With apologies to Jane Austen, I present to you MAGIC & MANNERS, which is what happens when I get it into my head to wonder what PRIDE & PREJUDICE would be like if it was not a lack of wealth that beleaguered the Bennet sisters, but rather an excess of magic…
(ETA: oh, that’s insane, it actually is Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Wretch Day, wherein people post free fiction. I’d forgotten that was on Shakespeare’s birthday. How clever of me!)
That each and every one of Mrs Dover’s five daughters was afflicted with an inconvenient magic inherited from their father was no barrier to their impending nuptials: on this, Mrs Dover was determined.
“It has not,” she said to that long-suffering man for perhaps the six hundredth time in their marriage, “been the most desireable situation, but one must make do.”
“One must,” he agreed most aimiably, and into that agreement a silence fell, for one had, in fact, made do, both in Mrs Dover’s case and in Mr Dover’s. She, unmarried at the ancient age of twenty-three, had been obliged to accept the suitor who offered, and he, veritably in the grave at thirty-eight, had been equally obliged to request her hand. There was no scandal attached, much to the dismay of the neighboring gossips: Mrs Dover did not do in seven months what took a cow or countess nine, but instead gave birth to the first of many girls a stately and sedate fourteen months after marriage to Mr Dover.
Mr Dover had been, by all intelligence, an entirely suitable match: he had one thousand pounds a year and a quick humor which his wife had never fully learned to appreciate. He was laconic in spirit and gentle with horses, and had a handsome leg and a fine nose. All in all, he ought to have been married long before Mrs Dover was obliged to accept him. It was the unspeakable question of magic that had forced–or permited–him to remain unwed for so long.
Mrs Dover’s mother, Mrs Hampshire, had willfully seen nor heard anything of such rumors: no one in good society would. Certainly if Mr Dover was of that sort he had kept it quiet enough, with little more than his long-standing bachelorhood to hint at a family taint. Magic was the kind of thing that happened to someone else, to lesser people or those who had fallen from a higher station; it certainly did not appear unexplained in a family of good standing. Mr Dover had no mysterious deaths attached to him; he had never been married to a woman who wasted away in a high tower, nor had his parents disappeared or died under inexplicable circumstances. Certainly, indeed, Mrs Dover the Elder was of exceedingly good breeding and indeed, still alive when Mrs Hampshire oversaw the engagement of two (relatively) young persons to one another, while Mr Dover the Elder had died most respectably, at sea. Nor had Mr Dover the Younger any unexplained wards to care for, no suggestion of impropriety hanging over him in such a way. He was an eminently suitable young man for Mrs Hampshire’s rapidly aging daughter, and the match was made.
That the church walkway was lined with freshly blooming spring flowers, and that the trees were budding new green leaves under a gloriously warm sun on their wedding day was certainly no more than auspicious, and no one dared comment too loudly that it was the third of January, or that two nights earlier snow had fallen deeply enough to swallow horses’s ankles as they trod down frozen winter roads.
Mrs Hampshire had never been certain whether the new Mrs Dover had fully understood the unlikelihood of the blooming weather that graced her wedding day. She was very pretty, with blushing apple cheeks and wide light eyes beneath lemon-yellow hair that was indeed washed with lemon juice as often as possible to retain that soft bright color. Mr Hampshire, her father, was a man of reasonable means, though much of his money had gone to buying the new Mrs Dover’s brother a Captaincy, and so it had been necessary for the youngest Hampshire girl to marry passably well. It ought to have been an easy task, but Miss Hampshire, Mrs-Dover-to-be, possessed what an aunt had charitably called a tongue tied in the middle, and loose at both ends. She meant no harm at all, but it proved very difficult for Mrs Hampshire to seclude any potential bridesgrooms from her daughter long enough for them to fall in love with her mein and fail to notice her chatter. Mr Dover had been a blessing, and if the weather was unseasonably lovely for their marriage, well, the new Mrs Dover had felt it only her due, and Mrs Hampshire had breathed a sigh of relief that her youngest and silliest daughter was safely married.
Nor had Mrs Dover any complaints in a home where the tea remained mysteriously hot even after standing unattended for hours, or where a warm breeze seemed to waft from the kitchen’s roaring fires into all the coldest places in the halls. The laundry dried remarkably quickly, and stains never set in tableclothes; these were the unrealized advantages to marrying a man rumored to have magic of his own. Mr Dover had more money than Mr Hampshire; perhaps it was the greater income which allowed grass to grow more greenly or the dogs to be particularly well-mannered and disinclined to shedding. It was a fantasy upon which Mrs Dover was permitted to dwell until her second daughter’s third birthday, when an explosive sneeze from the child lit the tablecloth on fire, and only the quick calm hands of the oldest daughter kept the entire house from burning down. Even that might have been dismissable–the sneeze might have knocked a candle aside, the tablecloth might have been saved by doubling it and patting the fire out–but for the servants who were in the room at the time, and who most clearly saw what Mrs Dover denied. Rosamund, the eldest, patted the flames out with her bare hands, and left ice drippings on the wood beneath, and Elsabeth, the birthday girl, sneezed a second time for fun and dripped fire as if she was a little dragon, and not a girl at all.
Two of the servants gave notice and a third left in screams. Those who remained did so with forebearance, but the damage was done. By suppertime the story had been put around; by breakfast the following day each of Mrs Dover’s appointments for the next week had returned her calling cards, and by the following Sunday she pled with Mr Dover to allow them to retire to his modest country estate, where they might be forgotten about for a while.
