“No.” Elizabeth swatted at wafting feathers. “Even if you enter into a marriage of convenience, your husband will fall violently in love with his sweet, beautiful wife. You, of course, already love everyone. Ergo, deepest affection is a foregone conclusion, not fancifulness.”

“Have you taken a fancy to anyone on Lord and Lady Matlock’s long list of potential suitors? Has any fellow managed to attract the attention of – How did the society page recently describe you? – one of the most promising young catches in the country?”

“Do not speak so! I absolutely abhor that fishy appellation.” Elizabeth plunked herself on a chair. “To answer your question, no. None have yet caught this catch’s fancy. After carefully trawling through the pool, my aunt and uncle have narrowed it down to a dozen or so gudgeons.” She crossed her arms and pouted. “We attended Almack’s on Wednesday evening, you know. I should say we attended the Marriage Mart. Oh, Jane! The Countess and Lady Sefton paraded Cassandra and me around like prized fillies or broodmares at Tattersall’s. How I detest being popped off and on display! Honestly, I am quite put out at now being out. Becoming an official member of society is certainly not all it is cracked up to be.”

“Well, I am grateful your noble relations allowed you out of their clutches long enough to be here during my final week. Leonard, Ruth, and Casper are all agog to exhibit my accomplishments. Whilst I do not look forward to such scrutiny as you describe, I am impatient to leave this place.”

“You are invited to stay with me next month, if your brother will allow. I shudder to think of the matchmaking schemes my relatives have planned. As my guardian, the Earl will elicit an embarrassing effusion of eager, eligible, egotistic emissaries endeavouring to earn my esteem.”

Jane flopped backward on the bed and giggled. “Well, I give you full marks for alliteration and am glad you gleaned something from our lessons today.” She rolled to the side and propped herself on an elbow. “All along I thought you were paying more attention to a gothic story than to Miss Welby’s assignment. That was a novel concealed behind your book of literary terms this afternoon, was it not? Are you reading The Demon of Sicily now or The Mysterious Freebooter?”

“I’ll have you know it was a sophisticated selection of sonnets, not lowbrow literature.” Elizabeth rummaged through her trunk, withdrew three books, and fanned them out for her friend’s inspection. “Now, shall we lower our brow and read The Italian, The Mysteries of Udolpho, or The Monk?”

Her serene smile belied mischievous, twinkling blue eyes as Jane reached under the mattress, pulled out her own contraband, and, kneeling on the bed, held a book against her bosom. “I have here something even more shocking than those. While home, I confiscated ...” Jane turned the cover in her friend’s direction. “... this.”

Eyes widened, Elizabeth gasped. “Felicity told me about that book. We should not ... should we?”

As Jane bowed her head, unbound hair fell about her blushing cheeks. “I understand it is rather wicked. We probably should not succumb to unwholesome curiosity.”

“Balderdash!” Elizabeth flung herself onto Jane’s cot and snatched away the book.

“What? My dearest friend, I have come to the conclusion we simply must read this story. We both know of your softheartedness toward orphans less fortunate than ourselves. It is horrid enough to lose one’s parents, as we both experienced. Can you image the plight of a foundling? I cannot. Ergo, it behooves us to become educated, enlightened, erudite –”

“Egad, Elizabeth, enough!” Jane quickly plaited her hair and snuggled under the cot’s quilted counterpane.

Elizabeth lit another candle, settled into a comfortable position in her own cozy bed, and began to read aloud Book One of Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling.

To all their impressive scholastic and societal accomplishments, Elizabeth and Jane added something more substantial – the improvement of their minds by extensive, albeit forbidden, reading.

Miss Jane Bingley met Miss Elizabeth Darcy the year they were enrolled at an elite and exclusive educational establishment in Queen’s Square. The prestigious London seminary indoctrinated gently born females of tender years in those disciplines necessary for them to become accomplished women. The class-conscious school’s main claim to fame was a high success rate in producing qualified young ladies armed with the means and wiles to procure eligible husbands from the cream of the crop of society’s middle and upper echelons. The unambiguous ambition of its headmistress and her wealthy patrons was Quality – the capital kind.

