Today is my first dance at Austen Variations! I wanted to thank everyone for the warm welcome. Today I offer an exclusive vignette featuring a nervous Jane and Elizabeth just before their marriages.
This month we celebrate love, particularly new loves. What can be more “new” than a bride and a groom preparing for their wedding day? It is a heady, sweet, terrifying experience, and blessed is the couple who can benefit from wise advice. As she is a particular favourite of mine, I brought Mrs Gardiner along to settle our new brides’ jitters.
“Not to worry,” Mrs Bennet cheerfully assured her girls, “disagreeable as it may be, you need only produce an heir, and perhaps a spare, then he shall leave you in peace. I daresay you both shall survive, for we Hertfordshire girls are of hardy stock. Now, let me see, is there anything further I ought to tell you?” She tapped a thoughtful finger on her chin, then her countenance brightened and she opened her mouth to speak again, but her second daughter forestalled her.
“Ah, no, Mama!” Elizabeth protested. “I think you have enlightened us most thoroughly.” She darted a commiserating glance toward Jane, whose typically serene features bore a distinctly green cast.
“Oh, but we have not yet spoken of your courses! Jane, dear, you have just had yours, but Lizzy, I’ve no idea when-”
“I am sure I shall manage well enough, Mama!” Elizabeth was pink to her ears, the back of her neck prickling with discomfort.
“Well, then, I suppose that shall suffice,” Mrs Bennet shrugged happily. “Oh, my dearest girls, my cleverest girls! What comfort you have given me to have caught such wealthy men! Jane, your Mr Bingley shall be well suited with you, for he is such an amiable man and I always did say you were the sweetest and loveliest of all the girls in the county! And Lizzy…” here Mrs Bennet paused to wet her lips and blink for a moment. “Well, do try not to vex Mr Darcy overmuch. We shall be much obliged to him in the future, I am sure.”
Elizabeth clasped her hands until her knuckles were white and stifled a groan. “I shall try, Mama.”
“Oh, and another thing! I nearly forgot-”
“Mama, is not Mrs Hill waiting to consult with you about the breakfast for the morrow?” Elizabeth interjected. This mortifying interview with her mother could not be brought to an abrupt enough close! Another glance at Jane revealed her most placid sister clutching her stomach and appearing distinctly nauseated. “I am sure,” Elizabeth added to her mother, “that she shall also require your opinions on the flowers to be gotten.”
“Oh! Dearest Lizzy, I am so glad you have recalled me. My poor nerves, there are so many worries on my mind about tomorrow. You cannot know what trouble it is to plan such a wedding as yours must be, but, that is the way of these fashionable men! The bride’s family simply must put on a sufficiently impressive display, and I am determined to silence Mrs Long once and for all on the matter!” She continued her flighty mutterings, but to her daughters’ immense relief, she rose and disappeared in a flutter of lace and muslin.
Jane looked as though she were near to a fainting spell. She put a hand to her clammy forehead, her expression dazed and weak. “Oh, Lizzy! How positively horrid! I never had any notion that our mother tolerated such… such insult to her person! And from our father! No, no, it does not bear thinking of!”
Elizabeth had fetched her elder sister a glass of something cool to revive her spirits, but Jane scarcely attended it. “It cannot truly be as bad as she made it out,” Elizabeth decided hesitantly. “Can it? Surely such a man as our father could never….” She covered her mouth, her stomach lurching wildly. “Oh Jane! Mr Darcy is so proper! Do you suppose even he would….” The room spun dizzyingly and Jane was obliged to put out a hand to pull her sister to a seat on the bed.
“What ever are we to do, Lizzy? I cannot just… just lie there and pretend as though nothing at all be untoward. Ought I to speak? Or to pretend to sleep? Surely I may keep my chemise on! Oh, why did Mama never tell us of any of this sooner?”
“Had she, I doubt either of us would have had anything at all to do with men! Least of all you,” Elizabeth rubbed Jane’s shoulder affectionately. “Fear not, Jane, Mr Bingley is of such a modest and easy temper, I’ve no doubt he shall find some way of setting you at your ease.”
Jane’s fingertips hovered near her lips. “Oh, Lizzy. What of Mr Darcy?”
Elizabeth hugged her middle, her eyes fixed on some innocuous point on the floor. She shook her head faintly as a few vague spots danced in her vision. “Jane, I shall be ill!”
“Do not you dare, Lizzy, for then I shall be as well!”
