Quite Contrary Chapter Two: A Soul To The Universe

The second chapter of the alternate WIP. Mary continues to be a rather isolated character, but a little hope appears at the end…

Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind,
flight to the imagination and life to everything.”
― Plato

Mozart was an exacting master.

Aunt Gardiner had sent the latest acquisition for Mary’s collection of sonata scores from London. It lay open on the music rack above the keyboard, the white paper covered in a rash of quick black notes. Supposedly for beginners, this sonata was more difficult than it looked on the surface. Mozart had high expectations of beginners, it seemed. Well, she would take pains to learn it slowly before speeding it to the tempo the composer had written. Those runs of bridging scales looked easy enough at first glance, but she suspected would require a little work on her part to get the fingering right to make the scales ripple and dance and for it all to sound unaffected and effortless.

Music did not always come easily, despite her passion for it. She would give much for a month or two with a London teacher to help her. The sheer unlikelihood of that daunted her a little, but she persevered. She could no more stop playing than she could stop breathing. They were both completely necessary.

Longbourn was very quiet. Papa was in his book room at the other end of the house, Elizabeth was out walking in the bright, late-spring sunshine, and Mamma and the other girls had gone into Meryton, visiting Aunt Phillips to allow Lydia to make her farewells before she left for Brighton with the militia regiment. There was no one to hear Mary.

She put the new Mozart aside for a few minutes, to loosen up her fingers with something loved and familiar of his which she knew by heart. The Rondo Alla Turca. Everyone played it, but few did so well.

Mrs Hurst, for one. The elder sister of the tenant who had leased Netherfield Park the previous year, she had played this piece, furioso, at the ball her brother had held before Christmas. Mary had been mortified by her father’s strictures and sent away from the piano after only one movement of the piece she had prepared, her place taken by Mrs Hurst. The lady had, perhaps, been angry about the attentions Mr Bingley, the Netherfield tenant, had paid Jane. Not that anything had come of it in the end: Mr Bingley had apparently abandoned Jane without a second thought and nothing had been heard of him since the ball. Still, Mrs Hurst doubtless wanted someone with higher, better connexions for her brother. She had vented her ill temper on Mozart by playing at such a speed, any poor Turk depicted in the music would not be marching, but running so fast he would likely fall over his own curly-toed slippers. Mary had listened in disapproving silence. Now, though, Mary played it as it was meant to be done: fast and light and sparkling, with none of the dark, angry overtones with which Mrs Hurst had imbued it.

She kept her hands on the keyboard when she had finished, her eyes closed, allowing her breathing to deepen and slow. How beautiful that was. How… how pure. An exaltation for the spirit.

“That was very good, Mary,” Papa said, and he sounded more astonished than if he had plunged a hand into his waistcoat pocket and found a mouse cowering there in place of his pocket watch.

Mary jumped so violently she had to grasp the edge of of the piano stool with one hand to keep from falling, cringing away from the suddenness of her father’s voice, her heart going in an instant from the quiet rapture of her music to a fierce beating that could not be wilder if the local blacksmith had been hammering out horseshoes on her chest. She squeaked. She could not help herself, even though she whipped up her other hand to her mouth to stifle the noise, staring at Papa over the edge of her palm.

He jerked back a step, his eyebrows winging up as his brow furrowed into a deep frown. The smile on his mouth looked frozen into place, as if someone had taken the last of the winter’s bounty from Longbourn’s ice house, and pressed it against his face to fix it into stillness. The two expressions, at war on his face, were almost frightening. “Did I startle you?”

Mary took two sharp breaths and forced her shoulders down into place. She straightened on the stool, remembering all her childhood lessons on posture and deportment. A lady should always sit erect and show her elegance, grace and poise. She certainly should not cower on a piano stool with her hand clapped over her mouth and her shoulders hunched up around her ears.

“You did a little, Papa.” Her voice trembled, and she swallowed hard to regain control. “I did not hear you enter. I had not thought… oh! Did I disturb you? I am sorry! I did not think you could hear me from your book room. It is quite on the other side of the house and—”

“Shush, child. Do not gabble so.” His frown deepened. “Well, I am sorry, too, since I seem to have caused you a great deal of discomposure. It is true that I usually cannot hear your practice, but I was walking in the garden, thinking over a knotty problem in Plato, and well…” He gestured towards the window. Mary had lowered the top sash earlier, to let in some fresher air. It had apparently also let out her music.

