The Darcy party arrived at Netherfield in the early afternoon. As predicted, Miss Bingley was all smiles and charm, eagerly welcoming her returning guests. Her brother was his normal amiable self. Understandably, he was happy to see his friends and full of joy over his impending marriage. Yet there was a difference in the man. He seemed more… settled than Darcy had ever seen his friend before. Anne commented on the change as well.
After a good night’s rest, all four Darcys made their way to Longbourn. Anne knew her mother Bennet would want to see her granddaughter and Georgiana preferred to spend the morning with young women closer to her age than Miss Bingley. If anyone was surprised that Bingley declined to visit, no one said so. Sir John had left for Surrey several days before.
“Thank you for coming,” Mr. Bennet said to his eldest child. “We were discussing the wedding plans. I just told your sister that you and your mother are going to Town next week to shop for your trousseau.” Jane sat in the chair immediately to the right of her father.
“I remember when Mama and I went to London after Fitzwilliam and I became engaged,” Anne reminisced. “I thought preparing for my Season and presentation at court was a chore. Mama spared no expense.”
“My purchases will be nothing in comparison to yours,” Jane said with a hint of defiance in her voice.
“I was not comparing our situations, Jane. I am sorry if it sounded that way to you.” Anne tried to smooth over her now-obvious faux pas and then added, “Where will you stay?”
“My brother Gardiner has agreed to host Jane and Mrs. Bennet,” Mr. Bennet answered. “His house is in Gracechurch Street and very convenient to the warehouses in Cheapside. His contacts with the other tradesmen will be very beneficial to the enterprise.” He smiled and patted Jane’s hand. “As much as I wish I could lavish Jane with finery as Lady Catherine evidently did with El… Anne, I cannot afford the high prices of Bond Street if I intend to give my daughter to Mr. Bingley with sufficient wedding clothes to placate my wife.”
“A very prudent course of action, Mr. Bennet,” Darcy agreed, amused. “No use spending Jane’s dowry on her clothes when Bingley will provide for everything after they are wed. Knowing how quickly women’s fashions change, in the future Mrs. Bingley will never stop shopping for her wardrobe.”
Mr. Bennet laughed at Darcy’s retort as Anne slapped his arm in mock outrage. Jane took advantage of the lull in conversation to bring up the subject she wanted resolved.
“Speaking of Mr. Bingley,” Jane turned to face her sister, “I have a request to make of you, Anne.”
“I would like your permission to tell Charles you are my sister. I do not like keeping this secret from my betrothed.”
“Hmmm, yes. Eventually he should be told,” Anne mused. “He will be my brother, after all. But can this not wait?”
“Why? What reason is there to wait?”
“I am not ready for him to know,” Anne stated simply.
Jane – quiet, kind Jane – was incensed. She stared at Anne for a few moments, willing her anger to calm. “Father, Mr. Darcy, I would like a few moments alone with my sister.”
Mr. Bennet immediately stood to go. Darcy simply asked, “Anne?”
“We will be fine,” she answered her husband. He nodded and then followed his father-in-law out of the room.
Several moments passed in silence after the door clicked shut. Anne waited for Jane to speak.
“It is just you and I – no parents or spouses to appease. Anne Darcy, I want a truthful answer from you. I need a truthful answer. Why do you want me to wait to tell my fiancé you are my true sister?”
Anne sighed. “Charles Bingley has always had a difficult time keeping anything from his sister. While he may promise to keep my secret, I honestly fear that without your constant presence to strengthen him, he will unthinkingly let it slip to Miss Bingley.”
Jane thought for a minute about Anne’s response. She knew Charles was not perfect. “While I admit you are correct in your estimation of Charles and Caroline’s relationship, that does not explain why you fear Caroline knowing the truth about your Bennet heritage.”
Anne tried to explain. “Caroline Bingley is going to London after your marriage to find a husband, you do know that?”
Jane nodded. “I do.”
“She will, naturally, want every advantage in finding a good match. Every connection she can claim, either through friendship or family, which will elevate her standing as a worthy bride, will be exploited. Fitzwilliam and I are prepared, for Charles’ sake, to allow her to use our name, as her brother’s close friend and new cousin, in this mating game. If she knew she could claim to be a sister to me and my husband through her brother’s marriage, instead of just a cousin, she would do so in a heartbeat. I know I would, if our situations were reversed. That is how things are done in our circle.”
“I understand that,” Jane said patiently. “What I do not understand is why you would be opposed to the truth being known.” Jane closed her eyes, put her hands over her face and exhaled. Her shoulders slumped as if she had come to a decision as she dropped her hands back into her lap.
