The Darcys Go To Visit The Collinses And Lady Catherine! Oh, No
A Young Collins Olive-Branch
It wasn't that Lizzy was totally disgusted with the whole idea. It was that she couldn't quite conceive of the notion; it was beyond her. Why Charlotte would voluntarily-
Lizzy shuddered. It was best not to think about it. At present she limited herself to two facts: Charlotte married Mr. Collins, and now Charlotte was pregnant. Any steps in between were kept safely in the dark.
Letter in hand, Lizzy left the drawing room and ventured out in search of her husband. The long hallways and empty corridors of Pemberley Estate were forever confusing her. No matter how much time in future she had to be Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy, she felt she would never fully figure out the house. Now and then she caught a glimpse of a servant, never idle for want of work, and it was not until she found Mrs. Reynolds, the housekeeper, that she was able to inquire of her husband's whereabouts.
"I believe he went in search of you, madam," Mrs. Reynolds replied. "I believe he went to the north sitting room."
"North sitting room? Where is that, if I may ask? Do I have a south, east and west sitting room in addition to a north? Where am I?" Lizzy posed this last question not without some embarrassment.
Mrs. Reynolds rattled off the answers too easily. "The north sitting room is directly across from the main gallery. You have an east and a west sitting room, but not a south. And you, my dear, are standing directly in front of the door leading to the north sitting room."
"Ah!" Lizzy replied, quite red. She turned around, coming face to face with who else, Mr. Darcy himself, who had been full witness to his poor wife's humiliation.
"Hello, dear," he began. Mrs. Reynolds sauntered off, smiling. "I see we've found our sitting room."
"I was fully aware of my whereabouts," she said tightly. Then realizing how idiotic she sounded, she broke into peals of laughter. "Oh my!" she gasped. "I can get from the entrance to the dining room to the bedchamber, but anything beyond that positively mystifies me!"
Mr. Darcy smiled gently and guided his dear Elizabeth into the room. "What was it that you had to tell me that you undertook such pains to find the room?"
"Oh! The letter! A letter from Charlotte."
"A letter from Mrs. Collins, surely, and not from her husband, for I can see that carrying it does not prey upon your strength."
"Now, husband, be kind. I realize that I have been most violent in the abuse of that particular gentleman, but I do wish to make it through one day without undermining his sensibilities."
Darcy was muttering. "Don't know of any sensibilities to undermine..."
"It says here," interrupted Lizzy, pretending she hadn't heard him, "that Charlotte is 'with child'"-
Darcy made a derisive noise.
"Yes, and asks me to visit. You too, of course, my dear," she continued.
Before she finished, Mr. Darcy rose quickly out of his chair and stormed over to the window. "I can think of no activity so abhorrent to my sensibilities as this. To board- with that blabbering clergyman at his humble parsonage- bah!"
Noting his wife's shocked expression, he regained his place by her side and kneeled alongside her chair. "I am sorry, dearest. I know it means a great deal to you. But I cannot! You see the predicament. I will not- stay with the Collinses. And you know of the abuse that descended on our heads after the news of our marriage reached Lady Catherine."
"I could go without you," Lizzy added slyly. "You could say you had some business in London, and nobody would be any the wiser."
"Be apart from you! Perish the thought!" he bellowed in mock horror. "I much rather keep you here for myself."
"Husband, I am surprised," Elizabeth said crossly. "I thought you were above this selfish behavior. You close off all opportunities for me to see my dearest friend. I am most seriously displeased!"
"My dear-" he began.
"It would only be for two weeks. All she asks is that I come and see her during the two weeks in which Mr. Collins will be away. Either come with me, or let me go on my own!"
If Lizzy had been watching her husband's face during this last speech, she would have seen a gradual change come over it as soon as she said, "Mr. Collins will be away." A light broke through the clouds on Mr. Darcy's face and lit up his eyes.
"Did- did you say Mr. Collins was leaving?" he repeated, emphasizing the last word.
"Yes, leaving for a fortnight. He has an opportunity of becoming parishioner at a larger church, and he wishes to analyze the situation before accepting it. I believe it is to his credit."
"To his credit indeed. I realize, Mrs. Darcy, that I was wrong to keep you away from your dear friend. I will, in this event, accompany you to Hunsford."
"My, my, what a quick change of heart!" Elizabeth said in a voice dripping with sarcasm.
"Why, whatever do you mean, dear wife?" Darcy intoned innocently. "I'm always ready to do people a service. I am much looking forward to it."
Elizabeth regarded him with a look that seemed to say, "Sure, fine, whatever, Mulder. I mean, Fitzwilliam."
