Consequences is a cautionary tale about the evils of hasty judgment, revisiting Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and one of those pivotal moments when Elizabeth Bennet throws away Mr. Darcy’s offer of marriage so decisively. What transpires from that point is well known to Austen’s extensive readership, but what if even one element in the chain of events in her novel turns out differently? Does Austen’s happy ending eventually come to pass, or is the outcome more bleak?
And if, in order to secure financial security for her loved ones, Elizabeth does not reject Darcy, is she married to a proud, arrogant, disdainful man who, as she feared, forces her to deny her own relatives and thus condemns her to a lifetime of misery? Or does she find herself married to a man who cares enough for her to reject the opposition of his family and chance his very standing in society in order to marry a woman he loves beyond measure?
Consequences, written by the author of A Most Civil Proposal, explores two alternate realities—both tragedy and triumph.
“For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’”
--John Greenleaf Whittier, American Quaker poet and ardent abolitionist
Saturday, August 15 to Monday, September 7, 1812
On Saturday, Mrs. Gardiner left for London with her children, and Mr. Bennet returned to Longbourn by the same coach. Elizabeth and Jane were downstairs to meet their father at the front door, and both of them were quite surprised to see how little affected he seemed by this unhappy state of affairs. Instead of being distressed by the circumstances afflicting his family as well as his own experiences in town, he instead appeared to regard the impending calamities with his usual philosophic composure—he said as little as he ever had been in the habit of saying and made no mention of the business that had taken him away. It was some time before his daughters had courage to speak of it, and even when Elizabeth finally broached the subject that obsessed her every waking moment, she could only bring herself to express her sorrow at what her father must have endured.
“Say nothing of that,” her father replied dismissively. “Who should suffer but myself? It has been my own doing, and I ought to feel it.”
Somewhat taken aback by this unexpected response, she took a few moments before she ventured, “You must not be too severe upon yourself.”
“You may well warn me against such an evil. Human nature is so prone to fall into it! No, Lizzy, let me once in my life feel how much I have been to blame. I am not afraid of being overpowered by the impression. It will pass away soon enough.”
“Do you and my uncle suspect they are in London?”
“Yes—where else can they be so well concealed?’
“And Lydia used to want to go to London,” added Kitty, a comment that stunned Elizabeth by its sheer inanity.
Has she no inkling of just how disastrous these circumstances are? she thought in confusion.
“She is happy, then,” said her father drily, “and her residence there will probably be of some duration.”
This conversation uneasily reminded Elizabeth of all her previous reservations of her father’s unwillingness to exert himself in curbing the excesses of his family, a subject Mr. Darcy referenced in his letter.
However, her father did offer at least a halfhearted apology to Elizabeth for ignoring her advice in May, assuring her he bore her no ill will for the correctness of her advice, but for once she could find no response to the dry wit of his comment.
Though Mr. Bennet returned to his home, the situation was such that normal family life could not be resumed. Mrs. Bennet kept to her room, seeing only the housekeeper, Hill, and her sister Philips. The sisters remained at home rather than walking to Meryton for diversion. And the news from London continued to be bad.
Mr. Gardiner was not able to send any news of positive progress in locating the missing couple. In fact, after a fruitless week of searching, he wrote he was forced to abandon his personal involvement in the search, as his business affairs were suffering and thus required much more of his attention. Instead, he engaged several agents to carry on in his place, employing them with a small daily remuneration and with the promise of a larger reward if they were successful in locating either Mr. Wickham or his niece. He stated he actually expected them to have a greater chance of success since they knew the lay of the land much better than he, but Elizabeth thought his encouraging assurances seemed forced. She was beginning to despair either her sister or her erstwhile lover could ever be found.
Over the next fortnight, her fears were largely confirmed, as her uncle’s reassuring forecasts brought no dividends. Mr. Wickham, if he were in London at all, appeared to have burrowed into the seamy underside of the city and pulled the plug in after him. Finally, Mr. Gardiner regretfully informed his Brother Bennet the agents seeking the missing couple could no longer be induced to continue a search, since their efforts brought little return with an ever-dwindling possibility of earning the promised reward.
This news at last stirred Mr. Bennet from his normal habit of indolence. The fortnight past served to abrade the detached manner he initially assumed upon his return to Longbourn, and he was daily growing increasingly despondent and frustrated by the absence of any successful news from his brother.
At dinner, he paused partway between one bite and another to suddenly stand and throw down his napkin.