“I know you and I do not know each other well; I have been very guarded in revealing myself and that is my fault. I probably confuse you. I know my behavior to you has confused me. I am a person who looks for the good in people. I always have. My natural tendency is to give someone the benefit of the doubt, and I have tried to do that with you, but something deep inside me stops me from believing it is all a misunderstanding.”
Jane stood up and paced back and forth for a little while. Eventually she stood looking out the window.
“I do not remember when you were born. I was too young. However, my earliest memories are of my mother weeping and my father holding her and telling her she must not give up the hope ‘that one day we will find her and be whole again.’ It took me several years to fit all the pieces in place. Of course he was talking about you. They tried to hide what happened from all of us but we each found out sooner or later. Too many people in the neighborhood knew to keep it from coming back to us.”
Jane put her hand on the window. It was cool to her touch. “At first I thought you had just gone away, but as I grew older I came to understand that you had been kidnapped. That was when I learned there were evil people in the world as well as the good. You might say I lost my faith in the inherent goodness of every person.
“There were times I tried to justify your being taken as some couple needing a child of their own and you were to be that to them; it is my nature to do so. But then when I learned of such things as orphans and foundlings, I knew I could no longer live in the fantasy I had tried to create. If this mysterious childless couple wanted a child of their own, they did not have to take another’s without permission.
“I still struggle with attempting to make the actions of others good, even when I know full well that no good was intended. As I said, it is my nature to believe the best.” Jane turned back to look at her sister. Anne sat there in rapt attention, her finely made clothes in contrast to Jane’s more provincial gown.
“Anne, I value my privacy just as much as you do and so I understand why you would be so hesitant to lay your concerns out for the world to see. But I cannot understand why you do not claim your birthright. That memory of Mama crying keeps coming back and I fear I know the real reason you do not want anyone else to know.
“If you are afraid there may be complications with your inheritance and your family if it is discovered you were born Elizabeth Bennet, I will be happy to keep your secret for as long as needed. However,” and here Jane’s countenance became hard as if it were carved from stone, “if you are ashamed of who you are, of your true family, I do not want you to come to my wedding. I cannot live with the hypocrisy of calling you cousin on the most important day of my life.”
When she finished speaking the room was silent except for the ticking of their father’s clock. Neither woman moved. Jane just stood with the window at her back, watching Anne’s face. She had nothing left to say and Anne had no words in response. Anne was too shocked at what she had heard to form any thought worth voicing. She dropped her head; she could not even look at Jane.
Anne sat in deep contemplation, staring blindly at the floor. She had no sense of time; she did not even hear Jane leave or her husband come into the room to find her. It was his voice that brought her back.
“Are you unwell?”
Anne blinked several times as she regained her wits. “Forgive me, I am well.” Concerned, Darcy kneeled in front of her and placed his hand on her knee.
“Dearest,” he said tenderly, “what happened? Has Jane said something to offend you?”
“What? NO!… No. She just gave me something on which to meditate.”
“Obviously, it worked. You were lost in your thoughts when I entered the room.”
Anne leaned her head back and sighed. “I find I am suddenly fatigued. Will you have the carriage brought around and return me to Netherfield to rest?”
“I will do so at once.” Before Darcy opened the door, he asked once more, “Are you certain Jane did not say something to upset you?”
“No, she was very kind – in her own unique way, I believe.” Darcy frowned at her cryptic remark, but he had loved Anne long enough to know she would talk to him about what had happened only when she was ready. Until then, he would see to her comfort.
“Mrs. Darcy charged me to deliver this to you the moment we were alone. She said you should read it right away,” he told Jane. Her hands trembled as she broke the seal. The letter consisted of three words.
Tell him everything.
Something burst deep inside Jane Bennet. She fell against Charles Bingley sobbing.
“Will you now tell me what is bothering you?”
Anne sighed and gave his arms a small squeeze. “I have not been myself the last few days. My poor dear, no one has teased you.” She tried to make light of it but she was not successful.
“I have been worried about you.”
“I know, and I appreciate your forbearance.” Anne hesitated a moment. “When Jane and I were alone, she asked me about my motivations for keeping my heritage hidden. She asked me if I was ashamed. Do you think I am? Answer me honestly.”
Darcy weighed his response carefully. “I think you have had a very difficult time coming to terms with the knowledge of your past. You had no reason to doubt your position in society and now you do. I also think you are struggling with the fact that the people you considered to be your parents lied to you, and may have even done something illegal to make you their daughter.”
“You have not answered the question,” Anne said quietly.
