Lady Catherine's Necklace, Page 2Joan Aiken
‘No, no, ma’am, no, your ladyship, that was not it, not at all. What brings me here is the tidings, just half an hour since received by express, that Mr Bennet, my cousin, has died of a sudden seizure. As you are aware, ma’am, his estate, Longbourn Manor, is entailed upon myself; so it is highly requisite that I remove myself to Hertfordshire without the least loss of time, to make an inventory of the property and to attend to various legal matters pursuant upon Mr Bennet’s demise. I come therefore to request your gracious permission to set off without delay.’
When she began to understand the reason for Mr Collins’s sudden and dramatic arrival through the snowstorm, and his request for leave of absence from his parochial duties, Lady Catherine was not at all pleased.
In vain he pleaded that his curate, Mr Mark Lawson, would provide a tolerable substitute. In vain he pointed out that his wife Charlotte was expected to give birth to her third child very shortly, probably within the next few days, so that the ladies of Rosings House would, in any case, be deprived for a while of her cheerful company…
‘I am extremely vexed,’ said Lady Catherine. ‘I was not expecting this at all. Especially when the weather is so disagreeable. It is not convenient, Mr Collins, that you should absent yourself at a time when we are also deprived of the company of Mrs Collins. Consider how shocking it would be if you were obliged to remain away over Easter? No, no; I cannot countenance a departure at such a time, at such a juncture. It will not do at all, not at all.’
Mr Collins wrung his hands beseechingly.
‘Mr Lawson is a most capable, most estimable young man,’ he pleaded. ‘Your ladyship has been gracious enough to approve his sermons on two occasions when my wife returned to visit her parents at Meryton, and I accompanied her—’
‘No, Mr Collins. It will not do.’
At this moment Mr Delaval, who, with his sister, had been an involuntary witness to this exchange, cautiously but courteously intervened.
‘Pray, your ladyship, forgive my intrusion into such a private matter, but I could not help hearing, and wonder if I may offer a solution to your difficulty? I myself am in minor holy orders, and have not as yet succeeded to any living. May I perhaps be of assistance in this matter? Is it possible that I might replace this gentleman, to whom I have not yet been formally introduced, for a short period?’
Mr Delaval smiled his peculiarly open, engaging smile.
‘Humph,’ said Lady Catherine, eyeing him thoughtfully. She looked almost ready to be convinced.
Mr Collins, on the contrary, seemed startled almost out of his wits.
‘Er – how d’ye do, sir,’ he stammered. ‘Er – that is to say, my name is Collins, William Collins. I am happy to make your acquaintance, Mr—?’
‘Ralph Delaval at your service. By which I mean that I shall be delighted to be of service to you, if her ladyship can bring herself to countenance such an arrangement?’
‘Humph,’ said her ladyship again.
She considered the two men confronting her. The difference between them was marked. Mr Collins, heavy-looking even when younger, had, during the past three or four years, perhaps due to his having partaken of exceedingly handsome and lavish dinners at Rosings House at least twice weekly, become decidedly paunchy, almost corpulent. Quitting his parsonage today in a ferment of excitement at the sudden news of his inheritance, he had neglected to change his costume for the superior apparel he would customarily have donned for an interview with his patroness, and just at present he appeared somewhat seedy and dingy, lacking even the last-minute tweakings and tidyings-up which his wife would have administered, had she not, at the moment when he left the house, been experiencing the first of her labour pains. Whereas Mr Delaval, as has been stated, despite the mishap to his chaise, still appeared remarkably elegant and point-device. His neckcloth was trimly tied and his dark hair, cut by the hand of a master, formed a decided contrast to the untidy strands that fell forward over Mr Collins’s damp brow, and his grubby, frayed cravat.
‘Well: are you able to preach a respectable sermon, Mr Delaval?’ demanded her ladyship.
‘So my friends at university assured me, ma’am,’ bowed Mr Delaval, ‘and never, on any occasion I can assure you, of more than fifteen minutes in length.’
This last statement was almost accompanied by a smile, but sager instincts prevailed and he faced the lady instead with a grave, attentive look, like that of a person who hearkens to the summons of distant angelic voices.
