Meanwhile, the other dearly loved characters of Pride and Prejudice fret about the missing Mary while they contend with difficulties of their own. Darcy's political ambitions consume his ardor, and he bothers with Elizabeth only when the impropriety of her family seems to threaten his career. Lydia, wild and charming as ever, drinks and philanders her way into dire straits; Kitty, a young widow of means, occupies herself with gossip and shopping; and Jane, naïve and trusting as ever, spends her days ministering to her crop of boys and her adoring, if not entirely faithful, husband. Yet, with the shadowy and mysterious figure of DarcyÕs right-hand man, Ned Skinner, lurking at every corner, it is clear that all is not what it seems at idyllic Pemberley. As the many threads of McCulloughÕs masterful plot come together, shocking truths are revealed, love, both old and new, is tested, and all learn the value of true independence in a novel for every woman who has wanted to leave her mark on the world.
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About the Author
Hometown:Norfolk Island, 1,000 miles off the Australian coast
Date of Birth:June 1, 1937
Place of Birth:Wellington, New South Wales, Australia
Education:Attended University of Sydney
Read an Excerpt
The long, late lfight threw a gilt mantle over the skeletons of shrubs and trees scattered through the Shelby Manor gardens; a few wisps of smoke, smudged at their edges, drifted from the embers of a fire kindled to burn the last of the fallen leaves, and somewhere a stay-behind bird was chattering the tuneless nocturne of late autumn. Watching the sunset from her usual seat in the bay window, Mary felt a twisting of her heart at its blue-gold glory, soon to be a memory banked inside the echoing spaces of her mind. How much longer? Oh, how much longer?
Came the rattle and tinkle of the tea tray as Martha bore it in; she deposited it carefully on the low table flanking the wing chair in which the mistress of Shelby Manor slumbered. Sighing, Mary turned from the window and took her place, setting a delicate cup in its frail saucer then another for herself. How lucky they were to have Old Jenkins! Still harvesting an occasional cucumber from his frames. And how lucky that Mama relished cucumber slices atop her bread-and-butter! She would wake to see the treats sitting on a sprightly doily, and care not that the cake was three days old.
"Mama, tea has arrived," said Mary.
Bundled in shawls and wraps, the little round body jerked; its little round face puckered up peevishly, scowled at being roused. Then the faded blue eyes opened, saw the cucumber atop the bread-and-butter, and a preliminary joy began. But not before the everyday complaint was uttered.
"Have you no compassion for my poor nerves, Mary, to wake me so abruptly?"
"Of course I do, Mama," Mary said perfunctorily, pouring milk into the bottom of her mother's cup, and tilting the fine silver teapot to pour an amber stream on top of the milk. Cook's girl had done well with the sugar, broken it into good lumps; Mary added one of exactly the right size to the tea, and stirred the liquid thoroughly.
All of which occupied her for perhaps a minute. Cup and saucer in her hand, she looked up to make sure Mama was ready. Then, not realising she had done so, she put her burden down without removing her eyes from Mama's face. It had changed, taken on the contours and patina of a porcelain mask from Venice, more featureless than expressionless. The eyes still stared, but at something far beyond the room.
"Oh, Mama!" she whispered, not knowing what else to say. "It came all unaware." She closed those eyes with the tips of her fingers, eyes that somehow seemed to contain more knowledge of life than ever they had during that life, then kissed Mama's brow. "Dear God, You are very good. I thank You for Your mercy. How afraid she would have been, had she known."
The bell cord was in reach; Mary tugged it gently.
"Send Mrs. Jenkins to me, Martha, please."
Armed with plenty of excuses -- what more could the sour old crab ask for than out-of-season cucumber? -- Mrs. Jenkins came in girded for battle. But the look Miss Mary wore banished her anger at once. "Yes, Miss Mary?"
"My mother has passed away, Mrs. Jenkins. Kindly send for Dr. Callum -- Old Jenkins can go in the pony and trap. Tell Jenkins to saddle the roan, pack his needs and be ready to ride for Pemberley as soon as I have written a note. He is to have five guineas from your jar for his journey, for he must make all haste. Good inns, good hired horses when the roan cannot carry him farther."
Mary's voice held its usual composure; no huskiness, no tremor to betray her feelings. For nigh on seventeen years, thought Mrs. Jenkins, this poor woman has listened to her mother's megrims and woes, moans and complaints -- when, that is, she wasn't listening to shrill outpourings of delight, triumph, self-congratulation. Saying just the right thing, competently averting an attack of the vapours, jockeying Mrs. Bennet into a better mood as briskly and unsentimentally as a good governess a wayward child. And now it was over. All over.
"Begging your pardon, Miss Mary, but will Jenkins find Mr. Darcy at home?"
"Yes. According to Mrs. Darcy, Parliament is in recess. Bring me Mama's pink silk scarf, I would cover her face."
The housekeeper bobbed a curtsey and left, a prey to many doubts, fears, apprehensions. What would become of them now, from Father to young Jem and Dora?
The scarf properly draped, the fire stoked against the coming night of frost, the candles lit, Mary went to the window and sat on its cushioned seat, there to reflect on more than this visitation from Death.
Of grief she felt none: too many years, too much boredom. In lieu of it, she fastened upon a growing sense of becalm, as if she had been transported to some vast chamber filled by a darkness that yet was luminous, floating on an invisible ocean, not afraid, not diminished.
