By Her Arts and Allurements
My name is Frances Mariah Elizabeth Sylvia Collins and I'm seventeen years old. Sometime ago I decided to write my story, less because it has been so interesting up till now and more because I lack something better to do with my time.
Mama says I am a wild creature and have too much time to myself. Father says that I'm the spawn of some dark force and he doesn't know where I came from.
As for me, I haven't yet decided who I am. Perhaps writing an account of my, up till now, brief and uneventful existence will help settle the matter. Or perhaps not. At least, it will make for a pleasant way to spend these unusually rainy and dark days as we approach the cheerless Christmas of my first season out.
I suppose I should start by identifying myself with my parentage and place of origin, like the well-bred girl I'm supposed to be.
I was born at the estate of Longbourn and I'm the daughter of the gentleman who holds the estate, Mr. William Collins, who used to be once upon a time the protegee and minister to the great Lady Catherine DeBourgh.
To own the truth, I can't imagine papa ever having been a cleric, his being so inept in society and likely to say what he thinks not and not say what he thinks half the time. And all of it terribly bungled.
My mother grew up near my estate and her family, the Lucases, still live in nearby Meryton. They're a great, vocal and populous tribe, full of branches and sub-branches and more cousins than I could name. Most of them are in trade, though my grandfather, Sir William Lucas, was once upon a time enobled for some trifling thing and therefore quit trade. There being no great fortune, his descendants were forced to go back into it, an incident that papa accounts very vexing indeed.
I'm their only child. Or perhaps I shouldn't say that. I am their only daughter, though I am to understand that in the twenty years of their marriage before I was born mother gave birth to ten boys, none of which lived more than a few days. I know this not from mama but from our man, Dokins, who told me all about the heartbreak of those years.
And then mama and papa inherited Longbourn from some distant cousins who'd had no male heir to succeed to the property. A year after that, when children had been all but despaired of, mama gave birth to me.
Father wanted to call me after his mother, Frances. And mother wanted to call me after her great childhood friend, Elizabeth.
They compromised by having both names given to me, decorously separated by Mariah, which is the name of my favorite aunt. Sylvia was an afterthought, on the way to the church for my christening. Mother is said to have thought I needed another name and, as they were crossing a great thicket of woods, called me Sylvia.
In the way of such things, this is the name I'm called and have been called ever since I was six or so. Mother started it, because she says I spend such a great deal of time in the woods that I might as well be a pixie, a child of the woods. Hence Sylvia.
I am writing this in my room, in the upper floor of the house - from whose window I command a vision of a vast expanse of fields and meadows.
As I look out that window now, I notice - amid the farming families and the sheep - two young gentleman galloping through the fields.
At this distance, I can only tell they're young from the mad cavalcade they have undertaken, and can but barely discern that one of them has dark hair and one glittering locks. Who they are, I could not tell you. However, I notice they both wear redcoats. I wonder if a regiment of the militia has come to be quartered in nearby Meryton. It would certainly make for a change in my very placid existence.
Or I hope it would. This is by no means certain. Papa has retained certain habits from his life as a minister and he rarely even allows me to attend assemblies. Not that this has ever stopped me, as my cousin, Emerald, the oldest daughter of my aunt Maria is allowed - encouraged - to attend and I'm often somehow in her company when assembly comes around.
Mother says that there are certain things papa doesn't need to be informed of. I fully agree. It would only grieve him and make my life more difficult.
I turn away from the tantalizing view of the two young men riding through the fields. I try not to wonder who they are, what they're doing here or what it can all mean for my assembly nights.
It doesn't matter. Chances are they're just passing by and will never return to Meryton. Or even if they should, even if they should be single and of good enough reputation that papa would consider their application for my hand, even if both of them chanced to be looking for a wife, even if they went to the assembly for that purpose, chances were they'd never notice me.
You see, unlike Emerald, who is blonde and has eyes the color her name suggests, I am rather plain.
I turn for the window and glare at my reflection in the mahogony-framed full-length mirror in my room. [Papa says no one should have a mirror in their room at all, particularly not a young girl. However, when I asked mother for one, to help me in the arranging of my dresses, as I came of age, she'd bought me one and had it delivered when papa wasn't home. It's one of the things he does not need to know, and he never visits me in my room.]
I have black hair, lank and heavy. Mama says papa had hair like mine when he was young and, through not washing it, tended to have a rather greasy appearance. She never gave me a chance not to wash mine, having kept me impeccably groomed from babyhood on. And I guess my hair looks good enough, if one likes flat, black hair, heavy and so dark it has blue highlights. It is of unusual length. At least my aunt Mariah says it is rare for a girl to have hair she can sit on. [Although why anyone would want to sit on their hair bewilders me. Surely it would hurt.]
I wear it plaited into two heavy braids which look rather like an ebony frame to my face. As for the face itself, it is rather round, with high cheekbones which often take on a rosy color. My eyes are my mother's eyes, or so everyone assures me, a dark blue. Some wit at an assembly once went on about my eyes looking like the night sky.
He wasn't unpleasant, though he was in trade, one of the younger clerks in attendance to my uncle Roger Phillips, my aunt Mariah's husband. For a while I'd thought he'd propose and wondered if my father would permit his daughter to marry into trade. But the young man had made me a brace of sonnets, and then stopped his courtship altogether. It was as though the sonnets, being too strong a food for his love's stomach, had killed it off. He now paid his court to a Miss March who had a dowry of ten thousand pounds.
Just sensible, I supposed, since I had no dowry and my father's estate was entailed away from me. Since Father didn't have a son to inherit, the estate would revert to distant cousins. As luck would have it to the grandsons of the same man from whom my father had inherited the estate.
His oldest daughter, Jane, had married a man of great fortune, who had bought himself an estate in Derbyshire and she'd produced five sons for him.
So, her eldest son would inherit the estate when my father died and likely as not turn me out to starve in the hedgerows.
Since papa has lost all his hair and can't walk without the aid of a stick, this is a material concern right now. Sometimes I look at mama and see her looking at me all concerned. And she tells me, although not in so many words, that I must marry early.
She married only when she was twenty seven, but she says it would be a great comfort for her to know I'm settled in life and that someone will look after me when she's gone.
I look at the mirror and make a face. Unfortunately for mother, whoever distributes looks didn't think the same. My face being my fortune, I'm scantily endowed and not likely to marry young. Or at all.
I imagine I shall become a governess and, learning to endear myself to the people who employ me, become much like father, all obsequious nonsense.
But, for now, there's the assembly tomorrow and I'll enjoy myself, while I'm young enough to enjoy myself.
I look away from my mirror and towards the window again, but the horsemen are quite gone. I wonder what exactly they were doing here, and whether I'll see them again.
It turns out there is indeed a militia group quartered in Merryton. They arrived last week, under the command of Colonel D- and everyone in town knew it but me.
If you don't know what a regiment of militia can do to a small town like ours, then you are greatly in need of enlightenment.
Merryton being small and most people having known each other from their cradle, all the matches that could be made among them have been made. Young men with no fortune and no situation leave as soon as they can to seek their fortune abroad. This leaves a large proportion of young, unmarried women who do not have a match and cannot find it. It is not in their power to leave in search of their fortune, though I never understood why. [When I was very young I packed a bag and walked away from home, to seek my fortune. When they'd found me, my father had preached at me for three days running, a punishment so severe that I'd never again undertaken the like.]
A company of militia coming to town, gives all those girls a chance to marry and leave. This is somewhat akin to dropping a cube of sugar atop of an anthill. All the local women and girls had gone crazy and, for the last week, beseeched every modiste in town to make gowns and hats. [It was said that Mrs. Jenkins down the road had made enough in that week alone to retire.]
Being isolated from the rest of town, kept in seclusion by my father, I had not heard of it. And I could only show at the assembly in the dress I usually wore to such functions - a blue dress that had been my mother and which she had, cleverly, altered for me.
Since my father wouldn't allow me to go to the assemblies, I could scarcely ask him for money for my attire.
This meant I looked very much like a duckling amid swans.
My cousin Emerald was the best dressed of all of the women, wearing a dark green brocade dress that went wonderfully with her eyes. She also wore a matching necklace of what looked like real emeralds, though they could never be, because uncle Roger is not that wealthy.
Needless to say, she was soon swamped with requests to dance.
As for me, I sat in a corner, as I usually do. Even the influx of men did not guarantee that I could get a pair, which is a pity since I love dancing and I'm accounted graceful. It didn't disturb me. I have long learned to be a philosopher.
The joys of thinking do not outweigh those of dancing, but they are often my only joys.
My observations soon led me to believe that the golden-haired man who continuously asked Emerald to dance [far more than three times, and how the local tongues will wag] was the same one I'd spied from my window.
His dark haired companion, I determined to be none other than the man who spent most of the evening - in an assembly where there were insufficient men, note, and many girls were sitting for lack of a partner - sitting by the refreshment table and drinking a great deal.
Halfway through the assembly, Emerald dragged her golden haired companion to my side. "Mr. William Aramis, I desire to introduce to you my cousin, Sylvia Collins."
Emerald said this as she says most things - like a royal decree. And she waved her closed fan around, pointing at me. "You will dance the next one with her," she said.
Mr. Aramis - and I didn't believe for a moment that was his true name, having read the works of Dumas and remembering this was the false name of one of the musketeers - seemed willing enough. He bowed to me and soon led me out to the set.
I noticed that my cousin had approached the dark on, by the refreshment table, and convinced him to ask her to dance. Not that this would be all that difficult. Most of the time all Emerald has to do is show up.
I'll own that I am a curious soul. My father says my curiosity is a grave sin. I don't know about that, but it is certainly a means of getting in trouble.
Halfway through the set, I asked the supposed Aramis, "So, what noble name do you hide under your pretend name."
He'd stared at me, blue eyes wide and round. "I beg your pardon?"
"Come, come. In Mr. Dumas' story, "The three musketeers", his adventurers hid their real names under assumed names. Aramis was one of them. Surely you don't intend for me to believe it is your real name. It is a mountain, somewhere, is it not?"
He looked shocked, then smiled a little. "Do you read a lot, Miss Collins?"
And I knew I would not be able to get the truth from him, which is very vexing.
However, after our dance, he hurried to the corner, and I watched him talk to his dark friend, who cast me some glowering looks indeed.
How exciting. I wonder if they'll try to kill me to silence me. This, at least, will make the next few days interesting.
After the dance, in Emerald's carriage, on the way to aunt Mariah, I asked her, "What was the name of that dark gentleman you danced with?"
"Mr. Athos?" she asked.
Mr. Athos indeed. I raised my eyebrows at Emerald. "Don't be a goose, Emerald. Those are not their real names."
I explained why, but Emerald is not one for great reading or much thinking. "Ah well," she said. "You don't know those are not their real names. Perhaps it is a coincidence."
And perhaps pigs flew. But I knew there was no arguing with Emerald. She had a strange dreamy look in her green eyes and fixed me with a gimlet glare. "Don't go spreading rumors about them, Sylvia. I think Mr. Aramis is the most pleasant man I ever met."
Which made him the most pleasant man since Mr. Elliot who'd been the most pleasant man she'd ever met up to the last assembly.
But it didn't bear discussing. I looked out the window and wondered what these two merry adventurers were doing in the militia and what they would do next.
I felt a twinge of fear they would break Emerald's heart. But it wasn't a very serious twinge, as it is quite likely that my merry cousin doesn't possess such an organ.
For two days after the assembly my life resumed its normal, pleasant pattern. I practiced my piano indifferently, I embroidered on my cushion - very ill - and I read a great deal and took every possible opportunity to wonder off into this pleasant little wilderness by my house.
It is Autumn and the leaves have turned all beautiful shades of red and gold, as though Nature were dressing up for Christmas. I spent hours watching a little squirrel store up his harvest of nuts for the winter. Papa would have made some moralizing comment about husbanding ones resources against the darker time.
Of course, Papa was the same man who did not husband his resources so that his daughter could have a dowry, so though it pained me to say it, since a daughter is not supposed to disparage her father, I had long ago ceased listening his maxims and proverbs.
And yet, perhaps I should have paid more attention to his moral direction. At least, if I had heard his advice about girls trusting strange men, I would have spared myself a severe grief indeed.
It happened on the Tuesday. Emerald was spending the day at my house and, growing bored with either papa's sermons or mama's advice on saving money on clothes and the best way of turning an old dress into a more fashionable one, suggested we walk to Merryton.
This we undertook immediately and for a while we were quite happy, the two of us together, jesting and joking as we walked towards Merryton as we had done so many times before.
Indeed, I'm afraid we jested most unkindly about all the residents of Merryton and our relatives in particular. But they were not around to hear and it was innocently meant. We did not mean harm to any of them, nor did we dislike any at all. Indeed, it was because we knew them so well and thought them such worthy persons that their little foibles and follies rankled so much more.
But I digress - halfway to Merryton, to men in red coats came out of a lane that crossed the fields and accosted us.
One of them was tall and golden haired, his a-little-too-long-hair brushing the back of his tunic's collar. He approached us with a smile and gave Emerald a little military bow. He was, of course, the man who called himself Mr. Aramis
Trailing behind him, wearing the expression commonly associated with victims of liver disease, whom every food displeases and every smell nauseates, walked his friend, Mr. Athos. He bowed to both of us, a lax bow, totally lacking in his friend's military possession.
His hair too was a little too long, so that trailing wisps of curly black hair fell over his forehead somewhat veiling his eyes which - I noticed for the first time - were a blue so dark they might look black from a distance. They were also narrowed in suspicion or hangover and I remember thinking that it was a shame for a militia officer to be so enamored of drink.
And this we should ascribe to my own hasty judgement, as I did not in fact know if Mr. Athos drank, only that his namesake in the musketeers did drink.
They fell into position beside us, so naturally that it might all have been planned. Probably was, if I know Emerald.
Mr. Aramis walked ahead with my blonde cousin and, within minutes, they were both laughing and talking as animatedly as if they'd been friends from their cradles.
As for Mr. Athos and I, we trailed behind and I do not wish to say our silence was sullen, but it was surely dispirited.
When it had weighed on me long enough, I decided I should talk. This was all the more imperative as I'd noticed that my companion had taken to staring at me. Or perhaps I should say he'd taken to glaring at me, because though his attention was constant, it was also disapproving. To judge from this drawn-together brows and the way what could be a broad and generous mouth pursed in distaste, you'd think I'd grown a sausage at the end of my nose.
"So, Mr. Athos," I said. "You are in the militia."
And, having said it, I knew I was a fool, because - after all - red coats that look exactly like militia coats are not the fashion of the ton.
He started a little, as though he not only thought I had a sausage at the end of my nose but also shouldn't have been endowed with the power of speech.
After what seemed like mature reflection, he said, "Yes."
His voice was deep and low and, for some reason, reminded me of the feeling of sliding my hand over velvet. His conversational style, however, left much to be desired. "How do you like it?" I asked. "The militia?"
He stared at me and frowned. That sausage must be growing at the end of my nose. "I like it well enough," he said. "I can't stand to be idle, and it gives me occupation, of a kind."
For a while longer, we strolled in silence. If what I said next constituted a breach of good manners, I can only ascribe it to the man's infuriating inability to carry on a conversation like a normal person.
Watching him walk beside me, while he continued watching me - for signs of a sausage on my nose, judging from the expression - I realized several things. Mr. Athos was one of the best looking men I'd ever met, indeed handsomer than his blond friend. His features, should he allow them to unclench from their look of distaste would compare not unfavorably to the better statues of Greece and Rome, the ones I saw when Mama took me to London to the museums. The ones she made me promise I'd never tell papa I'd seen, since they were - by and large - in a shocking state of undress.
Thinking of that state of undress during my walk brought a flaming blush to my cheeks, because it occurred to me that indeed Mr. Athos' body also resembled the bodies of those statues - broad shoulders, narrow hips, long legs, and a suggestion of well-developed muscles at both arms and legs. His skin was very pale, though dusted with a dark shadow of beard.
And he stood and walked as only the very rich do - those who had tutors and masters who taught them how to look their best in polite society.
I realized I was thinking of a man I barely knew in very prying terms and my confusion was such that I said the first thing to cross my mind, to wit, "But surely you don't need to be in the militia. Even if you happen to be a younger son, it is obvious you belong to the ranks of the very rich. Surely you could have read for the law, or even taken orders."
He stopped. I first realized how far I had trespassed on courtesy, when he stepped dead in the road, his face freezing into an expression between astonishment and horror.
Meanwhile, Emerald and Mr. Aramis distanced themselves, walking ahead of us down the road.
"I'm sorry," I started to say. "I--"
"You are indeed sorry," he said. And his mouth clenched and his eyes flashed and I thought he looked exactly like Zeus before the father of gods let the thunderbolt fly. "You are indeed sorry, Miss Collins. I intended to make no personal comment about you. Indeed, I had long been watching you in silence, but if you must pry into my personal life and the means of my family to provide me with a better living than a career in the militia, you must now suffer the consequences of your trespass."
"Sir, I beg--" I said, feeling that not only had I trespassed too far but that, obviously, some other feeling or pressure actuated the actions of my interlocutor and that, indeed, if he were to go on, he would say words we'd both regret.
But he did not stop. "If you are interested in my personal fortune because you think I would make a reasonable match for you," he said. "I beg you desist."
"Sir, you've gone--"
"Indeed, I could not imagine anyone I would be less likely to form a romantic attachment to than you, Miss Collins. You cannot imagine how it infuriates me to see a woman who was endowed, by God, with something very akin to beauty behave the way you do - going about with your hair parted down the middle which makes your face look exactly like an uncommonly round melon. And you plait it in two braids without even a modicum of attempt to look your best. And those dresses you wear look worse than some cabbages."
I felt my blood drain from my heart, not at the insults but at the thought that the man must be insane to speak like this to me. I was on a road with an insane man, while my cousin walked further and further away from me. I cleared my throat and tried to call, "Emerald," but the word came out as a mewl.
