Three

Mr Collins visits Longbourn



‘I hope, my dear,’ said Mr Bennet to his wife at breakfast the next morning, ‘that you have told the cook to send up a good dinner today, as I am expecting a visitor.’

‘Who is it, my dear? I know of nobody who is coming, unless Charlotte Lucas happens to call in, and I hope my dinners are good enough for her.’

‘The person I’m talking about is a gentleman and a stranger.’

Mrs Bennet’s eyes shone with excitement. ‘It’s Mr Bingley, I’m sure! Why, Jane, you never mentioned it! Well, I’ll be extremely glad to see him. Lydia, my love, ring the bell. I must speak to the cook at once.’

‘It is not Mr Bingley,’ said her husband. ‘It’s a person whom I have never seen before.’ This caused general astonishment, and he had the pleasure of being eagerly questioned by his wife and five daughters all at the same time. Having amused himself for some time with their curiosity, he finally explained. ‘I have recently received a letter from my cousin, Mr Collins, who, as you know, will inherit all my property when I die, and may throw you out of this house as soon as he wants.’

‘Oh, my dear!’ cried his wife. ‘Please don’t mention that hateful man. It’s the hardest thing in the world to accept the fact that your property is not left to your own children, and I’m sure, if I were you, I’d have tried to do something about it.’

Jane and Elizabeth tried to explain the legal situation to her again. They had often attempted to do this before. But it was a matter which Mrs Bennet refused to understand, and she continued to complain bitterly about Mr Collins.

‘It certainly is most unjust,’ agreed Mr Bennet, ‘and nothing can clear Mr Collins from the guilt of inheriting this house. But if you listen while I read his letter to you, you may perhaps be a little softened by his manner of expressing himself.’ He read aloud the following letter:

 

Dear Sir,

The disagreement between you and my late respected father always worried me, and since his death I have frequently wished to improve the relationship between our families. After a long period of study and training I have recently become a priest, and have been fortunate enough to gain the patronage of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, widow of Sir Lewis de Bourgh. This generous lady has given me the post of rector at Hunsford, which was luckily vacant. Hunsford is the village near her own large country house in Kent. Here I carry out the duties of my profession whenever necessary, and I take great care to behave at all times with grateful respect towards her ladyship. As a priest, moreover, I feel it my duty to encourage all families in my area of influence to live peacefully. Because of this, I flatter myself that I am acting correctly in offering you my friendship. I am of course concerned that when I eventually inherit all your property, your daughters will doubtless be very poor, and I do apologize for this. I promise you I am ready to make amends in every possible way – but more about this later. If you do not object, I propose to visit you and your family on Monday November 18th, at four o’clock, and shall probably stay until the following Saturday week. This will cause me no inconvenience at all, as Lady Catherine is far from objecting to my occasional absence from my duties.

I remain, dear sir, with respectful good wishes to your lady and your daughters, your friend,

         William Collins.

 

‘So we can expect this peace-making gentleman at four o’clock today,’ said Mr Bennet, as he folded up the letter. ‘He appears to be a most polite and serious young man. How considerate of Lady Catherine to allow him to visit us!’

‘Well, if he is ready to make amends to the girls in some way, I shall certainly not discourage him,’ said Mrs Bennet.

‘Although it’s difficult,’ said Jane, ‘to guess how he intends to do that, it’s good of him to want to help us.’

‘I think he’s peculiar,’ said Elizabeth. ‘He sounds too pleased with himself, and he speaks so politely of Lady Catherine! And why does he apologize for inheriting Father’s property in future? We know it’s not his fault. Can he be a sensible man, sir?’ she added, turning to Mr Bennet.

‘No, my dear, I think not. I have great hopes of finding him quite the opposite. There is a mixture of servility and self-importance in his letter, which promises to be entertaining. I am impatient to see him.’

Mary, the middle daughter, who spent most of her time reading and who seldom joined in family conversations, now remarked that in her opinion his letter was well expressed. But Kitty and Lydia did not show any interest in the letter or its writer. As it was highly unlikely that their cousin would arrive in a regimental uniform, they could not imagine having any pleasure in meeting him. Their mother, however, had changed her attitude towards Mr Collins after his letter, and was now preparing to meet him with such calmness that it astonished her husband and daughters.

Mr Collins arrived punctually, and was received with great politeness by the whole family. Mr Bennet indeed said little, but the ladies were ready enough to talk, and Mr Collins did not seem in need of encouragement. He was a tall, heavy-looking young man of twenty-five. His expression was serious, and his manners very formal. Soon after his arrival, he said to Mrs Bennet, ‘Madam, I must compliment you on having such a fine family of daughters. I had heard much of their beauty, but I find them even more beautiful than reports have stated. I do not doubt you will see them all well married quite soon.’

