It is a truth universally acknowledged that a gentleman of good standing must be in need of a wife. However, when Mary Hill, very superior housekeeper and general keeper of sanity at the Bennet house heard that Netherfield was let at last, she was hardly ruffled.
Through her mistress' flutterings and tremblings and all those endless trips up and down the stairs carrying smelling salts whenever the shrill "Hill, oh, Hill," sounded, she tried not to think too much of it.
Oh, surely, it was a fine thing for Jane and Elizabeth. For surely, any man with half a wit and eyes on his face would want to marry one or the other of them. But on the other hand, it hardly signified. If one of them didn't marry them, then some other man would. To Hill, truth be told, it hardly mattered. She was convinced that beautiful and accomplished as they were and having been given the best education and the best start in life that she could secure for them, her girls would marry well.
Fanny might doubt it, but Fanny -- for all her kind heart that had allowed her to do for Hill what none of her other friends would have considered -- had always been a worrier. She enjoyed her flutterings and nerves too much to trust the girls to fend for themselves.
And Hill had relinquished all of that a long time ago, when she'd left her family and her real name and -- for the sake of avoiding a scandal -- become the Bennet's housekeeper.
Indeed, for the last two and twenty years, her life had been just the life of an housekeeper -- carrying salts and supervising the kitchen staff, minding the calm and peace of the Bennet residence and ensuring Mr. and Mrs. Bennet could devote themselves to raising the children in the best way they knew.
And if Hill didn't always agree with their way, she kept her mouth shut.
Now she assured Fanny that all would be well, that Mr. Bennet would introduce himself to this Mr. Bingley, and she took their wraps after church.
It all turned out as she'd predicted, too. Long before the assembly, the kind Mr. Bennet who was generous enough to care a great deal for Lizzy as if she were his true daughter, introduced himself to Mr. Bingley.
And, as Hill ran with heated irons to comb out hair, and helped tie corsets and cinch dresses, she might have been just the housekeeper. Just Mary Hill, indeed.
That other woman, the proud Susannah Moore who'd once been the belle of the ton in a far off, forgotten season might as well be dead -- as her parents claimed her to be dead, as HE no doubt believed (wished) her to be dead.
Yet, as Jane headed out the door, beautiful in her pale dress, ready, no doubt, to break Mr. Bingley's heart or to own it, it came to Hill that Jane had a lot of her father.
Same open face, same golden hair, same blue eyes. And Lizzy had his wit, his quick, sparkling wit that had once captivated Hill more than fortune or power or, indeed, any other qualification.
Yes, she thought. Much as she'd tried to forget they were her own, there they were -- her own, and yes, her faithless husband's too.
Lizzy and Jane were, undeniably, the children of James Fitzwilliam.
It was a night like this.
The Bennets had left for the assembly, the kitchen had been cleaned, the house tidied, the beds turned down. The chambermaid, Faith and the girl-of-all- work, Helen, and the cook - Mrs. Murphy (a courtesy title, as she'd never been married) were all gathered in the servants parlor, below stairs in the companionable chatter of people whose days work is done.
A kettle boiled merrily, over the fire, and Mrs. Murphy was engaged in mending one of her dresses, while Faith embroidered a pillow case for her trousseau. Lit by the mellow light of oil lamps, the scene was cozy and domestic.
And the woman who called herself Hill stood by the window, looking at the velvety night, sparkling with stars.
It had been on a night like this, at a ball in London that the girl, Susannah Moore had met and fallen in love with the dashing, young James Fitzwilliam, son of the Earl of the same name.
She still remembered they'd danced five dances together and shocked everyone. She remembered his blond hair sparkling under the light of the chandeliers. And that he'd worn a bright blue jacket.
"Mrs. Hill?" Helen called. "Are you all right?"
Hill - the Mrs. Was also courtesy owed an upper servant - turned around and looked at the three women sitting around the polished oak table. Hill was the undisputed queen of the servants' quarters and normally no one would dare address her without being spoken to first. In fact, before her glare, the girl, Helen, blushed and looked down. "Only," she said. "You looked so strange and you were humming a real old tune."
