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The Part of Her Hair

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“Jane will shepherd you most faithfully, no doubt,” Mr. Bennet said, “and Lydia, I’m sure, will work as hard as she can to throw you to the wolves for dinner. I am almost inclined to see it myself, though not at all inclined to envy Jane the task of managing it. But perhaps it will go better than I think—you and Lydia together might almost make a tolerable person, after all.”

Mary bore all this stoically, imagining herself a martyr within earshot of a lion’s roars and slaverings. Her words would be used against her if she did speak.

Though her silence had its ill effects as well.

“Lord,” her father said, “how I do miss Lizzy.”

“One never knows one’s creature comforts until they’re gone,” Mary said, forgetting her wish to let him run on until he was finished.

“It is an unbearable temptation for you, this shaping of conversation into a series of aphorisms.”

“It is true, sir, that the prudence necessary to resist scarcely runs in my family, and it is fortunate for us, else my sisters and I would not have been, had you not indulged.”

Mr. Bennet rubbed his chin. He looked very old to Mary just then, old enough for her to regret being lured into a game she had never been very good at playing. No one was ever easy with her, and she never easy with them, for her to have learned how to tease. She couldn’t abide raillery on either side of a conversation. What she felt as cruelty, she returned as such.

It only remained to her then to feel the weight of her own riposte, and she did: “I’m sorry—to you and to my mother.”

“Perhaps that is why I’m sending you to Town at last,” he said, musingly and not directly off her apology, “though I know it will not be congenial to you. I never found it so myself. But you are too old, Mary, to amuse only by severity—it is no longer ironic—and yet too young to let severity grow into unkindness. That may be fitting when you are my age, but not before.”

He touched her cheek, which shocked her. Certainly it was the only gesture of affection she could recall passing between them. She supposed fatherly feeling had come upon him like a change in the weather, some squall blown in only to pass on quickly, as it had after Lydia’s elopement.

“I inflict you on your sister now to save inflicting you on her for a lifetime,” he said, his manner brisk once more. “You are after all not a decorative creature, and if you cannot be an ornament in another’s home, it’s better to have your own, where you may be as unpleasant as you choose.”

*

Jane’s embrace was, by any measure, the best part of Mary’s arrival in town. There was something so comforting about a person who said she was happy to see you and meant it. Mary considered sharing that observation with the general company, but it doubtlessly would have been seen as a slight on Lydia’s greeting, which had been both falser and more exuberant than Jane’s. It was something she might have said the year before and certainly would have said the year before that. Her father was not wrong to have denounced her as severe, he was only wrong to have thought the tendency worsened, when in fact Mary considered herself much improved and congratulated herself quite often on the growth of her character.

In a family with so many sisters, Mary thought it almost not worthwhile to change, since no one ever noticed it and was always seeing you as you used to be and not as you were.

“Well, Wickham has gone off somewhere,” Lydia said carelessly, waving her hand to indicate either a forgivable lack of knowledge of her husband’s precise whereabouts or an unconscionable indifference to them, “so I thought to come stay with Jane. But you, I think Jane said, have been sent?”

“Our father thought it best for me to come where my circle of acquaintances might be enlarged by the addition of Jane’s.”

“And it is a delightful plan,” Jane said firmly.

“If it isn’t, you shall certainly make it so through general pronouncement,” Lydia said. She yawned, and added that in Town one was constantly being kept up late because society, the kind which Mary had yet to experience, was so droll and invigorating. “I declare, I could sleep half the day away like a Spaniard.”

Jane adroitly managed it so that Lydia did just that; it remained only to find Mary something to wear for the ball. It was put across to her that the gowns she had brought from Longbourn were not quite to the purpose in London, and while nothing could be made for her in so short a time, one of Jane’s own dresses could be altered to fit. Mary consented to being pricked with pins.

By that evening, she was costumed well enough in a gold and black gown that Bingley admired as bringing out her color very becomingly and that Lydia said made her look like a bee.

“There wasn’t anything to be done about the bust, then?” Lydia added.

Jane colored. “I’m afraid not. By tomorrow, yes, but—”

Bingley noticed the object of their conversation and realized that he had left something in another room, many apologies, and vanished to retrieve it.

“Well, you are rather generous there,” Lydia said.

“I know I’m not well-proportioned.”

“Well-proportioned! Jane, will you not explain to our sister that it isn’t proportions that attract a husband? Mary, you’ll do very well if you only smile a little more and refer to Scripture a little less.”

Things went on in this fashion for so long that Mary tired of blushing. For once, Lydia’s bawdy needling of her served a purpose, though, because it meant that when they arrived at the ball, she was freshly depleted of embarrassment, and could stand to be introduced very well. She knew her virtues and knew that conversation was not among them—she was at the same time both too prosy and too direct—and ordinarily would have been comfortable in company only if she could have demonstrated that which she did have talent for, but that seemed impossible in so large an assembly. The piano bench remained occupied. No one was asked to sing. They were expected only to dance, drink lemonade, and flirt. Lydia considered that a boon, and took great liberties with her standing as a married woman to carry on under the guise of harmless amusement, but Mary did not.

Jane would have been a place of refuge to her, had Jane not so enjoyed the chance to make love to her own husband. Bingley was naturally attentive to Mary, and stood up with her twice, but he and Jane had evidently resigned themselves to the notion that Mary could not be made to have a good time. Had not all her history persuaded them of that? Thus, once their duties were discharged, and their introductions of her made, they were at liberty to pursue their own pleasure.

“You do not dance, Miss Bennet?”

Mary turned to find a plump young woman in a gauzy pink gown at her elbow. Miss—Miss Gibson. Alice or Abigail or Anna or something like.

“As you see,” Mary said, not wanting to talk.

Miss Gibson was undaunted. “Your relations seem poor stewards of your enjoyment.”

Mary, having thought so herself, and many times, bristled. “I am inclined to defend them. Why should they not enjoy themselves, when their enjoyments are sensible, and mine, though not frivolous, are so much harder to ascertain? I cannot resent them for it.”

“But it is such a misfortune to be deprived even of resentment!”

“That is unchristian.”

