Posted on Monday, 31 October 2005
It was a dark and stormy night when the strange events that changed my life took place.
I liked stormy nights. My mother, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, didn't, so she would go to bed early and order me and my companion to do likewise. Which we always did. However, I never felt myself compelled to stay in bed, so after some time would have passed and I would be reasonably sure that the entire house would be deep in slumbers, I would get out of bed, put on my dressing gown and my warm slippers, and explore Rosings. The next morning I would be exhausted, of course - but this didn't matter. My mother and companion were overly concerned about my health as it was - they were never surprised by a pale face and listless attitude.
This night, I lighted my candle and decided I would take myself to the library and do some research on the West-Indies. The Collins family was hosting one of Mr. Collins' acquaintances from university - a Mr. Mason. I had been surprised beyond belief that the two had, apparently, kept in touch, for a bigger contrast between the conforming, easily managed and, frankly, bland Mr. Collins and this Mr. Mason could not be imagined.
My mother, ever solicitous of the proper way to treat guests, had invited the Collinses and their guest for dinner a few days after we had been informed of the latter's arrival. It had duly taken place the evening before this one. Though we never would admit it, every one within the household of Rosings was curious about this new addition to our dinner table. Society in our part of the world is not varying. The highlight of my year used to be the visit of my cousins Darcy and Fitzwilliam around Easter, but my mother's reaction to the former's wedding had put a stop to that. She did, however, cherish the company of her relatives and so continued to invite Fitzwilliam.
Speaking of Fitzwilliam, he was at Rosings also, that evening. Which presented me with a problem: his room was located between mine and the library. And I knew he was a light sleeper - the number of times he had nearly caught me sneaking back past his room over the years... oh my. And to make matters worse this time, I actually saw light coming out the crack under his door. But I was never a loud walker, and honestly... breathing at times like that is vastly overrated in any case.
Having safely negotiated this obstacle, I continued my way to the library and my thinking about Mr. Mason. After having left college, he had found his way to the West Indies where he had apparently made a splendid fortune in the tobacco industry. But we shouldn't think that his entire time there had been spent working, oh no!
"The natives over there have some very strange beliefs indeed... I made it my particular hobby to find more about them."
"I should think, Mr. Mason," (my mother) "that your time would have been better spent in other pursuits than investigating the idiosyncrasies of savages."
"Indeed, Lady Catherine," (Mr. Collins) "whenever possible, time should be spent in contemplating our Christian morals - having the primitive values of primitives intrude can have no purpose whatsoever."
"My experience tells me that you should always know of the possible undercurrents in your surroundings - especially in those surroundings one is unfamiliar with."
"My thoughts exactly, Colonel. Therefore I set myself the task to find out as much as I could. Unfortunately, many of the things I discovered are not suitable for dinner conversation - though I will say that the spiritual world of the native is a strange place indeed."
"Far be it from me, a mere military man, to comment on these metaphysical matters, but I find that in general, studying tactics alien to those that one is used to is never a bad option. It often gives one a fresh perspective on one's own, and this can yield surprisingly efficient results."
"Nonsense, nephew. Do not argue with what is good and proven. And - I will never hide my opinion in these matters - comparing matters of morality with matters of military is ridiculous. In any case, nothing good can ever come from embracing savage ways."
During this speech, the corner of Mr. Mason's mouth turned up in a slight smile. It gave his dark and already dashing appearance a mysterious glow. "In this case, Lady Catherine, I think I would agree with you. My studies have shown me nothing but a backward series of rituals, intended to manipulate the world in a certain direction. Mostly, I think, the priests use them to impress the hoi polloi - there is no such thing as magic, no indeed. Unless, of course, I may be allowed to give the art of your cook the epithet. This roast is truly excellent."
"Naturally. I never hold with servants that do not know their business. Why, only a few months ago, I told Mrs. Crowley that she would never get her maids to..."
And so the conversation came back from the exotic West-Indies into boring Kent, but when I sneaked another look at Mr. Mason, I found him looking particularly smug. And why shouldn't he? He had just steered the conversation in a direction he wanted at my mother's dinner table!
