Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Chapter III

                                         Mary and Kitty: A Tale of Two Sisters

                                                                 Chapter III

    Miss Catherine Bennet was not entirely bereft of sense. However little she applied this intellectual modicum to her actions, she was fully sensitive to the fact that her mother’s notion of amusement and her own must vary widely.  Passing an afternoon with her Aunt Phillips playing at cards and exchanging gossip might do for married ladies in their caps, but hardly for a young lady on the Threshold of Life.

    Not that there had been so many opportunities to explore that interesting path since Colonel Forster’s regiment had quitted Meryton.  Since this sad event had corresponded with Lydia’s accompaniment of Mrs. Forster to the new garrison, Kitty had indeed been left much to herself except for Maria Lucas whose company was recommended only by its convenient proximity.  Her sister, Mary, she did not consider company.

    In the relatively solitary days that followed the marriages of her sisters, elder and younger, Kitty was afforded a good deal of time in which to ponder her own future.  That is should be spent outside the environs of Longbourne must be a certainty.  For a husband, she would certainly be content with a gentleman as good-humored as Mr. Bingley, handsome as Mr. Wickham and rich as Mr. Darcy.  Should this combination of good fortune bypass her, she wished above all things to avoid Mary’s evident fate, that of bearing her parents company as they entered their twilight years.  No, that was not to be thought of.

    Reflecting on the nuptial triumphs of her siblings, it occurred to Kitty in that the romantic encounters necessary to success had taken place while her sisters were away from home: Lydia, obviously, when she went to stay with Mrs. Forster, Jane when she had contracted a severe influenza and was forced to remain at Netherfield Park for some days, and Elizabeth, both when she had visited Charlotte Collins and when she had accompanied Aunt Gardiner on a holiday in Derbyshire.

    The evidence was clear. Whether freedom from such mortification as their parents so regularly subjected the girls or that other environs offered more opportunities, Kitty did not know, but she began to feel an urgency to discover a means to enter society elsewhere than her home county.

    This she was unsure how to accomplish.  She might, of course, write to Jane or Elizabeth and hope for an invitation. However, she could not be certain that either one or both of her parents would not accompany her.  Now that it was clear her father meant to bring Lydia home, the promise of Eastbourne was denied her as well.   There must be some other means of entering a new society, but what could it be?
    When it was learned at Lucas Lodge that the Bennet family had been in receipt of, not one, but two letters from the south, Lady Lucas made no delay in enquiring of her nearer neighbors whether there had been some sort of catastrophe at Longbourne. Hearing nothing to the contrary, she determined that she and Maria would call as early as was proper the following day on the pretext of delivering a receipt for a restorative tincture promised some months earlier.

    The intimacy which had blossomed between these families was no longer so profuse as it had been in former times, and had for some while threatened to break down altogether. This chilliness owed chiefly to what Mrs. Bennet referred to as the Treachery of Charlotte Lucas. Miss Lucas’ crime, returning a positive response to the addresses of Mr. Bennet’s despised heir, put her beyond the pale, despite Elizabeth’s adamant refusal of the same suitor on the day before. Should Mr. Bennet take leave of all good sense and allow himself to be carried off by some ailment or other, the inevitable handing over of Longbourne to Charlotte and Mr. Collins cemented an insurmountable gulf between the former friends. For the present, however, Elizabeth’s far more elevated marriage to Mr. Darcy had mitigated the estrangement to the extent that the ladies now deigned to bow to one another when they happened to meet during the inevitable mischances of social intercourse.

As little of note had taken place in the neighborhood in several months, Lady Lucas can be forgiven for succumbing to curiosity and being the first to cross the breach. When, on entering the drive at Longbourne on the following day, she spied the Bennet carriage being loaded as for a journey, she quickened her step and arrived at the front door in time to see Mr. Bennet bid adieu to his wife and Kitty.

“Pray tell me, dear friends,” Lady Lucas said by way of greeting, “what has befallen you, for the village is full of talk.”

Mr. Bennet summoned his civility with an effort. “Nothing of the kind, Lady Lucas,” he responded. “Mary and I are merely on point of paying a short visit to Lydia.   We shall see you before the next assembly. Good day to you.”

