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Worth of a Woman

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Gardiner Residence
Gracechurch Street, London
Early February 1812

Jane Bennet was a gentle soul. Her singular characteristic - if one could attach a single trait to define any individual – was to attribute to any action (other than the most heinous) a motive of a charitable nature. She was also fundamentally virtuous, intelligent (though not in possession of the quickness and wit of her next youngest sister, Elizabeth), firm in her opinion when sure of its exactness and, as a consequence, unlikely to be swayed from a course if so convinced unless irrefutable evidence was supplied to reverse or modify it. She was not blind to faults in others but, if some action displeased or offended, she was more inclined to remain silent than to censure.

However, when Miss Caroline Bingley stalked out of the Gardiner house, having allowed more than three weeks to pass after Jane had called upon her, she had left Jane in no doubt as to her disdain for all things Bennet. It was impossible to forget, almost equally impossible to forgive. Jane confided to her aunt (and also to Elizabeth in a letter) she could only conclude that, as Miss Bingley had deliberately lied and misled her as to the degree of friendship between them, she could only assume that nothing Miss Bingley had said or written should be taken as true. Had not Elizabeth once said that detecting someone once in an unnecessary lie must warn one that anything said by that person might likely be fraudulent? There was no particular reason for Miss Bingley to extend a friendship to Jane Bennet during the former's residence in Hertfordshire. Miss Bingley had initiated the intimacy, not Jane Bennet.

It is not to be supposed that the evolution of Miss Jane Bennet’s thoughts and conclusions were the product of only a few days’ deliberation. She must endeavour, she had comprehended, to review and reconsider not only all her dealings with Mr. Bingley’s sisters, individually and together, but also her dealings with him and his friend, Mr. Darcy. And, once she began, she could not ignore the behaviours of her parents and her sisters, not excluding even Elizabeth. It was a profound and disturbing process, for she was not generally inclined to assess the behaviour of others except in the most charitable fashion. She was not as cynical as Elizabeth, but neither was she blind to the faults and mistakes of others. In this instance, she was resolved to adopt a view in which people were not always well-intentioned – in fact, the very opposite of her usual perspective. It was an uncertain course, progressing by fits and starts, for it entailed a very radical revision of her normal view of the world and her place within it.

She was relieved that Elizabeth, with her decided opinions, had not been present during this process. Jane wished to reach conclusions that were hers alone, as she believed herself more capable of adhering to them if they were the result of her own deliberations. Moreover, she had little doubt of Elizabeth’s opinion, and while she should factor it into her considerations, she must not allow any opinion – not Elizabeth’s, not Mrs. Gardiner’s, not her mother’s – to override her own. She alone must live with the consequences, and thus, the decision must be hers alone.

She came to several inescapable conclusions: firstly, that Caroline Bingley’s offer of friendship had been insincere from its very beginning. Her disdain of Hertfordshire society, though not obviously including one Jane Bennet, had been first evidenced at the assembly in Meryton. Jane had not noticed her manners but both Elizabeth and Charlotte Lucas had commented on her supercilious behaviour. Once that was admitted, it was not difficult to recollect other instances, notably at the several dinners and parties they both attended. Miss Bingley had never been more than coldly polite to her hosts and the other guests, preferring to share her conversation only with her sister, Mrs. Hurst; secondly, she remembered that Caroline had questioned Jane’s connections closely and obviously found them wanting. Her treatment of Mrs. Gardiner during her visit had been unforgivably rude and disdainful - insulting Jane’s aunt in her own home; thirdly, though Jane had been enwrapped in Mr. Bingley’s attentions, she had not been so heedless as to miss the scornful look that crossed Miss Bingley’s features when she looked at her mother and younger sisters. It had seemed even fiercer when she looked at Elizabeth, though why her sister merited such disdain was beyond Jane’s comprehension. It had been Miss Bingley’s countenance during the supper hour at the Netherfield ball that had drawn her first notice, and then she had been unable to not notice it at every successive opportunity that evening.

In one sense Miss Bingley’s reaction had not been unmerited - it amused her that she now thought of her as Miss Bingley, rather than the more familiar, Caroline – for her repugnance at the behaviour of the Bennet family was understandable. It was a constant source of mortification for both Elizabeth and herself. If she was prepared to critique Miss Bingley for her behaviour, she could not avoid doing similarly with respect to her own family. Poor behaviour was poor behaviour, and could not be dismissed due to familial feelings.

Mr. Bingley’s attachment to her could not have been so very strong, certainly not powerful enough to survive even a few days’ absence. Though Miss Bingley appeared to suggest he knew of her presence in London, she could not, given Miss Bingley’s duplicity, assume that he was aware of it. Nonetheless, it mattered not, for if he truly esteemed her, he would have returned to Netherfield to court her properly. He had not returned, and she could only assume his preference was, despite his ardent overtures, tepid at its heart.

Pushing aside Mr. Bingley’s actions, she turned her reflections towards what she might desire in a marriage. Prudence, of course, was essential. A husband must be able to provide for her and their children in reasonable comfort. However, by the time she obtained her twelfth year, she had comprehended that her parent’s marriage was not one she wished for herself. In particular, her father’s lack of respect for his wife, his disdain for her want of intelligence, holding her up to the contempt of her children, was abhorrent to her. She loved her father for his other excellent qualities, but this trait, along with his indifference to the future security of his family, were things she could not accept in her husband. She had thought that affection might lead to respect, however, it had proven otherwise in the case of her parents. She would now first wish for respect from her husband, allowing affection to gradually develop as time passed. Her children must not grow up in a fraught environment, but be properly loved, protected and cared for.

While she wished for her sisters to have a better future than Longbourn would offer, she could not take that responsibility upon herself. As to whether her husband was of the gentry – her mother had always insisted upon such a distinction – Jane cared not. Her uncle Gardiner was a merchant, made his livelihood in trade, and she could only hope she married a man as fine.

She resolved to be more receptive to any possible suitor – and there had been a few who had been discouraged because of her indifference arising from an absence of particular attraction – and explore his character to determine if she could find contentment if they were to wed. While she could not materially alter her basic demeanour, she would try to be a little more open, more forthcoming, with gentlemen who might interest her. Charlotte, she was given to understand, espoused a belief that one should show more affection than one felt, in order to secure a husband. Jane did not feel herself capable of that, for it seemed dishonest and, if the gentleman was at all intelligent, hardly conducive to future happiness when the deception was revealed – and revealed it must at some time or other. Jane supposed that in Charlotte’s case, she need never feel concerned about her husband’s discernment. Mr. Collins was, undoubtedly, as Elizabeth had declared, one of the stupidest men in the country. Jane could never attach herself to such a man. Spinsterhood was more attractive. Poverty of the body might be more easily endured than poverty of the soul.

 

Gardiner Residence
Gracechurch Street, London
Late February 1812

The door-bell’s chime drew the surprised attention of both ladies in the Gardiner drawing-room, for it was not Mrs. Gardiner’s usual day to receive visitors. While the maid’s appearance shortly thereafter was not unexpected, the name on the calling card she offered the mistress of the house was extremely so. Mrs. Gardiner passed it to her niece before instructing the maid to show their visitor to the room. The ladies rose as he strode into their presence. He was a tall, handsome man, thickly built, though not seemingly overweight, and seemed likely to have been lean as a young man. His hair was plentiful and full, a silver grey though shot through with darker threads. He appeared to be in his late middle years, perhaps owning as many as sixty years, but vigorous and healthy. He bowed, encompassing them both in his civility.

