Posted on Saturday, 3 February 2001, at 3 : 27 p.m.
What if it were Jane who accompanied the Gardiners to Derbyshire and not Lizzy?
If I were but five miles closer I could -." Jane's musings were interrupted by the arrival of the maid, announcing in her thickly accented voice that 'a ladee and a gen'l'mun were doonsturs and would she like them to be shewn into the parlur?' Jane indicated her agreement with a slight nod of her head. As the maid left to usher the newcomers upstairs Jane quickly checked her appearance in the small mirror on the wall, straightening her skirt and taking up a position near the table, her face turned toward the door.
The sound of boots on the wooden stairs brought her eyes open in a startled and excited flutter. She had barely enough time to take a deep breath, hoping to steady her rapidly beating heart, when the door opened and the maid again made an announcement.
"Mr. Bingley an' Miss Bingley, Ma'am."
"Ah, Miss Bennet," Mr. Bingley warmly intoned. He brought his sister forward. "You remember my sister, Caroline?"
"Of course," Jane shyly dipped her head in Miss Bingley's direction but her eyes were still on the brother as her head came back up. "It is delightful to see you both again. Please, sit down." She indicated the comfortable chairs to one side of the room.
"I couldn't believe my ears when Darcy said you were not five miles from Pemberley!" Mr. Bingley continued in an excited manner. "He mentioned that you were visiting the district with some relations?"
Jane smiled, recollecting that unexpected meeting with Mr. Darcy on his estate. "Yes, my aunt and uncle from London. I believe you met them once, Miss Bingley, while I was staying with them last winter."
Miss Bingley seemed to squirm slightly in her chair. "Yes, I recall that I did. Mr and Mrs. Gardiner, isn't it?"
Jane nodded. Mr. Bingley did not seem to take notice of the exchange between his sister and his hostess. "We have had a most interesting tour of the Lakes and of Derbyshire. My aunt is from this area, you know."
"Is she?" cried Mr. Bingley delightedly. "How very fortunate!" He did not elaborate further on how this aspect improved the travellers' fortunes.
Miss Bingley suddenly cleared her throat, her brother and Jane both raising their eyebrows as if enquiring after what she was about to say. She looked from one to the other, finally venturing, "Have you seen many of the local sights?" It sounded feeble to her own ears.
"Oh, gracious!" Mr. Bingley suddenly leapt from his seat.
"What is it?" a startled Jane cried.
"I completely forgot! Darcy is downstairs and wished to come up and pay his respects. Have you any objection?" Mr. Bingley seemed less interested in her actual response than in hearing her voice.
"Oh, of course! I should be delighted to see him again." Jane met his gaze with an equally dreamy one of her own.
After what seemed like several hours of interminable silence, Miss Bingley spoke. "Charles, he's waiting for you to go down and bring him up here."
"Oh, yes!" Mr. Bingley grinned foolishly, describing a hurried bow and disappearing out the door.
Jane turned to face Miss Bingley, smiling amiably. "I trust you have been well since we last met?"
"Yes," Miss Bingley replied. She struggled for something else to add. "And your family? How is your lovely sister, Miss Elizabeth?" Caroline nearly bit her tongue in speaking that name.
Jane's expression clouded over. "Lizzy is well," she said succinctly. However, her audience did not miss the change in her tone. Forcing a smile, Jane added, "She offered to tend to my aunt and uncle's children in order for me to accompany them on this trip. Lizzy loves children. She will have many of her own when she marries, I'm sure."
Before Miss Bingley could frame a reply to this the door opened once more to admit Mr. Bingley, this time with Mr. Darcy close behind.
"Miss Bennet!" the latter enthused as he crossed the threshold. He offered a respectful bow in Jane's direction, which she returned with a deep curtsey. "I trust you are well since our meeting yesterday afternoon?"