‘Well … very well,’ pronounced her ladyship again, after considerable thought. ‘Thanks to this gentleman’s most opportune and considerate offer, Mr Collins, I am pleased to allow you one week’s leave of absence for the parish. One week! No more. That should be amply sufficient for you to take possession of the Longbourn estate and attend to the necessary legal procedures. (A somewhat paltry and negligible holding, Longbourn, as I recall it, the one time I chanced to pass that way, the park very small indeed, and the rooms of the house no more than tolerable, with a most inconvenient parlour, facing due west, a thing I abominate.) Sir Lewis did not at all approve of entailing property. It was never thought necessary in either the de Bourgh or the Sherbrine families. Very well, Mr Collins, you may travel to Hertfordshire if you must. One week only, mind – no more!’
At this moment, Mrs Jenkinson tiptoed up to her employer and whispered some words in her ear.
‘What is that? What is that? Speak up, my good woman.’
Mrs Jenkinson whispered a little louder.
‘His wife? What about her? Lying in? Well, as to that, the woman must just manage as best she can. She has her sister, after all. But I cannot approve. All this is exceedingly vexatious. I am decidedly put out.’
Mr Collins retired with more protestations of thanks, and bowing so many times that Miss Delaval, watching him, felt sure he must have given himself a headache.
Lady Catherine, fatigued and harassed by such a succession of events, soon retired to her own suite of apartments, and Mrs Jenkinson, in her usual subdued murmur, instructed a footman to show the two unexpected guests to their chambers, which, by this time, had been made ready to receive them. There would, she whispered, be a collation of cold meats and fruit served later on, in about an hour’s time.
Two footmen were ordered to carry Miss Delaval upstairs.
At that, Anne de Bourgh unexpectedly spoke up.
‘There used to be a basket-chair,’ she said, ‘made for my father after he fell ill. See that it is found, Cowden, and placed at the lady’s disposal.’
‘My dear Miss Anne, how clever of you to think of that!’ cried out Mrs Jenkinson, throwing up her hands in astonishment, for Miss Anne de Bourgh practically never bestirred herself on any other person’s behalf.
‘My sister and I are greatly obliged to you for the thought, Miss de Bourgh,’ said Delaval with another of his polished bows. ‘Your suggestion is most apropos, and I shall take great pleasure in wheeling Priscilla about during the period of her disability, which I sincerely hope will be a short one.’
‘Thank you indeed!’ said Miss Delaval to the girl, with her engaging smile. ‘A wheelchair gives one so much dignity. One feels absurd indeed, being borne about like a parcel!’
The chair was soon forthcoming, and Miss Delaval was wheeled away in it.
As her brother prepared to follow her, Anne de Bourgh said to him:
‘When the snow has melted, I will show you and your sister the way to the pleasure gardens.’
Mrs Jenkinson gazed at her employer’s daughter in silent wonder. It was the first time in six months, to her knowledge, that Anne de Bourgh had spoken two consecutive sentences, let alone to a stranger.
Charlotte Collins and her sister Maria were up in Charlotte’s bedroom, Maria seated in a slipper-chair, anxiously observant of her sister, while Charlotte paced energetically to and fro. Experienced now in childbirth, she knew that this was the best thing to do so long as energy and resolution held out. Maria
watched in admiration and apprehension. An unmarried girl, she was not supposed to be so intimately acquainted with the stages of labour as her sister, but she had companioned Charlotte through the latter’s two previous confinements, and felt a reasonable degree of confidence in her knowledge of the various developments to be expected in the process of parturition, and how soon it would be necessary to summon Mrs Denny, the housekeeper, and Mrs Hurst, the midwife, who were both at present below stairs drinking tea and sloe gin.
‘The house seems most remarkably quiet without William,’ Charlotte presently observed. ‘It was fortunate indeed that the snow melted in time for him to be able to make his way as far as the stage-coach stop.’
‘Do you think he will really be able to accomplish his business at Longbourn within a week?’
