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The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet

Язык: Английский
Тип: Текст
Год издания: 2018
The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet
Colleen McCullough

Lizzy Bennet married Mr Darcy, Jane Bennet married Mr Bingley – but what became of the middle daughter, Mary? A thrilling and intriguing novel of what happened next…Readers of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE will remember that there were five Bennet sisters. Now, twenty years on, Jane has a happy marriage and large family; Lizzy and Mr Darcy now have a formidable social reputation; Lydia has a reputation of quite another kind; Kitty is much in demand in London’s parlours and ballrooms; but what of Mary?Mary is quietly celebrating her independence, having nursed her ailing mother for many years. She decides to write a book to bring the plight of the poor to everyone’s attention. But with more resolve than experience, as she sets out to travel around the country, it’s not only her family who are concerned about her. Marriage may be far from her mind, but what if she were to meet the one man whose own fiery articles infuriate the politicians and industrialists? And if when she starts to ask similar questions, she unwittingly places herself in great danger?

The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet


For BruniComposer and divaAs beautiful a person inside as she is outside


Title Page (#u7cfee106-ba0f-5572-be9b-a13e74e2ec8b)Chapter One (#u7b491e98-65ca-50b5-9631-e6f0ea8e9766)Chapter Two (#uad9cfda4-4388-500f-892b-833216046b95)Chapter Three (#u429dd537-6f2a-55f1-bb5f-3e1f5cdaf86d)Chapter Four (#uc8eb9d03-a6da-5d51-b3e4-74d265636322)Chapter Five (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Six (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Seven (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo)By The Same Author (#litres_trial_promo)Copyright (#litres_trial_promo)About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo)

ONE (#u56ad5afd-6ac2-5df9-ace5-44c552bac21b)

The long, late light threw a gilt mantle over the skeletons of shrubs and trees scattered through the Shelby Manor gardens; a few wisps of smoke, smudged at their edges, drifted from the embers of a fire kindled to burn the last of the fallen leaves, and somewhere a stay-behind bird was chattering the tuneless nocturne of late autumn. Watching the sunset from her usual seat in the bay window, Mary felt a twisting of her heart at its blue-gold glory, soon to be a memory banked inside the echoing spaces of her mind. How much longer? Oh, how much longer?

Came the rattle and tinkle of the tea tray as Martha bore it in; she deposited it carefully on the low table flanking the wing chair in which the mistress of Shelby Manor slumbered. Sighing, Mary turned from the window and took her place, setting a delicate cup in its frail saucer, then another for herself. How lucky they were to have Old Jenkins! Still harvesting an occasional cucumber from his frames. And how lucky that Mama relished cucumber slices atop her bread-and-butter! She would wake to see the treats sitting on a sprightly doily, and care not that the cake was three days old.

“Mama, tea has arrived,” said Mary.

Bundled in shawls and wraps, the little round body jerked; its little round face puckered up peevishly, scowled at being roused. Then the faded blue eyes opened, saw the cucumber atop the bread-and-butter, and a preliminary joy began. But not before the everyday complaint was uttered.

“Have you no compassion for my poor nerves, Mary, to wake me so abruptly?”

“Of course I do, Mama,” Mary said perfunctorily, pouring milk into the bottom of her mother’s cup, and tilting the fine silver teapot to pour an amber stream on top of the milk. Cook’s girl had done well with the sugar, broken it into good lumps; Mary added one of exactly the right size to the tea, and stirred the liquid thoroughly.

All of which occupied her for perhaps a minute. Cup and saucer in her hand, she looked up to make sure Mama was ready. Then, not realising she had done so, she put her burden down without removing her eyes from Mama’s face. It had changed, taken on the contours and patina of a porcelain mask from Venice, more featureless than expressionless. The eyes still stared, but at something far beyond the room.

“Oh, Mama!” she whispered, not knowing what else to say. “It came all unaware.” She closed those eyes with the tips of her fingers, eyes that somehow seemed to contain more knowledge of life than ever they had during that life, then kissed Mama’s brow. “Dear God, You are very good. I thank You for Your mercy. How afraid she would have been, had she known.”

The bell cord was in reach; Mary tugged it gently.

“Send Mrs Jenkins to me, Martha, please.”

Armed with plenty of excuses — what more could the sour old crab ask for than out-of-season cucumber? — Mrs Jenkins came in girded for battle. But the look Miss Mary wore banished her anger at once. “Yes, Miss Mary?”

“My mother has passed away, Mrs Jenkins. Kindly send for Dr Callum — Old Jenkins can go in the pony and trap. Tell Jenkins to saddle the roan, pack his needs and be ready to ride for Pemberley as soon as I have written a note. He is to have five guineas from your jar for his journey, for he must make all haste. Good inns, good hired horses when the roan cannot carry him farther.”

