It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a married man in possession of an estate that is under entailment must have a son to inherit it.
Thus, Mr. Thomas Bennet of Longbourn was quite properly delighted when his beloved wife Elizabeth presented him with a fine, healthy son one year after their marriage. Mrs. Bennet was a woman of beauty, taste, sense, and refinement, and these characteristics combined with Mr. Bennet's intelligence and wit assured that their firstborn son would inherit a great deal more than a fine house and farm.
However, the birth of young Master Thomas Bennet did not bring such pleasure to all quarters. The senior Mr. Bennet's cousin Jeremiah Collins, whose own son, William, would inherit Longbourn should Mr. Bennet die in default of heirs male, was disappointed and angry.
"I must do something," he said to his wife. "I must ensure that Longbourn goes to our William. I should have inherited the estate myself, but that cursed entailment denied me what was mine by birthright. I must find a way to make it work in our son's favour."
Mrs. Collins, who unlike her cousin's wife possessed neither good sense nor taste, agreed with everything her husband said. She was acutely aware of her shortcomings as well as the fact that her husband had chosen a bride from well beneath his own social strata, and that this unequal marriage was the reason why Mr. Collins' grandfather had entailed Longbourn upon Mr. Bennet and his heirs. "You are quite right, my love, but I do not see what you can possibly do. The boy is healthy and likely to prosper, and Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are young and can produce many more boys before they are through. We must do as best we can for young William's education. Perhaps the Church; that is a gentleman's profession, is it not, my love? And if William is fortunate in his patron, it could be a profitable profession as well."
Mr. Collins' face showed his distaste. He was a gentleman, and discussions of profit were therefore unpleasant to him. His wife, whose father had been a tradesman, had never understood that. "We shall see about that, my dear." He left the room hastily, leaving his wife to wonder at his words.
Mr. Bennet smiled at his wife across the dining-table. "Wine with you, my dear?" he asked, holding up his glass.
"Of course, my dearest husband." She raised her own glass and they both sipped, never taking their eyes from the other.
"Did young Thomas have a good day?" he asked, breaking off a piece of bread to eat with his soup.
"Oh, yes! He grows quite strong, my love. He holds up his head and looks around him with such intelligence. And he smiles so much! The nurse says it is just intestinal distress, but I wonder."
Mr. Bennet smiled again, indulgently. It was good to see Elizabeth so taken with their son. She was so delicate that she would not be able to bear many children, and she was consumed with young Thomas' progress.
Mrs. Bennet hesitated for a moment, then asked, "Thomas, may I bring him to you in the drawing-room tonight, just for a moment? I shall ensure that the nurse has fed him properly so that he should not bespoil your coat." This was a reference to an unfortunate incident of the week before, in which the young master had deposited his dinner on his father's clean linen.
Despite his wife's apprehensions, Mr. Bennet had been more amused than disturbed by that incident, and he had genuine affection for his son. He said, "Of course, Elizabeth! I should dearly like to see young Thomas. When I have finished my port, by all means bring him to me." He had all the reward necessary for his selfless act in the glowing countenance of his lovely wife.
When the port had been consumed, Mrs. Bennet happily poured his coffee and said, "I shall go and fetch young Thomas now, if that is your wish."
Well-fed and mellowed by the excellent port, Mr. Bennet nodded agreement, and Mrs. Bennet climbed the stairs to the nursery. Mr. Bennet sipped his coffee, thinking contentedly of his wonderful family, until he heard his wife begin to scream.
The nurse adjusted the blankets in the basket and looked around her doubtfully. She had managed to get to Meryton without arousing any suspicion, but she felt as if she had a sign pinned to her back that read "KIDNAPPER." And where was that confounded man, anyway? She had followed his instructions to the letter, and he should have been here at the inn to meet her, but here she sat with a baby that was not hers and no prospect of getting rid of it. She could hardly go back to Longbourn; by now they would know that she was missing, along with the heir.
