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Beyond Longbourn - Chapter Five

June 11, 2017 11:29PM
Chapter Five


Residence of Mr. & Mrs. Philips
Meryton, Hertfordshire
December 3, 1811


Elizabeth Bennet was thankful that her Aunt Philips had chosen to go and consult her cook as to the foods that would be required later that day. Her aunt was a kindly soul, full of good intentions but as witless as a goose. It was also an unfortunate truth that many would never appreciate her kindness, cloaked as it was in her unconscious vulgarity. She loved her aunt, but her company became a sore trial after too many hours and she, Elizabeth Bennet, had been required to endure her aunt’s company far too long. Her sensibilities were stretched almost to the point of snapping and her aunt would bear the brunt of her ire when that point was exceeded. She had been saved from such unkindness only by that lady’s summons to the kitchen.

Her Aunt Philips was, in almost all particulars, very much Mrs. Bennet’s sister. Her reproaches, upon learning that Elizabeth had refused Mr. Collins’ offer, had borne an eerie similarity to those emanating from Mrs. Bennet and, if not bemoaning a possible fate in the hedgerows, she had been no less concerned about the imposition that seven relatively impoverished females might represent for herself and her husband. Those concerns had been abated when recalled to the existence of Elisabeth’s inheritance, for she was not so insensible as to suppose that Elizabeth would not care for her sisters and mother. This had not ended her wishes for one of the Bennet sisters to marry Mr. Collins. A familial association with Longbourn and the Bennet family conferred greater status and respectability to the Philipses which would be lost upon Mr. Bennet’s passing but could be maintained if one of the daughters was to marry Mr. Collins.

Even now, when the responsibility of care had been so greatly diminished, Mrs. Philips remained optimistic that a connection with Longbourn could be established. She was not so foolish as to expect Elizabeth to be prevailed upon and her thoughts had drifted towards Mary and she had begun speculating about such a possibility. She was not blessed with a single subtle bone in her body, nor was she especially attuned to the reactions of others. Thus, she was quite unaware that her musings of the possibility of Mary making a match with Mr. Collins, which several days before had been much to Mary’s liking, were now not being well-received by her niece. So far, Mary had not voiced her objections, but Elizabeth could only wonder how long such restraint would last. She had made one or two dissenting comments but Mrs. Philips was much like her sister in this regard also. Some matters were beyond her understanding, and refusing a marriage offer was one such subject.

It was but thirty-six hours since Elizabeth had been woken by Mary, forced to dress hurriedly and escape Longbourn before it burned down around her. Why Mary had roused, she learned only later, as her sister explained with an unusual degree of embarrassment.

“I was thinking of Mr. Collins. I had hopes, after your refusal, that he might direct his attentions to me but he did not. I confess I slept poorly and woke to the smell of smoke. When I opened door, the hall was filled with smoke. I started towards our parents’ chambers but the smoke was too thick and I could hardly breathe, so I came to yours which was closest.”

"And I am glad you did.” replied Elizabeth.

Between them, they had woken Jane but by then the hall was dense and black with smoke from floor to ceiling. They could feel the heat from that end of the building. To attempt to find the remainder of their family was impossible. All they could do was hasten down the servant’s stairwell which even then was rapidly being invaded by thick tendrils of smoke. Of her family, only she, Jane and Mary had survived the conflagration that consumed Longbourn. And Mr. Collins, of course. He apparently had been the first to save himself and, if she could not believe him capable of starting the fire, she could not accept the sincerity of his condolences on the deaths of her parents and two sisters. It seemed too providential and she could only wonder that he had not made any effort to rouse her parents. She and Mary had been able to do as much for Jane before being driven from the house by smoke and Mr. Collins had been outside for some minutes when they had made their own exit. Even Mary, who had hitherto regarded the man with favour, did not mask her contempt for his apparent lack of action.