Hill controlled her expression by an effort of will. James had lied, and she was now a different person and there was nothing for it but for her to keep her mouth shut and do her best to keep order. "What I hum or not scarcely matters to you, Helen," she said. "Why don't you get me the Fordyce's sermons from the shelf there over the mantel. I believe I'll read us something edifying on the subject of feminine curiosity."
Fordyce was a great one for excoriating feminine everything. Hill, who was the only fully literate servant in the Bennet's household often read from him to the help, though to be honest she preferred to read from the Bible or a more lively book. But even dry old Fordyce perforce must have an edifying influence on the headstrong girls she had to supervise. She knew she often came across as a kill joy, but it had to be better than letting them commit sins which they could not repair.
She read, without paying heed to the words, and only realized she was in the middle of something about a woman's reputation being as fragile as it was beautiful, when she heard the knocks on the door upstairs.
Mrs. Murphy dropped her dress upon her lap, and raised her hands, twisting them in the light of the oil lamp. "Oh, Mrs. Hill," she said. "Ruffians. Bandits. We shall all be murdered in our sleep."
Hill marked the page and closed the book. "Hard to do when we're awake," she said. She looked around. "It will be someone in need of help. I think Mrs. Jones, at the farm, was due to give birth. Someone will be asking for the horse to go after a doctor."
Having thus restored order in her domain, she started up the back stairs to the front hall.
There, the sound was infernal, the pounding on the door sounding like it might at any moment bring it down.
"A moment. A moment," Hill spoke, knowing that they wouldn't be able to hear her through the door but feeling she needed to say something. She got the key from the ring at her waist and opened the door.
Outside, in the darkness of the starry night stood a man attired as gentleman's valet, in a good grey suit and, behind him, in the shadows, another man whose clothing bespoke nobility and wealth.
So much for Mrs. Murphy's highwaymen, unless they were exceptionally well dressed ones.
"How may I help you?" Hill asked the two men. "The family are from home, so I cannot receive you, but--"
The valet took a step back and his master a step forward. As oil lamps were burning in the front hall, against the Bennet's return, light fell on the visitor, showing a glimmer of golden hair, and the sparkle of rings upon his fingers. Heavy rings, one of them a signet from the look of it.
"Is this not Netherfield?" he asked.
"Oh, no sir," Hill said. "Netherfield is the house three miles away. But they'll be from home too, for there's an assembly in town." Something about the man's speech sounded familiar.
Familiarity increased as he muttered, under his breath, "Oh, rot. I'd hoped to see Fitzwilliam tonight."
"Fitzwilliam?" Hill asked, breaking character, unable to help herself.
"Fitzwilliam Darcy, my nephew," the man answered, impatiently, giving the impression of speaking more to himself than to her. He stepped forward fully.
And Hill gasped. The world swam before her eyes and for a moment she thought she would swoon.
Standing there, in the light thrown by the lamps behind her was James Fitzwilliam, twenty two years older than she'd last seen him, but James Fitzwilliam still, as she'd known and loved him.
She started to say "James--" but the sound died in her lips. Because the man was looking at her with no curiosity, no hint of recognition at all.
"The thing is," he was explaining, looking over her head as he would with a strange woman, a servant. "The thing is my carriage threw a wheel just outside your drive and I can't see how I'll go three miles..."
Hill stared at him. He was a little portlier than he'd been, but not so much as some middle aged gentlemen she'd seen who truly let themselves go. He still looked good in the well-cut pale blue coat he wore. And if there was an grey amid his blond hair, it was masked by the light color of the hair itself. But in the blue eyes, which retained a hint of that liveliness which had once so attracted her, there was no hint of recognition, no hint of acknowledgment.
Her heart tightened as if a giant fist squeezed it. He'd abandoned her, granted. He'd left her and the girls. But how dared he have forgotten her?
She disciplined her face into the stern mask she used to scare unruly parlor maids. "I'll send the girl for stable boy. He can ride to Netherfield and alert them. They have carriages aplenty and can send one for you. Then your man can repair yours at his leisure."
James looked at her, as though surprised, and smiled, an appreciative smile that she remembered all too well. "Good woman. You have a head on your shoulders."
Granted. A head he no longer recognized.
