It was a clear day, bright and sunny, the day that Fanny Bennet died. To all who knew her, her death was extremely unexpected but not entirely without reason. The heart attack had taken her suddenly and swiftly. Her complaints of numbness in her arm and dizziness in her head had gone unnoticed by her husband. Thomas Bennet had been married to her for nearly five and twenty years and was well used to her proclamations of ill-used nerves and pain. But dear readers, as I have said there was indeed a reason that Fanny Bennet had an attack of the heart. For the night before there had been an assembly, and instead of the youngest being at home, all the young ladies had attended. Jane, Elizabeth and Mary were well able to conduct themselves with the utmost regard to propriety, and their sister Kitty had almost followed in their footsteps. Though she was not yet admitted to society being still full too young at fifteen, she was allowed a small taste in lieu of her coming out which was to be held on her sixteenth birthday, a concession granted to her despite her elder sisters having had their coming outs at seventeen. But Fanny Bennet was despairing of finding husbands for her daughters in a limited society such as Meryton and so decided to have them all out as quickly as possible in the hopes that some young gentlemen might be overwhelmed by the collective beauty of her daughters and be enticed into marrying one of them which would in turn lead to other gentlemen noticing them.
However, despite being far too young and nowhere near coming out, fourteen year old Lydia had protested most grievously about Kitty being allowed out and not she. For, Lydia had proclaimed, Kitty had attended five assemblies already, and although she had not danced, she had behaved well and therefore why should not she be allowed to attend. For if Kitty could behave well, Lydia could behave five times better. Kitty had cried and protested, but Lydia railed against her father, and her mother, weak against her youngest daughter had joined her side. Thomas had taken the easy road out and after a good five hours of being beset upon by his wife and daughters, he had allowed Lydia to attend provided she did not dance at all. Kitty had cried the whole day until at dinner her father despairing of the peace had allowed her to stand up with her sisters. Therefore the next Assembly, the entirety of the Bennet females set forth, where Kitty conducted herself happily despite a few mishaps where she followed Lydia too freely. However, this was swiftly rectified by the promise of dancing with all her eldest sisters. Thereafter she was a model of propriety and goodness.
The same could not be said for Lydia. Within minutes of Kitty taking up a set with Jane, she had begun to act in the most outrageous way, flirting with every young gentleman in sight regardless of whether or not they were betrothed or married. Such a spectacle she made that her eldest sisters were mortified, and Kitty by dint of being with them was mortified too. She finished a single dance with Jane, who immediately left to try and control the damage Lydia was doing, and Kitty danced thereafter with Lizzy and Mary. But before the hour was up, the four eldest daughters were at their mother's side pleading ill. They returned to Longbourne with much uproar, and Jane was in grievous tears. Mary and Lizzy were holding their own mortification with anger, strongly objecting to Lydia's upsetting of their beloved eldest sister, and Kitty was torn between her longtime companion and her elders who had treated her so kindly and sweetly. When they retired to bed, the four girls were united in Jane and Lizzy's room, where Mary, Lizzy and Jane strongly imparted on Kitty the great danger that Lydia's impropriety could cause to their reputations and thereby their marriage prospects. The danger of it was not lost on Kitty, who retired shortly after and refused to speak to Lydia claiming fatigue.
