Just as Kitty's declaration to Oliver had not gone quite as she had imagined it—at least not until the very end—so, too, her mother's reaction was not quite what she had hoped for, though she supposed it was what she ought to have expected.
Mrs. Bennet was puzzled, early on the morning after the Adlams' wedding, to receive Mr. Finch in the dusty little drawing-room of their rented lodgings, and would have been even more puzzled had she noticed the spark in Kitty's eyes as the gentleman was shown into the room. Mary, more observant than her mother, was a little surprised at the smile that lit her sister's face; but she was not quite so obtuse as she pretended, and so was not wholly shocked at the announcement which soon followed.
There are only so many combinations of words which a gentleman can reasonably employ in such a situation, and Oliver Finch managed the matter as straightforwardly as he could, albeit with characteristic awkwardness. "Mrs. Bennet," he said, standing tall before the hearth with hands clasped behind him, "I should like to inform you of my intention to call upon your honorable husband, as soon as is convenient for him, and request your daughter's hand."
Mrs. Bennet was momentarily dumbstruck. "Her hand, sir?" she said, and then, to clarify, "Which daughter?"
"Why—Miss Katherine," Oliver replied, blushing, and Kitty cried laughingly, "Me, of course, Mamma; Mary is already quite spoken for!"
Mrs. Bennet, of course, disagreed with this estimation of Mary's prospects, but she brushed it aside in favor of the more pressing matter at hand. "You mean you would like to marry Kitty, Mr. Finch?" she said, bemused.
"Yes—that is—if it is agreeable to her—and to you, of course, and to Mr. Bennet."
"You already know that it is agreeable to me," Kitty said, smiling warmly up at him, and reaching to clasp his hand. Mrs. Bennet's eyes widened at this plain display of affection.
"I am afraid, sir," she said, carefully, "that this comes as quite a surprise to me; I had not realized that you and my Kitty were so—well acquainted."
Mr. Finch looked rather embarrassed, but did not say anything.
"It ought not be so surprising, Mother," Mary broke in. "They have corresponded for months, now, and I think it only natural that their friendship should have given way to an increase in affection. Indeed, I believe that is the most natural and rational way in which these things can come about. I am very happy for you both," she added, "and I could not imagine a more fitting match."
Kitty beamed at her, and Oliver cast her a grateful look.
"I suppose you speak sense, Mary," Mrs. Bennet admitted, although rather grudgingly, for she did not really think so. "And if it is truly what Kitty wants, then I can see no reason to protest the engagement." She looked as though she wished to say more, but held her tongue. She knew well enough, after all, to be at least a little grateful for the role Mr. Finch had played in the Price affair; and anyway Kitty did look very happy.
"I am very glad to hear it," Oliver said, his relief evident upon his features.
And so it was settled that Mr. Finch would write immediately to Mr. Bennet, and request an audience with him at Longbourn; and in the meantime, he invited Mrs. Bennet and her daughters to dine with him at Larkhall the following day, an invitation which was accepted enthusiastically by the daughters and a little less so by the mother.
There followed a few minutes of conversation, mainly between Kitty and her betrothed, with Mary interjecting at intervals; but it is difficult to follow a major announcement with desultory chatter, and anyway Mr. Finch had other business in town, and was soon obliged to take his leave. Kitty walked with him to the door, her hand tucked securely into the crook of his elbow; and if their farewells took them a little longer than was strictly necessary, certainly nobody would be so cruel as to comment upon the fact.
"Kitty!" Mrs. Bennet cried, as soon as the door shut behind their visitor and her daughter returned to the drawing-room, "Whatever is the meaning of this?"
"Only that I love Mr. Finch, Mamma," Kitty answered, taking her seat, "and wish to marry him."
"But my dear!" Mrs. Bennet exclaimed. "How sudden this all is! Are you quite certain—have you thought it all through?"
Kitty gave a rueful little laugh. "I have done nothing but think it through," she said, "since Christmastide at least, when I realized that I loved him, and began to hope that he might love me. And he told me last night that he does—love me, I mean—and so I am going to marry him."
"But—" Mrs. Bennet stared at her. "Mr. Finch? To be sure he is handsome; but he has no conversation at all, and scarcely speaks when in company. He is so dull, my girl, and so serious!"
"That is precisely why he needs me," Kitty said, "because he is so serious, and I can make him smile, and even laugh. And I need him to make me be serious sometimes, and to think more carefully about things. And he is not dull, Mamma; he only does not talk about silly things like balls and parties. In truth he is quite interesting—quite worth the trouble of making conversation. He is clever, and thoughtful, and kind, and wonderful, and I love him."
Mrs. Bennet was still gaping. "Are you sure, child," she pressed, "that you do not wish to wait until after you have gone to London, and met all of the gentlemen there? There is no need to settle upon Mr. Finch just yet; I do not think matters have come to that. You might find somebody else among Lord Adlam's connections who strikes your fancy, and has a fine fortune as well. "
"I have had my fancy struck more than enough for one lifetime," Kitty said firmly, though not without good humor. "I know perfectly well that Oliver shall make me happy."
"But he is a clergyman, my dear!"
"I do not see why that should count against him," Mary interjected. "I imagine your disapproval stems from the fact that it is not a particularly fashionable profession, but it is in many ways one of the worthiest professions a gentleman can have. I think Mr. Finch among the best gentlemen of our acquaintance, and I think Kitty has chosen very wisely indeed."
"There was no choice to be made," Kitty confided, smiling; "it was him, or nobody."
At this Mrs. Bennet let out a little groan, and pressed her hand to her forehead. "What ill you are doing to my nerves!" she gasped. "All the viscounts and marquesses of Town within your reach, and you wish to marry a clergyman! I declare I do not understand, nor, I think, do I wish to!"
"You do not need to understand, Mamma," Kitty said, more gently. "You only need to trust me. I am not the silly girl I was before; I could not now marry a gentleman merely because he was handsome, or rich, or charming, or fashionable. I do not mind that Oliver is a clergyman, or that I shan't have a fine town-house and two carriages—I might have minded a year ago, but now it seems the silliest thing in the world upon which to fix one's hopes. When I was engaged to Mr. Price," she went on hesitantly, a lump growing in her throat, "I could never see myself talking with him. I thought of how it would be to be married to him and I could not see us sitting and talking together; it was always assemblies and dinner-parties and that sort of thing, with other people all around to entertain us."
"And what is wrong with that?" Mrs. Bennet demanded.
"That is not life, Mamma. I used to think it was, but now I see that I was quite mistaken. One cannot base a marriage upon how well two people dance together."
She wished to add more, but was not quite sure how to say what she meant: the words escaped her just then.
Mrs. Bennet sat watching her for a long moment, her disappointment still evident. "If, when I was nineteen," she said, at last, "I had been as pretty as you are, and had had an intimate friend in the peerage who might have introduced me to a great many single gentlemen of rank and fortune, and thereby might have been able to marry very well indeed, and been Lady So-and-So for all my days—"
"Then you would not have married Papa," Kitty interrupted, laughing, "and you would not have had my sisters and I to bedevil you, and would have spent all your days very bored indeed, Lady So-and-So or not. Nay, Mamma, there is no good in that argument; you cannot convince me that I am choosing a-wrong!"
Mrs. Bennet pursed her lips; but indeed it did not seem as though her daughter would be persuaded otherwise, and so at length she gave another long sigh, and said, "Well, if it is what you wish, then I suppose I cannot stop you; for heaven knows nobody ever listens to me, nor takes my opinions into consideration, nor does what I think they ought to do, even when I have only their best interests at heart, and perhaps know more about the world than they do."
This was as much affirmation as Kitty could hope for, and she took it with much better humor than it was given, rising from her seat to kiss her mother gratefully upon the head. Then, in a fit of good spirits, she pulled Mary from her seat and twirled her around the room.
"How happy I am!" she exclaimed, letting her disgruntled sister pull away after a moment. "Though you do not believe me, Mamma, I am sure I shall die of happiness! Come, Mary, let us go out somewhere, and do something, for it is a beautiful day and I shall go mad if we sit inside all morning."
Mary was in fact eager to go to Hart House, for it was the day of Robert's return to London and, despite some lingering embarrassment from the previous night, she was loath to let him leave without saying goodbye. Kitty, upon hearing this, was quite determined that Mary and Robert should have a suitably touching farewell, and after only a few more minutes, the sisters set out together.
