Charles Bingley was standing in front of the drawing room window looking longingly in the direction of Longbourn Manor. Because the Bennets were entertaining a visitor from Kent, Charles had decided that he would leave the family to their company and not call at the house. This would be the first time in two weeks that he had not ridden to Longbourn, so that he might be with Jane Bennet, and it explained his doleful countenance.
“Bingley, here, drink this,” Darcy said, handing his friend a glass of port. “And cheer up. It has been only one day since you last saw Jane Bennet, and you will see her tomorrow. The Bennets will not object to your going to Longbourn. It’s not as if they have been overrun by hordes of guests. It is only one person.” And, knowing how eager Mrs. Bennet was to have Bingley as her son-in-law, Darcy was completely sure of the accuracy of his opinion. “By the way, who is this visitor?”
“Their cousin, a Mr. Collins, who is a clergyman. I can tell you that Jane was not looking forward to his coming,” Bingley said, shaking his head at the thought that this unwanted intruder was keeping him from his Jane. “He wrote them a letter of such length, explaining the reason for his visit that Jane said they all nearly dozed off before their father had finished reading it.”
“Well, what was the reason for such a lengthy introduction?” Darcy asked.
Bingley mumbled something, which Darcy could not hear, and even though he was often guilty of doing such a thing himself, Darcy knew that when it came to matters of the heart, Bingley was equally capable of being moody and uncommunicative. In his present state, it made conversation more like pulling teeth, but Darcy’s only other option was to leave the pining lover to his musings and join Bingley’s sisters and Mr. Hurst for cards. However, he had little tolerance for Caroline’s biting comments, Louisa’s giggling, and Mr. Hurst’s frequent belches.
“The Bennet estate is entailed away from the female line to the benefit of Mr. Collins,” Bingley finally said. “Mr. Bennet suspects that he has come to find a wife from amongst the daughters as a way of easing his conscience about inheriting the estate. If such a marriage can be arranged, when Mr. Bennet dies, they will be able to remain at Longbourn. At least, that is what is hoped.”
“Well, with the eldest daughter very nearly engaged,” Darcy said, smiling at Bingley, “I would guess that would mean the middle daughter, the plain one, may have an opportunity to marry.”
“I doubt it,” Bingley responded. “Although Mary Bennet is very nice, she is rather plain and lacking in accomplishments. I would imagine he would direct his attentions to Elizabeth.”
Darcy nearly spit out his wine. “Elizabeth Bennet, the wife of a clergyman! Don’t be ridiculous. If there is any female who is obligated to say little and to keep her opinions to herself, it is the spouse of a parson. They must spew platitudes and banalities, so that they might curry favor with their husband’s congregation and whomever provides the living. Elizabeth is quite incapable of doing either.”
“I agree that it would be a challenge for her. However, Elizabeth’s situation is unenviable. Jane tells me that the Bennet daughters have meager dowries and a pittance for an allowance, and once Mr. Bennet dies, this preacher can put them out of the house as soon as the documents are executed.”
Darcy was stunned by this revelation. To his mind, Longbourn appeared to be a profitable enterprise, and he assumed that Mr. Bennet had provided adequately for his children. Apparently not. And being a man of the world and understanding how things worked, Darcy knew that Elizabeth certainly wouldn’t be the first woman forced into a loveless marriage as a way of avoiding spinsterhood and its accompanying poverty. He was sure that with Jane Bennet’s marriage to Bingley, things would be less dire for the Bennet sisters, as Charles had a big heart and would take care of his sisters-in-law and their mother. But he also knew that Elizabeth was quite capable of refusing her sister’s generosity so as not to be a burden to her.
Although Elizabeth and he had a strained relationship, he greatly admired her. She was intelligent with a sophisticated wit and a smile that could make a man go weak at the knees, and despite some biting exchanges between them, he liked her—a lot. And he did not want to think of her in a marriage bereft of love. In fact, he didn’t like the idea of her being married to anyone at all.
* * *
Because Caroline Bingley and Louisa Hurst had failed to issue another invitation for Jane Bennet to visit Netherfield Park, fearing a possible relapse and another lengthy recovery, Bingley was spending all of his time at the Bennet estate. His friend was there so often that Darcy had teased him that Mr. Bennet was very likely to start charging him board. And because of his frequent visits, Bingley would know if it was really true that Mr. Collins intended to make an offer of marriage to Miss Elizabeth, and so Darcy was waiting in the study for Bingley to return from Longbourn.
“Well, was I right? This parson intends to make an offer to Mary Bennet? It would be a good match for both as she is of a studious nature, quiet and reserved. She would be the ideal person for a clergyman to marry,” Darcy said as soon as Bingley was in the room.
“May I pour myself a glass of wine and sit down before I answer?” Charles asked, declining the offer of assistance from Nevins, the butler he had inherited from his landord and who had been at Netherfield for decades. He was still not used to having someone hovering nearby, trying to anticipate his every need. He wondered if, like Darcy, there would come a time when he wouldn’t give it a second thought.
“Of course, and pour one for me as well,” Darcy said.
After securing a place in front of the fire, Bingley answered Darcy’s question. “No, you are not right. Mr. Collins has no intention of making an offer to Mary Bennet. Other than what common courtesy demands, Mr. Collins directed all of his conversation to Miss Elizabeth.”
“And how did she receive such attentions?” Darcy asked.
“She was all politeness, but gave him no encouragement. But, Darcy, why are you so interested in Miss Elizabeth? You do not even like her.”
“Why do you say that I do not like her?” Darcy asked, genuinely surprised, but Bingley gave him such a look that he felt as if he must elaborate. “She is pleasant enough company, somewhat intelligent, and not unattractive.”
“And I’d soon call her mother a wit!” Bingley answered, while laughing and nearly choking on his words.
“Bingley, what are you talking about?”
“What am I talking about? That is a direct quote—from you. When Caroline said that Miss Elizabeth was reputed to be a local beauty, you said, ‘She a beauty! I should as soon call her mother a wit.’”
“I said no such thing.”
“Oh, yes, you did,” and Bingley reminded Darcy of some of his other remarks: “‘Not handsome enough to tempt you to dance,’ ‘punishment to stand up with,’ ‘a tendency to willfully misunderstand people.’ Shall I continue?”
