Here’s an exclusive offer for readers of the Austen Authors blog! I’m excited to share with you the first four chapters of my new book, Mary and the Captain. But first, here’s the book blurb:
A plan of marriage …
Jane and Charles Bingley’s plan for a quiet stay at Netherfield with Kitty and Mary Bennet takes a wrong turn when Caroline Bingley invites herself, her brother Robert, and her best friend Helena to the party. Determined that Robert and Helena shall wed, Caroline knows their marriage will elevate the Bingley’s status among the ton.
A dashing bridgroom …
Captain Robert Bingley arrives at Netherfield for the sole purpose of wooing the beautiful Helena Paget. And when he meets Kitty and Mary Bennet for the first time, he gives them no more than a passing glance, until an unusual circumstance sends him off on a quest to rescue a friend in trouble … with Mary Bennet as his accomplice!
The wrong bride …
Before long, shy, bookish Mary has turned Robert’s well-ordered life upside-down. Why, even Caroline Bingley notices her brother and Mary seem to be in constant company. Now it’s up to Caroline to drive a wedge between them in order to achieve her heart’s desire.
And now, here are the opening chapters. I hope you enjoy them!
Late November, 1814
Captain Robert Bingley returned his dance partner to her mother’s side and made a short bow. “Thank you for the dance, Miss Garfield. It was a pleasure.”
In truth, the ordeal of dragging the young lady through the steps of a polonaise had been far from pleasurable, but good manners and a keen self-control born from years of military training helped him hide his true feelings from both the lady and her mother.
He offered her a smile, which his sister Caroline had often complimented as having just the right combination of civility and aloofness, and asked after the health of Miss Garfield’s father. For answer the young lady’s mother launched into a catalog of her husband’s medical complaints that lasted several minutes. Robert listened patiently and murmured appropriate words of sympathy, giving the ladies his undivided attention until the orchestra sounded the chords of the next dance. It was his signal to move on.
He bade them a good evening and was just beginning to make his way through the crowded ballroom when he caught sight of his sister Caroline moving purposefully in his direction.
Miss Caroline Bingley was in excellent looks. Her gown was, as always, exquisitely cut of fine silks, and her dark curls were arranged most becomingly about her pretty face; but he saw in an instant that there was a light in her eyes he had not seen earlier when he left her side to search out his dance partner. Caroline was up to something.
As soon as she reached his side she threaded her gloved hand through the crook of his arm and directed his steps toward the opposite end of the ballroom.
“I have been looking everywhere for you,” she said. “What on earth were you doing with that tiresome Louisa Garfield?”
“Partnering her about the dance floor. I believe you were a witness to it.”
“Yes, but, why, I should like to know, when there are so many more desirable young women here tonight?”
“And so many more ladies who wish to dance than there are men to partner them, as is often the case. As a gentleman, it is my duty to dance with as many as I am able.”
“Oh, duty,” Caroline said, dismissively. “While you were busy giving consequence to the unworthy Miss Garfield, I have been working diligently on your behalf.”
“Have you? How so?”
She looked up into his blue eyes and smiled enigmatically. “Sowing seeds, dear brother, sowing seeds. Do tell me you are not engaged to dance the next with some undeserving—and equally forgettable—miss.”
“On the contrary, I have pledged the next dance to your friend, Miss Paget, and was about to go in search of her.”
Caroline’s expression brightened. “Twice in one evening, Robert? I begin to think you have developed a tendre for my dear friend.”
“Would it surprise you? I think you are aware Miss Paget is by far the prettiest woman here, and certainly the sweetest in temperament.”
“You have stated the very reasons I decided to take her up. Oh, this way,” Caroline said, applying pressure to Robert’s arm to right the direction of his steps.
Robert tolerantly allowed her to steer his course. “Clearly you have a destination in mind for us. Where are we going?”
For answer Caroline stopped walking and faced her brother. She looked up to examine his face, from the neat arrangement of his dark brown hair to the firm line of his chin; from there her gaze traveled over his broad shoulders and the polished medals fixed to the red tunic of his officer’s dress uniform. How handsome he looked! And how much she wished he was not so tiresomely independent. If he would only learn to lean on her and allow her to manage one or two small things in his life, he would thank her for it later, she was certain.
Hadn’t her instincts been right about his military career? Hadn’t she predicted that some horrid colonel would whisk him away from the bosom of his family as soon as he purchased his commission? And so it had been, for no sooner had he been gazetted than Robert’s regiment was immediately despatched to Turkey—or was it Egypt?—she had never been quite certain.
She had been against his joining the army from the start, insisting that Bingley men should use their wealth to purchase memberships at White’s, not military commissions; and predicting that living in encampments would rob him of his good manners and make him fit only for mingling with the fish mongers at Billingsgate. Robert had listened patiently, and called her Mother Hen; then he promptly joined the Hussars and reported for duty with a stunning swiftness that almost made her head spin.
That had been over two years ago, and in that time the Bingleys had seen nothing of Robert as he traveled to the far reaches of the world. But now he was back in London, having returned in August; and if she had her way, she would see to it that he never left the family fold again.
She brushed an infinitesimal bit of lint from the shoulder of his tunic, and said, “You must not blame sisterly pride when I say you are quite the handsomest man here tonight. I have noted the admiring glances of every eligible young woman who has had the privilege to see you pass by—not to mention the calculating looks of their mothers! You must promise me you shall resist them all.”
“With the exception of Miss Paget, of course. After all, she is my closest friend—so close that I often think of her as a sister, and have to remind myself there is no blood between us. Still, we enjoy the deepest sister-like devotion.”
“Caroline …” he said, in a mildly warning tone.
“You are right, of course, that Miss Paget can never be a true sister to me—only a sister-in-law, much like our dear Jane. It was a lucky stroke for all of us when Miss Jane Bennet married our brother Charles, and have we not welcomed her to the family as one of our own? I suppose,” she said, allowing a hint of tragedy to tinge her tone, “it is too much for me to hope that the same may one day be said of my dear friend, Miss Paget.”
Robert’s expression was wary but tolerant. “When did you become such a calculating minx?”
“I?” she said, with innocently wide eyes.
“Allow me to conduct my own flirtations, Caroline.”
“Of course—but only if you will tell me that my instincts are correct in this. Have I accurately gauged your feelings for Miss Paget?”
As soon as those words left her lips, Robert’s expression changed; the look of affectionate amusement disappeared with the finality of a curtain dropping on the last act of a play. “May I give you a hint, Caroline? Soldiers are trained to be lead, not pushed.”
“I meant it kindly, brother.”
His expression softened slightly. “Of that I have no doubt.”
“Can you blame me for wanting to see you happy and settled in life?”
“That depends on how you intend to accomplish the thing.”
“I shall tell you, though I hadn’t meant to say a word about it until I was certain every detail was arranged.”
“Are you about to finally describe those seeds you said you were sowing on my behalf?”
“Indeed, I am,” she answered, with a coy smile and a dip of her head that caused the jewels in her headdress to glitter beneath the ballroom’s candlelight. “You see, I have become so fond of Miss Paget that I begin to think it a shame that we must spend Christmas apart.”
“But you and I are to spend Christmas at Netherfield with Charles and Jane. We have planned it so.”
“And Helena is to go to Essex to her sister and brother-in-law.
She has mentioned to you, has she not, that her sister is soon to deliver her first child? Helena’s mother is determined to be in Essex for her lying in.”
“Yes, she told me.”
“Did she also mention she is not keen on the idea? Of course she wishes her sister well and hopes she delivers of a fine, healthy child, but Helena cannot like the idea of burying herself in Essex for two months.”
“Just what, exactly, are you up to, Caroline?” he asked in a tone of affectionate suspicion.
“I have been busy with Charles and Jane. They wanted to spend a quiet family Christmas at Netherfield with you and me and Jane’s sisters—”
“I did not know Jane’s sisters are to be there. I look forward to meeting them.”
“Don’t,” Caroline recommended. “Oh, I know you are the model of good manners, but you will waste such efforts on those Bennet girls. Promise you will pay them no mind.”
“Ignore my sisters-in-law? Caroline, you cannot mean it!” he protested, unsure if he should laugh at her or scold her.
“You say that only because you have never met the creatures.”
“But they are Jane’s younger sisters, are they not?”
“Yes, but a last name is the only thing they have in common. They are nothing at all like our dear Jane.”
He looked down at her, frowning and smiling at the same time. “How can that be?”
“You will learn soon enough. They have nothing of Jane’s temperament and no accomplishments to speak of. One of them—Kitty, they call her—runs after officers. She is quite shameless about it, so beware she doesn’t set her sights on you.”
He laughed outright at the notion. “And the other sister?”
“Mary is even more trying. She imagines herself a talented musician, but the truth is she has no ability whatsoever, yet the family will encourage her. Your regiment marching down a dirt road has a finer sense of musical rhythm than Mary Bennet can ever hope to achieve.”