Noticing the surprise on their countenances and the younger lady’s possession of his card, he addressed them as follows, “May I assume I am in the company of Mrs. Gardiner and her niece, Miss Jane Bennet?” He bowed slightly again to each as he pronounced their name.

Mrs. Gardiner assented and invited him to sit in the most comfortable settee in the room. She was, as she acknowledged to herself, at a loss as to what to say. The visitor was a stranger to them both, and his purpose in calling on her, inexplicable. He relieved her of the obligation of initiating conversation, addressing his hostess first as was proper.

“I quite understand that you cannot account for my presence here today, Mrs. Gardiner. Perhaps it might ease our discussion if I inform you that Miss Bennet is not completely unknown to me, and having learned of her connections, I undertook to learn something of them. Your husband, madam, is accounted to be an intelligent, scrupulously honest business man. It will be a pleasure to make his acquaintance should matters progress as I hope.

“I also learned you, Madam, lived a number of years in Lambton in your youth. Lambton is not so far distant from my home. You must remember it well, for it was not so many years ago, I think.”

Mrs. Gardiner smiled. The man was a bit of a flatterer, for it had been more than ten years since she last was in Lambton.

“Your Lordship is much too kind. May I enquire as to how my niece came to your attention, your Lordship? Who are these people – and I must assume it to be someone known to Jane – that have spoken of her?” responded Mrs. Gardiner.

“I was the . . . beneficiary, if you will, of an overheard conversation between my nephew and one of his friends, a Mr. Charles Bingley, who I have met once or twice, and who is particularly known to Miss Bennet.”

“Mr. Bingley,” gasped Jane Bennet, colouring profusely.

He nodded and then turned to Mrs. Gardiner, “Might I have the privilege of a few minutes (he paused before amending his request) . . . perhaps as much as a quarter-hour to speak with Miss Bennet in private? I assure you of my respectability and that nothing improper shall occur. I have not the slightest objection to the door of the room being left open.”

“That is an extremely unusual request, my lord, and despite your assurances, I am uncertain that it is proper; however, if Jane does not object, I shall allow it. Jane?”

Jane Bennet was in a quandary. For what purpose could his lordship wish to speak to her privately? His acquaintance with Mr. Bingley, who she had not seen for several months since he quit Netherfield Park following his ball there, predisposed her to think the matter must relate to that gentleman. As her hopes of encountering him again had not been completely extinguished, she was inclined to accede to his lordship’s request. After a thoughtful pause of several long moments, she nodded her acquiescence. She could not help but be curious as to the content of a conversation between Mr. Bingley and his friend – the earl’s nephew - that would bring a peer to her aunt’s home.

Mrs. Gardiner frowned but rose and left the room, leaving the door half-ajar as she passed through it. His lordship rose as she did, and after her departure, turned back to Jane and gestured to an armchair in the furthest corner of the room from the door. “Please, Miss Bennet, might you sit there that our conversation will not be overheard?”

Jane complied and, once she had seated herself, he drew another chair close enough that they could converse easily but not so near as to make her uncomfortable. She gazed at him, wondering what he was about. He did not long leave her in doubt.

“I understand, Miss Bennet, that you are one of five sisters? And your father’s estate is of a modest size? Maybe two thousand a year? And entailed away to a cousin? Am I correct?”

Jane puzzled agreed to all the statements. They were nothing but the truth after all, though the disclosure of her circumstances was unexpected and not altogether comfortable.

“And I am also given to understand that your father has made little or no provision for his wife and unmarried daughters, after his passing?”

Jane stiffened but nodded again, even more reluctantly, for this portion of her circumstances was something she wished most earnestly to ignore. It was not a subject she would willingly discuss with any but her closest acquaintance. Her wariness did not abate.

“May I ask, your lordship, to where these questions tend?”

Her manner was not quite frosty, for Jane Bennet hardly knew how to display such coldness, but a small sign of her displeasure must have leaked from behind her calm countenance, for the earl was quick to reassure her, his manner more conciliating than she expected. She felt herself relax, ever so slightly.

“You may, though perhaps I might continue a little further before addressing your request? I hope matters will become clearer as I proceed.”

Jane’s “As you wish” was hesitant, but she could see no reason to object.

“Very well, now we come to the meat of the situation. I am a widower, Miss Bennet, without an heir to succeed me. My wife could not have children, a circumstance that we did not understand until some years after our marriage.”

“I am sorry for her and yourself, sir, but . . .”

“But I might be succeeded by a relative, you were thinking.”

She nodded, though she also wondered how he could be certain that the problem could so surely be laid to his wife’s account. There was only one means by which he could be absolved of responsibility, and she supposed that he, like many of his station, had indulged himself. It was, she had been given to understand, viewed as something of a privilege of his class. It was certainly not a matter she could raise in polite conversation. Imagine asking a peer if he had fathered an illegitimate child?

He frowned, though Jane was certain she was not the object of his displeasure.

“It very nearly happened, Miss Bennet,” he said. “About a year ago my carriage was involved in a serious accident. I was uninjured, through some miracle perhaps. I walked away completely unharmed, though the coachman died, and one of my footmen was hurt badly. He has since fully recovered. But, as I said, I was unharmed.”

Jane expressed the usual words of sympathy for his servants and satisfaction for his safety.

He continued, “Your kind words were also offered by my presumptive heir, though with none of your sincerity. It was not difficult to discern he was dismayed at my surviving the accident. The accident brought home to me the danger faced by my earldom. The heir to my title is my cousin – our fathers were sons of the third Earl Fitzwilliam - who has two sons of his own. It is an unfortunate truth, Miss Bennet, that not all men are worthy of their station in society. My cousin – and his eldest son, for they are two peas-of-a-pod – are dissolute rakes of the worst sort. I have recently been informed that he is already in debt to the money-lenders on the basis of his expectations, and if I entrust the earldom to them, they will destroy it, bankrupt it to feed their dissipative lifestyles. (He scowled, for it had been the disclosure of this information which gave impetus to his current action.) I will not have it! I have laboured too long to ensure the prosperity of the estates that comprise the earldom, and the probity of my family’s name, to have it destroyed in a single generation.”

“Then you must marry, sir,” she replied, glancing at him carefully, unconsciously measuring him as a woman might do in appraising a mate. He seemed to her inexperienced eyes to be capable of siring an heir, should he wish do so. The latter was not something she could express. He did not scruple to overlook her implied corollary.

“Exactly, Miss Bennet. Exactly! However, the lives and well-being of literally thousands of people – men, women and children – who depended upon the earldom are at risk, should I choose unwisely or allow it to fall into my cousin’s hands.”

“What has this to do with me, your lordship? Surely you do not intend that I marry you and provide your heir?”

“That, Miss Bennet, is where you err. I do wish you to consider whether an offer of marriage would be acceptable.”

This was, Jane thought, rather remarkable. She had no doubt that many men in his circumstances, would think naught of simply proposing in expectation of a ready acceptance. She shook her head in denial, “My Lord, I am not suitable. If Mr. Bingley does not feel me eligible, how . . .”