‘Not for a single minute. It seems entirely improbable,’ Charlotte said matter-of-factly. ‘He will be obliged to write to Lady Catherine asking for an extension of his leave. All the affairs of an estate cannot be wound up so quickly. But his ownership of Longbourn cannot help but raise him somewhat in Lady Catherine’s estimation. An Esquire after his name will cause her to use him with a trifle more consideration. I calculate that he may remain away for at least two and a half weeks.’
She spoke as if the prospect of her husband’s continued absence from home would be no hardship, and went on:
‘But you say that, latterly, Mr Bennet lived at Longbourn alone? So there will not be a great household to disperse?’
‘No, certainly; since Mrs Bennet’s death and the departure of Kitty, he has spent less and less time in Hertfordshire. Mostly he would be staying in Derbyshire with Elizabeth or Jane.’
‘And Mary? Where is she?’
‘She has gone to live with Kitty in London. Kitty, you may recall, was married two years ago to some connection of their uncle, Mr Gardner. Do you think, Charlotte, that Mr Collins will wish to give up his living here, and reside at Longbourn? It is a much bigger house, and more comfortable than this one.’
‘No, I do not think he will wish to do that,’ replied Charlotte with decision. ‘He is far too dependent on Lady Catherine’s favour and goodwill to wish to sever himself from Rosings. I think he will find a tenant for Longbourn and so augment our income – an increase we shall be glad of, with the enlargement of our family. Mr Willis tells me that this time I am to expect twins.’
‘I shall not mind that at all,’ Charlotte said calmly. ‘I dare say they will amuse each other. And as soon as they are weaned, I plan to start teaching Lucy and Sam.’
‘Are they not rather young for that?’
‘Lucy will be four and Sam three; I think children cannot begin learning too early. I shall keep them at home with me. I cannot agree with our mother’s practice of boarding children out in some cottage in the village until they are six or seven; by that time they grow shockingly spoiled, pick up all kinds of unsuitable language and also, as often as not, contract some illness which may prove fatal.’
‘Good heavens, Charlotte!’ said Maria, greatly startled at this rejection of Lady Lucas’s well-known tenets of child-rearing.
‘Well? Did not two of our brothers take smallpox from the village children and die?’
‘Yes, that is true. But then, why are Lucy and Sam boarded out at present?’
‘It is only for a week or so, until I am on my feet again. Lady Catherine does not approve of my opinions either,’ Charlotte added calmly. ‘And Mr Collins, of course, took her side, but on this point I am resolved to be firm and have my way. Why, for that matter, Lady Catherine’s own son, Eadred, the elder brother of Anne de Bourgh, contracted a putrid fever while boarded out in Hunsford when there was a typhus epidemic, and died before he was out of short coats. (This was before Mr Collins came to Hunsford.) I am told that Sir Lewis was heartbroken; he died himself shortly afterwards.’
‘So Anne de Bourgh once had a brother.’
‘She did. I suspect one of the reasons why she is so sickly and lacking in spirit is that both parents greatly favoured the boy (or so I am told), and Anne has always been made to feel inferior. Ever since the boy’s death, Lady Catherine has been in the habit of drawing invidious comparisons between the poor girl and her dead brother – “Your brother Eadred would never have done that; your brother Eadred would have been able to learn that easily” – very unfair and guaranteed to make the poor girl even duller and crosser than she is already. I do not think Colonel FitzWilliam is at all anxious to hasten on the match.’
If Charlotte had been looking at her sister just then, she would have noticed Maria turn very pale. But Charlotte was peering between the window curtains and went on: ‘Well! I declare, talk of the devil, there is the colonel now! I just this moment saw him ride past. I had understood that he and Lord Luke were not expected until next week. I wonder what brings them so soon? I am sure it is not the colonel’s own inclinations. No doubt he comes to escort his uncle. He himself always seems so bored at Rosings.’
Maria’s complexion had turned from pale to pink. She now inquired, with tolerable calm:
‘It is certain, then? They are to marry? Anne de Bourgh and Colonel FitzWilliam?’
