The Importance of Being Caroline
"He came - he passed - an heedless gaze,
As o'er some stranger glancing;
Her welcome, spoke in faltering phrase,
Lost in his courser's prancing ---
The castle arch, whole hollow tone
Returns each whisper spoken,
Could scarcely catch the feeble moan
Which told her heart was broken."
Caroline laid her book of Scott on a nearby table and closed her eyes as she leaned back in the chair. She had been at Netherfield the first time she read that passage, and had been listening to the hooves of Apollo carry his master, Mr. Darcy, to his beloved, Elizabeth Bennet.
Caroline and the Hursts were at Scarborough when they heard the news of Charles' engagement to Jane Bennet. And they had barely collected their belongings for the trip to Netherfield when another missive followed, the one announcing Mr. Darcy's engagement to Elizabeth.
At the first few meetings, observing a Darcy in love, a man who did not give his heart by halves, Caroline had felt a kinship with the maid in the poem. Darcy had not spared her a glance...perhaps he never had.
First there was the pain of loss, and then the emptiness. Mr. Darcy had always been foremost in her thoughts; there had always been hope. Now there was nothing. But gradually, Caroline began to realize that her pride was more bruised than her heart was broken.
She was thankful for the few months respite in Scarborough before she had to face the two couples. Some how the time passed and the double wedding was endured, though there were incidences that had occurred that occupied her mind for a few days after: The amazing fact that Lydia Bennet was now Mrs. George Wickham, and they had both been in attendance. That Georgiana's countenance blanched every time she and Wickham strayed too near each other at the reception. And that Mr. and Mrs. Darcy would hurry protectively to her side.
Mr. Darcy was beginning to surround himself with a very unusual and unexpected mix of people. Caroline decided that her idol was just a man after all, and that his judgement was in question. She congratulated herself on her narrow escape. In this way, she was able to meet the occasion of Mr. Darcy's marriage with some equanimity.
In the weeks before and after the weddings, Charles and Jane remained, as ever, sweet and good but there were currents of change swirling around Darcy and Eliza. He became more open and easy, and she lost some of the cutting edge of her ascerbic wit. They and Caroline had experienced enough of a metamorphosis that they were gradually able to establish a new relationship, though they would never become bosom friends.
Now Caroline was faced with a future of undiscovered possibilities, and there was really only one cause for concern. Charles and Jane were already discussing properties in Derbyshire with the Darcys and, within the year, would probably follow their friends north. Where would that leave Caroline? In Grosvenor Street with the Hursts. She yearned to be mistress of her own house, and longed to take her permanent place in society. But with whom?
Towards the end of her stay in Scarborough, Caroline had been surprised to encounter Sir Rupert Phillips at a local coffee shoppe. He had just come from Brighton and was in a devilish mood, full of good cheer and gossip about people who lived on the fringe of the Prince-Regent's set. They sounded wildly exciting to Caroline.
The next two weeks were spent almost entirely in the company of Sir Rupert and his friends at card parties, assemblies, and the theater. She knew that her brother, Charles, would have considered them "fast', but they were highly diverting.
Then one day, Sir Rupert had simply disappeared. There were rumors of heavy losses at the races on Seamer Moor, but nothing was substantiated. After that, life became dull for Rupert's friends either left the area or tended to exclude Caroline from their schemes. And so, Caroline was at loose ends for the second time in as many months when the posts from Charles began to arrive.
Now, here she sat as the afternoon faded to twilight. That evening, Caroline would attend the first Assembly Ball of the Season with her brother and sister and their spouses. The Darcys would arrive separately.
Mary silently entered the room and approached her mistress, "It is half-past, Miss, and your bath is in readiness."
Caroline gave her a nod of acknowledgement and a few final instructions on her attire for the evening, then rose to begin her preparations.
Little more than an hour later, Caroline adjusted her headband and fluffed the feather that rose above her head. "I wonder if Sir Rupert will be in attendance..." She had not seen him since Scarborough, mostly because she and the Hursts had entirely missed the Short Season due to the activities surrounding the weddings.
Mary worked at the curls on each side of Caroline's face, then stood back to await judgement. She had seen her mistress come almost full circle during the past year, not quite so impatient nor sharp-tongued, but also lacking the warm that had marked last season.
"Thank you, Mary. that will be all," Caroline said absent-mindedly as she gave her attention to the reflection in the mirror. Her eyes reassured her that she was perfectly ready. There was an undercurrent of excitement as she anticipated hearing all of the gossip of the past several months, for her friend, Miss Grantley, was a notoriously poor correspondent. It would be a relief to return to her prominent role in London upperclass society, and without the heavy cares of last season.
"Julia, dear," Caroline greeted Miss Grantley with a kiss to each cheek. Her friend was flanked by Miss Carlyle and Miss Thornton, both of whose greeting seemed a trifle lukewarm.
Miss Grantley answered her friend with a brief nod of the head, "Caroline, it is good to see you."
Before Caroline could utter three words, Miss Carlyle had directed her friend's attention elsewhere. In the past year, Caroline had learned the value of observation, and she applied it now. It did not take her long to realize that Miss Grantley's social position had substantially improved over time, and that the other two were vying for her attention. The type of greetings from passerbys confirmed who was the young woman of the moment, and it was not Caroline Bingley.
"How has this come about?' Caroline mused. She was used to being the center of their circle of friends.
"Oh look!" Miss Thornton interjected. "There is a quiz for you. They say he shot himself in the leg to get out of the fighting."
"He hasn't been seen about town lately," Miss Grantley observed. "I hope that he bathed before he came...to remove the stench of his little Cheapside friends." The three women tittered with laughter and averted their faces as the gentleman approached.
Miss Carlyle had time for one last remark, "Even his brother cannot abide him. Why does he even come here?"
Caroline knew of whom they spoke even before she turned around, and she felt no little embarrassment for their remarks. She turned to find herself face-to-face with Dr. Phillips.
"Good evening, Miss Bingley," he bowed. He sketched a quick nod to her friends, then wasted no more attention on them. In his mind, the only person of consequence was directly before him.