“It is unchristian for it to be true,” Miss Gibson said, “but, if it is true, owing to the sinfulness of human nature, it is honest, and therefore Christian, to express it, isn’t it?”

Mary, despite herself, smiled: it was precisely the kind of tangle she liked. “You’ve outfoxed me. But my sister Jane is too good to be resented with any kind of pleasure.”

“I met two of your sisters, did I not?”

She looked out at Lydia laying her hand across some young captain’s arm. “You did.”

Miss Gibson followed her gaze, frowned a little, and then nodded. She said nothing. So Mary had made an acceptable partner in conversation for a moment, but a moment only; she felt an odd kind of shame at having lost track of the thread. Was it wrong, to have slighted Lydia? Miss Gibson had begun the deprecation, was it so wrong for Mary to continue it? But they were not Miss Gibson’s sisters, and just as a sister could say in private what a stranger could not, a stranger could say in company what a sister could not. How the creation of that aphorism would tweak her father, if he were here.

“My sister Lydia and I have ever been opposites,” Mary said quietly. “I fear I don’t give her her due. Or I fear I do—I would rather I were unjust than she as small as she is in my estimation.” She’d now compounded rudeness with excessive familiarity—and divulged something so unflattering to herself and to her family that she ought never to have admitted it. She covered her mouth with her hand, self-conscious that she looked like some illustration of repentance.

But Miss Gibson had turned to her again, her mouth softened—softened further, Mary amended.

It was a strange time to blush. She looked away. “Why do you not dance, Miss Gibson?”

“I am infrequently asked.” She said it as if it were of no consequence to her, and seemed sincere in that. She must, then, have been wealthy: even Mary was not indifferent to how little she was liked, and Mary had never liked anyone. She only knew that, as her father had said, she would be better in her own home than someone else’s.

Whether Miss Gibson minded her place at the wall or not, Mary still didn’t understand how she held it with so little interruption. True, she was closer to thirty than twenty, but she had a freshness to her, as perceptible as the scent from a crumpled mint leaf, and she was handsome. Her hair was the color of cherry wood.

But there was much about society that Mary could never quite grasp.

“Shall I get you a glass of lemonade?” she said awkwardly, before recalling it was the gentlemen who offered, generally, and that ladies without escorts must usually do without punch.

Miss Gibson smiled. She had a slight gap between her front teeth. “That would be lovely.”

So Mary did as promised, procuring herself a cup as well, and no one seemed to think anything of it. Maybe society—she followed the thought intently, as if she were translating it—was not made up of what people said, which was so often inaccurate or false, but of what they did. Everything you must not do, after all, Lydia had done, and here she was, undestroyed. Thanks indeed to Darcy, but all the same.

The lemonade was not quite of the same magnitude.

“Delicious, though.”

“I’m sorry?”

Mary moved her fingers in squeaky circle on the glass. She laughed in a stilted kind of way. “I was deep in conversation with myself, I suppose. Do you have a house in London, or are you visiting?”

“Like you, I’m a guest. My brother Fitzwilliam.”

“I have a brother Fitzwilliam,” Mary said, “in a way—my sister’s husband.” That was not interesting.

“It’s good to have that closeness in a family, that you do truly consider him your brother.”

But Mary considered Darcy her brother because he had wed her sister: it was as neat as mathematics. With Bingley she was closer, or had more illusion of closeness, Bingley in the main distributing friendliness to the world like breadcrumbs to birds, but in both cases, it was just that that was how it was, those were what the words meant. She loved her sisters, but God knew there would have been little enough sisterly affection among them if they hadn’t been family.

She lapsed into preoccupied silence and sipped at her lemonade. At last, she said, “You’re thought-provoking,” rather abruptly.

Miss Gibson’s smile, which had started to seem absentminded, grew a little anxious. “That’s a compliment more usually paid to a question than a person.”

So it was. She had meant that Miss Gibson seemed so much herself that just by being there she made Mary poke and prod at her own inclinations uncertainly, to see if she were what she ought to be, or even to see if she were what she was. But what a thing to heap on someone after only a few minutes, purely because her hair curled just so and she was friendly. She was acting most unlike herself—no, more unfortunately than that, she was acting very like herself, which she knew was unbecoming.

Having failed to be courteous, she endeavored to be gallant, if trivial. “But I like questions so much.”

“To ask or to answer?”

“Oh, to answer, certainly, and at, I’m sure, too great a length. But not questions about myself, for I’m a very dull topic.”

“But if you were to ask how—” Miss Gibson twirled her hand. She had long fingers and was not wearing her gloves any longer—had Mary seen them on her before? Yes, she was almost sure of it. But now her hands were bare. “If you were to ask how Monsieur de Montaigne parted his hair, and the answer were of no interest, you would think him dull, but that would only be because you had come with the wrong question.”

“It’s true,” Mary said, “that the way I part my hair is unexciting even to me.”

“Then I consider it my social duty to devise a question that will illuminate you to yourself.”

Mary didn’t know why she kept smiling when the prospect made her nervous. Perhaps, she thought, I don’t want to be illuminated to myself. As if there were something in a drawer she was wary of laying a hand on. Still, at least they were speaking naturally again, at least she had stopped wrong-footing her partner.

“I feel like a target for your marksmanship.”

“In such a case you should indeed fear my accuracy,” Miss Gibson said. “I shoot quite well.”

Mary was astonished. “Do you really?”

“I don’t ride with the hunt, but I practice all the same. In the country of course, not here.”

“I suppose town is short on paper targets, at least,” Mary said in an undertone, glancing around the ball, which she had almost forgotten. She had made the joke before she had looked again, remembering only how her feet had been trod upon and her looks slighted, but she found herself reasonably well-disposed to the assembly at the moment. The lamps seemed to glow more mellowly than before, painting the whole scene the warm color of honey. “In your spirit of truthful admission, I am specific.”

Miss Gibson said, “In the spirit of truthful admission, Miss Bennet, I intend to spend some time devising the right question for you. If I may see you again?”

Why did that sound strange? But she always sounded strange to people herself. And it was a familiar kind of strangeness, as if it were something she had heard before, only not like this.

Mary, constrained by the principles of truth, could only admit that she would enjoy that very much.

