A Mother’s Favorite Wish
Lord Perryton had waited in London for the weather to clear before he was off to Essex in pursuit of Sally Robinson. She was dead, of course – just like so many other people involved. Twenty years was a very long time. Her husband was still alive.
The Earl of Perryton had learned that Sally had married the father of her first child. The little girl had stayed with Sally’s mother, who had given birth herself a few months before. Sally was but fifteen when she realized she was with child and the father only a few years older. They could not afford to marry and since the child’s grandmother could nurse her, it was decided Sally would look to become a wet nurse. By a stroke of good luck, Sally learned of a wealthy woman who needed her almost immediately. Sally nursed her little girl until it was time to go to London and her position. She had no idea she would spend the next year and a half in Kent.
When Lady Catherine no longer needed her, Sally returned to her family. The dowry the de Bourghs provided was enough for her and her beau, a Mr. Uriah James, to marry. They had a son and then another. Unfortunately, Sally James died as a result of the birthing of that second son. Mr. James had remarried a year or so later and still worked in the stables of an estate in Essex.
Harold Fitzwilliam had arranged for a room at an inn near where Mr. James worked and lived. His man had already been to see Mr. James’ employer, seeking permission for the earl to meet the man. Without divulging the nature of the situation, Lord Perryton’s representative gained the desired interview.
It was apparent to the earl that Uriah James had come to meet him in his Sunday best. The man tugged nervously at his coat and fidgeted with the cuffs on his shirtsleeves.
“Mr. James, thank you for agreeing to meet with me.”
“Mr. Walters said you wanted to see me, milord. So here I am.”
“Yes, well. Did he say why?”
“I see. As you must know, I am the Earl of Perryton and the brother of Lady Catherine de Bourgh.” James’ eyes widened. “You recognize the name, of course. Before you married, your wife served the de Bourgh family as nurse to Miss Anne de Bourgh.”
“Aye, that she did. And it was a godsend, sir. They were very generous to her and the money they gave her let us marry once Miss Anne was weaned.”
“So I have learned. Fear not, they were very happy to reward your late wife for her service and were sad to hear of her passing.”
“The reason I have sought you out is to see if your wife ever spoke of anything unusual regarding Miss de Bourgh’s birth.”
Mr. James stared at his questioner, obviously pondering what he should say.
“My Sally did nothing wrong, milord. When she was given Miss de Bourgh, she took care of her like she was supposed to.”
“I am not accusing Mrs. James of any wrong doing, I am just asking if she ever told you anything unusual about her life at Rosings. Mr. James, let me be frank. Miss de Bourgh herself now knows her life did not begin quite as she believed. I am here at her request, and with Lady Catherine’s blessing. I am not asking you to betray any family secrets. What we desire is the truth.”
Mr. James looked doubtful.
“You have my word that nothing will happen to you. Please, what did Mrs. James tell you?”
“Before she left the country that first time, Sally told me she was waiting for word that the baby she was to nurse had been born. She was still with her family then. I swear, I wanted to marry her since she was thirteen, and well, I should have known better. Sally and me and her family needed the money, so she was happy when someone came and offered her the chance to go to a fine estate to take care of some baby of the Quality. Anyway, she sent me word that she was off to London and that she would make sure I knew where she was. Then she went to Rosings and I didn’t see her for almost two years. When she came back, she had news of her dowry and we got married as soon as I could find us a place to live.”
“Did she say anything then that you found odd?”
“No, your lordship. It was not until after she had our son that she told me what had happened when she went to London. She stayed at a boarding house for a few days. Someone had paid for her lodgings and told her to remain there until they came for her. She was surprised that she wasn’t taken to some grand house. After two days she was starting to get worried, but then after supper a man came to her with a baby, Miss de Bourgh it was.”
“A man? Did she say a name?”
“No. She had never seen him before. The man gave her the child to feed and then after the babe had eaten and quieted down, he put her on a coach to Kent. From there she was left at a cottage and then taken to Rosings.”