At breakfast the next morning, Mr. Darcy was being especially sweet to make up for the way he'd treated Elizabeth last night. She rebuked him for his motives, yet secretly knew that he had every reason to want to avoid Mr. Collins. She wouldn't have gone herself if he were to be there! Of course, she wouldn't have admitted it for worlds.
Lizzy wrote a hasty letter to Charlotte to accept the proposal of visiting, then off to her dressing room to undertake the heavy chore of packing. So many, many choices, now that she had become rich. She wondered what lay in store for her husband and herself on this trip, being so close to Lady Catherine, who was never lacking in ways to rebuke her nephew on his choice of a wife.
"But I will see dear Charlotte again," she reminded herself.
A knock sounded on her door, and she rose to admit her husband. He looked down at her through sad, sweet little-puppy eyes. "I'm still sorry," he mumbled. "I won't leave until you forgive me."
She tried to pull him away, but found that she couldn't resist locking him in a tight embrace. "Oh, I forgive you," she sighed. "I love you."
"I'm very glad to hear it," he replied. "Now, let me ask you something. How many of these little metal things should I bring that hang down from the side of my breeches?"
"What are those?" Lizzy inquired.
"I'm not sure. But I think I'll need at least half a dozen." Darcy disappeared, presumably to collect several more metal things.
The next morning the Darcys mounted their lavish carriage and set off for Hunsford. Lizzy was excited, and bubbled the whole way over seeing Charlotte again. "What a time we will have! What a joy to meet with dear Charlotte!" she sighed.
Mr. Darcy leaned back and smiled, happy that his wife was happy. And no Mr. Collins! What could be better?
Late in the evening, the impressive carriage bearing the Darcy crest pulled up outside of Hunsford. Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, tired from their extensive journey, hoped to say hello to Mrs. Collins and go directly to bed. However, it was not to be so.
The front door flew open as the driver was handing Mrs. Darcy out of the carriage. A stout, slightly sweaty form started to move down the path in great haste, sporting a strange looking stovepipe hat that Lizzy knew well.
"Welcome, welcome, Darcys!" cried the form.
"Ah, Mr. Collins, hello," Lizzy replied unenthusiastically.
While Mr. Collins brought the couple up to date with every piece of news that had happened in the last three decades, the Darcys had a conversation with their eyes.
"What is he doing here?" Mr. Darcy's eyes inquired.
"Um, he must be leaving tomorrow," Lizzy's eyes replied.
"Perhaps I did. Do you mean to tell me you wouldn't have come if you had to spend only one solitary night in this house with him?"
"Perhaps I wouldn't have."
"Perhaps that makes two of us," Eliza conceded, as Mr. Collins' monologue spread into the realm of the praise of Lady Catherine.
Mr. Darcy's eyes stopped speaking and his mouth took over. "Thank you, Collins. Much obliged, I'm sure. Will you be so kind as to lead us into your home?" all rather curtly.
"Oh! Oh yes of course!" he bubbled. "I am greatly desirous of your seeing it. Charlotte has made some subtle changes to the drawing room. I do so hope you notice them, for they give the room a sort of air, if you will. Mrs. Collins and I have studied extensively the drawing-room of her ladyship's. Of course, we can not hope to parallel it in our humble abode, but, do you like it?"
"Cousin, we are still outside," Lizzy reminded him.
Mr. Collins looked around. "So we are! So we are indeed. Well, I see my cousin is just as sharp as she used to be," he said with a smug smile. "Would you care to accompany me inside?"
"My, what a novel idea," Darcy said under his breath, with a blatant sarcasm that Mr. Collins did not grasp.
Lizzy sloooowly opened her eyes and looked around her. For a moment she could not remember where she was or how she got there. Then the events of the night came flooding back to her; the arrival at Hunsford, the discomfort of Mr. Collins' verbiage, the embarrassment of Mrs. Collins, the anger of Mr. Darcy. When Mr. Collins had started on the subject of his "eminent patroness's" outrage at the marriage of Elizabeth to Darcy, with clear enjoyment of every word, Charlotte had seemed to shrink totally from view, and Darcy had become so red he threatened to pop at any minute. He had been up half the night, pacing in rage.
Mrs. Darcy sighed and looked over at her husband, who, contrary to her expectations, had not popped. He was now sleeping soundly with a look of dreamy peacefulness on his usually stern face. Lizzy couldn't resist reaching her hand out and brushing it through his hair. He awoke instantly.
"Oh, it's you," he said in a sleep-heavy voice, lightly caressing her hand. "Would you be a dear and send for some coffee?"
"Certainly. I was worried about you last night. Are you all right?"
"Yes, I'm perfectly fine. It was childish of me to get so upset. By now I should realize that Collins has neither the wit nor the capacity to stage a direct insult. It was all in my imagination."
"So you are..."
"Bygones," he said with an impish smile, leaping out of bed.