“If they are Jane’s sisters, they cannot be as bad as you describe,” he said, in good humour. “Why, Jane is dear and sweet—I could not have wished for a better match for our brother Charles. I think these sisters must be more like Jane than you are willing to admit.”
“I assure you, they are not.”
“Still, I will be happy to make their acquaintance. But what have they to do with those seeds you have been sowing?”
“Nothing at all and I assure you, they will never figure in any of my plans.”
“And those plans are …?” He was beginning to wonder if Caroline would ever tell him what plots and ploys she had set in motion.
“I believe I can convince Jane to invite Miss Paget to spend Christmas at Netherfield with us.”
Robert was still for a long moment. His heart, which had beat so strongly and steadily a mere moment before, now began to thump crazily beneath the gleaming medals pinned to the tunic of his uniform. Christmas with Miss Paget? It was almost too much to hope for. From the moment Robert had made the acquaintance of Miss Helena Paget he had been smitten as never before. He had met her in August after his regiment had returned to England; Caroline had introduced her as one of her dearest friends, and that alone would have disposed Robert to think well of her. But it also happened that she was the most bewitching young woman he had ever met.
At twenty years of age she was delicate and sweet, quick to smile and possessed of an engaging dimple and an equally engaging wit. He had first been attracted to her beauty; but after ten minutes of conversation with Helena, he found himself completely beguiled by her many charms; so much so that when he discovered his regiment had been ordered to Kent, he was besotted enough to consider the idea of resigning his commission, just so he could remain in London by her side.
He had not done so, but leaving Helena behind had been one of the most difficult things he had ever done—far more difficult, he began to think, than facing an enemy on the battlefield. Under this strong emotion he entered a new and extraordinary phase of his life, where the military career he had always enjoyed and celebrated suddenly began to chafe. Where once he had been content to concentrate on obeying orders and going where his king and colonel commanded, he now found his thoughts consumed by the date of his next scheduled leave and the quickest route back to London and Helena’s side.
When he was with his regiment he relied on Caroline—good sister that she was—to keep his memory fresh in Helena’s mind until the next time he was able to see her. But now, it seemed, fortune had smiled on him. Thanks to his sister’s machinations, he might actually have two uninterrupted weeks with the lovely Miss Paget at Netherfield, his brother’s country estate. Two weeks in which he would be free of his regimental duties. Two weeks in which he could court her as she should be courted, and make his feelings known to her. Two weeks in which he would have ample time to secure her promise to marry him.
On an impulse he gave his sister a quick kiss on the cheek. “Oh, you dear little schemer! You cannot know how happy you have made me, Caroline.”
“Stop that,” she said, embarrassed but pleased. “You may thank me by putting your time at Netherfield to good use and making my friend Helena your wife. But I beg you will not mention the arrangement until I have secured Jane’s agreement. You know how Jane is—she hesitates so over the smallest decisions that you or I would have settled in an instant. We are decisive by nature, you and I—the sensible members of the family.”
“How will I ever thank you?”
“By dancing with Miss Paget, of course.” With a slight, graceful gesture she directed his attention to the far end of the ballroom. “You will find her there, with her mother and father. When I left them, they were standing between the door and the potted palm.”
Instinctively Robert’s head turned that direction, his eyes scanning the assembled crowd from his advantage of height; but the ballroom was filled to overflowing with guests, making it impossible for him to single out one petite young woman.
“And may I give you another hint, Robert? She is wearing her mother’s sapphire tonight. I find it gaudy, myself, but I daresay it would mean much to her if you were to compliment its color and size.”
Robert dipped his head to murmur close to her ear, “Mired in the details, as always, are you? No, no, I mean to compliment you, for you have managed us all very well tonight, I think. What would I do without you?”
“Without me you’d still be dancing with the Miss Garfields of this world. Now go, do! The beautiful Miss Paget awaits.”
Caroline tarried just long enough to see Robert escort Helena Paget onto the dance floor before she joined her brother and sister-in-law. She found Charles and Jane in close and happy conversation, their attention devoted only to each other in the midst of the overcrowded ballroom. After almost a year of marriage they were still in the throes of first love and had not yet progressed past the newly-wed stage of affection. Caroline often wondered how two grown people who spent every waking hour together could remain so besotted with each other, but Charles assured her that she would no doubt feel the same when Cupid’s arrow struck her. Caroline pledged to evade all such arrows aimed her direction.
But when it came to matters regarding Robert’s heart, she was quite happy to help Cupid’s dart find its target. She purposefully stepped between Charles and Jane to ensure she had their full attention, and said, complacently, “Tell me, please, you have noticed that our brother is dancing a second dance with Miss Paget.”
Neither Charles nor Jane had noticed it. Indeed, they had eyes for no one but each other, but at Caroline’s invitation they dutifully directed their attention toward the dance floor.
“What do you see?” Caroline asked.
“A very creditable cotillion,” Charles answered, promptly. “Robert always was an excellent dancer.”
“And what of my dear friend, Helena Paget?”
“She is a charming young woman,” Jane said. “I am so glad to have made her acquaintance. You are blessed with a delightful friend, Caroline.”
Caroline’s expression revealed none of the impatience she felt. “But what do you see as they dance together?”
Both Charles and Jane studied the couple as they moved through the figures of the set. At last Charles said, “They dance splendidly together. I always liked a cotillion myself! Jane, we must have a cotillion or two played at the new year ball. You know we are planning to have a ball at Netherfield right after the new year, don’t you, Caroline? We must have mentioned it. Nothing too lavish—just an excuse, really, to have our Netherfield neighbours about us and welcome in a new year together. Jane has been planning the thing for weeks. Tell her, Jane.”
“I look forward to hearing all the details,” Caroline said, before Jane could reply, “tomorrow, perhaps. Now do look at Robert and Helena again. What do you notice?”
“They look as if they are enjoying themselves,” Jane ventured.
“Enjoying themselves?” Caroline repeated. “Yes, I dare say they are, but look again. Oh, for heaven sake, can you not tell they are in love?”
Jane and Charles immediately looked surprised, then turned as one toward the dance floor, watching in earnest as first Robert then Helena executed a very graceful allemande.
“Only see how he looks at her, how soft his expression,” Caroline said. “I do believe he can barely take his eyes off her. And see how sweetly Helena blushes whenever her gaze meets his. It is plain to anyone who looks their direction they are in the hopeless throes of a romantic attachment.”
“Goodness!” Jane said, as the truth of Caroline’s words dawned upon her. “Can it be? They have known each other only since August.”
“That is nothing, my dear,” Charles said, “for I knew I was half in love with you the night we met at the Meryton Assembly.”
“Then you agree with me,” Caroline said quickly, before her brother could indulge in further memories. “You do see, as I do, that Robert and Helena Paget are in love?”
“I do, indeed, now that you mention it,” Jane said. “Oh, I hope Robert will be happy!”
“He will be, I am certain … once he proposes marriage. But he has not done so yet.”
“What is keeping him?” Charles asked. “It is not like Robert to hesitate. Always forward, always marching toward the future, that’s him!”
“He has been waiting for the right time and the right setting. You know how difficult it has been for him to find two days together in which to see her. His regiment gives him leave to come to London, but then orders him back to ranks before he has a chance to press his suit.”
“I see what you mean,” Jane said, with a small frown marring her lovely features. “That is always the way for poor Robert. Sadly, tomorrow he must return to his regiment and we shall not see him again until Christmas Eve, when he joins us at Netherfield.”
“But there he may stay for two uninterrupted weeks,” Charles added, heartily. “We Bingleys shall have a nice long stay at Netherfield before Robert must report for duty again.”
Caroline nodded, making the jewels in her headdress sparkle. “Very true, brother. Robert will be at Netherfield for two weeks—just long enough, in my opinion, for him to properly court Helena and press his suit with her, if she were invited to Netherfield, too. I am certain with two weeks at his disposal, Robert will propose marriage to Helena Paget, and she will accept. Oh, do say you will invite her to Netherfield for Christmas! I think the thing may be easily done. Look, there are her parents, standing just a little by the door. It would be a simple matter for you to go to them now, Jane, and beg the favor of allowing Helena to come to us for Christmas. She can travel to Netherfield with us in our carriage. Won’t that be cozy?”
Jane frowned slightly. “Do you really think their regard for each other has advanced to such a degree?”
“I am certain of it. Why do you hesitate? Do you dislike Miss Paget?”
“Indeed, we like her very well,” Charles said, quickly. “She is very charming.”
“And she is the niece of an earl,” Caroline added, meaningfully, “as well an heiress in her own right. Of course, that sort of thing is beside the point when it is clear Robert’s heart is engaged. What do you think, Jane?”
“Like Charles, I think Miss Paget is charming. And now that I understand how highly Robert regards her—Oh, Caroline, if I hesitate, it is only because I had planned a small family Christmas at Netherfield. You know my sisters Mary and Kitty will be there, and I was so looking forward to pampering them a bit before we remove from Netherfield for good.”