He had been uncharacteristically silent as he stood watching their home burn, arms folded across his chest. Unlike themselves, he did not require a quilt for warmth. He had somehow managed to retain sufficient presence of mind to take his greatcoat when he left. She thought it odd that he was also dressed, not in his nightclothes like she and her sisters, but supposed he had been working on his sermon and fallen asleep while still dressed. Her father had done as much, more times than she could remember. She was in such a state of confusion and shock that the absence of any signs that he had been discomfited by the fire was overlooked until much later.

He turned as the three sisters scuffled towards him; Elizabeth could not mistake the expression of surprise that crossed his face, only to be chased away by displeasure when he recognized her. She had thought, under the present circumstances, that forgiveness might be granted her for having refused him, but apparently not. After a glare in her direction and a mumbled acknowledgement to her sisters, he had returned his gaze to Longbourn. If he had not exactly ignored them henceforth, neither had he afforded them any significant attention. Fortunately, the Lucases came and had taken them in hand and brought them to Lucas Lodge where they stayed until the Philipses arrived. To Charlotte and Maria, they were indebted for the gift of gowns, for they had exited Longbourn clad only in their nightclothes and their wardrobes had been consumed along with their home.

Those gowns had now been dyed black, and a visit to the local seamstress had produced a bombazine gown for each of them. Other accessories were acquired by Mrs. Philips, for it was winter and warmer clothing and outerwear essential. It would take several days for the small order they had placed to be complete. Elizabeth gathered her shawl more closely about her shoulders. As annoying and ridiculous as their cousin was, she preferred to allow him and his behaviour to crowd out other even more unpleasant thoughts of the events of the past hours. He was now Master of Longbourn and his stewardship had not gotten off to a propitious start. Not only had he managed to escape unscathed from the house, it had soon become common knowledge that he had made no attempt to rouse anyone else to escape and his excuses had not sounded convincing. Moreover, his efforts to assist those who attempted to combat the fire, hindered more than helped. She recalled now more than one glance of dismay or contempt directed at him by those working diligently to ensure the flames did not spread to the stables and other buildings. He, of course, had been oblivious to it all, and if he did not rub his hands in glee at the prospect of such an early assumption of the role of Master, it was a close-run thing. She snorted in derision. Longbourn House, from what she had seen, was unliveable and must be completely rebuilt. She wished him well and wondered where he might find the funds. She could not view him now with anything but contempt. That he had made no effort to assist anyone to leave the house was unforgivable. His failure to act was due either to a desire to acquire his inheritance sooner than it would otherwise have been his, or the result of panic of such magnitude as to banish from his mind any thought of assisting others. Neither was pleasant to consider and a man, she had thought respectable at least, could not now aspire to even that limited amount of credit. He was either a coward, heartless or the basest of opportunists. Whichever he was, he was most assuredly not an estimable representative of the clergy.

She could only bless whatever unconscious thought of her own had made her carry her strongbox from her room. It was, she believed, a serendipitous action, for she had knocked it to the floor while attempting to garb herself and must have clutched it along with the quilt to warm herself when she reached the outside, although she could not remember doing so. Even now, she could remember vividly coughing and choking as they stumbled down the stairs and outside. Her eyes were still sore from the smoke and any bright light brought tears to them. She was more fortunate than Mary who was still coughing roughly from the smoke she had inhaled. Why she and only two of her sisters had survived and the remainder of her family had not, was beyond her comprehension. Mr. Sellers, vicar of the Longbourn parish had spoken of God’s will. She could find no comfort in his words and she had yet to understand how it had even happened. Fire was an ever-present danger, particularly in an old house like Longbourn. The house had been rebuilt a hundred years ago when its predecessor had also been destroyed by fire, a circumstance which had made all of them cautious. The embers were still too fierce yesterday to allow anyone to recover the remains of her family but Mr. Hill had given it as his opinion that the fire had somehow started in the kitchen. They hoped that the overnight rain would cool the embers enough to allow searchers to retrieve the bodies of her parents and sisters. She drew the shawl even closer and shivered.