Mary was a little flustered when they arrived, for it was only the family gathered in the drawing room at Hart House: Dr. Hart and little Juliet; the Bontecous and their son; Theo and Anne and their daughter; Rosamond and Lord Adlam; and, of course, Robert himself, his riding-coat draped over the back of his chair. "I fear we may be imposing," Mary hissed in Kitty's ear, as they were shown in; but Kitty, buoyed by her own happy spirits, took no heed, and cried, "How glad we are that we did not miss your departure, Mr. Hart!"
The family turned to them, and Mary steeled herself for some gracious rebuff; but Robert gave her a little smile and a bow. "I am glad, too," he said to Kitty.
"Robert was just saying how much he should miss his Bath friends," Dr. Hart said pleasantly.
"And I believe the Miss Bennets were at the very top of that list," Theo added with a grin. "I am sure that if you had not come here of your own volition, we would have been obliged to send a carriage, or there would have been no peace at all in this house."
"There will never be peace in this house, Theo, so long as you are within its walls," Robert answered, prompting a surprised snort of laughter from Lord Adlam and a fond but long-suffering sigh from Dr. Hart.
It was a very agreeable party, though there had been only a few hours of separation between them (and, in some cases, none at all). The Harts were not a family who frequently found themselves at a loss for conversation; before long, Dr. Hart, Mr. Bontecou and Lord Adlam were discussing the political state in France, and the adventures of the young commander Napoleon, as the others fussed over baby Elinor, to the delight of her parents.
"I think she takes after Anne," Theo was saying, "though of course Anne disagrees."
"Nay, she is very much a Hart," Anne laughed. "Do you not think so? I cannot think of any de Bourghs with hair so light."
The assorted relatives all agreed that the infant took after both parents, to a degree that rendered her perfectly charming in all particulars; "For she has not your crooked nose, Theo," Juliet remarked, "and she has Anne's lovely blue eyes."
"My nose is not crooked," Theo muttered, putting a self-conscious hand to his face.
"She will never have his crooked nose," Helena Bontecou chimed in, "unless she, too, decides at the age of seven to climb a crabapple tree in Sydney Gardens, and finds that she is wholly unequal to the task."
"I am sure I would have been quite equal to the task," her brother retorted, "if I had not had an elder sister who chose that moment to try and shake the last crabapples from their branches."
Helena laughed. "We have had some adventures, have we not, Theo mon cher? Let us only hope that our children are wiser than we were, or I do not know what shall become of the world!"
"Bastien seems wise enough," Robert said, nodding at his nephew, a boy of two, currently settled on Dr. Hart's knee at the other side of the room.
"Yes, I am sure that is Gabriel's influence," Helena replied cheerfully. "In fact I am rather discouraged that my little boy is so sensible and quiet; I had hoped, when I had children, that I would no longer be obliged to cause all of the trouble in the household. Perhaps the next shall be more exciting. But of course now, Rosebud," she said, turning to her younger sister with a wicked smile, "you are a grown-up married lady, and so I am expecting more little cousins for these two. You know I have always thought it best for children to have plenty of cousins."
Rosamond blushed hotly, but she was laughing. "I have been married for less than a full day, Helena," she exclaimed. "Surely you did not expect me to arrive this morning with a babe in arms!"
"Nay, not so soon; I shall give you a year or two before I begin to make a real fuss. Although Robert is of your same age," she added, casting her glance in that direction, "and so it is only fair of me to expect the same from him. When are you to be married, little brother? Is this not the Miss Bennet of whom I have heard so much?"
Mary was mortified; she went redder even than Rosamond, and could not think of a reply. Robert, too, seemed quite discomfited, and glared at his elder sister.
"How French you have become, Helena," Theodore remarked, seeing their discomfort. "I must admit to some envy; you are able to be as impertinent as you like, and everybody excuses you for it because you have been living abroad and therefore cannot help what you say. I can scarcely open my mouth without somebody glaring at me."
"Not undeservedly," Anne put in, smiling at her husband. "Kitty, Mary, when do you return to Hertfordshire?"
"Three days now," Kitty said, heart fluttering at the thought of what would come from her return to Longbourn—that is, Oliver's visit to her father, and all the joy that must follow.
"If you have time," Rosamond said, "I should like for you to come see me before you go."
"Rose is at the Royal Crescent now." Juliet beamed with pride, as though her sister's elevation in the world was her own doing.
Rosamond bit her lip. "Yes," she said, sheepishly, "I suppose I should have mentioned that."
"And she goes to Locksby on Saturday," Juliet added. "Papa has said I may visit in the fall, if it is agreeable to everybody. And perhaps you all may come to stay as well; would not that be lovely?"
"Very lovely," Mary said, "but we should not like to impose."
"Indeed, Julie, it is rather ill-bred of you to begin inviting people to our sister's house, when she has not even seen it yet," Robert said. Juliet's smile dropped, and she looked down at her lap.
"I do not mind," Rosamond said. "Julian and I plan to have a great many visitors; we have been discussing it all morning, and have begun compiling a list. It is already three pages long."
"I hope you do not plan to have all of these guests at once," Theo said severely. "How many bedrooms are in this house? Have you a dining-room that can seat everyone comfortably?"
"Almost everyone; you shall be obliged to dine by yourself in another room, but I daresay nobody will be sorry for it."
Theo laughed at this, and said that he hoped Rosamond's husband was aware that he had married an impudent little beast; but they had not time for more conversation, for at that moment the maid came in, and announced that Robert's hired coach had come.
This was not the first time that Mary, or the Harts for that matter, had been obliged to bid Robert farewell; but the first time, there had been the promise of reunion at Rosamond's wedding. Now there was no such promise, and it was with a heavy heart that Mary watched Robert shrug on his riding-coat, and shake hands with his father and brothers. Rosamond, too, looked very near tears as she embraced her twin, and it suddenly struck Mary that her friend must be feeling, even more than she herself, all the strangeness and nostalgia of a world changing all at once. Julian Adlam laid a gentle hand upon his wife's shoulder as she pulled away from her brother, which she swiftly covered with her own; Mary saw this with a pang that, for some reason, made her feel as if Robert was already gone.
But of course he was not. His other sisters came forward to embrace him, each bidding him a fond farewell; little Sebastien clung devotedly to his legs, and baby Elinor, lifted in Anne's arms to receive a kiss from her uncle, affectionately pulled several fair hairs from his head in a tiny fist. Rubbing his scalp, Robert at last turned to Mary and Kitty.
"I am sorry that I did not have more opportunity to enjoy your company," he said, and though he was ostensibly speaking to both of them, his eyes were upon Mary.
"We are sorry, too," Kitty answered, with a sidelong glance at her sister, "but I hope we shall have many more opportunities in the future."
"I am sure that we shall," Robert said, looking at Kitty for the first time. "I wish you a safe journey, Miss Katherine." He bowed.
"And to you, sir," Kitty replied, curtsying.
Robert turned to Mary. "Goodbye, Miss Bennet," he said, with a rueful little half-smile and a low bow. "I hope we meet again soon."
"Of course," Mary said, faintly, sinking into a belated curtsy. She was very much aware of the eyes of the room upon them.
There was not time for anything further, however, nor was this the place for any intimate farewell. The party proceeded into the vestibule, where Robert's valise was already sitting by the door; Theodore slapped his brother's back heartily, and Dr. Hart put an arm about his youngest son's shoulders. There were a few more kinds words spoken, a conspicuous sniffle from Rosamond, and an assortment of farewells in English and French, as the door was opened and the early afternoon sunshine poured in. The carriage was waiting by the gate, its horses stamping impatiently.
"Goodbye," they all cried, "goodbye," as Robert lifted his valise and made his way down the steps to the road. At the last moment, as he pulled open the door to the carriage, he turned back to wave again. His eyes sought each of them in turn; but it was on Mary that his gaze lingered, and to her that he gave a tiny nod of understanding, and a crooked little smile of promise.
With Robert gone, Mary would have been content to mope around their lodgings until it came time for them to return to Hertfordshire. But it was not to be: the next day was the day of their visit to Larkhall, and Kitty, ebullient from the moment she woke, would not allow her sister to succumb to gloom.
The drive to Larkhall, under the May afternoon sun, was perfectly agreeable. They crossed the Avon twice, once at Wells Road and once at Bathwick Street. In between, they wound through the city, past Bath Abbey and the Pump Room and Sally Lunn's and all of the other places at which, ordinarily, Kitty would have longed to disembark and spend an hour or two; but now she actually found herself impatient with the city, and eager to be out of it.
Soon enough, they turned onto the London Road, and from there onto St. Saviour's Road. The streets north of the city's heart were quieter, with wider stretches of grass and trees between the buildings. Kitty pressed her face to the window, doing her best to absorb the sights and sounds that would someday be as familiar to her as any in Meryton.
