Posted on Tuesday, 29 November 2005
Most fulsomely did Mr William Collins brag in his letter of mid-October to his estranged cousin, Mr Bennet, of the living that he had not long ago been privileged to receive from Lady Catherine de Bourgh after taking orders. As a dutifully observant clergyman of the Church of England, he had felt it incumbent upon himself both to heal the breach between the members of the family, and to set the example of matrimony to his parish. Towards the former end, he invited himself to spend twelve days in the latter half of November at Longbourn. Towards the latter, he proclaimed with most appropriate self-effacing modesty that he had recently welcomed to his humble abode his new bride of only a month, a young lady very felicitously suited to the role of wife of a parson, an active, useful sort of person, not brought up too high, who liked nothing better than to be helpful to everybody, and who would accompany him on his visit.
Mr Bennet replied to the letter a fortnight later, feeling that it required early and careful attention, and on the 18th of November, informed his wife of its contents.
“Oh, do not talk of that odious man!” cried Mrs Bennet. “I cannot bear to hear his name mentioned. To think that he will take away your estate from your own children. It is not to be borne!”
“I am afraid that nothing can clear Mr Collins from the guilt of inheriting this house,” Mr Bennet said, “but in the interests of peace-making, we shall welcome him. I have no doubt that he shall prove a valuable acquaintance, and his wife also.”
Elizabeth had been struck by the pomposity of the composition of his letter and of the extraordinary deference it demonstrated for his esteemed patroness. “Can he be sensible, sir? And how, as his letter appears to demonstrate, might his wife feel about deferring to Lady Catherine’s wishes in everything about his parish?”
“We shall have our answers at four o’clock today,” said Mr Bennet. “I am certain that a young man as punctilious as our new friend appears to be in his duty to his patroness will not fail to be on time.”
Mr Collins arrived within minutes of his predicted time, and with the entire Bennet family looking on at the front of the house, helped his new bride from the carriage with all due ceremony. Introductions were made, and although Mr Bennet was disinclined to say much, the ladies made up for the lack.
Mr Collins was tall and on the heavy side, and carried himself with a stately air and formal manners that quickly grew to appear ludicrous, as it became clear that it was combined with an even greater portion of obsequiousness and servility than had been hinted at in his letter.
Mrs Collins, the former Miss Augusta Hawkins of Bristol, on the other hand, while tolerably pretty in face and person, soon revealed herself to be elegant in neither voice, deportment, nor manner. She was vain where her husband affected an air of self-effacement, the two forming a rather peculiar complement.
“This is a pretty little estate,” Mrs Collins remarked to all who would hear her. “That charming little hermitage beyond the garden reminds me ever so much of something very similar that my brother Mr Suckling had installed at his seat, Maple Grove. Quite surprising, that your park can accommodate such a delightful thing, for this place has not the size and extent of Maple Grove.”
“My dear,” Mr Collins whispered to her hastily, “remember that we do not all have the fortune of living within the purview of places as fine as … ” - and here he paused as if to give veneration to the Almighty - “ … Rosings Park … ” – and in his normal voice, carrying somewhat reduced pride of association – “ … or Maple Grove.”
“I assure you,” Mrs Bennet said, mortified, “that Longbourn is considered the best house in the neighbourhood save for Netherfield Park.”
Elizabeth was fairly certain that Mr Collins had informed his bride of the exact arrangements of the entail on Longbourn, and raised her eyebrows a little. Surely Mrs Collins was aware that she was deprecating the charms of her future home!
Mr Collins seemed also to become belatedly aware of the slight, and endeavoured to make it up by admiring the furniture and the size of the rooms with great zeal. It did nothing to lift Mrs Bennet’s soured mood, however, as she saw in all of it a rather cold-blooded appraisal of his own future property.
All were soon summoned to dinner. Mr Collins was invited to say grace, which he followed with a paean of thankfulness to Lady Catherine de Bourgh for making possible all of the happiness that presently filled his life.
Mrs Collins swept her gaze around the room. “I am greatly reminded of the smaller dining room at Maple Grove. The wallpaper, the style of the chairs, the service, all are strikingly alike. I could almost imagine myself back home again at dinner with my sister, Mrs Suckling.”
“Yes, my dear, Maple Grove is very elegant indeed. But even you must admit that it pales next to the splendour that is Rosings.”
Mr Bennet, hoping to forestall a contest of comparisons of the favourite houses of both participants, asked Mr Collins whether he and Mrs Collins had been married long, and opined that Lady Catherine must have been pleased to have her clergyman settle down in matrimony so quickly after moving into the parsonage house.
“Indeed, I was most honoured to have been invited for a brief visit to the parsonage of a friend from university during the summer,” Mr Collins said unctuously. “Mr Rogers, who is from Bristol himself, had the good fortune to come to Mr Suckling’s notice last year when the former incumbent of the parsonage at Maple Grove passed on. With us also was another mutual friend, also from the university – Mr Elton – who, with happy circumstances equal to those of Mr Rogers and of my own with the notice of Lady Catherine de Bourgh … ” – another pause of reverential gratitude – “ … is to assume the duties of rector at Highbury, in Surrey, in December.”
