Posted on 2014-08-28
It was nothing more than a blasted bit of undigested potato. The right Rev. William Collins was sure of it. That last and final bite of the boiled white potatoes that the good, benevolent, and rather loud Mrs. Bennet had placed before him was the guilty dish.
It was that bite of potato, not the creamy custard nor the perfectly roasted meat nor the cheeses he'd enjoyed. Nor was it the undercooked parsnips and carrots he'd gnawed to the bitter end. He could feel the potato, lodged like a sleek skipping stone, in his stomach. It was an uncomfortable fit. He'd hoped his dance with Miss Elizabeth might have dislodged the stubborn tuber, but instead it had become a worse encumbrance to this long-awaited evening of musical delights and dancing pleasures.
He looked around the assembly and shifted his feet. Perhaps if he just loosed one button on his waistcoat, for a moment or two, while he wasn't otherwise engaged, perhaps then the pressure would be relieved. A few deep breaths could dislodge the stubborn spud. Mayhap he would feel to rights again and ready to stand up to the pleasures of dancing with the lovely Miss Bennet. Indications were that she was already promised to the floppy haired, eagerly smiling Mr. Bimmers, er Bungersly...but Mr. Collins was not quite so certain of dual affections.
Oh dear. The tuber had moved again. Slowly, Mr. Collins turned around to admire the room's thick cloth curtains and fumbled to open the straining button. Despite finally achieving success with his deftly experienced fingers, no relief was found. Still worse, the cursed button's threads had given way and the brass ornament was gone away. Lost. He sighed in agitation, recognizing the twofold problem at hand: a missing button, and his pants were still too tight. His housekeeper had once again let them grow smaller in the wash and the hot sun. And she had neglected to tighten the threads on his buttons.
There was nothing to be done about it now. He, as Job had, must suffer for his sins of indulgence. The parsonage's housekeeper and her unskilled girls would do penance later. He turned, pulled down his waistcoat, took a deep breath, and observed the assemblage.
Mr. Bimbles, nay Bingley, was parading around with the serenely beautiful Miss Bennet. He shook his head in wonder at her patience for the pup. Miss Lydia was laughing, loudly, with her teeth on display. Always with the teeth, that one. Not to mention the pudding-like bosoms, rolling and bouncing as she laughed. He averted his eyes. Ah, there was Miss Kitty fixing her ribbons, and Miss Mary, a good girl with some promising thoughts and bosoms of her own, was staring at him. Oh dear.
And where was Miss Elizabeth? Their second dance was nigh. There she was, standing next to Miss Lucas. It was time to claim her. And so he began a slow, increasingly uncomfortable walk across the room. He wetted his palm and swept back a lock of hair, then wiped his hand on his waistcoat. Oh no. Big mistake. Pressure.
Suddenly he felt some relief. No one else would take note of the lovely rush of air from his bottom, but it most assuredly put a spring in his step and brought a reprieve to his gut. Sensing the eyes of the crowd upon him, his due as a man of the cloth and a guest in the home of the esteemed Bennet family, Mr. Collins looked up and let his gaze settle on each face as he passed. Oh my. Had illness fallen on all in attendance? Hands to mouths, faces contorted, fingers pointing.... At me? No, there. What was it? Mr. Collins looked straight ahead and fixed on his path. Ah, Miss Elizabeth was gripping Mr. Darcy's arm as they bent over Miss Lucas's prone body. This was curious indeed. No wonder the shocked faces.
"Oh dear, Charlotte. Mr. Collins approaches. My feet have yet to return to size from our last dance."
Charlotte glanced down at her friend's slightly battered slippers. One of the rose florettes was flattened and hung limply to the side. Her eyes drifted to her own feet, clad in the same slippers she'd worn for the past three years of assemblies. No need for new shoes when the soles were unscuffed, the beading unscathed and the ribbons unfrayed.
"Lizzy, do you wish to dance with Mr. Collins?"
Her friend sighed. "If I refuse him, I cannot dance again tonight. But two dances, Charlotte! My mother's fears of the hedgerows have turned into public schemes."
Charlotte looked across the room, where Jane and Mr. Bingley were conversing by the refreshments. She saw her brothers talking with Kitty Bennet and Mary King. She saw Mr. Darcy, his eyes fixed on Elizabeth, drawing closer. She watched Mr. Collins adjust himself, pause briefly and smile. She closed her eyes and felt his heavy steps getting closer. All the changes in this town, all the men new this season, and the happiness, as ever, happened to someone else. Two men, both of some means and of admittedly varying desirability, were intent upon her dearest friend. No man was coming for her. Enough.
"Excuse me, Lizzy. I need to speak with my father."
Charlotte stood and took a step away, unheeding of her friend's stunned expression and feeling of abandonment. Her father appeared to many as a genial buffoon, but he had a sister in London with a bedroom she could call her own while seeking a wider choice for her future. On the shelf here in Meryton could not mean the same there, could it? She needed to be away from Lizzy and her suitors and her future happiness.
She took a breath and another step. She never saw the button skittering across the floor, and never felt it as her barely worn, untested, still-firm-on-the-bottom slippers slid atop it. Her arms flew in the air, her cries filled the crowded room, her flailing and loud "Oomph!" drew the attention of all in the room. Pain seared her ankle and elbow as she fell. Within a moment, Charlotte felt hands gripping hers and Lizzy's voice gasping her name. She opened her eyes and peered into the furrowed brows of Lizzy's many suitors, all of them, even her brother John, staring at her and mouthing words she could not understand. Everything was swimming. Her head hurt.
