Mary and Kitty: A Tale of Two Sisters
Mary Chase Comstock
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.”