Will Mary Bennet find her happy ending under the reign of the Queen of Rosings Park?
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His letters had been so regular since he left for London, two each week on Wednesday and Saturday, bright points in her week to anticipate and cherish. But a full week had passed since his last missive. Little spots of worry began to form in her mind, whispering the most awful, outlandish, troublesome things.
It was true, very true, Mr. Michaels was no Mr. Darcy, with his forceful and passionate nature. Nor did it seem he was the Mr. Amberson Lizzy wrote of, with a flair for quiet drama and determination. No, men like that belonged with women like her sisters. Beautiful, vivacious, intense.
Michaels was a quiet, steady man, protective and predictable. His temper was even, not bent toward passions, good or bad. One knew exactly what to expect from him. His life was well ordered and precise.
Though Lydia and Kitty deemed him very dull, he suited Mary well. She had been called dull sufficient times to be quite comfortable with the description. When Kitty accused Mr. Michaels of being as tiresome as Mary, it seemed quite prophetic. The very next day he paid them a call and stayed a full half hour in Mary’s company.
Nothing about him or his letters were romantic. It might have been nice once in a while. Very nice. But all the conduct books advised: steadiness, by its nature, would outlive romance. It was the wisest choice.
Her room was small, tucked awkwardly under a gable which rendered it full of odd angles and hard-to-use spaces. Collins deemed it the most modest room in the house. The one room most fitting for one whose family was not in Lady Catherine’s good graces. Charlotte of course had objected, but Mary insisted it was fine. And it was; it put her as far away from Mr. Collins’ snoring as possible.
She settled into the little chair that just fit in the window nook, and opened his letter.
I must apologize for the last two letters I should have written. No doubt you noticed their absence. I fear you may be worried. Indeed I began them, but so many unexpected matters arose that they were never completed. I decided to begin afresh rather than try to make sense out of what I wrote earlier.
My business here has been more complex than I anticipated. I fear the state of Rosings Park is far more difficult than any of us truly imagined. I will be bringing Colonel Fitzwilliam far more bad news than any heir deserves.
My first letter to you was interrupted by a score of tradesmen at my door, demanding payment for their wares. Payment which is not in Rosings’ coffers at present. I found sufficient funds to distribute just enough payment to keep them at bay for another quarter. They are demanding debtor’s prison for someone. It was not a pretty sight.
So much debt? If they were threatening prison, it was at least twenty thousand pounds! How could such a sum ever be repaid?
The second letter suffered disruption when I had to a call from several physicians who claimed they had consulted with Lady Catherine concerning Miss de Bourgh’s condition, but never received an appropriate honorarium for their efforts. You will hardly be surprised to learn that they lost their veneer of gentlemanly behavior when I demanded some proof of their claims.
I managed to sort them out, but I fear my creativity and my patience are being stretched far beyond what I am equipped to manage. Retrenching is going to be essential to weather this current storm.
I hope Colonel Fitzwilliam will be of a mind to take the necessary actions. As a single man who has not been recently accustomed to living in a grand estate, he might be made to see the necessity of it. I hope so.
Maybe he would take leave of Rosings altogether, lease the house out, and allow Mary and Michaels to live out their lives without the kind of constant interference that Lady Catherine offered. That was too much good fortune to hope for.
As I pick up my pen to write to you a third time, I am certain I shall not be thwarted as I have the best possible news. I have lingered a few days extra in London in the hopes of receiving the post that has just come.
A letter from your father arrived today. He has finally signed the settlement and all is in preparation for our marriage. The papers are finished, and he cannot change his mind now. So you know, the settlement is somewhat less than what we expected, but not enough to interfere with our plans. I know it has been foolish of me to worry so, but I have. Now I can put my mind at ease.
I must tell you something else. You will no doubt find this a somewhat dark sentiment, but I trust you to hear me out and understand. I have seen my own solicitor and just completed a new draft of my will. Whilst I do not have much, there is some little in the four percents and a bit in an account at a bank here in London. I have left instructions if there were anything to happen to me, it should go to you, not to my brother.
Please do not attempt to dissuade me. Your father being as he is, I do not wish to see you have to return to his home under any circumstances. In this way should anything happen to me, this way I can be assured that you will not have to. I do not have enough to assure that you might live as comfortably as you have been accustomed to be sure. But it is enough that you might retain independence and make your own choices. I sleep easier at night knowingt the sum is there for you, all the while hoping and praying it will not be necessary.
Mary pressed the letter to her chest, hot trails trickling down her face. He might not have the drama or passion of Darcy or Amberson, but he was indeed the best of men.