“No, I have not,” he replied fervently. “There is more to what you are experiencing than just being ashamed of your real family and I am trying to show you that. However, I do think Jane has touched on the heart of the matter. Ultimately, you cannot continue to explain the Bennets away as cousins. You do not dissemble well enough and you are asking too many people to do something they will come to see as outright lying, simply to protect your pride.”
“Then you do think I am ashamed to be a Bennet?”
He would not spare her feelings, not after she asked him for honesty. “If you were not, it would only remain a matter of timing to announce it to the world.”
Anne sighed, and not in anger as he feared she might. As she relaxed against him, Fitzwilliam realized how tense Anne had been throughout their discussion. “That is essentially what I had determined,” she confessed. “I do not like this attitude in me, Fitzwilliam, but I cannot pretend to change it overnight.”
“Acceptance is the first step to overcoming anything.” He held her tightly to him. “What do you want me to do?”
“Remind me that they are my family when I forget. And we need to be in Town after Bingley weds Jane.”
“Why do I have the feeling that this will involve public displays?”
“How else am I to introduce my sister to the ton?”
“A notice in the papers will not do?” he said without hope of a positive reply.
“What plans have you for us?” He was resigned to do her bidding if it would help her through this maze in which they found themselves.
“I am happy that you asked. We have much to arrange before we go to see Mama…”
When Jane asked her mother if she was ready to go, Mrs. Bennet surprised her by saying that she had other errands to attend to that day and that Mrs. Gardiner would be more than enough of a chaperone for their outing. Jane, ever compliant, did not question the arrangement.
However, when the conveyance took them in a different direction than Jane had become accustomed to traveling during her time in Town, she asked where they were headed.
“Bond Street,” the older lady replied with the hint of mischievousness.
“But Mama told me there was no need to go to Bond Street on this visit, that once I was safely married I could shop there, but not before. There is simply not enough money to do so. She was adamant on the point of knowing where the best warehouses were situated to supply the family’s needs.”
Mrs. Gardiner laughed. “My husband tells me that there was a time when she was not so watchful of how she spent her pin money. How times have changed all of us.
“To answer your question, I must tell you first that I had a visitor before you arrived.”
“Your sister came to see me, Jane.”
“My sisters are at Longbourn… oh! You mean Anne Darcy.”
“Yes, Mrs. Darcy. She is quite a formidable woman, Jane, and not one to be gainsaid.”
“She came to see you… why? What could she want with you?”
“She is my niece, too.”
Aunt Gardiner wondered what had occurred between Jane and Anne, but knew Jane would not offer an explanation. Mrs. Darcy had hinted only at an ‘illuminating discussion’ but that was all. It was clear, however, that the two sisters were not getting on as well as Mrs. Gardiner would have thought. Jane was never at odds with anyone.
“She came to ask my advice and to seek my assistance on an important matter.” Mrs. Gardiner let Jane think on that statement for a moment before she continued. “She wished to know if you would accept a gift from her. She had correctly deduced that, while your parents have the best intentions, they could not afford to buy you everything you will need immediately after your marriage. Before she left Hertfordshire, she spoke to your father and asked if she could supplement your trousseau. He agreed, of course. Your father is not completely out of his wits. So today we will visit Mrs. Darcy’s personal modiste.”
“And here we are!” Mrs. Gardiner announced several minutes later. The sign proclaimed they had arrived at the shop of Mrs. Langley, Modiste.
Once inside the establishment, Mrs. Gardiner gave her name and the two were immediately shown into a finely appointed private room. Moments later a woman slightly older than Jane’s aunt came into the room and dismissed the attending servants.
“Good morning ladies, I am Mrs. Langley. Mrs. Gardiner, I presume?” The lady in question smiled and nodded. “And you must be Miss Bennet. Your sister told me you were a beautiful woman, but I am afraid her effusions did you an injustice, as you are even more lovely than I could have imagined.”
At this Jane turned a becoming shade of pink, and then realized what the woman had said.
“Mrs. Darcy told you I was her sister?”
“Yes, of course. You might say that it is because she is your sister that I am here today. Lady Catherine was very… helpful in establishing me in my business. I have clothed the de Bourgh ladies since just before Mrs. Darcy was born.”
Jane might not have grasped what the woman had revealed but Mrs. Gardiner did. A surprised look was answered by a subtle nod and both the older women understood the situation.
A knock at the door revealed a woman Jane did not recognize. She handed the proprietress a small box and then left the three women alone once again.
Mrs. Langley handed Jane a note. “Mrs. Darcy asked me to give you this when you arrived.”
