Going from the beginning of the twenty-first century to the years leading up to the nineteenth could, without a doubt, be called a step backwards. Well, if one was inclined to understatement.
Waking up to find yourself at the age of nine, the middle child of five, with the full memories of the previously numbered years as that child, as well as those memories of someone much older and from a much, much later time period... Well, the best thing that could be said about the whole thing was that at least it wasn't worse. A change of gender would have been horribly traumatising, even if having to go through puberty in the days before... wait, when was the tampon invented?
Well, here she was with a burning question and no internet to check the answer. What she did have, instead, was the opportunity to really find out how things had worked at this period in time. Not something she had ever asked for, but she'd make the most of it.
"She's had a nasty bump on the head," the man who had been looming over her – Mr Jones, the closest that Meryton had to a doctor, the nine-year-old-child set of memories supplied – proclaimed as he checked her over. "Which I regret to say is beyond my knowledge to treat."
"A drink of water would be much appreciated, if it is possible," Mary herself volunteered a little weakly. More for the shock of finding herself in an Austen novel, than for the bump on her head – as the room wasn't spinning, and she had no trouble focusing on anything, she was fairly sure she didn't have a concussion. Not that she had any experience with concussions to say for certain, but dizziness, inability to focus at different lengths, and nausea were more or less considered to be the symptoms of a concussion by the ignorant populace. Last she knew, anyway.
"Certainly," Mr Jones approved. "Perhaps a poultice to help the swelling go down, but if Miss Mary is otherwise unaffected, then there seems to be no cause for distress."
"Thank you, Mr Jones," Mr Bennet said with a relieved sigh.
That's right. Mortality rates were high, because medicine wasn't exactly modern, right? Her parents had probably worried that a bump on the head would be her death. It was not out of the realms of possibility.
Mary spent that first week mostly in her bedroom. Neither of her parents wished to risk her health while there was still a bump visible on her head. While dull in the extreme – Mary eventually persuaded one of the maids to bring yarn and a pair of knitting needles to occupy her hands with – it did allow her the time to fully absorb her new situations.
Whether that was of a nine-year-old girl who had mysteriously acquired the memories of a grown woman, or a grown woman who had mysteriously been thrown into the much-younger body of a fictional character.
With the week up, the swelling down, and the scarf she had knitted quite sufficient to gift to her father, Mary was pleased to be allowed below-stairs once more.
"I see that you have not been idle in your convalescence Mary," Mr Bennet observed, surprised but pleased to be presented with the scarf she had knitted. "This is very well done."
"Thank you Father," Mary said with a smile.
Of course, she knew that it really wasn't a patch on some of the things that got knitted in the Regency era. There were yet no machines to make stockings, after all, and they were very much a vital part of any persons' wardrobe. Still, for the type of yarn she had been given, and the size of the needles, it was quite good. Her stitches were even, and none had been lost or somehow added unintentionally.
"Father, after breakfast, may I borrow a book from your library?" Mary asked as she took her seat.
"Ah, so now we have it. The scarf was just to butter me up. For what purpose would you borrow one of my books, Mary?" Mr Bennet replied with a jovial chuckle.
"Why, to read, Father," Mary exclaimed. "What else is one to do with a book? Though, I grant, ledgers are books that one writes in, rather than spends hours reading for leisure. Or perhaps, if I had some muslin, I might undertake to press flowers between two of your heavier books, but I only want the one."
"I am not sure that you would enjoy the sorts of books that I have, Mary," Mr Bennet said thoughtfully. "I don't have much in the way of novels. I have plenty of philosophy, theology, and botany, but my collection of novels is very small indeed."
"Then I shall read books on botany," Mary declared, "then philosophy, and then theology. That's in alphabetical order, isn't it?"
Mr Bennet chuckled, pleased with her precociousness, and agreed that after the family had all broken their fasts that Mary might be permitted to borrow one of his books to read.
How did that little list go? Drawing, musical skill, dance, languages, and a reader. She was sure there was more to the Bingley women's description of what made an accomplished woman, and not just the 'air and manner of walking' bit. Though, Mary conceded in her mind, that it had been Mr Darcy that added 'reading' to the list given by Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst.