"Good evening, Dr. Phillips." Caroline vividly remembered their last conversation and a lovely blush came to her cheeks. "I will not be bothered by the good opinion of the doctor," she shrugged to herself, and decided to pretend that she had never said those fateful words about an upcoming engagement. She felt sure that Dr. Phillips was too much of a gentleman to broach the subject.
"It has been several months, Miss Bingley. You are looking well." Henry, himself, was looking more rested than usual and sported a well-cut suit and newly trimmed hair.
"Thank you, doctor, but I assure you that you would have heard from me if I was not!"
Henry was gratified by her light tone. Not everyone in the room was so amiable. Caroline was just as he knew her to be. "I have been preoccupied these past several weeks and I am afraid that I have fallen behind in my social obligations."
"I, too, Dr. Phillips. My family and I have recently returned from Netherfield. There has been a wedding, you know."
The doctor looked momentarily askance, but relaxed as she pointed out Charles and Jane. "I would very much like to give my regards to Mr. Bingley and his new bride," Henry suggested, offering his arm to Caroline.
At that moment, there was a stir at the entrance to the room. Caroline spotted Mr. and Mrs. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam as they made their way through the crush.
Henry's eyes lit up, "Oh, Colonel Fitzwilliam!" he exclaimed, "I did not know he would be here. Do you know that fine gentleman, Miss Bingley?"
His words fell on deaf ears, for Caroline was closely attending the progress of the Darcys, the tender way in which Mr. Darcy ushered his bride through the throng of people. Occasionally they would be stopped by well-wishers and Mr. Darcy would proudly make the introductions between his friends and his beloved. Elizabeth's countenance was open and friendly; her eyes flashed with excitement. Caroline could see more than one observer cast admiring glances at the new Mrs. Darcy.
Her reverie was interrupted by the hoarse whisper of a voice that sounded peculiarly like that of Miss Thornton, "The woman scorned and the coward --- fine bedfellows!" Then, the jostling sound of elbows in ribs, and stifled laughter.
"Did I hear correctly?' Caroline wondered, her face reddening. She glanced behind her to meet the young woman's impudent stare. Caroline's eyes flitted around the room and she realized that more than one person was observing both her and the Darcys. "How could they know?' she thought wildly. "How do they ever know these things?' The gossip mill was a highly efficient machine, and now she understood her fall from grace. But she also took heart from the knowledge, for Miss Grantley and her little minions were no match for Caroline Bingley. She would make short work of their plans. Caroline returned Miss Thorton's look with a self-satisfied smirk, but then became aware of the discomfiture of the man standing next to her.
His eyes were signalling his solicitude, and something more. She had not been the only one slighted. What would Caroline think of him now? He again offered his arm. Would she take it?
"I would be happy to commend you to my brother," Caroline said clearly, "and I am certain that Colonel Fitzwilliam and the Darcys will join us shortly." She did not spare her "friends" a backward glance.
To Caroline's surprise, Charles and Jane had already covered half the distance that had separated them. As they approached, the newlyweds positioned themselves in a way to block unfriendly or curious looks. Obviously, they had heard similar comments. Caroline was nonplussed by their attention, for it was not that long ago that she herself had made several disparaging remarks about the Bennets. She did not deserve their protection and really did not think she would need it.
Colonel Fitzwilliam was the first of the new arrivals to make his way to their side. After exchanging pleasantries with the Bingleys, he turned to Dr. Phillips with a show of much enthusiasm. "Phillips! How are you, man?" he greeted boldly. The two were soon engaged in earnest conversation, but the others did not mind, for Darcy and Elizabeth had finally reached them.
"You will sit with us for supper..." Colonel Fitzwilliam urged his friend.
Henry glanced around the group; his eyes rested on Caroline. She looked back at the three young women, then turned and smiled, "Please do, Dr. Phillips."
Henry was not sure what game she was playing, but it gave him close proximity to Miss Bingley, so why question his good fortune? "Indeed, Colonel, I am at your disposal," he bowed.
Caroline knew that Colonel Fitzwilliam was universally well-liked by the majority of the room, and that Mr. Darcy, though not so well-known, also commanded a high amount of respect. Her attention to the Darcys during the course of the evening would squelch those rumors of her being a scorned woman, and Dr. Phillips would gain some degree of respectability by the company he kept.
Caroline almost snickered aloud. Miss Grantley had no way of knowing that the Darcys would show up this evening. Society was fickle and needed constant vigilance, for one's position could change in the blink of an eye. Caroline understood that; Miss Grantley did not. She would not expend the energy necessary to keep the upper hand.
After the meal, Caroline walked by her three friends where they sat alone. She smiled at them prettily and said, "I make the rules." She stifled a laugh at their expressions; they were so easily intimidated.
Within the hour, Miss Carlyle and Miss Thornton were at her side. "It has all been a terrible misunderstanding," they assured her.
Miss Grantley's sensibilities would take longer to heal, but Caroline was sure that the woman would call upon her within the week. If she did not attend the next assembly under Caroline's protection, she would be a laughingstock, not for spreading silly rumors, but for losing the round to Caroline.
"Good evening, Miss Bingley."
Caroline and Dr. Phillips stopped short before Sir Rupert. He was very dashing in black evening wear, a la Beau Brummell --- a fine black raven among sparrows. His color was high, his eyes glittering, as he bowed formally to Miss Bingley and snubbed his brother.
"Sir Rupert!" Caroline found it difficult to keep the admiration from her voice and countenance. He was a fine figure of a gentleman. "Good evening."
"Dear Miss Bingley," he admonished, drawing closer and turning so as to exclude Dr. Phillips from her view, "It has been much too long since I have seen you last. Six months come Sunday, if I am not mistaken."
Caroline was pleased by his attentions, but also aware of the doctor's presence nearby. She turned to address him, but Rupert spoke first, "Sir, would you be so good as to excuse us? This young lady and I have much to discuss."