Seventeen years passed, and they had yet to return to town. Mr Dover found this to be no difficulty at all, and Mrs Dover bore it with good humor, which was to say she spoke of the difficulties of country living with every breath, most particularly the difficulties of finding suitable husbands for five–five!–daughters whose dowrys were modest at best, though certainly they all had lovely faces to make up for such moderate means,
“but,” Mrs Dover burst out, as though they had not fallen into a brief and companionable silence, “but certainly there is no doubt that a single man of good fortune must be in want of a wife, and what can you imagine, Mr Dover, but that Newsbury Manor has been let at last!”
“I am sure I can hardly imagine such a thing,” Mr Dover replied with usual good nature. He had his paper and his tea; nothing much could disturb him from these, and he had long since learned to bend when the wind blew in, as it so often did in the form of Mrs Dover. She, for her part, had barely come through the door before making impetuous statements regarding the desirability or lack thereof of their daughters’ situation, and only now wrested her hat from its perch atop her head to a spot on the table, where later she would scold a servant for having left it.
“Are you not the slightest bit curious about who might have let it?”
“Indeed, I am not, as Newsbury Manor is much too large for my liking and I could never wish to visit it myself, so am of no mind to know who has the poor taste to admire it.”
“Oh! How cruel you are. But I will tell you, as I know that the welfare of your daughters is close to your heart despite your pretenses to the contrary. It is indeed a young man of good fortune, as I have just had it from Mrs Langfield, a young man with at least three thousand pounds a year!”
“Has this fortunate young man with poor taste in homes a name?”
Were she a bird settled against a cold north wind, Mrs Dover could not be more fluffed of feather. “His name is Mr Webber, and he is single! It is a great relief for our girls! You must go and visit him at once, Mr Dover, I insist upon it. The very happiness of your daughters depends on it.”
“My dear Mrs Dover, how can the happiness of five girls depend on a single man–other than their beloved papa, of course–”
“Oh!” Mrs Dover picked up her hat for the sole purpose of flinging it down again. “Surely you must understand I mean Mr Webber to marry one of them!”
“And has Mr Webber any awareness of these designs?”
Mrs Dover’s feathers settled, and though the uncharitable might call her expression shrewish, it was in truth more measured, all silliness temporarily dismissed. This chance change in manner was perhaps what made the Dovers’ marriage a happy one: beneath her frothy exterior, Mrs Dover was possessed of a fine enough mind when she was of an inclination to use it. Dry wit was a permissible weapon in a lady’s armory, and it was dryly enough indeed that she spoke. “Does any man?”
The very corner of Mr Dover’s mouth twitched. He applied himself to his tea and papers, and Mrs Dover, quite satisfied that she had made her mark, returned to her dithering ways. “Certainly he can have no mind of it at all if you do not visit him, Mr Dover! You must go at once.”
Mr Dover folded his paper. “I shall go at this very moment.”
“Not now!” said his lady in desperate exasperation. “For Heaven’s sake, Mr Dover, Mr Webber has not yet even taken up residence at Newsbury Manor!”
“Then you are entirely too hasty, my dear, and I must insist that you sit down and take some tea. It is wonderfully warm and there is just enough honey to sweeten it. I am certain that when this young Mr Webber arrives he will be most pleased to have you and our daughters visit him yourselves, and leave all such nonsense out of my incapable hands, as it seems I can hardly be trusted to know when I should or should not go.” Mr Dover shook his papers out again and made no secret of watching Mrs Dover over their tops, none too secretly amused at the flush of color in her cheeks, or at the way she struggled not to stamp an impatient foot.
“Certainly we cannot visit until you have done so, Mr Dover!”
“Then none of us shall, and your tea is getting cold.” That it would never get cold was not a point to be considered; in principle, tea grew cooler, and one made such comments because they were appropriate, not because they were necessarily truthful. “I shall write your emininent Mr Webber a note,” Mr Dover conceded, “and indicate to him that he may marry whichever of my daughters he wishes. Certainly that should suffice for your needs, Mrs Dover. I shall,” he concluded magnanimously, “put in a particularly good word for Elsabeth, who I dare say is the cleverest of the lot.”
“You will do no such thing,” Mrs Dover said, very nearly in despair. “Your fondness for Elsa is inexcusable. She is not half so pretty as Rosamund nor half so charming as Matilda, and she is certainly no better than the others. You cannot continue this way, Mr Dover, you have no consideration for my nerves.”
“My dear lady, your nerves are my constant consideration, entangled as I have been with them for the past twenty years and some. You must have your tea now: I insist upon it, that your nerves might be settled and you might live to see a dozen more young men with three thousand a year come to the neighborhood.”
“There is no use at all in living to see it if you will not take it upon yourself to visit them. We shall have five daughters old maids all, all for want of an introduction.” Mrs Dover settled herself for tea at last, skirts sinking as if fluffed feathers finally gave way to dejection.
“I believe you see it all in the most unfavorable light possible. Rather, think of it as having five daughters to warm our hearts and home as we age,” Mr Dover disagreed pleasantly. “You shall not be obliged to attend to my feeble and tiresome needs all on your own. Indeed, if we are very fortunate, Mrs Dover, not one of our girls will marry, and we shall live together in peace and comfort until the end of our days.”