Charlotte Spins a Web
It was a rainy fall day in Kent. Charlotte Lucas Collins was sitting in her parlor at Hunsford Parsonage working at some sewing when she heard her maid open the outside door for delivery of the post. It sounded as though the rain and wind had worsened. Indeed it was not a day fit for man nor beast. This had not, however, prevented Charlotte from earlier in the day urging her husband to attend to his usual routine of waiting upon his patroness, Lady Catherine De Bourgh. Mr. Collins had set off for Rosings Park with his hat pulled firmly down about his ears, resolute in the duty to Lady Catherine that his wife had assured him was necessary despite the threatening look of the day. It was never difficult to persuade Mr. Collins that he was quite essential to Lady Catherine. This thought was quite in keeping with his view of his main purpose as clergyman of the Rosings Park neighborhood.
These times of solitude were quite essential to the preservation of the harmony of the Collins household. Charlotte remembered once telling her friend Elizabeth how often she and Mr. Collins might spend a day without more than a few moments of time together. What she had not revealed to her friend was the intense relief she felt every moment that her husband was absent from her.
When Mr. Collins had made his addresses to Charlotte a scant few days after her friend Elizabeth had refused those same offers to herself, Charlotte's only concern in accepting him had been anticipation of how her friend might view such an action. Though a stupid man, William Collins was quite incapable of violence toward her, was quite eligible in his standard of life, and was attached to a great family of the land. Escaping spinster-hood, a mantle she had unwillingly begun to assume at the age of 27, and securing a providential situation for herself was her one consuming purpose. Charlotte well knew, however, that she had sunk in her friend's opinion when she accepted her new role as mistress of Hunsford Parsonage.
From Charlotte's perspective, though, Elizabeth had been quite foolhardy in her refusal of that post. Thus, a gulf of understanding separated the two friends from the closeness that they had shared previous to these events. Charlotte's affection for Lizzy was unwavering. Lizzy's affection for Charlotte was also quite strong. But the intimacy they had previously enjoyed, the camaraderie and confidence, was altered.
As a result of this change and also her near constant solitude, Charlotte had taken to studying Lizzy carefully as one way of passing her days. She had had only had brief opportunity to do so in person in the past year---when Lizzy had joined her father and sister in visiting Charlotte in the springtime. But Charlotte and Lizzy maintained a regular correspondence with one another. Charlotte eagerly and carefully read through all of Lizzy's letters for clues as to all the particulars that might be omitted as a result of their changed friendship.
One situation Charlotte had been taking particular note of was the changing state of her friend's feelings toward Mr. Darcy. Almost since the first moments of Mr. Darcy's entrance into Meryton society Charlotte had noticed that he was quite taken with her charming friend. Fitzwilliam Darcy was all that Charlotte could ever imagine any woman hoping for in a husband. He was wealthy, respectable, sensible, handsome and of good connection. His only lack was notable amiability out amongst society. By right he was a proud man. That he was also a quiet man of reserved disposition did little to endear him to the general populace. For Charlotte's part, the only ill behavior she had ever noted of him was his initial slight to Lizzy. Amusingly enough, he had seemed to regret this attitude with haste. Charlotte had noted Lizzy's determined refusal to dance with him at the very next assembly and had seen the admiration this challenge had sparked in Mr. Darcy.
Indeed, by the time Lizzy had visited Hunsford in the spring, Fitzwilliam Darcy had been unable to tear his eyes from her. Though he did his best to maintain his composure, Darcy studied Elizabeth with a hungry desire that made Charlotte envy her friend's good fortune. First he had called at the Parsonage immediately after his arrival at Rosings--- a practice highly unlikely to have occurred with only the Collinses as inducement. Then he had -- so the servants informed Charlotte -- called on Lizzy more than once when he had known her to be alone at the Parsonage.
Thus, Charlotte had been only a little surprised when a report from the servants at Rosings had reached her that Mr. Darcy had written letters addressed to Miss Elizabeth Bennet! At least one such letter had been seen in his bed chamber. The most puzzling aspect of this situation was Lizzy's sudden illness near the end of her time at Hunsford coupled with Mr. Darcy's obvious discomfort when he called to take his leave at the parsonage. He had looked like a man in deep shock. Her sister, Maria, had also mentioned that Lizzy's humor had been quite bad when she returned to the parsonage immediately following this call. Maria thought the letter Lizzy had apparently been reading over during her walk had been the cause. Could that letter have been from Mr. Darcy? Could it have met with Lizzy's disapproval somehow?