Caroline was not used to relinquishing control of the situation, and had no intention of mistreating the doctor. She again attempted to speak, but Dr. Phillips himself cut her off, "Miss Bingley, I reluctantly bid adieu. I have rounds to make and have already overstayed. Thank you for a lovely evening." He bowed deeply with the intention of quitting the room immediately.
Caroline took a step toward him; Henry looked up in surprise. "The pleasure has been mine, Dr. Phillips. Our conversation was very enlightening."
At supper, Colonel Fitzwilliam had wished to share war stories, specifically the times when he and the good doctor had served together, but Henry would have none of it. That was in the past. Instead, he described the center that he and two other physicians had created for the instruction of the new and inexperienced physicians coming into London. The center could not exist without funding, and this was the perfect opportunity to introduce the idea to Colonel Fitzwilliam. It would not have been polite to all company present to discuss the economics of the situation, and so he had entertained them with a few amusing stories of common blunders made by green young men.
Colonel Fitzwilliam had caught his meaning, and they set a date to discuss the needs of the center in further detail. Mr. Darcy also expressed an interest but would not be able to attend the meeting on that date for he and his wife were overdue at Pemberley.
Now Henry looked intently into Caroline's eyes. Her words had sounded sincere; her gaze did not falter. "Hmph!" Sometimes Caroline Bingley was an enigma. She obviously cared greatly for her position in society. Rumors and the scene he had recently witnessed between her and her friends showed that she could be a cold-blooded adversary in order to retain that position. It seemed highly unlikely that he or his work would interest her, yet, here they were. For his part, no matter how much he chided himself, he felt compelled to come back for whatever crumbs she would offer him. Logic told him that Miss Bingley would never condescend to be the wife of a lowly doctor, but something in his soul recognized a part of her that she did not normally reveal to anyone, perhaps not even to herself. He looked at the perfect composure and style of his brother and shrugged, "I must be mad to think that there is even the smallest bit of kindred spirit between Miss Bingley and myself." He spoke up, but softly, "Good night, Miss Bingley."
Caroline frowned as she watched him leave. There was no comparison between his decided limp and his brother's long, strong limbs. She was also provoked that he would quit the field so easily. "He shows a lack of spirit," she judged. "Perhaps part of what my friends said was true."
Sir Rupert offered his arm and they strolled around the room. She introduced him in turn to the Bingleys and the Darcys. He and the colonel had already met, though briefly. Duty done, they found a place to sit and converse quietly. Rupert leaned closer and begged Caroline to tell him all that she had been doing since they last met. He proved to be an attentive audience and even prompted her for details of the weddings.
At times, though, Rupert could see that something was bothering Miss Bingley. He felt sure that he knew what it was, and the time was right to bring the subject out into the light. "Is something troubling you, Miss Bingley?"
"I am sorry, Sir, but I feel compelled to know what has caused the estrangement between yourself and your brother."
"It is not a pretty tale," he warned, "and I am loathe to distress you in any way. Are you sure that you wish for me to continue?"
Caroline gave a decided nod.
"Very well then..."
"Henry has always chaffed at being second son. Whenever I was on business in town, he would ride around the estate with our father and pretend that it would be his. He was also jealous of the amount of time I spent in society, establishing business relationships for the farm."
"Hardly commendable, but natural," Caroline suggested. She did not like being the second sister, even though money was not an issue in their family.
"Perhaps, Miss Bingley, but is it natural for him to spread lies about me? to poison our father against me? Henry had his ear while I was away and used it to his advantage."
"His actions may have been spiteful, but certainly not enough to cause a permanent breach," Caroline said. She had seen enough examples of this kind of behavior since coming out that she was not unduly surprised.
"When I returned, Father could see Henry's lies for what they were. He sent Henry away to Europe, to distance him from the farm and give him opportunities to think about his future. Father thought that Henry could possibly join the clergy, but this did not sit well with my brother. He rebelled and with a vengeance --- Henry tried every pleasure and vice in Vienna." He had enough sensitivity to realize that he had probably expressed himself indelicately. "I apologise, Miss Bingley. This is a subject naturally close to my heart, and I become carried away."
"I understand, Sir Rupert. I can imagine that this is what is meant as a Grand Tour by more than one gentleman in my acquaintance." Caroline laughed, "I have eyes and ears, good sir, and the attendees at our gatherings do not change that much. We usually hear everything there is to know about a person...eventually. Please continue."
"Some gentlemen are fortunate to come away from the experience unscathed. In my brother's case, Father had to advance him a good portion of his inheritance in order to keep him out of debtor's prison."
Caroline could not imagine Dr. Phillips in this light, but he would not be the first normally sensible young man to commit rash acts in his first youth. Perhaps their family was excessively strict. "Is there more?" she asked.
"Indeed! For when Henry returned in some disgrace, he discovered that Father would not alter our inheritances. Henry had squandered much of his and would have to live with the results." Rupert became ever more serious as he continued his tale, "Father was able to secure a place for him in the military and thought the experience would not only provide a living, but would give him some principles and backbone."
Caroline nodded, "Yes, your brother served with Colonel Fitzwilliam, and that gentleman seems to regard him highly. It is unfortunate that his career was cut short by the wound to his leg."
Rupert regarded her silently for a few moments. "You have heard the rumors, Miss Bingley...?"
Caroline could not believe it. "Surely, Dr. Phillips would not purposely shoot himself in the leg? I cannot believe that he gets much joy out of his physical condition. The wound could have festered; he could have lost his leg. Your brother does not strike me as a simpleton."
Rupert's eyes did not leave hers. "There is a reason why he was wounded on the back of the leg," he said meaningfully.
"No! Colonel Fitzwilliam shows your brother too much respect for this to be true!"
"As he should, considering that he thinks my brother saved his life. In actuality, Henry was running from the battle and the Colonel was in his way. Saving the Colonel's life was incidental."
"How do you know this?"