I have waited thirty-eight years for my turn to come, she thought, but not one of them can say that I have not done my duty, that I have not tipped my measure of happiness into their cups, that I have not stepped backward into obscurity crying one word of protest at my fate.
Why am I so unprepared for this moment? Where has my mind wandered, when time has hung so heavily upon me? I have been at the beck and call of an empty vessel called Mama, but empty vessels hardly ever manage to scratch up an observation, a comment, an idea. So I have spent my time waiting. Just waiting. With a squadron of Jenkinses to look after her, Mama did not need me; I was there as a sop to the proprieties. How I hate that word, propriety! An ironbound code of conduct invented to intimidate and subjugate women. I was doomed to be a spinster, the family thought, with those shocking suppurating spots all over my face and a front tooth that grew sideways. Of course Fitz felt that Mama had to be chaperoned by a member of the family in case she took to travelling to Pemberley or Bingley Hall. If only Papa had not died within two years of Lizzie's and Jane's weddings!
Think, Mary, think! she scolded herself. Be logical! It was the boredom. I had no choice but to dream the weeks, the months, the years away: of setting foot on the stones of the Forum Romanum; of eating oranges in a Sicilian orchard; of filling my eyes with the Parthenon; of pressing my cheek against some wall in the Holy Land that Christ Jesus must have touched, or leaned upon, or brushed with His shadow. I have dreamed of roaming free along foreign shores, dreamed of sampling the cities of sunnier climes, the mountains and skies I have only read about. While in reality I have lived in a world divided between books, music, and a Mama who did not need me.
But now that I am free, I have no wish to experience any of those things. All that I want is to be of use, to have a purpose. To have something to do that would make a difference. But will I be let? No. My elder sisters and their grand husbands will descend upon Shelby Manor within the week, and a new sentence of lethargy will be levied upon Aunt Mary. Probably joining the horde of nurses, governesses and tutors who are responsible for the welfare of Elizabeth's and Jane's children. For naturally Mrs. Darcy and Mrs. Bingley enjoy only the delights of children, leaving the miseries of parentage to others. The wives of grand men do not wait for things to happen: they make things happen. Seventeen years ago, Mrs. Darcy and Mrs. Bingley were too busy enjoying their marriages to take responsibility for Mama.
Oh, how bitter that sounds! I did not mean that thought to shape itself sounding so bitter. At the time, it was not. I must be fair to them. When Papa died they were both new mothers, Kitty had just married, and Lydia -- oh, Lydia! Longbourn went to the Collinses, and my fate was manifest, between the spots and the tooth. How smoothly Fitz handled it! Shelby Manor purchased together with the services of the Jenkinses, and the fledgling maiden aunt Mary eased into her task as deftly as a carpenter dovetails two pieces of wood. Mama and I removed ten miles the other side of Meryton, far enough away from the odious Collinses, yet close enough for Mama to continue to see her cronies. Aunt Phillips, Lady Lucas and Mrs. Long had been delighted. So was I. A huge library, a full-sized fortepiano, and the Jenkinses.
So whence this sudden bitterness against my sisters now it is over? Unchristian and undeserving. Lord knows Lizzie at least has had her troubles. Hers is not a happy marriage.
Shivering, Mary left the window to huddle in the chair on the far side of the fireplace from her still, utterly silent companion. She found herself watching the pink silk scarf, expecting it to puff with a sudden breath from underneath. But it did not. Dr. Callum would be here soon; Mama would be taken to her feather bed, washed, dressed, laid out in the freezing air for the long vigil between death and burial.
Starting guiltily, she remembered that she had not summoned the Reverend Mr. Courtney. Oh, bother! If Old Jenkins has not returned with the doctor, Young Jenkins will have to go.
"For one thing I refuse to do," she said to herself, "is send for Mr. Collins. I have been over that for twenty years."
"Elizabeth," said Fitzwilliam Darcy as he entered his wife's dressing room, "I have bad news, my dear."
Elizabeth turned from the mirror, brows arched higher over her luminous eyes. Their customary sparkle faded; she frowned, rose to her feet. "Charlie?" she asked.
"No, Charlie is well. I have had a letter from Mary, who says that your mother has passed away. In her sleep, peacefully."
The stool in front of the dressing table refused to help her; she sagged sideways onto its corner, almost fell as she scrambled for balance, and found it. "Mama? Oh, Mama!"
Fitz had watched her without going to her aid; finally he moved from the doorway, strolled across the carpet to rest one hand on her bare shoulder, its long fingers pressing her flesh lightly. "My dear, it is for the best."
"Yes, yes! But she is only sixty-two! I had fancied she would make very old bones."
"Aye, coddled like a Strasbourg goose. It is a mercy, all the same. Think of Mary."
"Yes, for that I must be thankful. Fitz, what to do?"
"Set out for Hertfordshire first thing in the morning. I will send to Jane and Charles to meet us at the Crown and Garter by nine. Best to travel together."
"The children?" she asked, grief beginning as shock went. What were the old, when there were young to fill the heart?
"They stay here, of course. I'll tell Charles not to let Jane cozen him into taking any of theirs. Shelby Manor is a commodious house, Elizabeth, but it will not accommodate any of our offspring." Reflected in her mirror, his face seemed to harden; then he shrugged the mood off, whatever it had been, and continued in his level voice. "Mary says that she has sent for Kitty, but thinks Lydia is better left to me. What a truly sensible woman Mary has become!"