At breakfast his complete recovery was apparent. He was unusually agreeable to everyone and continued to wear his cheerful smile while talking, drinking or even chewing the breakfast ham, which made a very funny picture indeed. Elizabeth had to suppress a smile more than once that morning.
"So! Charlotte," she began, with difficulty averting her eyes from her husband, "How long exactly is Mr. Collins going to be away?"
"Oh, he is not left yet. He means to leave late tonight," Charlotte said hesitantly.
Mr. Darcy's warm smile turned to ice.
Charlotte went on softly. "He means to take one more dinner with Lady Catherine and wishes everyone to come."
The smile disappeared altogether and was replaced by a tight-lipped glare. And at that moment, Collins himself hurried into the small room, as if to add further pain to the Darcys' already troubled countenances.
"Please, please accept my apologies for my tardiness," he began earnestly. "I trust no one was inconvenienced in any way? I do apologise for any, oh, problems it may have caused?"
Lizzy sat, uncomfortable and offended. "My lord!" she said inwardly. "Does he think anything happens in this world that doesn't involve him?" She looked over at her husband, feeling and sharing his suffering.
The day passed not unpleasantly for two such people who have had such a burden placed upon them. They managed to enjoy their day walking the beautiful grounds around the parsonage and playing a bit of croquet, but still, looming on the horizon like a big black vulture, was the prospect of dinner at Rosings.
In the days when Elizabeth and Darcy were simply acquaintances, (not very friendly ones), neither one ever looked forward to dining with Lady Catherine, but now the emotion was increased tenfold. Lady de Bourgh had her heart so set on the marriage of Mr. Darcy to her daughter Anne that she would never forgive Elizabeth for winning his love. After all, Elizabeth had had no money and no connections. How was such a thing to be borne?! Her wrath also descended on Darcy's head for being so thoughtless and improper. She simply did not understand the power and rewards of love or a happy marriage.
So this evening was not something that was likely to encourage any thoughts of happy anticipation. As it was, the day seemed endless.
At seven'o'clock the party was ready and waiting to venture into Rosings Park, or, as far as the Darcys were concerned, certain doom. Charlotte was engaged in admiring the cut of Mrs. Darcy's gown, her own not being quite as fashionable. Elizabeth remembered the time when Mr. Collins had brought undue attention to the fact that she was "simply" dressed. "Ha!" she thought, with a cocky flip of her head.
Mrs. Collins' baby was beginning to make its presence known with a little extra padding around her hips and thighs such that she had a little difficulty entering the carriage. Mr. Collins could not hide his pride.
"I see our new son is coming along nicely!" he exclaimed, as if his child might have been a split-pea stew. "I cannot for my life think of a worthy name. I think, perhaps, William. Or William Junior. Or William Collins II? What do you think, Mr. Darcy?"
Darcy at this time had been trying to draw himself as far as possible out of the conversation. Upon finding himself so rudely thrown back in, he cleared his throat and tried desperately to think of a non-sarcastic reply. The try was in vain.
"How about William William? Or Junior Collins? Or Bob?"
Elizabeth shot Mr. Darcy a warning look while Mr. Collins was trying out the names.
"William William? It's a thought... I do not particularly care for Junior Collins. Bob? Bob?"
He amused himself with these thoughts as the carriage pulled up outside Rosings and a servant attended them. Mr. Collins stepped out first, and just after he did, Mr. Darcy remarked inelegantly to his wife, "Am I wrong, or did it just get less stupid in here?"
Ignoring a threatening look from Mrs. Darcy, he was handed out of the carriage.
"Such fine service!" Mr. Collins gloated. "Such elegance! Have you ever seen the like?" He seemed to have forgotten that they had all been to Rosings before and that two of the party lived at Pemberley.
Meanwhile, the Darcys were experiencing acute trepidation. What would the night hold for them? What sort of experience was in the offing? With heavy hearts they were escorted in the door and through to the dining room.
"Welcome! Welcome, Mr. Collins, Mrs. Collins! Welcome, Darcy," Lady Catherine said with considerably less enthusiasm, and totally ignored Elizabeth. It was evident that she had done her best to display the wealth and grandeur of her home and her person, in order to remind Mr. Darcy of what he had missed by not becoming a part of the family. It was lost on him, however.
"Madam," he began hesitantly, "May, I introduce Mrs. Darcy? You have formerly been acquainted with her as Elizabeth Bennet." Elizabeth made a very pretty curtsy.
"Yes. Well. Welcome to you, too," rather archly. "Mrs. Collins! I was so pleased to hear the news of the upcoming happy event! You must be delighted."
Charlotte had just opened her mouth when Mr. Collins broke in. "Yes! Yes, we are just in ecstasies. We simply cannot wait for the arrival of our son."
