This humorous vignette was originally written as part of the blog tour for my book Northern Rain, published in July of 2016. This vignette is a fanciful imagining of John Thornton being dressed down by an aging but spry Elizabeth Bennet. It first appeared on Tamara Austen’s blog, My Kids Led Me Back to Pride & Prejudice.
I offer no justification for the following frivolity, other than I wrote it purely for my own amusement. -NC
“John, I received a note yesterday that some very old acquaintances wish to call this morning.” Mrs Thornton’s distress shone plainly in the lines about her mouth and the deepening furrow between her eyes.
“Why should that seem to trouble you, Mother? I am glad that you have yet the comfort of callers, even with things standing as they are for us.”
“It is precisely that which worries me, John. I have not seen these ladies in many years, and just now, as you have determined to give up the mill, seems hardly the time to renew the acquaintance. I should rather have told them I was indisposed, but the notice was too short. I am surprised that they should call so abruptly!”
“They cannot be disagreeable, can they?”
Mrs Thornton’s teeth set. “They are gentry,” she almost spat. “I only ever had a passing familiarity with them as it is, but their husbands found some business in Milton, and these ladies seem of a peculiar enough sort to travel with them. I think perhaps they cannot know of our affairs, or they should not have sent by their note. I never knew any such ladies to trouble themselves….”
She left hanging the unspoken phrase “with a failed manufacturing family.” She did not need to utter what was so plainly written across her face.
Her son set aside the pen with which he had been madly scribbling in his ledger. “Mother, if they unsettle you, you need not feel obliged to receive them. What care have we for some bare acquaintance that you shall probably never have cause to see again?”
Mrs Thornton blew out a frustrated huff. “I should do precisely that, but Mrs Bingley was ever kind to me. I cannot send her away.”
John’s ears pricked up. “Bingley? Would that be the wife of a Mr Charles Bingley, of Northrup Woolen Mills?”
“The very one. You might remember her, John. Your father used to do a deal of business with them, and they had us to picnic days once or twice when you were a boy.”
“I remember. Father owed him over two hundred pounds. I settled the debt with Mr Bingley’s agent, however, as the Bingleys were on the Continent for several years. I wonder, Mother, why you refer to them as gentry? They are nothing of the kind, as I recall.”
“Mrs Bingley was a gentleman farmer’s daughter, but her sister- the other lady- married a very well-to-do land owner indeed. They are quite of the proudest class of people.” She scowled, pouting a little at such an admission of the other woman’s superior status.
John’s brow furrowed. “Oh, yes, I remember. Darcy, wasn’t it? I was very young… Mother, what on earth are such elderly ladies doing traveling about on business tours? Why, they must be well into their sixties or better! They cannot find such travels to be very agreeable.”
Mrs Thornton snorted. “If it were only Mrs Bingley, I might be inclined to agree with you. I have no doubt, however, that it is truly Mrs Darcy who insisted upon them both traveling. She has not been known to remain quietly at home under any circumstances.”
John chuckled lightly. “Perhaps their visit is well-timed, Mother. I think you could do with a pleasant morning, and it sounds as though these little old ladies might be quite entertaining for you. Perhaps I might make an excuse to pay my respects.”
Mrs Thornton shot him a warning glare. “Do not repeat that phrase in their hearing! Mrs Darcy would have you for breakfast.”
The august visitors came duly at their requested time. Mrs Bingley was everything that Hannah remembered her to be from all of those years ago. Polite nearly to a fault, with silver hair, guileless blue eyes, and apple cheeks, even one as reserved as Hannah Thornton could not help but warm to her. Mrs Darcy, too, had changed but little.
Hannah observed the younger of the two sisters with an arched brow. She was crowned with bold salt-and-pepper locks, and her dark eyes still flashed with merriment at every turn. How such a candid, frolicsome woman had survived with her respectability intact in London society, Hannah could not fathom. She could only surmise that Mrs Darcy had been abetted by her husband’s rather substantial consequence and her own capricious wit. Hannah eyed her dubiously. One never knew what the spritely old bird might say next!
Mrs Thornton kept politely to the weather, assisted by Mrs Bingley, but Mrs Darcy at last looked her directly in the eye. “Mrs Thornton, we hear much of Milton’s recent hardships. I believe my husband is even now speaking to one of your local bankers, regarding some investments he had here which have turned out poorly. How do you and Mr Thornton stand?”
Mrs Thornton gasped in utter shock. Apparently, Mrs Darcy’s advancing age and naturally outspoken personality had manifested themselves in quite improper freedoms. She fumbled, completely at a loss for a demure response.
“Lizzy!” whispered Mrs Bingley in sympathetic horror. Mrs Darcy only flicked a cool glance at her sister.
No further comment was made, because it was then that John knocked respectfully at the door of the room. “I hope I am not interrupting?”