James looked intently at the earl, not wishing to say what they both knew to be true. Lord Perryton spoke.
“Go on. Miss de Bourgh knows she was adopted by the family.”
“Sally and the baby were taken to the house and there they both stayed. She never told a soul but me what I just told you. She’d defend that family with her last breath. They were so good to her and to us. I do not know when we would have been able to marry had they not provided for her future.”
“I understand. Can you tell me any more? Who contacted Sally? Anything?”
“No, sir. That’s all Sally ever told me. I never asked. I guess I was afraid to know any more. Your family is not angry with us?”
“Heavens no! Sally made sure my niece survived. We are grateful for her service and only wish you and she had more time together before she died.”
“I did not want to marry again after Sally, but my boys needed a mother…”
“I am certain the present Mrs. James was very much appreciated by them, and their father. We do what we must for our families.”
“Yes, that we do. Um, if you have no further need of me, I had best go home to my wife and assure her that all is well.”
The men stood and Lord Perryton offered his hand. An awed Mr. James grasped it. “Thank you, sir, for your time. I appreciate your honesty.”
“You are welcome. And I won’t say anything about Miss de Bourgh, sir. I won’t dishonor my Sally’s memory.”
“I am sure you will not. Good day.”
Uriah James bowed and then scurried out of the room as fast as he could. The earl remained and ordered a drink. So there was a man involved. Quite likely the person who had snatched Anne from her family was the one who brought her to London. Unfortunately, with the wet nurse and midwife both long dead, there was no one who could provide any information.
“Damnation!” Lord Perryton cursed as he pounded his fist on the table. There was nothing, not one thing that brought them anywhere closer to the truth. He leaned back in his chair and massaged his temple, trying to soothe the headache that was beginning.
‘If we do not find the valet, then we might as well put this to rest. There is nothing new to be learned in America. Maybe the truth really did die with Lewis,’ he thought to himself.
The earl summoned his servant. He needed some powders for his head and perhaps just as important, another drink. The last had spilled when he struck the table.
More often, the Bennet estate received Mr. Charles Bingley and Sir John Whitby. The reason for their near constant attendance was widely known after the ball; the gentlemen were calling on Jane and Mary.
Anne could see that her sisters were pleased with the attention of their admirers, though Jane tried very hard to display an evenness of temper. Anne was learning to notice the signs her sister showed when she was extremely flattered. Like Anne’s husband, Jane Bennet was very reserved and that reserve manifested itself as demureness.
The Darcys suspected that their sisters’ courtships would continue for months. Fitzwilliam was relieved to observe the care the gentlemen took in wooing. The Bennet girls were not like the women they had met in town. In many ways, they were refreshingly naïve, and Bingley and Sir John were taking great pains to determine if their prospective marriage partners would be overwhelmed by an entry into superior society, or if they had the character to adjust. Only time would tell the men if they should call off the chase.
In addition to calling at Longbourn, the Darcys did their best to attend to their hosts. If the Netherfield party were invited to dine out, the Darcys would go with them. They tried to be at the manor house when the Bingleys held their morning at home for the neighborhood to call on them.
Anne kept up her correspondence with her mother. She had returned to Kent a few days after the Darcys and Bennets had left. Lady Catherine assured Anne of her intention to consider Anne her daughter in every way. At the same time, she encouraged her to learn all she could about her family. Lady Catherine still believed it was in Anne and Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth’s best interest to keep the true relationship to the Bennets unknown. With this Anne heartily agreed. She believed that they could satisfy the curiosity of the world if the Bennets were considered her cousins. In her heart, they were her family and that was enough for Anne.
It was with mixed emotions that Anne bade the residents of Hertfordshire farewell. The past two weeks had been a whirlwind of social engagements and she looked forward to returning to the peacefulness of Pemberley. They had been invited to stay through Christmas, but Fitzwilliam was worried about the snow and ice and the ever-deteriorating conditions of the roads. They must head north before it became too dangerous.