Elizabeth closed her eyes and trembled with a few slow, sickening breaths until she thought she could see clearly. When she opened them once more, her field of vision was still tinged darkly about the edges, the only focal point some stray bit of grass still lingering on the toe of her slipper- the last vestige of her carefree girlhood. What she would face on the morrow would be sure to strip away her dignity, her self-respect, and the apparently mistaken impression of sufficiency and confidence she had always carried. The heat crawled through her stomach once more.
“What can he truly expect of me?” she whispered, more to herself than Jane. “I thought him such an honourable man! To find out that all men are truly so base, and that wealthy men in particular find the activity so enthralling that they make a practice of going to other women… for that! Oh, Jane, hold my hand!”
Jane was white to the lips. “I never thought myself the jealous sort, Lizzy, but I think the shame of my husband favouring others for his pleasures would be far worse than the degradation Mama described!”
Elizabeth opened her mouth, but no reply was forthcoming. She, too, thought anything might be preferable to knowing her husband- the most reserved, dignified man of her acquaintance- could conceal a darker side of himself shared only with paid women. She swallowed again. And herself. To think her good opinion of him- nay, her thorough adoration of him!- must bear such a rude assault upon exposure to the real man!
A soft knock sounded upon the door, and as Jane was the least indisposed of the two, she rose to open it. “Aunt Madeline!” she sighed in relief. “Oh, how glad we are you have come!”
Elizabeth gazed dubiously toward them without rising. Her aunt’s company was always welcome, but just now, she did not think any balm could comfort her disordered feelings. Worse still for her aunt to discover what sordid information had unsettled her!
Mrs Gardiner rested a light hand upon the door frame, glancing between her two nieces with a knowing smile. “I can see that I have come just in time. Lizzy, do stop grinding your teeth so.”
Elizabeth forced her jaw to relax, but her hands remained clenched together in her lap. Mrs Gardiner accepted the little chair Jane offered, and settled herself with a sympathetic pursing of her lips. “Am I to presume that your mother has been here?”
Jane nodded heartlessly, while Elizabeth began to knead her forehead.
“Oh, dear,” Mrs Gardiner sighed. “Girls, you must allow me to put some matters to rights. I presume your mother has told you everything?”
“And then some!” Elizabeth groaned. “Aunt, it cannot be true!”
“It is, and then again, it is not. As you both look to have seen a ghost, shall I assume that your mother painted it all as a most disagreeable experience?” Neither girl needed answer, for Mrs Gardiner could ascertain the truth for herself. “I see. Well, I cannot dispute some of what she says, for she was likely accurate about the physical details. However, it need not be so dire as your faces would indicate. As a matter of fact, it can be quite wonderful, if you will only permit it. Now, what particularly has you both so distressed? Perhaps I may address it.”
Elizabeth’s heart balled somewhere down in her stomach. “Aunt, I do not think I can suffer another thorough going-over of… of that!”
“Oh, Lizzy!” Mrs Gardiner laughed. “Unless I miss my guess, you even more than Jane shall soon find that all your dread was for naught. Now listen girls, do you not find it pleasant to be in the company of your betrotheds?”
Jane and Elizabeth shared a glance. “Most pleasant,” they agreed.
“Then you are far ahead of many young women. And what of more private intimacies? Has either of your gentlemen whispered soft words for only you, revealing parts of himself which are not meant for others?”
They nodded in unison.
“And what of kissing your hand? Has Mr Darcy ever done so, Lizzy?”
Her cheeks pinked and she looked down to avoid her aunt’s gaze. “Only once, on the day of our betrothal. He is very proper, you know- or at least, so I had thought!”
“Mr Bingley has kissed my hand,” Jane offered hopefully. “A number of times. I never thought it so very improper, Lizzy.”
“It is not, Jane,” Mrs Gardiner laughed comfortably. “And what of other liberties? Have either of you experienced such?”
Elizabeth stared at the affront. “No! Aunt, Mr Darcy is honourable! I would have welcomed them from him, certainly, had they been appropriate, but it is men such as Mr Wickham who impose themselves on ladies who are not yet their wives!”
“And no doubt you have waxed indignant upon this point in Mr Darcy’s hearing?”
“I had no need, Aunt. Mr Darcy has behaved the perfect gentleman because he is such, and because I would tolerate nothing less.”
“I thought as much. He would be terrified of displeasing you. Do you mean he has not kissed you on the lips, Lizzy?”
Jane turned in surprise. “Has he not? Oh, Mr Bingley has kissed me many times.”
Elizabeth’s mouth dropped open. “Jane Bennet! You permitted this?”