‘Yes. Lady Catherine told us at New Year that it would be announced at Easter, when they are gone out of mourning for some great-aunt. Anne will have fifty thousand pounds at her majority, you know, very likely more, so it is a fine thing for the colonel. Despite the fact that he is the younger son of the Earl of Wrendale, I understand that he has hardly a feather to fly with. And he may well feel sorry for the poor girl; he is a good-natured, kindly fellow, I have a great regard for him. Anne was half promised to Darcy, you know; or so Lady Catherine thought – at least, she always spoke of the match as if it was an arranged thing. So when Darcy married Elizabeth Bennet, it must have been quite a severe blow to Anne, both to her affections and to her vanity. Perhaps FitzWilliam thinks that marrying her is the least he can do to make amends for his cousin’s defection. In any case, both Lady Catherine and her daughter will be delighted to see him.’
‘Who is Lord Luke?’
‘Lord Luke Sherbrine. He is Lady Catherine’s brother, and brother to the Duke of Anglesea. Never married. He lives somewhere up in those northern parts, near to Mr Darcy and Colonel FitzWilliam.’
‘Mrs Denny tells me that there are other visitors at Rosings House just now’
‘Yes, a Mr Delaval and his sister. They had a carriage accident. Lady Catherine offered them hospitality, for the lady suffered a sprained ankle. And it turned out a fortunate chance for William, since Mr Delaval, it seems, is in orders and can conduct the services on Sunday.’
‘How do you know all this?’
‘William met the Delavals before he left. And one of the footmen at Rosings is Mrs Denny’s brother,’ said Charlotte, laughing. ‘Not much goes on at the great house that is not immediately reported to us. I heard that the lady and gentleman are very handsome and well mannered.’
‘Perhaps Anne de Bourgh will fall in love with the gentleman,’ said Maria hopefully.
Charlotte turned and gave her young sister a very earnest, considering look.
‘My love, put the colonel out of your head! He is not for you. You have not got fifty thousand pounds. And, even if you had, he is promised to poor sickly Anne. You would not be so heartless as to wish to deprive her of her second, perhaps her only, chance – oh, heavens!’
She put her hand to her side with a sudden gasp.
‘Oh, Charlotte! Is it time to fetch Mrs Hurst?’
‘Yes, I think you had better do so. And tell her to bring me a cup of hot tea!’
Maria ran for the stairs.
* * *
That evening found Colonel FitzWilliam calling at Hunsford parsonage.
His overt purpose was to inquire after Mrs Collins, but when he saw Maria Lucas in the parlour, his face lit up and he momentarily forgot all about his official mission.
The colonel was not
a handsome man. But there was something remarkably direct and likeable about his craggy countenance: his face reflected his thoughts and emotions with great fidelity, and just now it was plain that what he felt at the sight of Maria was an incautious delight.
‘Miss Maria! I had no idea – nobody told me that you were here at Hunsford!’
‘Nor I that you were here, Colonel. I – I had understood that you were expected later, some weeks later…’
He said, ‘I brought my uncle, Lord Luke Sherbrine. He wished to consult my Aunt Catherine on a matter of family business, and he is becoming too old and frail to travel unescorted all the way from Derbyshire.’
‘Lady de Bourgh and her daughter must have been happy to see you.’
He smiled. ‘Not so happy to see my uncle, however; the pair of them, for some obscure family reason, have never been the best of friends.’
‘And – and Miss Anne de Bourgh?’ Maria went on courageously. ‘I understand that I am to congratulate you, Colonel, on your forthcoming engagement.’
He became serious in a moment. ‘Ah. You have heard. Yes, it is so. My cousin Anne – well, there are strong family interests promoting the alliance; and we younger sons, you know, must be inured to self-denial in matrimonial affairs. Maria – Miss Lucas—’ He swallowed and went on after a moment. ‘Miss Lucas, I was very wrong, last year – very remiss, in – in allowing my wishes, my personal feelings to make themselves apparent; if – if I have done so and – and given rise to false conclusions, I deeply, deeply repent; I can only humbly crave pardon, and my sense of wrongdoing is all the greater because I know (alas, so well) the kind and candid nature that will be ready to grant that forgiveness—’
He stopped. His gaze was full of urgent appeal.