Well, it didn't really matter. Mary wasn't setting out to become some ideal, impossible, accomplished gentle-woman. It was, nevertheless, a starting point, and a young lady of leisure (such as she was by the good fortune of being a gentleman's daughter) had plenty of time available to her in which to study such pursuits.
Also knowing herself to be very well able to procrastinate even those tasks that she had set to herself (such knowledge coming from the elder life-time, rather than that of the nine-year-old), Mary asked for and received a sheet of paper, as well as the use of a pen. Quill. The ball-points and felt-tips she was used to had regrettably not been invented yet.
She made for herself a simple time-table for study throughout the week. This had her father quite amused, and her elder sisters interested to follow her example. Elizabeth, most certainly, approved that listed first thing every morning was 'walk around the whole of Longbourne'. Being an excellent walker might not have been on the list of things that made an accomplished woman, but it was certainly an attribute which would stand a country lass (whatever her station) in good stead.
In truth, she would have put 'read a passage of the bible' first, as her father had done every day of her life (no, not Mr Bennet), but there was only the Family Bible in the house, and having even five minutes with it before breakfast would require an invasion of Mr Bennet's sanctuary – his library – before he had even had his morning cup of tea. As Lady Catherine would say (or had said, in that novel she'd read in a different life-time, or might say, or... oh bother the tenses!) it was not to be borne.
Her days were divided up as she could vaguely recall in high school – four periods before morning tea, or recess, another three before lunch, and three more before the final bell of the school day. It wasn't perfect of course. Longbourne had no bell for ringing simply to shift young ladies from one diversion to another. There was, fortunately, a functioning clock in the house.
After returning from walking around the entire property of Longbourne – an activity that usually took an hour – Mary would sit at the pianoforte and practice that, quietly, while discussing with Lizzy, Jane, or sometimes their father interesting things she had noticed while walking. If the discussion included Mr Bennet, then Mary sometimes was fortunate enough to get an impromptu lesson in some matter of how Longbourne was kept. All while keeping up with her music practice.
After morning tea and playing with Kitty for a little while (Lydia was utterly uninterested in Mary's games, having long ago declared the middle sister boring), Mary would set to the task of improving her artistic ability, whether that was drawing, painting, or embroidery. After half an hour of that, Mary (gratefully) set such tasks aside and set herself to the study of language for an hour. Some days she studied Latin, others French, Greek... and on the days she relaxed and simply studied the English language, Mary could usually be found sitting on a window seat with a book borrowed from Mr Bennet's library.
Lunch drew Mary from her self-improvement, and after the meal she set about learning the various economies that were relevant to the daughter of a gentleman whose estate was entailed on the male line. Mary learned from Mrs Hill about the running of the house, from Mr Bennet and his steward Mr Hill about the running of the estate, and (with the dubious blessing of Mr Bennet) learned how trade worked from her Uncle Gardiner through regular correspondence.
All that only carried Mary (and her sisters who recognised that Mary had struck upon a fine way of occupying her days) until tea in the afternoon.
Having no governess or tutors to assign homework – and grateful for that – the afternoons were nevertheless given over to finishing things that had not been finished in the morning. Usually, anyway. Sometimes there were visitors, and sometimes Mrs Bennet exerted herself to teach her daughters how to dance.
The part of Mary that had read Pride and Prejudice refused to give Mr Bennet any cause to be able to call her a silly, ignorant girl with nothing much to recommend her. As she had grown rather fond of Jane, Lizzy, and even Kitty was growing on her as the girl slowly grew older, she wasn't inclined to leave them to such a fate either. Lydia, regretfully, had yet to prove any interest in being anything but silly.
"Lydia, that's mine!"
"Not any more! I shall take it to pieces and make it up nice. You never wear it any way."
"I only bought it last week, and I intend to wear it today!" Kitty protested. "Return my bonnet to me at once!"
"I shan't!" Lydia denied happily, and danced away from her next-eldest sister. "As I said, it is not yours any more, for I have claimed it, and I shall look much better in it when I am done than you ever would. Ah!"
The sharp report of palm striking cheek silenced Lydia's pained cry, and all of the household stared at Mary in shock for first having grabbed her youngest sister by her hair (causing the pained cry in the first place) and then slapping her across the face.
