"Oh, do cheer up," Richard said, patting his old friend Paul on the back of his beautifully tailored waistcoat. "I hate to see you looking so glum."
Paul shrugged off his friend and straightened his shoulders. "Ritchie, the world is not the idyllically happy and safe place you always make it out to be. Peace and love are not found in abundance in any corner of England that I have yet encountered."
Richard looked up at the wooden sign advertising a tea shop on the side of the cobblestone pavement. "What do you say we step inside here? A nice cup of Darjeeling will surely lift your spirits."
"Bah," grumbled Paul as he peered inside the shop's front window. "I don't fancy being served tea by a Brahmin."
"Well, the shop is called The Casbah," Richard replied. "Who would you expect to be working there? A yodeling Burgermeister wearing lederhosen?"
"Let's nip in here for a glass of port instead," Paul suggested, pointing to the set of steps beside the teashop that led to a cellar pub.
"The Cavern?" Ritchie challenged. "Do you feel like spelunking?"
"No, I feel like drinking port," Paul groused.
Richard laughed and slapped his friend on the back once more, then followed him down the small flight of stairs into the dimly lit tavern. Paul took a seat at a table in the back corner of the room while Richard walked to the bar and ordered two glasses of port. When he returned to his friend's side with the drinks, he noticed Paul was exchanging looks with man in a black frock coat who was sitting alone at a table in the center of the room. Richard examined the strange-looking man. He was flush-faced and appeared to be swaying unsteadily.
"Is that a parson?" Richard whispered as took a seat across from Paul, blocking his friend's view of the stranger. "A man of the cloth, drinking in a public house?"
Paul shrugged. "It would seem so. I wish he would stop staring at me. It's quite irritating."
Richard sipped his port, then lowered his glass. "If you ask me, old friend, the reason you've been so irritated lately is that you miss Elizabeth Bennet. I, for one, certainly miss her sister."
Paul lowered his gaze. "Well, you shouldn't. The Bennet family is beneath you. They're nothing but a quintet of money-hungry spinsters, ruled over by an overbearing mother and a woefully distracted father."
"Spinsters?" Richard laughed. "Why, Jane is but two-and-twenty, and her sister Lizzy a year younger! And the other three girls are still in their teens."
"Yet the entire lot of them are out in society already," Paul sneered. "Whoever heard of a family parading five daughters together at public functions? Decent parents would wait for their eldest to marry before putting their younger offspring on the market."
Richard took another sip of his drink. "I fear Elizabeth Bennet may have been correct in her assessment of you," he stated as he rested his glass on the table. "You are proud and judgmental."
"Did she say that to you? Truly?" Paul asked, raising a curious eyebrow. "You asked her to share her opinion of me, and she gave it?"
"Ah, now I have your attention!" Richard laughed. "I knew you couldn't stop thinking about her! No, my old friend, Elizabeth Bennet would never be so rude as to insult you in front of your friend. But I could read her feelings in her eyes, which I might add, I remember you complimenting quite profusely at Netherfield."
"Yes," Paul sighed. "She does have fine eyes, doesn't she?" He sipped his port and stared off into space with a sad puppy dog expression.
"And I can read your eyes too, old friend," Richard added. "I know you are pining for her. And I know you still feel the sting of her rejection quite keenly. Lizzie Bennet is no doubt the first woman who ever turned down your invitation to dance. She didn't fall for your good looks or your large fortune."
Paul bristled, but before he could reply, the clergyman who had been eyeing him staggered up his table. "Excuse me, sir, but I couldn't help but notice. You're Mr. Darcy, aren't you? Paul Fitzwilliam Darcy?"
"Yes," Paul muttered, throwing an icy glare at his uninvited guest. "Have we met?"
"No, but I've seen your portrait hanging on the wall at Rosings Park," the parson replied, resting his hands on the table to stop himself from swaying. "And I have heard my patroness, Lady Catherine de Burgh, speak quite highly of you on numerous occasions. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is John Collins."