“And so you shall!” Caroline said, in the tone of a parent coaxing a reluctant child. “And at the same time your Mary and Kitty may become acquainted with the young woman destined to be their future sister-in-law. Now, isn’t that the model of a true family Christmas? Oh, what a lovely time we shall all have together!”
Jane looked at her husband, her expression still doubtful. “Charles, what do you think? Should we expand our Christmas plans to include Miss Paget?”
Before he could reply, Caroline said, “Oh, if you think it best to confine our Christmas to only Bingleys and Bennets, there is no more to be said. I was thinking only of Robert, you know. But, as you say, there is probably no reason to exert an effort on his behalf. He must learn to be satisfied with the little crumbs of happiness he can find here and there in life; and when he leaves us to fight again in some God-forsaken land from which he may never return, we will have our cozy little family Christmas to look back on.”
Charles gave Jane an earnest look. “It seems Caroline may have a point. Perhaps we should invite Miss Paget to Netherfield. If she is to join our family as Mrs. Robert Bingley, it will be the perfect chance for all of us to get to know her better. What do you say, Jane?”
“You are correct, as always,” Jane answered, reaching out to place her gloved fingers on his arm. “I think Kitty and Mary will like her very well. Yes, I do believe our family Christmas can include one more near-relative.”
Caroline smothered a triumphant smile. “Then let us go to Mr. and Mrs. Paget now, Jane. I see them there, just beside the open doors. We will beg the favor of allowing Helena to travel to Netherfield with us. They cannot refuse, I am certain, for they, too, must have remarked on their daughter’s partiality for Robert; and if they haven’t, I mean to point it out to them—subtly, of course.”
And with this stream of words, and many more like them, Caroline led Jane Bingley to the very field in which she had sown those seeds on Robert’s behalf. She would tell Robert about it presently, for she knew he would appreciate her efforts. For now it was sufficient to know that her plans concerning her brother were about to bear fruit. Miss Helena Paget was to spend Christmas at Netherfield, just as Caroline designed. It only remained now to find a way to somehow rid Netherfield of Mary and Kitty Bennet and the Bingleys would be able to enjoy a lovely Christmas, indeed.
The Bennet Home
Mary Bennet traced her tongue across her suddenly dry lower lip and gathered her courage together. From experience she knew nothing good could come from trying to reason with her mother; and when Mrs. Bennet was distracted and rushed—as she was on this December morning as she packed her travel trunks with haphazard abandon—the chances of her considering anyone’s wishes but her own were almost non-existent. Still, Mary felt she had to try.
“Mama, are you listening to me?” It was a rhetorical question for Mary knew her mother was too occupied with the task of packing to pay close attention to anything else.
“Of course I am listening,” Mrs. Bennet said, impatiently. “Why must you ask such questions? Just read the letter, Mary.”
“I did read the letter,” Mary answered, looking down at the page of closely written lines set in her sister Jane’s neat handwriting.
“Then read it again. I couldn’t hear a thing you said because you will insist on mumbling so. Read out, Mary! Read out!”
There was no point in arguing. Mary drew a deep breath and began to read her eldest sister’s letter again while her mother moved restlessly around her bedchamber.
It had been agreed weeks before that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet would spend Christmas at Pemberley with their daughter Elizabeth and her husband, Fitzwilliam Darcy, while Mary and Kitty Bennet stayed with Jane and Charles Bingley at Netherfield. The morning mail had brought a letter from Jane—who had been residing in London with her husband for the last six months—in which Jane outlined a slight change to the plans. That change, of which Jane wrote so casually, greatly upset Mary. She wanted to tell her mother of her concerns, but Mrs. Bennet was more absorbed in the business of packing than she was with her daughter’s clearly worried expression.
In true form, Mrs. Bennet had delayed packing for her journey to Pemberley until the day before she was due to depart, and on this morning she was in a frenzy: ransacking her dressing table, selecting a number of dresses to add to the trunk only to change her mind moments later, and driving her housekeeper Mrs. Hill—who was doing her best to make order out of the chaos her mistress created—to utter distraction. It was in this environment that Mary read her sister Jane’s letter aloud a second time.
When she finished she looked up to see her mother standing before the wardrobe, its doors thrown wide as she studied the contents. Then, with a quick movement, Mrs. Bennet reached inside and began to rifle through the neatly arranged clothes. Mary wished she would look at her instead.
“Mama, I don’t want to go to Netherfield. I want to go to Pemberley with you and papa.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, child!” Mrs. Bennet turned around, but her attention was focused on her best silk shawl, which she held out at arm’s length, the better to admire it. “Just look at the colours,” she murmured. “I am certain Lady Lucas has nothing like it.” She tossed the shawl into the open trunk in which Mrs. Hill had just finished placing her mistress’s gowns with great care.
“Mama, I want to go to Pemberley,” Mary said, firmly.
“No, no, child! Pemberley will not do. Of course you and Kitty must spend Christmas at Netherfield. What good can come of your going to Pemberley, I should like to know?”
“But I shall be more comfortable at Pemberley. Lizzie promised a small family gathering and that is exactly what I would like most.”
“Nonsense! Pemberley is the worst place for you to be!” Mrs. Bennet scooped up the contents from a drawer in her dressing table and dumped the lot on her bed. “How on earth are you ever to meet a rich husband if you hide away for three weeks in Derbyshire with only your family about you?”
Mary felt the familiar flutter of panic rise in her chest, as she always did when her mother raised the topic of marriage and rich husbands. She looked down at the letter from Jane that she held in her hand and saw that her fingers were trembling.
“But a quiet family Christmas is what I should like most of all—”
“And, of course, that must settle the question! Whatever Miss Mary Bennet wants must prevail! It makes no matter, I suppose, what your father and I may plan—thinking only of our daughters’ futures! Perhaps if I were a less loving and devoted mother I could understand when one of my daughters is deliberately inconsiderate of my efforts to see her happy and settled in life. It’s a thankless task, I must say!”
“I don’t mean to be ungrateful, mama—”
“Oh, no, no, Hill, not the grey gloves!” snapped Mrs. Bennet as the housekeeper began to wrap a selection of gloves in silver paper before stowing them in the trunk. “Oh, all of this packing should have been done hours ago. I daresay Mr. Bennet is at this very moment wondering why I have not finished.”
“He is, indeed, wondering that very thing,” came Mr. Bennet’s voice through the open doorway to the bedchamber next door.
Mary instantly moved toward the sound of his voice, hoping her father would be more willing than her mother to listen to her pleas.
“Papa, may I go with you to Pemberley? I am certain Kitty shall have just as nice a time with Jane and Bingley if I am at Pemberley with you.”
“What did your mother say when you applied to her?”
“But no one shall miss me if I go to Pemberley,” she said, ignoring his question.
Mrs. Bennet looked up from where she was sorting gloves and ribbands into a muddle of confusion on top of her bed. “Don’t be silly! Your sister Jane shall miss you, for I finally secured her promise that she will do her duty by you at last. She has been most selfish, I must say—Married for almost a year to Mr. Bingley, and she has yet to introduce you or your sister Kitty to a single gentleman of fortune! That is a situation she will remedy, mark my words!”
“Please, papa?” There was a note of urgency in Mary’s voice now, as a sudden vision flashed through her mind of the fate before her if her mother got her way: the long formal dinner table at Netherfield where she would be seated with male guests to her right and left, who must be spoken to throughout a meal of several courses. The drawing room filled with people who were virtual strangers, where intimate conversations must be conducted with wit and aplomb. She had never mastered the art of carrying off such social niceties. She would stutter and stumble, or—even worse—sit in strangled silence, unable to conjure up a viable thought to add to a conversation.
“Please, papa?” she said again, prepared to sacrifice her dignity by begging, if required.
Mr. Bennet came through the open doorway to pat her shoulder with an uncertain hand.
“There, there, Mary. When you are older and have been married as long as your mother and I have, you will understand peace comes from shared sentiments.”
“Are you saying you agree with mama?”
“Indeed I do.”
“But you know the entire time I am at Netherfield I shall be miserable.”
“But your mother will be content, and I shall enjoy a quiet drive to Pemberley.” He rolled his eyes toward his wife as he spoke, in a way that would have evoked a smile of understanding from his daughter Elizabeth, had she been there. But Lizzie Bennet was not there, for she had been married to Mr. Darcy and mistress of Pemberley for almost a year. Unlike Lizzie, Mary saw nothing humorous in her father’s remark; nor did she feel like smiling when her father brushed aside her concerns, as he so often did, with no more compassion than he might feel as he flicked a bit of lint from the velvet cuff of his favorite coat.
“Hill, do be careful with that bonnet!” Mrs. Bennet said, almost gasping, as the housekeeper carefully placed the silk and lace confection on the bed beside the ribbons and gloves. “That bonnet was a gift from Lizzie and if even one of those silk flowers on the brim is crushed, I shall not be able to wear it. Although, to be sure, Darcy can afford to buy me another, for he is that rich, but I daresay Lizzie would expect me to take some care with it. Be certain to pack it in the original hat box—No, no, the one with the label on it so everyone can see it came from a London milliner.”
