Saturday, December 28, 2013

Chapter XIII

As Mary and her father set forth on the day's journey, the gray weather began to deepen further, making the interior of the carriage too dark to read and the scenery too dreary to appreciate. Mr. Bennet, still somewhat dyspeptic, betook himself of a nap and Mary soon followed his example. Although she had eventually slept the previous night, her dreams had been vexatious and peopled with nonsensical characters who explained themselves badly.

A rut in the road, however, eventually catapulted Mary and her father into awareness and they found themselves suddenly awake and staring at one another across an expanse of dim light, midway to Eastbourne.  It did not seem to Mary that her father was much improved. He had begun so cough in a congested sort of way, and Mary was forced to exclaim, “Are you quite well, Father?”

“Not entirely,” he replied. “I had a late night—not to say an early morning—of it, as you saw. The rain did me no good either, for my boots were altogether wet by the time I arrived back. Indeed they are still quite damp and I seem to have taken a chill.”

“Please, Father! You must take them off and wrap your feet in this robe or you will be ill—as I already fear you are.”

“Merely a little dull and headache-y,” he responded. “Soon enough we shall stop and I shall dry my coat and boots before the fire as I ought to have done last night. I was not entirely prepared to be wise when I awoke this morning, my friend having a better head for spirits and a worse one for wisdom than I had remembered."

So her father too had been disappointed in the Wittingtons. Mary wished she might learn more of what had transpired, but it was not in her nature to pursue such subjects with anyone, let alone her father. If Lydia or Kitty, or even Elizabeth had been part of their party, they would have prodded him for more information, but she herself had not the talent.

"We may spend a night on the road if necessary," he continued with a sniffle, "for I am indeed feeling poorly. We will soon be in Uckfield where I recall there is a passing good inn. What a sorry thing that my brother Gardiner was not at home, so I might have avoided last night's adventure altogether.  Reacquainting one’s self with one’s youthful companions is not always what could be wished for."

Indeed? Here was an opening for further details. Summoning her courage, Mary ventured, "How can a mere dinner have been so untoward?"

Mr. Bennet, instead of answering directly, fixed his daughter with a bleary eye. "As well, one might ask, how could an evening spent in one's room summon a bouquet and a caller the next morn?"

Mary stifled a gasp, hoping his question was rhetorical, but in this she was disappointed. When she did not answer, her father continued. "Tell me what has interested the gentlemen of London in my quiet daughter? Never tell me they spied your face at the window and were struck by one of Cupid's wayward arrows?"

Mary felt the heat rising to her cheeks.  However was she to tell her father of her expedition to Vauxhall or the company which had made it possible? She had so rarely attracted his interest that she knew not how he would respond to this confession. She regretted intensely having asked him of his own evening, never thinking it would call attention to hers. Surely now whatever reputation she had in the family for sober good sense and propriety must now desert her.

"Mary?" her father prompted. "Tell all, for I require some diversion from my misery."

Under the best of circumstances, Mary was a poor storyteller. Ordinarily, she related every event in detail to the degree that those who actually listened until the tale's end were sorry they had. Now, she must sift through what had occurred and omit all the barest facts. 

"I left the inn for a bit, last night," she began, "for it was still light and I had seen so little of the City."

"I see," her father responded. "Unescorted?"

"Why, no," she stammered. "Sara, the innkeeper's daughter walked along with me."

"And merely taking a walk set you upon the road to courtship!" His brief laugh descended into a paroxysm of coughing, giving Mary a brief respite in which to collect herself. 

"Of course not," she said at last, "but really, father, you must not tire yourself listening to my trivialities. You are clearly not well."

"I will not interrupt again.  Speak, my dear, and divert me from my malady."

"There is not so much to tell, Father. Merely that Sara and her sister and brother escorted me about the neighborhood, and I came upon Mr. Augustus Wittington and we spoke briefly.  It was he who sent the bouquet—merely as a matter of courtesy—and we returned to the inn soon after that encounter."

Mr. Bennet tapped the tips of his steepled fingers together. "Encounter, you say? An odd word to use."

Mary squirmed uncomfortably. "I meant nothing in particular by it, Papa."

"So the bouquet came from young Wittington, did it? Smitten, is he?"

"By no means, Papa. At least, I daresay..." she trailed off miserably. 

"Well, do not set your sights in that direction, Mary," he said with some distaste. "I barely missed being saddled with your cousin Collins and have no need for a cheap imitation. At least, you do not sit, clasping the nosegay to your heart."

"Of course not, Papa!"

"Now what of the other gentleman—the one who called and pressed your hand in his this morning. From whence did he spring?"

Mary all but groaned. Why, of all times, must her father pay heed to her now? "That is Mr. Little, a friend of Sara's...that is a friend of Sara's sister's suitor."

"How friendly you have become with the help, Mary. Never a good idea, as I hope you know."

"Mr. Little is a clerk, Papa."

"So is your uncle Philips, but that hardly recommends him! And how did you manage to recommend yourself to this clerk?"

Mary hung her head. "It seems I had best tell all," she said drearily.

"That is sometimes a good course," her father said gravely. "Now what is so terrible that you must hide it from me. You are surely not become another Lydia."

It occurred to Mary in the moments before she responded that her actions of the night before were much more like Lydia than her own staid self. If she must share some trait with her sister, why could it not be beauty?

"You may not know me half so well as you imagine, Papa. I went to Vauxhall last night."

"Vauxhall! Mary! I begin to think I do not know you at all!"