    With that, he signaled the driver to depart and left his neighbor staring after him in some confusion. For Mrs. Bennet to seek out her daughter’s company would be unremarkable, but for Mr. Bennet – and indeed Mary—who were both known to be homebodies, to make such a journey was a mystery. Its solution she was determined to discover.

    She turned to Mrs. Bennet who, unused to early callers, was in some state of dishabillĂ©, her hair still in papers and her demeanor ill-composed. “My dear Mrs. Bennet,” she began, taking that lady’s arm and leading her toward the house, “I had not known that Mr. Bennet was so fond of Lydia. I was sure it was Eliza who was his favorite.”

   “To be sure,” Mrs. Bennet replied, “but Lydia is so lively I do believe we miss her more. What a delight it will be to have her among us again.”

    “So she is returning to Longbourne!” Lady Lucas’ mind was alive to a variety of possibilities, not of them happy.

    “Well,” said Mrs. Bennet, recovering herself. Mr. Bennet had bid her most strongly to keep word of Lydia’s predicament to herself, and she was determined to do so. “I do not know to a surety if she will come or no, but one never knows. Mr. Bennet likes to keep his notions to himself, but I should not be in the least surprised if he did not bring her home for a visit."

    Lady Lucas viewed her neighbor’s confusion with a suspicious eye. If Lydia Wickham were involved in some scrape or other she would not be much surprised. “And Mr. Wickham? Do you suppose he means to come as well? That is, if such a journey comes to pass?”

    “Well, how could that be?” Mrs. Bennet asked with some asperity. “After all he is not—"

    “He is not at his leisure,” Kitty broke in quickly. She would like to have pinched her mother for such lack of reserve. “Mr. Wickham has duties after all.”

    “Quite right, my dear,” Mrs. Bennet greed with some haste.  Turning to Lady Lucas, whose expression she could not quite like, she continued, “Pray do not be offended if I do not invite you in, but as you can see we are at sixes and sevens today.  Come along, Kitty.”

    Lady Lucas was left without ceremony standing in the drive, her receipt undelivered and her mind full of speculation.  “Maria,” said she, “you may stay to visit with Kitty—surely there can be no objection to that—and learn if you can what is afoot.  Perhaps there is a way to assist our old friends if trouble should be brewing.”

    Maria, who knew her mother’s concern to be as pure and deep as a gutter pool, merely nodded. She had her own reasons for speaking with Kitty today and hoped her scheme would meet with approval.

Image courtesy of ekduncan.blogspot.com/

Monday, January 23, 2012

Chapter II

Mary and Kitty: A Tale of Two Sisters

Chapter II

Mr. Bennet’s affection for his younger daughters was not notable; still less was the esteem in which he held his wife. Although their foibles afforded him some small amusement, this was offset trebly by the difficulties that too often arose from their lack of sense. Today’s correspondence from Lydia was a bitter example. 
Far from being surprised by the letter his lady had lately shared, however, he was not ignorant of Lydia’s predicament in _____shire. Indeed, a missive from his son-in-law’s captain had arrived the afternoon before apprising him of the situation. Mr. Bennet had spent the intervening time composing a letter to his brother Gardiner soliciting his assistance; this he had not yet dispatched, for none more than he aware that gentleman’s signal role in rescuing Lydia from her first entanglement. Now as he sat wearily in his study he realized he did not like to call upon those resources again. Appealing to Elizabeth or Jane did not answer either, for such an entreaty would necessarily embroil their husbands in yet another family scandal. It was unthinkable. Their patience and kindnesses had already been legion, and he could not bring himself to intrude further on their good graces. No, he would be forced to take action himself, a pursuit to which he was singularly unused.