Sliding to the side, she pulled the bell by the entrance, which brought Helen running. "Helen, go tell Tommy to ride to Netherfield. Let them know that Lord James Fitzwilliam is waiting here for transportation to the house. His nephew is staying at Netherfield and the Lord is supposed to visit for the night." She turned to James. "Do they know you are coming?"
"Yes," he said, and frowned at her. "How do you know my name?"
It wasn't even an act. He truly had no memory of her. Hill felt a great anger, which she disguised under a brisk voice. "Oh, milord. One is paid to be efficient."
James' eyebrows rose. "Very efficient," he said, and cast a look at the facade of the Bennet house, as though wondering how such people could afford so wonderful a servant.
Hill clenched her fists tight and said, "I would like to invite you in, your lordship. I'm sure you're of quality sufficient to be welcome in this house, but the truth is there is no one to entertain you and it is hardly proper..."
James waved his hand - it looked as big and strong and square as it had been when it had held hers during the holly rites of matrimony. "Oh, do not trouble yourself. I'll wait in my carriage."
She nodded and waited, while the earl and his servant started down the stairs.
My husband does not recognize me, she thought, and the thought was strange. After all these years, it was difficult to believe he was truly her husband.
And yet, she felt as though her pulse had sped up at the sight of him, and her cheeks colored.
Oh, it is anger and nothing more, she told herself and wished she'd believe it.
How dare he forget her? How could he not have recognized her? She closed the door slowly, solemnly, and turned to go back downstairs.
In doing it, she caught sight of herself in the mirror - her gray hair, her haggard countenance.
The years hadn't been kind to her and the work she did - the days outside, supervising the gardner, airing laundry, even, hadn't spared her complexion. And her hair, worn severely back...
She no longer wondered James had not recognized her. She herself barely recognized the former Susannah Moore in Hill's weather beaten countenance.
She'd lost James and her youth too. She'd wasted her life and had nothing to show for it.
Walking below stairs, she claimed a headache and retreated to the little private parlor beside her bedroom.
She had no intention of going to sleep till the family came home and she saw the door properly locked. And besides, she had no intention of going to sleep before speaking to Fanny, the only person she could trust in this trouble.
But she retired to her parlor and there, in the solitude and quiet of the tiny room, sitting on her rickety rocking chair, she held James' miniature in her hands and cried as she hadn't in years.
She mourned herself and James and the love they'd once shared and which was now as dead as the beautiful Susannah More.
But Hill wasn't a woman to mourn passively. All these years she'd let him be. But she couldn't let him forget her. She must do something.
James Fitzwilliam, Earl of Matlock, retired to his carriage, to wait for the girl to send the stable boy to Netherfield and there, in turn, to find a servant with enough authority to send a carriage.
He stomped to the door of his gilded conveyance, and threw it open with little ceremony, while staring venomously at the wheel that was half out of its axis. It seemed to him that any strong man, with a good pair of hands, should be able to push that thing into place.
But his valet, Grey, whom Lord Fitzwilliam had always considered a valuable and capable man, had told him it was impossible to repair under three hours and without substantial help.
James' head pounded, as he threw himself onto the leather-covered seats of his carriage and flung the door closed. Ever since his injury, so many years ago, his head had hurt like the blazes and the slightest contretemps, the least cause of nerves made the pain unbearable.
He wished the carriage from Netherfield would arrive quickly, but he doubted it. Leaning against the back of the carriage, he closed his eyes and tried to calm down.
Tommyrot. All of it was tommyrot. He should not have agreed to stopping by and seeing Fitzwilliam Darcy on his way to visiting his younger son, Richard, at his garrison post.
Truth be told, he shouldn't even be visiting Richard. There was no pressing reason for him to be traveling hundreds of miles, often along quite bad roads, to go visit his second son. Richard was not ill and there was no pressing need to see him.
Except... Except that James always felt guilty towards Richard, who'd lost his mother at birth and his father for the first three years of his life, while James either lay unconscious or was disturbed and wondering in his wits as the result of a head injury suffered in combat.
