Will Mary Bennet find her happy ending under the reign of the Queen of Rosings Park?
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Mary held Charlotte’s arm as she slowly made her way down the stairs. They replayed this scene several times a day, now. Mr. Collins insisted that the staircase was neither too shallow nor too deep, exactly proper for a parsonage of this size.
But he was wrong.
The stairs were cheaply made, irregular in their height and depth, entirely unsuitable for anyone, servant or master. In just the few months Mary had stayed with her, Charlotte had reached the point in her pregnancy where she could no longer see her toes, and the stairs were now a death trap.
“Just three more. Hold the rail and my arm, and we shall be down in a moment.”
“I hate to be such a bother.” Charlotte panted heavily.
“You are no bother, it is these stairs that are a bother.”
Charlotte gasped and pressed a hand to her chest. “Pray do not say that in Mr. Collins’ hearing.”
“Forgive me, but I do not see why that should unsettle him so. It is not as though I am criticizing them to Lady Catherine, or that she would even be able to respond to such comments. Please, hold the railing, you cannot afford a fall.”
“I know it seems a bit untoward, but he is still very protective of her, perhaps even more so now in her current state.” Charlotte used that tone she always used when she was trying to defend Collins’ behavior.
How tiresome it had become.
They reached the ground floor and the chair kept at the base of the stairs where Charlotte sat to catch her breath.
It was taking longer and longer now. Something was … odd with this pregnancy. Not wrong per se, but odd. It was normal for a woman to grow heavy and awkward and tire easily. But usually that took longer to set in. Charlotte seemed to be progressing very quickly.
Somehow Mary had to convince her that she needed to see a midwife.
Charlotte pushed to her feet and they made their way to the morning room. Another room Mr. Collins deemed perfectly adequate for his station in life. If his station included drafty windows and a fire that smoked, then it was indeed ideal.
It was a small room, facing west, so it caught none of the morning light and warmth. The smoky fire left the pale paper hangings and the curtains sooty and grey. No doubt the maid tried to keep it clean, but it was well past the time it should have all been redone.
But that would likely never happen. According to Mr. Michaels, the estate did not have the funds to manage many necessary repairs, much less unnecessary ones.
The newspaper was gone from the table. Mr. Collins must have come and gone already.
That was not a bad thing.
Charlotte pulled out a chair.
“Would you not be more comfortable using this one? The arms make it much easier for you to rise.” Mary pulled out another chair and beckoned Charlotte toward it.
“You are right. It is just hard for me to accustom myself to this helplessness.” Charlotte lowered herself slowly into the seat, awkward and ungainly.
“Shall I get the footstool?”
“I would like to say no, but my ankles are so swollen today…”
Mary brought the stool and positioned it under the table.
“I hate asking so much of you.” Charlotte’s head fell back against the high back of the chair and she closed her eyes.
“Is that not why I am here? I seem to recall that is what we told Mama and Papa—that I would stay to help you during your confinement.”
Charlotte opened one eye. “I recall another conversation. Mr. Michaels did not wish you to leave Kent for Derbyshire. He desired to keep you close—”
“And away from Papa.” Mary swallowed hard and wandered toward the window. She really needed to speak to the maid—she left streaks the last time she washed it. No doubt Charlotte noticed it too. It was a testament to her condition that she did not have the energy to correct the girl.
“Do you miss them? You mother and your sisters?”
Mary leaned her head against the window frame. “Sometimes. But it was not as if I was of any great use to any of them. I am happy to be where I know that I am helpful.” And where someone actually welcomed her conversation, and even her presence. But they did not need to talk about that.
“I do not know how I would manage without you.”
And that, even more than Mr. Michaels’ requests, was why she was there. “Speaking of help…”
“Pray, Mary, do not go on about a midwife. Not again, I am too weary.”
“I must, truly I must.” She turned and half sat on the window sill. “You have gone far too long without seeing anyone to help you.”
Charlotte pressed her hands to her belly. “What are you worried about?”
“I have watched my mother through a number of her confinements. I have seen how it is supposed to progress.”
“And this is not proper??”
“Not so much that, as very fast. You are already as large as Mama when she delivered, and I know it is far from the proper time for it.” Mary held her breath.
This was not the first time she had broached the subject, and the previous times had not gone well.
Charlotte bit her upper lip and nodded. She rubbed both hands over her belly. “I am not surprised you noticed. It seems to be a trait amongst your family. You are all so observant.”
It would have been difficult to miss. Charlotte was giving her far too much credit.
