There was to be a ball at Netherfield. The Bennet girls were in high spirits indeed—even Mary, who admitted that, upon occasion, one must allow for an interlude of recreation and amusement in society.
Jane, no doubt, was imagining dances with Mr. Bingley, and the younger girls were already in raptures over which officer would claim them for the first reel. Elizabeth had a particular officer in mind: Mr. Wickham. She had not been able to stop thinking of him since the evening she’d spent at Mr. and Mrs. Phillips. His handsome face, his pleasing scarlet coat, his charming conversation…and most of all, his shocking story of ill treatment at the hands of none other than Mr. Darcy.
Mr. Darcy would be at the ball, too, no doubt, but that possibility didn’t concern Elizabeth. She would spend her time with the amiable Mr. Wickham and consider Darcy only enough to show him that, despite his best efforts, he could not destroy the happiness of those around him who had less money, but far better temperaments.
With such an agreeable prospect, Elizabeth forgot to ignore her cousin, Mr. Collins, and went so far as to ask him whether he, too, would accept Mr. Bingley’s invitation, and if he thought it proper to engage in the evening’s amusement.
“Indeed I do, my dear cousin. I do not entertain any scruple on that front. I do not believe such an amusement would be offensive, either to the Archbishop or to my exalted patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh.”
“They approve, then, of dancing?” Elizabeth could not help but ask. This, it turned out, was a grave mistake.
“I am by no means of the opinion, I assure you,” said he, “that a ball of this kind, given by a young man of character for respectable people, can have any evil tendency. And I am so far from objecting to dancing myself, that I shall hope to be honored with the hands of all my fair cousins in the course of the evening.”
Lydia snickered, but their cousin was far from done.
“And I take this opportunity of soliciting yours, Miss Elizabeth, for the two first dances especially.”
Elizabeth’s mouth snapped shut, and she nodded her assent, though inwardly, she felt completely taken in. “I thank you, sir,” she replied curtly.
Why could she not keep her mouth shut? Her attempt at teasing had backfired spectacularly. There was no way to reject his offer other than to sit out the whole evening. Now she was obliged to dance with Mr. Collins for the first two dances, instead of Mr. Wickham, or even any other amiable partner who would no doubt be in attendance.
Mr. Collins bowed to Jane. “I do hope my dear cousin Jane shall attribute this preference to the right cause and not to any disrespect for her.”
Jane gave Elizabeth a look that would have appeared to the casual observer as nothing other than placid, but Elizabeth knew her sister well enough to see her own shock mirrored on the older girl’s countenance. As quickly as possible, they quit the room to walk alone in the shrubbery.
“Attribute this preference to the right cause?” Elizabeth blurted as soon as they were halfway down the walk. “He cannot be serious.”
“I do not believe our cousin is much given to wit, Lizzy,” Jane said, almost apologetically.
Elizabeth could not disagree. And that meant only one thing. She had been selected from among her sisters as worthy of being the mistress of Hunsford Parsonage. “Oh, Jane,” she said, as they turned about the garden. “This is most distressing.”
“Do not mind it,” Jane advised. “It is only the first two dances, and then you shall be quite free to dance with your new soldier friend.”
“Would that were my only concern! But I fear very much that Mr. Collins intends for me to be more than a mere dancing partner. I believe what most he desires is my assistance to form a quadrille table at Rosings, in the absence of more eligible visitors.”
Jane sighed. “The poor man.”
“It’s good you can choose to feel sympathy for him, as it is not you he has so singled out for the honor. Do you not envy me my admirer, dearest Jane?” She scowled, now reflecting with quite a different aspect on every compliment Mr. Collins had paid to her wit and vivacity, every time his attention had been turned her way. “I believe if he has had encouragement from a particular direction, we must attribute it to our mother.”
No doubt Mrs. Bennet had informed him of Jane’s previous connection to Mr. Bingley. But her mother did not know of Elizabeth’s new acquaintance of—and partiality to—Mr. Wickham.
Nor, she was forced to admit, would it be likely to sway Mrs. Bennet’s opinion of who would make her second daughter a more eligible match. The woman may talk much of how charming a red coat might be, but a penniless officer was nothing to the security of a clergyman with a fine living and an entire estate entailed upon him. Had not Elizabeth heard the speech many times before?
Mrs. Bennet’s arguments went like this: No one in the family knew what she suffered. They would all be turned out of the house the moment Mr. Bennet departed this good Earth. And if the daughters were not married, well-married…. then what would become of them all?
For years, Mr. Bennet had shrugged it off, and so, following his example, had Elizabeth. Her mother, however, had never wavered, and now, apparently, the woman was well into arranging a match.
“I do so hate to be always the architect of her disappointed hopes,” Elizabeth said now.
Jane ventured a laugh. “Oh, Lizzy. Do not disrupt the family peace with such a dispute.”
“I have no intention of doing so. I cannot even think of such an occasion when it might become warranted. Mr. Collins may yet realize what a horrible quadrille player I am and never make his intentions known. Why would I quarrel with Mama over a plan which may never come to pass?”
Such lightness in tone, however, was not evident when, later that evening, she rapped upon her father’s library door.
“Come in, Lizzy!” He beckoned her inside. “Have you heard quite enough of Fordyce’s Sermons from your dear cousin this evening? I would have thought such delights would entertain you until the wee hours.”
“Of some delights, sir, a little goes a long way.” She took a seat near him. “Papa… have you noticed any particular attention being paid to me by Mr. Collins?”
He eyed her carefully. “I think it little wonder that anyone would admire you, if that’s what you ask. Though I would urge you to take care regarding the quality of the lovers you attract. You are, you know, obliged to associate with them tolerably often.”
In other words, he had not. “I believe it is possible that Mr. Collins has singled me out for a potential bride. In which hopes he is encouraged by my mother.”
“What an amusing scheme, for the both of them,” her father said absentmindedly, as he returned to his book.
“I am afraid they will both be deeply disappointed.”
“Ah, yes. Well, into each life must come some rain, you know, Lizzy. And Mr. Collins comes from a long line of disappointed men, stretching back at least to my uncle, his grandfather. Given that our guest will in fact inherit Longbourn at long last, he shall probably accept with equanimity when he does not also win the hand of a daughter born here.”
Elizabeth considered this. She knew only the sketch of her family’s branching history, as her father rarely liked to speak of such unpleasantries. Her grandfather, the old Mr. Bennet, had been the elder twin to Mr. Collins’s grandfather, and thus had earned the right to Longbourn by only a few minutes. This fact the younger twin had felt most keenly. So keenly in fact, that he was more than happy to quit the name Bennet upon receiving a small inheritance from an even more distant relation named Collins.
When her Grandfather Bennet’s union with his first wife failed to produce an heir, his nephew, Mr. Collins’s father, had been presumed the heir to Longbourn. And so he thought he was, for more than twenty years, until the aged widower Bennet married for a second time, and his wife gave birth to a little boy: Elizabeth’s father. The child’s very existence had so angered the old Mr. Collins that he’d moved away from Hertfordshire altogether and had rebuffed every attempt by those at Longbourn to have a relationship with their cousin. And so it had been, for decades, until Mr. Collins’s letter.
Were Mr. Collins a more sensible, agreeable man, Elizabeth would not find it easy to completely dismiss his aims, though she still could not imagine feeling gratified at being their object. It was, she supposed, quite right that her cousin might wish to heal the breach between their families by uniting them in matrimony. It was all quite tidy.
But…. Mr. Collins.
Mr. Bennet smiled and picked up his brandy, but before he could take a sip, he began to cough.
“Papa?” She said. “Are you quite well?”
“Don’t you start, Lizzy. Ever since Mr. Collins has arrived, your mother has been determined to pounce on every clearing of my throat as evidence of my imminent demise. If I suffer from anything, it is that I do not let the maids in here often enough to dust all my books.”
Elizabeth still frowned.
“Come now, Lizzy. Jane did not die of the cold that stranded her at Netherfield. I shall not die from a bit of dust caught in my throat.”
No, but he would die someday, and of something. It may be far more pleasant to picture that day being long in the future, long after every one of his five girls were happily settled on estates of their own. But was that really so very likely, with no dowry and little enough exposure to society? Her mother was ridiculous… but was she also wrong?
She forced a smile. “Mama will be so disappointed.”
“Do not worry, Lizzy. I believe that your sister Jane will provide her with adequate consolation, if all proceeds as it seems likely to.”
“True.” Mrs. Bennet would have no cause at all for concern regarding their future security, once Jane married Mr. Bingley. And so Elizabeth ought not to lose sleep over the possibility of becoming Mrs. Collins. For what was Longbourn and its measly two-thousand a year to the fortunes of Mr. Bingley?
The worst she would have to endure would be Mr. Collins’s odious attentions for another few days and, of course, the first two dances at the Netherfield ball.
Read the Rest of In Darcy’s Place Now: