Curiosity Killed the Lady Cat
It was a warm day in Hertfordshire, an oxymoronic happening for it was still well within the hours generally considered by all as morning, and the winter season no matter its current procrastination was still approaching. A song bird called forth to its mate, and a deer tentatively approached the stream, emboldened by the quiet hours of dawn.
A clamorous and cultured voice erupted through the park, shaking the trees and disturbing the flowers' gentle sways. The songbird escaped into the sky and the deer leapt into the undergrowth, "I ask you once and for all Miss Bennet! Has my nephew made you an offer of marriage?"
Miss Elizabeth Bennet was no longer able to remain calm, her patience strained beyond even its limits. Living with Mrs. Bennet for so many years, this was no little feat, "Yes, he has," she finally admitted rather maliciously; the only time of her adult life when she deliberately chose to listen to that inner voice of childish wickedness.
It was difficult to say what was going through Lady Catherine's mind at that moment, a bit of a paradox as there only had been a few choice moments in her life when she had not opted to give a voice to the entirety of her thoughts. Her opinions were revered throughout the county surrounding Kent, and several of her London friends often sought her advice on every subject from hiring maids to the correct mixing of poultices. In this instance-being confronted with Elizabeth Bennet-her mouth could only open and close a couple of times. Her face purpled, both lungs contracted painfully. A few blood vessels finally burst overcome from the extensive internal pressures at work and Lady Catherine de Bourgh of Rosings Park fainted dead away.
Her reluctant companion blinked, and blinked again.
The ties of her bonnet fluttered in the wind, upsetting a few of her wayward curls as Elizabeth continued to stand shocked. From the house secured behind the windows, Mrs. Bennet and Kitty watched the entirety of it unfold.
Kitty had just opened her mouth to speak, when her mother overrode her, "Oh Kitty! My nerves. Such a woman, Mr. Collin's patroness, and fainted in our own park? In the flower beds? Oh what are we to do? I always knew that Lizzy was too impertinent," she hurried out of the room, "she will ruin us all!" floated through the air as the door to the kitchens slammed.
Cook looked up at her mistress and the scullery maid shrunk away but Mrs. Bennet paid them little notice, "Lizzy!" She hurried her ample girth across the lawn, "I had Hill retrieve my smelling salts!"
Never had Elizabeth been so grateful for her mother's propensity to eavesdrop at door knobs and watch out of windows. She would know what to do! Of course those thoughts were quickly squelched when the Bennet matron opened her mouth once more, "What have you done Lizzy? To such a woman as this! Is our name to be sullied? Oh if only Mr. Collins would have taken you away! Now he will no doubt throw us out to starve in the hedge groves!" Her left eye twitched as she glared at her daughter.
Elizabeth said nothing, and Mrs. Bennet clasped a hand to her breast before bending over the Great Lady preparing to wave her bottle of ammonium under her nose, "You must apologize Lizzy, as soon as she comes around. She must be appeased!" She chewed at her lip, "If only there could be a bit of fish for dinner! Hill! Where is Hill! There may be just time for it if only we can make the most of it!" And with that, Mrs. Bennet hurried back to the house, her smelling salts and second oldest daughter left forgotten on the garden path.
'Lizzy' had listened with hardly an ear to the ramblings of her parent, instead, her mind awhirl and shocked, was just beginning to come to grips with the situation. Far from missish, she had just spent a quarter of an hour deflecting several unkind barbs made by an enraged and worthy opponent, it was little wonder that she was not at her best. And with that same enraged noblewoman now lying at her feet prone and silent, she was flabbergasted at such a turn of events. She can hardly be blamed for the slight revulsion that overcame her. Surely she should check? Just to be sure?
Twice her hand had come out, and twice it had sprung away as if burned by the exalted personage of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. She, Elizabeth Bennet was a gentlewoman, but was she really expected to ascertain the wellbeing of such a woman? And what would happen if said woman suddenly came to? Collectively, all these things caused Miss Bennet to hesitate. But the temperature dropped as the sun-suddenly shy-found refuge behind a particularly formidable cloud and Elizabeth knew she could delay no longer.
"Lady Catherine?" Her voice was timid. But the recipient of her call chose to ignore her. "Lady Catherine?" her second plea was raised in volume to overpower the whistling wind. A third time the hand came out, and gently placed on a bony silk-wrapped shoulder, Elizabeth shook the still woman ever so slightly, "Lady Catherine."
A touch of humor lightened Elizabeth's features for a moment as she considered what the Great Lady would have to say about lying amongst her mother's scraggly rhododendrons. But just as her lips began to ease into a smile, she immediately reprimanded herself for such uncharitable thoughts. She lowered her cheek close to Lady Catherine's mouth to check for breath. She paled; for there was no breath, the body was already rapidly cooling.
"Mrs. Hill!" Elizabeth's voice screeched much as her mother's had just done. She would later have no recollection of this.
Hill was bewildered by all of the attention she was receiving this day, but as she had always been a model housekeeper, she felt certain that she could deal with just about anything. She had walked the halls with the colicky Katherine, taught the stubborn Lydia her letters, and soothed Mrs. Bennet's frequent fits of the vapours. But when Miss Elizabeth, who had never given her any trouble, claimed that there was dead Lady in the flowerbeds, Hill very much wanted to find someone who would be willing to bring her some smelling salts. Nevertheless, she was a model housekeeper; she refrained from such fancies, long enough to instruct the young Thomas to go find the apothecary.
