Lady Mendelsen sat on the window seat of her chambers at Lofton Manor looking out into the garden of her brother's estate, just below. Perhaps it was a sense of morbid curiosity that kept her riveted to the view. It was not the early spring blossoms that captured her attention, but rather a couple who walked arm in arm in contented harmony along the path, talking and laughing together, obviously delighting in one another's companionship. It might have been a young couple, with the vivacity and spirit and cheerfulness often bestowed by youth and innocence. It might have been any two of the young guests currently residing at Lofton. Yet, it was not. The couple was older, with children well beyond their first youthful bloom: the gentleman distinguishedly gray, the lady gracefully silvering. Their faces marked by the lines of time and experience. Their gait slow and careful. They were certainly by no means infirm, but the abundant energy of earlier days had vanished. Yet still, after all these years, there was a sort of glow about them.
The couple stopped to admire a bed of rose bushes, and the lady turned her face to gaze at her husband. The gentleman's face diffused with pleasure, happiness, delight. He appeared almost as a young man in the throes of his first infatuation. But there was something more. As he looked at his wife, he saw also the years of devotion with this same woman, the sorrows and joys of a full lifetime together, the hope and despair they had seen each other through. His was a look that encompassed more than what could be captured in even the most violently in love young man. No man had ever looked at Lady Mendelsen in that way. Certainly not her husband.
She remembered the first time she had seen it. The first time she had visited them after their marriage, so many years ago. Then, she had thought him a fool. A fool entrapped, bewitched, infatuated. A fool who would regret his choice when the appealing attributes of youth and vigor should abandon the lady he had selected. She had laughed then. And now, as she watched the couple gazing lovingly into each other's eyes, she realized she had never since that first time seen him look at her in any other way. For more than thirty years they had all visited Lofton Manor for three weeks in the spring, and through the changes wrought by those years, this couple had remained always the same in their mutual devotion. The years had faded the lady's beauty and vivacity, and bearing six children had altered her maidenly figure. Lady Mendelsen had believed that when those qualities of youth and beauty that had deluded him should fade, the man would realize that he had married imprudently, that he had sentenced himself to a lifetime of subjection to her inferiority of station and fortune and the vulgarity of her family, in exchange for the enjoyment of her charms for some fleeting moments. Yet now when those charms had all but disappeared, his devotion continued unabated. Heretofore, Lady Mendelsen had not been able to fathom why. Everything she had been taught as a girl about attracting gentlemen and about love and marriage was defied by the proof before her.
The satisfaction she had anticipated in observing evidence of his regret never came. Instead there was only confirmation of his joy, affirmation of his choice, year after year. Lady Mendelsen, knowing as she then did that his regret would someday materialize, had sought to apply the principle that success is the most effective form of vengeance. The very season of their marriage, she had secured a proposal from Lord Mendelsen. A gentleman of even greater means and more distinguished relations than the one who now stood in the garden below. Her own self-importance and vanity had prevented her from imagining her engagement would give her husband's family any reason to reproach him. She was shocked when she found herself, after her marriage, much in the same position as the lady now in the garden had been upon hers. She had been witness to the tension between that lady's husband and his relations due to his choice of wife, and he had never faltered in his loyalty. Her own husband had been indifferent at best in his defense of her. And that was not the only contrast between the couples. When word of her engagement began to circulate through her acquaintances in town she discovered that the explanation being repeated for Lord Mendelsen's choice was not a deep and abiding love – as had been the case with the other couple – but rather an inclination on his part to disoblige his family.
To add insult to injury, that other couple had wished her joy with such warm sincerity. The lady, in particular, expressed her felicitations upon their first meeting after Lady Mendelsen's marriage with not even a hint of the bitterness or envy Lady Mendelsen had looked forward to. In fact, Lady Mendelsen had thought she could almost detect pity in her tone. It was as if they genuinely hoped she would be happy, but somehow knew she could never be as happy as they were – yet there was no smugness in their expression. Thus, she found her own sense of triumph on the occasion less satisfying than she had anticipated. At first she flaunted her position outwardly. Her new title had been, in her estimation, a sufficient excuse to behave with even more haughty disdain than ever. She felt she had done better, she had made a better match – and she made sure everyone around her was aware of it. But she could not keep up the pretense for long. She certainly never revealed the depths of her misery – in truth she had not even recognized her own desolation for some years – but even after she did, she always tried to remain cheerful to the outside world. Nevertheless, she had been unable to maintain a facade of happiness in her domestic life.