Larkhall was not quite a village, but neither was it entirely part of Bath; it had a broad, verdant green upon which several children ran and played, and a large, elegant stone church at the end of the road. There were a few streets of shops, two or three public houses, and a great number of small, orderly cottages, with well-tended gardens. In truth it did not look so very different from any number of smaller towns that have, over the centuries, sprouted in the vicinity of England's greater cities; but Kitty could not have thought the church any prettier, nor the houses more charming.
The most charming house, of course, was the one before which they eventually drew to a halt. Kitty's heart leapt, as Oliver, who had been waiting upon the stone path, hastened forward to open the carriage door and hand the ladies down. Mrs. Bennet was first, and then Mary, and then Kitty, who clutched Oliver's hand tightly even once she stood firmly upon the ground.
"But how lovely!" she cried, beaming at him. Oliver blushed.
"I find it very satisfactory," he said. "I had hoped that you might approve."
It was a small house, as curate's lodgings usually are: on a little hillside, quite close to the church, with an unruly tangle of flowering quince spilling onto the winding path. The house itself was stone, and the large windows were left open, catching the light breeze.
"It's perfectly enchanting," Kitty declared. "Do you not think it perfectly enchanting, Mamma?"
Mrs. Bennet pursed her lips. "I think it quite acceptable, for a curate's house."
"I think it most pleasing," Mary put in, with a scolding glance at her mother. "You have a very fine prospect here, sir." She turned and gestured at the view to the southwest, which looked down into the Avon valley, and encompassed the distant sun-lit crop of rooftops and church spires that was Bath. The curling snake of the river glistened in the near distance. "I imagine you must be able to see the Abbey, on a clear day."
"Not quite so far," Oliver replied, glad at least to have the approval of the sister, in the face of the mother's disdain; "But it is a fair view, and I think myself fortunate indeed to enjoy it."
"It is so much quieter here," Mary added.
"Yes, indeed; it is not at all like being in Bath," Mrs. Bennet remarked, with the implication that to be in Bath would, of course, be far preferable.
"It is wonderfully peaceful," Kitty said quickly, for she had noticed that Oliver's ears were faintly red with embarrassment, and as endearing a sight as it was, she could not bear his discomfort.
"And it is not such a long journey into the city," Oliver said, looking at his prospective mother-in-law. "I find it a very pleasant walk, in fine weather."
Mrs. Bennet sniffed, looking about her: no doubt imagining Lizzie at Pemberley, and Jane at Netherfield, and perhaps even Rosamond at the Royal Crescent, and wondering how Kitty, surrounded by such successes, could have failed to make a similar achievement. But she said nothing, and when their host offered her his arm, she took it without looking at him. Kitty and Mary exchanged a glance as Oliver led the way inside.
It was plainly a bachelor's house—that is, it was tidy, and well-kept, but spare. The sitting room into which they were shown was bright and pleasant, if a little small; there were a few watercolors upon the walls, signed by the various Miss Finches, and a sleepy foxhound curled upon the hearth-rug, who regarded them with one half-shut eye as they entered, before returning to his repose.
"Do you hunt, sir?" Mrs. Bennet asked, the first spark of interest in her voice; for she considered hunting a most worthy pastime for a gentleman. Oliver gave her a small smile, plainly relieved.
"I do, ma'am, though not as often as I should like. My father and brothers and I try to ride out once or twice a year."
"And where do you hunt?"
"My aunt and uncle have a small estate in Weston, which furnishes plenty of opportunity; and every so often, we are fortunate enough to be invited to the home of our friends the Rycrofts, down near Trowbridge. Mr. Rycroft keeps his woods and fields very well-stocked. But I am afraid that Chester here is not quite so well-trained as he ought to be," Oliver added, with a wry smile in the direction of the foxhound.
"He is a very handsome creature," Mrs. Bennet said, "though I am surprised you let him in the house; I have always insisted that Mr. Bennet keep his dogs outside."
"I fear I have a tendency to spoil him," Oliver said. "But he does not cause any trouble, and indeed I enjoy his company. Would you care for some tea, Mrs. Bennet?"
Kitty had been ignoring this exchange in favor of examining her surroundings. She walked carefully from one end of the room to the other, peeking through a doorway that led into the dining-room, and another that led into a small study; she examined the Miss Finches' watercolors, the books stacked upon an end-table (two novels and a dog-eared book of sermons), the half-finished chess game taking place at a small table near the window; she knelt to scratch the dog—Chester—upon his head, and received a grateful eyeroll and thump of the tail for her trouble. Everything in the room spoke of Oliver, and every breath she took was full of him. It made her head spin pleasantly, and she bit the inside of her cheek to keep from smiling.
She had been prepared, of course, to approve of everything about the house, outside and in; but she had not prepared for the curious feeling that came upon her as she looked around. It was strange, after being so long separated from Oliver, to suddenly find herself in a place that held traces of him in every object, every forgotten corner—but it was strange in the most beguiling way. And it was not only his; closing her eyes, she could picture her own watercolors hanging alongside the Miss Finches', her own books stacked alongside Oliver's on the end-table, her own work-basket at the table by the window. She suddenly felt as if there was nothing she would like more than to spend every day in this room, for the rest of her life, scratching Chester's ears and watching the sun dance across the carpet.
These were the thoughts that occupied her as her mother and Oliver made polite conversation; but she caught Oliver's offer of tea, and immediately came to sit beside him on the settee. "Let me, my love," she said, smiling at him. He blushed at the endearment, and cast a hesitant glance at Mrs. Bennet, but allowed Kitty to take the teapot from him.
"Who is your opponent, sir?" Mary asked, nodding toward the chessboard.
"My brother Rowland; he visits often, and we have an ongoing battle."
"Which you are winning quite handily," Mary noted. To her surprise, Oliver laughed—it was perhaps the first time anybody in the party, besides Kitty, had ever heard him do so.
"In fact," Oliver said, "the most recent moves on my brother's side were made by Theo Hart, who was here only the other day. He and Rowland were at school together, and have always enjoyed something of a rivalry. Theo likes to move Rowland's pieces whenever he calls—usually in a direction that does my brother more harm than good."
"And of course you are quite unable to stop him," Kitty said teasingly.
"Of course," Oliver agreed, looking at her with a grin that made his eyes crinkle at the corners (and made her heart flutter agreeably). "Mr. Hart is a gentleman of remarkably strong will, and I could not thwart his purpose except at some risk to my own well-being."
"How fortunate you are, Mr. Finch," Mrs. Bennet broke in, "that your family and friends do not mind coming all the way up to Larkhall to see you."
Oliver's smile did not drop. "In fact I believe they are glad for the opportunity to spend some time away from the clamor of the city."
"I certainly would be glad of such an opportunity," Mary said. "Bath is pleasant enough, but I think it imperative that people enjoy plenty of quiet and greenery, particularly those who spend most of their lives in urban spaces."
"Unfortunately, my dear, not everybody can afford a country-house and a town-house," Mrs. Bennet sighed. "Your elder sisters are able to enjoy such good fortune, of course, and Lady Adlam, and many other people of our intimate acquaintance; but some people are obliged to choose one or the other as they have not the money for both." She gave Mr. Finch a pointed stare.
"For example," Kitty said, as cheerfully as she could manage in the face of her rising temper, "we have not the money for both; nor have the Lucases, nor the Phillipses or the Gardiners, nor the Carpenters, nor the Harts, nor many other families that we count among our friends. In fact, Mamma," she went on, with a sweet smile, "it seems that such good fortune is more the exception than the norm in our circle. And so you must agree that Larkhall is very convenient, for it is near enough to Bath to promote much enjoyment of the city, and yet far enough to boast the intimacy of a country village. Not many places are so happily situated. In fact I daresay there is no other place I should like to live."
She finished with a defiantly raised chin, as though daring her mother to comment; and Mrs. Bennet, who could really make no response, pursed her lips and looked down at her teacup.
"Would anyone care for cake?" Kitty added, demurely cutting a slice and offering it to Mary, who was watching her with startled admiration.
"Mrs. Bennet," Oliver said, "I was fortunate enough to hear a little about your new grandsons, when I met the Miss Bennets at Hart House the other day; but I should love to hear more. How old are they, now?"