*

A full ten days of continuous residence in town had shaped Lydia into an expert on all its affairs and especially on all its residents, and she was only too pleased to inform Mary of Miss Gibson’s ancestry, accomplishments, and defects as well as, most usefully, her Christian name, which proved to be Alice.

“It has a kind of meter to it,” Mary said. Poetry had never been her strongest suit, so she was unable to say what kind, but she felt instinctively that Miss Gibson’s name must possess it. “Alice Gibson. The pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables—”

“Her father’s in trade,” Lydia said, stretching her arm across the table for another muffin. It was not that she was interrupting, precisely: more than Lydia did not consider other people’s talking to be something that should at all impede her own. She could live cheerfully in a cacophony and so did not see that others might not wish it.

“Charles’s father is in trade,” Jane said mildly.

“He owns—a sheep farm or manufactures cloth, or he might do both, I can see how one could lead to the other, don’t you? I don’t mind it in the least, Jane, it’s only what I’ve heard. You know Wickham has a profession, of course.”

They all allowed that they heard rumors of such.

“Though,” Mary said, after Lydia had left the breakfast room, “I can’t imagine him in war, can you? In war you could suffer misfortune, but with him there is no chance of that, it will always be someone else.”

Jane was too kind to agree, but her lack of spirited argument felt the same as accord. They sat together a while, Mary flipping rather distractedly and idly through the pages of her book, when Jane said, “She seemed very amiable.”

Mary assumed them to be talking about Miss Gibson, as it was unlikely Jane meant Lydia. “I found her so.”

“Charles is a little acquainted with her brother, and speaks of him highly. I haven’t had the opportunity yet to form an acquaintance with Miss Gibson herself, beyond a greeting, but I like anyone who pleases you.”

Mary looked up, almost startled. “Is my affection such an endorsement?” She had not meant to say “affection,” naturally—good will, only. Liking, perhaps.

“You are like Lizzy,” Jane said, surely the first time anyone had ever expressed such an opinion in Mary’s hearing. “You are selective, which cannot help but make one fascinated by your selections.”

She had not known Jane had ever thought of her enough to have an opinion of her; had not known herself to have ever justified a high one. She had fretted often enough that in her family’s minds she was fixed forever at sixteen, gawky and proud, with much information and little insight, but now she wondered if she thought that of herself even more than they did.

“Do you think I have not let myself mature?”

Jane tilted her head. “I think—that you have been too much alone.” Which seemed like an answer to a question Mary had not asked.

“You’ve forgotten our home,” Mary said, a little dryly, “if you imagine it to have an abundance of solitude, even now.”

“Solitude, no, but perhaps the lack of likeminded company.”

There was no way to say it without sounding disagreeable, but she knew well what Jane meant. Her absence from Longbourn affected no one. Their father grieved the loss of Lizzy to Pemberley, her mother and Kitty pined for Lydia, and had Jane left before Lizzy, or Lizzy before Jane, hearts, though too sensible to break, would have been bruised, but Mary? She folded and refolded her handkerchief, tightening it into a small triangle.

She said, “There is sometimes a certain loneliness, to being the cuckoo in the nest. I do not complain.” It struck her too late that that was a sentence that erased itself.

But Jane did not seem to mind. She would like to be like Jane, but she was far too easily rumpled and wrinkled for that, in dress and in mind and in feeling. One could only be oneself.

Bingley discovered the further presence of coffee and was lured into the room by it; while pouring a cup, he said, “It is very good to have you with us, Mary, you must stay as long as you like.”

*

“I considered then whether or not to tell him I regarded him as a brother,” Mary said to Miss Gibson as they walked arm in arm through the park, “but I have met his sisters and so didn’t want to alarm him by adding to their number.”

Miss Gibson’s mouth quirked. “You have a way of putting things.”

She did not seem to mind Mary’s tartness most of the time, and Mary could not, therefore, follow exactly why she had seemed to mind her slighting of Lydia—before she had elaborated upon it—because though it was true that her first words about Lydia had been wounding in a way that nothing else she said was, it was impossible for Miss Gibson to know that. Miss Gibson knew many things, but Mary’s innermost thoughts were surely not one of them. She adjusted the brim of her hat. Surely her innermost thoughts were irrelevant.

“You have a way of finding me interesting,” Mary said.

“I’m sure it is a common predilection.”

“Of course. I am besieged by admirers at all times.” The words felt like meringue, too light and too likely to melt. She wasn’t accustomed to being playful. “You’ll notice how many you had to battle your way through to reach me.”

“I would have fought through them though they were the Greeks at Troy, Miss Helen Bennet.”

Miss Gibson said such things to her as though they were unremarkable. Or did she not? Would it have been more ordinary for her to have said them like she did not mean them? Because that was not how she said them. She spoke as though she meant every word, but that she found nothing remarkable in that, as if she strolled through the sunshine and said such things always, was in a habit of doing it.

That couldn’t be true, could it?

Mary delicately separated herself. Bingley and Jane were up ahead, and she pretended as though she wanted to catch up to them and draw their attention to something, some flower that she feigned enough interest in for them to think politeness demanded them feigning it too. It was an unremarkable bloom.

“It is a good day for gardens,” Bingley said, “for both you and your sister have roses in your cheeks. And you, Miss Gibson.” He tilted his hat slightly.

Mary looked at her and it was true that she was flushed. And not, perhaps, from exercise. But what? What were they doing? Why was she so agitated, and why did that agitation alternate so sharply and so dissonantly with profound comfort? One would think she was Jane, with Bingley first at Netherfield, being wooed by some chevalier.

What a fool she was, she told herself unconvincingly, to be so besotted by having a friend that she should draw such a comparison and feel it accurate. And not even, Mary rushed to clarify, having a friend, but merely having an acquaintance, merely entertaining the possibilities of friendship. Miss Gibson was warm by her very nature—everyone found her agreeable. It was doubtlessly the practice of young women more used to society to develop their friendships quickly, knowing they might only last a season.

That notion was meant to reassure her, and so she had no idea why it made her feel hollow inside. She should not fail her own intentions toward herself.