That Jane, Lizzy and Mary stayed up much later talking was of no consequence to her. But stay up they did, and the discourse between them was serious. For not long ago Jane had refused an offer of marriage made to her via a very bad piece of poetry. Fanny Bennet had seriously impressed on her the stupidity of her actions, and though Jane had cried and protested most strongly, she was left with the knowledge that her marriage chances were not so very great, and despite her beauty, that offer was likely to be one of few that she would receive. Her choices would be rendered much less if it were known that her sisters were outrageous flirts. But nothing could be done until the morning, and so while they planned and argued amongst each other, they let sleep claim them finally. In the morning after breakfast, Jane requested that she speak with her father, and Thomas had an inkling then that something serious was to occur. In his study, he bade his daughter speak freely, and Jane hesitated only a second before informing of what had happened the night before. Throughout her tale, her father stayed silent, and at the end he asked Jane what she wanted him to do. Firmly, yet shyly Jane announced she would withdraw from society until Lydia was curbed. The shocking news impacted her father a good deal more seriously than she expected. The implications of such a move hit Thomas only a few seconds after Jane stated her intention. That Jane felt so strongly on this was an indication of how serious a problem it was. Yet if she withdrew, Lizzy would be forced to follow and Mary. But he knew his daughters too well to believe that Jane had not already gone other this with both Lizzy and Mary.
He stood up abruptly and headed over to his brandy decanter, pouring himself three fingers of the drink and tossing it back silently. Looking at his nervous daughter, he poured a small measure into the glass and handed it to Jane. She was only too quick to quell her nerves by taking the glass and while she initially wrinkled her nose at it, she hastily drained the glass, though she did not toss it back like her father did. Having reinforced themselves, he led Jane out and into the parlour. Calling the attention of all his daughters and his wife, he put forth the matter of Lydia's behaviour and then finished with Jane's ultimatum. Fanny Bennet had shrieked and said Jane could not, to which Jane promptly avowed she would.
"Oh Mr Bennet!" Fanny cried "Surely you cannot mean to let her withdraw! You do not know what our neighbours will say, how they will gossip! How are the girls meant to catch husbands! Oh Jane, you selfish, selfish girl! You will ruin your sisters prospects and all for a night of fun!" Jane began to cry softly, unused to the displeased tone her mother was using against her. Mr Bennet looked at his eldest daughter and felt a hardening in his heart.
"No Fanny, Jane is quite right. Lydia is far too young to be gallivanting about, flirting with married men! I will not have it! Kitty will stay out as she is showing herself to be a sensible girl and not as silly as she used to be. But Lydia will not be allowed out until Jane is at least married and Kitty courting a gentleman I approve of!" At this startling declaration Lydia launched forward protesting vigorously against her punishment and finding herself an enemy in Jane, proceeded to verbally abuse her. Mrs Bennet for all her professed love of Jane was siding with Lydia, and turned on Jane quite meanly.
"Jane, you selfish girl! How could you?! You will never be married and you will become a spinster if you remove yourself from society! All our neighbours will gossip and you will never be able to hold your head up in company! You will not remove yourself, I will not allow it!" She screeched and Jane now crying in earnest looked like she might retract her ultimatum.
"But mamma, I must." She pleaded, sobbing quietly, and Lizzy finally joined her
"And if she removes herself, mamma, I will too."
"And I." Avowed Mary, firmly. Kitty, who had stepped forward to wrap an arm around Jane looked between her eldest sisters uncomfortably.
"And I shall refuse to come out until Mary is married." She said boldly, and then hid herself against Jane, noting that Lizzy seemed to step forward as if to shield them both. Mrs Bennet saw she was beaten soundly, and though she still protested on behalf of Lydia, and railed against her daughters most strongly, her words lacked fire. Lydia's however, did not; and for the next few hours she would lash out at her sisters, particularly Jane and Kitty. Their reproaches meant nothing to her, she saw herself as abominably used, and she refused to let go of her grudge. When this proved fruitless she turned on her mother, who although knowing she was beaten was easily hounded into taking up the fight again. The household saw no peace until dinner-time, when Mr Bennet put his foot down soundly and swore that if Lydia did not behave she would not have her coming out until Kitty was married, and even then only pending on her good behaviour. With such a dismal prospect before her, Lydia was finally silenced, and Mrs Bennet looked up at her husband over the dinner table.