“I am not a miserable fool like Mr. Bingley, Miss Bennet.”

“But surely there are any number – I dare say hundreds or thousands – of women who are of greater consequence, who inhabit your sphere, who would make you a better wife?”

“Mayhap they would, should I search long enough. In the four years since my wife’s death, I have certainly encountered more than a few women who have indicated their willingness to be my Countess; however, none of them suited my fancy, for I question their fitness to be a guardian of my children should we have any.”

“I do not understand, your Lordship.”

“The customary methods of raising children is not to my liking, Miss Bennet. My cousin was allowed to grow to maturity without responsibilities or duties. This deficiency in his education I lay at the feet of his parents, for they had little time or care for him. This is altogether too common in families of my station and has produced a generation of wastrels. My cousin raised his own son in this manner with the consequent results. It is only that his second son was brought, as a young boy, under the protection of the Darcy family that prevented his ruin as well. I wish better for my children, and believe that a woman of more modest means and upbringing would provide better guidance . . . provided her character was of the right sort.”

The incredulous cast to her countenance produced from him a chuckle. “Children, Miss Bennet, in my level of society are raised with little maternal involvement until they are ready to enter society. They are given into the care of wet-nurses, nannies, governesses, and tutors till then. I have lately come to understand that I am not such a parent, and I believe you will not be such a mother.”

“I have a great deal of difficulty in accepting that I am so qualified.”

“I do not! I said I had your family thoroughly investigated, Miss Bennet. I set my most trusted and competent secretary to the task. You were the principal object in that investigation, Miss Bennet, though it encompassed all of your family. Do you wish to know what it revealed?”

Jane could not determine if she did wish to know. A few seconds consideration suggested that it could not be too terrible, for it had brought an earl to her aunt’s home. She inclined her head ever so slightly, inviting him to continue..

“Well,” said he, leaning back and smiling. Her curiosity was a positive step forward. “The first revelation – and the most obvious - was that you were probably the loveliest lady in the county. I had but to see you to concur.”

She flushed and looked down at her hands. He also thought he detected a slight frown at his praise, though it was quickly smoothed away. Perhaps she wished others to disregard her beauty, unlikely as that might appear. If so, it was, he thought, an aspect of her character that, though she did not dispute the claim, she made no insincere disclaimers in an attempt to draw further praise. He suspected it would have pleased her more had he not even commented on her attractiveness. He recollected in his secretary’s report that Mrs. Bennet was wont to boast of her daughter’s beauty. It must have made the girl rather self-conscious, though she hid any discomfort well.

“And, secondly,” he continued, “almost everyone noted your composure. Several mentioned that your mother’s . . . effusions were excessively embarrassing, but you managed to retain your countenance despite her misguided efforts. The third, and perhaps more critical aspect, was that you gave every appearance of being immune to insult, or to the poor behaviour of others, preferring to grant absolution to such persons wherever possible. A Lady Lucas said she had never heard an unkind word from you about anyone and she had known you for more than ten years.”

“Dear Lady Lucas, she is a good woman; however, I think she praises me too highly.”

“Perhaps,” he responded, “however, I am sure that such charity in assessing people is neither wise or deserved in all cases. I would hope that you would not approve of bad behaviour?”

“My Lord, of course not, but I would not wish to chastise unfairly or precipitously.”

Jane could not but think of her altered opinion of Miss Bingley. A woman she had trusted and respected had proven unworthy in both respects. It was a matter she could not linger on, for the earl was speaking again.

“You believe in second chances, then?”

She nodded, “I would not wish to judge anyone based on my initial impression.”

“And,” said he with a smile, “you would wish to think well of everyone until they proved otherwise.”

She agreed, adding, “I have had occasion recently to revise an opinion of someone I counted as a friend. My opinions, sir, are not immutable.”

He waited for several moments, almost hoping she might expand on the topic. She did not and he put it aside as something he might investigate further if she married him. He could not but wonder who that person might be. Bingley? When it was clear she would not speak further on that subject, he continued, “What impressed me most, however, were the commendations of your pastor and Longbourn’s tenants. The former was fixed in approbation, citing your efforts in parish relief beside his wife. He said – and I quote from the report – you are a model that more ladies in the parish could emulate to their advantage.”

Jane shook her head, “I did nothing more than my duty. I am sure others contributed after their own fashion.”

He smiled, “Perhaps. I cannot say. However, all of Longbourn’s tenants agreed that you and your next eldest sister (and he hesitated until prompted by Jane) . . . Yes, Elizabeth, were assiduous in bringing their needs to the attention of your father when you and your sister were unable to deal with them directly.”

“It is our simple duty, milord. We owe them our livelihood. Besides which, I grew up with many of them. We played together as children.”

He nodded in acknowledgement, “Exactly, Miss Bennet. Exactly, though I know that too many of the daughters of my peers would consider such service to be beneath them. Certainly, they would consider playing with such children a degradation.

“This brings me to my final point; your mother gave birth to five children safely and all survived to adulthood. That bodes well for our future.”

She looked at him sharply, but chose not to dispute his presumption beyond saying, “We are not married, your lordship.”

“True,” said he, “I will also note, Miss Bennet, that your . . . reluctance, your reservations, speak well of your character. Most women of my acquaintance would have received my intentions eagerly and without any reservations.”

“Now, allow me enumerate the advantages to you of our union. I would wish you to consider them and, if you find them acceptable, then allow me to offer for you. I would only ask that you restrict this matter to the Gardiners. I will call on you in two days for your decision. Is that sufficient time, Miss Bennet?”

She agreed, though with no small degree of hesitation. She would have liked additional time, if only to summon Elizabeth to Gracechurch Street that she might consult with her. She hesitated to ask, for, as she considered the matter, she realized that if she could not arrive at a decision in two days with the Gardiners’ assistance, the addition of four or five more days would be of little value. Mrs. Gardiner, in particular, would offer the most practical and disinterested advice. She really did not have to consult her sister, for she knew she would object to any arranged marriage. Elizabeth had disdained a marriage with their cousin, Mr. Collins, prudent though it might have been, and she had been disparaging of Charlotte Lucas’ acceptance of Mr. Collins offer of marriage.

“Allow me now” said he, “to offer you some assurances.”

“First, though I have only a few years from seeing sixty years, my father lived well into his seventies so you will not immediately be a widow; but when that day arrives as it must for all of us, you may be positioned to marry again, should that be your preference.”

He paused to read her countenance; however, her composure was perfect and he gleaned no inkling of her thoughts.

“Second, your marriage settlement will offer a substantial portion and jointure (he placed a folded paper in her hand) – this paper will provide the sums for your consideration. I suggest you consult with your uncle. His opinion will, I have no doubt, prove invaluable. As well, I will enhance your portion at the birth of each and every son should we have more than one. I do wish to secure the future of my earldom. These children – all our children, boys and girls – will be well provided for. The earldom is wealthy and each will have a share, though the principal assets are necessarily entailed to the title.”

A surreptitious scan of her features disclosed only a tinge of surprise which, he supposed, might be due to his mention of more than one child. Did she believe him too old to exercise his marital responsibilities? He would take excessive pleasure – casting a surreptitious eye over her figure – in visiting her bed. He could only hope that she would welcome his attentions. If she accepted him, he would ensure that she found the business pleasurable enough to be eager for his attentions. He was not, after all, completely inexperienced. His late wife had, even after learning of her childlessness, been pleased with his efforts. He continued.

