Fanny Bennet, the mistress of Longbourn, sat in her favorite chair in the parlor. How good it felt to get off her feet for a moment. Thankfully, she had just checked off the last of her morning list. So much to do to prepare for the dinner party tonight!
Mr. Bennet would be returning from town soon. The girls played quietly upstairs with the nursery maid. Everything around her was in order. She leaned her head back with a contented sighed and permitted herself a moment’s rest and reflection. Her husband was respected in the community. Her neighbors sought her company. They dined with four and twenty families in the area. The dire words that her father had spoken over her at her marriage to Mr. Bennet had not come to pass. She was not his ruination.
Eight years of hard work reflected in the quiet efficiency of her household and the contentment of her husband’s tenants. Few knew how hard she worked or how diligently she studied to learn all that her own mother failed to teach her. But she wanted it that way. How mortifying it would be to be discovered exerting such efforts over what came so easily to others! She shuddered. No, she would not allow anything to lend credence to her father’s declarations of how unfit she had been when she first married. Now, finally, she felt the seeds of confidence bursting forth.
If only she could produce a son, though. That one accomplishment still eluded her. None of the advice she followed seemed to make any difference. Five daughters! What proper wife produced only daughters? There had to be an answer for it.
She puffed out a sharp breath. No time to dwell on such things, her afternoon list called. As she rose, movement outside the window caught her eye. A strange carriage rolled up the drive, directly toward the house. She hurried to the window. The coach bore neither crest nor any kind of identifying mark. Of average quality and color, it gave no clue as to its occupants.
Her heart squeezed in her chest as she glanced at the mantle clock. Not, she had not lost track of the time. Her dinner guests were not due for hours yet. She leaned closer to the window.
The carriage stopped near the front steps and the driver jumped down. He flipped down the step and opened the door. A dark clad man and two women emerged.
Edith? What is she doing in a strange carriage? Why would she be bringing someone here? Fanny gasped. Her hand flew to her mouth. Mr. Rawls and Melissa? When did they return from the continent? I did not know they are come back! What are they doing here? Mr. Bennet declared they were not welcome at Longbourn. What am I to do?
She hurried away from the window to the door then back to the settee. Patting her hair, she tried to sit, only to land on a misplaced pillow. Fanny jumped up, rearranged the pillows and straightened her skirt. A sharp knock at the door made her gasp.
“Come in.” If only her voice sounded less unsteady to those on the other side of the door than it did in her own ears.
“Mr. and Mrs. Rawls and Mrs. Philips to see you, madam.” Mr. Hall lifted his eyebrows. “If you wish, I will instruct them to return when the Master is home.”
Fanny swallowed hard. “No, he will be home soon. It is all right. Show them in.” She fumbled for her fan and fluttered it awkwardly.
Hall bowed and retreated. A moment later, he reappeared, three guests following.
Fanny jumped to her feet. “Sister, brother, I did not realize you were back.” She dismissed Hall with a small wave. “Edith, you did not tell me.”
“We have been back nearly a month now, in London.” Mr. Rawls Rawls thumbed the labels of his expensive coat. He glanced about the room as he sauntered in. His gloved hand glided across the back of each chair he passed.
Fanny gestured for him to sit.
He glanced at his glove and brushed traces of dust from his fingertips with his thumb.
“We have only just arrived in Meryton.” Melissa sashayed in behind him. She gazed around the room, nose wrinkled as though a bad smell hung in the air. “Edith insisted we come to see you, as we have never seen Longbourn.” She rolled her eyes and shook her head.
“You have been on the continent for so long—” Fanny folded her fan and set it on the table with a clatter.
Melissa perched on the settee beside her husband, hands primly folded in her lap. “Edith told me you have five daughters! Five!”
“Yes, I do,” Fanny stammered. He cheeks grew hot, her heart seemed to inch up into her throat, the way it always did when Melissa scolded.
“Whatever were you thinking producing so many girls?” Melissa’s frown followed well-etched lines in her cheeks.
Fanny lifted her chin and pulled her shoulders back. “They are fine, dear girls. My youngest, Lydia just began walking. I will have the nursery maid bring them down directly.” She scurried out the door and shut it behind her, panting as it shut.
“Madam?” Hill asked.
Fanny leaned against the wall, pressing her temples. “Have the girls brought from the nursery.”
Hill curtsied and disappeared up the stairs.
What was she to do? After the Rawls refused to attend their wedding, Mr. Bennet had banned them from Longbourn. But she could not turn her sister and brother away. Why had he not returned yet? She needed his strength so much!
Hill returned with the girls and their nursery maid in tow. Fanny inspected each of her daughters, tucking their hair and adjusting their dresses until she could stall no longer. She led them into the parlor.
Edith smiled warmly. Melissa and Mr. Rawls, wearing identical severe expressions, stared at the girls.
