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Thorough-bass and human nature

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“Fitz, may we take Mary with us to London for the season?”

Mr Darcy looked up from his book, startled at this interruption to their peaceful breakfast.

“What on earth do you mean?”

“Mary,” said Lizzie, laying down the letter she had been reading. “She is so alone now we are all married. And now Kitty is engaged to that young cousin of Bingley’s she has no companionship at all. She should come to London.”

“If you meant to shock me into giving you my attention, it is not necessary. I was attending to every word you said before about the kitchen maid, even if it did not seem that I was,” said Darcy.

“I am quite serious,” said Lizzie, beginning to laugh.

“But what has caused this concern for Mary? You have never cared to have her visit before.”

“Oh,” said Lizzie. “It is these letters from Mama, and from Mary herself. I cannot help think that they are slowly driving each other mad. Mary never goes anywhere, and Mama’s nerves are relentless. And Mary has asked so many questions about the exhibit at the British Museum that I cannot help think it selfish if we cannot arrange for her to go.”

Darcy closed his book thoughtfully.

“I cannot think of anyone who would like a season less than Mary,” he said. “On any occasion I have seen her at a ball, she seems as though she would infinitely prefer to be anywhere else.”

“As would you,” said Lizzie. “But that has not stopped you, I think, from enjoying being a husband.”

Darcy smiled then despite himself. “No. That is a constant source of enjoyment,” he said. He held out his hand to her, and she moved over and perched upon his lap. “So you mean to find her a husband. Has Bingley not infinite numbers of cousins who would do?”

“He does, but Mary is…peculiar,” Lizzie said. “And it is hard to find a match for her.  But London I feel certain contains a large collection of peculiar young men who would do very well.”

“I’m sure it would be better for her to go to Jane and Bingley,” said Darcy.

“You know that the Wickhams will descend upon them as soon as the season begins. I cannot inflict Mary on them too, not with Jane just out of her confinement.”

Darcy sighed deeply and wrapped his arm around Lizzie’s waist. “At least can we make a rule that she is strictly not to sing, recite or perform any sort of music while she is here?”

“Fitz…”

“Come my dear, there are limits.”

“Perhaps she can share Georgiana’s music lessons,” said Lizzie, smiling wickedly. “And they can perform duets for us after dinner each evening. For hours.”

“Gracious God,” said Darcy, and stopped any further ideas from Lizzie with a kiss.

 

Xxx

 

Mary had been most gratified to receive Lizzie’s invitation, emphasising as it did the opportunity to visit the new Egyptian exhibit at the British Museum.

“A most benevolent act of sisterly affection,” she had told her mother.

“Well it is about time that Lizzie did something for you Mary!” Mrs Bennet had said. “I had thought that husband of hers had made her careless about her family. But this will be very well. And it will do my nerves the world of good to have respite from your incessant piano playing.”

Mr Bennet raised no objection, observing that Mary could not possibly get into any trouble surrounded by books and Egyptian statues.

“But Mary will not be reading and studying as she does here Mr Bennet!” her mother said. “She will be attending balls and other engagements. I shall write to her sister directly to ensure it! And perhaps there will be a suitable young man of Mr Darcy’s acquaintance…”

“I have no inclination for marriage, Mama,” Mary said. “Though it is an admirable institution, I feel it is much more suited to other women. I am thoroughly wedded to my books.”

“Oh!” Mrs Bennet said, working herself into a lather. “You do not care about my nerves at all. Well! Just see what happens to your precious books when your father dies and Mr Collins turns us out. He will not care for your Egyptians and your poets! If you do not find a husband during this visit I am quite done with you Mary. Do you mark me?”

But Mary, who heard similar sentiments at least three times a week, had returned unruffled to her piano.

Lydia and Wickham broke their journey from the North to London at Longbourn, and agreed to chaperone Mary to the Darcys’ residence. The were accompanied by Harriet Forster whose husband had lately died, leaving her a very young widow. She and Lydia made a very merry carriage journey, giggling together in the corner, whispering intently and scribbling in a floral scented journal for hours at a time.

Wickham paid very little mind to any of the women of the party, and preferred to travel outside with the young carriage driver. Indeed, Mary thought, he seemed on very friendly terms with the man, disappearing with him for half an hour at a time whenever they broke their journey at an Inn to rest.

On reaching London, Mary bid her companions farewell in the driveway of Mr Darcy’s London home.

“I will say goodbye to you here,” said Lydia sniffily, “As Lizzie and That Man would no doubt have apoplexy at the thought of entertaining Wickham for even half a minute. When shall I see you next?”

“Lizzie says we are to go to a ball on Friday,” Mary said. “Are you and the Bingleys to go too?”

“You are to go to Viscount Westmorland’s ball?” said Lydia. “Wickham goes without me. I have promised to sit with Harriet because she is still in mourning.” She giggled. “Wickham says he is a terribly eccentric young man.  He invites most of London to his balls and does not care who is who.”

“That shows a generosity of spirit,” Mary said. “In any case, I see a ball as an opportunity to observe the vanities and peculiarities of human nature. I think it will be very interesting.”

But Lydia, of course, was no longer listening. “If you see him do tell me what he is like!” she said. “Come to Jane’s on Saturday morning and tell me everything.”

Mary promised she would, and left the carriage to greet her older sister.

 

Xxx

 

Mary settled well into the quiet and orderliness of the Darcy household. Mr Darcy, while perfectly polite, was not one for much conversation, and Georgiana his younger sister was shy to the point of being almost mute for the first days of Mary’s visit.

They had a small music room and Mary discovered that she could happily use the piano there for as long as she liked each day, as long as Georgiana was not having a lesson.

“I should practice a little more,” Georgiana confided in Mary, “But my teacher is so frightening that it makes almost no difference. I cannot play a note correctly in his presence.”

Mary met this terror on the third morning of her visit. She had been playing since breakfast and had not noticed the hour, when suddenly the door to the music room was thrown wide open, and a tall, stringy man with a shock of white hair and a strong German accent burst into the room.

“No, no, no, no!” he exclaimed. “What is this you do?” He strode across to Mary who had stopped playing in fright.

“What are you playing?” He snatched up the music in front of Mary and  grunted. “Haydn. Well.”

He replaced it on the holder.

“Go on then,” he said. “Begin again.”

Mary’s hands were frozen above the keyboard.

Georgiana rushed into the room at that moment. “Oh, Herr Braun…”

“Again!” he demanded. Mary jumped and began again. ONE two three, ONE two three…she pushed the loud pedal down hard.

“Gott in Himmel!” he said. “Stop this now! Who instructed you to play this way?”

“I had some lessons as a young girl,” Mary said, trying to keep her voice steady. He really was quite fierce. “But then Mama said that my older sisters could instruct me just as well as…”

“Herr Braun,” Georgiana said, her face pink with the effort of her interruption. “Mary is a guest here, she is not…”

“Enough, child! You will not have a lesson this week. Go, now!”

Sir ,” Georgiana tried again.

“Go! Begone!” he roared. “I will teach this other one today!”

Georgiana cast a despairing look at Mary before fleeing the room.

“Now,” said Herr Braun turning to Mary who swallowed nervously. “We will begin again.”

Mary left the music room two hours later feeling as though she had been put through a brazier. Her cheeks burned when she thought of how Herr Braun had described her playing.  And yet a part of her had felt exhilarated by it. He had drilled her on and on, scale after scale, and had already informed Mr Darcy that he intended to come back two days hence to continue her instruction. Mr Darcy had raised his eyebrows high when Herr Braun had told him this, but had acquiesced.

“Miss Bennett,” he said after Herr Braun had left, “If you do not wish the piano lessons you only need tell me, and I will write to Herr Braun dismissing him. You are long out of the school room and I certainly did not engage him to bully my guests.”

“Can you dismiss him anyway, Fitz?” Georgiana ventured. “He frightens me half to death.”

“I quite agree,” said Lizzie. “Fitz, he is quite wrong for Georgiana, she will not learn a thing. Goodness knows he terrifies both of us!”

“He does not terrify me,” said Darcy.

Lizzie merely looked at him.

“Well, perhaps a little,” Darcy said.