There were promises to correspond, both from Longbourn and Netherfield, and Anne expected Sir John to keep her husband informed of the happenings in the second household much better than Charles Bingley. She felt that the next time she saw her Bennet relations would be at the marriage of one of her sisters. Until the news came, they would write of other things and wait to discover which one would be engaged first.
Bingley and Sir John were not unaware of Mrs. Bennet’s hopes. They had every intention of finding out if they were the answer to her prayers. Unfortunately, it occurred to them that they had chosen a poor time of year to explore the possibilities. For while they could call at Longbourn, and encounter their ladies at the different functions in the neighborhood, it was rather too cold to escape outdoors for long walks with the Misses Bennet. When the weather was fine, and the ground not too icy, they took every opportunity to coax the women outside for turns about Longbourn’s gardens. On one of these expeditions, Sir John managed to steer Miss Mary Bennet away from the others. He had her arm firmly in his, not wishing her to fall on the slippery paths. They were talking of inconsequential things before he changed the direction of the conversation to more substantial matters.
“Miss Mary, may I broach a serious subject?”
Mary started and blushed. “Of what do you wish to speak, sir?” Her voice was wavering.
Sir John smiled, amused at her sudden discomfort. He patted her hand that lay upon his arm. “Nothing so great as you fear it to be. I was rather wondering if my lack of stature bothered you?”
“You are a respectable man with a title and estate. I see nothing lacking in your stature, sir,” Mary replied, confused.
Sir John laughed quietly. “No, you misunderstand me. I meant, does the fact that you are taller than I trouble you?”
“Oh,” Mary blushed anew. “Why should it? I mean, you have not been gifted with height like my cousin Anne’s husband.”
“Darcy towers over everyone,” he agreed.
She continued, “I do not measure a man by his outward appearances. Just because the good Lord did not make you tall, does not signify a deficiency in your character or anything else that truly matters.”
“It did not bother you when we danced, that your partner did not look down upon your smiling face?” he asked, pleased with her response.
“I should hope you do not think me so shallow that it did!” she cried.
“No, I do not think you so shallow. Mary, you must know why I ask?” His use of her Christian name thrilled her. She quickly turned her head so their eyes met and just as rapidly dropped her gaze back to the path before them.
“I do,” she spoke the words so softly that he could barely hear her. “And I tell you your character is what I care to see.”
“I do not want there to be regrets.” Sir John paused. He needed her to understand him. “You see, with other women in my past, it has made a difference in how they viewed me.”
“Then those women were fools.” He was delighted by her fierce defense of him.
“Even your cousin?” he asked playfully.
“Anne? Anne was … put off by your height? I cannot believe it.”
“Oh yes, but I think she was already in love with Darcy when we met and it was a convenient excuse to pay me no consideration. There was another issue between us, which later she very kindly helped me overcome. So do not be too hard on her. I am grateful for all she taught me. Anne had the decency to give me a chance to become her friend. There were plenty of other women who have simply laughed at me, though usually behind their fans.”
“How awful that must have been for you. Did none but Anne see your goodness?”
“You think me good?”
“I… Yes, I do. I find you honorable and kindhearted. After all, you chose to spend time with me. While women may have laughed at you, men have simply dismissed me. It is not easy to walk in the shadow of a sister like Jane. If she were not such a lovely person, I would be resentful, I think.”
“Yet, here I am.”
“Yes, you are.”
Satisfied with the content of the conversation, Sir John steered them back towards the entry to Longbourn. “Come, we have been outside in this cold long enough. Let us return to the warmth of the house.”
Anne had quickly ascertained that corresponding with five sisters, two brothers, and two parents was an impossible chore – if she planned on doing anything but write. Thus she developed the pattern that she would continue for many years of beginning her letters with an open section for the entire clan. The second page would begin with more personal dialogue to the missive’s recipient. Sometimes there would be two separate sealed pages for two different people. Fitzwilliam teased her about the lack of personal attention in failing to write separately to all nine Bennets, but he agreed with her methods. Besides, he was just selfish enough to want her to pay attention to him, rather than make nine copies of the same information.
