Elizabeth Bennet sat in the corner of her father’s study, watching the sunlight move across the wall as afternoon changed to evening. The room she had known for her entire life already looked foreign to her. She could not believe how quickly things had changed; how quickly they had gone wrong. It was a normal day a fortnight before Christmas when she knocked on the door of this very study, and pushed it open to find her father slumped over his desk. The worst fear of the Bennets came to pass: Mr. Bennet had passed away, and not a single daughter had yet found a husband.
“Oh, how could Mr. Bennet do this to me?” cried Mrs. Bennet, as if Mr. Bennet’s entire goal in dying suddenly had been to inconvenience her. “Why could he not have waited until one of the girls was wed?”
Her ire then turned to Elizabeth. “If you had accepted Mr. Collins, we would not be in this state now. But he is to wed Charlotte Lucas, and there is nothing to be done for it! We are lost! We are destitute!”
Elizabeth’s eldest sister, Jane, was obliged to gently maneuver their mother to bed; Mrs. Bennet continued to rant and weep. Elizabeth understood the things that needed to be done in the wake of her father’s death would fall to her, as her other sisters would be no help. Mary had not uttered an intelligible word since hearing the news, but her lips moved quickly. Elizabeth knew she was praying. Her sister Lydia was acting quite a bit like their mother, but she had not yet perfected the art of the dramatic swoon, so she was receiving less attention from her sisters and the servants. And Kitty only sat on the settee and wept; Elizabeth’s first urge was to comfort her, but the tasks that needed to be done could not wait for the needs of the mourners.
Elizabeth sent a servant to fetch the undertaker. She did not know what needed to be done in a time like this, but she suspected this was the appropriate first step. She then went to her father’s study and draped a blanket over him. She knew it was not rational, but the thought he might be cold made panic rise up in her throat. She felt strangely better once he was covered, as if she really had assisted him.
By then, the undertaker arrived and began his work. Elizabeth answered his questions to the best of her ability, but later she found that she could not remember a single word of their conversation. She directed the servants to follow the undertaker’s instructions to take Mr. Bennet to an outbuilding to prepare him for viewing, grateful that in this, at least, she would have assistance.
The viewing! She had not even considered they would need to open their house so the neighbors could come and pay their respects. Her breath hitched in her throat, but she quickly regained her composure and began to instruct the servants on what needed to be done to prepare for that. Jane was back, having given Mrs. Bennet a tonic for nerves and helped soothe her to sleep, and Elizabeth was relieved to have another rational person helping her plan.
“Oh, the timing, Lizzy!” said Jane. “Mr. Collins is due back tomorrow. Who knows how long we will have to find somewhere else to live?”
“We are not without friends, Jane,” said Elizabeth, trying to convince herself as much as her sister. “We can stay with our Uncle and Aunt Phillips in Meryton if we need to.”
“But that is only a temporary solution,” said Jane. “Uncle Phillips does not have enough room to house six people forever.”
Elizabeth had already considered that, but she quickly dismissed the idea. She had to focus on the present if she was going to survive it.
“We will have to think about that when it happens, Jane. Try not to worry yourself.”
Elizabeth found that she could not take her own advice: her mind swirled with the terrible possibilities of what could happen. There was only one thing she knew for certain, and that was that the Bennets’ life was changed forever, and not for the better.
The following day, Mr. Collins returned. Upon being told the tragic news, his hands flew to his mouth to cover a gasp of sorrow. Elizabeth was relieved to see no joy in Mr. Collins’ face over his fortune in inheriting Longbourn.
“My dear cousin,” he said, “it will take me at least three months after the wedding to get my affairs in order enough to move to Hertfordshire. You, your sisters, and your mother are welcome to stay at Longbourn until that time.”
Elizabeth knew Mr. Collins was offering them more than he was required to, and she was certainly grateful, but her eyes nonetheless filled with tears at the idea they would have to find a new home in less than four months’ time. Wherever would they go? What would they do? If only Mr. Bingley had made an offer for Jane, as they had all expected him to; with Jane so well placed, she surely would be able to help her mother and sisters during their time of need. But it was not to be—Mr. Bingley had returned to London and Miss Caroline Bingley’s letter to Jane had made it clear there were no immediate plans to return. A new plan had to be formulated, and quickly.
The plans for Mr. Bennet’s viewing and funeral were set three days hence. Everyone at Longbourn, Bennets and servants alike, busied themselves with readying the house for the viewing. There were other tasks that needed attending: mourning clothes had to be obtained, and still the overall business of the farm had to continue apace. The time seemed to alternately drag and fly by as the funeral came closer.
A day before the funeral, the Bennets had a very unexpected guest. Thomas Rowe, the local butcher from Meryton, knocked on the door and was presented to Mrs. Bennet and her daughters. Mr. Rowe was a rough man of around forty-five. He thought himself to be good-humored, but as far as Elizabeth could tell, that humor centered around the mockery of other people. The fact he often smelled faintly of the carcasses he had butchered did not endear him to others, or make him easier to be around. On the rare occasions when Elizabeth’s business in town took her to Mr. Rowe’s shop, she endeavored to make as much haste as courtesy allowed; she had noticed that his eyes had a tendency to range over her form in a way that was beyond familiar.