"Please, Fitz, let us take Charlie! You will ride, and I will make the journey alone. It is a long way. We can drop Charlie back at Oxford on the way home."
His mouth slipped a little awry as he considered it, then he gave his famous regal nod. "As you wish."
"Thank you." She hesitated, knowing the answer, but asking the question anyway. "Do we hold this dinner tonight?"
"Oh, I think so. Our guests are on their way. Your mourning weeds can wait until tomorrow, as can the subject." His hand left her shoulder. "I am for downstairs. Roeford is sure to arrive at any moment."
And with a grimace at mention of his least esteemed Tory ally, Darcy left his wife to finish her toilet.
A tear escaped, was whisked away by the haresfoot; eyes swimming, Elizabeth fought for control. How splendid a political career could be! Always something important to do, never the time for peace, companionship, leisure. Fitz did not mourn Mrs. Bennet's passing, she knew that well; the trouble was that he expected her to feel the same indifference, heave a thankful sigh at the lifting of this particular burden, part shame, part embarrassment, part impotence. Yet that shallow, idiotic, crotchety woman had borne her, Elizabeth, and for that, surely she was entitled to be loved. To be mourned, if not missed.
"I want Mr. Skinner. At once," Darcy said to his butler, busy hovering over the first footman as he divested Mr. Roeford of his greatcoat. "My dear Roeford, how splendid to see you. As always, first into the fray." And without a backward glance, Darcy led his obnoxiously early guest into the Rubens Room.
The curt but civil command had Parmenter fleeing in search of the third footman the moment his master disappeared. Something was amiss, so much was sure. But why did Mr. Darcy want that forbidding man at this hour?
"Run all the way, James," Parmenter instructed, then went back to the hall to await more timely guests. Six of them appeared half an hour later, glowing with anticipation, exclaiming at the cold, speculating that the new year would come in hard and freezing. Not long after, Mr. Edward Skinner stalked through the front door. He went straight to the small library -- with never a please, thank you, or kiss my foot, the Pemberley butler thought resentfully. Valued he might be and speak like a gentleman he might, but Parmenter remembered him as a youth and would have gone to the stake maintaining that Ned Skinner was no gentleman. There were perhaps twelve years between his master and Ned, who therefore was no byÂ€‘blow, but something existed between them, a bond not even Mrs. Darcy had been able to plumb -- or break. Even as Parmenter thought these things he was on his way to the Rubens Room to nod at Mr. Fitz.
"A difficulty, Ned," said Fitz, closing the library door.
Skinner made no reply, simply stood in front of the desk with body relaxed and hands by his sides loosely; not the pose of a minion. He was a very big man, five inches taller than Darcy's six feet, and was built like an ape -- massive shoulders and neck, a barrel of a chest, no superfluous fat. Rumour had it that his father had been a West Indian blackamoor, so dark were Skinner's complexion, hair and narrow, watchful eyes.
"Sit, Ned, you make my neck ache looking up."
"You have guests, I'll not delay you. What is it?"
"Whereabouts is Mrs. George Wickham?" Darcy asked as he sat down, drawing a sheet of paper forward and dipping his steel-sheathed goose quill nib into the inkwell. He was already writing when Ned answered.
"At the Plough and Stars in Macclesfield. Her new flirt has just become her latest lover. They've taken over the best bedroom and a private parlour. 'Tis a new location for her."
"Is she drinking?"
"Not above a bottle or two. Love's on her mind, not wine. Give her a week and things might change."
"They won't have a chance." Darcy glanced up briefly and grinned sourly. "Take my racing curricle and the bays, Ned. Deliver this note to Bingley Hall on your way to Macclesfield. I want Mrs. Wickham reasonably sober at the Crown and Garter by nine tomorrow morning. Pack her boxes and bring them with you."
"She'll kick up a fine old rumpus, Fitz."
"Oh, come, Ned! Who in Macclesfield will gainsay you -- or me, for that matter? I don't care if you have to bind her hand and foot, just have her in Lambton on time." The swift scrawl ceased, the pen went down; without bothering to seal his note, Darcy handed it to Ned Skinner. "I've told Bingley to ride. Mrs. Wickham can go in his coach with Mrs. Bingley. We are for the charms of Hertfordshire to bury Mrs. Bennet, not before time."
"A monstrous slow journey by coach."
"Given the season, the wet weather and the state of the roads, coach it must be. However, I'll use six light draughts, so will Bingley. We should do sixty miles a day, perhaps more."
The note tucked in his greatcoat pocket, Ned departed.
Darcy got up, frowning, to stand for a moment with his eyes riveted sightlessly on the leather-bound rows of his parliamentary Hansards. The old besom was dead at last. It is a vile thing, he thought, to marry beneath one's station, no matter how great the love or how tormenting the urge to consummate that love. And it has not been worth the pain. My beautiful, queenly Elizabeth is as pinched a spinster as her sister Mary. I have one sickly, womanish boy and four wretched girls. One in the eye for me, Mrs. Bennet! May the devil take you and all your glorious daughters, the price has been too high.
Having but five miles to cover, the Darcy coach-and-six pulled into the courtyard of the Crown and Garter before the Bingley contingent; Bingley Hall was twenty-five miles away. Hands tucked warmly in a muff, Elizabeth settled in the private parlour to wait until the rendezvous was completed.