"It is not yours," Mary informed Lydia plainly, and she took the stolen bonnet from Lydia, whose previously grasping fingers had gone limp with the shock of violence on her person. "It is Kitty's, bought with her own pin money, and if she does not wish to share it with you, then that is no reason for you to steal it." She held out the retrieved bonnet to its rightful owner.
"Thank you, Mary," Kitty said softly, and hurried quickly away to set her bonnet properly over her hair.
"Mamma!" Lydia cried out. "Mamma! Mary struck me!"
"So we all saw," Mr Bennet spoke up gravely, before Mrs Bennet could draw breath to comfort her youngest, censure her middle child, or even cry out for her nerves. "Mary, have you anything to say about that?"
"If I catch Lydia stealing in this house again, I shall not slap her. I shall black her eye. If I catch her at it a third time, then I shall cut off her hair as close to her scalp as I possibly may," Mary asserted, chin thrust out proudly. "It will do her no good to believe that such behaviour is permitted. If we let that foolishness fester, she will very likely hang."
Lydia cried out, and buried her face in Mrs Bennet's skirts. As she was now the age that Mary had found herself with two sets of memories, she was still small enough that this was possible.
"Mary!" Mrs Bennet shrieked, shocked, and one arm went defensively about her youngest child, with the other raised hand to chest. "Oh my nerves! How could you say such things?"
"The disciplining of children usually falls to the parents, Mary," Mr Bennet added, one brow raised pointedly at her, as if to say that, by her actions, Mary had opened herself up to such. Violence was no more to be tolerated than theft, after all. Well, there were no laws against what Mary had done, as there were laws against theft, but within Longbourne, it would not be tolerated.
"Father, you do not care for Kitty and Lydia's arguments over trimmings, and would not involve yourself at all," Mary pointed out, perfectly reasonably, "and Mother has never championed any of her middle children over her eldest or youngest. Even when we are right."
"Hm. Well," Mr Bennet hummed thoughtfully. "Kitty's property is returned, Lydia has been most thoroughly chastised by yourself over the matter, which only leaves how I must answer the matter of you having committed violence against your sister."
Mary was sent to her room without supper. Lizzy smuggled a trio of still-hot roast potatoes into Mary's room after, Kitty crept in moments later bearing a napkin of finely sliced roast beef (no longer hot, and lacking gravy, but very fine all the same), and both congratulated her on her set-down of Lydia. Jane came just as Mary had finished her smuggled meal, and carried a small bowl of pudding.
Lydia would probably never forgive what Mary did that day, but she never stole one of Kitty's bonnets again.
By the time she was sixteen, Mary was thoroughly adjusted to being a fictional character. Or being a real person who also existed as a fictional character, and had somehow acquired knowledge of... oh well. The point remained, even if she could not (and indeed would not, for fear of Bedlam) articulate exactly what she was, she was well adjusted to being it.
So well adjusted, in fact, that for the previous two years she had been sending half of her pin money to her Uncle Gardiner in Cheapside on the understanding that he should invest it on her behalf, so that she would have a sum of her own to be secure upon, should Mrs Bennet's fears of hedgerows ever be realised (Mary could not recall if the book mentioned who of Mr and Mrs Bennet had died first, even if she could remember who Jane, Lizzy, and Lydia had all married). Of course, Mary had been deliberately incautious in having that conversation with her uncle, and had been overheard by all four of her sisters and her father.
Lydia, who objected to nearly everything involving Mary on principle (as the infamous slap and scolding had been very fresh at the time), and being young and foolish besides, didn't catch the broad hint. Kitty, Lizzy, and Jane, however, had all quickly applied that their Uncle Gardiner might perform the same office on their behalves.
After some discussion with Mr Bennet, it was agreed upon. The matter would be kept very quiet, however, as the Bennet girls were gentle-women, and while their prospects would be improved by each of them having even a very small fortune of their own, they would be equally damaged if it got about that they were directly involved in Trade. Relations in Trade was one thing, being personally involved was quite another, even if 'personally' went only so far as providing money for investments and the acquisition of returns.