“Mr Suckling is my brother-in-law.” Mrs Collins smiled all around the table, as if inviting the family to share in and appreciate the prestige of such a connection.
Mr Collins simpered at his bride. “I owe the happiness of my union to Mrs Collins to that fortuitous invitation from Mr Rogers, and to the excellent hospitality of his patron, Mr Suckling, who invited us frequently to dine at Maple Grove – a most affable host, almost as generous with his condescension as Lady Catherine – for it was at his home that my dear Augusta and I made our acquaintance.”
Mr and Mrs Collins gazed at each other in what they probably felt was a tolerable simulation of a loving regard. Elizabeth regarded it with a frisson of revulsion; Lydia snorted a little, and with Kitty, dissolved into giggles.
If Mr Collins was offended, he did not deign to show it. “Miss Hawkins was the second daughter of a merchant in Bristol, now deceased, and had been residing with her uncle, an attorney’s … ”
“I had been spending most of my time with my brother and sister, the Sucklings, at Maple Grove. Such a comfortable home. I never wished to leave.”
“ … a fortune of almost 10,000 pounds,” Mr Collins concluded with satisfaction, unaware that some of his remarks went unheard when his wife had spoken up.
“Yes, I had been obliged to give up some of my accustomed luxuries at Maple Grove for the parsonage at Hunsford – but as I had assured Mr C, I do not require for my domestic felicity, two carriages, or three drawing rooms, or a dining parlour that seats four-and-twenty guests.”
“And you cannot miss such things,” Mr Collins said with a greasy smile, “as every such benefit – more, even - exists only half a mile away at Rosings Park, and you enjoy in addition the regular notice of and visits with Lady Catherine de Bourgh and her daughter.”
“Yes, my dear. Lady Catherine has been most gracious.” But the look on Mrs Collins face struck some of the observers as forced rather than pleasant.
While many conundrums went through her mind, Elizabeth wished to satisfy her curiosity immediately on one point. “And your friends Mr Rogers and Mr Elton – were they already married?”
“Mr Rogers had married his cousin last year, and Mr Elton … ” Mr Collins smiled conspiratorially, but to Elizabeth it looked almost like a leer. “ … has his hopes set on an heiress in Highbury to whom he was introduced when visiting that town to meet its first families earlier in the summer. She is a renowned beauty in a neighbourhood with a scarcity of eligible young men, approaching the proper age to be married – Mr Elton is prepared to wait - and has a fortune of 30,000 pounds.”
Elizabeth was satisfied. The rather inelegant Miss Augusta Hawkins, she was certain, had been passed over by both of the other clergymen in that summer party. Perhaps Mr Collins was the best that the lady, with such inferior deportment, could manage. Mr Collins might even be glad of the 10,000 pounds. Invested in the four percents, the interest probably matched his income from the living, providing the family with the means for a few luxuries, such as a cook, or the coach in which they had arrived, far better than the gig that must otherwise be all that Mr Collins could afford.
“And when Mr C arrived at Maple Grove, newly in possession of what promised to be a most charming parsonage house, with a most gracious patroness, and with the expectation of an inheritance upon the decease … ” Mrs Collins broke off in some embarrassment, cast a quick glance around the table to see if anybody looked offended, and pasted on a conciliatory smile. “ … a most suitable candidate for marriage, I must say. We spent several evenings together talking, and our opinions and tastes conformed most delightfully to each other’s – and today he is my caro sposo.”
Mr and Mrs Collins quickly wore out the hospitality of their hosts. When Lydia expressed an eagerness to walk to Meryton to discover what the officers had been up to in the past day or two, Mr and Mrs Bennet were united in their enthusiasm to have the parson and his wife accompany the girls. Mr Bennet was eager to have his library to himself again, and Mrs Bennet had taken a dislike to Mrs Collins that was fuelled as much by her being the upstart who would one day displace her as the mistress of the estate, as by the lady’s irritating nature. The conversations had lately consisted too much of Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Rosings, of the Sucklings and Maple Grove – an ongoing sort of parry and riposte between the couple - and too little of anything else, for any of the family to find pleasure in them once such vestigial humour as remained in the exchanges had gone.
The walk into the town was merely an extension of the vexations of the past several days. Kitty and Lydia prattled of nothing but officers, and to their delight, were completely ignored by both Mr and Mrs Collins after several admonitions to turn their minds to something more spiritual and substantial had been laughed off. It fell to the elder three to attempt conversation with the guests, and perhaps only Mary saw something worthwhile in her cousin. Jane’s usual serenity gave away nothing, and Elizabeth had on the first day of their arrival already judged both and found them wanting.