“Mama!” Mary said, trying to get her mother’s attention once more.
“Honestly, Hill, sometimes I wonder if I am the only person in this family who understands our social position. You would be astounded if you knew how often Lady Lucas compares her son-in-law to mine—to his detriment, of course. Naturally, her Mr. Collins can never compare to my Darcy and Bingley. Why, just the other day Lady Lucas actually said …”
Mrs. Bennet’s voice droned on, and Mary recognized her mother’s tried-and-true method for ignoring a conversation she did not wish to have. She spun around to speak once more to her father, and saw that he had retreated to his own bedchamber and quietly shut the door behind him. How like him! And how like her mother! Was there no one to listen to her? No one to understand how much she would suffer if she were forced to spend Christmas at Netherfield?
Anger and a good deal of frustration welled within her. She clenched her fingers, crumpling the letter in her grasp. Had her temperament been more akin to her eldest sister Jane’s, she would have retreated to her room and gained solace in quiet contemplation. Had she been more like her sister Elizabeth, she would have immediately quit the house and set off on a brisk walk through copse and meadow, returning home exhausted and in a quieter frame of mind. But she was just plain Mary Bennet, and in her nineteen years she had found only one satisfying outlet for her emotions.
She left her mother’s room and flew down the stairs to the spinet in the drawing room, where she threw back the cover from the keys with a resounding bang. Her fingers, which moments before had crumbled her sister Jane’s letter in frustration, began to pound out the chords of a concerto almost before she sat down before the instrument.
Her younger sister Kitty was in the drawing room, seated at a table near the window. She looked up from her fancy needlework and frowned. At the first opportunity in which she thought she might be heard over the crashing chords, she said, “Mary, must you pound the keys so hard? I can hardly hear myself think!”
Mary stopped playing to glare at her sister. “What is there to think about? You are netting a bag! That takes no very great care. It’s not as if you were totting numbers in your head.”
“No, but it is much nicer to net a bag with pleasant music to listen to. What are you so angry about, anyway?”
“Netherfield.” In that single word Mary laid her problem before Kitty, who had read Jane’s letter earlier before Mary delivered it to their mother upstairs.
“I see,” Kitty said as she turned her attention back to her needlework. “I suppose mama would not agree to your plan?”
“Mama wouldn’t even listen to my plan. Kitty, what am I to do? If I have to go to Netherfield for Christmas I shall be miserable the entire time. I want to go to Pemberley.”
“If anyone is to go to Pemberley, it should be me. When Lydia went to Brighton, I had to stay at home. And when Jane went to London, where was I? At home. And Lizzy went first to Huntsford to visit Charlotte Lucas, then to Derbyshire with our aunt and uncle. Everyone goes everywhere except me. I think it’s time I went somewhere!”
“Then go to Pemberley. Go to Netherfield—go to London, if you wish! I shall stay here.”
“No, you won’t.”
“I assure you, I shall.” Mary’s chin went up.
“And spend Christmas with none but servants? That will not be pleasant for you.”
“I would rather spend Christmas alone in a cave than have to spend it with strangers.”
“Not everyone at Netherfield will be a stranger. You will have Jane, and me, and Bingley—You like Bingley, don’t you?”
“Yes, I like him well enough.”
“He has been very kind to you and me, and I’m certain he will be as welcoming and loving toward us as he always is.”
“That is as you say, but Jane and Bingley will not be the only ones at Netherfield. Jane writes—” Mary paused as she took up the letter she had dropped on top of the spinet, and smoothed the wrinkles from the page with her fingers. “Jane writes that Charles Bingley’s sister Caroline will join them, and she has invited other guests, as well.”
“Netherfield is large enough to accommodate a dozen guests, I daresay.”
“But does one of the guests have to be Caroline Bingley? She doesn’t like me. She doesn’t like either of us.”
“No, but only because she is the type of person who must look down on someone else in order to make herself feel higher. Lizzie said so. I don’t pay attention to it.”
“But in her letter Jane said there will be other guests besides Caroline. Strangers,” Mary said meaningfully.
“The guests will be Bingley’s brother and a friend of Caroline’s. That is not so bad. I am certain Bingley’s brother will be just as kind and pleasant as he is.”
“And Caroline’s friend will be just as unpleasant as Caroline is.”
“You don’t know that. Besides, we will not be with them often, I daresay. And if Caroline insists upon making things uncomfortable for us, we can always excuse ourselves and call on Lucas Lodge. You know Mariah Lucas will welcome us,” Kitty said, reasonably.
That much was true enough, thought Mary. Mariah Lucas had been a life-long friend to Mary and Kitty, despite Mrs. Bennet’s often harsh criticisms of the Lucas family.
Mary closed the keyboard with much more care than she had used to open it, and crossed the room to sit at the table with Kitty.
“I was hoping our Christmas at Netherfield with Jane and Bingley would be a nice, quiet family visit. That was Jane’s original plan, and I am sorely disappointed to read in her letter that she has now invited scores of other people to join us.”
“How you exaggerate, Mary! There will not be scores of people at Netherfield. Jane has invited three people besides us.”
Mary’s nose wrinkled with distaste. “Caroline Bingley and her friend.”
“And Bingley’s brother. Did you read how Jane described him in her letter?”
“Yes. He’s a soldier in the Hussars.”
“An officer!” Kitty said, pausing her stitches to flash a look of delight at Mary. “Only think! I am certain he must be very dashing and handsome to be a captain in the Hussars.”
Mary frowned discouragingly. “Do not tell me you mean to fall in love with him.”
“No, I intend that he shall fall in love with me,” Kitty answered with an impish light to her eyes. “I wonder if he is as rich as Bingley? Did Jane ever mention whether he has a fortune? Never mind, I shall soon discover the truth of the matter. In the meantime, it will be nice to see a red coat in the county again.”
“I hope you will not devote all your time to chasing after Bingley’s brother.”
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“Because I need you to help me.”
“Help you with what?”
“Talking to them. You know what it is like for me to meet someone new. I am introduced, then there follows a period of anguish while I try to think of something to say. It’s like drowning in a quicksand of speech.”
“Oh, that. Of course I’ll help you, if I can. And you must know Jane will do her best to make you feel at home.”
“Yes, I know Jane will help.” The thought made Mary relax a little.
“Still,” Kitty said, “it might be a good idea for you to take some of your sheet music with you, just in case you cannot hold a conversation. Then you will have your music to play, and no one will expect you to talk. And Bingley has a fine pianoforte—not like our old spinet. You’ll like that, won’t you—playing Bingley’s pianoforte, I mean?”
Mary’s spirits lifted a little. She always enjoyed playing the beautiful instrument at Netherfield whenever she had the chance. Oddly, she felt calmer after talking the matter over with Kitty; and after admitting to herself that she really would not like to pass Christmas alone, she slowly resigned herself to the prospect of going to Netherfield, after all.
“Very well,” she said, after a few minutes of thought, “I shall go to Netherfield. And I shall do my best to enjoy myself.”
“And I shall go to Netherfield, too,” said Kitty, “and I will do my best to win the heart of Captain Bingley. See if I don’t!”
December 24, 1814
The drawing-room at Netherfield was an elegantly appointed apartment with a southern aspect. Along the main wall, tall cased windows looked out upon a well-manicured garden, beyond which was a cunning pond of perfect dimensions set in an idyllic meadow. The eastern windows afforded a view of the main gate and the parkland, which was, on this Christmas Eve, still showing patches of green in the bright winter sunshine. Mary Bennet did not think the weather at all conducive to the spirit of Christmas, for, thus far, their winter had been mild, with temperate weather during the day and little rain or snow to impede forays into the out-of-doors. Not that Mary spent much time out-of-doors even in good weather, for she had always been one to stay at home with a book or a bit of needlework while her sisters visited the neighborhood. She employed her time in the same manner at Netherfield, where she found contentment exploring the interesting titles displayed in the well-stocked library, or playing the pianoforte to her heart’s delight whenever she thought her music would not disturb anyone else in the household.
By Christmas Eve Mary and Kitty Bennet had been three days at Netherfield. In that time they had been warmly welcomed by Jane and Charles, made the acquaintance of Miss Helena Paget, and renewed their acquaintance with Caroline Bingley.
Caroline had greeted them with a good deal more tolerance than she had been wont to exercise on previous occasions; but though her manner was somewhat conciliatory, her words held a sting the Bennet sisters had come to expect. When Kitty complimented Caroline’s gown, Caroline looked down at the afternoon dress she’d worn many times before, and said in a dismissive tone, “I am certain you have seen me wear this gown on other occasions.”
“I have, but that does not mean it is any less to be admired,” Kitty answered. “It is very fine. I should like to have a gown like that myself.”
“Oh, I am certain there are lesser copies of it to be had,” Caroline responded, loftily, “but my London modiste designed this gown exclusively for my taste and figure. I doubt it would look half so well on a woman of shorter height and more common bearing. Let me encourage you, Miss Kitty, to keep to your own style of dress.”
