Chapter Six

Elizabeth visits Mr and Mrs Collins

 

The following Monday Mrs Bennet had the pleasure of receiving her brother and his wife, who came as usual to spend Christmas at Longbourn. Mr Gardiner was a sensible, gentleman-like man. The Netherfield ladies would have had difficulty in believing that a man who lived by buying and selling could be so well-mannered and agreeable. Mrs Gardiner, who was several years younger than Mrs Bennet and Mrs Philips, was a pleasant, intelligent, elegant woman, and a great favourite with her Longbourn nieces, especially the two eldest, who often stayed with her in London.

When Mrs Gardiner had given the presents she had brought with her, and described the newest fashions, she was obliged to listen to Mrs Bennet’s complaints. ‘I’ve suffered greatly since your last visit, sister!’ cried Mrs Bennet. ‘Just imagine! Two of my daughters were very close to marriage – and then – nothing! I do not blame Jane, who would have got Mr Bingley if she could, but Lizzy! Oh, sister! It is hard to think she might have been Mrs Collins by now, if she hadn’t been so obstinate! The result is that Lady Lucas will have a daughter married before me. It makes me quite ill, to have such a disobedient daughter and such selfish neighbours. But your coming just now is a great comfort to me, and I am very glad to hear what you tell us, about long sleeves.’

Mrs Gardiner made a suitably sympathetic reply to her sister-in-law, and later that day found the opportunity to discuss the matter in more detail with Elizabeth, alone. ‘I am sorry for Jane,’ she said kindly, ‘but, Lizzy, these things happen so often! A young man like Mr Bingley frequently falls in love with a pretty girl, and when chance separates them, he forgets her very quickly.’

‘Yes, aunt,’ said Elizabeth, ‘but in this case it was not chance, but the young man’s interfering friends, who separated Jane and Mr Bingley. I’m sure he was violently in love with her.’

‘Poor Jane! She’s so sensitive. I’m afraid she may not get over it for some time. Now, if it had been you, Lizzy, you would have recovered more quickly, by finding humour in the situation. But do you think I could persuade Jane to come back with us to London? Perhaps a change of air would make her feel better.’

Elizabeth was extremely grateful to her aunt for this kind suggestion, and felt sure Jane would gladly agree.

‘I hope,’ added Mrs Gardiner, ‘that she will not be influenced by the hope of seeing the young man. We live in such a different part of town that it is very unlikely they will meet, unless he actually comes to see her.’

‘And that is quite impossible, because his friend Mr Darcy would not allow him to visit so unfashionable an address!’

But despite her protest, Elizabeth secretly thought that Jane might see Bingley in London and that a meeting would probably reawaken his affection for her.

The Gardiners stayed at Longbourn for a week, and Mrs Bennet made sure there was always some entertainment for her brother and sister-in-law. Whenever there was a dinner party at Longbourn House, some of the officers were always invited. Mrs Gardiner, who had noticed that Mr Wickham was a very frequent visitor and that Elizabeth spoke admiringly of him, took care to observe them both.

She saw enough to make her a little anxious, and decided to speak to Elizabeth about him when they were alone. ‘Lizzy,’ she began, ‘I can see that you and Mr Wickham like each other. But I must warn you not to get seriously involved with him. I admit he’s a most interesting young man, but sadly he has no fortune. You are a sensible girl, and must realize that you would disappoint your father by agreeing to marry a penniless young man.’

‘My dear aunt, do not worry. I’ll take care of myself, and Mr Wickham too. He won’t be in love with me, if I can prevent it.’

‘Elizabeth, be serious.’

‘I’m sorry, aunt, I’ll try again. At present I’m certainly not in love with him. But he is by far the most agreeable man I’ve ever met, and if he really loved me … But I would hate to disappoint my father or make any of you unhappy. I cannot promise what I will do, but I will really try to do what I think is wisest. I hope you are satisfied with that.’

Her aunt replied that she was, and received Elizabeth’s thanks for her kind advice.

Several days after this, the Gardiners returned to London, taking Jane with them. The day of Mr Collins’ wedding soon arrived, and Mrs Bennet had to watch Charlotte Lucas become Mrs Collins. Before the bride left Longbourn for Hunsford, however, she asked Elizabeth to come and visit her in her new home as soon as possible. Elizabeth could not refuse, although she did not imagine it would be an enjoyable visit. It was arranged that Elizabeth would accompany Sir William Lucas and Maria, one of his other daughters, on their intended visit to Hunsford in March.