Soon the attention of the party was caught by a handsome young man walking with Mr Denny on the opposite side of the street. All crossed on a pretext, contriving to arrive at the same spot as the two men. Lydia greeted Mr Denny in a loud and vulgar voice, causing Mrs Collins to wrinkle her nose in distaste and disapproval.
The newcomer was introduced to them as Mr George Wickham, newly arrived in town and about to take a commission in the militia corps. Discussion grew animated. Lydia and Kitty, their minds filled with images of the dashing stranger in a red coat, found their happiness to be well on the way to becoming complete. Mrs Collins regarded him with a curiosity that Elizabeth, watching out of the corner of her eye, found puzzling. Everybody else was talking together very agreeably when Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley, on horseback, stopped to greet the group and be introduced to the cousin.
Mr Bingley was concerned mostly with Jane’s health and the two men had been on their way to Longbourn to inquire after the recent patient. But Mr Darcy’s attention was suddenly caught by the stranger, and as Elizabeth watched, both changed colour, one red, one white, and parted coldly, with the barest nod to the civilities.
Mrs Collins, meanwhile, watching it all, had caught Mr Darcy’s name and instantly she recognized his relationship with her husband’s esteemed patroness.
“Mr Darcy, wait! We have a connection … ” she called inelegantly after the gentleman’s receding back, but she was ignored.
Mr Wickham looked at her curiously. “A connection?”
“Yes.” Mrs Collins continued to look Mr Wickham over with peculiar interest as they walked on. “My husband’s patron in the church is his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh.”
Before Mr Wickham could reply, they had reached Mr Phillips’ house, and the girls’ aunt, seeing their approach in the street, threw open the window to invite them loudly to come in. That occasioned another round of introductions, and the mystery of why this was interesting to Mr Wickham, or why Mr Wickham aroused similar feelings in Mrs Collins, was forgotten until the girls were once again walking home to Longbourn.
At length, Elizabeth saw an opportunity to obtain Mr Collins’ attention for a question: a break in Mrs Collins’ repetitions of all of her effusions during the walk toward the town about everything she saw and how it compared, favourably or unfavourably, with the environs of Maple Grove.
“Your patroness is Mr Darcy’s aunt?”
“Yes, indeed.” Mr Collins allowed himself a few moments to bask in the importance bestowed upon him in having two such illustrious families with whom to claim connection. For, he went on to explain, Miss Anne de Bourgh, Lady Catherine’s daughter, is Mr Darcy’s intended betrothed, a match furthered industriously every spring during Mr Darcy’s annual Easter visit.
Elizabeth laughed to herself, imagining the frustration and jealousy of Miss Bingley were she to hear of this situation.
“But Miss de Bourgh is not so certain she welcomes the match,” Mrs Collins put in. “I have become such a confidante to her! The poor girl, she certainly does not find one in her mother or in that dreary old woman who is her companion. I quite adore her, and I am trying to be everything to her a sister or a cousin might be.”
Poor Miss de Bourgh, Elizabeth thought, and for more than one reason. Without knowing more of the heiress of Rosings than that she was Mr Darcy’s cousin, and thus likely to embody some of the same defects, Elizabeth wondered if Miss de Bourgh really saw the insufferable Mrs Collins as a soul mate, or whether a young lady as isolated as Mr Collins had described her as being was merely desperate for company, any company at all.
“I am sure that Mr Darcy is an excellent gentleman in every way, but according to Miss de Bourgh, he is such an earnest, serious young man! How can any young lady live up to the expectations of such a one? He intimidates her as much as I believe her mother does. Miss de Bourgh told me that he had been in the most frightful of moods this past summer when he was briefly at Rosings in August – apparently something dreadful had happened involving that same Mr Wickham whom we just met. Miss de Bourgh did not know what, but apparently Mr Wickham had behaved most appallingly.”
Could that have accounted for Mr Darcy’s ill-humour at the assembly? Elizabeth asked herself, but she quickly set the thought aside. She liked the man too little to begin now to make allowances for his behaviour.
“Miss de Bourgh did confide in me that Mr Wickham is a most infamous scoundrel,” Mrs Collins went on, with all the relish of having some shocking gossip to relate. “He was to have gone into the church! – imagine that, a libertine such as him a clergyman – he was to have had a living from Mr Darcy, you know, but when he declined taking orders, he settled for several thousand pounds instead – to Mr Darcy’s great relief.”
Elizabeth was silent, somewhat grieved that such a personable and handsome young man as Wickham should be revealed to be such a rapscallion. But neither did it surprise her that someone as relentlessly strict about the proprieties as Mr Darcy seemed to be was probably happy to buy off the necessity of having such a disgraceful influence about his estate.
Everybody had been invited by Mrs Phillips to supper and cards the next day, with particular efforts having been exerted by Lydia to procuring an invitation for Mr Wickham.
After Mrs Phillips requisitioned the assistance of Mr Collins in making up a party for whist, Elizabeth found herself unpleasantly importuned by Mrs Collins, who had not yet abandoned all hope of impressing even the least awestruck of her new family members with the grandeur and significance of her connections with Maple Grove.