The idea that Lizzy could have refused even HIM was amazing to Charlotte. But try as she might to arrive at another possible conclusion, it was the only logical explanation for the events between those two. "What other reason could he have in writing to her but expression of his admiration? Why else could she have been so out of sorts?" Charlotte thought. Even Lizzy would have to have had some regret in refusing such an eligible offer (thought Charlotte), no matter how much she had convinced herself she disliked the man making it. More significantly, Charlotte could see that Lizzy liked Darcy much more than Lizzy knew. They were both independent, intelligent, passionate people. In Charlotte's opinion, Darcy was most likely the perfect mate for Elizabeth Bennet.
A recent letter from Lizzy with information about her visit to Derbyshire and to Mr. Darcy's great estate was therefore of intense interest to Charlotte. Apparently just returned from an evening at Mr. Darcy's home, Lizzy described at length the beauty of that great estate. According to Lizzy, "Pemberley is a perfect invention of nature and beauty on the part of its owner... The decor of the house is elegant without being overdone by its occupants... The upstairs family Portrait Gallery is truly elegant- a perfect showplace for the distinguished artistry therein... The grounds are exceptionally arranged." Lizzy's admiration of the estate was all stated in compliments to its owner.
Lizzy had also noted that they had been received with great civility and gentlemanly behavior by Mr. Darcy on his unexpected return during the Gardiners' and Lizzy's visit.
"What a meeting that must have been!" thought Charlotte.
Lizzy also related that Mr. Darcy had introduced her to his sister (effusively described as a lovely, delicate, accomplished young lady). "His sister! What a fine compliment all these attentions are to you, Lizzy," said Charlotte aloud to herself. The energy, the happiness, and the enthusiastic tone of this letter was quite different from letters Lizzy had sent in late spring and early summer. Those letters had shown a quiet and reflective Lizzy, one much dissatisfied with herself. In this letter from Derbyshire, Charlotte had felt intense joy and vivacity flowing from her friend's words. Charlotte began to anticipate a happy resolution to the relationship between Darcy and Lizzy after all.
Unfortunately, Lydia's scandalous elopement had come to light at this very time. Lady Lucas had written to Charlotte with all of the particulars that Mrs. Bennet had shared. Apparently Mrs. Bennet was unable to even leave her room, Mr. Bennet was off in London seeking the young couple and Lizzy and the Gardiners had been recalled from Derbyshire. The Bennets were spoken of as the most unfortunate of families. Recalling Lady Catherine's officious comment, "Who would seek to connect themselves to such a family?" made Charlotte shudder in sympathy to her friend.
The maid entered with two letters for Charlotte and one for Mr. Collins- from Sir William Lucas. One of Charlotte's letters was from her mother. The other, indeed the more welcome of the two, was from Elizabeth. "Finally, Lizzy. I began to despair of when I might hear from you again." Charlotte knew that Elizabeth must have been terribly mortified by her sister's conduct. Adding to this the discovery of her former favorite Wickham's bad character, Lizzy must have suffered greatly. But Charlotte knew that consolation was impossible. She was deeply embarrassed by the triumphant visits of both her mother and husband to Longbourn. Much as she wished to offer comfort, she dreaded any action of hers being misinterpreted as being in agreement with those of her family. She had avoided writing to Elizabeth at all during this dreadful time.
Elizabeth's letter was somewhat brief, but brought joyous news for Jane and Mr. Bingley. "At last they are to be married! Jane is beautiful in her goodness and joy. Mr. Bingley is the luckiest of men. I believe they will be truly happy," said Elizabeth's letter.
One other line of the letter stood out. "Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy called on us three days after the arrival of the party at Netherfield. Mr. Darcy was off for London the next day. Mr. Bingley's rekindled admiration of Jane soon led to their happy engagement. "
"What about Mr. Darcy's admiration of you?" said Charlotte aloud. "Mr. Darcy, calling at Longbourn and leaving the country immediately thereafter. What can be the meaning of this? How strange for two people so perfect for each other as you and Darcy to have such difficulty in coming to an understanding, Lizzy. Will you never learn to know your own heart? If not, what good do you do in waiting to follow it?"
Charlotte continued to think on these things as she read her mother's letter. Lady Lucas was not so erudite as to require one much attention of thought to understand her letters. One paragraph did catch Charlotte's attention, though. "The Bennets are considered the luckiest of families. Jane is to marry Mr. Bingley. This will throw all of the Bennet girls into company with other rich men. Mr. Darcy has already called on Longbourn. Your father has long suspected an attachment between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. One marriage so often leads to another. We shall see!"
