[A Very Mary Christmas is another boy next door sorts of stories. Mary Bennet admires her neighbour, Nicholas Hammond, and Nicholas admires her. However, neither knows of the other’s interest until Nicholas’s trying younger brother and his friend step in to do some scheming.]
Mary Bennet stood behind her elder sisters, waiting to exit their pew. Her father had already made his escape, but her mother was busy making sure everyone knew that Jane and Elizabeth were soon to be married. Mary watched little flecks of dust dance in the beams of light that streamed through the windows as she listened to her mother. How empty her home would be! How fortunate she was to have daughters so well attached! Mary resisted the urge to roll her eyes and silently tapped an impatient toe inside her boot. Finally, when all the neighbour ladies had heard of her good fortune, Mrs. Bennet moved far enough into the aisle to allow Mary and her sisters to be liberated from their box. Unfortunately, they were not free to leave their mother’s side as she shooed them behind her.
“Oh, Mr. Hammond!” Mrs. Bennet’s voice rang out through the nave, catching the fine-looking young gentleman before he could escape his pew.
Mary cringed. Must her mother now inform all the gentlemen as well as the ladies? She heaved a resigned sigh as Mr. Hammond turned toward them. Mr. Hammond, you see, was unmarried, nor did he have a sister who would share the joyful news of an upcoming wedding with him. So, Mary realized, her mother, no doubt, thought it her particular duty to tell him. Of course, this was not entirely without benefit, since her mother’s need for attention would give Mary a moment or two of admiring him, and for that, she could, perhaps, be grateful.
“Have you heard the news?” Mrs. Bennet continued even before they had reached the place where Mr. Hammond stood. “My two eldest daughters are to be married. The announcement was made at Mr. Bingley’s ball, but I do not recall seeing you there.” There was a bit of a teasing scold in her tone.
Mr. Nicholas Hammond stretched his lips into a thin smile. Mrs. Bennet had probably wished for him to dance with her daughters. She was always putting forward one or another of them. “I was not in attendance as there were things which required my attention on my estate.” A rather lengthy receipt had arrived earlier that day from his father, and Nicholas had been more eager to see his finances settled than he was to dance away the night in a set of clothes that, if his father continued his ways, Nicholas would not be able to afford and keep to his plans.
“Oh, yes, running an estate is such dreadfully taxing work, I am sure.”
Mr. Hammond struggled to keep the smile on his face. Mrs. Bennet’s voice was grating, and her tone was patronizing.
“There were no banns read,” she continued in her same annoying volume of speaking — somewhere between an exclamation and a screech if you asked Nicholas.
“They are to be married by special license. That is why Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley are gone to town, you see — to get the license. It is a very proper thing, too, considering their consequence.”
Nicholas nodded and attempted to step away, but she stepped forward for every step he took backward. He had little interest in which daughter was marrying which gentleman or when the gentlemen were to be returning or any of the particulars about the double wedding and the breakfast. No, he stopped his failing retreat, that was not entirely true. “They will be returning within the week?” He was nearly certain that was what Mrs. Bennet had said, and he was pleased when she acknowledged it to be true.
“There is a small estate matter I wished to discuss with Mr. Bingley.” Typically, he would not have explained such a query, but he knew Mrs. Bennet. She was not unlike a dog intent upon winning a bone and would not cease her inquiries until she had a morsel of information. So, it was best if he provided that morsel himself, rather than leaving it to the imagination of Mrs. Bennet and her friends. He just needed to make sure he told her only as much as he wished broadcast throughout Meryton.
“My Kitty is in good looks today, is she not?”
Ah, there it was. Miss Kitty was to be the one to be promoted now that her eldest sisters were engaged.
The cheeks of the pretty young lady, who stood beside her mother, flushed, and she coughed nervously as her mother prodded her forward while her younger sister did a poor job of catching a giggle behind her hand.
“I had not noticed,” Nicholas replied to quell the mother’s advances and then, to spare at least some of Miss Kitty’s feelings, added, “although I would have to agree now that you have mentioned it.” He looked at the rest of the Bennet daughters, who stood behind their mother wearing varying expressions of unease — and who could blame them! They were sensible ladies, unlike their mother and younger sisters. “I believe all of the Bennet ladies are looking fine today.”
Nicholas’ eyes rested for a moment on Miss Mary. Why was she not the one being thrown forward? She was the next eldest and nearly as pretty as the others. In fact, if he were to be truthful with himself, she was the one he preferred. With this slightly troubling thought in mind, he turned to go, but remembering the beginning of Mrs. Bennet’s comments and why any of the younger Bennet girls were being promoted, he turned back and offered his congratulations to Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth. Then, with a shallow bow, he took his leave.
However, he was only a few steps from the group when Mrs. Bennet shrill call to Mrs. Long caused him to flinch and falter in his steps.
“I must speak to Mrs. Long about the wedding breakfast preparations.” He could hear the excitement in Mrs. Bennet’s voice. “Jane, Lizzy, you will attend me. Mary, go tell your father that I will be just a few more minutes.” There was no mistaking the commanding tone of the directions, and Nicholas was just beginning to chuckle to himself about how wise Mr. Bennet had been to slip out so quickly at the end of the service when Mrs. Bennet’s next comments drove any merriment from his mind.