“No, that is enough.”
“You say that you like her, but your words say something else: ‘Pleasant enough company, somewhat intelligent, not unattractive,’” Bingley said, parroting Darcy’s mute praise of the lady. “My goodness! Such accolades! Elizabeth would swoon if she could hear you. And why are you so interested in Mr. Collins and Elizabeth?”
“Because I am looking to be diverted. When one is in the country, one must take what one can in the way of amusement, and I am bored with cards.”
Charles greatly doubted that was the real reason, but knew that his friend could only be pushed so far or he would shut up tighter than a clam and the night would stretch long before them.
“Well, you will have an opportunity to gauge Mr. Collins’s interest for yourself. I have secured an invitation for all of us to dine with the Bennets on Thursday. Of course, Caroline and the Hursts will find an excuse not to go.”
And because Bingley’s sisters would not be going, Darcy would.
* * *
Lizzy could hardly believe that Mr. Collins had been at Longbourn for little more than a week and that it was only the fourth evening of his readings of the compilation of Nine Sermons Preached in the Parish of Westminster by Archbishop Thomas Secker. It would have been a mercy if someone on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s staff had broken the tips of his quill pens, so that the Bennets might be spared another five days of his genius.
When Mr. Collins was not reading the archbishop’s work, he was speaking about Lady Catherine, Miss Anne De Bourgh, or Rosings Park, and with the early blooms of spring beginning to appear, Mr. Collins had expanded his discussion to include the extensive gardens surrounding the mansion. But at least one Bennet had stopped listening. The sound of Mr. Collins’s voice was barely penetrating the fog that enshrouded Lizzy’s brain. Between the low timbre of his voice and the fire, Lizzy had been fighting to stay awake for the past hour.
“Miss Elizabeth, have you no comment?” Mr. Collins asked.
“Yes,” she replied while sitting up in her chair. “You were speaking of eyes and noses, I believe,” which caused guffaws from Mr. Collins and giggles from Lydia and Kitty.
“Eyes and noses! How very funny, Miss Elizabeth. But as you know, I was speaking of Lady Catherine’s irises and roses,” he tittered.
Lizzy, who had been caught napping, tried to recover. “Yes, your description of Lady Catherine’s flowers put me in mind of the children’s rhyme: Moses supposes his toeses are roses, but Moses supposes erroneously.” But instead of helping to cover up that she had not been listening, she found that everyone was staring at her with quizzical expressions. Deciding that making no additional comment was the best course, an embarrassed Lizzy rose and said, “I think I shall retire or I shall be speaking of two lips instead of tulips.”
Again, the parson laughed loudly and pronounced the second-eldest daughter to be “uniformly charming” and bid her good night.
After Jane had closed the door to their bedroom, she turned to her sister and asked, “What was all that about? Eyes, noses, lips? Lizzy, you were not making any sense.”
Lizzy plunked down on the bed and extended her foot so that Jane could unlace her shoes; she was that tired. “Jane, is it possible to fall asleep with your eyes open?” Jane laughed and shook her head ‘no.’ After offering her sister her other foot, Lizzy continued, “I have never been so bored in all my life and that includes the time I nursed you at Netherfield Park and had to spend hours and hours with Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley’s relations. And why do I get the impression that Mr. Collins is talking just to me.”
“Because he is talking just to you.”
“For what purpose?”
“Isn’t it rather obvious?” Lizzy shook her head. “He has come to Longbourn to find a wife to assuage his guilt about inheriting Longbourn when Papa dies, and once Mama informed him that I anticipate an offer of marriage from Mr. Bingley, he looked to the next eldest daughter. I have said nothing about the matter because I find the reason for his being at Longbourn to be extremely distasteful.”
Lizzy burst out laughing. “Surely, you are in jest. Me marry Mr. Collins! Although I have been on my very best behavior, even someone as dense as Mr. Collins must realize that I do not have the temperament to be the wife of a clergyman.” Jane said nothing. “Did you not see the shocked look on his face when I mentioned how much I admired the late Duchess of Devonshire for her involvement in the political debates of her times?”
“I think you mistake the reason why he looked so surprised. It was because he thought you knew the Duchess, a person of such high rank, someone even higher in the echelon than Lady Catherine De Bourgh. That was what surprised him.”
“And how would I form such an acquaintance. The man is even stupider than I thought.” Lizzy flopped down on the bed. “The wife of Mr. Collins? I think I am going to be ill.”
Standing in front of the mirror, Darcy studied the effect of the dark green coat, embossed gold waistcoat, his finest breeches, and best boots. His manservant had chosen well, and after Mercer had tied the knot on his neckcloth, giving it an extra tug, his master decided that the finished product was quite satisfactory.
Even though he was dining with the Bennets, a local family of little importance, he wanted to look his best for his own sake as it had been more than a week since he had been away from Netherfield and Bingley’s sisters. It had nothing to do with the company he would be keeping. After all, who was Mr. Bennet? Merely a gentleman farmer. And who was his guest? A country parson. No need to impress anyone.
But Darcy’s choice of attire was not lost on Charles Bingley, and during the carriage ride to Longbourn, he mentioned it. “You look very dapper tonight, Darcy, and I see that you are wearing your favorite waistcoat. Is there any particular reason for donning your most elegant apparel?”
“One buys clothes for the purpose of wearing them, Bingley,” Darcy answered, dismissing Charles’s implication that there was a secondary reason for his choice of attire.
Charles chuckled under his breath, which Darcy found to be most annoying, more so than if he had added an additional comment to his remark about the waistcoat. “I shall ignore that,” and although it was a moonless night, Darcy turned his attention to the darkened countryside.
During supper, Darcy was asked little, and as a result, said little. He attributed the lack of conversation directed to him as deference to his rank, especially by Mr. Collins, who stared at him throughout the meal. Fortunately, the preacher sat at the far end of the table, and because of the younger Bennet daughters’ constant chattering, conversation between the two was impossible. Darcy conveniently chose to forget that he had insulted the second eldest Bennet daughter, making her family less inclined to engage him in conversation.