"Pleased to meet you, Reverend Collins," Richard replied, offering the cleric his hand. "I'm Mr. Darcy's friend, Richard Bingley. It's a small world, isn't it? Imagine, meeting an acquaintance of my friend's Auntie from Kent right here in this London pub!"
"Yes, imagine meeting a man of the cloth drinking in a public house," Paul added.
John pulled up a chair. "I came to London to hear a series of lectures by the Archbishop of Canterbury at Westminster Abbey. I simply stopped in here for a repast before returning to Kent." He covered his mouth and belched, then sat down between the two men. "I hope you don't mind my being so forward, but I couldn't help but hear you speaking about a family named Bennet. Were you referring to the Bennets who reside in Longbourn, near Meryton?"
Paul stared at him contemptuously and offered no reply.
Richard cleared his throat, then nodded. "Indeed, Reverend, the family we were discussing is one and the same. Do you know them?"
John made as if to speak, then lowered his head and released a loud gasp. He sobbed loudly for several seconds, then wiped his tear-stained cheeks with both hands, curled his thin lips into an 'O', and released a long stream of alcohol-tinged breath slowly through his mouth. "Alas, I do," he answered at length. "And they have done me wrong."
Paul scooted his chair further away from the weeping parson. Richard signaled to the publican. When he approached, Richard quietly asked him what the reverend had been drinking.
"Gin," came the reply.
"Bring us a bottle then, and a fresh glass," Richard whispered back. He placed his hand gently on John's shoulder and smiled at him. "So out with it," he said. "It's no good holding these things inside. Trust me, you'll feel better when you've spoken your piece."
"Oh, God, Ritchie, no!" Paul blustered.
John sat up straight against his chair and offered Richard a sad, loopy smile. "You're very kind," he began. "Yes, I would like to unburden myself. I've been keeping this in for so long."
The publican re-appeared with a bottle of gin and poured a small glass for his customer. John accepted it greedily and downed the drink in a single gulp. "My story is a long one," he said as he slammed his glass back on the table. "But I shall endeavor to keep it as brief as I can. I certainly wouldn't want to impinge upon the generosity of two fine gentlemen as yourselves. Or to bother you in any way. Especially as Mr. Darcy is the nephew of my most kind and magnanimous benefactress, Lady Catherine de Burgh."
Paul drank the dregs of his port and signaled to the publican to refill his glass.
The publican nodded, returned to the bar, and came back to the table with an entire flask. "This way you can talk in peace, good sirs," he whispered. He left the bottle on the table and stepped aside.
"I proposed to the wrong Bennet sister!" John announced, his voice carrying across the room and drawing stares from the other guests.
Paul lowered his head and tried to hide his face with his hands. Richard met John's eyes with another kind smile and nodded for him to continue.
"I am due to inherit Longbourn, you see," John went on. "The estate is entailed to me. I am but a distant cousin of the current owner, yet I am his closest male relative. He, as you are no doubt well aware, has only the five daughters."
"Yes, yes, go on," Paul interjected.
"I was not raised in Hertfordshire," John continued. "After the death of my parents, I was brought up by my mother's sister Mimi in a village named Woolton, in the north. She was an upright woman, who guided me on my path towards ordination. In truth, it was her idea that I take Holy Orders. I was not inclined to pursue a religious life, as my keenest desire had always been to become a landed gentleman. Yet as my inheritance was never in any way assured, my Aunt Mimi thought it best that I take on a profession which would allow me to earn an income, however humble, while I waited to see if my kinsman and his wife might indeed, one day, produce a male heir."
John drew in a deep breath. Paul rolled his eyes impatiently.
Richard refilled his and Paul's glasses with port and John's with gin. Then, with a mildly exasperated look in his eyes, he politely asked John to explain what he'd meant when he said he'd proposed to the wrong Bennet sister.