She should not be silly, and she should not entertain impossible ideas. She went back to Miss Gibson’s company and took her arm again and smiled. Looking relieved—but why relieved? What had been wrong that was now corrected?—Miss Gibson smiled back, again showing the gap between her front teeth which drew Mary’s eyes so insistently.

*

She composed letters.

My dear Mother and Father,

I believe that Town agrees with me and I am benefiting from my stay. Bingley’s library is extensive, and he says that I am free to borrow as I choose, as one of the family; he also says that I am at liberty to call him Charles, but I do not think it proper, because though we are as brother and sister here we have come into that relation only lately, and I believe the use of a man’s Christian name implies more familiarity and intimacy than we have, or have yet. I have been meditating upon the qualities of intimacy—

Then several paragraphs of circular thinking that she knew they would not read, but which she was pleased to write, for she thought best when she wrote and she knew that while she had little she could easily say, a short letter, being uncharacteristic of her, might alarm them. So she wrote them many words but no news.

To Kitty, tentatively, she said more:

I have been forming a friendship that I think you might approve of, and as I have never had many companions for my family to like or dislike, I am pleased to think of the two of you meeting. Jane and Bingley like her very well. I believe I spend more time at balls talking to her than I do talking to gentlemen, and as we do not speak of gentlemen, I am sure it must seem like I am ignoring why I have been sent here. But Jane does not seem to mind sheltering me only for the purpose of taking more walks with Alice—that is what I call her now—and so I believe there is no harm done.

Kitty wrote back, the lines of her hand more careful, somehow, than was her custom, even as the prose sprawled in its ordinary way:

I believe you would benefit from a friend if anyone would and of course everyone would, so no doubt it is good for you to have someone to occupy your attentions. I have always found it agreeable to have someone to talk to, whether Lydia or yourself or another, and it is one thing to dance but dancing is not everything. After all we are quite grown up now and it is good for us to do what seems best. Though I cannot like that you are in town with Jane as I don’t believe there’s a reason for any of us to visit further afield than Lizzy’s Pemberley, which I rue to have left and which is every bower of comfort. But failing that you well allowed friends just like the rest of us and in any case I have good reason to think Alice a good luck kind of name.

To Lizzy she did not know what to say at all, because Lizzy would have insight, but only at the risk of incision. In the end, knowing she could not be delicate, she was direct:

I have made a particular friend, I think, who is fond of my company. You may note that is an oddity, only please don’t laugh at me, because I think in this matter I cannot bear being laughed at.

Let Lizzy make of that what she would, and give what advice she had to give, for there was no more Mary could bring herself to confess, or even entirely understand.

“You maintain a furious correspondence,” Alice said from the sofa, where she was endeavoring rather badly to sketch Mary bent over her desk. Mary knew this because she had passed by several times, always with some excuse.

“My parents begat many daughters, and thus many hand cramps.”

“Then I should be thankful I have only Will, and that, seeing each other each night, we’ve no need for letters.” She laid her pencil down. “But you must let me write to you when you’ve gone away, Mary.”

Mary looked at the last line of her letter. “Certainly, yes.”

“Is something wrong?”

She turned in her chair. She was imagining things—she had gone all her life without an imagination only to develop one at the worst possible time, and in the worst possible direction.

“Not in the least,” said Mary, no longer a devotee of honesty. She returned her gaze to her letter and gave up on it as hopeless; looked out the window instead. The insolent sunshine of the day offended her by implying a clarity she could not reach.

The silence at her back went on for too long, so like a weathervane she spun back again, determined now to stay that way, lest she begin to look ridiculous. Alice was scraping her thumb against her pencil restlessly. Her mouth looked smaller than usual; her lips flattened. When she was tired, she was—Mary seized upon this fact with great gratitude—less handsome, for her face slackened in joyless repose. Had Alice’s sudden lessening of beauty not stemmed from unhappiness, Mary would have been gladder still to see it, but, perceiving its wellspring as she did, she could not abide procuring her comfort at the expense of Alice’s.

“Something is wrong with you, I think,” Mary said. “What is it?”

“You’ll tell no one?”

The moment fell still around her, as if fate were poised, waiting for her to step foot in the Rubicon. “Whatever it is, I will tell no one.”

“I am concerned about Will.”

“Oh,” Mary said with great disappointment.

“You don’t mind listening? I’m sure I’m being featherheaded.”

“You are nothing of the sort, and of course I don’t mind listening.”

She joined Alice on the sofa and noted ruefully that Alice was not especially tired, as it turned out, for her loveliness persisted in a curl against her cheek and in the roundness of her arm, posed along the sofa’s back. Like the sun, the beauty was rude, flaunting something she could not have. Something she did now have to understand that she wanted, for she was not featherheaded any more than Alice, she was silly only through an excess of seriousness, and those days were behind her now: Mary was confident that she had, at twenty, reached the apex of rationality and good sense. What she thought serious, was.

As such, she was a servant to Alice’s wishes, and would never have minded listening.

“What is your impression of Will?”

“My impression of him is limited to him being your brother,” Mary said. “We’ve exchanged perhaps two or three sentences.”

Alice sighed. “This is not the time for wit, Mary, this is the time for insight. What do you make of him?”

Flattered that she would be considered either insightful or witty, and enthralled by the notion that Alice could think her both, Mary closed her eyes and thought. Fitzwilliam Gibson was one of those astonishingly strapping young men who bore uncanny resemblances to full-blooded stallions: he was broad and tall and his nostrils flared and he shied at the wrong person coming up alongside him. Yes, that was what she had noticed: that Alice’s brother disliked balls far more than Alice herself did. It was among those two or three sentences, in fact, that he had said to her with a touchingly raw honesty that he had a dread of large assemblies, that he was relieved to find his friend’s sister, no, apologies, his sister’s friend in attendance. His poor nerves were substantiated by the clumsiness of his speech. As was the comparison to a horse, for that matter, stallions not being known for their rhetoric.

Mary said, “Perhaps there is someone he’s afraid of meeting?”

“Yes!” Alice seized her hands. “Yes, that is my guess exactly. He is almost tremulous at times, and tremulous is not something any man above six foot should ever be. He starts whenever a caller is announced.”

