Hi everyone! I'm so excited to share my second story with you. Please feel free to provide me with feedback. I'm still new to this and I'm trying to learn as I go. Thank you for all the support you've given me so far. This community is amazing!
Elizabeth Bennet sat in the corner of her father's study, watching the sunlight move across the wall as afternoon changed to evening. The room that she had known for her entire life already looked foreign to her. She could not believe how quickly things had changed; how quickly they had gone wrong. It was a normal day a fortnight before Christmas when she knocked on the door of this very study, and pushed it open to find her father slumped over his desk. The worst fear of the Bennets had come to pass: Mr. Bennet passed away, and not a single daughter had yet found a husband.
"Oh, how could Mr. Bennet do this to me?" cried Mrs. Bennet, as if Mr. Bennet's entire goal in dying suddenly had been to inconvenience her. "Why could he not have waited until one of the girls was wed?"
Her ire then turned to Elizabeth. "If you had accepted Mr. Collins, we would not be in this state now. But he is to wed Charlotte Lucas, and there is nothing to be done for it! We are lost! We are destitute!"
Elizabeth's eldest sister, Jane, gently maneuvered their mother to bed. Mrs. Bennet continued to rant and weep. Elizabeth understood that the things that needed to be done in the wake of her father's death would fall to her. Her other sisters would be no help. Mary had not uttered an intelligible word since hearing the news, but her lips moved quickly. Elizabeth knew she was praying. Her sister Lydia was acting quite a bit like their mother, but she had not yet perfected the art of the dramatic swoon, so she was receiving less attention from her sisters and the servants. And Kitty just sat on the settee and wept. Elizabeth's first urge was to comfort her, but she knew that other things needed to be done.
Elizabeth send a servant to fetch the undertaker. She did not know what needed to be done in a time like this, but she suspected that this was the appropriate first step. She then went to her father's study and draped a blanket over him. She knew that it was not rational, but the thought he might be cold made panic rise up in her throat. She felt strangely better once he was covered, as if she really had assisted him.
By then, the undertaker arrived and took over. Elizabeth answered his questions to the best of her ability, but later she could not remember a single word that she had uttered. She directed the servants to follow the undertaker's instructions to take Mr. Bennet to an outbuilding to prepare him for viewing.
Viewing! She had not even considered that they would need to open their house so that the neighbors could come and pay their respects. Her breath hitched in her throat, but she quickly got herself under control and began to instruct the servants on what needed to be done to prepare for that. Jane was back, having given Mrs. Bennet a tonic for nerves and helped soothe her to sleep, and Elizabeth was relieved to have another rational person helping her plan.
"Oh, the timing, Lizzy!" said Jane. "Mr. Collins is due back tomorrow. Who knows how long we will have to find somewhere else to live?"
"We are not without friends, Jane," said Elizabeth, trying to convince herself as much as her sister. "We can stay with our Uncle and Aunt Phillips in Meryton if we need to."
"But that is only a temporary solution," said Jane. "Uncle Phillips does not have enough room to house six people forever."
Elizabeth had already considered that, but she shoved the idea out of her mind. She had to focus on the present if she was going to survive it.
"We will have to think about that when it happens, Jane. Do not worry yourself."
Elizabeth could not take her own advice and her mind swirled with the terrible possibilities of what could happen. There was only one thing she knew for certain. The Bennets' life was changed forever, and not for the better.
The following day, Mr. Collins returned. Upon being told the tragic news, his hands flew to his mouth to cover a gasp of sorrow. Elizabeth was relieved to see no joy in Mr. Collins' face over his fortune in inheriting Longbourn.
"My dear cousin," he said, holding Elizabeth's hands and looking into her eyes, "it will take me at least three months after the wedding to get my affairs in order enough to move to Hertfordshire. You, your sisters, and your mother are welcome to stay at Longbourn until that time."
Elizabeth knew that Mr. Collins was offering them more than he was required to, but her eyes nonetheless filled with tears at the idea that they would have to find a new home in less than four months' time. Wherever would they go? What would they do? If only Mr. Bingley had made an offer for Jane, as they had all expected him to. With Jane so well placed, she would surely be able to help her mother and sisters during their time of need. But it was not to be. Mr. Bingley had returned to London and Miss Caroline Bingley's letter to Jane had made it clear that there was no immediate plans to return. A new plan had to be formulated, and quickly.
The plans for Mr. Bennet's viewing and funeral were set three days hence. Everyone at Longbourn, Bennets and servants alike, busied themselves with readying the house for the viewing. There were other tasks that needed attending: mourning clothes had to be created or ordered and the overall business of the farm had to continue apace. The time seemed to alternately drag and fly by as the funeral came closer.
A day before the funeral, the Bennets had a very unexpected guest. Thomas Rowe, the local butcher from Meryton, knocked on the door and was presented to Mrs. Bennet and her daughters. Mr. Rowe was a rough man of around 45. He thought himself to be good-humored, but as far as Elizabeth could tell, that humor centered on mocking other people. The fact that he often smelled faintly of the carcasses he had butchered did not make him easier to be around. Elizabeth tried not to linger too long when she was in the butcher's shop, as she had noticed that his eyes tended to land on her in an inappropriate way.