If there was anything to be thankful for, it was that her Uncle Gardiner had arrived late the evening before. Mr. Collins had been closeted with her Uncle Philips for more than an hour earlier that day. She had not thought much about the matter until her uncle had called her into his office. Mr. Collins had been sitting there with such a look of smug self-assurance that it was more than she could bear to even look at him. She could only suppose him to be congratulating himself on coming into his inheritance. She was quite wrong – or, at least, did not account for the full measure of his conceit. Her uncle soon corrected her opinion.

“Lizzy, Mr. Collins has informed me that he made you an offer of marriage several days ago, and that you refused him despite my sister’s wishes on the matter. Is this the case?”

She regarded her uncle with confusion. “I admit to being surprised that you were in ignorance on the matter, Uncle. My Aunt Philips was informed about it on the very day it took place, if I recollect correctly.”

Mr. Philips shook his head, “My wife mentioned something but I confess I rarely listen to all her gossip. There’s too much of it to take it all in.” He paused, “So it is true, then?”

“It is true that Mr. Collins made me an offer which I declined, yes.”

“And yet my sister wished it so, for the security of herself and her daughters.”

Mr. Collins burst out, “I had informed Mrs. Bennet that should I marry one of her daughters, she need not fear for her future. Lady Catherine was most explicit on this matter. ‘Mr. Collins, she said, it behooves you to provide for their care if Mr. Bennet has not done so.’ As Mrs. Bennet assured me that she and her unmarried daughters would have naught but five thousand pounds for their support, I gave her such assurances as I considered appropriate. And. . .”

“Thank you, Mr. Collins.” interrupted Elizabeth, quite sure that if allowed, Mr. Collins would hold forth for a quarter hour or more on the matter. She turned back to her uncle. “Despite my mother’s wishes, I did indeed decline Mr. Collins’ offer, and in this I was firmly supported by my father.”

Her uncle looked amazed, “Your father did not agree with my sister on the matter? He did not support her?” He turned to Mr. Collins with a disapproving air, “Why did you not inform me of this, sir?”

Mr. Collins waved his hand dismissively, “It matters not now. Mr. Bennet’s support is no longer required. As Miss Elizabeth’s nearest surviving male relative and head of the family, it is my responsibility and I will expect to wed Miss Elizabeth when the proper mourning period ends.”

Elizabeth was pleased to see that her uncle looked affronted.

“You take too much upon yourself, sir” said he, “My Brother Gardiner is the closest male relative of my nieces and I do not divulge anything particularly serious when I inform you that he is, by the terms of my Brother Bennet’s will, named as their guardian. If Miss Elizabeth is to wed, it is his permission that is required. No, Sir” he added as he could see Mr. Collins about to protest. “Gardiner will arrive tonight, I am sure, and we will discuss my nieces’ future with him. The funeral is to be held the day after tomorrow and Mr. Bennet’s will shall be read that same afternoon.”

“But I am Mr. Bennet’s nearest surviving male relative. Surely I must be his daughters’ guardian? It would be most improper should it be otherwise. I assure you that Lady Catherine would be most displeased. . .’ he glared at Elizabeth who could not restrain a derisive snort, “. . . she would be seriously displeased that this ‘tradesman’ would displace me in such a role. She is particularly attentive to such details and. . .’

“Thank you, Mr. Collins, however, Mr. Bennet’s will must take precedence and I am sure that Lady Catherine would acknowledge his rights in this instance.” declared Mr. Philips. He turned to Elizabeth, “I will not importune you on this matter, although I believe it a prudent option that you should consider. Your future security and that of your sisters would be assured.”