"Well if that's it then Mr Bennet, so be it. But if your daughters never marry and are thrown into the hedgerows it will be on you, not I." She said and sniffed, tucking into her meal with gusto despite her sullen attitude. With the atmosphere somewhat cleared, the meal progressed and conversation began to flow again, broken only by Mrs Bennet commenting about some fluttering in her heart and numbness in her arm. Such comments about her health while generally having more to do with her nerves, were not uncommon, and so Mr Bennet did not look up from his book. It was only until Lizzy looked down the table and noticed her mother clutching her heart and shaking that she raised the alarm.
"Mamma!" She cried and tore herself from her seat to be at her mother's side. Mr Bennet, raised his eyes hastily and noticed in a moment the grey pallor around his wife's face and the terror in her eyes. He too removed himself to her side with all due haste, and the others followed suit, expressing alarm. Jane called for Hill urgently, begging that the apothecary be called. Lydia stared in shock at her mother, her face pale and wary. Kitty was crying already, kneeling at her mother's feet and supporting her. The last thing Fanny Bennet saw and felt before she died was her husband's arms around her and her daughters clustering around her, crying and calling out. The last thing she ever said was a wish that her nerves did not plague her so. What regrets she might have expressed would never be known for she did not say a word as she died, so swift and sudden was her earthly departure, but whatever animosity she may have had between her children and herself died along with her.
Lizzy, her second eldest and most vexing daughter was the first to her side and was earnestly crying and hoping against hope she would live, regretting any disputes and ill feelings she'd ever had against her mother. Mary, the plainest of all the daughters was wringing her hands and crying softly. Jane, her beloved daughter was crying earnestly, her head in her hands and great sobs wracking her body. Kitty had buried her face in Fanny Bennet's skirts, and Lydia. That dear favourite Lydia, who had so recently been a trial, was staring in shock, a single tear sliding down her cheek, and her mouth agape. The tableau was still the same when Mr Jones arrived. He gently removed those who were in his way and examined his patient before pronouncing it a heart attack. Within an hour after he had left, Mr Bennet had Mrs Bennet removed to her chambers, and he retired to his study. Not long after, he heard a hesitant knock on his door. He gruffly bade that person enter, and saw Jane sidle in with a terribly guilty look on her face. She closed the door behind her and then fled to her father's side, kneeling at his feet, promptly buried her face in his thigh and wept.
"Oh papa, did I kill her?! Was I wrong to force the issue?! If I had just ignored Lydia, would Mama have lived?!" She cried, already exhausted from weeping, and Mr Bennet laid a hand on her head, and allowed tears of his own to slide down his cheeks. That she should feel guilty he had anticipated. Jane was all that was sweet and good, but when her mind was made up she was resolute and firm. They were only young, his girls. Too young for such a tragedy, and he tilted Jane's chin to face him.
"No, my little Jane. It wasn't wrong to force the issue. Your mother has been having these complaints for years. I believe her heart must have weakened over time. Anything could have killed her at this my point, my little one. It was not your fault that your sister behaved so ill." He said soothingly, and Jane nodded before buried herself in her father's arms and cried herself to sleep. Mr Bennet quietly tugged the bell-pull nearby, and moments later Mrs Hill entered the room looking at him expectantly.
"Send in Lizzy and Mary." He said, and Mrs Hill nodded gently. When the young ladies entered his study they took note of Jane sleeping against him, and Lizzy; her eyes still wet from weeping looked at her father in some confusion.
"Papa?" She asked quietly, and he looked down at Jane and then back up.