Mary pressed her lips together hard. Should she apologise again for disturbing him?

“I must say that I have never heard you play so well.” Papa thawed the smile. “What was it? Beethoven?”

“Mozart, sir.” Mary raised her right hand and rested it on the keyboard again, letting her fingers ghost over the keys. She eyed him sidelong.

“You played it very finely indeed. Will you do so again, so I may hear all of it? I caught only the last few moments.”

She could only stare again. He never praised her, never asked her to play for him. Never.

He must be joking, of course. Laughing at her, the way he always did. She sought out the tell-tale signs: the droop of his eyelids to hide his cold glances, the quirking of his eyebrows, the upward tilt of the left-hand corner of his mouth. But though he smiled still, it had none of the mocking quality she expected.

Her scalp prickled with sweat under her heavy braids. Her stomach hurt in the way it always hurt when she had to perform, roiling as though someone had replaced it with the dairymaid’s churn and was handily cranking out butter and whey while she swallowed down bile. But the obedience bred into her, blood and bone, had been watered and nurtured there by the Reverend Fordyce. She could not refuse a parent, no matter what the demand made of her.

“If you wish it, sir. Of course.”

She rubbed clammy fingers together to dry them and turned back to the keyboard. Her shoulders stiffened until the muscles at the tops of her arms complained at the tension, but she could not allow them to relax. She held her entire body with the same rigidity: she was playing for someone, not just for her own enjoyment, and so it must be perfect. Every single note, every cadence, every crescendo and diminuendo… perfect, and just so, and not an iota of deviation allowed. She set her jaw so firmly the too-familiar ache went down to her collar bones, and started her fingers moving.

Even to her own ears, there was a difference. The joy had gone, but she had no notion of what to do to get it back. She struck each key with the exact pressure needed for the note to sit in its proper place in the harmony and make its punctilious contribution to the melody, being neither too loud nor soft, sharp nor flat, too allegro nor largo, but, instead, perfectly right. Her performance should have been wonderful. Instead it was a species of arid precision: Mozart in a desert, devoid of charm and gaiety, dying for lack of animation.

It was how she always played for company. She could not help it. She would get to her feet and move to the piano, clutching her music, and the butter churn would start in her stomach while her shoulders and arms took on the rigidity of a dead man. She aimed for perfection, and yet found deficiency. People listened only from civility, she was sure. It would be a relief when Lydia or Kitty or Maria Lucas would bounce up to her and demand a jig or a country dance, and she knew then that people were not really listening to her play anymore. She had become an… an accessory to the company’s pleasure; necessary to the sociability of the evening, but not the reason for it. She was the piece of trimming on the evening, the knot of dull ribbon on a pretty bonnet. Heads nodded and feet tapped along with the dance, and everyone’s smiles were for the bonnet, not the trimming. When in company, that was the closest she ever managed to come to the transcendence she looked for.

She reached the end of the piece, the last few bars reaffirming the major harmony in a rousing, energetic close, bringing the entire sonata to a balance and symmetry that must have had the Muse of music curtsying her reverence for Mozart’s mastery. At least, those final bars had achieved melodic joy when she played it for herself. She was uncertain what she had attained when playing for Papa.

There was a moment of silence, that went on too long. She would not look at him. Could not.

He cleared his throat. “Well, then.”

A pause. That in itself was odd, because Papa was not a man whose tongue lacked confidence and finesse.

“That was not quite so free and effortless as the first time, Mary.” Another throat clearance.

She turned to face him at last. Though he frowned, and pulled at his lower lip with one hand in the manner of someone facing a dilemma he had not anticipated, he looked… kind. That was surprising.

 “I wonder… do you like playing for others? Do you relish an audience?”

“Like it, Papa?”

“Do you enjoy it? I noticed a difference in you. Not just in the way the piece sounded, but in the way you played it. Your whole mien and manner were stiffer, you held yourself with great tension, because, I think, you were so conscious of being under my eye. You were not at ease. Do you always feel so?”

Mary nodded. The straining for perfection was visible? No one had ever remarked upon it before.

“Then why continue to perform to our neighbours, if it brings you no pleasure? Would you not be more comfortable if you played for your own amusement, and forbore to exhibit? The joy you felt when you thought yourself unobserved was palpable, and your skill astonished me. It seems a pity to strain yourself into the shape of a public performer, if it disconcerts you so much.”