He could not have hit upon any subject more calculated to soften Mrs. Bennet's heart; there are few things a grandmother enjoys more than discussing her grandchildren, and the Bingley twins, being not only the most recent additions to the family but also the ones within the easiest distance, were wholly cherished by their doting grandmother. Mrs. Bennet, forgetting momentarily her distaste for Mr. Finch's modest situation, warmed immediately to her subject: she described the boys' appearances and temperaments, exclaimed over how quickly they were growing, and assured Mr. Finch that he could search the entire kingdom and never find two cleverer, handsomer, sweeter-tempered babes than little Edward and little Charles.
Oliver, who as yet had no nieces or nephews of his own but had, of late, heard plenty of this sort of talk from his friends the Harts, was well-versed in the art of secondhand admiration. He nodded and agreed where it was wanted, and offered his wholehearted astonishment at the antics and accomplishments of the infants in question. Kitty, watching him fondly, was surprised to see little trace of his usual awkwardness; in fact, she thought, it was as though her Oliver was a different person within his own walls. Even Mrs. Bennet was pleased by his attention, and found the conversation more stimulating than any she had ever had with the gentleman—though of course, as usual, she was doing most of the talking, with Mary and Kitty interjecting here and there.
This line of discussion carried them for nearly three-quarters of an hour, before at last Mrs. Bennet's well of praises ran dry and she was obliged to gulp her cold tea in order to wet her throat.
They took a turn about the garden before they dined, for the weather was lovely enough that it should have been a shame to stay indoors all the afternoon. There was a small, pleasant green behind the house, bordered by a low stone wall, over which reached blossoming trees and shrubs. Kitty found the whole effect very pleasing, and said as much to her betrothed.
"I am glad you like it," Oliver said, turning to her. Mary had thoughtfully claimed her mother's company, and walked ahead several feet on the pretense of admiring a particular shrubbery. "Indeed, Kitty, I am—I am very glad that you find the house so agreeable. I confess I have been rather worried that it would not meet with your approval."
"Whyever shouldn't it?" Kitty asked warmly, taking his hands in her own. "It is yours, and it is soon to be ours. I regret to inform you that you have worried over nothing; but I am very gratified at your concern."
Oliver smiled down at her. "Then I shall make a concerted effort to worry a great deal more, if it gives you pleasure."
Kitty laughed. "Nay, I should not have you put yourself to any trouble! There are a great many other things you do which give me pleasure, half of which you are not even aware of, so you need not fear on that score. But I do like the house, Oliver, and the garden, and the village, and everything else that is soon to be ours together. I am sure I shall even like the church—and if I do not, I shall lie and say that I do."
"And I shall pretend not to know you are lying," Oliver teased, "and in this way we shall be very happy together for the rest of our days."
Kitty gave a happy sigh and, with a glance at her mother and sister to make sure that they were otherwise engaged, dared to lean forward and rest her head on his shoulder. "I think we shall be happy, you know," she said softly. "I know that is the sort of thing everybody says when a couple marries and sets up house together, but I really think that we have a much better chance of it than many others."
Oliver's quiet laugh was a low rumble in her ears, and she closed her eyes for a moment.
"Mr. Finch!" Mrs. Bennet called, and the spell was broken. Kitty pulled away from her betrothed, who straightened his waistcoat self-consciously. "Mr. Finch, is that the rectory?"
She was pointing over the wall to the west. Oliver hurried over to follow her gaze.
"Yes," he said, "that is Dr. Blackburn's home."
The view was rather hampered by the grove of Wych elms that stood between the curate's cottage and the rectory; but above the treetops rose a tall, handsome building of white Bath-stone, a good deal larger than Mr. Finch's house, with tall windows and at least three chimneys. The imposing figure of St. Saviour's rose beside it, set closer to the road.
"It is a very fine house," Mrs. Bennet declared, wide-eyed. "Particularly for a rectory; indeed it is much larger than the vicarage at Meryton, and I am sure it is larger than Hunsford Parsonage. Lizzie said Hunsford Parsonage was quite small."
Nobody in the party had ever been to Hunsford Parsonage, and so there was no reply that could be made; but Mrs. Bennet did not allow this to deter her. "Is it very fine inside, Mr. Finch?"
"It is a lovely home," Oliver said carefully. "Dr. Blackburn has made many improvements to it."
"It must be an excellent living."
"I understand it is very comfortable."
Mrs. Bennet turned to her prospective son-in-law, her eyes gleaming. "Dr. Blackburn is an older gentleman, is he not?"
"And is he married? Has he any children?"
"He was married, but Mrs. Blackburn passed away several years ago. There is a son, who is married now; I believe he lives in Bristol."
"Bristol! But that is so far. I imagine Dr. Blackburn should like to be closer to him."
"I imagine he should," Oliver replied diplomatically. "In fact, I think it likely he will move to Bristol himself after his retirement."
"And I imagine that his retirement will not be long in coming," Mrs. Bennet pressed, "especially as he is so old now. And of course you, as his curate, shall be the natural choice for his successor. And from there you might even succeed to Bath Abbey, someday."
Mr. Finch could not speak to this, but it did not matter, for Mrs. Bennet had heard everything she wanted to hear. She regarded her prospective son-in-law with greater interest than she had before, and as they went into the house to dine, she no longer seemed to be looking at a small, tidy curate's cottage, but at an elegant, well-appointed rectory.
Their last call, before leaving Bath, was to the new Lady Adlam. This they made in the company of Anne Hart and Miss Juliet, who met them at Carlton Road.
"It is rather strange," Mrs. Hart remarked, as the three ladies walked along St. James's Parade, "to be visiting Rose at the Royal Crescent, considering that I used to sneak away from the Royal Crescent in order to see her."
"As I have heard it," Kitty teased, "your purpose in sneaking away from the Royal Crescent was not so much to see Rose, as to see her elder brother."
Anne smiled serenely, and did not answer, though a telling blush upon her cheeks, and a giggle from Juliet, proved answer enough.
The Adlams' lodgings were situated near the western end of the Crescent. The Miss Bennets, who had not had much occasion to spend time in this part of the city, were suitably impressed by the broad green lawn before the houses, the walking park beyond, and the excellent view down toward the river; but they were too eager to see their friend to spend much time admiring the exterior, and were glad when they were admitted to the house without pause.
It was strange indeed for Mary and Kitty, having grown so accustomed to seeing their friend in the familiar, homey drawing-room at Hart House, to find her amidst the finery of a Royal Crescent address. The house, though not so large as a country manor, was in its decoration as elegant as any they'd seen; portraits of Adlams past and present adorned the walls, surrounded by fine paintings that spoke to somebody's expensive taste. Silent, efficient maids and footmen passed here and there unobtrusively, likely in the midst of preparing the household for its departure. The sitting-room into which the callers were shown was, Juliet confided in hushed tones, one of four, but a particular favorite of Rosamond's; it offered a view down onto the street, and boasted several elegant couches and mahogany chairs, quite unlike anything on which they had sat at Hart House.
They found the viscountess at her pianoforte when they entered, but she rose mid-song to greet them effusively.
"I am so happy to see you!" she exclaimed, embracing each of the young ladies in turn. She, at least, had not changed, at least not outwardly; she wore a simple muslin gown, and only the ring on her right hand—a band of gold fitted with glittering sapphires—hinted at any change in her situation. But her cheeks were flushed, and reddened further as Mary and Kitty cast admiring glances about the salon.
"What a lovely room!" Kitty exclaimed. "It reminds me very much of Pemberley, the way the light comes in through the windows. Do you not think so, Mary?"
"I must confess myself envious of your instrument," Mary said, running an admiring hand along the keys of the pianoforte. "I think it remarkably fine."
"It was Julian's wedding gift to me," Rose replied softly, watching them.
"You were playing beautifully as we came in," Anne said. "I am sorry to interrupt your practice."
At this, Rosamond's face broke into a smile. "You need not worry; I am not so fastidious as Miss Bennet," she teased, leading them to sit before the grand marble fireplace. "It is nothing to me if my practice is interrupted, so long as the interruption is a pleasant one." She lifted a small silver bell from the end-table and, with some hesitation, rang it.
"Then we shall take care to make it very pleasant," Anne answered, as a servant hurried in to answer his lady's summons. Rosamond requested tea and cakes, and the servant disappeared again.
"Where are the Miss Adlams?" Juliet asked, looking about the room as though her sisters-in-law might be concealed within.
"Still abed; they are very fashionable, you know, and keep very fashionable hours."
"And Lord Adlam?"
Rosamond could not keep the smile from her face, even at this casual mention of her husband. "Julian is up in his study, handling some final business before we leave for Locksby. He may join us in a little while; I told him we may have visitors today. He is very eager to secure your approval," she added, meeting each of their eyes in turn, "for I have told him how important you all are to me."