"Well, out of pity for the five Bennet daughters, as they were likely to be left homeless upon the death of their father, I thought it would be munificent to offer my hand to one of them," John replied. "That way, when I inherited the estate, at least one of the poor girls could remain in the household. Your aunt, Mr. Darcy, actually put the idea in my head. She said to me, 'Mr. Collins, you should take one of the Bennet sisters as your bride.' And I never wish to displease my patroness."
"You seem quite comfortable letting women tell you what to do," Paul remarked.
"Well, as I stated previously, I was raised by an aunt with a rather forceful personality," John agreed. "So I am quite comfortable serving under Lady Catherine's tutelage at Hunsford Parsonage."
Paul smiled at last. "I imagine she is quite pleased to have a man such as yourself serving beneath her."
"Indeed, Mr. Darcy, I pride myself in saying that I think she does," John replied. "Though, of course, as a rule, I try not to be proud."
"Right," Richard said, throwing a glance at his pocket watch. "And you proposed to which Bennet girl?"
John released a sad sigh that sounded almost like a moan. "Well, naturally, when I first met the young ladies, my eyes fell upon Jane, the eldest. She is quite fair."
Richard's face lit up. "Yes, that she is."
"But I heard from Mrs. Bennet that Jane was quite in love with another man, so I thought it best to turn my sights to a different sister."
"In love with another man?" Richard repeated, his eyes brightening further still. "Tell me, sir, do you know his name?"
"Alas no," John replied. "But in any case, I decided to offer my hand to the next Bennet sister, Elizabeth. She is not quite as pretty as Jane, but I dare say she is tolerable."
Richard stole a knowing glance at Paul, then broke into a laugh. "Tolerable, you say?"
"Well, perhaps her looks are more than tolerable," John admitted. He reached into the pocket of his black coat and pulled out a pair of wire-rimmed glasses. "I'm short-sighted, you see, but I'm disinclined to wear these unless I absolutely must. I'll admit my vanity to you, good sirs, since I have already confessed to the sin of pride. But it is simply easier for me to go through my daily activities without these spectacles. Yet as a result, I often feel as if I am living with my eyes closed."
"You should wear your lenses," Paul admonished him. "Otherwise you'll misunderstand everything you see."
John complied with his command and continued with his drawn-out tale. "So, to return to my personal history, I began my courtship of Elizabeth. I felt quite certain that I had succeeded in winning her heart, so I proposed to her."
"How long did you court her?" Paul asked, raising his eyebrows once more.
"But a few days," John replied. "Though I believed they were very special days. I even danced with her. Twice! Tell me, Mr. Bingley, do you believe in love at first sight?"
Richard laughed. "Yes I'm certain that it happens all the time!"
John sighed. "Alas, I know now that Miss Bennet did not reciprocate my feelings. She told me so quite emphatically. And then her father, my kinsman…" He reached for his glass of gin, downed it, and refilled it to the rim. "He made a rude remark!" John exclaimed, holding back a sob.
"Oh, come now," Paul said, struggling to hide the smirk on his face. "Don't be so thin-skinned. What could the man possibly say to extinguish such a burning love as yours?"
"He said…" John stammered. "Well, to summarize my plight more precisely, first Mrs. Bennet told Elizabeth that if she did not accept my proposal of marriage, she would never speak to her again. Then Mr. Bennet informed his daughter that she would have to choose between her two parents, because if she did accept my offer of marriage, he would never speak to her again!"
An abrupt laugh escaped from Paul's lips. Richard managed to hide his smile behind his glass of port. John downed another gin and started sobbing in earnest.
"Oh, do buck up," Paul said as John's sobs started drawing more curious stares from the pub's customers. "So you lost at love. I'm sure another woman will come along."
"One already has," John replied, his cheeks lined with tears. "Elizabeth's best friend, Charlotte Lucas. I am married to her now."
