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 20, 1811 Papa’s advice
The next morning, Mr. Collins left Longbourn very early—probably planning to partake of his breakfast at Lucas Lodge. Elizabeth took her accustomed place at the round table, near the windows. How pleasant it was not to have Mr. Collins crowding her elbow. With only Jane sitting directly beside her, the normal cozy blue and white room felt positively spacious.
Racks of toast, preserves and butter dotted the table, with Mama’s prize chocolate pot standing sentinel near her seat. The faint spicy smell of chocolate tinged the room with warmth. There was nothing quite like Mama’s chocolate on a chilly morning.
Papa appeared at the breakfast table, though he hid behind his newspaper—something he had not done in all the time Mr. Collins had been in residence. Mama’s nerves were still frail and she took no pleasure in Lydia’s recounting of the Lucas’s party. She rallied briefly as Wickham’s attentions to Elizabeth were described, but failed again at the news of Mary King’s new fortune.
“An heiress?” Mama gasped and pulled out her handkerchief. She fanned her face and gasped for breath. “Ten thousand pounds?”
“Her grandfather left it to her. Who knew she was in line for such favor? I wish someone would die and leave me ten thousand pounds.” Lydia crossed her arms and huffed.
“She got ever so much attention last night. It was quite shocking really. All the officers seemed to notice her for the first time. She is such a nasty freckled thing!” Kitty sniffed and buttered a slice of toast, crumbs flying to and fro.
“A fortune will always make a woman far more attractive than she deserves to be.” Mama’s face contorted into the horrid little mocking gesture she reserved to express her deepest disapproval. “Miss Mary King certainly does not compare to your beauty, Lydia dear, nor to Jane’s.”
However to herself and Kitty… no that thought was not helpful at all. Best not pursue that line of thinking. Elizabeth spooned preserves on her toast.
“Not that any of your beauty seems to matter at all these days. I cannot at all understand the behavior of these young men.”
“I cannot imagine it has changed very much from our own young days.” Papa sipped his coffee.
“Has not changed? Has not changed? How can you possibly say that? I see few similarities at best.” Mama dabbed her neck with her handkerchief.
“A pretty face has always attracted attention, but a fortune, that motivates a man to act.”
“What are you saying, sir? What do you mean of your own daughters?” Mama slapped the table.
Glasses shook and china rattled.
“Only that they should not be surprised that Miss King is receiving so much attention now. It is normal, and it will pass. She will marry soon enough, I am sure, and the neighborhood shall return to normal. A little patience will return nearly all their beaux to them.”
“So you believe Mr. Bingley will return to us as well? I cannot understand his absence. It is entirely irresponsible. He owes it to the neighborhood—”
“Madam, the only thing he owes is his rent to Mr. Bascombe.” Papa did not lift his eyes from his paper.
“Be that as it may, I cannot fathom why he should continue to stay away.”
Jane closed her eyes and turned her face aside.
Had not Mama already discussed this issue sufficiently? Did she think there were new answers to be found now?
“Perhaps Mr. Bingley was not as fond of Meryton as we thought, Mama.” Elizabeth avoided Mama’s gaze as she spoke. “It is very possible that his affections were of the common and transient sort. Now he is in London, presumably among very pleasing society and surroundings, I am sure he finds enough to delight him that he has little memory of his time here among us.”
Mama drew a deep breath.
“Little memory! Little memory! How can you say such a thing? How can you speak of your sister so? She has been very ill-used indeed. You suggest that she is not the most beautiful creature of his acquaintance? You would decry her beauty, her grace, everything that is desirable about her? How can you speak of her so?” Mama gesticulated wildly, nearly knocking over the chocolate pot.
“Please, Mama.” Jane laid her hand on Elizabeth’s wrist. “She said no such thing. How can you imagine she would be so unkind?”
“You heard what she said as well as me. What else could she possibly mean?”
Papa caught Elizabeth’s gaze and rolled his eyes. At least he did not believe Mama’s accusations. He slid his chair back. “Only that Mr. Bingley is as many young men, bent on his own pleasure and rather oblivious to the opinions of those with little connection to him at all.”
“Little connection? You saw how attached he was to our dear Jane. How can you call that little connection?”
Papa muttered and shook his head.
“It is well Mama, truly—” Jane’s fingers tightened on Elizabeth’s arm, the only real testament to her distress that she would show.
“No it is not. It is not well at all. I declare I do not understand how you can say that.” Mama shook her head and shoulders, as if that would repel the very idea. “I simply cannot accept that he was not very attached to our dear Jane. He might not return for the winter as has been said, but I am quite certain the summer will find him returned to us. I will hear no other opinion”
Mama’s decided snort dared them to disagree.
“Then I suppose there is little left to discuss.” Papa rose, dipped his head, and left.
Mama huffed and turned to Elizabeth.
That look never boded well.
Elizabeth dabbed her lips with her napkin and rose. “Pray excuse me.” She hurried away.