“Is he relieved when he knows their identity?”

“Thus far. So I can eliminate several names, yours included.”

“I am of insufficient height to terrify.”

“Though you could scowl for England, you know,” Alice said. She was still holding Mary’s hands, as if she had forgotten them. “When Mr. Burton tried to speak to us the other night whilst we were engaged with each other, I think the look you gave him frightened him more than all Napoleon’s army.”

“I do not scowl,” Mary said, trying very hard to control the angle of her mouth. “I only dislike interruptions.”

“You scowl dreadfully. I go in mortal terror of you.”

“You hide it well.”

“True courage is not the absence of fear but its management,” Alice said. “And you’re distracting me, Mary.”

Still: her hands. And Alice gestured, as a rule. She had soaked the sleeve of her gown in lemonade at the last ball when she’d knocked her glass aside. Now she was perfectly still.

“I am sorry,” Mary said. Her heart was in her throat. “I will be less distracting.”

“I’m frightened for him,” Alice said, and there was no more laughter in her manner. “Ever since our father died,” and so much, Mary thought, for Lydia’s rumors of sheep and cloth, of fathers in trade, “he is all I have of family, and I love him dearly, and even if I did not, whatever is a danger to Will is a danger of me. He is my only future. I am not selfish, I think—even if I had everything, I would give it up to help Will—so I tell you that just so that you will have some small stake in this. I know you don’t know him, but you know me, and—and like me, I think.” She looked down at their hands and made a strange sound, a laugh that was not a laugh, and at last let go. “I don’t know why. You’re so clever.”

Mary flushed. “I am not. I only thought I was once because it was so tempting to believe I had some way of being remarkable. Jane is kind, and Lizzy is witty, and Lydia is wild. My father said Kitty was merely Lydia’s shadow, and I did not want that for myself, so I strove, but I do not know a tenth of what I want to know, and I can talk about even less of it.”

“But a tenth of what you want to know is vaster than the whole of many,” Alice said. “Though I’ll grant that you were intended to say that I was clever too.”

“But you are! You’re so much quicker. I am a creature of cross-references.”

“So quick I cannot keep to my own story,” Alice said, “because I have no attention, when I see something glittering in the distance that I might say. You’re not that way, and you are better for it.”

Mary could not believe that, but she was made to concede that she still did not know the extent of Alice’s tale. Over the course of an hour, it proved to be thus:

Alice and Fitzwilliam were the only children of a cloth manufacturer (with scrupulous fairness, Mary restored half a point to Lydia) who had died four years ago, and their mother just six months before that. The parents had been very much in love, so much so indeed that the father considered it ill-manners to fend too long for himself in what remained of the world, and his constitution obliged his feelings by allowing him to fall ill and quickly pass into heaven. The whole affair had left Will certain he would not marry and cede his well-being to the hands of another, or, if he did marry, he would take care to keep his affections moderate. With that resolution in mind, he did not scruple to make promises to Alice that she would have management of his house in the event of the former, and certain residence and income in the event of the latter, always.

(“Did he rule out your marriage so quickly? Or, having such a guarantee, were you not inclined to accept offers?”

“He ruled out my marriage because I had been frank that I did not intend to give my hand to anyone. In my own name, I have a little money, and while it does little to recommend me in the world, it would keep me, I suppose. I’m grateful to not have to try.”)

Will had always been a hale and hearty young man, but some weeks after a three month’s past visit to Derbyshire, the only proximate cause Alice could find, he had grown pale and skittish and very nearly frantic. Alice did not know what to make of it, and feared for him.

“Men worry often about money,” Mary said. “Creditors, and so on.”

“I wondered that myself. But surely he has plenty, and when our cousin dies—he is without any children—he will have still more.”

“Could he have counted on that, and staked it in some game?”

“My brother does not gamble,” Alice said, a little frostily. “Not at such a grade, at least.”

“I meant nothing by it—I only try to deduce.”

A slight thaw. “I am sorry. Sometimes people seem to think that we do not have our manners, or our decency, because of our father, or his father—”

Mary hastened to reassure her that she meant nothing like that, and that indeed (laying it on a bit thickly) her dear brother Bingley’s family was engaged in trade, however much his sisters disliked it, and Alice repented of her assumption, and Mary of her unintentional offense, all of which took a quarter of an hour and advanced Will’s salvation not a whit, though at the end of it both young women felt they had accomplished a great deal.

Such diversions accounted for the hour of storytelling, as, after the undergrowth was pruned, the account remained that Will, a healthy young man with good fortune and no noticeable vices, had grown nervous. It might be tied up in Derbyshire, or then again it might not be.

“I will write a letter to my sister,” Mary said, “and find out whether or not she knows anything of him.”

“I am losing track of all your sisters.”

“This is my sister Elizabeth, lately Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy. Her residence is in Derbyshire.”

“Another Fitzwilliam will bring us good luck, no doubt,” Alice said, though she sounded hardly certain of it. “Though I cannot like depending on the post. I wish to rush into action. If we were in the country, I could at least do grave injury to a tree.” She looked longingly at two crossed pistols above the mantel. “But I suppose you know best.”

*

My dear Lizzy,

As a postscript of some urgency I must inquire as to you know anything of a Mr. Fitzwilliam Gibson, who spent three months in your county some little while back. It is his sister who is my particular friend and she is concerned for him, as he’s been unlike himself of late, and she begs to know if you have any insight, or indeed any knowledge of him at all.

Respectfully,

Mary

*

Lydia had a cold which bore none of the signs of a cold except that it seemed to require bed rest; colds did not, in Mary’s experience, usually demand lemon cake delivered to the bedroom, but she visited Lydia dutifully nonetheless. Lydia’s thankfulness extended to the point of Mary being granted a wafer-thin slice of her cake.

Lydia was plucking a piece of rind off her fork when she said, apropos of nothing, and with high color in her face, “You must know that Miss Gibson has a schoolgirl passion for you.”

Mary froze, her hands stuck rigid against the book of sermons she had been trying to persuade Lydia to listen to. “I know no such thing.”

“Oh!” She squirmed upwards, fluffing her pillows behind her. “So you feel the same.”

“Lydia!”