Meanwhile, Mr. Athos, glaring at me, continued, his voice raised higher, "All of which would be excusable if you were indeed an ugly woman, or even a graceless one. When I saw you sitting down at the assembly I thought you sat for lack of ability to dance. And that this was why you dressed the way you do, for that way no one would ask you to dance and you'd not expose your awkwardness. But when my cousin asked you to dance, I found that you can indeed glide more gracefully than a swan and that by dressing the way you do you must only mean to perversely deprive--"
His shouting or my mewling cry had attracted the attention of our companions. They ran back, both of them, alarmed, no doubt, by Mr. Athos' tone. As well they should be, since he was, obviously, a mad man.
Seeing them near, I recovered enough sense to say, "Stop, I beg you. You have insulted me by every means at your disposal. Good day, sir. I believe we should part company."
And then Aramis and Emerald were at hand.
"William, what have you done?" Aramis said, and then, turning to me, "Miss Collins, I beg you excuse my cousin, for he is under great stress due to family matters. You should not--"
"Pardon me, Charles," Athos said. He bowed just slight, to me. "I meant everything I told Miss Collins. It has nothing to do with the present situation of my family, or my present situation in my family. And while I might have trespassed mightily upon good manners, it was done because I believe someone should tell her the truth, before she destroys all her chances at a good marriage."
Charles Aramis looked as though he wanted his cousins mouth to be glued shut. "William, please," he said. "I believe you've done quite enough damage. I will meet you this evening. Please go."
And Mr. Aramis turned towards me. "You look very ill, Miss Collins," he said at the same time that my cousin, twisting her handkerchief between her hands, said, "Very ill indeed."
"It is nothing. Just a headache," I said. I felt tears in my eyes and was afraid that if I spoke any more I would start crying.
"Please, let me walk you back home to Longhorn," Mr. Aramis said. "And Miss Phillips, of course," this with a head nod towards my cousin.
And so, we both held on to his arms, while he walked me back.
I scarcely knew what to do and what to think. I was conscious of having suffered a most vicious attack, a most rankling injury and that with very little done to deserve it. I might have spoken out of turn - indeed, papa says I often do - but certainly I spoke neither unkindly nor viciously. And I hadn't undertaken to point out his faults to Mr. Athos.
The thought that he might presume I'd been evaluating him as a marital prospect was the worst of all. In fact, I couldn't imagine a man on Earth I'd be less likely to marry.
I can't tell you how the walk back to Longbourn passed, except to say Mr. Aramis was kind enough to neither talk and joke with Emerald nor try to justify his cousin to me further.
Knowing they were cousins, made me see the similarities, in their features and build. However, I am pleased to say their temperament couldn't be any more different, as Mr. Aramis was all that could be desired in a gentleman.
At Lougbourn, mama was in the garden picking roses as we came in. She looked up and I noted that she looked puzzled, for a moment, at Mr. Aramis' presence. Emerald made the introductions as I couldn't, and I noticed Mother's eyebrows going up at the name, which meant she read Mr. Dumas, also, something I'd never before suspected.
"You look ill," Mama said.
"I have a headache," I answered, and was pleased to note neither of my companions enlightened my mother on the cause of this headache. If I had to repeat what Mr. Athos had said, I would get very ill indeed. "I will go to my room."
I went up the stairs to my room.
Though I'd thought I wanted to cry, I found the tears didn't come. Instead, I stood in front of the mirror, staring at my face. A melon. And my hairstyle unbecoming. I took off the ties of my braids with trembling fingers and shook my hair free like a curtain around my face. I presumed Mr. Athos would like my face better this way.
And my dresses, like cabbages. I looked down at the dress I was wearing, a dress my mother had found in the attic and modified for me and felt the tears finally start to fall.
It looked shapeless and it certainly did nothing to display my figure. However, my figure was certainly not all that worth displaying. Mr. Athos was an unkind man and I would think no more of him.
And yet, his proud face, permanently frozen in a disapproving sneer, seemed to come back into my mind again and again, until I'd given myself the headache I'd complained about.
I spent two days mostly in my room, after which I went up to the attic, and looked - not for dresses but for bolts of fabric, which I remembered seeing up there before.
I had been right, and there were many, many bolts of fabric in an old trunk marked Mrs. Bennet. There were light summer cottons and heavy brocades and a couple of very pretty velvets. It was as though someone had been stocking a great amount of fabric against an anticipated shortage, and then never used it.
I wondered why mama had never used it either.
That morning, over breakfast, I decided to ask her.
Breakfast is often the best time to talk around here, as papa is a greedy eater and stuffs his mouth much too full and then cannot interrupt us, no matter how much he wishes to.
"Mama," I said. "There is a trunk of fabric in the attic. Perhaps I could use that to have some new dresses made?"
Mama gave me a sideways glance. "Is there something wrong with your current attire?"
"No," I said. "No, it's just that I thought, perhaps dresses that suited me better... At any rate, does the trunk belong to someone else?"
Mama frowned. "No, no." She shrugged. "It's just that I'm afraid her daughter Mary... but never mind. The fabric is now ours, as is the rest of the contents of Longbourn and there's no reason at all we should not use it. If you want new dresses, I'll find some patterns, and we'll set to making them."
Papa was making heroic efforts to speak, but failing. When Mama mentioned Mary as being the daughter of the owner of the trunk, it all fell into place.
Mrs. Bennet used to be the lady of this place before papa inherited. Her only daughter who married locally was Mrs. Travis, Mary Travis, who had married one of the clerks in the firm that then belonged to the father of my uncle Phillips, Emerald's father. That clerk was now a solicitor in town and, indeed, Mrs. Travis might recognize in my dresses the fabric her mother had bought and stored. Though why she should mind, I could not imagine.
I looked up at Mama and said. "Yes, I'd like that very much indeed."
Papa, who had finally managed to swallow the great amount of food crammed in his mouth, said, "Mrs. Collins, I meant to tell you, Netherfield is let at last."
Mama looked up. She never keeps up with gossip, and is usually informed of local happenings through papa who, in turn, hears it from his man servant, Dawkins.
"It was let to a Mr. Hurst, a single young man of great fortune. It is said he has five thousand and year and perhaps more."
"How nice," Mama said, and poured herself a cup of tea.
"What a fine thing for our girl," Papa said. "I've often wished gentry would settle in this neighborhood, so she could marry well."
Mama stared. "And does Mr. Hurst settle here in order to marry our girl?"
"No, of course not. But from all the girls in this neighborhood, she's the only one whose parents aren't in trade and that's likely to be a material consideration for a man of Mr. Hurst's station." He looked up at me, while he buttered a scone. "Besides, though she's not very pretty, the Good Lord has denied us every chance at having a son, and I think it is only fair that he shall watch over our girl and make her marry well."
Though I was not very pretty... I could feel my headache returning and a sting of tears behind my eyes.
"William," Mama said, warningly, the way she does when she sets about correcting some of Papa's stranger theological notions.
But Papa waved her into silence cheerfully. "I shall visit him tomorrow and invite him over to dinner next week," he said.
Mama opened her mouth, cast me a sideways glance and closed it.
Papa stuffed his mouth.
"By next week, we can have a new dress for you," Mama said.
Which wouldn't help, since I was not very pretty and my face would still, presumably, be round as a melon. I swallowed hard to keep from crying and I said, "That would be very nice. If you'll excuse me."
I couldn't take that breakfast any longer. Getting up from the table, I started towards the front door, with the idea of going to look at the squirrel again.
But halfway there, Dawkins intercepted me.
"Miss Collins," he said. "A gentleman gave me this for you."
With these words, he handed me a folded sheet of paper, sealed and addressed to me in a very elegant hand. I wondered why it wasn't in the correspondence tray in the normal way, as I tore it open.
Inside, written in the same elegant hand, it read,
"My dear Miss Collins,
I apologize for addressing you this way. I hope not to cause you further pain. My behavior yesterday was inexcusable and indeed I understand if you should disgrace me in front of all local society.
I have no excuse to make, except to say that indeed my family life is not all that could be desired and that I am at the moment under a very great pressure. I cannot say more than that without risking giving away secrets that are not mine and, indeed, bringing pain to those I love.
So I pray you'll forgive me the manner of my address. As for the contents of it, I have nothing to apologize for. What I said was true and I would not say it had you not inspired in me some measure of admiration. It was kindly meant, if unkindly delivered and if you cannot say the matter through the manner, then you are not worth knowing.
I hope you will not cut me totally out of your acquaintance as I and Mr. Aramis, and our friend, Mr. Porthos, who has just rejoined the militia regiment, would very much like to enjoy your company again.
The only excuse for this letter was, of course, that its writer must be insane.
I tore the page into tiny pieces as I walked towards the woods.
Over the next week, my interaction with Mama became vexing indeed.
It turned out, you see, that her idea of making me new clothes and my idea of making me new clothes were completely different. Mama thought gowns for young ladies should be loose and disguise all natural shape. Also, they should have collars so high as to hide part of my chin, and they should, on no account, allow any - possibly undeserving - male a glimpse of any part of my arm.
The last one puzzled me exceedingly as I had yet to meet a young man who fell into raptures at the sight of my bare, white wrist. And if such a young man did exist, I dare say he would not be admitted into polite society by reason of being fairly strange.
However, on this subject, Mama was as difficult to reason with as Papa, who can be very difficult to reason with indeed. Or, as I'm wont to say in the privacy of my own room, one can always make rational arguments to papa. One can always make rational arguments to Betsy, our farmer's nag, for all the good it will do.
As you can tell from my tone, I found the week excessively vexing. Mama and I would bend our heads over the pattern books, and I would point at a suitable one, and she would look at me as though I'd grown a second head or, possibly, seven of them. Then she would point at what she could consider a suitable pattern and a single word would run through my mind: cabbages.
And then I would storm out of the room in a flurry of icy indignation.
None of which helped me have a new wardrobe. As the week drew to a close and I had to face the chance of meeting the fabled Mr. Hurst - my father, who had been making his enquiries, had been increasing his estimate of Mr. Hurst's worth daily, from two thousand a year to three thousand a year, until by the end of the week he was at ten thousand a year and possibly more - wearing a blue cabbage.
Father, who was usually the advocate of modesty, found himself in the strange position of arguing that perhaps Mother would want me to dress a little more *interestingly.*
My cousin Emerald thought the whole thing very amusing and went on at length about how backward my parents were and how my mother's mode of attire had no doubt contributed to her becoming an old maid and being reduced, in the final instance, to marrying Mr. Collins.
And though I told Emerald not to speak nonsense, I realized this was probably the problem. Having found neither happiness nor the comfort someone in a married couple ought to have from the other, Mother felt the only happiness lay in avoiding it. And therefore, no matter how much she encouraged me to seek out marriageable young men, a part of her mind was determined to hide me from them.
When I realized this I sought Mother out in the morning room, where she often spends her whole days - while Father spends them in the library, so that often they're not together more than a few minutes together on any day.
She had a ledger book in front of her and was making notations on it. I could not help but notice that most of the entries were in ink.
As she looked up, when I came in, I could tell there were circles around her blue eyes and she looked very tired indeed. Perhaps because she was in strife with herself over my coming of age, and my need to attract a husband.
"Yes, Sylvia?" she said.
And I could tell she expected me to raise my voice to her and carry on the undignified arguments with which I had imposed upon her before.
Instead, I sighed. "Mama, I just wanted to tell you.... I thought it might be worrying you, and I wanted to assure you that nothing but the deepest love shall entice me into marriage."
For a moment her eyes went very round, as though she were surprised. Then her eyes filled with tears, and she smiled a little. "We are poor, dear. How will we survive when Father is gone?"
"I'll be a governess," I said. "Or a school mistress, or some other occupation. Do not fear, Mama, I have some wit and good health. Nothing bad will befall us so long as I'm living."
Mama smiled broader then, and a tear escaped the blue eyes. "Sylvia," she said. "You remind me very much indeed of someone I once knew."
"My childhood friend. She lived here. She was the second eldest Miss Bennet. Elizabeth. You are named for her."
"Mama, what happened to her?" She'd never mentioned the erstwhile Miss Elizabeth Bennet except to mention I was her namesake.
"Oh, she married, a very wealthy man from Derbyshire. Though I am to understand that she, also, married only for the deepest of loves."
"Why is our acquaintance with her at an end?" I asked. "She doesn't seem the type to forget an acquaintance who is beneath her socially."
Mama sighed. "Oh, she isn't. She isn't. It's just that ..." She looked very tired. "We still correspond, now and then. She sends letters to your aunt Mariah, who then forwards them to me. But your Papa has forbidden any interaction between the families. The... When all our sons kept dying and the former Misses Bennets kept having sons, he felt as though they were doing it to spite him. You know how your father can be. Not very reasonable."
I nodded. I knew all about Papa not being reasonable.
Mama dropped her pen and joined her hands together over her ledger book. "I'm afraid I've not been very reasonable either, Sylvia. A young girl deserves a good attire for her first season out. I have found some very little spare money in our accounts and your father is so anxious that you should captivate Mr. Hurst that he's willing to let us spend it. So, this afternoon, I shall take you to the modiste."
I shook my head. "No, mama. We'll make some alterations to the dresses I have and maybe make new ones, but there's no need for all new clothes. A man I'd be willing to marry would have to love me for the beauty within."
And, as I spoke, I thought of the spiteful Mr. Athos, the last man on Earth I'd choose to marry.
However, it was not to be. As I steeled myself to meet Mr. Hurst in the blue cabbage, fate took a hand in these plans.
I was walking through the woods nearby, when I saw a carriage headed for my house. Since we rarely receive visitors, much less visitors who can afford a carriage, I started running to see who it would be.
But, by the time I arrived at the house, the carriage was all gone. However, it had left behind an amazing collection of boxes of all shapes and sizes. Pretty boxes, imprinted with large roses and each bearing the name of a famous couturier.
Amid the boxes, Mama stood reading a card written in a most elegant hand.
Standing behind her, I was able to peer over her shoulder. The card said, "To Miss Sylvia Collins, on her first season out. I hope these will be worthy of her beauty."
The boxes, once opened, revealed dresses and hats and even shoes and undergarments of the best quality and taste, all in fabrics that my family could never hope to afford.
"Mama," I said. "Who could have sent this."
Mama was pensive. "There is only one person I can think of," she said. "And that would be my friend, Elizabeth Darcy. She knows from my letters it is your first season out, and she kindly thought to outfit you for your life as an adult woman. These clothes are much to her taste and I'd guess that she didn't sign her card so you father would allow you to keep the clothes and so we don't feel in her debt. Yes, this is very like her."
But even as she spoke, she looked worried and doubtful.
I said, "Then what's wrong mama?"
"It's just that I'm given to understand that Elizabeth has been very ill. I'd not have thought that she was well enough to shop for clothing for you." She shrugged and smiled at me. "But then, Elizabeth has so many maids and friends and perhaps she sent one of the daughters to shop for her."
"But then..." I said. "Can I keep the clothes?" I had my eye on a box that seemed to be filled wholly with gloves, from soft, white calfskin ones to lace ones.
"Yes indeed," my mother said. "They were kindly meant, and you get to have your clothes after all."
"What do we tell papa, then?" I asked. "When he sees them?"
"Why, tell them we bought them," mama said and smiled. "Your father has no actual idea how much things cost, and he'll be perfectly amiable to the idea that we bought this with the money I've saved from household expenses.
I might have to confess that Father is right indeed and that every woman is a pool of infamous vanity. Even I.
Of course, in the new shoes, it was hard to run, and hard to go to my old haunt, amid the trees and the up deserted groves. Therefore, I had to keep to the paved paths and try to act ladylike - a new experience for me.
The two or three people who crossed my path - laborers from the nearby farms - looked quite at a loss for who I might be and bowed deeply enough to give me great satisfaction.
However, no one addressed me till I heard a voice say, "No one told me that royalty lived in these parts."
I turned to meet a giant of a man, with blue eyes and curly dark-blond hair. He wore a red militia uniform and he grinned at me, a disarming grin.
"Oh, no," I said, my new clothes beguiling me into speaking with a frankness I would not, otherwise, have dared. "You must be Mr. Porthos."
He clicked his heels together and gave me a bow so deep he almost tipped over. "Indeed," he said. "Or so my cousins will call me. And you are? A supernatural fairy of these woods, doubtless, as I've never met such great beauty in the debased every day world."
I had to smile at that, though his roguery deserved no such reward. "Oh, no," I said. "I am very real and very much a part of the debased world. And are you sure you're not really Mr. Aramis? He had the reputation for charming ladies."
Mr. Porthos grew very grave. "Mr. Aramis and Mr. Athos, both, are great fools, but they are great fools who insisted I must be Porthos as I'm the largest of the three. I'm also their guardian angel, keeping the two scapegraces from getting in more trouble than they are already in."
I looked at him, head to toe, and found nothing wrong with the idea of him as a guardian angel. "They're very lucky to have you as such," I said. "As for me, I do not need a guardian angel. My father, you see, used to be a clergyman before succeeding to his seat in Longbourn and, as his daughter, I'm protected enough."
"Oh," he said. "You're Miss. Collins. I've heard much about you. May I walk with you? Or will my red uniform bring your splendid person down to a too pedestrian level."
"Oh no," I said. "I have nothing against red uniforms." Though often against those who wore them, but he need not know that, as he seemed to be the offender's cousin.
He offered me his arm, and we continued along the path. "My father was in the regulars," he said, conversationally. "Until he married my mother and inherited the DeBourgh estate of Rosings."
Here he stopped, and looked like he very much would like to unsay what he had said. "Oh, Lord, he said. William will have my head. You must forget the name I just pronounced."
"DeBourgh?" I said. "Why, my father used to be a clergyman to a Lady Catherine DeBourgh."
"Oh," he said. "And if you promise to tell no one - particularly not William - I'll admit that's grandmama. Who can be very silly indeed."
"Indeed?" I asked. I had often got the same impression, despite Father's high praise of her.