Mary cleared her throat. “I myself am quite happy to continue with him. If the expense is not…”

“You must be the least expensive young woman ever to have had a season in London,” Darcy said. “You have not asked for as much as a bonnet ribbon. If the lessons please you then I am happy to provide them.” He looked at Georgiana. “I suppose I must look for another teacher for you? Or have you had enough?”

“Oh heavens! Do you mean it?” said Georgiana, hugging him. “I have had enough piano lessons to last a lifetime.”

“Very well. So,” he concluded, looking at all three of them. “All quite content?”

Lizzie reached up and kissed him on the cheek. “You are very good.”

“Ah. Hmm,” he said, reddening and smiling despite himself. “My dear, you were speaking of some plans for the garden?”

“Plans? Oh! Indeed,” said Lizzie a slight blush rising to her face. “I have them all laid out in your study. If you would like to…”

“I would be very pleased to…look. If you would like to…”

“Very much,” said Lizzie.

“Then, let us…”

They hurried off together.

Mary looked after them for a moment, puzzled. She had never known Lizzie to be such an avid gardener at Longbourn, but it seemed that she and Darcy were forever rushing from rooms to discuss the topic now. She said as much to Georgiana, but Georgiana only went very pink and began to speak rapidly of the Bingleys’ new baby instead.

 

Xxx

 

They attended the ball that evening - all but Georgiana who was not yet out - and it was just as a London ball should be. Beautifully dressed people arriving in strings of carriages; the grand Westmorland London residence lit up with a thousand candles; and everywhere people and noise and music. They were joined by Bingley’s sisters, now both married and much more amiable than during their first appearances at Netherfield.

Lizzie looked very beautiful, Mary noted, and the look of pride on Mr Darcy’s face as he took her up to dance entirely displaced his usual severe expression. They both looked very handsome indeed and it gave her a strange ache to see their happiness. 

Mary herself had no intention of dancing, even if she had been asked, which she was not. It was simple, she found, to make herself unnoticeable. She had no startling gown to display, or superior beauty; nor were her party inclined to talk to her. Wickham had nodded to her across the room, but of course he could not approach her while she was with the Darcys, and he was much occupied with a noisy group of soldiers and their wives.

As diverting as the crowd and the grandness of the room were, Mary began to find herself a little hot and bored. She was not particularly partial to cards, and unlike the more informal country balls she was used to, there were professional musicians here. There would be no opportunity for her to play.

She fell to wondering what delights the music room in such a place as this would hold, and emboldened by the little wine she had taken, decided to find out for herself. She would very much like to see the piano. Edging out of the ballroom through the press of people, she continued down the hallway, catching glimpses of other lavish room as she passed.

But even as she discovered the music room, she saw Wickham and Denny slip into it ahead of her and close the door. How very odd that they would go in there, when neither of them played. She lingered curiously at the door and jumped at the sound of someone being pushed against it.

Perhaps they were brawling. Soldiers did, after all. She wondered if she should knock and intervene. Some well measured words of wisdom. But she could not think of anything to say. 

Wickham,” Denny groaned suddenly and Mary lowered the hand she had raised to knock. He sounded as though he was begging; perhaps Wickham had committed violence against him?  The door rattled a little again, and then again and again, and Mary withdrew with apprehension into the shadows of an alcove opposite. She heard Denny cry out and then Wickham gave a moan, and then, silence.

Mary stayed hidden where she was and listened intently, but heard nothing more. A few more minutes passed before the door rattled again and opened this time, and Wickham and Denny came swiftly from the room. They had obviously made it up, as Denny had an arm slung around Wickham’s shoulders and Wickham was murmuring something into his ear which was making Denny chuckle. Curious that Denny should have been the one to cry out when it was Wickham’s mouth which was so obviously bruised and red. How awful that they had struck each other! Yet they seemed the best of friends.

Men were strange creatures.

By this time two more of Wickham and Denny’s soldier friends were making their way towards the music room and Mary gave up on her plan of using it as a refuge. A little further along the corridor however a door stood enticingly ajar.

The library.

Mary slipped inside and caught her breath. It was almost overwhelming. She went to the first bookcase she could find - book after book of history and philosophy, many with their pages uncut. Imagine owning so many hundreds of books that you had not even had time to open some of them. 

She caught up Chapman’s Homer. This at least had been looked at. Oh how she had wanted to read it and had asked her father for it! But it was so expensive. And inappropriate for young ladies, so they said. Bingley had proffered his copy of Dryden’s translation but Mrs Bennett had flapped at him and said “Mary has no need of any more books. She reads a great deal too much and has stuffed her head with all sorts of silly nonsense,” and that had been that.

She had never been taught Latin, and although she had tried to learn it herself it had always been beyond her. And so the great tales, reflected in so much of poetry and art, had been denied her. Now here in her hand was the translation of the Odyssey that the young poet Keats had been so thrilled about. Sinking into a chair, she began to read, oblivious to the sounds of merriment coming from the ballroom.

Perhaps half an hour had passed when Mary was interrupted by a young man.

He was overly tall, all knees and elbows, and utterly graceless in the way he moved. His clothes seemed well cared for, but he was dishevelled and untidy - his cravat crooked and his hair in disarray. He had a long nose and straight dark hair, and his eyes though bright, were troubled.

“Someone here…” he muttered, half to himself. He walked over to the sofa opposite Mary, then thought better of it and paced back to the door, and then over to the sofa again. He reminded Mary a little of a crow flapping back and forth.

“What are you reading there?” he said at last, with a careless lack of manners. Mary merely looked at him, unsure how to respond. His address was utterly improper, but then so was stealing into a library at a ball and reading the books. She said nothing.

“Ah, she does not speak. Perhaps you are my guilty conscience, come to reprimand me for my behaviour. I should give you my name. I am Mr West.”

Mary grasped at this slight semblance of proper manners. “Miss Bennet,” she replied. She looked at him severely, hoping he would go back to wherever he’d come from. Instead he leaned on the back of the sofa.

“Miss Bennet, she says. I did not know my Conscience would have such an ordinary name.”

“I am not your conscience, sir,” Mary said, feeling made fun of and annoyed to be shaken out of her reverie for nonsense. “And whimsicality such as this, whilst charming in a child, is not so appealing in a grown man.”

She closed the precious book and stood to replace it in the case to hide her reddening face. Her short speech had quite shocked her; she was not ever that rude.

She turned back to see the young man running his hands through his hair until it stood on end.

“Wait,” he said. “Do wait. I am so used to speaking in that silly way with silly young women that I quite forgot myself. Please stay and talk a little more.”

Mary stood awkwardly by the bookcase and waited for him to say something.

He sat down abruptly and buried his face in his hands.

“I feel quite lost Miss Bennet,” he said in a muffled voice. “I do not know what to do.”

Mary looked at him for a moment, and then sat back down again on the edge of the chair opposite. What good was all her study if she did not use it to help others, after all? She could not reserve all her moral guidance for her sisters.

“Are you in trouble, Mr West?” she asked.

“What are your feelings about marriage, Miss Bennet?” he said in reply.

Mary’s first feeling was that this was not at all appropriate to talk of. But there was something touching about the young man’s openness that kept her there, pondering her response.

“I feel that it should not be entered into lightly,” she said, though she was not sure if she thought that or something she had read thought it. No matter. “For myself, I would much prefer a piano and a well-stocked library to a husband.”

Mr West looked up quickly and broke into a smile which quite transformed his long, rather mournful face.

“You are a singular young woman,” he said.

“Are you to be married, Mr West?” she said quickly. She did not think young men should be smiling at her alone in libraries, however nice the smile might be.

The smile faded.

“Someday I expect,” he said. “And I fear…” he fell silent.

Mary did not speak; she disliked being rushed when she was thinking of what to say, and Mr West did not appear to be finished.

“I am afraid I had not the benefit of sisterly or motherly advice,” he said at last. “I am rather alone when it comes to family.” He looked at his hands for a moment, and Mary watched him.

“Without knowing the circumstances, I do not think I could give any advice which would be beneficial to you,” said Mary seriously.

“No. That is, I am sure you have lots of good advice. But I do not feel like displaying all my idiocy to you for the moment,” he said, forcing a lighter tone. “And you never did answer my question. What were you reading?”