But the lack of discourse provided him with an opportunity to observe the interactions of the Bennet family. He had ample time to watch Mary, who was truly unfortunate in that she was caught in the middle between two pretty older sisters and two silly younger ones—an unenviable situation in any family. And now that he knew more about the Bennets’ financial situation, he better understood Mrs. Bennet’s all-out pursuit of Mr. Bingley for her eldest daughter, and with the estate entailed away from the female line, he also comprehended that the mother viewed Mr. Collins as the savior of the family.
And then there was Mr. Bennet, who proved to be most entertaining during dinner. By employing carefully posed questions, he had exposed Mr. Collins’s weak intellect, unctuous personality, and conceit. It was obvious to Darcy that Elizabeth was his favorite daughter; he had made no effort to hide it as he had repeatedly looked at her after every silly comment uttered by Mr. Collins, and they had exchanged knowing glances. And since Mr. Bennet had exposed his cousin to be a fool, Mr. Darcy had to believe that the father would never approve of a match between his “Lizzy” and the fawning and foolish clergyman, clearly putting him at cross purposes with his wife.
Darcy decided that if Mr. Collins had any hope of securing the hand of Elizabeth Bennet, it would be necessary for the parson to make his case as to the benefits of the marriage viewed in the context of the whole Bennet family and their financial well-being, so that they might escape the worst effects of the entail. Was it possible that he could succeed? The only person who could answer that was saying nothing and revealing little.
* * *
Lizzy again straightened the skirt of her dress and touched her hair to see if there were any wayward tresses. But no, her frock was not wrinkled, and her curls were in place. So why did Mr. Darcy keep starring at her? Knowing of his dislike, she had said very little to him during supper. She had no intention of providing the gentleman with additional reasons to look down his nose at her as he had done at Netherfield Park. Although it was true that she did not play the pianoforte as well as Louisa Hurst, nor did she speak French as proficiently as Caroline Bingley, she did sing well, danced enthusiastically, and her needlepoint was greatly admired, at least by her friends and family. But none of that mattered to the gentleman from Derbyshire. Those accomplishments were not sufficient enough to meet Mr. Darcy’s definition of an accomplished lady.
What was more infuriating than his stares were his smirks. There was no doubt that Mr. Darcy had noticed how much attention Mr. Collins was paying to her and had reached the correct conclusion for her cousin’s purpose in coming to Longbourn. And because she had dared to challenge his opinions, Mr. Darcy would relish her discomfort. What sweet revenge he must be enjoying. All because she had had the audacity to tell him at Netherfield that he had a “propensity to hate everybody,” which she no longer believed. He was too good a friend to Mr. Bingley and tolerated the company of Charles’s annoying sisters to continue to hold that opinion, and Lizzy had noted how attentive he was to his correspondence with his sister who remained in town. But it was an honest mistake, and it was what she had felt at the time.
The only thing more disconcerting than that gentleman’s looks were those of Mr. Collins, who had adopted the pose of bending his head slightly to the right and looking up at her through his eyelashes. Lizzy realized that this was an unfortunate attempt at flirting, but to her mind, it gave the impression that he was not admiring her, but leering at her, and there was nothing romantic about it. But when she had turned away from her cousin, there was Mr. Darcy with his quizzical brow and half smile.
Darcy was smiling, but not at Elizabeth’s discomfort, but rather at the absurdity of Mr. Collins. He understood that every man who could afford a wife certainly had the right to take a wife. But there was something so repellant about this man that the thought of his actually consummating a marriage was so distasteful as to set his stomach churning. And that was before he had put a face to the wife. The curious thing about Mr. Collins was that he seemed to be as interested in him as he was in the lady he hoped to claim as his bride. Why did the man keep staring at him?
Mr. Collins had been watching Mr. Darcy. He was waiting for the perfect opportunity to inform the gentleman that he was Lady Catherine De Bourgh’s vicar. The two men had not met because Mr. Collins had accepted the appointment at Hunsford Lodge shortly after Mr. Darcy had departed following a visit with his aunt at Easter time. But if Mr. Darcy had been in residence at the time Mr. Collins had come to the parsonage, he was convinced that they would have been introduced because Her Ladyship had honored him several times by inviting him to take tea with her and her daughter, Miss Anne De Bourgh, at the manor house, and he anticipated that an invitation to dine in the main dining room, under the Bohemian crystal chandelier and on the Meissen china that his patroness referenced so frequently in her speech, would be granted shortly after his return.
It was during one of those visits to the manor house that Lady Catherine had urged Mr. Collins to take a wife. But where would he find such a lady? He didn’t know any unattached females, and he certainly had no intention of marrying a merchant or farmer’s daughter as he expected to rise in the church, and such a low-born person might prove a hindrance to his advancement. No, he must marry a gentleman’s daughter, and that was when it had occurred to him to write to his cousin. Even so, he hesitated. Because of the estrangement between Mr. Bennet and his late father, to Mr. Collins’s mind, it had showed a lack of judgment on Mr. Bennet’s part to have quarreled with his benefactor. But Mr. Collins was a man of the cloth, and as such, must do the right thing by those still amongst the living, and a marriage between one of the daughters and he would be of great benefit to the Bennet family.
At that moment, Darcy rose and stepped in the direction of the parson, and in a flash, Mr. Collins was standing right in front of Mr. Darcy, and in doing so, had succeeded in capturing not only that gentleman’s attention, but that of everyone else as well.
“Mr. Darcy, I think you will be very surprised to learn that we share an acquaintance.”
With the entire Bennet family and Charles Bingley, all acquaintances, looking on, he pronounced that it could hardly be a surprise that they knew the same people.
Again, Mr. Collins tittered. “I mean someone not presently in the room. Someone of an elevated rank.”
Darcy, who was growing uncomfortable at the idea of having anything in common with such a person, merely shook his head. And if Mr. Collins thought that he would engage in a guessing game to determine the identity of the unnamed “person of elevated rank,” he would be disappointed.
“I have the great honor—no privilege—to have been given the living for the vicarship at Rosings Park from your aunt, Lady Catherine De Bourgh, who is all affability and condescension. I secured this position shortly after your visit this past Easter. My esteemed patroness has mentioned you and your sister, Miss Darcy, on each of the occasions when I was so fortunate as to take tea at the manor house and on at least one occasion after church services on Sunday. There may be other examples when you were mentioned, but…”
“Ah, yes, Mr. Collins. I learned of your appointment from my cousin, Miss De Bourgh. As a matter of fact, she has mentioned you in several letters,” and had described him to a tee: conceited, self-important, obsequious, didactic, and a bore, but had failed to mentioned that he was short, portly, and in need of a good scrubbing.