"Oh, yes. She has these ideas about... Oh, family loyalty and proper class demeanor. And she will not bend for worthiness, nor spirit, nor valor. But she is very old now, and my parents largely ignore her."
"Your mother would then be Anne DeBourgh?" I said.
"Anne Fitzwilliam as she is now, yes. And a happier couple I've never seen. Though I'm their single offspring, Mother says I ought to count for three, at least, given my size." He looked wishful. "You're not to tell William this, either, but I miss them terribly and I hope all of us can go home soon."
I didn't wish to tell William anything, and I understood the longing in the young man's voice very much.
As we walked, we talked of the woods and their inhabitants, and though he didn't seem very book learned, by the time I reached the house, I must say I counted him as the most pleasant man of my acquaintance.
He left me in the yard of my house, and bowed and asked permission to call again. Thinking that my father would never turn away the heir to Rosings, I told him he'd be most welcome.
I flitted into the house in very good humor, but Papa intercepted me in the hall. "Where have you been, you luckless girl? You must dress, at once. Have you forgotten Mr. Hurst is expected to dinner? And he's bringing with him his cousin, Mr. Hamworthy. A gentleman worth a good five thousand pounds, or so Dawkins informs me. You MUST make a good impression."
Oh, my. We are all aflutter and the daily course of our existence is quite disturbed. First, this morning, there was a letter. Dawkins set it besides papa's plate at breakfast and papa stopped tucking into the kidney pie long enough to peruse the address.
His eyes got very round with curiosity and mama and I tried to pretend we saw nothing amiss, and then he was tearing the seal off the missive with his gravy- bespattered knife and reading through a mouthful of pie, "Dear Mr. Collins and family, Letitia, as I find my officers much in need of society, Letitia, Letitia, I request the pleasure of yours and your family's company at an upcoming ball to be held the twenty sixth of November at my home."
Father stopped chewing and muttering at that, and, while I was quite in suspense as to whose "my home" might be, he inhaled, got some kidney pie down the wrong way and proceeded to cough, sending kidney pie all over the table and our own plates.
As I stared, horrified, at the remains of the breakfast I could no longer eat -- and there were some lovely biscuits on my plate -- he started taking fast breaths and talking at the same time, so that wheeze and voice merged. "My dear Charlotte, this is such a great honor. A ball. Given by a colonel of the militia. And to all the young unmarried men of the region. And our daughter is invited." He looked at me, and it seemed that he was turning redder and redder by the minute, reminding me of a lobster I saw cook boil, once. "Oooooh, Sylvia, this is a great opportunity for you. Mr. Hamsworthy will surely be smitten by you. Or perhaps even Mr. Hurst will see you are of much better families than your cousin Emerald. How he can be so taken with a girl whose father is in trade, I don't know, but surely, your superior breeding..."
When Papa starts on something like that, whether it be religion, deportment, or my likelihood to catch a good husband (and no matter which side of that he is defending) there is no stopping him, and he's quite capable of going on forever and ever, without tiring.
This time, the situation was complicated by the kidney pie, which he attempted to resume eating while talking. Mama and I stared at each other across the table, and once or twice she took her napkin and hid her face and her shoulders trembled. I didn't know if she was laughing or crying, but I have often suspected that the only way a woman of taste and intelligence like mama could stay married to the likes of papa was to find a humorous side to his appalling behavior.
As for me, I endured it as best I could and, as I could not eat another bite of my breakfast, asked to be excused as soon as possible.
Papa, of course, continued talking as I left the dining room and went to my room to think. I must confess, I felt myself very excited at the idea of the ball. Oh, not because of Mr. Hamsworthy. And Mr. Hurst, though marginally more acceptable, also quite failed to raise my interest.
But I imagined that, this being a militia ball, my giant friend, Fitzwilliam- Porthos would be there, and that I would get to dance quite a few dances with him. I also longed to explore his conversation some more and find if, besides his charm and pleasant manner there might be more lurking within that very large -- and quite well shaped -- cranium of his.
In other words -- was he my equal in thought and judgement? Because I'd long ago decided I would not make the mistake mama made and only choose a man for comfort. No, a man I married would have to give me more than amusement.
I started going through the new gowns in my closet and holding them in front of me with one arm, while pulling back my hair with one hand, and trying to run through my mind the conversation we would have. What books should I discuss with him? What would he have read? And what other interests might he have?
In the middle of all this, while looking at myself in the mirror, I caught a stray thought that I dared Mr. Athos call me a cabbage now, cross my mind, and I stomped on it viciously. I did not care for Mr. Athos. Not at all. In my mind, his well-remembered, chiseled, scowling face opened in an ironic smile.
"Oh, please," I told the memory. "I wouldn't dance with you if you were the last man in the world."
... And Mama knocked at the door.
I knew it was mama because she always knocks like that, with a rapid fire, knock, knock, knock, as if she were afraid papa would know she was spending time with me or talking to me behind his back and perhaps -- gasp -- weakening my moral instruction.
I ran across the room and put my dress back in the closet, but I was still flushed, when I said, "Come in."
Mama came in and looked at me, and smiled. "Now, Sylvia, with whom will you not dance?"
I felt my cheeks heat even more. "Oh, mama. Nothing. It was just an ... I was just playing."
She smiled wider. "I see. Dreaming of being the belle of the ball, are you? And you might well be, my dear. You're a very pretty young woman. But I want you to be sure of what you're doing. Your father..." Wild amusement danced in her eyes, and she cleared her throat before she could become sober and steady again. "Your father has very strange ideas of what would make a good marriage for you. Do not follow them. I...." She shook her head. "If either Mr. Hamsworthy or Mr. Hurst are so lucky as to capture your affection, then you should follow your heart, but I must tell you that it is my belief neither of those two young men are worthy of you. Mr. Hurst appears very proud and sure of his class and that sister of his..." She shrugged and made a face. Mama rarely talks badly of anyone unless she must. "And Mr. Hamsworthy... well... was that not a strange coat?"
I had started giggling long before mama reached that part. "Oh, mama," I said. "You may rest assured that neither Mr. Hamsworthy or Mr. Hurst have caused me a moment of flutter."
And, just then, of course, Dawkins came in and bowed. "Gentleman to see you, Miss Collins."
Me? I hoped it would be Mr. Porthos and my heart sped in a very unseemly way.
"His name is Hamsworthy and he has some painting... ahem ... accouterments with him."
So Mama and I went down to the morning room, where, after much fawning and excessive obsequiousness, Mr. Hamsworthy was granted -- by mama who is more charitable than I -- the right to paint me. With me wearing full clothing and a hat.
I don't know what other people make of posing. I found it very boring indeed. I sat at a little table, holding some needlework, and staring out the window.
Outside, it was a lovely, crisp Autumn day and I longed to be out and about in my little wilderness. Or walking to Merryton. I wondered if the militia men were about this morning. Were they excited about the ball?
"Miss Collins, the peach blush in your alabaster cheeks is most becoming," Hamsworthy said.
And it was all I could do not to burst out laughing and ruin all the pose.
Very difficult business, posing.
After what seemed like a few months, but was indeed a couple of hours, Mr. Hamsworthy excused himself to go for a walk, he said, to refresh his sagging genius.
As soon as he left the room, mama and I rushed to see the painting in progress. I must confess I was sure it wouldn't be very good. People who talk like Mr. Hamsworthy are usually more convinced of the existence of their great talent than they have any right to be, and live in awe of themselves because no one else would give them much attention.
But as I rounded the corner and saw his painting, my mouth fell open in surprise. Unfinished as it was, it was very good. There was a suggestion of life to my eyes, and a look that was uniquely my own. But it was more than that -- in his unfinished sketch, Mr. Hamsworthy seemed to have captured the desire I'd felt to be outside in my little wilderness. One could almost see me walking around, surrounded by trees.
Such was my surprise at his talent, that I recoiled back from the painting, just a little. Enough for my sleeve to snag on the enormous bag he'd brought with him and which rested on the loveseat behind him. It pushed the whole thing to the floor and you'll not be surprised to find that it contained mostly canvases -- canvases upon which had been painted many, many young ladies.
Most of them were wearing at least an attempt at decorous attire, but a few were quite naked.
I stared, open mouthed.
"Sylvia," Mama said, sounding aghast.
"Mama, I'm sorry. It was accidentally done."
"Indeed," Mama said.
Looking over my shoulder, I noticed she looked most pale and aghast. "Oh, this was most foolish of me," she said. "It must stop at once."
And I realized she was not angry at me, but at herself, for having allowed me to become one of the number of women Mr. Hamsworthy had painted.
"I thought we'd like to have a good likeness of you painted, while you're so young and beautiful," Mama said. "But your father could never afford ... and would never allow us to hire a painter. Oh, child. This was very foolish indeed of me."
While she spoke, I started putting the paintings back in the bag. Why he'd brought them with him, I don't know, save maybe to brag. My cheeks burned.
I noticed that all the pictures had names and places -- presumably where they were painted-- across the bottom in tiny letters -- like, Miss Letitia Havenshaw, Bath. So he meant to brag indeed, and who knew what he would say.
I tried not to read the names, but the last picture I shoved in the bag said, "Miss Belinda Whickam, Pemberley." I remembered the name from my talk with Miss Hurst, yesterday and I stared at the portrait to see a beautiful, dark haired woman, whose face somehow suggested the look of a famished young tiger. She was naked, and held a multicolored scarf in her hand, as if she were captured mid- dance.
I thought this was the woman who had captured HIS heart and, unworthy though it might be of me, and before I could stop myself, I found my hand taking the picture and flinging it behind the sofa.
The sofa was a carved affair, made of rosewood and dripping with so much fringe no one could see beneath it. And besides, judging from the way our servants perform, no one would ever attempt to look there.
Somehow, I felt vindicated, having buried the picture of my imagined rival.
I just avoided having mama catch me. She was walking back and forth in great agitation and I'd no more than closed the bag again, than she said, "Oh, Sylvia, leave the beastly things and go to your room. I will deal with Mr. Hamsworthy and make sure he leaves this sketch behind."
My face burning, I went to my room, and left it all to mama, who must have dealt with it successfully, for I never heard about it again.
As for me, I went to my room and tried to forget the fiery young woman. Part of me bewailed that if he could love and leave such a beauty, what were his intentions with me? But most of me refused to acknowledge that any man held sway over my mind or heart. In such a divided state, it was not till afternoon that I could compose myself to come downstairs and hold conversation with mama.
Though the sitting room smelled of paints, neither she nor I mentioned Mr. Hamsworthy again.
And the next morning, the talk all over Merryton was that Mr. Hamsworthy had left for London on some very important business.
By the time the ball arrived, I was almost giddy with excitement. After consulting with Mother, I had settled in a dress of blue silk damasque. To go with it I picked some of the jewelry that had been sent to me - a necklace that looked like diamonds, though surely they must be paste, and a matching set of earrings.
The day was dark and dreary and icicles sparkled on the trees on the way to the ball, but I could think of nothing but that they matched my jewelry. Surely, I am destined to become a giddy flitabout.
To prevent Papa from chiding me for my excitement and my girlish enthusiasm, I sat very quiet, near the window of my carriage, looking out.
Papa made up for it by wondering aloud how Mr. Hurst could possibly resist my charms now, and exactly how much Mr. Hurst must collect in rent from his farms, and what a great person he must be and other such gossip he had collected in recent days.
By the time we reached the ball, he had me all but married to the man. Mama kept silent, though I could sense a faint disapproval flowing from her. And I kept silent by dreaming of dancing with Mr. Porthos. I wondered what Richard Fitzwilliam would be like on the dance floor and imagined him composed and strong, with a deportment to match his stature.
But when we climbed the staircase to the ballroom, Richard Fitzwilliam was not the first person I met. Instead, while Papa was going through the receiving line and complimenting the colonel and his lady on the excellency of their arrangements in the most fullsome way, I found myself pulled away by my cousin Emerald.
"This is most vexing," she said, stomping her dainty foot. Her green eyes were full of tears. "He's not come, Sylvia. This is most vexing."
"Who has not come?" I asked.
"Mr. Hurst. This morning he left for London. The entire town is talking of it. Oh, what am I to do?"
Now, you'd understand this if you knew my fair cousin as I do - on hearing her words, my heart contracted in my chest so that I seemed unable to breathe. "Emerald? What have you done? Has Mr. Hurst compromised you in any way?"
She stared at me, her eyes wide, as though she could not understand me. "Compromised? Oh, Sylvia, what a goose you are. No one cares for those things anymore. Oh, we might have gone for a few walks alone, but that does not signify."
I was not amused. "Emerald, let me put it bluntly - if your reputation is compromised, you'll have ruined your future with it. No man will marry a woman whose reputation is in thrall of another."
"Well, then, it isn't," Emerald said, though her eyes shone with tears and she blushed most furiously. "It isn't anyway compromised. I'm just most vexed in him. He's the richest man to come to Merryton, and he's gone and left me - left me. How dare he?"
And with that, she pulled away from me, and ran into the melee of people. I gathered my skirts and prepared to follow her.
"Miss Collins." A man in a red coat, a blur in my confusion, stood before me and bowed. "Will you do me the honor of the first two dances?"
Sylvia's green dress was in the middle of a group of red uniforms and I heard her high, amused laughter. I must go and prevent her from ruining herself.
"Miss Collins?" an imploring voice, and the man moved to block my movement.
"Yes, yes," I said, impatient, wanting to be allowed to go. Only then did I look up and see Mr. William Athos' face. Curses. And I'd promised never to dance with him, too.
However, most strangely, he was smiling, a wide smile, and bowing to me.
I darted around him, and ran towards the group of officers. I'd only just reached them, when the music started, and Emerald took off with Mr. Charles Aramis, smiling at him like she'd never set eyes on another.
And Mr. Athos bowed to me.
Drat it all. I must dance with the odious man. I wondered how he could bring himself to dance with a cabage, but I couldn't quite ask him that.
Instead, I looked at him out of the corner of my eye and saw that he was still smiling, a secretive, satisfied smile as though he were a cat who had caught a very fat mouse indeed.
The fact that his smile made him look younger and more amiable than I would have thought possible only increased my anger at him. And his graceful, effortless, powerful movements, the way he looked so dashing in his uniform, were affronts that cried to the heavens for vengeance.
He was silent.
"I believe we must talk," I told him, as our hands met again, between sets. "A very little will suffice. Just enough to preserve propriety."
He raised his jet black eyebrows at me, and his large, dark eyes seemed to mock me. "On what do you wish to discourse fair nymph?"
"A nymph of mellons?" I asked him, unable to resist tormenting him.
He reddened, a lovely blush that climbed from his neck to his forehead. "I've apologized," he said. "And having apologized once, I will not humiliate myself to do it again."
I grinned. Good. I'd have less trouble not thinking well of him, if he refused to be curteous and civil. "And yet, you must sense a transformation."
"Doubtless," he said, casting me the sort of look that had nothing to do with either fruit or vegetables. "I beg you to tell me - did my words cause it?"
His words? He thought I'd got dresses to please him. Insufferable man. "How presumptuous of you," I said, and smiled, as softly as you please. "No. I was wearing my old dresses until we could afford to order proper ones."
"Oh, I see, and now you've done it."
"As you see."
He smiled, a sly look to his face. "You look well enough to pass in good society, even," he said.
"I am a gentleman's daughter," I said. "I'll pass well enough in any society."
He grinned disdainfully, as if the society he knew were so far above mine that nothing could bridge the gap between the two.
"I look well enough that someone sought to pain me."
The smile vanished from Mr. Athos' face. "You... Mr. Hamsworthy? You consented to have him paint you?"
He looked, for all the world like a fish just pulled from a river. A dance ended and another begun, and he didn't seem to notice it, but followed through his movements like an automaton.
Emerald swirled and laughed with Mr. Aramis.
"Miss Collins," Mr. Athos said. "I must tell you that Mr. Hamsworthy is neither honorable nor good, and does not - indeed - deserve even one look from you. Creatures such as you and creatures such as he do not belong in the same world, much less in the same room. That he dared..." And at this he seemed to drown in his own anger.
"I did not allow him to paint me in a state of undress, like some girls, like a Miss Belinda Whickam, for instance."
"Belinda?" Mr. Athos stopped dancing and confused the entire set. People collided with each other. He seemed not to notice. He put both hands out and grabbed at my arms. "Belinda? He painted Belinda? How do you know this?"
It was obvious he cared much more for Belinda than he should have. I felt a strange anger mingled with a great deal of embarrassement. My color rose and I whispered, "Mr. Athos."
He realized what he was doing and he resumed dancing, but the next time he could he whispered urgently to me, "You must tell me how and what you know of Belinda Whickam."
"Oh, nothing at all," I said. "I know nothing at all. Only I saw a portrait Mr. Hamsworthy painted of her and she was... most indecently exposed."
"Mr. Hamsworthy," Mr. Athos said, and stared intently ahead of him, as though seeing something very far off. "Mr. Hamsworthy, of course. By the gods, yes. He was in Pemberley too, at the time. I don't think any of us thought on him. He's so foppish that..."
He stopped, and bowed to me. "I must tell you some news of the most grave import."
I looked at him, half expecting him to tell me he was about to die. His face looked that serious. But, instead, as soon as the set was done, he led me from the dance floor and under the excuse of getting me some refreshment escorted me to the food tables, which were almost deserted this early in the ball.
"I must tell you something which will distress you," he told me. "I will be leaving soon for Derbyshire."
"I fail to understand why you think this will cause me distress," I said, though strangely, inside me I felt as though something broke. Why I don't know. I'd never cared for Mr. Athos. So why would I care if he left? Except that I wanted him madly in love with me. I wanted him to feel the weight of my disdain.
He looked stricken enough at my words. "I just thought... We're starting a friendship, and I regret having to leave. But ... well... You see, my mother has been ill and my father has very strict ideas of propriety and he thought I'd done something awful and would not listen to my explanation. But now that Mama is better, she's told him of course I'm not guilty, and she's sent me a letter summoning me home." He smiled. "I would not dare disobey Mama. She's a lot like you."