"Oh? Are you so sure it is to be a boy?"
"Absolutely! I have a sense for these things. As soon as I realized Charlotte was carrying my child-" the Darcys winced- "I knew it was to be a strapping young boy. He will be remarkably well favored," Mr. Collins said, drawing upon the favorite dictum of Lady Catherine.
She smiled. "I do hope you have not had trouble harvesting cucumbers again this year?"
"No, no, we have ever so many. What troubles me, though, is that they are all rather small."
Lady Catherine's eyes lit up. If there was one thing she could do, it was give advice, and she attacked the opportunity. "Your hotbeds, I fear, are too hot. You must see to it that they are placed in shade part of the day. Keep the plants from growing too big and make sure there are no more than three in each frame."
As Lady Catherine rambled on about this and that, her daughter Anne sat passively and quiet. She looked rather uncomfortable, and Mrs. Darcy began to feel sorry for her and endeavored to engage her in a conversation.
"I very much admire your dress, Miss de Bourgh," she began. "Is it a velvet?"
Upon hearing Elizabeth's voice, Lady Catherine snapped to attention. She perceived that the words were directed towards her daughter. This would not do.
"A velvet!" Lady de Bourgh cried haughtily. "Why, anybody could see it was a velour. Velvet, indeed!"
"I believe the fabrics are much the same, aunt," Darcy said, defending his wife.
"Do not tell me about fabrics, Darcy. I am perhaps the highest authority in the land on that subject. Do not you agree, Mr. Collins?"
"Oh yes! Oh yes of course!" Mr. Collins cried.
And so the evening continued. All through dinner, the Darcys could not enjoy their food for the stinging remarks made by Lady Catherine. Every time Elizabeth attempted to open her mouth, Lady de Bourgh would instantly disprove everything she had to say.
"If she does not wish for me to talk," Mrs. Darcy whispered to her husband, "then I will not talk, is all."
"What is it you are saying, Eliza?" rang the shrill voice of Lady Catherine. "What is it you are telling Mr. Darcy? It is exceedingly rude to whisper at the dinner-table."
Mr. Darcy had no better luck in trying to join in a conversation; Lady Catherine's remarks were almost as biting towards himself as towards his wife. He had nothing to do but sit and take large gulps from his wineglass.
Everyone was happy as the party adjourned from the dining room and moved to one of Rosings' sitting rooms. At least here Lady Catherine was free to direct all of her attention to the Collinses, and leave the Darcys in comparative peace. However, it wasn't to last long.
Mr. Collins soon remarked that he remembered the excellence of the whisky served at Rosings, and might he have the opportunity of sampling a glass? Lady Catherine was quite willing to oblige and the decanter was soon in action. Mr. Darcy mentioned that he'd like a glass, and the servant filled his to the very brim.
Soon, the Collinses were in the midst of a discussion on music, and Lady Catherine remarked loudly, "I remember the first time I met Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and she played a song on our pianoforte. It was... a tolerable performance. Do you not think so, Darcy?"
Mr. Darcy cleared his throat. "I thought she played rather well."
"In comparison with your sister? Really, Darcy!"
Picking up his whisky glass, Mr. Darcy downed his portion and motioned for more.
The party soon formed bridge-tables and a game began. Mr. Darcy usually excelled at the game, but tonight he played rather thoughtlessly. He pulled out a club and placed it down, causing Elizabeth to remark, "No spade, husband?"
Mr. Darcy had embarked on his fourth whisky since dinner, and although still perfectly sensible he was beginning to look slightly cloudy. He looked incredulously at the card, picked it up, and exchanged it for a spade, which he played upside-down.
"Mr. Darcy," Lady Catherine said sharply. "Your whisky glass is empty. Would you like another?"
"Yes, that would be just fine," he slurred.
Elizabeth, alarmed, broke in. "No, I don't think that would be such a good idea."
"Nonsense!" cried Lady Catherine. "If he desires more, he shall have it!"
Throughout the evening, Lady Catherine seemed to revel in the fact that Mr. Darcy's speech was becoming more and more hazy. She passed him the decanter and watched the scene unfold.
Mr. Darcy, however, was wondering why he ever had a problem with large amounts of liquid. He drew comfortably at his glass, feeling that it was a rewarding experience. Suddenly, Lady Catherine's voice was not as harsh, and Mr. Collins antics exceedingly funny. But try as he might, he could not feel his feet touching the floor.
It was during a particularly long explanation by Mr. Collins of the latest plants he had placed in his garden, that Mr. Darcy erupted in raucous laughter. He seemed to find something intensely diverting about the name Euphoria Japonica, and flew forward and backward in spasms of amusement. Then, to the horror of his wife, Mr. Darcy pitched too far forward and landed, face down, on the floor. The room became silent.