But as she was now sixteen, Mary was promoted out of pigtails and presented. As much as one can be presented in a country town. Nevertheless, she was officially Out, and to celebrate, Jane had gifted Mary one of her finer dresses that she had recently outgrown.
Mary's first act, after thanking her sister most sincerely, was to reach for her thread cutter that she may remove all of the lace that had been stitched into the gown. It was lovely, but not to her taste. Floral patterned lace suited Jane very well, but Mary preferred geometric patterns that vaguely resembled Celtic Knots if she had to have lace at all – and, regretfully, she did. Lace took a bit more getting used to than the situation as a whole.
"I told you that Mary would not keep that lace," Lizzy teased Jane gently, and presented her own gift to Mary for her coming out: a few yards of lace, appropriate to replace what Mary had removed from Jane's gifted dress, but in the style that Mary preferred.
Careful not to damage the gown or to stab herself with the thread cutter, Mary laughed in delight at the gift.
"I cannot wait for next year, when I may be permitted Out," Kitty sighed. "Oh, but then Lydia will cry that it is dreadfully unfair that she be the only one not Out, and will force Mamma to let her Out as well. I do not look forward to that."
Lydia, had she been present, would indeed have whined and carried on. Instead, she was visiting Lucas Lodge with their mother, likely playing games with their younger daughter Maria, who was of an age with Lydia and her dearest friend in the entirety of Hertfordshire.
Two years was sufficient for Lydia's grudge against Mary to have been left behind, but Lydia regularly declared Mary to be the most boring person of her acquaintance, and least favourite of her sisters. Lydia nevertheless still regularly applied to Mary to play at the pianoforte, whether so there would be music to dance to, or some new entertaining song.
Mary's memory for music from her previous life was thankfully excellent. That her voice for song was not so fine as it had been in her previous life was frustrating, but being an average singer was better than being a poor one. At least she was not tone deaf in this life. That would have been horrid.
As soon as she heard the name 'Bingley' out of her mother's mouth, Mary was highly tempted to take to the writing desk in the parlour, re-trim her favourite pen (and learning to do that with skill had been an education of itself), and begin a note to her Aunt Gardiner asking that she choose some fine fabrics to send to Longbourne. Such a delivery would not arrive at Longbourne in time for the Meryton Assembly, but it would reach them before the Netherfield Ball, and would allow the Bennet sisters to make a fine impression at the event.
A fine impression at the Meryton Assembly was hardly needed, as they already knew everybody there, and there would be no particular need to show off for known company. The guests of Netherfield notwithstanding. Favoured dresses already in their wardrobes would be sufficient for such an event.
Mary did not write that letter as she was tempted to. With half of her pin money tied up in investments thanks to her Uncle Gardiner's cleverness, and the other half carefully and scrupulously saved in a box beneath a floorboard under her bed – Kitty's bonnets might indeed have been safe, but Lydia had stolen from a sister once and still heartily disliked Mary for her interference in the matter – she was not sure she could truly afford enough fabric to make even one new dress.
Well, the Bennet sisters had presented themselves well enough in the book without such, save that Mrs Bennet had been too loud in her premature speculations, and the younger girls too improper in their general behaviour. The latter of which Mary now only feared in Lydia, as Kitty had been more steadfast to Mary than to Lydia ever since the reclamation of the stolen hat.
Kitty had even joined in on the lesson plan that Mary had constructed, which left only Lydia not dedicating regular, planned time to self-improvement. Kitty had proven to be quite the budding artist, but also enjoyed the lessons with Mrs Hill in how to run a household and the duties of the Lady of that estate. Duties which had been split between Mr Bennet and Mrs Hill ever since Mrs Bennet had proven to be unequal to the task very shortly after her marriage to Mr Bennet.
Mary carefully set aside her needlework and went in search of her sisters.
All five of the sisters had gathered within hearing of the conversation of their parents – Jane had brought Lydia, who came much more willingly when told in brief what was going on – and were all eavesdropping most diligently.
"How can it effect them?" Mr Bennet asked blandly.
"Oh Mr Bennet, how can you be so tiresome! You must know that I am thinking he should marry one of them!" Mrs Bennet asserted.
"For a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife," Mary quipped softly, recalling the rather famous opening line of that most excellent piece of literature.