"Mrs. Bennet," he said with an exaggerated bow, "I wonder if I could talk with Miss Elizabeth. Alone."
There was only one reason that he would request a private audience - to propose marriage. Lydia started laughing and continued until she almost could not breathe.
"Please pardon her, Mr. Rowe," said Mrs. Bennet. "Her grief shows itself in such strange ways."
With that, Mrs. Bennet hurried her other daughters out of the room. Elizabeth's first reaction was to say something, anything, to keep them from leaving her alone with Mr. Rowe, but then she remembered how her situation had been recently diminished. If there was one advantage for considering a marriage with Mr. Rowe, it was that he was well to do, especially by Meryton standards. If she married him she might be able to save her family. She forced herself to at least hear him out.
"Miss Elizabeth," began Mr. Rowe, "I was so sorry to hear what happened to your father." He did not sound a bit sorry and could hardly keep from grinning.
Regardless, she murmured her thanks.
"But it may be that this is an opportunity as much as it is a sorrow. I have long admired you about town, Miss Elizabeth." His eyes raked over her in an extremely inappropriate way, and she had to stop herself from crossing her arms in a protective gesture. "I could take good care of you, if you were my wife. And if you were a good wife, I could take care of your family as well."
Elizabeth successfully resisted the urge to shudder. She did not know what constituted a "good wife" to a man like Mr. Rowe, and she certainly had no desire to find out. However, she was conscious enough of her situation to realize that she could not refuse him outright.
"I thank you for your concern, Mr. Rowe. The times certainly have been difficult, and your offer is most generous. Unfortunately, I am not in a state at the current moment where I feel comfortable making any decisions. After my father's funeral, I hope that I will feel enough at peace that I can give your offer the consideration that it deserves. Would it be possible for me to provide you an answer within a fortnight?"
"A fortnight I will give you, but not one day longer. It would do you well to remember that the offers for you Bennet girls have not been forthcoming. It would be in your best interest to accept my offer, unless you care to give destitution a try."
Elizabeth was too stunned to form an answer. Mr. Rowe smiled at her once more, bowed, and took his leave.
As soon as the door of the house closed behind him, Mrs. Bennet and Elizabeth's sisters rushed back into the study.
"Did he make you an offer?" asked Mrs. Bennet breathlessly.
"I did not even know you fancied him!" said Kitty.
"I am a bit surprised that he asked for Lizzy, and not for me," Lydia said with a pout, "not that I should have married that smelly old man anyway."
"Hush, Lydia," Jane said. "Lizzy, did he really offer for you?"
Elizabeth took a breath. "He did. I told him I would give him my answer in a fortnight."
"In a fortnight?" cried Mrs. Bennet. "What is there to consider? We must send a letter right away telling him that Lizzy accepts. Oh, we are saved! Mr. Rowe will make sure that we are all well taken care of!"
"It is not your decision, and I have not yet made mine," said Elizabeth, a bit too shortly. "I will not hear of this until our father has been laid to rest."
"This is not just about you, Lizzy," said Lydia. "This affects all of us. So maybe you should quit being so selfish and think of someone other than yourself for a change!"
Elizabeth could not respond to Lydia's preposterous statement. She just turned on her heel and walked out of the room.
Later that night, Elizabeth spoke with her dearest confidante, Jane.
"What am I to do, Jane?" she asked. "The idea of being married to Mr. Rowe!"
"Perhaps he is kinder than he appears," Jane said, although she shook her head while speaking as though even her generous nature could not believe such a thing.
"The way he looks at me! It is more than improper. It is downright vulgar. If I was his wife, he would have the liberty to do with me as he pleases."
"But if I do not marry him, what will we do to support ourselves? How will we live? We cannot rely on our relations to support us forever."
"But at what cost, my dear Lizzy? I cannot imagine you married to such a man."
"I cannot think of it tonight. Either decision seems to me to be the wrong one. Either I marry a man whom I know I cannot love, or our family is reduced to the most base of circumstances."
If only Mr. Bingley had not left so quickly, thought Elizabeth. If he knew that Jane was in such a situation, perhaps he would reconsider his connection to her. Elizabeth cursed Caroline Bingley for her role in separating two people who were so fond of each other. If only Elizabeth could get a message to Mr. Bingley.
And then she was seized with an utterly ridiculous idea. What if Jane were to write a letter to Caroline Bingley? It would be improper for any of the Miss Bennets to write to Mr. Bingley, but Jane and Miss Bingley had corresponded on several occasions. Elizabeth suspected that Miss Bingley would not be able to stay quiet if she was presented with the news of Mr. Bennet's death. Then, perhaps, Mr. Bingley would realize how much Jane needed him and return to Netherfield to save them all.
There was one big problem with this plan. There was no way that Elizabeth would be able to convince Jane to do such a thing. Jane would consider it dishonest and would have no part in it, even if it was to save the family. This solution was no solution at all, and Elizabeth resolved not to mention it to Jane. There was more than enough pain in their lives right now. There was no call to burden Jane with even more.