“Mrs. Bennet,” he said with an exaggerated bow, “I wonder if I could talk with Miss Elizabeth. Alone.”
There was only one reason he would request a private audience– to propose marriage. Lydia started laughing and continued until she almost could not breathe. “Please pardon her, Mr. Rowe,” said Mrs. Bennet. “Her grief shows itself in such strange ways.” With that, Mrs. Bennet hurried her other daughters out of the room.
Elizabeth’s first impulse was to make some objection; to say something, anything, to keep them from leaving her alone with Mr. Rowe. She was shocked. How could this man consider a proposal when her father was so recently gone? But then she remembered how her situation had been so recently diminished. If there was one advantage for considering a marriage with Mr. Rowe, it was that he was well to do, especially by Meryton standards; if she married him she might be able to save her family. She forced herself to at least hear him out, despite her distaste for the man.
“Miss Elizabeth,” began Mr. Rowe, “I was so sorry to hear what happened to your father.” To Elizabeth’s mind, he did not sound a bit sorry and he could hardly keep from grinning.
Regardless, she murmured her thanks.
“But it may be that this is an opportunity as much as it is a sorrow. I have long admired you about town, Miss Elizabeth.” His eyes raked over her in an extremely inappropriate way, and she had to stop herself from crossing her arms in a protective gesture. “I could take good care of you, if you were my wife; if you were a good wife, I could take care of your family as well.”
Elizabeth successfully resisted the urge to shudder. She did not know what constituted a “good wife” to a man like Mr. Rowe, and she certainly had no desire to find out; however, she was conscious enough of her situation to realize she could not refuse him outright.
“I thank you for your concern, Mr. Rowe. Recent events certainly have been difficult, and your offer is most generous. Unfortunately, I am not in a state at the current moment where I feel comfortable making any decisions. After my father’s funeral, I hope I will feel enough at peace that I can give your offer the consideration it deserves. Would it be possible for me to provide you an answer within a fortnight?”
“A fortnight I will give you, but not one day longer,” said he. “It would do you well to remember that the offers for you Bennet girls have not been forthcoming. It would be in your best interest to accept my offer, unless you care to give destitution a try.”
Elizabeth was too astonished to form an answer. Mr. Rowe smiled at her once more, bowed, and took his leave.
As soon as the door of the house closed behind him, Mrs. Bennet and Elizabeth’s sisters rushed back into the study.
“Did he make you an offer?” asked Mrs. Bennet breathlessly.
“I did not even know you fancied him!” said Kitty.
“I am a bit surprised he asked for Lizzy, and not for me,” Lydia said with a pout, “not that I should have married that smelly old man anyway.”
“Hush, Lydia,” Jane said. “Lizzy, did he really offer for you?”
Elizabeth took a breath. “He did. I told him I would give him my answer in a fortnight.”
“In a fortnight?” cried Mrs. Bennet. “What is there to consider? We must send a letter right away telling him Lizzy accepts. Oh, we are saved! Mr. Rowe will make sure we are all well taken care of!”
“It is not your decision, and I have not yet made mine,” said Elizabeth, a bit too shortly. “I will not hear of this until our father has been laid to rest.”
“This is not just about you, Lizzy,” said Lydia. “This affects all of us. So maybe you should quit being so selfish and think of someone other than yourself for a change!”
Elizabeth could not bring herself to respond to Lydia’s preposterous statement; she only turned on her heel and walked out of the room.
Later that night, Elizabeth spoke with her dearest confidante, Jane.
“What am I to do, Jane?” she asked. “The idea of being married to Mr. Rowe!”
“Perhaps he is kinder than he appears,” Jane said, although she shook her head while speaking as though even her generous nature could not believe such a thing.
“The way he looks at me! It is more than improper. It is downright vulgar. If I was his wife, he would have the liberty to do with me as he pleases.”
“But if I do not marry him, what will we do to support ourselves? How will we live? We cannot rely on our relations to support us forever.”
“But at what cost, my dear Lizzy? I cannot imagine you married to such a man.”
“I cannot think of it tonight. Either decision seems to me to be the wrong one. Either I marry a man whom I know I cannot love, or our family is reduced to the most base of circumstances. Mr. Rowe disgusts me, but is that something I can tolerate if it means that my family will be safe?”
If only Mr. Bingley had not left so quickly, thought Elizabeth. If he knew Jane was in such a situation, perhaps he would reconsider his connection to her. Elizabeth cursed Caroline Bingley for her role in separating two people who were so fond of each other. If only Elizabeth could get a message to Mr. Bingley, to tell him of the family’s great sorrow.
And then she was seized with an utterly audacious idea: what if Jane were to write a letter to Caroline Bingley? It would be improper for any of the Miss Bennets to write to Mr. Bingley directly, but Jane and Miss Bingley had corresponded on several occasions. Elizabeth suspected Miss Bingley would not be able to stay quiet if she was presented with the news of Mr. Bennet’s death; then, perhaps, Mr. Bingley would realize how much Jane needed him and he would return to Netherfield to save them all.
There was one great failing with this plan: Elizabeth could not bring herself to ask Jane to do it. Jane would see such a plan as deceit, and it certainly would break her heart to be a party to it. This solution was no solution at all. Elizabeth resolved not to mention it to Jane. There was more than enough pain in their lives right now; there was no call to burden Jane with even more.