Jane bit her lip, Lizzy smirked and huffed silent laughter, Kitty covered her mouth and giggled as quietly as she could, and Lydia snorted – though whether in derision of Mary or reluctant amusement at her comment, it was hard to tell.
"So that is his design in settling here? To marry one of our daughters?" Mr Bennet questioned, a tone in his voice that said he was not at all serious in what he was saying, and likely teasing his wife – which was one of the few pleasures he took from her after three-and-twenty years of marriage.
"Design! Of course not, Mr Bennet, but his falling in love with one of them is to be encouraged, and so you must visit him directly he comes," Mrs Bennet informed her husband.
"I see no occasion for that," Mr Bennet denied. "Go yourself with the girls," he recommended, "or, better yet, send them by themselves."
"By themselves!" Mrs Bennet exclaimed, her strident and shocked voice reaching from the cellars to the rafters.
"Well, you are quite as handsome as any of them, Mrs Bennet, and Mr Bingley may decide he likes you best of the party," Mr Bennet teased.
"I'm going to go and warn Mrs Hill," Mary said softly. "Mother will be having fits of nerves for days. Lizzy, I count on you to tell me if Father says anything else highly entertaining to set Mother off."
Lizzy nodded, a bright smile on her face, and later dutifully reported that Mr Bennet had suggested he merely send a letter to Mr Bingley that he had five daughters, any of which he was welcome to marry at his leisure. This last tease, at least, Mrs Bennet had recognised for the jest that it was.
"If I should ever find a man who loved me enough to marry me when Father could only give him fifty pounds a year, I would be very well pleased," Lizzy mused softly.
All of the Bennet daughters voiced their agreement with the sentiment.
"But such a man could hardly be sensible," Lizzy decided suddenly, "and you all know that I could never love a man who was out of his wits."
"A marriage, where either partner cannot love or respect the other, that cannot be agreeable," Jane said with an air of great contemplation as she carefully picked at her embroidery.
"But beggars cannot be choosers," Kitty reminded her elder sisters. "We are not quite to that point, I know, but Lizzy has a point about the family finances. Fifty pounds a year is not much of an inducement to gentlemen of quality."
"A gentleman of quality," Mary very nearly sneered from her seat on the piano stool, "should consider first the woman he would marry, not the money she would bring with her." Then she huffed a frustrated sigh. "Gentlemen of quality, I fear, are a creature of the rarest breed."
"True," Lizzy agreed with a heavy sigh of her own. "With Longbourne entailed away from the female line, we have little but our charms to recommend us. Even with Mary's clever idea of sending some of our pin money to Uncle Gardiner to invest for us, at least one of us is going to have to marry very well in order to raise our fortunes."
"And it cannot be Lydia," Mary quipped.
That startled a laugh out of Kitty.
"Why not?" Lydia herself demanded. "La, what a joke it would be if I married a richer man than any of you!"
Mary could not help but think of George Wickham, who was indebted to Mr Darcy many times over, and who had needed to be both bribed and threatened to marry Lydia after running away with her. Truly, Mary hoped that Lydia would not have to endure such a fate. She might be the silliest girl in all of Meryton, but no one deserved to be sentenced to Wickham. And with that thought came pity for Georgiana Darcy.
"Only that it would not be proper for the youngest daughter to be married first," Jane explained gently, pulling Mary from her thoughts. "It might very well happen as you say Lydia, but for the youngest daughter to be married before the eldest..."
As much as they all loved Lydia, she was altogether too inclined to silliness and wild behaviour, despite all efforts to constrain her enthusiasm for society into something more genteel. Mr Bennet still made no exertion to restrain his youngest daughter, nor to have Mrs Bennet do so – and Mrs Bennet saw no fault in the behaviour of her youngest child.
"I am inclined to think that you would very happily marry a man of large fortune, whether you liked him or not, just so that you could lord it over the rest of us that you had acquired such a wealthy husband, and we had not," Kitty declared as she calmed from her laughing fit.
"La, I very well might, too," Lydia agreed with a smile. "But he would have to be handsome as well as rich."
"If that will make you happy, Lydia," Lizzy said with a despairing sigh and a shake of her head. "I, on the other hand, am determined that nothing but the deepest love shall induce me into matrimony."