When she was unceremoniously bundled off to the only truly reputable boarding school in Town, Jane’s older brother, Leonard, had reiterated his reason for sending her there. “My dear, even a wealthy woman like you must also have a wealth of accomplishments to attain what you are most in want of.”

“Quite right,” said their younger brother, Casper, “and what prospective husband could possibly desire an inept bride – one unable to cover screens, paint tables, net purses, or sing in Italian?”

The esteemed seminary brought in specialized masters for music and dancing lessons but employed erstwhile governesses and impoverished gentlewomen as regular teachers. Those women, well past seven and twenty, each lived in single blessedness; and some pupils questioned the wisdom of being trained by on-the-shelf spinsters.

Jane respected the women; and, while working with silk thread and a shuttle, she remembered to refine her diction as instructed by Miss Howe. “I do admire their independence and resiliency in the face of unimaginable adversity.”

Elizabeth flipped through pages of La Belle Assemblée and rolled her eyes. “Oh, yes, to be sure. To find oneself on the wrong side of the marriageable age and husbandless is to find oneself in dire straits, indeed.” She glanced at her friend and laughed. “Look what you have done! Are you creating mesh to simply cover a reticule or producing enough to actually net a husband?”

Jane blushed and tossed aside the netting supplies. “As I was saying, it would not be unimaginable adversity for us. But imagine yourself in a family with limited means. What if you had four sisters and a lackadaisical father with an entailed estate? What if your dowry was paltry? What if you could not attract a husband? What then, Lizzy?”

Elizabeth was instantly sobered by such a thought. “I suppose I would have to become a companion, a governess, or a teacher at an esteemed seminary. Nevertheless, I still believe those options preferable to marrying without affection.”

Their formal institutional instruction included penmanship, fancy needlework, modern languages (namely French and Italian), drawing, music, a smattering of geography and history, and that most vital of all life skills – dancing.

Although girls’ education was not as intense as that of their brothers, boys were not the only pupils given lessons in mathematics. One gloomy afternoon, Jane struggled with her sums and enlisted Elizabeth’s help.

“Why must we bother with tedious addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division? I have never had a head for numbers. My brothers – and, hopefully one day, my husband – shall handle all my business transactions. Why must I learn?”

“We will eventually run our own households. That is why young women are taught the rudiments of arithmetic.” As Elizabeth checked Jane’s totals, she grinned. “We are, after all, expected to increase and multiply once we marry.”

The seminary also taught its parlour-boarders social graces such as genteel manners, graceful movement, and refined diction. Ruth, bride of the eldest Bingley brother, provided Jane with additional coaching in air, manner of walking, tone of voice, address, and expressions. Leonard and Casper were adamant their sister possess ‘that certain something’, or the word ‘accomplished’ would be but half deserved.

At the Queen’s Square school, other girls became polished in supplemental arts such as airs and graces, tittle-tattle, and perfidiousness. It might be that Jane and Elizabeth were absent on those didactic days; but they were such sweet girls (sugar would not melt in their mouths), truancy was totally out of character. They had, more likely, simply been absent-minded rather than absent during those particular lessons. Although the subject was not included in the seminary’s curriculum, Jane and Elizabeth had become engrossed in the lofty study of architecture – namely, the building of castles in the air.

They shared not only a room, but daydreams of the future. Each night, before they retired, Jane and Elizabeth practiced their accomplishments and envisioned their destinies. Both orphaned, they feared their beloved but avaricious guardians would negotiate supposedly advantageous unions for them without any regard for regard. They vowed, however, to never devote themselves to marriages of convenience without the convenience of avowals of devotion.