The addition of Mr Wickham’s company to their tête-à-tête was a great relief, and in fact, afforded Elizabeth a serendipitous opportunity of establishing the truth of the matter. Very little time needed to pass before Mr Wickham himself opened the subject of his childhood at Pemberley and his past dealings with Mr Darcy.
“Are you much acquainted with Mr Darcy?”
Much as Elizabeth wished to inform her questioner that she found the gentleman very disagreeable, she did not want to simply hand over to Mr Wickham so tempting an invitation to blacken the character of a man with whom he had apparently had some past differences. She liked Mrs Collins no better than Mr Darcy and might have been inclined to give Mr Wickham more of the benefit of the doubt, had he not spent the past twenty minutes smiling and simpering at every reasonably attractive lady in the room in an obvious and ingratiating way. Mrs Collins had told her Wickham was a rake, or at the very least a blatant flirt, and every action that Elizabeth had observed so far lent the idea authority.
“About as much as I can be expected to be, after spending four days in the same house with him, and perhaps dining together five or six times at various houses in the neighbourhood.” Cautiously, Elizabeth added, “He is a difficult person to get to know, very quiet, taciturn, almost, not at all inclined to seek introductions to and speak with anyone of the families of the neighbourhood.”
Mr Wickham, not quite sure yet where the lady’s opinions fell, made a few concurring remarks about Mr Darcy’s imposing manners and high opinion of his own consequence. “The world sees him as he chooses to be seen. Is he likely to remain at Netherfield Park much longer?”
“I do not know, but I have heard nothing of his going away.” Elizabeth decided to attempt to open the subject on which she was most curious. “Does his presence in the neighbourhood affect the comfort of your own stay?”
“Not at all,” Mr Wickham said smoothly. “I shall not be driven away by Mr Darcy, rather it is he who should be ashamed, for he has treated me most infamously … ”
Mrs Collins snorted inelegantly, and when Mr Wickham broke off his sentence to look at her questioningly, she said, “I had heard, rather, that your dealings with Mr Darcy left something to be desired.”
“I would expect that to have been the story told by his family members.”
“I was not told the particulars,” Mrs Collins said defensively, “only that something happened this past summer between the two of you.”
Mr Wickham shrugged, a gesture that to Elizabeth looked almost deliberately dismissive, as though to consign anything of the sort to merely idle rumour.
“It is of events farther in the past that I am primarily injured.” At suggestions to continue from his two listeners, Mr Wickham launched into an explanation of the special favours conferred upon him during his childhood as old Mr Darcy’s godson, of the jealous feelings of the heir of the family, of the promise of a living when he was old enough to take orders, of the spiteful denial of that bequest by the young master when the living became vacant, about two years ago.
Mrs Collins could not contain herself. “Some years before that, you were given a settlement of three thousand pounds in lieu of your claims to that living.”
Mr Wickham looked a little abashed, and he attempted to collect his thoughts.
“Your temperament, as I was given to understand it, was not such a one ideally suited to a clergyman,” Mrs Collins added.
A most diplomatic way of stating it, Elizabeth told herself, if the reports of Mr Wickham being a libertine were true. It was beginning to dawn upon her that such unguarded professions of enmity for a former childhood friend, to people to whom he had only barely been introduced himself, were not appropriate behaviour for anyone who professed to be a gentleman of principles and decorum. But she liked Mr Darcy no better for it, and decided that on the whole, neither of the two was worthy of a great deal of consideration.
More might have been thought and spoken of, had not Lydia noisily bustled her way into the circle and grabbed Mr Wickham’s arm. Pulling him away - with his very willing compliance - Lydia proclaimed in a loud voice that she was not going to allow Elizabeth to monopolize her new favourite for the entire evening.
Elizabeth was neither surprised nor disappointed when she discovered that Mr Wickham was not in attendance at the Netherfield ball. She had reluctantly decided in favour of Mr Darcy after considering the substance of Mrs Collins’ assertions and Mr Wickham’s complaints for a little time – not much, for in truth, she deemed neither of the two men worthy of many of her spare minutes, and even Mr Darcy’s absolution from the charge of dishonourable actions against Mr Wickham did not alter her opinion that he was a proud and disagreeable man. She found that the possibilities of her pleasures in the ball were not affected by her conclusions.
Lydia and Kitty were less philosophical, and spent a few minutes indulging loud and dramatic sentiments of vexation after Mr Denny informed them that Mr Wickham had been obliged to travel to town that night. But their combined pique did not last long, for there were many other red-coats at the ball, a dance with any one of whom afforded pleasures almost the equal of those of being partner to Mr Wickham.
Elizabeth soon saw Mr and Mrs Collins join the line of dancers. She had not been asked to dance herself, but was well able to entertain herself in watching. Mr Collins’ inept but enthusiastic dancing inspired her to much evil glee, and soon she sought out Charlotte Lucas for an exchange of observations about the absurdities and pretensions of Longbourn’s houseguests.