Her only son, head buried in a volume of Gibbon's Decline, used his left hand to grope for a chair seat without once lifting his gaze from the print. Light reading, he had explained to her with his sweet smile. Nature had given him her own fine features and a colouring more chestnut than gold; the lashes of his downcast lids were dark like his father's, as were the soft brows above.
At least his health had improved, now that Fitz had yielded to the inevitable and abandoned his remorseless campaign to turn Charlie into a satisfactory son. Oh, the chills that had followed some bruising ride in bad weather! The fevers that had lain him low for weeks after shooting parties or expeditions to London! None of it had deflected Charlie from his scholarly bent, transformed him into a suitable son for Darcy of Pemberley.
"You must stop, Fitz," she had said a year ago, dreading the icy hauteur sure to follow, yet determined to be heard. "I am Charlie's mother, and I have given you the direction of his childhood without speaking my mind. Now I must. You cannot throw Charlie to the wolves of a cavalry regiment, however desirable it may be to give the noble son and heir a few years in the Army as polish -- polish? Pah! That life would kill him. His sole ambition is to go to Oxford and read Classics, and he must be permitted to have his way. And do not say that you loathed Cambridge so much you bought yourself a pair of colours in a hussar regiment! Your father was dead, so I have no idea what he might have thought of your conduct. All I know is what suits Charlie."
The icy hauteur had indeed descended, had wrought Fitz's face into iron, but his black eyes, gazing straight into hers, held more exhaustion than anger.
"I concede your point," he said, tones harsh. "Our son is an effeminate weakling, fit only for Academia or the Church, and I would rather a don than a Darcy bishop, so we will hear no more of that. Send him to Oxford, by all means."
A cruel disappointment to him, she knew. This precious boy had been their first-born, but after him came naught save girls. The Bennet Curse, Fitz called it. Georgie, Susie, Anne and Cathy had arrived at two-year intervals, a source of indifference to their father, who neither saw them nor was interested in them. He had done his best to alter Charlie's character, but even the might and power of Darcy of Pemberley had not been able to do that. After which, nothing.
Cathy was now ten years old and would be the last, for Fitz had withdrawn from his wife's life as well as her bed. He was already a Member of Parliament, a Tory in Tory country, but after Cathy's birth he took a ministry and moved to the front benches. A ploy that freed him from her, with its long absences in London, its eminently excusable reasons to be far from her side. Not that she lost her usefulness; whenever Fitz needed her to further his political career, she was commanded, no matter how distasteful she found London's high society.
Lydia arrived first, stumbling into the parlour with a scowl for that strange man, Edward Skinner, as he gave her a hard push. Elizabeth's heart sank at the sight of her youngest sister's face, so lined, sallow, bloated. Her figure had grown quite shapeless, a sack of meal corseted into a semblance of femininity, crepey creases at the tops of her upthrust breasts revealing that, when the whalebones were removed, they sagged like under-filled pillows pinned on a line. A vulgar hat foaming with ostrich plumes, a thin muslin gown unsuited for this weather or a long journey, flimsy satin slippers stained and muddy -- oh, Lydia! The once beautiful flaxen hair had not been washed in months, its curls greenish-greasy, and the wide blue eyes, so like her mother's, were smeared with some substance designed for darkening lashes. They looked as if she had been beaten, though George Wickham had not been in England for four years, so she was at least spared that -- unless someone else was beating her.
Down went Charlie's book; he moved to his aunt's side so quickly that Elizabeth was excluded, took her hands in his and chafed them as he led her to a chair by the fire.
"Here, Aunt Lydia, warm yourself," he said tenderly. "I know that Mama has brought you warmer wear."
"Black, I suppose," said Lydia, giving her older sister a glare. "Lord, such a dreadful colour! But needs must, if Mama is dead. Fancy that! I had not thought her frail. Oh, why did George have to be sent to America? I need him!" She spied the landlord in the doorway, and brightened. "Trenton, a mug of ale, if you please. That frightful man kidnapped me on an empty stomach. Ale, bread-and-butter, some cheese -- now!"
But before Trenton could obey, Ned came back with a big cup of coffee and put it down in front of her. A maid followed him bearing a tray of coffee and refreshments enough for all.
"No ale," Ned said curtly, dipped his head to Mrs. Darcy and Mr. Charlie, and went to report to Fitz in the taproom.
It had been a regular circus, getting Mrs. Wickham away. She was on her third bottle, and the callow pup she had found to warm her bed had taken one look at Ned Skinner, then decamped. Assisted by the terrified landlord of the Plough and Stars and his grim-faced wife, Ned had proceeded to force several doses of mustard-and-water down Lydia's throat. Up came the wine bit by bit; only when he was sure no more of it was still to come did Ned cease his ruthless ministrations. The landlady had packed two small boxes of belongings -- no decent protection from the cold in it, she said, just this ratty wrap. Lydia's luggage strapped where the tiger would have perched, Ned had tossed his weeping, shrieking captive into the small seat and hustled Mr. Darcy's racing curricle out into the cruel night with scant regard for his passenger.
