'My dear Mrs Bennet,' said her husband one day over breakfast, 'have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?'
Their sons looked at each other, and Mrs Bennet replied that she had not.
'But it is; Mr Gardiner told me Mrs Long was there yesterday and told Mrs Gardiner all about it.'
His wife made no answer, quietly demolishing her plate of kippers, while the tension at the table rose. Finally, John, their eldest son, intervened. 'And does Mrs Long know who has taken it?'
Mr Bennet's tone was as enthusiastic in answering the question as he had been when raising the issue. 'Why, of course! It has been taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; he came in his chaise and four to see the place, and he liked it so much he agreed with Mr Morris immediately, and they are to take possession by Michaelmas. Some servants will be over the place by the end of the week.'
'Is he married or single?' asked Edward with a satirical smile in his mother's direction. 'That is the main point of enquiry, I should say, for most of the county.'
'Married, and his name is Bingley. But he is sure to have a sister or two, which detail should be of interest to you.'
'How so?' asked Mrs Bennet from the other side of the table. 'How can it be of interest to Edward?'
'Edward, or either of his brothers, I should say — although Edward may do well to start thinking about it. The girls are sure to have fortunes of their own — you must know I am thinking of them marrying one of the boys.'
'Is that what they are planning, you think, in settling here in their brother's house?'
'Of course not, do not be tiresome — but they may very well fall in love with one of them. I shall call on Mr Bingley as soon as possible to secure an introduction.'
John caught Edward's eye, his expression alarmed, and Edward felt compelled to speak. 'Surely, sir, that is hardly necessary. We are certain to make their acquaintance soon enough.'
'Not necessary? Suit yourself, if you have no concern for your future, but your brothers have more sense.'
Mark looked as if he wanted to differ — or perhaps even agree, though Edward wagered his words would have not pleased their father all the same — but John was faster. 'Indeed, it would be best, perhaps, if Edward and I called on Mr Bingley ourselves?'
Mr Bennet looked dubious. 'I am the principal landowner of the neighbourhood — surely I should be the one to welcome him?'
'Mr Bingley must be John's age, did you not say?' said Edward, catching his brother's eye. 'He may like to meet someone who enjoys hunting, and perhaps the sisters will be there, and John can be introduced immediately.' John appeared about to speak, a slight frown on his face, but Edward continued heedlessly, trying to repress a smile. 'He is, after all, the heir to the principal gentleman in the neighbourhood. He can even inform them of the coming Assembly and ask them for the first dance.'
'Indeed, you must go, John.' Mr Bennet wore a thoughtful expression. 'And of course, Edward, you must go, too. If he has two sisters, John cannot dance the first with both of them. He must ask the eldest, or at least the prettiest, and you must ask the other one.'
'What, is poor Mark to be left out?' asked Edward, almost despite himself. 'What if there are three sisters? I am a fair dancer, but even I cannot take two.'
His mother hid a smile, and Mark appeared both scandalized and alarmed.
'Mark is too young,' said Mr Bennet, 'and a dreadful dancer, to boot. No, Mark must not go.'
Mark did not appear to feel the insult; he had no care for dancing. Edward took a sip of his tea, and looked across the table at his elder brother — John smiled calmly at him and nodded slightly; Edward could only respond with a roll of his eyes.
'Well then, that is settled!' Mr Bennet, oblivious at his son's true feelings on the matter, was undeterred.
'How delightful,' said Mrs Bennet from her place at the head of the table opposite to Mr Bennet. She did not raise her eyes from her plate.
Mr Bennet's mouth took a downward turn, as if he suspected the feelings did not correspond with the words, but said nothing. After a moment, he asked, 'John — are the horses needed at the farm?'
'I have no notion, sir, but they are usually needed. Should I ring and ask for them?'
Mrs Bennet's mouth tightened.
'Please, do — I will need them later today.' Mr Bennet drained his tea and got up. 'I must go see Mr Gardiner — he sent around word that my brother Evans has seen the prettiest mare for hunting at Tattersall's, and it is sure to go too quickly.'
Mrs Bennet's cup rattled against the small plate, and Edward frowned, trying to think of a way to divert his father. But he could find none, and in a matter of moments, Mr Bennet was out of the room, whistling.
Mark had stopped paying attention and was eating with a rapidity that could only mean that he had left a book partially unread. John was frowning too, but rather than angry he seemed sympathetic, and looked in their mother's direction. After a moment, he said, 'Do you need to go into Meryton today, madam?'
'No, I will just stay and take advantage of the morning — Lady Lucas is sure to call in the afternoon to tell me the great news herself.' Her smile was sardonic.