Poor Richard had been left to be raised by James' sister for three years - three years that, James knew, knowing Catherine, must have been a whirl of different nursemaids, as they quit one after the other, tired of the domestic tyrant Catherine could be. Three years of listening to Catherine's nonsense on the subject of the behavior of those born to quality.
Thinking about it, James shivered. The amazing thing was that Richard was cheerful, good-humored and generally very sane. Sometimes, James thought he was saner than the younger James, Richard's older brother, who gave too much of his time and attention to the estate and to helping his father with the family affairs.
But with all that, James thought he owed the boy something. Something beyond the amount of money he would receive at his death. Some human company and contact. James' childhood had been happy enough and he felt guilty that he'd never remarried, never given his sons a mother to finish raising them and to round out their education and social manners. Then perhaps James wouldn't be so serious, nor Richard so blithe.
And so he'd determined to visit Richard. But now, on this cold spring night, stuck outside an estate in a country town, while his head pounded like the blazes, he wished he'd never left his estate.
At least the servant at this country house had been unusually efficient. If all other servants in this enterprise were equally efficient, then he would have been rescued already.
As he thought of the servant, something disturbed him. There was something there - like a hound scratching at the door of memory begging to be let in.
But he could not remember what. That was the problem of recovering from the type of injury he'd suffered. Everyone told him - back then, when they still remembered he'd been injured - how lucky he was to be alive and sane, after all he had gone through.
And yet he felt robbed of those three years he'd been out of his head, and of patches and pieces of his memory. His memory was a coverlet with patches missing. It was as though he'd been robbed of part of his life.
Annoyed that he was musing on his problems again, he forced himself to relax, and presently he dozed.
Into his memory, there came pouring the image of a dark haired, fair skinned girl with laughing blue eyes. She had an expression, as though she'd been teasing him about something - possibly about feeling so sorry for himself.
She was exquisite, with an oval face, perfect teeth, and those all-luminous eyes. Fine eyes. Something about fine eyes.
Lord Fitzwilliam became briefly aware of turning and tossing in his sleep, and of the cold, hard leather of his carriage seats under his face.
Then he plunged again into sleep and saw the woman again. A word came from his memory. Susannah. Susannah Fitzwilliam.
Again he turned and tossed. Nonsense. She could not have his name. He had not married her.
But in his dream, he saw a small chapel and a smiling Susannah. He saw her holding a small child. A blonde girl. Jane? The name Jane came at him at the sight of the chubby blond child extending a little pink hand towards his moustache and smiling with all the tenderness and joy in the world.
But was Jane the mother or the child. And which one was Susannah.
"James," the woman, Susannah, scolded. The tender scold of a new wife.
"Sir, sir, please awake."
Fitzwilliam's eyes flew open. He was in his carriage, in the dark of night.
Looking outside, he saw Grey and beside Grey a familiar face.
"Darcy," he said, standing up. "Jolly good to see you at last boy."
Fitzwilliam Darcy, normally called Darcy even by his family, to avoid confusing him with his cousins who shared the name Fitzwilliam as a patronymic, smiled, one of his rare smiles.
"Indeed, uncle. I'm glad you stopped by as you said you would. I need to send a letter to Fitzwilliam and, as it concerns Georgiana's monetary affairs I didn't want to trust anyone but family as a courier." Darcy looked at the wheel. "Bother about your carriage, though."
"Yes," James said, and got out, carrying his hat and cloak, and followed Darcy to another, waiting carriage.
"Netherfield is quite nearby," Darcy said. "Normally I'd just have brought horses, but as it chanced, the messenger from Longborn arrived at the same time that we were descending from the carriage, on our way from the local assembly."
"You went to an assembly, did you?" James asked, as he sat down across from Darcy.
Darcy shrugged. "Abominable local affair. Little beauty and no breeding."
James chuckled despite himself. Darcy glared at him.
"Pardon me, Darcy, but you sounded just like my sister.
Darcy smiled at this. "Forbid the thought," he said. "The truth is that the friend with whom I'm staying, Mr. Bingley, is gentle and amiable to a fault and he wished to make the neighborhood happy by gracing their assembly with his presence. But there was this man, Sir William Lucas... Well. Grating. And a woman..." But his voice trailed off, and he was quiet. "You know what torture it is for me to go out in company, particularly company I don't know too well."