He stood and went to the bookcase, catching up the book she had so hastily replaced. “Oh Chapman! I read him at school. Much more entertaining than Dryden. Here, let me show you a particularly…”

The clock on the mantle began to chime the hour.

“I should perhaps return,” Mary said with a tug of regret. “My party will wonder…”

“Oh do stay, just a few moments more,” Mr West said. “Just let me…”

He pulled up a chair and folded his long limbs into it. “Here. Now do tell me what you think of…”

Mary caught a glimpse of red at the door and looked up to see Wickham passing by there. He met her eyes, then shifted his gaze to Mr West and then back to her again. To her surprise he merely smiled amiably and went upon his way.

“I do think it is the most wonderful verse,” Mr West was saying.

“Sir, you must excuse me,” said Mary, standing up.

Mr West looked up at her, and smiled regretfully. “I suppose we should not be here,” he said. “Reputations and propriety and so forth. But it was a great pleasure to make your acquaintance Miss Bennet. Do you think you shall spend any more social engagements in a library this season?”

Mary could not help but smile. “I am to be at the Westons’ party next week,” she said.

“Well their library is not a patch on this, but still very pleasant,” he said. “I hope you enjoy it.”

Mary nodded to him, and left the room. What a curious young man he was, to spend time during a ball in a library with a plain girl, reading a book. But it had been...very pleasing.

She passed Wickham who was loitering in the hallway. “Good evening Miss Bennet,” he said. “I trust you had a pleasant respite from the press of the ballroom?”

Mary looked sharply at him to see if he was teasing her or insinuating anything. But Wickham’s expression as ever was sweetness and charm itself. She opened her mouth to reply but Mr Denny bowled along the hallway at that moment, holding a bottle of wine and exclaiming, “Come along George, for God’s sake! We have been waiting an age for you to come and make a fourth for Cassino! Can you not pass a moment without pestering a young lady?”

“I am Mrs Wickham’s sister,” Mary said, shocked.

“Are you, by God?” Denny said, grinning. “Not that that would stop him.”

“Good evening Miss Bennet,” said Wickham quickly, and grasping Denny by the upper arm, he hurried them both away.

 

Xxx

 

Mary took the Darcy’s carriage to the Bingleys’ the following morning as she had promised Lydia.

She found the family still at breakfast. Jane and Mr Bingley welcomed Mary warmly, giving her their new baby to dandle - which she swiftly handed back - and questioning her about her journey, the health of the Darcys and any news about Longbourn they had not received already.

Lydia herself, after a few minutes of fierce questioning about Lady this and the Earl of that, discovered Mary had nothing to report from the ball that interested her and returned to scribbling on a sheaf of paper at the table.

“Lydia, it is admirable to see you study so hard,” Mary said. “For youth and beauty are fleeting, but knowledge can be a consolation and source of enjoyment for all of our lives.”

“I’m writing a novel,” Lydia said.

“A novel?” repeated Mary, a little shaken.

“Don’t think you’re the only one in the family with brains,” said Lydia. “I am writing it together with Harriet Forster. It is very diverting, I think it will be a sensation when it is done.”

“I do think you young ladies are splendid,” said Mr Bingley. “It amazes me how you find time to do all these things.”

“May I read it?” asked Mary.

“No Mary, you cannot, because you are not a married woman. It would frighten you too much and then you would never get married at all,” said Lydia with a giggle. “Mr Bingley can read a page if he would like.”

Jane made a movement as if to protest, but Mr Bingley had already taken the sheet Lydia proffered to him and begun to read.

“I do enjoy novels,” he said, beaming around the room.

Before he was even half done, a change came over Mr Bingley’s countenance such as Mary had never seen before. He first went pale, then very very red, then sat down rather suddenly and loosened his necktie.

“Well I…well,” was all he said.

“Mr Denny helped me with that part,” Lydia said. “I could barely write it down for laughing. Is it not shocking? Are you horrified?”

“I…” Mr Bingley could not answer.

“We plan it all like that. We hope to become more and more shocking with each chapter until we write something so dreadful that our lady readers will quite faint away. Wickham says there are some things he did at Cambridge that would make any woman swoon in horror, though I cannot think what he might mean. Do you know what he means, Bingley?”

“I went to Oxford,” said Mr Bingley rather faintly.

“Charles, are you quite well?” Jane asked.

“Ah. I am perhaps a little…I think I shall take the air for a moment,” Mr Bingley said, adjusting his breeches as he stood and exiting the room with undignified haste.

Mr Bingley was replaced by Mr Wickham coming down to breakfast very late. He was impeccable as ever, but his eyes were deeply shadowed. He collapsed into a chair and rested his head in his hands.

Lydia pounced.

“Wickham, what an hour to appear,” she said. “I suppose you and Denny were up all night again with a bottle of brandy?”

“Just...let me have breakfast in peace Lydie,” Wickham said, his voice hoarse.

“Oh!” said Lydia mischievously. “Do I speak too loudly? Poor Wickham.”

She crossed the room and planted herself on his lap. “Poor thing. Perhaps I should sing to you, to soothe your head.”

Wickham groaned. “Leave me be Lydie. I feel quite dreadful.”

Lydia wound an arm around his neck and sang a few notes of a popular song as tunelessly as she could until Wickham groaned again and started to laugh. “Stop, please. I will do anything. I will even read your novel. Only stop.”

Lydia took mercy on him and returned to her writing desk.

“Good morning Miss Bennet,” Wickham said to Mary. “I did not realise you were here.” He rubbed his bleary eyes. “You are better rested than I, I suspect, after spending most of the ball last night in conversation over books.”

“Oh Mary, did you not dance at all?” said Lydia, exasperated.

“I expect she found her companion too diverting,” Wickham said with a smile.

“Who Mary; who was your companion?” Lydia asked in delight.

“It was only Mr West,” said Mary, and Wickham raised his eyebrows at her, but said nothing more. “He is a pleasant enough young man, and he finds himself much in need of moral guidance, having no mother or sister to perform that duty.”

Lydia rolled her eyes. “Lord, how disappointing,” she said. “I thought you might have a suitor. Do you know Mr West, Wickham?”

“Mr West? No,” said Wickham. “That is a name I do not know.”

“Well,” said Lydia, throwing down her pen with a sigh. “I am thoroughly stuck and cannot write any further. Harriet and I will have to act the next part out to get it right, I believe. Wickham, hurry up and breakfast, do. I want to take the carriage to Hyde Park and look at everyone. Mary can come with us.”

Jane and Bingley declined to come, but bestowed the use of their carriage most generously.

It was a warm day and it proved very pleasant to drive slowly along the carriageway in the park, watching the riders alongside them on Rotten Row.

Lydia indicated a very beautiful young lady riding a chestnut mare, with an impeccably fitted riding habit and a silvery little laugh which she was directing towards her attentive companion.

“That is Lady Bell,” said Lydia in a dramatic stage whisper. “She is engaged to the Viscount Westmorland.”

“And is that him with her?” Mary asked. He did not look at all how she expected. He was broad shouldered and very fashionably dressed, with a great deal of curly fair hair framing a fine countenance.

“No,” broke in Wickham. “That is Sir Geoffrey Eaton. They are cousins of a sort.”

“Second cousins, once removed,” Lydia supplied. “But they seem very close, do they not? I have written a character into my novel just like her. She and Lord Westmorland have been engaged since they were mere children, ever since his parents died. But she is a dreadful flirt. Did you know she once fancied herself in love with Wickham? She gave him half a racehorse!”

“Only half?” said Mary, puzzled.

“The other half belonged to...I forget. Wickham?”

“Oh some scoundrel,” said Wickham. “And the benighted thing fell and lamed itself in the first race. I was left with the bills for its stabling.”

“Is that not shocking? She said she was entranced by Wickham’s eyes. And she engaged! He does have very lovely eyes thought, don’t you Wickham.”

“My dear…”

“Mary you must agree,” said Lydia wickedly.

“They are a pleasing if unremarkable shade of blue,” said Mary. “And look very well with the rest of his features which are even and well composed.”