I was now thoroughly confused, except for his seeming to say I was scary. In addition to having a face like a melon and wearing cabbages, of course. So pleasant. I searched my brain for something to say. "Mr. Athos, I shall be sorry to see you go, but--"
"Not Athos. The first day we met, you asked what name hid beneath the pretend name. Darcy. If you must know, my name is Fitzwilliam Darcy. I come from the Darcys of Derbyshire."
I didn't recall telling him I must know. But before I could form a protest, he had launched on another long explanation, "My mother was Elizabeth Bennet, before she forsook the name for that of Darcy. And she grew up in Longborn."
"Oh," I said. What else could I say. I'd just realized that his mother was Mama's friend, and one really couldn't be rude to the son of Mama's best childhood friend. Or rather, one could, but one didn't want to be talked sternly to by Mama. Or this one didn't, at least. "Oh."
He reached for my hands and enveloped them in his. "I want to beg your leave to call for you at Longborn. If you wish me to, I can say I want to see the house where Mama grew up."
"Oh," I said again, quite at a loss for words.
"William, you fool, what are you doing hoarding the most beautiful woman at this party?" Mr. Porthos said.
He stood just behind me, grinning wickedly at his cousin.
"They've had to bring out additional chandeliers," he said. "When you took her out of the room, most of the light went out with her."
Darcy-Athos glowered at his cousin. "Richard, I must--"
"You must be quiet and let me escort Miss Collins out to the dance floor, yes. And, grinning, Richard Fitzwilliam Porthos offered me his arm and swept me out of the room to the ball.
He was a superb dancer, just as I'd expected.
"Your cousin informs me your exhile is over and you'll be going back home. At least I imagine this applies to you as well."
He smiled. "Undoubtedly. My Mother misses me horribly and has written to hurry me home. Grandmama has left the house altogether and is now living in her own townhome in London, with a devoted servant who looks after her. And Mother says the house is paradise without her."
I nodded. I couldn't get over the sense of loss at losing this gentle giant's company so soon after making his acquaintance.
"I daresay you'd like my parents," he said. "In fact--"
He hesitated. "I know I dare too much, but if- No, when my Mother writes to request the pleasure of your company in March, would you say yes? The house is lovely. It's called Rosings and it's hard by the village of Hunsford. And the woods there are lovely in spring. As much of a walker as you are, you'll have many places to walk."
"Your mother?" I asked, in shock. "Your mother will invite me?"
He shrugged. "Well, why not? Her mother used to be your father's patroness. The connection is of a long standing. And my mother has no daughters and might wish the company of a young lady. In fact, I've already written to her of you and she said she wishes to meet you and would be delighted with your friendship."
I didn't know what to say. My head was twirling with all these thoughts. What could it mean when a man wished you to meet his mother?
He looked at me with his melting eyes. "Please, say you'll come. Look, Darce will be there too, as will Bingley - Aramis - Charles, that is. And Darce's and Charles' sisters too, so you see, there will be five or six other girls there. We shall make quite a merry party and go on picnics and walks and rides. Please, say you'll come."
Not knowing what I did, I nodded. "If papa will allow it."
"I hardly see him refusing it," Mr. Fitzwilliam said.
I danced the next two dances with him, then the next two with Mr. Bingley, and then I found Mr. Athos at my elbow begging me for another dance.
But this time, he did not speak to me at all.
Until he saw me to the carriage, when he whispered, "I'll call tomorrow."
On the way home, Papa said, "You danced a lot with that tall man," he said. "Who is he? Some no good militia man, no doubt."
Mama sighed. "My dear, you must have recognized the Fitzwilliam look. Besides, my sister Phillips tells me he is the son of Richard Fitzwilliam. He was in the militia for a while, but has now resigned his comission and will be going back to Rosings."
"Rosings," Papa said. "And he's an only son. What a catch that would be, my dear. A carriage and a house in town. All that is good. Why, the chimney in the great room at Rosings..."
He looked like he would faint until mama deployed smelling salts.
As for me, I wondered what it all meant and went to bed none the wiser.
The morning after the ball, I woke with an unbearable headache and, as has been my habit from childhood, took to the woods to allow the solitude and silence to cool my abraded mind.
Thoughts of the ball, of Fitzwilliam Darcy went through my mind in the blind whirligig of a country dance.
Fitzwilliam Darcy was a proud and unbearable man, who never noticed a woman except when he meant to point out a blemish. He'd never fully apologized for his comments having to do with vegetables and melons. Or if he did, he always contrived to make it into a backhanded compliment involving how scary I was, or how fearsome.
Though I wore my good, new white muslin dress and my white straw hat, I soon found myself reverting to my childish ways and kicking pebbles to vent my fury.
"Miss Collins?" a voice called from the cover of the trees.
I looked up. It was a man's voice and for a moment, caught between hope and anger I had thought...
But bowing to me, now wearing civilian clothes -- a very well cut coat and pants of dusty blue -- was Mr. Richard Fitzwilliam.
"I was hoping to find you thus," he said. "In your morning walk. I feel a great need to speak to you."
"To me?" I asked. "But, we spoke just yesterday."
He smiled and a high flush tinted his fair face. "Oh, but what I wish to speak to you about..." He hesitated and flushed dark red again. "It is neither proper nor right that I should speak to you like this, but I don't have much time. This very afternoon, William and Charles and I leave to return to our respective homes. And last night, only last night, I realized what I must do." He looked at me, as though he were contemplating a very difficult puzzle indeed, and chewed on a corner of his lip and a corner of his moustache with it.
Abruptly, he bowed again, and offered me his arm. I noticed he was holding a walking stick -- shining mahogany topped with an elaborate silver handle.
"Miss Collins, will you do me the very great honor of taking a turn with me through this captivating wilderness of yours."
Bewildered, I accepted, letting him take my arm.
But for a long time, he walked in silence. He controlled his steps so that he wouldn't be dragging me around, and he walked in tiny diminutive steps, with his very long legs. And he swung his walking stick in his free hand, flogging the weeds and bushes which, I'm sure, had done absolutely nothing to bring such abuse on themselves.
He sighed a lot and scared a profusion of birds and squirrels and, once, a snow-white hare from the undergrowth.
"Mr. Fitzwilliam," I said at last. "I think it is incumbent upon me to ask you to stop tormenting the local wildlife."
He stopped dead and turned around to stare at me and for just a moment I was afraid he would be very much offended. But then he laughed, a loud, hearty laughter.
Tucking his walking stick beneath his arm, he reached his hand for mine, and took both my hands in his, which completely engulfed mine.
Still smiling, he said, "William calls you the nymph of these woods and I see he is correct. You take a vivid interest in the wildlife's welfare, and it becomes you."
I started to open my mouth, to say that the wildlife was mine to scare and I often did in my rambles through the wilderness, but he didn't give me time.
"Miss Collins, as you know I'm the only son of the second son of an Earl and a lady so happily situated as to have her own fortune, her own lands, her own house. Lands and house are substantial, my income right now amounting to about five thousand a year, which will greatly increase on the hopefully distant day when my father and mother depart this earth. With all this at my disposal and my mother's urgent request that I marry and allow her to see her grandchildren grow, you must know there is nothing to encumber me from choosing as the partner of my fate whomever I very well please."
I wanted to protest, but I could find no words to interrupt what was obviously a very well rehearsed speech. His lively gaze fixed upon mine and his handsome features were set in such anxiety that I didn't have the courage to stop him. "Indeed, Miss Collins, I have to say being an ambitious man, I always expected -- like my father -- to make a connection of some glittering brilliance and it wasn't until I met you that it occurred to me that all the money, all the connections, all the material of the world was nothing but so much ashes besides the throbbing fire of love. Indeed, Miss Collins, so blind was I to my own partiality for you that, having observed that my cousin was in a fair way to falling in love with you, I sought to help him and..." He shook his head. "All of that matters not. Not till yesterday, when I saw you at the ball, when, indeed, you were so gracious as to dance with me, the most pleasant dances I ever enjoyed, that I realized you are my heart and soul and that my happiness will never be complete unless I can have you."
He fell to his knees on the pebbly ground, still holding my hands. "Miss Collins, you must do me the great honor of accepting to become my wife, the future mistress of Rosings. I know I do not deserve you, but I will strive to make myself worthy of you. Please, Miss Collins, say you will."
He looked at me with such love, with such wonderful affection, I wanted to reassure him. I wanted to say yes.
But his proposal had so taken me by surprise that words caught in my throat and tears came to my eyes and I stayed mute.
I looked at the man at my feet. Handsome. Wealthy. With an easy manner and exuding charm.
When had I ever deserved this? When had I, in my wildest dreams, brought upon me the attentions of such a worthy gentleman? And would his parents not mind that he was marrying the daughter of their former parson?
Through a constricted throat and a befogged reason, I heard myself mutter something about the disparity of our stations.
"Oh, that does not signify," he said. "I've spoken to my father and my mother and they said the most important thing in the world is that I marry for love. That they, despite the fact that their marriage could also be considered a match of great convenience and monetary prudence, was also a match of love, and that only this love allowed them to overcome my mother's fragile health and the many years they waited for the birth of a child. They say that without a great love, their marriage would have been only a test of endurance and that is not the purpose for which marriage was created."
Something in his speech disturbed me, but I couldn't say what. It was like walking through the underbrush and feeling something between your shoe and your foot, and feeling the pain but not being sure whether it was a blister or a thorn that had slipped, unnoticed, into the footwear.
I groped for what my unease meant, but aloud I said, "Sir, there's more than a difference in fortune standing between our families. My father--"
"Do not disturb yourself on that account," he said. He was still on his knees and smiled up at me with all the warmth in the world. "Family is family and it is a truth universally acknowledged that one cannot pick one's family. My grand mama Catherine is hardly sensible and, in fact, you'll find that she will wage war on our union by all means available to her -- which, right now, consist of a tendency to send nasty letters and a refusal to visit -- we should all be so fortunate."
I blinked at him. He smiled at me and squeezed both my hands ever so gently. "Will you say you'll be mine, Miss Collins? I could imagine no greater happiness."
The feeling of unease was still there and, though I could not make head or tails of it, I could not accept this offer while feeling this way. "I do not think you know me well enough," I said. "I do not think you've thought through the implications of my headstrong ways and what my father calls my boyish tendency to wander and explore the surrounding woods. Would this be desirable in a wife for you, sir? Would your tenants and farmers approve?"
He chuckled and stood up, still holding my hands and looking down at me from his great height with the tenderest, gentlest of looks. "My dear Miss Collins, to me you're all that is perfection and nothing is lacking. My tenants and farmers, I dare say, will get used to your unconventional ways. And my parents will love you on sight as much as I do already. In fact, I love you so much that for the first time in my life I'm being disloyal to my cousin, Darce."
Fitzwilliam colored a not unbecoming red. "I suspect, though I do not know for sure, that he intends to tend his hand to your this very morning, which forced me to get up earlier and slip out of our lodging while he shaved and dithered over which jacket to wear, driving his poor valet to distraction."
Darcy. The unease had found a name and a place in my brain. I remembered my dance partner of the night before -- so finely built, such a handsome man, and yet so abrupt, so brusque, so ... rude.
He'd called my clothes cabbages, he'd said I had a face like a melon. He was Fitzwilliam's cousin. Was I prepared to be in intimate family association with such a man?
Fitzwilliam said that one couldn't pick one's family and, yes, he was right there. And yet, while he was willing to put up with my father, the fact was that father could be boring and annoying and often misguided.
But if Darcy intended to propose marriage to me, after all he'd said to me before and the insufferable rudeness with which he'd treated me, then he was surely insane.
And I could not marry into a family in whose blood insanity ran rampant.
And then, the other part of the unease found its mark. Fitzwilliam said that he would like to marry me because he loved me, that his parents said the marriage state would be very difficult without a great love.
Of that, I had proof daily. And I'd promised mama that only the greatest of loves would entice me to marriage.
I looked at the handsome face, looming above mine, all expectancy, all joy, all prepared to go and proclaim our engagement to the world.
How envious Emerald would be that I would be married before her. How envious that her mousy cousin, as she thought of me, could catch a rich man before she did. And how all my acquaintances in town would exclaim and congratulate my family. How happy father would be if he knew that I would soon be mistress of Rosings, with its chimneys and windows.
I could imagine myself living through the engagement parties, the wedding breakfasts. I pictured myself amid celebrations and joy -- with handsome Fitzwilliam by my side.
But my face, in these imaginings, was dour and set, almost sad. Why? How could I be sad with this handsome, caring, giving man by my side.
And he'd be a good father, too. I could see it. I could imagine us sitting in some comfortable garden while our children -- I rather fancied there would be two boys and three girls -- played about us.
The boys would have their father's build, big for their age with broad shoulders and a straight and proud bearing. And the girls would look like me, but with their father's fairer hair. I could see Fitzwilliam running with the children around a spacious lawn, and playing with them as if he -- with his size -- were a child, himself.
And yet, I could not imagine my face set in anything but sadness and distance.
I'd not marry for anything but the greatest of loves. I'd promised mother.
I looked up at the handsome, kind face. "I thank you for your proposal," I said. "I am very sensible of the great honor done to me. But you see, I promised my mama that nothing but the greatest love would ever entice me into marriage, and I'm afraid I don't feel that kind of love for you."
It took a while for him to understand. His face -- smiling -- seemed to become fixed and distant. He blinked. "Miss Collins," he said. "Am I to understand..." He shook his head. "Will you encourage me to have hope?"
I blinked at him, in turn. Hope? Could I come to love this gentle giant? "I don't know," I said. "I don't know if it... I don't know if my feelings will change. I can't promise they will."
His smile recovered its vigor. "You're absolutely right, my dear Miss Collins, it is at any rate ridiculous to encourage me to hope because you know very well I'm going to hope, anyway." He let go of my hands and bowed to me. "Give my regards to your amiable mother. I will make sure you receive and invitation to Rosings in the Spring. And I shall keep thinking of you."
And with that, he bowed again and vanished into the woods.
And I walked back home, thinking of how I could not tell anyone of this. If Papa knew I'd refused a proposal from the heir to Rosings, he'd probably throw me out of the house to shift for myself.
As I neared the house, for a moment, I thought Papa had guessed. He stood at the door, flushed and panting.
But as I got near, I found his excitement had another cause. "Hurry up, my dear. Oh, hurry up you luckless girl. Mr. Darcy of Pemberley awaits you in the study."
I stopped. I couldn't think of anything more unpleasant than seeing Mr. Darcy just now. And yet, my heart was beating so loudly in my chest that I didn't know what to think.
It must be fear, I thought. Fear because I knew that Darcy intended to propose. Yes, that must be it.
I removed my hat and made a great deal of fixing my hair.
Father lost patience and started physically PUSHING me towards the study.
I was afraid if I took much longer, he would make a scene, so I walked slowly towards the study and opened the door.
The odious man looked absolutely ravishing, in a morning coat of dark green -- so all his dithering hadn't been for nothing -- with his face freshly scrubbed, and shining and red which made him look incongruously young and sweet. Which, of course, he wasn't. Not by a long stretch.
"Mr. Darcy," I said.
"Miss Collins," he answered and bowed and gave me a glower that seemed to speak of hunger. He was looking at me exactly like papa looks at his breakfast fried kidneys.
I glared at him.
He sighed and started pacing. "Miss Collins, I have tried to ignore my feelings, but it will not do. You must allow me to tell you how much I admire and love you. I am conscious of violating all the hopes of my dear family and I know how much my mother, who still tells amusing stories about your father, will be appalled at our connection. Your mother's marriage, contracted solely and obviously for security will also be talked about in the ton, and I cringe at the thought of it. And yet, I cannot forget you and the thought of leaving you behind, makes me feel as though a part of myself were dying. So, despite the fact that you have nothing to recommend you, neither beauty, nor fortune nor connections, your arts and allurements must have drawn me in and I must beg you for my present relief that you'll consent to becoming my wife."
For a moment I couldn't speak. After Fitzwilliam's proposal, this was the most insulting thing I'd ever heard. He stood there, glowering at me, expecting me, of course, to be intimidated into accepting.
"It is customary," I said. "To thank a man for a proposal. But you deserve no such attention. Indeed, you're the last man on Earth I could be persuaded to marry and I'm sure I'm the last woman who could make you happy. You are a rude, self-absorbed man who has insulted me at almost our every meeting, by every means at his disposal. Nothing would please me more than never seeing you again."
He stood, dumbfounded. His mouth actually opened in surprise. What had he expected. "You have said quite enough," he said, his hands trembling. "I'm sorry I disturbed you."
And he practically ran out of the room.
At the door, papa intercepted me. "What did Mr. Darcy want? To convey his mama's regards to your mother, no doubt... You know, we have a very good connection with the Darcys and I--"
I pushed past papa and ran upstairs, to my room.
There was a knot of tears at my throat. I fell onto my bed and cried till I could cry no more.
That Winter I settled down to be quiet and contented. While the militia remained in town and many girls had their hopes raised by the wild flirtation of the officers, I stayed at the periphery of things, rarely caring much about what happened one way or another.
Wild rumors linked my cousin Emerald's name to a captain Murdoch, but I have to say I never saw any evidence of her predilection for him, though he pursued her most shamelessly. As far as I could see, the passion was all on his side, while Emerald remained aloof and amused.
Our former closeness had evaporated. She didn't confide in me and I found it impossible to speak to her about what disturbed me: the two proposals I'd received, each so vastly different from the other.
Towards the end of January, when I was visiting at her house and we both set in the drawing room, embroidering by a very comfortable fire, a servant came in and, furtively, handed Emerald a letter.
Though he passed it to her hand as quickly as humanly possible, I couldn't avoid noticing that the envelope read "Mr. H." in the place where the return address would go.
"Emerald," I said, somewhat shocked and free to speak as we were alone, the servant having left again. "You did not tell me you were engaged to Mr. Hurst."