Our father has agreed that you are in need of three special gowns and has granted my wish that you purchase them from Mrs. Langley. The bill will be sent to me.
When you and Mr. Bingley come to London for the Season, Fitzwilliam and I would like to hold a dinner party in your honor. One of your dresses will be for this occasion. We also anticipate an evening at the theatre and you must choose another for that outing. Your Mr. Bingley already knows about these two events. He would have told you but my husband asked him to allow me to reveal the surprise. The final gown is for a ball that will be held at Darcy House. Fitzwilliam has already told me he wants to secure the supper dance from you, but I informed him he shall have to apply for that himself. Our aunt has agreed to help you make the selections with assistance from Mrs. Langley. She has served our family well for one and twenty years. Finally, my housekeeper, Mrs. Thomas, will be delivering several pieces of jewelry to help aid you in the selection of your gowns. I ask only that you wear the pearls to the ball. The remaining necklaces are from the Darcy and de Bourgh collections and you may wear whichever ones you choose for the other evenings. Simply inform Mrs. Thomas of your selections so that I do not unknowingly pick those for myself.
I have given much thought to your words at Longbourn and I hope you take this gift in the respectful spirit in which it was intended.
Jane was pleased, yet confused. Mrs. Langley brought out the pieces Anne had sent.
“Ah yes, very appropriate for your coloring. Your sister has a wonderful eye for these things.” She then cleared her throat. “Before I call my assistants in, I must tell you that in this shop, only I know Mrs. Darcy is your sister. The others have been told you are her cousin. Mrs. Darcy specifically asked me to tell them such.”
Jane frowned. “Miss Bennet, your sister was very adamant on this point. Trust her judgment. When news of your connection becomes known, the curiosity about you will be extreme. Delay that until after your wedding.”
“Listen to her, dear,” Mrs. Gardiner urged. “London is not Meryton.” Jane slowly nodded her acquiescence. Her aunt smiled and urged Jane to examine the jewels Anne had sent. They were exquisite. Jane tried not to think about the enormous wealth they represented.
Mrs. Langley called in her helpers. There was work to be done and the owner would personally oversee the entire process. Only the best was acceptable for the family of her best clients.
One of the reasons Anne was so amenable to continuing Fitzwilliam’s tradition of visiting Kent around Easter was that the spring season was, by far, her favorite time of year at her childhood home. She very much enjoyed watching the park come to life after its wintertime slumber and had many fond memories from the days spent as young Miss de Bourgh exploring her estate. Someday Anne hoped to share a few of her favorite spots with her children, leaving the rest of Rosings for them to discover on their own.
Little Elizabeth Darcy was a few years away from such adventures, but her mother was planning to take her infant daughter out to the grounds on this visit. Anne thought Elizabeth might as well get used to the sights, smells and sounds of the family’s land from the beginning.
However, Anne was honest enough to admit these mother/daughter outings would also provide convenient escapes from too much time spent wondering about her own mother. More precisely, the woman she had called mother all her life – and, if asked, still considered to be her parent. Yes, Anne knew she had neglected Lady Catherine recently, but there was only so much time they could spend in each other’s presence before Anne felt the need to bid a hasty retreat. While they got along well enough, the transition from Miss de Bourgh to Mrs. Darcy had not been an easy one for either of them. Upon her marriage, Anne Darcy became the Mistress of Rosings, but she had allowed her mother to continue on in running the manor house; Pemberley was now Anne’s priority.
The specter of the difficult conversations she must have with her mother made Anne fidget all the way from London to Rosings’ entrance. Fitzwilliam was kind enough not to tease his wife about her behavior. He, more than anyone, understood the complicated relationship between his mother-in-law and her daughter. What Anne and he had planned would not be well received by Lady Catherine.
The two had decided to wait a day or so before informing Lady Catherine that her presence would be required in London for part of the Season. Since before Anne’s marriage her ladyship had, for the most part, eschewed Town in favor of life in the country. However, for what Anne intended, she needed her mother to be at her side. A successful outcome would surely depend on it.
Mrs. Stuart came out to greet the Darcys, informing them that Lady Catherine would see them in the drawing room after they had settled themselves from the journey. The distance to travel was not overly long, but it still took several hours to accomplish. As they entered the house, Stuart quickly summarized the readiness of Rosings and the health of its caretaker mistress.
“Her ladyship has not been herself of late.”
“She is unwell?”
“Just a trifling cold that lingered longer than normal. She was in bed for nearly a week, but this past week has seen her return to her duties. However, she has not regained the weight she lost. I only wished to warn you so you would not be surprised. It has been a difficult winter.”