Lydia went off into a peal of laughter.

“Thank you Mary,” Wickham said with a charming smile. “It is very good to know I can rely on you to keep my feet upon the ground.”

“Thank goodness it happened while Mr Darcy senior was alive and able to assist,” said Lydia. “For That Man would not have helped poor Wickham with the bills.”

“Hush, Lydie,” said Wickham mildly.

Mary tried to imagine a circumstance where she could tell a man she was entranced by his eyes. Of course she could never do any such thing. A vision of Mr West’s dark brown eyes came to her, all patience and kindness as he listened to her speak. She blinked the vision away and pushed her glasses up her nose. Lydia’s silliness was obviously contagious.

She watched Lady Bell and Sir Eaton ride back towards them, their handsome young faces alight with conversation and the exercise.

“So does not Lady Bell wish to break the engagement?” asked Mary after a while. “If they met while children and are grown up now, but ill-suited…”

“Lord Westmorland is the third wealthiest man in England,” Wickham said. “And Lady Bell’s family’s fortunes have foundered in recent years.”

“Anyway, it is possible to meet your husband while very young and be very well matched indeed. Especially when you come to understand what makes the other happy,” said Lydia, sliding her arm through Wickham’s. She smiled up at him with an expression Mary could not quite fathom, and Wickham smiled back and shook his head at her.

 

Xxx

 

The following week passed quickly for Mary. Herr Braun came twice, roaring and stamping his way through their lessons, though Mary felt she had never played better.

She could not help but wonder who would be at the Westons’ party.

It was another crowded, lively evening in another grand house. But it had been a hot day, and it was a warm evening, and the music was not to Mary’s liking. Before long her mind began to wander to Mr West and his assessment that she would find the Westons’ library pleasant.

The Darcys were much engaged at cards and Mary had little trouble slipping away. But where to begin? Very few people were in the hallway and she did not feel as easy walking around where she liked as she had at the ball. But the promise of the library nagged at her, and feeling bold she asked a footman to direct her.

She pushed the door open onto a well proportioned room, lined with wood panelling and bookcases, with the last of the evening sun streaming through the windows.

And there he was.

“Miss Bennet,” Mr West said, standing up in a flurry of elbows and knees. “I did wonder if you would..! I have taken the liberty...that is, the Westons have a copy of Chapman too. I wondered if you would like to discuss the verse I so particularly wanted you to see.”

“Mr West,” Mary said, but could not keep the pleased expression from her face. She found she had been half expecting him to be there, and it was delightful not to be disappointed. “Yes I would like that very well.”

It was restful talking to Mr West. Mary had never been very good at holding conversation before. She pondered her answers too long, trying to impart wisdom as well as knowledge, and by the time she knew what she wished to say, someone else would have spoken and said the same thing she had planned to, only better and using half the number of words.

But Mr West did not seem to notice her ponderous silences. He would wait happily for her to speak, and was usually delighted with what she had to say. “Indeed,” he would say, nodding his head, “Yes, I see it all. Remarkable, remarkable.”

As he nodded an unruly lock of his shiny dark hair would often spring forward, and Mary found herself contemplating it with a tenderness that surprised and confused her.

“I wonder if I know your family Miss Bennet,” Mr West said after a while. “You have a sister you say?”

“I have four,” Mary said.

Four ? Good God. And do you all look alike?”

“Oh no,” said Mary, turning a page and pushing her spectacles up her nose. “They are all very pretty.”

“But you are...that is to say,” he stopped, got up, and sat down again in that strange manner he had. “I am sure you are all more like that you think.”

She glanced up at him. Was he trying to give her a compliment?

“I have never heard anyone say so,” she said. “But it is of no real consequence.”

“Do all your sisters have that...hair?” Mr West said.

Mary put her hand to her head. Georgiana’s maid had dressed it for her before the party but she had not paid much notice to how it looked.

“No, theirs is fairer,” she said, puzzled.

“Well yours is most... I mean to say, it is darker. I should know it anywhere,” he finished in a rush, his face flushing. He had stood up again.

“I think…I must go, Miss Bennet,” he said.

She nodded to him, wondering at his abruptness. He nodded back, then stared for a moment, before shaking himself into movement.

He got to the door and turned. “What are you engaged with this week?”

“Nothing very much,” said Mary, feeling startled by his directness. “We shall see the Egyptians on Wednesday.”

“Very good,” he said. “Yes.” And left the room with a flap of his coat.

Mary stared after him for a moment, the book still in her lap. How strange he was, and yet how bereft she felt at his absence.

 

Xxx

 

The outing to the British Museum to see the exhibition of Egyptian Monuments was undertaken by the Darcys and the Bingleys together, with not a Wickham in sight.

“Can you imagine Lydia here?” said Lizzie with a laugh when Mary asked after her. “Amongst the Roman statues? What dreadful remarks she would make! Mr Darcy would not know where to put himself.”

Jane and Bingley were nervous and impatient to begin, as it was the first time they had left the baby with her nurse all alone. They rushed through the exhibit, barely reading the information cards by the statues, and bade everyone farewell less than half-an-hour after arriving.

The Darcys took more time, strolling arm in arm, Lizzie making remarks in a low voice about the statues which were making Mr Darcy chuckle.

Mary could have stayed all day. She gazed at the colossal bust of Rameses II until even Georgiana, who had been lingering politely, abandoned her. The knowledge contained within even one room of this magnificent museum was enough to overwhelm her. She could not learn it all if she came every day for a year.

With a sigh she stepped back from the statue and went to read the story of how the peculiar adventurer Giovanni Belzoni had taken the statue out of Egypt in the first place.

She became aware of a figure nearby who seemed to be desperately trying to conceal themselves behind a small wooden exhibit tray displaying exhumed pottery.

“Mr West!” she cried out, surprised.

Mr West stood up straight as though he had not been bent almost double pretending to read about burial pots.

“Oh!” he said. “Miss Bennet. How strange to see you here.” He flushed very red.

“But I told you I would be here today,” she said.

“No I am sure you told me Tuesday. I remember very clearly. I am almost certain you said Tuesday,” he said, folding his arms and then unfolding them in his own ungainly way. His hair was all on end as usual, and his fingers ink stained. He looked for all the world like an accounts clerk who had strayed from his desk.

Mary, seeing his discomfiture, for once did not labour the point. “Are you enjoying the exhibition?” she asked.

“Oh yes it is quite marvellous. The feat of engineering it took for...Belzoni to carry the statues out of the desert! I mean each statue took ten men...no I mean one hundred men...to carry, and...Oh I mean  they used hydraulics, which…”

Mary glanced at him and saw the reason for his halted speech. He was reading from a notebook he was trying to conceal in his hand.

Catching her eye he went even redder, and his shoulders slumped.

“You have caught me out, Miss Bennet,” he said. “I thought we might run into each other at the Salisburys’ party this week and I wanted to learn about the Egyptians so that we could converse. I wanted to impress you with my knowledge.”

Mary smiled with surprise. “But you do not have to impress me, Mr West.”

“Don’t I? But you see, you impress me so terribly much. And I feel such a dunce when we speak. I have not bothered to learn a thing since school, and you, who had no more than a governess, know ten times the things I do!” He finished his confession by running his hands through his hair again, shoving the crumpled notebook into his pocket and smiling sheepishly.  “In any case, you have caught me out entirely. But perhaps you can give me some credit for attempting to rectify my ignorance.”

“Industrious application to the acquirement of knowledge is more impressive to me than the display of expertise,” Mary said, who had no idea she thought this until this very minute.

“Of course that is just the sort of clever thing you would say,” Mr West said, looking at her with a softness in his eyes that made Mary feel a strange fluttering in her stomach.

“Oh there you are!” said Georgiana. “The Bingleys have gone already. We waited a good while but we very much want to take our table for tea. Are you finished here?”

She glanced at Mr West who had taken a few steps away and was intent upon his pottery again. Mary made a decision.

“No Georgiana, I have hardly begun,” she said. “Tell Lizzie I am content to go without tea today. Come back and find me afterwards.”

Georgiana went, and Mr West reappeared. “Sorry, I was not certain...would you mind if I accompanied you through the rest of the rooms?” he said.