"I have spoken with several men from his unit who say they heard him brag about his plans to desert. The way it looked to them, Henry was trying to steal Colonel Fitzwilliam's horse out from under him, when he was shot. The Colonel thinks he was attempting to sweep him from his horse and help him to cover, but the colonel had been wounded and was delirious at the time." He saw the disbelief in her eyes. "This was not his first attempt, Miss Bingley, or I could hardly credit it myself."
Caroline was numb. This was shocking indeed! "Then how came he to be a physician?"
Rupert laughed thinly, "He was not fit for the clergy, had destroyed his military career, and does not have the background nor public support for politics. Not many women of fortune will settle for a man who is only a second son and not whole. Henry realized that his options were limited and that as a physician he could have a reasonably respectable life of ease, catering to the wealthy. If he played his cards right, he would find a benefactress, which he has," he said, indicating Mrs. Wiggington as she passed.
"But he seems to have a true vocation. He was telling us this evening about the center he has opened. Colonel Fitzwilliam is very interested in becoming a supporter."
"Financially?" Rupert reddened. "I wonder whose pocket will really be lined?"
"Oh, Sir Rupert, you surely do not think...?" Caroline was aghast.
Rupert leaned forward and addressed her in earnest, "My brother's antics have threatened our family's good name again and again. If it were not for my father's good sense, Henry would have beggared us. His indiscretions put unbearable stress upon my father who suffered from a weak heart. I am convinced that Henry caused my father's untimely death."
"Oh, Sir Rupert, I am so sorry..." Caroline was moved by the young man's impassioned statements against his brother. He could not be lying...
"I apologise, Miss Bingley, for any anxiety I have caused you, but I felt that I must confide in you if we are to be friends," said Sir Rupert.
"The man does not deserve to be in society, Sir, but I can see that any public denouncement on your part would reflect on your family." Caroline lightly touched his arm. "Thank you for sharing this information with me. You may be assured of my discretion."
"I knew that I could put my faith in you." Rupert covered her hand lightly with his own. "May I call upon you at home tomorrow, Miss Bingley?"
He gave Caroline such a look of regard that she was momentarily disconcerted. "I shall look forward to it," she finally murmured, giving the smallest indication of a smile.
That evening, Caroline lay in her bed and mulled over everything that she had been told. In her past interactions with the doctor, there had been no indication of his tempestuous past...if it were true. She had to admit that she hardly knew Dr.Phillips, and did not know much more of his brother. Her few years in society had taught Caroline to be cynical, even when the words came from such interesting lips. She would keep her eyes and ears open.
Caroline wiggled down further under the covers and gave herself over to more pleasant thoughts. She was not blind to Sir Rupert's eligibility as a suitor. He was handsome, educated, of good family, and obviously a man of some means. Even more intriguing was that the fine gentleman had sought her out, unlike Mr. Darcy. Something told her that she had been rather protected in the company of her brother and his friends, and her relationship with Sir Rupert could be undiscovered territory. There was an air of mystery and devil-may-care that he would sometimes exhibit that she found appealing. And, according to the crowd he ran with, he often moved in the very highest of circles.
Henry's face rose up unbidden before her in the dark --- those eyes that looked directly into her own and attempted to see further. Most people looked at a nose or an ear. The doctor was so forthright that it was hard to believe that he had anything to hide. She realized that her thoughts were beginning to repeat themselves, so she may as well go to sleep, but Henry's face would not fade away. Caroline amused herself with thinking of him as a suitor. He, too, was handsome in his way; in fact, he had some of the same qualifications as his brother, except for two very important areas --- wealth and position. As to his character, she was very undecided. But then she realized that she saw him so rarely that it was of no consequence.
The next morning began with disappointment, for Caroline received a note from Sir Rupert, saying that he was unexpectedly needed at home, but would return and call upon her before the following week-end. She ran her fingers across his signature which was bold and strong, a symbol of the man.
"Colonel Fitzwilliam will be dining with us this evening," Charles injected. He and Jane were staying with the Hursts for a couple of days before returning to Netherfield, and were taking this last opportunity to entertain their new friend before their duties separated them.
"He will always be welcome," Caroline said. "Indeed, perhaps the colonel will be able to enlighten me," she thought in anticipation of the table conversation.
"Jane, would you be so good as to assist me with the menu?" interjected Louisa. "I hardly know the man."
Jane smiled shyly, "I do not know the colonel very well either, but I am certain that he will be satified with whatever you choose. Of course, I will discuss it with you, if you wish."
Charles laughed, delighted with his womenfolk, "Dear ladies, if Colonel Fitzwilliam finds good wine and better conversation, he will count the evening a success."
"Then I shall sharpen my tongue in preparation, dear brother," Caroline teased. Since their visit to Pemberley, she and Charles had enjoyed a closer, friendlier relationship. Jane's addition had only added to their pleasure. She was content to know that her first impression of Jane had been true.
Caroline was thinking of a way to broach the subject of Dr. Phillips when Colonel Fitzwilliam did it for her, "I was rather hoping to find Phillips here this evening." His alert eyes dwelled on Caroline. "I had thought that he was a particular friend of yours."
Caroline shook her head, "The doctor and I know each other only a little." She took her opportunity, "But I understand that you and he are good friends."
"Didn't I hear that you and Dr. Phillips saw action together?" Charles added.
"Phillips is a fine man, Miss Bingley, the best! Yes, Bingley, you are correct. I owe him my very life."
"The doctor would not allow you to blow his horn last evening. We would be all attention if you would be inclined to do so now." Charles could not have spoke better if Caroline had put the words in his mouth.
"Gladly. Our friend is much too modest." Colonel Fitzwilliam took a sip of wine before continuing, "During one of the more brutal battles, with heavy losses on both sides, I had received a shoulder wound. Nothing really, but I had lost a quantity of blood." He saw Louisa blanch. "Excuse me, Mrs. Hurst. Perhaps this story is best left for the port."
"Please do not mind my sister," Caroline hurriedly reassured the colonel. "She may leave the room if she is so inclined, but the rest of us are anxious to hear your story. Pray, continue."
Louisa gave Caroline a cross look, but nodded her agreement. So many things upset her stomach these days. If not the story, then the meat or wine. She would wait another few days, and if her health did not improve, Louisa would seek a professional opinion.