She looked up from her letter, her face red. "Engaged? What nonsense."
"But surely," I said. "He is writing to you. What can that mean, but that you've arrived at some understanding."
"Ah..." She said. "An understanding."
I felt relieved then, because there must be some link between them, waiting only some event or other to allow them to formalize it.
Looking up from the embroidery on my lap - a delicate tracery of branches and flowers that mother had set for me to embroider for a cushion - I smiled at her. "Tell me, when will he speak to your father, that I can congratulate you?"
To my surprise, her beautiful, pale face soured like curdling milk. "Congratulate me? Do not be daft. How do I know when he intends to speak to my father?"
"But surely," I said. "Having asked you to marry him, he cannot long delay speaking to your father."
She frowned. "If you're going to be like that," she said. "So set on moral and propriety, I can see that you'll never get married. You'll be come a governess for some martinet of a woman, who will run you ragged while you look after her bratty children!"
I was, I confess, too surprised by this turn of events to say anything in return.
Emerald stood up and stomped her foot. "Oh, I wish I had a friend who did understand me, not some mousy, uninteresting girl cousin in whom no gentleman could ever see anything to attach his heart."
"But," I said. "But, Emerald, I have had proposals of marriage."
She stood, staring at me, her mouth open in surprise. An ugly red shade suffused her countenance. "Who? Who offered for you?"
"Why," I said, recalling myself. "It would hardly be fair to tell you, since I didn't accept either."
"Well then," she said. "Well then, you lie. How would someone like you, a poor parson's daughter, refuse any offer of marriage? Unless it were imaginary, or else from Dawkins."
At this, I could remain no longer and after that, all intercourse between us was strained and formal. I very much missed the only female friend I ever had, but there was nothing for it, nor could I trust her after such behavior.
It was clear to me I'd been most sorely deceived in Emerald. She had no regard for me, and had never had, and I was not entirely sure that her moral principles accorded with mine at all.
At home things were no better. Every time one of the girls got engaged, every time papa heard rumors of some attachment, he brought it up at the table.
"Captain Fox is marrying Miss King, Dawkins tells me," he would say, while eating his mutton at a prodigious velocity.
Mother would then intervene and say something like, "Well, I wish them happy."
And then papa would say, "Happy? I'd have been happy if our daughter would manage to attach one of these officers. So many men, and she cannot attach a single one. She should have got Mr. Fitzwilliam, while she had a chance. She shall stay an old maid and be a drain upon our finances forever. And when I die, that Bingley fellow shall throw you both out to starve on the hedgerows."
Sometimes, afraid of papa's strange ideas or that mama would ask me why I'd not walked over to Emerald's in such a long time, I spent the whole day in my room, reading while the frost drew intricate patterns upon the panes.
In that way, I furthered my knowledge and education, reading all of Shakespeare, all of Mr. Dumas' work and - at long last, in exasperation - all of papa's many books of sermons and religious works. I even read the works of one Miss Austen, though it all dealt with love and I knew papa would not approve. Indeed, all she had written - Mansfield Park, Sense and Sensibility and her younger works -- spoke of the relationship between men and women, but it spoke of other things too - of entailments and the compromises we women have to make to live in a world so set against the very frailty and beauty we are taught.
I thought that Emerald was much like Marianne, myself - dramatizing her life too much to see where her fantasies might lead her to an abyss. Only, I believed Miss Dashwood had better moral guidance than my poor cousin.
After such a winter, it was with hearty relief that I saw green creep back into leaves and that I felt the warmth of the spring sun upon my face. As soon as possible, I lost myself in walks among the woods.
And yet, it was hard to walk in those familiar paths without remembering the heartfelt proposal of one Mr. Fitzwilliam and the strange, insulting address of his cousin. I tried in my mind to think what I felt about them, and realized I missed them both - Fitzwilliam because he was kind and gentle and had spoken well of me; his cousin, Darcy, because I sensed, in his sad and strained countenance a something that spoke of a great loss and an enormous heartbreak somewhere in his past. The hurtful things he said came, I thought, less from his mind than from a painful, ill-healed wound in his heart.
Of course, being human - and woman - I longed to heal the wound and make Mr. Darcy that much closer to the angels of which he had the countenance.
In all my sad walks, I kept telling myself it did not matter. Nothing would come of this, or next to nothing. Mr. Darcy might be the most unpleasant and intriguing man of my acquaintance, but it mattered not, for we were fated to never meet again.
After all, I did not even expect to ever see Richard Fitzwilliam again. Oh, I recalled his saying that his mother would invite me in the spring - but what man would want to introduce me to his mother after I'd refused him? Surely self respect would preclude such a humiliating display of feeling.
Imagine my surprise when a letter arrived on the twenty fifth day of May.
Dawkins brought it to Mother at breakfast, and she looked surprised, then opened it and a faint smile came to her face.
"Why, Sylvia," she said. "This is a compliment indeed to you."
Father, his mouth full of braised kidneys could not ask, but made muffled sounds and it seemed to me he would burst if Mama didn't tell him the facts of the letter right away.
"It is," Mama said. "From Mrs. Richard Fitzwilliam, the honorable Anne DeBourgh that was."
Papa grew red in the face and it looked as though his eyes would pop out of his face in sheer curiosity.
"She starts by asking how we're doing," Mama said. "And by expressing the hope that we're all well, and then she says: My son Richard had the honor, last winter, of making the acquaintance of your daughter, Sylvia, whom I remember only as a very small infant. I remember she showed promises of beauty, and indeed my son tells me has grown not only beautiful but intelligent, and, by all accounts, a most pleasant girl, well worthy of anyone's acquaintance. Richard knows I find myself much alone here, not having a daughter of my own with whom to share my walks, my carriage rides and my needlework. After hearing about Miss Collins excellency over these many months, I long for her to come and relieve my solitude. I know I'm asking you a very great favor, as you cannot be inclined to part with such a daughter even for a few days. However, I ask you to bestow her company on one not fortunate enough to be blessed with a daughter of her own. If you agree, I will have my cousins, Jane Darcy and Eleanor Bingley, who are much of the same age as your Sylvia, travel out in my carriage, escorted by some servants, within the week to escort her back to Rosings, where she shall stay and be treated as a member of the family for eight weeks complete, at which time it will be my privilege to take her back home on my way to London." Mama looked at the letter and that at me. "Sincerely, Anne Fitzwilliam." She looked at me again. "The question is, Sylvia, do you wish to go? Have you a wish to see Fitzwilliam again?"
I stared at her, feeling color rising in my cheeks. I did not know. A part of me very much longed to see Fitzwilliam, to hear his gentle teasing and to talk to him again. The other part of me, wondered if his handsome and rude cousin would be there too.
"Because," Mama said, folding the letter. "If you don't wish to go, I can tell her your health has been fragile, and I cannot let you out of my sight just yet."
Papa was making a desperate effort to swallow the prodigious amount of food in his mouth.
"Mama," I said. "I don't know. If I go... will it create... expectations for my relationship with the younger Mr. Fitzwilliam?"
Mama looked grave. "Did you find him, then, so repulsive?"
I colored darker. "I don't know my own heart."
"The invitation came from his mother, who is an old family friend and who begs your company. I'd say society cannot hold it against you if you accept it as it is tendered, as an opportunity to travel abroad and meet a friend and patroness of your father's. However..." Mama's long fingers folded the letter. "If you think you might hurt Richard Fitzwilliam by..."
"Mama, I'd never hurt Mr. Fitzwilliam. Not knowingly. I simply do not know if he wishes to... If I wish to be .... If..."
Mama looked understanding. I think at that moment she guessed the proposal I'd never told her about. "If Mr. Fitzwilliam offers for you, then you'll consider that," she said.
I opened my mouth to tell her he already had, but a look at papa silenced me.
"I can guess, Sylvia," Mama said. "But still, you don't know if he WILL offer for you. If he does, then you can think about it. At least you'll have the improved acquaintance with him to guide you."
"If you're sure no reproach will come back to me on this," I said. "Because I'd rather stay home than make unpleasant scenes arrive."
"Stay home," Papa thundered, his mouth finally free to bellow. "Stay home, girl? What nonsense. No, no. You will go and I will pray every night that Mr. Fitzwilliam will offer for you. Surely the Good Lord owes me something for having saddled me with a useless chit for a daughter."
And, having said that, Papa rose from the table, leaving mama and I to write a response to Mrs. Fitzwilliam's kind letter and to plan which clothes of mine I should pack.
Miss Darcy and Miss Bingley arrived right on time, in a very grand carriage, attended by two footmen, a servant and a maid.
Contrary to my habit, I was not out and about, tramping the nearby woods in unladylike rambles. Instead, I was in the parlor, properly attired and waiting to receive these girls brought up in a station so much higher than mine.
I have to confess that I was somewhat disposed not to like them from the beginning. There is something very despicable in human nature that makes us resent those who had advantages we lacked. I expected Miss Darcy to betray aught of her brother's horrible pride and ill breathing. And I expected Miss Bingley -- whom Mama said would probably be blonde and very beautiful -- to look and act like my cousin Emerald.
Nothing had prepared me for these two visitors. Miss Jane Darcy was as handsome as her brother, but the resemblance between them seemed to stop on that single point. She was a little older than I, and I would place her age at twenty or twenty one. Her heart-shaped face betrayed sensibility and good-humor and her pink gown, of a design so simple as to be almost severe, set off her pale skin and dark curls to the best effect.
Her cousin, Miss Bingley, was indeed blonde and beautiful, with widely-set blue eyes and hair the exact color of the wheat in the fields when it's ready for harvest. And her charms, if used to advantage, could put many a woman, my cousin Emerald most notably, to sad shame. However, she wore a gown that was very modest, with high collar and long sleeves. Its green silk shone just enough, though, to bring out the sparkle in her eyes and the pleasant smile on her lips.
Miss Darcy made the introductions, after which we set down for a ladies- only tea in the drawing room with mama, mama having persuaded papa that he was not needed and indeed not welcome in this party. I believe she was afraid his behavior would set these ladies against me.
I watched as they drank their tea, with the best of manners, from Mama's best china, and was very thankful for papa's absence. Though I dreaded his meeting them at dinner.
After the obligatory conversation about the weather and their travel, Miss Darcy smiled at me, "I must say, Miss Collins, that we were looking forward very much to meeting you, from all the exceedingly pleasant reports of your beauty and good character that we've heard from our brothers." She bowed to me. "All of them merited, as I can see."
This surprised me somewhat, because I did not expect the spurned Mr. Darcy to have given a good report of me, but perhaps Miss Darcy was only being pleasant. To change subject, I smiled and said, "Is Mr. Darcy your only brother, Miss Darcy?"
She nodded. "My only brother and the younger one in the family, save for me, though we have three older sisters, Mrs. Heavensham, Mrs. Sommerfeld and Mrs. Kay. Mrs. Kay is ten years older than William and five years older than I."
The thought of such a large family rendered me speechless for a moment, until I noticed mama glaring daggers at me. At which point I stammered. "I'm an only child. I would very much have liked to have a sister."
"Oh, I'm practically an only child," Miss Darcy said. "Since Anne -- Mrs. Kay -- was out by the time I was born. And Georgiana -- Mrs. Heavensham -- and Elizabeth -- Mrs. Sommerfeld -- were already married." She grinned, an impish grin. "I got to be the youngest, much indulged child, of whom nothing was required and to whom everything was given. Which probably accounts for my very bad character."
"Oh, do not listen to her," Eleanor Bingley put in. "She does not have a bad character, only a very bad habit of making sport in serious conversation with people who do not know her well enough to know she is joking." She smiled at us both. "I am the youngest in my family also, but our family is closer in age. Elizabeth, the oldest, is only ten years older than I, and she is married. And then there's Miranda and Harriet and Charles and myself. All about two years apart. We made a merry group until Elizabeth married. Now Miranda and Harriet have got themselves engaged and I thought I'd best leave mama to plan their wedding and tend their endless demands without intruding."
It seemed to me that Eleanor Bingley was as guilty of joking as her cousin. As our conversation progressed I determined they were both, indeed, very humorous people, full of joy of life, and yet restrained by the bounds of propriety and very sensible.
Dinner was therefore looked to with much trepidation. Fortunately, though Papa, as usual, overfilled his plate and his mouth, Mama had arranged such a variety of foods that he scarce had time to draw breath between platters, much less to make much conversation, beyond asking the ladies how their travel had been.
For this I was grateful.
Mama had put the visitors up in guest rooms and I retired early to my own room, where I lay awake into the night, looking at my packed trunks and wondering what the morrow would bring and, indeed, what the whole visit would bring.
I'd never been away from home for more than a day, and never on my own. Now I wondered if I was making the right decision in going and intruding in society that seemed so above ours. The profusion of servants who'd accompanied Miss Darcy and Miss Bingley, alone, was enough to intimidate me.
I also wondered if Mr. Darcy would be at Rosings. Mr. Bingley had said he would be. And what of Mr. Bingley? What if he should ask about Emerald? And would I be able to face Mr. Darcy with an amicable countenance?
I did not want to offend Miss Darcy who seemed to me as kind as the day was long. Indeed, I would go to some trouble not to offend her. And what about Mr. Fitzwilliam, whom I'd liked so much? Could I find it in my heart to fall in love with him? And if not, could I discharge my social obligations without offending him or his family who would be my hosts?
I very much wished she were my sister, instead of sister to the dreaded Mr. Darcy. Then I would have someone to joke and talk with on this very intimidating soujourn.
Waking up, more tired than I'd retired to bed, I entered the carriage with Miss Bingley and Miss Darcy and waved goodbye to mama, wondering what would happen before I saw her again.
Chapter 13 - Arrival to Rosings
I will not narrate our entire travel to Rosings. I was much too nervous to make coherent conversation and Miss Bingley and Miss Darcy much too polite to chatter endlessly about people I did not know and whom they knew too well.
So, most of the travel was spent in silence, while I looked out the window, watching the scenary unfold. It was not an uncomfortable silence. Indeed, I would say Miss Darcy and Miss Bingley had the gift of true gentility -- that of making one feel at home with them as though they were old friends.
And little though we spoke, we managed to discuss our favorite books, our favorite paintings and our preferences in fashion. In all of those, we found ourselves in perfect agreement which amazed me, as I'd never met anyone who agreed with my preferences so fully before.
By the end of the travel, they'd asked me to call them Jane and Eleanor and that's how I shall refer to them from here on.
As we neared Rosings, Jane pointed a thicket of woods to me. "This is the edge of William's property."
I stared at the thicket of woods -- mostly massive, majestic oaks. "Fitzwilliam's property?" I asked, sure I'd misheard.
She shook her head. "Oh, no. Though my uncle and aunt are owners of extensive property hereabouts and we'll soon be rolling amid their fields, my brother owns a small estate out here. It was left to him under a peculiar arrangement of my great-grandfather's will, which granted him the right to it as soon as he turned twenty one. It is not very vast and it brings in only a couple of thousand a year. Of course, he will also inherit my parents' property. But for now, he owns his own estate however small. Papa says it is good for him to learn management in the active form before he's asked to take the reigns of Pemberley, which is so much larger."
I blinked. As the thicket of woods extended and I glimpsed, through the trees, what looked like a massive house set within a garden. Only two thousand a year... It was as much as papa got from Longbourn. And this was only a training estate for the future master of Pemberley.
More importantly, the nearness of his estate to his aunt's meant that I would almost for sure have to meet the handsome and unpleasant Mr. Darcy. And that he would be a constant presence through my vacation.
I felt my cheeks burn, and didn't know what to say. Did I really want to see him again? Indeed, a treacherous portion of me seemed to wish it, even though I knew he would do nothing but insult me and belittle me.
Jane said, "At any rate, he spends a lot of time here, since Papa--" And then she shrugged and stopped abruptly. "But it is not for me to burden you with my family's private dissention."
"We'll be in Rosings by tea time," Eleanor said. "I wonder if Sasha will be there." And she blushed.
"Sasha?" I asked.
Jane smiled. "Sasha is my cousin, the son of my aunt Georgiana. His real name is Alexander Pavlovich. Aunt Georgy married a Russian Baron. But Sasha is in England for the summer, as he was last year. And he is extraordinarily handsome. I wonder why he chose to visit two years in a row." As she spoke, she looked at Eleanor in a way that meant she did not wonder at all.
I smiled, and was grateful there would be a romantic speculation to distract attention from my sorry social life.
Just about tea time, we rolled into Rosings. It was the most happilly situated house I'd ever encountered. After driving through a thicket of trees, we entered an expansive garden and, past that, a wide lawn.
On this lawn, beneath some oaks, a large party assembled, the gentlemen in light-colored jackets, the ladies in white summer frocks and hats.
It was near this party that the carriage drew close and stopped. Through the window, approaching us, grinning his welcome, I could see familiar faces: Mr. Fitzwilliam and Mr. Bingley. Further in the background, also smiling for a change, was Mr. Darcy. And further back than that, under the canopy of the trees, sat an older but very beautiful woman and an older and smaller version of my Mr. Fitzwilliam. Next to them, lythe and resplendent in a blue coat, stood a pale blond man, looking towards the carriage with lively curiosity.
Somehow, in the flurry of arriving at Rosings I found myself accepting Mr. Darcy's hand to help me down from the carriage. This was not at all what I'd intended to do and the vexing weakness with which I let him take my small hand in his large, strong hand so confused me that I could scarcely answer his questions.
"Miss Collins," he said. "What a pleasure to see you again."
Which, of course, proved he was insane. What a man greets that way a woman who has refused him in no uncertain terms?
I felt myself blush as I mumbled something. Around me, I noticed that Jane Darcy was being helped down by Fitzwilliam and Eleanor helped down by the handsome blond man that I'd never before met.
"Are your parents well?" Mr. Darcy asked.
"Very well, thank you." I had recovered my composure and noticed that Eleanor had turned a very deep shade of pink and was having more problems answering the blond man's questions than I was. Very interesting. Was my new friend smitten?