Elizabeth went down to assist him, and he was soon up again, with a goofy grin of embarrassment on his face. He insisted that he was perfectly all right in barely intelligible language, but this incident had served to convince the party that it was time to leave.
Mr. Darcy thought it imperative to thank his aunt for the wonderful evening, for such it had been, but he suffered a slight misjudgment of space and began to address himself to the coat rack.
"Thank you so much, aunt, for the fine food and drink," he said to the coat rack.
Elizabeth soon corrected this error by turning her husband in the general direction of Lady Catherine. "Oh!" exclaimed Mr. Darcy. He turned back to the coat rack. "You're not my aunt. Terribly sorry about that." He actually tipped his hat to the wooden stand.
He now addressed the real Lady Catherine. "Thank you, dear aunt! It's been a rare privlish to share this evening with you," he said thickly.
As the party walked out, Lady Catherine managed to say one more thing to Mr. Collins. "Look what has happened to Mr. Darcy since he married Miss Elizabeth Bennet," she whispered in his ear. "He has become a souse!"
Mr. Darcy awoke the next morning feeling like the bed was resting on his head, rather than the other way around. He struggled to remember what had occurred last night, but it was all a hazy blur. Something about Lady Catherine...?
With difficulty he opened his eyes and found his wife, fully dressed, peering at him with concern. He tried to sit up, but the pain in his head was too great. Groaning and placing a hand over his eyes, he addressed Mrs. Darcy.
"What happened last night?"
She sighed. "We went to Rosings, Lady Catherine started being herself, you started drinking whisky by the mouthful and developed a sudden and deep friendship with a coat rack."
Mr. Darcy groaned again. "Basically I made an ass of myself," he said groggily.
"Yes, not to put too fine a point on it," Elizabeth quipped. Then, changing her tone, she rubbed her hand on his arm and said, "But I cannot blame you. I am sure you could have found a more...gallant way of handling the situation than burying yourself in a glass, but the fault of the night rests squarely on the shoulders of your aunt. Yes, she is much to blame. How do you feel? Can I get you anything?"
"I've got a whacking great headache. I just need more sleep."
"Husband, it is half past noon," Elizabeth said gently.
Mr. Darcy responded by pulling a pillow over his head.
Downstairs, Charlotte was quick to inquire about the welfare of Elizabeth's husband, and was given instructions that no one should disturb him for a few more hours. Yet in spite of the evils of the previous evening, Mrs. Darcy found herself enjoying the day. With the removal of Mr. Collins, the dining room did seem decidedly less stupid, although she was reluctant to admit it.
As the two friends were finishing up their breakfast, a note came for Mrs. Collins.
"Who is it from?" Elizabeth inquired hastily. If she had inherited anything from her mother, it was impatience.
"It is from Lady Catherine," Charlotte answered, slowly and thoughtfully.
"Well? What does she have to say?"
Charlotte read in silence for a few seconds. "Oh, Lord," was all she said, but it was evident that she was trying to conceal a smile. She handed the note to Elizabeth.
Mrs. Darcy grabbed the little slip of paper. "What?!" she cried in astonishment as she read. "Dr. Biaheigh's cure for an overdose of alcohol? What kind of tasteless joke is this? How dare she! How dare she!"
She was exceedingly vexed, as any wife would be, and intended to throw it to the fire. However, her rage threw off her aim and the paper floated down on the hearth-bed.
She began to pace and talk in a very loud voice. "Mr. Darcy is not to hear of this, do you understand? He will not!" She addressed the servant who brought the note. "You will mention it to no one!" Sitting down and burying her head in her hands, she cried, "Oh, Lord, why did he have to drink all that whisky?"
Charlotte's gentle voice brought Elizabeth back to earth. "Elizabeth! Please! 'Tis not worth upsetting yourself so terribly. Do not blame your husband," she said. "'Tis not his fault that Lady Catherine is so terribly ill-bred. Mr. Darcy will never know about this, and we will not see her or her daughter for the duration of your stay. You see, everything will be all right."
Elizabeth's friend's words brought her comfort. "Yes," she thought. "Everything will be fine." She ascended the staircase to look after the welfare of Mr. Darcy.
In the dining room, Charlotte strolled over to the hearth and picked up the note. As she re-read it, her lips started twitching and she began to laugh like she had not laughed in a long time.
Mrs. Darcy's indignation about the letter did not last long. She was too good-humoured for that. And after a good breakfast (which could have been dinner, based on the time) and a bit of fresh air, Mr. Darcy felt much better as well. He was still terribly ashamed of the scene he had created last night, mostly because it was in front of Lady Catherine. Not that he cared much for her good opinion, mind you, but she had a way of spreading news that could make things very uncomfortable for him and his good wife. Yes, Mrs. Darcy, the one with the small fortune and dubious connections, would no doubt get the blame.