"As you wish, ladies," Colonel Fitzwilliam inclined his head. "I was nearly unconscious but still in the saddle. The next I knew, Phillips had taken a flying leap at me and knocked me off the horse. In doing so, the poor man caught the shot meant for me."
"It is unfortunate that Dr. Phillips has been left with a limp," Charles said, "but I have heard of many occasions where the leg has been removed."
Mrs. Hurst rustled quickly out of the room. Jane followed to offer assistance, but Caroline was not about to leave at this point in the story.
"You are absolutely right, Bingley. Fortunately the men were able to carry both Phillips and myself out of the field and to a surgeon in good time. It is too bad that his injury is in the back, right above the heel. I believe that is called the Achilles tendon. It causes the poor man to drag his foot a bit." Colonel Fitzwilliam still felt the sacrifice that his friend had made for him and blustered a bit, "A very bad business, to end his career in this fashion...and not necessary!"
"Why do you say that, Sir?" Caroline tried to hide her eagerness.
"If we had known of his natural abilties as a physician --- nay, he is more qualified than that. Dr. Phillips is not afraid to get his hands dirty, and probably knows more about the patient's anatomy than they do." He laughed, "Probably because he took care of the animals on his father's estate!" The colonel glanced at the only woman in the room. "Forgive me, Miss Bingley. I am being indelicate."
Caroline bowed her head and willed their guest to continue.
"As I was saying, if we had known of his other talents he would not have been so close to the front lines. But that is Phillips for you. He was determined to see action with the rest of us."
"I wonder at his being a physician now," Mr. Hurst spoke up. "It seems a dreary occupation and hardly fit for a gentleman."
"Actually, we encouraged him to stay in the military, Mr. Hurst. Phillips has a keen mind and would have been invaluable as a tactition."
"Then one must wonder why Dr. Phillips has declined the more advantageous situation," Caroline remarked.
"Your thoughts may be somewhat justified, Miss Bingley, but I admire the man for his fortitude. He is in a position to do much good yet receive very little thanks for it. Well, I shall do all I can for him, and he has many other people to call upon who are able to contribute much more than I."
"When do you plan to visit the center, Colonel Fitzwilliam? I would like to go with you if you do not object," Charles suggested.
"Yes, you would want to be sure of where your money is going before you invest it, brother."
The colonel gave her a sharp look, "Miss Bingley, it is of course wise to investigate before one puts down money, but in this case, I would have no qualms about encouraging any person to invest in whatever venture Phillips suggests." He turned to Charles, "Actually, I have been to the center this morning. It is still in its infancy, but I can see what he hopes to do with it. I am certain that he would be honored for you to come by, Bingley. I have also met one of his partners, Dr. Franck from Vienna --- another fine man. So you see, Miss Bingley, my risks will be few, and who knows? It could evolve into something that not even Dr. Phillips has envisioned."
Caroline's heart skipped a beat at the word "Vienna." So far, the facts supplied by Sir Rupert had been corroborated; though, without his intrepretation of them, they were not damning to Dr. Phillips. It weighed heavily in the doctor's favor that the colonel admired him so unequivocally.
The following day, Caroline met Mrs. Wiggington over cards and took advantage of the situation to ask more leading questions, "How do you come to know Dr. Phillips?" she asked.
The old woman looked up over her glasses at her. "Oh, I have known their family for many years, dear. His father was one of my first beaus."
"I understand that he died a few years ago of a heart condition..."
"Yes, he did, poor man...though many people feel that his son drove him to his grave."
Caroline's heart fell at her words."Do you share those sentiments?"
"In some ways, perhaps." Mrs. Wiggington concentrated on the cards for a moment. "The boys have not had an easy life. Their mother died young, and their father left them pretty much to themselves."
"Would I be correct in assuming that some people would like to have him banned from the assemblies?"
"I have heard it said," she nodded, "but they will never do it. His connections are too good, and people would be afraid to publicly speak out against him." She was thoughtful for a moment, "For myself, I believe that the young man deserves a second chance. He has done nothing lately to cause concern." She studied Caroline with her nearsighted old eyes, "And I see that he has made your acquaintance."
"Yes, we have met," Caroline admitted, "and he has always been the gentleman in my presence." Now Caroline was more confused than ever. Mrs. Wigginton seemed to confirm some of Sir Rupert's more serious allegations. Colonel Fitzwilliam had presented him in a very positive light. Whom to believe? Caroline decided that only the doctor could provide the answers.
Louisa's condition did not improve, and so on Friday she sent for Dr. Phillips. Caroline had not known of his summons and was surprised to come upon the doctor as he was being seen to the door. "Good day, Sir!" she called.
Henry's eyes brightened at her appearance; he had feared that she was not at home. "Good afternoon, Miss Bingley. I have happy news for you." Caroline gave him a puzzled look. "Mrs. Hurst is perfectly well, but sent for the wrong doctor. You will be an aunt by Christmas!"
"Oh!" Caroline exclaimed. She had been so preoccupied with her own confused thoughts during the past week that she had not spared a moment for Louisa. "That is good news indeed...." She paused thoughtfully, "Do you have many urgent cases today, Doctor?"
Henry raised one eyebrow in speculation. "As it happens, I do not," he replied.
Caroline continued with a rush of words, "Would you have time to walk with me in the garden...for just a few moments?"
"I am at your service," he bowed, wondering what Miss Bingley was at.
Caroline led him outside and away from the house. It had been an unusually cold spring and many of the flowers were not yet in bloom. 'There really isn't much to see,' Henry decided. 'What motive can she have to bring me out here?'
"How have you been, Dr. Phillips?"
"Quite well, thank you. A few cases of influenza have cropped up about town, and we were afraid of an epidemic, but there were no new cases this morning."
Caroline took in the darkness under his eyes, the new lines across his forehead. She did not think Dr. Phillips could ever look as though he hadn't a care in the world. 'He looks older than his brother,' she realized. "How is your center progressing? Colonel Fitzwilliam spoke of it in such glowing terms."