A week after Jane’s departure, Elizabeth received a letter from her sister, saying that she had seen Miss Bingley, and hoped to continue their friendship. Elizabeth shook her head over this. She was not surprised to hear from Jane a few weeks later that Caroline Bingley had made no further attempts to communicate with her former dear friend. Elizabeth was saddened to read of Jane’s disappointment, but felt more cheerful when she told herself that Jane would no longer be deceived - by the sister at least. All expectation from the brother was now absolutely over. As a punishment for him, she seriously hoped he would soon marry Mr Darcy’s sister, who, according to Wickham, would make him quickly regret what he had thrown away.

At about this time, Elizabeth also received a letter from Mrs Gardiner, asking about Wickham, and she was able to reply quite honestly that there was no danger of her marrying him. He had transferred his affections to a Miss King, who had recently inherited ten thousand pounds. Elizabeth saw exactly what was happening, but her heart had only been slightly touched, and she was able to convince herself that it was quite natural for such an agreeable young man to wish for fortune and independence.

January and February passed, and the time for Elizabeth’s visit to Mr and Mrs Collins approached. She had improved the plan, by arranging to spend a night in London at her uncle and aunt’s house, before continuing the journey into Kent. She was very much looking forward to seeing Jane, who was still staying with the Gardiners. The journey seemed long to Elizabeth, because Sir William and Maria had nothing to say worth hearing. But when the coach arrived at the Gardiners’ house at lunch-time, Elizabeth was delighted to see that her sister looked as healthy and lovely as before. In a private conversation with her aunt later, however, Elizabeth discovered that Jane had been suffering from periods of depression, although she always tried bravely to appear cheerful.

The afternoon and evening passed only too quickly, and the next day Elizabeth and the other travellers set off again. When the coach arrived in Hunsford, they were all quite excited to see, on one side of the road, Lady Catherine’s great park, which they had heard so much about. At last, on the other side, they came to the Rectory, where they were warmly welcomed by Mr Collins and Charlotte. Elizabeth was more and more pleased she had come, when she found herself so affectionately received. She saw instantly that marriage had not changed her cousin’s manners. He insisted on greeting them all with formal politeness and long speeches, and showed them round the house, explaining its many good points in exhausting detail. Elizabeth could not help thinking that perhaps he was speaking particularly to her, as if wishing to make her feel what she had lost in refusing him. But although everything seemed neat and comfortable, she was unable to please him with a sigh of regret. In fact, she wondered how Charlotte could look so cheerful, with such a companion. But whenever Mr Collins said anything of which his wife might be ashamed, which was quite often, Charlotte wisely did not appear to be listening. And when Mr Collins showed them proudly round his garden, in which he himself enjoyed working, Elizabeth admired the serious way in which Charlotte praised gardening as a most healthy exercise, and admitted encouraging her husband to work outdoors as much as possible. Elizabeth had to confess to herself that, surprisingly, Charlotte really appeared to be happy. When Mr Collins could be forgotten, the house seemed very pleasant and comfortable, and from Charlotte’s evident enjoyment of her home, Elizabeth supposed he must often be forgotten.

The visitors had only been in the house for a day when a message came from Lady Catherine, inviting them all to dinner at Rosings Park the next day. Mr Collins was delighted, and congratulated his guests on their good luck. ‘I confess that I might have expected her ladyship to invite us all to drink tea at Rosings on Sunday,’ he said. ‘But to invite the whole party to dinner! So soon after your arrival, too! What a generous and considerate lady she is!’

The whole of the rest of that day and the next morning were spent discussing their visit to Rosings. This made Sir William and Maria quite nervous when the moment came to walk across the park and enter the great lady’s house. Elizabeth, however, was unimpressed by what she had heard of Lady Catherine, and remained calm. She was interested to see that Lady Catherine was a tall, large woman, who held herself stiffly and proudly, and received her guests with an air of disdain. She spoke loudly and decidedly on every matter, and was clearly convinced of her superiority over other people. Her daughter, Anne, was completely different – a small, thin, ill-looking lady, who spoke very little, and only in a whisper. The dinner was very good, and was highly praised by Mr Collins. His repeated compliments, which Elizabeth thought were embarrassing, appeared to please Lady Catherine very much. After dinner her ladyship talked continuously, giving her opinions without any fear of contradiction or even comment. She then asked Elizabeth many detailed questions about her education, her sisters, and her father’s income. Although Elizabeth considered these questions extremely personal and almost rude, she answered them politely and calmly. At the end of the long evening, the visitors were driven home in Lady Catherine’s carriage, while Mr Collins praised his patron for her elegance, intelligence and hospitality.

This visit was repeated twice a week, but there was little other entertainment in Hunsford. Elizabeth had pleasant conversations with Charlotte, or read books, or walked along a narrow path by Lady Catherine’s park, which no one else seemed to use. It was a quiet life, but she was satisfied with it.

