At Last Excerpt

Mr. Bennet of Longbourn sat in pride of place at the table, enjoying his morning meal. His wife had adopted the fashion of having a tray brought to her room, but Mr. Bennet would not permit his daughters such a luxury, and any that were out of the nursery joined him at the table.
His exquisitely beautiful second child was there picking at her food in an absent-minded way that was uncharacteristic of her. Jane was not one he often found lost in thought; she was hospitable and helpful, bustling about the house with an interest in lending a hand where she could, sweetly giving advice.
He looked at Catherine, almost as beautiful as Jane, though in that current, fashionable dark way, hair and eyes, that seemed to have the poets so enthralled. She was his tallest—willowy and graceful—and she knew the power of her beauty and form. Jane was fair, petite and blue-eyed, curvaceous where Catherine was thin. He had high hopes that both would marry well and use their beauty to advantage. His wife, Mrs. Bennet, was vocal about their prospects on an almost daily basis. While her constant monologues about Jane and Catherine’s beauty earning them their fortune irked him; he had to privately agree that it may well do just that. He had not ferreted away much money for his five daughters in his early years to provide a better future. There were only the monies settled on them by their mother’s fortune. It was, perhaps, a little late to be saving after twenty-four years of marriage.
Mary came in and greeted them with a slight hesitation as if she was still not sure she was part of the Bennet family despite nineteen years under the Longbourn roof. Mrs. Bennet was as vocal about this daughter as she was about the two beauties, but outspoken in a negative way: telling Mary how plain she was compared to her four sisters. Mr. Bennet studied her when she sat down. Mary was not as pretty as the others, perhaps plain, but with regular features—she was certainly not ugly. Her mother’s constant badgering meant Mary was more skittish in society as she doubted her abilities (which were not lacking), but when she did use them, she always was over-eager. Mary worked hard at her accomplishments and had been the most attentive pupil to Miss Simnel’s instructions. She read everything put to her, tried harder at her embroidery, and worked longer at the pianoforte than the others. But still, the self-doubt that had been bred before the governess had come remained and was evident whenever she was out in public.
His oldest child, Lizzy, had not appeared but that was not a surprise as she walked most mornings before breakfast. Whether his youngest daughter, Lydia, would appear depended on whether she woke in time. She was still in the nursery with his son, though Lydia begged to be free of its constraints—and of Miss Simnel’s teachings—at the advanced age of fifteen. Mr. Bennet was giving her gradual degrees of freedom. One of these freedoms was permitting her to break her fast downstairs rather than eat in the nursery. Lydia, however, seemed to be using the opportunity to sleep rather than to eat with the family in the mornings, and she would wait until Miss Simnel fetched her from her bed. She was not proving wise in the use of her freedom.
Mr. Bennet heard feet running down the corridor and assumed it was his son, Simon, come to say good morning before leaving on a morning walk of his own. Miss Simnel, the governess, insisted on regular exercise for her charges, but Lydia rushed into the room before she stopped short with a squeak of shoe leather. Apparently, she had managed to rise this morning.
“Good morning, Papa!” she called, before taking short mincing steps to the sideboard to fetch her plate of food.
“Good morning, Lydia,” he called back. Catherine looked up with a little eagerness as Mary was next to Jane, and they had their heads bowed together. Lydia, however, ignored her next older sister and came to sit by her father. She was the youngest daughter, but the second tallest, fair-haired, and out-going. But at fifteen, she was still not quite used to her long limbs and moved awkwardly; she did not have the grace of movement that Catherine had and was a little plump, being especially fond of spending her pin money on sweets and not on ribbons. Lydia sometimes chided Jane as she knew Jane enjoyed treats from Mr. Bell’s shop just as much as she did. She was not a walker like Elizabeth or Catherine, but somehow Jane never earned the appellation “plump” while Lydia did. It was most unfair.
“Papa,” began Lydia, looking at her father though sipping her tea as well.
“Yes?” he looked at her; a letter in front of him had not really held his interest anyway.
“The Meryton assembly is coming up, and I should like to be able to go and to dance!” she cried her eyes wide, her smile even more extensive.
“We have discussed your being out in social situations and the need to prove yourself,” he answered looking down at that letter as if it was important.
“I came to breakfast,” she pointed out.
“Barely. I am so far not impressed,” he answered without looking up.
“I can do it, Papa, if it means I can go to the assembly ball,” she pleaded.
“I am not promising that you can go and dance, either. I think the first step is for you to attend and prove that you can behave yourself when out in society.” He looked up and furled his brow attempting to be stern. “To be a young lady and no longer a child.”
“I am no longer a child!” Lydia pouted.
“Behave as a young lady, and I will let you out of the nursery,” said her father, and he turned back to his letter.
A breeze whipped through the open breakfast room door which Lydia had left ajar. It blew another letter, which had been sitting next to his plate, off of the table and onto the floor. Mr. Bennet’s eyes followed it as it floated to the ground. He did not wish to have to go to the bother of pushing back his chair to retrieve it.
“Good morning!” sang a voice as his oldest child walked in on stocking feet and bent down to retrieve the missive for him. “It has started raining, so if you did not get a walk in, you are now confined to the house,” explained Elizabeth, wiggling her stockinged foot. She prepared a plate for herself. Catherine appeared disappointed by the news about the weather. Jane looked relieved to have an excuse not to go out. Mary looked happy to have a reason to stay inside so she could have extra time to practice on the pianoforte.
“No running around outside playing stupid games with Simon!” declared Lydia as she finished the last bite of her toast.
“Perhaps Miss Simnel will set you extra lessons then?” teased Elizabeth. Lydia set a hand down heavily on the table in horror at the idea. She was chafing to be out of the nursery and regularly appealed to her mother to let her out. But Mrs. Bennet, who adored her youngest daughter, had come to appreciate the alleviation of her motherly duties a governess had given her. In the more than six years since Miss Simnel had come, Mrs. Bennet had learned to enjoy having a break from her children: having another person to whisk them away, or someone to send them to if they got out of hand. She was less likely to intervene if it meant her tranquility would be compromised.
“Perhaps you should return to the nursery now that you are done eating?” prompted Mr. Bennet.
After Lydia had departed, he turned to his remaining children. “And what are your plans for today now that Lizzy has given us a report on the weather?”
“I was going to work on retrimming a dress for the assembly ball,” answered Jane. It was an answer typical of her. She would not ask for a new gown but remake or re-trim an old one as much as Mrs. Bennet might insist she was worth the cost of a new one.
“I was to practice the pianoforte,” said Mary.
“I shall join her,” declared Elizabeth, “since I cannot go out again.”
“Catherine?” Mr. Bennet never addressed her as ‘Kitty’ like Mrs. Bennet often did.
“I have no idea,” said the seventeen-year-old. “I cannot walk to town. I hate playing the pianoforte—I was never any good at it for all that Miss Simnel tried to teach me.” She appealed to her sisters. “And I only prick my fingers if I sew, and then they bleed.”
“It sounds like you are quite the lady of leisure,” said her father and gathered up his letters to leave. “I hope you marry well that you never have to lift a finger.”

Copyright © 2018 Anne Morris

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