The sentiment did ring like a plot in a gothic novel to be sure, but it was entirely reflective of the kind of steady, protective temperament that she most treasured in him. Just a week or so and he would be back.
Then the rest of her life might finally begin.
Several days later, Mary helped Charlotte to the parlor and instructed the housekeeper to begin preparations for tea. Mrs. Barrows and Mrs. Newton, and Mrs. Shaw would be here soon.
Or rather now.
Mary greeted them at the door herself. Yes, Mr. Collins had asked her to stop doing that, it was unseemly and suggested they could not afford a proper housekeeper. But, he was always fussing at her for one thing or another. There was little point in trying to please him now. As soon as she got one thing right, he found two other points to critique.
His temper had grown restive since Lady Catherine’s invalidity. He did not seem to know how to manage with Colonel Fitzwilliam who did not appreciate Mr. Collins’ fawning and had no patience for his opinions.
What Colonel Fitzwilliam seemed to want was sound advice and even argument. Neither of which Mr. Collins was well equipped to deliver, but Michaels was. And that only served to irritate Collins more.
Mary led the matrons to the parlor where Charlotte waited, comfortably settled with her feet up. The housekeeper followed in with the tea service.
“How lovely to see you, Mrs. Collins.” Mrs. Barrows curtsied.
She was a tall woman, and impossibly thin. She had a reputation for eating as heartily as her husband, but one would never know by looking at her.
“What a lovely day for tea.” Mrs. Newton sat beside Mrs. Barrows on the faded settee across from Charlotte.
The two ladies were nearly inseparable. Some mistook them for sisters, which was odd as they looked nothing alike. Mrs. Newton was round and ruddy, with cheery cheeks and twinkling eyes.
“And good day to you, Miss Bennet.” Mrs. Shaw perched properly on the chair nearest Charlotte.
Her glasses perched on the end of her nose, leaving all who encountered her with the sense of being looked down upon. It was unfortunate as she was a gentle, kind soul who never cared to judge others, but one had to take the time to talk with her to find that out.
Charlotte tried to serve the tea, but had to turn the service over to Mary as she could not lean over her belly enough to reach the tea pot.
“Thank you for joining us this afternoon.” Charlotte resettled herself on the couch, panting hard.
“Indeed, we are grateful.” Mary handed Mrs. Shaw a teacup. “I shall go straight to my purpose though, lest we chatter about and never address the crux of the matter.”
Charlotte’s eyes bulged a bit. She never had been comfortable with any measure of directness, and Mary could be little else.
“Mrs. Collins is dearly in need of a midwife. I could think of none better in Hunsford to make recommendations than you.”
Between the three women, they boasted thirteen living children and none had suffered serious complications.
Mrs. Newton and Mrs. Barrows tittered over their teacups. Their cheeks tinged pink, but it was a false modesty at best, such topics were not difficult for them to bear. Mary had overheard them discussing far more colorful details of their births than who was their midwife.
“If I may be so bold,” Mrs. Shaw, “I would strongly recommend Mrs. Mariah Grant. She has attended me the last four times. Such a difference from the woman who attended my first. I would never ask for anyone else.”
“I agree, most assuredly I do,” Mrs. Barrows set her teacup down and pressed her hand to her chest. “She was brilliant when my little Jonathan was born. I do not know what I would have done without her.”
“You know, very few of her ladies come down with childbed fever, far fewer than Mrs. Kerring you know. I think that says so much for her.” Mrs. Newton glanced at Mrs. Barrows and nodded.
“Indeed I only came down with it once,” Mrs. Shaw wrung her hands. “And it was with the birth of my Alice, my first born. I cannot say what it is that Mrs. Grant does differently, but she has a way about her.”
“Yes she does, a way of setting a woman at ease that many do not have.” Mrs. Newton sipped her tea.
Mrs. Barrows waved a pointing finger. “And she is always quick to attend. She does not dilly dally like some I have heard of. No she makes her way directly and insists on staying through the first several days beyond, just to insure nothing takes her by surprise. With my youngest she came the day before he was born, saying she just had a feeling it was time, and sure enough, twelve hours later, she was right.”
“And she is calm as a summer’s morning. Never seen a woman so steady in a crisis, even when something goes wrong, she goes about her business. Never flustered or unsettled.” Mrs. Newton dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief.
Poor woman lost her last child.
“That is very good to hear.” Charlotte chewed her knuckle. “I think I should like to contact her.”
“You have had no contact with a midwife yet? Mrs. Collins, forgive me for being so forward, but that is not wise. You must send for her immediately. You cannot risk your health like that.” Mrs. Newton’s voice rose to shrill notes.