As if on cue, young Thomas began to fuss, and the nurse rocked the basket until he fell asleep once again, his little mouth working. He would be hungry soon; she had put up bottles of goats-milk for the man to take along, since she did not know whether he had engaged a wet-nurse. Oh, this whole operation was a disaster from the beginning! She should never have agreed to it! But the money...yes, the money would allow her to marry her Luke, even though he was only a farmhand. She smiled when she thought of the surprise and delight on Luke's face when she presented him with the money.
Despite these happy thoughts, the nurse was seriously considering returning to Longbourn and facing the righteous wrath of Mr. Bennet when the man finally entered the inn. He was small and swarthy, and the nurse had a moment's doubt about leaving the baby with him; however, he was accompanied by a young woman who took the baby from the basket and held him expertly, relieving the nurse's mind somewhat.
"Do you have the money?" she asked nervously.
The man handed over a box; the nurse removed the top and smiled at the pile of pound notes inside. Yes, Luke would be delighted indeed. She replaced the top of the box, touched little Thomas' arm one last time, and went out to the waiting post-chaise that would take her home to Yorkshire and Luke.
Another post-chaise carried away the man, the young woman, and the baby. They traveled through the night and most of the next day, until they arrived at a town that the man considered properly retired. They will never find the child here.
He went to the small church and placed the basket on one of the pews. It was late afternoon, and there was a young woman seated in a pew a few rows in front of him. The baby was sleeping, but when he woke, the man was sure that the woman would be able to care for him. Despite his appearance, he was not a cruel man; he was simply following his master's instructions, and he saw no reason to endanger the baby. He rose from the pew and left the church without looking back.
Mrs. Frederick Tilney stared disconsolately at the altar of the tiny church. Why, oh why? she cried silently, as she had so many times in the past four days, since her little boy had died. Mrs. Tilney had been "finished" at a French convent school; though she now worshipped with her husband at this Anglican church, she still sometimes had private conversations with the Blessed Mother, to whom she had been introduced by the kindly nuns and whose name she shared: Mary.
Why did you take him away from me, Mother? she asked in despair. Is it because I come to this church now, instead of yours? But is it not proper for a wife to cleave to her husband and his church? Mary had not even really wanted to marry Frederick Tilney; her father had arranged the marriage with the stern young colonel, who had been enraptured with the pretty, dark-haired Miss Drummond, although she sometimes suspected that the basis of the colonel's affection was her fortune of twenty thousand pounds. Mary was a dutiful wife, and she quickly gave birth to a son, named Frederick after his father; three years later she bore another son, who had been born much too soon and died so quickly that he had not even been given a name.
I know I am selfish, Mother, she thought. I still have little Frederick, and he is healthy. That should be sufficient. But it is not. Oh, it hurts, Mother, it hurts! She crossed her arms over her stomach, still distended from the pregnancy; her breasts were swollen and painful with the milk her body still produced for the dead baby. And Mary hung her head and wept broken-heartedly for her lost son.
A thin wail broke the silence, and her head snapped up. She did not even notice that the front of her gown had become soaked with milk at the baby's cry; she reacted instinctively, as a mother, standing up and looking about. She was alone in the church; where was the baby?
She ran down the aisle, looking in each pew, until she found the basket. She carefully peeled back the blankets and saw the baby staring up at her, waving his hands and wailing loudly. He had bright eyes and dark hair like her own, unlike little Frederick, who had inherited his father's fair hair and blue eyes. Mary reached out to him, and the tiny fingers wrapped around one of her own. The child shook with the anger and violence of his cries. Poor thing, he must be hungry!
Mary lifted the baby from the basket, expertly unbuttoning the front of her wrapper. She draped the blanket over her shoulder and began to nurse the baby, not caring if such an activity was improper in church. She smiled down at her new son, thinking, The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Oh, thank you, Mother! Hail Mary, full of grace...
Mary Tilney took the baby back to the Abbey and explained to her husband how the Blessed Mother had answered her heartbroken pleas. Colonel Tilney did not have the heart to deny his wife, although her Papist tendencies disturbed him; he felt genuine affection for her, although it was difficult for him to show it, and he sometimes shouted at her and frightened her when he meant to be loving. The colonel was not entirely sure that it would be desirable to raise his heir, young Frederick, in the same house as a child who was likely the product of an immoral relationship. Some slatternly local girl had probably rolled in the hay with a stableboy and left the shameful result on the mercy of the parish. Well, the child could not help the circumstances of his birth, and it would comfort Mary for the loss of the baby. He would raise the boy as a gentleman and watch him carefully. Any lower-class tendencies must be nipped in the bud.