Sir John Whitby took a similar approach in his letters to Pemberley.
Whilst it might not be entirely proper, I have decided to address this portion of my letter to the both of you. I know your wife well enough, Darcy, to know she will demand you hand this over to her as soon as you finish. I might as well accept the inevitable and craft my words for you both.
Anne laughed at the words of Sir John. He really was a dear man. Darcy complained that Bingley offered no such courtesy and he alone was burdened with trying to decipher the blots that Bingley fancied could be substituted for the English language.
… The courtship of the eldest Misses Bennet continues. Bingley has shown a constancy that surpasses anything in the past. It falls on Hurst and I to daily ply him with alcohol to sober him up from his time spent with Miss Bennet. I doubt it will be much longer before he decides to propose. Even his younger sister has accepted the fact that he will soon enter the married state. Thankfully, she has decided there is too great a difference in our stature – and I do not mean social – to pursue me any more. Alas, I seek solace from this abandonment in the presence of Miss Mary.
Anne, I must tell you that I grow more fond of your cousin the more I spend time with her. And to answer your question, no, I have not yet decided if she is the one I wish to wed. I give you my word that I do not toy with her. Your husband kindly made your position on my attentions to her clear. She knows I like her, and why I am here, but she has not yet shown that she is ready for an offer of marriage. I believe, from intelligence garnered during a recent tête-à-tête, that she is terrified of receiving one!
At least I now know she is not put off by being the taller of the two of us. Yes, we did have that conversation. It seemed like a good idea to get past that subject before we continued.
There, have I convinced you that all is well?
Give little Elizabeth a kiss from her Uncle John.
Anne was delighted. “I suppose we know where things stand. It appears Jane will have some news for her family soon.”
“Has she said anything in her letters about her feelings on the matter?”
“No, not really,” Anne admitted. “Then again, she did not wish to speak of Bingley either in Kent or Hertfordshire.”
Fitzwilliam frowned. “Is Bingley in danger of not having his affections reciprocated? If so, I should warn him off immediately.” Anne had to assure him that was unnecessary.
“Jane would not talk about him, but she would blush when I mentioned his name. She likes him very much, I believe.”
“Ah, good,” he said, relieved. That was not a letter he wished to write, especially after he had encouraged Bingley in his courtship of Jane. “Then I suggest there is nothing to do but wait for the parties involved to come to an understanding.”
“Yes, I suppose you are correct. Oh, I forgot to tell you, Elizabeth rolled over from her stomach to her back and then back again today…” Anne and Fitzwilliam decided it was time to see their daughter in the nursery. She spent more time with her daughter than most ladies of her station and certainly more than her mother had spent with her. Lady Catherine, that is. The fact remained that there was a reason the Darcys employed a nursemaid for Elizabeth. Anne Darcy had many responsibilities as mistress of two large estates. Her days were filled with matters large and small, everything from menus, to tenant visits, to receiving calls from the neighbors. Keeping her darling Fitzwilliam under good regulation was her greatest challenge, but he need not know that.
Elizabeth squealed when she heard the voice of her mother, just before the nurse handed her to Anne.
“Hello there, little one. Did you miss me as much as I missed you?” The baby babbled a bit in response to Anne’s question. “I brought Papa with me. I think he wants to see his princess.” Anne laughed and passed Elizabeth into her father’s protective hold.
“My, you are my big girl. And as beautiful as your mother. I shall have to hide you away at Pemberley when you are older before some young man comes here and falls as passionately in love with you as I did with your Mama.” Anne gave him a look full of devotion.
“Would you like me to wrap her up so you can take her for her walk?” the nursemaid asked.
Anne looked to her husband, and he nodded. “Yes, thank you.”
It only took a few minutes for Elizabeth to be bundled up to protect against the chill that was impossible to banish from the house in the middle of the winter, no matter the number of fires that were lit. Fitzwilliam and Anne both wore clothing made from wool to keep warm themselves. However, they were not going to allow a few cold drafts to deny them the pleasure of showing Miss Darcy her ancestral home. They coveted the time spent as a family in the different parts of the great house. The rooms they were headed to had fires lit in them far enough in advance to warm them in preparation for the visit of the master and mistress.