Charlotte laughed out loud wondering what would happen if Elizabeth were to hear of such idle gossip. Laughter soon gave way to quieter reflection on the matter. What if other forces came to work on the situation between Elizabeth and Darcy? How would she react to such a report? How would he? And who would dare to approach either of them with such a report?
Charlotte's reverie was interrupted by the return of her husband to the parsonage. Though Lady Catherine had granted him use of a carriage for his trip home, he was still quite wet from being caught in the rain on his journey to Rosings. "My dear, we are invited to dinner at Rosings Park this evening. Lady Catherine has even offered to send her carriage back to wait upon us in an hour's time so that we shall not be importuned by the weather. Is she not the soul of generosity?" prattled Mr. Collins.
Charlotte replied with mild patience. "Yes, of course, my dear. Lady Catherine is quite kind to us in her remarkable attentions." Charlotte knew the responses expected of her on the subject of Lady Catherine by rote.
Standing to help Mr. Collins with his coat, Charlotte remembered his letter from her father. "The post has arrived, my dear. You have a letter from my father." she said, handing him the letter. Charlotte hung Mr. Collins' coat in its proper place.
Mr. Collins placed his hat carefully on the rack. He turned to Charlotte and accepted his letter. He smiled broadly and leaned toward Charlotte to confide, "I am completely overwhelmed by her attentions! Lady Catherine was kind enough today to suggest a selection of appropriate sermon topics from which to choose for Miss Anne's wedding. Such an honor! Such distinction! I dare say that presiding as clergyman in the uniting of two such noble persons must be a very high honor. I am overwhelmed, indeed. With this said, he left the room humming to himself before Charlotte could even respond to his statements.
Charlotte considered what Mr. Collins was meaning. Lady Catherine had long cherished the belief that Mr. Darcy would marry her daughter. As to the feelings of the two principally concerned in that scheme, Darcy had seemed completely indifferent to his cousin when Charlotte had observed them together. For that matter, Anne De Bourgh had also seemed indifferent to the match! Lady Catherine seemed quite alone in her hope that the two would unite.
Lady Catherine. Now there was a person who would dare to confront anyone! Especially as concerned the interests of her estate. Would Darcy bow to his aunt's wishes? Charlotte thought not. Darcy had seemed impervious to all of his aunt's opinions when he had visited Rosings Park. Though he had politely attempted to conceal his discomfort, it had been easy for her to see that he did not agree with many of Lady Catherine's assertions or give much credit to her follies.
Darcy had seemed completely intent on his thoughts of Elizabeth. And Elizabeth? Elizabeth delighted in nothing so much as deflating the self-importance of those who thought themselves above her. Just look at how she had treated Darcy!
Such behavior as Lady Catherine would be likely to exhibit with Elizabeth in a dispute over Darcy might even help Elizabeth to see clearly her own feelings. Perhaps Lady Catherine might be of some use after all. With proper management, Charlotte thought this situation capable of a turn in which all concerned, except perhaps Lady Catherine, would benefit.
Mr. Collins went to his room to change into dry clothing and read his letter. Charlotte waited patiently for his return.
"Charlotte? Charlotte!" cried Mr. Collins, scurrying down the staircase some minutes later. "I am exceedingly puzzled by this letter from your father. In it he reports that it is believed Miss Jane Bennet will wed Mr. Darcy's friend, Mr. Bingley. Then he says, here, I shall read... 'It is believed that this may not be the only such celebration approaching. Other gentlemen's attentions to the ladies of Longbourn are a matter of much interest as well...' Whatever can he mean by this?"
"Yes, my dear. Jane is to marry Mr. Bingley. I have received the same glad tidings. I have had letters from both my mother and your Cousin Elizabeth." said Charlotte in her most matter of fact manner. In this same way she continued, "As to the other, it is also reported that Elizabeth may wed Mr. Darcy soon following her sister's wedding."
"What?" cried Collins, his astonishment plain to see. "That is impossible. Mr. Darcy to marry Cousin Elizabeth? You must be mistaken. Mr. Darcy is to marry Miss Anne De Bourgh. I have it on the highest authority."
Carefully, Charlotte advised her husband. "Do not be so surprised by this engagement, my dear. Elizabeth is a very lively, charming young woman. Mr. Darcy has been in company with her many times during the past year. I know that you--- who are so perceptive--- must have noticed his attentions to her."