“These are my daughters. Children, this is your Aunt and Uncle Rawls. They have been on the continent all these years. That is why you have never met them. They are only just come back.” Fanny stood behind them and urged them to take a step closer to their strange relations.
The older girls glanced at each other, then back at their mother and nursery maid.
“We are pleased to meet you,” six year-old Jane offered softly at the urging of the nurse. She curtsied in her best grown up fashion.
“I am Lizzy,” the precocious four and a half year-old pressed forward to offer her own awkward curtsey.
Kitty and Mary hid behind their nurse’s skirts while Lydia struggled to free herself from the young woman’s arms.
“They are fine girls, are they not?” Fanny wrung her hand.
“Have you only one nursery maid for all five?” Rawls sniffed. He turned to his wife with lifted brows.
“Why yes, they are good children and have no need…”
“Really, Fanny, I thought better of you.” Melissa rolled her eyes. “I grant your oldest is a very pretty girl. But she should be under the care of a governess by now, learning all those accomplishments she will need in order to save her family…”
“Save them? Save them from what?” Fanny’s face grew cold and her chest pinched. “Patsy, please return the girls to the nursery.”
Bobbing her own curtsey, the nursery maid ushered the girls out.
“Now what is it you believe my Jane must save her family from?” Fanny crossed her arms and scowled, hoping she looked stronger than she felt.
“Why, the entail, dear. Edith told us all about it.” Melissa looked at Edith.
Edith’s jaw dropped and she stammered something unintelligible.
“Have you forgotten that Longbourn is entailed away from your daughters?” Melissa’s saccharine voice dripped venom. “Or did Edith exaggerate in her letters?”
Fanny’s hear raced, her breath coming short. “It is true.”
“So if anything happens to your dear, foolish Mr. Bennet, you will be thrown out into the hedgerows, my dear, unless your girls make good matches.” Mellissa gracefully rose and strode to her youngest sister. “Have you not wondered why God has not given you a son?”
“Melissa!” Edith Phillips snapped and jumped from her seat. “You have gone too far! Stop it right now.”
“Hold your tongue, woman!” Mr. Rawls commanded, glaring at Edith.
“You are being punished for what you have done.” Melissa laid her arm over Fanny’s shoulders.
“What have I done?” Mrs. Bennet whispered hoarsely, her stomach knotted miserably.
“We all know what you have done, Fanny. There is no need to pretend.”
Fanny stared at her, forehead knotted.
“Jane was born in August, you were married at the end of December.” Mr. Rawls sneered.
“Clearly you anticipated your vows and went to the altar…” Melissa patted Fanny’s shoulder.
“Jane was born early…”
“Of course you say that, dear. You do not take us for fools do you?”
“Tell her!” Fanny turned to Edith. “Jane was so tiny when she was born. If you had seen her you would know, she was born too early. The midwife did not think she would survive. Edith…”
“It is true, Melissa.” Edith rushed to her sisters and took Fanny’s hand. “I was there when Jane was born. It was exactly as Fanny says. I told you that in my letters!”
“Of course you would support your favorite sister and try to cover her sins.” Melissa’s lips wrinkled in a frown and she folded her arms over her chest. “Every woman in her position says the same thing. But saying it does not make it true.”
“We all see the evidence of your low morals. That is why you have only girls.” Rawls leaned against the back of the settee.
“Can you not see, Fanny? You are not a fit mother for them.” Melissa sidled closer to Rawls.
“How can you say such a thing!” Edith snapped. “They are fine, sweet girls! You can ask anyone in town here who knows them. There is not a one here who would criticize them. She has raised them…”
“To be loose women like herself!” Mr. Rawls took a step toward Fanny. “You are a liar and a public woman. I am surprised Bennet condescended to marry you. He could have kept you as a mistress …”
“Mr. Rawls! Stop it, you cannot say such things!” Edith jumped between Mr. Rawls and Fanny. “Your accusations are utterly false. I cannot let you speak so. How can you say such things about our brother? He is a good man—”
He pushed Edith away and she fell to the floor with a thin scream.
“Stop it!” Fanny lunged toward Edith. “Do not touch her and do not talk about my husband in such disgusting ways!”
“We know what you are Fanny.” He stepped closer to Fanny.
Melissa edged in closer from the other side, trapping Fanny between them. “But your girls do not have to suffer your same fate.” She leaned close, her breath hot on Fanny’s face. “Do you want your girls to be like you? They do not have to be.”
“What are you saying?” Fanny barely got the words out. Her throat felt dry as cotton wool.
“The Lord has not given us children,” Melissa whispered. “But that is so that we can provide a decent home and upbringing for yours. I can raise them to be true ladies, as my own daughters. They will make fine matches. I can introduce them to the Ton, they will have all the advantages that an accomplished woman can give them. Just think how much more I have to offer them. They do not have to be tainted by your sin.”