The idea for these outings was Darcy’s. He wanted Pemberley to be just as much Anne’s home as it was his, and these intimate family gatherings were meant to infuse their memories with images of their family here in Derbyshire. While he knew Anne loved Rosings the way he loved Pemberley, to be truly happy together, Pemberley must someday take precedence in her heart. Instead of possessing Rosings, they were really only caretakers for the child who would someday take ownership, either Elizabeth or a brother to come. He knew that; Anne, as yet, did not.
Winter was milder in Kent than in Derbyshire.
That was one of the things about which Anne frequently grumbled in her letters to her mother after her marriage. Lady Catherine laughed ruefully. One of the advantages of moving south from Lincolnshire after her own wedding was the warmer climate in wintertime. Not that there was a tremendous difference, but it was enough to be noticed and appreciated.
Mrs. Stuart came into Lady Catherine’s study for their daily meeting. Maggie had served her mistress for over two and twenty years, most of them as her housekeeper. Day after day, year after year, the two women met, Lady Catherine always letting Maggie know who was the mistress and who was the servant. Yet despite this, they had become friends in their own right.
“I received a letter from Anne yesterday. My granddaughter has started crawling.”
“Miss Darcy is a fine lass, and appears to take after her mother.”
“Aye, and if so, she will be a trial to her parents.”
Maggie laughed. “I did not think you noticed.”
“Why on earth do you think I allowed the nursemaids to look after Anne when she was little? And you along with those poor servants, for that matter.”
“Indeed!” Both women took a drink of their tea. “Mr. and Mrs. Darcy still plan to arrive at Rosings at the usual time?”
“Anne has not said they will not. I expect them to come as they always have.” Lady Catherine hesitated before continuing. “I also received a missive from my brother.”
“Has the earl any more news?”
“No, as I believe you are aware. He still awaits word from his man in America.”
“It matters not. They have nothing to tell him if they are found.”
“You were very thorough.”
“You have paid me to be very thorough.”
“And Lewis’ man, you are certain he will not be found? I cannot believe I did not think to buy his silence.”
“Actually, your husband did, albeit unwittingly.”
“Sir Lewis left Mr. Walls a large enough sum of money that Walls did not need to seek out employment as a valet again. He left Kent for a chance to be his own man, a new start in life, so to speak. He will not be found unless someone knows where and how to look.”
“Do you know where he is?”
“You have trusted me this far. Trust me to keep your secrets the rest of the way.”
“You will not tell me?”
“Tell you what, your ladyship?” Maggie smirked.
“Apparently nothing I need to know.” Lady Catherine smirked back.
Anne and Fitzwilliam read their letters together, commenting as warranted.
“What does Jane have to say?” he asked, thinking he already knew the answer.
“Bingley finally worked up the courage to propose. What does he say?”
“Well,” Darcy studied the words on the page, “he says, ‘my…’ I think it’s ‘angel’, ‘loves me and has … agreed? …’ yes, agreed ‘to be my wife.’ Please dear, have mercy on me and share Jane’s words. Bingley was obviously very excited when he penned this.” Darcy rolled his eyes and waved the paper in his hand. “When he is agitated, the quality of his penmanship decreases at an alarming rate.”
…Mr. Bingley asked me to marry him this morning. I accepted, of course. He is a dear man and as you have teased me repeatedly about his attentions, you must know I was receptive to them from the beginning. He had hinted enough about this eventuality that I was not too surprised when he declared himself. I must admit that I was extremely pleased to finally discover the depth of his feelings for me. I shall be cherished and loved, and that is all I have ever truly desired.
