“With the officers!” cried Lydia. “I wonder my aunt did not tell us of that.”
“Dining out,” said Mrs. Bennet; “that is very unlucky.”
“Can I have the carriage?” said Jane.
“No, my dear, you had better go on horseback, because it seems likely to rain; and then you must stay all night.”
11 November 1811
With a final tug to secure the ribbons of her bonnet, Jane glanced at her reflection in the hall mirror, catching the eye of Lizzy who approached from behind with an expression of worry and censure. “Please do not say it, Lizzy.”
A sigh escaped her sister’s lips and Jane cringed at the disapproval in her younger sister’s steady gaze.
Returning her gaze to her own reflection, Jane turned and adjusted her riding habit. “I am not as outspoken as you, and I could never defy my mother. Besides, the rain may not begin until after I have arrived at Netherfield.”
“Speak to Papa,” implored Lizzy. “I am certain he could be made to see reason.”
She shook her head. “All will be well. You will see.” Lizzy’s shoulders dropped; her dearest sister was disappointed, but it could not be helped. Jane did not have her younger sister’s confident, outgoing manner.
She gave an involuntary flinch at her name being screeched as her mother entered the hall from the sitting room.
“Hurry, child! You must not leave Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst waiting!”
Her mother’s frenzied fingers began adjusting her collar and the bow of her bonnet. “You look very well. I am certain you are not so beautiful for nothing. Just be sure to remain long enough to see Mr. Bingley and for him to see you!”
“Mama!” she cried in tandem with Lizzy.
“Do not ‘Mama’ me! You will be the next mistress of Netherfield. You mark my words!” A quick glance of the clock prompted her mother to begin waving her handkerchief. “Oh! We do not have time for your nonsense, Lizzy!”
Jane bit back a giggle as Lizzy’s expression morphed to one of incredulity, yet she did not have much time to savour the humour of the moment since her mother grasped her arm and steered her towards the door.
“Let us pray it rains, then you will not have to delay until Mr. Bingley returns from dining with the officers.”
“Look! Mr. Hill has Nelly saddled and ready. Make haste! Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst may enjoy being fashionably late to a ball, but they will not be so appreciative of the practice when it is an invitation to tea.”
With the help of a mounting block, Jane ascended to the saddle but found her mother had already bustled everyone except Lizzy into the house before she could bid them farewell.
Lizzy peered at the sky. “You must make haste—if for no other reason, than to avoid the rain. Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst will look upon you with disdain if you arrive soaked through.”
“They are not so mean-spirited, Lizzy.” Why did Lizzy always insist Mr. Bingley’s sisters were so uncharitable? They had been everything affable and kind at the assembly.
Her sister shrugged a shoulder with a knowing smile. “I beg to differ, but I will not argue with you. Please do be careful. I expect you to tell me all when you return.”
Jane grinned at her sister’s now insistent gaze. “Of course.” She gave a small wave and turned the old mare in the direction of Netherfield, giving one last turn at the top of the hill and lifting her hand to Lizzy before the house could no longer be seen.
With a nervous glance to the sky, Jane studied the grey clouds overhead. Her mother was correct; it did look like rain, yet she fervently hoped the ill weather would not occur until after she arrived at Netherfield. A soaked gown and undergarments was a disagreeable thought indeed!
A heavy exhale left her lips as she turned her thoughts to the gentleman at the heart of her mother’s machinations. Mama was determined her eldest daughter would wed Mr. Bingley when they were still nothing more than acquaintances.
He was certainly gentlemanly and quite good-looking. He was pleasant company for the time they spoke at the assembly and an accomplished dancer. She enjoyed his conversation, but was not of a mind to accept a proposal on such a slight knowledge of his character.
Maybe, once she was more certain of her feelings as well as his regard for her, she would be honoured by a proposal of marriage from that gentleman; however, what would happen if she decided Mr. Bingley was not the gentleman for her? How would her mother react?
After all, Mama insisted she ride, possibly in the rain, to Netherfield! Not only that, but her mother’s words prior to her departure! She was determined to have her eldest daughter become the next mistress of Netherfield, yet Jane cared naught for the material considerations her mother coveted. She wished to marry for love, not situation. A small voice to the back of her mind voiced its displeasure in her present circumstances, riding to Netherfield to ensnare a man she knew little of in regards to demeanour, when the clouds appeared about to burst!
Those were not her only complaints either! Her mother’s crowing as to her beauty—how tiring that had become! Mama never failed to mention Jane’s handsome features. To be certain, Jane did not bemoan her appearance, but if Mr. Bingley did favour her, she hoped he would do so for reasons other than her looks. Most men of the local area did not attempt to hold a meaningful conversation with her, and either stared at her face or her décolletage as they danced. She had no wish to wed to someone who would treat her thus for the remainder of their lives.
She could not claim to have Lizzy’s wit or vivacity, but she had a steady and true heart, one that sought the best in people. Caring for others came with little effort, and Mr. Bingley appeared to have a similar demeanour, a quality that made him an attractive partner for her future life.
A drop of cold struck her face, and with a gentle hand, she brushed the raindrop away, knowing it would be the first of many. Perhaps it would be no more than a slight rain, and she could arrive at Netherfield merely damp.
Her heart sank when the drops became more frequent and increased in size until it was showering at a steady pace in every direction. She had no shelter nearby to take refuge from the storm, and her mother would be furious should she return to Longbourn. No choice lay before her except to forge ahead, and pray Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst would be gracious when she appeared at their door waterlogged.
Her mother was sure to be crowing about the success of her scheme. She prayed Lizzy would not be too impertinent in her response to Mama’s exclamations of delight, though it was a pleasurable thought to have her dearest sister come to her defence in such a manner. At the moment, Jane was not certain she could be her usual temperate self if she was in the presence of her mother. Her present situation was not conducive to such behaviour!
She brushed the sodden curls of her fringe from her eyes as Netherfield came into view in the distance and pressed a leg into Nelly’s side so she might come to a slow trot. The older horse resisted, but Jane continued to cue her for the faster gait until the animal grudgingly capitulated.
A gust of wind arose and caused a chill that prompted her to shiver. The rain had permeated through her habit, her gown, her petticoats, her stays, and her chemise; she was soaked through and becoming cold, making it necessary for her to reach Netherfield soon.
The next mile or so was not a comfortable ride as Nelly’s trot was not in the least bit a smooth one, but Jane endured the rough ride as best she could. A desire to weep in relief assailed her as she approached the front of the house, yet she restrained her tears as a groom approached to take the horse.
Once her feet were back upon the ground, she took in her bedraggled appearance, mortified to appear at Netherfield in such a state. She had so hoped to make a good impression upon Mr. Bingley’s closest relations, yet she would not appear at her best.
Since there was naught she could do, Jane climbed the steps as the butler opened the door. Her new friends had been so kind at the assembly. They would be considerate now, would they not?