Posted on 2013-09-20
"The Lucases are very artful people indeed, sister. They are all for what they can get." ~ Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
For a period of time late in 1818 a run of pernicious fever in the vicinity of Hunsford in Kent had a devastating effect. Several in the village died of it and one in the parsonage. The Reverend William Collins survived ten days in its grip and then succumbed, leaving his widow, his son Lewis, and two younger daughters.
They remained at the parsonage for two months while Charlotte Collins settled her husband's affairs and accounts and sold whatever of their personal possessions she no longer needed. When all was done she was left with a little less than two thousand pounds. It was not much, but adequate to her needs for now, especially given Lewis's future prospects. All that was required was patience and, if she were not destined to be so as a wife, perhaps she would be mistress of Longbourn as a mother.
Lady Catherine de Bourgh summoned her to Rosings for a farewell visit. "Well, Mrs. Collins, your husband was taken at a young age and you have my condolences. You have been a very biddable neighbor and wife. I can have no complaint about that. Do not worry that the parish will be in good hands. Mr. Gresham is a fine gentleman and his wife, you know, is cousin to Lady Metcalfe! They are both so very fond of me. I am quite satisfied with my selection."
Charlotte felt obligated to murmur something of agreement in response and did so.
Lady Catherine continued, "At least your son remains to inherit his cousin's estate, though, under the present circumstances, it is a shame that it was not Mr. Bennet who perished instead of his wife."
Charlotte was shocked to think that, however incapable of such coarseness of expression herself, the coarseness of the sentiment was little other than her own breast had harbored in the past year, and particularly now. The memory of last year's loss, when a similar outbreak of fever near Meryton had resulted in the deaths of Mrs. Bennet and her own father Sir William Lucas, brought stinging tears close to the surface.
"And where do you go now, Mrs. Collins? I suppose to your mother's house. It is near to your son's inheritance. Is it not?"
Charlotte confirmed that it was near but that before settling again in Hertfordshire she had friends in the north whom she would visit in the coming months. She purposely did not name those friends for, although the de Bourghs and the Darcys had forged a tenuous reconciliation and the lady had visited Pemberley since its pollution, Lady Catherine did not like to hear Mrs. Darcy's name or to be reminded.
Several months spent with the Bingleys and an equal number at Pemberley were soothing to Mrs Collins as she accustomed herself to widowhood. Her children had pleasure in companions of similar age in the Bingley and Darcy sons and daughters. She enjoyed briefly reuniting with her sister Maria who came to stay with the former Catherine Bennet, now mistress of the parsonage at Kympton, not long before Charlotte's removal to Lucas Lodge.
So passed her first year as a widow.
Lady Lucas was delighted to have Charlotte at home with her again and happily recounted the comings and goings and doings and busy nothings of the neighborhood and their friends. A pleasant morning, following on a day or two after the Collinses had settled in, found Charlotte and her mother outdoors seated with their work beneath an arbor while the Collins children played nearby.
"Did I tell you, Charlotte, about Mr. Purvis? Edward Purvis, sixty years he has seen if he has seen one, and a bachelor the whole of them! What do you think he did? No less than go to Bath last year for a cure - his gout, you know - and come back with a young wife - relatively young anyway. Everyone was so surprised! Would you believe it? And now he has a three-month-old son!"
Charlotte, her mind not closely attending her mother's words, agreed it must indeed have surprised and simply felt the contentment of listening to her mother's happy voice and of watching her children at play.
"I must tell you some good news about your brother William, my dear. It is not generally known yet but I know I can depend on your secrecy." Lady Lucas leaned closer as if to exclude a crowd of listeners though they were alone with the children. "His apprentice time with Mr. Philips is complete! He is a fully qualified attorney now. And ... Oh. Charlotte, such felicity for him ... Mr. Philips is taking him as a partner! I am sure he is worthy of it on his own, but his having married Mary Bennet cannot have done him any harm in the matter. There is no shame in his receiving preferment because his wife is Mr. Philips's niece. That is the way of the world. It was very clever of him to offer for her."
"They seem to like each other well enough too, Mama. He is of a serious nature and she is a proper and frugal wife. I think they do very well together."
"Oh. Indeed, my dear. She manages the household at Longbourn quite capably and she and William are fortunate to live there so that Mr. Bennet is not alone. I think, though, she would like better to have her own house instead of caring for her father's. I would give them the Lodge for their own, you know, if I had a place to go," Lady Lucas added with a sigh.
Charlotte's mother then brightened and chuckled a little. "But, Charlotte, I just now had a most diverting thought. Perhaps Mary will not have to keep house for her father much longer! You would know what I mean had you been here for our latest assembly. Mr. Bennet - Yes. Mr. Bennet, who probably had not done so in two decades - danced! And not merely a single set, mind you."