"Any gentleman who makes you smile so has my approval," Anne pronounced, "even more so in his Lordship's case case—for he told me the other day that he thinks Elinor the sweetest child in the world, and I cannot disapprove of a man with such excellent judgment."
"How could you have doubted his judgment, when he married me?" Rose teased.
"In fact that was what caused us to question it in the first place," Juliet broke in, and they all laughed.
"Do you find it strange, being married?" Anne asked.
Rosamond frowned thoughtfully. "It is rather strange, I suppose," she answered, after a moment. "Not being with Julian; that is never strange, of course. But every morning I wake up and wonder, for a moment, where I am. And of course it is very different, managing one's own house."
"But you have managed our house ever since Helena married," Juliet said.
"I know, Julie, but that is—well—that is a rather smaller household." There was a light blush on Rosamond's face. "There is only Cook and Sarah. But here there are so many servants, and they would all prefer to do everything for me rather than allowing me to do anything for myself. My maid looked at me quite askance this morning when I insisted upon pinning my own hair." She bit her lip. "Forgive me; I suppose I should not talk so."
"Nay, of course you should," Anne said lightly. "If you cannot talk so to your sisters, then with whom can you ever be free? But it amuses me, Rose, to hear you complain of having too many servants; when I married Theo, I had had servants all my life, and suddenly I had only a cook and a maid, and had no idea how to pin my own hair."
"And now you run your home with the greatest of ease," Rose replied, "and live a life of ease and tranquility."
Anne smiled wryly. "Indeed. But you see, do you not, that if I may make such an adjustment, it is hardly out of the question that you may someday learn manage your household very adeptly."
Rosamond bit her lip again, and looked a little comforted by this. But after a moment she shook herself lightly, and turned to Mary and Kitty.
"This cannot be interesting to you," she apologized. "And I suppose this is the last time we shall see each other before we all leave Bath, so we ought to make our conversation as scintillating as possible. What adventures shall you have once you return to Hertfordshire?—I imagine you will be very glad to see your little nephews again."
"Yes," Mary said, "very glad indeed."
"And are you to have any visitors this summer, or go anywhere interesting?"
Kitty's heart beat a little faster, and she bit her own lip. She had not quite considered how she would tell Rosamond her news; she knew her friend would be most shocked by the announcement. But she was eager to tell as many people as she could—she reveled in the luxury of being able to share her joy—and so she squeezed Mary's hand very tightly as she said, "In fact, we are only to have one visitor that we know of; but his arrival shall soon be followed by a most interesting journey."
Rosamond laughed. "You speak in riddles, Kitty," she said, "and I should never have expected it of you. Pray, who is this mysterious visitor, and why should his coming force you from your home?"
"He is not so mysterious," Kitty said, enjoying the attention, and the opportunity to hold an agreeable secret over the heads of the others (she may be forgiven for this, for her last secret, after all, had not been so agreeable). "You all know him very well: he is Mr. Oliver Finch."
"Mr. Finch!" Anne exclaimed, widening her eyes.
"And is Oliver Finch's company so odious to you that you must flee Longbourn to escape it?" Rosamond asked.
"Quite the opposite," Kitty said with satisfaction. "His company is not odious to me at all; in fact I cherish it. Mr. Finch—Oliver—is coming to Longbourn to ask Papa for my hand, and after Papa agrees (as he must), then Oliver and I shall return to Larkhall as husband and wife. So you see: a visitor, followed by a journey."
There was a brief moment of silence as they all stared at her, during which her smile wavered a little; but Mary reached down onto the settee between them and clasped her hand tightly.
Then: "Why, Kitty!" Juliet cried, surging forward to throw her arms about her friend so forcefully that Kitty nearly lost her seat.
The others were not quite so demonstrative, but embraced her, with particular fondness in Rosamond's case. "How coy you've been!" her friend exclaimed, laughing. "I swear I thought it would never happen after all."
"After all?" Kitty asked, surprised. "Then you expected it?"
"We did," Juliet said, gesturing proudly to herself and Anne. "We have been discussing it for some time now. We are usually right about these things, too, though we never know when they shall happen."
Rosamond afforded her sisters a fond sigh and shake of the head. "I knew only of Oliver's feelings; he used to read to me from your letters, you know—only little bits, interesting things you'd written, or news about your family—and with each letter he grew a little more animated, and his feelings a little plainer."
This news gave Kitty a little warm glow in her breast, and she could not keep the smile from her face.
"But now tell us about the wedding," Juliet pressed. "Will you be married from Longbourn or Bath? Will all your sisters come? Who shall be your bridesmaids?"
Kitty had not in fact considered such things quite yet—her thoughts had been more upon what would follow the wedding than the wedding itself—and she was quite happy to sit and work through the particulars with her sister and her friends.
That night they dined with the Finches and the Fitzwilliams at the big house on St. Stephen's Road. Oliver had informed his family of his happy news, and Kitty was delighted when the four Miss Finches and Mrs. Fitzwilliam embraced her quite as another sister. She was even more delighted to see Mrs. Finch talking enthusiastically to Mrs. Bennet of her son's excellent prospects, and Mrs. Bennet responding more warmly than she had fully expected.
The party was a merry one, though Kitty could have wished that she and Oliver had more time to spend alone together; there was only a brief moment, as they went in to supper, where she was able to draw close to his side, and then another brief moment as they bid farewell in the gathering dusk. But such complaints are common among young couples about to be wed, and Kitty comforted herself with the thought that they would have plenty of time alone together before very long. Her heartbeat quickened excitedly at this.
The next morning was the day of their departure, and the road to Longbourn had never seemed so long. Their time in Bath had seemed to go by very quickly, with a great many things happening; but now there was nothing ahead of them but two days upon the road, which seemed to Kitty an unforgivable delay.
"Why did we decide to live so far from Bath?" she complained, as they arrived at the inn near Oxford where they would spend the night.
"Hertfordshire is where we are from," Mrs. Bennet replied, "and anyway, my dear, when your father and I set up house together, it never occurred to us to settle near Bath; nobody went to Bath in those days."
Kitty sighed, but even her impatience could not fully extinguish her glad spirits.
They arrived at Longbourn the next evening—later than they would have liked, for their horse threw a shoe upon the road, which caused some delay. This Kitty took quite personally, for she had never before been in a carriage when the horse threw a shoe, and it was quite ill-mannered of this particular horse to do so now, when she was so anxious to be home. But it could not be helped, and they drew up before Longbourn just before supper-time, to find Mr. Bennet waiting at the door.
His face betrayed some relief upon beholding them, though he denied, at their questioning, that he had been truly concerned at the delay; "I feared only that there had been redcoats in Bath this time," he said, "and that you were bringing me news of another exciting elopement."
"Oh, Mr. Bennet, how can you talk so!" Mrs. Bennet shrieked, clutching her chest. "You know the girls would never do such a thing; not now, anyway."
Mary rolled her eyes, and linked her arm with Kitty's as they went into the house. "Papa will be very pleased with your choice," she said in her sister's ear.
Kitty turned to her, beaming. "Do you think so, Mary?"
"Of course; for Mr. Finch is a man of excellent character and great good sense, who will treat you very well, and everybody can tell that you love each other. If Papa disapproves, then I give you leave to run away with Mr. Finch. I don't mind if you spoil my prospects, and I am the only one left with prospects to spoil."
Kitty laughed. "I could not spoil your prospects anyway, Mary, for you have only one that really matters, and I daresay nothing could sway his good opinion. I saw the way he smiled at you when he left Hart House."
"Anyway," Kitty went on, leaning her head against her sister's as they walked, "Oliver and I would not have much running to do; for he is a clergyman, and I am sure he could marry us as soon as ever he pleased. Oh!" she gasped. "Why did I not simply have him marry us while we were in Bath?"
"Because if you had," Mary intoned, "then you would not have had the satisfaction of forcing me to be a bridesmaid, nor would you have been able to see the look on Maria Lucas's face when she beheld your husband, who, I may admit, though I truly care little for such things, is of unusually prepossessing appearance."
"He is handsome, isn't he?" Kitty sighed happily, and would have said more, but just then Mrs. Bennet called them from the dining-room, and they were obliged to hurry in and take their places at table.
Kitty would have liked to be the one to announce her engagement to her father, but instead her mother made short work of it almost as soon as they had sat down. "Mr. Bennet," she declared, beaming at her husband, "our daughter Kitty has accepted a proposal."
Mr. Bennet, who had had a mouthful of soup, gave a startled cough and set down his spoon. "I beg your pardon, my dear?" he said, dabbing at his mouth with a napkin.