As often as their relatives agreed, Jane and Elizabeth visited one another after their formal education was completed. When apart, they kept up a steady stream of correspondence. Elizabeth rarely stayed with the Bingley family, for the less time spent with her friend’s ingratiating brothers the better; but Jane was a frequent guest at one or another of Lord Matlock’s stately homes or at Pemberley, the Darcy ancestral estate.

Elizabeth and her younger brother were wards of their uncle, the Earl of Matlock. At the tender age of sixteen, George had rapidly completed his studies at Eton and was at Cambridge. Unlike many of his older and bored undergraduate classmates, there merely to idle away their youth, Pemberley’s heir attended university to further his education in mathematics and philosophy.

As her only sibling, George’s absence was keenly felt by Elizabeth. The separation was made bearable by her companionship with the Earl’s daughter. Lady Cassandra had became more sisterly than cousinly after the deaths of Lady Anne and Mr. Darcy.

Lady Cassandra Fitzwilliam, Miss Elizabeth Darcy, and Miss Jane Bingley caused quite a sensation when they arrived together at social events. While not as attractive as Elizabeth or Jane, Cassandra had a charming personality, emerald eyes, and honey-blonde hair. Amiable, accomplished, and artistic, her best feature was an engaging smile, which she shared unstintedly.

Her passion was painting, and the Fitzwilliam family homes were filled with Cassandra’s art. Most skilled at portraiture, her finest work was a depiction of Elizabeth on a bench in
Pemberley’s garden. Along with those of countless Darcy ancestors, that portrait was proudly displayed in the picture gallery at Pemberley. The oil painting had taken many sittings to complete; and, vexed by Elizabeth’s restlessness, Cassandra had resorted to bribery. For every half hour session Elizabeth managed to sit patiently, she was rewarded with a brisk walk of equal duration. Cassandra’s exasperation was compounded by her giggling cousin’s proclamation that such inability to keep still for any extent was, admittedly, a poor trait.

Jane lived with her elder brother – her guardian – and his wife in a respectable section of Town. Ruth had not had much to entice a man into wedlock, other than an adequately female form and ample dowry; but Leonard had been smitten by her portion. With them lived their disgruntled younger brother, Casper, whose wooing of a baronet’s daughter in Tunbridge Wells had been most cruelly and inconveniently aborted when her father discovered the Bingleys’ fortune had been crudely accrued in trade. Casper returned to the bosom of his family in an acrimonious fit of pique and with a stronger determination to shed all traces of their lowly social circumstances.

Their grandfather’s wealth had origins in manufacturing and wise stock investments. His son eventually sold the warehouses and moved the family from their northern home to London. Jane’s father derived only short-lived pleasure from his inherited new money. Due to a stroke of bad luck, he expired of an untimely apoplexy a few years after the relocation. Tragedy struck again during an epidemic in 1803, when Bingley’s widow succumbed to a virulent influenza caused, it was assumed, by breathing the city’s bad air.

Those misfortunes, tragic as they were, conversely brought good fortune to Leonard, Jane, and Casper. Their mother’s marriage settlement alone meant her children could live and breathe among London’s nouveau riche – foul air notwithstanding.

With beauty, accomplishments, poise, and an impressive dowry, Jane’s eligibility was well established. At a dinner hosted by Leonard and Ruth, Jane was expediently introduced to Henry Devonport when she was twenty years of age. Instantly smitten with the wealthy young man, Jane could hardly resist when her brothers nudged her in his direction or outright threw her in his way. Mutual attraction flourished; and after weeks of careful scheming by the Bingley brothers and, by lucky chance, coincidental attendance at the same social events, Henry Devonport asked for permission to court Jane. Both she and her brother, Leonard, consented with alacrity.

Eager to impart the news in person to her dearest friend, an invitation was dispatched.

Accompanied by a traveling companion – her latest personal maid, Parris – Elizabeth arrived at the Bingley’s London home within the week.