Spry little Mrs Darcy was the first to her feet. “John Thornton, how you have grown! I declare, you must have been still in short pants when I saw you last!”
John coloured and reached uncomfortably to straighten his cravat. “It has been a long time, Mrs Darcy,” he agreed. “Mrs Bingley, I hope you and your husband are well.”
Mrs Bingley answered in the affirmative. John’s eyes shifted between the two ladies in unspoken curiosity for a long, awkward moment.
“May I ask what troubles you, young man?” queried Mrs Darcy.
John started and cleared his throat. “It is nothing… only… you both remind me of someone, that is all. It is your manner of speaking, I think. Forgive my rudeness. I only wished to welcome you both to Milton.” He darted an uncomfortable look to his mother. “Please excuse me, Mrs Darcy, Mrs Bingley.” Straightening his jacket as though he were beginning to sweat, John made a hasty retreat from the domain of femininity.
Mrs Darcy turned a penetrating gaze on Hannah. “Rather singular, I declare. Mrs Thornton, your son has grown to a fine man. I am sorry to see that things are not well with your mill.”
Hannah Thornton’s eyes blazed. She retorted as indignantly as she dared, “By what means do you reach such a conclusion, Mrs Darcy?”
The elderly mischief-maker twinkled a knowing look back to her. “I have gazed into eyes very like your son’s these forty-two years, Mrs Thornton- whenever Mr Darcy is troubled, or he believes me to be vexed with him. Tell me, who is the young lady who broke your son’s heart?”
“Lizzy!” hissed her scandalized sister.
Hannah nearly gagged on the tea which she had forgotten to swallow. She coughed, requiring a napkin. Mrs Bingley was quite literally hanging her head in shame, her little gloved hand shielding her face. One would expect, Hannah thought testily, that Mrs Bingley would be used to her sister’s tart comments by now! She sputtered unhappily and tried to contrive a way to avoid the woman’s blunt line of questioning, but it seemed that she had more than met her match. Elizabeth Darcy was not to be gainsaid.
“She was from Hertfordshire, I take it?” prodded the little busybody.
Stunned, Hannah only shook her head numbly. “Hampshire.”
“Ah. And a gentlewoman, of course. Your son has quite a discerning eye, Mrs Thornton, and I should not wonder that she felt her family circumstance to be above his own?”
The blood drained from the loyal mother’s face. “Mrs Darcy,” she whispered in ghastly awe, “how did you hear of my son’s affairs?”
Mrs Darcy laughed, the bubbling, joyful laugh of a girl. “You might be surprised to discover what I know of matters such as your son faces! I have been in a similar position, Mrs Thornton, and it shows plainly that he is in great need of encouragement. Now, please do not fear- I know I am a frank old woman and I have no business to pry, but I think I like your son. How might I be of help?”
Hannah was shaking her head. “I would implore you- do not try to encourage him, Mrs Darcy. It is the last thing he wants! What he must do tomorrow….” Instantly, she regretted that last plea.
Mrs Darcy’s eyes brightened. “Ah, does he have an excuse to see her again?”
Hannah clenched her teeth. “He intends to give up the lease on Marlborough Mills, and the property has recently passed into her name. She is quite an heiress now… please, Mrs Darcy, I must implore you to say nothing to make this more difficult for my son!”
The woman’s face softened in understanding. “Of course not, Mrs Thornton. I bore six children of my own, and I know a mother’s cares. Dear me, my eldest granddaughter is to wed next month!”
Hannah was still pale and trembling. “Mrs Darcy, I must insist that my son be left alone so that he may at last put it all behind him.”
A crafty twinkle appeared in that pert old face. “Lizzy,” warned Mrs Bingley under her breath. The stern utterance went entirely unheeded.
“Mrs Thornton,” Mrs Darcy smiled sweetly. “I fancy that I may be able to offer some assistance with Marlborough Mills. My husband has provided me with so much pin money over the years that I have never touched, and I have been thinking recently of investing it, do you see. I know it is most irregular, but would you mind terribly if I inquired of Mr Thornton what possibilities there might be?”
Hannah narrowed her eyes. Mrs Darcy gazed back at her with perfect innocence. “Sarah,” she summoned reluctantly. The maid promptly appeared. “Please show Mrs Darcy to my son’s study,” she instructed. The pair departed, and Hannah nearly gasped aloud in consternation and dread until she remembered that silent Mrs Bingley still remained, sedately stirring her tea.
“She has no intentions of speaking about business matters, Mrs Thornton,” whispered the wise eldest sister.
Hannah tried not to bite her own lip in two. “I know, Mrs Bingley.”
John looked up swiftly from the business letter he had been writing when the door to his study opened without ceremony. “They have gone alrea- Oh! Mrs Darcy!” he shot to his feet. “Do forgive me, I expected my mother.” He surveyed her in some confusion as she strode boldly into his study, her eyes briefly grazing the bookshelves.