“Well…” Jane squirmed, “to be sure, I did not offer as I think Lydia did, but yes, I did permit it. Did I do wrong, Aunt?”
Mrs Gardiner was laughing. “Not a bit of it, my dear. Where is the fun of an engagement without a stolen kiss or two? Did you find it an agreeable experience?”
Jane blushed prettily, once more reminding her younger sister of why she had long been regarded as the beauty of Longbourn. “Oh, Aunt! It was delightful!”
“As it should have been! And what of his other ‘transgressions’? Have you been equally as pleased with them?”
“There is more?” Elizabeth started. “Why, Jane!”
Jane’s cherubic face had gone beet red, but the look in her eye was nothing if not confirmation of Mrs Gardiner’s suspicions. Bravely, she forced herself to confess all, for her aunt seemed not only permissive on the subject, but nearly insistent. “I like it when he holds me close,” Jane nearly whispered. “And when he kissed my neck, Aunt, I thought I should die of such bliss.”
“Good girl, Jane,” Mrs Gardiner sweetly patted her niece’s hand. “I daresay you have overcome your shyness sufficiently to grant your future husband ample assurance of your regard. He is a kind man, and I’ve no doubt of your happiness with him.”
“Then I have not disgraced myself, nor he me?”
“Not at all, my dear! You are decently engaged, and some strong feeling is natural, even right. I think him quite taken with you, Jane. It is plain for anyone to see that he thinks of nothing but you. You have nothing to fear in regards to the marriage bed. Surely he will be gentle with you, and though he may not be perfectly innocent, neither has he cause to select a fashionable wife and keep a mistress. He may marry where he pleases, and he was pleased to offer for you.”
Jane’s colour had returned to a more normal shade, and her eyes had begun to sparkle once more as she thought on her betrothed. “Oh, thank you, Aunt! You have eased my mind so greatly! I had feared that when he calls today, I must in all conscience deny him those little affections which he might request, now that I know what they naturally lead to after marriage. Must I, Aunt? I do not know how I could bear disappointing him!”
“Certainly not, Jane. He has not taken truly improper liberties, only allowed you to taste some little of the delights in store.”
Elizabeth’s brow furrowed. Tasting delights! All while only engaged! Modest Jane and her diffident Mr Bingley were the last couple she would have suspected of such chicanery. “But surely,” she reasoned, “that can be only the result of a less disciplined upbringing on his part. I do not disparage your excellent Mr Bingley, but his education and experiences must of necessity dictate different levels of personal restraint. Mr Darcy was brought up with such strict expectations!”
“I do not think his upbringing has much bearing on the matter,” Mrs Gardiner chuckled. “Many a gentleman of the finest circles engages in the most nefarious behaviour; betrothed, married, or otherwise.”
Elizabeth’s eyes first crossed, then clenched shut as she held out a pleading hand. “Oh, Aunt, pray do not go on! Mama has already informed us of far more than we should ever have wished to know.”
“Oh, Lizzy! I am sorry it has come as such a shock to you, but it is the way of the world, you know.”
“And Mr Darcy is a man of the world!” she mourned helplessly.
“Perhaps,” Mrs Gardiner allowed, “but he is not cut from the same cloth as many others I have known. Lizzy, did not you once say that Mr Darcy roundly insulted you upon his first proposal, claiming your connections beneath him and you and Jane the sole exceptions to his disdain?”
Elizabeth’s cheeks heated. “Aunt, he has repented of that speech, and I of my offence. His address has altered so essentially that I have come to know his better qualities- why, you have seen him for the kind, generous man that he is!”
“Indeed, Lizzy, but that was not my point. Did you ever, even for a moment, labour under the misapprehension that he could be anything but violently in love with you to have spoken thus? For a man of his standing and sense of duty to be driven to wrestle with his misgivings and at last surrender to act upon his heart, you must confess it reveals much of his character and intentions toward you.”
“Of course it does, Aunt, but how has that fact any bearing on the present matter? For all his goodness, he is still a man, and a man of the ton, and I am to grace his arm and provide his heir. All the glittering appeal- mistress of his estate, hostess at his home- those things mean nothing to me in comparison to himself. I never desired such a connection, and now I fear that I shall regret loving him. How can I bear the disappointment of knowing him as a wife would, forced to acknowledge the baser instincts and faults common to men even in one I admired and held so dear?”
“Your opinion of the man does you credit, Lizzy, but I believe he would be horrified to hear of your doubts. Oh, my dear girl, do you not see? Mr Darcy was expected to do exactly as your mother has described. He was to find a woman whose connections and wealth would bring honour to his family name, and his personal desires were to be a matter of his private business. Now, you know how I feel about your suitability for him- he has chosen his life partner wisely with respect to all matters save those he was taught to consider first.”