“Miss Anne De Bourgh! Miss De Bourgh mentioned me in her letters? I am greatly honored to have merited such attention. However, I may have already repaid the compliment. Once when I was at Rosings Park, I took it upon myself to remark that because of the young lady’s indifferent state of health, she unhappily is prevented from being in town, but I told Lady Catherine myself that her absence has deprived the British court of its brightest ornament.”
“I assume that you are well settled,” Darcy asked, ignoring Mr. Collins’s fawning statement. Anne was his sweet cousin, whom he loved dearly, but she was rather plain, and she would have been annoyed by such oozing and insincere praise. “It is my understanding that my aunt did a great deal to the parsonage before your arrival.”
Elizabeth was all ears. She could hardly believe what a gift she had been given. Mr. Collins and Mr. Darcy shared an acquaintance. How delightful!
“Oh, yes indeed, Her Ladyship did do a great deal to my abode,” and then Mr. Collins proceeded to itemize all of the changes, no matter how small, made to Hunsford Lodge on his behalf, which Darcy listened to with growing impatience. Finally, he slowly backed away from Mr. Collins and returned to his recently abandoned seat, where he thought he would be safe. But Lizzy had another idea.
“Mr. Darcy, am I to understand that you are the nephew of Lady Catherine De Bourgh of whom we have heard so much from Mr. Collins?” Without waiting for his answer, she continued, “We have learned that your aunt is knowledgeable on so many subjects. In fact, I believe, my cousin considers her to be uniquely informed on every subject. And although Miss De Bourgh does not play the pianoforte, he has affirmed that she would be a great proficient if she had chosen to do so. And I don’t think that there is an inch of the manor house that hasn’t been described in detail. The fireplace, the grand staircase, the gallery lined with decades-old portraits...”
“Decades old?” Mr. Collins said, interrupting. “Surely, Miss Elizabeth, you mean centuries. The barony was bestowed on the first Baron De Bourgh in...”
“Why am I even discussing such things as fireplaces and staircases when it is the glazing that merits the most comment,” Lizzy said interrupting Mr. Collins’s interruption. “According to Mr. Collins, the glazing was put in at great expense, and although he has not completed his count, I do believe that he has determined the number of leaded glass panes on the north façade to be... Oh, I forget, but it was a great number. The incompleteness of his tally is, of course, understandable. It is a time-consuming proposition, and he does have sermons to write and homage to pay. And, of course, this means that you and Mr. Collins will have so much to discuss.”
With Elizabeth’s purpose now obvious, Darcy laughed to himself. So Miss Elizabeth wished to stick him with Mr. Collins as punishment for his challenging her statements at Netherfield Park. All right. So be it.
“That is correct, Miss Elizabeth. We do have a lot to discuss. After all, I have not seen Lady Catherine since Easter, and there is much catching up to do. Obviously, Mr. Collins has the facts at hand, so I would be honored, Mr. Collins,” he said, turning to the parson, “if you would ride with me in the morning. You do ride, sir, do you not?”
“Sir, I do not,” Mr. Collins said, his voice quaking at the thought that his lack of equestrian skills might prevent him from enjoying the company of Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley.
“Then we shall walk. Are you an early riser, Mr. Collins?” But before he could answer, Darcy mentioned a time when the parson should be ready. “Very good. I look forward to it,” and Darcy turned his attention to Elizabeth, who rewarded his efforts with a look of total confusion.
“What is he up to?” Lizzy asked while brushing Jane’s hair.
“Who?” Jane asked, yawning. Even allowing for the pleasure of Mr. Bingley’s company, there was nothing like an evening with Mr. Collins to make one feel fagged.
“Mr. Darcy, of course. Are we to believe that that gentleman is really desirous of spending a morning alone with Mr. Collins with no hope of escape and no one to rescue him?”
“I had not thought about it. I was just so relieved that Mr. Collins will have someone else to talk to about Lady Catherine and Rosings Park.” After pondering it for a moment, Jane added, “Perhaps, Mr. Darcy is sensitive to our plight and wanted to be helpful.”
“Oh, balderdash! I attribute a more sinister motive to Mr. Darcy. He observed Mr. Collins’s behavior, and realizing that our cousin wishes to make an offer of marriage to me, he is delighting in my discomfort and wishes to prolong his enjoyment.”
“Oh, fiddle faddle, Lizzy” Jane answered, shaking her head. “Mr. Darcy does have his faults, but I think him incapable of being so petty as to relish your discomfort, especially with someone so... so... annoying.”
“Jane,” Lizzy said, putting down the brush as a signal that it was her turn to have her hair brushed, “you know that Mr. Darcy does not like me, and this is his way of exacting retribution for my impertinence.”
“Well, if he dislikes you, he has an odd way of showing it. He could barely take his eyes off of you for the whole of the evening, and although he said little, when he did speak, he was quite pleasant. And I believe that if you would put aside your prejudices for a moment, you might recall how he reacted to Mr. Collins, who came very near to waylaying him when he tried to cross the room. Instead of a set-down, he answered all of our cousin’s questions politely and with more patience than he has a reputation for.”
“That is true. He was very patient with Mr. Collins. But as for his looking at me, I think he finds me to be a curiosity. I would guess that few women of his acquaintance truly speak their minds, lest they risk incurring his ire, as Caroline Bingley did, or possibly losing him a suitor, as Caroline Bingley has.”
“But you must admit that Mr. Darcy improves upon acquaintance.” Lizzy said nothing. “Lizzy, there is no denying that Mr. Darcy is trying to make amends after his awful performance at the assembly.”
“Yes, he has changed for the better, but even so, you know how much I rely on first impressions. And my first impression was that he was haughty, proud, and above his company.”
“But first impressions can prove to be mistaken impressions.”
“This is all very annoying,” Lizzy said, stamping her foot. “I swore that I would never like him, and he is causing me to rethink my oath by his agreeable behavior.” And Lizzy was beginning to fear that she was starting to like him a little too much.