"And your cousin, and your aunt and all our acquaintance in Merryton," Mr. Darcy said. "They're well, I hope."
"Very well," I said.
"And your parents?"
Definitely, the man was not well. Did he not notice he was repeating himself? And why was my face burning quite so hotly? And why was Richard Fitzwilliam walking away, arm in arm with Miss Jane Darcy?
I realized I felt cheated because not every man had turned to me immediately and almost laughed. My success in the ball had spoiled me indeed.
"Everyone of your acquaintance is quite well," I answered, smiling at Mr. Darcy with as much warmth as I could muster. It was the least I could do, as he was smiling at me as if I were quite the most wonderful thing he'd ever beheld.
And yet -- how well that smile became him. It was almost enough to make me forget the obvious taint of mental illness in the family and the horrible way he'd proposed to me before. Indeed, if he'd proposed to me again at that very minute, I couldn't have sworn I would have refused him. My sensible head was being contradicted by wobbly legs and a fluttering heart.
I told my heart to be still, but it remained stubbornly disobedient as Mr. Darcy offered me his arm for support and led me towards the older couple, who remained sitting beneath the shade of the trees.
"Miss Collins," he said. "This is my uncle, Richard Fitzwilliam, and my aunt, Mrs. Anne Fitzwilliam. They have the good grace of allowing the younger and flightier members of their family to camp on their doorstep all through the summer sometimes, and for a good portion of the summer, at any rate, every year."
The gentleman got up to bow to me, and Mrs. Fitzwilliam smiled at me, a smile of welcome. She gave Darcy a look of censure. "Don't tease her so, William. She'll have no idea what our family is like, and we must all seem horribly bewildering to her." She smiled at me. "Come sit by me, my dear, and acquaint me with news of your dear mama who used to be my friend, these many years ago."
I sat on a chair next to her, and tried to reconcile this handsome older woman with what Mama had told me of the former Miss DeBourgh, whom mama had said was very sweet and kind, but also very sickly and not very endowed with looks.
This woman was beautiful. More, she had the kind of beauty one would always have imagined to have been there -- the kind that comes from good bones and a gentle expression. Her face was very thin, showing prominent cheekbones. Her hair was all silver, which surprised me a little as mama still retained some color in her hair. But silver, worn upwards in a very simple style, became Mrs. Fitzwilliam -- as did her decorous white dress and the single diamond on a chain at her neck. It was the sort of simplicity that betrayed both breeding and fortune.
She looked, I thought as I sat by her and noticed -- to my amazement -- that Mr. Darcy slid onto the chair next to mine -- she looked like an angel who's long fought an heavenly battle and is no worn down and at rest. I wondered if her lack of beauty when young and her beauty now came from being very dearly loved. At least, judging from the warmth with which the older gentleman regarded her, he must love her still with the first ardor of youth.
My mother had once told me that being loved can make anyone not only feel beautiful but be beautiful. And, of a sudden, I felt a great sorrow for poor mama, who was beautiful in her own way, but who would never know this kind of love from a spouse.
"My mama is well," I told Mrs. Fitzwilliam.
"How does she occupy herself these days?" Mrs. Fitzwilliam asked. "I seem to remember that when she lived here she was a great patroness of the poor in the district and helped them all even with her small income. I helped, of course, once I got control of my fortune. Is she still very active in charity?"
I felt my nervousness leave me, then. Speaking about my mama, whom I love with all my heart, has always been easy. And I've always been proud of mama's kind heart and her efforts on behalf of those less fortunate. "Oh, she's very busy with charity, still. Indeed, her latest project is a school for the young girls in the village. She teaches the school herself and encourages other ladies of quality to do likewise."
"The girls?" Mrs. Fitzwilliam asked. "Now, that's interesting. Most families seem to save their money to educate the boys."
"I know," I said. "But mama has this theory that educating the girls does more for their future families. Since the school also teaches them skills such as embroidery or lace making, it enables them to earn some income for their families. It also enables them to teach the children. Mama says educating the girls is an investment in future generations. Men just use their education to further their way in the world, but women use it to increase the fortunes of their whole family."
Mrs. Fitzwilliam smiled. "I'd never thought of that, but now that I do, I see the wisdom of it. Also, I suppose even a man thus inclined, is less likely to mistreat a woman who helps provide for the family. Yes. I can see that."
As she nodded, Mr. Darcy said, from my side, "Your mother sounds like a woman of uncommon wisdom, Miss Collins. I think perhaps I should emulate her efforts among my servants and dependants."
I smiled at him. The thought that he had dependants still puzzled me, but I couldn't help but smile. I had no idea why he was being so nice to me now. It was as though the Mr. Darcy I'd known in Merryton had all but vanished, replaced by a much more civil gentleman. I wasn't complaining.
"Yes you should, William," Mrs. Fitzwilliam said. "And I daresay so should we." She turned to me. "William has a neighboring estate. Perhaps he will invite us all to tea there, at some later time."
"What an excellent idea," Mr. Darcy said.
There was something about the exchange that had the feel of a rehearsed piece. I wondered what it all meant. I felt as though, should I turn my head away, Mrs. Fitzwilliam would wink at Mr. Darcy behind my back. Yet, what could it all mean? Her appearance could not be deceiving and I couldn't believe she would knowingly lead me on. On the other hand, I could hardly believe they'd rehearsed this exchange for any other purpose than to tease me.
Was I in for a vacation amid mad people?
However, just then, the blond man stepped forward. "William," he said. "You have not yet introduced me to this young lady whom everyone else seems to admire so much. Eleanor was telling me of her excellent sense and character." He bowed towards me and smiled, a very attractive smile indeed. He spoke with just the barest trace of an accent.
"Miss Collins, this is my cousin, Sasha," Fitzwilliam Darcy said.
Somehow, it sounded as though his words came out through clenched teeth. "He is the same age as my sister Jane, and younger than I by five years. And he is Russian."
This seemed like very strange information to give me about someone, though at least it set at rest a problem I'd had since Miss Darcy had seemed to say that her brother was five years younger than her, and she only twenty or twenty one. I couldn't imagine Mr. Darcy at sixteen. I now realized I'd either misunderstood it, or Miss Darcy had misspoken.
Still, the introduction was very odd.
Mr. Darcy's cousin seemed to think so too. He grinned at Mr. Darcy and chuckled. "What my cousin, who was obviously raised by wolves, means is that I am Alexander Fyodor Yevno Vladimir Nikolai Stefan Ludwik Mikhail Varangiev, son of the Baron of Varangiev. I'm called Alexander Pavlovich. Or Sasha."
So, the madness extended to the Russian branch of the family. I was quite sure I couldn't call him Sasha and though I didn't fully understand his name system, it was quite obvious I couldn't call him Mr. Pavlovich. So, I said, "It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Varangiev."
"The pleasure is all mine," he said. "Pray, when may we have the pleasure to hear you play? Mr. Darcy informs me that you play quite as well as my mother, and my mother is a true virtuoso."
I felt my face burn and looked at Mr. Darcy, with astonishment. I could only remember playing before him once, when someone at the ball had teased me into doing it. And I didn't think I'd played that well at all. "Oh, Mr. Darcy exaggerates," I said. "Doubtless for some mischievous reason of his own."
Mr. Varangiev laughed. "Hardly. Mr. Darcy only exaggerates young ladies defects and I've never heard him willingly praise any woman but you. So, you see, you must be someone very special indeed." His eyes sparkled with amusement and I had a feeling he was teasing Mr. Darcy unmercifully indeed. "I already see he made no exaggeration when he likened your looks to an angel's. Now I must hear your heavenly playing. I demand it."
"Sasha, don't be absurd," Mr. Darcy said. "She cannot play right now. We're in the garden and she's just arrived from a strenuous voyage."
Just then a large, well appointed carriage pulled into the drive, the same way I'd arrived.
"Oh," Mr. Varangiev said. "That will be Milla. William, did you know my sister was to visit this summer?"
Mr. Varangiev brought her to us, leading her by the hand. "This is my sister, Ludmilla," he said. "Ludmilla, you know everyone except for Miss Collins. Miss Collins is the daughter of one of aunt Anne's old friends and she'll be staying at Rosings for a while."
Miss Varangiev smiled. "I'm very pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Collins. My cousin, Mr. Darcy, has spoken of you in his letters, sometimes."
And who, exactly, hadn't Mr. Darcy spoken of me to? At least I hoped this time he hadn't undertaken some other skill of mine, such as painting miniatures or embroidering. Because, other than the piano which I had learned and practiced out of sheer enjoyment, my skills limited themselves to tramping about a lot and reading a great deal.
Milla Varangiev smiled. "William tells me you are a great reader and very fond of great walks. Both are also pasttimes of mine, so I imagine we'll get along very well indeed."
And wouldn't you know it? He had bragged about my two great undeniable skills. I looked over at him, just to make sure this wasn't some sort of elaborate joke. He was smiling at me with such an expression of outmost adoration that I almost couldn't find my wits. What a singular man.
Turning to Miss Varangiev, I said, "Well, I am an expert in tramping about woods and if you require nothing more, our friendship will be assured. My mama told me the countryside is very beautiful around here this time of year."
"Oh, it is, it is," Mr. Varangiev said. "You'll enjoy it very much indeed, Milla."
"I am sure I will," Miss Varangiev said, and blushed and looked down.
At that moment it occurred to me that though she looked proud and maybe a little affected, she was neither but only very shy.
I opened my mouth to endeavor to set her at her ease, but before I could Mr. Bingley approached me. "Miss Collins, it seems like yesterday we were all dancing together. How is all my acquaintance in Merryton? Has anyone married or moved away or... married?"
From the intent expression in his eyes, I judged that he was anxious to hear about Emerald, but I refused to gratify it. Emerald had better not be mentioned. "No one of your acquaintance has moved, married or died, sir. We are quite a village under glass - just as you left us."
He looked vaguely annoyed, as if I'd foiled his stratagem for learning more. "And Miss Phillips?" he asked. "She's not engaged."
"Miss Phillips remains as she was," I said and wondered if that were true, or if Emerald had changed, much for the worse.
Mr. Bingley smiled. "What a time we had in Merryton. Perhaps I should visit soon."
I bit my tongue to avoid a most improper caution that he stay away. But I was saved by the arrival of tea, a most elaborate affair served in cups which made mama's finest porcelain look like potter discards, and composed of so many courses of sandwiches and cake and fruit as seemed to never end. I wondered if I'd be able to eat it all, but caught in the midst of the conversation of all these people who'd known each other so long and were so easy with each other, I found myself eating enough of each serving to be polite.
The young people around me were noisy and jovial and I wished very much my relationship with my cousins were like this. I even spoke a little, when Mr. Dumas was discussed.
And then I found Mr. Darcy speaking intently to me. "You must not expect any such great splendor at Timberlane," he said.
"My estate, if you can call it that. It is but a couple dozen farms and fields, and a very small house, little more than a cottage," he said. Then, as though remembering the size of my paternal abode, he blushed and looked away. "But it is, as such, a pretty place and I'm happy to have it."
"How did you come by it?" I asked.
"It is a curious story. It seems a great uncle of my father's was a bachelor and childless and, having taken a great liking to my father, willed the property to my father's first born son. Little did the man know my father wouldn't have a son for nearly fifteen years. The property came to me when I turned twenty one. My great-great uncle believed it would train me to assume the much greater responsibility of Pemberley, someday."
"And has it?"
"I don't know. Even my father can't find fault with my management, but as for the rest, you'll have to judge for yourself, tomorrow," he said.
There followed a night in a very comfortable bed, an incredibly lavish breakfast, and a day spent walking the woods with Miss Varangiev who proved very shy indeed, to the point of being almost mute.
Lunchtime found us taking several carriages over to Timberlane.
The first thing I knew of it, was our crossing a little stone bridge over a stream. Then two very tall metal gates were opened by two young men in red footmen uniforms.
Inside, a flower-lined gravel path wound between tall trees. The carriages rolled gently along it, past a vast rose garden and on, till a house came into view.
It looked nothing like a cottage, whatever they had said - a sprawling stone building, larger than my parents' home, it had ivy growing upon its golden walls, it exuded an air of great comfort and, somehow, it seemed to welcome us.
We stopped before the staircase that led up to the open front door.
Mr. Darcy stood in the front door, wearing a green coat. He rushed down the front stairs, and as the footman opened the door, was there to hand me down.
Miss Darcy, who had traveled from Rosings in the same carriage I had smiled encouragingly at me. I'd thought he'd stay by to help Miss Darcy and Miss Varangiev down. But Sasha Varangiev and Mr. Bingley had rushed to help the other ladies down.
Eleanor had traveled from Rosings with Mr. and Mrs. Fitzwilliam and the younger Fitzwilliam. I felt a stab of jealousy as I watched the young Mr. Fitzwilliam escort Eleanor Bingley into the house. But it was foolish. After all, I'd refused Mr. Fitzwilliam. True, he'd said he'd endeavor to change my heart, but if he had changed his mind that was his prerogative.
Looking at him, laughing and joking with his parents and Miss Bingley I thought that Mr. Fitzwilliam was a pleasant man indeed, but perhaps not one of the most steady in the world. Someone that good humored, perhaps didn't engage in very deep thought.
"What are you thinking of?" Mr. Darcy asked as he led me up the stairway. "It must be serious, for you're very silent."
"I was thinking what a pleasant family the Fitzwilliams are," I said.
Mr. Darcy looked at them. It seemed to me his arm grew a little less steady beneath my own. Did he think me so foolish as to be jealous of miss Bingley?
"And how beautifully Miss Eleanor would fit in," I said.
Mr. Darcy grinned. "Indeed. I've long suspected an attachment on her part," he said. "To own the truth since we were children. But it was not till we'd been away and she kept corresponding with him...." He looked at me. "And till he'd given up hope of another heart that he thought to content himself with having captured hers."
What was that supposed to mean? I blushed, as we walked into a beautiful atrium and past it to a large sitting room upon whose tables was set the most spectacular tea I'd ever seen - from pyramids of cucumber sandwiches to little baskets stacked with the fruits of the season. "All these are the fruits of Timberlane's orchards," Mr. Darcy said, and I thought I read pride beneath his voice. "Jane, if you'd so kindly do the honors of the table."
Miss Darcy grinned and said, "Gladly, since you have no wife."
Was it my fancy that, as she passed, she muttered under her breath "yet"?
Tea progressed with much joy amid the gathered cousins, but towards the end of it I felt hot, oppressed.
Mr. Darcy was engaged in a conversation of mutual teasing with Mr. Varangiev, and all the ladies were gathered around Mrs. Fitzwilliam discussing who knew what.
I stepped out the wide french doors to the terrace, which was encircled with the most colorful pots of flowering plants. From the terrace, I had a view of another two terraces leading steadily to the lawn below.
"Miss Collins, is it?" a lady's voice asked.
I turned. Standing beside me was an elderly woman, dressed as a very respectable servant.
"Forgive me for addressing you this way," she said. "I was Mr. Darcy's nurse, when he was young." She hesitated. "Mrs. Darcy, his mother, looked after him most of the time, but there were those times when duties to her other family or to the estate called her and then he was my charge. When Mr. Darcy inherited this estate, he found where I was living, with some distant relatives, and brought me here and made me his housekeeper." She looked over the terraces, with me, in companionable silence for a moment, then added, "The life of a children's nurse can be that cruel. You have no family of your own and sooner or later, you find yourself alone and at the mercy of charity. But Mr. Darcy wanted me to spend my remaining years in comfort and safety."
"He sounds like an ideal master," I said, puzzled, because this did not at all agree with my idea of the proud and rude Mr. Darcy I'd met at Merryton.
"Indeed, he is," the older lady said. "The best of masters, the most devoted of brothers and the most obedient of sons. It's only that--"
"Yes?" I asked, when silence lengthened.
"Well, Miss, it is scarcely my place, but I love him as my own and I couldn't stand for him to divide himself from his happiness through some act of folly." She looked at me and blushed, visibly embarrassed, but went on. "You should know he was the only, much waited son and the elder Mr. Darcy... well, he was so afraid of spoiling our Mr. Darcy that he rather went the other way. Now it's become an habit with him where his father doubts him and he rebels. Because of this, he sometimes acts like an impetuous fool and he has learned to behave as if he doesn't care for the feelings of others, but I assure you he cares. He cares very deeply indeed."
I didn't know what to answer to that, but was saved the trouble as Mr. Darcy came out through the doors. He looked grave. He bowed to his old nurse, but spoke to me.
"Miss Collins, there's a messenger arrived from Longbourn. I think it's a matter of some importance and that you'd be interested in."
Mr. Darcy escorted me within, where the same group as before still gathered, but this time with serious, long faces. Some looked embarrassed. Jane Darcy blushed and kept her eyes averted. Mrs. Fitzwilliam seemed calm, her hands folded on her lap, but up close I could tell that her hands were clenched tightly together.
I feared I must fortify myself for the surprise, and I feared I knew in advance what it was - doubtless a letter from Dear Papa extolling me to protect my honor or to catch a wealthy gentleman, or both. And possibly addressed to the whole gathered assembly. Papa had discretion problems.
Then I realized Mr. Bingley was holding a paper and had turned a sickly tallow-white. Why would he turn pale at my papa's indelicacy?
"Let her see it, Charles," Mr. Darcy said. "It is her family."
My family? My breath caught in my throat.
"It is all our families..." Mr. Bingley said, his voice trembling. "When I think they would suspect--"
"Yes, but more materially, Miss Collins might be able to shed some light on the true culprit and thus save us all much grief," Mr. Darcy said, calm and composed. His hand touched my shoulder, very lightly, and then was gone.
I waited in some anxiety not knowing what was to befall me and indeed wondering what could have happened back home to cause such a missive to be sent.
