The Caroline Complication

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Previous: Chapter 1
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Chapter 2

Jane’s evening had been much more successful than Elizabeth’s. Mr. Bingley had asked her to dance twice, and she thought that he might have asked her a third time if it had not been improper. He also danced with Elizabeth, Kitty, and Lydia, and he attempted to get Mary to dance but was, predictably, unsuccessful.

“Oh Lizzy, is he not absolutely wonderful?” she said.

“He is in every way perfect for you, Jane. I cannot imagine that a proposal will be far behind.”

“Do you really think so? I cannot even imagine how wonderful it would be. I know that it is very early, but I think I may love him.”

“And if he has one jot of sense, which I believe him to, he loves you right back.”

At that, the sisters dissolved into delighted giggles until their mother called them for breakfast.

***

While they ate, a letter arrived for Jane. The entire table seemed to be holding its breath as she opened and read it (aside from Mr. Bennet, who was not going to let a potential suitor get in the way of his meal).

“It’s from Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst!”

Elizabeth did not roll her eyes and was exceedingly proud of herself.

“They invite me to lunch today!”

Mrs. Bennet squeaked delightedly.

“Papa, may I have the carriage?”

“No, you may not,” responded her mother. “For it looks to rain.”

“Mama,” said Kitty, “is that not a good reason for Jane to take the carriage?”

“Good heavens, Kitty, I wonder at your foolishness!”

“If she is a fool, Mama, then so are the rest of us,” said Elizabeth. “What is your scheme?”

“If Jane rides her horse in the rain, she may catch cold. And then Mr. Bingley would be obliged to offer for her to stay until she’s well. If we are lucky, she might get an entire week at Netherfield!”

“If we are lucky,” Elizabeth muttered softly enough that only her father could hear her, “she shall not die before she is wed.”

“Well, if she does,” responded her father, “it will be a comfort to know that she died in pursuit of Mr. Bingley.”

Mrs. Bennet was not well pleased with the laughter that erupted from the other end of the table.

***

Jane set off for Netherfield on horseback. Much to Mrs. Bennet’s delight and Elizabeth’s dismay, only minutes after Jane left the skies opened and rain began to pour down. Elizabeth could think of little other than how very long three miles can be when riding through a cold rain, and she had difficulty occupying herself with anything aside from worrying about Jane. The rain lasted for the rest of the day and into the evening, and Elizabeth determined that there was no way that Jane would return that night. Mrs. Bennet repeatedly congratulated herself for her plan, as if she had caused the rain all on her own. Elizabeth finally had to retire to bed with a book earlier than normal, in order to avoid saying something regrettable to her mother.

The following morning a note arrived for Elizabeth from Jane. Their mother’s scheme had worked, at least to some degree – Jane had caught a cold and  her hosts were insisting that she remain at Netherfield until she had recovered. Their mother was delighted.

“What a smart idea that was, having Jane go on horseback. Now Mr. Bingley will feel tenderly towards her as she is ill. By the time she had recovered, who knows what other feelings may have grown?”

“Yes,” responded Elizabeth. “If there is one thing that endears a man, it is that special glow that only comes with fever.”

Mrs. Bennet was not well pleased with this response. If Elizabeth had not already decided to attend her sister at Netherfield, her mother’s harping would have pushed her in that direction. She announced her intention to walk to see Jane.

“I should visit too, if the carriage is to be had,” said her mother.

But the carriage was not to be had, so Mrs.. Bennet decided she could not attend Jane at that time. Elizabeth, however, was determined to see Jane, and, as she enjoyed a walk, set out on foot towards Netherfield.

The walk was uneventful as walks go, but Elizabeth appreciated being in the fresh air. Unfortunately, it gave her too much time to worry about Jane. She was very cross every time she thought of her mother’s ridiculous plan, which had inconvenienced Jane at the least, and possibly put her in danger. It was not as if Jane was having difficulty keeping Mr. Bingley’s attention on her own!

With a head as full of thoughts as Elizabeth’s, the walk went very quickly. She did not notice how dusty her shoes and her dress were until she was ushered into the library and put under the scrutiny of Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst. She noticed them looking her up and down and casting each other glances, as if they could not wait to show their disapproval of her state. Mr. Darcy was also there, and Elizabeth noticed something odd. He did not even seem to notice her dress, because he was staring intently at her face. She resisted the urge to wipe her face – was there dirt on there too, and that is what he stared at? She was altogether relieved when she was led to the room Jane was staying in.

Jane was quite a bit more ill than she had expressed in the note she sent Elizabeth. Her cold was very severe, and she was running a fever. Mrs. Bennet had been correct about one thing, though – Mr. Bingley sent a maid to check in on Jane frequently through the day, enquiring whether she needed more pillows or a bowl of soup or for the fire to be stoked. His concern for Jane was apparent, and Elizabeth did not think it was simply because of her illness. He seemed to like taking care of her, which endeared him to Elizabeth even more.

Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst sat with Jane for some time during the day, entertaining her with descriptions of the last opera they had seen in London. Jane appeared to enjoy speaking with them but it wore her out quickly, and Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst seemed all too glad to quit the room when Elizabeth suggested to Jane that she might need to rest. After Jane managed to eat a bit more soup, Elizabeth read some light poetry until Jane fell asleep.

**

Although Jane’s room was peaceful, there was quite a bit less tranquillity elsewhere in the house. Elizabeth had been quite correct that Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst were only waiting for her to leave the room before they indulged in criticizing her.

