In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen leaves us to wonder what happened in Hertfordshire over Christmastide whilst the militia was stationed in Meryton. Take a behind-the-scenes peek with me at what might have happened.
December 16, 1811
Over the next fortnight, neighborhood dinners and parties offered numerous opportunities for contact with Mr. Wickham. Enough so Mama’s ill-temper and health were mollified just a touch. For the time being at least, little, if anything could make up for Elizabeth’s refusal of Mr. Collins and Charlotte’s victory, but continued interaction with —and encouragement of—Mr. Wickham helped.
The effect did not survive the return of Mr. Collins, though. Mama took to her rooms, complaining loudly of the inconvenience of having him at Longbourn when by all rights he should stay at Lucas Lodge, especially when her health remained so indifferent.
As if young men were not vexing enough, Mr. Bingley’s continued absence did little to improve matters. The gossips of Meryton now circulated the intelligence that Mr. Bingley meant to quit Netherfield for the whole of the winter. That was probably due to the successful efforts of Mr. Bingley’s sisters. No doubt they wished to keep him away. The efforts of the two unfeeling women, and his overpowering friend, assisted by the attractions of Miss Darcy and the amusements of London, were likely strong enough to overwhelm his attachments to Jane.
Poor Jane so suffered under the anxiety of the situation. They could never speak of the matter between them, though; it was too much for Jane to bring to words, so she suffered in silence.
Mama, though, enjoyed no such delicate restraint and plagued them constantly with her complaints over it all when she was not describing her abhorrence of Charlotte Lucas as her successor as Longbourn’s mistress. Poor Jane began keeping to her room.
Two days later, a letter from Miss Bingley arrived. Jane said little and pointedly avoided Mama and anyone else who might question her as to its contents.
The following morning, she bade Elizabeth to her room and showed her the letter.
Miss Bingley neatly described their enjoyment in London, Mr. Bingley’s partiality to Miss Darcy, and her expectations for its right and natural conclusions. How like her to put an end to all doubt of Mr. Bingley’s plans and attachments.
Though Jane readily believed the letter, Elizabeth wondered just how much of it was the truth of Mr. Bingley’s state and how much was wishful thinking on the part of Miss Bingley. She was the type of person who would assert how she hoped things would be rather than how they actually were.
Jane paced along the long wall of her room, near the windows. “If Mr. Bingley’s sisters believed him attached to me, they would not try to part us. They are not so unkind. Moreover, if he were so attached, they could not succeed in parting us.”
Elizabeth sat on the bed and pulled her knees up under her chin. “I fear you credit his sisters with far more good will than I believe them capable of.”
Jane sank down in the window seat. The sunlight behind her glowed like a halo. “By supposing Mr. Bingley’s affection toward me, you make everybody acting unnaturally and wrong, and me most unhappy. I pray you, do not distress me by the idea.” She ran her long fingers down the edge of the curtain. “I am not ashamed of having been mistaken, or at least it is slight and nothing in comparison of what I should feel in thinking ill of him or his sisters. Let me take it in the best light, in the light in which it may be understood.”
How could she directly oppose such a wish? Elizabeth would refrain from mentioning Mr. Bingley’s name to Jane again.
Her forbearance though did not prevent her from thinking about the matter at great length. If Jane was correct and her separation from Mr. Bingley was to be permanent, then Mama’s anxiety was … heavens it was not nearly so groundless as it had seemed earlier. With none of the Bennet sisters enjoying any prospects for marriage, their situation, should tragedy befall them, looked bleak indeed.
Though not formed for melancholy, the thought did give Elizabeth great pause.
December 19, 1811
The following evening, Lady Lucas hosted a party to celebrate Charlotte’s upcoming nuptials. Elizabeth, Kitty, and Lydia waiting in the front hall, buttoning their redingotes and adjusting their muffs. Lydia and Kitty giggled still over the thought of anyone actually marrying Mr. Collins.
Mama declared herself far too ill to attend. She went so far as to suggest that the weather might be too disagreeable for frivolous travel and the rest of the family might remain home.
“My dear Mrs. Bennet,” Papa slipped on his great coat in the crowded vestibule, “I have seen you traverse the countryside in foul weather for a bit of gossip following an assembly. A few rainy clouds will not keep us from doing our duty by our neighbors.”
Mama stood at the top of the stairs in her dressing gown, waving her handkerchief before her face. “I think it very cruel that you would deprive me of all my daughters’ company when I am so very unwell. I could die before you return, then how would you feel?”
“I doubt your nerves will be the source of a sudden demise over the course of a single evening.” Papa muttered something else under his breath, but best not to try and make it out.
“Perhaps it would be best to allow Mary to stay with her.” Jane appeared from behind Mama’s shoulder and raised her eyebrow at Elizabeth.