Monday, October 21, 2013

Chapter XII

Mary and Kitty: A Tale of Two Sisters

Chapter XII

As Kitty might have anticipated had her powers of discernment been more powerful, the heavy repast fortified by free-flowing spirits took its toll on the elder passengers. Soon all but Maria and herself were wrapped peacefully in the arms of Morpheus. However, where her mental prowess failed, Kitty's resourcefulness soon awoke. Her friend, unfortunately squeezed by the slumbering bulk of Mr. Collins, had sunk into the corner and could not immediately see what Kitty was about.

"Maria," Kitty whispered, passing a bottle over the top of the clergyman's head, "take a sip."

"What is it?" Maria squeaked.

"Just a taste of the claret," Kitty responded. "I find myself quite parched, as I am certain you must be as well. A small sip can surely have no adverse effect."

Maria, in apparent agreement, betook herself of the draught, making a sound like a surprised puppy. "Mama must have been mistaken! She always told us that spirits tasted like poison, but this is not so very terrible."

Kitty took her turn, and passed the bottle again.

"It is like over-ripe currants. Very nice indeed," Maria sighed. "I think they were cruel not to share a taste with us."

"It is always so with our elders," Kitty agreed pettishly. "If there is something we will love, they soon enough discover a reason to prohibit it! Besides, it is not as if we were children. Why you may end this journey by being a married lady. Have you learned any more of your suitor?"

"Not a word," Maria admitted, "but Mama bade me pack two pairs of gloves and told me I might put my hair up at dinner if there was company. That is a very odd thing, now I think of it, for in general she does not like me to be at all fashionable."

Kitty took another sip and Maria had her turn once again. "In this matter, I can be of service. I have watched both Jane and Elizabeth prepared by their lady's maids, so I know what's what! And..." she took a moment to ensure that the sleepers continued in their dreaming, "when we get to town we must contrive to visit a linen drapers. I have brought all my pin money with me and am determined to make some additions to my wardrobe."

"But how is this to be accomplished, Kitty? Mr. Collins will not like it."

"To be sure, I had thought to enlist my mother's aid, but I do not believe I can rouse her without waking the others. She is a very heavy sleeper."

Maria looked thoughtful for a moment. "Perhaps we can prevail on Mr. Collins to bring Charlotte a gift from town."

"Would he do so without the permission of the esteemed Lady Catherine?" Kitty asked archly. "I have a better plan. You shall tell him that, in her letter, Charlotte requested that you select a length of muslin for her."

Giddy insobriety
"What a capital plan!" said Maria, handing the bottle back to Kitty. "And I know Charlotte will like it above all things, for I daresay she does not often have to opportunity to avail herself of shops outside the village. And I should like to purchase some ribbon, for even my best hat is sadly in need of re-trimming."

Passing the remainder of the journey in making their plans and quenching their thirst, the young ladies soon attained a giddy state of insobriety and from thence passed into a state of sweet repose.

The day being fair and the road excellent, both London and Gracechurch Street were attained before any of the travelers awakened. Such events oft combine to create interesting occasions, and the Gardiners, only moments returned from their holiday, were still at the entry to their home when the grand equipage jolted to a stop.

"Is that not the de Bourgh crest?" Mrs. Gardiner exclaimed.

"I believe it is, my love," her husband returned, "although what it is doing here I cannot begin to fathom."

Their curiosity heightened when a liveried footman descended to open the carriage. On his doing so, a stray bottle rolled out the door and shattered on the cobblestones, introducing a scene of such dissolution that Mrs. Gardiner gasped.

 "What's this, Mama?" one of the younger Gardiners exclaimed. "Are my aunts dead? They look so very happy."

Indeed they did, but despite his internal observation -- not dead, dead drunk -- his father remarked instead, "No child, merely resting." Casting a speaking look at his wife, she reluctantly retreated into the house, shooing the children before her.

Within the carriage, the Mr. Gardiner had recognized at once his sisters' recumbent forms, leaned against each other, snoring in turn. Across from them his niece Kitty's face was pressed flat to the window, and next to her sprawled Mr. Collins, momentarily at ease with himself and the world. Just beyond the clergyman's bulk peeped a pair of slippers which could, he judged, only belong to Mary. What strange occasion could have prompted the arrival of such oddly-sorted company?

"A moment, sir?" At his elbow stood his housekeeper with a young maid in tow. "Alice here tells me that Mr. Bennet called yesterday and was forced to go to an inn."

Mr. Gardiner frowned deeply. His brother Bennet yesterday?  His sisters here today? Something was clearly amiss, but what had prompted them to call on Mr. Collins' support, he had not the faintest clue. Some disaster at Longbourn?

Kitty, who had by this time ascended from the depths of repose, kept her eyes firmly shut. She recalled with trepidation Lydia's tales of their uncle's ogreish behavior during the days before her marriage to Mr. Wickham. If anything fell beyond the boundaries of what he deemed proper, it was bellows to mend! Worse, he was altogether likely to impress on her mother the unwisdom of her accompanying Maria to Hunsford uninvited. This sort of interference was not to be borne.

Despite her uncle's giving her shoulder a firm shake, Kitty maintained her shammed slumber steadfastly until her mother and Aunt Philips were safely dislodged from the equipage by two footmen and steered toward the house under the direction of her uncle.

This moment was all she needed to jump from the carriage and address herself to the driver, who helpfully informed her that there were several establishments not far which enjoyed Lady Catherine's patronage. Indeed, Lady Catherine had several commissions which must be addressed before their quitting London and he hoped the party would not mind the delay. When he expressed some concern over the horses becoming restless standing thus in the street, she declared that they need await neither her uncle's return nor Mr. Collins' awakening. Instead, she suggested they make their way directly toward the aforementioned emporia. Thus were all of Kitty's dearest plans brought neatly to fruition, the family Gardiner 's eventual dismay notwithstanding.