* * *
“Darcy, what are you up to?” Bingley asked his friend after their return to Netherfield Park.
“What do you mean?”
“You know exactly what I mean. The walk with Mr. Collins. Why are you doing it? I can barely tolerate the man, and I have a good deal more patience than you do. Is it your plan to take him into the woods and threaten him with his life if he does not stop talking about your aunt and that damned fireplace at Rosings Park?”
“Of course not. If that were my intention, I would employ the services of another, and the last words Mr. Collins would hear on this earth would be ‘Rosings Park,’” Darcy said with a smile. “The reason for my offer to walk with Mr. Collins is purely one of self-interest. He will eventually return to Kent, and once he has the ear of my aunt, he will inform her of every word I uttered whilst in his company. So it is to my advantage to say many flattering things about my dear Aunt Catherine, knowing that they will be repeated.”
Although it did not satisfy, Charles left it alone. But knowing of his friend’s low tolerance for stupidity, and Mr. Collins was one of the stupidest people Bingley had ever met, he would just have to wait for it to play out, but he had a niggling suspicion that it had something to do with Elizabeth Bennet.
* * *
Darcy arrived at Longbourn on Macbeth, his favorite mount, at the appointed time, but before he could get off his horse, Mr. Collins had bolted out the front door, greeting him with obsequies worthy of a feudal serf addressing his liege lord. There was no mistaking the man’s occupation as he had chosen to remain in the garb donned by ordained ministers of the Church of England: wide-brimmed black hat, black coat and breeches, black stockings, and black shoes, appropriate for the pulpit, but hardly the best attire for a walk on a dusty farm road.
The previous night, Darcy had spent a fair amount of time planning how best to undermine Mr. Collins’s efforts to marry Elizabeth Bennet. His course of action called for steering the conversation in such a way that it would provide him with an opening so that he might achieve the real purpose of the excursion: preventing the marriage of the parson to Elizabeth Bennet. No matter how honorable the reasons for her accepting her cousin’s proposal, it would be a grave injustice for Elizabeth to be yoked to such a person.
But things did not go as planned. After fifteen minutes of constant talking, Mr. Collins had still not exhausted the subject of Her Ladyship’s furnishings. Yes, Darcy agreed, the French desk and secretary were exquisitely carved and, yes, there was an abundance of chairs in the dining room, but that was to be expected, considering the table expanded to sit thirty. But why did the man even care? It was as if he was a buyer for Christie’s, and the mansion’s contents were on the auction block.
When the preacher went on and on about Lady Catherine and Anne, Darcy merely nodded, and after another fifteen minutes of lauding and praising, he was beginning to worry that he would fail in his goal. It was only when he heard the words, “cucumbers” and “radishes” that his hopes revived.
“It is my understanding that the Bennets have a large vegetable garden,” Darcy said.
“That is true, but the daughters occupy little of their time with the vegetables, although Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth, on a fair day, will go into the flower garden for the purpose of gathering blooms for the dining room centerpiece,” Mr. Collins said with a hint of disapproval. His garden was dedicated entirely to putting edible plants on the parsonage table, so that he might save money—something Lady Catherine mentioned as an admirable goal during every visit.
And there was Darcy’s opening. “Ah, yes, Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth. Two fine looking women, wouldn’t you say?”
“Well, I agree that Miss Jane Bennet is truly beautiful, and although Miss Elizabeth is not as pretty as her older sister, a man could do a lot worse than to marry the second daughter.”
Do a lot worse than marry Elizabeth Bennet? How dare he? What an insufferable fool—a dimwitted dolt, a boorish buffoon, a simpleton, a twit. He would be lucky if any woman would have him, no less someone as lovely and intelligent as Miss Elizabeth Bennet.
“But Miss Elizabeth has other attributes,” Mr. Darcy countered, looking at this chubby, pasty-faced parson. “She is very smart and well read. While she was at Netherfield Park, I learned that she is familiar with the works of Chaucer, Richardson, Sterne, Rabelais, Fielding, among others.”
“Miss Elizabeth has read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales?” and the vulgarities and oaths, to say nothing of the sexual content of many of the stories, came to mind. “And Richardson and Fielding?” Mr. Collins asked, not at all approving of her choice of reading material. “Surely, she has done so under the supervision of her father.”
“Not that I am aware of. I believe that she has free rein of her father’s library and makes good use of it. As I am sure you noticed, she is quite independent.”
“Well, I would certainly not approve of my daughter reading Tom Jones,” a shocked Mr. Collins replied. “When I return to the house, I will suggest that she read Fordyce’s Sermons. If necessary, I will suffer to pay the expense of buying the volumes myself.”
“That would be very generous of you, but it is possible that she will not make use of your suggestion. She is rather headstrong.”
“Headstrong? What do you mean by headstrong?”
“By headstrong, I mean that if she has an opinion on a matter, she will let you know, regardless of the company. I can easily see her challenging some of Lady Catherine’s assumptions, who, as you know, is given to having strong opinions of her own.”
“Challenging Lady Catherine?” and Mr. Collins gulped. “I should think not. Someone from Miss Elizabeth’s station in life would recognize Lady Catherine’s superior rank and be humble in her presence.”
“Humble? That is not a word that comes to mind when I think of the lady. My experience with Miss Elizabeth is that if asked a question, she will answer it truthfully and damn the consequences. Did you not hear her question Col. Forster as to the wisdom of having the militia encamped so far from the coast? And I can speak from personal experience as she has challenged me on so many issues that I’ve lost count.”
“Headstrong? Independent?” Mr. Collins mumbled. “Reads Fielding and Richardson? Disagrees with the opinions of her betters? Those things are bad enough, but challenging Lady Catherine? Oh, Mr. Darcy, it will not do. It will not do at all.”
“What will not do, Mr. Collins?” an innocent-looking Darcy asked.
“I had entertained the thought of making an offer of marriage to Miss Elizabeth, and in doing so, I had hoped to repair the fissure created when Mr. Bennet quarreled with my father. But now it is apparent to me that, in doing so, I would risk everything. No, I must choose another, and when Mr. Bennet dies, I will be kind to his widow and offspring, but I can do no more than that.”