Far from considering Lydia’s request for sisterly companionship, however, Mr. Bennet had been determined to instead to fetch her summarily home and lock her in the attic. His sudden pronouncement that Mary become emissary of solace had surprised him quite as much as it had her.  His sole reason for this singularity was the prospect it offered to vex his wife and annoy Kitty. It might do, however, he thought. Though Mary was by no means the apple of his eye, he knew her to be constant in her pursuits and suspected there might even be some steel in her backbone. If she were to accompany him on his journey, her presence would offer a comfortable buffer between himself and the inevitable protests of his youngest daughter. He had resolved himself on this action when his wife invaded the solitude of his library.

“Mr. Bennet!” cried his lady. “Whatever can you mean by denying Kitty this treat? You know very well that Mary will not like to venture out into the world for she has never done so before.”

“And Kitty has? I was not aware that she had become so well-traveled,” he replied. “Pray tell me of her adventures.”

“How can you tease me so? You know very well that Kitty has gone nowhere but Meryton this twelve-month. What I mean to say is that Kitty longs to go where Mary does not.”

“You are certain of this?”

“Do you not know that a mother can read her children’s hearts?” she asked with asperity.

Mr. Bennet did not know this. Rather, he suspected that his wife’s understanding of their daughters was framed by the distant memory of herself at a similar age. He did not take her up on this point, however. Instead, he said, “Pray have a seat and listen to me, I have some news to which you have not been privy,”
            Beyond the study door, Kitty bent her ears to hear what went on between her parents, while Mary, still somewhat stunned, stood twisting the ends of her sash.  That she should be singled out and favored above her sister was unprecedented.  Torn between anxiety and pleasure, it was difficult for her to form any exact thoughts. Visions of herself as a righteous emissary warred with a distinct dread of leaving the comfort of her home and the familiar circle of her connections.  She had traveled unaccompanied from her home but once, and in that instance, Lizzie had met her halfway to Pemberly so she was not obliged to spend a night at an inn. Once there, she made herself miserable by comparing her own meager accomplishments to the superior arts of Miss Darcy. Although she had imagined herself happily ensconced in the fabled library, she so often found Mr. Darcy there she could not be comfortable. True, every one had been very civil to her and Lizzie, in particular, had tried to discover amusements suited to her sister’s quiet ways; their efforts, however, made her less at ease than had she been ignored.

Now, the prospect of traveling a good ways to visit a sister who would not in the least welcome her and whose circle she would likely find alarmingly loose darkened the very air around her. She comforted herself that her father could not have been serious. It was very often his way to say precisely the opposite of what he meant. Moreover, she knew that her mother would now be arguing quite forcibly that Kitty go in her stead. Mary did not take umbrage at that favoritism, for it often excused her from being a party to the frivolity in which her sister and mother reveled.

            “Why cannot they speak more loudly,” Kitty whispered.

            “Perhaps,” Mary returned blandly, “you should interrupt and request they do so.”

            “That would never do! Do you not see--?” Kitty broke off.  “You are being satirical! I pray you will not do so, for it is not in the least becoming and people will call you eccentric on top of everything else!”

            “Kitty! What do they say?” She knew that on one occasion she had been referred to as the most accomplished girl in the neighborhood, but this compliment had arisen from the lips of Sir William Lucas and, after the glow had faded some several months later, even she realized such a authority  must not be given too much credence.

Whatever animadversions of character might have been laid at her door, Mary had no opportunity to hear, for a singularly unhappy Mrs. Bennet emerged from the library at that moment.

“Your father,” she said fretfully, “wishes you to go into him now, Mary—and pray do not try him further for he is in one of his moods and already a veritable Bonaparte.”
"Mama!" Kitty interrupted. "Do you mean he will still send Mary? That is infamous!"

"Hush, Kitty! It is of no matter. Now come you with me for I must have someone by me if I should fall into fits." With this pronouncement, she headed toward her chamber. In her wake, Kitty cast an unkind glance at her sister before following her mother up the stairs.

Mary had no desire to enter her father's study, particularly if he was angry. She was never one to seek his company as had Lizzie in former times, nor had he before ever summoned her to his presence. Still, she had no choice, so enter she did, albeit somewhat hesitantly.

“Be seated, Mary,” her father said when she had entered. “I have something particular to say to you.”