So engrossed did the two become for the next half-hour that not only had Elizabeth not seen Mr Darcy standing and sometimes pacing on the sidelines or noticed the frequency with which he gazed at her, she was caught completely by surprise when he asked her for the next two dances.
Elizabeth had no choice but to agree, or forfeit all further pleasure of dancing that night. She sighed deeply after Mr Darcy walked away, drawing from Charlotte a short lecture on giving serious consideration to the advantages of behaving agreeably with a man of so much consequence.
The dance that followed was neither particularly pleasant nor unpleasant for Elizabeth. Others looked on her with amazement at drawing such a distinguished partner, for Mr Darcy had not danced any previous sets that evening. His abilities at dancing were far better than merely competent, which surprised her a little for he appeared to profess always that he disliked the pastime. But their conversation seemed forced and awkward throughout the first of the set, as they tried various topics with mixed success.
The moves of the dance brought Lydia near to Elizabeth briefly. Lydia smiled prettily at her own partner, a handsome lieutenant, and regarded her older sister with the smug mien of one who had bested another in a contest.
“You cannot be very happy, Lizzy, obliged as you are to have such a disagreeable partner as Mr Darcy for a whole half hour. What would you not give, to see Mr Wickham in his place!”
“Lydia!” Elizabeth admonished her sister, embarrassed, for despite the remark having been made in a whisper, those nearby would have been able to hear it plainly.
When again Elizabeth faced Mr Darcy, she could see from his contracted brow that he was rather offended. A little chagrined, hoping to smooth over Lydia’s rudeness, she remarked that a few days before, the new acquaintance she and her sisters had made in Meryton had impressed himself quite favourably upon the youngest two.
Mr Darcy drew himself upright, stiffened and frowned a little, becoming if anything even more formal in demeanour. At length he said, uncomfortably, “Mr Wickham is blessed with such happy manners as may ensure his making friends ….”
“He has not made a friend of me,” Elizabeth said quickly. “And I am reasonably confident in concluding that he has lost your friendship as well, and for good reason.”
A look akin to relief seemed to flicker across Mr Darcy’s features. Before either could say anything further, however, Sir William Lucas appeared, and regaled them with many joyful nothings about the decorations of the room, the superiority of the music, the excellence of the dancers, and the possibilities of certain happy events in the near future. Lost in thought, Elizabeth listened to very little of it; she caught mentions of St James and the first circles of society – in other words, much the same as everything else she had ever heard Sir William say.
The interruption put the matter of Mr Wickham out of their heads. Elizabeth was still, however, contrite over Lydia’s talents at ill-considered outbursts. She put forth somewhat better efforts to converse in an affable manner, and was amazed at the ease that Mr Darcy showed in response. This was not at all the aloof and prideful man she was always so ready to see. Although the turns of the dance allowed no extended discussions, she found that she could enjoy their brief exchanges very much.
“I thank you, sir, for the pleasure of this dance,” Elizabeth said when the set was over, surprised at herself for regretting its end. She smiled cheekily at her partner. “Perhaps in your eyes I have ceased to be not quite handsome enough … ”
“I am heartily sorry that you overheard that,” Mr Darcy said, “and it was very wrong of me to have said such a thing in the first place.”
With a more serious but appreciative smile, Elizabeth looked him in the eye, informing him without words that she had accepted his apology. What a handsome man he is, she thought, and before she could wonder at the origins of that notion, she began to speculate that if he were to ask her for a second pair of dances later, she would not object at all.
They parted amicably, and his thoughts were considerably more tumultuous.
Miss Bingley had seen it all. With irritation that had been festering for the better part of the past half hour that the upstart Eliza Bennet had been requested for the dance that should properly have been hers, she bore down on her enemy, prepared to unleash spiteful and bitter sentiments.
But she had not counted on the ambitious Mrs Augusta Collins, who thought she had detected in Miss Bingley somebody whom she hoped might be more appreciative of her station and importance, one more likely to feel properly impressed by her descriptions and the reflected glory of her wealthy brother-in-law and his splendid estate. Mrs Collins had become exceedingly frustrated of late. Their visit was now more than half-way over, and she despaired of the Bennets, most of whom were proving far less susceptible to her consequence than had been anyone else so far encountered in Meryton.
Mrs Collins waylaid Miss Bingley easily by simply blocking her path, and with a few suitably flattering opening remarks about and requests for information as to the designer of her dress and plumes – she affected to covet them greatly - lured her to an alcove containing a few chairs for an exchange of confidences.
The ensuing enumeration of a multitude of likenesses between Maple Grove and Netherfield Park soon caused Miss Bingley to yawn delicately behind her fan. She cast furtive glances past the crowd often blocking her view of the dancers, to assure herself that Mr Darcy had not been ensnared into dancing by any of those brazen Meryton misses, or worse, for a second time by the insufferable Eliza Bennet.