“Enough is enough!” he stated loudly, and the eyes of his daughters instantly focused on him. “I have just decided I cannot allow matters to drift along in negligence any longer! I am resolved to return to London and personally resume the search for my missing daughter.”
Everyone at the table was struck speechless by this sudden and uncharacteristically forthright statement from Mr. Bennet.
“But, Papa,” said Elizabeth finally, “how can you hope to do more than my uncle? You remember what he said about the agents he hired, that—”
“I mean no disrespect to my Brother Gardiner, but he is right that he could not search any longer, for he must attend to his warehouse. But I am doing nothing meaningful except worrying, and I will return to the search, even though your uncle is likely correct that the chance of success is less likely every day.”
“I am fixed on this, Lizzy. I will not budge. If I can but locate Lydia, I can at least bring her home, since I doubt I could force Wickham to marry her. Her reputation is certainly ruined beyond salvage, but I can do what is usually done in cases such as this and consign her to the care of a farm family as far from Hertfordshire as possible.”
“Mama would be quite unhappy at such a course of action,” Elizabeth said.
“In fact, Mrs. Bennet will likely give forth wails of displeasure sufficient to wake the dead,” said her father acerbically, “but, as I just said, I will not budge an inch. After my daughter is banished to the countryside, I might, in time, salvage at least some shreds of respectability for my remaining daughters. As the scandal dwindles in importance and is replaced by other news, there may even be some hope for future marriages for the rest of you.”
What was left unsaid, because he did not wish to state it aloud, was that the small dowry within his power would be attractive only to a man of limited means, such as a clerk or the owner of a small farm. He knew any possibility of marriage to a gentleman was gone forever.
But if he could not return Lydia home so that she might at least be seen at Longbourn before she was dispatched to the hinterlands, he knew the neighbourhood wags would assume the worst. Inevitably, it would quickly become settled fact the disappeared girl was walking the streets of London, whether true or not. In that case, it was exceedingly unlikely any marriage could ever be arranged for his remaining daughters and they would be forced to find what work they could.
He very often wished he had been more prudent and laid by an annual sum in order to provide for his children and his wife, if she survived him. He had long known his estate was entailed away to his cousin, of course, but his intention upon marrying Mrs. Bennet was that they would have a son, who would then cut off the entail when he was of age. Instead, when daughter followed daughter into the world, that hope faded, even though Mrs. Bennet continued to hope for a son for some years after Lydia’s birth. By that time it was too late to be saving. His wife had no talent for it, and his own love of independence was all that prevented their exceeding his income.
Now he wished it more than ever, for what would his daughters do if he died? His cousin Collins might well turn out his wife and daughters when he took possession of Longbourn, though Mr. Bennet was fairly hopeful Charlotte Collins would refuse to allow such harsh treatment of his surviving Bennet family, which had been on good terms with the her own family for so many years. He was especially certain she would be loath to neglect Lizzy, her firm friend since childhood.
Five thousand pounds had been settled on Mrs. Bennet and the children by marriage articles, but the exact proportions in which it should be divided were left up to him. This, at least, was one area settled, for he firmly decided not a cent should ever go to Lydia. The entire sum would be divided among his four remaining daughters and he planned to consult with his Brother Philips after his return from London to have the appropriate provisions to his will prepared.
But all these possibilities demanded he return to town, and Longbourn was thrown into an uproar as he instantly and insistently ordered his trunk packed and his coach brought to the front door as soon as possible.
Tuesday, September 8th, 1812
With her father gone and her mother still remaining in her chambers, Elizabeth stayed mostly in her room. She tried to read, but she had trouble concentrating, and the day was unpleasantly warm for a walk. Late afternoon found her sitting beside her window and contemplating a dismal future. In addition, her thoughts were brought even lower by the realization that Mr. Darcy must have received a letter from his aunt announcing the shame and disgrace befallen her family. Heretofore, such thoughts brought a sharp pulse of anger when she remembered Mr. Darcy as the primary means of insuring the eldest was not married. Now, however, the events of August brought added weight to his comments about the improprieties shown by her mother, her younger sisters, and even her father. She could no longer escape an unhappy conclusion: not only Jane’s sadness but also the downfall of her family was due to the failings of that same family.
