Posted on Saturday, 16 March 2002
"And Charlotte, of course."
Charlotte Lucas snapped up her head at the mention of her name from Mrs. Long. Mrs. Long was smiling at her, intensely sweet. Her mother, Lady Lucas, nodded serenely, and gently set her pug dog down on the fine rug in the Lucas parlor.
"Yes, of course," stated Lady Lucas, "I am sure Charlotte will be a welcome addition to Mr. Bingley's circle of family and friends. As Lord Lucas is well known at St. James Court, I'm sure they will be quite gratified to make the acquaintance of both Charlotte and Maria.
Charlotte smiled at the two ladies, sweet and serene herself. She tried to quickly recall the prattle and gossip recently exchanged between the two women. A new tenant at Netherfield? A bachelor? Yes, obviously---what else would give rise to all this fervor? And---dear G**---was her mother truly intent on pressing an introduction between her daughter and this new neighbor?
After all these years since Charlotte was out in society, with no understanding with any eligible man: did Mama still expect Charlotte to make a favorable match?
"Is he wealthy?! Well, Mrs. Long, one would assume he is wealthy if he can afford to take the elegant estate of Netherfield! Lord Lucas has heard that he might have, possibly, five thousand pounds a year--although of course, I would never deign to judge to judge a good neighbor strictly by his purse."
Dear G**---yes, Mama was still hopeful. Charlotte sighed. And perhaps a bit more subtle about finances than, say, their neighbor Mrs. Bennet.
Mrs. Bennet....a slightly wicked thought occurred to Charlotte. She smiled, and announced to her mother:
"Oh, Mama! I think it would be delightful for Lucas Lodge to host a ball, and invite Mr. Bingley and whatever party he might choose!" Lady Lucas beamed at Charlotte's enthusiasm. Lord Lucas, standing in stately fashion near the fireplace nodded his assent, announcing that it would be "quite in keeping with the manners and functions of good London society, with which Mr. Bingley must assuredly be acquainted."
Charlotte then continued: "And I think it would be just too delightful to introduce our new neighbor to Jane and Eliza Bennet!".
Lady Lucas's face froze for a moment, staring at her daughter with a brief look of absolute shock. Insensible of his wife's expression, Lord Lucas--always eager to promote the fairness of any daughter of their neighborhood--asserted that it would "indeed be a triumph for Lucas Lodge to present to our new neighbor the brightest jewels in the crown of our society. To present such grace, charm, beauty and accomplishment as has blessed the Bennet family!---well, to be sure! Capital, quite capital! Indeed I dare say Mr. Bingley shall not find fairer company in London than is to be found among our households, eh my dear?"
Lady Lucas, smiled wanly at her husband, yet gently waved her hand at him, as if wafting away the praise of the Bennet girls like a sour kitchen odor. At the same time, she tried to catch Charlotte's eye and very slightly, shake her head at the girl. Maria Lucas did not fare as well: she announced that she thought the idea quite jolly, and hoped that Kitty--and perhaps Lydia would be able to attend as well, although not officially out. Poor Maria received a subtle yet frosty glance from her mother that silenced her for a full hour from any further opinion on any topic.
Charlotte rose to her feet and excused herself from the company. "I must check on the preparations for tea, Mama. There is a new pastry I am anxious for Mrs. Long to sample." As she left the room, Charlotte heard her mother quickly note to Mrs. Long: "Yes, my dear girl is a very meticulous. It may do for other families to let their housekeepers have their way. But Charlotte can supervise every bit of activity from attic to cellar. That, I suppose, is something Mrs. Bennet would not approve of for her girls......"
Charlotte did not hear the remaining comparison of the Bennet and Lucas households. She surveyed the preparations in the kitchen, and immersed herself in the bustle of the work. She felt a light touch on her arm, and turned in surprise to see Maria; her younger sister had left their guest to follow Charlotte into the kitchen.
"Charlotte," began Maria, "Do you not wish to meet Mr. Bingley?" Charlotte gazed at her sister, rather shocked. She turned to look at the girl.
"I would like very much to meet our new neighbor. I do not wish to be thrown at him."
"But Charlotte, he sounds like a very eligible young man..."
"Yes Maria, I know---possibly five thousand pounds a year. Very wealthy. Wealthier than we are, by far. And a young man NOT in need of a young woman of meager fortune."
Maria huffed indignantly. "We are not poor! And Father is titled." Charlotte shook her head and her sister and smiled weakly.
"No my dear. We are not poor. But as Mama observed, Mr. Bingley is wealthy enough to afford Netherfield. We are not. And while I am very proud of Papa's title, it will not, we must admit, be enough to attract young men of such circumstance. Whether Mr. Bingley is of gentry, or acquired his wealth from trade"--Maria stiffened a bit---"he will not be interested in a simple Lord's daughter.....without any other incentives or attractions." Charlotte turned back to her oven.
"Oh Charlotte," cried Maria, "You are not without charms or virtues......" Charlotte answered without turning around.
"Housekeeping? No--mint sauce and crisp linens do not thrill any man's heart--they hire cooks and maids for that. No Maria--I am plain. It has been spoken of by others, as I'm sure you have heard. If I had a great fortune, or a title and estate, then I would indeed have 'charms' to interest this Mr. Bingley, or any other gentleman. But, I do not have enough estate or money to entice the interest of most men. If a man of means will take a wife with a meager dowry, he expects the dowry to be augmented by a fair face. Even in those foolish novels you and Kitty Bennet sigh over---even the most pitiable, destitute heroine has the face of an angel." Charlotte paused, and sighed. She turned, finally to look at her sister.
Maria gazed for a moment at her sister, her mouth trembled a bit.
"Charlotte, I do not wish to see you a spinster!"
Maria's eyes looked tearful. Charlotte saw the face of a sister who loved her. But Charlotte also saw a young girl who desired to be "out", to be courted, to be wed herself--and could not if her sister remained. She knew her brothers resented caring for an unmarried sister in their own households.
Charlotte walked over to her sister, and kissed Maria on the forehead---and brushed a bit of flour from the girl's hair. "Maria," she sighed, "I will meet this Mr. Bingley, and we shall see what he thinks. I will smile for him, and father may praise me as he likes. We shall see what this Mr. Bingley thinks." Maria put her arms around her sister's neck, held her and fairly skipped back to the front parlor. Charlotte watched her youthful optimism, and thought:
We shall see what Mr. Bingley thinks. A woman of seven and twenty, with no public engagements announced---Mr. Bingley, are you interested in a woman who has been slighted by other men?
Charlotte let a serene smile slip onto her face, and entered the parlor, and returned to her family's attention.