"Love or spinster-hood?" Mary suggested, which spawned more giggles from her sisters.
"Yes," Lizzy agreed, "I likely will end an old maid. I shall teach all of your children to embroider cushions and play their instruments very ill."
"Not predicting any sons from us then, Lizzy?" Kitty teased.
"I shall teach your sons to embroider cushions as well," Lizzy insisted.
"Oh piffle on embroidery. Mary, play a song for us!" Lydia entreated. "One of your fun ones!"
By that, Mary knew that Lydia was referring to one of the many songs that Mary had taught herself to play from old memories of movies and musicals from her former life. The lack of available sheet music for things like Broadway and Disney musicals was frustrating some times, but with an hour at the pianoforte every day, a pencil, and some paper, Mary had puzzled out approximate scores for a great number of songs.
"Love," Mary said as she turned her attention to the keys of the pianoforte, sending out a soft bridal march to introduce the song. "Love is what we read about in books, my dears."
"Oh la!" Lydia cheered happily.
"Here comes the bride is a lovely little ditty, but marrying for love is a foolish thing to do," Mary sang, and looked over her shoulder at her sisters. They had all heard her play it before.
Lizzy rolled her eyes, but smiled good-naturedly when Mary's gaze fixed on her.
"Because love won't pay the mortgage or put porridge in your bowl," she sang at the unspoken instruction from her younger sister.
"Dearie!" all the sisters called up, "marry the mole."
"True, it's a fact that he's not exactly witty," Mary took up again with a smile, enjoying the fun of making music with her family. Something that had been largely lost in an age of televisions and computers. "He's blinder than a bat, but at least his eyes are blue. His breath may be alarming, but he's charming, for a troll -"
"Dearie!" all the sisters once again rang in, "marry the mole."
"Romeo and Juliet," Mary sang as sweetly as she could, "were very much in love when they were wed. They honoured every vow, so where are they now?"
"They're dead!" Kitty and Lydia answered in tune. "Dead! Very, very dead!"
"Poor little girls, all your brains so itty-bitty," Mary took up again, changing the original lyric so that it was not specific to Thumbelina. "I hate to seem a pest, but I know what's best for you. Just think of all the ways that you can decorate a hole -" at this point, Mary faked a deeper voice for the next couple of lines. "Take my advice, I'll bring the rice."
"Dearie! Marry the mole!" Jane sang.
"Marry the mole," Lizzy echoed, even as she shook her head.
"Marry that mole!" Kitty and Lydia exclaimed enthusiastically.
"M is for 'money'," Mary reminded them.
"Oh," Kitty exclaimed.
"L!" Lydia called.
"E!" Lizzy finished, and they all broke out in giggles again.
"Well hopefully, my dears," Mr Bennet said from where he stood, just inside the door, which was open behind him. "None of you will need to marry any moles. Mary, can I take it that this song was another of your clever creations? And one that your sisters have all heard enough times to learn before I even got to hear the tune."
"Something like that, Father," Mary agreed. She couldn't very well explain Don Bluth or animated feature films to a gentleman of the Regency era, and technically, she had 'written' the song 'first', as that movie wouldn't be made for at least another century yet. "I didn't really think Marry the Mole was properly suitable for mixed company."
Mr Bennet chuckled at that, and agreed that she was probably right in that assessment.
Soon enough came those things that Mary had expected. Mr Bennet confessed to having visited Mr Bingley – just as Mrs Bennet had declared she didn't want anything to do with the man. Rumours of the size and make-up of Mr Bingley's company at Netherfield circulated with much speculation and little accuracy. The night of the Meryton Assembly arrived, and with it, the final answer to the true and full number of persons residing at Netherfield, as well as their identities.
As it was Sir William performing introductions – Mr Bennet did not care for any society at all if he could possibly help it, so it fell to Sir William Lucas who enjoyed talking to people very much to perform the office – it was naturally his eldest daughter Charlotte who got to dance with Mr Bingley before any other young lady at the assembly.