“For all of us, Stuart. Thank you for the warning.”
“Anything to make your stay in Kent enjoyable, ma’am.”
Anne mentally thanked Maggie when she finally saw her mother. Lady Catherine looked … somehow smaller, and not just because she had lost a few pounds. The hair visible under her cap was grayer than Anne remembered. Lady Catherine seemed much older than when they had last met. Indeed, it had been a difficult past five months.
“Let me see my granddaughter,” Lady Catherine demanded. Anne rolled her eyes. Some things would never change. When the nursemaid placed the infant in the great woman’s arms, Lady Catherine took time studying her tiny features. “Elizabeth takes after the Fitzwilliam line, I believe, though her eyes are yours, Anne.”
“It appears to be a fairly strong family trait,” Darcy answered. “As you remember, Anne Bennet has those eyes, as well as Mary, Lydia and Henry Bennet, whom you have not yet met.”
“Yes, well, I suppose I will sooner or later.”
Not wishing to continue in the line of conversation, Anne asked about the comings and goings of the parish. When they came to the subject of her parson, Lady Catherine revealed, “I have advised Mr. Collins that it is time to seek a wife.”
Darcy looked at his wife but neither spoke, waiting for her ladyship to continue.
“Before the events of last autumn, I would have sent him to his Hertfordshire family to seek a bride. He may be third in line to inherit Longbourn, but it would be a good match for one of his Bennet cousins. Now, however, I would rather he not make such a connection. To be related to such a man through you would be intolerable.”
“The Reverend Collins was your choice for the living. I thought you approved of him,” Darcy replied.
“Come now, son. There is a difference between what I prefer for my parsons and for my nearest relations. Surely you would not wish to call such a… a… common man your brother?”
“There is nothing wrong with the church as a profession, madam.”
“For a younger son, yes, it is an acceptable choice. The point is, Collins is not the kind of man I want related to Anne in any way. He is too… tedious a man to have to claim as a connection. Heavens!”
“Unfortunately for you, he is already my cousin,” Anne quipped, though privately she agreed that Longbourn was not the best place to send him in search of a wife. The man was rather stupid, in her opinion, but she was interested in hearing her mother’s advice for her dutiful clergyman. She had no doubt Collins would follow it without question.
“Well then, if you have decided it is time for him to marry – but not a Bennet daughter –where have you suggested he look?”
Lady Catherine continued as if the inquiry were the most natural thing in the world. “At first I meant to send him to Bath, but thought better of it. He does not have the means to attract a woman of fashion and I would rather him not bring some impudent chit back to Hunsford. No, I simply informed him that he would do well to call on some of the other livings in the area. I have heard the rector for the Metcalfes has several marriageable daughters. They may not be gently born, but their father is the son of a gentleman and will have seen to it that they know how to behave in the presence of their superiors. After all, social distinctions must be maintained.”
“Not to mention that they have no better prospects if they have been raised in a country parish in Kent.”
“Yes, that was part of my reasoning, too.”
“And has Mr. Collins had any success?” Darcy asked. It was turning out to be a supremely fascinating conversation.
“He has met several families since I told him it was high time to think about marriage. He knows my opinion and soon enough will bring his bride to Hunsford. I have promised to visit them there.”
“It would set an example for the community,” Anne said with a straight face.
“As every man of the cloth ought!” Lady Catherine was excessively attentive to such things.
“Mr. Collins is old enough to marry now. I suppose there is no need to wait. A wife for my cousin would aid in the pastoral care of Hunsford’s parishioners,” Anne opined.
“As the master of this estate, the well-being, both physical and spiritual, of its tenants is my concern too,” Darcy interjected. “If by marriage Mr. Collins is better equipped to minister to their needs, I wish him well in his search. However, Lady Catherine, I think you should allow him to woo and wed a wife on his own. He is the one pledging himself for life; you can limit your interactions with her to Sunday service if you so choose.”
The great lady nodded her head condescendingly. She knew the power she held over her parson. He would do nothing without obtaining her consent for fear of disappointing his noble patroness.
Bingley was only too happy to agree that Caroline’s requirement to shop at that particular point in time was not unreasonable; after all, she had her own Season for which to prepare. It would be her third and final one, for she was determined she would not long abdicate her role as mistress of her brother’s home before settling into a home of her own. Caroline would have a household to run once again, even if she had to relent and marry new money.
Thus when Sir John Whitby returned to Netherfield, he had the house all to himself. And since the fairer sex could not call upon him, he would call upon them.
To Longbourn he must go.