Mr. Jones came. Mr. Jones looked. Mr. Jones poked and prodded at the body. Mr. Jones ruled it apoplexy before she even hit the ground. And after taking one look at the elegant barouche, Mr. Jones also refused to move the body.
No matter how much Elizabeth sought to detain him, begged him even to alter his opinion, Mr. Jones refused to be swayed, "I know these great people and their ways. Best to summon the family," was the last thing he said as he pulled his thin frame back into his curricle. Wishing Miss Bennet well seemed highly inappropriate given the circumstances so instead Mr. Jones only tipped his hat and drove his horse quickly away.
Elizabeth on returning to the house was further disturbed to discover that she and she alone seemed to feel the burden of responsibility. Mrs. Bennet was already absconded in her room, firm in her hysterics, and Mr. Bennet was nowhere to be seen. Jane was floating high in the clouds, practicing her soon to be new name- Jane Bingley, oh how well that sounds!- with a well-mended pen. Mary was pounding away a concerto, and Kitty was in the sulks somewhere. Probably with Maria Lucas who had also been a bit sulky lately.
So it fell to Elizabeth. Pondering had often done her good, and she did not see that it would do her any further harm now. Painfully, these ponderings began with the ill-timed words of the once living Lady Catherine. "Unfeeling, headstrong girl!"
Elizabeth laughed, a quick harsh sound, before bursting into tears. Would the old harridan have lived if she, Elizabeth, hadn't been so headstrong? If she hadn't had that moment of waspishness? Why hadn't she ignored her inner wickedness? And now she would have to suffer the ramifications of such a choice.
Despair settled when she realized that there was little chance that such an event could be kept secret. Once the village knew, Mr. Bingley would know. He would withdraw his attentions from her sister, perhaps he would share the situation with his sisters. And then the world would know! And she, Miss Elizabeth would be blamed. Certainly by Lady Catherine's family! With their influence she would not escape punishment. She could imagine her sentencing. Hanging certainly; the Earl, the faceless peer in the background, holding the rope. And Mr. Darcy.
Mr. Darcy. What would his thoughts be? No different from his family surely. His Aunt, his own relation, dead at her hands! He would never forgive her.
She could not help but remember the last time she had seen him, sitting in her mother's drawing room, awaiting dinner, wearing an olive green waistcoat embroidered with gold-threaded leaves. His dark coat hugged his broad shoulders and she had never thought him so handsome. But so quiet and grave, looking and speaking to anyone but her. Never to her. Save once. He had startled her at his sudden approach, "Are you in good health Miss Elizabeth?"
The way his voice caressed her name, she could hardly remember to respond. Perhaps she had not responded, he had left so quickly after dinner, back to Netherfield and then beyond to London or Pemberley. It little mattered which. Impoverished as her family was, either might as well have been beyond the stars.
His manner had contrasted so greatly after Pemberley where he had been kind, dare she say it—agreeable even! But he'd had his friends there, his sister. He was probably comforted in his own environment. It was prideful of her to assume that his manner was all for her benefit. To confine his only words to her about her health of all things? It was a dutiful inquiry and nothing more what you were supposed to speak of when there was little conversation to be had.
And even if she was wrong and in that instance his improved manners had been for her, the news of Lydia's elopement would surely have driven his good opinion away completely and thoroughly. And now that she was responsible for his aunt's death? He would despise her, hate her. And he would be justified. He would congratulate himself on his lucky escape.
With a choking sob, she realized that Mr. Darcy was forever beyond her reach. Long ago she had come to discover within herself that perhaps if situations had been different, had things continued so agreeably at Pemberley, she could have loved him. And now that the hope was completely gone, she knew how pitiable her situation truly was. For she did love him, so dearly, so completely! She was doomed to love him forever, she suspected. She had always joked of being the maiden aunt; that was her future now if she managed to escape the hangman's noose. She didn't know whether to burst into tears or congratulate herself on her foresight.
But there was nothing for it now. He and his relations must be told. She must keep the regrettable truth from them as long as possible, if only to save her family if she could. Eventually it would be discovered that was the nature of such things, but, and she knew the thought to be completely mercenary, if Jane and Mr. Bingley could wed before the world discovered her treachery, then at least her mother would not have to live out her greatest fear of starving in the hedge groves.
But what could be done? She was aware of the grave impropriety of writing to him herself. A single woman writing to a man who was neither her fiancé nor her relation was highly irregular, and entirely unacceptable. If only her father would come!
As the day lengthened and Mr. Bennet stubbornly stayed away, Elizabeth knew that her options had thinned exponentially. The news must come from her. Aware of her slight acquaintance with Miss Darcy, she contemplated writing to that lady instead. There would be no improprieties in that case.
Miss Darcy was rather shy and delicate though and Elizabeth worried for her reaction to such news. Georgiana Darcy was only a girl! She had already lost both of her parents and had nearly been taken in by a fortune hunter, all before her 16th birthday. So much sadness to be endured by someone so young. To be the messenger of such news to one so delicate did not settle well with Elizabeth.
And so she sat at her writing desk in the corner of her once cheery room, now overcome with her melancholy, and stuck within the proprieties of society. Never had she been at such a loss for words before. Never had she to communicate such news as this.