A mixture of relief and gratitude flowed through Mrs. Gardiner as they neared the village of Longbourn. Even with so convenient a distance of twenty-four miles in a well-sprung carriage, the trip from London with four young children had tried her patience. Generally well-behaved, her two sons and two daughters – all under the age of nine – had begun the brief journey in quiet anticipation; but even the best behaved children could only remain enclosed in a carriage for so long before bouncing as much as the horses.
Mrs. Gardiner released a full breath and glanced at her husband, sitting with his typical stoic smile and his eyes fixed on The Times, seemingly impervious to the rambunctious antics of his offspring; but she suspected he used the newspaper as more of a shield than a diversion.
As the coachman brought the carriage to a halt in front of the Bennet household, she peeked out the window. Jane and Elizabeth stood awaiting their arrival, and Mrs. Bennet promptly emerged from the doorway with Mary and Kitty just behind. The moment the carriage door opened, the Gardiner children poured out and ran to Jane’s open arms. Sweet Jane. Her attention to the children would allow Mrs. Gardiner’s holiday to begin immediately.
Her husband alit from the carriage and offered her his hand, and she braced herself for the onslaught of her sister-in-law’s grievances and nervous complaints. Comparing Mrs. Bennet – and Mrs. Philips as well! – to her husband, she often marveled that they could be brother and sister, although on occasion she did wish her husband were not quite so complacent and avuncular.
In the cacophony of greetings that followed, Mrs. Gardiner kissed her nieces in succession then allowed Mrs. Bennet to whisk her into the parlour. Mrs. Bennet took her arm and ushered her to the sofa, where they sat down together. “Hill, Hill,” she called out to the housekeeper. “Where are the tea things?”
Mrs. Gardiner turned to find her husband and glimpsed him disappearing with Mr. Bennet towards the library with a nod and a smile in her direction. Yes, they would enjoy a quiet glass of port whilst she succumbed to the tea and hospitality of her sister-in-law. No matter. She knew her sister Bennet would offer a glass of ratafia in short order, which would be a balm to both their nerves.
“Well, sister,” said Mrs. Bennet in a confidential accent as their children milled about outside and in the vestibule. “What say you of my Jane? Do you see any change from last you saw her in Town?”
“I…I confess I could not form an opinion in the moments from the carriage to the house, but her face is as healthful and lovely as ever.”
“Aye, her beauty has not diminished, but mark my words she still suffers greatly. Who would have thought Mr. Bingley could be so undeserving a young man! And she saw none of him in London?”
“No, but we live in so different a part of town and share no connections, it was very improbable that they would meet.”
“I do not suppose there is the least chance in the world of her getting him now. I told Lizzy and my sister Philips I am determined never to speak of it again!”
Mrs. Gardiner could not but doubt the reliability of that assertion, as she had thought they had thoroughly exhausted the topic of Jane’s “sad business” when they were together at Christmas.
“I enquired of everyone likely to know,” Mrs. Bennet continued, “and there is no talk of his coming to Netherfield this summer, and Lizzy does not believe he will ever live there any more. Well, nobody wants him to come. But, however, I shall always say he used my daughter extremely ill. My only comfort is that she will die of a broken heart, and then he will be sorry for what he has done.”
Unable to take comfort from such an expectation, Mrs. Gardiner made no answer.
“And when Lizzy stayed with you on her return from Kent, did she speak of how comfortable the Collinses live?”
“She did speak well of them and her delight in Kent but did not say much beyond that.”
“Of course she could not say much before Maria Lucas. Oh, sister, that I came so close to having two daughters married! I cannot blame Jane, but Lizzy could even now be at Hunsford instead of Charlotte Lucas. I am sure the Collinses talk often between themselves of having Longbourn one day. I would be ashamed of having an estate not lawfully my own but only entailed on me.”
The subject finally came to an end with the arrival of a maid carrying the tea things. Elizabeth and Kitty soon followed, and one poured as the other served.
“Aunt, I suppose you know Lydia is not at home,” said Kitty, her tone as peevish as any of the Gardiner children’s could be.
“Yes, Lizzy mentioned it in her letter. Lydia is gone to Brighton. Is that right?”
“It is not fair! I am two years older. Mrs. Forster should have invited me as well.”
“Oh, quit your grumbling, Kitty,” cried her mother. “You know Lydia is Mrs. Forster’s particular friend. And if I had had my way, we would all be in Brighton for the summer, but your father has little compassion for my nerves. A little sea-bathing would set me up forever!”
“And you, Lizzy?” Mrs. Gardiner asked her niece. “Would you have preferred Brighton to a tour of the Peak District?”
“Indeed, I had much rather go North with you and Uncle, even if the militia were not encamped at Brighton, but I think we have had our fill of red coats.”
Mrs. Bennet knitted her brow and puckered her lips. “Lizzy, what nonsense are you spouting on about? ‘Our fill of red coats’ indeed!”
“What about Mr. Wickham?” Kitty asked Elizabeth. “Would not you like his company?”