Elizabeth understood then that her uncle was unaware of the bequest she had received and she could only bless its fortuitous timing. She rather suspected that Mr. Collins omission of that information was as deliberate as his omission of her father’s support for her decision. He apparently hoped to persuade her Uncle Philips to act on his behalf and commit his niece to a marriage without her consent. Mr. Collins really was a most odious man, and his character was becoming even less appealing the longer she knew him. She had assured her uncle that she was fully sensible to the honour of Mr. Collins’ proposal but that her decision was fixed and to this he had made no further demurrals.

~~~~~~~~~~

Elizabeth’s musings were interrupted by the arrival of Mr. Hill and her Uncle Gardiner. From the stains and steaks of soot that garnished their clothing and features, she could only assume that they had been investigating the site of the fire.

“Where are your sisters, Lizzy” asked her uncle.

“In our bedroom, Uncle.”

“Are they. . .will it upset them too greatly to learn what we have done?” he asked cautiously.

“I do not know for sure. Mary, I think, will bear it well. Jane. . “Elizabeth gave a helpless shrug.

Mr. Gardiner nodded. Elizabeth could discern that his own pain was being carefully masked. He had lost a sister. A foolish creature to be sure, but he had cared for her, nonetheless; and his childhood memories of her, he held dear.

“Allow me and Hill to clean up. We have some news which we wish to share. Give me a half hour and we’ll speak – in the parlour, perhaps. I would wish Jane to attend, if she feels capable of doing so.”

Elizabeth nodded. Her uncle’s manner was grave. She could not expect anything else and to have to dig amongst the burnt timbers for the remains of her family was more than she could have undertaken and a process to which she gave as little thought as possible.

It was more than a half hour before her uncle could join her and her two sisters in the Philipses’ small parlour. Mary, as she expected, was bearing up well. Jane was not. Her customary serenity was in place but long familiarity allowed Elizabeth to see how tenuous was her sister’s grasp of it. Her Aunt and Uncle Philips were also there and Mr. Collins as well. Elizabeth could have easily done without his presence, but his right to be there could not be questioned. He was related and was now the Master of Longbourn.

Mr. Gardiner's words were brief.

“We have recovered the remains of your parents and sisters, girls. They have been placed in coffins. Mr. Sellers has agreed that they may rest in the Longbourn church till the funeral. Two servants died as well and their remains have also been placed in coffins in the church.”

“I cannot understand how this could have happened, Uncle. We are always so careful in regards to fires.” cried Jane. Elizabeth wrapped her arms about her sister who appeared on the brink of surrendering once more to her distress.

“Hill and I explored the site as best we could, my dear. Some portions remain too hot even now to permit access. However, Hill believed the fire to have started in the kitchen where we also found your mother’s remains. I cannot account for her presence there but perhaps she smelled smoke and attempted to quell the fire herself.”

Elizabeth thought his a very charitable interpretation of her mother’s probable behaviour. It seemed to her more likely that her mother came down to the kitchen and accidentally caused the fire, although why she did not rouse the house immediately, she could not explain. She was certain that had her mother smelled smoke, everyone in Longbourn would shortly have been privy to the fact. Nothing, however, would be gained from contesting the point and she forbore to comment. She chastised herself for her unkindness. One must not, she recollected, speak ill of the dead. Did that extend to thinking ill of them? It would serve no purpose in this instance and she realized that she must attempt to remember her mother’s virtues rather than her faults. She felt Jane stiffen and attempt to sit upright.

“I shall be well, Lizzy.” She murmured.

Elizabeth’s musings were interrupted by her Uncle’s Gardiner’s voice.

“You seem unusually perturbed, Mr. Collins, at my report. Is there something amiss?”

Elizabeth could see that Mr. Collins was extremely uncomfortable at being so challenged. He drew himself and assumed an air of offended dignity.

"I do not have the pleasure of understanding you, sir. It is not your place to question one of my station. Lady Catherine has been most emphatic on maintaining the distinction of rank. I shall not be questioned on the matter by a tradesman.”