I suppose you would like some details on how this momentous event occurred. The weather was fine and Mary and Sir John took advantage of the sunshine to escape outdoors with us. Charles, I can call him that now, must have spoken to Sir John and asked for his assistance this morning because before I knew what was happening, Mary and Sir John were nowhere in sight. Charles led me to a bench sheltered from view of the house and asked me to sit down. Instead of sitting next to me, as he had done before, he knelt down and opened his heart. His words were so beautiful, that even now I blush in memory of them. I hope you will not be disappointed when I say that I do not wish to share them with anyone else. All that needs to be told is that he asked me to be his wife and I happily agreed.
We will wed in two months, at the end of April. I hope you and Mr. Darcy will be able to come for the wedding. I remember you saying you would be in Kent before you went to Town for the Season. Since Longbourn is but a half-day’s journey, I believe it should not be too difficult for Charles to convince you to come for a few days at least. He intends to write to your husband with the offer.
I would like all my brothers and sisters to see me wed. I may not be the first of us to marry, but I shall be the first to marry from this house.
“Oh, that is what Bingley was trying to convey,” Darcy replied, surprised at how much easier it was to read Bingley’s missive once he knew its contents. “Shall I write to accept his offer?”
“Certainly. I will write to Mother with the news and inform her that we may cut our trip to Rosings short, depending on the date of the wedding. Poor Mama, I feel I have been neglecting her.”
“I think Lady Catherine understands your divided attention these past months. And we will see her soon enough…
“I was wondering if we should plan to stop in Hertfordshire on our way to Rosings? It is a convenient place to break our journey. We could leave a few days earlier than planned.”
“Perhaps we are trespassing on Mr. Bingley’s hospitality?” Anne challenged playfully.
“Do you honestly think Bingley would mind? I know him, and if he is as in love as he appears to be, he might not even notice we are there.”
“Miss Bingley would.”
“She will be happy to house us, especially since she will be off to London right after the wedding looking for a husband. Caroline Bingley is no fool. A connection to us is highly desirable in her quest and she will do everything in her power to ensure it remains intact.”
“You are very frank today,” Anne noted.
“And right,” he said rather smugly.
“Yes, you are. It is the way of things.” She paused. “I tend to forget that not everyone is as fortunate in their marriages as we are.”
He took her hand and bestowed a searing kiss. “Indeed, we are the lucky ones.” The next kiss he gave her was not on the hand.
“I have received a letter from your sister. The Darcys will stop here for a few days on their way to Kent. I am sure we owe the honor of their visit to you and your Mr. Bingley.” Jane nodded her head, but her father detected a lack of delight in her sister’s visit. “Jane dear, I thought you might be a bit more pleased to hear that Anne is coming back. I thought you would be happy to see her again so soon?”
She sat still, with her eyes closed. “I have been thinking about her a great deal.” Jane opened her eyes and met her father’s intent gaze. Her voice was soft, but her unease was very clear. “I have not told Mr. Bingley who she is. I do not believe I have her permission to reveal that to him.”
Mr. Bennet leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers. “I can see how this would weigh upon you. You are not one who is comfortable keeping secrets from those you love.”
“No, I am not.”
“Would you like me to write to her?”
Jane pondered that for a few moments. “I think it would be best to wait until they arrive so we can talk about this face to face. As awkward as such a meeting might be, I believe that is the wisest course of action for us to take.”
“Do you think she may refuse?”
“I really do not know, Papa. She has given no indication that she is ready to publicly claim us as her true family.”
‘At last we come to it, what is truly bothering Jane,’ thought Mr. Bennet. In all honesty he had to admit he had the same concerns regarding Eliz…Anne Darcy’s failure to acknowledge their real relationship. Fortunately, he did not believe anyone else in the family had such reservations about the behavior of their long-lost Elizabeth, and he hoped it remained that way for a while longer. The disappointment of his wife and children was not something he wanted to confront anytime soon.
“I shall defer to your wishes as long as you will follow through on the proposed conversation,” he declared at last.
“I shall. Indeed, I would like this resolved before the wedding. Charles should know he is gaining another brother and sister.”
The guilty party just laughed and walked on with Jane still at his side.
“I cannot believe his … insolence to kiss my sister without a care in the world for her reputation!”