While that dance was going on, and as Mrs Bennet was distracted by watching the eligible young man dancing with the eldest Lucas girl, Mary quietly nudged her elder two sisters towards Sir William. Not obviously, as Mrs Bennet would have done, but rather simply moving as though the shifting crowd of the assembly hall had brought them closer to the new additions to the neighbourhood, and the amiable gentleman who could perform proper introductions.
"Sir Lucas," Mary greeted with affected surprise when close enough to catch the man's eye. "I have not had a chance to greet you yet this evening."
"Ah, Miss Mary," Sir William answered her with an amiable smile, "and Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth as well! I trust you are all enjoying yourselves?"
"Very much, Sir Lucas," Jane agreed with her usual serene smile.
"There is some want for more partners," Lizzy added with a faint smile and a dry tone, "but we are fortunate enough to be gifted with excellent conversation as we wait our turns."
"It would hardly be fair to the rest of the ladies of the neighbourhood for all five of us to claim partners at once," Mary added, with a glance over to where Kitty and Lydia were each engaged upon the dance floor.
"Well, perhaps with new neighbours, you shall have the good luck of new partners for dance and conversation. Will you permit me to perform the introductions?" Sir William enquired.
The three sisters curtseyed in gratitude of the offer, and were promptly made known to Mr Darcy, Mr Hurst, Mrs Hurst, and Miss Bingley. Naturally, they could not be introduced to Mr Bingley, as he was on the floor with Charlotte, but that introduction would no doubt be forthcoming before the evening was over.
"Miss Bingley," Mary said, taking for herself the one she knew would be the most difficult member of the party. "I have been given to understand that you have come to Hertfordshire from the north. Might I be so bold as to enquire which part of the north, and how you find Hertfordshire by comparison?"
"From Scarborough, though it has been many years since I was there. I have spent more years in London than I have in the north," Miss Bingley said.
To Mary's left, Jane was engaged with Mr and Mrs Hurst, from whom she had quickly ascertained that they had been engaged by Mrs Hurst's brother to help him settle in his estate. It was the conversation to her right, however, that Mary was most interested in. Not that she allowed such to show, and she did her best to distract Miss Bingley from it – which of course meant that Mary herself would miss some of what was going on.
It did seem, however, that Lizzy was discussing what she knew of Lampton from their Aunt's descriptions of her childhood home with Mr Darcy, who's estate was as near to the town in Derbyshire as Longbourne was to Meryton. The man's years at college and in London had evidently not kept him from his estate too much, for his knowledge was current, and he was able to talk on the subject at length with all the passion that was appropriate to a public assembly.
"London is lovely," Mary said agreeably to Miss Bingley. "One of my uncles has a house in Town, and when I or one of my sisters are able to visit him and his family, we are always most diverted. I suppose you know all the best entertainments for young women of quality?"
"Oh certainly," Miss Bingley confirmed, flattered by the compliment to her knowledge – whether it actually was such or not. The lady proceeded to recall, for Mary's benefit, all the details of her last visit to the opera.
She was so involved in her descriptions, and Mary was so positioned, that the lady completely failed to notice when Mr Darcy requested Lizzy's hand for the next set. When her brother returned to their company and was introduced to Jane, Mary was pressing Miss Bingley for details of a London socialite who had arrived at the opera only in time for the second act, and whose hat was (in Miss Bingley's opinion) an ugly thing that should not have been worn out at all, and certainly not to the opera.
While Mr Bingley had asked for the privilege of Jane's hand for the next set, Mary was setting herself up to be an avid student of all of Miss Bingley's knowledge of London diversions – and the people worth noting who attended them.
Mary's interest in Miss Bingley's opinions of London society and diversions was approximate to Mr Bennet's interest in Sir Lucas's opinions of Australia, but for the sake of her sisters, she would... allow herself to be educated. It was probably the one subject where Miss Bingley was well enough informed to be able to carry a conversation that was full of distracting detail. It might not be Miss Bingley's preferred subject – those being Mr Darcy, his estate, her own fine self, and the many failings of anybody and anything that did not fall into the previously stated three categories – but it was nevertheless something that Mary could use to occupy the older woman's attention completely.
If only Miss Bingley would give more attention to the opera, the theatre, or the parks themselves, rather than the people who attended them. Mary would be much more satisfied.