“Did you see the hem of her dress? Six inches dragged through the mud!” Miss Bingley said. Her voice sounded shocked, but her eyes revealed how much she enjoyed the chance to stand in judgement of Elizabeth. “And those shoes! I had half a mind to ask her to leave them outside!”

“I do not know how Miss Jane Bennet is a member of that base family!” added Mrs. Hurst. “She certainly has much more pleasing manners than any of the rest of them.”

“What say you, Fitzwilliam?” said Miss Bingley, addressing Mr. Darcy. “Are you quite as scandalized as the rest of us?”

“Perhaps not quite so much. It seems to me to be something that would be much more concerning to you ladies. I do not care, one way or the other, what Miss Elizabeth Bennet chooses to wear or muck about in.”

Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst laughed and continued their discussion of Elizabeth. Darcy gave no indication that he had told a lie, although he had. He had not noticed the mud on Miss Elizabeth’s hem; rather, he had noticed how the walk brought a healthy color to her cheeks. He was not sure why this had occurred to him, as he cared not a bit for Elizabeth Bennet. It was an interesting fact and nothing more. While the women talked, he got up and located a book. Settling down into a reading chair, he was struck by how difficult it was to keep his mind on the book rather than on a certain pair of fine eyes.

***

Dinner at Netherfield was a perfunctory affair. Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst displayed an appropriate amount of concern over Jane, but it was clear to Elizabeth that they were going through the motions of caring rather than being honestly interested in Jane’s health. Mr. Bingley was very concerned, and asked Elizabeth several times whether he ought not call for the doctor. Mr. Hurst was substantially more interested in his dinner than in anything else, and Mr. Darcy spoke to no one except Miss Bingley, and then only with her prompting. There was only one thing that seemed out of the ordinary. On two occasions, Elizabeth glanced over from her discussion with Mr. Bingley to see Mr. Darcy staring at her quite intently. This seemed to happen when Miss Bingley was busy speaking with her sister. Elizabeth and Bingley certainly were not discussing anything that they did not want overheard and Mr. Darcy could have easily joined in the conversation, but he seemed content to watch her. It made her nervous. What on earth was going through his head? Did he really dislike her so very much that he could not even bother to converse with her? It made her feel awkward and, to tell the truth, just a little bit put out. She understood that he did not have a high opinion of her, but for him to cross the line into rudeness must mean that he found her very offensive.

Elizabeth tried to put Mr. Darcy out of her mind as she joined the others in the library after dinner. She settled in with a novel, content to read and to watch the interactions between the people in the room. Mr. Darcy began writing a letter and Elizabeth ascertained that it was to his sister based on Miss Bingley’s incessant talking.

“Do tell my dear sister that I cannot wait to see her again! It has been far too long, has it not, since we have been to Pemberley? We must visit Georgiana as soon as possible. She is quite the dearest person to me and I would so love to speak with her. Did you tell her what I said?”

“Yes,” replied Darcy. “I have mentioned your fervent desire to see her once again, and I am certain she shares your sentiments.”

Georgiana Darcy was largely responsible for the relationship between Mr. Darcy and Miss Bingley. Miss Bingley had befriended Miss Darcy nearly immediately upon meeting her and the two women were very close. It had been Georgiana who begged her brother to marry Miss Bingley.

“Never have I had a sister, and I can imagine none better!” she had cried, and her words had their desired effect. Darcy knew that it was time for him to take a wife. Every man needs an heir, particularly a man with an estate as grand as Pemberley. Caroline Bingley was not the match that many men of Darcy’s standing would have wished for, but it was exceedingly important to him that his sister was happy, so he placed her wishes even above his own and proposed to Caroline. Certainly he could have made a better match (his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, insisted that he had been betrothed to her daughter Anne since birth, although Darcy suspected that this betrothal was more an invention in his aunt’s mind than an actual agreement), but he could not have made Georgiana happier with his choice of bride. That, in and of itself, was enough to make Darcy think he made the right choice – that is, it was enough, until he had come to Netherfield. The longer he stayed, the more he found himself wondering if he had not been too hasty in his engagement. Hasty or not, what was done was done. Caroline would be his wife, Georgiana would be delighted to have a sister, and Darcy would continue doing what was right, regardless of how he felt about it.

Elizabeth could see none of the specific history, but she could detect a tone in Caroline’s voice that made her wonder if the affection shown for Miss Darcy was real. There was entirely too much enthusiasm in the way she spoke that made Elizabeth think that perhaps Miss Darcy was simply a means to Miss Bingley’s end – that end being a wealthy and respectable husband. For a moment, she felt sorry for Mr. Darcy. Then she realized who it was that she was feeling pity for, shook her head, and returned to her novel. Darcy certainly was not in need of her concern.

The evening continued in much the same way. Mr. Bingley, Miss Bingley, Mr. Hurst, and Mrs. Hurst played loo, although Miss Bingley did not take a single trick as she spent all her time attempting to gain Mr. Darcy’s attention. Elizabeth turned down an invitation to play, preferring her novel. Darcy finished his letter and then found a book of his own, attempting to read while dealing with Caroline’s continual interruptions. Elizabeth hid a smile as Mr. Darcy deftly dealt with his fiancee’s continual prattle. After all, he was the one who chose his wife-to-be.

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Next: Chapter 3

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