The day he arrived in the neighborhood he dispatched a note to the Bennets, informing them of his return and asking if he could call the next day. Because Mrs. Bennet was in London with Jane, the task of responding fell to Mr. Bennet. That gentleman briefly teased Mary, feigning extreme indolence and claiming he could not be bothered with such trifles, before he took pity on his daughter and answered Mary’s suitor. Of course he was welcome, Mr. Bennet informed his correspondent, for Mary had not yet told her father she was ready to be done with him.
Lydia thought it was all a good joke, but William came over to sit by his sister and reassure her.
“Papa means no harm,” he said sympathetically. Mary appreciated her brother’s gentle spirit, now more than ever. She tried to smile.
“Oh, I know he is teasing me.”
“Then why are you so upset?” the young man asked, noting the smile did not reach Mary’s eyes.
“I am not distressed with Papa. Not at all. It is just that I have done a lot of thinking whilst Sir John was away.”
“Yes, I noticed.”
“Of course I did. I do live here. And while you may think a young man my age does not pay attention to his sisters, this one does.”
That made Mary truly smile.
“Someday you will make a fine master of our family’s estate, and a fine husband and father as well. I already feel rather jealous of the lucky woman you will marry.”
William blushed and smiled shyly. “It will be many years before I even begin to contemplate such things, and while I thank you for your compliments, you are trying to change the subject. Please, tell me, what is it that causes such distress on your face?”
Mary turned her head away from her brother, staring out the window instead. “You are too young to understand.”
“That will not do,” William protested. “I am not a child.”
“And you are not yet a man.”
“And you are an old woman now? Yes, I am but fourteen, but I am not ignorant of everything.”
Mary thought for a while. Besides William’s gentleness, he also had a bit of a stubborn streak. She would not easily escape his interrogation. And he was her brother. She turned back to look at her hands in her lap and sighed.
“Very well. Before Sir John left, we had a difficult conversation.”
“Did he wish to break off your courtship?”
“Who said we were in a courtship?” Mary said rather brusquely.
William rolled his eyes. “As I said, I am not a child. I have eyes and ears. It is rather obvious he fancies you.”
“Fine,” Mary huffed, “though I would not call Sir John’s and my friendship a formal courtship, but there was enough said to imply it. We both know where this friendship is headed.”
“Did he want to stop courting you?”
“No, no. I think he knew he needed to go away so we both could take a step back. He also had some estate business that needed his attention.” The look on William’s face told Mary he was confused. “Before Sir John left, he and I had a discussion and he challenged me.” Mary stopped to gather her thoughts.
“Our father has always striven to provide all of us, including his daughters, with the best education he could afford. He has overseen our learning from the very beginning and taught us girls more than the average woman.”
“I suppose I never stopped to think about it. None of the other girls in the neighborhood have studied as you have?” Mary shook her head and finally looked directly at her brother.
“Not anywhere close. As we grew older, Father allowed us more leeway in choosing the subjects of our lessons. Sir John worried that my affinity for morality literature led me to narrow my reading too much.” She stopped. It was time to summarize. “William, he wants me to think for myself more.”
“Is that all?” he replied, believing there must be more to it than that.
“That is a great deal,” Mary cried, frustrated that he did not understand.
“Not really. Is that not the purpose of an education? To teach you enough of the world so that you might know the difference between right and wrong? To understand what is worthwhile and beautiful and what will lead to destruction and ruin?” He spoke as if surprised that the answer was not obvious to his sister.
Mary looked at her brother, a little in awe. He was right in so many ways, especially the part about him no longer being a child. He was becoming a man before her very eyes and she had almost missed it. She smiled.
“Yes, you are perfectly correct. I can see that now, and you have helped put into words what I have been contemplating all these weeks Sir John has been gone.”
William was not finished. “But do not dismiss all you have studied. There is wisdom to be found everywhere, if you are willing and patient enough to seek it.”
“Even in pesky fourteen-year-old younger brothers?”
“It is a good thing you said younger, for I am taller than you now. Very soon I will shoot up past Lydia and then I will look down upon you all.”
Mary squeezed William’s hand. “Thank you.” He smiled and then left her to continue with his studies. He had much to learn before he was ready to go off to university, and as his father had reminded him just the other day, the three years before he went away would be gone before he knew it.
“Jane and Mama are in London,” Mary explained as they all were seated.
“So I have heard. Are your family in good health, Miss Bennet?” Sir John replied, adhering to the social necessities.
“Yes, they are in perfect health, sir. Kitty and Lydia were in high enough spirits to walk to Meryton this morning.”
“Anne and Hal are with our father,” William added. “He is personally overseeing their lessons today.”