A walk in the garden might be nice. A walk anywhere would be a distinct improvement to another minute in Mama’s company. Jane’s forbearance might be equal to the task, but not her own.
Crisp, clear fall air greeted her with sharpness in her nose and a chill across the back of her neck. She pulled her spencer a little closer. Papa stood near the bare-limbed wilderness as if contemplating whether or not to partake of its pleasures. She strode to his side and slipped her hand into the crook of his arm.
“Shall we walk?” She looked up at him, but he did not look back.
He grunted and matched her steps.
The soft moss that covered the path hushed their footfalls to gentle whispers, lost on the breeze that wafted the scents of autumn on its wings.
Papa’s warmth beside her and comforting scent of soap and shaving oil spoke of safety and stability, all the things Mama thought ephemeral. Perhaps Mama was right, but for now, maybe just now, all was well. She leaned her head on his shoulder.
“So, Lizzy,” he said, “your sister is crossed in love. I congratulate her. Next to being married, a girl likes to be crossed in love a little now and then. It is something to think of, and gives her a sort of distinction among her companions.”
“I think it is a distinction she would be happy to do without.”
“Perhaps you are correct, but still I think it should give your mother many hours of comfort and conversation during the coming winter.” He clucked his tongue. “When we are all in want for something to distract us from the cold, she might remind us all of the ruined expectations
caused by Mr. Bingley’s infidelity.”
“I think a game of chess would suit me much better.”
“And I too my dear.” He patted her hand. “When is your turn to come? You will hardly bear to be long outdone by Jane.”
“I do not take your meaning, sir.”
“Being crossed in love, Lizzy. Let now be your time. There are officers enough at Meryton to disappoint all the young ladies in the country. Let Wickham be your man. He is a pleasant fellow, and would jilt you creditably.”
“Thank you, Sir, but a less agreeable man would satisfy me. We must not all expect Jane’s good fortune.”
“True, but it is a comfort to think that, whatever of that kind may befall you, you have an affectionate mother who will always make the most of it.” He patted her hand over his arm.
She chuckled, more because he would expect it than because she felt the mirth of it.
Whatever could he mean? She might be mistaken, but no, it sounded very much as though he were, in his own way, encouraging her toward Mr. Wickham.
He had never before remarked so on a young man, and there had been opportunity. Why would he do so now? Perhaps he was only teasing as he was apt to do, but perhaps not.
Could he be as concerned as Mama for their future?
A chill breeze blew and cooled her flushed cheeks. Perhaps Mama’s nervous flutters were far less silly than she thought.
How much danger were she and her sisters in? Were the hedgerows as near as Mama intimated?
Elizabeth faltered a step and struggled to keep up under the weight that descended upon her shoulders.
“There, there now, do not take it so hard. I hardly imagine it shall be much of an onus to you.” He held his hand over hers and paused until she found her footing again.
He was right in that. Continuing to enjoy Mr. Wickham’s company was hardly a burden … certainly not compared to bearing the responsibility of securing the family’s future.
December 23, 1811 Gardiners arrive
Monday morning, bright and clear, proved perfect for traveling and welcoming the Gardiners to spend Christmas at Longbourn. The children tumbled out of their carriage into Jane’s waiting arms. Though three hours was not really so very long to be confined to a carriage, their young cousins would be hard pressed to agree and were ready to follow Jane into the garden to spend pent up energy.
Jane adored the Gardiner children. They brought the first genuine smile to her face since Miss Bingley’s letter had come. One more reason to appreciate the Gardiners’ arrival.
Mama waited inside the parlor with tea and refreshments on the low table in front of her. Afternoon sun warmed the room invitingly, dust motes playing in the sunshine. In the warmth, the pale, floral print curtains reminded Elizabeth of the garden in early summer.
“How lovely all this looks!” Aunt Gardiner placed her large basket on the sofa as she stood just behind. As comfortable as their carriage might be, there was nothing better than standing after hours so confined. “You are so very good to have this waiting for us.”
“Aunt Gardiner!” Lydia and Kitty burst in, the door hitting the wall behind, adding another small dark mark to the paint where the door handle struck.
Aunt Gardiner extended her hands and greeted them with kisses on their cheeks. “How well you both look! And see what I have brought you from town!” She opened her basket and handed bundles to them all.
“Do sit down girls and act like the refined young ladies you are.” Mama gestured them all toward seats around the table, but that did not stop Kitty and Lydia from dancing in the sunbeams.
“The ribbon I longed for! Oh look Mama!” Lydia draped a length of pink embroidered ribbon across her bodice. “Will it not look well on my sprigged muslin gown?”
“Indeed it will, child. You are so thoughtful, sister.” Mama unwrapped a bundle of silk flowers. “You chose these to go with my blue gown.”
“Indeed I did. I am certain you will find some good use for them.” Aunt Gardiner smiled broadly.
Kitty bounced on her toes. “Oh, oh, the lace is so beautiful I cannot wait to put it on my bonnet!”
