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!"