While I was admiring him for this (trust me, it is a feat of no mean proportions) he turned his head and caught my eye. I was embarrassed about being caught staring and tried to look away. But something in his look held me. His eyes bore into me for a few agonising seconds... and then he winked. Almost as if he knew exactly what I had been thinking... and did not disapprove.
By the time I reached the library, the storm was swelling and lightning illuminated the house every few minutes. The unearthly shadows cast by the books at those times gave the room an eerie look, but I had grown familiar with this room ever since my father had carried me in here on his arm when I was little, so I was not disturbed much. I took my candle and started walking by the shelves to find anything about the strange mystical world Mr. Mason had alluded to.
This took me some time. And all this time, the storm continued to increase. Torrents of rain gushed against the window, and I had never heard thunder loud as the claps that I was hearing then. Finally though, after countless books had passed before my eyes and my candle had burnt up half of its length, I spotted a large black book called "Haiti or the Black Republic" by S. St. John. I reached out to grab it, but a gush of wind blew in from the hall and extinguished my candle.
Luckily, my mother insists on there being a lighted candle in every hallway of Rosings. So I went into the hallway, re-lighted my candle and went back. When I stood before the shelf and raised my hand again, I was chilled by another breath of wind. Which made me pause. I had forgotten to close the door. I would have to close it if I did not want to be discovered. It was a habit I had taught myself over my years of exploring. But wait a minute... when I had entered the library the first time, I had closed the door!
Just when I was debating about panicking about this or not, this dilemma was solved for my by an arm, dripping wet, reaching around me from behind and grabbing me. So I did the only sensible thing.
It was a dark and stormy night when I finally decided to investigate something that had not been sitting right with me for near three years.
Why wait until such a night, you'd say? Why not investigate things during the day, when there are people who might be able to help you, actually awake?
I wouldn't know. Because I was afraid of being discovered and cut off from Rosings like Darcy, which admittedly wouldn't have been that bad, except that it would have left dear Anne without her family entirely? Which I would never do to the dear girl in my life because I can't stand seeing her unhappy?
No, not that. Definitely not. Something else.
A fit of energy, yes. That is it. I couldn't sleep anyway.
But what would be so important that it would warrant investigating in the middle of the night? A stormy one, as I said - and in this case, that included heavy rain, thunder, lightning, everything imaginable. Well, to tell you the truth, my aunt's parson.
I had never quite grasped why Lady Catherine had given the rectory of Hunsford to such a... a... well. Somehow his presence seemed to suck out the community. It used to be a normal, healthy, English country society, as happy as every other of that ilk. But when I visited Rosings for the first time after he had made his appearance, they appeared to me the blandest, most listless group of people I had ever seen.
After I had sat through one of his sermons, I put it down to those. Besides, there were more interesting things going on at Rosings that year. The Collinses had guests - her sister and his cousin, who also happened to be her best friend. The latter lovely lady put quite the spirit into our limited circle, not the least into my cousin Darcy, who had apparently met her the autumn before. I never quite found out what took him so long, but she became Mrs. Darcy the autumn after. Of course, Lady Catherine was less than pleased by this, and they were still at odds during the time of this visit.
The Easter after that, I paid what used to be a combined visit, alone. And again, I found a bland community. Surely his sermons could not be that bad? (After the first Sunday, however, I was thoroughly convinced that yes, they could.) I could therefore not quite fathom why my aunt should praise Mr. Collins into the skies. She had always had a use for people who praise her, I knew. And I suppose the parsonage was run efficiently and the spiritual and worldly needs of the community seen to. But really, was this his doing? As far as I could see, the man was thoroughly bland and his only redeeming quality, his wife!
During the months after, various bits of news reached me from Rosings. The Collinses seemed to thrive. And be favoured by my aunt. Muchly favoured, indeed...
So when an unexpected invitation from Rosings came for late October, and I found out that my duties actually permitted me to go, I grabbed at the chance to
see Anne again dig deeper into this matter.
In an odd resemblance to the memorable Easter visit, the Collinses entertained a guest during the second week of my stay. No ladies this time, though, but a gentleman who had been at university with Collins. I have often observed that college breeds odd friendships, and this example proved that point - never have I seen two more different men. Where Collins was bland, Mason was flamboyant. Where Collins stumbled, Mason glided. And while I am really not in the position to make this comment, where Collins might be considered a "good establishment" from a female point of view, Mason was exciting.