"Colonel Fitzwilliam is a good friend and may be excused for having some bias. The center is very crudely organized right now, but I have high hopes." He gave a wry smile, "If only the calls of my profession would not take up so much of my time!"
"Can you not decide your own hours?" Caroline asked.
This time the doctor laughed outright, "People choose the most inconvenient times to become ill, Miss Bingley." He turned to face her and explained the current situation in London, "There are scores of apothecaries and a fair amount of surgeons in this vast city of ours, but very few physicians. Among them all, there are damn few that have had an adequate education. Do you know what I learned in college to prepare me for this profession?"
Caroline had no idea, so Henry continued his tirade, "I was taught how to translate 'The Iliad' and 'The Odyssey' into the English language. I had a gentleman's education with a smattering more of the sciences, and then I was thrown out into the streets to do my worst." He realized that he was sounding off, and lowered his voice, "Some of my fellow physicians and I are attempting to remedy this serious lack of preparation with our center for new doctors."
"It sounds as though you are impassioned by your profession, Dr. Phillips. Have you never desired to do something else with your life?"
"I am probably doing what I am best suited for, and on good days I do get some satisfaction from it, but yes, I must admit that I had envisioned myself as more of a gentleman farmer." He shrugged, "But as the second son that was, of course, an impossibility."
Caroline began to guide the conversation toward her objective, "Do I detect some bitterness? Is this what has come between you and your brother?"
Dr. Phillips studied her expression until she began to squirm. "Ah," he finally said, "now I understand your motives for asking me to join you on this pleasant walk." Caroline began to protest, but Henry held up one hand, "Let us be frank, Miss Bingley. I will not discuss my brother with anyone. If you have questions, you must ask him."
Caroline was not put off by the doctor's warning --- God knows, she had been blunt on many occasions. Her mind searched for another tack, "Does that mean, Dr. Phillips, that if I have questions about you, I must ask you?"
Henry, amused by her attempts to corner him, replied with mock severity, "I do not generally discuss my affairs with others unless they have a need to know." He then playfully challenged, "Explain your need, Miss Bingley, and I will happily answer anything you ask of me. But I warn you, I am a very dull fellow."
Caroline was effectively silenced. Henry taunted her a little more, "Come, Miss Bingley, you must have your reasons..."
Two spots of color showed on her cheeks. Usually people felt compelled to answer by the force of her personality. She did not seem to wield much power over the doctor.
Henry's tone softened, "If I were you, I would say, 'I championed you the other evening, and want to know if I should have.'"
"What do you mean, Doctor?"
"I mean, thank you for staying by my side despite those rumors concerning my cowardice. Now you wish to know if I am a coward."
Caroline shook her head in denial, but avoided his eyes. "I...I must wonder why some people seem to despise you."
Dr. Phillips stiffened, "Exactly what have you heard, Miss Bingley? Which rumors are causing your concern?"
Caroline turned to face him boldly, "Did you attempt to turn your father against Sir Rupert?"
Henry realized to whom she had been listening and grew impatient, but he answered her simply with a controlled, "Yes."
Caroline faltered a moment. She had not expected a 'yes' and with no elaboration. She cleared her throat, "Did you engage in irresponsible behavior in Vienna and have your father send you money so that you would not be imprisoned?"
Caroline looked around at the sky, the path, anywhere except directly at the doctor. His answers were causing her some mental anguish for she had liked Dr. Phillips almost from the moment they met. She tried again, "Was it your intent to save Colonel Fitzwilliam on the day you were wounded?"
"Why would your brother think otherwise?"
"You will have to ask him."
"He says that other men in your unit testified against you."
Henry sighed, "Often when one is paying for information, he is told what he wishes to hear."
Caroline, frustrated by his unsatisfactory responses, blurted out, "Were you the cause of your father's death?" She regretted her words even before she saw the storm clouds gather in Henry's eyes.
"If ignorance is a vice, then yes, I am," the doctor replied in clipped tones. "I hope that I have satisfied your curiosity, Miss Bingley. Good day." Henry strode away, the sound of his boots punctuating his angry thoughts, then fading as he rounded the corner of the house.
Caroline remained rooted to the spot. She felt close to weeping but did not know why. In questioning Dr. Phillips, she had thought to gain clarification, but instead, her thoughts were in a worse muddle than before.
Caroline was correct in assuming that her friend, Miss Grantley, would be at her door before the next assembly. But her friend did wait until the afternoon of that day.
As they anticipated the arrival of refreshment, Miss Grantley had much to say on the subject of their mutual friends. She was more than provoked that they had gone over to Caroline's side so expediently. "Miss Thornton, in that hideous purple and black creation, reminded me just exactly of an overripe plum," she tittered, "and then Miss Carlyle, with her unfailing love of yellow..." She paused to add, "Don't you agree, Caroline, that it makes her complexion sallow?" Her friend was silent, apparently attending to her every word, so she continued, "Well, with her height and less-than-endowed figure, she always makes me think of a banana." She giggled, "I must be hungry today!" Then Julia became more serious, "I do not see why we allow them near us. They are not a credit to themselves, so how can they possibly be a credit to our good taste?"
Caroline smiled thinly, "Julia, I am sure that you thought of me as the orange*, and then, with you as a lemon, we quite rounded out the basket of fruit, didn't we?"
Miss Grantley was momentarily perplexed, "My dress was rose..." Realization dawned, and she said haughtily, "There have been many times when yours has been the acid tongue, Caroline. What are you about to sit there and pretend that you are better than I?"
"I am not better than you, Julia. We have been like two peas in a pod, and therefore I feel qualified to speak as I do." She sighed heavily, "I think the assemblies have lost some of their glamour for me."
"I am sure that many of the young ladies who grace the walls share your sentiments," she replied dryly.
Caroline laughed, "There does seem to be a lack of eligible partners!"
"Despite the lack, I cannot understand your attaching yourself to that Mr. Phillips. Sometimes I wonder at your sanity, for I know your taste to be impeccable."