"Did you not hear me, Mr. Bennet? Kitty has accepted a proposal, and is to be married. Is not this wonderful news? Now we have only to find a husband for Mary!"
Mary frowned into her soup.
"Mrs. Bennet," Mr. Bennet said, "I believe it was my instruction, when you first left for Bath last August, that no marriages should be arranged without my having met the gentleman in question. And yet I see no gentleman at this table. How, then, can a marriage have been arranged?"
"He could not ride with us, Papa, though he wished to," Kitty put in hastily, fearing that her mother was going about the matter all the wrong way. "He is curate at a parish outside Bath, and today is Sunday, so he was needed by his rector. But he will arrive tomorrow—or the day after, at the latest."
Mr. Bennet stared at her. "A curate?"
"Kitty, my dear," Mr. Bennet said carefully, "you are aware that a curate is a type of clergyman, and not a type of soldier?"
"Yes, Papa," Kitty replied, who would have been exasperated if not for her nerves.
"It is perhaps not the most attractive profession," Mrs. Bennet said, with the air of one admitting to a crucial flaw. "But from what we understand, the living is a good one, and he has very good prospects. Certainly Kitty shall never have a great fortune or a title, but she will at least be comfortable—and married."
Mr. Bennet was still staring at Kitty.
"He is a very sensible gentleman, Papa," Mary interjected. "He is intelligent and thoughtful, and very well liked."
Mrs. Bennet gave a little snort, as though doubting the truth of this, but her husband was paying her no heed. "You like him, Mary?" he said in amazement, turning to his elder daughter.
"I do; I like him very much."
Mr. Bennet shook his head. "I believe this must be some strange dream, or else there is some ill news about to be given: the gentleman is several thousand pounds in debt, perhaps, or is older than I am and has four grown children, or has been recently involved in some scandal and needs a respectable wife to regain his standing."
"None of those, Papa," Kitty assured him, her voice trembling a little. "He is a very good sort of gentleman, and I am sure you shall like him very much."
Her father stared at her a moment longer, then shook his head again. "Well," he said, "I shall look forward to meeting this mysterious gentleman on the morrow, or whenever he may choose to appear; but until then I am afraid I shall be subject to all kinds of wild imaginings. In fact I rather wish you had left it a surprise, so I would not have to spend all this time picturing him. By the by, child, what is the man's name?"
"Finch," Kitty said, "Oliver Finch."
"Finch," Mr. Bennet repeated thoughtfully. "Kitty Finch. Does that sound well? I can never tell with names."
"It sounds well enough," Mrs. Bennet answered charitably.
"It sounds very well," Mary said, and Kitty gave her a weak grin.
"Kitty Finch," Mr. Bennet said again. "Kitty and Oliver Finch. Well, we shall see."
Oliver Finch did indeed arrive on the morrow, having left Bath the day after the Bennets; in fact he was at Longbourn well before the family was to dine, and therefore was admitted to Mr. Bennet's study almost immediately upon his arrival—after, of course, receiving an embrace from the younger Miss Bennet.
"How glad I am to see you," she whispered into his riding-coat, while they were alone in the hall. He gave a little laugh.
"It is only two days since we parted—less, even."
"Yes, but it feels much longer," she said. "Does it not feel longer to you? It is as though you have ruined my sense of time, and every moment I am away from you is ten times longer than it ought to be."
"You ought to write novels, my dear," he said softly, smiling down at her.
"I would write excellent novels," she agreed.
At that moment there were footsteps on the other side of the study door, and the couple separated quickly. Mr. Bennet opened the door and regarded Oliver with no small amount of curiosity.
"Well," he said, "you must be the fabled suitor. Come in."
With that, he turned and went back into the study. Oliver cast Kitty a worried glance as he followed, and Kitty gave him her most encouraging smile.
"It is all very exciting, is it not?" Mrs. Bennet whispered, when Kitty came to join her mother and sister in the sitting-room. "I admit I was not particularly keen on the idea when first it was suggested to me, my love, but now I begin to think you do quite well for yourself. The curate's cottage is hardly Pemberley, of course, but I quite liked the look of that rectory."
"Yes," Kitty agreed distantly, trying in vain to hear any sound from the study. She had taken up an old bonnet for which she had very great plans, but could not bring herself to work at all, and it lay untouched in her lap. Mrs. Bennet continued undeterred.
"Now we need only find you a husband, Mary, and in fact I think Kitty's marriage may be the best thing for you. I daresay you are welcome to spend a Season in Town with one of your sisters, or Lady Adlam if she should ask you, but I don't think we ought to expect much joy from that; those sorts of gentlemen are looking for pretty, spirited girls, and I am afraid you would only be disappointed. No, Mary, I think one of Mr. Finch's brothers might do very well for you. The middle one is a soldier, you know, and very dashing I think him, for they are a well-looking family. And the eldest one is a lawyer, which is a very respectable trade."
"I am afraid I have no interest in Mr. Finch's brothers," Mary said stiffly, not looking up from her book. Her mother gave a great sigh, shaking her head at her needlework.
"Then you shall have to develop an interest in them, my dear, or I do not know what we shall do with you. Are you determined to die a spinster, dependent upon your father and me while we live and living off your sisters' charity when we are dead?"
"Papa can only approve of Mr. Finch," Mary said, ignoring her mother in favor of setting her book down and taking Kitty's hand in her own. "Do not fret, Katherine."
Kitty, whose head had been turned toward the door in anticipation of some news, jumped a little and looked at her sister, squeezing her hand gratefully. "That is what you said last night," she answered, "but I confess I found it rather easier to believe then."
"You are too anxious," Mary counseled. "Mr. Finch is what any father should want for his daughter."
"Indeed, for he is to have a very fine living," Mrs. Bennet added, "and once his parents are dead, I understand he shall have quite a decent inheritance, even if he shall have to split it with all his brothers and sisters. Mrs. Carpenter was most encouraging upon that score."
"Mamma!" her daughters exclaimed, turning to her aghast.
"I do not why you should look at me so!" Mrs. Bennet sniffed. "Somebody must consider these things, you know, or else all marriages would be made upon romance and vanity, and nobody would ever give a thought to practical matters!"
There was no time for a reply to be made, for at that moment Oliver appeared in the doorway with his hat in his hand. He bowed to the three ladies.
"Miss Katherine," he said, "your father wishes to speak to you."
The words were unnecessary, for Kitty was already upon her feet and hurrying towad the door. Oliver did not look heartbroken, which she took as a positive indicator. She felt a little guilty about leaving him with her mother, who was regarding her prospective son-in-law with a distinctly proprietary gleam; but she hoped that Mary would be able to curb at least the most inappropriate queries and lines of discussion, and turned back to beam at her Oliver as he took the seat Mrs. Bennet offered him. He caught her look, and returned a smile of his own.
"Come along, Kitty," Mr. Bennet called from the study. She hastened across the sun-dappled hall and into the study, shutting the door behind her. Mr. Bennet was standing before the window, hands clasped behind his back as he looked out into the spring afternoon. Kitty quietly took a seat in one of the well-worn armchairs, her stomach churning with nerves.
It was a long moment before her father spoke.
"It has never been my habit to concern myself overmuch with the marriages of my children," he said, still gazing out the window. "Your mother seems particulary well-suited to that task, and I always thought it most convenient to leave such worries to her. I never had any doubt that Jane and Lizzie would make fine matches, despite their low income, for they are both sensible, good-natured girls, with unusual beauty between them."
"Papa—" Kitty broke in, uncertain of where this was going, but her father turned to look at her.
"Do not interrupt, Katherine; I know the point you wish me to reach, and I promise you I shall arrive there in due time. But for now I must have your indulgence. You and I have never spoken much together, child, and I believe now is as good a time as any to have a good talk."
Kitty bit her lip, but nodded. Her father's words were doing nothing to curb her anxiety.
"As to Mary," Mr. Bennet went on as though he had not been interrupted, turning to gaze out the window again, "I have always thought it likely that she would remain at Longbourn, caring for your mother and me in our dotage, until we ultimately expired and she went to live with one of your sisters. I shall not mind if that proves not to be the case, but I also shall not consider a spinster daughter to be a disappointment, however your mother may weep and moan.