Thus the Tilneys' second son - named Henry for Mary's brother - grew up at Northanger Abbey, and never knew that the mother who had given him life was not the one who tucked him into bed and warmly kissed him good-night. And he never knew that the father who had been so delighted at his birth still thought of him daily and grieved for him sincerely.
Thomas Bennet searched far and wide for his son, but in those days of King George England was a much larger place than it is today. It was easy to overlook such a retired village as Northanger, and even the fine old Abbey, improved and modernized thought it had been by Colonel Tilney's father. Finally he had to abandon the search, although he never abandoned hope; his lovely, delicate wife was not so fortunate, and she passed quietly from this world less than a year after little Thomas' disappearance. The physicians said that she died from a consumption, but Mr. Bennet knew better; she died of a broken heart, and he cursed himself for his inability to repair it.
He wore black for the proscribed time, but he never really stopped mourning Elizabeth. He mourned her beauty, her refinement, her way of making her husband comfortable and their home loving. After a genteel period, rapacious mammas began to present their daughters to him as a replacement, but the more lovely and accomplished they were, the more they reminded him of Elizabeth, and the less he could bear to have them by him. He withdrew from society, spending a great deal of time in his library at Longbourn, and his formerly sparkling wit became warped by bitterness into something hard and prickly, used to wound rather than to give joy.
An uncharacteristic appearance at a village assembly introduced him to Miss Fanny Gardiner, who was the exact opposite of Elizabeth, having no taste, sense, or refinement of which to speak. However, she was pretty enough, and had a vivaciousness that called out to Mr. Bennet in his solitude. In a moment of what he thought was love but later recognized as madness, he offered for her, and before he fully realized his mistake she was installed as mistress of Longbourn and expecting a child.
The new Mrs. Bennet gave birth first to a daughter, a beautiful pink and golden little girl named Jane after her mother's sister. Mr. Bennet loved this daughter as well as he loved his absent son, but he wondered how he could provide for her if he had no son to join him in cutting off the entail. Well, Mrs. Bennet is young, he told himself; she will bear a son soon enough.
Two years later Mrs. Bennet bore him a second daughter. The baby had dark hair like her father, and something in her eyes reminded Mr. Bennet of his first wife. She could have been the daughter Elizabeth and I had together, if only... Mrs. Bennet cared not for this daughter; her consequence lay in producing sons, and a daughter who was so unlike her could not excite any affection in her small heart. When Mr. Bennet gently suggested that the girl be called Elizabeth, Mrs. Bennet agreed absently. Mr. Bennet never discussed his first wife, and Mrs. Bennet had never learned her name.
After three more confinements Mrs. Bennet had failed to produce a son. Mr. Bennet resigned his fate, and his estate, to his cousin, young William Collins. He sometimes despaired of how he was to provide five dowries; then he would pick up a book and drown himself in words, so much more pleasant than cold reality, the same reality that had taken away Elizabeth and little Thomas.
He loved his five daughters, especially Lizzy, as well as he was able, with his heart so scarred by early loss. His affection sometimes manifested itself in a sort of cruel teasing, which pained the two eldest girls and cost him the respect of the youngest. For his wife there was occasional tenderness, especially when her former vivacity made an appearance; but more often Mrs. Bennet was anxious and silly, and at those times her husband avoided her company as much as he was decently able.
Mrs. Bennet wondered why Mr. Bennet doted so on Lizzy, when Jane was so much more beautiful, Mary so much more accomplished, Lydia so much more good-natured, and Kitty...well, that was perhaps understandable. She supposed it was because Lizzy favoured Mr. Bennet's colouring, but little did Fanny Bennet suspect that her husband loved his second daughter so well because her spirit and sparkle, as well as her fine, dark eyes and hair, brought back sweet memories of the only woman he had ever loved.