“Third, your family will be provided for. I will acquire an estate near Longbourn – I have been informed that several are available – in which your mother and unmarried sisters might live comfortably. It will also provide a place for us to stay while we visit. It may be passed to a second son, or to a daughter as part of her dowry.

“Finally, I will provide some assistance to your sisters in making their way in society. I suspect that doing so will prove a challenge for your youngest sisters, which we will deal with together in consultation with your father.”

Jane was too overwhelmed to do more nod weakly.

“Now, Miss Bennet, let me deal with the more personal aspects. I cannot offer you a love marriage, however, I have learned enough about you to esteem you highly. I will always treat you kindly and with due affection. You may always be assured of my respect and regard. This is an arrangement that can serve to promote your future security and that of your family. I will promise to do all within my power to ensure your happiness and contentment.”

He paused for almost a minute as she grappled with all that he had imparted, and then asked, “Do you have any questions of me?”

“I do,” said she, “if you will oblige me.”

He bowed his head in acknowledgement.

“First, I would enquire of you what you heard from Mr. Bingley that directed you to me in the first instance; second, I am not of your sphere, how can you be sure that I will not embarrass you when we move into society? and finally, it seems to me that all the advantages are mine. What advantages will accrue to you? and how can they outweigh, in the eyes of society, my lack of fortune and the poverty of my connections?”

“Ah, well perhaps, I should have spoken of this when your aunt first raised the matter. I understand that you made Bingley’s acquaintance and that of my nephew last autumn when he leased an estate near Longbourn.”

“Your nephew?”

“Yes, Mr. Darcy. He and Bingley have been close friends for years. At any rate, I am slightly acquainted with Bingley, and though I suspect you hold him in some regard, I have always thought of him as . . . unformed, if you will. I do not wish to speak poorly of him, but he is very young, and of an unserious - almost frivolous – character. Amiable to be sure, very gallant to the ladies, but not one I would wish to have by my side in a difficult or contentious situation. He is, in my opinion, unsteady and his inclination to avoid any contention or dispute does not speak well of the strength of his character. His sisters rule him, and Darcy, to my regret, guides him wherever he wishes Bingley to go. And that is not always to Bingley’s advantage, though I am sure Darcy would disagree with me on this.”

“I always thought Mr. Bingley the most agreeable of men.”

“Undoubtedly, he is; however, as amiable as Mr. Bingley is, there’s a great want of firmness and resolution in his character. He makes an excellent acquaintance, but were I to have a daughter, I would want a stronger man as her husband to protect her and their children against the world’s hazards. And the world has many hazards, Miss Bennet.

“As to what he said, you must allow for the passage of time and, while Bingley’s words were of some interest, it was Darcy’s implicit commendation that was of most value.”

“Mr. Darcy? I hardly ever spoke more than two words at a time with him.”

“It was, I believe, your character that impressed him – and that of your next younger sister, for he acknowledges you both as free of any censure in your behaviour despite the improper manners of the remainder of your family. You have to know my nephew as well as I do to understand that stands as fulsome praise, Miss Bennet. Darcy has a great disdain for much of society. He can be fastidious to a fault in such matters.”

“And yet he did not encourage Mr. Bingley to return to Hertfordshire?”

“He did not, and his reasons for that I found exceptionally interesting, Miss Bennet.”

She gazed at him in confusion.

“Darcy could see no signs of affection in you for Mr. Bingley. He apparently felt that Mr. Bingley’s affections were not returned, and believed you would accept him to secure your future. That truly sparked my interest. It struck me that had his assessment been accurate, you would not have left Bingley in doubt of your affections. I thought it extraordinary that a young woman in your situation – no dowry, no connections of note, and possessed of four unmarried sisters – would not exert herself to secure Bingley’s affections. It was almost inconceivable. It displayed a singular sense of self-respect that you would not feign interest to secure your future. I dare say I could search the length and breadth of England and not find a half-dozen young ladies in your circumstances who would act similarly. I can say with a great deal of certainty that almost all of them would have shown Mr. Bingley more affection than they felt. That intrigued me, I admit, and I resolved to investigate you further. And thus, here we are.”

Jane shook her head in bemusement. That she had hidden her feelings so thoroughly as to fool two gentlemen of experience in society was beyond her comprehension. Mr. Bingley she rather thought must be the most undiscerning man of her acquaintance, for she had, within her ability to do so, made her regard for him obvious. At least, she believed she had. Clearly, she had erred. It was impossible to think further on that matter, for the earl was speaking again, addressing her second question.

“Miss Bennet, I am of the opinion that you are most comfortable living in the country. Am I wrong to suppose so?”

Jane admitted to such a preference.

“Well then, we shall be quite content if you accept me, for I have decided to retire from active society and live on my estates. We may travel from one to another but London society we might have little to do with, if that meets with your approval?”

“I would not wish to avoid London altogether, for my aunt and uncle are dear to me and I would wish to enjoy their society. As well, I have found pleasure in certain activities that the country cannot offer. The theatre and exhibitions, in particular.”

“I see no problem with that. From what I have observed of your aunt and learned about your uncle; I would be pleased to invite them to visit us at one of our estates. I have a small one in Wiltshire that would be convenient distance from London for that purpose. We might also be in town on occasion, for though I do not intend to be as active in politics as in the past, there will always be an issue or two that will demand my attendance in the House of Lords.”

“However,” said he, after almost imperceptible pause, “there is one point on which I must insist. We will certainly visit your parents at Longbourn when it is possible to do so, but we shall never invite your mother to join us in town. Her behaviour is such as to prove excessively embarrassing and will reflect poorly on our family. We must keep her, in particular, at arm's length.”

She was aware of his gaze fixed on her, awaiting, she was sure, some indication of her displeasure. In truth, while she could not like his denigration of her mother, she also could not truly fault it. She would, she suspected, have a challenging enough time making her way through London’s society without her mother making the task doubly difficult. She nodded reluctantly in agreement.

“Now,” he said, “to the question of what benefit is such a marriage to myself, let me be explicit. I will gain a wife of unparalleled character, a woman with whom I can raise our children in the assurance, that should I die before the task is complete – almost a certainty given my age – their care will continue as I would wish. I will appoint a guardian or two to assist in their education, but the major responsibility will fall on you.

“As for your ability to deal with society, I am convinced, given your behaviour here today, and that recorded in my secretary’s report, that you will do very well. I will assist you wherever necessary. You will also have the support of my nephew, Darcy, and my cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam.

“Trust me on this, Miss Bennet, should you accept me, all will be well.”

She did not demur; however, he rather suspected she could not summon and organize her thoughts into coherence. Finally, she nodded her head, but remained silent, though not refusing to search his features as though they might offer additional insights. He smiled and rose to his feet, reached out for her hand, bowed and lifted it to his lips.

“I shall take my leave of you and return in two days. Should you wish to address me sooner, or have questions you wish answered, you - or more properly, Mr. Gardiner – may write me directly. Good day, Miss Bennet.”

