So, we are already two months into 2020. Although we have had an awful lot of rain, what our winter is missing is an appearance of the fluffy white stuff; Snow!!
However, if you are rained or even snowed in, I thought I would share another snippet of my latest release, Mr Darcy’s Reluctant Wife, to help while away a few minutes..
Darcy watched Elizabeth until she was out of sight.
Fitzwilliam Darcy did not hurry as he made his way back to the Park. Now he was no longer in her company, he could explore the feelings she had roused in him. Feelings he had never experienced before when in the company of a gentlewoman. As a man of the world, he knew his body had reacted to the closeness of a pretty woman, but this was unlike any sensation he had experienced before. Could this country miss, with no fortune or connections of consequence, be the one he had been seeking?
On that long, solitary walk back to Netherfield, Darcy tried to think of the last woman who had made his heart quicken without intimate relations being the source. He could not deny he had enjoyed the ministrations of several lovers over the years, but none had made him feel as Elizabeth Bennet had, and all with just a smile.
Elizabeth was not a society wife or widow looking to enjoy a flirtation with him to add a bit of excitement to their life. She was a maiden, a virgin he assumed, who had not tried to lure him with a well-practised seduction. She was an innocent, and as far as he could tell, totally unaware of the effect she had on men. He recalled the way her dance partner looked at her at the Meryton assembly. Either he was, or had fallen under her spell, yet Elizabeth was unaware of how powerful her innocent charms were.
Could he, or rather should he, let his feelings for this young woman develop? Society had placed a great many expectations on his shoulders, and they would deem it reprehensible should he marry someone they considered below his station. Yet was she? He was a gentleman, and she was a gentleman’s daughter. In that respect, they were equals. Her father’s side of the family had been country gentlemen for many generations, and that must count for something. It was true that her family could not boast of worthwhile connections, whereas he had many relations that held a noble title, or had achieved greatness, or were notorious for their adventures. However, not all of them would be considered presentable or genteel. Indeed, his tutor had explained that one of his predecessors had been a privateer for Queen Elizabeth, and that was certainly nothing to be proud of.
As he slowly climbed the front steps of the house, Darcy decided the only way to clarify his feelings and ascertain if Elizabeth Bennet would make a worthy wife, was to spend more time with her. Only then, when he was confident of his own feelings, could he decide on what action, if any, to take, and the consequences they might bring.
When Mr Darcy had informed young Charles Bingley that he had accepted an invitation for them both at Longbourn, Charles could not have been happier. He was even more so when he learnt that the invitation had not been extended to include his sisters, or Edward Hurst, though the latter would most likely be out shooting, hunting, fishing, or anywhere he could drink copious amounts of alcohol uninterrupted.
“Do you think we should tell Caroline where we are going?” asked Charles.
Darcy briefly glanced up from what he was doing.
“I think not, Charles,” Darcy replied thoughtfully.
“Really?” Bingley questioned.
Trying to hide his exasperation at Bingley’s naivety, Darcy stopped what he was doing and folded his hands behind his back and took up his usual stance.
“If you wish Miss Bingley to feel slighted by the Bennets for not including her in the invitation, by all means, tell her. Or, perhaps you would like her to come regardless of not being invited and spend what should have been a pleasant afternoon, watching your sister cast disapproving glances at Miss Bennet and her family. The choice is yours, Charles.”
At first, Charles looked wounded by the tone of Darcy’s voice, but as his friends’ words turned into sentences, he saw the wisdom in them and decided that remaining silent was the prudent choice.
“Of course. I had not considered it fully. Thank you, Darcy,” Bingley said meekly.
“A wise choice, my friend,” Darcy replied as he clapped Bingley on the shoulder.
Having decided not to reveal their planned destination to anyone, the footman was told, should anyone ask, that they had gone to inspect the property perimeters and would be gone some time.
The weather outside was still pleasant for late September, and they were in high spirits as they rode the short distance to Longbourn.
Mr Darcy and Charles Bingley arrived promptly at Longbourn that afternoon. Mrs Hill showed them into the best front parlour as the grandfather clock in the hallway struck four.
Mrs Bennet, Jane, and Elizabeth stood and executed their curtsy.
“Mr Darcy, Mr Bingley, how very good to see you again,” said the mistress of the house.
The gentlemen bowed, and when Mrs Bennet gestured for them to be seated, they both accepted her offer.
Unsurprisingly, Mr Bingley took the seat closest to Jane, while Mr Darcy sat in the chair opposite Elizabeth and her mother.
“It was kind of Miss Elizabeth to invite us,” Darcy said evenly.
“Not at all, sir. I was about to invite you myself. You will have to excuse the absence of my younger girls, they have gone to visit Maria Lucas, and they will probably go on into town.”
“It is an excellent day for a walk,” chirped Mr Bingley as he gazed at Jane.
Jane’s cheeks flushed a soft pink as she returned Mr Bingley’s smile.
With his friend completely absorbed with staring at Miss Bennet, Darcy felt compelled to speak for them both.
“And Mr Bennet, will he be joining us?”
“Oh, yes. He is showing the estate ledgers to Mr Collins,” replied Mrs Bennet with a well-timed huff.