As she had expected, Mr. Collins' vanity led him to consider Charlotte's assertions. "Yes, yes. I have in truth noted several times... well, well. At the Netherfield Ball he did ask her to stand up with him, and he did talk with her several times here this past spring..." he nodded as he recollected all of the times he now remembered noticing attentions from Darcy to Elizabeth.
"My dear, I have even been informed by the servants that he wrote her letters when she was here in the spring. At least one such letter was seen in his bedchamber the morning before he departed Rosings Park!" confided Charlotte.
Mr. Collins' shock at this revelation was quite evident. "Letters! Cousin Elizabeth engaged to Mr. Darcy! It must be so. Oh, my dear. To know of such ill tidings! What shall I ever say to Lady Catherine? Oh, what shall I do?"
"My dear, you must be of assistance to Lady Catherine. You must tell her the truth. If she were to hear it from any other and realize you had not warned her..." Charlotte paused as Mr. Collins paled at the thought. "... she would be most displeased indeed. You are her clergyman after all."
Mr. Collins was a much pastier shade of white than usual. Perspiration beaded his lip. Charlotte couldn't help but feel a little sorry for what he must be feeling. That he was not a brave man was no secret to her.
"Of course you are right, dear Charlotte," he croaked after a moment's reflection. "Your wise advice does you credit. I only wish that I knew of some assistance to offer her."
He then began to practice to himself phrases which might ingratiate him to his patroness. "Cousin Elizabeth, no, no, don't say cousin. Elizabeth, yes, Miss Elizabeth Bennet must be out for Mr. Darcy's fortune! He must have been taken in by her. Her arts and allurements..." Collins glanced quickly at his wife. Charlotte only looked at him, but he set off on another approach to the subject all the same.
"After her younger sister's misstep I wonder that she has the presumption to aspire to such an advantageous match. Even if all her sisters were to marry respectable men like Mr. Bingley, it would not make her worthy of such a noble personage as Mr. Darcy - your own nephew, Lady Catherine! It seems impossible for her to make such a match."
Charlotte was ashamed of her husband's lack of familial loyalty as well as his petty resentment at the idea of his cousin's good fortune. This made her direction of him easier. "Mr. Collins, perhaps you are correct in your assumption of Elizabeth's motives and perhaps you are not. However, this does not change the report of their engagement. You must be the one to gently break this news to Lady Catherine. Who but you could advise her so appropriately at such a time?" said Charlotte assuringly.
"Yes, yes, my dear, I am sure that you are right. No one else could possibly be of as much comfort to her as her clergyman. Yes, yes. That is quite right." Mr. Collins seemed to convince himself.
Yet as they arrived at Rosings Park some moments later, his ill color and perspiring state returned.
"Anne is not well enough to join us this evening. We shall have to make do as best we may in overcoming the loss of her company," pronounced Lady Catherine by way of greeting. "Indeed, sir, you do not look well yourself. Whatever is troubling you?"
"Y..y..you are... ever the soul of graciousness and condescension, your ladyship," replied Mr. Collins, stammering and shaking in his speech. "Please do not concern yourself. My health is good. Indeed, I am well. I am only distressed."
"But of course you are distressed to be deprived of Anne's company," nodded Lady Catherine. "That is well and good, for she is such a charming and well-bred young woman. Who would not be so?" Lady Catherine looked expectantly to Mr. Collins for his expected and usual replies given such an opening.
Mr. Collins swallowed hard at the lump in his throat. The perspiration fairly flew from his brow.
"Indeed, Miss De Bourgh is... I am, of course, saddened to be deprived of her charming company," he said, stiffening his shoulders visibly. "I must confess, however, that I am also distressed by the existence of a report which I feel called upon... by my position as a clergyman... to share with you this night. I only hope that the report may prove to be false or alterable and that I might be of some comfort and use to you in this difficult..." Mr. Collins broke off as Lady Catherine interrupted him.
"What report are you speaking of? I must have my share of it. This instant! Do not keep me in suspense," she called out archly.
"Lady Catherine, it is indeed my sad duty to inform you that it is reported of that the fortunes of the Bennet family of Longbourn have taken a most dramatic turn. Miss Jane Bennet is engaged to marry Mr. Bingley - dear friend of your own nephew, Mr. Darcy," he hesitantly related.
"Well, that is a most unfortunate alliance, indeed," said Lady Catherine, her eyes narrowing. "But what can you mean in offering to console with me so on that matter? I will certainly express my disapproval to my nephew, Darcy, and hope for his friend's sake that he may be shaken from this ill-advised course of action in due time. But what can you mean in relating THAT news in such a manner?"