He turned to leave the room, noting from the timepiece on the fireplace mantle that near unto a half-hour had passed. Mrs. Gardiner had been very generous. When he reached the door he turned for a last look at Miss Bennet, to find her regarding him with a thoughtful expression. He did not see revulsion, and felt more hope than when he entered the room that his suit might be successful.

Jane Bennet remained mired in thought, almost oblivious to her aunt’s returning presence.

“I peeked in the door several times,” said Mrs. Gardiner, “and thought, since you did not seem overly discomposed at whatever the earl disclosed, to allow you as much time as the matter required. I hope I was not wrong?”

“No, indeed you were not.”

“And what did his lordship want?”

“He wanted to know if I would agree to be his wife.”

“Mrs. Gardiner was startled beyond all reason. “He made you an offer of marriage?”

Jane was thoughtful, “No, not exactly, he wished me to consider whether I would accept an offer were he to make it.”

“That is most peculiar.”

“Is it not, and yet under the circumstances, I believe it to be a most rational approach. We are strangers, are we not, and if I accept his offer, I have no doubt he will wish to marry very quickly. He has afforded me the time to consider his . . . suit.”

Mrs. Gardiner could not mask her surprise and curiosity. Jane then spent some time explaining her suitor’s reasoning and offers, opening and reading the contents of the page he had left with her. Mrs. Gardiner, when it was given to her, could only gasp in amazement. “The earldom must be extremely wealthy to be able to dispose of such sums without concern.”

“So I am given to understand,” replied Jane, her tone neutral. In truth, the sums staggered her imagination. Miss Bingley, she had been informed, owned a fortune of twenty thousand pounds. The earl was proposing to settle on her twice that amount, and was prepared to augment it with the birth of each son.

“When does his lordship want an answer?”

“In two days.”

“And that answer?”

“I hardly know, aunt. I am still attempting to absorb what he is offering.”

Mrs. Gardiner nodded, “Forgive me. I should not have presumed that you had arrived at one.”

“I believe,” said Jane, “that I would prefer to consider this in private. Perhaps I might talk to you and uncle later tonight? Or perhaps, tomorrow?”

Jane’s musings drifted to Miss Bingley, and how seriously displeased she would have been had she known of the earl’s offer. Indeed, Miss Bingley was most certainly aware that the earl was a widower, for she was very attentive to such things, but, since he had remained unmarried for four years, he likely was, in her opinion, a confirmed bachelor. Had Miss Bingley known he wished to end that condition, she would have done all within her power to make him aware of her availability. That he would prefer Jane Bennet would have been beyond her comprehension, for Jane possessed none of those accomplishments that Miss Bingley deemed essential to be considered worthy of such attentions.

It was, Jane thought, serendipitous that the earl had called on her today and not several weeks earlier, for her response, had he visited before Miss Bingley’s visit, might have been radically different. Not that she had decided in his favour, but even a fortnight past she would have likely rejected his offer without a great deal of consideration, unhappy only that she must send him away unsatisfied.

Mrs. Gardiner was quite content to allow her niece the time to reflect on the earl’s offer. Jane, she knew, had been sadly disillusioned by Miss Bingley’s actions and by her brother’s jilting. Jane and Elizabeth had always espoused marriages of respect and affection, deeming them essential to their future happiness in the married state. Jane was, however, both intelligent and thoughtful, and though a marriage to an earl could provide many advantages, Mrs. Gardiner doubted her niece would accept an offer unless it contained some assurance of respect. The deficiency of respect in her parents’ marriage was too obvious to ignore, and Jane had always asserted in her own quiet way that she would not allow herself to be placed in a situation comparable to her mother’s.

Jane dined with them that night, explaining to her relatives the essentials that the earl had disclosed, and passed into her uncle’s hands, the paper outlining the financial advantages the earl was prepared to settle on her. She asked that they withhold any advice until she had time to consider the matter fully.

“There is,” she asserted, “a great deal to comprehend, and I would wish to order my thoughts before addressing it with you.”

The Gardiners exchanged glances and nodded.

“I have no doubt,” said her uncle, “that whatever decision you reach will be well and truly considered. If there are any questions, do not hesitate to make them known. As well, I will investigate, as thoroughly as is possible in the time available, the . . . I suppose, worthiness of Earl Fitzwilliam. I have an acquaintance or two who are notorious gossips. If there is anything to concern us, they will know of it.”

Jane did not depart from her usual routine in the following twenty-four hours. There was comfort to be gained by adhering to her fixed habits. She rose at her usual hour, amused the children for an hour before breaking her fast, ventured out for a stroll in the nearby park – though not at Elizabeth’s brisk pace – enjoying a relatively rare fine day, and allowing the gentle exercise to calm and order her thoughts. She returned to find her aunt had received a caller – a neighbourhood woman much exercised at the superior carriage that had stopped in front of the Gardiner residence the previous day. Jane had too much respect for the visitor’s ability to pry loose morsels of information she would retail around the neighbourhood to wish to put herself in her presence. Mrs. Gardiner, perhaps sensing her niece’s reluctance to sit and make idle chatter, absolved her of any responsibility by commenting that Jane looked rather tired and might rest till luncheon.

The discussion took places later that night, following a meal in which everything was discussed but that central to the thoughts of the three adults. Once the children were settled for the night, a meeting was convened and the subject of the earl’s proposition and Jane’s response were the sole object of discussion.

“I have,” said Jane, “reached a decision. It is one my mother will take great pleasure in and . . .”

“I hope, Jane,” interjected her uncle, “that you have not factored your mother’s wishes into this matter. She will never know of it should you refuse the offer. If you are concerned that she will suffer should your father die unexpectedly, be assured that your uncle Philips and I have made some provision for her care and that of your sisters. It will not be Longbourn, and she will have to be more frugal than she has hitherto been, but she will not be uncomfortable.”

“While it should not be your responsibility . . .”

“Nor should it be the earl’s,” cried Mrs. Gardiner, “However, . . .”

“Yes! Well, enough said on that,” said Jane. “I will assure you both that my mother’s wishes were not germane to the matter. After some time, I realized that my decision must be based on only a few considerations. The first was whether I might be content in an arranged marriage. I decided that I might well be happy provided I was treated with respect and kindness. The earl has promised both . . . and I have no reason to doubt his word.”

“No,” said Mr. Gardiner, “you need not be concerned in that regard. He is very much respected as a man of honour and his word, once given, may be trusted absolutely.”

Jane smiled and nodded. She was uncertain how she knew but her uncle had only confirmed her own suppositions. She continued, “Secondly, I have wanted a family and this promises to provide me with one, and also ensures that they will be raised in superior circumstances in terms of their parents’ behaviour. They will not suffer the embarrassment that Lizzy and I were required to endure.”

Mrs. Gardiner smiled and nodded, but forbore to comment.

“As well,” added Jane, “my sisters may gain from being exposed to better society. The earl’s offer to see my three younger sisters educated and brought to understand proper behaviour is of incalculable value. Lizzy and I have often despaired that Lydia would bring shame and ruin on us all. We might now be spared this unhappy fate.”

Mr. Gardiner grunted. He had several times spoken to Mr. Bennet about his youngest daughter’s wildness, and to no avail. His brother was too wedded to his peace and tranquillity to suffer the tumult that disciplining Lydia would produce.