Mary’s voice held its usual composure; no huskiness, no tremor to betray her feelings. For nigh on seventeen years, thought Mrs Jenkins, this poor woman has listened to her mother’s megrims and woes, moans and complaints — when, that is, she wasn’t listening to shrill outpourings of delight, triumph, self-congratulation. Saying just the right thing, competently averting an attack of the vapours, jockeying Mrs Bennet into a better mood as briskly and unsentimentally as a good governess a wayward child. And now it was over. All over.

“Begging your pardon, Miss Mary, but will Jenkins find Mr Darcy at home?”

“Yes. According to Mrs Darcy, Parliament is in recess. Bring me Mama’s pink silk scarf, I would cover her face.”

The housekeeper bobbed a curtsey and left, a prey to many doubts, fears, apprehensions. What would become of them now, from Father to young Jem and Dora?

The scarf properly draped, the fire stoked against the coming night of frost, the candles lit, Mary went to the window and sat on its cushioned seat, there to reflect on more than this visitation from Death.

Of grief she felt none: too many years, too much boredom. In lieu of it, she fastened upon a growing sense of becalm, as if she had been transported to some vast chamber filled by a darkness that yet was luminous, floating on an invisible ocean, not afraid, not diminished.

I have waited thirty-eight years for my turn to come, she thought, but not one of them can say that I have not done my duty, that I have not tipped my measure of happiness into their cups, that I have not stepped backward into obscurity crying one word of protest at my fate.

Why am I so unprepared for this moment? Where has my mind wandered, when time has hung so heavily upon me? I have been at the beck and call of an empty vessel called Mama, but empty vessels hardly ever manage to scratch up an observation, a comment, an idea. So I have spent my time waiting. Just waiting. With a squadron of Jenkinses to look after her, Mama did not need me; I was there as a sop to the proprieties. How I hate that word, propriety! An ironbound code of conduct invented to intimidate and subjugate women. I was doomed to be a spinster, the family thought, with those shocking suppurating spots all over my face and a front tooth that grew sideways. Of course Fitz felt that Mama had to be chaperoned by a member of the family in case she took to travelling to Pemberley or Bingley Hall. If only Papa had not died two years after Lizzie’s and Jane’s weddings!

Think, Mary, think! she scolded herself. Be logical! It was the boredom. I had no choice but to dream the weeks, the months, the years away: of setting foot on the stones of the Forum Romanum; of eating oranges in a Sicilian orchard; of filling my eyes with the Parthenon; of pressing my cheek against some wall in the Holy Land that Christ Jesus must have touched, or leaned upon, or brushed with His shadow. I have dreamed of roaming free along foreign shores, dreamed of sampling the cities of sunnier climes, the mountains and skies I have only read about. While in reality I have lived in a world divided between books, music, and a Mama who did not need me.

But now that I am free, I have no wish to experience any of those things. All that I want is to be of use, to have a purpose. To have something to do that would make a difference. But will I be let? No. My elder sisters and their grand husbands will descend upon Shelby Manor within the week, and a new sentence of lethargy will be levied upon Aunt Mary. Probably joining the horde of nurses, governesses and tutors who are responsible for the welfare of Elizabeth’s and Jane’s children. For naturally Mrs Darcy and Mrs Bingley enjoy only the delights of children, leaving the miseries of parentage to others. The wives of grand men do not wait for things to happen: they make things happen. Seventeen years ago, Mrs Darcy and Mrs Bingley were too busy enjoying their marriages to take responsibility for Mama.

Oh, how bitter that sounds! I did not mean that thought to shape itself sounding so bitter. At the time, it was not. I must be fair to them. When Papa died they were both new mothers, Kitty had just married, and Lydia — oh, Lydia! Longbourn went to the Collinses, and my fate was manifest, between the spots and the tooth. How smoothly Fitz handled it! Shelby Manor purchased together with the services of the Jenkinses, and the fledgling maiden aunt Mary eased into her task as deftly as a carpenter dovetails two pieces of wood. Mama and I removed ten miles the other side of Meryton, far enough away from the odious Collinses, yet close enough for Mama to continue to see her cronies. Aunt Phillips, Lady Lucas and Mrs Long had been delighted. So was I. A huge library, a full-sized fortepiano, and the Jenkinses.

So whence this sudden bitterness against my sisters now it is over? UnChristian and undeserving. Lord knows Lizzie at least has had her troubles. Hers is not a happy marriage.

Shivering, Mary left the window to huddle in the chair on the far side of the fireplace from her still, utterly silent companion. She found herself watching the pink silk scarf, expecting it to puff with a sudden breath from underneath. But it did not. Dr Callum would be here soon; Mama would be taken to her feather bed, washed, dressed, laid out in the freezing air for the long vigil between death and burial.

Starting guiltily, she remembered that she had not summoned the Reverend Mr Courtney. Oh, bother! If Old Jenkins has not returned with the doctor, Young Jenkins would have to go.

“For one thing I refuse to do,” she said to herself, “is send for Mr Collins. I have been over that for twenty years.”