“It would give me great pleasure,” said Mary, and was gratified to see his happy smile.

 

Xx

 

It seemed that Mr West was everywhere that Mary was for the next two weeks. They had been invited to all the same parties and dances, along with half of London. Though he would only turn up half way through an evening, and then melt away again - often to the gaming table, where he seemed to have an acquaintance of sorts with Wickham  - their conversations felt very precious to Mary. How wonderful to have such a friendship! She had never had anything like it, not like Lizzie and Charlotte Lucas, or Lydia and Harriet. But Mr West was so agreeable. And surely there could be nothing improper in it, though they kept it so secret. They only ever spoke of books and music and history.

One morning Mary accompanied Mr Darcy and Georgiana to Hatchards on Piccadilly, a most wonderful bookshop, and was told to choose what she wished as a remembrance of her visit to London.

“Though I hope it will not be your last, Miss Bennet,” Mr Darcy said. “Georgiana has much enjoyed your companionship.”

It was a rainy morning, and there was much confusion and mud in the street as they descended from the carriage in front of the shop. Too transfixed by the display of books in the window, Mary almost lost her footing.

“Miss Bennet,” a hand was under her arm, righting her, and assisting her to a cleaner part of the pavement. She glanced up and took in the hat stained with rain, and dark hair falling into brown eyes.

“You will begin to think I am following you,” Mr West was saying. “But I have just come from Fortnums where I was dispatched by my aunt for a Scotch egg, of all things.” He held up a package in his other hand.

“Miss Bennet, are you alright?” called Darcy from the doorway. “Please come in out of this rain.”

“Come, I will accompany you inside,” Mr West said. He had taken his hand from her arm, but Mary was still aware of where his warm touch had been.

Georgiana’s whole intent was to persuade her brother to buy her the latest Walter Scott, and she tugged him directly over to a table display of “Ivanhoe: a romance” draped in lacy cloth. Mr Darcy was immediately distracted by trying to ascertain if there was an elopement contained within the plot and paid no more mind to Mary and her companion.

“I used to buy my school books here,” Mr West said. “I still remember that doomed feeling every September as my father took me upstairs to look at the Latin primers. You of course would have been thrilled.” He looked at her for a moment with the soft expression she had seen in his eyes in the British Museum. “You look thrilled now.”

“It is a remarkable place,” said Mary, removing her glasses and cleaning them on a handkerchief so that she could gaze in more wonder at the vast collection of every kind of book.

“Come, then, we shall go upstairs and look at the classics, and I shall see if I can overcome my unpleasant memories.”

They passed a very pleasant quarter hour together, almost in silence, browsing the books as the rain pattered against the windows. Every so often Mary would look up and catch him watching her, and he would smile and say, “pay me no mind, I am enjoying your enjoyment.”

Mary was torn for a very long time between a Chapmans of her own, or a book on musical theory. Reluctantly she replaced the Chapmans, as the theory book would have much more application on her return to Longbourn. She turned away from the shelf, her decision made.

“I am very sorry Miss Bennet, but I must go,” said Mr West. “My Aunt will be…” He held up the package from Fortnums.

He paused. Suddenly he grasped her hand. “It has been most pleasant to see you. You are most pleasant.”

Mary felt a blush rise from her chest to the very roots of her hair.

“I feel that there is something I must say but it is hard to know how,” he said. “I must tell you…I must confess that...”

But they were interrupted almost at once by two young men intent on finding the poetry section. Mr West snatched his hand away.

“I apologise,” he said, running his hand through his hair and jamming his hat back on his head. “I hope I have not offended you.” With that he turned abruptly and disappeared down the staircase.

Mary gathered herself and followed him down the staircase at a more sedate pace. She was unsurprised to see Mr West had left the shop entirely. She could not help but think that he would find a way to finish the speech he had begun, and the thought of her half hopes for what he had meant to say filled her with a joy she could not put into words.

 

Xxx

 

The following afternoon, Mary was sat alone in the parlour when Mr Wickham of all people was announced.

“Mr Wickham,” she said. “Surely you know that you should not be here! What can be your purpose?”

“Miss Bennett,” Wickham said with a low voice. “I have been asked to give you this letter and parcel in confidence as the writer thought it may look improper to send you a letter in the usual way.”

He pressed it into her hands.

“But who is it from?” she said, turning it over in her hands.

“From a very new acquaintance of yours,” Mr Wickham said with a small smile. “I met him at our Club last night. A very amiable man, I have always thought.”

Mary nodded, biting her lip against a pleased smile.

“I must go directly. Please let me know if there is to be a message in return,” he said. “I am happy to assist in any way.”

But Lizzie had appeared in the doorway.

“Mr Wickham!” she exclaimed, taking off her bonnet as she came in. “What do you do here? You know it is impossible for me to welcome you.”

“I apologise Madam,” Wickham said smoothly. “I took the precaution of waiting until Mr Darcy was otherwise engaged to visit. I had pressing business with Miss Bennet, but I was about to take my leave. If someone would perhaps summon a cab?”

“I will send for the carriage for you,” Lizzie said, an angry edge in her voice. Mary hugged the parcel tightly in her arms, hoping that Lizzie did not ask what Mr Wickham’s business could be.

Lizzie rang the bell and one of the young footmen appeared.

“Mr Wickham, sir,” he burst out with surprise, then went red in the face and closed his mouth abruptly.

“Wilson, I remember you from Pemberley,” said Wickham warmly.

“Wilson, Mr Wickham is leaving immediately,” Lizzie said. “Can you please arrange for the carriage to be made ready?”

“Yes Ma’am of course. Only,” he glanced at Wickham. “If you will permit me, I will take him myself. It is the driver’s half day.”

“Very well, but please go now,” said Lizzie with some agitation.

“Is it the same old carriage from Pemberley?” said Wickham, putting on his hat.

“Indeed sir. And…” said the footman reddening further,” It still has that problem. The one you were always so good at fixing.”

“Good God, hasn’t Darcy had that mended yet?” said Wickham amiably. “Well I can attend to it before we depart. Lead the way.”

They departed the room, and Lizzie let out a breath. “Is there no end to his brazenness I wonder?” she said. “That he could turn up here, unannounced like that. This story of his about having to talk to you - what was it about? I do not trust him at all.”

Mary took a breath. 

“It was merely a book I particularly wanted which I had left at Jane’s,” she lied, quite astounding herself. She rose. “I did not think Wickham would bring it with such urgency. I am going to read awhile Lizzie.”

Heart thumping, she began to climb the stair to her room. Glancing out of the stair window, she saw the footman and Wickham climbing into the carriage and drawing the curtains. Moments later the carriage began to rock. It was very good of Wickham to take such care of Darcy’s carriage when the two were estranged as they were. Especially as it was clearly taking a great deal of physical effort to make the repair. Perhaps Wickham truly had repented of his wicked behaviour.

She returned to her room and unwrapped the parcel.

A copy of Chapman was revealed. It could only be from him . her heart leapt. How kind Mr West was, how truly he understood her. She opened the cover and a note slipped out.

 

My dear Madam,

On reflection of our meeting today, I felt I must write and remove any mistake or misapprehension of my intentions towards you.  I fear that I may have shown more affection than I had intended.

I will always reflect on our conversations with great affection, but I dearly hope that I have not given rise to a belief of more than I felt. I hope this letter brings you clarification, and that you will accept this gift as a token of gratitude for the short friendship we have enjoyed but which now must be severed.

I am, dear Madam, your most obedient humble servant.

 

Mary was so shocked she barely noticed she was crying. She sat holding the letter, re-reading in disbelief as the clock chimed the half, the quarter and then the hour, and still she could not stir.

She became aware of the sounds of Jane and Bingley arriving for a visit, and Lizzie talking to the baby while Darcy invited Bingley into his library. She could not go down to greet them. Perhaps she could pretend illness, or fatigue. She wrung the letter in her hand, and wiped at her eyes.

Then to her disconcertion, she could hear her sisters approaching up the stair.

“Come, let us take you to see your Aunt Mary,” Lizzie was saying to the baby. “And perhaps she will play you a lullaby.”

Before she could rise to stop them, they had come into the room.