Richard smiled in bemusement. "Well, that was quick. And are you happy in your new bride?"
"Oh, I don't know," John sighed. "I should be, I know. She is exceedingly polite, and Lady Catherine approves of her, even though by pledging my troth to Charlotte, I disobeyed her directive to marry a Bennet girl. Yet I sense that Charlotte is unhappy with me – that she only accepted my proposal so she wouldn't become an old maid and a burden to her parents. And now that I reflect upon my ill-fated visit to Longbourn, I can't help but remember that Miss Mary Bennet was the only sister amongst the five who showed me any interest. I think, perhaps, if I had wooed her instead of Elizabeth, I might have found…dare I say it…true love?"
"Ah," Richard sighed. "Yes, that's what we all want, isn't it? Love."
"Love is all you need," John agreed. "I imagine that with true love in my heart, I could actually…oh, this is embarrassing to admit."
"Say it," commanded Paul. "Lord knows, you've said everything else there is to say under the sun this afternoon."
"With true love in my life, I could perhaps…learn how to be on time," John whispered. He downed another drink and reached for the bottle. "I'm always late for everything," he added before belching once more. "It's my worst failing."
Paul and Richard exchanged knowing glances. "Well, I don't know about that," Paul replied.
John placed the gin bottle back on the table without refilling his glass. "I think I might take a short rest now," he stated, his words slurring together. "If you don't mind." He crossed his arms on the table, lowered his head on top of them, and closed his eyes.
"Actually, I do mind," Paul huffed. He started reaching towards John's bent elbow, but Richard stopped him.
"Let him be," he insisted. "The poor bloke's had a rough go at it. Just imagine, realizing you've made a horrible decision about a woman, and as a result, may have lost your best hope at happiness."
Paul sighed and reached for his glass of port.
"Of course, there are two bits of good news that came out of this protracted tale of woe," Richard added.
Paul looked up at him.
"Jane loves me!" Richard said with a smile. "And Lizzie is still single."
"I have no opinion one way or the other about that latter point," Paul replied.
"Oh, yes you do," Richard countered. "You can't hide your love away from me."
"I am not in love with Elizabeth Bennet," Paul insisted. "And I dare say…"
Before Paul could finish his sentence, the door to the pub opened and a small group of officers in bright red coats sauntered up to the bar.
"Damn," Paul muttered under his breath. "When it rains, it pours."
A thin officer with a thinner mustache threw a quick glance at Paul and Richard. He winced momentarily, then broke into a wry smile. "Buy me a whiskey," he directed a fellow officer. Then he broke away from his troop and approached the two old friends.
"Paul Fitzwilliam Darcy," he said through clenched teeth. "Imagine meeting you here, in a common public house."
"I hadn't realized it was common until you stepped in," Paul retorted.
The officer extended his hand towards Richard. "George Wickham," he declared. "At your service."
Richard stood up to exchange introductions. "I'm Richard Bingley, a friend of your friend."
"This man is no friend of mine," Paul stated without standing up or offering George his hand.
George examined the drunken clergyman collapsed at the table. "Drinking with priests, are you now, Paulie? It looks like you've indoctrinated this poor parson in the wages of sin."
"He came to this table uninvited, just like you did," Paul replied.
Richard threw an exasperated look at Paul, then scooted his chair away from John. "There is room at the table for you too, sir," he informed George. "It is always an honor to sit with a man who has dedicated his life in service to His Majesty's Army."
Paul laughed sardonically. "Yes, I'm sure Mr. Wickham joined the Army with the noblest of intentions."
George pulled up a chair and smiled at Richard. "Actually, when I was young, I had hoped to become a cleric, like your unconscious friend here," he said as he sat down. "Mr. Darcy's father – my godfather, I might add – paid for me to study at Cambridge. Though things didn't quite work out, did they, Paulie?"
"Don't call me Paulie," Paul replied.
