"This is a quaint county, is it not?" enquired the young man on a magnificent chestnut mount.
"Holdsworth, you are entirely too pompous for your own good!" exclaimed his companion, riding it must be noted, a much less impressive animal.
"Just because you stand to inherit the majority of –shire, does not mean the rest of the world deficient!" proclaimed the third young man.
"Come now, I was simply saying that this Hertfordshire is a comfortable looking place. You two need not keep up the pretense of taking offense," Holdsworth replied.
"Yes, yes, but it is so much more entertaining to make you uncomfortable. You know it is our favorite pastime. Besides, what else have Howe and I to do while holding court around you?"
"You are right, my dear Mr. Brooke. It is our responsibility to ensure that the future Lord of --- maintains a sense of humility and virtue. For what else do we exist?" Questioned Howe.
"Are you two quite finished?" the rather embarrassed Holdsworth asked.
"No!" was the reply from each of his companions.
At that, Holdsworth took full advantage of his fine mount's skills and charged off. His two companions glanced at each other and while indulging in a brief chuckle, began to follow their dear friend.
From a distance, these three seemed quite the odd grouping. Holdsworth looked every inch the future Lord. His tall stature, dashing figure, and intense eyes made an imposing man. However, as his close friends, such as Howe and Brooke, knew that he was a private, sensitive individual. The pressures of being a future Lord were such he bore with a resigned nature. More disposed to reading, quiet discussions, and serving others in unseen ways, Holdsworth at a tender age of twenty three shied away from the pressures of the Ton and chaos of London.
Of the three, Howe was the adventurous one. Always ready for a challenge, he was the one who found the opportunities for trouble while the three attended Cambridge together. An aspiring diplomat or politician, he did not yet have a strong preference, he knew he would succeed as only one with great charm and a penchant for persuasiveness could.
The last, Brooke, was unlike the others. Neither the elder son of a Lord nor younger son of a gentleman with modest estate, Brooke needed to make his own way in the world. Growing up he had been fortunate to be befriended by a very wealthy young man who saw Brooke's goodness and intelligence as something to be cultivated. Accordingly, this beneficent patron encouraged his education and sponsored his years at Cambridge. Destined to soon take orders, Brooke was enjoying a brief holiday with his friends.
As the three were cantering down the quiet country lane and enjoying the fresh air, they failed to notice an impending accident. A nail was working loose in the horse's shoe that Brooke was riding at quite a pace. Before the trio had gone but a mile, the horse fully threw the shoe and his rider. In a very undignified manner, Brooke found himself in the dirt along the road. His companions quickly came about to ascertain what the problem was.
"Can't manage your horse there, Brooke?" the impertinent Howe suggested.
No immediate response came from the young man in the ditch. Since Brooke was just as quick-witted as his friend, this was the first signal that something was seriously amiss.
"Bingley has found himself in quite the situation," stated a fairly young, average sort of military man.
"Yes, it is no small responsibility to raise a child. I know only too well…"
"Darcy, perhaps it would be good for both of us to join him in the country. We know what it is like to be guardian to a child. I have leave from the general for some time now. Between little Benjamin and a country estate, I know Bingley would greatly appreciate your guidance," the Colonel continued.
"I agree. However, I must first go to Pemberley. There are some matters there requiring my immediate attention. If I spend a week or two on estate matters, I believe I may well be able to spend several months away with Bingley," Darcy decided.
"Very well. After breakfast tomorrow, let us call on Bingley. He has returned to his townhouse, I believe."
"According to the letter I received a day ago, I would agree. However, you know his writing style. He very well may have written something else entirely. There are more spills of ink in his letters than legible passages!" the normally reticent Darcy shared a brief moment of humor.
With that, the business of the call was completed; so following a brief chat of current events, Colonel Fitzwilliam left his cousin's home to return to his lodgings near the General. Darcy in turn, left the library in search of his sister.
With little surprise, he found her in the music room with her companion Mrs. Annesley. Georgiana was playing the pianoforte while Mrs. Annesley read near the window. Once she concluded her piece, her brother spoke.
"That was wonderful, Georgiana. Do you have a moment to spare for your brother?"
