Pride and Prejudice: News of Lydia Spreads

Pride and Prejudice, Volume III

August 16, 1812

The narrow vestibule was far too quiet for comfort. An eerie hush had settled over Longbourn since the initial news of Lydia had arrived, punctuated only by moments of Mama’s nervous episodes.

How nice it would be to be able to hide in her room, away from the work of the house, and indulge in unconstrained sensibility. But someone had to keep their home in order, and that task was much to Elizabeth’s preference. So, to market she would go.

She squared her shoulders and tucked her basket under her arm. Jane tied her bonnet and fastened the buttons on her pelisse. Poor thing looked so pale and haggard. All these days waiting on news from London had taken their toll.

Mrs. Hill handed Elizabeth a list, a long one at that. Though she did not leave her rooms, apparently Mama was well able to organize her thoughts enough to manage a detailed market list. Best not dwell on that too much.

Elizabeth tucked it in her basket and they left.

A gust of chill air caught the hem of her pelisse and tore her breath away. A storm was on its way. Had not mama yet learned the danger of sending daughters out in the rain?

She glanced at Jane, her face serene as always. But her eyes held silent notes of sadness. She never spoke of it—she bore it well. Still, the melancholy lingered and might never leave. Jane assured her that all was well, and she would rally in time. But with each passing day, it became more and more difficult to believe.

Who would have ever thought the Bennets of Longbourn would face such a situation? How much had they all learned—or had the opportunity to learn—over the last months.

The inconstancy of friends.

The flightiness of young gentlemen.

The dangers of leaving young ladies unchecked.

The fallibility of her own first impressions.

That was, perhaps, the most galling. How wrong she had been about both Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham. How much would that cost them? If only word of Lydia’s folly might be contained.

Jane shaded her eyes and squinted into the distance. “Oh, look—I think I see Lady Lucas and Maria on the road ahead. Shall we try to catch them?”

“I think not. I do not fancy her company right now.”

In truth, there were few she less wanted to see.

“But why not? She has been so solicitous after Mama’s comfort, calling on her nearly every day.”

Dear, sweet, naïve Jane.

“Do you not see what a danger she is to our reputation?”

“What do you mean? The Lucases have been our friends these many years.”

“Friends who have been quick to take advantage of any situation that they might turn to their advantage. You cannot deny—“

“Do not be so harsh, Lizzy. You refused Mr. Collins wholly and completely. Would anything have changed your mind?”

“No, but that is not the point.” Elizabeth paused and bit her lip. It was not fair to use so harsh a tone with Jane. “Consider how quickly Charlotte became engaged to him, merely days. Itis not difficult to believe a scheme must have been in place.”

“A scheme? I cannot believe that. Even if that was the case, what possible scheme could they have now? Do you think Lady Lucas would have wished Mr. Wickham’s attentions for Maria?”

“Hardly. Even she is not so desperate, especially when something far more subtle would serve her as well or even better. Consider, she has only to allow news of our misfortune to spread, and any attention that might have been offered to Kitty or Mary might very well turn away from them.”

Just as Mr. Darcy turned away from her.

“And they will go to Maria instead? That is a far stretch of thought is it not?”

“Perhaps, but perhaps not.  In her mind though, I am sure it makes sense. Lady Lucas is so convinced in the scarcity of eligible men that I can easily see her counting distracting suitors away from our sisters as a victory for her own daughter. What’s more, you cannot deny she has reveled in our misfortune, and has not kept secret her own triumphs.”

“You are determined to think ill of her.” Jane turned to her with that look of admonishment that always inspired a flash of guilt.

“Lydia is not here for me to vent my spleen. It is only natural I should turn it somewhere.”

“Please, Lizzy, let go of the vitriol. I am quite certain it is ill-founded. You will see. In town no one is giving this little upset any mind at all.”

“I hope you are correct.” Not that she believed it possible, but Jane would be so distraught if she offered any argument now.

The first drops of rain, cold and sharp, fell as they arrived at the baker’s shop.

“Good day, Miss Bennet, Miss Elizabeth.”  Flour smudged the shop girl’s face and apron. “What may I do for you today? Has not Mrs. Hill had her usual order delivered already?”

“Indeed she has.” Jane said, “But there are a few dainties—”

“Ah, yes, for your mum, I suppose. I ‘erd she were feeling poorly these days, take wholly to her bed, no? You ought to call Mr. Fischer. I know he ain’t your regular apothecary, but he makes a fine tonic to set any woman’s nerves to rights. Me mum’s relied upon it for years. Here you go, will these do?”

She held out a box with savoy cakes, macaroni biscuits and orange-flower biscuits.

“Yes…yes, that will be splendid.” Jane’s hand trembled as she pushed the box back toward the shop girl.

“How came you to the conclusion our mother has taken to her bed with her nerves?” The words hurt to push through her tight throat.

“Begging your pardon, Miss, but under the circumstances, what else could it be?” She tied up the box with string and handed it to Jane.

Elizabeth bit her tongue and led the way into the bracing cold and rain.

“I know what you are going to say, Lizzy, but pray do not. Mama’s nerves are a well know secret to one and all in Meryton. There is still no reason to suspect she knows more than what everyone in Meryton does.”

She should have argued, but Jane’s eyes pleaded so. This encounter did not bode well for the rest of their errand.

Elizabeth glanced over her shoulder, in the direction of Longbourn. “Perhaps we should—”

“No, no, I am certain it is not what you think. It will all be well yet.”

Cold raindrops splashed their faces as they dodged the expanding puddles on their way to the chandler’s. At least the rain remained soft and steady, not the torrential downpour that caught Jane on the way to Netherfield.

The spicy, dusty, sneezy smell of the chandler’s shop tickled their noses and scratched their eyes as they entered.

“A dreary day is it not?” the chandler called. “Definitely calls for tea, does it not?”

“Indeed, sir it does.” Jane searched her basket. “You make a particular tea blend for Mrs. Hill. She said it is quite calming.” She handed him a paper with Hill’s handwriting.

He straightened his spectacles and squinted at it. “Yes, yes, I recall this. I should have anticipated the order, what with all the bad news floating about.”

“Bad news? What news, sir?”

Who knew Jane could sound so much like Mama.

His eyebrows shot up high over the rim of his spectacles. He opened his mouth.

Elizabeth glowered, borrowing an expression from Hill’s repertoire.

“Oh nothing, there is always bad news about, what with Napoleon, no? Do not think me prone to gossip. No, not I. I make it a point never to listen to such drivel myself. I will mix this up for you and bring it right out.” He trundled off.

Jane closed her eyes and clutched her temples. “Do not say it Lizzy. I will not hear it. He gives us no reason at all—”

“Please, see reason. It is quite clear—”

“No, it is not. I will not submit to your gloomy conclusions.” Jane turned aside and examined a selection of candles on the counter.

 Poor dear. The task of caring for Mama was surely compromising her own good sense. Elizabeth loathed to disquiet her, but was it kind or even responsible to aid and abet such self-deception?  

The chandler shuffled back in. “Here you go, Miss Bennet. Please send my thanks to Mrs. Hill and my best wishes to the…ah recipient of my tea.”

“Thank you.” Jane took the box and tucked it into her basket, avoiding Elizabeth’s gaze.

Truly? Was that necessary?

Jane’s silent disapproval was far more distressing than Mama’s shrill wailing might ever be. But it was not fair to punish her when none of this was her fault. She was just the bearer of bad news.

They did not speak the entire way to the apothecary’s. Probably just as well. Elizabeth had little that was pleasant to say.

The rain turned heavier and the puddles harder to avoid. The nankeen of her half-boots turned dark with mud and rainwater, soaking into her stockings.

How she hated cold, wet feet.

The flat-toned bell tied to the apothecary’s door clanged as they entered. Like the chandler’s shop, this one was filled with odd herbal scent. Sharper and medicinal, not warm and flavorful. Except for the scents of mint and ginger that wafted from two large confectionary jars on the counter. Colored glass bottles reflected light and cast bright shadows on the walls. The play of light and color had always fascinated Elizabeth as a little girl.

Mr. Scheer peered up from the counter and stared over his spectacles. “The Miss Bennets!” He scurried around the counter and met them halfway across the floor.

They curtsied.

“Pray tell, how is your dear mother? I can only imagine her delicate nerves have her in quite a state.”

“At such a time?” Jane’s voice was high and thin, pale as her cheeks.

“Forgive my indelicacy in bringing it up so freely, Miss. I only wish to be as direct as possible in order to bring relief to your dear mother.”

Jane’s hand trembled and only a funny squeak came when she tried to respond.

“Thank you for your kindness, sir.” Elizabeth stepped slightly in front of Jane. “We are indeed in need of my mother’s tonic.”

“Of course, of course. I shall have it for you in just a moment.” He ducked behind his counter and appeared a moment later, two bottles in hand. I imagine an extra might be in order this time?”

“Yes, yes, thank you.”

“I had thought to stop by Longbourn later this afternoon. Just to check up on the mistress, you know. Do you imagine she would be at home for my call?”

“I imagine she would welcome your solicitude.” Jane managed a hoarse whisper.

“Forgive my boldness, but would you know, that is to say, is more bad news from London anticipated?”

Jane clutched Elizabeth’s arm. Hard. Heaven’s her fingernails were sharp.

“We cannot know the future, sir, but we are hopeful for good news soon.” Elizabeth forced the words through gritted teeth.

The cheek of the man! Bad enough that the gossip had spread to such a degree, but for him to pry so. He might be Mama’s apothecary, but surly there were limits as to what liberties that might permit.

Mr. Scheer inched back.

Apparently Hill’s glare effectively cowed apothecaries as well as chandlers and scullery maids.

“I am pleased to hear it and I wish the best possible news for you to come very quickly,” he stammered.

 “Thank you.” Elizabeth curtsied and led them out.

Cold damp wind slapped their faces with sharp rain drops as they stepped out into the street.

“Oh, how dare he! To be so forward, so personal!”  Elizabeth yanked her pelisse tighter over her chest.

“What horrid, disagreeable weather.” Jane adjusted her bonnet against the wind.

Poor dear, that would be as close as she could come to admitting her own distress over the circumstance.

Thunder rumbled over the rooftops. The sky flashed, and before she could draw breath, a violent crack followed. They yelped and ducked their heads into the next sharp gust. The falling drops, heavier and colder now, stung like slaps cross their cheeks.

Jane shivered, her eyes brimming.

Elizabeth grabbed her elbow. “Come, we should not stay out in this.”

The post office was close. She dragged Jane inside.

“Frightful storm out there, ladies.” The clerk at the desk barely looked up to acknowledge them.

“Indeed sir,” Elizabeth brushed raindrops from her sleeves.

“Please, sit down and be welcome until the rain passes.” He gestured toward a small bench in the corner.

“Thank you sir, that is most generous.”

“’Tis a shame I already sent out today’s post. There were a letter to Longbourn posted from London. You might have had it to pass the time.”

“There was?” Jane’s teeth chattered.

She clutched Elizabeth’s hand.

“Indeed, a right thick one too, required extra postage.”

“Oh, oh,” Jane panted and fanned her face with her hand.

“I hope for all at Longbourn it is the good news you are looking for. I have found that such long letters often contain good news, especially when written by men.”

Elizabeth stared at the clerk, head cocked.

“T’was a man’s hand that wrote the direction, I would bet my position on it, seen so many in the post you know. No man wants to waffle on when news is bad, you now.”

“I…I…suppose.”

“We have little experience with male correspondence.” Elizabeth forced a smile.

Surely he could not have intended such a vulgar implication. The Bennet sisters did not receive letters from men!

He jumped slightly and waved his hands, face coloring to match the sealing wax on the letters on his desk. “Of course, of course, I should have thought. Forgive me. I did not mean to offend.”

“No offense taken, sir.” Some of the tension left her shoulders. 

“I only wish the best for you and your family. Longbourn is always kind to the folks of Meryton. If anyone be deserving of good news, it is you.” The clerk smiled and nodded, returning to his work.

Jane squeezed her fingers tight enough to hurt. “It is good news, I can feel it. I am sure of it.”

Elizabeth smiled. The post clerk had good point. If it was from Uncle Gardiner, a long letter might well bode better news.

But still, hope was a dangerous thing.

“Look, the clouds are parting.” Jane pointed through the window.

More properly, a cloud thinned and the rain dwindled to light misty drops.

“Come, let us hurry home, perhaps the post has already arrived.” Jane held the door for Elizabeth.

What point in arguing? The rain had subsided enough and whatever the news, best not wait for it.

Pray let it be good news.

 


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2 comments

  1. This was painful to read! Well done – you made it very real.

    • Sheila L. Majczan on August 26, 2016 at 11:18 am
    • Reply

    I would totally agree that this interpretation is just as it might have been written by JA. Well done. Jane is the perfect example of denial.

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