However, two weeks after her arrival in Hunsford, she heard that some visitors were coming to stay at Rosings. Lady Catherine’s nephew, Mr Darcy, was expected soon, accompanied by his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam. The next day, the two gentlemen arrived, and came almost immediately to the Rectory. Colonel Fitzwilliam was about thirty, not handsome, but very gentlemanly, and he talked pleasantly to the ladies. But Mr Darcy looked as cold and proud as ever, and after greeting Mrs Collins, spoke only a few stiffly polite words to Elizabeth. She took the opportunity of asking him if he had by any chance seen Jane in London recently, and thought he looked a little confused when he answered that he had not had that pleasure.

Soon after that, the two gentlemen returned to Rosings. Colonel Fitzwilliam’s manners were very much admired by the ladies, who felt that he would add considerably to the enjoyment of their evenings at Rosings. But it was not until Easter Day that they received an invitation from Lady Catherine, and when they arrived in her sitting-room, it was clear that she was far more interested in her nephews than in her other guests. Colonel Fitzwilliam, however, seemed really glad to see them, and he came at once to sit beside Elizabeth. They talked so agreeably and amusingly together that Mr Darcy turned his eyes towards them and looked curiously at them several times.

When her ladyship also noticed, she called loudly across the room, ‘Fitzwilliam, what are you talking about with Miss Bennet? Let me hear what it is.’

‘We’re speaking of music, madam,’ he said, when no longer able to avoid a reply.

‘Of music! Then please speak to all of us. I must have my share in the conversation, if you are speaking of music. There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt to play, I would have been a great musician. But I often tell young ladies, practice is very important. I have told Miss Bennet several times that she will never play really well unless she practises more. And she is very welcome to come to Rosings and practise on the piano in the servants’ hall. She won’t be in anyone’s way there, I can promise her.’

Mr Darcy looked a little ashamed of his aunt’s insensitive words. Meanwhile, Colonel Fitzwilliam had persuaded Elizabeth to play some music, and she sat down at the piano. But when she had started playing, Mr Darcy went to stand in front of the piano, where he had a good view of her face. At the end of her first piece of music, Elizabeth said, smiling, ‘You intend to frighten me, Mr Darcy, by coming to listen to me? But I’m obstinate, and won’t be frightened.’

‘I don’t think you really believe I intend to alarm you, and I’ve had the pleasure of knowing you long enough to be aware that you occasionally enjoy stating opinions which are not your own.’

Elizabeth laughed at this picture of herself, and said to Colonel Fitzwilliam, ‘Your cousin will teach you not to believe a word I say. Indeed, Mr Darcy, it is very ungenerous of you to mention all my faults, and perhaps rather foolish too, because I may take my revenge, and tell things about you which your relations will be shocked to hear.’

‘I am not afraid of you,’ said Darcy, smiling.

‘But let me hear your accusation,’ cried Colonel Fitzwilliam. ‘I’d like to hear how he behaves among strangers.’

‘Well, prepare yourself for something very dreadful. The first time I ever saw him was at a ball in Hertfordshire, and at this ball, what do you think he did? He danced only four dances! I’m sorry to cause you pain, but that is what happened. He danced only four dances, although gentlemen were scarce, and to my certain knowledge, more than one young lady was sitting down, waiting for a partner. Mr Darcy, you must admit it.’

‘I had not at that time the honour of knowing anybody at the ball, apart from my own group of friends. I should perhaps have asked to be introduced, but I do not like to recommend myself to strangers. I do not find it easy to talk to people I don’t know.’

‘You don’t want to take the trouble to do it, Darcy, that’s why!’ said Colonel Fitzwilliam.

‘I cannot play this piano as well as some other women,’ said Elizabeth, ‘but I’ve always assumed it is my own fault – because I don’t take the trouble to practise. I know that I am capable of playing as well as anyone.’

Darcy smiled and said, ‘You are perfectly right. You have spent your time in a much better way. No one who hears you could imagine any possible improvement. We neither of us perform to strangers.’

Just then Lady Catherine interrupted them, to comment on Elizabeth’s playing. ‘Miss Bennet would play quite well, if she had a London teacher. Of course, Anne would have been a delightful performer, if her health had allowed her to learn.’

Elizabeth looked at Darcy to see his reaction to Anne de Bourgh’s name, but neither at that moment nor at any other could she observe any sign of love or even interest in his cousin.

Lady Catherine continued to give Miss Bennet advice on her playing, but at the request of the gentlemen, Elizabeth stayed at the piano for the rest of the evening.