“Mary, what is wrong?” said Jane, tears starting to her own eyes at the sight of Mary’s distress. “Is it Mama? What has happened?”

Mary only shook her head.

“My dear, you must tell us!” said Lizzie, her face all concern.

Mary looked down and tried to compose herself. But she could not keep it to herself. “I have had a letter from one who...who I thought was a friend, severing all ties between us.”

“Is this Mr West who Wickham spoke of?” said Jane. “Your friend from the ball.”

Lizzie had glanced down at the half crumpled letter in Mary’s hand. “Mr West? Who is he? What is this about, Mary? You have not been…”

“No!” said Mary, seeing the expression on her sister’s face. “Nothing like that, and he has done nothing wrong or improper.  Nothing to make me hope. He has broken no faith with me; we only ever spoke of books. But I had become foolishly attached, I see it now, and he must have seen it too. I am...I feel such a fool.”

She gave Lizzie the letter and Lizzie read it with eyes widening.

“This is my fault,” she said gravely. “If you had only felt you could confide in me. You are so independent Mary, and so sensible, I thought my idea of bringing you here to meet new people had not been a success. You seem so content with your books and your music.”

“I am,” said Mary, dashing away more tears. “At least, I had been. And I have always depended on my good sense. But I have found that I would very much like a friend. Someone who likes what I like, and is not impatient when I talk of it. And Mr West was, was...”

“Oh Mary,” said Lizzie putting an arm around her, and Mary gave in at last and wept onto her shoulder.

“We are not very good companions to you, are we?” said Jane gently. “Your occupations are not ones we understand or would choose for ourselves. But we do find them very admirable.”

“And I have been taking you to dances and parties and balls without a thought to what you would prefer,” said Lizzie, a frown creasing her brow. “I think you have had quite enough of it. You shall decide what you do from now on.”

“I have found all the social engagements quite refreshing,” said Mary, finding herself soothed by the balm of sisterly kindness. “I would not have gone if I did not want to.”

Lizzie and Jane stayed with her a while, talking and asking about the attachment, and making her feel as though she had not been such a terrible fool to have liked him. Perhaps all was not so dreadful. The friendship with Mr West had been a mistake, and she was paying dearly in loss of pride, but it had shown her that she could make friends.  And only a few weeks ago she had been very content.

Yes. With a little application to her music and her studies, this would all fade and she would be content again.

 

Xxx

 

Lizzie had encouraged Mary to choose their entertainment for that evening, and Mary selected a piano recital at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. Lydia sent a note saying she would accompany them, having had the story of Mary’s distress from Jane and being half consumed with curiosity.

Mr Darcy had secured them a small box and Lydia - having questioned Mary about her heartbreak and finding it wanting in dramatics -  was half hanging out of it, spotting people in the crowd with her opera glasses.

“Look - there is Lady Hamilton and that is not her husband,” Lydia was saying. “Look Mary, in the dark blue gown down there. I do very much like it.”

Mary had caught up her own opera glasses out of curiosity.

“And look, do look!” Lydia continued. “The Viscount Westmorland arrives with Lady Bell and her mother...and do you see? Sir Geoffrey is with them! Lord, she is bold. Look at the way she is flirting with him, without a care for her fiance. He is an awkward looking fellow, is he not, in comparison. I do not wonder…”

“I cannot see them,” Mary said.

“Just directly beneath us Mary, she is in that ugly hat with the feathers. Good gracious why would you wear such a thing to the theatre!”

“Oh,” said Mary, hearing Lady Bell’s laugh tinkling up to them in their box. “He looks a deal older than I had thought.”

“Oh Mary, no. That is Lord Westmorland,” said Lydia, indicating him.

“But that is not the Viscount,” Mary said. “That is…” her voice faded as Mr West turned to face the room. “That is Mr West,” she finished.

“That is your Mr West?” Lizzie said. “But Mary, are you not mistaken?”

Mary watched as Mr West took the arm of Lady Bell and her head swam. This could not be. She was fevered, or there had been some terrible misunderstanding...

Lizzie looked at her with concern. “Mary, what can this mean?”

“He told me,” Mary said, her heart beating at an extraordinary rate. “He introduced himself as Mr West. I…”

“He cannot be Mr West, Mary. You have not been attending, that is all. Perhaps you need new glasses,” said Lydia, passing Mary her own. “Here try these. Lord Westmorland is to announce his wedding date any day now that Lady Bell is finally of age. He would not have been dallying with you talking about books.”

“Hush, Lydia,” Lizzie hissed, for horror of horrors, Mr West looked up at them.

Mary got up in such a hurry that she almost turned her chair over. Their eyes met, and all the colour drained from Mr West’s face.

“Mary?” said Lizzie and put a hand on her arm, but Mary was already fleeing the box. She had to leave, she had to get some air.

Taking the stairs almost at a run, she could see the sanctuary of the door and fresh air ahead of her. But waiting below her was Mr West himself. He bowed low then looked up at her, his face having paled to almost grey.

“Miss Bennet,” he said, a tiny shake in his voice.

“Mr West,” she managed. “I should say, Lord Westmorland.”

“Ah,” he said sadly. “You have found me out.”

They stared at each other for a moment, and Mr West began to say something, but Mary found she could not bear to hear it.

“I did not think to see you here,” she blurted out.

“Please believe me, I did not think to see you here either,” said Mr West. “I would not like you to think me that unkind.”

“Unkind is the least of it,” Mary managed. She found herself overwhelmed with anger and humiliation. How he must have laughed at her naivety, her stupidity. Why had he passed any time with her at all? Boredom, perhaps. A bet. To see if he could seduce a silly country girl. And when she thought how she had let him take her hand! No, no, it could not be borne.

She heard Lizzie and Lydia descend the stairs behind her. Looking around, she reached out for Lizzie’s arm.

“Please Lizzie, I must go,” she said. Lizzie sprang to her side.

“Excuse us sir,” she said, a hard edge in her voice. “My sister is unwell and I am afraid we must miss the performance tonight.”

“Please allow me to assist. I have my carriage with me,” said the Viscount his face still as pale as his shirtfront.

“That would be very kind,” said Lizzie at the same time as Lydia said “That is the very least you can do!”

Mary was too overcome to protest. She allowed herself to be led into the carriage by her sisters, only just aware of Mr West’s white face and dark eyes looking in at her. Why would he not go back to his seat?  His party must have noticed his absence .

The carriage was warm and comfortable and smelled of a woman’s perfume and the very realisation of this trapped a sob in Mary’s throat. What a fool she had been made to look! She had had so much pride in her good sense, her superior intellect. And yet here she was, as much deceived as any silly girl had ever been. And almost worse, her reputation remained utterly without blemish. She was too plain, too dull even for that. Closing her eyes so that she could not see the concerned faces of her sisters, she suffered a miserable journey home.

 

Xxx

 

Mary could not bear any further social engagements that week and no one could persuade her. Instead Herr Braun came every day to coach her through a new piece of music they were learning. It was soothing to immerse herself so. And Herr Braun knew nothing of her dashed hopes and her humiliation, and treated her just as he always had. But though he railed at her, she could feel how she had improved.

“You begin to give me hope,” he said one day. “You no longer play as though someone had put a stick up your…”

“Herr Braun!” Mary exclaimed.

“Ah, is this not an appropriate idiom to use? My young nephew teaches me these things. I should know by now he is full of the devil.” He chuckled to himself, and Mary was surprised at how warm he sounded. “But what I mean is you play now for yourself; not to display your accomplishment to a room of people, but for the pleasure of the music itself.”

“Thank you sir,” said Mary.

“You go back to your parents soon, I hear,” said Herr Braun.

“Yes, very soon,” said Mary, wondering how it could be that she could return to such a quiet existence.

“Do not forget what old Herr Braun taught you, then,” he said. “You have shown a little improvement at last.”

Mary felt happy for the first time in days. This was praise indeed.

She went upstairs to find a note waiting for her from Wickham.

 

“I am sorry the parcel I delivered has caused you so much distress,” it read. “It was never my intention when I involved myself between you. But I think I have a way to right this wrong and if I do, I hope you will remember fondly my part in it.”