As for Caroline’s friend, Helena Paget, Mary and Kitty found her to be just as intimidating as Caroline, but for a completely different reason. Helena Paget was a dauntingly attractive young woman, a delicate little doll of porcelain and silk. Within seconds of making Helena’s acquaintance, Mary realized that she was looking at a flesh-and-blood Helen of Troy; the kind of young lady whose looks and nature attracted beautiful women and handsome men to orbit about her—to the exclusion of all others whose features were of the more common variety. Mary knew her own features fitted into the latter category. She had no illusions about her looks, having realized long ago that her older sisters Jane and Lizzie were the beauties in the family. And she had no pretensions toward vivacity of spirit, for her younger sisters had laid claim to those charms in their childhood.
But upon Helena Paget had Nature bestowed the gifts of both beauty and vivacity, and Mary knew from experience that, when placed beside a young woman of Miss Paget’s resources, Mary Bennet tended to fade to the background and become almost invisible. She didn’t do so on purpose; she simply fell into the trap of comparing herself with the object of beauty and, finding herself falling short, shrank a bit inside herself. She tried to do so immediately after making Helena’s acquaintance, but Helena would have none of it.
“Oh, Miss Bennet,” she said upon making Mary’s acquaintance, “I understand you are a musician. I dearly love music, and I hope I will have the pleasure of hearing you play.”
This unexpected compliment surprised Mary so much, she flushed to the roots of her hair. “I—! Yes—! That is, if you want me to.”
“Indeed I do. And if you will allow me,” she added, with a demure look that caused her lovely long lashes to fan coyly over her fair cheeks, “I hope we may one day play a duet, although I dare not consider my talent equal to yours.”
From that moment of their first acquaintance Helena had disposed herself to be kind to both Bennet sisters, but to Mary in particular. Mary marveled over it, and wondered, several times, that a girl used to mingling with the crème de society should be so determined to be on friendly terms with herself and her sisters.
But on this Christmas Eve, even Helena was subdued. The much-anticipated day of Captain Robert Bingley’s arrival at Netherfield was creeping relentlessly toward its close, with still no sign of the captain.
By late afternoon, when the party assembled in the drawing-room for tea, everyone was in a quiet mood. Charles and Jane had invited Mr. Penrose, the vicar of Meryton, to join the family circle, and that young gentleman did his brave best to raise the family’s spirits, with limited success. Though conversation never waned, it was clear that there was an undercurrent of worry in their assembly. Even Helena Paget’s lovely brow was marred by the hint of an anxious frown.
Caroline, too, was not herself. She could not keep still, but traveled the room, her carriage erect, her movements graceful; but when she stopped at one of the eastern windows from which she could view the gate where the neatly-graveled drive to the house left the public road, she gave the window hangings an impatient twitch. “Oh, where can he be?”
“Caroline, your tea will be cold,” Jane said, coaxingly. “Do sit down and join us.”
“Why isn’t he here?” Caroline demanded, ignoring Jane’s invitation. “It is not at all like Robert to be late. He promised to arrive this morning. His letter stated so.”
Indeed, Robert’s letter to Charles had said to expect him in the morning, and Charles had declared how much he was looking forward to sharing a Christmas Eve with the people he held most dear. Jane spent the early hours of the day with her housekeeper, ensuring that Robert’s bedchamber was well appointed, and that the first footman who was to serve as the captain’s valet during his stay was fully aware of the responsibility of such an undertaking.
A long-cart bearing the captain’s trunks and cases arrived mid-morning, leaving the Bingleys and the Bennets to believe that Robert would soon follow; but every moment they anticipated seeing the captain’s carriage sweep up the drive to the house was a moment of disappointment.
“Oh, I’m certain he will be here soon,” Charles said over and over; but with each utterance the brightness of his expression dimmed just a little.
A planned excursion into the countryside to gather evergreen boughs and branches with which to decorate the front hall and drawing-room was discarded, for no one wanted Robert to arrive at Netherfield while the family was away from the house.
At luncheon each member of the party took a turn casting a look of longing toward the empty place setting at the table; and when the tea tray was delivered to the drawing room late in the afternoon, a distinct pall of unspoken concern had settled upon the group.
Caroline left the window and slowly made her way back to her chair near the tea tray.
As soon as she was settled, Mr. Penrose attempted to draw her into the conversation by saying, “I have just explained to your friend Miss Paget that it is a Meryton tradition to hold vespers on Christmas Eve. I hope I may see you there this evening.”
“I cannot speak for others,” Caroline replied, barely looking at him, “but I could not consider leaving this house until I see my brother safely arrived.”
Mr. Penrose smiled kindly. “Is there a better place in which to pray for his safety than in a church?”
“If you can guarantee that my prayers will be better heard there than here, I will run to the church right now,” Caroline retorted.
“There is no need to run,” he replied, pleasantly. “A good, brisk walk will get you to the church in due time without the risk of losing your breath.”
Caroline scowled at him, prompting Jane to say, in an apologetic tone, “We are all a little on edge, Mr. Penrose.”
“It’s very understandable, Mrs. Bingley. Yet from all I have heard of the captain, he sounds like a most capable young man. I quite think that if he does not present himself very soon, he will at the very least send word.”
“That is what I thought,” Charles said, with a strained smile. “But the thing of it is, he’s so dreadfully late, that I can’t help wondering why he has not sent a message by now. It’s not like Robert to be behind-hand in anything, you know.” His gaze strayed toward the clock on the mantle—not to note the time, but to calculate instead how late the afternoon had advanced from the appointed hour his brother had been due to arrive.
“Surely a captain in the king’s army has many duties to perform,” Mr. Penrose suggested. “Perhaps he did not leave his regiment this morning as planned.”
“Then why did his trunks arrive earlier today?” Caroline asked, rising as she did so to move back to the window. “I am certain he would not have sent his things unless he intended to follow them immediately.”
Kitty asked, hopefully, “Will he be wearing his uniform when he arrives, do you think?”
“Why, pray, is that important to ask?” demanded Caroline, turning to look at her from her post by the window.
“Because I’ve never seen a regimental uniform,” Kitty said, reasonably. “I have seen only the red coats of the militia before, and none of them had braided knots or medals. I think I would like very much to meet an officer who has been decorated for bravery as often as your brother has.”
Helena Paget set her cup and saucer down on the table and said, “May I venture to offer my opinion on the matter? You see, I have met Captain Bingley in London several times in the last few months, and I believe I may say with authority that he is, indeed, an impressive figure in his regimentals.” Having spoken her peace, Miss Paget blushed becomingly. The bloom of colour accentuated the perfect symmetry of her delicate features, as she gazed at the assembled company with eyes the colour of a spring sky.
“Thank you for saying so, my dear Helena,” Caroline said. “I share your opinion of my brother, but had I offered it, it would have sounded like boasting.”
“Oh, no, my dear Caroline, it would not be boasting at all. Captain Bingley is exemplary in every way and has earned our good opinion.”
“How well do you know the Captain?” Kitty asked, delving to the heart of the matter.
Helena blushed again, and looked at her from under her long lashes. “Well enough to know he is possessed of an admirable temperament. He has traveled widely, you know, so his knowledge of the world is quite impressive.”
“He cannot be that clever about the world,” said Kitty, “or he wouldn’t be lost right now.”
“Kitty!” Jane said, in a mildly scolding tone.
“Well, if he isn’t lost, where is he, I should like to know? You said he was due to arrive hours ago, and we even held luncheon for him until it was plain we could hold it no longer.”
“He will be here shortly,” Charles said, in a falsely bright voice. “I assure you, only a matter of great importance would have kept him from arriving on time. My brother is very punctual—it’s his military training, you know.”
“Perhaps,” Mary murmured, “he has been set upon by pirates.” She thought she had spoken in a voice low enough to be heard by no one but Kitty, who was seated beside her; but no sooner did those words leave her lips than she heard a chorus of protests.
“Mary!” said Jane.
“Preposterous!” said Caroline.
“My dear Miss Bennet, you cannot mean it!” begged Mr. Penrose.
Kitty said, scoffingly, “Don’t be silly, Mary. Pirates plague sailors at sea. It is footpads who accost travelers on the roads. Captain Bingley has probably been set upon by footpads.”
“Of all the utter nonsense!” Caroline said, indignantly. “Why, my brother Robert would never fall victim to a common footpad! He could fight off a dozen footpads at once and not suffer so much as a single scratch. He served in Brussels, then Egypt alongside the Mamelukes, so his bravery cannot be disputed.”
“I never said he wasn’t brave,” Mary answered, defensively. “I only meant—”
“We know what you meant, thank you, Mary,” Jane interrupted her. “I think I can say with confidence Captain Bingley has fought neither pirates nor footpads today.”
“Then what could be keeping him?” Kitty asked. “What reason could he have for being late?”
“‘Better three hours too soon than a minute too late,’” Mary quoted.