“What is her name, young man?” The fine lady’s eyebrows quirked playfully as she approached, a roguish smile playing at her mouth.
He gaped. “Mrs Darcy? I do not understand.”
She came near and brazenly tapped a knowing finger on his chest. “The young lady I put you in mind of. She is quite lovely, I expect?” she batted her lashes.
“What… Mrs Darcy!”
“Did her father desire for her to marry better? What was the objection?”
John blanched, his mouth opening and closing helplessly. Mrs Darcy tilted him a patient smile, waiting expectantly. “Her… her father was my friend,” he managed at last.
Her brows arched. “Was? Oh, dear. Has she other family?”
He sighed. “That is something of a quandary, Mrs Darcy.”
“Oh!” she clapped her hands together. “You are in her confidence in some matter! Better and better, young man. I expect you were able to offer some assistance?”
John narrowed his eyes. “Mrs Darcy, may I ask the nature of your interest in my affairs?”
A sage grin lit her merry, lined face. “Mr Thornton, do you think Mr Darcy suffered no difficulties in proposing to me?”
He gulped, sensing himself on dangerous ground. “I cannot imagine any gentleman not surmounting whatever obstacles he was required to face,” he mumbled gallantly.
She laughed heartily. “Clever boy! It is a pity that William was not so chivalrous to begin with. If you only heard how pompous he was! Oh, how I despised him after that!”
His face fell in shock. “You… you refused Mr Darcy, Madam?”
“With a vengeance, young man. The caprices of fortune, and a hearty measure of humility on both of our parts wrought a most agreeable change in the end. I would counsel you, Mr Thornton, if you love this woman, do not give up hope so easily.”
“Mrs Darcy,” his voice cracked, “with all due respect, matters between us are quite irreparable. After tomorrow, I shall never see her again, and I think she would be glad of it.”
“Tell me, Mr Thornton, what was the last word you had of her?” she tilted her head, those dark eyes sparkling as irrepressibly as they had when she had been a girl.
He swallowed, his hands trembling. “She left Milton when her father died. She sent me one of his books by her maid- that was the last direct contact I had with her.”
Those brows lifted again. “And did she include a note? May I see it?”
Like a dutiful schoolboy, and still suffering in some dismay at the lady’s casual intrusion into his affairs, he retrieved the note- which somehow she knew that he would have preserved all of these months. Mrs Darcy scanned it quickly, and a cunning smile grew on her face. She held the note aloft as a victory flag. “The woman loves you, young man!”
His chest seized. “Mrs Darcy, you cannot-”
“Hush!” she held up a commanding finger. Once she had his full astonished attention, she read the note again, as if to confirm it for herself. Satisfied, she looked up with a firm nod. “If she had hated you, Mr Thornton, she would not have applied so much effort at indifference. Why, one can practically read a novel between those lines! A woman who dislikes a gentleman does not include a note at all, even if the gift is one of duty. Was Plato a particular favourite of her father’s?”
He nodded, breathless. “Yes,” he wheezed.
“Ah. There you have it. You must try again, Mr Thornton, and this time, try to keep your pride out of the room when you propose.”
Stars were dancing before his dazed eyes. “Mrs Darcy!” he objected, “My business will primarily be with her attorney. I shall scarcely even have an opportunity to see her!”
She peered at him with her sharp gaze. “Then you must make one, Mr Thornton, and if she asks you to wait an hour, stay for two. It might seem presumptuous to take a ring with you, but you must offer a flower or something- it sounds as though an apology might also go a long way to smooth matters.”
“I doubt,” he murmured softly, “that she will be willing to hear me, Mrs Darcy.”
Mrs Darcy canted her head to the side, and for a moment, he could picture the impish southern country girl who had long ago captured the imposing and prestigious northern gentleman. She studied him gravely, then pursed her lips in decision. “Yes, she will. A man such as yourself does not give his heart away lightly, nor in vain. I have some experience in these matters. Do not lose sight of the treasure you seek, nor let yourself be drawn off on futile disagreements. Discover the meaning of grace, for it covers a multitude of wrongs, young man.”
“I am not practiced in expressing words of love,” he sighed. “My one attempt met with such scorn, that I dare not try again.”
“Dear me, you are a good deal too much like my husband! Forget the poetry, for I have always found it to kill young love stone dead. Speak simple truth in humility, young man, and that will be sufficient.”
He began to blink rapidly, imagining perhaps a dozen different possible outcomes to such a vulnerable display from him. “What am I to do if words fail me?” he rasped.
That sparkling face grinned mischievously up to him. “I am an impatient old woman, Mr Thornton, and therefore perhaps my advice is not as proper as it once was.”
He lifted a brow, curious. “What do you recommend?”
“Just kiss the girl, young man. And do send me a wedding invitation, for I should dearly love to meet her.”