“Well, after having received not one word from you in over a fortnight, I was finally presented with an express summarily summoning me, without an explanation, to Town. You have some
explaining to do, Miss Jane Angelica Bingley, not only to me but to my formidable Uncle de Bourgh. Sir Lewis was most seriously displeased when I left Kent early.” Elizabeth handed her gloves and bonnet to a waiting servant and kissed Jane’s cheek.

“I am sorry to have cut short your visit, Lizzy. How was Rosings?”
“My uncle drove me to distraction, and cousin Andrew drove me through the hermitage in his phaeton. Talk about recluse driving! I swear if I had to stay with those de Bourghs much longer, I might have been driven stark raving mad and ended up in Bedlam. So, thank you. Your fortuitous invitation saved me from seeking asylum. Now, what has kept you occupied lately, why have you been such a poor correspondent, by what right do you look so radiantly beautiful, and why am I still standing here in your foyer grumbling like my curmudgeonly uncle?”

Jane laughed and grasped her friend’s hands. “Forgive me for letting you prattle on so. I am simply overjoyed to see you and have much to relate. Come to the sitting room, and I shall send for refreshments.” After settling by the crackling fire and exchanging the necessary pleasantries regarding the health of one another’s relatives, Jane said, “How was the situation in Kent, really?”

Elizabeth accepted a gooseberry tart and some figs from a servant and sighed. “Lord and Lady Matlock will be displeased. I met none of the spousal candidates they recommended to Sir Lewis. He practically kept me prisoner at Rosings. Heaven forbid I should meet any eligible men during my stay, other than Andrew.”

“He is still adamant you must marry your cousin?” At Elizabeth’s unhappy nod, Jane grimaced and squeezed her hand. “Oh, Lizzy, I fear for your happiness. Your uncles will only remain patient for so long. Lord Matlock and Sir Lewis, while at cross purposes, may soon insist you marry the suitor of their choice. How many of the Earl’s candidates have you rejected so far?”

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “You do not want to know.”

Jane smiled at her friend’s sullen expression. “What of the Honourable Simeon Callow?” “Immature, insolent, and not at all honorable.”

“Sir Graham Grace?”

“Dandified fop. His only saving grace is being light-footed on the dance floor.”

“The Viscount Longsword?”

“Verbose. I could not get a word in edgewise, and I believe he swallowed a dictionary. He is hopelessly pleonastic, prolix, and periphrastic.” Elizabeth shook her head. “We would not get on.”

Jane giggled. “Mr. Graves?”

“Dull. No sense of humour.” Elizabeth sighed. “Oh, Jane, what is the matter with me? They were, in all honesty, worthy gentlemen; but I was not attracted to any of them. They had nothing to recommend themselves other than wealth, title, connections, and fashion. I have my own connections and am not interested in all the fancy things money and privilege can buy. ‘Tis nothing but worldly trumpery. What of a man’s character, his integrity? While we are at it, why do I find none of the gents in my sphere particularly appealing? I have been presented with peers of the realm as well as commoners wealthy beyond belief, but none appeal to me. I am too fastidious for my own good.”

“Do not despair. You will eventually find someone special, just like I did. That happy day shall most likely come about when you least expect it.”

“I hope so but remain sceptical,” said Elizabeth. She sipped ratafia then put down her glass, folded her hands, and gave her friend an arch look. “Now, you had best tell me before you burst. I doubt your blissful expression is due to my arrival. Honestly, you look as smug as the cat that swallowed a canary. Wait! Did you just say you found someone? Good heavens, Jane! Cough up your fine feathered friend at once!”

“I have, indeed, met someone. Someone special. Oh, he is more than special; he is exceptional. My romantic hopes and dreams were not fanciful after all. I have the deepest affection for – and from – a most singular man. We are presently courting, but I know he will soon offer for my hand. I am truly blessed, Lizzy. He is everything I desire in a husband – kind, attentive, charming, generous, and–”

“Oh, Jane, this is the most marvelous news!” Elizabeth gave her friend a quick hug. “Now, does this someone special, sorry, someone exceptional, have a name, perchance? How and when did you meet? What is his age? Where is his home? What are his connections and worth? Oh, rot. I sound like Sir Lewis again. As short as my visit was, I fear it was long enough to have been a bad influence. I trust your judgement of your suitor’s connections and worth. But, pray tell, is he at least a handsome gentleman?” Elizabeth grinned. “That is, after all, the most important attribute an eligible man ought to have, if he possibly can.”

