attempted to share her criticisms of Miss Bennet, but they fell on deaf ears."I have been a longer friend," she reminded herself, "Where is her loyalty?'
When Mr. Darcy returned, she was beside herself, she was wild with fear for her future. Her anger carried her farther than she had intended. In its white heat, she could not remember her most telling arguments. She could only fall back on Miss Bennet's looks, and she picked them apart with a vengeance. She did not see her brother Charles and Mr. Hurst come into the room at the end of her arguments to Mr. Darcy. She was oblivious to everything except her need to strike out and hurt someone.
Ah! She would catch Mr. Darcy with his own words, "I remember what you said when we were at Netherfield, do you? "She a beauty --- I should as soon call her mother a wit." but afterwards she seemed to improve on you, and you thought her rather pretty at one time."
Darcy lamented the return of the old Caroline with the sharp tongue, but was fair enough to wonder if he had been the cause of any of it. She had seemed so much improved during the winter and they had spent many pleasant evenings together. "Did Caroline assume more than there was?' he wondered. "Am I blind to not have seen it?' Because of his own guilty feelings, he did not respond, not until she had goaded him for too long. Reality was that he loved Elizabeth Bennet, and the sooner Caroline accepted that, the better.
"Yes," he finally replied, "but that was only when I first knew her, for it is many months since I have considered her as one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance."
It was ended. All hope, lost. Caroline had lost the only man who could have protected her, the only man that she thought she could have loved. She had enough presence of mind to realize that anymore outbursts in front of the Darcys would be detrimental to her own character, not Eliza's, but she was crazy with anger and disappointment and fear; she had to find some release.
Caroline ran out of the room and into the foyer. Her skirt swept past a low table and knocked off a gentleman's hat.
"Caroline!" Charles called after her angrily.
She hesitated in the doorway, her features sharp with emotion.
"Caroline, I have heard what you said. You must apologise to our friends and to Miss Bennet..."
Caroline did not wait for him to finish. "Apologise?" she thought rebelliously, "to the woman who destroyed my future? I think not!" She glared at her brother and then very deliberately gave the hat a swift kick across the room, denting in the crown. She then turned and stomped out of the house.
Mr. Hurst entered the foyer to see what the commotion about, and Charles handed him the hat, "I am sorry, Hurst. It met with an accident. I will be happy to reimburse you," Charles explained, then bolted after his sister.
Caroline ran around to the side of the house and into the woods where the men had just been. She followed the path along the stream, going as far away from the house as she could. Finally, she stopped, gasped for breath, and almost doubled-over. She spied some palm-sized rocks along the bank and picked them up. She cried out with effort and frustration as she hurled them one at a time across the water. It wasn't enough to release her pain. She did not know if the knife-ache inside her chest would ever subside.
She saw a branch spread at odd angles to the ground. She realized that it was almost broken off the tree. She gave it a sharp tug and it came loose in her hands, and she tumbled to the ground with it. She scrambled back up and stood before a wide oak tree, the branch wielded like a bat. Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! She hit the tree again and again with the sturdy branch.
Charles stood back and watched his sister vent her anger on the tree. He could not believe his eyes. Her motivation was beyond his ken. Finally the branch snapped in half and grazed her forehead. She collapsed in a heap of blood, and sweat, and tears. Charles ran to his sister to see if she was hurt, and then cradled her in his arms, "Caroline, Caroline, what is it?"
Caroline tried to fight him off, to escape, but he held her close. Finally she stopped struggling, and just lay there panting and crying.
"Caroline, you must tell me..." he pleaded.
Caroline shook her head back and forth repeatedly, in such anguish that it almost brought Charles to tears in his helplessness. He hugged her tightly and crooned her name over and over again.
Finally she quieted down, and he could hear her mumbling, "I have failed... There is nothing else to be done..."
Charles helped her to sit up and he offered his handerchief to her. Once she had gained some self-control, he began to ask questions, to eek out the story a little at a time. What he heard appalled him to no end, and caused him to feel the heavy burden of guilt.
First of all, she revealed her plan to marry Mr. Darcy, and the end of all her hopes at the arrival of Miss Bennet. She even admitted that her plan had included the personality changes that he had been admiring so much, her attempt to please Mr. Darcy.