It was one day more than a month since she first received news of Lydia’s elopement, and it was more than three weeks since Mr. Collins’s letter to her father. That was ample time for Mr. Darcy to have been fully informed of the events, and yet there was no one whose knowledge of her sister’s failings mortified her more. Even if Lydia returned home from Gretna Green bearing a ring and a husband, and even if Mr. Darcy did not harbour a justified anger at the way she dismissed his suit in the spring, it could not be supposed he would ever consider connecting himself with a family such as her own. To do so would mean associating himself with a family that not only exhibited the objections he already raised but made him brother to the very man whom he so justly scorned. No, any such thoughts were now impossible.
Elizabeth tried to stop her mind from following such unwelcome thoughts, but it was near hopeless.
Whatever Mr. Darcy’s intentions had been in April, she thought, it is not likely that he still harbours them. Undoubtedly, his primary wish is to never again be in my presence, which also means he will ensure that his friend will never again be in Jane’s.
This last thought brought her bolt upright in shocked and unhappy realization. She never before considered it, but if she had accepted Mr. Darcy in April, Jane and Mr. Bingley would have been thrown together on any number of occasions. Since Mr. Bingley was his closest friend and Jane was her dearest sister, they would undoubtedly have at least stood up for Mr. Darcy and herself at the wedding. She closed her eyes in pain, as she comprehended the unwelcome truth that her angry and absolute rejection of Mr. Darcy unwittingly made it a certainty Mr. Bingley and Jane would forever remain separated.
On and on went her thoughts, alternating between self-castigation for her selfishness and contempt for her stupidity. She ought to have listened to Charlotte, who never would have made a decision to reject Mr. Darcy with so little thought of the possible advantages. Worse, she had deceived herself about her motives, telling herself she was defending a beloved sister when her own wounded pride for having been insulted at the Meryton assembly was equally responsible. She was humbled, she was grieved, and she repented, though she hardly knew of what. She became jealous of his esteem when it was a virtual certainty that his love had been turned to hate by the intemperate manner of her rejection. She wanted to hear of him when there was no chance of gaining intelligence. She even wondered whether she might have been happy with him when it was almost certain they would never again meet.
Again she thought what a triumph for him if he only knew the proposals she had so proudly spurned four months earlier would now have received a more favourable consideration!
Mr. Darcy could not help feeling justified by what has occurred to my whole family, she thought. He is likely as generous as the most generous of his sex, but while he is mortal, there must be a certain satisfaction at being proven so correctly foresighted.
Such dismal reflections led her to even more unhappy thoughts as she remembered her acquaintance with him. Despite her objections, she could not help remembering he was a man of a much wider world than her own, responsible for the welfare of many people. His understanding and talents were not similar to her own, to be sure, but now, when it was far too late, she was driven to wonder whether the two of them might have complemented the other. If they had married, her ease and liveliness might have softened his mind and improved his manners. And she was becoming most uncomfortably aware that his judgment, information, and knowledge of the world might have provided benefit to her.
It was a bitter thought indeed that Mr. Darcy’s character in any way might have suited her, and she wondered whether it was the desperate situation of her family that engendered such ideas. It certainly signified nothing, for such a joining of disparate persons was now impossible, even if her imaginings were not wholly leading her astray.
Occupied by such despairing thoughts, Elizabeth passed all the rest of the afternoon and missed the evening meal. Only when the night air chilled her body to something approaching the cold gripping her heart did she bestir herself to seek the balm of sleep, but that balm would not come. She passed much of the night as restlessly as she passed most nights since returning home.
C. P. (Colin) Odom is new author and a retired Engineer who was born in Texas, raised in Oklahoma, and graduated from the University of Oklahoma following a stint in the Marines. After graduation, he spent the next thirty-five years working as an engineer in Arizona with his first wife, Margaret, where they raised two sons before Margaret's untimely death from cancer. Always a voracious reader, Colin has admitted to having a serious book addiction problem and had to develop some woodworking skills in order to build enough bookcases to house his collection. His favorite genres were (and are) science fiction, historical fiction, and histories, though he gravitated into reading (and later writing) Jane Austen romantic fiction about a decade ago. This late-developing interest followed his reading of his late wife's beloved Jane Austen books after her passing. One thing led to another, and he has now had one novel, "A Most Civil Proposal" published and a second, "Consequences," is scheduled for publication in December, 2013.
Colin currently lives in Chandler, Arizona with his second wife, Jeanine, their two daughters, two stubbornly untrainable dogs, and a pair of very strange cats. Books and reading remains a large part of his life, along with helping to raise their girls, following Oklahoma Sooner and ASU Sun Devil football as well as Formula One racing.
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