“Please, Papa,” she said urgently, “do send Kitty instead. Lydia would not like to have me, for she says I send her straight to sleep the moment I venture to speak, and I daresay I should find her company uncomfortable as well, for she will never heed my advice and scorns me instead.”

“I am not in a humor to care what your sister likes, Mary, and indeed this will not be a journey for either solace or entertainment. No, it will be quite otherwise.”
What her father meant by this speech, she had no way of knowing nor could she summon a clear response. She waited therefore while he frowned a moment and polished his spectacles before proceeding.

“Lydia, I must tell you, has once more placed herself beyond the pale. She has refused to accept the protection of Captain Williams and his wife and instead keeps company with low sorts, entertaining them freely while her husband – that creature! – is who knows where.”

To be sure, Lydia was beyond anything. Mary herself had never in her life refused to do anything asked of her by one who represented authority. If the pastor had asked her to dance on the tip of the church spire, she would almost certainly have attempted to oblige him. As ever, Lydia’s behavior was beyond her comprehension. “But papa,” she protested. “Lydia would pay me no mind. Surely you must see there is nothing I can do!”

“Do not fret yourself into a tizzy, Mary. I do not ask the impossible. Merely that you bear me company on the way, for go I must and bring the silly girl home. I do not relish the idea of facing her hysterics on my own. Besides, as we must spend at least one night at an inn, I cannot trust that she would not find a way to further disgrace herself after I retired to bed – no, she requires your steadying influence.”

This was another matter altogether. It seemed for once her good sense had been recognized, and she thrilled to it as another young lady might to a compliment on her new bonnet. This must be how Lizzy and Jane had felt all their lives, and she liked it a great deal. Whatever trials might await her on the journey, she now felt inclined to embrace her mission.

“It is a good thing,” her father went on, “that they removed from Newcastle else I should have left her there. But Eastbourne is not so very far, and if all goes well we shall escape without Lydia’s ever knowing we have arranged our route so as to avoid Brighton. Now be a good child and make yourself ready.”

As Kitty followed her mother up the staircase, her mind was full of arguments to support her going to Lydia’s.

“Mama,” she began, “Surely there must be something we can do to change Papa’s mind, for though he is so often annoyingly steadfast, your entreaties must surely move him.”

“So one would think,” Mrs. Bennet replied, “but he will hear reason.”

“Poor Mama! To be sure, one would think it your fault, Lydia made some small mis-step. Has he no compassion on your nerves?”

“Not he!” Mrs. Bennet exclaimed as she entered her chamber and sank into the comfortable embrace of her chaise longue.

“But it was he, after all, who allowed Lydia to visit Mrs. Forester when the militia had first left Meryton—despite the entreaties of Lizzy and Jane.”

“Why you are right, Kitty! Why have I never thought of that? It is his fault after all. Not that it didn’t turn out very well in the long run.”

Kitty bit her tongue. Even she knew that the outcome of Lydia’s escapade was not all that could be wished for. Still, her mother’s suggestible reasoning was often a boon. Kneeling at her mother’s side she asked, “Do you not think Papa would agree that I should be given an opportunity to prove my good sense? After all, I do not think I am likely to be forced into marriage the first time I leave home!”

“I daresay you should not,” her mother agreed. “All the same, I begin to think this journey will suit Mary better after all.”

“What Mama! Whatever do you mean?”

“Only that, as Papa is journeying to Eastbourne as well. So while Mary will not know whether she is coming of going as long as she has her book, I do not think you would enjoy yourself half so much as you will at home with me.”

“Papa is going too?” she cried, quite struck at the notion. What an escape she had had after all. “Well! That is another thing entirely.”

“Indeed it is,” her mother agreed. “Let them go. I daresay we shall have our own adventures while they are away.”

Monday, January 16, 2012

Chapter I

Mary and Kitty: A Tale of Two Sisters


Mary Chase Comstock

Chapter I

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of little beauty and less fortune is destined to remain on the shelf. Despite that lady’s best efforts to put herself forward or otherwise fix the interest of some gentleman’s eye, this truth is so well-established in the world's collective mind that, from the age of sixteen onwards, she might as well fix her residence among the stones in the churchyard.