“I hope you will be able to do so before we leave. I would very much like to see your work.”
“Thank you for the music,” Mary’s tone was demure, but her eyes glittered.
Somehow Aunt Gardiner always chose the most thoughtful gifts. The beaded reticule suited Jane as did the book Elizabeth had once borrowed from the circulating library on her last visit to London.
“Surely you must be peaked by now. Sit down and refresh yourself.” Mama began serving tea and talking of all the changes in the neighborhood since the Gardiners’ last visit.
Aunt Gardiner listened politely to Mama list her grievances and complain at how ill-used they had all been. Two of her girls had been on the point of marriage. Yes, still after all that, there was nothing in it.
Jane blushed and examined her new reticule closely. Elizabeth steeled her spine to keep from squirming in her seat.
“I do not blame Jane, for Jane would have got Mr. Bingley, if she could. But, Lizzy! Oh, sister! It is very hard to think that she might have been Mr. Collins’s wife by this time, had not it been for her own perverseness. He made her an offer in this very room, and she refused him.”
Aunt Gardiner reached for her hand. “But sister—”
Mama pulled back. “The consequence of it is that Lady Lucas will have a daughter married before I have. Worse yet, Longbourn estate is just as much entailed as ever. The Lucases are very artful people indeed, sister. They are all for what they can get. I am sorry to say it of them, but so it is.”
“Mama!” Jane’s eyes pleaded for reprieve.
“It makes me very nervous and poorly, to be thwarted so in my own family, and to have neighbors who think of themselves before anybody else. However, your coming just at this time is the greatest of comforts. I am very glad to hear what you have to tell us of long sleeves.”
None of Mama’s news was truly new to Aunt Gardiner, having heard it all in prior correspondence with Elizabeth. Perhaps because of that, or her general level of compassion for her nieces, she was only too pleased to turn the conversation to how long sleeves were being worn in town.
Half an hour later, Aunt Gardiner begged leave to stretch her legs outside. Elizabeth offered to show her the changes in the garden, and they hurried off together before Mama could protest.
The evening chill would set in soon. They had perhaps an hour before the cold—and waning light—would drive them in. But for now, they could enjoy the colors of the sunset as they painted the fall blossoms, as dry leaves and grass crunched underfoot.
“It seems likely to have been a desirable match for Jane,” Aunt said. “I am sorry it went off. But these things happen so often! A young man, such as you describe Mr. Bingley, so easily falls in love with a pretty girl for a few weeks. When accident separates them, he so easily forgets her. These sorts of inconstancies are very frequent.”
“An excellent consolation in its way, but it will not do for us. We do not suffer by accident. What think you of it when the interference of friends persuades a young man of independent fortune to think no more of a girl with whom he was violently in love only a few days before?” Elizabeth plucked a tall stalk of grass and swished it across her path.
“But that expression of “violently in love” is as often applied to feelings which arise from an half-hour’s acquaintance, as to a real, strong attachment. Pray, how violent was Mr. Bingley’s love?”
“I never saw a more promising inclination. He was growing quite inattentive to other people, and wholly engrossed by her. Every time they met, it was more decided and remarkable. At his own ball he offended two or three young ladies by not asking them to dance. I spoke to him twice myself without receiving an answer. Could there be finer symptoms? Is not general incivility the very essence of love?”
“Oh, yes—of exactly that kind of ‘love’ which I suppose him to have felt. Poor Jane! I am sorry for her, because, with her disposition, she may not get over it immediately. It had better have happened to you, Lizzy; you would have laughed yourself out of it sooner. Do you think she would be prevailed on to go back to London with us? Change of scene might be of service.” Aunt Gardiner raised a knowing eyebrow. “Perhaps a little relief from home, may be as useful as anything.”
“What an excellent scheme, I think she will be most pleased of it.”
“And tell me of yourself, now. Are you sure you are unaffected by your brush with marriage?” Aunt Gardiner clasped Elizabeth’s hands.
“I assure you, Mr. Collins has left me utterly unscathed. I shall not repine his attentions.”
“I am relieved to hear it, for it seems you mother is intent on making you regret your choices.”
Elizabeth shrugged “I have grown accustomed to it, I think. And she is not so very intent. She is now encouraging me to encourage the attentions of yet another young man.”
“Indeed, this is news to me. Pray tell me more of him.”
“He is an officer in the militia and hails from Derbyshire. That alone should ensure your approval of him.”
“My approval?” Aunt stopped short and stared into Elizabeth’s face. “That you desire it suggests there is some attachment on our part.”
“I assure you, neither of us is violently in love. He is a pleasant gentleman. You will see for yourself I am sure. Mama has many engagements planned for whilst you are here. I have no doubt there will be opportunity to see you are introduced.”
“I shall look forward to it.” Aunt’s expression did not quite agree with the sentiment.
“So shall I. I would value your opinion on the gentleman both my parents seem to approve of.”
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