Mason, a younger son from a well-respected (and -connected!) family in Stropshire, had not graduated from college, instead preferring to go into the tobacco business in the West Indies. Not a bad decision, it would appear. With his earnings, he had single-handedly paid his families debts and rebuilt their fortune.
This made for good and polite conversation over dinner, and I could keep myself to making the expected comment now and then and studying the faces at the table. My proud aunt. Her bland parson. His sensible wife. Exotic Mason. Nondescript Mrs. Jenkinson. And dear Anne. Who was, it appeared, hanging on Exotic Mason's every word.
Just as I was trying to hide my dismay over this, the conversation took an unexpected turn to the ways of the West-Indies. Mason appeared to be an expert on the mystic teachings of the natives, but refused to go into details. And actually managed to steer the conversation into quieter waters - which, believe me, is no mean feat when in conversation with my aunt. So, the conversation was quiet again, but the currents were by no means safe! Maybe it was just me, but I did not like the look that passed between my cousin and this man.
I had a restless night after this. Which seemed to be abundantly apparent when I made my way into the breakfast room the next morning. Luckily, my aunt wasn't there or I would have been lectured about the merits of a proper night's sleep. Which is the last thing one needs after having missed out on one of them.
Anne, however, was there at the table, wrapped in a shawl to protect her petite frame from the October chill. I sat down next to her and she immediately got up.
"Am I that much of an ogre in the mornings that you do not deem it safe to reside near me, cousin?"
She smiled. "Far from it. Usually. This morning, however, you look decidedly ogre-ish. And that is indeed why I got up. For, while I can easily stand the presence of ogres, ogres who look like they haven't slept bring out every protective instinct I have in me. So, cousin, would you like me to fix you a cup of coffee?"
"I would be pathetically grateful for a cup of coffee."
"Then consider it done."
She got a cup, and I looked at her while she was pouring. She did it elegantly, like she does everything else. It's a pity her mother does not allow her to do very much. This morning, however, there was an added quality to her.
"What has gotten you so chipper, Anne? It can't be the weather - I wouldn't be surprised if there's a major storm brewing."
She put down the pot. "I don't know ... I just feel happy this morning is all. Maybe it's the excitement of the additions to our small circle - you are here, which always makes me happy, and then there is the guest of the Collinses..."
"Yes ... Mason ... I suppose that his company would seem truly exotic, with his having been overseas and all."
"Oh, yes!" Her eyes sparkled, which did not entirely make me happy. "Just think of all the things he must have seen, and done! The stories he could undoubtedly tell!"
"But I forget, you did not sleep well and do not need me rattling on. I shall leave you to your coffee and breakfast." She leaned over and gave me a sisterly kiss on the forehead. "Do try and go outside for a bit, today, if the weather holds out. It will do you good. Meanwhile, I must go and read with Mrs. Jenkinson - I promised Mother."
While I sat there, watching her leave the room, I truly felt that I had never felt such conflicting emotions in my life.
After I had finished breakfast, I took up Anne's suggestion for a walk - I felt the wind, that was picking up, would no doubt work wonders in clearing my head.
It did not do a very good job. Thoughts about the Collinses and their favouritism with my aunt kept jumbling through my mind. Though to tell you the truth, I preferred those over thoughts of Anne. And Mason. The latter ones gradually took over, to my great annoyance. At one point I would have sworn that I heard his voice!
"...but you know that you must be the one to do it, Collins."
"Yes, I do. But I assure you, if you did not have this claim on me I would not. I have a good establishment here and would under ordinary circumstances do nothing to put it in danger!"
Mason snorted. "You always took the safe option, Collins. However, there is no safe option here. And may I remind you that I do have the claim, and that therefore, these are not ordinary circumstances!"
"Circumstances, Mason, I would not even be in if it weren't for you."
"Don't complain. You gained from of this, as much as I did. No, wait," he snickered, "not that much. But enough. And I assure you, if you do this, I will consider my claim fulfilled."
"Very well. But you must provide the materials. You will have no problems obtaining one of hers I assume?"
"Leave it to me."
Their conversation now concluded, they came my way. I hid behind a tree not to be discovered. Whatever could they have been talking about?