Elizabeth Bennet stood beside her eldest sister Jane in their Uncle Gardiner’s warehouse in Cheapside. They were to choose whatever trinkets they desired before gathering their Aunt Madeline for an afternoon in their favorite tea shoppe near Mayfair.
Jane Bennet could not decide between a rose silk bolt that had arrived from the Far East only the day before or an intricate fan made entirely of feathers that was quite delicate.
Elizabeth, being a reader, chose two novels she had not yet had the pleasure of reading. “Jane, you must decide for Aunt will soon think we have forgotten her.”
Jane closed her eyes and thought of dancing with Mr. Bingley, though she knew it was a silly dream, and chose the rose silk. “A new gown would be a welcome luxury in London in the springtime.”
Elizabeth raised a brow at her lovely sister. Jane Bennet could go about Town in a plain muslin day dress and still turn the heads of many gentlemen.
The only one she cared for was Mr. Charles Bingley, though Elizabeth did not believe Mr. Bingley deserved her sister’s consideration as he followed behind his meddling sisters and his ear was ever bent to their bothersome advice, and that of Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, but Elizabeth would not allow herself to wander into such thoughts.
Instead she fingered the edge of the silk bolt as she spoke. “Aunt has said her friend Mrs. Westings shall host a ball in a fortnight. Perhaps there will be time enough to have a new dress made by then.”
Jane followed Elizabeth to their Uncle Gardiner’s office. “I had not thought of any ball in particular, Lizzy, only that the color is quite lovely against my skin.”
Elizabeth knew her sister did indeed consider a ball in particular, the one that Mrs. Hurst, the sister of Charles and Caroline Bingley, was to give before Easter.
Instead of pointing out her knowledge of Jane’s dreams and aspirations regarding that ball, Elizabeth placed her books on her uncle’s desk. “Jane and I have chosen Uncle, but we must return home to gather Aunt Madeline before setting off to Hanford’s for tea.”
Uncle Gardiner waved a hand to his assistant and had the man wrap Elizabeth and Jane’s choices to be delivered to his town home later in the day. “Lizzy, you never choose silk as Jane does. Surely you might like a new dress as well?”
Elizabeth simply smiled at her uncle. “I have more dresses than a young lady needs, sir. Books however, well, there can never be too many at hand. Besides I shall be in Kent for Easter and have no need of a new ball gown.”
Jane began to doubt her choice as she certainly doubted Mr. Bingley though a sliver of hope obviously lingered where the man was concerned. “I really ought to have chosen the fan. I have never seen such a lovely thing in all my life.”
Waving his nieces away as a fellow tradesman appeared at his office door, Edward Gardiner was not surprised by Elizabeth’s choices. She had always been studious and inquisitive and Fanny Bennet, his sister, had never doted on her second daughter the same as she did with Jane.
Jane Bennet, being the fairest of her sisters, was expected to marry well due to the entailment on Longbourn, the Bennet home near Meryton, and Mrs. Bennet likely had hopes that by sending Jane to Town after Mr. Bingley a match with the man might still be made.
Edward Gardiner had thought to write to his brother and sister Bennet and say that he had not much regard for any young man that would leave Jane without an offer of marriage, but he knew his opinion would not matter much.
He watched his nieces as they hurried from his warehouse before turning his attention to his business.
In the carriage that rolled quickly from the warehouse towards the Gardiner town home, Elizabeth watched her sister Jane as the pale beauty glanced out upon the street. “Surely Miss Bingley shall send an invitation for you Jane. Perhaps you ought to write her and make certain to include the small detail of my departure from London before the Hurst ball.”
Jane turned and gave a happy smile to Elizabeth. “I had thought to write her this afternoon and say news of the ball had made me curious. Do you think it would be too forward?”
Elizabeth shook her head and patted Jane’s hand. “I am certain she will reply with an invitation if you mention I will not be in Town.”
The carriage halted before the Gardiner town home and the footman went to the door to retrieve Mrs. Gardiner, for she was awaiting the return of her nieces.
Aunt Madeline appeared and Jane moved from her bench to sit beside Elizabeth. The sisters were eager to visit their favorite tea shoppe in all of London with their aunt. She had introduced them to the establishment years ago and it was a tradition that they visit at least once while in Town.
When their aunt was seated, Jane spoke of her difficulty in choosing from the many trinkets and treasures of their uncle’s warehouse. “I cannot believe I did not choose that fan. Twas a lovely blue, quite nearly the shade of my eyes, but the rose silk will make a lovely ball gown, don’t you think Lizzy?”
Elizabeth nodded. “Perhaps Uncle shall have the fan sent with the silk, Jane. He does like to surprise us, you know.”
Aunt Madeline cleared her throat and the girls grew silent. “There is much more use to be had from the silk, Jane. A fan is a lovely accessory, to be sure. Shall we visit the modiste on the morrow, then?”
Jane clapped her hands and grew excited over this plan. “Oh, Aunt, could we? There is nothing in Meryton to compare.”
Mrs. Gardiner turned to Elizabeth. “Lizzy, will you join us?”
Elizabeth sighed and shook her head in reply. “I would not. I must ready for the trip to Kent to visit Charlotte. Besides, I have two novels from the warehouse to keep me company.”
The carriage stopped outside their favorite tea shoppe and the sisters became excited for the hour they would spend in the quaint establishment.
Jane stood still for a moment admiring the front of the shoppe. “Mother and the younger girls would so love this place but I must say, I only wish to come with you and Lizzy.”
Their Aunt Madeline agreed. “Your mother and sisters have their own diversions in Hertfordshire when you are away and so we must not worry for them.”
The ladies made their way into the shoppe that was neat as a pin. The tables were covered in fine, white linen and the aroma of cakes and scones scented the air while the intoxicating spice of several teas lent perfectly to the rich ambience of the comfortable, elegant shoppe.
Taking a table near the front window, the Gardiner party of three sat and spoke happily with the proprietor. “Mr. Hanford,” said Madeline Gardiner, “how lovely it is to see you once more. We shall have our usual if it pleases you.”
The elderly gentleman nodded and remarked to Elizabeth and Jane. “Has it been a year since last we met? I declare, the Bennet sisters lend such merriment to my humble shoppe.”
Jane gave the gentleman her most beautiful smile and thanked him for his kind words. “Sir, my sister and I are honored to sit in the finest tea shoppe in all of London and command your attention. Tis the happiest tradition of our existence.”
The man flushed and gave a small bow before moving away to speak to a pair ladies who had just entered. A shadow crossed Elizabeth’s face as she saw the women he spoke with were none other than Miss Bingley and her sister Mrs. Hurst.
Elbowing Jane gently and inclining her head towards the door, Elizabeth shifted her eyes in their direction without turning her head.
Jane took her sister’s clues and glanced slowly towards the door. Unlike Elizabeth, her face displayed a welcoming smile as she watched the Bingley party move to a table not far from their own. “Lizzy, perhaps I might speak with Miss Bingley for a moment and save myself the trouble of writing to her?”
Elizabeth would not dissuade Jane from her plan though she wished Miss Bingley had not appeared to cast a shadow on their visit to Mr. Hanford’s shoppe. “Do go speak with her Jane, and give her my regards.”
Jane rose and smoothed her skirts as she turned her gaze to the ladies of the Bingley table. Leaving her reticule on her seat, Jane moved confidently among the empty chairs until she stood beside the ladies Elizabeth simply abhorred.
Mr. Bingley’s sisters were rather snobbish and too fond of their own opinions by half, but Jane Bennet was an amiable young lady who rarely focused on the faults of others. It was the reason she and Charles Bingley had been so attracted the first night they met at the assembly in Meryton.
Miss Bingley had seen Jane approaching and her face had formed into what passed for polite interest in Town. Mrs. Hurst looked up as Jane appeared and quickly glanced to her sister, smiling with a warmth that did not reach her light green eyes. “Why Miss Bennet, how lovely to see you once more.”
Jane allowed her nervous hands to rest at her sides and attempted to quell the butterflies in her stomach. Mr. Bingley’s sisters had been kind to her before but she did not think for a moment that Louisa Hurst was happy to see her now.
Caroline sat up straighter upon seeing Jane would not leave and offered her a seat at their table. “Miss Bennet, how long are you to be in Town?”
“Several months I should think. Though, Elizabeth will be leaving for Kent soon. Her best friend Charlotte Lucas married our cousin Mr. Collins and has sent for Lizzy to come there for a visit over Easter.”
Louisa raised a brow and nodded. “Tis a shame we shall not be in Town much longer, either. Charles has accepted an invitation from Mr. Darcy to spend the summer at Pemberley.”
Jane knew by the smile that appeared on Miss Bingley’s face that Mrs. Hurst had just invented that particular story and was only being sociable since they were in a public setting.
Not wishing to sit with them a moment longer, and knowing she would never speak of their ball, Jane thanked them for their time and stood again. “I must be getting back to my sister and Aunt.”
The Bingley sisters were pleased she had taken the hint to leave them in peace and smiled prettily as Jane nodded to them both.
Elizabeth looked up as Jane approached and cast a wary eye to the Bingley table. The sisters were smirking and whispering while glancing at Jane’s retreating back. Aunt Madeline took the hand Elizabeth rested on the table to capture her attention. “Look away, Lizzy. We shall not return their unkindness.”
Knowing her Aunt was correct, but irritated by the evil sisters, Elizabeth focused her eyes upon Jane. Her serene expression exasperated Elizabeth and she breathed deeply to maintain her composure. As Jane took her seat once more, Elizabeth smiled and pointed to a framed watercolor on the wall behind their table. “Look Jane, tis not half as lovely as your paintings. I do think your work would be quite lovely in Mr. Hanford’s shoppe.”
Jane Bennet was not as docile as her appearance made it seem and she made a dismissive sound in her throat. “Lizzy, do be serious! What use would a man like Mr. Hanford have for the work of an amateur. I am perfectly fine and there is no need to patronize me because of the boorish Bingley sisters.”
Aunt Madeline gasped at Jane’s whispered words and looked at Elizabeth wondering what she might think of her sister’s display of temper. Jane was not often short with Elizabeth but in this instance, it was likely for the best.
“Oh Jane, I was not patronizing you. Your paintings are lovelier than that,” Elizabeth said and pretended to be terribly engrossed in folding the napkin in her lap.