“You cannot be easy with the thought of becoming a Countess, Jane,” said Mrs. Gardiner, “It will represent a dramatic difference in responsibilities. Your mother certainly gave you some instruction, and you have been involved in managing Longbourn for several years, so you are not totally unprepared. You and Lizzy have been dealing with Longbourn’s tenants as well. The earl’s estates will simply have more of them to be concerned with. You won’t be able to give any of them the same attention as you are used to doing, but I am sure that they will be pleased if you make a point of visiting them – perhaps only once a year – to show that you are concerned for their well-being.”

Jane sighed, “I have deliberately not allowed myself to dwell on the responsibilities that will be mine. It would be too much, and I might well refuse the earl simply out of fear of failure.”

Mrs. Gardiner agreed, saying, “You will have the earl’s support and his homes and estates have been managed properly, I am sure, since his wife’s death. He will have competent people working for him and you will have to rely on their knowledge and experience.”

After a short pause, she continued, “You were right to not allow yourself to be overwhelmed by all the responsibilities you must assume in the future. My own mother gave me some advice, passed on to her by her own mother, and it is as appropriate to you now as it was to me then. Do not, my mother said, attempt to eat the apple in a single bite. Take small bites, consume it slowly. The apple will still be eaten, but the process will be much less onerous and quite probably more enjoyable.”

Mr. Gardiner grunted in agreement. “It is,” said he, “almost exactly the method I employ when facing a large task. Break it down into manageable portions and do each in turn until the job is done.”

Jane regarded them both, nodding silently and then became pensive. Mrs. Gardiner realized that one matter had not been raised but could not be ignored.

“The earl,” said she, “is more than thirty years older than you, Jane. Does this not . . . perturb you?”

Jane flushed and fixed her attention firmly on the rug before her, examining its pattern closely and with great determination to extract from it the answers to the world’s most pressing questions.

“Ah,” she heard her uncle say, “perhaps I should leave you ladies to discuss this matter without my presence. I am sure I could not add anything to this discussion.”

Mrs. Gardiner smiled and waved her husband off before turning to her embarrassed niece. The conversation elicited from Jane more blushes than she had previously experienced in her life. It had been matched only once when, at the tender age of fifteen, she had been privy to her father’s stallion mounting one the farm’s mares. She could not afterwards look at her father for a week complete.

Mrs. Gardiner spared her niece further blushes by her matter-of-fact manner in addressing the question of intimacies. The earl, she explained, was obviously intending to have her bear several children to ensure the title’s succession. A man, she declared, might sire children at almost any age, whereas a woman’s child-bearing years typically did not extend much past her mid-thirties.

“I cannot say with any certainty, how frequently he will come to your bed, Jane, but he appears to be a vigorous man and you are very beautiful. I would expect him there most nights. The question you must ask yourself is whether you can welcome him. He is not a young man but he is not unattractive. It has been my experience that if a wife welcomes her husband’s overtures in the marital bed, the chances of them being happy and contented together in other areas, will be substantially improved. If he feels welcomed, he will be more inclined to treat you kindly and with affection. Your marriage as the partnership of two quite different people will be largely determined by how you treat him . . . in bed and otherwise. If you make the commitment to marry him, you must commit yourself in all areas. Can you . . . No! Will you so commit yourself, Jane? This is the ultimate question and one that you must honour if you are to be happy.”

Jane nodded slowly. She had given some thought to the intimacies of marriage, but her mind had skittered away from considering the matter too closely.

“I will certainly give what you have said much thought tonight, Aunt. That I will promise.”

Mrs. Gardiner had been tempted to also suggest to her niece that, once she felt secure and comfortable with such intimacies, she might initiate them by actually inviting her husband to join her, or even going to his bed uninvited; however, knowing Jane’s reserved nature, it was probably better to wait until the girl was more at ease with her husband. Such a suggestion at this time would undoubtedly embarrass her immeasurably.

~~~~~~~~~

The next day, Jane sat alone as her suitor entered the drawing-room. She rose to greet him, her countenance schooled into composure, though her stomach felt unsettled and her pulse was rapid. She hoped her features were not flushed. She had bathed her face in cold water only minutes before. She did not want to display her uncertainty. This was a momentous step, not only for her, but for countless numbers of people, not excluding her own family. She did not regret confining her deliberations to the Gardiners. She had spent several hours the previous night, reviewing with them the conclusions she had reached, and while she was unused to making such important decisions without consulting her dearest and wisest sister, she was satisfied that nothing of significance had been overlooked. Her aunt had even proffered a small bit of womanly advice that very morning as Jane prepared for the earl’s visit.

“You are perhaps too young to fully appreciate this, Jane,” said she, “but his lordship is a fine-looking man, and was undoubtedly quite dashing when young.”

He came, made the appropriate greetings and with an appearance of great calm, seated himself in the chair chosen and placed by her that they might talk in comfort and privacy.

They exchanged a few brief pleasantries before he addressed his reason for calling at Gracechurch Street.

“I trust,” said he, “that two days were sufficient for you to arrive at a decision?”

She assented, and he, seeing that she had not pre-empted his making an offer which he had no doubt she would have done if intending to refuse it, continued, “I would not suspend any pleasure of yours, Miss Bennet. Am I wrong to believe I will receive a positive answer to a particular question?”

“You are not, Sir.”

“Excellent, let us be about it then.”

~~~~~~~~~

Jane Bennet married, by special licence, Alexander Fitzwilliam, Earl of Matlock, two weeks later in the earl’s London mansion, before those persons closest to each. Her parents were present, though Mrs. Bennet was in a state of seemingly perfect shock, having learned of the marriage only the previous night. Her sister, Elizabeth, and Jane’s father alone had prior notice but had been sworn to secrecy. Attending the earl were the two relations with whom he was on the best of terms: his nephew, Fitzwilliam Darcy, and Colonel Fitzwilliam, the younger son of the earl’s cousin and heir. Also attending was Miss Georgiana Darcy, whose shy and reserved demeanour came as a complete shock to Jane and Elizabeth, for the latter had been given to believe her to be as proud and haughty as her brother, and Jane, to believe her attached to Mr. Bingley. Both suppositions were proven false and, in the case of Elizabeth, caused her to question the information she had received about Mr. Darcy’s character. As Jane reminded her when they next met, “If a man should lie about such a thing when it was completely unnecessary, one must question the validity of everything he has said.” Jane smiled knowingly, for she recollected having applied the same logic about Miss Bingley.

Elizabeth expanded her reconsideration so far as to raise the question of George Wickham’s testimony about Mr. Darcy with the gentleman she quickly learned was closer to Darcy than even Mr. Bingley. Colonel Fitzwilliam, being privy to almost all of Darcy’s concerns, quickly disabused her of George Wickham’s worthiness, and she was left wondering how she could have been so easily and thoroughly misled. While the information imparted did not produce in her any warm feelings toward Darcy, for she found him as aloof and haughty as ever, she could absolve him of dishonourable behaviour and allow him to be a little less disagreeable.

The denizens of Longbourn enjoyed several immediate consequences of Jane’s marriage, most of which they did not greet with great enthusiasm, for Mary, Catherine and Lydia were deemed, by the earl and – most traitorously – by Jane herself, too uncouth in their present condition to introduced into London society, as Mrs. Bennet had trumpeted to all within range of her voice. They would not have a season in town until their behaviour was materially improved. Nor would their dowries be awarded until that day arrived. Pleas to Jane were unavailing, for she and the earl were of one mind on this matter.