Dear Charlie! Somehow he persuaded Lydia to eat a bowl of porridge and some bread, convince her that coffee was just what she wanted; bearing a somewhat restored Lydia on her arm, Elizabeth went to the bedroom wherein Mrs. Trenton had laid out fresh drawers and camisole, petticoats, a plain black wool dress bearing a frill hastily tacked on at Pemberley to make it long enough for Lydia, the taller of Elizabeth by half a head.
"That disgusting man!" Lydia cried, standing while Mrs. Trenton and Elizabeth stripped her, washed her as best they could; she stank of wine, vomit, dirt and neglect. "He dosed me to make me puke my guts out just as if I were one of his whores!"
"Mama is dead, Lydia," Elizabeth reminded her, giving the filthy corsets to Mrs. Trenton between two fastidious fingers, and nodding that she could manage alone now. "Do you hear me? Mama died peacefully in her sleep."
"Well, I wish she could have chosen a better time!" The bloodshot eyes widened, curiously like two glass marbles in that scrubbed, pallid face. "How she used to favour me above the rest of you! I could always bewitch her."
"Do you not grieve?"
"Oh, I suppose I must, but it is near twenty years since I last saw her, after all, and I was but a mere sixteen."
"One forgets," said Elizabeth, sighing, and deliberately shutting out the knowledge that, upon Papa's death, Fitz had severed all the ties that bound the sisters, made it impossible for them to see each other unless he approved. Not a difficult task; they were all dependent upon him in one way or another. In Lydia's case, it had been money. "You have spent more of your life with George Wickham than with Mama and Papa."
"No, I have not!" snapped Lydia, glowering at the dress. "First he was in the Peninsula, now he is in America. I am an army wife, not even allowed to follow the drum. Oh, but fancy! Mama gone! It beats all understanding. This is a dreadful dress, Lizzie, I must say. Long sleeves! Must it be buttoned so high? And without my stays, my bosoms are around my waist!"
"You will catch cold, Lydia. Shelby Manor lies at least three days away, and while Fitz will ensure that the coach is as warm as possible, it is seventy years old, full of draughts."
She gave Lydia a muff, made sure the black cap beneath the severe bonnet was tucked over her sister's ears, and took her back to the parlour.
Jane and Charles Bingley had come in their absence, having set out from Bingley Hall four hours earlier. Charlie had gone back to Gibbon; Bingley and Darcy stood by the fireplace in stern conversation, and Jane sat slumped at the table, handkerchief pressed to her eyes. How far apart we have drifted, that even in this unhappy hour we are separated.
"My dearest Jane!" Elizabeth went to hug her.
Jane threw herself into those welcoming arms, wept afresh. What she was saying was unintelligible; it would be days before her tender feelings were settled enough to permit lucid speech, Elizabeth knew.
As if he owned some extra sense, Charlie put his book down and went immediately to Lydia, guiding her to a chair with many compliments about how much black suited her, and gave her no opportunity to snatch a mug of ale from the table where a jug of it had appeared to sustain the men. A snap of Fitz's fingers, and Trenton whisked the jug away.
"Pater?" Charlie asked.
"May I travel in Uncle Charles's coach with Aunt Lydia? Mama would be more comfortable with Aunt Jane for company."
"Yes," Darcy said brusquely. "Charles, we must go."
"Is Ned Skinner to ride with us?" Charles Bingley asked.
"No, he has other business. You and I, Charles, will be able to avail ourselves of an occasional gallop. The party will put up at the Three Feathers in Derby, but you and I will have no trouble reaching my hunting box. We can rejoin the ladies in Leicester tomorrow night."
Bingley turned to look at Jane, his face betraying his anxiety, but he was too used to following Fitz's lead to raise any objections to leaving Jane in Elizabeth's hands. There was no denying that grief-stricken ladies in need of succour were better served by sisters than husbands. Then he cheered up; Fitz's Leicestershire hunting box was just the ticket to break the monotony of a two-hundred-mile journey to Shelby Manor.
Only her sisters and their husbands could be accommodated at Shelby Manor; the rest of the extended family would be at the Blue Boar and Hertford's other good inns, Mary knew. Not that she had any say in such matters. Fitz would, as always, be arranging everything, just as he communicated with the various persons who saw to the running of Shelby Manor and even such minor things as the payment of her own pin-money. Fitzwilliam Darcy, the centre of every web he encountered.
It had been Fitz who had ensured that his mother-in-law would be extremely comfortably isolated far from all her daughters save Mary, the sacrificial goat; somehow people did not care to earn his displeasure even when, like Kitty, they had little to do with him. Poor Mama used to pine to see Lydia, but never had so much as once, and Kitty's very cursory visits ceased long ago. Only Elizabeth and Jane had continued to come during the last ten years, but Jane's constant delicate condition usually forbade her going so far. Be that as it may, in June Elizabeth always descended on Shelby Manor to take her mother to Bath for a holiday. A holiday, Mary was well aware, designed chiefly to give her, Mary, a holiday from Mama. And oh, what a holiday it always was! For Lizzie brought Charlie with her and left him to keep Mary company. No one dreamed the mischief she and Charlie got into: the games they played, the places they went, the things they did. Definitely not the sort of things commonly associated with maiden aunts shepherding nephews!
Coming from London, Kitty arrived the day after Mama's death, tearful but fairly composed. She had done most of her weeping en route, soothed and commiserated by Miss Almeria Finchley, her indispensable lady's companion, who would have to have a truckle-bed in Kitty's room, Mary decided.