“No, Kitty, not even Mr. Wickham.”
“Mr. Wickham?” Mrs. Gardiner’s eyes flitted from one niece to the other. “I thought we were soon to hear an announcement of his engagement to Miss King.”
Elizabeth dropped her gaze to her teacup as colour rose in her cheeks but said nothing.
“No, there is no danger of Wickham marrying Miss King now,” said Kitty. “Her uncle took her to Liverpool two months past, so Wickham is safe.”
As the conversation progressed from Mr. Wickham’s failed engagement to the contents of Lydia’s infrequent letters from Brighton, Mrs. Gardiner turned her attention again to Elizabeth. How odd she found it that her niece had not related this intelligence regarding Mr. Wickham and Mary King in any of her correspondence, particularly as the formation of that attachment had been the subject of much discourse between Elizabeth and herself. Mrs. Gardiner hoped that blush was not due to a renewal of her affection with Mr. Wickham, which she had warned her against; but neither did she want it to be a result of Lizzy being pained by his not renewing his addresses. She resolved to speak to Elizabeth as soon as possible.
That evening after dinner, Mrs. Gardiner sought Elizabeth, who was in her room preparing for their departure early the next day.
“Lizzy, may I help with your packing?”
Elizabeth smiled. “No, I thank you, but I have been instructed on the best method of packing by none other than Lady Catherine de Bourgh herself! There can be only one proper way of placing gowns in a trunk.”
Happy to find her niece in good humour, she asked, “How has your time passed here since your return from Kent?”
“Soon after we returned, the impending departure of the militia incited almost universal dread and dejection throughout the neighborhood, and the lamentations of Kitty and Lydia could scarcely compete with those of my mother and her memories of a similar occasion some five and twenty years ago. Then the invitation to join Mrs. Forster in Brighton sent Lydia flying about the house in raptures and threw Kitty into misery and tears. For more than a fortnight after the regiment’s departure, Jane and I were forced to listen to the constant repinings of my mother and Kitty, but the gloom and melancholy gave way once some of the families returned from London and summer engagements arose. Now Kitty can once again enter Meryton without tears, I have hope that perhaps by Christmas she might be able to go a full day without mentioning an officer.”
Mrs. Gardiner laughed before turning serious again. “And how is Jane? Are her spirits much improved?”
“I fear she is still unhappy, although she represses those feelings to appear as cheerful as possible.”
“I am exceedingly sorry to hear it. I had thought it reasonable to believe she might be recovered by now.”
“With her disposition,” said Elizabeth, “her affection must have greater steadiness than with most first attachments.”
“Lizzy, I hope you were not excessively disappointed that your uncle’s business requires we curtail our tour.”
“At first, perhaps, as I had my heart set on seeing the Lakes; but with all the beauties still to be seen – the rolling hills of the Peak, the river gorge in Dovedale – all was soon right again.”
“I think you will find there is enough to be seen in Derbyshire.” With the mention of that county, again her niece coloured and occupied herself with her trunk, and Mrs. Gardiner chose to use this as an opening. “Of particular attraction to me, of course, is the town of Lambton where I spent some years growing up. That is in the very part of Derbyshire to which Mr. Wickham belonged. It is not five miles from Pemberley, where he spent much of his youth. He and I discussed it at great length when I met him here at Christmas.”
“Yes, I recall you speaking of your acquaintance in common.”
“I must own I was surprised to learn from Kitty that Mr. Wickham was no longer attached to Miss King. I wonder you did not mention it in your letters.”
Elizabeth answered quickly, as if having anticipated the question. “Yes, I suppose, with the regiment soon to depart Meryton, I thought it of light importance.”
Mrs. Gardiner still found the omission curious, especially with so little other news to report. “No doubt you saw him before they departed.”
Elizabeth answered by a slight inclination of her head.
“Lizzy, you know I have nothing against him, but I do hope his new circumstance has not renewed an affection between you, which you know to be imprudent.”
Elizabeth turned to her aunt with a genuine smile. “No, you have no cause for concern on that account.”
“He did not disappoint you in his going?”
“Not at all. You must not fear I have been disappointed in love. He was as amiable as ever, he passed his last evening here at Longbourn with all the appearance of his usual cheerfulness, and we parted with mutual civility.”
“I am very glad to hear it. But there was no return of his former partiality to you?”
“I would have discouraged it if there had been. Aunt, pray be well assured that my heart had not been touched by his attentions so much as my vanity.”
With this answer, Mrs. Gardiner collected she must be content if not fully satisfied, as she could not help but wonder at Elizabeth’s blushes. “I would not wish for you to be carrying any regret on our tour of Derbyshire.”
“Indeed I have no reason to repine, and with you and Uncle as companions, I may reasonably hope to have all my expectations of pleasure realized. As I said before: What are men compared to rocks and mountains? I shall enter the county of Derbyshire in pursuit of novelty and amusement with little thought of that gentleman at all.”