Charles Bingley had never experienced such nervous anticipation in his life. Today was the day. No excuses. No delays. Today, he was going to ask Miss Jane Bennet to be his wife. He’d been looking into the mirror rehearsing what to say when James, his valet, interrupted him.
“Are you ready to dress for the day, Mr. Bingley?” the older man inquired politely as he entered the room.
Bingley’s heart did a wild dance. Was he ready?
“I would like to look my very best today,” he said nervously running a hand through his unruly hair.
James raised an eyebrow. “I do not believe, sir, that I have ever allowed you to leave your dressing room on any day looking any thing less than your very best.”
That brought a smile to Bingley’s lips and some of his nervousness vanished. “Of course, you are completely correct. I trust your good taste implicitly. Now what have you planned for me today?”
When Bingley finally stood before the mirror to examine himself, he was very pleased with what he saw. Then James held out his pocket watch, brushed the back of his coat one more time, and pronounced him ready. Just as Bingley was almost to the door, the valet rushed after him.
“One more thing, sir,” James said holding out a fresh handkerchief.
“I was just thinking, that on today of all days, you might wish to have another available. In the event that…” James’ voice trailed off. He was clearly somewhat embarrassed.
“In the event that what?” Bingley repeated quizzically.
“If Miss Bennet…in case she is so happy that…well, you know women can be rather emotional in circumstances such as this,” James explained.
Finally, Bingley understood. “How did you…?”
“Mr. Bingley, many years ago your father commissioned me with helping you learn to look and act like a true gentleman. In the course of the past ten years, I have come to know you, and well, I just had a feeling that today was the day.”
Charles Bingley marveled at how James sometimes seemed to know his very thoughts before he himself was even aware of them. Bingley touched the pocket in his waist coat where he had tucked the ring he planned to give Jane when she accepted him.
“Wish me luck then.”
Bingley decided to ride rather than take the carriage. The fresh air and exercise would be good for him. Darcy had returned to town the day before and would be absent for more than a week leaving Bingley very much on his own. The conversation had been tense when Darcy had explained how he had withheld knowledge of Miss Bennet’s presence in London last winter. Bingley had been shaken, but as he considered what that confession must have cost his friend in terms of pride, he found it easier to forgive him. The look of relief on Darcy’s face had been genuine. For years, Darcy had been like an older brother to him. Finally, Bingley was seeing this complex man in a clearer light. Darcy was not infallible, and he had wisely acknowledged that deciding whom to marry was a choice only Bingley could make.
After just a short time in Hertfordshire, he knew he was more in love with Jane Bennet than ever. Most importantly, this time he was certain it was love and not just infatuation. Last fall, when he had talked to Jane, danced with her, courted her, he had been so in awe of her beauty that he had failed to fully appreciate her other qualities – qualities that in a wife were even more important than her elegant profile, porcelain skin and golden hair.
The long winter months had afforded him an abundance of time to contemplate what he had given up. When he compared Jane Bennet to the other ladies he met and to his own sisters, there was really no one quite like her. What he loved about Jane was how she always believed the best of people – even of him. She had been so quick to forgive him that he wondered daily what he had ever done to deserve her. He also loved how she never shared gossip of any kind. Every time he heard his sisters tittering and giggling, he knew it was at someone else’s expense.
After reaching the decision to return to Hertfordshire, he had recognized it was time to assert himself with his sisters. He was, after all, the head of the family, and could no longer afford to have Caroline manipulate him. Bingley smiled as he thought back to that day in London when he had announced he would be traveling to Netherfield for some hunting. The ten-minute-long tirade from Caroline and Louisa about what a mistake he was making had been unpleasant and actually, rather boring. It did not matter to them that he had already heard their extensive list of objections numerous times before. Listening without saying a word, he had bubbled over inside with impatience. Prior to making the announcement, he had decided not to argue with them, as it would just prolong the confrontation. His mind was made up and nothing would change it.
During the entire conversation, Darcy, who happened to be visiting at the time, was curiously silent in spite of Caroline’s efforts to solicit his help and take their side. “I expect Bingley knows what he is doing,” was all Darcy would say.
When it reached the point at which Bingley thought his head might just pop off his neck and launch itself toward the ceiling, he finally did what he knew he should have done ages ago.
“Caroline! Louisa! Stop!”
Their shock was so profound at hearing their gentle brother raise his voice that they actually ceased speaking for a moment and sat with their mouths open in surprise.
