The carriage was greeted at Longbourn in state, almost all the many Lucases having earlier arrived to welcome Maria. Elizabeth was the last to leave the carriage and enter upon the clamor, where her mother's beaming face met her.
"Elizabeth Bennet! Don't you look well! I am so very pleased to see you!"
"Thank you, Mama. It is good to be home."
"Let me get a good look at you girls," Mrs. Bennet placed her two eldest daughters side by side. "Yes! You are just what you ought to be. Come along inside! Mrs. Hill has prepared an enormous dinner for us all, though it might more properly be called a feast! Such enormous quantities of food would be more fit for forty than ten, but I understand the leftovers are subject to the greatest economy."
Throughout the dinner Elizabeth noted a thousand little oddities in her mother. She was inordinately gracious towards all: her behavior free from all the little pettinesses and indiscretions that usually so marked it. More than once she maneuvered Lydia into speaking less boisterously about nothing at all, even managing to extract a few reasonable words from her youngest on the subject of the carriage ride. Mary she engaged in conversation, rather than waiting for her to sermonize. She even shared a few laughs with Mr. Bennet! Elizabeth tried to catch his eye several times, but he seemed to deliberately avoid her. Other than, "I am glad you are come back, Lizzy," upon greeting, she had not a word from him the entire meal.
When the Lucases departed, Lydia suggested a walk to Meryton. Elizabeth was on the verge of objecting when her mother stepped in, claiming they were just reunited and needn't be splintering off so very quickly. "I want to have all of you together!" she proclaimed. "The dynamics are so different when Jane and Lizzy are away."
The next hour was spent in each sister taking her turn in relating the activities, observations, and other tidbits of interest that occurred over the course of their travels, much to Mrs. Bennet's rapt attention. Jane spoke of fashion, the theater, and museums. Elizabeth spoke of Hunsford and Rosings.
"Does Mrs. Collins seem content in her marriage?" Mrs. Bennet asked.
"Very. She has her poultry and larder, each of which she manages nearly as well as her husband."
Mrs. Bennet shook her head slightly. "She finds it well enough for now, but how will she like it ten years on? To be lectured by Lady Catherine and have her meddling in private affairs! I'm glad no daughter of mine shall have to bear it."
"You are?" Elizabeth was shocked.
"Yes. Please forgive me for treating you so poorly when you rejected Mr. Collins, Lizzy. It was the right thing to do. I'm sorry."
"Of course, Mama," replied her befuddled daughter. Elizabeth looked to Jane in perplexity but was met only by a beaming smile.
As soon as the eldest daughters were allowed to part for the night. Elizabeth began to share her observations of her mother. She had been anxious to tell Jane of Mr. Darcy's proposal and Wickham's villainy, but now that would have to wait a few more minutes. "Kitty and Lydia did not exaggerate: she is a changed woman! I am very concerned."
"I was too upon first hearing of it, but now I can only be grateful to witness such sensibility and affection from my mother."
"You do not think something might be seriously wrong?"
"She is clearly healthy. The carriage accident was weeks ago. What could be the matter?"
"I don't know," Elizabeth chewed her lip pensively. "She greeted me as if I were someone she had often heard of but never met."
"I don't see anything that warrants concern, Lizzy, unless it is her new dislike for Mr. Wickham that upsets you."
"No! Not at all. In fact, I am thankful my mother has separated him from our company." Elizabeth began to unfold her tale of Mr. Darcy's disastrous proposal and the letter that followed, much to the astonishment of Jane.
"I do not know when I have been more shocked," said she. "Wickham so very bad! It is almost past belief. And poor Mr. Darcy! dear Lizzy, only consider what he must have suffered. Such a disappointment! and with the knowledge of your ill opinion too! and having to relate such a thing of his sister! It is really too distressing. I am sure you must feel it so."
"I do. It has been the overthrow of all my fondly held prejudices, which I thought so witty and clever! I had to read that letter several times to overcome them, Jane, and our mother was even more disdainful of Mr. Darcy than I was: how did she come to know better?"
"Jane! Since when is our mother reflective?"
She smiled. "You cannot convince me to think on this change in behavior poorly, not until some negative outcome or consequence can be named! It would not be the first time a person in midlife has turned over a new leaf."
"It's not like she had a spiritual awakening. Something is different about her - fundamentally! She looks the same and sounds the same but she cannot be ..." her voice trailed off, not ready to speak the thought aloud.
"Lizzy! Do be reasonable! Of course she is the same person she always was. Who else could she be?"
"I don't know," Elizabeth replied, all seriousness. "But I think we ought to try and find out."
Before breakfast the next morning, Elizabeth was able to corner her father in his library. "Scurried me out, did you, Lizzy? I'm surprised I managed to keep away so long."
"I thought you were avoiding me. Tell me, Papa: are you quite certain my mother is well?"
"No, but Mr. Jones swears she is, and her appearance supports his claim. She hasn't professed to be this healthy in twenty years."
"But she is so clearly not herself!"
"Indeed! She is a great deal improved!"
"Lizzy!" he interrupted. "I understand your feelings on the matter and struggled with similar myself, but do not look a gift horse in the mouth, as they say!"
"But what if she is sick, somewhere in her mind where we can't see." Elizabeth's face grew pale. "What is she is mad?"
"If this is madness, there is a great many to whom I'd recommend it! Most of mankind could do with a good carriage joggle, I think."
"Do be serious, Papa!" she pled.
"Speak with Mr. Jones yourself if it will make you feel better, Lizzy. You'll find him perfectly sanguine on the subject. All the neighborhood has noticed the change, and while it raised a few eyebrows at first, the only person to complain of it is Lydia."
"It just doesn't feel right," Elizabeth said helplessly.
"Give it a few days. You'll find your mother a pleasurable companion except when her head aches. Then watch for fire and brimstone!"
Read Chapter Thirteen