“It is what she was born for, I am afraid.”
There was a clucking from someone else. Nicholas assumed without looking back that it was Mrs. Long. His feet seemed rooted to the floor, held in place by the shockingly crass comments of Miss Mary’s mother.
That was probably Miss Bennet, he thought. Her voice was gentler than Miss Elizabeth’s.
“She lost her chance when she did not go to town,” Mrs. Bennet continued. “Mr. Collins is all but married now.”
Ah, yes, Nicholas had heard the Bennet heir was to marry elsewhere, and Mrs. Bennet was none-too-pleased. There was very little hope of being ignorant of your neighbour’s business in Meryton, unless you stayed to your house and never ventured out. Even then, the tales might be brought to you by a servant who had heard it from a stable boy who had heard it from the butcher who had indubitably heard it from Mrs. Bennet, Mrs. Long, or one of their friends.
There was more clucking and a sigh from Mrs. Long.
“Now she will be nothing more than a companion or governess. It is best if she begins acting the part.”
There was a sad agreement from Mrs. Long and a bit more chiding from one or both of the elder daughters, but Nicholas did not bother to listen. His feet had once again fallen under his command, and he took two long strides toward the door. “Miss Mary,” he called.
Mary stopped her hurried escape from the church. Nicholas could see the embarrassment she felt clearly painted on her cheeks as she turned toward him. It was a feeling with which Nicholas was familiar. His father was no saint.
“Mr. Hammond,” Mary greeted, keeping her eyes lowered.
“Do you know on which day in particular Mr. Bingley might return?” It was not actually information that he truly needed to know, but it would suffice as an excuse to keep the biddies and their wagging tongues at bay. It would not be the first time that he and Miss Mary had conducted a conversation. They were friends and had on occasion conversed on the street in meeting or most often at an assembly when both he and she had chosen to sit out rather than dance. It was not that he did not like dancing — he did, to a point. Nor was it because Miss Mary lack ability at dancing — she did not. It was the lack of meaningful conversation to be had during a dance that he found annoying. Small talk, the weather, and news of his neighbors were not subjects that interested either to him or Miss Mary, and, to be honest, this was what he enjoyed most about Miss Mary Bennet — her ability to converse on topics considered non-traditional for a young lady.
He glanced over his shoulder surreptitiously. Seeing that he had caught her mother’s attention, he extended an arm to Mary. If her mother wished to promote a lady of quality to any gentleman — and himself, in particular — she should be pushing Miss Mary forward. Miss Kitty and Miss Lydia, though quite pretty, were still too young and foolish to be considered as wives. His arm hung in the air between them while Mary looked at it in confusion. Surely, she knew what he was asking without him saying it, did she not? “Your mother,” he said softly.
Mary’s eyes widened slightly, and she nodded her understanding before placing her hand lightly on his arm. “I am not her favourite,” she replied in a tone equally as soft as his had been. “This may actually lower me in her eyes since she will consider it snatching your attention away from Kitty, but I thank you for the attempt.”
Silently, he cursed himself for not considering that. “My apologies,” he whispered.
She shook her head and replied quietly. “It is not your fault she is as she is.” Then, raising the volume of her voice, she answered his original question. “According to Jane, Mr. Bingley hopes to return to Netherfield by Thursday.” She tipped her head and looked up at him. Oh, she did love the auburn tinge to his hair. She flicked her eyes away as his green ones turned towards her. “Are you still thinking of leasing a field?”
“I am.” So she remembered their conversation from the last time they had met on the street in Meryton. She was fetching something — he wished he could remember what it was — for her mother, and he had been intent on seeing if Mr. Wilton had a particular book in his shop. “Rosemoore has done exceptionally well this year, and with a bit of the profit, I would like to attempt to increase my holdings and my income.”
“It seems a reasonable plan.” But when was Nicholas Hammond unreasonable? In her opinion, he was the most level-headed, business-minded man in all of Hertfordshire.
“My father’s bills have not decreased,” he explained. Again, he knew there was no need to explain himself, but with Mary, he felt at ease and knew he would have an ally. And there was also the hope that she might be of use to him in explaining his need for the land to her soon-to-be-brother.
“Is your mother well?”
It was a very proper question but more than not just a pleasantry for there was a tone of sincere compassion her voice. He smiled. It was just like Mary — proper, yet not indifferent. “She is. It was merely a trifling cough which only kept her from society for a se’ennight, and, according to her most recent letter, now that she is fully recovered, it is a rare afternoon or evening that is not filled with some sort of entertainment and friends. In fact, her schedule was so busy last month that it required a new hat to be purchased since hers had all been worn so many times.”
He loved his mother and knew that she was not frivolous or extravagant like his father was. In truth, Nicholas suspected, that it was not his mother who required the hat at all, but rather his father who required it of her. He knew his father had an image he wished to portray, and she, being his wife, must assist him.