"I will need your help to carry her upstairs Lizzy. Now Mary, be a good girl and go and prepare your sister's bed for her, will you my little lamb?" Mary nodded and disappeared upstairs, and Lizzy came forward to pull Jane against her, allowing her father to rise from his seat. Together they picked her up, Mr Bennet supporting her head and shoulders, and Lizzy at Jane's legs. Slowly, they made their way out into the corridor and the stairs, where Mary ushered them into the shared room, and removed Jane's slippers from her feet before they put her to bed. Lizzy sat herself behind Jane, and began the process of taking her hair down. Mary tucked the covers around her up to her waist, and when Lizzy had pulled out the hair, she put the pins safely away in their customary box. Quietly, Lizzy braided her elder sister's hair, and when they were finished, she managed to loosen Jane's stays. Finally they laid her back against the bed, and Mary put out the candles until one was left, and they retreated from the room to let her sleep. Mr Bennet had already removed himself to the study, and Lizzy put her arm around Mary and began descending to the somewhat chaotic household. They were accosted by Mrs Hill just outside the parlour.
"Begging your pardon, ma'am, but what would you like the staff to do about mourning clothes." Lizzy hesitated and began to defer it to her mamma and then stopped. Longbourne needed a mistress right now, and her mama was dead and Jane was sleeping, therefore by ascendancy the task fell to her as the eldest daughter available. She hesitated for a long moment, and then felt the supporting squeeze that Mary gave her.
"If you have any black cloth make it into arm bands for us all. On the morrow, send some maids into town to acquire some black bolts of cloth and some black ribbons. We must get the black drapes out and change them over. If someone could make up a wreath, I would be most grateful." She said with all the uncertainty of someone who have never expected to manage a household and was completely unprepared. But the reassuring smile that Mrs Hill bestowed on her told her that she had done well.
"Very good ma'am." That good lady replied and then left to carry out her orders. Lizzy and Mary proceeded into the parlour to find Kitty crying as Lydia cornered her. In sharp tones she was informing Kitty that it was all her fault Mama was dead. The hatred and grief lent her an edge over her older sister and she continued in her spiteful diatribe unaware of the shock on her older sisters faces. For a few seconds, Lizzy watched in anger and then she strode over, wrapping a hand around Lydia's arm and pulling her viciously away from Kitty.
"That is enough, Lydia! Shame on you! Our poor mother lies upstairs not even dead for a day and you are out here behaving shamefully and rudely! How dare you accost poor Kitty so?!" She cried, and Lydia wrenched her arm free, glaring up at Lizzy.
"La, Lizzy you cannot tell me what to do. You aren't in charge! Besides it was her fault." She protested and Mary came up.
"Lydia, with Mama dead and Jane asleep, Lizzy is now Mistress of Longbourne until Jane awakens, therefore she has authority over us all. As for it being Kitty's fault, it wasn't she who flirted with married men last night and brought shame on us all." Lydia's mouth dropped and she went to yell at Mary for sermonising, but Kitty joined in.
"You can't misbehave now Lydia! If you do, Lizzy will go to Papa and you know he will listen to her, she is his favourite! I never did anything wrong, it wasn't my fault Mama died." She cried and flounced out the room to go to her room, only to change direction halfway up and she entered Mary's, unequal to going to a room where she knew she would not be wanted. Lydia stared after her in dismay and anger. She knew Kitty was right, Papa would listen to Lizzy, and she stared up at Lizzy hatefully.
"It's all your fault Mama's dead! If you hadn't been so jealous and spiteful you would know there isn't anything wrong with what I did. You're selfish Lizzy, and so are you Mary, and so is Jane! I don't want anything to do with you! I hate you all!" She cried and pushed Mary out of the way, stomping towards the door. Lizzy darted at her and grabbed her arm. Lydia shrieked out a fearful insult and bit Lizzy's hand. Angrily, Lizzy pulled her hand back and soundly slapped her, the noise ricocheting through the room. Lydia, her eyes wide as saucers stared at Lizzy in something akin to fear. Even Mary was shocked. For all her faults, Lizzy had never reacted so badly in anger to anything. For a moment even Lizzy seemed shocked, then she grabbed Lydia with her other hand and shook her violently back and forth.
