Mary and Kitty: A Tale of Two Sisters
|An inferior bonnet|
Following the girl down the stairs to the back of the inn, Mary became conscious of a nervous sensation midway between pleasure and dyspepsia. Tedious though it might be, the tranquility to which she was accustomed had not been so much disturbed since she had for several brief hours suspected that Mr. Collins might turn his marital interest from Lizzy to herself. That had been more than a year ago, but she remembered the incident keenly--as well as its odd aftermath of relief mixed with disappointment when she learned that he had offered for Charlotte Lucas instead.
It was a merry group assembled within the inn's family quarters, all of an age equal to her own and so obliging, welcoming and, best of all, deferential, very little time passed before she began to think of the night's adventure with true anticipation rather than an as a mere act of rebellion. The party consisted of the innkeeper's daughter, Sara, who had issued the invitation, her sister Nell along with her promised beau Tom Waters, and Mr. Waters cousin, Frank Little.
Mary wished vainly that Mr. Wittington might have been the one to escort her to the gardens, for she knew he would be able to enlighten the evening with all manner of tidbits, as well as insights to the nature of her fellow creatures. How vexing that he should be engaged! This one, unexpected night must be her only opportunity to broaden her acquaintance without the interference of her importunate younger sisters. She wished, too, that she might meet the gentleman in a setting less solemn than the Abbey. It was not to be, however. Practical as ever, Mary set aside disappointment for anticipation and set forth into the lamplit streets with something like happiness.
As a matter of course, Mr. Waters took them into the gardens via the servants entrance, which none besides herself seemed to think out of keeping. Assisted by his cousin, he provided the ladies with glasses of lemonade directly from the kitchen and led them out to a remote table and chairs provided specifically for their comfort. Securing a table in one of the pavilions well beyond his touch, but from here, he informed them, they might have as good a view of the stage as any as well as an even better prospect for the illuminations when that time came.
Free of constraint, unshackled by convention, she might be anyone or do anything. For the first time in her life, she understood temptation. It was simple enough to have lived a blameless life at Longbourne, but in a place such as this? She did not know.
"May I take you for a stroll, Miss Bennet?"
Mr. Little stood before her with a look of inquiry in his sparkling brown eyes. "Sara will come with us, so you may be easy."
Sara, who joined them now, giggled and took Mary by the arm. "Nell and Tom have tremendous little time to be private, you understand. And besides, there is so much you will want to see."
Led forth by this pair, Mary could not help but reflect on how different their views were from her own. Courting couples surely ought not to be allowed to be alone. Where there was an inclination, there might also be a slide!
Soon, however, the surrounding delights transported her thoughts once again to less censorious spheres. She listened to the strolling musicians with great pleasure, regarded with famous statue of Handel with appropriate awe, and gasped at the overhead performances of acrobats and trapeze artists. All the while, citizens high and low (for the cost of admission was a mere four and sixpence) paraded by. Merchants and marquesses, clerks and countesses -- none was precluded from entering. Among those gathered, Mary was soon able to discern a less obvious distinction which she could only characterize as levels of corruption. These were evidenced by degrees of drunkenness, volume of conversation and the sheerness of the ladies' gauze gowns.
She was fascinated not only by the spectacle but by her own lack of disgust. She had always thought herself to be fastidious to a fault, and to be sure, she was when among those who knew her. But the anonymous character she had become this night was merely curious.
"Here is Druid Walk! Shall we try it?" Sara asked.
"I do not think it would be quite the thing for Miss Bennet," her cousin returned sternly.
Mary was intrigued. She had seen more of the world in the previous half hour than in her entire life. She had a thirst to see more. "Pray," she said, "what is Druid Walk? An historical spectacle? I may be country bred, but surely I am equal to that."
"I beg your pardon," Mr. Little said. "Sara ought not to have proposed such a thing. Druid Walk is a place for romantic assignations, and not at all the thing for a young lady."
"Frank! Do not be such a dull pigeon," Sara chastised him. "At least let us sit here by the walk's edge for a moment. I am sure Miss Bennet will enjoy watching the promenade."
To this suggestion, Mr. Little could make no objection and so they settled themselves on a convenient bench from which a pleasant prospect might be viewed. In a whisper, Sara recommended that Mary make good note of those entering and exiting the walk. This she did with her customary attention. Soon she was aware that those who disappeared into the lane precise as a pin re-emerged adjusting their costumes and repairing their disarranged coiffures.
Mary, unused to such an unremitting assault on her sensibilities, did not immediately know whether to be offended or not. As she recalled her earlier reflections, it seemed indeed that immediate indignation did not arise when the persons involved were strangers to her. She recognized that she was glad not to have entered the walk herself, but was quite content to have gained a new understanding of human nature.
When the next party strode uncertainly out of the darkness and into her view, however, she was shocked to see a familiar face and simultaneously felt a sensation of revulsion arise. Augustus Wittington! The gentleman who had seemed such a paragon at the Abbey, a master of propriety and learning, staggered into the clearing where she sat, a disheveled damsel on either arm. As his eyes met hers, the slow dawn of recognition rose in his bleary eyes.
"Miss Bonnet!" he slurred. "Your servant!"
"Bennet! Miss Bennet!" she cried, her indignation rising. "I collect you did not, after all, attend a lecture with friends!"
He glanced at the ladies who were tittering into their fans. "My friends, Rose and Fern. Learned a tremendous lot from their lecture just now."
Then, a silly smile spread over his features, slow as the flow of spilled treacle. Whether from forwardness or insobriety, Mr. Wittington listed forward several steps and reached out a hand, "Care for your own lecture?"
"I think not!" cried Mr. Little, placing himself between Mary and her offensive acquaintance. Forthwith, he hoisted the the offender by his collar and tossed him into a patch of ferns. "Come, Miss Bennet! Sara, now! I think we have seen quite enough!"
At that, Mary allowed herself to be steered towards the main pavilion, beyond the reach of insult and insinuation, the groans of Mr. Wittington fading into the general noise. Well, thought Mary, as a soaking rain began to fall, I believe I have just been rescued--and enlightened!