“But you are right. I have been suspecting … suspecting …”
“What? What have you not told me?” She hurried to Charlotte’s side.
“I did not wish to sound…I do not know… silly perhaps. But here, give me your hands.” Charlotte took Mary’s hands and placed them on either side of her belly. “Now just wait a moment, but still.”
Mary held her breath and waited. Underneath each hand, a hard kick landed. “My gracious, the baby is quite strong. Oh!” Another flutter of movement under her hands.
“I…I think there is more than one. Feel here.” Charlotte moved Mary’s hands. “See here, there are two bulges. I think there are two babies.”
Mary pulled a chair close and sat heavily. “Twins?” A cold chill ran down her spine.
“I am so afraid.” Charlotte whispered, covering her face with her hands. “What am I to do?”
“There is little that can be done. We will pray most heartily for you to be safely delivered. Until then, you must see a midwife. If there is anything that can be done to increase the chances of a safe delivery, then we must begin immediately.”
“You know how I feel about midwives.”
“You have told me how you feel about the incompetent woman who attended your mother. I understand your fears. I have never told you about the medical atrocities we have been exposed to and I will not. Trust me though, it is enough to put me off all doctors, surgeons and apothecaries. Still though, just as you cannot judge all of the Bennet girls by knowing Lydia, you cannot dismiss all midwives because some are awful. I know there are excellent ones—”
“How do you know?” Charlotte dragged the back of her hand across her eyes.
“I know because I talk to people, or rather, people talk to me. I do not know why, perhaps it is because I am quiet and they believe I am listening, but people tell me all manner of things that I am not necessarily interested in hearing. Still though, I have heard a number of local ladies lauding a Mrs. Mariah Grant. They have said she has made a world of difference in their lying-ins.”
“I have heard nothing of the sort.” Charlotte looked away, dabbing her eyes with her sleeve.
“Trust me please. Allow me to invite some of the ladies who have spoken of her to tea. You might speak to them directly and hear what they have to say. It seems like ladies like nothing more than to share the stories of their births with others. If there was something wrong, I assure you they will not hold back. You know that they will tell you the truth of the matter. Perhaps I might even interview her myself?”
Charlotte chuckled. “I suppose you are correct. My mother was certainly apt to share her tales. I was not supposed to have heard them, of course. They are not fit for a maiden’s ears. But she and her friends did get so loud in the parlor. Especially after a liberal dose of French cream in their tea.”
Afternoon brandy certainly increased women’s chatter in Mama’s parlor as well.
“No doubt. My mother was similarly liberal in voicing her experiences. So then, you will allow me to do this for you?”
Charlotte lost a little color in her face. “Yes, I suppose we must.”
“Then I will begin immediately. I will do everything in my power to assist you, you know that.” Mary tucked a stray curl under the edge of Charlotte’s mobcap.
Charlotte grasped her hand. “You are indeed a good friend, if a very stubborn one. I am thankful that you are here.”
The housekeeper entered, a short, thick woman of plain features and littler personality, bearing a silver tea tray. “The post just come, madam. Letters, for Miss Bennet.”
Mary took the letters. “One from Lizzy. Oh, and this is from Lydia, see the decoration she puts around the direction? Her letters have become so pretty these days, I think they need framing rather than reading.”
“Would it be too forward to ask you to read from them to me? I would so dearly like to know how they are going. It is still so hard to believe they are both in Derbyshire and that Lizzy has married Lady Catherine’s nephew.”
“Lizzy’s first, then?” Mary broke the seal on the letter and scanned it for personal bits. Lizzy was usually very good about marking anything that should not be read aloud. Sometimes nearly all her letter was underlined. No doubt she understood Charlotte would be curious.
Charlotte leaned back in the chair and sipped her tea, hand over her belly.
“Lizzy writes that Lydia is married now. Married!” Mary stared at the words gaping.
“Do not keep me in suspense, tell me more!”
“She is Mrs. Amberson and the couple will take residence in Derby soon. It seems Miss Darcy is quite taken with him as a piano teacher and will be studying under him once they are established in town.”
“I imagine that is a very good thing for Miss Darcy. She was such a shy girl when she visited here last. It is good to hear she is leaving her melancholy behind.”
“You do not have to be so politic with me, Charlotte. I know full well what you are thinking. We are all glad to hear that she has recovered from Mr. Wickham’s interference.”
“That both Miss Darcy and Lydia have.”
“Indeed. Who would have imagined? Oh gracious, this is interesting. Lizzy says that Mr. Darcy and their new friend, Sir Anthony have decided to be Mr. Amberson’s patrons. They will sponsor a series of concerts at the assembly rooms in Derby to help make him known there.”