Caroline shot Mary a look of deep disgust. “Must we endure yet another reading from the gospel according to Mary Bennet?”
There followed a long moment of silence in the room, during which Mary knew not where to look. Her cheeks flushed scarlet with embarrassment. She had done it again; in her quest to find something suitable to say, she had uttered the wrong thing, and had earned the scorn of those around her. It was her worst nightmare come true; and for a moment she toyed with the notion of fleeing, until Jane reached over to grasp her hand in a comforting grip.
“Pay her no mind, Mary,” she said in a voice that was barely above a whisper; yet the hateful silence stretched on as Mary’s discomfort increased.
Mr. Penrose left his chair to join Caroline at the window. For a while he was silent as they stood side by side, gazing upon the view of the parkland. Finally, he said, in a low voice, “I know I am an outsider here, Miss Bingley, but may I talk to you as a friend?”
“If you mean to scold me, Mr. Penrose, for speaking as I did to Mary Bennet, you may return to your tea.”
“Scold you? Oh, no, that is not my intention at all. I was thinking instead that you are, without doubt, the very person to lead the people gathered here through this very troubling afternoon.”
She turned her head to look up at him in surprise. “Lead them? What can you mean?”
“I mean that you appear to me to be a woman of good sense who can keep her emotions in check when necessary. I see by your expression you think me impertinent,” he said, in a tone that conveyed the fact that he was not at all bothered by her opinion, “but in my profession I meet a great variety of people, and I’ve learned to sketch their characters reasonably well. Take Miss Mary Bennet, for example. Normally, I would recommend she leave the sermonizing to me, but I can see her heart is in the right place, even if her words are ill-chosen.”
“And now, I suppose, you mean to give an account of my character?” Caroline said, as she turned her angry eyes once again upon the view.
“Why, yes, I do mean to do just so,” he answered, amiably.
“Oh, pray, continue! The opinion of a country vicar is of the utmost importance to me.” She said this in a tone of withering sarcasm, but Mr. Penrose’s expression of mild unconcern did not alter.
“Very well. Let me begin by saying that, although our acquaintance is of short duration, I think I can safely conjecture that you are a woman of vast fortune—and not just in monetary wealth. You, Miss Bingley, have been favoured with an excellent education and an enviable station in life. Your intelligence, disposition, and charm of manner must be admired wherever you go—which makes me wonder what you gain by speaking in a manner calculated to send Mary Bennet into the depths of shame.”
Caroline’s head turned sharply to look up at him, but he said, before she could utter a word of protest, “Yes, I admit, she does tend to blurt out the greatest absurdities from time to time, but we both know she is shy by nature, and has not your facility for clever conversation. Does she not, then, deserve our patience and kindness, rather than our censure and scorn?”
She frowned at him, not quite believing what she had heard. She was far from impressed by Mr. Penrose; he was too young, for one thing, to be telling anyone else what to do, and he was too tall, for another. His features were far from handsome—although he did have a kind expression in his hazel eyes—and his manner was impertinent. No one had ever spoken to her in such a fashion, and she was decidedly certain she did not care for it one bit. To be scolded … by a vicar! It was too much to be borne!
She said, witheringly, “I am not responsible for propping up Mary Bennet’s ego.”
“I agree with you. But I do think you are responsible for helping your family—the people I am convinced you love very much—through a difficult time of waiting for news of Captain Bingley’s safety. Won’t that task be accomplished more readily by keeping everyone’s emotions on an even level? Take Mrs. Bingley, for example. Don’t you think her worry for the captain is now compounded all the more because she knows her sister Mary is distressed?”
That suggestion surprised Caroline very much. On impulse she turned and looked over her shoulder to see Jane doing her best to comfort Mary. In Jane’s expression she saw concern and worry; and while she watched Jane murmur comforting words to Mary, she realized how distressed Jane must be to see her sister so perilously close to tears.
That was a circumstance she had not anticipated. She genuinely liked Jane, although she had, from the first moment of their meeting, been repulsed by the rest of Jane’s family. She had never considered that her actions toward Mary might hurt Jane, too, and she was a little sorry for having spoken so harshly—not because Mary did not deserve censure for being so ridiculous, but because her hasty words had clearly upset Jane.
But even in this realization, Caroline’s chin went up. “I suppose you will next demand that I apologize to Mary.”
“No, for only you can determine how best to assuage your conscience. I am merely suggesting that you use your intelligence to manage everyone here a little bit better. You’re the strong one in the family, and if you set the tone for calm hopefulness regarding Captain Bingley’s safety, the rest will follow, I am convinced.”
“Me? But doesn’t the offering of hope and sympathy fall under your realm, Mr. Penrose?”
“They do, indeed, but the sun is setting, Miss Bingley, and I must return to Meryton and prepare the church for evening service. But I think I can make my good-byes to everyone with a clear conscience if I am certain I can rely on your kindness and strength to help them through the remainder of the day—whatever the day may bring. Please tell me I have not misread your character.”
Caroline trained her gaze upon the view from the window. A breeze had begun to blow outside, and every now and then a strong gust made claim to the fallen leaves and sent them skipping across the lawn or twirling and dancing in mid-air. She felt very much like those leaves, for after Mr. Penrose’s words, she knew not what to think. He’d confused her greatly. Some of the words he’d spoken had sounded flattering, but he’d delivered them in a tone that was more impertinent than deferential. He had praised her good judgment, yet made her feel contrite for following her instincts. What a contrary man he was!
She lifted her chin. “You may rely on me, most certainly.”
“Thank you. You are very good, Miss Bingley. May I escort you back to your chair?”
“No, thank you, Mr. Penrose. I believe I will remain here a moment longer.”
“Then I will bid you good-day, Miss Bingley; and I will trust you to deliver everyone to Christmas service in the morning.” He sketched a very civil bow and returned to his chair beside Jane.
She passed the vicar a fresh cup of strong tea, liberally sweetened and with a bit of milk, just as he liked it, and asked, “Will Miss Bingley join us?”
“I think not. She is on the watch for her brother and engaging in a little bit of self-reflection.”
“I hope you were not very severe with her.”
“Not at all. Still, I think you will find her in a more genial mood when next she speaks.” He took a sip of his tea, and gave a sigh of great satisfaction. “No one makes a cup of tea as well as you do, Mrs. Bingley. In fact, you have made me so welcome here, I am reluctant to leave—but, unfortunately, the time has come when I must.” So saying he glanced up at the clock and rose from his chair. He turned toward Charles and said, “The sun has begun to set, and I must go. I regret I was unable to make your brother’s acquaintance this afternoon as planned, Mr. Bingley, but perhaps I shall have the pleasure tomorrow? Christmas service in the morning, you know—I shall see you all there, of course.”
“You shall, indeed,” said Charles. “Here, let me walk with you to the door.”
Charles went with the vicar to see him safely on his way, and Jane glanced over to where Caroline remained steadfastly at the window.
“Caroline, won’t you join us?”
“No, I—” She stopped short, as she recalled the assurance she had given Mr. Penrose just a few minutes earlier. He was right; the family needed direction and a steady hand if they were to set aside their worries and remain hopeful of Robert’s safe arrival—and she was the one to provide that leadership. There was no one else present who possessed such strength of character—on that point she was in solid agreement with the vicar. As much as she would have liked to remain at the window, hoping—nay, willing—for Robert to appear at the gate, safe and sound, she knew where her duty lay. Her duty lay in supporting Jane and amusing Helena and, yes, in being polite to the Miss Bennets, as much as that thought must jar her sensibilities. But such was her duty and she would not shirk it. She raised her chin a notch and slowly walked back to her chair beside the tea tray.
“Yes, dear Jane,” she said in a gentle tone, “I will join you. And I will take another cup of your excellent tea.”
At first Captain Robert Bingley thought himself very fortunate to have come upon an inn just as the evening temperature was beginning to fall; but as he pulled his horse up in the yard of the Bark and Bull, he found himself wondering which would be the worse fate: to ride on in the cold night—even though he knew himself to be hopelessly lost—or spend the night in such an unattractive and dismal-looking place as the Bark and Bull.
A sudden gust of cold wind blew through the yard. His horse, Ibis, reacted with a small movement of her feet and a slight flick of her tail, yet her movements told Robert all he needed to know. His horse was tired—and so was Robert. He’d been riding for hours, anxious to reach Netherfield and spend Christmas Eve with his family and Helena. But Fate had not treated him kindly that day. Last minute regimental duties had caused him to start his journey much later than planned; then, in his haste to make up for lost time, he had taken a wrong turn somewhere on the road, and his instincts had deserted him when he tried to right his course. Now he was in the middle of heaven-knew-where with darkness falling and the cold December temperature beginning to drop.
He looked over the ramshackle inn with distaste. It would be a simple matter to merely ask for directions and continue on until he found a more comfortable looking inn; but then he thought of Ibis. Ibis had carried him through two campaigns and eight battles, never once shying from danger, always finding the strength to push on when other officers’ mounts were too exhausted to carry their riders another step. He owed his life to Ibis, and if she wanted rest, he would gladly give it to her.