James nodded. All the children of his family seemed to be injured in some way. What his sons had lacked in the way of a family, Darcy and his sister, Georgiana, had got rather too much of. The Darcy parents had been so close and contented with each other that they'd raised their children in great privacy and scarcely ventured out into society.
The result was that both Darcy children were quite shy - Georgiana so shy she often appeared half-witted, and Darcy so shy he often appeared proud.
"What you need is some of Richard's easy going foolishness," James said.
"Undoubtedly," Darcy said.
For a while they rode in silence, and then James thought to ask, "Who lives in that house where I stopped?"
"The Bennetts. Rural gentry with five daughters and an entailed away estate."
"You know a great deal about them," James said.
Darcy smiled. "Everyone knows everything about everyone else in this area." He looked curious. "So, what is your interest in the Bennetts? Thinking to look for a wife amid their daughters?"
"A wife? Heaven forbid." Still disturbed by having dreamed about a wife, James managed to smile. "I've grown used to loneliness and I could never tolerate a passel of brats."
Darcy smiled. "Richard and James will thank you for preserving their inheritance."
And that was a consolation. "No," he said. "The reason I asked is that they seem to have a very superior housekeeper."
"Glad someone in that house is."
"Oh. Is that so. One of the girls scorned you, did she," James asked, teasing.
Darcy frowned. "I'd never be interested in one of the Bennett girls. Unmannered chits." He was quiet for a while. "Although--"
"One of them has remarkably fine eyes.
The Bennetts came in from the assembly in a flurry of cold, reddened cheeks and fluttering lace.
Fanny was all exclamations and palpitations, this time happy ones, about how admired the girls had been, how much her family had enjoyed itself.
Mr. Bennet, with wry humor, stood by while Fanny gave a description of the whole events to Hill.
"Oh, Hill, you should have seen it. The girls were so admired."
"I danced every dance," Lydia, the impetuous, well-grown fifteen year old, Fanny's second-born said. "And Mary none."
Mary, Fanny's eldest and quiet daughter shot her sister an aggrieved look that only caused Lydia to laugh impudently.
"And Mr. Bingley danced the first one with Jane, then the second one with Charlotte Lucas, which vexed me exceedingly, but then nothing would do but he had to dance with Jane again."
Jane blushed as her adoptive mother said this.
Hill smiled. "So did you like Mr. Bingley, Miss?"
"He's very pleasant, Jane said, with a kind smile that was so much like James'. She had been called Jane as both James and Hill - or Susannah as she then was - despised Jemima, but the name had been meant to echo her father's, nonetheless.
Her father who didn't care for her, didn't ever wonder if his girl were safe or living in poverty. Or worse.
Susannah bristled but tried to hide it. "And you, Miss Elizabeth? Did you dance with Mr. Bingley as well."
"Oh, once or twice, but the truth is there were fewer gentlemen than ladies, so I had to sit out a lot of dances and be a philosopher."
"A philosopher, miss?" No doubt about it, Hill thought, she had her natural father's impish sense of humor. "And what did you muse on?"
"Oh, how some gentleman by the name of Fitzwilliam Darcy thought himself so far above me that he said I wasn't pretty enough to tempt him."
"Fitzwilliam Darcy?" She remembered the name. James' nephew. Not pretty enough to tempt him. "Well, missy, he's either blind or mad, and I'd set my mind to ignore him."
"Oh, indeed," Elizabeth said. "I'll ignore him."
"And I wouldn't dance with him later, even if he should ask you to, Lizzy," Fanny said.
"Don't worry, mama, I think I can safely promise you never to dance with Mr. Darcy."
With such conversations an hour was whiled away, until at long last Fanny was in her room and alone - the master, his nerves frazzled from having to actually spend time with humans in close confinement, having retired to the library with a glass of Port.
Then Hill knocked at the door and asked to come in and Fanny permitted her to.
Coming into the room, Hill closed the door behind her. "Fanny, I must talk to you."
Fanny's eyes widened at being called by her first name, something that Hill had not done in years. As though in acknowledgment of this, her eyes widened broad and round and she said, "Susannah." She stood up. "What's wrong? What's happened?"