As related by Jane to her friend, Henry Devonport was an only child who had come into a substantial inheritance. His mother had died long ago in childbirth, as had the tiny infant. Years later, before the man could join the landed gentry, a fever and putrid sore throat claimed Henry’s father, a highly successful London merchant.

Hoping to fulfill his late father’s fondest wish, Henry Devonport searched for a manor with extensive land. The long quest eventually led him to Hertfordshire and finally to Netherfield Park. His purchase offers for that estate, plus an adjacent property, had been accepted shortly after his meeting Jane. With those transactions concluded, he set out to make another offer, one for her hand.

They married when she was a woman of one and twenty summers; and the happy couple honeymooned in the Lake District, followed by a Season in Town. Henry Devonport planned to surprise his darling wife by presenting their large country estate to her on their first anniversary. He had wanted everything to be absolutely perfect; but before Netherfield’s major renovations were completed to his satisfaction, tragedy struck.

Elizabeth remained the best of friends with Jane. She was there to witness her marriage to Henry Devonport, and she was there to grieve with her when Jane became a widow at two and twenty. Following the funeral service, Jane stayed inside the church and quietly wept while Elizabeth held her hand and the menfolk laid Henry Devonport to eternal rest.

Clad in sombre black bombazine, the grief-stricken widow routinely visited the churchyard and left a garden of flowers and a river of tears upon her beloved’s grave. Devastated by the loss of her adored husband, Jane seemed inconsolable; and friends and relatives became deeply concerned for her welfare.

Especially worried, Elizabeth was determined Jane’s happiness and vivacity would be restored in due course; and she devoted all her time and tender loving care to that end. It was a long, hard road to eventual recovery; and they traveled it together for a year and a day.

Elizabeth, Cassandra, and Ruth stitched deep hems onto Jane’s black mourning dresses. In time, for half-mourning, they sewed black ribbon and trim onto the white and grey fabric of her clothes. They bought black-edged stationery and helped Jane contend with piles of correspondence. They played best-loved pieces on the pianoforte, sang for her, read to her, asked the cook to prepare her favourite dishes, and coaxed Jane to eat.

One whole year after the tragedy, Cassandra presented Jane with a miniature of Henry Devonport, exquisitely painted in watercolours on ivory and set in an oval locket; and the widow wept anew at the striking likeness of her auburn-haired husband. On the next day, Elizabeth persuaded her friend to don a lilac morning dress instead of a mourning dress; and they both smiled. Later still, the widow finally laughed again when Elizabeth brought her a new companion – a Blenheim-coloured King Charles Spaniel, which Jane immediately named Ryd Evon.

On only one occasion during Jane’s sorrow did Elizabeth leave her side. Toward the end of her friend’s official mourning period, Elizabeth traveled to Ramsgate in company with her
Fitzwilliam relatives. As close a bond as the two friends shared, Elizabeth remained singularly tightlipped regarding the family emergency that had called her away to the harbour town.

When Elizabeth returned to London, Jane immediately perceived her friend’s changed demeanour. Always somewhat reserved in company but perfectly at ease with family and friends, Elizabeth had become even more withdrawn.

Under the circumstances, Jane decided both she and Elizabeth should recover from their tribulations in a bucolic setting rather than in London with its pollution, noise, gossip, overrated society, disease-filled air, and fortune-seeking cads.

To that end, Jane invited a small party to the estate left by her late husband. During his short married life, Henry had envisioned all the time in the world for Seasons in Town and quiet seasons at Netherfield Park. Yet Jane had never set foot in her Hertfordshire home.