"Doctor Phillips," Caroline corrected. "I have exchanged words with the man a few times, that is all. He has been called to the house upon occasion and I find his conversation diverting."
"But a 'physician.' Really, Caroline! I must admit that he is somewhat handsome with his unruly locks..."
"And piercing look."
"Yes, and the fine cut of his clothes..."
"Indeed!" Caroline grinned.
"I admit it, the doctor is intriguing in his way, but I have never thought that you would settle for half a man and a coward."
"He is not a coward," Caroline protested. "That was another rumor, born of jealousy no doubt, just as many rumors are." Julia had the grace to blush, the closest she would come to an outright apology, and Caroline knew it. "I have the true story from no less a gentleman than Colonel Fitzwilliam," she explained.
"Regardless, if you marry Dr. Phillips, you will lose most of your friends."
"I have no intention of marrying the good doctor, but if I did, it would not be my 'friends' that I would be losing."
"So," Miss Grantley challenged, "you think of yourself as above the dictates of society? You, who has long judged people with that same measuring stick?"
Caroline curved her lips impudently, "Yes, I do!"
Julia shook her head at such nonsense, "Oh Caroline, I do not know why I remain friends with you!"
"Because you need me," her friend replied truthfully. Julia's eyes hardened at the apparent insult, but Caroline was quick to add, "As I need you, Julia. Society has too many pitfalls for us to travel alone."
Julia dimpled at her longtime friend, "Agreed!" she said, and they clasped hands to seal their pact. "Now tell me about Sir Rupert..."
* Author's note: Orange at one time was used as a symbol for jealousy. I thought of that often when I watched P&P2 and saw Caroline in her favorite color.
Just as Caroline passed through the upstairs corridor, she spied Clara, her sister's personal maid, quitting the room and in a great hurry. "Clara, is my sister well?"
The maid shook her head, "She has sent me for Mrs. Watson, Miss," she replied, referring to the midwife. She rapidly descended the stairs before Caroline could ask anything more.
Caroline knocked and entered her sister's room to find her still abed although it was four in the afternoon. Louisa gathered a sheet around herself but not before Caroline noticed spots of blood on the white linens. The sight of the soiled linens threw her into a tizzy, for she had never been able to abide the sight of blood.
"Louisa, let me send someone for Dr. Phillips!" she cried in alarm. He had been to their home only ten days before, but it seemed much longer. The last few days had been a nightmare of headaches, and swollen hands and feet for Louisa, and now abdominal cramps.
"Clara has gone for Mrs. Watson," Louisa protested weakly. "She will know what to do."
"Then let me call for Mary to help you with the bedding," Caroline said, starting for the door.
"I will wait for Clara," Louisa said quietly but firmly. "Please remain calm, Caroline."
"I cannot be calm with you in this state!" Caroline said, her fear causing her to sound harsh.
Mr. Hurst came to the door and Caroline quickly took him by the arm. "Please, Mr. Hurst," she implored. "We must send for the doctor."
The gentleman looked across the room to his wife, "What say you, Louisa? Shall I send for Dr. Phillips?" To Caroline's great frustration, her sister put up a show of rallying and denied the need.
Clara returned with news that Mrs. Watson would be there soon. She and Mary entered the room with fresh linens and shooed Mr. Hurst and Caroline out of the way. Caroline shut herself into the library until she heard the sounds of Mrs. Watson's arrival.
The middle-aged woman was clean and an experienced midwife, but it was obvious that she did not have the knowledge required when there were complications so early in the pregnancy.
Caroline waited no longer. She sent a servant to the home of Dr. Phillips, with a message that Mrs. Hurst required his services. She was afraid that he would not come if her own name was mentioned.
She was frantic by the time he returned with word that Dr. Phillips would be there within the hour. He had been difficult to locate and was presently at the home of another patient.
"How dare he delay," Caroline cried out, "when he knows Mrs. Hurst needs him! He must come soon, or I will never forgive him."
Finally, she heard the sound of Henry's voice and rushed into the corridor. She almost took his hand to pull him along more quickly towards her sister's room. "Thank you for coming, Doctor," she said breathlessly.
Henry took in Caroline's extreme agitation and hastened his steps, for he knew that she was not one to become easily alarmed. At Louisa's door, he ordered Caroline to wait outside, but said that he may need the assistance of the maids. He rapped lightly on the door and then slipped inside, closing it firmly behind him.
Caroline and Mr. Hurst kept each other company in the library as they awaited the news. Mr. Hurst was deep into the London Times and often looked up in irritation at Caroline's pacing before the fireplace. They both stopped immediately as Dr. Phillips put in his appearance.
Henry reassured them that Louisa was now resting comfortably. "She will require special care in the days ahead, from yourselves and the household. She must rest for a large portion of each day, with her feet elevated on a stool if she is not in bed. I have given her maid a list of foods for her to eat to help control the swelling of her extremities and a physic to fortify her blood. It will be the duty of you both to help lift her spirits, calm her fears, and alleviate her boredom."
Caroline was properly attentive, but Mr. Hurst seemed to not understand the seriousness of the situation. Henry emphasized his meaning, "If Mrs. Hurst does not have your support, she could lose the baby, or perhaps even her life."
Caroline's hand flew to her throat, and she took deep breaths to regain her composure. "I will do everything in my power," she promised.
Mr. Hurst was dumbfounded, almost as though he could not understand why he was being addressed in this manner. Birthing babies was women's work and had nothing to do with him.
Henry looked at his pocket watch and knew that he could not prolong his departure. "I have patients waiting for me, but I shall return early in the morning. This seems to be an evening filled with emergencies." He bowed himself out of the room, without waiting for their adieus.
Caroline hurried out of the room and caught up with him as he was exiting the front door. "Dr. Phillips!"
"Yes, Miss Bingley?" He hesitated, anxious to be off.
"Thank you for coming, Dr. Phillips. We are indebted to you."
Henry nodded and retreated into the night.
