Part 1: Charles Bingley’s Story
It all came to a head on the Twenty-Sixth of November when we had last been dancing together at Netherfield.
My wife always chides me for my accurate memory, forcing me to retaliate by reminding her that at one time she knew me to be the very opposite. I cannot blame her, for it was too true: I once was such a sad, scatter-brained fellow.
And yet, those exciting, trying, madcap days had been a momentous time in my life: coming down to Hertfordshire to view Netherfield Park, the paint hardly dry on my embarrassingly new chaise and four. Back then I had such fanciful notions in my head about being Charles Bingley, Esquire: gentleman of leisure and master of all I surveyed.
Even then, the wild stories one heard, were rampant. If these rumours were to be believed, we were to be run over by the French any day now. Of course, my father had been telling his children of the evil doings of the French since before I was even born. Yes, it was true that the might of the British Navy had been crushed in a stunning defeat in the spring and it was said that the frogs were simply waiting for the return of the good weather to assault the shore. Yet, to me, it was all nonsense. To my way of thinking in those days was that one Naval defeat could be entirely overcome by one army victory and I had it on good authority, from the mouth of Darcy’s own cousin, that all would be well.
Adding to that, London had become unbearable. A gritty and oppressive fog had set in during the early summer along the coast, driving the holiday-makers, such as myself, away from the delights of Bournmouth and Brighton and reluctantly into London, making the city unusually crowded during the months of warm weather.
Venturing outside was unpleasant to the extreme. The odours were oppressive and even from the shortest of walks my eyes and throat burned constantly. My sister, Caroline, had taken to staying indoors, complaining of anything and everything, and naturally blaming it all on me.
“Last year, if you had only bought an estate when I suggested it, we could have all been in the country by now. And I cannot believe it, not one invitation to stay with anyone, not even an invitation to Pemberley. I thought Mr Darcy was such a good friend of ours.”
I judged it best not to remind Caroline, yet again, that Fitzwilliam Darcy was my friend and that he was spending his summer holidays with his family in Kent.
Louisa, also seemed to be at odds with everything and everyone. Her nerves were constantly on edge. When she wasn’t fretting over the sudden rise in the cost of food, she was at her wits-end over the two housemaids who had suddenly left their positions to return to their families in the north. To deal, or, in her case, to not deal with these harsh new realities, she had taken to sleeping a good deal of the afternoon. My brother Hurst was no help at all, disappearing to his club for the better part of the day or holed up in his bookroom no doubt drinking the cellar dry.
I begin to look upon my friends with country houses with something like envy. Darcy, had in fact, invited us all to stay at Pemberley, his Derbyshire home, after Michaelmas, and probably more out of politeness than want. Yet, again, I dare not tell Caroline. I alone, had noticed the way he sometimes winced at the indecorous behaviour of my family, so I begged off, telling him that it was high time I looked for a country estate of my own.
I had the good fortune to meet with an agent in Town, who had just the house in mind: a country estate of manageable size in Hertfordshire. The price seemed amazingly low, and the proximity to London and its grim environs gave me pause, but I was assured that the neighbourhood was more than satisfactory and the locals welcoming and delightful. To seal the deal, the estate was offered up as a lease for a year on very reasonable terms.
All that was left to secure my happiness was be my friend’s approval. I wrote to him in Kent and begged Darcy to come to stay a few weeks with me to look over the place over. He handsomely obliged, but with the only proviso that he first settle his young sister, who was currently recovering from some minor complaint or other, safely at Pemberley before he would give me a firm promise. In the end, I was able to secure his company for a month complete before he planned to set off again for Derbyshire before Christmas.
My wife stirs fitfully, but I will let her sleep in this morning even though I am bound to hear some argument to the reverse. She was up all night with little Charley and she needs this rest, especially now, for I begin to suspect something is amiss with her. She tries to hide her sickness from me, but I can sometimes hear her retching in the next room.
What an unfortunate word—unfortunate and altogether too common, but I am too tired to find something more appropriate for sensitive ears and really, we have both stared down far uglier words together.
I look around our bed chamber in this house that is not my own. Not perfect, but made more comfortable by my wife’s very capable hands. And yet, I feel the pull to be gone from this place and soon. The tedium which has been visited upon us begins to distress me and no doubt my wife’s good and kindly heart.
There, I have made up my mind: we have tarried in this house too long and something better in another country can always be found. Yes, I am quite decided on the matter; I think my friend Darcy would have been quite proud of me.
I feel her eyes on me as I bend down to tug on my boots. I wait to hear what she has to say.
“Come back to bed. I’m cold.”
I glance up and slowly raise an eyebrow sceptically; a mannerism I know I could have only picked up from her. She has all sorts of them and I briefly wonder which one I can tease out of her next. I play the flirt, if men are allowed to be something of that sort with women they have long been married to.