"Is it so obvious that something happened?" Susannah asked.
"You're very pale. And you look ill. Oh, Hill, Susannah, what happened."
"He came by."
"The one I believed my husband the... the girls' father."
Fanny shrieked so loudly that Hill had to quiet her. Fortunately everyone in the house was so used to Fanny's shrieks that no one came. Beyond the door, the girls went on talking animatedly, the sound of their voices coming through muted and intercut with laughter.
Fanny had her hand on her chest. "Oh, Susannah, their father. Oh, Susannah. He shall identify them. We shall all be ruined. Oh, my poor nerves. What flutterings. Oh, Susannah. My salts."
Susannah reached for the salts and waved them beneath Fanny's nose, and then, on second thought under her own, as she felt some flutterings and palpitations herself, although the palpitations might well be of anger.
Fanny snatched the bottle from Susannah's hand and breathed deeply from it. "I very much doubt their father can identify them," she said, her voice low and vicious with resentment. "He last saw Jane at one year of age and Elizabeth not at all. And besides, he didn't even recognize me."
Fanny dropped the bottle, then immediately bent to pick it up. "He saw you."
Susannah arrumphed. "If you can call it seeing me! He looked over my head."
"Oh, oh, but maybe it's all for the best," Fanny said. "Imagine if he had indeed recognized you. It would all be up. For the girls. You have to think of the girls Hi-- Susannah. Jane is so pretty. I'm sure she'll marry well and Mr. Bingley is quite smitten with her."
Hill had to recognize that Fanny had been a good adoptive mother to her girls. And still was, still worried about their well being and future.
But Hill, who was normally so sensible, took quite a while to control herself. How dared he have forgotten her? How dared he?
Even after a long talk with Fanny, it took her time in her room, and time writing down the whole story as much as she could remember, and fuming over it, before she calmed down.
Once she'd covered ten sheets of paper, both sides, an indulgence in telling her story - even if telling it to paper - that she'd never before given herself. Never since she'd become Mary Hill.
And then, once the papers were all there, she couldn't bring herself to burning them. It would be like never having said it.
In her night dress, she went upstairs to the front parlor and put the sheets within a book of Elizabethan sermons, so old, so dry, so immensely boring that even Miss Mary wouldn't read them. Which is why they sat on the front parlor, serving as decoration.
There, she felt fairly sure it would never be found and, her nerves calmed, she went back to the servants' quarters and to bed.
Invitation to Dine
Elizabeth Bennet could not quite put her finger on it, but she felt as though something had changed in the household, something had gone wrong in the last two days since the assembly.
Her mother seemed tormented by rather more flutterings and palpitations than was even her habit. And the servants, themselves, seemed to be losing their minds. Hill, normally so efficient and the immutable keeper of sanity in the household kept forgetting things or dropping things. It was all, "Sorry, Miss, I never remembered to send Faith up to help with your hair." And "Beg your pardon, Ma'am, I forgot to send to the butchers for that mutton we'd talked about." And "I don't actually believe we have dinner ready, ma'am, since I forgot to instruct Mrs. Murphy on what to prepare."
Instead, Hill seemed to have turned into Elizabeth herself - taking long, abandoned walks through the fields and coming in looking as if she'd be inhabiting another world altogether.
Strange, too, was the way Elizabeth's parents took it. The Bennet's might not be the richest or the most important family around, but in the small society of Merriton and its surroundings, they commanded quite enough respect to easily replace an unruly servant.
Instead, her mother would look on Hill with a look of pity, and Mr. Bennet with a look of amusement slightly tinged with alarm, and they'd let each infraction pass.
Elizabeth looked at herself in the mirror in her room and made a face. Truth be told, the fact that Hill had forgotten to send faith up to help with Elizabeth's hair didn't make much difference at all. Elizabeth had the kind of tightly-curled hair that could not be arranged by a girl with no special training in the time she had free from setting the breakfast table and seeing to the fires.
Not that the fires needed to be lit this morning. Elizabeth cast her eye out the window, at the bright green fields under pure spring sunlight. Only a few clouds to the east foretold afternoon, or maybe evening day, but other than that, it was mild weather and it beckoned her forth to the walking paths.