It must not be supposed that the marriage was greeted with pleasure by those members of the earl’s family with whom he was at odds. His cousin was thoroughly disgusted, having borrowed rather heavily against his expectations. Ruin and bankruptcy now faced him, and the earl had always refused assistance in the past. The bankers holding his notes began, as soon as the earl’s marriage was announced, pressing him forcefully for payment – and he had not a shilling to give them. In desperation, he applied for assistance to Lord Fitzwilliam who, not wishing to see the family name besmirched, assisted him to the point of giving him a thousand pounds to affect his departure for the New World. His cousin’s bankers were left to squabble over the remains of his estate. Earl Fitzwilliam felt no sympathy for them as they should have known better than to speculate in such a fashion. They had gambled – though undoubtedly believing it to be a certain thing – and lost. He felt not a tinge of pity.

Colonel Fitzwilliam’s older brother, who was much of a character with their father, was as poorly situated, and following his father’s departure, escaped his creditors only by fleeing to India where he hoped to make his fortune, though how that was to be done he had yet to determine. His only thought was to trade on his connection to the earl to obtain a position which might support him and his indulgences. He was, however, too wise to make any such application to his cousin, trading instead on the known connection. To a certain extent he was successful, though a failure to amend his ways made it necessary, after some months, to effect a change of address so that he might impose himself on a new and different portion of society. Fortunately, India was sufficiently large and diverse that he was able to survive for several decades in this manner.

The earl’s only living sister, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, objected strenuously and loudly about the pollution the earldom had suffered by the marriage. She had never thought to marry her only daughter to the earl, the degree of consanguinity being too close even for her sensibilities. Nonetheless, she was convinced that he should have married a more suitable woman. Miss Bennet was cousin to her rector, for heaven’s sake, and her home was a hovel compared to Rosings Park and the manors of her brother’s estates. It was everything improper. The shades of Matlock would be polluted by the presence of such a woman and her family. Lady Catherine’s ire was not assuaged for more than a year, until the product of the marriage – an heir to the title - made acceptance mandatory, for she had made no secret of her disapprobation of her brother’s marriage and came to understand that her obstinacy barred her from the earl’s society and consequence. It was thus essential, if her own social status was not to be reduced, that she make all possible amendments, disagreeable as they would likely prove to be. In truth, the earl cared very little for his sister’s approval, for she had little influence in society, and, in any event, he did not intend to partake of society to any appreciable extent.

Jane was greatly surprised by her husband’s eagerness for the marriage bed. He was, she knew, slightly older than her father, and that gentleman had not, to her knowledge, visited his wife’s bed in the last ten years. It seemed that the failure to produce the male heir to end Longbourn’s entailment, in conjunction with his distaste for his wife’s nervous effusions, extinguished his interest to such marital endeavours. Mrs. Bennet, Jane suspected, did not decry his absence. The earl, however, was very different. He most certainly did not emulate her father in his attentiveness to his wife. The earl was eager and enthusiastic, and determined to have her experience all the pleasures to be found in marital intimacy. He visited her bed almost every night, absenting himself only when her courses made her uncomfortable. He was not, he informed her with a somewhat self-satisfied air, as good as he once was, but thought he was much better once than he ever was. Jane, of course, had no basis of comparison, but as she also had no cause for complaint, she assured him laughingly that he satisfied her completely. In fact, it was a revelation to Jane that she could experience such pleasures despite not being ardently in love with her husband.

Jane was much surprised with one aspect of her husband. He was a much larger man than Mr. Bingley, both taller and heavier. As a consequence, when he remained in her bed after their coupling, he invariably drew her into a close embrace before falling asleep, and she, to her surprise, found that the sensation of being enveloped and protected was excessively comforting. Waking to that embrace, his hand not infrequently clasped to her breast, offered a degree of security that she had never before enjoyed. It was an aspect of her marriage that never disappeared. While her husband’s vigour had noticeably declined by his seventieth year, he still visited her bed with regularity and continued his physical affections.

Within ten months of her marriage, Jane Fitzwilliam delivered the said heir, and over the course of the next five years, created with the earl’s eager assistance, three more sons. While the earl still visited her bed in subsequent years; and though his vigour diminished with age, he nonetheless proved capable of making Jane with child some four years after the birth of her last son. Lady Elizabeth Margaret Fitzwilliam was the jewel of her father’s eye. It was unfortunate that he could not enjoy her coming out, but he did have the satisfaction of seeing his eldest son reach his majority knowing that the title would be held in competent and responsible hands, for he had begun instructing his sons on the care of his estates at an early age, increasing his heir’s responsibility as his own capabilities waned, and ensuring that he also had the guidance of competent stewards and advisors, notably Darcy.

Thus, at the age of five and forty, Jane Fitzwilliam, Countess of Matlock, became a widow. Aware of his impending death, the earl’s final words to Jane were that he had never regretted marrying her, and that she had given him more joy in the years of their marriage than he had ever previously experienced. She was, he also told her, too young and too full of life to live alone for the remainder of her life. After her mourning period was done, he wished for her to marry again. In addition, he informed her that, though he could not command her in the matter, he would die more contented knowing she had married a gentleman he trusted above all others, Major-General Fitzwilliam. The major-general had long admired Jane but had carefully suppressed any signs of his preference. For her part, she had always esteemed Fitzwilliam, though never suspecting his attachment. With the earl’s blessing, she began, over the months of her mourning, to consider her feelings for Fitzwilliam, concluding that, should he express an interest in her, she would encourage him as much as she felt able to do.

Guardianship of her children was passed to her, in conjunction with Fitzwilliam Darcy and Major-General Fitzwilliam. It was an amiable relationship, so amiable in fact that the major-general’s feelings became more obvious to her as was his delight in her children. Thus, eighteen months after the earl’s passing, Jane proposed to Major-General Fitzwilliam, who was shocked and overjoyed to learn of the earl’s blessing, and accepted at once, for he had long resigned himself to a life of bachelorhood, never hoping for more than a platonic relationship with Jane Fitzwilliam.

The major-general was too wise to question his wife about her previous marriage. That she had been content in it, he was certain. That she held the earl in great respect was equally certain. He had been in their company enough to see their ease with one another, and the earl had never hidden his satisfaction with the match. What satisfaction she might have obtained in the marital bed he would not inquire; however, he had not been married more than a week when she confessed that, in the later years of her marriage, the earl’s presence in her bed was primarily for comfort and conversation. That Fitzwilliam wished her to share his bed on a permanent basis was a great source of happiness for her. She was a delightful lover, and surprisingly aggressive when she determined that he did not object. Fitzwilliam was in no doubt of her appreciation for his endeavours.

What, you ask of the other players in this little tale. Well, to treat the least consequential first, George Wickham deserted the militia while posted to Brighton. He was never apprehended by the militia, having buried himself in the bowels of London. It was his misfortune to consort with a lady of extremely easy and cheap favours, and from her he contracted the French disease, dying several years later, diseased and insane in a lonely alleyway.