“Are you not normally with them, Master William?”
“Yes, but as my older sisters are away from home, it fell to me to sit with Mary.”
Sir John was amused; the young man looked uncomfortable in his role as chaperone.
“I am certain you have been a most amiable companion.” William nodded but said nothing. He was at a loss as to how to keep the conversation going. Sir John took pity on him and introduced a new topic.
“I suppose you may wonder at what I did while I was away.”
“You did say your steward was desiring your presence to resolve several matters on your estate,” Mary answered.
“Ah yes, Pickering. A very capable fellow, but he prefers to solicit my directions when problems appear.” Sir John paused before he continued and Mary could have sworn she saw a hint of merriment in his eyes. “For example, shortly after I arrived at Slaton Manor I was informed that two of my tenants just happened to be visiting on a matter of great importance.”
“You need not provide the particulars of your personal business,” Mary said quietly.
“Oh yes I do!” laughed Sir John, clearly anticipating telling the story. “You see, the two men were in a quandary over a woman. It came out that the lass was accepting the attentions of them both, and somehow they had found out the situation. Both wished to press their suits and both claimed to have been there first. They wanted me to sort out who had the right to marry her. Frankly, I was surprised they had not come to blows over the matter.”
“Did you intercede?” Mary asked, reversing herself and now wishing to know every sordid detail.
“Of course, for the men involved are both fine workers and I appreciated the fact that they had seen enough fairness in my dealings with them to trust me with their love lives.”
“Who did you pick?”
“Neither?” Mary and William exclaimed at the same time.
“Neither. Before I made any recommendation, I decided to talk to the young woman in question. As it turns out, she was interested in yet a third man and he was the one she truly fancied. That man was completely besotted with her and more than desirous to make a match. The only reason he had not pressed his suit was that he had come into the picture last and deferred to the other two men. Knowing that the girl would be most happy with the third man, I saw nothing to do but forward that match and tell the other fellows that they would have to look elsewhere for a bride. Marriage is the one real choice a woman has in our society. I knew she would become bitter if I took that away from her.”
“How did they take the news?”
“Neither were happy to lose her, but to not lose her to the other softened the blow. The last I have heard of the matter was that the final reading of the lucky couple’s banns is to take place this week. After all the turmoil surrounding the courtship, they were anxious to be safely wed. The other two will recover soon enough. Their attachment to the girl was nowhere near as strong as they believed. They may have even been trying to best each other. I would not put it past them.”
Mary was delighted with the tale.
“You displayed the wisdom of Solomon.”
“They would not have taken kindly to the suggestion that the woman in question be cut in half. Rather defeats the purpose.”
Even William laughed. In the years since Sir John had unsuccessfully courted Miss Anne de Bourgh, he had turned into a rather charming gentleman when he chose to please.
“Was all your time taken up by such delicate matters of the heart?” Mary dared tease.
“Thank goodness, no. The remainder was filled with several minor disputes amongst the tenants and the normal issues that arise on any estate. I did find, however, that I had missed the old manor. When I return, I hope to remain for quite some time.”
The rest of the visit was spent in pleasant conversation. Young William was content to allow his sister to carry the conversation, which was entirely fitting since Sir John was there to see her, not him.
The calls to Longbourn continued nearly every day. The young lovers grew more comfortable with each other and time was proving that Mary had taken his reproofs to heart. She was more willing to express her own opinions and as the days turned into weeks, she quoted her favorite authors less and less. Both were hopeful that their courtship would soon be replaced by an engagement. Sir John only needed for time to confirm that Mary’s reformation was sincere before he dared offer. Somehow he knew that the long-term banishment of her moralizing tendencies would be due more to his guidance as Mary’s husband than to her own resolve. Old habits sometimes never completely die.
Lady Catherine was in her study and Anne knew it was time. She entered and then closed the door completely shut behind her. The servants should not hear what was about to be said. There would be time enough in the future to tell them the news.
“Hello, Anne. What brings you here?”
The young woman sat down in a chair facing her mother’s desk. Normally Stuart or some other servant would sit in that spot to speak to their mistress.
“I thought you should know our plans after we leave Kent.”
“I have been led to believe that you would be returning to Hertfordshire for your friend Bingley’s wedding and then you would go to Town for the Season as usual. Will you return to Pemberley earlier than normal?”
“We will not remain in Town long, but that is not what I came to tell you this morning. Actually, I am asking that you join us in London after the wedding.”
“You know I prefer the country.” Lady Catherine gave her a pointed look.
“Yes, but you still enjoy seeing your old friends.”