Mrs Bennet never quarrelled with compliments, and she answered, ‘You’re very kind, sir, and indeed I do hope so, because otherwise they’ll have nothing at all to live on.’

‘You refer perhaps to my inheriting the Bennet property?’

‘Ah, yes, sir, I do! You must confess it is a sad business for my poor girls.’

‘I am very aware, madam, of the hardship to your lovely daughters – and could say more about this, but I am cautious of saying too much too soon. But I would like to say that I have come prepared to admire the young ladies. And perhaps when we know each other better—’

The bell rang for dinner, and the family moved into the dining-room with their guest. The girls smiled secretly at each other, as Mr Collins praised the hall, the dining-room and all the furniture. Mrs Bennet would normally have been delighted with such praise, but she could not help thinking that he was perhaps admiring it all as his future property. The dinner, too, he considered excellent, and he asked which of his charming cousins was responsible for it.

But Mrs Bennet explained quite sharply to him that they were very well able to afford a good cook, and that her daughters had nothing to do in the kitchen. He begged her pardon immediately for offending her, and continued to apologize for about a quarter of an hour.

Mr Bennet had hardly spoken up to now, but he thought it was time to enter the conversation. ‘You seem very fortunate in your patron, Mr Collins,’ he said. He could not have chosen a better opening remark.

Mr Collins spoke enthusiastically for several minutes in praise of Lady Catherine. ‘Never in my life have I witnessed such considerate behaviour in a person of high birth! Although she is such a great lady, she has never treated me with disdain. She talks to me almost as an equal, and gives me advice. For example, she has recommended me to marry as soon as possible. And do you know, she has asked me to dinner twice at her house! Some people consider her proud, but she has only ever been kind to me. She even took the trouble to visit my small house, and was thoughtful enough to suggest one or two improvements – some shelves upstairs.’

‘That is very correct and polite, I’m sure,’ said Mrs Bennet. ‘Does she live near you, sir?’

‘Only a small country road separates my poor house from Rosings Park, her ladyship’s home.’

‘I think you said she is a widow? Has she any family?’ ‘She has only one daughter, who will inherit Rosings and all Lady Catherine’s property. A most charming young lady, unfortunately in weak health. I often pay her some little compliment on her appearance or her accomplishments when I visit Rosings. Lady Catherine appreciates these compliments to her daughter, and I see it as my duty to please her ladyship.’

‘I am sure you’re right,’ said Mr Bennet. ‘No doubt you are expert at flattering with delicacy. May I ask how you think of these pleasing compliments?’

‘Some of them come to me at the time, but in my spare moments I do occasionally prepare a few words which may be suitable for different occasions.’

Mr Bennet listened to his cousin with the greatest enjoyment. Mr Collins was as foolish as he had hoped. But by tea-time Mr Bennet had had enough, and after tea, asked his guest to read aloud to the ladies. However, when a novel was handed to Mr Collins, he looked shocked, and protested that he never read novels. He chose a religious book instead, and started reading in a slow, serious voice. Lydia could not hide her boredom for long, and after only three pages she interrupted him rudely, to ask her mother a question about one of the officers in Meryton. Mr Collins was offended, and refused to read any more, although Mrs Bennet and her other daughters apologized for Lydia’s lack of manners.

Mr Collins was not a sensible man, and neither education nor society had improved him. The respect he felt for his patron, and his very good opinion of himself and his new position, made him proud and servile at the same time. Now that he had a home and a considerable income, he had decided to marry. The Bennet girls, who would lose their inheritance because of him, had a reputation for being attractive and charming, and his idea of making amends to them was to marry one of them. He considered this an excellent plan, and thought himself extremely generous and unselfish in carrying it out.

He had known he was right when he arrived at Longbourn and saw Jane Bennet’s lovely face. As the eldest, she should marry first, and for the first evening she was his choice.

But the next morning, after a fifteen-minute conversation with Mrs Bennet, he had to change his mind. When he explained that he was hoping to find a wife among her daughters, she replied, with a happy smile, that her eldest daughter was very likely to be engaged soon. ‘But there are my other daughters, Mr Collins,’ she continued, encouragingly.

Mr Collins had only to change from Jane to Elizabeth, and it was soon done – done while Mrs Bennet was pouring the tea. Next to Jane in birth and beauty, Elizabeth was the obvious choice. Mrs Bennet was delighted, hoping that she might soon have two daughters married. The man whom she had so disliked the day before was now a favourite with her.