"Kitty will not like it, but she will have to lump it," said Mary to Mrs. Jenkins.
To Kitty's face Mary tried to be more tactful. "I declare, Kitty, you are more elegant than ever," she said over tea.
Knowing this to be the truth, Lady Menadew preened. "It is mostly a knack," she confided. "Dear Menadew was top-of-the-trees himself, and enjoyed my taking the way I did. Mind you, Mary my love, it was a great help to have stayed at Pemberley with Lizzie for two years before Louisa Hurst brought me out. Lord, that fusty girl of hers!" Kitty giggled. "The chagrin when it was I made the excellent marriage!"
"Wasn't Menadew considered past it?" Mary asked, her blunt speech unimproved by seventeen years of caring for Mama.
"Well, yes, in years perhaps, but not in any other respect. I took his eye, he said, because I was clay just crying out to be a diamond of the first water. A delightful man, Menadew! Exactly the right kind of husband."
"So I imagine."
"Though," Kitty said, pursuing this theme, "he expired at precisely the proper moment. I was turned out in the first stare and he was beginning to be bored."
"Didn't love enter into it?" Mary asked, never before having been in her sister's company alone for long enough to satisfy her curiosity.
"Lord, no! The wedded state was very pleasant, but Menadew was my master. I obeyed his every command. Or whim. Whereas life as a widow has been unadulterated bliss. No commands or whims. Almeria Finchley doesn't plague me, and I have the entrée to all the best houses as well as a large income." She extended one slender arm to display the cunning knots of jet beads ruching its long sleeve. "Madame Belléme was able to send this around before I left Curzon Street, together with three other equally delectable mourning gowns. Warm, but in the height of fashion." Her blue eyes, still moist from her last bout of tears, lit up. "I fear only Georgiana as a rival. Lizzie and Jane are quite frumpish, you know."
"Jane I will grant you, Kitty, but Lizzie? One hears she is quite the jewel of Westminster."
Kitty sniffed. "Westminster! And not even the Lords, to boot! The Commons -- pah! 'Tis no great thing to queen it over a bundle of dreary MPs, I assure you. Fitz likes her weighed down with diamonds and rubies, brocades and velvets. They have a certain magnificence, but they are not fashionable." Kitty eyed Mary speculatively. "Now that Lizzie's amazing apothecary has cured your suppurating spots and her dentist has dealt with your tooth, Mary, you have a distinct look of Elizabeth. A pity the improvements came too late to find you your own Lord Menadew."
"The prospect of lifelong spinsterhood has never dismayed me, and a face is a face," said Mary, unimpressed. "To be free of my aches and ailments is a blessing, but the rest is nothing."
"My dear Mary," said Kitty, looking shocked, "it is a good thing that your looks have improved so, now that Mama is dead. You may not wish for marriage, but it is far more comfortable than the alternative. Unless you wish to exist at the beck and call of other people, which is what will happen if you move to Pemberley or Binley Hall. No doubt Fitz will make some sort of provision for you, but I doubt it will extend to luxuries like a lady's companion and a smart carriage. Fitz is a cold man."
"Interesting," said Mary, offering the cake. "Your reading of his character is much the same as mine. He dispenses his fortune according to necessity. Charity is a word in a lexicon to him, nothing more. Most of the stupefying amount he has spent upon us Bennets is to alleviate his own embarrassments, from George Wickham to Mama. Now that Mama is gone I doubt he will be as generous to me. Especially," she added, the thought popping into her unruly mind, "if my face no longer brands me an appropriate maiden aunt."
"I know Sir Peter Cameron is hanging out for a wife," said Kitty, "and I do think he would suit you -- in no need of a fat dowry, bookish and kind."
"Do not even entertain the idea! Though I cannot say I am looking forward to Pemberley or Bingley Hall. Lizzie cries a lot, Charlie tells me -- she and Fitz see little of each other since he went on the front benches, and when they are together, he is cold to her."
"Dear Charlie!" Kitty exclaimed.
"I echo that."
"Fitz does not care for him," Kitty said with rare insight. "He is too soft."
"I would rather say that Fitz is too hard!" snapped Mary. "A kinder, more thoughtful young man than Charlie does not exist."
"Yes, sister, I agree, but gentlemen are peculiar about their sons. Much and all as they deplore over-indulgence in wine, dice, cards and loose women, at heart they think of such pursuits as wild oats, sure to pass. Besides which, that rat of a female Caroline Bingley slanders Charlie, who she early divined was Fitz's Achilles heel."
Time to change the subject, thought Mary. It did not do to mingle her sense of loss with a far more important grief, her love for Charlie. "We may expect the Collinses tomorrow."
"Oh, Lord!" Kitty groaned, then chuckled. "Do you remember how you mooned over that dreadful man? You really were a pathetic creature in those days, Mary. What happened to change you? Or are you still sighing for Mr. Collins?"
"Not I! Time and too little to do cured me. There are only so many years one can fritter away on inappropriate desires, and after Charlie came to stay that first time, I began to see the error of my ways. Or at least," Mary admitted honestly, "Charlie showed me. All he did was ask me why I had no thoughts of my own, and wonder at it. Ten years old! He made me promise to give up reading Christian books, as he called them, in favour of great thoughts. The kind of thoughts, he said, that would prick my mind into working. Even then he was quite godless, you know. When Mr. and Mrs. Collins came to call, he pitied them. Mr. Collins for his crassness and stupidity, Charlotte for her determination to make Mr. Collins seem more tolerable." Lizzie's smile lit Mary's face -- warm, loving, amused. "Yes, Kitty, you have Charlie to thank for what you see today, even to the spots and the tooth. It was he who asked his Mama what could be done about them."