An officer walked up to their table, handed George a glass of whiskey, then left to sit with his friends.
"Thanks, Denny," George said. He turned to face Paul and flashed him another wicked grin. "Shall we toast? To old times?"
"No," Paul answered, meeting George's pointed smile with a frown and an unblinking stare.
George winced once more and turned towards Richard. "I recognize you, Mr. Bingley," he admitted. "My regiment was recently stationed in Hertfordshire. Some of my fellow officers attended a ball at your home."
"I'm just renting Netherfield," Richard replied. "I spend most of my time in London now."
"Indeed," George said. "I heard from a mutual friend that you were courting Jane Bennet of Longbourn."
Richard smiled. "I was, though nothing has been settled between the two of us."
"She has a lovely sister named Elizabeth," George added. "I had the great pleasure of making her acquaintance when I was in Meryton."
Paul started breathing heavily. He clutched at his glass with such force that he shook it and spilled a splash of port on the table.
"Still can't handle your liquor, can you, Paulie?" George laughed. "He never could, you know," he told Richard in a loud whisper.
"What are you doing here, George?" Paul asked.
George sipped his whiskey, then slapped his glass on the table with a loud thwack. "I came to town to run an errand for my commanding officer, Colonel Forster. I'm on my way back to Brighton now, to join my regiment. But I stopped in this pub for a little refreshment before I commenced my journey."
"I meant why are you sitting at my table?" Paul challenged.
George looked back at Richard. "We were childhood mates, you know. Practically grew up together, the two of us did. And now look what's happened. Our Paul's grown into a mean old man before his time."
Before Paul could offer a rejoinder, John sat up with a start and pronounced, "Love is the answer, and you know that for sure." Then he collapsed back on the table.
The three men stared at the top of John's head. Richard turned towards George. "This parson is in the service of Paul's Auntie Cath," he explained. "He came to this pub to offer us some spiritual advice."
"Indeed. I see," George replied. He sipped at his whiskey.
John bolted back up again. "Love is a flower!" he exclaimed. "You've got to let it grow!" He smiled dumbly at his companions, then fell back on top of his arms.
Richard and Paul exchanged wary glances. Then Richard turned back towards George. "He offers us gardening advice as well."
George downed his whiskey. "Perhaps I should take my leave. I feel unwelcome here."
"Yes, please do so," Paul sneered.
"Come now, Paul, is that really necessary?" Richard chided. "It never hurts to be cordial."
George stood up and glared menacingly at Paul. "I don't mind. I'll do whatever you want me to do, Paulie. Or I won't do anything at all if you don't want me to. Whatever it is that will please you, I'll do it."
Paul rolled his eyes. "Just go then. Brighton beckons."
George tossed one last wicked smile at the two men. "Right. I suppose I should hurry back then. The wife of a fellow officer has invited one of the Bennet sisters to come visit our regiment there. I'm looking forward to seeing her again."
Paul started standing up from the table as George left to join his friends, but Richard grabbed him by the shoulder and guided him back into his chair.
"Let it be," Richard urged him.
"God, how I despise that man," Paul seethed. "The things I could tell you…if only propriety would allow."
"Tell me later," Richard replied. He finished off his port and stood up from his chair. "I'll settle the bill. But what should we do about the reverend here?"
Paul shrugged. He flicked his fingers against John's forehead but drew no response beyond a startled snore. "Perhaps it would be better if we let him sleep off his drink here, where nobody knows him. I imagine once he returns to Rosings, my aunt will put the fear of the Lord back into him once more."
Richard nodded. "So where should we go now? What say we promenade through the park?"
Paul swallowed the last of his port and rested his glass on the table. "We could take a turn around Hyde Park if you would like. But something tells me I will be traveling to Brighton soon. Or perhaps back to Hertfordshire. I should like to make certain that all of the Bennet sisters are still in good health."
Inspired by the 1813 novel "Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen.