Footsteps could be heard coming down the corridor - more than one person by the sound of it. They stopped at the door. One of the two people at the bedside jumped up.
“Jane!” she exclaimed. “I am so glad you are come! And our aunt and uncle too!”
“Oh Lizzy - we came as soon as we had your express! But what happened to Papa? He looks so white and ill.”
“He went to the farm yesterday in the afternoon, to speak to the farmer about the harvest. He was gone much longer than he should have been, and Mama grew alarmed and sent Mr Hill out to look for him. It had been raining in the morning, and it seems as if he must have slipped and fallen, and hit his head on a rock. He was quite insensible when he was carried home, and has not stirred or woken since.”
“But will he recover?”
“The apothecary was sent for. He looked at Papa, and shook his head. He says that while it is not unknown for people in these states to wake up again, we should not get our hopes up. Mama insists that he will wake, though.”
“Oh, poor Mama - how distraught she must be! Where is she?”
“She is in her bedchamber.”
“Should I go to her?” asked Mr Gardiner. “Perhaps I might be able to calm her.”
“There is no need for that - she and Mary sat with Papa all night, and now Kitty and I have taken their places while they sleep. It is everything incredible - after the outcry when she first saw him, she has not been the least bit in hysterics. It was she who said that he should not be carried up the stairs, and had a bed brought in here. She has done everything possible for his comfort. It is almost as though she were a completely different person.”
“In fact, this sort of behaviour from her does not come as a surprise to me,” said Mr Gardiner. “When I was a child, I fell from an apple tree that I had foolishly climbed, and was in much the same state as your father. My father was from home, and my mother and sister Philips were both prostrate with terror. Your mother took charge and arranged everything for my care. She nursed me devotedly, and I am convinced that I have her to thank that I am here today. I am sure she will do the same for your father.”
“Thank you, Uncle, that is very reassuring to hear,” said Elizabeth. “I’m sure she will wish to greet you. Kitty, please go and tell Mama that Jane and Aunt and Uncle Gardiner have arrived.”
“Yes, Lizzy.” Kitty released her father’s hand, which she had been holding, got up and left the room. Lizzy took her place.
After a short while, Mrs Bennet’s steps could be heard on the stairs. She greeted the party warmly. “I am so glad you are here, Jane! And you, brother, sister - I have done everything I can possibly think of for Mr Bennet, but I will be glad of your advice.”
“I am sure no advice is needed, Fanny my dear, I remember that from my own case. Depend upon it, your husband will thrive under your care.”
“Thank you, brother - I do not care what Mr Jones says - Mr Bennet WILL wake up, you mark my words!”
At this point Mary made her presence known, greeting her aunt and uncle, who made much of her for her devotion to her father.
“Yes, Mary has been a great comfort to me, and so have Lizzy and Kitty, and I am sure Jane will be too, now that she is here. But Mary, child, why are you here? You must go straight back to bed - you are young and need your sleep. Now, I must see Hill and make sure that your bedchambers have been prepared properly. But first…” She bustled over to the bed and took her husband’s hand. “Jane has come, my dear, and our brother and sister Gardiner, too. They can talk to you while I make everything ready for them. I will be back very soon.” She left the room, chivvying Mary in front of her.
Mrs Gardiner sat down by the bed and started talking quietly to Mr Bennet. Elizabeth, still holding her father’s hand on the other side of the bed, let out a sigh.
“Mama is convinced that Papa can hear everything that we say to him, Uncle, and that we should talk to him whenever we are with him. I cannot believe that is the case, but we are doing it to please her.”
“Here again, she may have the right of it, Lizzy. I was able to hear what was happening when I was in a similar state to your father, and if it hadn’t been for your mother talking to me then, I think I would have despaired of ever waking up. Now, you must be in need of a rest. Let Jane take your place, and you and Kitty come and take some refreshment.”
“Yes, go, Lizzy, Kitty,” said Jane. “Aunt Gardiner and I will tell Papa about my stay in London.”
Wait, Gardiner, don’t go! You are right, I can hear what is around me… must try to let you know… if only I could move my hand a little bit… no, no use… In fact, Mrs Bennet had been perfectly correct. Her husband was able to hear and feel everything going on around him, but was unable to move, even to open his eyes. He was immensely grateful for his wife’s insistence that people speak to him while sitting at his bedside; if they did not, he was convinced that he would lose his mind.
Over the next few days, Mr Bennett was never left alone. He drifted in and out of consciousness, listening to the different people who were talking to him during his waking periods. He also had ample opportunity to reflect upon his life, and learned some surprising things about some of the people surrounding him. Some were not so surprising - Jane and Lizzy were exactly how he expected they would be - Jane calm and thoughtful, while Lizzy sparkled and amused him with her descriptions of occurrences in the outside world.
Lydia, unfortunately, was also not a surprise - she would only come into the sick-room on the rare occasions when Mrs Bennet insisted on it, and on those occasions would spend the least amount of time possible. Mrs Bennet excused her behaviour to the Gardiners, one time they were present, saying that she was full young to be spending all her time around a sick-room. There was a brief silence after this, and Mr Bennet could imagine Mrs Gardiner giving his wife one of her Looks, but as always, she chattered on obliviously.
Mary, however, was far more interesting than he had expected, especially after Mrs Bennet had forbidden her to read to him from Fordyce’s sermons, saying that she wished for him to wake up, not to be sent further to sleep, an opinion which he endorsed whole-heartedly. So Mary was obliged to broaden her horizons, and as she read books from her father’s library, she started talking about things that interested and puzzled her. Mr Bennet realised guiltily that he had been too quick to dismiss her as just a silly, pedantic girl, and resolved to spend time discussing books with her in future.
But to his surprise it was his wife’s company he enjoyed the most. She talked about many things, in the process opening his eyes to the ways he had misjudged and been unkind to her.
She would reminisce about their courting days: how she was flattered that such a clever (and very eligible) man was interested in her when he could have anyone he wanted; how Mr Bennet had threatened to scandalise the neighbourhood by dancing with her three times at an assembly (after their engagement), how he kept treading on her toes and she turned it into a joke. He remembered how she would whisper the next step of a dance to him when he had forgot, and resolved that when he woke up he should start to dance with her again.
She apologised for only having daughters, saying how good it was of him that he didn’t say anything out loud to blame her for not having given him an heir even though he must do so. Mr Bennet desperately wanted to reassure her that he had never blamed her.
She knew he liked to tease or vex her and wished she understood him and his sense of humour more so that she could join in with the teasing properly - as it was, she accused him of vexing her so much because she realised it amused him - she really did know all along that he would visit Bingley but decided to play along to please him, “though I admit, my dear, that sometimes I am not quite sure that you are only funning me… but no, you are never unkind to me. It is only my foolish imaginings.”
Oh Fanny, it is not your imagination - I do sometimes mock you! But no more - I am heartily ashamed of myself and will never again give you reason to think me unkind. I will find some other source for my amusement - perhaps Lizzy may not be the only one who shares the joke with me in the future.
Eventually Mr Bennet found he was able to make slight movements, much to Mrs Bennet’s delight. On the day he finally opened his eyes and spoke to her, her glad cries of joy roused the whole household.
The first thing he did when they were all gathered around was to take his wife’s hand and say, “Mrs Bennet, I hope that at the next assembly, you will reserve three dances for me.”
She gasped, then said, “Mr Bennet, how can you ask such a thing? All our neighbours will be shocked, and besides, you will ruin my best pair of dancing slippers by standing on them!”
“That is just what I hope will happen, my dear.”
“Oh, you take a delight in vexing me!” she said, and giggled when he kissed her hand.