And Mr. Darcy put his arm around the parson’s shoulder in a gesture of sympathy.
* * *
“Lizzy, what have you done to poor Mr. Collins?” her mother asked as Lizzy and Jane were hanging flowers to dry in Longbourn’s small conservatory.
“Nothing. I have done nothing. I have barely spoken a word to him in the last two days.”
“Then why is he standing in front of the window uttering nonsensical statements?”
“Because he is always uttering nonsensical statements. Why? What is he saying now?”
“Something about carefully choosing one’s path, only to find that one has sailed into the wrong port.”
“He is mixing his metaphors,” Lizzy said.
“Oh, hang his metaphors. He is referring to you. You are the wrong port. He came here to marry you, but you have not given him any encouragement, and now he is going to go back to Kent. And as soon as your father dies, and his health is precarious, we shall all be put out on the road—homeless with no friends to come to our aid. You must do something immediately to stop him from going.” Lizzy looked away from her mother, but her Mama was not done. “Lizzy, I insist upon your marrying Mr. Collins.”
“Mama, I do not wish to cause you any pain, but I shall never marry Mr. Collins. My feelings in every respect forbid it.”
“I shall speak to your father directly, and he will come and make you marry Mr. Collins,” and she turned on her heel and went off in a huff.
Lizzy, who knew of her father’s low opinion of his cousin, felt rather sorry for her mother. She was truly acting in the best interests of the family. If Lizzy married Mr. Collins, the sword that hung over her and her children would be removed, and as much as Lizzy would like to see that happen, the price was much too high.
“I wonder what brought all of that on?” Jane mused.
“I am wondering myself because something has changed. Up until a few days ago, Mr. Collins directed all of his remarks to me, but now I notice that he is barely speaking to me. In fact, I felt as if he was avoiding me. Did you notice that he did not sit opposite to me at supper last night nor during breakfast this morning?”
“I did. But since his conversation is so limited, and because he has exhausted all familiar topics with you, I thought that was the reason why he chose to bore Mary and Mama,” Jane answered.
A puzzled Lizzy decided that the alteration could be traced back to his walk with Mr. Darcy. “But I do not understand how that could possibly have made any difference. Oh, well! I must be grateful that he is no longer interested in me, but still, it is curious.”
Lizzy passed her mother on the stairs, and since her Mama brushed past her without saying a word, she understood that her father had refused “to make Lizzy marry Mr. Collins,” and she wondered where Mr. Collins was and went to ask her father if he knew. But before she could knock on the door, it opened before her, and Mr. Collins appeared. He mumbled something before beating a hasty retreat.
“Mr. Collins is not very happy, is he?” Lizzy asked her father.
“Lizzy, you do know that Mr. Collins and I are related by marriage and not by blood? Because I would not want to think that there was any possibility that any progeny of mine could possibly produce anyone like Mr. Collins.”
“It is true that Mr. Collins is not the brightest of persons, which is why we must be kind.”
“No, Lizzy. A time for kindness was three weeks ago when he first arrived at Longbourn. That time has long since past. As you know, I have little tolerance for moping, and Mr. Collins’s glum visage is most annoying, especially when he chooses to wear it while sitting in a chair in my study. I must suffer fools in every other room of the house, but I shall not entertain them in my study!
“I told him that there was a delightful path between Lucas Lodge and Longbourn, and that since the haying had been completed in the fields nearby, he should avail himself of the solitude afforded by such a walk. Fortunately, he acted on my suggestion. Because if he had not done so, I was prepared to offer him our carriage to take him home to Kent.”
“Did he say anything to explain his unhappiness?”
“Only that he feared that he would somehow disappoint his esteemed patroness. I gather that he was instructed by Lady Catherine to return to Kent with a wife on his arm, and since he has decided that none of my girls will pass muster with the grand dame of Rosings Park, he has failed in his mission.”
“Well, once he returns home, surely there is at least one woman in the whole of Kent who will consent to marry him. I just wonder what I did to cause him to view me so unfavorably?”
“Whatever it is, just be glad that you did it,” her father said and returned to his book.
Mr. Collins proved to be a resilient character. After his walk, he came back to Longbourn with a bounce in his step and a return to his former self, which included reading to the Bennet family every night, the only difference being that he was now reading Fordyce’s Sermons and not just to Lizzy, but to all of his cousins. But since he would not be marrying one of her daughters, Mrs. Bennet felt no need to suffer through his moralizing and made herself scarce and was the envy of those whom she left behind.
When the Bennet sisters were invited by their mother’s sister, Aunt Philips, to play cards at her house, all of the family anticipated a respite, however brief, from Mr. Collins’s constant sermonizing. But their cousin did not see any reason why he should not participate in a friendly game of cards with his relation’s relations and journeyed with them to Meryton. With the exception of Mary, every Bennet sister feared that he would ask them to join him at his table, but, instead, he accepted an invitation by Charlotte Lucas to be her partner.
“Oh, God bless Charlotte,” Lizzy said to Jane. “She is such a good friend. I told her how tired we were of Mr. Collins’s company and see how she responds. There are not words enough to thank her.”
But because of the arrival of Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy, Jane had not heard Lizzy, and Charles, who no longer made any effort to hide his feelings for Miss Bennet, wove his way amongst the tables, making his way towards her. Once their eyes met, everyone else in the room vanished, including Lizzy.
“Miss Elizabeth, how good it is to see you again,” Mr. Darcy said, and in joining her, he saved her from watching the two lovers staring into each other’s eyes. “Are you not playing cards this evening?”
“I shall as soon as another table is set up. I know that my aunt did not expect so many people. You, for example,” she said, teasing him.
“You may be unaware that Charles’s sisters and Mr. Hurst have gone to Scarborough for a few weeks, and the house is quite empty. All there was left for me to do was to roam the halls like Hamlet’s ghost or to examine the tomes on the library shelves.”
“In other words, if there was anything else to do, you would have done it.”
“That is not what I meant, and you know it. I have had the pleasure of your acquaintance long enough to know that you find great enjoyment in deliberately misunderstanding me, and your smile is a confirmation that I am correct.” After looking about the room, Mr. Darcy added, “I see that your cousin remains at Longbourn. During our walk, he intimated that he might soon be returning to Kent.”