Mrs Gardiner offered her niece a brief smile before continuing. “Your poor mama has been spared much of the ignominy of her true circumstances, for your father hates bringing her to Town. She has largely spent her life here in comfortable Meryton, where Longbourn is a principal estate and herself a person of standing. Therefore, she may not properly understand, as you and I do, the social sacrifices that Mr Darcy made out of love for you. She believes you have done ‘that insolent man’ a great service in accepting him, but we both know Mr Darcy’s true place in the world and what he felt his duty to be. He surrendered much to ask for your hand.”
“That is true, Aunt. How he mortified me when he first confessed his scruples!”
Mrs Gardiner laughed. “I can well imagine! He is a deeply private man, and I doubt he has often given himself the trouble of trying to please a woman. I believe you frightened the wits out of the poor man when he discovered you owned his heart.”
Elizabeth giggled bashfully, then sniffed as she dabbed an uncomfortable tear from her eye. “I believe that is true, Aunt!”
“Dearest Lizzy, can you truly fear that this man you admire, who nearly moved heaven and earth to have you- you– as his own, would ever betray you? Is it at all conceivable that he would abandon everything he was taught, risking the displeasure his family and complaining not about your lack of fortune, so that he could first marry you and then humiliate you?”
Elizabeth began to breathe once more. “No, Aunt,” she answered softly.
Mrs Gardiner nodded in satisfaction. “Nor do I.”
“But what of the…” Elizabeth’s face burned once more as she glanced nervously to Jane. She gestured vaguely with her hands, unable to form the disgraceful question she would ask.
“Oh! Yes.” Mrs Gardiner herself appeared discomfited in the extreme. A girlish flush stained her cheeks and she opened her mouth hesitantly. “I, ah… well, do you see, ah… well, Lizzy, it is only the natural way of things. There need be no shame between a married couple. Surely Mr Darcy will be considerate of your innocence, both with respect to your physical as well as your emotional discomfort.”
“It is his discomfort which troubles me as much as my own! Aunt, perhaps I do not know him as well as I shall very soon, but he is and shall always be a man of deep reserve. If even he is awkward and embarrassed by the… the ‘proceedings’ as Mama called it, how shall I endure it? I would rather he did not approach me at all than that he should be mortified by doing his duty!”
Mrs Gardiner exchanged an amused glance with Jane. “Lizzy! Can you still be so blind? The man cannot tear his eyes from you. He may speak little, but it is because you have tied his tongue. He thinks and feels much, I can assure you. Jane’s Mr Bingley is open and easy, not possessing Mr Darcy’s reticence in company, so perhaps it is to be expected that he should have already shared some intimacies with his future bride. Mr Darcy, on the other hand, has unlocked the door to his heart and handed you the key, but until tomorrow’s ceremony, he has not yet given you leave to walk through. Oh, my dear girl, you will open that door to a world of wonder!”
Elizabeth’s eyes rounded and she pressed her flattened palms into her lap as they began to sweat. “What makes you believe this, Aunt? Are you saying that he conceals a more deeply passionate nature even than Mr Bingley, who is everything affectionate and amiable?”
Jane, to Elizabeth’s left, suddenly choked and attempted to repress a most Lydia-like snort. Mrs Gardiner’s mouth crinkled into a veiled smirk as she shared a commiserating chuckle with her eldest niece. “In my experience,” she turned back to Elizabeth, “it is the most reserved people in public who are the most demonstrative in private. People of such a nature feel so profoundly that no paltry expression of love will do. They can only be satisfied by drinking their communion to the dregs, wholly submerging themselves in the fathoms of their passion. Yes, Lizzy, I do believe Mr Darcy intends to savour you, and will not permit himself to even taste this pleasure before he can claim all of you for his own.”
Elizabeth was now flushed to her toes, her body warm in unexpected places as she contemplated these new ideas. The facts so callously shared by her mother, coupled with the depth and ardent love of the man her aunt had reminded her was to be hers, pooled together until her mind was filled with the most delectable, the most scandalously enticing notions.
“Aunt,” she murmured hoarsely, “am I to understand that you believe I shall be comfortable, even pleased to engage in marital relations with my husband? Can it be possible?”
“More than possible,” Mrs Gardiner assured her. “In fact, unless I am very much mistaken, it will be you importuning him more often than not. I expect you will have a very exhausted husband by fortnight’s end.”