Mr. Bingley handed me the letter with a trembling hand. It looked as though he had been wringing it in his hands just as a maiden would do with a handkerchief. I took the sodden piece of paper and tried to read it. My hand trembled so and the ink had run so that it was is a hard task but at length I read enough to gather that my cousin Emerald had left her family and friends, that she had eloped indeed that she had thrown herself in the power of a gentleman unknown to any beyond her calling him her dearest beloved in her final letter.
This she had left behind in the a letter which had not failed to distress her family who had immediately presumed the gentlemen in question to be Mr. Bingley. They had proceeded to try to track the fugitives and when that failed had bemoaned the tragedy to my papa who, with his usual sensibility, had decided the best means of handling the situation was to insult his daughter's hosts by sending a letter accusing their relative of improper behavior and also to warn them in the sternest of terms not to allow such an infamous rake near his innocent lamb.
How this was received it may well be imagined. I felt my own hands tremble at the thought that my father had thus insulted my kind benefactors. Looking around and feeling tears prickle beneath my eyelids, I fully expected Mr. Darcy to order me out of Timberlane. Instead I found his gaze resting upon me full of sympathy.
This so surprised me, that I couldn't speak.
"Miss Collins," he said. "You must see that this is a matter of the utmost urgency. It is clear your parents labor under a misapprehension as to the identity of whoever might have led Miss Phillips astray. This will make it hard to find her and return her to her family. It also injures the honor of a good man whom the world as nothing to reproach."
His expression showed great anxiety as he stared at me. It was as though he expected me to take offense.
"You see therefore it is essential, even if it should happen to be in your cousin's confidence, you tell us if there is any other man who might have captured her fancy, who might have made his addresses to her, who might have led her astray."
I did not know what to say. My suspicions lay with Mr. Hurst, but Mr. Hurst was Mr. Bingley's cousin. To accuse him in this company, particularly after father's immoderate language in his letter, would only make me seem as ill bred wild as Emerald had proven. In fact so far from displaying any mental taint, it was this family that might shortly believe all my kin to be less than sane.
Mr. Darcy looked at me with speaking eyes, as though attempting to convey an urgent meaning.
"I urge you to reconsider," he said. "I urge you to think what might not become of your cousin, should her people not be able to find her." He seemed embarrassed and a high color flooded his cheeks.
"Consider that the fate of the abandoned woman is neither pleasant nor honorable. If he who took Miss Phillips away should not marry her -- and his taking her away from her parents without consent does not indicate the best intentions -- she could suffer much more than she will from your breaking her confidence."
I still did not know what to do. Words came to me haltingly. "Mr. Darcy," I said. "You must understand it is not breaking Emerald's confidence that pains me, but the fear that I might be injuring the honor of an innocent gentleman for whose perfidy I have no more proof than Emerald's own words."
"In normal circumstances," Mr. Darcy said. " I would be the first to beg you to hold your tongue. However under the present circumstances I must beg you to tell us whatever your cousin has told you. I undertake to promise that no one present will take offense at whatever you might say."
I looked around that the assembly and everyone looked at me so reassuringly that I could not doubt Mr. Darcy's words.
Mr Bingley hastened to tell me, "Miss Collins you must understand all our concern is with Miss Phillips' safety and honor. Please do not leave her in any distress on account of protecting some gentlemen. Gentlemen's honors are easily healed in matters such as this."
"Well then," I said feeling heat rise to my face, and stammering. "I must own that Ms. Phillips has often spoken to me of a gentleman known to you all -- of... of Mr. Hurst."
At the name Mr. Darcy sighed, as though he feared this all along. Mr. Bingley grew a dark red and punched his open hand with his fist. "Hurst, by Jove! Why Am I not surprised?"
"Do not worried Charles," said Mr. Darcy. He shot his cousin a protective, gentle look that made me think of the two of them as little boys. I wondered which of them was the younger. Whoever it was, certainly Mr. Darcy had acted like an older brother to Bingley. As Mr. Fitzwilliam must have done, who looked concerned at his cousins. I thought of their friendship that had sent the three of them under assumed names into the militia and wished I had a friend like that. No, perhaps the family wasn't mad at all. Or if it were, it was a gentle, tender madness and I wish it were catching.
"We'll yet recover her," Mr. Darcy said, and touched his cousin's shoulder much as he had done mine. "And all this will be as if it had never happened."
"Yes." Mr. Bingley nodded. He looked at Darcy and his eyes shone with sudden determination, and he smiled, a quick, feral smile. "Yes that is it. We must leave at once William. We must recover Ms. Phillips before..."
"We will recover her. No matter what it takes."
The family nodded. Mrs. Fitzwilliam offered to pay anything needed for their travel. Jane said, "Yes, you must leave at once."
Feeling left out, feeling like a stranger, I realized that my father's letter, his insulting assumption about Mr. Bingley might have severed whatever ties of beginning friendship I had with these kind, condescending people.
"But," I said, feeling cold and numb and wishing I didn't have to say it. "Whether Emerald his recovered or not ought not to be any of your concern. It is my family, but hardly more than your acquaintance." I had trouble saying these words as unaccountably tears had started rolling down my face and my throat seemed constricted. "It was some great fault in my cousins upbringing that brought this tragedy about."
"My dear," Mrs. Fitzwilliam said. "It is a common thing to say that such slips and moral faults are all the woman's, however I was never convinced of it. You must remember that it takes two to elope. And the gentlemen is of our connection. Therefore we are just as guilty."
"But I don't even know if he is truly implicated. It could be a fabrication of Emerald's," I protested.
Mr. Bingley shook his head in some passion. "No truly, Miss Collins, you must understand Mr. Hurst has been competing with me since the cradle. His father died when he was quite young, his mother married a French count and moved abroad, and my parents, in their kindness, raised him and his sister. Perhaps my parents betrayed some natural preference for me, or perhaps as our nursemaid would have it, I was a better tempered, better natured baby - I do not know. But that truth is I always had more friends." He looked at Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley. "And the servants preferred me, and as it was, Mr. Hurst conceived the most hearty dislike of me, as well as a need to surpass me in anything I undertook. I believe he would never have come near your cousin but that he suspected that I had an interest in her." He paused. "So you see it is my responsibility entire to recover your fair cousin and return her unmolested to her home."
I could not say that I agreed, but neither could I attempt to dissuade two gentlemen so completely convinced of their duty. Particularly not while Mrs Fitzwilliam herself, who had stood up, was urging them to hurry and to spare no trouble.
Indeed I could not say anything. The rest of the tea passed in a feverish discussion out the locations in which Mr. Hurst was likely to have gone to ground
Too soon Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley hastened away and we returned to Rosings.
There, I sought Mrs. Fitzwilliam in her parlor, where she was seated embroidering a very fine piece of cloth in delicate colors. She looked tired, and her husband stood nearby, pacing. I had the feeling that they had been talking, perhaps discussing something important.
However, when I came in Mrs. Fitzwilliam lay her work aside, and Mr. Fitzwilliam stopped his pacing.
"Miss Collins?" Mrs. Fitzwilliam said. "Is anything wrong?"
Everything was wrong. Mr. Darcy had left, just as I was starting to like him. But worse, I felt like I should leave as well.
"I... I feel I should go back home," I said.
"Why, my dear?" Mrs. Fitzwilliam started to rise.
"Have we offended you in any way?" Mr. Fitzwilliam asked.
"Oh, no," I said. "You have been all that is kindness. But after my father's letter and the way he insulted your family, I feel I could not..."
"Oh, Mr. Collins," Mr. Fitzwilliam said, and laughed. Then stopped. "You will pardon me, Miss Collins. I don't wish to belittle your family. But we've known your father for much too long to take offense at anything he says. I'm sure his letter of apology is on its way to us even now."
"And besides," Mrs. Fitzwilliam said. "We like you for who you are, not your family connections. Both Jane and Eleanor are delighted with your company and I would not dream of depriving them of it. Besides, Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley would be very disappointed indeed were you no longer here when they return."
"Is that all that was concerning you?" Mr. Fitzwilliam asked.
I nodded, blushing.
They wished me a good night and I went, quietly, up the very grand staircase.
My room was in the east wing, facing the rose garden. As I approached my bedroom door, I heard a soft cry, as of an injured child. As I got closer, I realized it was full blown sobs and sighs as of someone in great anguish. Closer yet, and I realized they came from the room next to mine.
I didn't remember who roomed there, but of a sudden I felt very guilty indeed. Here I'd been worried about matters of etiquette while some creature in this house was in mortal anguish. And I'd never noticed.
Hesitating, I raised my hand and knocked upon the door.
When I knocked a second time, I heard a very faint whisper from within, asking me to come in.
The door, thrown open, revealed Miss Varangiev doing her best to look impassive - a look betrayed by her very red, swollen eyes, her reddened nose and the sodden handkerchief clutched in her dainty hand.
"Miss Varangiev," I said. "What... How may... What distresses you?"
She shook her head and clutched her handkerchief tight in her hand. "I am well. Nothing distresses me. It's only that, your cousin... so sad..." At this she broke down and started crying again and I wondered what it all meant and whether she had known some woman in a similar situation to that into which Emerald had thrown herself.
"Oh, Miss Varangiev," I said. "Do not distress yourself for my cousin. She... Emerald chose her path and she knew it to be wrong. She was given a better upbringing than that but she ignored it all for she believed that she was surely much too beautiful to be upright or religious or to pay any attention to the dictates of society." I read horror in Miss Varangiev's gaze, but I forged ahead, because the only way to dissuade her from such misguided pity was to expose Emerald's foolishness in its entirety. "So, you see, she chose to sever herself from her friends and the love of her relatives and threw herself into the power of Mr. Hurst willingly. Therefore, though it be sad, whatever comes to her--"
Miss Varangiev sniffled. "Do you think Charles will marry her?"
"My cousin. Bingley. Well, he's not truly my cousin, but my Darcy cousins' cousin. But we were brought together as cousins. I've known them from a child, from whenever I visited England. And... You see..." She shrugged. "Charles is a very good man, but perhaps too tender at heart. I don't think he would view it as you do. I think he would want to save her from her fate. In fact, I'm fairly sure he will." Her lips trembled. "And wouldn't that be a terrible marriage for ... for her, to marry a man who doesn't love her and only feels sorry her."
From my parents' experience, I could have told her there were more awful reasons to contract marriage. But I didn't wish to tell Miss Varangiev the story of my life.
She rubbed her dainty nose with her lacy handkerchief. "I'm sorry. Perhaps I'm too emotional. I've been told this is a bad characteristic of Russians. But I can imagine being in the position in which Miss Phillips finds herself and I...."
She'd obviously been very affected by Emerald's story, since she even remembered Emerald's name that she could not have heard more than once.
I calmed her down, as best I could, telling her I was sure Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley would surely do what was best for Emerald and that I didn't think that Mr. Bingley's altruism would lead him to marry a woman he did not love.
Of course, I wasn't at all sure that Mr. Bingley didn't indeed love Emerald, but I thought this, like the condition of my parents' marriage, was not something I needed to discuss.
When I left Miss Varangiev, she appeared to be calmer, and we were on a first name standing with each other. This pleased me immensely, as I liked the reserved but emotional Mill a whole lot.
She seemed, indeed, to be a woman of kindness and discernment and yet quite willing to feel for everyone in distress even people she didn't know.
It occurred to me, as I went into my room, that she would make the easy- going Charles Bingley a perfect bride and that perhaps I should find some means to further this.
Meanwhile, with both Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy gone, life settled down into a pleasant pattern at Rosings. If other people thought of them very often, no one gave any sign of it.
We had leisurely breakfasts and rambling walks through the delightful woods surrounding the estate. Miss Darcy and Mrs. Fitzwilliam took me to visit the vicarage that my parents had occupied before inheriting Longborn. Mrs. Fitzwilliam told me anecdotes from the time my parents lived there, all so kindly related that she managed to shed a kind light on Papa himself.
And on the third day after Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley's departure, I had the first news from home since Papa's disastrous letter. Although I'd been given to understand that, indeed, there had been an apologetic letter to Mr. and Mrs. Fitzwilliam, I hadn't heard from Papa again.
But there was a letter of his beside my place at breakfast. I recognized his handwriting - very black and looking like he gripped the pen much too hard, and scrawled as though someone had dipped a spider's legs in ink and let it traipse all over the paper.
Gingerly, I broke the seal of the letter, wondering what fresh rantings would grace me.
"Sylvia," it started without even a term of endearment. "You must know that your young man stopped by and I'm very pleased with your catch. And never to tell us, what a sly girl. Indeed, the chosen partner of your fate can be looked up to as one of the most illustrious personages in the land. What carriages you shall have, you lucky girl. And a house in town. All that's elegant. With what great joy will I be able to tell my friends that my daughter is Mrs. Darcy. Indeed, this work of yours has redeemed all the dastardly accidents of fate that brought you into existence and what I've believed my curse in being denied a son. Tell me as soon as it's not a secret anymore. Oh, how envious the Lucases shall be. And the Phillipses. Why, I've heard the chimney piece at Pemberley, which Mr. Darcy stands as heir to, is ten times more expensive than the chimney piece at Rosings. What a thing for you to own, that we could all be proud of.
Your proud papa, W. Collins."
I blinked, staring at the letter, and quite unable to make much sense of the fact that Mr. Darcy stood to inherit a chimney piece and that it was a great thing to own. The engagement, or the chimney piece? And what could have given my deluded papa the crazed idea that Mr. Darcy was the chosen companion of my fate.
I thought of Mr. Darcy's handsome features, his unexpected smile and I sighed. Even if he were the chosen partner of MY fate, much good would it do me.
"Disturbing news from home?" Mrs. Fitzwilliam asked kindly from across the table.
I sat the letter down and folded it firmly, afraid that one of my father's raving words should be seen by the Fitzwilliam family.
"No, not at all," I said. "Just my father is sometimes difficult to understand, particularly in writing." I marshaled all my will power. "And they say Mr. Bingley and Mr. Fitzwilliam have been by Longborn, in their... pursuit of Miss Phillips."
"Indeed," Jane Darcy said. "My brother writes that they have now reached London. They have traced Miss Phillips so far."
I felt a swift sting of jealousy and told myself I was an idiot. Of course he'd written to his sister. Did I think he'd write to me also? Even Mr. Darcy would not so far ignore propriety.
Having folded my Papa's letter very hastily, I carried it with me up the stairs, and it was only in my room that I noticed a narrow postscript written in a tiny and scrabbly handwriting across the bottom, "As for the Love child, it does not signify. He can easily be apprenticed to some trade or sent into the navy and no need for him to ever be acknowledged or have a claim upon the estate."
I stared at the words a long time. Whose love child could my father mean? Did it mean that Emerald was with child? But how could my father know that.
I wished I could talk to mama and discuss my father's illusions. Not to claim that my mother, being a sane woman, could possibly understand or anticipate my father's thoughts, feelings and ideas. But she could usually at least fathom what had caused him to be so misguided as to completely break acquaintance with reality for days at a time.
Instead, I burned the letter, making use of the candle in my room, that evening.
The next day, at breakfast, I had another letter from papa by the side of plate.
"Your father quite obviously misses you very much, Miss Collins," Mr. Fitzwilliam said. "I'm glad to see it."
I wasn't glad to see the letter, and I opened it with trembling hands.
"My dear Sylvia," the letter opened, causing me to read it twice or three times, wondering if such an affectionate wording could be used to me. But, there not being any other Sylvia around, it seemed likely it was my letter, after all. So I read on. "As eager as we might be to close with Mr. Darcy's offer, I think it incumbent upon me to warn you that the union might prove unfortunate. Indeed, I've just had word that not less a parsonage than his great aunt, Lady De Bourgh disapproves of the union. So it might be best for us to renounce our hopes, rather than risk displeasing the kind and condescending lady. I know, daughter, that your heart must be breaking as you read this. For surely you must already have set your heart on the jewels, the carriages, the servants you'd be able to afford. But, alas, daughter, do anything but risk the displeasure of his illustrious family for you must know that, if they consider the shades of Pemberley to be polluted they will cut you completely off. Your grieved father, W. Collins."
My mouth had fallen open halfway through this letter. Having found myself - in my Papa's imagination - suddenly affianced to Mr. Darcy, now I found myself equally jilted. And I could not fathom the reason for either move. Lady De Bourgh might be my father's patroness of old - and the current Lady Fitzwilliam's mother - but surely even my father could not imagine that, had I been so fortunate as to be Mr. Darcy's fiancť, we would call the union off at the whimsy of his great aunt.
I disposed of Papa's letter as I'd disposed of the previous one.
The day progressed pleasantly. Miss Varangiev and I devised a new embroidery pattern - she told me it was very much like some Russian patterns, but also a little bit English. "Like me," she said.
We decided it would look excellently upon a set of tea cloths and were working on separate pieces of the set when the house was rocked by loud, shrill screams.
"Where is she? Where is the strumpet?"
Both of us stood up, while I wondered who this could be who disturbed the peace of Rosings in such a way.
I didn't have long to wonder for within moments, a very old woman stood at the door, glaring at me.
Her white hair framed her face in writhing curls that couldn't help but remind me of an aged Medusa. And her face had such a nest of wrinkles that it seemed permanently set into an expression of extreme displeasure. It reminded me of Mama's warnings - when I had childish tantrums - that one's face might freeze that way.
She wore a black dress embroidered with gold thread, surely more appropriate to a soire in London than mid-afternoon in a country estate, and several pearl necklaces looped around her bent neck. Her body leaned forward upon a silver-topped walking stick.
I felt my mouth fall open in astonishment at the apparition, sure that I was dreaming and that it would vanish as soon as I woke.
"Miss Collins," it shrieked, a shriek that should have awakened the dead, let alone the sleeping. "Can you take a turn with me in the gardens which my daughter has let fall to sad wilderness?"
Beside me Milla Varangiev whispered, Aunt Catherine, and went very pale and dropped her embroidery frame.
I followed the formidable old lady down two sets of stairs to the garden. As well I might, since I was afraid, shaking as hard as she was she would soon fall over, if not followed.