Mrs. Collins had been half-listening to her mother's gossip and instead gazed fondly at her children at play. Her two daughters made a game of their dolls and some flowers, while Lewis, who had been allowed nails and a hammer, was earnestly building shelves from scraps of wood.
As the various threads of Lady Lucas's conversation wove themselves together and echoed in her memory, Charlotte came to attention, struck with the ideas of elderly gentlemen marrying and fathering children, or dancing when they had never exhibited a preference for it. Her mother's implication was most disturbing. Did she not see the danger to her grandson Lewis?
"He danced, Mama! How ... odd. With whom did he dance?"
"Let me think." Lady Lucas began counting off on her fingers. "Felicia Long. Rachael Long. Emma Goulding. And perhaps one or two others? I did not see all of the dancing. Mrs. Purvis has a rapacity for whist and we ... "
Charlotte stopped listening to the recitation while she reflected that there were far too many spinsters of a dangerous age among their society! And evidently there were far too many men, at ages when they ought to have displayed more sense, disposed to be as silly as any girl or woman had ever been. She also remembered her mother saying, "I would give them the Lodge for their own, you know, if I had a place to go."
A notion captured her thoughts and she eyed her mother speculatively. The idea blossomed further in her mind - an idea of such perfection that she wondered why it had not occurred to her before - why the world had not perceived its natural rightness.
Mr. Bennet and Lady Lucas ought to marry!
Both now alone, used for many years to the married state, the families intimate friends for years, well-known to one another - under the present circumstances, they seemed to have been designed for each other.
And, most particularly, Lewis's position and future would be secure.
Charlotte realized it would be her task to bring this salubrious state of affairs to success. It would be well to have it accomplished soon, before further nonsense like dancing or trips to Bath could take place. Charlotte, a woman who had determinedly secured a match for herself well within one week of first meeting her future husband, felt herself equal to the endeavor. They would need only a nudge - literally a nudge, she decided.
As guilelessly as she was able, she proposed they host an afternoon of tea and cake to mark her return to the neighborhood and to reacquaint her with her friends. They decided two days in advance would suit. Charlotte sent her invitations and laid her plans. One could not be sure of success, but this was a perilous time and bold action was needed.
In part one of the scheme, Mr. Bennet's invitation named a time fifteen minutes earlier than the others.
Had anyone else been in the parlor where Mrs. Collins made her preparations there on the day, they would have observed a strange and puzzling scene. She repeated a series of gestures and movements while muttering, "Mr. Bennet will sit here ... when I hear the other guests arrive, I shall maneuver my mother to stand here ... then a nudge ... no ... a good shove ... to her back ... hmmm ... while I reach up with my other hand and rip her bodice ... can that be done? ... yes ... if I am quick and move just so ... yes ... she ought to land exactly here ... in his lap ... just as the others enter the room ... ah ... wait ... if I place this footstool here ... hmmm ... yes ... even better ... she will trip over it after I shove and rip ... and finish there ... in his lap."
Having rehearsed to her satisfaction, she sat composedly when, punctual to his time, Mr. Bennet was ushered in by Lady Lucas. They conversed easily while awaiting the rest of the guests, though Mr. Bennet seemed puzzled to be the only one there and once even obliquely apologized for being early, only to be assured he was exactly as he should be.
At the expected time, there was a bustle in the entry way followed by the sounds of chatter and of many footsteps towards the parlor. Charlotte rose to place her scheme in motion, but Lady Lucas unfortunately chose then to move away from them to the door. Charlotte stepped forward intending to cry, "Mama! No! Wait!"
In her agitation, Charlotte caught her foot on the stool she had positioned so strategically and found herself launched forward, her arms flailing and her person out of control.
Mr. Bennet, startled and shocked to see Mrs. Collins nearly airborne in his direction, instinctually reached out to steady her and impede her flight. In doing so, his hand inadvertently became entangled in her bodice, which ripped open when he attempted, unsuccessfully, to disengage. The trajectory of her fall followed its inevitable path.
Thus, when at that instant Mr. and Mrs. Purvis, Mrs. Long and her nieces, William Goulding, Emma Goulding, and Mr. and Mrs. Philips entered the room they were greeted by the sight of Charlotte Collins in Mr. Bennet's lap, her hands at his shoulders, his one hand at her hip where the hem of her gown had gathered, his other hand at her bodice - or, rather, where her bodice had been - where she displayed a plenitude unsuspected in her younger days before her angularity had been augmented by motherhood.
A twelvemonth later, Charlotte Collins's nightmare of the year before had come true. Lewis Collins's position as Longbourn's heir had been usurped. However, as Charlotte Bennet smiled down at her new son, Richard William Bennet, she found she could, upon the whole, have no cause to repine.
Meanwhile, at Pemberley, Elizabeth Darcy tried to explain to her children how a mere baby could be their uncle.The End