“But that’s the only reason you’d pretend not to know,” Lydia said. “And you must know. Or, if you didn’t, you’d be surprised, you wouldn’t say she couldn’t have.”

“I didn’t say so,” Mary protested weakly.

“Goodness.” Of all the things, she settled back again and took a bite of cake. “I suppose for she’s good-looking for someone her age.”

Mary bristled. “She’s not eight-and-twenty.” She realized that this did not tend to deny Lydia’s suspicion. Or did one still call it a suspicion when one was, once the truth was out, so very unfazed? For the first time in her life, she followed Lydia’s example and leaned back once more. “I don’t know what’s possessed me.”

“These things do happen,” Lydia said loftily, though Mary quavered to be linked with the circles Lydia knew. “I don’t think anything of it. I am sure it oppresses you to be told not to dwell on a thing, but really, Mary, don’t make yourself cross-eyed worrying over it. Everyone knows a lady may live with another lady if she chooses. And I have always thought you’d never marry in any case.”

“Thank you,” Mary said, her voice as crisp as a gingersnap. She sighed. She could not ask Lydia, who did not care about such things, if it were not ungodly, but she thought, I do not feel ungodly. Indeed, had she not just been reading those sermons without a qualm? Could she not, even though striving to be better than her childhood self, summon up the last bit of staunch self-regard to believe her own intuition right and the cautions of others misguided?

“I believe,” she said, tasting each word as if it were flavored with the sweetness of Lydia’s lemon cake, with the tartness of the lemonade she had drunk the first night she had met Alice, “that I am rather in love with her, to the point where I shall not be happy without her, yes, but I have no way to believe that she feels the same.”

Lydia gave her a look of great incredulity. “I have just now finished telling you she does.”

“You seldom even speak to her.”

“I do not need to speak to someone to see whom they stare at for fourteen minutes out of every quarter-hour. You are subtle, she is not. And she flirts with you excessively, she flings herself worse than I ever did with Wickham.”

“You eloped with Wickham,” Mary said. To use that word was a kindness and even a slight lie, but she felt obligated to be generous despite her rebuttal. “One could scarcely be thrown further than that.”

Lydia shrugged. “And all was for the best, was it not?”

She sat there in a bed in her sister’s home, not one-and-twenty and already a married woman of five years, whose husband was she-knew-not-where, who held on fast to the prettiness and lightness of manner, and the certainty of attention, that had been the pride of her girlhood, who had the fondness of her mother but the mere tolerance of all others, including even Kitty now.  Mary, herself so often tolerated and so rarely befriended, loved her, wanted what was best for her, pitied her, and even (though very slightly) admired her. It all came as a surprise. No, all had not been for the best, but why had they all looked at Lydia’s bravery and passion and seen only a lack of caution, a perilous disregard for morality? Those things were there, no doubt, but they were not the sum of her. Even now, she had courage and persistence.

“Lydia,” Mary said, but then she was flustered, because there was no way to state her epiphany without conceding the necessity of it. She stood, then, and kissed Lydia on her forehead.

*

The post came with a letter from Elizabeth.

By chance, Alice was there with her when it arrived, a fact which disconcerted Mary when she noticed the thickness of the letter. She remembered too late her earlier missive to Lizzy, which may have been replied to alongside her query about Will Gibson. The letter's girth certainly seemed sufficient to account for brother and sister both.

“Please read it aloud,” Alice said, poised now on the edge of her seat. “No, don’t trouble yourself about that,” she added as Mary, flustered, tried to delay things by fetching her another tea-cake. “I’ll be nourished by knowledge, like a hermit.”

“I suppose even hermits eat,” Mary said, as crossly as she had ever said anything to Alice, and removed the seal. She could damn the easy legibility of Lizzy’s penmanship—why could she not write with a poorer hand, giving Mary an excuse to spend some time deciphering it? If she paused to scan and censor as she read, Alice would surely notice. She thought of Lydia saying that Alice loved her too, a view Mary still feared to adopt, for she could not think of a more painful topic on which to be mistaken.

But she had perhaps come to the proving ground of it. Would it matter, that she was short and plain and snappish, that she preferred essays and sermons to novels, that she played pianoforte with thunder rather than grace, that she was still becoming herself? Or would other things matter? Had she not made Alice laugh, smile, think, blush?

She forced her eyes to focus. Taking shelter in her old, bombastic manner of reciting, she read:

“My dear Mary. I write to you now having abandoned all other correspondence as dross, intrigued as I am by both the passion and urgency of your last letter. As to Mr. Gibson, we did indeed meet him during his stay, as even my husband weakened under the combined efforts of Georgiana and our Kitty and was moved to escort us all to balls and even to host one. I can therefore say truthfully that I found him an attentive young man and, so far as such a thing can be deduced in the ballroom or across the dinner table, one of good character. Indeed I encouraged Kitty toward him, though, as you well know by now, he was compelled by business to return to town, and did so without a promise. I cannot say Kitty’s heart was broken by it.

“As to his change in manner, then, I’ve no idea. I regret what is most likely an unhelpful preface, but must confess—” Mary faltered, looking up from the paper. “I don’t believe the rest of this relates to your brother.”

“Please,” Alice said. “Anything might help.”

Her mouth felt so dry that she almost doubted she could speak at all, but she did, not daring, now, to look up. Why could she not simply make herself say that it was private? She cursed the influence of Alice's gunpowder decisiveness, which had shaped her character so that she now sometimes sought answers over further questions. She did indeed want to know.

“But must confess myself more intrigued by your mysterious account of your particular friend, and it is that which accounts for the hastiness of my reply. About this I will not laugh. Though it is a dangerous supposition between sisters, I believe I understand you. Jane had written that the air of London agrees with you as it agrees with no other, and that she has seen more liveliness in your expression during your visit than in the whole of our childhood altogether. If it is true that I am right about the source, I am happy to know that you like and are liked so well.”

She swallowed and went on.

