A/N: Welcome to my new story. It is now complete, and I would like to thank everyone that helped me along the way. It is novel length, and it's really several stories in one. It's an adventure story, a character study, and may even have a touch of romance here and there.
If you would like a spoiler, just post a review or send a PM and I'll reply. You can ask any questions you like that way. I also have a forum used for forum. See the button at the top of the screen that says Story with a down arrow. Click that and select Forums and then type in Cliffs Hertfordshire.
Fair warning! This story is moderately high angst. The first half is quite intense with lots of trouble for our Bennet family so be prepared. There is also quite a bit of OOC behavior, mostly because it's a character study of how our characters react to stress, so naturally we need to apply some stress. It starts with an epic rant, but then goes in very different directions from my previous works. I hope you enjoy it, and would appreciate any feedback, via reviews or PM.
The story is complete but you will see reposts as I work my way through and clean up some of the text, before publication. I will not however be making substantial changes to the storyline.
As always, like all writers I love feedback of any kind so please review or PM me and let me know what you think.
Everyone has a breaking point. Many, perhaps most, are blissfully unaware of this, and may even go through their entire lives without ever approaching close enough to sniff it out. The breaking point was like a cliff. You could come as close as you wanted so long as you never actually went over the side. Once you stepped or slipped or were pushed over, it was too late to undo it, too late to go back and enjoy the path through the woods, too late to choose a route that might keep you safe and dry. Some would, from time to time approach the cliff closely enough to be aware of how very close they were, and the great danger of falling off, but once again, retreat to the safety of solid ground; hopefully wiser and stronger. An unfortunate few see the cliff as a lure, and as a moth to a flame, they keep pushing their luck, edging closer and closer, once and again, until one day, they inevitably went over the side. Some traveled all the roads of their life blissfully unaware that there even was a cliff to worry about, and probably wouldn't recognize it if they did. Some, like our unfortunate girl find they've been walking beside someone else right next to the cliff for some time without being aware of it, when the find the ground drops out from under them through no fault of their own.
The Bennet sisters were young ladies that weren't even aware of the cliff, or how near they were to the edge. They all knew that they were a family long on daughters, and short on dowries; in a town that was long on competing daughters and short on agreeable suitors. They had their mother to remind them of their danger, but unlike a canary in a coal mine, Fanny Bennet was like a screeching eagle in a drawing room. After a while, you had to accustom yourself to her ways and ignore her; or succumb and be snatched up like a rabbit.
Such were things in Meryton, until the night of Mr. Bingley's ball at Netherfield, when a certain Miss Bennet reached her breaking point. Like any step over the cliff, the last step was not necessarily any larger than those that preceded it, but it took on more significance than its predecessors did.
Mary Bennet tried her very best to be a good daughter and sister, but it was difficult. Her father openly disdained all of the sisters except his two eldest favorites. Lizzy and Jane were like two peas in a pod. Nobody and nothing could break into their quite companionship. Her younger sisters Kitty and Lydia were essentially just two copies of Lydia, equally inseparable and equally disdainful of Mary.
Mary was the middle child, left out of anything and everything, included with nobody and nothing, so she struggled. She tried to make herself knowledgeable through reading, but her choice of reading material generated nothing but disdain. She tried to make herself accomplished through music, but her efforts at the pianoforte fell flat. She kept trying, because it was the only area where she had even a modicum of talent, but with no encouragement or instruction she was bound for disappointment. The nearly last straw was when her cousin came looking or a wife. Her cousin was a parson… a parson, just the type of man that would most suit her; and her mother shoved him at Lizzy. At Lizzy, who was the least pious person she knew, and who obviously couldn't stand her cousin. It was abundantly clear to Mary where this whole endeavor was going to come falling down around their ears, but she couldn't do anything about it. It was like sitting on the side of the road, watching a team of horses about to run you over, and not being able to move; or maybe it was like a cobra's victim, sitting there spellbound waiting for his doom.
She was at this ball, watching the parson, her parson make a fool of himself, but she would have gladly taken him just as he was should she be given the chance. When the time to exhibit came, she was desperate to show that she could do something well. Maybe her taste in music might turn Mr. Collins towards her and away from the obviously unsuitable Lizzy.
Mary was just starting her second movement, when her father approached abruptly and said loud enough for everyone in the room to hear, "That will do extremely well, child. You have delighted us long enough. Let the other young ladies have time to exhibit."
She could see the scorn in his eyes, his assertion that she was a silly girl not worthy of his time, attention or respect; and unbeknownst to her, she was pushed right to the edge of the cliff without ever being aware of its dangers.
She jumped up from the pianoforte in mortification and looked around. Lizzy was obviously embarrassed, but not by her father as would be proper, but by her. Kitty and Lydia were openly laughing at her, despite the fact that they were a walking and constant embarrassment to anyone of good taste. She looked to her mother for reassurance, but that was a forlorn hope. When was the last time her mother had given her anything at all?
Mary jumped up from the pianoforte and attempted to walk away as fast as possible with some dignity, when the very last ledge crumbled and she ran headlong, full tilt into none other than the much despised Mr. Darcy, and actually knocked him flat on the floor.
Mary stared at him in dismay, completely and utterly unable to utter the apology that was clearly required, when he started speaking… well, shouting really.
"Miss Bennet! Please, show some dignity and have a care clumsy girl."