“Aunt!” Jane exclaimed. Mrs Gardiner merely shrugged, eyes atwinkle with amusement.
Elizabeth laughed outright, and soon was clutching her middle as tears of relieved merriment poured down her cheeks. “Oh, Aunt! Mr Darcy has not yet learnt to be teased with impunity, but one day I hope I shall find the courage to repeat some of this to him!”
“I daresay he will find it as humourous as you do. Jane, dear, I hear some commotion below, is it really so late in the morning that your gentlemen have already arrived? I must have lost track of the hour.”
“No,” Jane smiled, leaning out the window to observe two riders approaching. “Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy are in the habit of arriving early. Thank you, Aunt, you have set my mind at ease about the morrow, and I believe I can meet him now with perfect complacency.”
“And you, Lizzy? Are you equal to a last chaste conversation with your betrothed before you become his wife?”
Elizabeth gripped the sides of her bed, her eyes sparkling with new life and her breath drawn in resolve. “I hope so, Aunt!”
Jane was the first to leave the room, and Mrs Gardiner caught Elizabeth’s elbow to restrain her for a private word. “Lizzy, would you be receptive to one last bit of advice?”
“Anything, Aunt!” was the eager cry.
“I suspect your Mr Darcy could do with some encouragement of his own. When he was here last evening, I observed him to bear a distinct pallor.”
“Do you believe he regrets our engagement? Has my family frightened him off? Oh, I feared this!”
“No, Lizzy, it is nothing like that. I believe he suffers from the same sort of apprehension as yourself.”
“What do you suggest I do, Aunt?”
Mrs Gardiner smiled and leaned near her niece’s ear with a low whisper. Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “I cannot do that! He shall think me immodest!”
Mrs Gardiner tipped her shoulders easily. “I doubt it, but you may do as you wish. It was only a thought. Do hurry below, Lizzy, for I hear his voice now. He is surely more eager to greet you than your mother.”
So chastened, Elizabeth obeyed her aunt and arrived just as Mr Bingley was requesting the honour of a morning walk with Jane. Mr Darcy’s warm gaze went instantly to her, but it was with some conviction of her aunt’s words that Elizabeth noted his uncharacteristically white complexion and the rigid line of his lips.
Mrs Bennet was only too delighted to hurry the couples out of doors to chaperone one another, so in mere moments Elizabeth found herself bundled warmly against the cold, her hand locked securely into Mr Darcy’s arm. He was so quiet on this day! Mr Bingley and Jane had rapidly outdistanced them, and Elizabeth, with her new knowledge of her sister’s romantic pursuits, was not slow to understand the surreptitious path chosen by the other couple.
“Fitzwilliam? Are you well?” she finally ventured to ask.
He clasped her gloved hand with his left, and raised it to his lips. “Perfectly. Today is the second best day of my life,” he vowed.
“And the first?”
“Tomorrow!” He smiled tightly, dark eyes glittering in something akin to a silent laugh, but the tension in his jaw remained. “And you, my dearest Elizabeth? Are you well today?”
She studied him, a little tug about her lips as she wrestled with, and at last gave credence to her aunt’s final suggestion. “I am well enough, Fitzwilliam, but I confess myself somewhat chilled.”
His smile faded. “Would you prefer to return to the house, Elizabeth?”
“Not yet. There is a warmer little hollow there, do you see? Just below the main road? Perhaps we could walk down there.”
He took her arm, guiding her with prodigious care when her booted feet left the main path. So solicitous was he of her way, safeguarding each step, that he did not notice at first that they had entirely left the view of their chaperones. After glancing back in dismay, he turned to her with some abashment. “Elizabeth, I fear we are stretching the bounds of propriety.”
“No matter,” she grinned impishly. “Unless you fear being forced to marry me?”
His eyes narrowed. “You led me here on purpose,” he observed.
She nodded, biting her lip.
“And,” he drew a step nearer, taking her hand, “to what end?”
“This, Fitzwilliam.” Elizabeth stood abruptly on her toes, cupping his rugged face in her hands and pulling him close.
It was growing late that day before Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy returned to Longbourn, both chilled to the bone. Jane Bennet was heard to comment that it was unusual for Elizabeth to become lost on their country roads, but she was relieved- this was spoken with a giggle- that Mr Darcy had seen to her sister’s safe return at last. Mrs Gardiner, it is worth noting, greeted the couple upon their return with a wink and a warm smile for both. Her approval, however, seemed unnecessary, as both Elizabeth and Mr Darcy had little to say for the rest of the evening to anyone save each other.