Jane observed the genuine nature of his enquiry in his eyes. There was also an unspoken question there. She smiled inwardly, deciding to wait until he raised the subject or until a more suitable opportunity arose. "I am quite well, thank you," she replied. "And your sister, is she recovered from her fall? I hope she sustained no lasting injury."
"Quite recovered, although I insisted that she remain at Pemberley just to be sure. Otherwise she would have accompanied me this morning." Mr. Darcy seemed about to add another comment when Miss Bingley interrupted.
"Miss Darcy is such a resilient young lady. I'm sure she will ...." Miss Bingley's voice faltered as the two gentlemen looked in her direction. "....be back to her old self in no time at all," she finished quickly. Her fingers played with a fold in her skirt as she willed her brother to look in another direction.
He did, but not the direction was not to his sister's taste, either.
"Miss Bennet," Mr. Bingley said after a brief glance toward Darcy. "I did not have the pleasure to converse with you yesterday as my friend, here, did. How long are you to stay in this part of the country?"
"My aunt has many friends and acquaintances that she wishes to visit. I anticipate our stay to be of at least a week."
Mr. Bingley's toothy grin emerged. "Excellent!"
"Miss Bennet." Darcy's cool tones drew Jane's gaze to his serious expression. "I hope that your family is well?"
Jane couldn't resist the urge to smile. "Indeed, they are, thank you."
"Are all your sisters still at Longbourn?" Mr. Bingley asked to his friend's great relief. Darcy dared not voice his curiosity on this point. As it stood, he wasn't sure he wanted to know the answer. Some things were better left in the past... unsaid...untouched.... rotting in the black recesses of his mind... a putrid, stinking mass of self recrimination and Aaaggghhh! How much more must a man take???? Is there no escape????
"No," came Jane's soft voice. She saw Mr. Darcy flinch slightly and a small frown crease his brow.
"No?" Mr. Bingley continued politely. "Ah, yes! I recall something about your cousin, Mr. Collins, and possibly one of your sisters..... Now, which sister was it?"
There was a deathly silence as he attempted to recall the tidbit of information from the depths of his memory. It was not something he would ordinarily remember, but where it concerned the Bennets, and Jane in particular, Bingley was sure to file it away in his mind somewhere.
"Aha!" he cried at last. "It was Miss Elizabeth, was it not?" He turned to his sister, failing to notice the appalled look on her face. "Is that not what you told us, Caroline?" Suddenly realising the tactlessness of his comment, revealing a level of gossip that was uncomplimentary, Mr. Bingley swallowed in an embarrassed stillness but had no idea what to say that would not cast a further pall on the situation.
Jane rescued him from his own folly. "Yes, our cousin did make it well known that he found my sister to be an eligible match." She paused. "He did, however, marry Miss Charlotte Lucas. Do you remember her? Sir William's eldest daughter."
"Yes. Yes, indeed," Miss Bingley interjected before her brother could say anything more. "Actually, Miss Bennet was just telling me of her sisters when you gentlemen joined us. Eliza, you said, is at home but your other sisters....?" Miss Bingley's real objective was to draw the conversation away from talk of Elizabeth Bennet as she had noted with increasing horror the effect of that name on Mr. Darcy. His eyes seemed to become distant and glazed, his responses to direct questions sluggish and rarely had anything to do with the question posed.
"Miss Elizabeth did not wish to accompany you on this trip?"
Miss Bingley frowned at Mr. Darcy's return to the topic she hoped to bury. "Miss Eliza," she volunteered in a tone tinged with acid, "preferred to spend her time minding children rather than visit this exquisite countryside, exposed to such elegant society."
Miss Bingley fancied she heard a note of disapproval in Mr. Darcy's words, but Jane saw admiration and wonder in his eyes. Jane chose to pursue that avenue.
"My aunt and uncle's children are at Longbourn while we travel. My sister has always been a favourite of theirs, and she is so kind and patient with them. I believe she really enjoys the time she spends with them, too. Lizzy will make a wonderful mother some day."