He patted her neck with his gloved hand, and Ibis exhaled a deep, fluttering breath through her nostrils.
“All right,” he said, “we’ll stay here. You deserve a good dinner and a night’s rest in a warm stable.”
He tossed the reins to a waiting ostler and slid down from the saddle. “See that she gets a good brushing and a hearty dinner, will you?’ he said as he strode toward the door of the inn.
He entered the public room to find it empty except for a boy who was busy stoking the fire in the great hearth. Robert couldn’t tell how old he was, but the boy’s age mattered not. He was simply one of those urchins that often hung about such places, ready to hold a horse or carry a valise for a penny.
Robert drew off his gloves, though the room seemed only a trifle warmer than the fast-darkening December night, and deposited them on the table, all the while watching the boy.
“If you throw some of those smaller pieces on the fire, it will burn bright more quickly,” he said, in a pleasant tone.
The boy almost jumped. He looked up, his eyes wide and startled, and he stared at Robert a moment; then he carefully set aside the heavy log he had been about to add to the fire and selected a smaller piece of wood instead. With great care he tucked some twigs around the fresh log and watched the meager fire flare up in a bright spurt of light and heat.
Robert smiled slightly as he swept his hat from his head. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the boy was still crouched close to the fire, warming himself. He didn’t mind; he could tell the boy’s clothes were too ragged to provide much warmth, so if the lad wanted to huddle beside the heat of the fire for a few minutes, he’d make no objection.
He was placing his hat on the table beside his gloves, when the muffled sound of “Ooomph!” caused him to turn about.
He took in the situation in a flash. A man was standing over the boy in a menacing pose, having obviously just kicked the child away from the hearth.
“Haven’t I told you not to let that fire go down? Well, haven’t I?” the man demanded angrily. Then he turned toward Robert and bowed, his expression softening into an obsequious smile. “Welcome, me lord. Pay no mind to the stupid boy—he’ll do better at keeping the fire burnin’ for you, I’ll see to that.”
Robert instantly felt a lump of loathing rise in his throat. “Have you a room?” he asked, coldly.
“Of course, me lord. I’ve a fine room for you, me lord. Shall I take you up?”
“In a moment. I could use a hot drink, first. It’s devilish cold outside, you know.”
“I’ve got a nice hot punch for your lordship. I’ll get it meself.”
When he was alone again with the urchin, Robert unbuttoned his great coat, revealing his riding attire underneath, and said, genially, “Between you and me, I’m not a lord, but I daresay it doesn’t hurt to let him think so, eh?”
The boy was about to leave the room, but at this he turned about, his expression an odd mixture of fear and understanding.
Robert shrugged out of his coat and threw it over the back of a nearby chair. “Well, you’ve done a fine job of coaxing some life into the fire. I feel warmer already.” It was only a slight exaggeration, but he moved closer to the hearth and made a great show of holding his hands out toward the dancing flames. “I hope that ‘fine room’ the landlord has allotted me has a good fire in it. You’ll see to it for me, won’t you?”
The boy kept his eyes trained on the floor, and answered in a low voice, “Yes, sir.” Then he darted from the room.
The hot punch the innkeeper served him a few minutes later had no resemblance whatsoever to any punch Robert had ever tasted before. He suspected its chief ingredients were rum and some other alcohol the innkeeper brewed in a tub behind the stables; and he could detect no hint of Madeira or citrus in the few sips he took. But it was hot, and before long he began to feel the warming effects of the drink.
By the time the landlord served Robert his dinner he was in a more charitable mood. He was also hungry, and he was certain he could do justice to any meal the landlord might place before him. He sat down at the wooden table close to the window and removed the covers from the dishes. There was a bowl of some kind of soup with a layer of grease on top, bread with a hard crust spread with an oily substance that was probably meant to pass for butter, a half of a chicken, warm applesauce, and a pudding that had not set properly. Robert blanched as he surveyed the unappetizing dishes. He pushed every dish away except the plate of chicken and the bowl of applesauce.
He took a small, wary bite of the chicken and looked idly out the window. The boy he had seen before was outside, walking across the yard, his breath leaving small wisps of frozen moisture in his wake. Robert frowned. The child was wearing no gloves or hat, no muffler about his throat to keep the cold away. He was wearing breeches and torn stockings and a jacket worn thin at the elbows from wear; and when he walked Robert could clearly see that the sole of one of the boy’s shoes was loose, for it flapped with every step.
“He must be freezing out there,” he murmured, as the boy disappeared around the corner of the stable. The boy reappeared a few minutes later with a load of wood in his arms. Robert watched him with interest; not because of what the boy was doing, but how he was doing it. He carried the armload of small logs as if his task were a great secret, is if he were smuggling gold bricks instead of fuel for a fire.
When the boy disappeared again from his line of sight, there was nothing outside the window to hold his attention, so Robert concentrated on choking down the rest of the dry chicken. Next he took up his spoon and the bowl of warm applesauce and moved over to a chair by the fire, where he soon placed the empty bowl on the stone hearth.
He had but one more task to perform for the night. He donned his coat, hat and gloves, and made his way out into the cold night. In the stable he found the ostler brushing Ibis, as he had requested, and doing a reasonable job of it. Next he inspected the feed trough and decided that Ibis had probably enjoyed a better dinner than he had. Ibis gave a soft nicker of recognition, and Robert went to her, resting his chin for a moment against Ibis’ long nose.
“I know, girl,” he murmured, “but it’s just for one night. We’ll be on our way early tomorrow, mark my words.”
Robert returned to the inn, stopping downstairs just long enough to light a taper to carry up to his bedchamber. At the top of the narrow stairs he came upon a scene that was by now a little too familiar to him.
The boy who had tended the fire in the public room was on the floor, the landlord standing over him with his fists clenched. Even in the dim light afforded by his candle, Robert could see the boy’s lip was bleeding.
“What is this?” he demanded in a tone that made the landlord’s aggression evaporate.
He turned to Robert and said, in his toad-eating voice, “Why, nothin’ to worry your lordship.”
“On the contrary, it worries me a great deal whenever I see someone who has done me a service forced to the ground like a dog. I’ll ask again: What is going on here?”
“Him? He’s never done a service for nobody. Why, I just caught him stealing.”
“Firewood, me lord. I’ve got a strict allotment of wood I use for each chamber, see, for economy sake, and this boy defied my rules and carried off more than allowed.”
“Did he?” Robert stepped past the man and flung open the door to his bedchamber. Inside the fireplace blazed with a bright fire, and on the hearth was a neat stack of wood waiting to be added to the fire as needed through the night. “Is that the missing wood?”
“Oh. Well, he never said what he done with it. I only know he took it.”
“For me. He took it for me,” Robert said, wishing it were within his power to teach the repellant landlord a lesson he would never forget. “I asked the boy to see that I had a hearty fire in my room because when I was up here earlier I saw that someone had lit an insultingly pitiful fire that wouldn’t burn a bandbox.”
The landlord paled. “Well, now, how was I to know that was his purpose for stealing the wood?”
“Did you ask him?”
“Now, why should I, I’d like to know?” the landlord said, in a tone that was becoming churlish. “He’s a thief and—”
During their exchange Robert had removed his gloves and unbuttoned his great coat. Now he reached into the pocket of his waistcoat and extracted the first coin his fingers touched. He tossed it to the landlord.
“Here! That should cover the cost of the extra firewood I requested.”
“Thank you, me lord. Why, that’s most generous of you. Most generous, I must say!”
Robert’s lip began to curl and he fought against it. “I can be very generous when I wish to be. If you want me to grease your fist once more, you’ll ensure I never see you again until I leave in the morning and pay my reckoning. Do you understand?”
The landlord frowned. “But who will attend to your—?”
“Anyone but you.”
“But who will serve your—?”
“Anyone but you,” Robert said again, with emphasis. He could tell by the landlord’s expression he was weighing his options: in the end, the lure of earning a healthy gratuity overcame any objections the landlord might have had to having his place usurped.
“Very well, me lord. The boy can look after your needs.”
“Very ably, I am certain. Oh, and innkeeper,” Robert said, halting the man’s steps when he would have made a retreat. “If you strike or harm this child again in any manner, you will answer to me. Do you understand?”
The landlord looked startled, then his eyes narrowed slightly. “Here, now, I won’t be threatened by nobody in me own house.”
“You mistake; I didn’t threaten you. I simply explained to you the consequences should you choose to act in a way that offends my sensibilities. I trust we understand each other. Good-night, innkeeper.”
The landlord’s expression twisted into something dark, causing to Robert to say, in a genial tone, “Tut-tut! Remember the gratuity I promised! Now, do be sensible and say good-night.”
The reminder of another promised coin mollified the man a great deal. He bit back the harsh words that hovered on the tip of his tongue, and, without another word, he turned and stomped down the stairs.