Mary was taking Mr. Collins’s visit very hard indeed. Although she complained far less than Mama, her suffering was probably more real. Forcing on her an evening spent in Charlotte’s presence would be truly cruel.
“I think Jane’s idea a good one,” Elizabeth whispered, straightening the capes across Papa’s shoulders.
He huffed. “Very well, Mary, you may stay behind and tend to your mother, if you wish.”
“Yes, Papa,” Mary called from somewhere upstairs.
Jane took Mama’s elbow and led her back toward her chambers.
“Well, I dare say that will make the ride to the Lucas’s much more agreeable. I hate being squashed up in the carriage so.” Lydia peered into the vestibule’s mirror and pulled a curl out from under her bonnet.
“I am more thankful that Mr. Collins is already there, and we do not have to ride with him.” Kitty giggled.
Papa rolled his eyes. “Come, come, the carriage is waiting, unless of course you prefer to walk.”
“I am here, Papa.” Jane hurried down the steps and followed them out to the carriage.
The driver handed them up into the coach and they settled into the worn, cracked leather seats. Some warm bricks would have been nice, but no one had thought to ask for them, so they would just have to make do without. Still, Lydia was right, the ride was far more comfortable with two fewer ladies in the coach. Roomier and far easier on Elizabeth’s equanimity. It was one thing to endure Mama’s open rudeness to the Lucases in the privacy of their own home, but far different to anticipate witnessing it publicly. Perhaps that was why Papa permitted her to stay home.
“Lizzy, Lizzy!” Lydia kicked her shin. “Pay attention, I am talking to you.”
“Pray stop that.” Elizabeth rubbed her shin. At least Lydia had not left a mark on her dress.
“I heard that the officers and Colonel Forester were invited to the party tonight. I expect they shall all be there. I want to dance and converse with all of them.”
“And why are you taking particular pains to tell me something so obvious?” Elizabeth bit her tongue. She really did need to moderate her sharp tone.
“Because every time we have seen him recently, you have hogged Mr. Wickham’s attention for yourself. We have all noticed. It is time for you to stop. You must share him with the rest of us.”
“What a singular notion.” Elizabeth’s cheeks burned.
Had anyone else perceived her spending so much time in his company? Even if they had, was it truly such a bad thing?
“Lydia, do not be so unkind. Lizzy has done nothing of the sort and you know it. You are just jealous that you must share the officers’ attention with anyone else.” Jane’s lips pursed into the nearest expression to a frown she could muster.
“That is not true! Have you seen the way she talks with him, keeping the rest of us away with her complicated conversation and—”
“Enough.” Papa brought his heel down sharply. “Fuss all you like about the attentions of young men. But when you impugn sensible conversation, I have had quite enough of it.”
That would be the concern to set Papa off.
Elizabeth leaned back into the squabs. At least Jane did not think her behavior distasteful. Nor did Papa, or he would have joined in the teasing. She could anticipate Mr. Wickham’s congenial company with a clear conscience.
Sir William himself greeted them at the door. They employed a housekeeper who was perfectly well able to perform the office, but whenever they entertained, he insisted on being the first face his guests would see. Charlotte had once confided that he thought it made him appear more congenial.
Would they ever share such confidences again? It was difficult to see how.
“Mrs. Bennet is not with you tonight?” Sir William bowed deeply and waved a maid to take their wraps.
“I am afraid Mama is unwell this evening.” Jane’s smile, though pretty enough, was faded and worn. “Our sister Mary has stayed behind to tend her. They both send their regrets tonight.”
“They shall both be greatly missed.”
Sir William was a very bad liar. The unmitigated relief in his eyes betrayed him as surely as if he wore a sign around his neck. Who could blame him though? Neither Mama nor Mary was by any means subtle about their feelings. It was to his credit that he would have invited them at all.
“Eliza!” Charlotte appeared over her father’s shoulder and grasped Elizabeth’s hands. “How very glad I am to see you tonight.”
“I would not dream of missing this.” Hopefully she was not as bad a liar as Sir William.
Watching others congratulate Charlotte on what surely must be a decision that would bring her unhappiness would be difficult at best. But there were things that one did to honor a friendship.
“Come in. I think there is company here you will find agreeable.” Charlotte looped her arm in Elizabeth’s and edged her way around the crowded room.
What space was not taken up by old, somewhat worn furniture was filled by people. Sir William always managed to invite more people than his house would comfortably hold. There was always greater than average risk of someone knocking over a candlestick with so many elbows and shoulders in play.
“Miss Elizabeth.” Mr. Wickham sauntered—or more rightly sidled— toward them, flanked by two other officers. “How welcome to see you here tonight.”
“Thank you very much. My younger sisters are here as well.” She inclined her head toward Kitty and Lydia at the opposite side of the room.
Mr. Wickham’s companions abandoned him in favor of the small flock of young ladies.
“Excuse me, Eliza, Papa is calling to me.” Charlotte dipped in a tiny curtsey and wove her way toward the vestibule.