Charlotte pushed her elbows into the arm of the chair and sat a little straighter. “Gracious! That is a strong statement for Mr. Darcy to make. I am impressed. Mr. Amberson must be quite astonishing to gain his approbation in so public a fashion.”
“I am all agog. He must be quite certain of Mr. Amberson’s character to take such a risk. Of course, the fact that he permitted a musician to marry his sister says a very great deal as well.”
This was all too much to take in. Lydia married to such a man? And Lizzy approved it all? How could it be?
“What does Lydia say?”
Mary opened the letter and gasped. “You must see this.”
She handed Charlotte a drawing of Elizabeth, Darcy and Amberson. Mr. Amberson played whilst Elizabeth and Darcy looked on.
“If her drawing is to be believed, it seems the Darcys are very fond of their new brother.”
“I would be far more suspect of the sentiments she expresses in her drawing if Lizzy’s letter did not mirror the same sentiments.” Mary unfolded the letter and scanned it. Unfortunately it included no helpful underline to guide her reading.
That would probably be too much change to expect from Lydia.
“Well that is interesting. Lydia says—well, that bit is rather confusing. I do not quite understand how it came about, but Mr. Amberson taught at Lydia’s school, but was required to leave. He then walked to Pemberley and insisted on an audience with Mr. Darcy. Apparently he would not leave the doorstep until granted admission.”
Charlotte snickered. “I can only imagine that scene.”
“Indeed. As Lizzy has told me, the butler there is rather imposing, as Long Tom was. To stand up to him must have taken a great deal of fortitude.” Mary chewed her knuckle, reading ahead as fast as she could.
“Or a man deeply in love.”
“Apparently. It seems he met with Mr. Darcy and with Lizzy and convinced them both of his suitability as a husband and his desire to make Lydia his wife. They not only agreed but—oh my gracious! Mr. Darcy walked Lydia down the aisle at her wedding, and Lizzy held the wedding breakfast at the house they kept in Summerseat!”
“I would never have believed it from any lips but yours.”
“I am hardly sure I believe it! I am anxious to meet this reformed sister of mine now. She cannot be the same girl who left Kent in the company of Mr. Wickham.”
This should be happy news, Lydia coming to good after all, under the influence of Mr. Darcy. It should give her hope and comfort, even joy that Lydia was greatly loved.
But it did not seem fair. Three sisters all with men deeply in love with them.
“No doubt. But sometimes, people do change. Certainly Lady Catherine has, since Miss de Bourgh’s death.”
Mary set the letters aside and sipped her tea. Now was not the time to indulge her own uncomfortable thoughts. “I wish so pleasant a change had come over Lady Catherine. She seems to grow worse with each passing week.”
“The housekeeper at Rosings told me that the gardeners found her wandering the kitchen garden, muttering about finding herbs for Anne’s tea last week. None dared tell her of Anne’s death, so they just allowed her to roam and pull up plants as she would. The garden was a mess when she left.”
“That could be very problematic. The budget is already so tight, without the garden, they may struggle over the winter.”
“I think the gardeners were able to replant much of what was pulled and started some new seeds in hope there would be sufficient time for them to grow.”
Mary rubbed her knuckles across her chin. “That will not stop her from doing it again. I think I shall speak to Colonel Fitzwilliam and suggest that a fresh fence and gate be put around the garden. To keep the sheep out, of course. We might prepare a small section specifically for Lady Catherine, though, where any damage would be inconsequential to the estate.”
“You have always had such a creative way to manage her when everyone else becomes so impatient.”
Mary shrugged. It was not so very different from managing Mama. If anything not living in the same house with Lady Catherine made it far easier to tolerate her spells and her whimsies.
The housekeeper returned with her silver salver. “Another letter come for you, Miss Bennet. Seems the delivery got mixed up with that for the manor.”
The handwriting was Michaels’. Her hands trembled.
“I can see by the look on your face who that letter is from. Go upstairs and enjoy it in a bit of privacy. I promise, I will not move from this spot without your assistance.” She chuckled. “I am not sure if I can get up on my own as it is. Do not argue. It does me good to see you with a bit of enjoyment for yourself.”
Mary fetched the workbasket from the corner and Charlotte’s book from the window seat. “Have you enough light to sew in this spot, or shall I help you move first?”
“No, no, the light here is fine enough for mending and reading. Go, I shall be fine.”
Mary clutched the letter to her breast and hurried up the stairs.
So what do you think Michaels has to say? Tell me in the comments.
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