She pinned her hair up whichever way, and was standing when Jane knocked at her bedroom door and came in.
Add to the strangeness in the household the way Jane had been behaving, Elizabeth thought. Although, truth be told, that strangeness was no strangeness at all. It was a dreamy melancholy, wreathed in smiles that knew no reason and in looks of pain with even less reason.
"Lizzy," Jane said. "I was wondering if perhaps we could walk to Merriton later."
"Indeed," Elizabeth said, and grinned. "And perhaps see your Mr. Bingley."
"He's not my Mr. Bingley," Jane said, blushing in that color between coral and rose which became her fair complexion so well.
Elizabeth laughed. "Oh, I think he is. Or very soon will be."
Jane did not answer, but smiled and blushed and sighed, all of which confirmed Elizabeth's diagnostic of her sister's ailment.
They walked together down the stairs, talking about the day and how beautiful Spring promised to be this year, and even that made Jane blush and seem to be in dire distress.
But at the breakfast table they met with excitement. A letter had arrived from Netherfield and their mother was reading it aloud. She paused to say, "It's for you, Jane." And, quite unminding of her breach of propriety. "Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst have invited you to dine at Netherfield tonight."
Jane stood by her chair, her long fingers resting upon the back, and looked as if she'd been cast to stone.
Her mother gave a snort of impatience that might easily have come from Lydia. "Oh, stop looking stricken, you silly girl. The gentlemen won't be there, as they're away dining with the officers. Most vexing." She looked out the window. "But I think if you go on horseback, and not in carriage, you might yet see him. For I think it looks like rain and if it rains, you'll have to spend the night at Netherfield."
"Oh," Jane said, and dropped into her seat, though she didn't even pretend to start eating. "Oh."
"Mama," Elizabeth said. "Is it quite proper for her to go on horseback. What if the rain should come earlier and soak her? What if she catches--"
"Would you have her go all the way to Netherfield and not see Mr. Bingley. Absurd. She shall go on Nellie, the horse, it will do quite well."
Elizabeth was about to protest, when she caught a glimpse of Jane's expectant look. She had a look of waiting for something very intensely, as though waiting hurt her. And she was, clearly, in agreement with her mother.
Elizabeth gave over the fight. If even Jane was being silly, there was no point arguing anymore.
Indeed, Jane remained so silly through the day that it was all that Elizabeth could do to hold a halfway intelligible conversation with her.
And then, just before leaving for Netherfield, Jane stood in the front parlor, holding a small bag, which Elizabeth knew contained what Jane thought of as her beauty necessities - rosewater and fine-milled soap and a comb. It was a small bag, not so big it would give the impression she planned to spend the night but not so small that it would force Jane to see Mr. Bingley while she was disheveled and ill-smelling.
Now, while she spoke, she picked up things, absently, from the shelves in the parlor, the mantel, the table. Needles, and a piece of embroidery Mary had been laboring upon, and one of Lydia's hat ribbons, and such inconsequent clutter, all got picked up and shoved into her embroidered bag, while she said, "But I believe I care too much already, Lizzy, and what if he shouldn't return it?"
"Nonsense," Lizzy said. "As beautiful as you are, he'd need to be blind not to return it. Nonsense, I say."
"But we have no dowry and surely a man like him would want a woman at this financial level." Jane's long white fingers grabbed a slim leather-bound volume from the shelves and stuck it in her purse.
Elizabeth wondered what the book was, as most of the books relegated to this room were dry as dust and boring as a long evening with her mother. They were here to impress upon unwary visitors how cultured the owner of the home was, not to be read.
But she chose not to say anything, not to distress Jane yet further. "If he does prefer another woman because of financial considerations," she said. "Then he doesn't deserve you and you must allow him to go."
Jane turned around. Her face contorted into something very much like a tantrum. "But I care for him, Elizabeth. I really do."
It took Elizabeth a good half hour to calm her sister down and convince her - or at least get her to stop arguing with the possibility - that it would all turn out for the best.