 

Mary frowned over it for a while, before giving up on its meaning. Wickham was so very mysterious sometimes.

 

Xxx

 

Mary spent her last morning in London at the piano, and her last afternoon at the Bingleys.

“I have a note here from Lizzie to say that she and Darcy have changed their minds and wish to go to the party at the Hamiltons. But they are concerned that they will leave you at home on your last night in London,” Jane told Mary, looking up from the afternoon post which she was sorting through.

“But I will happily go,” said Mary. A week away from society had left her feeling robust enough to enjoy it again.

“Oh that is wonderful! The Wickhams go too; you must go from here with them. I’m sure you can borrow a gown from Lydia, why do you not go and ask her?”

Mary agreed, and left the room in search of her sister.

She found her on the upper landing. In utter horror she watched as Lydia, in fits of giggles, was pursued across the hallway by a small, dark haired soldier. The soldier caught her around the waist and pulled her into the window seat, kissing her fervently.

“Lydia!” Mary managed, holding onto the bannister in her shock. Lydia and her companion looked up.

The soldier was Harriet Forster.

“Oh Mary!” shrieked Lydia. “How we have amazed you! We were acting out a scene from our novel. Poor dear Captain Forster left such a great number of uniforms behind when he died and Harriet could not bear to part from them.”

Harriet looked up at Mary, her dark eyes glittering in her flushed face, and gave Mary an impish smile.

“This cannot possibly be proper Lydia,” said Mary.

“Of course it is proper, it is perfectly proper, I am a married woman,” said Lydia impatiently. “But I am going to change for the party now in any case. Come, Harriet.”

She and Harriet rushed off down the hallway again, Harriet’s arm still firmly around Lydia’s waist.

Mary returned to the drawing room in some confusion. She would perhaps borrow a dress from Jane instead.

Lydia reappeared in the drawing room shortly afterwards, a little flushed and thrilling with excitement.

“Such news Mary, you will not believe me when I tell you!” she said. “Lady Bell’s maid told Parsons - Bingley’s valet you know - and Parsons told Wickham and he told me just now as we were changing.”

“Told you what, Lydia?” said Jane.

“Lady Bell has eloped!” Lydia said. Jane’s eyes went wide and she looked in horror at Mary.

Mary’s mouth dried. “But why would she elope? They are to be married any day.” Her heart felt as though it would thump out of her chest.

“She has eloped with Sir Geoffrey Eaton, not the Viscount,” said Lydia. “Do attend, Mary.” She opened her fan with a twist of her wrist and fanned her flushed cheeks. “Lord Westmorland has lost all his money at the gaming table; his estate, the house in London, everything they are saying. And since Sir Geoffrey has lately come into a fortune from his Uncle, Lady Bell jumped ship.”

“That is a very vulgar phrase Lydia,” Mary said, grasping onto the one part of the conversation she could remotely digest.

“Oh it is just a phrase they use in the Navy, it is not vulgar,” said Lydia impatiently.

“But there must be another explanation,” said Jane. “I do not imagine Lady Bell to be so cruel. After all, Lord Westmorland did not abandon her when her family lost their fortune. The story has perhaps become distorted from being repeated by so many people.”

“Oh Jane you sweet old thing,” said Lydia. “Well whatever the truth of it is, Lady Bell is Lady Eaton now. Doesn’t that just serve Lord Westmorland right, Mary?”

But Mary could not quite agree.

 

Xxx

 

Lydia was not the only one to be bursting with the gossip about Lady Bell. The Hamiltons’ party positively buzzed with it. She had gone in the night without her parents’ knowledge. No, she had been assisted by her mother. Sir Geoffrey had compromised her and she had been forced to marry him. No indeed, they were not married at all and Lady Bell’s father had had to strike Sir Geoffrey and force him to make his daughter an honest woman. Who knew the truth of it at all?

Mary watched all the flushed faces and the chattering mouths; she listened to the laughter. Perhaps she would not miss all this society so very much after all.

The room fell silent for a moment as the Viscount Westmorland was announced.

“How can he come here?” Lydia hissed. “He must know that everyone has heard. It is unthinkable! Perhaps he is in liquor.”

“Lydie,” Wickham said, putting a quieting hand on her arm. “You must always go for the most dramatic explanation.”  He broke away from their party and went to where Lord Westmorland stood alone, as dishevelled as he had ever been. They began to speak intently, causing both Mary and Lydia agonies of curiosity, even though Lydia was the only one to speak hers.

Lord Hamilton, the host of the party, had other concerns than the heartbreak of Viscounts however. He greeted their party, a picture of distress.

“The musician I had engaged to play has cried off,” he said, losing his usual reticence in his annoyance. “It was the whole purpose of the evening!”

“Well cannot someone else perform?” asked Darcy. “I am sure we have many accomplished pianists here.” He smiled at Lizzie who shook her head emphatically.

“Of course, but I had promised several of my acquaintance that they would hear a new piece of music I have much talked about. It is very new and exceedingly difficult,” he said. “It is by a composer only little known here in England.” He waved the music at them.

“Oh, Beethoven,” said Mary, who had caught sight of the title. Herr Braun’s obsession. “It is his latest piano concerto. I have played it a number of times.”

She took the music from Lord Hamilton who looked too astounded to protest.

“I am happy to oblige, sir,” she said.

“Mary you cannot!” exclaimed Lizzie.

“Miss Bennet, this music has only lately come from Germany. Forgive me, but it is unlikely that you could know it,” Lord Hamilton said, looking as though he wished to snatch the music back.

“Mary, for heaven's sake, sit down. You do not know how to play it,” said Lydia. “You will make fools of us all.”

“But I do know it,” said Mary simply, and went to the piano.

Lord Hamilton followed her, babbling about how kind she was to offer, but that there was really no need, none at all, and would she not rather just play some country music? It really did not signify.

“Please do not worry, sir,” Mary said when he stopped for breath at last. “I can play this perfectly well.”

Lord Hamilton subsided at last, his shoulders slumping in defeat.

The room began to fall quiet as Mary lifted the lid of the piano, and adusted the stool. She propped the music on the stand, and a footman came forward to light the candles for her.

Mary looked through the music once more and took a deep breath to compose herself. It was the first time she had ever performed something so long in public, and a long time since she had performed at all.

Glancing up, she caught sight of Lizzie’s pale, worried face and Mr Darcy’s frowning one. Wickham looked smoothly attentive and gave her a small nod of encouragement. Lydia was clearly hiding her giggles behind a glove.

And to the right of her family stood the Viscount, awkward and angular and more crow-like than ever. She looked away quickly before he could catch her eye.

She was vaguely aware of Lord Hamilton introducing her and explaining that the piece was exceedingly difficult and how very brave it was of Miss Bennet to attempt it when she was so little acquainted with it. A rumble of chatter and some laughter rose up at that; it seemed she would be expected to be shockingly bad. She wondered if she had a title and was not so plain that the crowd might be more forgiving.

Very well. Reading the opening bars she could almost hear Herr Braun snapping “ Listen to yourself. Feel what the music is about. Never have I met a girl who has so much application and so little feeling!”

But that was not true any more, and it had never been less true than it was at this moment. Let them all watch her and mock. Let him watch.

The chatter and laughter had died down entirely, and the assembled audience were completely silent as they waited for her to begin.

Taking a deep breath, she brought her hands down on the keyboard.

And she was off.

The first movement was slow, almost melancholy, the melody drawing you in before moving away again. She poured into it all her loneliness, all the pain of her dashed hopes and regrets, the humiliation she had felt. And yet the music was beautiful enough to lift her spirits too, and she moved into the forest of notes of the second movement with a surge of happiness, picking her way through the intricate melodies as easily as if she had been playing them all her life. And yet each note felt like a new discovery. Any awareness of the audience was long gone and she felt completely immersed in the story she was trying to tell.