"Of course. Is something the matter, Fitzwilliam?" the young girl replied.
"No, but I would like to speak with you and Mrs. Annesley. It concerns Mr. Bingley."
At that, Georgiana took a seat. Her brother chose to remain standing; he often did when he wished to remain focused. Mrs. Annesley chose the seat next to her charge.
"Bingley has found himself the guardian of his young cousin, Benjamin. Apparently the boy's parents died just a brief time ago. With no other living relatives, Bingley now has sole responsibility of the boy."
"Oh, the poor child!" declared Mrs. Annesley. "What he must be feeling!"
"Yes, Bingley is worried that the society of London and the confinement of a townhouse will not help the boy. Thus, Bingley has leased an estate in Hertfordshire, a Netherfield Hall. He plans on taking up residence there immediately and has invited us to join him."
"Oh brother, you know how I love the country. Could we please go?" Georgiana shyly asked.
"I am pleased you are interested. Bingley also thought you might be helpful with Benjamin. Mrs. Annesley, would you be willing to join the party for Netherfield? I have to return to Pemberley for a brief period, but plan on following only a fortnight after. At that point, perhaps you would like to take leave to see your daughter? You had mentioned she is expecting her first child and I thought you might want to be with her."
"Mr. Darcy, that is an excellent plan. I would be happy to join the party at Netherfield. Perhaps I too may help the boy. My daughter has some time yet before her child is expected, so the timing for my departure will be excellent. Thank you for your consideration," the trusted woman replied.
"So it is decided. Georgiana, you will travel with Mrs. Annesley and Fitzwilliam in a few days and I will follow soon after the business at Pemberley is concluded."
"Benjamin, how do you like your new room?"
"I like blue, but where is Edgar?" lisped the young boy of six.
"Edgar has the place of honor on your rocking horse. See, he is right here." Bingley pointed out his young cousin's toy dog.
Benjamin took Edgar in his arms and clasped the dog to his chest with all the strength he had. This small toy was all he had left of his past. As his cousin Charles tucked him into the bed with the blue covers, he seemed to withdraw again.
Charles wished the boy sweet dreams and extinguished the candle. As he walked down the hall towards the staircases memories of his own parents' deaths came back as did the inevitable anguish. While Bingley was much older than Benjamin upon his parents' deaths, he still knew the pain of that unique loss. Knowing the sudden addition of a child to his household would change his life, little did Charles know the full depth and breadth of those changes awaiting him.
"Oh, Papa, perhaps you spoke too hastily. I fear for your nerves now." Lizzy announced as she entered her father's library.
"My dear, I am not now, nor shall I ever be afflicted by any nerves lest they be your Mother's."
"That may be, however, from the news Mama, Lydia, and Charlotte have told me, you will soon be quite busy," was the equally coy reply.
"And why might that be?" inquired Mr. Bennet.
"Was it not just a few days ago you consoled Mama that when there were twenty young men of four or five thousand a year come into the neighborhood you would visit them all?"
If this were any other female resident of Longbourn, excepting perhaps Jane or Hill, Mr. Bennet long would have returned to the newspaper he was reading upon Lizzy's entrance to his sanctuary. As it was, his Lizzy, the second of his five daughters had his attention. Perhaps this would be the only time Mr. Bennet cared what the gossips of Meryton bandied about. His distaste was quite strong despite of, or perhaps because of, his wife's leading role among those gossips.
"Yes, yes," Mr. Bennet dismissed.
"Well, I hope that you are at your leisure as there are now at last count, twenty such men in the neighborhood," Miss Bennet informed her father.
"Now Lizzy, perhaps you best go spin this tale for your mother. This fable is much more in her realm of interest than mine. You would have her in raptures for the remaining of the day."
In exasperation Lizzy sighed, "Father…"
After nearly twenty one years as Elizabeth's father, he knew that the title of Father was only applied when she was in trouble, mostly as a child, or when she was frustrated with him, now when she was no long said child. Thus, Elizabeth now had Mr. Bennet's full attention, if not belief in her declaration.