“Mr Collins? Ah, yes, your husband’s cousin if I remember correctly.”
“Yes,” she replied and fidgeted in her chair as she concluded, “Mr Collins will inherit Longbourn when Mr Bennet…well…”
Darcy understood that his hostess was embarrassed by this situation, even though it was beyond her control.
“Yes, of course. But let us hope that what will surely be a sad event, will not occur for many years yet.”
Elizabeth felt grateful to Mr Darcy as he eased her mother’s embarrassment, though his remark indicated that he knew at least one of the Bennet girls must make a good match.
The timely arrival of Mr Bennet and Mr Collins saw the dynamics of the room, and the atmosphere in it, change.
Mr Bennet greeted his company and then stood in front of the fireplace as he usually did, but Mr Collins waited to be introduced.
Reluctantly, Mr Bennet did the honours.
“Mr Darcy, this is William Collins, a distant cousin of mine.”
“Mr Darcy, it is a great honour to make your acquaintance. I expect Lady Catherine has mentioned me to you?” Mr Collins said after bowing so low his head almost touched Mr Darcy’s knees.
Darcy studied the strange little man scraping the floor with his knuckles in an exaggerated bow. He had no recollection of his aunt ever mentioning a William Collins.
“And you know Lady Catherine how, sir?”
“Why, I am her new rector, Mr Darcy. I have recently moved into the parsonage that abuts Rosings Park.”
“Her new parson, you say. Her ladyship has not mentioned you to me, but congratulations on your appointment, sir.”
“Are you sure, sir? She often speaks of you,” Mr Collins pressed.
Darcy disliked being questioned at the best of times, and now was no exception.
“I assure you, sir, that Lady Catherine has never mentioned a Mr Collins to me, either in person or correspondence.”
“Well,” Mr Collins said as he dragged a chair from the corner of the room and placed it next to Elizabeth, “when I left Rosings… but two days ago, her Ladyship was in excellent health.”
Darcy felt his ire rise. The fact that this little man dared to speak to him as if they were equals irked him and his presumption regarding his aunt also annoyed him. But his irritation increased ten-fold when he turned to Elizabeth and patted her hand. This over-familiarity was untenable.
Unable to restrain himself, the words were out of his mouth before he could close it.
“So, you are, in fact, an employee of my aunt?”
The room went still, and an awkward silence hung heavy in the air. But Mr Collins saviour came in the unusual form of Mr Bennet.
“No shame in earning an honest crust and doing the Lord’s work at the same time, aye mother?” he asked, turning to Mrs Bennet.
Mrs Bennet was unprepared to be included in the conversation and tripped over her reply.
“Yes…I mean, no…Oh, it is not traded, not as such, is it? Though it does comes with a salary,” she said, sounding confused.
Bingley looked at Darcy, anxiously awaiting his reply.
Bingley’s father had been a tradesman and had been exceedingly successful, making a vast fortune in a relatively short period of time. Nevertheless, he had been a tradesman. A stigma that society still attached to a person who worked in exchange for money, no matter how successful they were. The only time society conveniently overlooked wealth from trade, was when they married that money in exchange for a title.
Darcy realised he had spoken hastily and felt the pressure of his remark on the room. Even Bingley looked at him with concern.
Though apologising did not come easily to him, he made his best effort to smooth things over.
“I meant no disrespect, sir, I was merely stating a fact. So, how fairs my cousin, Anne? Was she also well when you left Kent?”
Mr Collins rattled on for some minutes extolling the virtues of Anne de Bourgh, and the incident seemed to be forgotten.
“So graceful, and accomplished, as her ladyship reminds me almost daily. Oh, yes, I visit Rosings most days,” added Mr Collins proudly when he saw Darcy’s look of surprise. “Her ladyship also takes a keen interest in the content of my sermons. Often, she makes the odd suggestion…or two, though they are mostly of my own invention.”
Mr Collins felt he had revealed too much and was fearful that Mr Darcy might think he was criticising his aunt. He felt the blood rush to his cheeks, and he quickly lowered his eyes.
The ensuing silence after Mr Collins’ statement was intense. He was no longer an object of ridicule. Instead, he was now universally pitied.
“Lady Catherine’s patronage can, at times, seem like a double-edged sword, can it not, Mr Collins,” Darcy said gently.
This statement seemed cryptic to the Bennets as none of them knew of her existence until recently, but Mr Collins understood perfectly. Having Lady Catherine as his patron had afforded him several privileges, but it had also made him realise that the cost of his appointment had been his free will. Lady Catherine not only expected his compliance in all that he did; but demanded it. In fact, it was due to her insistence, that he was now seeking a wife, and again, it was her ladyship that had steered him in the direction of his cousins in Hertfordshire. It will strengthen your lineage and bring you respect by association from the people in your parish. It was the reason he had come to Longbourn in the first place.
“As you say, sir.” Mr Colling replied quietly.
Mrs Bennet did not like the tone of the conversation. She had hoped to promote Jane and Elizabeth to Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy. It had motivated her to dispatch her three youngest children off to Lucas Lodge, even though Mary had protested most fervently that she did not want to waste her time in idle chit-chat with Maria Lucas.