“Mary, it was just an innocent little kiss. And they are to be married.”
“Happy as the event will be for Jane, we must always recall that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable — that one false step involves her in endless ruin — that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful — and that she cannot be too much guarded in her behavior towards the undeserving of the other sex.”
Sir John stopped walking and looked at the woman whose arm he held. “Good G*d Mary, listen to yourself. This is your eldest sister you so quickly judge, who, I might point out, is engaged to a very honorable man. Bingley is not some cad who is going to get what he wants and then abandon her.” He started walking again, thinking aloud as they went down the lane.
“That is it, you have read too much Fordyce and not enough of the supposed source for his treatises.” Without warning, Sir John turned them towards the direction of Longbourn. “Come, there is something I must show you.”
“What of Jane and Bingley?” Mary was trying to make him turn around.
“They will be fine without us. Trust your sister; she will not allow him anything that would disgrace her. Both are too principled for that kind of behavior.”
Mary was worried, but could do nothing to dissuade her partner. Sir John might have been shorter, but he was definitely stronger than she.
In no time they were back at the house and Sir John did not stop moving until they were at the door of Mr. Bennet’s bookroom. He knocked impatiently.
The pair walked in and the resident of the room raised his eyebrows at his two guests. Sir John looked determined and Mary looked agitated. “May I help you?”
“I was wondering if I could borrow your family Bible. I would like to discuss a passage with your daughter and I believe it would be best to have the source at hand.”
Mr. Bennet was intrigued, but did not question the man in front of him. He waved his hand in dismissal.
“Certainly. Take it and go someplace where you will not disturb me.”
“Thank you, sir. I will return it when we are done.” Sir John grabbed the book and led Mary out of the room before she had a chance to protest. Once in the hall, he asked, “Where can we go to talk?”
“The parlor?” she offered meekly.
“No, I do not think your mother will be very entertained by our reading scripture aloud in her presence.”
“The breakfast room?”
He nodded his approval. “Lead the way.”
With the door closed, something that Mary was clearly uncomfortable with, but which Sir John knew was necessary, given what he was about to read, the two sat at the table.
“Have you read this book much, Miss Bennet?”
“Of course I have read it,” Mary said tersely.
“Have you read all of it?”
Mary blushed slightly. “I said I have.”
“Hmm. Then let me remind you that it has much to say about things in life – things which you would do well to remember and consider as superior to the words of the other writers you have demonstrated you prefer.”
The gentleman leafed through the pages until he found what he was looking for. Mary blushed even more as she read the name of the book he had selected.
“From the Song of Solomon, Chapter 1, Verse 1 and following:
“The Song of Songs, which [is] Solomon’s. Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love [is] better than wine. Because of the savour of thy good ointments thy name [is as] ointment poured forth, therefore do the virgins love thee. Draw me, we will run after thee: the king hath brought me into his chambers: we will be glad and rejoice in thee, we will remember thy love more than wine: the upright love thee.”
He stopped after Verse Four and looked at Mary. Her face had turned a darker shade of pink. Looking back at the volume, he paged forward. He started to read again in Chapter Four.
“Behold, thou [art] fair, my love; behold, thou [art] fair; thou [hast] doves’ eyes within thy locks: thy hair [is] as a flock of goats, that appear from mount Gilead. Thy teeth [are] like a flock [of sheep that are even] shorn, which came up from the washing; whereof every one bear twins, and none [is] barren among them. Thy lips [are] like a thread of scarlet, and thy speech [is] comely: thy temples [are] like a piece of a pomegranate within thy locks. Thy neck [is] like the tower of David builded for an armoury, whereon there hang a thousand bucklers, all shields of mighty men. Thy two breasts [are] like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies. Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, I will get me to the mountain of myrrh, and to the hill of frankincense. Thou [art] all fair, my love; [there is] no spot in thee.”
“Stop, please,” Mary cried. She was mortified beyond anything she had ever experienced before.