Such were the thoughts of Mary Bennet, now indeed termed Miss Bennet by all and sundry, for since the marriages some several months earlier of her sisters, Jane and Eliza, she had succeeded to the position of eldest unwed daughter of the Bennet family of Longbourne.

Though Miss Bennet’s disposition might never have been referred to as sanguine, it was placid enough to have rarely — if ever —provoked the interest of either of her good parents. However little they might turn their thoughts to this least troublesome of their daughters, Miss Bennet’s attention was nonetheless engaged by them. Through the years her mind had indeed been fixed on them, her feelings evolving from childish respect, thence to mild confusion, and finally to subdued vexation, mixed from time to time with amusement. As it seemed altogether likely she would live out her days in their ill-matched company, it was fortunate that her temperament was so happily suited.

Despite the daily occasions for annoyance that arose from this arrangement, the emotions that stirred in her breast were rarely less than filial. She was a practical girl, after all. Since the library at Longbourne was sufficient to her modest needs and few demands were placed on her by either parent, Miss Bennet was content to accept her lot, and hold in check such unrealistic dreams of romance and escape as might plague another girl not yet twenty.

On this particular morning, Mary was privileged to overhear the fitful conversation that passed between her parents. This she accomplished not by the iniquitous means of eavesdropping, but rather by virtue of Mr. Bennet and his lady having altogether forgot their Mary was present in the breakfast parlor, if indeed they had marked it at all. Since the conversation that followed was lively, our heroine can be forgiven for thinking with but the merest trace of smugness, How pleasant it is to be invisible!

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” his wife addressed him, “you must share my delight for we have just this moment received a letter from our Lydia!”

“I have remarked these twenty years and more,” replied he with some asperity, “how odd it is in human nature that what delights one soul is so often the source of consternation to another.”

“How can you speak so?” Mrs. Bennet scolded. “For though our Lydia may not have married a fortune as did Jane and Eliza, her heart chose well enough, for never was there happier bride than Lydia nor a more charming groom than her Mr. Wickham.”

“Yes, it is amazing how often I am forced to flee his company for fear of being embraced against my will. Try as I will, I simply do not look forbidding enough to deter his smiles and effusions. It has proved a good thing after all that Lydia was born bereft of sense, for were it not so, she would long ago have shot the man and we should have that disgrace to hang on her as well.”

To this comment on her favorite daughter’s opprobrium, Mrs. Bennet could only retort that she hoped the beloved Wickham would give her husband a harsh set down when next they met, to which that gentleman replied in a satirical tone, “I sincerely hope he may.”

To what excesses this interesting discord might have escalated, Mary could but guess, for their company was at that moment invaded by her sister, Kitty. 

“Mama,” cried she without ceremony, “Sally tells me we have had a letter from Lydia! Pray, give it to me!”

“Tut!” her mother admonished lightly, whisking the missive out of Kitty’s grasp. “I have not yet read it myself nor has your father. Only fetch your sister Mary, that I may reveal its contents to all in one breath.”

Kitty looked at her parent blankly before exclaiming, “Why, Mama! Whatever do you mean? There sits Mary in the corner with her stupid book on her lap.”

Mrs. Bennet gave a start on noting that Kitty’s revelation was indeed true. “Mary!” she exclaimed. “Have some compassion on my nerves! Do not creep up on a person in such a way! It quite gives one the goose flesh.”

“I was already seated here when you and Papa entered,” Mary said mildly. “I felt sure you had remarked me.”

Mr. Bennet looked closely at his daughter, wondering whether he had just received a mild rebuke. His wife, however, merely frowned and set about breaking the seal and disgorging the contents of the envelope.
    My dearest family, Mrs. Bennet began. How strange it is for me to write you thus, for I was just on point of calling round the horses and commanding the coachman to bring me home to your bosom, when I recalled that these many weeks we have had neither coach nor horses, for my Wickham had used them to stand pledge for some small debt or other. Indeed, it is of Wickham I write and beg you, Father, to relent in your resolve not to let my sister come to me, for I am in a very bad way indeed and must have what support my family can lend.