A six-passenger coach, drawn by four nicely matched chestnut horses and driven by the Devonport coachman, carried the widow plus Elizabeth, Casper, Leonard, Ruth, and Ryd Evon to a part of the country none of them had ever explored. The late September day was unseasonably warm and the air oppressive in the carriage; but since her husband’s curricle accident, Jane refused to travel in any open equipage. The protection of a strong, enclosed conveyance provided the widow with a sense of security as well as concealment from pitying acquaintances.

Having taken care of all arrangements for Henry’s funeral, Jane’s brothers then assisted her with a myriad of legal matters, hired a new stewart, and ordered the preparation of her inherited estate. The Bingleys did wonder, though, at Jane’s not asking them to lease or sell the place outright for her.

While the brothers waited for the three ladies to refresh themselves at an inn on the outskirts of Meryton, the younger of the two said, “Len, please explain to me, one more time, why on earth Jane wants to maintain a country house out here–” He gestured toward open land. “–in the middle of nowhere.”

“Where would you have such an estate situated? It would not be much of a country house in the middle of Town, now would it?”

“Well, I have never even heard of the godforsaken place. I cannot wait to tell my friends I spent time in Merrytown. We would have been much better off remaining in London’s fashionable society, for I am certain there is none of that to be found hereabouts in Heifersure, Hardforsure, whatever.”

Leonard, head of the Bingley family, nervously glanced around. “Hold your tongue, lest your insults be overheard. I, for one, do not wish to be accosted by Hertfordshire hicks.” He looked toward the fields. “At least there should be some sport to be had here in the wilds of the middle of nowhere.”

Casper had other pursuits in mind. After suffering a string of rejections due to his lowly connections, he was determined to turn the tide by gaining the hand – and prodigious dowry – of his sister’s comely and prominent friend. The fact Casper’s intended intended had a member of the peerage for an uncle was a jewel in his crown, and Miss Elizabeth Darcy was no ordinary gem. She was a brilliant, sparkling, flawless diamond of the first water.

As the coach and four approached Meryton, Casper said, “My dear Miss Darcy, how ever shall we occupy ourselves in the country? I fear our fine sensibilities will suffer in such crude surroundings.” He sniffed in disdain, flicked his hair, and crossed his legs.

Elizabeth did her best to ignore Casper’s simpering attempts to engage her attention; but it proved difficult, as he was seated directly across from her. For all that the coach was roomy, it was impossible to move away every time he crossed his legs. His foot repeatedly grazed against her skirts; and it was, to her annoyance, deliberately done. She could not wait to escape the confined carriage and, especially, Casper’s snide remarks and overpowering cologne. “The landscape may be different here than in Derbyshire,” said she, “but I am quite used to the country. My beloved Pemberley and my uncle’s grand estates are, after all, situated in rural settings.”

“Oh, nothing can compare to the magnificence and splendour of Pemberley. I am, of all things, exceedingly fond of natural beauties. When I said crude, I referred to possible exposure to coarse behaviour.” Casper noticed her contemptuous look, leaned forward, patted her gloved hand, and said, “Never fear, Miss Darcy, Leonard and I shall protect you.”

Just then, a bumblebee flew in through a lowered window; and Casper screamed like a little girl. At least Jane and Ruth had the grace to scream like the refined ladies they were.

Elizabeth froze. As much as she loved flora and fauna, she was terrified of bees and wasps. Their sting was not innocuous. Her father had died, quickly and inexplicably, after being stung by one such creature.

Leonard calmly swatted the huge, hairy, humming beast with a rolled-up newspaper, muttered “Nasty bugger” and flicked the dead body through the open window.

Jane grasped her friend’s hand. “Open your eyes, Lizzy. It is gone; and, if I am not mistaken, Netherfield Park is on the left, at last.” 
courtesy of Kevin Tuck - rgbstock.com

No comments:

Post a Comment