Thoughts of Mr Darcy brought Miss Bingley to another subject, one on which she required intelligence so as to assess the likelihood of her future glad reception, and upon which the gentleman had so far remained silent. “Pray, tell me, how do you get on with Lady Catherine de Bourgh?”
“Oh, she is the most gracious lady I have ever seen! So elegant, so condescending! We are often invited to dine at Rosings Park, and if we do not arrive in our own chaise, her Ladyship always ensures we are sent home in one of hers. And her daughter, Miss Anne … ”
Miss Bingley’s expression soured. She had been admitted to the secret of Lady Catherine’s supposed betrothal arrangements for her daughter too recently to have rationalized them away. Reminders of additional rivals between herself and her goal were highly unwelcome.
“… a most delightful creature! I have quite made a pet out of her.”
Unknown to Miss Bingley, Elizabeth had taken a seat not very far away, with her sister Mary. And as Mary had taken care to furnish herself with a book before setting out for the ball, Elizabeth was quite unoccupied. She soon found herself smirking with great delight over hearing Miss Bingley importuned with the same tedious insipidity that she had so often in the past week been forced to endure.
“… for she was the most quiet little thing when I arrived, never speaking unless spoken to first, hardly ever even lifting her eyes to her own mother, never venturing from the house unless in her little phaeton with her companion … ”
Elizabeth’s image of Miss Bingley’s displeasure at hearing Miss de Bourgh described matched quite closely to the actual countenance on that lady.
“… have succeeded splendidly in drawing her from the house more often, in taking turns with me around the gardens, in learning to trust me, to confide in me, for I have told her again and again that she should regard me as the dearest of sisters.”
Miss Bingley made a brief sound that was neither agreement nor disagreement, merely a vague indication that she was still listening.
“She does not wish to marry Mr Darcy at all ….”
And Miss Bingley is immediately and considerably cheered, Elizabeth thought, not far off the mark.
Miss Bingley could not resist. “Why ever not?”
“I do not really know. Perhaps it is nothing more than a timidity, for after all, he is such an imposing, severe man. So frail a creature, to be taking on the responsibility of mistress of such a great estate. But I am trying to encourage Miss de Bourgh, and she is blooming, just blooming, under my attentions. Such a superior match! She has only to be convinced of her own capabilities, and she will be an ornament to any fine place. It is merely nerves, I dare say, and I am a great help to her there. Why, my own sister, Mrs Suckling, almost called off her marriage when it struck her, with only a week or so remaining till that illustrious event, what a great place she was about to become mistress of. For Maple Grove is a most imposing estate, and society must place high expectations on her entertainments and parties. The Sucklings have always been famous all around the neighbourhood for the splendour and elegance of their balls. But Serena has acquitted herself marvellously, and her events are now the talk of Bristol.”
Mrs Collins paused for breath.
“And what does Lady Catherine think of your efforts on behalf of her daughter?” Miss Bingley asked with chilly politeness.
“Oh, Lady Catherine is not so receptive to new ideas. She has very set notions of how things ought to be done, both at Rosings and at our parsonage at Hunsford. None of my protestations that we had always done things quite differently at Maple Grove had any effect. And I could teach her so much, you know, so many of the new and modern ways of managing a household. My sister Serena – Mrs Suckling – has become the finest mistress that estate has ever seen, and I have learned many useful things merely by observing her. I have offered to enlighten Lady Catherine many times. But no. She remains adamant about her own ways.”
Around the corner, Elizabeth laughed softly to herself as a litany of examples of domestic affairs, every one of them done in a far superior way at Maple Grove, were presented for Miss Bingley’s edification.
But even the patience of a Caroline Bingley must have an end, and not long afterwards, the lady excused herself curtly and stormed off to find Mrs Hurst.
“I swear, Louisa, if that woman mentions Maple Grove one more time in my presence, I shall … I do not know what, but I will think of something suitably punishing.”
“Don’t grind your teeth so, Caroline.”
While watching the last dance before supper was served, Mrs Collins was reminded of a duty still unfulfilled that night by the sight of Mr Darcy also observing the festivities from the sidelines. They ought, she told her husband, to pay their respects to Lady Catherine’s nephew during the course of the evening.
Elizabeth saw them bear down on the unsuspecting master of Pemberley. Mr and Mrs Collins had not been properly introduced to Mr Darcy, but although it was in her power, she had no inclination to supply the missing niceties. With smug inner satisfaction, she stationed herself in a strategic location to watch Mr Darcy’s countenance darken with astonished irritation and Mr and Mrs Collins trip over their tongues in their zeal to ingratiate themselves. She was not disappointed.
Over the noise of the room, Elizabeth could hear little of what was being spoken of, but she could see everything well enough to ascertain that Mr Collins said a great deal – the name of his patroness frequently discernible over the music and other voices – and that Mr Darcy said very little. Mrs Collins, in the meantime, appeared poised in fretful impatience to inject her own flattering observations into those rare breaks afforded by her husband’s verbosity. Whenever Mrs Collins found it possible to speak, Elizabeth was confident that she heard Maple Grove mentioned several times.