Mrs. Bennet had by this juncture turned very pale and begged Kitty to fetch her salts, being certain she could not read on without their sustaining properties.

Thus leaving her family in momentary suspense, Mrs. Bennet fanned her cheeks with her daughter’s letter and uttered such lamentable moans as must wrench the hearts of any but those who were necessarily familiar with their limited range. Kitty, having at once set about fulfilling her mother’s request, drew a vial of salts from a workbasket, which was near at hand. Indeed there were many such stowed here and there about the house, for need of them came daily, and it spoke volumes for Mrs. Bennet’s housekeeping that such contingencies might be addressed with alacrity.

Now somewhat fortified, Mrs. Bennet read on:
I cannot long conceal from you that my husband has not been seen or heard from by any of his acquaintance for several days. My heart is all a tremble for fear of what may have become of him, for though we may not be in as good charity with one another as we were in former times, he is still a jolly fellow, and my husband after all.

Listening to this sad news, Mary could not but be aware of a self-righteous sense of triumph arising in her breast. Although she knew it at once for a sin of pride, there was no dismissing the pleasure of knowing that one has been right after all. Her sister Lydia, a stranger to all sense of propriety, had ever rushed headlong into the dangers that accompanied thoughtlessness. Her elopement with Mr. Wickham had brought grief and shame even to her heedless mother; the ensuing marriage had been a hurried affair, which was still the subject of gossip in the neighborhood. That Lydia, as a married woman, had taken precedence over her older sister rankled almost as much as her parting advice, “Mary, if you were not such a sad stick I might stir myself to find even you a husband someday.”

Thus, as her mother read on, Mary felt her chin tip an angle higher and the corners of her mouth a fraction down, as she reveled in virtuous disapproval.
It is my dearest wish, her mother read on tearfully, that you will send my sister to bear me company through this ordeal, for I do not know what to do or think and am not at all my jolly self, except when Colonel Fitzhugh comes to call, for I daresay he is the most diverting creature I have yet met.

“Oh, Mama!” exclaimed Kitty. “It is clear Lydia is in need of solace. Do let me go to her!”

“That,” her father remarked repressively, “would be no charity.”

“I have never known you to be so mistaken before, Mr. Bennet,” cried his lady, “for you must recall that Lydia quite dotes on Kitty. I am sure there was never a better plan than to send her, for this Colonel Fitzhugh may do very well for her.”

“Do I apprise myself correctly, Mrs. Bennet, that you are already settling our daughter on a man whose sole recommendation is that Lydia thinks him a ‘diverting creature’?”

“How can you speak so?” his lady exclaimed. “I daresay even the most hopeful of mothers would hesitate to call it a settled thing! I only say that if we send Kitty to Lydia and if this young man should offer for her – for as you must agree she is a good deal improved these last few months – I should not think it anything wonderful, should you?”

“As the world seems to be more thoroughly peopled with sapskulls than I had hitherto thought, I imagine I should not,” was his dry reply.

“Shall I take my muslin with the yellow trim,” Kitty interrupted, “and Mary’s new bonnet, for even she must agree it becomes me far better. And how many pairs of gloves, Mama?”

“To be sure, there will be assemblies, at least, my love,” Mrs. Bennet began, “and who knows how many evening parties, for I am sure Lydia keeps a very lively set.”

Incensed at the insensibility of her mother and sister to the occasion that prompted Lydia’s letter, Mary could not but frown in a very marked manner. It was a very distressing thing to be the repository of remarkably good sense, yet never once be consulted when trouble arose. The very notion that an inventory of party clothes should be the object of discussion rather than the shocking disappearance of Mr. Wickham was beyond anything. She caught her father’s eye for a moment, and his countenance seemed similarly offended.

"I beg your pardon,” he broke in, “but I confess I am somewhat confused. Is Kitty contemplating a journey?”

“To be sure, Mr. Bennet, have you not been attending? Kitty is to go to Lydia of course – you would not deny the dear girl the solace of her sister?”

 “Indeed I would not,” replied he, “but I do not believe the letter is clear. She asks for her sister, and I believe she means Mary.”