Charlotte blushed and looked aside. “Thank you for your concern. I shall attend to it immediately.”
“And you know you might rely on us as well. Anything that you need, we shall be here.” Mrs. Barrows glanced at her friends who all nodded. “You must tell us what you have done to prepare for your lying in.”
Mary edged back as they conferred. They were nothing if not knowledgeable and efficient. In a quarter of an hour, they had arranged to visit again to prepare the nursery and Charlotte’s room. In the meantime, they would sew the remaining items the baby would need.
“Oh Miss Bennet,” Mrs. Shaw leaned close and the rest continued their conversation. “I have some news that you should find most pleasing.”
“I am intrigued, madam, would you do me the kindness of sharing with me what it is?” Oh how she hated being teased into asking for more information. Lydia and Kitty played that game with her often, usually to remind her that she had been left out of whatever had been interesting.
“I saw a particular horse on the way here this morning. One very familiar to me and I would expect very familiar to you.” Mrs. Shaw’s brows rose.
Mary forced a thin smile. “Indeed. Perhaps you would enlighten me, what horse are you referring to?”
“The one with the odd patch on its side. One belonging to Mr. Michaels.”
Mary’s face grew hot and cold at the same time. Was that even possible? She was at the parlor window before she ever realized she had stood.
How foolish! What chance that he should appear in the distance now, at the very moment she went in search for him?
“It is delightful to see such devotion, Miss Bennet.” Mrs. Shaw chuckled.
“Yes indeed, pray, have you any plans for your wedding?” Mrs. Barrows turned over her shoulder to gaze at her.
Mary’s face flushed as she made her way back to her seat. She glanced at Charlotte, but rescue was unlikely. For all her understanding and kindness, Charlotte had no idea how much Mary disliked being asked such personal questions in a group that cared little for her other than fodder for their gossip.
“When will the banns be read?” Mrs. Newton asked.
“We had thought to begin them the week that he returns.”
“I am surprised you did not have them read before he left. It did leave us all wondering that perhaps he might—” Mrs. Newton’s eyes narrowed just a bit.
Charlotte dropped her spoon on her saucer. Everyone jumped.
“Forgive my clumsiness. The baby is so active! Oh, that reminds me. I knew there was something I had intended to ask you. The last time we dined with you, Mr. Collins so enjoyed the crust on your eel pie. I must learn how you prepare it.”
Mrs. Newton turned to her with a broad smile. “I am so glad to hear you liked it. The receipt you see, came from my mother. But it was Mr. Newton’s mother who taught me how to instruct the cook properly in the making of it. There is a little trick you see…”
How dear of Charlotte—best not waste this way of escape. Mary curtsied, though no one noticed, and slipped from the parlor.
Charlotte would do well enough on her own now. With any luck, she had heard enough that she would need no further pushing to call upon Mrs. Grant. That was a very good thing. No stranger to lyings-in, Mary had no expertise to offer, though it would be like Charlotte to call upon her for help anyway.
Why did people so quickly assume she knew what she was doing and expect that she would do it? It was a very bothersome thing.
Mary left the house and wandered along the back garden to a footpath that led to Rosings Park. She could not be seen from the parsonage parlor windows here, and more than simply being alone, she required privacy.
Why was it so easy for the matrons to believe that Mr. Michaels would abandon her if he left Kent for any time at all? Their engagement had been announced for some time. Why did reading the banns make it any more or less real?
No doubt they did not think her sufficient enticement to keep his attention once he was exposed to the wider society of London. Surely there, prettier, richer girls would vie for his attention, and she would necessarily be the loser.
Why was it the woman always suffered more being jilted than the man? He might walk away with little damage, but her reputation would bear the stain forever.
It was a very unpleasant thing to know that people thought one likely to be jilted.
But Michaels was not that kind of man. None knew how hard he worked whilst in London. He was not there attending balls and parties. He spent late nights slogging through the disaster of Rosings’ records and negotiating with irate merchants and a few peers from whom Lady Catherine had borrowed money. Had he been looking for another, he would have had no time to find her.
Mary swallowed hard clenching her fists.
No, she must remember that he had chosen her from among all her sisters. He could have courted any of them. Not that Lydia would have paid him any mind or that Lady Catherine would have permitted Jane a suitor she did not select.
Still, Michaels selected her, purposefully, intentionally because it was her disposition that suited him.
It was silly to give in to her foolish insecurities and fears. But when Papa continually reminded her that she was far less attractive and witty and warm and generally appealing than her sisters, it was a very natural thing to do.
So are Mary’s insecurities silly or sensible? Tell me in the comments.