"But you and Lydia were always more difficult for me to make out. You are both young, still, and since your infancy you have both been given to noise and foolishness—quite a contrast to your elder sisters, and quite irritating to my own habits and temper. I persuaded myself that you both would grow out of your folly if left alone, and I confess that I took very few pains to know or understand you better. I allowed your mother to take charge of your upbringing, and perhaps she encouraged, or at least indulged, some wildness in each of you. At any rate I trusted that your mother would prevent you from making any serious mistakes, and that you would both marry well enough for girls of your standing. And so I washed my hands of both of you. That was careless of me—I have not been a very good father to you, or to Lydia."
"Papa," Kitty said, softly, though she was not sure what else to say. Her father came and sat in the chair across from her own.
"Do not try to comfort me, Kitty. Lydia's elopement was my own fault as much as anyone else's; I ought to have known my own child well enough to know that fifteen was too young to go away from home unsupervised, in the company of the sort of people who would only encourage her worst impulses. I had never had very high hopes of Lydia's marriage, or of yours, but I certainly never expected anything so ruinous as George Wickham."
Kitty looked down at her hands, folded in her lap.
"After Lydia's marriage," Mr. Bennet continued, "I made myself a promise that you and Mary should not fall into a similar trap, and that I should take more care to inspect your suitors. But I still did not expect a great deal for you. Your elder sisters' marriages may have done some good for your prospects, but the world will always value the bad more than the good, and you are still the sister of a young lady who lived unwed with a lover, and was only forced into marriage after everybody else had gone to a great deal of trouble and expense.
"And so I thought we should be lucky if you, my child, were to marry some priggish dullard, who would treat you well enough, and give you a house of your own and an income on which to keep it, if not much tenderness or comfort. Such a man would at least be preferable to another fashionable scoundrel with elopement in his sights."
Kitty swallowed hard, thinking of Alexander Price. Her father did not know how close she had come to such a fate, and she was glad for his ignorance; his opinion of her seemed already low enough. "And that is what you think Mr. Finch, Papa?" she asked quietly. "A dullard with fair prospects?"
Her father regarded her for a long moment, sitting back in his chair. "No," he said at last.
Kitty's head snapped up. "No?" she repeated.
"No," he said again. "And I confess it gives me no small amount of confusion. I think your Mr. Finch a man of good sense and good character, and what's more, my dear, he seems quite in love with you."
"He does love me," Kitty agreed, at last feeling a small smile upon her lips. "And I love him."
"I believe you," Mr. Bennet affirmed. "That is what confuses me, my dear. I had little hope that there should ever be any great love between yourself and your husband, whoever he might be; I had always expected your marriage to be one of convenience. And I see now that I have done you a grave disservice. Despite recent evidence to the contrary, I have persisted in thinking of you as Kitty-at-sixteen, led astray by her younger sister, distracted by every handsome soldier who passes by. I have been wholly blind to Kitty-at-eighteen, who is quite a different creature altogether."
"A better creature, I hope," Kitty said, feeling a warm rush of fondness for her father. Mr. Bennet smiled.
"Indeed: more sensible, and less careless, and capable of loving a man who carries the stamp of integrity rather than gallantry. I am proud of you, my girl; and I am heartily sorry that I have thought so little of you, for it was an insult that you did not deserve. I ought to have remembered that Lydia's mistake was not only a lesson for me, but for all of us. Your choice is a fine one, and I commend you for it."
"Then," Kitty pressed, her excitement rising, "Oliver and I may be married?"
"Of course you may, child—you could not have had any doubt, in presenting to me your Mr. Finch, so serious and thoughtful as he is. I daresay you could not have found a gentleman more suited to gain a father's approval if you had molded him yourself from the raw material." He hesitated, and then added more softly, "I only wish that I might have had more time to know my daughter, before she married and went away forever."
Kitty rose from her chair, and knelt at her father's side. "I may be marrying," she said, gently, "but I am not going away forever, Papa; there is still time for us to know each other."
He took her hands in his own. "Mr. and Mrs. Finch shall always be welcome at Longbourn," he told her. "But now, my dear, I cannot understand why you waste your time in here with your old papa, when your betrothed is no doubt in some desperate need of rescue from your fond mother."
Kitty giggled, and threw her arms about his neck, knocking his spectacles askew and pressing a kiss to his cheek. "Thank you, Papa," she whispered in his ear, and only a second later she was gone, the study door still creaking on its hinges behind her.
The wedding of Katherine Bennet to Oliver Finch took place on a morning in early June, at the old parish church in which Kitty had spent so many dull Sundays, and in which two of her three married sisters had been wed, and her parents before them. It was very well-attended, the Bennets being a popular family in the neighborhood; even the Darcys made their way from Pemberley, for Mrs. Darcy could not allow her younger sister to marry without first approving of the gentleman. (She found him quite satisfactory.) The Finches came from Bath for the occasion, the four sisters charming in their summer-dresses, though of course nobody was as charming as the bride herself: Mrs. Bennet, for all her faults, had been planning her daughters' weddings for most of their lives, and indeed knew the best warehouses, and the best styles. Kitty, who had always been pretty, felt for the first time in her life like a true beauty—a perfect match, she thought happily, for her unusually prepossessing husband.
"How lucky she is!" Maria Lucas sighed enviously in Mary's ear. "I cannot imagine the other gentleman was nearly so tall and handsome."
"He certainly was not," Mary affirmed, smiling in spite of herself.
The ceremony was as brief as it ought to be, and the bride and groom spent it sneaking glances at each other and smiling when they were not required to make any verbal contributions. (Kitty smiled so broadly, and so much, that her cheeks quite ached by the end of it.) Then came the party at Netherfield, during which everybody danced and feasted and enjoyed themselves very much—even Mr. Bingley's sisters, who declared themselves perfectly charmed with the quaintness of a country wedding, though the purse of their lips and the turning-up of their noses rather belied their words.
"I wonder how many reels we shall be obliged to dance this evening," Miss Bingley remarked at one point, but nobody answered her.
Even Mary danced, once with Mr. Bingley and once with Mr. Finch, though she refused any further dances; she did not like dancing with anybody besides Robert, because everybody else danced so much more fluently than she did. She was quite content to sit and watch her newly-wed sister be as happy as she had ever been, though she did not resist the temptation to exhibit upon the pianoforte, when Mr. Bingley made the invitation.
Kitty was, for the first time in her life, quite indifferent to the merriment of the ball all around her. The only thing she cared for was the warmth of her hand in Oliver's when they danced and the smile that had not left his face since he had seen her in the church. Even when they were separated by other dancers or well-wishers, she was quite aware of his presence in the crowd, and only wanted to be by his side again. Whatever she had felt for Mr. Price, she knew, was definitively gone, and would not return; whatever she had thought before, she knew that she had never been in love until now. She said as much to Mary, while Oliver danced with Lizzie.
"I think you are right," Mary answered thoughtfully. "I have always thought that love—real love—was hard-won, as opposed to infatuation, which can be inspired by the glance of a moment. People are always changing, after all, and in order to love someone, you must understand that they will not always be the same, and wish to know them forever in spite of that fact."
"That is how I feel," Kitty said, glad that her sister understood her so well. "I know Oliver now, and I want more than anything to know him in a year, and in ten years, and in twenty years, and so on, however much he should change. I want to be with him always."
"I should hope so," Mary said wryly, "for you have just made a promise to that effect."
"Yes," Kitty giggled, "I know I have; oh, Mary, I know you shall be as happy as I am someday!" And she threw her arms about her sister.
It had been decided that Mr. and Mrs. Finch would remain a fortnight at Longbourn before returning to Bath, where the Finches would give another celebration for all of their Bath friends. Lord and Lady Adlam, already ensconced at Locksby Hall, had not been able to come to the wedding (though the couple had sorely desired their presence), but they would return to Bath for the Finches' ball. In the meantime, the viscountess had sent her friend a very pretty gift, which was delivered a few days after the ceremony had taken place, to shrieks of delight from its recipient: a dozen newly-published novels directly from London, which would not be seen in bookstores outside the city for some months yet, and, in a separate case, a breathtaking and undoubtedly expensive silver tea-service, decorated with a delicate floral pattern.
"You see," Kitty said teasingly to her sister, "this is why you ought to marry Robert, Mary my dear, if you can think of no other reason; if this is what she sends to Mrs. Finch, imagine only the presents Lady Adlam would make to her own sister-in-law!"
Mary, thinking of the pianoforte Robert had mentioned, blushed, and pointed out a particularly interesting title among Kitty's new library in order to change the subject.