"Now you listen to me, Lydia Rosemary Bennet! The only person who is at fault here is you! Your stupid, selfish behaviour was embarrassing and disgusting at the Assembly. You mortified all of us, and your behaviour was so abominable everyone else was embarrassed for us! You do not get to accuse Kitty of selfishness when it was you who behaved so terribly! You should have simply accepted your punishment instead of railing against father and us like you did. You riled Mama up and forced her to listen to you, getting on her nerves and assaulting her spirits! If you had have been respectful you would have accepted your punishment and let it drop, but you couldn't. If I ever see you behave like this again, I will drag you before Papa by your ear. Now go to bed!" And she released a now thoroughly shaken and terrified Lydia, and pushed her towards the door. Lydia needed no further inducement, she was through the door like a shot and up the stairs to her room to throw herself on the bed and weep.
Lizzy for her part sank to her knees the moment Lydia left. She buried her face in her hands and rocked back on her heels exhausted. Yet, she could not cry. She felt rather than heard Mary step forward and rub her shoulders. Mary for all her awkwardness and shyness knew that companionship was often better than condolences. For her part she could not have expressed any sympathy to Lizzy then and there, but she knew that it had hit Lizzy terribly. Her own heart was twisted in two, and she knew that Lizzy simply needed to recollect herself. She was pulled from her own grief-stricken reflections when Lizzy moaned.
"Oh Mary, I have never behaved so ill! I have never slapped any of you ever. Yet I wanted to slap her again!" She cried and stared up at Mary. Mary had never been relied on for anything except for providing musical entertainment. She had certainly never been relied on for support or guidance, though she had offered Biblical advice many times before. She gently patted Lizzy's shoulder and shrugged helplessly.
"She deserved such a slap. To behave so ill and then accuse others of her own behaviour is far beyond anything I have ever witnessed. And then to lash out so violently! It makes me fear for Kitty." Lizzy nodded, and then began to rise.
"I think if you have no objection that Kitty should be removed to your room until Lydia shows no animosity toward her. I cannot help but feel that if she stayed there it would do more harm than good." Mary nodded at this proclamation, and began to leave the room.
"I shall seek out Kitty and inform her of this." She said and left Lizzy alone. That young woman stared at the wall for several long moments aware of the fireplace crackling and clock ticking, and yet remaining unmoving. Then she looked down at the bite mark on her hand. Lydia had not held back in anger. There was blood welling up from the nasty mark, and it stung most cruelly. Lizzy left the parlour in search of Mrs Hill and the kitchens. As she entered all the servants looked up at her and began expressing their condolences to her. She managed to accept them all with some equanimity, and then turned to Mrs Hill.
"Mrs Hill, would you send up a couple of maids and a footman to remove my sister Kitty's things to Mary's room? I fear Lydia's grief is too strong for Kitty to handle it, and she would be happier with Mary for company at this time. And if you wouldn't mind to bring me something for my hand I should be much obliged." There was a long pause and then Mrs Hill turned and gave out orders. A young strapping footman by the name of Roberts gallantly offered his arms to the two young maid's either side of him and left to go upstairs. Mrs Hill promptly bustled forward and exclaimed over the bite mark on Lizzy's hand. Before she knew it, she was seated and having her hand placed in some cold water and some herbs were wrapped around it. A salve of comfrey was taken down and smeared over her hand, which was quickly wrapped in a thin strip of old muslin. Lizzy thanked them all, and left for her papa's study to inform him of what happened and what she had done. He sipped his brandy while he listened and nodded when she finished. Satisfied that she had done right, she went upstairs and supervised the removal of Kitty from Lydia's room. That young lady was not rightly pleased having been planning on shredding some of Kitty's favourite things, but the presence of Lizzy and Mary greatly subdued her attitude and she was forced to vent her anger on her pillows. Kitty was more than pleased to be sleeping away from Lydia, and though she lay awake for a long time she was comforted by Mary's quiet presence. Lizzy went to bed and silently wept until she too fell asleep, and thus the Bennet household somewhat quietly passed the first night after Mrs Bennet's earthly departure.