“Very well. I shall stop.” He closed the great book and took his time before he spoke again. “There is nothing immoral or sinful in a man and his wife expressing their affections and desires to each other. Why else do you think the Bible includes such a, dare I say it, erotic book? Not all forms of desire and yes, even lust, are wrong.
“I understand your desire to protect your sister’s reputation, but sometimes you take your moralistic beliefs too far.”
“Do you believe me too moral? I am a Christian woman!”
“I know you are,” he replied calmly, “and it is to your credit.” He paused to ensure her full attention. “Mary Bennet, you need to think for yourself and not rely on the words of other men. If you must rely on something, then rely on this.” He placed her hand on the worn Bennet family Bible. Her name was written inside, as were those of all her siblings, her parents, and her father’s family before him.
“How can I judge my opinions to be right, when they may not coincide with what I have studied?” she asked, still reluctant to trust completely in her own judgment. Sir John was pleased with her attempts towards self-examination – a mature, productive introspection.
“Your own conscience and experience will guide you, as will what you read in this book.” He pressed his hand against hers, still on top of the old book. “Your father would be happy to give you his opinions, as would I, if you so honored me with your trust. Please say you will attempt it, for me?”
“I… I will try.”
Sir John lifted her hand from the Bible and bestowed a kiss upon it. He stood and gathered up the family treasure. “I will return this to your father. Do you mind if I leave you alone for now?”
“No, no, go ahead. Papa will be glad to talk to you.” He smiled and left her to her thoughts.
Sir John knocked again on the door to Mr. Bennet’s inner sanctum, though not as insistently as he had before.
“Enter,” was the same reply.
“I am returning your Bible, sir.” Sir John knew Mr. Bennet would be curious, but that he would never ask him directly what had been discussed, and he had no desire to reveal it.
“That was a rather short discussion,” Mr. Bennet stated dryly.
“I have found that scripture often speaks for itself.” That earned Sir John a raised eyebrow.
“Mary is quite fond of that sort of thing.”
“Yes, she is. Though sometimes I wonder if it is always to her benefit. Not the Bible, I meant the other books.”
“I have often encouraged her to broaden her reading.” Mr. Bennet answered the implied challenge.
“I am sure you have. I hope she will now take your suggestions to heart.”
“Mary is very young, and has lived too sheltered of a life, I am afraid. All my children have. Perhaps that was a mistake. More trips to Town might have been beneficial.”
“Certainly, but do not disparage the advantages of a quiet life in the country. My own father preferred it to London.”
“And you, sir?”
“Each has its own benefits. I hope for a balance between the two. I want to be in London enough to enjoy the society and culture, but still spend the majority of my time at my estate.”
“Or at your friends’ estates?” he said casually.
Sir John laughed. “I have been in Hertfordshire a long time. My steward reminded me of that fact a few days ago. I have told Bingley I need to go to Surrey for a fortnight next week, but after that I will remain at his disposal until the wedding.”
“I see. Does my daughter know of your plans?”
“I have told Miss Mary of my impending travel, yes.”
“And?” Mr. Bennet would not take the bait.
“I think it would be a good thing for me to be away from here for a while. Sir, I will return. I am not the kind of man who would slink away in the middle of the night.”
“And after the wedding?”
“I give you my word, Mr. Bennet, that by the time Miss Bennet marries my friend Bingley, things will be settled one way or another.”
Satisfied, Mr. Bennet decided to give into his curiosity. “Was this the subject of your ecclesiastical debate?”
Sir John was surprised Mr. Bennet asked, but would not answer him. “In a round about way, yes. As you said yourself not five minutes ago, she is young. I will know more when I return. We both have much to think on until then.”
Mr. Bennet understood that he would not receive a direct answer, and that he was not included in Sir John’s “we”. He liked the little man before him. Sir John had risen much in his opinion since Mr. Bennet had met him. Mary certainly had blossomed under his attentions. He only hoped that his daughter would not be too disappointed if nothing came of this courtship. Whitby had a good head on his shoulders; he would make Mary a fine husband if it ever came to that. Well, they would discover if absence made the heart grow fonder while the gentleman in question was away.