“Do not think, then, that you must accept any offer that is not to your liking, for we may maintain you, even in your own abode, with all readiness and hospitality, and none of us shall have to depend on Mr. Collins when Father is gone. It is possible, I think, to find happiness that will suit you. Perhaps I leap to conclusions—I have not yet learned how to guard against it—but all this, I wanted to tell you. There is no need for you to be lonely. My love, then, to your friend, and my assurances that whatever establishment Darcy and I can ensure would bear two as easily as one. Yours affectionately, Lizzy.”

The awful blessing of London was that there was no true silence: even in the quiet that consumed the room, Mary could hear carriages passing on the streets outside, the sounds of life being lived elsewhere.

The rustle of silk.

“Please look at me,” Alice said.

Mary could not convince her hands to lower the letter, but she was able with much effort to raise her head to look over the top of the paper.

Alice was standing before her, her mouth tremulous, her eyes wide, her face pale. She said, “Did she leap?”

It took Mary a moment to know what she meant. I leap to conclusions. She thought of Lydia, of courage, of not spending endless hours parsing and weighing options and striving to impress. Did she leap?

“No.”

Alice kissed her.

Even in childhood, even in games, this had not happened to her, and she could not stop herself from thinking about it—was it always this sudden? Was there always this pernicious damp, from the both of them crying? The pressure inside her chest, what was it? The ache in her fingertips was satisfied only by reaching up and touching Alice’s hair until she could feel that she had put one finger through a curl and it encircled her like a ring. She would be in such disarray. They would both be in such disarray. Alice’s mouth was soft and exquisitely, unbearably hot—Mary felt like she had never touched another person before. Certainly that her lips had never been used before. She felt both new and newly sensitive, as if every sensation, even the most familiar—her sleeves against her arms, her feet inside her shoes, her blood inside her body—was heightened unbearably. She was aware of everything.

Then there was nothing to be aware of except the cool air against her and the wetness of her lips.

Alice was flushed pink and her hair was indeed askew. I did that, Mary thought with wonderment, looking at the curls that were tangled and pulled loose from their pins. I am the cause of it.

Alice squared her shoulders and Mary took selfish, unseemly pleasure in every bit of her form: that height was her height now, that curve of belly hers, those arms.

Alice said, “I am in love with you.”

“Yes,” Mary said, before realizing that wasn’t an answer, and of course there was a question to be answered, albeit an unspoken one. She laughed. She felt giddy, feverish. “Yes, I’m in love with you too. You are gallant and beautiful and fascinating and misguided enough to like me in return—excepting that error in judgment, you are perfect.”

“Well, I thank heaven for your sister, then,” Alice said. She was still crying, but as Mary had done so herself, she knew why, and took no offense.

“Yes. I try to have one for every occasion and generally succeed.”

“Did she mean it? That they could establish you in your own home?”

“Undoubtedly.” She repeated the central fact of her family, to wit, that Darcy had ten thousand a year.

“That is considerable,” Alice said, duly impressed. She wiped her eyes. “We may even have enough to take in my brother and shelter him from whatever ails him.”

“Do you mean it?”

“That we should take him in? It would be my duty, I think, if he needed it, but I don’t see that he should.”

“No. That—that you would live with me?”

Alice said, “My whole life, Mary Bennet, I refused dances that one night I might see you standing in a ballroom, and dare to speak to you.”

“What nonsense, you didn’t even know me.”

“You have no head at all for poetry.” Alice took Mary’s face in her hands. “I love you, as I think I mentioned.” She kissed each of Mary’s eyebrows, which had a shivery particularity to it. “I will live with you wherever you choose. It is the done thing, in any case, for spinster ladies to keep company with each other.”

*

Though what was important to Mary’s love ought rightly to have been important to Mary, it would be untruthful to say that the question of Fitzwilliam Gibson was foremost in her mind over the next week. Having at last discovered the pleasures that could be offered to her through Alice’s careful attention and thorough approval, her thoughts, ponderous though they were, worked on little else but where the two of them might be alone and what they might do when they were.

She could be maddened all day long by the delicacy of Alice’s foot through the supple leather of her boot, by the shadow of her hair against her neck, even by a memory: love, it seemed, was a hungry occupation that would take up all it could find for food.

So in truth, she had forgotten poor Will—and so nearly, in those hours, had Alice—until one of their encounters was interrupted by the sudden arrival of Kitty Bennet.

At the clatter of the door, Mary and Alice sprang apart, but Mary’s dress was still rucked up to her thighs and her face was still pink; those two things, and her rather suggestive recline against the arm of the sofa, informed Kitty quite readily of the proceedings she had interrupted.

“Gracious,” Kitty said, sounding curious and even good-humored despite being soaked to the skin and somewhat bedraggled. “Mary.”

“Please,” Mary said, and then had no notion of what she was going to beg until she said, “Don’t tell Mother.”

“Of course not. It is good to meet you,” she said politely to Alice. “I am disheveled, I regret to say, but in one way or the other, we are alike in that. I’m Mary’s sister Kitty and you, I think, must be Alice.”

Mary at last managed to restore her skirts to their proper position. “Really, Kitty! Have the goodness to be surprised, if nothing else.”

“But Lydia and I saw all sorts of things in Meryton when the soldiers were in residence,” Kitty said practically. “They favored all kinds of entertainments, and had drawings of them. I don’t believe we were meant to look, of course, and Lizzy has taught me to avoid such situations, but one can’t unlearn something.”

“I enjoy your family,” Alice said frankly. “I am Alice, as you guessed—and I am pleased that you did, and did not say another name instead! Alice Gibson.”

“Alice Gibson? Not Mr. Fitzwilliam Gibson’s sister?”

Mary, having started a task, always longed to finish it, and longed particularly in this case to resume—she had found in herself a callous disregard of propriety, and was often incapable of being fully distracted from a rendezvous, whatever arose to interrupt it—but Alice’s sisterly affections, being thus engaged, would not permit it; so Mary placed a cushion on her lap and scowled. She took comfort in Alice’s past assertion that she had a gift for the expression.

“Yes, Will’s sister—oh! Kitty, of course. Your sister Elizabeth said—”

“Then she is your sister too, now,” Kitty said, with a smile almost sunny enough to dry her rain-sodden gown. “Or will be, soon enough.”