Edward finished his tea, poked at his kippers, who looked at him with dead, accusatory eyes, and stood up. 'I should go riding — John, did you not say you wanted to go visit Mr Davis today?'
John glanced at Mrs Bennet and said, 'Yes, I should like to. My mother said the other day that his roof is in danger of caving.'
Mrs Bennet smiled at them. 'Go, go, enjoy the day before you are both contracted to be married to the highest bidder.'
Mark looked up from his plate with a censorious expression, but did not say anything.
Not an hour later, Edward and John rode side by side, slow enough that, not one minute atop the horse, Edward had no difficulty being heard when he said, 'I find you remarkably at ease, brother, in the face of my father's machinations.'
'He cannot make me marry,' John pointed out.
'Indeed, the worst — and I should add, the least! — he can do is to embarrass us thoroughly.'
John coloured slightly. 'He does not mean to.'
'The road to hell, as they say! And you will not convince me that his intentions are that good in any case.'
'He is just concerned.'
'Is he? I cannot think why. You are well enough off, since he cannot do any major damage to the property; Mark cannot fail to find some parish in which to read sermons, he does it so well; and I, why, I am the better off of the lot.'
'What, no desire to marry some heiress and settle on a nearby estate?' asked John, with a slight, knowing smile.
'Marry? At my age? Besides, I doubt anyone would have me.'
'I had started to wonder at your own desires, to be truthful, and I know my mother has. Do you plan to stay in London next year?'
Edward raised his eyebrows. 'Does she worry? I am only enjoying what is probably my last extended time here, you know; I will stay at the Inns next year and be dutiful and studious forevermore.'
John smiled, but his expression did not seem to express the doubt that Edward would have thought more than fair. 'It is good to know it. In any case, calling on Mr Bingley when he arrives at Netherfield has naught to do with our marrying or not.'
'Does it not? I know of someone who would disagree.'
'You must come with me, of course.'
Edward flashed his brother a quick smile. 'I am.'
'And Davis will be happy to receive us both, I am sure. You must call on Netherfield Park with me when Mr Bingley arrives,' repeated John, with infinite patience. 'You know what I mean.'
'Why, I did not know you held Bingley's second sister in such regard. Of course I will call and ask her for the first dance.'
'We will go,' said John, 'speak with Mr Bingley, who is surely perfectly agreeable, mention the Assembly, and be away at once.'
'What, you will not even let me ask after Mr Bingley's second sister? Cold, cold heart — not a moment ago, you were worried she would be without a partner for the first.' But on seeing John's expression, Edward relented. 'If I must — you know me well enough already: I will go if you want me to, though I do not understand why you need me. You are the eldest, surely it is perfectly acceptable for you to call and pay your respects for your father and mother?'
'We will not even ask if he has any sisters.' John smiled easily at him and shook his head. 'I want someone with whom to discuss the famous Mr Bingley, that is all.'
'Gossip? You should have said so in the first place; of course I will go.' Edward tightened one hand on the reins and pointed with the other. 'What say you to a race to that tree?'
Letter from Lady Darcy to Lady Darcy
Netherfield, Thursday evening October 18
I am writing, my dear Madam, as soon as we reached our destination, as I know you were anxious about Fitzwilliam's little throat cold. He is very much improved, as he spent most of the day buried in Mrs Bingley's new furs and being fussed over by her, and when Mrs Bingley's attention was elsewhere, there was Miss Bingley, who you know loves him so, and of course she was obliging enough to coddle him to his taste. To be sure, I never had the chance to nurse my own child!
He behaved exceedingly well—and I only indulge in such display of maternal pride since I know that you, his beloved grandmother, must be as biased as I am. Indeed, he is as kind as his father was, and every day I see in him more of my late husband's brilliancy of intellect and superior integrity. Miss Bingley had promised him Turkish delights if he behaved well—it was but an excuse, of course, for he always behaves particularly well with her and she wanted to spoil him. She gave him two treats, and was about to produce a third when he stopped her, remarking that he was to eat one and she the other. I cannot say if this is a sign of generosity of heart or of love for Miss Bingley, but I was suddenly reminded of my courtship with your son. I am afraid Miss Bingley is very handsome and lively, and Fitzwilliam, even at four, seems very enamoured.
On this sentimental note, upon which we must not linger, I must end this letter. I have the unpacking to oversee, since I let Marie pack like we were going to Paris instead of Hertfordshire: no less than six different bonnets and four ball gowns. I think she wants me to marry again—you know how sentimental these French maids are!
I remain your most attached grand-niece and daughter, &c.,