At length, Mr Darcy was able to make his escape, and he crossed the room in a stride that indicated great annoyance, a crease between his brows.
“Mr Darcy seemed much pleased with the attention,” Mr Collins told his wife fatuously. “He even paid me the compliment of saying that someone of Lady Catherine’s discernment would never bestow a favour unworthily.”
“Yes, indeed, my dear Mr C. It was a handsome thought. Such a gentlemanlike gesture. Mr and Mrs Suckling would be delighted to make his acquaintance, I am sure. A credit to the family of your patroness. I know I am very pleased with him.”
Elizabeth found it very difficult not to break out into unrestrained laughter. She found Charlotte and drew her to an out of the way corner to offer sardonic observations and compare their thoughts.
When everyone went in to supper, Elizabeth was pleased to see that Jane had been placed close to Mr Bingley. Those two had not stopped talking, or even just merely gazing, at each other since the Bennets’ arrival at the ball. But, although Charlotte has also been seated near enough for a conversation, other arrangements at their table turned out not to be quite so felicitous.
Mrs Bennet, finding herself near Lady Lucas, regaled her without cease of a lengthy list of grievances and complaints about the company which she was being forced to endure that week at Longbourn.
“Oh, that insufferable woman! She thinks the house is quite hers already, and talks a great deal about how she will arrange everything when she is the mistress … not that she comes right out and says so directly, for that would be too indelicate, but she is forever telling me how much better a certain table might look placed there, or how much more pleasant the room might be with blue curtains instead of brown. And she was upset because our breakfast parlour faces ….”
Lady Lucas said little, and merely nodded agreement at the appropriate times. Elizabeth spoke quietly with Charlotte and watched Jane and Mr Bingley smile at each other.
“… and she would arrange all my menus! She had the nerve to offer to plan the courses of our dinners for me, all the while boasting of the two cooks at Maple Grove, and the splendid venisons and partridges at that place, and Mr Suckling’s sporting parties … she took my cook aside for an hour on Friday to inform her of the exact and correct way to prepare trout, never mind that it is the wrong time of the year for that ….”
Mr Bennet watched everything with sardonic amusement. Further off, both near enough to hear but not close enough to converse with each other, were Miss Bingley and Mr Darcy. The former still fumed over her own encounter with Mrs Collins. Mr Darcy, however, had already largely dismissed the Collinses from his mind, and he diverted his thoughts more and more from silent indignation over the evening in general to the more agreeable contemplation of a certain young lady’s countenance.
“… she had the presumption to suggest that the large room at the east side of the house, which has always been Jane’s, should be remodelled into the main guest chamber, for those occasions when Longbourn might be host to superior personages … oh, I know what she has in mind, the meddling busy-body. Such visitors such as Mr and Mrs Suckling of Maple Grove must be used to the very finest in guest accommodations ….”
Lady Lucas said a few comforting things.
“… and it vexes me beyond imagination that some day I must be forced to sit back and watch that woman take my place as mistress of my house! Well, if she is happy with taking a house that is not rightfully hers, of being only entailed upon her, she will have to live with her conscience. I would be ashamed … but, still, to know that some day that presumptuous woman will turn me and my daughters ….
Mr Bennet rolled his eyes. Elizabeth continued to talk calmly with Charlotte, Mr Darcy maintained an outwardly impassive demeanour, and Jane and Mr Bingley remained oblivious to the rest of the world.
Elizabeth’s and Charlotte’s conversation was not about obnoxious house guests or officious suggestions for improvements, but about the distracted couple. Although both agreed that Mr Bingley’s sentiments appeared quite settled, they differed in their assessments of the lady’s return of them. Charlotte thought Jane should not be quite so guarded in her display, lest the gentleman not see that his affections were reciprocated; Elizabeth maintained that, knowing her sister as well as she did, there was nothing lacking in her regard.
Mr Darcy overheard much of their discussion – preoccupied with Elizabeth as he was, it was natural that her conversations must be more fascinating to him than those of her noisy mother – and a tendril of doubt crept into his mind. He had thought Jane quite unaffected by the regard of his friend, and had been forming a plan to warn him against such a one-sided affection. It was not improbable that Elizabeth knew her sister far better than he could, and he began to bend his efforts to better see the confirmation of those ideas.
Miss Bingley, more advantageously placed to hear the two matrons than their daughters, was first washed over with a great contempt for the garrulous Mrs Bennet. After a while, however, it dawned upon her that Mrs Bennet had been imposed upon by the same nuisance who had so recently disrupted her own peace of mind, and for a longer period of time. Soon, Miss Bingley ceased to hear Mrs Bennet’s petulant whining and complaining, and instead began to discern the unhappy fears of a woman whose future security was uncertain and who had just spent a week in almost constant torment by the very agent of her diminishment.