Bingley’s sisters were greatly shocked to learn that Jane Bennet, with whom they deliberately severed a connection, was now a Countess (and Darcy’s aunt) and, thus, far above their orbit. If a reconciliation could be affected, their position in society would be markedly improved. Counting on Jane’s general amiability and kindness, an overture was attempted via a letter of congratulation. It foundered, unfortunately, upon the unanticipated recalcitrance of the new Countess of Matlock. Acting upon the counsel of her husband, and with uncharacteristic severity, she returned the letter unopened, accompanied by her own letter informing the two ladies that they, having severed the acquaintance, could not now expect to renew it. Moreover, she wrote, she would never be at home to them and her servants had been instructed accordingly. She would not “cut” them in public, but they should not attempt to impose themselves on her lest she do so. They must be content with a polite but distant acknowledgement. Bingley’s sisters were most seriously displeased, equally powerless to alter the situation, and too concerned with the power wielded by the earl to disparage his wife in any manner where he might learn of it.

Miss Bingley was made extremely unhappy at Mr. Darcy’s marriage, for she had harboured great hopes that he might fix on her for the position of Mrs. Darcy. Eventually reconciled to his mistake and her loss, she resolved to make the best marriage that she could arrange. And, if it raised her to a level in society superior to that of Mrs. Darcy, so much the better. Thus, she found and married a baronet from an obscure little village who had a great need of her dowry to refurbish an estate brought low by his father’s extravagances. To be referred to as Lady Forbes, and to lead all the ladies into dinner in her neighbourhood, was to be her only solace for not winning the prize she had aspired to so desperately.

Charles Bingley’s fate was more propitious. He managed to escape all of his sisters’ marital endeavours. It seemed that they could expect more success persuading him against a particular match than towards one. Their efforts ceased only when Mrs. Hurst and her husband retired to his estate in Norfolk there to try (successfully) to produce the Hurst heir.

At the age of thirty, and wearing a reputation as an incorrigible flirt, Bingley at last encountered a lady who disdained his advances, spurned his interest, and gave him to understand that she found his character wanting in those respects so important to a woman of substance. He was, she informed him, idle, a flirt in the worst sense of the word, irresolute on any matter of importance, and the last man in the world to whom she wished to entrust her life and well-being. To her surprise and his, he took her rebukes to heart, settled into a derelict estate near her family’s, and began its rehabilitation, managing within two years to restore much of the estate’s profitability and to reverse her opinion of his character. She allowed that he had reformed himself, informing him that should the reformation persist for another twelfth-month, she would reconsider her objections to him. It did, and they subsequently married and lived as happily together as any married couple might hope to do. Though Darcy’s friendship with Bingley continued throughout the years, its closeness suffered from the distance created first by Darcy’s marriage and subsequently, by Bingley’s. That their estates were separated by almost a week’s travel - and Bingley’s indifferent (and illegible) correspondence - made it virtually impossible for their friendship to flourish.

Jane’s three youngest sisters all married, though none as well as the eldest sister, or as well as their mother envisioned. Mrs. Bennet was certain that if Jane could marry an earl, her precious Lydia might aspire to a duke. It was an unfortunate truth that, by the age of sixteen, Lydia’s character was largely fixed. Education and training could not reverse years of indulgence where a desire to change did not exist. Lydia’s reluctance to embrace wholeheartedly the need to improve herself likewise impeded Mrs. Bennet’s aspirations for her favourite daughter, though neither she nor Lydia could ever understand why this was so. Lydia was never deemed fit to enter polite society and, at length, her father enlisted the assistance of the earl and Colonel Fitzwilliam to find her a military officer desirous of advancing in his profession. One was found without much difficulty, and to Mr. Bennet’s satisfaction, the officer was able to purchase a commission in a regiment based in Upper Canada. There, Lydia and her spouse spent the years of their marriage and, since society where they resided was not so proper as that of England, Lydia enjoyed it a great deal and felt no particular desire to return to England – a circumstance which only her mother regretted.

Kitty and Mary, on the other hand, were introduced into London society by their elder sisters without noticeable difficulty, each eventually meeting and marrying agreeable gentlemen with modest estates and who valued the connection to Lord Matlock.

Two other players had a small part to play in this tale. Elizabeth Bennet encountered Darcy once again at her sister’s wedding, and would have met him as well had she visited her friend Charlotte Lucas (now Mrs. Collins) at the Hunsford parsonage. However, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mr. Collins’ patroness, learned of her intended visit and raised such objections to it that the visit was cancelled. Elizabeth had not viewed the stay with unalloyed pleasure, for Mr. Collins’s company was irksome and it was only the satisfaction found in Charlotte Collins’ that made a visit tolerable. Though slightly disappointed, she was quite satisfied instead to stay with the Gardiners for the same length of time. Thus, she did not encounter Darcy again until she came to live with her elder sister that autumn. Darcy was also a frequent visitor, the close proximity of his estate, Pemberley, and the earl’s, made easy such visits. They were thus in company for several weeks, walking out almost every day, and becoming more comfortable each with the other as time passed.

Elizabeth had absolved Darcy of all the charges levied at him by George Wickham, and her opinion of him improved to the point where she readily admitted his stellar character. When she toured his Pemberley estate and absorbed his housekeeper’s paean of praise for his qualities, her feelings towards him were further improved; however, they had not yet evolved into ardent admiration. For Darcy’s part, those objections which inhibited any expression of regard whilst he stayed at Netherfield Park had largely disappeared with her sister’s marriage to the earl. However, his conceit which led him to think well only of his family and close friends, and poorly of the rest of society, remained unchanged. That such people might be offended by his behaviour concerned him not all. Had not his parents taught to care naught for those outside his family circle? As a consequence, when he finally admitted to himself that he wished to marry Elizabeth, an event occurred that thwarted his hopes. He, inadvertently, and in her presence, behaved towards her aunt Gardiner’s cousin - a local attorney who lived in Lambton, whose main deficiency, in the eyes of Darcy, was that he was not of the gentry and his manners unpolished – with his usual haughty, cold civility, avoiding his company as much as possible, responding to the man’s tentative conversational efforts curtly and disdainfully. Elizabeth felt keenly Darcy’s disparagement of her relation – distant as the connection was. It recalled to her his haughty, conceited manner when he stayed at Netherfield Park and she found his behaviour as objectionable now as it had been a year before. Moreover, she had learned that Darcy was rarely seen in Lambton and when there, his manner was invariably proud and distant. She rebuked Darcy in such terms as to cause him to depart in anger, returning to Pemberley, and avoiding her society for some months afterwards.

The earl was eventually made privy to the disagreement and, siding with Elizabeth, ventured to Pemberley to take his nephew in hand. It proved unnecessary, for Darcy had, once his temper cooled, recognized his fault, and had only been prevented from renewing his attentions to Elizabeth by the fear that they would be unwelcome. The earl encouraged his return, apologies and admissions of wrong-doing followed – by both parties, for Elizabeth confessed that she had long held Darcy’s initial insult against him – and soon resolved their differences. Approximately one year after the Netherfield ball, Elizabeth found herself happily wedded to Fitzwilliam Darcy. Of their life together, little need be said other than it was replete with many children – the Darcy line secured by three sons – and the usual medley of sorrows, joys, arguments and reconciliations common to every successful marriage.