Mr. Gardiner returned his glare. He had not thought that there was anything of particular significance in Mr. Collins’ initial reaction. Now he became suspicious - and irritated; however, Elizabeth spoke before he could reply.

“Perhaps,” she snapped, “my cousin, might like to explain to Sir William Lucas, how it was that he was unable to assist my parents and sisters to leave the house, yet managed to do so himself some minutes before Mary, Jane and I could do likewise. My sister had time to rouse me and yet Mr. Collins,” and she almost spat the name, “could not help anyone. I should be interested at such an explanation.”

“Cousin Elizabeth is obviously too distraught to consider her words carefully. I was in no position to undertake anything other than removing myself from the house.”

Mary began coughing and it was several moments before she could speak without difficulty. “How was it then that I could rouse my sisters to leave the house and you, who had already made his escape, could do nothing?”

Her target glared at her and appeared about to respond when Mr. Gardiner held up his hand to prevent further dispute. He had not been unaware of his niece’s charges but knew there was little that anyone could do to prove or refute them. He was more concerned about Mr. Collins’ apparent reluctance to explain his uneasiness in the matter of where Mrs. Bennet’s remains had been discovered.

“Perhaps, Mr. Collins, you would prefer, as Elizabeth has suggested, to have me refer the matter to Sir William Lucas. He is the magistrate for the area and I am sure would be most interested to learn what has caused such disquiet in you. Shall I do so, sir, or would you prefer to speak with me on the matter.”

Mr. Collins clearly viewed both of Mr. Gardiner’s choices with discomfort but finally, without sacrificing his air of importance, declared, “It is of little import, I assure you, Mr. Gardiner. I simply had cause to venture into the kitchen where, instead of the intruder I had expected, I encountered Mrs. Bennet. We. . .spoke briefly and I returned to my room.”

Mr. Gardiner considered this response for some seconds. “Might I inquire as the subject of your conversation?” He finally asked.

Mr. Collins became stiffer, if that were possible. His answer was not particularly helpful, “We spoke only of when I might depart.”
“I wonder,” said Elizabeth, “as to your reasons for being downstairs and that you were fully dressed when we encountered you immediately upon escaping the house.”

She had not considered as overly peculiar at his state of dress at the time of the fire but to learn now that he had been downstairs, possibly shortly before the conflagration began, roused her suspicions. Her cousin flushed, drew himself up taller and, after a short pause, declared that he had simply experienced a problem sleeping and visited his host’s book room in order to find something to read.

Elizabeth made no attempt to mask her scepticism and Mr. Gardiner’s countenance also expressed his disbelief but, as Mr. Collins gave no sign of being more forthcoming, he chose, as he had nothing of substance to support his suspicions, to allow the matter to rest. However, after her cousin had left, Elizabeth regarded her uncle closely and could see that he was as unhappy as she with Mr. Collins’ explanation.

“My cousin,” said she, “has not, to my certain knowledge, read a book during his visit. I find it passing odd that he should have expressed such a desire on that particular evening. My father discouraged him from his book room, for he would much rather talk than read and such an impingement on his tranquillity was more than my father could bear.” She paused and then murmured, “I wonder at his true purpose for being there, if indeed he was?”

Mr. Gardiner sighed. He did not doubt the relevance of his niece’s observations; however, he had no specific proof that Collins was culpable in causing the fire nor that he was involved in Mrs. Bennet’s mishap. Nonetheless, he resolved to speak with Sir William on the matter and apprise him of Mr. Collins’ actions and explanations. He was the magistrate and such knowledge was well within his purview. Mr. Collins, from all reports, was the first to leave the premises. Such alertness should have allowed him to save some of the other residents of Longbourn; however, he apparently made no such attempt which spoke poorly of his courage and integrity. Moreover, he was also the only person to benefit from the tragic, early death of Mr. Bennet.
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Beyond Longbourn - Chapter Five

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