“You cannot have my girls!” Fanny stamped her foot. “Get out of my house! Get out! Mr. Bennet has never welcomed you here. He would not want you to stay! Get out!” She grabbed Melissa’s sleeve and pulled her toward the door.
“Not without those girls! You cannot raise them, Fanny. You are no better than a common whore!” Mr. Rawls took Melissa’s arm and pulled her toward himself.
Fanny whirled on him and slapped him as hard as she could. “No!”
His head snapped back and he stumbled but caught himself on the mantle, laughing. “You have just proven our point. You violent, uncontrolled—” He stepped backward, caught his heel in the carpet and tumbled down. His head struck the fire irons. A dull thump, the sound of a melon dropped on the floor echoed through the room. He lay still upon the floor.
“What have you done!” Melissa flew to her husband’s side.
The door flew open.
“Send for the doctor now!” Edith cried.
Mr. Bennet gasped. “What are they doing in my home? Hall, call for the doctor.”
“Mr. Rawls fell and hit his head.” Edith cried, pointing toward the fire irons.
“You brought that miserable toad into my house?” Bennet dropped to his knees beside Mr. Rawls.
“They just arrived. They had not met the girls! They had not seen Longbourn!” Edith stammered. “They insisted on coming. It was not my idea, not my fault…”
“He is still breathing. Hill!” Bennet rose. “Hill!”
Hill peeked in. Her face turned ashen when she saw Mr. Rawls.
“Call for the grooms to get him upstairs and into a bed. See to him when they get him there.”
Hill curtsied and hurried away.
A quarter of an hour later, they had Mr. Rawls ensconced in a guestroom, tended by the doctor, Melissa and Hill. Upon the doctor’s arrival, Edith rushed home to get her husband.
Bennet and Fanny stood alone in the parlor. He took her hands and led her to a chair. She sat and he knelt beside her.
“He will not survive. I…I…killed him…” she whispered, a lost look on her face.
“No, you did not. You have not the strength to do such a thing,” he whispered in her ear, wrapping her in his arms. “He tripped and fell. You had nothing to do with it.”
“I slapped him—”
“You did not make him fall.” He brushed tears from her cheek.
“How do you know?”
“You see the carpet bunched on the floor? That is where he tripped. It was not you.” He brushed her sweat dampened fringe back from her forehead. “What did he say to provoke you so?”
Tears filled her eyes and her chin quivered. “Jane, she was born in August. You know she was early. She was so small! But they said…we…that you…that I…”
“Shhh.” He pressed his fingers to her lips. “I understand.” He ground his teeth. Oh the things he would like to say right now, but Fanny was too delicate to endure his temper, even if it were directed at another. “You and I both know what they claim is untrue. They are the only one who would make such an issue.”
Fanny sniffled and nodded weakly.
“My dearest, they are jealous. We have five beautiful girls. They have no children and probably never will. Rawls is accustomed to taking what he wants, by any means necessary.” He kissed her forehead. “He was cruel and horrible and wrong. What happened here is not your fault. It was his own doing.”
She blinked rapidly and swallowed hard. “They came. I did not invite them.”
“Of course not.”
“I knew you did not want them here, but I did not know how to turn them away. I did not wish to hurt their feelings.” She pressed her fist to her mouth and bit the edge of her finger. “They wanted to take the girls! They said I was an unfit mother, that God was punishing me by giving me only daughters!”
“Our girls are not a punishment! They are my delight! How could anyone claim such a thing?” His clenched his fists and rose slowly. “I have never heard something so absurd!”
Fanny began to sob. “He said I was nothing but a common whore and that our daughters would be too! Father said…” She crumpled into her lap, hiding her face in her hands.
“Oh Fanny!” He laid his hand on her back.
How long had he struggled to forgive Old Gardnier and his like-minded son Rawls? Their harshness had forever scarred his precious wife. Just when he could finally face his father-in-law without a mouthful of caustic words, his fool brother-in-law would have to return to reopen those old wounds. How was he to forgive this new offense? He exhaled heavily. Somehow, for Fanny, he would, lest he permit bitterness to overwhelm him.
He leaned down to kiss her cheek. “I promise you, none of those words will leave this house. I will not hear such things spoken against you or the girls. Do not believe a word that was said.”
She lifted her face from her hands and met his eyes for three long breaths. With a nod, she pressed her lips hard and rubbed tears away with the back of her hands.
“New, I must go upstairs to deal with the doctor, but do not fear, dear Fanny. I promise you, I will take care of you.” He pressed his handkerchief into her hand as he rose.
Hill waited at the door. “How is she, sir?”
“Fragile. She does not deserve this.” He sighed and tugged his coat sleeves. “Stay with her; be gentle with her. They broke her heart today. Do whatever she needs. All I want is to see her well again.”
Hill nodded and slipped into the parlor. Setting his features into a grim expression, Bennet climbed the stairs.