“There was some talk that you might not be here tonight.” The corner of Mr. Wickham’s mouth turned up a bit.
“Indeed? Why ever would that be?”
“Perhaps I should not be the bearer of such news. Word has it that Miss Lucas was not the first recipient of Mr. Collins’s … attentions. One might think that to be in the same party with her for so many hours together, could be more that you could bear. Scenes might possibly arise unpleasant to more than yourself. I would certainly not blame you at all if that were the case.”
Elizabeth gasped and pressed her hands to her cheeks. Every servant in the village, and consequently in Meryton, must have heard the story by now. Why had Mama not learned to keep her peace?
“Forgive me. I fear I have embarrassed you.” Mr. Wickham peered at her closely.
“I hardly know what to say. I had not considered that it would be widely known. I bear no ill will toward my friend and am perfectly content to be in her company. It is entirely disquieting to think that anyone should believe otherwise.”
“I would not be concerned if I were you. You are here and that disproves any rumored animosity between you and your friend. Your reputation as one of the kindest ladies in Meryton is quite safe.” He leaned a modicum closer and whispered, “Moreover, the fact you were his first choice shows his good taste and the fact that he is now with his second choice shows yours.”
Elizabeth fought back a snicker.
“That is much better. Good humor becomes you.”
“Thank you, sir, I shall try to remember that.”
“Your admirers would all prefer to see you thus.” His eye twitched in what surely must have been a wink.
“Now you flatter me, sir. I would have thought you would know better than to offer such idle flattery to a young woman.”
“It is hardly idle at all.”
Gracious, how his eyes sparkled in the candle light. The dimples in his cheeks were so very, very appealing.
“If you will not allow me to speak of your charms, then perhaps I might be indulged a question.”
“Perhaps, sir. But I know you too well to permit you carte blanche in such a matter.” Her heart beat just a mite harder and faster.
“You wound me!”
“With my rapier wit?”
He chuckled. “I know your family were on rather intimate terms with the Bingleys. Have you any idea regarding their return to Netherfield?”
A chill snaked down her back.
“Forgive me, I have offended.”
“Not you, sir, not you.” She bit her lip and looked at the ceiling. “Though we had hoped otherwise, it now appears that the Bingleys are engaged in town for the remainder of the winter. It seems we shall not be enjoying their society any time soon.”
“I am very sorry to hear that. I know his company was particularly agreeable to your sister.”
“His company shall be missed.”
“But not his sisters. No, you did not by any means say that. I speak for myself. They both were far too much like Mr. Darcy for my liking.”
“Indeed, sir, they are. At least Mr. Darcy’s company shall not be a burden this winter.” She bit her tongue. It would not do to share the contents of Jane’s post with him.
“Always one to look on the bright side. He was not one of the countryside’s chiefest charms.”
“So you find our county charming, sir? What do you pronounce its best feature?”
He looked out over the room. “Without a doubt, the company. I have hardly found a place more welcoming. You know the militia often meets with less friendly hosts.”
“I have heard.”
“I have marveled at how agreeable Meryton and Hertfordshire have been. I must thank you, for you and your family have been a great part of that. Your parents’ approbation had certainly influenced the opinion of the rest of the community.”
“You impart a great deal of influence to my family. Perhaps you think too well of us, but it is a vice I can easily overlook.”
Oh, the way he smiled! No wonder Lydia yearned for his attentions.
“I pray all my vices are so easy to overlook.” He clasped his hands behind his back.
“Have you many of them, sir?”
“I fear there are far more than you have noted.”
“I shall be more careful in my observations, then.”
He stepped half a step closer and met her gaze. His eyes were so warm and sincere, full of … of something she could not name. “I should very much enjoy being the object of your close study.”
Surely there must be some appropriate response, but none availed itself, so she stood gaping at him.
“You are doing it again!” Lydia stomped and crossed her arms, edging between Elizabeth and Wickham.
Elizabeth jumped. “Lydia!”
“Shall I not have my share of the conversation?” Lydia smiled up at Mr. Wickham, batting her eyes.
Wickham winked at Elizabeth. “Of course you shall.” He offered his arm. “I see a young lady I do not know. Will you introduce me?”
“That awful freckled thing? That is just Mary King. I cannot imagine why you would want to know her.”
“Nonetheless, it is right for us to be introduced, and who better than to do the honors than you?”
“Oh, very well.” Lydia clung to Wickham’s arm. “You will see she is dull indeed and not worth knowing at all. Come along.”
Lydia pulled Wickham away, with a quick wrinkled-nose backward glance.
The impertinence might have upset her except Wickham followed with a long-suffering look of his own.
It was a shame to lose his company, but perhaps it was best not to spend the entire evening in conversation with him to the exclusion of others. Surely there would be opportunity to enjoy more of his society later.
If you enjoyed this post you might also enjoy: