September 10, 1812
Elizabeth stood with the rest of the family on Longbourn’s front steps. The sun hung high in the sky as Lydia waved her final goodbyes. She edged back to allow Mama and Kitty better vantage.
The ten days of their visit could not have gone more slowly, and the final three had been the longest of all. Especially this morning when Lydia summoned all her sisters to help her pack, as though intending to leave just after dawn, then dawdled over breakfast with Mama until the rest of them left the breakfast room to follow their own pursuits.
Wickham handed her into the hired carriage that would carry them on the first leg of their journey to his regiment in the north. If Elizabeth had overheard correctly, Papa had been applied to for assistance in affording the equipage. Probably the first in a long line of such applications.
Mama waved her handkerchief at the departing forms, her sniffles dissolving into sobs.
“Come, Kitty, help me take Mama to her room.” Jane slipped a hand under Mama’s arm.
“Oh, Mr. Bennet, what ever shall I do without my dearest girl?” Mama’s voice climbed to a near shriek and she clutched her chest.
He rolled his eyes and glanced at Elizabeth. “”You have two more equally silly daughters available to take her place, madam. I think you shall do very well, indeed.” He tipped his head and wandered inside, probably to his bookroom.
“How could he possibly understand? Replace Lydia? How could he suggest such a thing?!” Mama’s hands flapped and her face grew flushed.
“Pay him no mind; you know he does not mean that. Come, Mama.” Jane guided her inside, Kitty helping usher her along.
Mary, her expression nothing less than despondent, shrugged and followed them in.
Elizabeth sagged again the door frame. Her ears still rang with Lydia’s constant chatter. That was familiar enough to be of relatively little bother, though. But the tension between her and her new brother, should it have grown any stronger, she might snap like an overtaxed rope.
Perhaps it had been a mistake to allow Wickham to know she thought better of Darcy and consequently less of him. But, what was she to do in the face of his insufferable insinuations and attempts to ingratiate himself?
Truly, it was too much to be borne. Particularly in light of what Lydia had let slip about Mr. Darcy and Aunt Gardiner’s letter confirming it all as true.
She pressed her cool palms to her heated cheeks.
In all the commotion of the Wickham’s visit, she had not yet begun to reconcile in herself Mr. Darcy’s role in what happened or what it might mean. The opportunity to do so would probably not afford itself soon either. Not until the house settled back into some form of routine. There was little telling how long that would take.
Elizabeth slipped inside and picked up the sewing she had hastily tossed on the hall table when Lydia finally announced her imminent departure.
She was of no mind to continue sewing, but she should at least return the piece to her sewing basket hastily left in the parlor.
“Oh, Lizzy, I am glad you have joined us.” Jane greeted her at the door, pulled her in and shut the door.
Kitty and Mary were already ensconced within, perhaps taking shelter from Mama’s nerves.
Jane gripped her arm tightly, almost as though seeking strength, with a hint of desperation.
So much for the welcome solitude of her own room. Ah well, she could seek that after Jane’s equanimity was restored.
Jane guided Elizabeth to sit with her on the settee.
Kitty huffed and folded her arms across her chest. “I am so weary of Mama’s vapors over Lydia’s departure. And I fail to see what is all the great to-do. I think Lydia is quite lucky. She will be surrounded by officers and away from the dreadful dull of Meryton.”
“Away yes, but with such a man.” Elizabeth murmured under her breath.
Papa was not entirely wrong to consider Kitty every bit as silly as Lydia. But perhaps, without Lydia’s constant example, she might be worked on for betterment. And without the regiment in town, it would be easier.
Why did the notion weigh like a yoke across her shoulders?
“We must look at this in the best possible light. Lydia is safely married to him, so there has been no lasting harm done.” Jane squeezed Elizabeth’s arm a little harder.
Mary’s jaw dropped, and she sprang to her feet. “No harm done? How can you say such a thing?” She threw up her hands and stalked toward the door.
“Mary?” The words fell from her lips before she knew they were there, far harsher than she would have intended.
“Do not rebuke me for I have done nothing. It is Lydia who is deserving of censure. Her loss of virtue, her wanton behavior, her complete disregard for the rules of decorum and propriety! Or perhaps you, too, consider that of no import.”
Of course, Mary would feel the irony of Lydia’s warm welcome so deeply. And not without reason.
“Of all people, Jane, you whose behavior has been called impeccable, I would have thought you would find it in you to censure what she has done.”
Jane slicked stray hairs back from her forehead. “What point is there in being so harsh, Mary? Truly—what is done, is done. Is it not better to make the best of it all and learn to live together in peace?”
“Indeed. Is it not our Christian duty to forgive her and welcome her back into the bosom of the family?” Elizabeth approached her, but Mary edged away.
“If she is repentant, yes. But I see nothing of repentance in her. Nothing! She is proud of what she has done. Do you not recall her offering to get husbands for us all?” Mary’s voice rose, frighteningly like Mama’s.
Kitty and Lydia were apt to sound like Mama, but Mary?
“Then you would agree with Mr. Collins, that we should consider her dead to us? What will that accomplish?” Matching Mary’s tone was probably not the best way to calm her, but she was not the only one with a weary and bruised spirit.
Jane caught both their arms and urged them back to the settee. She crouched before them, her voice soft and tender. “Lydia will always be Mama’s favorite, particularly especially since she is now married. We must content ourselves, despite that truth, for nothing shall affect it.”
Mary’s eyes brimmed and she hid her face in her hands.
Jane was right, even after Lydia’s capricious behavior, the rest of them would still not rise in their mother’s esteem and might even fall since they remained unmarried.
Only if they married far and away better than Lydia had would they have any hope of rising in Mama’s regard.
“It is not fair,” Mary whispered.
“No, it is not.” Jane slipped her arm around Mary’s shoulder.
Not fair at all, especially considering it was Lydia’s doing that would ultimately deny her any hope of…Mr. Darcy.
But why then had he done so much for Lydia?
What could it all mean? Surely she could make some sense of it if she applied herself to understanding.
Beside her, Mary sobbed softly.
But that would have to wait.
Mary leaned into her shoulder, shuddering.
Perhaps for quite some time.
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