"Am I to believe that there are at least twenty young men of fortune now in our midst?" Mr. Bennet asked in disbelief assured of its position.
"Yes, Papa. Well, nearly twenty."
"Who?" he enquired, desperately hoping it was not so. What flutters and palpitations Mrs. Bennet would fly into once she came to this realization. "Perhaps she will not be able to count that high…" Mr. Bennet thought rather unkindly to himself.
"Let me see. As Mama said, Netherfield is let to a Mr. Bingley. With him are several gentlemen soon to come. After her visit with Aunt Phillips this morning Mama said with Mr. Bingley are a Mr. Darcy, a Col. Fitzwilliam, Mr. Hurst, and Mr. Bingley's young cousin, heir to his parents' fortune. Charlotte informed me on our walk yesterday morning that there is a party of several gentlemen, eight apparently, that have come into Hertfordshire for a quiet hunting party before returning to London shortly. Lydia returned from her walk to Meryton with the news that the Militia has come and with it the usual officers. The Colonel, Forster, I believe, is unmarried and comfortable in addition to the rumor that at least four of the other officers will have upon reaching a particular age, a fortune of four or five thousand. Apparently the most notable are Denny, Saunders, and a Mr. Wickham. Added to this are the three young men stranded at the Inn due to an accident. One is reportedly a future Lord." Lizzy patiently waited as her father digested this litany of names and situations.
"Lizzy, you have not spun such a yarn since you were climbing trees as a girl and tore your dress. I believe you blamed that on a rouge pirate. This story is no more believable." Mr. Bennet admonished. He began mentally listing all the inconsistencies in her story. Why would such wealthy gentlemen choose their neighborhood? Why would young men who could afford otherwise join the militia? Why would fate thus torture him? This was simply too much to believe, it must not be true.
"Father, this is all true." Elizabeth concluded and in consternation, left her father as she found him.
Twenty such men of fortune found themselves in the small communities of Hertfordshire. Such a summer as this the families of the neighborhood would likely never again encounter.
My dear reader, before you throw your hands up in disbelief that this humble author will attempt to weave a story of twenty young men and their exploits in the small burgh in Hertfordshire, I beg your indulgence. You likely can guess which of these said gentlemen will most concern us in this story. As for the others, I regret to say their stories must be told elsewhere. Indeed, as we soon shall see, just those located a mere three miles from Longbourn will provide enough excitement to keep Mrs. Bennet and her nerves occupied for weeks. Perhaps those at the Inn will have a part to play, but that will soon be discovered.
As Mr. Bennet sat slowly mulling the words of his Lizzy as truth, other mamas throughout the neighborhood began to do the same calculations Elizabeth made. The summation came to be simply that there was an unusual abundance of good fortune for all eligible ladies in the neighborhood. In fact, there was nearly an eligible young man for each family as the Bennets dined with four and twenty other families.
After leaving her father, Elizabeth returned to the sitting room where her sisters and mother gathered after breakfast.
"Miss Lucas is here mum," announced Hill.
As Charlotte Lucas entered, Elizabeth rose to meet her dearest friend.
"Charlotte, would you care to join me on a walk? The weather is exceptionally fine this morning."
"Of course, Elizabeth," replied Charlotte.
"Mama, you do not mind if we leave you?" Elizabeth asked, more of formality than truly seeking permission.
"No, no child. However, do not scamper about the country like a wild thing. You do not know how you try my nerves!"
Charlotte and Elizabeth made good their escape so they could converse in private.
"Well, Lizzy, what do you think of all the news?"
"When I told my father he thought I was telling tales. Remember my pirate attack as a girl? He compared it to that!"
Charlotte laughed as she replied, "Yes, I do recall that you were determined to blame your torn muslin on the rouge pirate hiding in the copse behind Longbourn. I understand that the hunting party's stay though will be of short duration and, according to my father, they have no intention of entering into society. Contrary to initial reports, several of the gentlemen are already married or a bit too old even for our match-making mamas to consider."
"Thank goodness, though I do not doubt my mother's quest to find us all good matches," Elizabeth thought out loud.
The two continued their walk occasionally chatting or just enjoying the companionable silence that a life-long friendship affords.