Still, there was no point in dwelling on things past, and the couple had a tolerably enjoyable walk around the gardens. The unfortunate letter was still at the back of Lizzy's mind, though, and she decided to stay out when Mr. Darcy expressed his wish to return to the house. So, a half-hour after he was gone, she was still lost in thought wandering among the trees.
So much was she occupied in her thoughts that she ceased to remember where she was going. She was on a path through a small thicket, but there were woods all around this place, and nothing definite to tell her where she was. Mildly alarmed, she quickened her pace around the next bend.
Rosings was now in her view, not more than a quarter-mile away. "My," she thought, "I must have walked further than I expected." However, she was not lost anymore, and was about to turn around and return to Hunsford when she heard giggles coming from the other side of a bank of trees. Intrigued, she chose a hidden spot and peeked through.
There was quite a large clearing there, and a few chairs and a makeshift table showed that this place was visited frequently. Elizabeth did not at once discern anyone, but a beautiful little phaeton and ponies was parked at one side, and upon closer inspection she recognized it as belonging to Anne de Bourgh. Mrs. Darcy was almost about to enter and see if Anne was there when she heard low voices speaking from the opposite side, and more giggles. Startled, Lizzy perceived Miss de Bourgh in close conversation with what appeared to be a young farm-boy. As she watched, he whispered something in Anne's ear, and she laughed and gave him a kiss.
Elizabeth knew she oughtn't to be eavesdropping like this, but any instincts in her attuned to gossip were outweighing her conscience. She scarcely was able to hear anything, but did discern "should get home" and "mother". She watched as the two, after many additional whispers and kisses, parted, one to her phaeton and the other to a path through the woods. Elizabeth dropped out of sight behind a rock as Miss de Bourgh passed by, presumably back home.
Lizzy straightened up and slowly began to walk home, her mind full of what she had seen and heard. Anne de Bourgh! That quiet, pale little thing! It was almost past belief, but there was no mistaking what had taken place.
As she neared home one fact emerged dominant-- that she should keep what she had so unexpectedly been witness to to herself. There was no reason to expose the poor girl. If she wants to flirt with common boys, that's her prerogative.
Still, Lizzy could hardly keep her mind from wandering into the realm of the reaction of Lady Catherine, had this scene been known to her, and she smiled rather wickedly at the thought.
Lizzy returned home in good, if somewhat confused, spirits, and was welcomed effusively by her husband, who had grown a little worried. He kissed her gently on her forehead, then as he looked at her, tilted his head in concentration.
"What is it?" Elizabeth asked of him.
"You look rather like the cat who swallowed the canary. I can almost see those yellow feathers if I look very closely. Did anything happen that you wish to tell me?" he said with mild concern.
But Mrs. Darcy, who could be quite a good actress when she had a mind for it, convinced him that it was nothing save fatigue, so arm in arm they traveled up to the bedroom.
In this state of concealed gossips and whispers the two might have gone on forever, if it had not been for the happenings of the next morning. At breakfast, Mr. Darcy managed to drop a fork quite unceremoniously in his lap, where it then slid to the floor. So, trying not to draw attention to himself, he casually lowered his hand under the table, while smiling at something his wife had said, and groped around until he found something. It was not a fork, however, it was a small slip of paper. And, while Lizzy and Charlotte were talking together, he opened the note and read it.
Mouthing the words silently to himself, he read, "Mrs. Collins, for the benefit of my nephew..." His brows drew together as he continued. When he finished, he turned to his wife with a bemused countenance, holding the paper in front of him. She looked at it and her eyes grew wide.
"My my," she stammered. "I just remembered I left something in my room. Half a moment!" She tried to rise swiftly out of her chair but was held by Mr. Darcy's hand.
"Sit down, Elizabeth," he said calmly. She sat, her eyes to the floor. Mr. Darcy turned to Mrs. Collins. "When did this come?" he asked. He was speaking strangely, in slow and measured tones.
Charlotte averted her eyes from her plate and said, "Yesterday morning, sir," and returned to the plate.
Mr. Darcy inclined his head and raised his eyebrows. "Yesterday morning?" He intoned, as if to make a definite point. Then, contrary to the ladies' expectations, a sly smile made its way across his face.
"You're not angry, sir?" Lizzy asked wonderingly.
"Far from it," he said smugly, placing the note in his back pocket. "On the contrary I am quite relieved. If this is as far as Lady Catherine will go with the rumor, that is well indeed. I was only worried she would spread it round the country." He folded his hands. "In fact, I find it extremely amusing."
First Charlotte began to laugh, then Mr. Darcy joined in, and finally Elizabeth.
"But why," inquired Mr. Darcy, after they were through, "was I not told?"
Charlotte answered. "Elizabeth was afraid that you would be incensed terribly. She made it a point to keep it from you at all costs." Lizzy looked away at this speech, a blush rising on her cheeks.
Mr. Darcy gently turned Elizabeth's chin towards him, then took her hand and kissed it.
Later, sitting around the fire, Charlotte addressed Mr. Darcy. "I was not, of course, going to tell you this at first," she began, "but, having had the matter of the note out, I mean to tell you that another letter came for me this morning from Lady Catherine, in regards to you. I pray that you would read it, and then we shall have no more secrets." She handed the elegant stationary to Mr. Darcy, who accepted it thoughtfully. Lizzy joined him behind his chair to see the letter, which read as follows:
My Dear Mrs. Collins,
Having obtained no response to my last note, which I hoped was merely due to some oversight, I shall write again, in hopes of hearing the news that my nephew Mr. Darcy had recovered from his unfortunate bout with the decanter the previous evening. I do so hope that he did, as I was telling Colonel Fitzwilliam the other day. Hopefully the doctor's formula did not fail to give relief? My good uncle used to speak very highly of it, and as he was in the habit of taking rather too much himself, no one can doubt the justice of it. Several of the neighbors have expressed their concern, also, for Mr. Darcy's very pitiable condition which I imparted to them, and hope for his speedy recovery. My best wishes to you, Mr. Darcy, and even Mr. Collins, though he be not at home.
Lady Catherine de Bourgh
When Mr. Darcy finished reading, he sighed and laid the note very carefully down on the table. He sat meditatively for a few minutes, then suddenly sprang up and began to pace around the room, his brows furrowed in most unpleasant concentration. "The other letter I could take lightly," he announced in a tone louder than his companions expected. "But this," he said, picking up the note and holding it at arm's length, "Cannot be so."
"Is there such a terrible difference, sir, between the two?" asked Charlotte, bewildered. "Of course, the purposeful omission of Lizzy is unpardonable, but still?"
"Yes, dear," said Elizabeth softly, taking a place by her husband's side. "Come, laugh this off as before."
"No, Elizabeth, I cannot do that. I am angered exceedingly. If this incident was between her and us, all well and good. But when she starts spreading it to all the townsfolk, it could be an ugly, ugly situation. Look at how, without scruple, she goes and scatters a story amongst the world! It is monstrous!" he spat out.
Lizzy adopted her tone of gentle reproof. "Husband, can you be so vain as to care so greatly about what some villagers think of you? 'Tis not worth all this grief."
"You think I care for myself? Good Lord! No," he declared. "Without doubt Lady Catherine is not abusing my character. And even if she were, I would not care. However, I know that it is you who she finds fault with, it is you who she never forgave. I care not who denounces me, but you, my dear Eliza," he said, sounding so hurt, "my only thoughts were for you."
"Oh! Fitzwilliam!" she cried, with tears in her eyes, and buried herself in his collar. There she wept soundly, with Mr. Darcy stroking her hair and whispering softly in her ear.
"But no," she said, straightening up. "We shall never get anywhere this way. I agree this situation wants looking in to, and I think I have an idea. It may not be pretty, but it may be the only thing that will work to stop this rumor. Now, yesterday, as I was walking in the woods..."
She proceeded to tell him the whole story, and his eyes glinted mischievously.
"Is this right, Elizabeth?" Mr. Darcy asked, looking up from the letter he was writing. His wife leaned over his shoulder to see.
"Yes, that's good. Now, draw upon the issue of propriety a little more," she advised.
Darcy started to write again, but checked it and asked, "Why am I writing this letter? You're the one who saw them."
Mrs. Darcy sighed and explained. "If I were to write the letter, my dear husband, do you think Lady Catherine would pay the slightest bit of attention to it? If you are right and she wishes to undermine my good name, any letter from me would most likely be thrown into the fire unopened. She at least will take notice of yours."
This reason satisfied Mr. Darcy, and he soon finished the letter. Holding it up and fanning it to let the ink dry, he placed it on the table and he and his wife surveyed the product, which read as follows:
My dear Aunt,
Mrs. Collins, my wife and I thank you for your kind attentions. They have not gone unnoticed. We are sorry that we have not had a chance to see you and your daughter since that night, and shall hope to do so soon. Speaking of your daughter, however, my wife happened to see Miss de Bourgh just the other day, although I do not think the action was reciprocated. I pride you upon your modernity to allow your daughter to marry the son of a farmer, but let me warn you not to let the matter be known too widely, for it may cause a disturbance, as I was remarking to Mrs. Collins today. I am sure that the match was based on a solid foundation of affection, although I am aware that the lure of Miss de Bourgh's fortune would be enough to make a man come to her side. As long as their union will procure the happiness of both you and your daughter, I certainly can have no objection. One may argue the issue of propriety, but you can be sure that I will stand behind your decision, for whatever you do must be right, dear aunt.