Miss Bingley made a small choking sound. Doing it too brown, Jane! To her amazement, neither her brother nor his friend noticed the blatant advertisement in Miss Bennet's words. Instead, there were nods of agreement and expressions of approbation on their faces. Miss Bingley struggled to think of some way to counteract this effect. She could have spared herself the effort for the door to the room opened suddenly with the entrance of Mrs and Mr.
The latter was out of breath, the former fanning herself with a letter as she exclaimed upon entering,
"Oh, Jane! Thank goodness you haven't gone out." She stopped, the sight of her niece's visitors cutting short any expounding upon her statement.
"Aunt, Uncle, you have made Mr. Darcy's acquaintance. May I introduce Mr. Bingley and his sister?" Jane indicated her relations to her guests. "Mr. and Mrs. Edward Gardiner."
Pleasantries were extended on both sides. It was evident after a few moments that the Gardiners had some pressing business to discuss with Jane, however. Miss Bingley was only too happy to express her astonishment at the advanced hour as her companions announced their departure. Mr. Darcy briefly conferred with his friend and then extended an invitation to Miss Bennet and the Gardiners to dine at Pemberley two days hence. Miss Bennet's face lit up, Mrs. Gardiner looked crushed and Mr. Gardiner was compelled to express their regrets that they would be unable to accept as urgent family business necessitating their departure as soon as possible.
Mr. Darcy felt a stab of alarm but managed to control it without any undue notice. Mr. Bingley, naturally, voiced his concern and the hope that nothing of an unfortunate nature had befallen any of their relations. Mr. Gardiner assured them that it was merely an inconvenient interruption of their holiday and he was sure all would be resolved quickly. The Bingley party left, somewhat disappointed on the gentlemen's side, but very relieved on the lady's part.
When the door had closed, Jane turned to face her aunt. "What is it? What has happened?"
Mrs. Gardiner held out a letter. "We received this from Lizzy."
Jane took the paper with trembling fingers. She glanced uneasily toward her aunt. "I - ." Jane shook her head. "I can't read it." The letter changed hands once more.
Mr. Gardiner came forward, leading Jane to a nearby chair. "You'd best sit down, my dear." He looked over at his wife, their eyes speaking the words they were afraid to voice. When they had found Mr. Bingley with their niece it was a bright spot in their distressing morning. However, all hopes for any progress in that direction were for nought. When the news from Longbourn became known to the people at Pemberley, all would be lost. There would be no chance left for Jane's happiness with the amiable Mr. Bingley.
The Breath of Scandal was cruellest to the Sweet and Generous.
Mr. Gardiner sighed. Jane deserved so much more.
"Uncle?" Jane whispered, fear in her eyes.
"Jane," he began in a soothing voice. "I'm afraid the news will affect you all in a very serious manner. There will be few who will not avoid the company of the Bennets in future. Scandal has never been a welcome spectre in any household but this...." He shook his head sadly.
Jane's eyes widened and her gaze travelled to where her aunt stood, equally dismal. "Surely it cannot be as bad as that?"
Her aunt nodded. "I fear you will have to abandon your hopes where Mr. Bingley is concerned, Jane. That will no longer be an option for you. You and your sisters will have to set your goals a bit lower, even consider how you will be supporting yourselves should an offer of marriage not be forthcoming."
"Oh, I must know now!" cried Jane. "Torture me no longer!"
"It's your mother," her uncle gravely replied.
"Mama? What has happened?" Jane was showing the signs of becoming hysterical.
Lord, pray she is not following in her mother's footsteps! entreated Mrs. Gardiner, eyes closed and hands arranged in a affectation of supplication.
Nothing prepared Jane for what her uncle was about to tell her. She stared at him in disbelief for several minutes before a fit of hysterics overtook her. She had never heard anything so ludicrous in her life!
"Jane, your mother has run off with Mr. Wickham."