“They can find me here. The city is too noisy and dirty for my tastes these days, even at the height of the Season. You do remember that I really only spent much time in Town the year you came out.”
“Mother, I understand your reluctance, but I need you in London this year. It would be in your best interest as well,” Anne added. Lady Catherine’s gaze narrowed.
“Why is this? What is so important that you summon me thither?”
“I have decided that it is time for me to claim my Bennet heritage.” That gained Lady Catherine’s complete attention. The reply was nearly instantaneous.
“Are you out of your senses? You will be despised and disdained by the vast majority of the ton if you persist with this foolishness.”
Anne’s voice held a barely controlled annoyance. “Are you suggesting that I should cast off my true family?”
“No! I am telling you that if you make this known, you will regret it for the rest of your life. Your father and I worked hard to prevent your adoption as our heir from becoming known.” The words flew angrily from her ladyship’s lips. “Right now, you are the granddaughter of an earl, the daughter of a baronet and one of the future leaders of your class. Your fortune and your husband’s make you one of the most powerful non-titled ladies in England. If you tell the ton that your parents are people of no consequence in society, your status, as it is now, will be gone forever. You cease to be Anne de Bourgh Darcy and become Elizabeth Bennet of Longbourn, Hertfordshire, who married far above her station in life – even if your father is a gentleman.”
Anne knew this was coming, but it still stung. Yet she was determined to stay the course.
“I understand full well the ramifications of my decision. Fitzwilliam and I have discussed this repeatedly.”
“Does he support this madness?” Lady Catherine asked incredulously. Anne would be truthful, for that was why she was doing this in the first place.
“He does not like it, but he understands why it must be so.
“I plan to host a family dinner to introduce my sister to my de Bourgh and Fitzwilliam relations. We will also host the Bingleys at the theatre one night in our box…”
“A little discretion on your part and these events will do no harm,” Lady Catherine interrupted with a little new hope. Anne would kill it before it took root.
“You did not let me finish. Fitzwilliam and I will also host a ball to introduce the new Mrs. Bingley to society. I will publicly acknowledge her as my sister that night.”
“My God! At a ball?”
“Yes, at a ball. And I expect you to be there at my side to support me.”
“You cannot be serious! Everyone will talk and ask how you came to be my daughter.”
“They will ask the same questions if you are not there. However, your absence will be seen as an admission of guilt in some underhanded scheme to… acquire me to be your daughter. Alternatively your presence and support will help dispel rumors of wrong-doing on your and Father’s part. For as much as you doubt the wisdom of my actions, you fail to recognize that I realize not everything should be revealed. I will be a foundling you adopted – and you will be seen as a benevolent woman willing to bring a young child into your family while you awaited the conception of one of your own. I have absolutely no intention of admitting I might have been taken on the orders of my father.”
“How will you explain your removal from your family?”
“Simply as an act of some crazed individual wholly unconnected with the House of de Bourgh. There is no evidence to say this story is not the truth. Uncle Harold has not uncovered anything to dispute this, in the event that someone else went looking into the events of the past. Since we will never know for sure ourselves what really happened, we can select what will be public knowledge.”
“Do you honestly believe this story will be accepted?”
“Not by everyone, but the alternative is even more fantastic. People will believe what they want to believe. I have no doubt that rumors will persist, but with nothing to substantiate them, they will die soon enough and then this veil of secrecy we have lived with for so long will be gone. I would rather endure the whispers now, than outright confrontation later. My sisters and I are too alike, especially young Anne, and their presence in town with the Bingleys will put them in the position to be noticed. Then there would be talk and rumors and damage to our family names. A little pain now is better than agony later. This is why you must submit to my request for your presence. As Cousin Andrew says, you divide and then you can conquer. Our families will not be divided, not if I can prevent it!”
Lady Catherine was stunned at her daughter’s vehemence. The silence that followed allowed them both to calm down.
Mother and daughter spoke at length before Lady Catherine at last agreed to Anne’s well-reasoned request. The de Bourgh townhouse would be opened for her ladyship’s occupation after Easter. She would arrive in Town while the Darcys attended the Bingley/Bennet wedding in Hertfordshire. How long Lady Catherine would remain would be decided later.
The letter he held in his hands was a perfect example of the futility of the search. His man detailed how no traces of Sir Lewis’s valet could be found after the man received the money left to him in his master’s will. Roger Walls had simply disappeared.
The Earl dipped his pen in the inkpot to write to his nephew yet again. He recommended that the search be called off. Only the man in America would continue, and since no one expected anything to come of that, they should resign themselves to accepting Catherine and her maid’s story as all they would ever know.