“You are my dear sisters and I would do almost anything to secure your happiness,” he began, “but what I will not do is give up the one person who is so essential to my own happiness that I cannot imagine a life without her. I am going to Netherfield, and if I discern even the smallest sign that Jane Bennet still holds me in high regard, I plan to ask for her hand!”
“Dearest Charles, one would think you do not believe that your well-being is the most pressing and important concern in our lives. Of course, we want everything that is good for you. It is hurtful to think you do not believe we care,” said Caroline with a pout and a barely audible sniffle.
Bingley opened his mouth to say what he usually said in these situations when Caroline managed to make him feel guilty, but this time was different. He stopped himself.
Very softly, he said, “And further more, I will not tolerate a single disparaging word from either of you about Miss Bennet or any other member of her family. They may soon become our family, and you will treat with them with the utmost respect — even Mrs. Bennet. Am I understood?”
When there was silence, he made his best effort to turn up the intensity of his glare and repeated, “Am I understood?”
“Caroline? Should I take your silence to mean you wish to go live with Aunt Emmeline in Manchester until next spring?”
Suddenly, Caroline’s eyes grew wide. Aunt Emmeline was the one person in the family who would brook no nonsense from her and had the potential to make her life a misery. Manchester in the winter? Cut off from the London season? Caroline would rather dress in burlap sacks!
She sighed heavily for effect before she spoke. “No, Charles, I promise I will do my very best to make the Bennet family feel welcome. May I ask when we leave for Netherfield?” Her voice suddenly turned sweet as honey.
“Darcy and I are leaving tomorrow. You and Louisa are staying in London until I send for you.”
“But, Charles, dear, who will…” Caroline began.
Bingley stared at his truculent sister and mouthed one word, “Manchester” causing Caroline to turn instantly white.
“Is there anything I may do to help you prepare for your journey?” she said brightly. He knew she was only pretending, but at least it was a start.
Once inside the carriage and on their way to dinner at their club, Bingley leaned back in satisfaction stretching out his legs and putting his hands behind his head. “I do not know about you, Darcy, but I am ravenous. I feel as if I could eat an entire cow at one sitting!”
Darcy gave his friend one of his rare smiles. “Standing up for yourself is very hungry work, Bingley. I congratulate you.”
Now he was on his way to Longbourn, and despite everything that his family and friends had tried to tell him, he felt confident in the strength of Jane’s affections. There was no artifice to Jane. No saying one thing and meaning something else as those coy young ladies he had met in London. Last fall, nearly a year ago now, when his sisters and Darcy had confronted him, his own lack of confidence had caused him to be swayed, and he had nearly lost her. For reasons he did not fully understand, but for which his heart rejoiced, Jane had forgiven him for abandoning her. That was a mistake he would never make again.
Later that evening when it was time for Bingley to retire, he found James waiting up for him in his dressing room. Before the valet could begin his work, Bingley asked him to pour a glass of brandy for each of them from the bottle he had requested be placed there. Darcy was gone, his family still in London, so there was no one else with whom he could share his elation.
“I hope you will drink a toast with me on this special occasion.”
Picking up the glass, the valet looked at Bingley expectantly.
“A special occasion, sir?” he asked, although Bingley was certain the news of the engagement had already traveled from Longbourn to Netherfield earlier in the day.
James looked as pleased as Bingley had hoped he would be. ”Congratulations, sir. That is indeed excellent news! If I may be so bold as to say, sir, you have made a wise choice. Miss Bennet is a lovely young lady, and I am certain you will be very happy together.”
As they sipped the rich brandy, a strange awkwardness descended. Although a conversation such as this was not so unusual between them, for some reason, tonight, it felt odd. James seemed to sense his master’s mood and began to ask about Bingley’s activities for the following day so he would be able to plan his wardrobe. When the brandy was gone, the valet deftly took up his work. Once ready for bed, Bingley started toward his bedchamber but hesitated as he reached the door. So many things were running through his head, so many things he would like to say, but he realized that something important had shifted. Soon he would be a married man and head of the family in a way he had not been before. He would have to rely more on himself and on Jane. In the past, he might have said more, but tonight, he did not.
“Good-night and thank you,” he said with simple sincerity, and then he waited for James’ usual response.
“My pleasure, sir.”
Bingley smiled to himself and headed off to bed.