"Ah, and here I had thought my loving sisters had abandoned me completely," Mary said with a jovial expression when the set was over. "Miss Bingley, I know you were introduced to them before by Sir Lucas, but let me do it properly. My eldest sister, Miss Jane Bennet, who has quite the sweetest disposition in all the county."
"A pleasure to meet you, Miss Bennet," Miss Bingley agreed.
"A delight, Miss Bingley," Jane returned.
"My next-elder sister, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, who is quite the sharpest wit of our sex," Mary presented next. "I have this on authority of our family and associates in Town, as well as it being widely recognised within the county."
"What an interesting merit to claim!" Miss Bingley exclaimed, but she smiled for Lizzy just as well as she had for Jane.
"It is certainly an enjoyable title to be gifted," Lizzy allowed with a small smile of her own.
Then, in the full hearing of both of the gentlemen (who Mary knew would some day be the husbands of her two elder sisters), she reprimanded them not to keep all of the dance partners to themselves.
"And you know that Mother will have a fit of nerves to be heard all the way to London if you were to stand up with any gentleman twice," Mary said firmly.
"Mamma is of a somewhat delicate disposition when it comes to seeing her daughters dancing," Lizzy agreed, just a touch nervously as the implications settled in her mind.
Through careful dissembling of truth, they were able to make it sound as though their mother was more protective than she was silly. Indeed, Mrs Bennet was protective of her girls, but not quite to the extent as was being suggested. Just as importantly, they were able to convey without stating outright that their mother was much more fearful and fretful than she could ever be mercenary.
"I should not wish to distress Mrs Bennet," Mr Bingley said, his manner all that was amiable and thoughtful, though his eyes lingered on Jane. "Especially as I have yet to be introduced to the lady! But please, may I have the honour of your hand for the next set, Miss Elizabeth?"
"You may," Lizzy consented.
"Miss Bingley, I hope that Mary has been making you feel welcome in the neighbourhood?" Jane asked earnestly.
"Oh yes!" Miss Bingley agreed, "and she has told me that you have been learning those genteel habits of young ladies who must manage their husband's estates while they are in Town on business," she continued, a spark of interest in her gaze – and so the conversation had a subject of interest that would hold both ladies for at least a little while.
Indeed, Mary certainly had, when she could get a word in edge-ways.
"Miss Mary," a deep voice said from her left.
She turned to find Mr Darcy standing there.
"Mr Darcy," she acknowledged, and curtseyed politely.
"Would you do me the honour of standing up with me for the next set?" he requested.
Mary barely caught herself from gaping in shock at the offer. The proud Mr Darcy of Pemberly in Derbyshire, who had canonically danced only with the sisters of his host (as per the dictates of good manners), had here danced with Lizzy instead of insult her, and now asked Mary to stand up with him!
"I... Mr Darcy, it would be my honour to stand up with you," Mary answered with a demure (shocked) smile.
Several sets later, Mr Bingley had danced with Charlotte Lucas, Jane, Lizzy, Maria Lucas, Miss King, and Betsy Hill – who was Mr and Mrs Hill's eldest daughter, and a maid for the Bennet girls, though at an assembly like this one, such a distinction of rank hardly mattered. His friend Mr Darcy had danced with Lizzy, Mary, Miss Bingley, Charlotte Lucas, and with his duty done to good manners had thereafter been satisfied to settle into conversation with those gentlemen who Mary and Lizzy introduced him to as sensible people that he might be able to get on with.
Chief among them was Mr Bennet, though Mary did warn the gentleman before they reached her father that the man was reticent, but well-educated, a wit, if also an acquired taste. Lizzy at the same time comforted Mr Darcy that he was unlikely to be disliked, so long as he made sure to avoid the subject of lace.
"That," Mr Darcy had said upon receiving such instruction, "you may very well trust in, Miss Elizabeth."
His tone was so dry and earnest that the two sisters could not help but smile at each other. Yes, Mr Darcy would get along very well with Mr Bennet. It might have helped matters that Mary knew Mr Darcy to be just as reticent in company as Mr Bennet was, particularly if it was new company. It was amazing that such a great man could be shy, but he had pushed through well that evening, and Mary personally credited that achievement to his early and much more flattering introduction to Lizzy.