That was it; the very last thing she could endure. She wanted to run away. She wanted it more than anything she had ever experienced in her life, but for the first time ever, she was overcome by a fury that she was unable to stop, or contain, or even moderate in any way. The entire ballroom had descended in silence at Mr. Darcy's uncharitable words. Every soul in Meryton wanted to see what the odd Bennet girl would do next. Lizzy started to come towards her, whether with comfort, censure or ridicule was hard to predict; which was the very last thing she needed, so Mary just let her mouth go. For once in her life, she was going to have her say and hang the consequences.
"Mr. Darcy! Are you a child that you can't take a little tumble without losing what little manners you possess? I'm hardly surprised a bully like you can't handle a small misstep. I may be ungraceful, but at least I've never publicly insulted anyone in my life… well, before now anyway. I've never called anyone 'tolerable but not handsome enough to tempt me'. I've never looked down my nose at an entire community. I've never whined because I can't keep to my feet like a man. It's hardly any wonder Lizzy can't stand the sight of you."
Once she started, she just couldn't stop and nobody in the ballroom could turn away.
"Father! Once again, your ill breeding and bad manners come to the fore. You've thrown away your fortune these twenty years on my mother's excesses, your books and your port; or perhaps it's your port and your books! You have left nothing for your daughters, not even sense and education; which are your duty as a father to provide. I know you are ashamed of me and perhaps all of my sisters except your two favorites. You should know that I am ashamed of you as well. You have failed us father. Be proud sir. You have raised five spinsters."
"Mother! Cannot you keep your mouth shut for once in your life? Jane may have once had a chance with Mr. Bingley. He may have even liked her, although he's just as likely to be just another rich man playing a game with a country miss. It would not be the first time or the last, but haven't you seen Mr. Darcy look at you and listen to you? Haven't you seen the disdain he obviously feels? Haven't you seen how your vulgar manners are going to send you to the hedgerows as surely as your situation? Can't you see that you've wasted our heritage on fripperies, and I can see as clear as day you wish to make Lizzy pay for your waste with her youth and her life. How dare you!"
"Mr. Collins! Wake up sir. Cannot you see that Lizzy would not marry you if you were the last man on Earth? I would have happily taken you, and made you a very good wife, but if you continue as you are, you will be thoroughly and completely rejected, mark my words sir."
"Kitty and Lydia! Father is right about one thing. You are both the silliest girls in England, and I would be unsurprised to find either or both of you disgracing the family within the year."
"Mr. Bingley! Are you the head of your family or not? Your sisters' manners are atrocious, yet you do nothing to check them. Miss Bingley thinks quite highly of herself, but she's been out in society, thinking highly of herself, with I'm sure a vast dowry for more than five years. She'll be on the shelf soon, if she's not already, and you'll have her all to yourself. Enjoy her company sir."
With that, Mary gave a strangled cry, looked around at the room and ran out the front doors as fast as her legs would take her.
Stunned silence greeted Mary Bennet's departure. It was some time before anyone could make a sound, and it was naturally Mr. Collins who found his well-oiled voice first.
"Well, I say that was the worst display of ill manners I've ever seen in my life. Lady Catherine will be most displeased! Most displeased indeed! Mr. Bennet, I cannot possibly return to your home after such a shameful display."
Fortunately, or perhaps not, nobody was paying the slightest attention to him except for Charlotte Lucas who happened to be standing just a few feet from him, who replied, "Mr. Collins, I am sure my father will welcome you at Lucas Lodge."
Charlotte was a woman of seven and twenty years, who was looking at her own cliff with some alarm. For a woman, being "on the shelf" was a bit of a cliff, and she was perilously close to it. She could probably live with her brothers; but what kind of a life was that? No family. No home of her own. No Children. She could probably find employment, which would be preferable, but being a parson's wife had something to recommend it, and Rosings sounded very fine. Mr. Collins was no catch, but he seemed malleable enough and she could do worse. Charlotte owed the Bennets some loyalty, but it had limits, and it was clear that between Mr. Bennet and Mary, all chance of a match with any Bennet was irrevocably gone if there had ever been one. Charlotte Lucas was no fool, and when she saw an opportunity, she intended to take it.
She saw her father coming toward her and started expeditiously working on her plan to secure Mr. Collins at Lucas Lodge.
As Charlotte was greeting her father, she heard Mr. Darcy mutter the oddest thing to himself, 'Can't stand the site of me. What could she mean?' These were snake-infested waters that Charlotte had not the slightest inclination of navigating, so she took Mr. Collins' arm and guided him to her father, so she could arrange her conquest.
Mr. Bingley stood in mute silence. He glanced at his sister and saw her… really saw her, perhaps for the first time. She was clearly enjoying the spectacle. She did not have the slightest bit of concern or sympathy for the poor Bennet girl who had just fallen apart right in front of all of their eyes, and he realized something true. Mary Bennet was right, his sister was a harridan. He had no idea how to fix it, but at least now, he knew. He also knew that after this outburst, Darcy and Caroline would press him mercilessly to leave the area, and he wasn't at all sure that he could or even wanted to resist them. He really thought he might love Miss Jane Bennet, but the thought of attaching himself to that family seemed overwhelming.
Mr. and Mrs. Bennet were for once in their lives truly embarrassed. Both had skated through Meryton society these five and twenty years mostly disregarding what anybody may have thought or said, but now it was done. It was clear. For as much as they may have let their girls down up to this point, now all was done. The reputation of the Bennet sisters would now be tarnished probably beyond redemption, and the chances of a good match for any of them now seemed greatly diminished.