Lord Mendelsen's family had never accepted her. They had always treated her with slightly less civility than was appropriate. Her husband's apathy only served to encourage them. When a year passed and she had not conceived a child, his mother had made it clear that she was good for absolutely nothing. It had been his only stipulation in negotiating their engagement. He required an heir – only one – and once it was begotten, he would bother her no more. After three years, he had all but given up on her and his visits to her bedroom were seldom. She remembered now, wondering how he expected her to fulfill his mandate for a child, when he would not cooperate and do his part. Meanwhile, her former rival had conceived and borne two sons – with no trouble at all. At last, Lady Mendelsen had finally experienced the signs she waited for. She did not tell her husband until she felt the quickening of the child within her. She had never known such joy. She went eagerly to his study, arriving breathless and vibrant, to announce her condition – only to find he was already aware of it. Her maid had noticed the signs and revealed the circumstance to the housekeeper who had told the master. He dismissed her without so much as a smile.
The worst day of her entire life followed three weeks later. The child was lost. And it was only the first. She would conceive and lose seven more children at various stages during the next ten years. When her husband came to her, she remembered begging him to leave her be, to spare her from the pain of losing another child. She could not understand how he did not suffer as a result of those losses as well. They were his children too. Yet, he would not relent, insisting that he required a legitimate heir. The implication of this admission struck her like a physical blow. She had always suspected him of seeking comfort and pleasure outside the bounds of their marriage – in truth she had always known it, he had certainly not kept it a secret; but to have such confirmation not only of his infidelity but that it had resulted in a child – children, perhaps – was too painful to withstand. From that day forward she submitted without complaint, but she would never forget that moment, when the last vestiges of her innocence and faith had been shattered. When she conceived again, she did not speak of it, pretended it had not happened, and waited for the inevitable pains that would bring on her sorrow. The pains came at last, and when she first felt them she prepared herself for the worst, not even realizing that this time they had occurred in the natural course of time – that she had carried her child to full term.
When they placed the child in her arms, at her insistence, she had not even thought to wonder whether it was a boy or a girl. The vision of a living, breathing babe overwhelmed her beyond all rational thought. It was at that moment, looking into the blinking eyes of her sweet, healthy child, that Lady Mendelsen realized she had never until then known what it was to love. The child was taken from her again briefly, for her husband's inspection. She dared not hope he would at long last be pleased with her, she had finally stopped seeking his approval and validation. Yet, she could not help but anticipate that he would be pleased to have a child at last. She heard his voice from the corridor. "A girl?" he cried. He cursed her then, emphasizing her uselessness yet again. She might have known he would see her greatest and most joyful triumph as a failure. But it mattered not when her daughter was placed again in her arms. From that moment forward, she lived for that child.
Like any good mother, Lady Mendelsen desired the best for her daughter. Not in family, connections and fortune – her husband's relations were sufficient for that – but in the experiences life had to offer. Yet, when she looked for an example of behavior for her daughter to emulate, she found her own character in her youth sadly wanting. Surreptitiously, and perhaps unwittingly, she had offered another as a model. She glanced again to the garden. She only just realized that in her careful instruction of her daughter – the hours of conversation discussing propriety of behavior in various situations – she had always drawn on her observations of the only lady she knew who seemed to have always done everything right – not for material gain, but for real happiness.
For once, her husband's disinterest in his daughter's life had served her own purpose. The raising of Isabella had been left to her and her alone, the girl's paternal relations not thinking it worthwhile to bestow their attentions upon her. Soon after Isabella's birth, Lord Mendelsen brought a young boy of ten years in age home to live with them. The similarity in his countenance and the lord's was unmistakable. Lord Mendelsen had decided to make this child his heir. The family treated him in every way superior to Isabella – every bit as a rightful and legitimate heir. She did not begrudge the boy their affection, but felt all the hypocrisy of their disparate treatment of her own daughter. Nevertheless, it was clear Lord Mendelsen would leave the bulk of the estate to the boy. Isabella would receive nothing more than her dowry of thirty-thousand pounds – and that only because it was settled upon her irrevocably. Lady Mendelsen found it easy to behave with compassion and kindness towards the boy – and it was in her daughter's interest that he should feel kindness and affection towards his benefactor's daughter – his sister. Yet, her careful attentions to the boy had been ineffective – he grew up spoilt and ungrateful. He was too much in manner like his father, and Lady Mendelsen could clearly see that her husband had had a hand in his upbringing from the first. So, the boy learned from the example of the family to dismiss both his sister and her mother.