"Then I wish I knew him better than I do." Kitty looked mischievous. "Did he perhaps remark on your singing?"
That provoked an outright laugh. "He did. But the thing about Charlie is that he never leaves one bereft. Having told me that I did not sing, I screeched, and advised me to leave song to nightingales, he spent a full day assuring me that I played pianoforte as splendidly as Herr Beethoven."
"Who is that?" asked Kitty, wrinkling her brow.
"A German man. Charlie heard him in Vienna when Fitz was there trying to restrain Bonaparte. I will play you some of his simpler pieces. Charlie never fails to send me a parcel of new music for my birthday."
"Charlie, Charlie, Charlie! You love him very much."
"To distraction," Mary said. "You see, Kitty, he has been so kind to me over the years. His visits lit up my life."
"When you speak in that tone, I confess I am a trifle envious. Dearest Mary, you have changed."
"Not in all respects, sister. I still tend to say what I am thinking. Especially to Mr. Collins." She huffed. "When I thought him looking for a beautiful wife I was able to excuse his choosing inappropriate females like Jane and Lizzie, but when he asked for Charlotte Lucas, the scales began to fall from mine eyes. As plain and unappetising as week-old pound cake is Charlotte. I began to see that he was not a worthy recipient of my affections."
"I do not pretend to have your depth of intellect, Mary," said Kitty in a musing voice, "but I have often wondered at God's goodness to some of His less inspiring creations. By rights Mr. Collins ought to have barely scraped along, a penurious clergyman, yet he always prospers through no merit of his own."
"Oh, it was not easy for him between Lizzie's marriage to Fitz and Papa's death, when he inherited Longbourn. Lady Catherine de Bourgh never forgave him -- quite what for, I do not know."
"I do. Had he been to Lizzie's liking, she would have wed him instead of stealing Fitz from Anne de Bourgh," said Kitty.
"Well, her ladyship's long dead, and her daughter with her," said Mary on a sigh.
"And that is more evidence of God's mysteriousness!"
"What are you wittering about, Kitty?"
"The attack of influenza that carried off both de Bourghs so quickly after Colonel Fitzwilliam's marriage to Anne! Or should I say, General Fitzwilliam? He fell heir to Rosings and that huge fortune in time to be respectably widowed before someone else took dear Georgiana's fancy."
"Huh!" Mary emitted a snort of amusement. "Georgiana had no intention of settling for anyone except the Colonel -- or the General, if you prefer. Though I cannot approve of unions between first cousins. Their eldest girl is so stigmatised that they have had to shut her away," said Mary.
"The Bladon blood, dear. Lady Catherine, Lady Anne, and Lady Maria. Sisters all."
"They married very rich men," said Mary.
"And rightly so! They were the daughters of a duke," Kitty protested. "Their papa was very high in the instep -- the merest whiff of Trade was enough to kill the old gentleman. That was the General's father -- turned out to have made his fortune in cotton and slaves."
"How ridiculous you are, Kitty! Is your life nought but gossip and gallivanting?"
"Probably." The fire was dying; Kitty pulled the bell cord for Jenkins. "Do you really expect the Collinses to travel twelve miles to condole?"
"It is inevitable. Mr. Collins can scent a tragedy or a scandal a hundred miles away, so what are twelve? Lady Lucas will come with them, and we can expect to have Aunt Phillips here constantly. Only an attack of her lumbago prevented her coming today, but a good cry will cure it."
"By the way, Mary, must Almeria sleep in my room? She has a tendency to snore, and I know there is a nice bedroom at one end of the attic. She is a lady, not an abigail."
"I am keeping the attic room for Charlie."
"Oh! Will he come?"
"Undoubtedly," said Mary.
It was not custom for women to attend funerals, either in the church or at the graveside, but Fitzwilliam Darcy had decreed that this social rule should be ignored on the occasion of Mrs. Bennet's obsequies. With no sons among her offspring and five daughters, attendance would be far too thin unless the rule were relaxed. So notification had gone out to the extended family that the ladies would be in attendance at church and graveside, despite the objections of persons like the Reverend Mr. Collins, whose nose was rather out of joint because he would not be officiating. Thus Jane's sisters-in-law, Mrs. Louisa Hurst and Miss Caroline Bingley, came down from London to be present, while Mrs. Bennet's cronies, her sister Mrs. Phillips, and her friends Lady Lucas and Mrs. Long, made the shorter journey from Meryton to attend.
And there they are together at last, the five Bennet girls, thought Caroline Bingley after the funeral service was over and before the procession to the grave began.
Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty and Lydia...Twenty years of living in limbo, thanks to them and their fabled beauty. Of course it had faded, dimmed -- but so had her own considerable good looks. Jane and Elizabeth had embarked upon the stormy seas of their forties; but then she, Caroline, had already survived those tempests and looked now at her fearsome fifties. As did Fitz; they were much the same age.