“Cold?” I say. “Do you require me to do something in particular to bring heat to the room or do you require the warmth from my body alone?”
Her eyes ignite with a desire I have not seen in a good, long while. Caring for a young child had taken away much from her; I would need to do better to lift some of that burden.
“Sir,” she says, equal parts the innocent and the coquette, “Are they not one in the same?”
“Tease,” I laugh, seeing through her ploy at once.
She reaches out with her small hand and I come forward. She is a siren of old and I can do nothing but heed her call.
Once back in our bed I curl my body behind her, burying my nose in her hair. She smells a little of soap and a little of Charley’s sick. I immediately feel guilty that I left her up on her own. I remember a time, two years ago now, when she always smelled of rosewater and her sister smelled of—Oh, I have no idea, it all seems so long ago. I would look out some rosewater on my trip into the village this morning. She would like that, I think. There, I have decided.
She then yawns deeply and I settle in closer, closing my eyes, just living in this moment when it is quiet and still and we can just think of the two of us.
“How long did Charley keep you up last night?” I ask.
“His fever broke just before dawn.”
I heaved a great sigh of relief. Apparently he didn’t have the winter sickness after all.
“I apologize. I should not have left you on your own to nurse a sick child.”
“Charles, you were exhausted. You did so much yesterday. Besides, who better to nurse a sick child than–than his own mother?”
At the word mother, I kiss her neck. I like to hear her say that.
We are silent for a good long while then, each, no doubt, thinking of his birth, of our anguish and pain, only to be soothed by his healthy and lustful cries announcing himself to the world. After this long silence her non-sequitur takes me a little by surprise.
“I daresay our nursery full of maids would have been quite put out to stay up half the night with cold compresses and… and retching.”
We both giggle at the thought. I wonder if this was a good time to bring up her own retching. But I do not wish to cause her any distress.
“Exactly how many nursery maids do you still require, Mrs. Bingley?”
“Oh five, undoubtedly.”
“Only five. Apparently, I am a very neglectful husband.”
She turns over and takes my face in her hands and kisses my lips after every loving statement.
“Oh yes; a very neglectful husband… who keeps me safe… and warm… and well-fed… and loved.”
I move my lips against hers, ready to love her now if she requires it. My hand instinctively searches out the curve of her hip and thigh as she places her leg on top of mine. At times like this my ability to make decisions is challenged and she knows it. And if I had any self-control at this moment I would sternly say to myself that this is no way to start the day. My ruminations are thrown out the window as she nips my ear; I now know I will be a useless lump long before ten.
Her fingers expertly searches for the opening to my breeches; the unskilled maiden of two years ago long forgotten in her now passionate displays of affection. From somewhere, and I have no idea from where, I think of my selfishness and summon the last dregs of my will-power to stay her hand.
“You cannot?” she asks, amused and giggling girlishly as she continues with her efforts to throw me off my guard.
“No,” I say in a strained voice that in no way belongs to me, “We must not.”
“I am only thinking of you and–.”
I rest my hand on her abdomen.
She stares at me for a long moment, playing with the buttons on my flannel waistcoat.
“I heard your retching yesterday morning,” I finally say.
“Oh that? That means nothing, sir! In fact, I begin to believe I only have a little of Charley’s illness.”
“I only mean we should be careful. Last time–”
“It’s Charley’s cold! And I don’t know why you are at all surprised, all of us cooped up in here together like a den of rabbits.”
“I think you mean a warren of rabbits.” I kiss her nose.
“That would be Cambridge, madam.”
“Exactly! A showoff!”
“I really need to get going if I am going to find anything of use in the village.”
I get out of bed and put my coat on. I then drape my saddle bags across my body, place my pistol in my belt, and search out the woollen cap my wife has knitted for me. I smile when I see my wife disentangle it from the bedclothes and brandish the cap above her head, as if enticing me to come back to the warmth of our bed.
She then comes to me, her bare feet silent on the cold floor. She reaches up to touch my hair and trails her fingers down to my chin before settling the cap upon my head.
“When you come back, a haircut and a shave are in order, I think.”
“I will ask one of my many valets,” I joke.
“I am serious, Charles; you begin to look quite the savage.”
My hair had long since reached my shoulders and no one from my past would ever recognize me for the beard.
We touch foreheads and she grabs my lapels: our usual custom before we part.
“Be careful, my darling.”
“I will. And you lock up well, my love.”
“I love you, so much, Charles.”
“I love you, too, Lizzy.”
NOTE: OK, so not the first story with Charles Bingley & Elizabeth Bennet together, but I bet it’s the first post-apocalyptic J.A. story with Charles and Elizabeth together.