“That was our hope, but he informed us at breakfast this morning that his daily walks in the country have done so much to revive his spirits that he will remain at Longbourn for at least another two weeks. I believe we can thank—or blame—you for his change of heart.”
“How so?” he asked with some concern in his voice.
“He was a changed man when he returned from his walk with you. I wonder what was said,” but Mr. Darcy declined to provide any clues. Instead, he turned the conversation to his favorite subject: his sister, Miss Georgiana Darcy. He had received a letter from her earlier in the day, chock full of news about her visit with friends in Surrey.
“She is quite taken with the game of paille maille and wishes for me to have an alley installed on the grounds at Pemberley. It will be easily done as my mother played the game, and all that is required is for me to speak to the gardener so that the area may be returned to its original purpose.”
The conversation that followed was so enjoyable that when a card table became available, both declined in favor of enjoying each other’s company.
* * *
Lizzy and Jane were in the kitchen helping Mrs. Hill peel and core apples so that she might make applesauce when Kitty and Lydia burst into the house.
“Charlotte Lucas is engaged to Mr. Collins!” they both announced before collapsing into a fit of giggles.
“Where did you hear this?” Jane asked.
“From Charlotte,” Lydia answered. “Kitty and I had gone to ask Maria if she wished to walk into Meryton, but the house was all abuzz with the news of Charlotte’s engagement to Mr. Collins. Sir William and Lady Lucas are actually pleased to have Mr. Collins as a son-in-law. Shall we tell Mama?”
Lizzy shook her head. “No, we shall tell her later when the time is right.”
But there could be no right time for such news, and such a cry went up when Jane told her mother of the betrothal that it caused Mr. Bennet to stir from his study. After ascertaining its cause, he patted his wife on the back and said, “My dear, look on the bright side. We will not have to feed him any longer or listen to the sermons of Mr. Fordyce,” which did nothing to comfort the sobbing Mrs. Bennet.
Lizzy could not recall a time when she had been more shocked. “Charlotte has agreed to marry Mr. Collins? Oh, Jane, I must go to her and find out what happened.”
And the next morning, without eating breakfast, Lizzy stole away so that she might visit her friend at Lucas Lodge. Despite the explosive news and the impact it was having on two households, Charlotte was as complacent as always, and the reason was soon evident.
“Lizzy, I accepted Mr. Collins because he offered me a comfortable home, and that is all I ask. I have no wish to be a burden to my parents or brothers, and this was my best hope—possibly my only hope—of avoiding such an unhappy situation. And you know that I am not like you or Jane. I am not romantic. So once I learned that Mr. Collins would not be making an offer to you, I saw no reason why I should not accept him.”
“Charlotte, I have no wish to take anything away from this happy event, but did Mr. Collins mention why he decided against making an offer to me? I am just curious.”
“Yes, it was because of what Mr. Darcy said.”
“Mr. Darcy! What on earth has he to do with it?”
“It was he who convinced Mr. Collins that you were not suited to be the wife of a clergyman. Did you not know that?” Lizzy shook her head. “When he left last evening, Mr. Collins assured me that he would inform you of his proposal to me and would mention his reasons for not making an offer to you. Oh, Lizzy, I am so sorry. I thought you knew.”
“No,” Lizzy said, staring into the distance. “I had no idea.”
* * *
“Jane, why did he do it? Why did Mr. Darcy go out of his way to make sure that Mr. Collins did not make me an offer of marriage? He probably has ruined any chance I ever had of receiving a proposal.”
“Good grief, Lizzy! Mr. Darcy has done you a favor. You lived in fear that that very thing might happen, and you even practiced what you would say to Mr. Collins when you refused him.” And Jane repeated the words Lizzy had memorized. “Accept my thanks for the compliment you are paying me. I am very sensible of the honor of your proposal, but it is impossible for me to do otherwise than decline it.”
“But Mr. Darcy did not know that I would refuse him. I mean, I understand that things were rather unpleasant between Mr. Darcy and me when we were together at Netherfield Park, but I thought things were improving between us. But this is so vindictive. So unkind. I would not have thought him capable of such meanness.”
Jane could not either, and not because of Mr. Darcy, but because of Mr. Bingley. Charles would never have a friend who was capable of such heartless behavior. Something was very wrong with this picture. For several minutes, Jane sat quietly as she mulled over this strange sequence of events before finally reaching her conclusion. “Lizzy, Mr. Darcy is in love with you.”
Lizzy started laughing and went and hugged her sister. “Jane, I love you. You have succeeded in making me laugh on a day when I thought that would be impossible.”
“But I am serious. And before you completely disregard my assertion, I will tell you why I think Mr. Darcy is in love with you. First, nothing else can account for his determination to keep you from marrying Mr. Collins, but let us go back further. If he truly disliked you, he would have made every effort to avoid you. Instead, while Caroline and the Hursts were completely comfortable in refusing our offer to dine, Mr. Darcy came to supper.”
“It is because he wanted to get away from Caroline and the Hursts.”
“So that he might be bored by Mr. Collins? I think not. Charles had previously warned him how tedious Mr. Collins is, so by leaving Mr. Bingley’s sisters, Mr. Darcy would be going from the frying pan into the fire. And let us think about how he acted when he was at Lucas Lodge. First, he stayed close enough to you so that he might hear your conversation, and when you challenged him, he admitted it. And then he asked you to dance although he had previously stated that he disliked the exercise.”
“Because he was shamed into it by Sir William.”
“He was not ashamed to avoid dancing with you at the Meryton assembly. And when you were together at Netherfield, granted, your exchanges were testy. Nonetheless, he chose to engage you, and when Mr. Bingley came to Longbourn to see if I had fully recovered, Mr. Darcy came with him. I mean, there is only three miles between Longbourn and Netherfield Park. I think Charles could have come on his own.”
“Mr. Darcy is bored in the country. That is all. He said as much when Mama visited at Netherfield. Do you not remember what he said? ‘In a country neighborhood you move in a very confined and unvarying society.’”
“But if Mr. Darcy does not like the country, he need not stay. And why is he staying? There must be a powerful reason to keep him here. And let us not forget Aunt Philips’s card party where he spoke almost exclusively to you.”