“Yes,” Mary said thoughtfully, “I have tried to begin thinking of Bingley and Darcy—though not Wickham, of course—as brothers of a kind, and I suppose it is only appropriate for you to consider Alice in that fashion, because of her connection to me—”

“Not because you, silly. Because of my William.”

“Your William?” Alice said. She seized Mary’s hand. “But—but he’s been so disappointed! And your sister—pardon, your sister Elizabeth—said that he had left Derbyshire with no offer ever made! And,” she added with undue severity, "that your heart was not broken by it. I do think you ought to have been more disappointed that he did not make you a promise."

“Well, he did make one,” Kitty said, “and I accepted, naturally, only he was intimidated by Darcy, who did appear rather dreadful that night, and was loath to ask him to stand in our father’s place to give a blessing to the match and I, like a fool, said that there was no worry there at all because Darcy is the kindest creature when he does not have a headache, and that when Lydia’s secret engagement was in danger—”

Mary felt a sudden, unexpected fondness for the willing faultiness of Kitty’s memory, which, like Jane’s, amended everything until everyone was as they ought to have been.

“—and he panicked.”

Mary bristled. “He did not want you, only because of Lydia and Wickham?”

“Will would never be so dishonorable,” Alice said, with a formidable scowl of her own. She took her hand away. “Why, Kitty? Why did he panic, and why has he been so miserable?”

“I do need a towel and perhaps a blanket,” Kitty said fretfully, looking about. “I am so fearfully damp. Where is everyone?”

“It is the servants’ ball tonight, and Jane and Bingley have gone out as well, to have dinner at Mr. and Mrs. Brown’s, and Lydia—”

“Please,” Alice said. “I have been anxious for weeks.”

Kindness came into Kitty’s face, and pushed out the last of her selfishness. “Of course he is honorable. He was fearful only that, with Lydia’s elopement such a recent pain--though it feels an age ago to me--our engagement would seem underhanded. He asked if he could come to Longbourn and court me there openly and properly, winning Father’s approval, but then the more he thought of it, the more intimidated he grew by Pemberley, and he was worried that you would not approve of him marrying, so he thought he must make quite a fortune to keep us both, and I have come to tell him, at as much length as I might, that that is silly.”

Mary was forced to agree. “It is misguided in a number of particulars. To begin with, scarcely anyone in our family properly remembers the circumstances of Lydia’s marriage, to bear it as a scar or not, and secondly, Lizzy was quite hopeful for your match, and not disparaging at all of his fortune, and certainly we are not as grand as Pemberley, and need not be considered in association with it.”

“Thank you,” Kitty said grandly. “I knew that you would understand. Well, I did not know it at all, but I hoped, given your letter.”

“And he need not keep me,” Alice said, “so he will have only you.”

Mary blushed and quickly imparted that Elizabeth had made her certain promises. She worried that Kitty would think herself slighted by them, but if she did, it didn’t show in her face. There was only relief. She leaned down and kissed first Mary and then Alice on the cheek and proclaimed herself the proud sister of them both. Then, just as Mary was beginning to hope that earlier proceedings could be resumed, Kitty requisitioned Alice to take her at once to Will, that everything might be explained.

Left with nothing to occupy herself but dissatisfaction and uncertainty over how she and Alice had left things—she did not like that Alice had pulled away from her—Mary tried to content herself with a book. The hours passed very slowly.

*

She was awakened that night from restless dreams by Alice sliding into bed beside her, which at first seemed another and much more enjoyable kind of dream. Alice kissed her, her lips and nose too cold to be anything other than real. She whispered, “Hush, for I told Jane that I would do my best not to rouse you, for there is no room—Kitty is in one of the empty bedrooms and Will in the other, so we are quite a full house tonight.”

“I was worried about you,” Mary said. She ran her hand down Alice’s hip, which was nearly bare: she could feel the smoothness of Alice’s skin through the thin cloth of her nightgown. So much opportunity! She congratulated herself that she could be distracted from it by concern, as that proved she was not now an entirely carnal creature. “I worried you despised me.”

“I am sometimes too fierce in Will’s defense,” Alice said. “I overlooked that you might be as defensive of a sister. I—had formerly thought you not so very close to your family.”

Mary, thinking of the distance she had inherited from her father and that he had wished to spare her from, of the disdain with which she had regarded Lydia, of the fear she had had of Lizzy, and of the insulting lack of curiosity she had had toward Kitty, to not even ask her affairs, or what inspired such strangeness in her letter, when one question might have resolved so much, could not deny the charge. But her father had helped her after all, in the end. He had saved her from the folly of too much seriousness and put her in a place where she might stumble toward love.

She said, “I have gone years without realizing things and then discovered them all at once, in the length of a single visit. Perhaps the London air does agree with me. Alice, I’m sorry.”

“Shh, all is well now. Bingley—being much more approachable than Darcy, apparently—has consented readily to Kitty’s match in your father’s place, which has convinced Will that he need fear neither Longbourn nor the shades of Pemberley.”

“I quite sympathize with Darcy,” Mary said. “It is awful to always be thought frightening, merely because it is difficult to approach you at a ball.”

Alice, having never met Darcy, was not very interested in him. “At any rate, Will need no longer fear encountering hopeful young women or angry Bennet family members, and I have told him about us—I apologize for doing it without you, but it seemed necessary—and then we all returned here and I could not quite believe that you had gone to bed when so much was happening, but, as you looked very lovely asleep, I shall forgive you.”

She traced Mary’s lips with her thumb. In the grayish dark that stripped the color from her, Alice might have been marble, the statue of some queen.

“I have my question,” Alice said. “I promised you once that I would take my time thinking of it, and I have it now.”

Mary’s heartbeat quickened.

Alice said, “May I wake beside you tomorrow, and every other day?”

Mary had said she had a tendency to answer questions at great length, but her answer to that one was very short, and was given with no thought at all. She followed it with questions of her own, chiefly about houses. Alice, having helped her brother for the last few years, understood something of property, but Mary knew almost nothing of land and leases, though, she thought sleepily, she would like to learn. She would find things in first one book and then the other—she yawned, her interrupted sleep unforgiving of crises and resolutions. Look things up in one book and then the other, and then, when she had found them—

When she had found them, she would point them out to Alice.