"Clara, rub my ankles," Louisa ordered petulantly. The lines between her eyebrows were fast becoming a permanent fixture, as was her plaintive voice. The abdominal cramps had faded, as had her swollen hands, and if she followed Dr. Phillips' orders, all that were left to plague her were the puffy ankles and an occasional headache.
Caroline was glad to see the more alarming symptoms disappear and had expected a return of spirits, as well. But, so long as the upset stomach continued, Louisa would probably remain fractious.
Perhaps her need for attention also stemmed from her husband's lack of response. Mr. Hurst had taken to spending more time at the club even as he stood on the brink of fatherhood. He received a satisfying amount of sympathy from his circle of friends who had gone through the same thing. Now he understood why the club had become their first home, and that the family was something they visited.
Caroline turned to the final page of the novel, glad to be to the end of it. She read aloud, "But Theodore's grief was too fresh to admit the thought of another love; and it was not until after frequent discourses with Isabella of his dear Matilda, that he was persuaded he could know no happiness but in the society of one with whom he could for ever indulge the melancholy that had taken possession of his soul."
She closed the book with finality, "There! It is finished, Louisa."
Last year, when Caroline had gone through her phase of self-enforced improvement, in the hopes of procuring Mr. Darcy's addresses, she had attempted to read a few novels. She soon discovered that the stories were too long and often too boring to hold her attention, so she would turn to the ending and have done with it. Short poems were more to her liking, especially those of Lord Byron. She did not bother with literary works which contained hidden meanings or sermons, and did not have the patience for the heavy brogue of Robbie Burns.
Caroline thoroughly enjoyed reading about real people, though, especially those that she might catch a glimpse of at the theater or some other social function and so, she often confiscated the London Times from Mr. Hurst. More than once the poor fellow had to finish reading an article at his club. He blamed the disappearance of his newspaper on the efficiency of the household staff and did not realize that the paper was probably laying on the table near Caroline's bed.
Unfortunately, Louisa's preference ran to Gothic romances and other tiresome works, and she begged her sister to reread one of her favorites. "You must, Caroline. I find it ever so diverting. It is the least you can do for me. How would you like to lay here all day and suffer as I do?"
Caroline rolled her eyes. 'I do suffer along with you,' she muttered to herself. "Here, Louisa, the Times has arrived. Let us look over the stories together."
"I do not wish to hear about the Prince-Regent," Louisa said belligerently. "He is a nasty man, and Princess Caroline seems to be playing at the same game." She pointed to a nearby table, "There is the book I want. Come now, sister, I am the one who is ill."
Mary was at the door with news of the doctor's arrival, so Caroline withdrew. Dr. Phillips was in the corridor and approached her, "Good day, Miss Bingley."
"Good afternoon, Doctor. Do you think that you could find room for Mrs. Hurst in that black bag of yours?" Caroline suggested in a disgruntled tone of voice.
Henry was momentarily put off by her words, then realized that she was being facetious, "Come now, is she such an unruly patient?" He found amusement in the pout of her lips and her flashing eyes. "I will look in on Mrs. Hurst, and then attend you in the library if you are free. We may talk then."
Caroline nodded, then turned on her heel and fairly skipped down the stairway, glad to be out of her sister's sight.
Dr. Phillips was seated across from her within the half hour, and listened patiently to Caroline's harangue. He finally held up his hand, "Miss Bingley, do you enjoy good health?"
"Indeed I do, Doctor. I am hardly ever ill."
"How did you feel when you were ill? Were you in pain or discomfort?"
"Of course, or I should hardly call myself ill, should I? Caroline responded grumpily.
"And you wanted to be well again as soon as possible?"
"Only a fool would take pleasure in being indisposed."
"Your sister is no fool, Miss Bingley, and she would like to feel well again, but that may take several months. She is uncomfortable and knows that she will grow so heavy that she will probably not be able to see her own feet. Add to that 'fear', for this is her first child. Tell me, are your parents nearby, Miss Bingley?"
"No, they are both dead. They have been for a few years."
"I imagine that their loss makes it very difficult for you at times, yet has drawn you and your brother and sister closer together."
"As we grow older, we seem to appreciate each other more. I see what you mean, Dr. Phillips. With Charles and Jane away at Netherfield, Louisa only has me to turn to."
"And her husband, of course. There are many ways in which he may support you and your sister."
Caroline's voice betrayed her feelings toward her brother-in-law, "Mr. Hurst is needed at his club."
"Does he not realize the seriousness of the matter?" Henry rose from his chair and began to pace. "Even in some of the poorer families that I visit..." he stopped in mid-sentence. It was none of his business. He was old enough to realize that it was the way of things. "And so, you have been the sole nurse for your unruly patient?"
Caroline nodded. "Occasionally Mary or Clara relieve me, but I am the one who is Louisa's most constant companion."
Henry resumed his seat and regarded her thoughtfully. "Miss Bingley, you will do your sister no favors by wearing yourself out. You, too, must have rest and some amount of diversion, some time to yourself. As Mrs. Hurst's doctor, I am able to reassure you that your sister is much improved, and may take on more responsibility for entertaining herself. So long as she is not standing for long periods of time, she may come downstairs and continue her usual pursuits such as needlework or sketching or reading."
Caroline's facial expression relaxed a bit, and she thanked the doctor for taking time to talk to her.
Henry grinned, "I warn you, Miss Bingley. Your sister may be ecstatically happy one moment and in the deepest, darkest depression the next. Just keep your chin up, remember to be good to yourself as well, and you will get through this."
A servant came in with a note for Dr. Phillips. He sighed, and rubbed his eyes tiredly. "I have another patient to see, Miss Bingley. Please excuse me," and he immediately started for the door.
"Doctor, do you take your own advice?" Caroline called out to him.
Henry looked back, preoccupied with the contents of the note and not understanding Caroline's meaning.
"Keep your chin up, be good to yourself, and you will get through this," she said, echoing his own words.
"Thank you, Miss Bingley. I should find an assistant to remind me of that often. Good day."
Continued in SECTION 4
© 1998 Copyright held by author