She was not pretty like her sisters, witty like Lizzy, or as lively as Lydia. Heavens, she was not so lively even as Kitty! Take away her accomplishments and cease sharing them with their neighbours? She had only her reading, and she had learned that was not something easily shared and she could not imagine one neighbour who would welcome the opportunity to discuss it.

She could only shake her head. “I have nothing else.”

He took her meaning directly. He grimaced, and nodded, and said “Oh, child,” in a sad, regretful voice. And when he stooped over her and kissed her brow before he went quietly away, she almost gasped aloud at the unexpectedness of it.

“You should have come with us, Mary,” Lydia bounced at Mary in the same manner that she bounced into rooms, and chairs, and dances, and—quite often—into people, greeting all such occasions with loud laughter and jollity and a freedom from care that Mary quite envied.

Mary had spent a quiet hour of introspection after Papa had left her to return to his book room. She had not played another note, but sat with her hands in her lap and her gaze on the silent keyboard. When she had heard the sounds of the family’s return, she had closed up the fortepiano that, like many of the better objects at Longbourn, had belonged to her grandmother Bennet, and made her way to the parlour the family kept for their private use.

“Yes, indeed,” Jane said, smiling in her kind way. “Aunt Phillips was disappointed that you and Lizzy did not come with us. She asked after you particularly, Mary.”

Elizabeth laughed. “I am mortified at the lack of particularity in my own case!”

“Oh, she wanted Mary to play for the officers.” Lydia’s tone was one of airy dismissal. “They came to spend an hour at cards, and Aunt likes to provide them with entertainment. Mary could have played something for us to dance to, and you are never so obliging as that, you know, Lizzy.”

“Indeed I am not, and I do not repent it. Mary is too accommodating when it comes to indulging you in dances. Besides, I would have thought the officers would have too much to do preparing for their remove to Brighton tomorrow, to spend time at cards and dancing.”

“I expect they had the common soldiers do all the work,” said Lydia, with a fine disinterest in the workings of a military encampment. “Is that not what the men are for? Wickham, Denny and the others said they were eager to be off.” She smirked at Kitty. “They made such a droll pun! Because I am to be there too, they said Brighton will be all the brighter.”

Kitty’s face could not have crumpled more if Lydia had taken it in her hands and squeezed and contorted it. “Oh,” she said, the ready tears gathering.

Lydia, of course, smirked all the more.

Jane shook her head and went at once to Kitty, to put an arm about her shoulders.

“You are a spiteful child, Lyddie,” Lizzy said, in a tone that was all the more damning for being quite dispassionate. Mary wished she could sound as quelling. “Brace up, Kitty. We shall have our fun here, without Lydia to spoil it. The regiment may be gone, but there will still be plenty of gentlemen at the Spring assembly. All the more for us, without Lydia pushing her way in, wild to get their attention.”

“Pooh!” Lydia flushed an unflattering shade of red. “They will miss me mightily! Everyone likes me a great deal better than any of you. Why should they dance with such dull tabbies as you all are?”

“Well, Lyddie, at least we dull tabbies do not shriek in a man’s ear like banshees, or thrust our bosoms into the face of every disreputable, penniless younger son who enters a militia regiment. We are not brassy.” And Elizabeth smiled Papa’s smile.

For once, Mary liked it. Jane sighed and shook her head.

But Kitty dashed away the tears before they trickle down her cheeks, and nodded. “No, indeed.”

Lydia was seldom lost for words. Her mouth opened and closed once or twice, but Elizabeth went to press up against Kitty’s other side, so Kitty was comforted between her and Jane. She nodded at Mary, smiled—not Papa’s smile this time, but her own much sweeter one, and raised an eyebrow. Not quite comfortable, Mary went to stand behind them, but Elizabeth caught at her as she made to pass them, and tucking her arm into Mary’s, drew her into line.

“Oh!” said Lydia, still scarlet as a redcoat’s jacket, and in a great huff, she flounced off.

Kitty drew a wavering breath when she was gone. “Thank you! You are all very kind. Lyddie is not always. Kind, I mean.”

“She never is.” Elizabeth squeezed Mary’s arm and released her. “She is spoilt and selfish.”

“She will complain to Mamma,” Mary warned.

Elizabeth merely smiled. “Well, it quite cheers Mamma, to have something over which she may fuss at me. I doubt either of us would know how to hold the other in any charity.”

Mary could only wonder why she had never before realised that moments of harmony with her sisters were possible outside of a concert hall.

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