When Miss Bingley called for some music after the meal, Elizabeth felt some alarm that Mary might make a spectacle of herself at the pianoforte. However, Mrs Collins was nearer, and quicker to react. With some breezily stated nonsense about doing her duty of the share of entertainment, and of displaying her accomplishments to her future – amended hastily with an apologetic glance at Mr Bennet to her hopefully far future – neighbours, she took her seat at the instrument and prepared to delight them with a song.
While his dear Augusta was organizing her sheet music, Mr Collins regaled the company with a stupid and self-serving speech about how much he would have liked to oblige the company with a performance of his own, were not such frivolous pursuits at odds with his many obligations as a clergyman. Those burdens he proceeded to enumerate, while many under the dubious spell of his loud voice stared, and some snickered.
When Mrs Collins opened her mouth in song, her husband hushed himself with a gesture and sat down in worshipful admiration of her capabilities. But these were not the equal of her bragging of the past week about her love of music, and rather reflected her regrets that as a married woman she no longer had the time for as much practice as had once been her habit. The kindest thing that could be said about her playing and singing was that they were easier on the ears than Mary’s. Her talents were not up to the elevated standards of Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst, and the two superior sisters exchanged sneering looks.
When Mrs Collins looked about to embark upon a third selection, Mr Collins drew near, and suggested that, however delightful his dear Augusta’s performance was to everybody’s ears, it did not suit the proper humility and modesty of a parson’s wife to monopolize everybody’s attention quite so much.
Mrs Collins appeared a little put out, but acquiesced to her caro sposo ’s request. Mary saw all of this and made a movement as if to gather her music and replace the lady at the instrument, but Mrs Hurst was quicker.
Elizabeth breathed a sigh of relief. If Miss Bingley followed her sister, the musical interlude should be over without any embarrassing exhibitions from her sister.
Eventually the dancing resumed. By continuing to exercise a strategic positioning of herself outside Mr Collins’ notice between the dances, when the risk of being asked was highest, Elizabeth continued to avoid the evil threatened by her family’s guest some days earlier of honouring each of his cousins with a set. Jane, too kind to think of hiding in the same way, had been victimized earlier; Kitty and Lydia contrived to be partnered for every dance with officers; and in being approached by Mr Collins, Mary had not objected in the slightest, nor complained about the ineptitude of his dancing. Elizabeth danced with Mr Bingley and a couple of the officers, and concluded at the end of the evening that it had not been such an unpleasant ball after all.
Mrs Bennet had contrived to have her carriage brought around last, to provide Jane with all possible opportunities of attaching Mr Bingley securely. She was thwarted, however, when Mr Collins offered the spare seats in his own carriage to the two eldest Bennet daughters. Seeing no reasonable way to refuse this kind offer, Jane accepted for both. Elizabeth felt all the unease of being away much earlier than her mother, and of knowing neither what sort of final bit of mischief she could be up to, nor how vexed the tired Netherfield family was over these last, delayed guests.
And what of afterwards? Mr and Mrs Collins, mercifully, returned to Hunsford only a few days later, and were missed by nobody. Mr Bingley had gone to London the day after the ball, but with Mr Darcy in doubt of his own earlier conclusion that Jane did not care for him, his sisters’ attempts to persuade him not to return to Netherfield were half-hearted and fruitless.
Mr Bingley resumed his courtship of Jane and his proposal was gladly accepted. They were married early in the new year, and removed to town for the season, inviting Elizabeth to accompany them. Miss Bingley’s antipathy toward her was softened somewhat by her feeling that they shared a common enemy. In London, Elizabeth and Mr Darcy were often in company, and as she had been awoken early to the truth about Wickham, their relationship became considerably more friendly.
With such chill existing between Elizabeth and Mrs Collins, there was of course extended no invitation to sample the grandeur and delights of Rosings. Mr Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam paid their annual duty visit at Easter, expecting as always to be the beneficiaries of a great deal of Lady Catherine’s unwelcome advice. This year, however, with such an evil presence in the parsonage, the nephews promised themselves to make their stay as short as could be politely managed.
And so thoroughly had Mrs Augusta Collins filled Miss Anne de Bourgh’s head with nonsense and self-importance that even the weak resolution that had sometimes played in Mr Darcy’s mind that he might in the end marry his cousin out of sheer resignation was dissolved with finality. He returned to town from Rosings resolved to do better than that for himself. There remained preconceptions of the worth of people, tendencies to think too well of oneself, and judgments made on too little information, still to resolve, but overcome them Mr Darcy and Elizabeth did. They came to love each other, in time and sufficiently for their feelings to triumph over any family missteps or disapproving relatives that the future could bring.
Like Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mrs Augusta Collins liked to be of use. And yet, through her visit with Mr Collins to Longbourn in November, despite the changes in their route, the ultimate destiny of Elizabeth and Mr Darcy was unaltered from that which might have resulted had she never met her caro sposo in Bristol at all.