With the Darcys at Netherfield, their time in Hertfordshire was taken up with many family parties, and a great many assemblies both public and private; everybody was eager to make the acquaintance of this Mr. Finch of Bath, particularly the young ladies among whom Kitty had grown up, who were in some disbelief at her having married a such a gentleman (both so handsome, and so quiet). In fact, it was far too rare for Kitty's taste, and she knew for her husband's as well, that they found themselves truly alone—always there seemed to be some caller who wished to pay his compliments, or some young lady who wished to stare at Mr. Finch, and beg her own mamma to take her to Bath to find a husband.
It was something of a relief, then, to wake one morning and find the day of their departure upon them. Kitty packed her things with great care. It was strange, at the end, to see her wardrobe and chest-of-drawers both empty, and her books gone from their shelves; it was strange, and a little sad, to look about the little room in which she had slept for her entire life, and realize that she would no longer open her eyes each morning to see the faded yellow flowers upon the wallpaper, or look out the window onto the garden in which she had spent so many hours walking and laughing with her sisters. She could faintly hear Mary practicing upon the pianoforte in the breakfast-room, and the soft murmur of voices in the halls and rooms below, and these familiar sounds brought an unexpected lump to her throat.
Kitty turned, and Oliver was in the doorway, watching her with some concern. She smiled at him, and was surprised to feel tears in her eyes.
"Here," he said, taking a step forward and opening his arms, and she went into them without protest, laying her head upon his shoulder as had become her habit.
"It is only very strange," she said, hoping to reassure him. "I am happy—I promise I am happy—it is only—Longbourn has always been home, and now it is not. I hadn't realized how much I should miss it."
His arms encircled her waist. "I understand. But we shall make a new home together."
Kitty took a breath, and shut her eyes, picturing the little cottage in Larkhall, with its sunny sitting-room and its curling stone path and the foxhound upon its hearth. For a moment, Longbourn seemed a million miles away.
"And of course," Oliver was saying, "we shall visit Longbourn whenever you like, and stay for as long as you like. I want you to be happy, Kitty—that is all I want."
Kitty at last pulled out of his arms, though she kept hold of his hands, and smiled up at him. "I know," she said. "I would not have married you, otherwise."
He returned her smile, and leaned down to kiss her gently.
"And I want you to be happy," Kitty continued, a little breathlessly, when the kiss had ended. "And I imagine you should be happy if we were to be upon the road just now, and so I shall send for the servant, and have my things taken down to the coach. It is a long road to Bath, you know, and so we ought to be going as swiftly as possible. I do not know why you delay us so."
Oliver laughed, and apologized with another kiss, which delayed them still further, but they did not mind.
It was not much longer that they stood upon the drive before the house, bidding farewell to all the members of the family. Mrs. Bennet wept, as was her habit, and made Kitty promise a dozen times to write whenever she could; Jane and Lizzie, too, repeated this promise, and also added open invitations to Netherfield and Pemberley respectively. "Just because you are married, does not mean you may neglect us," Lizzie warned her sister playfully. "If you do not write, we shall all have to come visit at once, and give you a great deal of trouble."
Mr. Bennet gave his daughter a very fond embrace, and remarked that while his new son-in-law was not so interesting as he might have hoped, at least he did not make his living at the gambling-tables. Oliver, by now at least somewhat accustomed to his father-in-law's odd humor, interpreted this as a compliment, and thanked Mr. Bennet very politely.
Mary was perhaps the most affected out of everybody, for Kitty's departure meant that she was now the last Miss Bennet at Longbourn; and more importantly than this, she knew that she should miss her sister terribly. She and Kitty embraced for a very long moment, and when they pulled back, they were both a little tearful.
"You must visit at Larkhall," Kitty said. "Anytime you like, you are welcome to come and stay with us."
"You are indeed," Oliver agreed. "I am afraid we have not a pianoforte, but I am sure you would be welcome to use the one at the rectory."
"And I will only make you attend a ball every other evening," Kitty added, grinning, "and will limit myself to only a dozen declarations of how plain your clothes are."
Mary laughed at this, wiping away her tears. "I shall be sure to pack all my plainest things," she promised, "so as to give you plenty of opportunity to amuse yourself."
Kitty embraced her again. "I shall miss you, Mary," she whispered, pressing a kiss to her sister's cheek.
"You will be too busy to miss me," Mary answered. "But I will write to you, and I will come and stay and read your novels."
"Anytime Mamma's nerves give you trouble," Kitty said, "you are welcome."
Mary laughed again, and there seemed to be nothing more to say; so they separated, and Oliver handed Kitty into the coach before following her.
"Goodbye!" everyone cried. Sophia, in her father's arms, waved vigorously, and the Bingley twins, lifted into the air, kicked their chubby legs and swung their chubby arms in farewell, and Mrs. Bennet waved her handkerchief as if signaling a passing ship. The Finches, too, waved and called their goodbyes until they went around a bend in the drive, and were at last out of sight of the house.
Kitty leaned back against the coach seat, watching the well-known trees rush by the windows; then they turned onto the road that led away from Meryton, and she turned her thoughts, and her gaze, to her husband.
"What is it?" Oliver asked, catching her study. Kitty smiled.
"I was only thinking," she said carelessly, "of how very much I love you."
He blushed, and his eyes crinkled as he smiled.
"And I was thinking," she added, "of how very lovely that tea-service shall look upon the table in the sitting-room."
Oliver laughed. "That thought I shall leave to your discretion," he said, "but as to the other thought: I love you too, very much indeed."
Kitty smiled, and nestled against him, glad to feel the warmth of his arm about her shoulders and the press of his lips to the top of her head. Every mile they passed brought them a little closer to their home—the home they would make together—and the thought made her happy than she thought anybody had any right to be.
Mrs. Bennet had watched the coach go around the bend with no small degree of sadness. It is never agreeable for a mother, whose entire life has been spent in the raising of her children, to bid one of those children farewell; and it was even less agreeable now, with four daughters grown and gone away from home, and most of them quite far away indeed. Mrs. Bennet sniffed, and dabbed at her eyes with her handkerchief.
But, she thought, it was certainly a good thing for Kitty; perhaps Mr. Finch was not so charming or so dashing as some other gentlemen; certainly he was no Mr. Bingley in temperament, and certainly he was no Mr. Darcy in fortune; he did not even have the advantage of a fashionable profession and a pleasant disposition, like Mr. Wickham. But Kitty seemed fond enough of him, and he of her, and at least they should probably never be poor. And it was certainly something for a woman to have found fine husbands for so many daughters; she may not have been able to provide her husband with a son, but she had found him plenty of sons-in-law!
Besides which, there was still work to do; and with this thought in mind, she turned to look at Mary.
"I know you will miss your sister, my dear," she said, putting an arm about her middle daughter. "We shall all miss her, very much."
"I know, Mamma," Mary replied, smiling at her.
"But here is something that may distract you," Mrs. Bennet went on. "Lady Lucas tells me that Purvis Lodge is to be let, in spite of the state of the attics, by a family with two sons, neither of whom is married, but she assures me that both of them are quite handsome. In fact I hear that—"
"Mamma," Mary interrupted, firmly, "I must warn you that none of this is any good, for I have already made up my mind that I shall marry only when it suits me to do so, and that my husband shall be of my own choosing. I am afraid that, having found husbands for four daughters out of five, you must endeavor to be satisfied with what you have so far accomplished."
Mrs. Bennet stared open-mouthed at her daughter, and prepared herself to make some stinging retort; but Mr. Bennet came up behind them then, and laid a hand upon each of their shoulders.
"There now, Mrs. Bennet," he said cheerfully, "you had better do as she requests, for our Mary is a scholar, and must therefore be considered very wise indeed. But indeed four out of five is no small feat, and I am sure it is no hardship to you to take pride in your achievement. Lady Lucas, after all, has only one married daughter out of three; and Mrs. Long and Mrs. Phillips have no daughters at all."
This Mrs. Bennet was forced to admit to, and pressed further, she agreed that the subject of Mary's marriage might be let alone—at least for now. Nobody was under any illusions that it would not resurface once the glow of Kitty's wedding was gone, but for the present they were all content.
And so Mr. Bennet offered his wife one arm, and his daughter the other; and the others having already gone in to sit down, the last Miss Bennet and her fond parents turned together, and went into the house.
Author's Note: And it's done! Apologies for the delay (grad school, grrr), but a million billion trillion thanks to everyone who has read and reviewed this story. I love hearing your thoughts and suggestions, and I am so grateful that you've all taken the time to get to know these characters with me. If I've managed to give anyone any amusement, I'm satisfied! I am planning a sequel to this one (I know, right? What am I even doing? Miss de Bourgh in Bath was supposed to be an aberration...), although I'm not sure exactly when it will be published. So keep your eyes peeled, and in the meantime, happy reading!