Twice I made to help her on the stairs, twice she swatted my hand away as though it had been some particularly noxious insect whose sting might kill her.
She ranted under her breath continuously, about strumpets and arts, and allurements and heaven only knew what else.
Soon, we were on the pleasant paths of Rosings and the lady fixed me with medusa eye, which presently made my knees tremble and made me feel as though I'd turn to granite. But I rise to every challenge and thus stared back at her as blankly as I could.
She made an impatient huffing under her breath. "Miss Collins," she said. "You can be under no misapprehension as to what brings me here."
"Indeed, I am at a loss to explain it," I said. "Except perhaps you wish to visit your daughter and grandchild?"
The Lady made a rude noise. "What brings me here is that much more urgent, as you well know. I was told you aspire... You dare dream of becoming my nephew's bride."
I was so stunned that I kept quiet.
"Oh, do not deny it, for I have in a letter from your father, himself."
"Indeed--" I started.
"Please, do not attempt to deceive me," Lady Catherine said. "I know who your father and mother are. He lived in expectation of advancement at the cost of my patronage and your mother sold both her body and her honor to him in the expectation of a comfortable life, nothing more. With such parentage, I can expect you to be neither honorable nor less than mercenary, but you must know, you will find me a formidable adversary."
I said nothing. To own the truth, I was too stunned to speak. I couldn't understand how my father had imagined me affianced to Darcy, but even if he were thus deluded, why would he let Lady Catherine know? And, more importantly, why would Lady Catherine care? Darcy was not her son or her grandson, only a great nephew, somewhat removed for this kind of fervor.
"Nor will Mr. Darcy's mother and father approve of your pretensions," Lady Catherine said. "For you must know that I've talked it over with his parents and we have it all planned. Mr. Darcy will marry his cousin, Miss Varangiev, who has a dowry of a hundred thousand pounds, enough, surely, to improve even Pemberley. I have talked to the young people about this and they have agreed that they'll set about producing a daughter as soon as they're married. Their daughter, then, can marry my grandson, Richard." She looked at me, managing somehow to project calm certainty in her deranged plan. "Oh, don't look so dismayed. He's less than thirty. When the girl is seventeen and marriageable he'll be less than fifty, still young enough to beget heirs to Rosings, who will be endowed with the best blood in the land."
She smiled as she said this, but the storm soon gathered upon her brow again. "And who are you, a penniless chit of dubious parentage, to come between me and this projected outcome for my family? How dare you attract Darcy, reel him in with your arts and allurements. Oh, we all know what men are, so easy to lead astray."
I pulled my shoulders up. "I have in no way led Mr. Darcy astray," I said. "If I used my arts and allurements on him - which I in no way admit - then he must have been quite ready to have them used for I was neither conscious of any art, nor did I consciously set out to allure him."
She stared at me, uncomprehending, her eyes as devoid of expression and intelligence as a chicken's. Also, as deranged as anyone who's ever gotten eye to eye with that fowl knows it to be. "I cannot believe your impertinence," Lady Catherine said. "You will break off your engagement to Darcy right away. You will pack your bags and stop polluting the shades of Rosings."
"I will not break off my engagement to Mr. Darcy," I said, most of all because I was not engaged to him.
Again she glared. "Very well, but then you must know that his father will write him off his will, I will disown him and none of the family will ever even so much as acknowledge your existence. And that's the end of all your fine plans for social advancement. You'll be stuck with him at Timberlane, his having given up his much more important prospects for you. How long till he grows bitter and hates you? And how long till you hate him, when your avenue into the society of London is blocked?"
Now I was confused. Not only was I presumed to be engaged to Darcy, but I was presumed to be engaged to Mr. Darcy for money alone. Something no woman with eyes and a functioning mind would ever do. "Lady Catherine," I said. "The misfortunes you threaten me with are heavy indeed, however, I must beg you to consider that I might so consider your nephew above reproach that I will be quite happy to be at Timberlane with him the rest of my life, and that I might consider myself so fortunate in just his company that the society and the greater inheritance he might have secured will be as nothing to me. Loving him as much, then, I will endeavor to keep him from regretting what he lost, and perhaps he'll never grow to hate me." As I finished my speech, I could - I swear - hear a rustling in the bushes to my right, but I would not turn to look at it, because I thought it was just a squirrel and if I turned to look Lady Catherine might take the opportunity to slam my head with her walking stick. She looked furious enough to contemplate - perhaps to commit - murder.
"This is not to be endured," she bellowed, turning her eyes to a heaven in whose mercy she appeared to despair. "They will live on love and kisses, will they?" She looked down at me. "And the love child, tell me, what do you intend to do about that? And Belinda?"
"Ma'am?" I asked, even more puzzled than before.
"Belinda, whom Darcy seduced and led astray? What will you do about that? And about his love child whom he still supports?"
I thought of Belinda Whickam, in her lewd portrait done by Mr. Hamsworthy. And I thought of Mr. Darcy such as I'd known him causing anyone to have a love child or, having done so, not marrying her. I could not reconcile the thought in my head.
"I do not believe any such thing of Mr. Darcy," I said. "That he seduced anyone or led anyone astray. I think this is of one piece with what, pardon me for saying it, seems to be your illusions about the world and all in it. Not all of us are in the world for money and pleasure alone. And not all of us will bend our morals to acquire either." I turned on her, this time indignant and certain. "You should be ashamed of yourself suspecting your own relative of something as gross as all that, and, suspecting him, not wishing him to marry the offended party. You, who consider yourself nobility, should contemplate that true nobility stems not from money or pedigree but from the heart and soul and that--" I went on and don't know what I told the old woman.
I know she turned pale several times, and several times she tried to open her mouth, but I did not give her a chance. I'd seen papa on a rant times enough to emulate his style which was to yell before the other party could speak.
I don't know what else I told her, though I have a vague memory of calling her worldly and crass. All the while something in the back of my mind reproached me for unspeakable rudeness, but I could no more stop than I could have taken flight. I had been pushed around enough that it was as though some inner dam had broken and I could no longer contain my just ire. Granted, half of that ire was at my papa, but one could hardly yell at him all the way from Rosings.
And then, out of the bushes to my right, came Mr. Fitzwilliam, the younger. "Grandmama," he said, and advanced, and took the formidable woman's arm as if she were no more than a little old lady. "You didn't tell us you were visiting. You must be tired from your journey. Now, take your leave of Miss Collins, and we'll go within and get you all ready for tea."
He walked her away before she could recover her wits, and left me standing alone in the clearing contemplating my very great breach of etiquette. Judging from the tender way Mr. Fitzwilliam had treated his grandmother, I presumed he would justly disdain me from having yelled at her. Oh, I'd better go and pack my things.
A sob tore through my throat.
Butterfly-light fingers touched my shoulder and I turned teary eyes to see Mr. Darcy standing beside me. He was holding out a handkerchief.
"Mr. Darcy," I said, and exploded in sobbing again, because doubtless he'd heard my words about him and now, on top of all, thought me an unscrupulous bounder ready to ensnare him. I made use of his handkerchief. "I'm sorry. I will now pack and--"
"No," he said. "No. I am sorry. I listened in on your conversation and it was very wrong of me. Arriving at Rosings a little ahead of my cousin, I was crossing the gardens when I heard all this and stopped to listen. It was very wrong of me, but I own to being happy I did."
"Oh," I said. "But I didn't know you were listening, I didn't mean--"
He stopped me with a finger against my lips. "Miss Collins, please. I know you did not mean for me to overhear you. But having overheard you I must now make some explanation to you - some explanation as as been a long time coming from me." He offered me his arm. "Will you do me the great honor of taking my arm and taking a turn with me in the garden, further away from the building, so that we may not be overheard? I would like to explain to you what drove me into the militia and perhaps in some way mitigate the dastardly impression I might have made in Merryton." He looked at me with those melting eyes. "Please?"
He was rumpled from his journey, his dark hair in disarray and he looked disarmingly young and innocent. How could I have resisted him?
Where Mr. Darcy Explains Himself
We walked for a while in silence. In the woods around us, birds twittered and the trees rustled, but all I heard from Mr. Darcy was his controlled breathing. My own breathing was loud, rushed. I could smell him. There was a faint whiff of horses, doubtless from his journey, but, superimposed on it, a smell of cologne and soap.
He must have stopped at some inn on the way to wash, I thought. I was not thinking very rationally at all. My mind skittered away from this situation because it was so unlike rationality and justice.
I had screamed at an old lady. I had made myself obnoxious to a lady who was almost an invalid. I hadĖ
"I must beg your pardon," I said at last, my words rushing out upon the mad tide of my guilty feelings. "I must beg your pardon that I yelled at your Aunt Catherine. I was most abominably rude. I donít know what came over me."
Mr. Darcy chuckled. "Donít worry yourself about Aunt Catherine. I know it sounds horrible of me to say so, but the older people in the family have, everyone of them, yelled at her at one time or another. I understand my own mother was abominable to her just before she married by father, because Aunt Catherine would not hear of the match, being set on Fatherís marrying cousin Anne. And then when Cousin Anne wanted to marry Cousin Fitzwilliam she had to yell at her mother that she was getting married because she loved him and, no, she would not wait for her mother to marry her off to some count or other. As for us, the younger set, weíve not had our chance to yell at her, yet Ė but Iím sure it will come. Milla and I felt like screaming when we were told to get married and beget a bride for her grandson." He grinned at me, a grin with an impish bent to it. "And Milla was, I think all of twelve at the time. Aunt Catherine lives in a world all her own, which only sometimes intersects with reality."
"Like my father," I said, hurriedly.
"Your father..." Mr. Darcy took a deep breath. "I donít know how to tell you this, but I think I might have brought about my great-auntís explosion by speaking to your father...
"Oh, I beg you not to think I was so daring as to ask him for your hand in matrimony. Indeed, Iíd never expected to be able to ask it of you any time soon. Not for ten years or so. But I thought if you grew to know me, I could convince you to love me, and you would eventually give in to my love for you. It was probably very daring of me, but I told your father of my intentions, because I wanted to be allowed to visit you and to keep company with you at your house."
"Ten years?" I asked. "You were disposed to wait that long for me?"
He blinked. "How not? I know you are the only possible partner of my fate." He stopped, as if what heíd said surprised him, and said, "Iím doing this very ill indeed. Miss Collins, please let me explain to you all that has been happening."
I nodded my acquiescence, unable to speak.
"My parents waited for my birth a long time," he said. "So that when I was born they greeted me with relief and love in their very different styles. Youíll not hear me say this, but my father is a kind man and Iím aware that he loves me very much. However, Iím given to understand that before he married my mother he was somewhat insensitive to otherís peopleís feelings. He thought that the world existed to serve him and bow down to his will and all the mamas and infatuated daughters trying to catch the heir of Pemberley did not help. So when I was born he set about extirpating from me the pride that he felt was almost his downfall."
He shrugged, the movement making his muscular arm tremble beneath my hand. "He was strict with me, though perhaps not unduly so. And meanwhile my mother and sisters spoiled me very much. From my mother I got what could be both a fatal impulsiveness and a mad need to find the world funny. My father doesnít often understand this. He is a serious man."
William took a deep breath. "I say this that you might understand how my father came to misunderstand me so deeply."
He turned to me and I swear that in his eyes there was a glimmer of tears. "As youíve probably already surmised, my cousins, on both sides, and I and my sisters make a merry band which often move from house to house in the summer, creating disturbance and joy wherever we go."
"Two years ago, we stayed at Pemberley, my parentsí estate. That year we were joined by Mr. Hurst and his cousin, Mr. Hamsworthy, as well as by another of my cousins that we donít often see, Miss Belinda Whickam. My motherís youngest sister, the youngest of five, made a very unfortunate marriage and from that marriage came two boys for whom my father purchased commissions in the army and the one girl, Belinda. Belinda is very beautiful."
My heart ached and thudded, towards my throat. He was now going to tell me was in love with Belinda. He was going to tell me the child was his. "Please," I said. "You donít needĖ"
He squeezed my hand with his. His hand was very warm. "I do. I must tell you all, because what Iím about to ask requires you to know what sort of a fool I am and to decide whether it is a foolishness you can endure and forgive."
I didnít know. My stomach tied in a knot. If he had sired a child by Belinda, could I believe in him? Could I believe in his love for me, if that were what he was about to pledge? Surely not. A man like I believed him to be would fulfill his obligations to a woman in that condition, no matter how unfortunate the connection. A man such as I wanted him to be would never have fallen for a woman like Belinda, to begin with.
"I must beg you to listen. I must beg you to believe I saw little to attract me in Belinda. You must have heard from my cousins that Iím always very demanding when it concerns female flesh and even more demanding of female behavior. Women like your cousin Esmeralda do not matter to me at all. There is a vacant nothing to their stare that seems to nullify the beauty of their faces. So it is with Belinda. Beautiful Ė I suppose she is beautiful Ė beautiful enough to grace a picture or a statue. But if you see her alive and moving... well, thereís something else. Belinda never notices the girls in a room, but only the men. She can not talk without flirting. She cannot laugh without throwing her head back and showing her neck to all. She cannot move without trying to show off some part of her anatomy through her too revealing clothes. I beg you to believe me, Miss Collins that such a woman holds no attractions for me. None at all. The woman who would be the chosen companion of my fate..." He stopped. "More on that later. I was, in fact so harsh on all of the fair sex that all my cousins said I would never find a woman to marry, that such a woman didnít exist and I must be contented to see my sistersí son inherit Pemberley. For a while I thought it was so too."
"Imagine then my surprise when, at the end of Summer, Miss Belinda was found to be with child Ė donít ask me how, some gossip between the maids, some signs my mother understood but which are utter gibberish to me. When asked for the father of the child she named... me. You can imagine how this actuated upon my father who was always convinced that, with my impulsive nature and what he thought was the natural pride Iíd inherited from him, Iíd soon fall afoul of some snare. He called me to his office and ordered me to marry Belinda. When I told him I wouldnít, he threw me out of the house."
He sighed. "All of this would have blown over, as our rows normally did, save that my mother had an accident at almost the same time I was in the study talking to my father. Unbeknownst to us, she was thrown from her horse. As I was riding out of Pemberley, in disgrace, she was lying on a field, getting soaked in the rain. When she was found she had a fever as well as the injuries from her fall. It was thought she would not recover. My father is not a hard man, but between his fear for my mother and his certainty I was neglecting my duty to my future child, something snapped in him. He denounced me to the authorities as a seducer. When I came to Timberlane, with Charles who had agreed to accompany me, I found the law waiting for me. I was not about to be thrown in jail; I was not about to marry Belinda either. So, we turned tail and rode away. Charles, who is a bit of a romantic conceived the notion of the two of us enlisting in the militia under assumed names." He squeezed my hand again. "Through which providential arrangement we, and later Fitzwilliam, came to your fair town. Where I remained until a letter from my sister told me that my mother had awakened from her delirium and convinced father to call back the law. Thus things stood, my mother convinced the child could not be mine, my father convinced it was. I thought your information that Belinda had posed naked for Hamsworthy would help my father understand what was truly at stake, but he refused to believe me. As I said, it is love that makes him think so harshly of me, and I now understand that. He also thinks that Hamsworthy is... well... not interested in female flesh, being rather effete and foppish and taking more after his mother than his father, if I may say so. So I saw my mother and my sisters, and then retreated back to Timberlane. Meanwhile I had met youĖ"
He took a deep breath, as if to gain courage. "I want you to understand that my rudeness to you when we first met was only because I was furious at myself for allowing myself to be attracted to you. You see, I knew your parentage... I will not insult you, though. Your parentage is not worse than my aunt Catherine. Indeed, your mother sounds like a woman of taste and discernment. But at the time I perceived it as marrying beneath myself. And I was furious, too, at fate, I think, that a woman of such beauty and intelligence as you, a woman whose grace could befit a duchess, was forced to live on a meager allowance, with few clothes and no idea of how to dress her hair. And so I insulted you, to assuage my anger at myself and fate, and for that I apologize, though you must know I will always be an impetuous fool."
I didnít say anything. I could find no words.
"You must also know at present my father is half-set to disinherit me. Oh, he would have done it already were it not for the fact that he has no other male heirs. But should my older sister produce a son, all might be up. In which case, I can offer you no greater estate than the one from whence you came, and perhaps some shame associated with marrying me, while Iím considered the black sheep of the family."
I started to speak, but he stopped me. "You must also know," he said. "That I am supporting Belinda and her child. Indeed, Hamsworthy has left for parts unknown, we believe in France, and she was in dire straights and though I owe her nothing but reproach, I could not let her son and herself descend into the sort of life they might be forced into by lack of all support. My father found out about my sending her some money Ė only enough for her to keep in a modest boarding house and for a nurse for the boy, since I donít trust Belinda to look after a sparrow Ė and heís surer than ever that Iím the father."
Again I tried to speak. I found his supporting the woman who had so wounded me the crowning of all that was good and admirable. Had I not already made my decision, this would fully set it in stone. But he continued, "Further, you must know that even if you say no I plan to keep trying to win your affections and that I do not ever expect to be so affected by any woman as Iím by you.
"So, in full knowledge of the kind of fool I am, Miss Collins, will you consent to being my wife and the chosen partner of my fate?"
"Yes," I said. I believe I shouted. "Yes, yes, yes." I realized even as I was saying it that it was not very poetic and not the sort of thing that our children could be told.
But Darcy didnít seem to mind. He grabbed me about the waist and lifted me with surprising ease, gyrating me around midair and laughing.
His laughter was interrupted by the sound of a mad cavalcade and, following upon that, the sound of a man making his way through the bushes around us. A footman Ė his clothes stained from hard riding Ė emerged into the clearing. He was pale and looked half out of his head.
"Mr. Darcy, Mr. Darcy. You must pardon me. Itís your cousin, Mr. Bingley."
"Charles? What happened to Charles?"
The man shook his head. His voice came out as a harsh croak. "On that last Inn, this morning, milord, while you rode ahead... Iím very afraid Mr. Bingley shot himself."
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