Although Lizzy doubted that Mr. Darcy was in love with her, she preferred it to the alternative; that is, the man was capable of great unkindness.
Jane took Lizzy by the hand and led her to the window seat. “If Mr. Darcy is in love with you, could you love him?”
After pondering the question for a few minutes, Lizzy answered. “I think I could, After all, he is a good friend to Charles, tolerates Caroline and Louisa, and speaks with great affection of his sister. And he was excellent company at Aunt Philips’s get-together. As for his personal attributes, he is intelligent, and I admire his wit because it is so much like my own.”
“You did not mention how handsome he is,” Jane added.
“Or that he is extremely rich and owns a great estate in Derbyshire,” Lizzy said, laughing.
“Lizzy, will you say something to him about this business with Mr. Collins?” Jane asked in a cautionary voice, knowing Lizzy’s pleasure in engaging in verbal fisticuffs.
“For the present, I shall hold my fire, but when the time is right, I intend to say something. But who knows when I will again be in his company.”
* * *
Mr. Darcy was everywhere: at Mrs. Draper’s musical soiree, at a reading of Miss Burney’s latest novel at the assembly hall, and at a card party hosted by Mr. and Mrs. Long. Lizzy met him in the lane and in Meryton and visited with him after church. And during their many conversations, they found that they had a great deal in common. She was knowledgeable about the debates in Parliament and was up-to-date on the military and political events taking place on the Continent, and he was greatly surprised to learn that her favorite Shakespearean tragedy was not the vaunted Hamlet, but Henry V, and that her favorite of all the bard’s plays was Much Ado About Nothing, his favorite from amongst the writer’s comedies. Mr. Darcy, whose home was in the geologically rich Peak District, discovered that Elizabeth had an interest in such things, and he suggested that she visit Lyme where discoveries of fossilized remains of ancient creatures had recently been found. Better yet, she should come to Pemberley and see many of the archeological sites on the Darcy estate. But it was at Charlotte’s wedding breakfast where Mr. Darcy arrived wearing his heart on his sleeve in full view of the assembled guests.
“You look positively radiant, Miss Elizabeth,” Mr. Darcy said as soon as she came in the door of Lucas Lodge. “But when do you not?”
“Well, thank you, Mr. Darcy. I admit that I selected my very favorite dress as it is such an important occasion and one that was a surprise to so many. For a time, the neighborhood was convinced that an offer would be made to another.”
Darcy looked uncomfortable and stuttered a reply. “Yes, I heard those rumors myself, but it is not something you would have wished. I mean, you would not have encouraged that gentleman’s attentions.”
“Why not? I live in a neighborhood where there are few gentlemen who are in a position to make an offer of marriage. Of course, I could go to London and stay with my Aunt and Uncle Gardiner in the hopes of catching a gentleman’s eye, but that involves great uncertainty.”
“I am confident in saying that such a plan is not necessary.”
“Obviously, you have not given any thought to my predicament. If I do not marry soon, I shall be declared to be a spinster, and any hopes I may have entertained of being a wife will disappear.”
“A spinster? I can assure you that that will not happen.”
“Why do you doubt it? I have already been rejected by…,” and Lizzy whispered the name of Mr. Collins. “That was a humbling experience, and I am still unsure of how it came about.”
“It really does not matter how it came about. It is over and done with, and your prospects are considerably brighter.”
“Again, I must disagree. To be rejected by such a person, well, my faults must be great. But, perhaps, there is an explanation. Maybe, some meddlesome person, for his own mysterious reasons, pointed out my shortcomings to my cousin. It is possible that this person may have mentioned that I am given to strong opinions and would not be shy about sharing them with others, no matter how high their rank. It is possible, if not likely, that this information was shared with that gentleman during a walk arranged by that very person.”
If Darcy doubted for a second that he had been found out, the expression on Elizabeth’s face removed all ambiguity.
“I was only thinking of you, Elizabeth. Honestly. I mean, really, the thought of you marrying…,” and Mr. Darcy jerked his head in the direction of the groom. “I would have gone to the church and raised an objection.”
“Really? Based on what?”
“Based on the knowledge that you are in love with another.”
“And who might that be?” she asked, her tone softening.
“Me. That person is me,” and he looked about, and realizing that people were looking at them, he asked if Lizzy would join him on the terrace.
Once they had distanced themselves from any possible eavesdroppers, Lizzy declared, “Before you say another word, Mr. Darcy, I must tell you that what you did was very wrong. You took a matter into your own hands that had nothing to do with you, and in doing so, you decided my future. You should not have done it.”
“On its face it appears officious of me. But you are wrong. It did have something to do with me. I was afraid that you might accept the parson because of the entail, and I could not let that happen.”
“Your fears were baseless. I could never have married you know who,” Lizzy said, turning around to see if anyone was nearby.
“Now, that you have chastised me, may I change the subject to a much more agreeable topic?”
“You may,” Lizzy said, smiling broadly.
“Miss Elizabeth Bennet,” Darcy said, taking her hand, “you must allow me to tell you how ardently I love and admire you.”
“And I love you, but I am puzzled as to when you fell in love with me?”
“I cannot fix the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation for my love as I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.”
“Did you admire my impertinence? I was deliberately impertinent, you know. I did mean to provoke you.”
“And you succeeded. You provoked me into loving you, and because I love you, so very dearly…”
“Mr. Darcy, everyone is watching from the windows,” Lizzy said, interrupting him. “Shall we walk farther down the lane?”
“Whatever you wish, but this really is turning into a rather drawn-out thing.”
They walked for five minutes until they came to a giant weeping willow tree, and there Lizzy granted Mr. Darcy permission to proceed, and he made short work of it, professing his love and devotion and asking that she agree to share her life with him, and he was rewarded for his patience with a kiss.
When the couple returned to Lucas Lodge, they were greeted with huzzahs and wishes of joy, and they were joined in this by the future Mr. and Mrs. Charles Bingley and the newly-married Mr. and Mrs. Collins, and all agreed that Fortune had been very generous to those lovers in this little corner of Hertfordshire.
All comments are welcomed, appreciated, savored, and shared. If you are shy, you may e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading my story. Mary