“Well, now, I think it is time for tea. I am quite thirsty from all this chatter. Ring the bell please, Lizzy.”
Jenson opened the door for the maid who was carrying a tray ladened with plates of small sandwiches, cakes, and tarts, while he wheeled in a trolley with the tea service and crockery on it. After laying everything out within easy reach for his mistress, Jenson exited with a curt nod and closed the door behind him.
There was a little small talk as each person was asked and served with tea and treats until only Mr Collins remained to be served.
“And what will you have, Mr Collins?” asked Mrs Bennet.
William Collins had been reprimanded several times by Lady Catherine for taking too much upon his plate. Gluttony is a sin, Mr Collins. As a preacher, you should know this and set an example. Leave the table hungry if you must, but refrain from making an exhibition of your weaknesses, sir.
“I’ll just have a cup of tea, thank you, Mrs Bennet… and perhaps one small egg custard tart.”
Mrs Bennet considered herself a consummate hostess and serving a guest with only one small tart was unheard of.
“One egg tart! Nonsense, Mr Collins, you shall have two at least, sir. And one of these delicious cream puffs.” When the gentleman made to protest, Mrs Bennet raised her hand and said a rather stern voice, “No amount of protesting will make me lessen your serving, Mr Collins. Now, eat up and have a second helping if you like.”
Mr Collins took the plate that was thrust upon him, now almost covered with small dainties. Not to accept would appear ungrateful, he rationalised, and besides, he could not risk offending his hostess.
After almost every morsel had been consumed, the serious business of conversing resumed. The ladies chatted about their latest purchases with an enthusiasm that the men could only admire. Mr Bennet then steered the conversation around to more manly pursuits, such as hunting, fishing, and riding. The men seized this topic with alacrity, leaving the womenfolk wondering why on earth they became so excited about killing animals.
Finally, as propriety dictated, it was time to end their call, and Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy rose to leave.
Mrs Bennet, on the other hand, was not prepared to let two prospective husbands leave without putting up some resistance.
“Well, it has been such a pleasant and jolly afternoon it seems a shame to end it,” and she looked to Elizabeth for support.
“Oh, yes. It has been most entertaining,” Elizabeth said with some embarrassment.
“Well, Mother,” said Mr Bennet, “if Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy have no pressing engagements, why not invite them to dine with us? I will relieve you of their company while you speak with Cook. I am sure she will find a way to stretch whatever delicacy she is serving us tonight. What say you, gentlemen, are you in a rush to return home?”
Each, for his own reason, was eager to accept, and, much to the delight of all the ladies present, they both said they would be delighted.
“Good, I will write a note to Miss Bingley this instance. Now, you gentlemen run along and leave us women to make all the arrangements,” cooed an excited Mrs Bennet.
So, Mr Darcy, Mr Bingley, and Mr Collins, all followed Mr Bennet to his small but well-stocked library.
Mr Bingley and Mr Bennet stood before the long bookcase chatting as they browsed the shelves for something to read.
Electing to sit and collect his thoughts for a moment, Mr Darcy waited while the two men made their selection. He doubted if Bingley had even picked up a book since he had left Cambridge, but it amused him to see his friend trying to impress their host. Next, Mr Darcy watched as Mr Collins quickly selected a book at random, and then surreptitiously moved towards him. Finally, he was so close, Mr Darcy felt compelled to bid him sit with him. It was only later that he cursed the man for his boldness and total lack of common sense. If he had any of the latter, he would have surely known that his next words had shocked Mr Darcy to the core.
“I am here at the insistence of Lady Catherine,” Mr Collins whispered in a conspiratorial tone to Mr Darcy. “Her ladyship has expressed a desire to see me married. I must set an example to my parishioners, you understand.”
“And that is why you have come to Longbourn?” Darcy asked stoically.
“It is. I have already spoken to Mrs Bennet, and she has indicated that both she and Mr Bennet would be happy for me to marry one of their daughters. In fact,” he said, leaning a little too close, “I am going to ask Mr Bennet for his permission to address my future bride directly after breakfast tomorrow.”
“Really? You have made your choice already? I thought you had known the family but a few days, sir?”
“That is true, sir, but from the moment I set eyes on my intended, I knew she was the one for me. So vivacious and entertaining.”
“You are a fortunate man, Mr Collins. I have yet to find my soulmate.”
“Yes, I am indeed a fortunate man, Mr Darcy,” confirmed Mr Collins with an air of smugness.
“May I ask who is to become the future Mrs Collins? Miss Mary Bennet perhaps, or Miss Catherine?” Darcy asked, thinking Lydia too young even for his consideration.
Mr Collins gave a low laugh.
“Heavens, no!” he exclaimed, “my cousins Catherine and Lydia are far too exuberant to suit my needs, sir.”
Darcy felt a tight ball form in the pit of his stomach. With the three youngest Bennet girls out of the running, that left only Jane and Elizabeth. Surely this man could not think him the equal to either of them.
“And your choice, sir, who is it you have decided on?”
“Why, I thought I had made my selection obvious, Mr Darcy. It is Miss Elizabeth, of course.”
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