The second movement ended and then she was sweeping into the final movement, an unrelenting race to the end of the piece that she had stumbled over time and again during her lessons. But her fingers were flying across the keys now and the Herr Braun of her imagination was stalking around the piano, thumping his cane on the ground barking “play it like wolves are chasing you.” An interlude where the melody came back again, full of hope and life this time, and before she knew it she was onto the end, faster and faster than she thought she could ever go, her head bent, her shoulders cramping as she came up on the final cadenza, hands chasing each other across the keys, almost there, almost there, “the wolves are at your heels young lady!” a desperate scramble up from one end of the keyboard to the other, and just when she thought she could not make her aching hands go on a moment longer, she reached the final crashing notes and was done.

She had done it.

There was a slight pause before someone began to clap, and then the audience began to applaud as one.

She stood and made a wobbly curtsy to the assembly. She could see Lizzie’s astonished face, and Mr Darcy was actually smiling. Lydia was clapping with abandon and Lord Hamilton was mopping his forehead with a handkerchief as though he had been running a race.

And best of all but worst of all, Mr West burst out of the crowd and almost ran towards her. His dark eyes shone with excitement and it made Mary’s heart twist within her in the most dreadful way.

“Miss Bennet,” he said breathlessly. “Oh Miss Bennet, that was remarkable.”

“Thank you,” she said, hardly able to look at him. She tried to turn away, but he stepped around her.

“Oh listen for a moment, that is all I ask,” he said, reaching out and taking her hand.

“Sir!” said Mary with as much dignity as she could muster, “Please release me, you cannot behave so.”

“Miss Bennet, I beg you…” he said loudly. The crowd which had been milling around chattering in the wake of her performance, fell utterly silent and turned as one to look at them. Her sisters came to her side.

Mary looked at him, pushing her spectacles up her nose with a shaking hand. 

“If you give me a moment of your time now, I promise I will never bother you again,” he said.

“Please let go of my hand, you have humiliated me enough by deceiving me,” Mary said. “I cannot think why you did it.”

“I never set out to do it. I only...I liked they way you spoke to me,” Mr West said. “Like I was just anyone. And I thought if you knew, you would be different. It was idiotic of me. Five minutes in your company should have told me that you would treat me no differently if I were a Prince or, or a road sweeper if I had read something you wished to talk about.”

Mary could not speak. Mr West took a deep breath and ploughed onwards.

“You told me once that marriage was something you hoped to avoid, and that you would much prefer a library and a piano to a husband,” he said, the unruly lock of hair springing forward as he looked at her.

“I...did,” said Mary and out of the corner of her eye saw Lydia roll her eyes heavenward in disgust.

“Please Lord Westmorland, for Mary’s sake, you should talk elsewhere,” said Lizzie, and Mr West looked up at her as though coming out of a dream.

“Oh, yes. We…” he looked around in confusion. 

Wickham materialised from the crowd. “Come this way,” he said. “The terrace here is quite empty and I will stand guard for you.”

Once there, the Viscount took both her hands and looked at her earnestly.

“You must have heard of my change in circumstances,” he said.

Mary nodded. “It seems you were very reckless, to lose everything that way,” she said.

“Oh, that. But it is not true!” he said. “It was all a misunderstanding. Anyway, I could not do it if I gambled night and day for a twelvemonth. My blasted relatives keep dying and bestowing enormous fortunes upon me.”

He shifted forward, holding her hands more tightly.

“Anyway that is not why I brought you in here. I wanted to say...what I almost said, in that bookshop before having the most stupid attack of morality I have ever suffered from.”

“You were quite clear in your letter,” Mary said.

“Oh, do not remind me of that letter, I was not in my right mind when I wrote it! I disgust myself when I think of it,” he said passionately. “Please tell me you threw it on the fire as soon as you had read it.”

“Of course,” said Mary, who knew very well it was crumpled and tearstained and tucked into her bible.

“Good. Now please listen to what I should have said. I know that I am not in any way worthy of you,” he continued. “But I do have a silly number of pianos, and books enough in my libraries to restock the British Museum twice over. Please; let me give them to you. If only...if only you would perhaps accept a husband along with them?”

Mary took a breath. She thought of the moral tracts she had studied on the perils of choosing a bad marriage and how she had lectured Lydia on being guarded in her behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex. Of all the times she had congratulated herself on her good sense; of how she had worked on her accomplishments and mind rather than her feminine charms. She thought of how Mr West had lied to her.

And then she thought that she did not care.

“How many pianos?” she asked and Mr West’s face crumpled with relief.

“Oh Miss Bennet, Oh my dear. I am so desperately fond of you,” he said, kissing one of her hands.

“And I believe I am rather fond of you,” she said, beginning to smile. “But you have not answered my question.”

“At least fifteen that I can think of," he said. "If you do not count the one in the nursery, which I wouldn’t as I distinctly remember hiding a good deal of blancmange in it. My nurse was terribly keen on blancmange.”

She laughed at this and he smiled back with such overwhelming joy that her heart leapt within her, and she at last allowed herself to smooth the lock of silky hair on his forehead back into place. He leaned into her touch for a moment, then gathered her close.

“I hope you stay fond of me,” he said. “For you quite over-set me from the moment you told me off for being whimsical. You are much, much too clever for me and I shall marry you immediately before you realise what an idiot I am.”

"I would like that very well," said Mary. “And I must say, I am pleased you are not to be a pauper.”

“I would not make a very good one,” he said, grinning at her.

“But how could such a misunderstanding occur?” asked Mary. “It is so very strange!”

“Wickham came to me and explained everything,” the Viscount said. “He blamed himself entirely, although I assured him the fault lay with Penelope.”

“It is the fault of Wickham?”

“No, no. It...the evening after I had seen you at the theatre, we were at the gaming table together. I trounced him thoroughly, and he took it in great part, but left the table a little early as a consequence. Penelope spoke to him on his way from the table - they are old acquaintances - and asked him how he had done. He said in jest he had taken my fortune.”

“And Lady Bell believed him?”

“Wickham assured me he hadn’t the slightest idea she would take it as any more than a joke. It is his countenance I suppose; it is so very pleasing, and he has such an earnest, charming manner that you cannot help but believe what he says.”

Mary agreed in silence. Poor Wickham. At times his looks must be such an affliction.

“He told her I had wagered the London house, the Westmorland estate; everything. He thought his claims were so over-the-top that he could not possibly be believed, and when she rushed away afterwards he did not think anything of it.”

“She seems a most reckless young woman,” said Mary.

“Well she was more than half in love with Sir Geoffrey already,” Mr West said. “But she did not feel she could give up the prospect of...well, me. Her elder brother caused her family to lose their fortune before dying in terrible disgrace, and they all took it very hard. I did not feel I could abandon her though we heartily disliked each other by the time that had happened. And then Sir Geoffrey came into a fortune, and I, apparently, lost mine. So, there we are.”

Mary was not sure what to say about all this. Though she could not help think that Lydia would love it for her novel.

“Your brother in law is a splendid fellow,” Mr West said after a moment.

“Mr Darcy is indeed the best of men.”

“Not that stuffed shirt,” Mr West said, flapping his hand. “Gosh I remember him at Cambridge. I meant Wickham. He has has some terrible bad luck in his fortunes, never mind that dreadful horse Penelope foisted on him. I must do something for him.”

“Mr Wickham is merely reaping the rewards of a degenerate youth,” said Mary.

“Yes but my dear, now he has done something wonderful, albeit accidentally. I will let myself be guided by you of course, but perhaps one of the rewards of that should be a large fortune and a place at Court?”

A fortune for Wickham and Lydia. Something tugged at the back of her mind; what Wickham had said in his note about setting things right, and asking to be remembered fondly. She wondered fleetingly if this had been his objective all along. But no, she chided herself. How could that be? He could not possibly be that devious.

And it would be churlish of her not to share the great happiness she had come into.

“Yes, I think that would do very well,” she said.

“And do you think it would be dreadful of us to get married as soon as we can? I cannot bear the thought of you disappearing back to that village of yours and some awful country squire snapping you up from under my nose.”

“I think we should certainly get married before you meet my mother,” said Mary in all seriousness. Mr West began to laugh, and  so did she although she had no idea what was so funny, and then Mr West, James, as he murmured to her, began to kiss her so thoroughly that she forgot entirely what she had no idea about. 

They did not hear the quiet click of the doors to the terrace closing as Mr Wickham let himself back inside to search for his wife and a very large bottle of champagne.