Robert looked down at the boy, who hadn’t moved an inch since he had first come upon him. “Are you badly hurt? That lip will swell if you don’t apply a cold compress right away.” As soon as he said the words he realized how inane they were. This boy looked as though he had little comfort in his life, and he sincerely doubted that there was a kind person to whom the boy could turn to tend his injury. “Come, now, on your feet,” he said, encouragingly. “Let me see your pluck!”
He stepped back to give the boy room, and was rewarded by the sight of the lad scrambling quickly to his feet. He would have scampered off had not Robert moved to block his path to the stair.
“Not so fast, young man. I want to be certain you heard what I said just now. I’ll allow no one—neither father nor stranger—to strike you or any other child while I am in this house. Do you understand me?”
The boy kept silent and looked down at the floor.
“I think you do. I’ve seen enough of brutes and tyrants in this world, and I won’t sanction one here—not while I am under this roof.” He watched the boy thoughtfully for a moment, and said in a softer tone, “If that man lays a hand on you in anger, I want you to tell me. Will you do it?”
The boy stood perfectly still for a long moment, but after some consideration, he gave his head a slight nod.
“Very well. Off with you now. I am leaving at first light tomorrow and I need my sleep.” He moved closer to the wall to allow the boy to rush past him with surprising speed; and Robert didn’t see him again until the dawn broke on Christmas morning.
* * *
Robert was dressed and downstairs by the time the sun peaked over the horizon. He had slept well, despite a lumpy bed, and now he was eager to be on his way. His first thought when he awoke that Christmas morning was of Helena—lovely Helena—waiting for him at Netherfield. He imagined she was wondering what had become of him, for he had pledged to be with her no later than Christmas Eve, and the fact that he had been unable to keep that promise weighed heavily with him. He had much to tell her, much to explain. And much to ask.
In the public room he rang the bell. Within minutes the boy came in bearing a tray laden with dishes. He watched as the boy arranged the plates and bowls on the table near the window, and his sharp gaze took in the boy’s appearance in a glance. He saw no fresh bruises or other signs of mistreatment. There was that cut on the boy’s lip, which had healed somewhat overnight, though it still appeared a bit swollen. But it was when the boy lifted the covers from the dishes of toast and eggs and bacon, drew a deep breath, and actually trembled that Robert gave him a good, steady look.
Ye gods, is the boy hungry?
Robert sat down at the table in front of the food. “You must tell the landlord for me that he serves a good breakfast, but the truth is, I could never eat so much so early in the day. Here, be a decent sort and eat this bread for me, won’t you?” He singled out a thick slab of bread with a hard crust, the very same variety that had been served to him the night before, and pushed it across the table.
The boy stared at it a moment, swallowed, and slowly shook his head.
“I must beg you to reconsider, young man. You’d be doing me the greatest of favors. You see, I can never eat all this, and I hate the notion that such good food will be simply thrown away, or worse, fed to the livestock. Be a good lad and help me! I’d do the same for you.”
The boy inched forward and took the bread.
“Now, there is one more service you can do for me, if you are willing.” He waited expectantly, then asked, “Are you willing?”
The boy nodded, his mouth full of bread.
“Very well. I’ll confess to you that I made a wrong turn somewhere on my way from here to there. In other words, I’m hopelessly lost. Are you familiar with the roads? Perhaps you can tell me where I went wrong. At the very least you can tell me if I’m in Hertfordshire. Am I?”
The boy nodded as he chewed his bread.
“Then I’m not doing as badly as I thought. Do you know a town called Meryton?”
Another nod from the boy.
“Even better. I’m on my way to my brother’s for Christmas, and I thought I knew the way. My brother is the master of Netherfield Park, near Meryton. Do you know it?”
The boy nodded again.
“How far out of my way did I go, do you think?”
The boy muttered something unintelligible owing to the quantity of bread in his mouth.
“I beg your pardon, young man. I didn’t understand you.”
The boy swallowed and said in a voice loud enough to be heard, “Netherfield is but six miles or so, sir.”
“Is it? Then I didn’t make too great a muddle of it after all. Can I rely on you to set me on the right road this morning?”
“Thank you, um—Here now, I can’t keep talking to you this way without knowing what I am to call you.”
“Daniel.” At last he dared look Robert in the eye for the briefest of moments. “My name is Daniel, sir.”
“I’m Captain Bingley. Very well, Daniel, I’ll trust you to get me off in the right direction this Christmas morning. I’m anxious to see my brother and sister. They’re hosting a small house party, and there is one guest in particular—her name is Helena and—” He stopped short, realizing that he had been prating on unnecessarily. “Well, suffice it to say I shall be happy to get to Netherfield. Christmas with family, that’s what’s important to me.” He was feeling in high spirits and was talking a good deal more than he would have if his mood hadn’t been so festive and his anticipation of seeing his beloved Helena weren’t so keen. “What about you?” he asked. “Will you have Christmas with your mother and father?”
“Yes, sir. When I get to heaven.”
Startled, Robert’s eyes flew to his face. “Oh!” was all he could manage to say. Then his expression softened and his blue eyes searched the boy’s features. “Are you telling me the landlord is not your father?”
Daniel shook his head.
“Then, how did you ever come to live—? Never mind. So your mother and father are gone, are they? I’m sorry for you, truly I am.” He pushed the plate of inexpertly cured bacon across the table so it would be within the boy’s reach. “Here, you can eat this, too. Share it with the ostler, if you like.”
Daniel hesitated only a moment before he grabbed the plate and ran from the room. Seconds later, Robert looked out the window to see Daniel run across the yard with the treasure, the sole of one shoe flapping crazily with each step, before he disappeared inside the stable.
Though he was hungry, Robert abandoned the rest of the unappetizing meal. A half hour later he was ready to leave. He paid his reckoning with the landlord, along with the promised gratuity, and stepped out into the cold but bright sunshine. The ostler led Ibis over to the mounting block and Robert took the reins.
“Whoa!” he said, as Ibis danced and curveted as soon as he made a move to slip his booted foot into the stirrup. “None of your nonsense this morning, you imp. Stand still, can’t you, until I’m mounted?”
The horse answered with two mincing steps sideways, causing Robert to take two inelegant one-legged hops of his own before he could get both of his feet firmly back on the ground.
In an instant, Daniel was there at the horse’s head, catching the bridle up with a firm grip.
“Thank you, Daniel,” Robert said, swinging himself up into the saddle. “Now, tell me: which way?”
The boy pointed toward the north. “That way, sir, until you reach the dog’s leg and stay to your right. Right again and you’ll be on the road that will take you straight to Meryton. Netherfield Park is just beyond.”
Robert smiled at him, and leaned down to shake hands. Daniel reached up, and, to his astonishment, came away with a half crown in his hand.
“Don’t show that to a soul,” Robert whispered so the ostler wouldn’t hear. “Hide it, and at your first opportunity, buy yourself a pair of shoes and a good coat. Oh, and a hot meal. Be sure you get a hot meal. Will you do that for me?”
Daniel looked up at him, his brown eyes wide and suspiciously moist. “I’d do anything for you, sir.”
Robert straightened and waved him away from the horse’s head. “Keep a brave heart and do your father proud, even though he’s no longer here. A happy Christmas to you, Daniel!”
Then he turned Ibis about and galloped out of the yard, north toward Netherfield and Helena Paget.
Daniel’s directions proved as true for Robert as the North Star. In little more than an hour he reached Meryton, which appeared to be a charming place, but he was of no mind to linger there. He pressed on, and soon had his first glimpse of Netherfield. How much more welcoming was the large, stately house than was that tumble-down inn where he had been forced to spend the night; and inside that house was his family and dear, sweet Helena. With this thought he urged Ibis to quicken her pace, and soon he was mounting the front steps of the house. The great doors opened magically at his approach, and he entered the bright, warm hall to find a footman ready to relieve him of his coat and hat.
It was early; the family was still abed, and Robert petitioned the footman to say nothing of his arrival.
“I am in no looks to meet my brother or his guests,” he said. “Give me the opportunity to make myself presentable before you announce me, please.”
The footman showed Robert to a large comfortable bedchamber, where he was relieved to see his luggage had arrived before him. He called for a bath, hoping to scrub off all reminders of the dirty little inn, with its greasy dishes and unkempt rooms. A mere thirty minutes later he was immaculately groomed, fashionably dressed, and ready to do justice to a hearty breakfast.
From his previous stays at the Bingley’s London townhouse, he knew his sister-in-law’s breakfast table would be filled with all good things. He could practically smell the savory aroma of well-seasoned eggs, sweet-cured ham, jellies, creams, and breads as he made his way down the stairs.
A footman directed him to the family dining-room. He threw open the door and entered, then came up short. He had anticipated an empty dining-room at that hour of the morning; instead, he found himself looking into the surprised expression of a dowdily-dressed young woman, who was already seated at the table.
I hope you enjoyed reading the opening chapters of Mary and the Captain. You can find it now on Amazon (just click on the book cover to learn more). Thanks for reading!