Elizabeth was stunned when her friend abandoned her to the incoming collision of two men she preferred to avoid. Cold Mr. Darcy and greasy Mr. Collins were not men she wished to waste her evening with, but Charlotte seemed to care little for her friend's feelings. Elizabeth's own indignation was set aside when she watched her friend tumble to the floor.
"Oh Charlotte? Are you well?" Elizabeth cried. She watched as John Lucas and Mr. Darcy gently lifted her friend and sat her in one of the room's larger chairs, hurriedly pushed forward by Charlotte's father. A low stool soon followed, and Maria carefully lifted her sister's foot onto it, gasping loudly; whether she was more startled by the ankle's swelling or by the slipper's torn ribbons was open to individual interpretation.
Charlotte moaned, then quickly caught herself, embarrassed by the undignified sound. "Of course, Lizzy, I am well. T'is simply a slightly turned ankle."
Elizabeth frowned, doubting her stoic friend, as Sir William Lucas shakily kneeled down in front of his daughter. "Charlotte, dear. Shall I fetch your -?"
His concerns were cut off and he was pushed aside by the rapid advance of Mrs. Lucas, Mrs. Bennet, Mrs. Phillips and assorted other matriarchs of the town's four and twenty families. Seeing her friend encircled by the lady buzzards, Elizabeth patted Charlotte's shoulder, straightened up, and stared in wonder as Mr. Darcy labored to help Sir Lucas up from his prone position on the floor. The tall man felt her stare, straightened and turned to address a young boy before meeting her eyes. Her cheeks burning, Lizzy felt only relief as Mr. Bingley reached his friend and began a hurried conversation.
"Miss Elizabeth. Dear cousin."
Elizabeth watched in numb horror as Mr. Collins extended his hand to her and slowly closed and opened his long eyelashes. Lizzy had read enough novels to recognize when a man's mother had told him his cow-like eyes would beguile the ladies. She had been an ignorant woman, no doubt. Just like her son.
"I believe it is our dance, Miss Elizabeth."
"I believe there is no music, Mr. Collins."
"Then some cool air outside. You should be away from the spectacle made here by your friend." He reached for Elizabeth's arm.
"Excuse me," said a deep voice. Mr. Darcy, his eyes glaring at Mr. Collins, faced the group, his arm still steadying Sir Lucas. "Ice and cloths for Miss Lucas's ankle have been sent for," he said, nodding at Charlotte and the assembled onlookers and caregivers.
"I believe my friend, Bingley, has found the intruder which caused her injury. Would anyone care to claim the culprit?" Darcy held out his palm, revealing a dull brass button.
Elizabeth's eyes dropped low, taking in the lone straining button on her cousin's ill-fitting trousers; she quickly stepped away from him. "I believe I need to care for my friend, Mr. Collins," she said stonily. "And I believe you need to claim your missing button." She glanced coolly at him and nodded to Mr. Darcy. With the musicians once again starting to strum their instruments, the crowd began dispersing, leaving Charlotte in her chair, her foot upon the cushioned stool. An attentive nursemaid stood vigil: the quiet, rarely noticed Mr. Milton, who closely observed Maria's careful removal of her sister's slipper.
Elizabeth smiled at the scene, her focus broken only when she felt Mr. Darcy's presence beside her. His deep voice broke her reverie.
"Your friend has great tolerance for pain and for the attentions of strangers and neighbors alike."
"And a ruined pair of dancing slippers," Elizabeth smiled.
Darcy frowned. "That is unfortunate. According to my sister, a lady's dancing slippers are highly prized possessions, the source of many stories and memories."
Elizabeth paused, wondering at his intimate confession about the sister Mr. Wickham claimed to be proud. "Does your sister enjoy dancing, and have many slippers telling tales and sporting ragged ribbons?"
"Georgiana is but fifteen, not yet out but full of a wistfully active imagination," Darcy replied quietly. "In a few years, I hope she will be less shy and more prepared to put her theory to the test. For now, I am her only dance partner...a clumsy older brother who requires much scolding."
Elizabeth laughed. This was not the Mr. Darcy she had been prepared to see tonight, and this was not the Miss Darcy described by Mr. Wickham. "Ah, the plight of the older sibling," she said, watching Lydia as she laughed with her friends, new and old. That dress fit her quite ill in the bosom, she thought. Her eyes followed Mary as Mr. Bingley led her to the dance floor. "I am sure Miss Darcy has taught you your lessons well."
"Miss Bennet, if you would not mind testing out Georgiana's theory, perhaps we could add a tale or two to your dancing slippers' collection of reveries?" Mr. Darcy gazed at her intently. "Nothing as colorful as poor Miss Lucas has suffered," he added, nodding toward Charlotte, who was now engaged in a lively conversation with Mr. Milton. Across the room, Mr. Collins could be seen, one hand holding a cup of punch, the other clutching his trousers. Elizabeth stifled a giggle and looked up at Mr. Darcy.
"Well, no. That wouldn't do at all."
He paused, seemingly unsure of what her response implied. "Miss Bennet, would you dance the next set with me?"
Elizabeth looked down at her slippers, worse for wear after the dancing debacle with her cousin, and then gazed back up at her prospective partner. He was rather handsome when he smiled.
"I would like that, Mr. Darcy. But I should warn you that we shall likely be spinning the last tale for these poor shoes."
Mr. Darcy glanced at her bedraggled slippers, and smiled. "Then, as my sister would say, let us give them a happily ever after."The End