"Darcy would never ask anyone to change for him. Caroline, a man must love you for yourself. If he cannot love who you are, then he is the wrong man for you." He held up her chin so that he could look into her tear-reddened eyes. "Do you love Darcy? Truly?"
Caroline could not meet his gaze. This was a time for honesty, and she and Charles did not have much experience with having conversations that were not superficial. Finally, she explained, "I do not think I love your friend as much as I should, but I esteem him... and I need him."
"Why, Caroline? Why? What are you hiding from me?"
"Mr. Darcy is in a position to offer me protection...if...if...if anyone were to approach me with the intent to blackmail me."
"What are you talking about? Why would someone blackmail you?" In Caroline's silence, realization dawned on Charles. A terrible realization of why Caroline was frightened almost out of her mind, and that he could have saved her long before this.
Caroline confirmed his thoughts, "Every day I wait for one of the Cady boys to waylay me and tell me they will ruin my future by telling everyone about my low birth." She shivered violently, "Oh, Charles, I have been living with this fear since I heard the story from Nanny Cady's lips. It has been consuming me for months." She pressed her face into his shoulder and sobbed.
"Dear Lord, grant me strength," Charles whispered, "and help thy daughter, Caroline, in her time of need." He made his sister look at him again. "I am so, so sorry. Caroline, you cannot imagine how I feel. I could have ended your nightmare long ago, but I did not realize that you were still dwelling on it."
Caroline looked at him with no comprehension on her ravaged face.
He gave a long, gut-wrenching sigh, willing himself to confess all. "Do you remember when you asked Darcy what he would do if someone tried to ruin the reputation of his wife?"
Caroline nodded dully.
"It made me think that perhaps I had been too lax about the whole situation, that I should try to find proof, just in case someone did try to blackmail us." Charles faltered. It would be hard to confess that the proof had been tucked away in his desk for so long. "I checked the birth and death records around your birthdate..."
Caroline sat up, not believing her ears. Her agitation was plain, and would increase by the second until she learned of Charles'discoveries. "Please, delay no longer," she begged.
"Kathleen Cady was stillborn two days before your live birth."
Caroline's mind was numb. "I do not understand..."
"I received the rest of the information from Mrs. Fellows when I went to visit her," Charles confessed.
"You visited Mrs. Fellows!"
"Yes. I am sorry now that I didn't tell you. But I thought it wouldn't matter because the truth was as I had said all along. You are my sister."
"But how? Why?"
"Mrs. Fellows said that Nanny Cady has always referred to you as her daughter, but everyone just took it to mean that she loved you and thought of you fondly. No one realized until the last month or so, that she had created her own reality for you and her. Mrs. Fellows assisted at the delivery of Nanny Cady's poor dead child, and then she was also the one to help her with the burial arrangements."
Caroline was overwhelmed by all of there revelations. She just wanted to go home, but she remembered Dr.Phillip's concern over the cholera outbreak. "I want to go away from here, Charles. Now, today. I need to think about everything that has happened since we went to Netherfield. Perhaps we could go to Scarborough for awhile..."
Charles got up and pulled Caroline to her feet. "I am sorry, Caroline. I have been a terrible, neglectful brother. Please remember that I would do anything to help you, but you must confide in me."
Caroline took a deep breath and attempted to shake off some the the effects of her long period of self-persecution. It was time to move forward, but first she felt that she sorely needed to find some joy in life, to laugh.
"You are not a poor brother, Charles. In fact, I am rather fond of you, although you are not very adept at remembering birthdates."
Charles gave a hint of a smile, "Do you think Louisa suspects that my present to her used to grace the sideboard in my parlour?"
Caroline raised her eyebrows, "It didn't!" she exclaimed. Their grins widened at the thought of Charles' trick. "Charles, I am sorry that I abused your hat in such a manner."
"That's okay, Caroline. It wasn't my hat --- it belonged to Mr. Hurst."
Their laughter pierced the woods and echoed all the way to the halls of Pemberley.
Jane and Charles, Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam had their double wedding before Christmas that year, and yes, Caroline was there to witness the happy occasion. She was mortified that Mr. Darcy had not chosen her, but gradually overcame her feelings enough to apologise to Lizzy, and become a true friend to the Darcys.
Continued in SECTION 3
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