My warmest regards,
Elizabeth turned her face in close to her husband's after reading the letter and smiled at him sweetly. "It is very well indeed," she approved. Rising up and pacing around the room, she announced, "Yes, this will certainly get their attention. Not that it's a very proper letter, in itself, but neither were the ones she sent us. Less so, in fact. She deserves a taste of her own medicine. Not that I don't have some qualms on poor Anne's side, she has done no real wrong, and we have exaggerated in tenfold. Still, the action must be taken to stop the first rumor, and we shall never spread this one even though Lady Catherine thinks we will, and although two wrongs don't make a right, it is advisable to fight fire with fire..."
"Elizabeth!" cried Mr. Darcy, and moved to her side. "You're babbling."
"You're right," she acknowledged. "And that's a common problem I have. When I'm nervous I can't stop talking and I'm afraid I bore my listeners because I talk so much but my mouth just can't stop moving because I'm nervous..."
"Dear?" he interrupted her. "Be quiet."
He stuffed the letter into an envelope and gave it to a servant to take to Rosings. He was nervous, too. Delivering this message was a definite risk, but he just couldn't let his wife be exposed to the certain ridicule of the "Right Honourable" Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
Neither husband nor wife slept well that night.
Charlotte knew full well about the scheme, and heartily agreed to it, but added a disclaimer. "I wish you two well," she said to Mr. and Mrs. Darcy the next morning after breakfast. "But if anyone asks, I never heard of it." The Darcys assured her that they would accept full responsibility for whatever followed.
Shortly after breakfast the door opened to admit a servant with a letter on a tray, and everybody tensed. The tray was offered to Mr. Darcy, and when he did not take it, the maid prompted, "For you, sir," and held it closer.
Reluctantly Mr. Darcy sighed and picked up the stationery, and Charlotte motioned for the servant to leave. As soon as the door had closed, she and Lizzy flew over to read the letter, which Mr. Darcy had not opened yet. Full of anxiousness, they gathered around, training their eyes on the following:
I thank you exceedingly for your last letter. I am grateful to not only you and Mrs. Collins, but Mrs. Darcy as well. There will be no marriage to speak of as you have alerted me to, although your suspicions were not unfounded. I shall go no further in my explanation. May I take this time to tell you, dear nephew, how much I have always admired your wife. Why, from the first moment I set eyes on Miss Bennet, I knew that you two should be perfect for each other. You are right that we have not seen enough of each other on your all too short stay in this county. Allow me to have our excellent cook prepare your favourite dishes in preparation for this event. If there is anything you need anytime while you are here, anything at all, I should be vastly happy to oblige you. By the way, I hope to have your agreement not to talk of the issue you alluded to in your letter. I shall certainly keep any mishaps or rumors to myself at all times, although I am sure you already know that I am not the type to spread malicious gossip. Your loving aunt,
Lady Catherine de Bourgh
Although interrupted at times by a spasm of laughter from Lizzy or a loud throat-clearing from Mr. Darcy, the letter was read with utmost enjoyment and amusement from all. The happy couple did a clumsy little dance around the sitting room after they finished. "Oh!" she exclaimed. "It could not possibly be done better. The happiest, wisest most unreasonable end!"
"It is not the end," said Mr. Darcy. "Remember we must dine with her again, with our 'favourite dishes.' I shouldn't worry, though; she will most certainly grovel at our knees. Now she has finally realized that she has liked you all along. I thought as much. I have liked you all along, too."
Husband and wife looked deep into each other's eyes, and Charlotte tactfully excused herself before things got awkward.
Six months in the future, Mr. and Mrs. Darcy were sitting comfortably in front of the fire at Pemberley. Christmas was only a fortnight away, and snow was falling lazily onto the lawn with a peaceful silence that made the lovers dream. They were happy with two recent pieces of news--one being that Lizzy's sister Jane had just given birth to a beautiful baby girl, and that the Darcys themselves were soon to be blessed with their own bundle of joy. As they stared into the leaping flames, all was well in the world.
A knock on the door interrupted their reverie, and Mrs. Darcy rose to admit a servant with a letter. She carried it back to her husband.
"It is a letter from Charlotte," she announced.
"A letter from Mrs. Collins, surely, and not from..."
"Do be quiet, Mr. Darcy!" she admonished playfully.
The letter simply stated that Charlotte had given birth last week, and that she and Mr. Collins were immeasurably happy. It was a girl, too.
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