As if she knew what he was thinking, Mary smiled sadly at him as she inquired after his brother — his thoughtless, devil-may-care younger brother, Alfred.
“Fred has not been sent up, nor have I received any particularly concerning letters, and since the term will be ending soon, I think he will survive it.”
They stood outside the church just slightly apart from the other parishioners who had remained to converse rather than scurrying away since the day was bright and warm for early December.
Mary withdrew her hand from Nicholas’ arm and fidgeted with her gloves, making sure they were firmly on each finger. “Will your brother be returning to Rosemoore for his holidays?”
Mr. Hammond sighed and shook his head. “I expect more bills from Bath in the new year. Hertfordshire is too dull for Fred’s liking, so he has elected to spend his break with our parents.”
“You will not join them in Bath?”
There was again a note of concern in her inquiry. She was not ferreting out information. Nicholas knew her well enough to know that Miss Mary did not tell tales or speak anything less than the truth. He would not be going to Bath. He could not find it in his heart, even for his mother’s sake, to spend the money on such a trip, knowing it would be a venture in futility and frustration. He did not say this, however. He just simply shook his head.
Mary understood and did not question further. Sometimes, no matter how much you might wish to love your relations, they made it difficult.
“I wish I could go to Bath.” Mary had risen on her toes and was looking, he suspected, for her father.
“I beg your pardon?” he said somewhat surprised by her comment. Mary had never struck him as someone who might wish to travel away from the small village of Meryton. She seemed so at ease here. She walked to town regularly and rambled through the fields as if they were made just for her presence.
Her cheeks, which had just recovered from her previous embarrassment, flushed once again. She had not intended to say that aloud. “Not Bath in particular, just somewhere other than here.”
Ah, he understood the comment now. He had felt the same way when he was younger. School had been his escape. “Your mother?” he asked gently.
Mary nodded as her heart raced. Except for Jane and Elizabeth, she did not speak of her unhappiness to others — especially if that other was a gentleman she wished to notice her for reasons other than her lack of acceptance by her own family. “And my sisters. Oh, not Jane and Lizzy. Kitty and Lydia, and actually, not Kitty, she can be quite nice, but Lydia…” Her voice trailed off as she realized she was babbling. “Oh, there is my father. I must give him my message, or…”
Mr. Hammond held up a hand to stop her and waved her on her way, earning him a grateful smile before she hurried off toward her father.
Glancing back over her shoulder to take one more look at Mr. Hammond, Mary saw that he was still watching her. If only he were watching her for the reasons she wished he would, but he was not. To him, she was a friend, and he was merely concerned for her welfare. She sighed. If only he would see her as more. But, she was plain and read too much and had little to entice a gentleman — her mother’s words echoed in her mind. She may have very well lost her chance of having a family of her own by not walking to Meryton last week and pursuing Mr. Collins as her mother suggested. She shuddered at the thought. No, if that were her only hope for marriage, she would gladly accept spinsterhood.
“Papa,” she said, tapping his elbow. “Mama is speaking with Mrs. Long and will be a few minutes longer.”
Mr. Bennet smiled at her and then placed an arm around her shoulder. “You are a good girl, Mary.”
“Thank you, Papa.”
He squeezed her shoulder and then removed his arm. “Are you going to wait with me?”
“I would like to walk home.” She bit her lip and twisted her fingers together as she waited for his permission.
His smile was understanding. “Is she still upset about Collins?”
Mary smiled at the way her father’s lips curled in disgust as he said the name. “She is, and I should like a few moments of solitude.”
He chuckled. “It seems your mother has that effect on many — myself included,” he added with a wink. “Go on. We will follow shortly, and I will try to work on her again.”
“Thank you, Papa.” Mary knew that her father would do as he said, but it would be of little use. Her mother, once set on a notion, was rather immovable.
Mary swung her reticule at her side, letting it brush against the fabric of her pelisse and bang lightly off her leg as she walked. Thoughts of her mother and her future tumbled over each other in her mind. Having reached the spot in the road where she could first see Longbourn, she stopped and considered it for several minutes — the gardens and fields that surrounded the large house with its welcoming drive, the stable and outbuildings, the stand of trees under which she had found refuge on particularly warm summer days… She shook her head slowly as a realization washed over her. She could not stay here. It had never been a terrible home. It had provided her with plenty of enjoyment and pleasant memories, but what would it hold now? A father, who found her eccentricities amusing; a mother, who would continually remind her that she would never be a wife or mother; and younger sisters, who would inevitably parrot everything that their mother said; while her elder sisters, who attempted to protect her, would be gone. Although the sun still shone, the brightness of the day faded, and she wrapped her arms around her middle. It was a bleak reality, and it was hers.
She trudged on toward home, her feet as heavy as her heart. Perhaps if she was destined to be a spinster, she should take up the mantle now. Aunt Gardener might know of some employment to be had in town, or Lizzy might allow her to come for a period of time to Pemberley. Perhaps in Derbyshire, there might be a gentleman as eager to marry as Mr. Collins, who would not be so unbearable — although she was certain, none would be so perfect as Mr. Hammond.