“Elizabeth,” said Fitzwilliam Darcy as he entered his wife’s dressing room, “I have bad news, my dear.”

Elizabeth turned from the mirror, brows arched higher over her luminous eyes. Their customary sparkle faded; she frowned, rose to her feet. “Charlie?” she asked.

“No, Charlie is well. I have had a letter from Mary, who says that your mother has passed away. In her sleep, peacefully.”

The stool in front of the dressing table refused to help her; she sagged sideways onto its corner, almost fell as she scrambled for balance, and found it. “Mama? Oh, Mama!”

Fitz had watched her without going to her aid; finally he moved from the doorway, strolled across the carpet to rest one hand on her bare shoulder, its long fingers pressing her flesh lightly. “My dear, it is for the best.”

“Yes, yes! But she is only sixty-two! I had fancied she would make very old bones.”

“Aye, coddled like a Strasbourg goose. It is a mercy, all the same. Think of Mary.”

“Yes, for that I must be thankful. Fitz, what to do?”

“Set out for Hertfordshire first thing in the morning. I will send to Jane and Charles to meet us at the Crown and Garter by nine. Best to travel together.”

“The children?” she asked, grief beginning as shock went. What were the old, when there were young to fill the heart?

“They stay here, of course. I’ll tell Charles not to let Jane cozen him into taking any of theirs. Shelby Manor is a commodious house, Elizabeth, but it will not accommodate any of our offspring.” Reflected in her mirror, his face seemed to harden; then he shrugged the mood off, whatever it had been, and continued in his level voice. “Mary says that she has sent for Kitty, but thinks Lydia is better left to me. What a truly sensible woman Mary has become!”

“Please, Fitz, let us take Charlie! You will ride, and I will make the journey alone. It is a long way. We can drop Charlie back at Oxford on the way home.”

His mouth slipped a little awry as he considered it, then he gave his famous regal nod. “As you wish.”

“Thank you.” She hesitated, knowing the answer, but asking the question anyway. “Do we hold this dinner tonight?”

“Oh, I think so. Our guests are on their way. Your mourning weeds can wait until tomorrow, as can the subject.” His hand left her shoulder. “I am for downstairs. Roeford is sure to arrive at any moment.”

And with a grimace at mention of his least esteemed Tory ally, Darcy left his wife to finish her toilet.

A tear escaped, was whisked away by the haresfoot; eyes swimming, Elizabeth fought for control. How splendid a political career could be! Always something important to do, never the time for peace, companionship, leisure. Fitz did not mourn Mrs Bennet’s passing, she knew that well; the trouble was that he expected her to feel the same indifference, heave a thankful sigh at the lifting of this particular burden, part shame, part embarrassment, part impotence. Yet that shallow, idiotic, crotchety woman had borne her, Elizabeth, and for that, surely she was entitled to be loved. To be mourned, if not missed.

“I want Mr Skinner. At once,” Darcy said to his butler, busy hovering over the first footman as he divested Mr Roeford of his greatcoat. “My dear Roeford, how splendid to see you. As always, first into the fray.” And without a backward glance, Darcy led his obnoxiously early guest into the Rubens Room.

The curt but civil command had Parmenter fleeing in search of the third footman the moment his master disappeared. Something was amiss, so much was sure. But why did Mr Darcy want that forbidding man at this hour?

“Run all the way, James,” Parmenter instructed, then went back to the hall to await more timely guests. Six of them appeared half an hour later, glowing with anticipation, exclaiming at the cold, speculating that the new year would come in hard and freezing. Not long after, Mr Edward Skinner stalked through the front door. He went straight to the small library — with never a please, thank you, or kiss my foot, the Pemberley butler thought resentfully. Valued he might be and speak like a gentleman he might, but Parmenter remembered him as a youth and would have gone to the stake maintaining that Ned Skinner was no gentleman. There were perhaps twelve years between his master and Ned, who therefore was no by-blow, but something existed between them, a bond not even Mrs Darcy had been able to plumb — or break. Even as Parmenter thought these things he was on his way to the Rubens Room to nod at Mr Fitz.

“A difficulty, Ned,” said Fitz, closing the library door.

Skinner made no reply, simply stood in front of the desk with body relaxed and hands by his sides loosely; not the pose of a minion. He was a very big man, five inches taller than Darcy’s six feet, and was built like an ape — massive shoulders and neck, a barrel of a chest, no superfluous fat. Rumour had it that his father had been a West Indian blackamoor, so dark were Skinner’s complexion, hair and narrow, watchful eyes.

“Sit, Ned, you make my neck ache looking up.”

“You have guests, I’ll not delay you. What is it?”

“Whereabouts is Mrs George Wickham?” Darcy asked as he sat down, drawing a sheet of paper forward and dipping his steel-sheathed goose quill nib into the inkwell. He was already writing when Ned answered.

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