Given the circumstances, it had always been Lady Mendelsen's desire that Isabella should marry well. Knowing that her family could not be depended upon to provide for her, her only hope was to marry a man of wealth and consequence. Lady Mendelsen had well learned her lessons in life, and paramount even to those considerations was her daughter's happiness. She would never give up Isabella to a man who would treat her as she herself had been treated. She knew Lord Mendelsen would approve any match for her that would not bring shame upon the family – fortune and connections being his only considerations – so it fell upon her to assure that any gentlemen whom she did not approve but to whom her husband would grant his consent, would never advance in his acquaintance with Isabella to the point of soliciting her hand from her father.
These ruminations made her eager to find her daughter, and so she left her rooms and sought Isabella in the parlour where she found her quite alone with one of the young gentlemen who was a guest at the house. The way he was looking at her daughter was familiar to her – not because she had ever been the object of such a look, but because she had been witness to it in the face of another for more than thirty relentless years. "Oh Mama," said Isabella, her eyes glistening. "I must speak with you." She gave the young man an expectant look and he excused himself from the room.
"I have been neglecting you," said Lady Mendelsen, immediately, "but I did not expect you to show so little judgment when left on your own, Isabella."
Isabella smiled. She was so beautiful, so sweet, so perfect. She had grown into a woman who was intelligent, sensible, self-assured, and yet delightfully vibrant and cheerful. She was her mother's consolation, her greatest pride, and her greatest accomplishment, a gift from Heaven to be cherished. "You must forgive me, Mama, but please be assured I would not do anything improper. We were only alone for a moment and it is a good thing, for it gave Mr. Collins an opportunity to propose."
Lady Mendelsen had noticed the young man's attentions to her daughter on their last two visits to Lofton Manor and the very few other times during the year in which they saw each other. His preference had long been apparent, but Isabella had heretofore shown no particular regard for him. He was a young man of excellent character, raised by a sensible and attentive mother, who had been widowed while he was still a babe, along with her second husband, an industrious and successful merchant. He was nothing she would have ever hoped for in a husband for her daughter – he had nothing to recommend him that would be of any value to Lord Mendelsen – no family of consequence, no vast fortune or property – only a small estate in Hertfordshire – and no worthwhile connections other than the friends of his mother who had brought him to Lofton Manor the past two years. Yet, he loved Isabella – deeply, steadfastly. The kind of happiness she had not been wise enough to desire for herself until it was far too late to achieve, was now within her daughter's reach.
"So, he has proposed. May I inquire as to your answer?"
Isabella laughed lightly. "How can you ask me, dearest Mama? You must know it is my greatest wish to marry him."
Lady Mendelsen was shocked. She had been able to discern that Isabella had consented, but to see her speak with so much passion, to learn of her belief that her mother must have understood her preference, she felt ashamed – ashamed that for all the care she had taken in raising Isabella, something so important had gone unnoticed by her. She gently placed her hand on her daughter's cheek. "My darling Isabella. You cannot know how much I love you."
Isabella took her mother's hand and, kissing it, replied, "I love you too, Mama."
"I only wish for you to be happy, my dear, and I cannot imagine a more effective way to achieve that than to see you married to your young Mr. Collins."
Isabella beamed at her mother saying, "I knew you would not disapprove," then her expression changed as she added, "but, Papa will never consent."
"Isabella," said Lady Mendelsen in a very serious tone, "you have a lifetime of happiness ahead of you – and that is too important to risk because of your father's irrational whims. I will take you to Gretna Green myself if I have to."
The women embraced in one of those moments of mutual contentment that had been Lady Mendelsen's sustenance these twenty years. Her only child, her beloved daughter was about to make a very imprudent match in defiance of her illustrious family and of all society, yet she felt nothing but sincere joy as she foresaw a future for Isabella filled with the kind of felicity she herself had never experienced, but had so often been witness to.