Later, when the rain started and when word came from Netherfield that Miss Bennet had got soaked through and thus caught a chill, Elizabeth would wonder if she should have been more blunt and shoved Jane out the door and to Netherfield earlier.
Then she would have missed the rain altogether.
Low Connections Indeed
Darcy and Bingley and Mr. Hurst came back from dining with the officers rather late and, in Bingley's case -- and needless to say in Mr. Hurst's -- much worse for the wear.
It had been a long, exhilarating night, freeing them at last from the confines of good behavior expected around ladies. Bingley and Hurst had drunk, they had all played at cards and Mr. Darcy had made many wry jokes on the subject of regimental life and local society.
Now, late at night, they stopped in front of the house. Darcy helped Bingley up the stairs and into the care of Bingley's steward. By that time, Hurst had disappeared. Darcy supposed that habitual drunks must have habitual ways of cleaning up after themselves, getting themselves to bed and such. Darcy did not propose to investigate.
Instead, he headed towards the library. He remembered seeing a book on agricultural irrigation that he'd meant to read - with a mind to implementing at Pemberley. At any rate, he'd been having trouble falling asleep, wondering what his uncle had meant with the cryptic remark about fine eyes in a pretty face being a man's undoing.
Was there a secret romance in James Fitzwilliam's past? Nonsense. Impossible. After all, Fitzwilliam was... well, dry as dust, military as they came, and quite, quite under the thumb of his sister Catherine.
Oh, now and then a glimmer of humor came through, but he would never dare challenge aunt Catherine and he would never dare behave out of pattern.
It all had to do with family history and how, after his first wife's death James Fitzwilliam had got wounded and been given up for lost and his sister Catherine had nursed him back to health, raised his boys and administered his household. Poor uncle James probably felt indebted to his sister. Doubtless.
Darcy opened the huge oak door to the Netherfield library and was startled to see a light shining there.
Miss Bingley stood in the middle of the room, reading some small volume by the light of a reading candle.
"I beg your pardon," Mr. Darcy said. "I didn't mean to disturb your solitude. Only I want to retrieve a book on irrigation and then I will leave you to your--"
"Mr. Darcy," Miss Bingley said, in that way she had, as though he were a strange and miraculous object that she'd just found upon her bedside in the morning - the gift of some benevolent creature. "Mr. Darcy," she said again. "What I am reading... I scarcely know how to say it. I breached privacy, though I did not know...."
"Whose privacy?" Darcy asked. "What are you reading?" For the book in her hand looked slim and old, one of a thousand such books kicking around well- to-do households. Hardly the thing to breach anyone's privacy.
"I..." And to Darcy's shock, Caroline blushed. "The Bennet girl fell ill while here, and her bag spilled. Such a confusion of things... While I was putting all the objects back, I found this volume," She lifted it and Darcy could see it said on the cover A Book Of Sermons Illustrating The Pathway To Salvation By The Most Reverend Doctor Jeffries Summons.
"It looked old and interesting," Caroline said. "And I thought I would read it."
Or more likely wanted to know what in the book was so important to Jane Bennet that Jane carried it around, Darcy thought, but said nothing.
Caroline continued, "And then these sheets of paper fell out," she showed him the paper. And I couldn't help..." She blushed, but forged on. "They were written by the Bennets housekeeper," she said, and her voice acquired that low, vicious tone she used when imparting gossip. "It seems the older two girls are hers, not the Bennets' at all. They are illegitimate. The children of a straying servant. The Bennets' adopted them out of the kindness of their heart, nothing more."
And, to Darcy's horror, Caroline thrust the sheets of paper at him. "Here, you may read yourself."
Darcy drew himself up in ire. "I will do no such thing. And if they are such, it is none of our concern. Please return that book, and its contents to the girl's bag. I hardly think you have the right to invite me to spy."
Speaking like this, he turned his back on Caroline and made for his bed as fast as he possibly could.
It wasn't till he blew out his candle and lay in the dark, in his bed, that he thought of what Caroline had said, and then only with a regretful sigh that it would be very hard indeed for those girls to marry well.
Somehow, Elizabeth's mocking, lively eyes pursued him into his dreams, as though disdaining his sympathy.
© 2003 Copyright held by the author.