“We will go as far as Meryton with you,” said Catherine and Lydia. Elizabeth accepted their company, and the three young ladies set off together.
13 November 1811
At Meryton, Lizzy left her younger sisters near the lodgings of one of the officer’s wives, Mrs. Pratt, and crossed the road to walk through the fields leading toward Netherfield, where Jane lay ill.
“Isn’t she a silly to go,” said Lydia, “slopping through the mud just to see Jane with a cold, which she might see any day at home, if any of us had colds.”
“Yes,” Kitty agreed, “and to go to Netherfield, where it is so dull. There are no officers at Netherfield.”
“No; nobody but that horrid prune Miss Bingley. I would not talk to her for the world.”
“Well, but Jane is obliged, Lydia, if she wants to marry Mr. Bingley!”
“I don’t think there would be any fun in that, he has no spirit, or he’d join the militia and wear a red coat,” Lydia declared. “Here is Mrs. Pratt’s door. Now for a good time!”
Mrs. Pratt was a gay young wife of no more than Kitty’s age, and she pulled them inside the house, her eyes sparkling with delight.
“Oh, I am glad you are come! And in good time too. What do you think, girls, Captain Carter is here!”
Lydia and Kitty exchanged significant glances and went inside, where half a dozen red-coated officers were having some talk and a slight libation.
“Ah, there’s my Miss Lydia,” cried Captain Carter, a very handsome young man of two and twenty, “come and sit on my knee, and you shall have a sip of my cider, now.”
Lydia screamed long and loud with delight. “La! Captain Carter! You are mighty absurd. I won’t sit upon your knee unless you promise me you won’t go to London.”
“You know I can’t do that, duty calls,” he protested. “But I will be back soon enough, I’m only carrying some messages for the colonel, and then we’ll see if you’ll sit on my knee – or give me a kiss.”
“Oh I’ll do that any time,” Lydia answered coolly, “there’s not a bit of harm in kissing.”
This raised a howl. “Hark at her!” cried another officer, Ensign Chamberlayne. “That’s a bold lass. A health to Miss Liddy!”
“Now, I prefer a quiet girl,” observed a young, plain-faced Mr. Willis, “like this one. Won’t you sit by me, Miss Kitty?”
“Not on your knee,” she said, trying to sound roguish like Lydia.
“Pish! Tush! Girls,” cried a young lady who was enthroned upon the knees of Colonel Forster himself. “There is no harm in knees, I’ll be bound. And if you persist on sitting on the same ones, you may find yourself with a husband.”
“Or a spanking!” said Colonel Forster hilariously.
“For shame!” she exclaimed, and much more of that nature, and the two began to pummel each other and disarrange their clothing.
“Oh! Look at Harriet, she is so fortunate,” sighed Lydia enviously. “What do you bet she catches the colonel?”
“She would seem to have caught him already,” answered Kitty, her eyes critically on the tumbling pair.
“That is the way to have fun. Look here, I am going to sit with Captain Carter, you sit with Mr. Willis, and we can stuff on plenty of this nice fruit the officers will give us – won’t we?”
Captain Carter pulled Lydia onto his lap. “Yes, you sit here and I will give you a banana!”
The hilarity was immense. Lydia pulled back and looked coyly into his face. “For shame, Captain Carter, you must tell me what a banana is?”
“Oh, a new-discovered fruit, from the Indies. A botanical print was in the Quarterly – did you not read about it?”
“Lydia doesn’t read any thing,” Kitty told him.
Lydia tossed her head. “I have better things to do.”
Captain Carter continued. “The natives eat them. They are long – and yellow.”
The officers roared. “Perhaps they grow them in Chiny,” cried Chamberlayne. “But we have British courage and don’t need any long yellow fruit, do we lads?”
The landlady appeared, a faded woman with an anxious expression. She needed the money from the officers and their ladies who were billeted upon her, but she was in continual terror lest their carousing make trouble, and lose her their custom.
“Officers, sirs, won’t you please not get a poor old woman in difficulties with your noise, I beg you?”
“That’s all right, Mother Barnes, we’re just having a little fun. When we tumble the girls you’ll have quiet enough.”
“Oh no – oh no, my house must not lose its reputation,” she began.
“Don’t worry, ma’am, they are only joking, and I will make them keep quiet,” Mrs. Pratt reassured her. “Now, fellows, we must not torment the life out of our good landlady. How would you like to pass the afternoon?
“We might go call upon Miss Lydia’s Uncle, Mr. Phillips,” said Forster, “always good cheer at his house.”
“Yes, and I’ll answer for it they’ll give us a good supper,” Lydia announced.
“But Lydia, we cannot stay, Mama will be wondering about us.”
“Pooh! Kitty. As long as we are with the officers she will not mind. She likes us to be with them. And you know they’ll be glad to see us. But where is Mr. Denny, he should be here to make up the party.”
“Denny’s in London, but will be back and then I’ll take his place with the despatches,” Captain Carter told her.
“But what are they about?”
“Ah my dear young lady, I cannot tell you regiment business, you must know,” he laughed.
Lydia pouted. “I’m sure I don’t care. What I want to see is if there are any new hats at the milliner’s, and we can walk past on our way to Uncle Phillips.”
“Very well then. Give me a kiss to keep up my strength for the walk.”
Lydia complied enthusiastically, and then squealed, “Oh! Captain Carter, I swear you are the best kisser in the regiment.”
“Hear that, men?” he cried. “And have you tried them all, then, Miss?”
“Good Lord no! What a story.” She whispered in his ear, “I am sure I would never kiss a dog-faced little man like that Mr. Willis sitting by my sister. I hope you don’t think as ill of me as that.”
He caught her by the hand and pulled her up from the sofa. “Well, then let’s rescue Kitty, and repair to the Phillipses. They do set an uncommonly good table.”
“Come on, fellows, we march!” Col. Forster declared, and the gay party went frolicking through the streets of Meryton, their hallooing and laughter resounding from one end of the village to the other. Mrs. Phillips had the window open and was leaning out before they were halfway down the street.
“Lydia! Kitty! Do you bring up Col. Forster and all the officers, we have got some very nice ragout and ale, and you might have a little dancing after.”
“We’re coming, aunt!” called back Lydia, and capered on her way, Kitty scuttling after her.
“Oh, Kitty, what better times we have without Jane and Lizzy, don’t we,” she tossed over her shoulder.
“To be sure we do!”
“Why, are they not very handsome, and very good-tempered young ladies? I thought they were,” inquired Col. Foster.
“Oh! No. They hate anything that’s the least bit fun going on. We call them Miss Prim and Miss Priss. Always scolding and lecturing, you would think they were old maids of thirty. You wouldn’t like them at all if you knew them better, Col. Foster.”
“Perhaps not. I do like my girls young and silly,” he said, looking down at pretty Miss Harriet, hanging from his arm.
“Yes, yes, Aunt, don’t worry – I said we’re coming!” shouted Lydia at the top of her voice.