Jane looked as if God had grafted the head of a twenty-two-year-old upon the body of a forty-two-year-old. Her face, with its tranquil honey-coloured eyes, rich unlined skin, exquisitely delicate features, was surrounded by a mass of honey-gold hair. Alas, twelve pregnancies had taken their toll of her sylphlike figure, though she had not grown fat; merely thickened in the waist and dropped in the bosom. In her, the Bennet type was decided; all five of them were some shade of fair, no surprise considering their fair parents.
Elizabeth and Mary had the best Bennet hair, thick, waving, as much red as gold, though it could be called neither; to herself, Miss Bingley called it ginger. Their skins inclined to ivory and their large, slightly sleepy eyes were a grey that could turn to purple. Of course Elizabeth's features were not as perfect as Jane's -- her mouth was too wide, too full in the lips -- but for some reason that still eluded Miss Bingley, men found her more alluring. Her excellent figure was swathed in black fox, whereas Mary wore dismally plain black serge, a shocking bonnet and even worse pelisse. Caroline was fascinated by her, for she had not seen Mary in seventeen years, an interval of time that had transformed Mary into Elizabeth's equal. Or she would have been, had her naturally generous mouth not retained its prim severity: it alone proclaimed the spinster. Did she still have that ugly overlapping tooth?
Kitty she knew very well. Lady Menadew of the wheaten hair and cornflower-blue eyes, so elegant and fashionable that she enjoyed a sublime widowhood. As good-natured as she was frivolous, Kitty looked twenty-seven, not thirty-seven. Ah, how brother Charles had gulled them! Curse Desmond Hurst! When his port bill had outrun his pocket, he had applied to Charles for assistance. Charles had agreed to pay, on one condition: that Louisa gave Kitty Bennet a London season. After all, Charles had said reasonably, Louisa was bringing out her own daughter, so why not two? Caught, Desmond Hurst had traded the port bill (and many other bills) for Kitty's London season. But whoever would have believed that the minx would walk off with Lord Menadew? Not one of the Marriage Mart's biggest prizes, but extremely eligible despite his advanced years. While dearest Posy (as Letitia was called) did not catch a husband at all, and went into a long decline -- fainting fits, vapours, starvation.
Lydia was another matter. It was she who looked well into her forties, not Jane. What age was she? Thirty-five or -six. Caroline could well imagine the shifts her family must have resorted to in order to stop Mrs. Wickham drowning herself in a bottle. Had they not endured the same with Mr. Hurst? Who had succumbed to an apoplexy eight years ago, enabling Caroline to quit Charles's houses in favour of the Hurst residence in Brook Street, there to dwell with Louisa and Posy, and indulge more freely in her favourite pastime -- pulling Elizabeth Darcy and her son to pieces.
She swallowed the lump in her throat as Fitz and Charles emerged from the church, their mother-in-law's small coffin balanced on their shoulders, with the diminutive Mr. Collins and Henry Lucas on its back end; it gave the polished rosewood box an interesting but not precarious tilt. Oh, Fitz, Fitz! Why did you fall in love with her, marry her? I would have given you real sons, not a sole specimen as ludicrous as Charlie. A devoté of Socratic love, everyone is convinced of it. Why? Because the breathtaking degree of his beauty makes him look the sort, and I spread the calumny as a truth my intimacy with that family makes eminently believable. To brand the son with an affliction so far from his father's heart is a way of punishing Fitz for not marrying me. You would think Fitz would see through the ploy, always starting, as it does, with something I have said. But no. Fitz believes me, not Charlie.
Her long nose twitched, for it had picked up nuances of trouble on this unwelcome trip to bury the empty-headed old besom. All had not been well in the Darcy ménage for a while, but the mood was increasing -- markedly so. Fitz's air of aloof hauteur had grown back; during the early years of his marriage it had all but disappeared, though some instinct told her he was not the blissful man he had been at the altar. Hopeful, perhaps. Still aspiring to conquer -- what? Caroline Bingley did not know, beyond her conviction that Fitz's passion for Elizabeth had not resulted in true happiness.
Down through the graveyard now, the black-clad mourners threading between the haphazard monuments, old as the Crusades, new as still-sinking soil. Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst walked with Georgiana and General Hugh Fitzwilliam, not in the forefront of the congregation, but somewhere at its middle. Goodbye, Mrs. Bennet! The silliest woman ever born.
Standing well back, Caroline let her gaze roam until it encountered Mary's; there it stopped, startled. The violet orbs of the maiden sister rested in derision upon her face, as if they and the apparatus behind them knew what she was thinking. What had happened to those eyes, now so intelligent, expressive, alert? She was leaning on Charlie, who held her hand: an odd pair. Something about them hinted at a divorcement from this maudlin parody, as if their persons stood there while their spirits cruised among other worlds.
Do not be ridiculous, Caroline! she told herself, and inched her rump onto the edge of a convenient stone; that frightful mushroom, the Reverend Mr. Collins, was preparing to add a few words of his own to an already overly long service. By the time that Caroline had unobtrusively adjusted her weight in some relief, Mary and Charlie had returned to who they actually were. Yes, Caroline, a ridiculous notion. As well that Louisa and I bespoke the carriage for immediately after the funeral; to have to exchange civilities with all five Bennet sisters at Shelby Manor is not an enthralling prospect. If our coachman springs the horses, we can be back in London by nightfall. But if I am invited to Pemberley for this summer's house party, I shall go. With Louisa, of course. Copyright © 2008 by Colleen McCullough