Mr. Collins quaked under Lady Catherine's steady gaze and continued, "Your ladyship would be most kind and gracious in advising Mr. Bingley of his folly." Mr. Collins noted Lady Catherine tapping her fan against her chair arm with impatience. "I am more concerned, however, with a report that Mr. Darcy has allowed himself to be affected by his friend's actions and, undoubtedly, by the allurements and the willful attentions... of his friend's fiancée's sister..." Mr. Collins was unable to continue.
"Allurements of his fiancée's sister? What, Miss Bennet? Willful attentions? What are you saying of my nephew?" cried Lady Catherine. "You cannot possibly mean to imply that he has so forgotten himself, forgotten his duty to family and respectability, as to have gotten attached with one of the Miss Bennets?! Mr. Darcy is to marry Anne! It was the wish of both his mother and hers."
Charlotte was amazed at the changes Lady Catherine's complexion underwent. First, her countenance lost all of its color (emphasizing the resemblance between her and her daughter), then, just as quickly, her face was suffused with a startling shade of purple. The veins in her neck stood out in a most dramatic fashion and her lips pursed together so tightly that Charlotte feared she might somehow burst.
Mr. Collins cowered and emitted a noise somewhere between a mew and a whimper. Charlotte spoke up. "Lady Catherine, my husband is referring to a common report that your nephew is engaged to or likely to soon be engaged to Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Undoubtedly the excitement over Mr. Bingley's engagement to Jane Bennet has made people eager for another wedding. You know how these things... well... perhaps the situation is not beyond alteration of some sort. May we be of assistance to you in any way?" To her husband she added, "William, fetch her ladyship a glass of wine for her present relief."
Lady Catherine howled, "I know that Mr. Darcy is to marry my daughter! I know that the 'people' who are eager, as you say, must principally include Miss Bennet! I know that he could not possibly be involved with such a common girl! I will see that this report is universally contradicted at once! This is not to be born! Could the upstart pretensions of a headstrong young woman, a woman without fortune, family, connection, possibly be supported? Indeed not."
Lady Catherine knocked the proffered glass of wine from Mr. Collins' hand to the floor, shattering the piece. He cowered before her. Charlotte, with all apparent meekness, fetched the servant to clear the remains of the glass.
Lady Catherine calmed herself, mollified by the Collinses attendance of her, and continued. "Mr. Collins. You will write to this young girl's parents at once. You will advise them of my objections to such a match. You will tell them that she must be made to give up her ridiculous pretensions. You must act for me in this matter!" she declared. "I will not allow this match to take place!"
Following a long evening of such declarations the Collinses set off for the parsonage. After seeing Lady Catherine buzz about for the entire evening with more anger than even Mr. Collins' insufferable bees, Charlotte was glad to escape Rosings Park.
Upon their arrival home, Mr. Collins immediately set about his appointed task. He completed his letter that night and gave it to his dear wife to hand to the post.
Though Charlotte knew well that the letter was meant urgently for Longbourn, she took some additional time to consider her suppositions of how either Mr. Darcy or Elizabeth would react to the report of their relationship that she had so inflated. She held onto Mr. Collins' letter for a few days while she pondered the matter further. Upon hearing of Lady Catherine's departure for Longbourn, however, she sent Mr. Collins' missive on its way to Mr. Bennet at last.
Some days later a short letter from Mr. Bennet arrived for Mr. Collins.
I must trouble you once more for congratulations. Elizabeth will soon be the wife of Mr. Darcy. Console Lady Catherine as well as you can. But, if I were you, I would stand by the nephew. He has more to give.
Yours sincerely, &c."
Charlotte read over this note with great satisfaction. When a note came from Elizabeth the following day she poured over her friend's lengthy and excited descriptions of the upcoming festivities and all her expected joy. As to Mr. Darcy's proposal, Elizabeth did own that, "he had somehow been given reason by universal reports to believe I might receive his attentions with joy. I know not how such a report came about regarding my feelings for Mr. Darcy, but I do love him and am exceedingly grateful that things have turned out as they have. I shall be happy, indeed."
"Indeed you shall, my friend. I hope that your lot in marriage will be all that you have ever desired," said Charlotte to herself as she put away the letter and returned to her sewing. Knowing that her friend was well pleased added to Charlotte's pleasure in the day.
Soon she would write back and then anticipate the excitement of the festivities in Hertfordshire. For today, her solitude felt comfortable and right. She settled back with a sigh of contentment.
© 1997 Copyright held by the author.