The Philips host a party. Some find the company more agreeable than others.
November 20, 1811
“Thank you so much for inviting us.” Lady Lucas kissed Mrs. Phillips’ cheeks.
Charlotte turned away. It was always uncomfortable watching Mama express more warmth than she actually felt.
“It is always a pleasure to host your distinguished husband and your lovely daughters.” Mrs. Philips stepped back and gestured to a tall, heavy looking young man.
He could not be less than five and twenty, but his grave, stately manner lent him a very mature air. He bowed, a stiff, precise movement that had surely been rehearsed to perfection.
“Permit me to introduce a new member of our acquaintance, Mr. Bennet’s cousin, Mr. Collins. He is vicar to Lady Catherine de Bourgh of Rosings Park.”
“We are pleased to make your acquaintance, sir.” Lady Lucas tapped Charlotte with her elbow and they curtsied. “Has Mrs. Collins come with you?”
Charlotte winced. Yes it was an innocent, appropriate question, but when one knew the answer already, was it necessary?
“There is currently no Mrs. Collins, madam, though my esteemed patroness has instructed me that I should find a bride soon.”
“Well you have come to an excellent place to find one, sir. There are many lovely eligible girls here in Meryton, including my dear Charlotte.”
Mrs. Philips pressed her lips and gave Mama a decidedly sour look.
Why did she say such a thing? Charlotte’s face burned hotter than the many candles in the drawing room. With essentially no dowry she was hardly eligible and none but the dearest, most generous of her friends would call her lovely. No, she was at best plain and practical. All Mama had managed to convey was a sense of desperation.
Mr. Collins smiled at her, that same conciliatory smile offered her by the matrons of Meryton and her elderly relations. “It is a pleasure to meet you in person. My fair cousins have told me about their most amiable friend.”
“My nieces are indeed very dear, kind girls, are they not?” Mrs. Philips turned up her nose just a mite. With no daughters of her own she was every bit as attentive to promote the fortunes of the Bennet girls as their own mother.
Charlotte could hardly begrudge her friends their supporters. It was not their fault that there were not enough men for all the single young ladies. No, they all might thank Napoleon for that favor.
More guests pushed through the front door. Mrs. Philips excused herself and dragged Mr. Collins away for more introductions.
Mama pulled out her fan and drew Charlotte into the drawing room. “He would be a very suitable match for you.”
“You well know his intentions. It could hardly be suitable to throw myself at him under the circumstances.”
“I am not so certain the opinions he states are his own. I suspect they are ones given him by his patroness, his desires for ease and comfort, and the artful hints and suggestions of Mrs. Bennet herself.”
Charlotte’s eyes bulged. Pray, no one was looking her way now! “How can you say such things? You have only just met the man.”
“I may have only just met this man. But I have known a great many men. Have you forgotten I have nine brothers? Trust me, I know a simple, easily governed man when I see one. Mr. Collins is exactly one of that sort. You would do very well with him, indeed.”
“But he is not—”
Mama grasped Charlotte’s wrist hard. “I know what he says, but I also know what he will do. Jane is all but spoken for; he will not have the spleen to challenge for her and can you see him with Eliza? She would not have him even if he had the bollocks to ask.”
“Forgive me dear. You are quite right.” She sucked in a deep breath and straightened her shoulders. “Still though, I do not think even Mrs. Bennet and the threat of destitution could bring Mr. Collins and Eliza together. Which brings us to Mary.” Mama glanced about the room.
She need not have bothered. A quick listen located Mary at the pianoforte.
“Mary is your true rival for him. It is to your disadvantage that she plays and studies Fordyce, gah! She is a dreadful bore, while you have a charming disposition and practicality that any man would value.”
“You make us sound like goods on a market shelf.”
Mama glared. She probably would have pinched Charlotte’s arm had they not been in a crowded room.
“Our one hope is that Mrs. Bennet ignores Mary as she usually does so Mr. Collins does not turn to her when Eliza refuses him.”
“I cannot believe you would be planning his choice of bride within minutes of meeting him, much less instructing me on how to steal a prospect from my best friend.”
Mama clenched her hand and fluttered her fan a little faster. “Go watch your friend and you will see clear as I do. You will do her a favor diverting his attentions from her. It is obvious she does not want them. Go, go.” She shooed Charlotte away. “Mrs. Goulding, how lovely to see you this evening…”
Charlotte slipped away and hugged the edge of the room, not an entirely unfamiliar position. People clustered in groups around the drawing room, making small talk and sharing pleasantries. Eliza was engaged with several of the officers and Lydia and Kitty. Probably just as well, all things considered. It was not as if she could walk up to Eliza and ask her opinions. In that, Mama was correct. The best she could do was carefully observe and draw her own conclusions.
Mr. Collins approached the group, apparently eager to engage them in conversation. Eliza’s countenance lost its bloom. She really must learn not to roll her eyes so. Perhaps she considered herself discreet, but at least to a dedicated observer, she was not.
Mr. Collins, though, appeared oblivious to the amused reactions he garnered, not just from Eliza, but from all within earshot. Was it good manners or a level of unawareness rarely seen outside the very young? Both were certainly a possibility.
Miss Long took Mary’s place at the pianoforte, and the entire company paused briefly to take note.
Eliza approached her, hands extended. Oh, Charlotte, how I have missed your company.”
“Indeed? You seemed to enjoy at least some of your conversation a great deal.”
Eliza glanced over her shoulder toward the corner where Mr. Wickham chatted with Lydia and Kitty. “Some of it has been quite pleasing. Have you been introduced to my cousin, Mr. Collins yet?”
“We were introduced when we arrived.” Charlotte tipped her head toward the fireplace.
Mr. Collins, Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Phillips gathered there, speaking far too loudly.
So, that particular mannerism was not confined to the Gardiner branch of the family. For all his propensity to judge failures of propriety, Mr. Bennet’s family was not without its transgressors.
“So then you have heard a great deal about he wonders of Lady Catherin de Bourgh and Rosings Park in Kent.” Eliza rolled her eyes.
“I believe he made mention of his pleasing circumstances.”
“You are too kind, Charlotte, far too kind.”
“I cannot think it a good thing to so quickly form a prejudice against one I have only just met.”
“After a full two days in his company—and I do mean two full days. I believe I have sufficient grounds to declare him a unique and peculiar man.”
“But would not his patroness’s approbation suggest—”
“Yes, I suppose you make an excellent case. I will allow him to be a tolerably good fellow, quite, unlikely to cause harm to anyone.” Eliza’s cheek dimpled and she cast about the room. “It seems Maria has wasted no time becoming acquainted with the officers.”
“I think few young ladies are immune to their charms.”
“Unfortunately my mother is among those still.” Eliza fluttered her hand before her face in an amazing imitation of Mrs. Bennet. “I had quite a fondness for a red coat in my day.”
“I know, I know, I should not speak so. Forgive me. I am not quite myself.”
Mrs. Philips bustled up to them. “We are short a player for a hand of whist. Can I persuade you to join us Lizzy?”
Eliza’s eyes widened and she glanced about the room like an animal trapped.
“I think I should very much enjoy a hand of cards.” Charlotte dipped her head at Eliza and made her way to the card table where Papa and Mr. Collins already chatted amiably.
Eliza mouthed a tiny ‘thank you’ and scurried off whilst Mrs. Philips sputtered.
“Are you going to join us at cards, Charlotte, dear?” Papa asked. “I did not think you would prefer cards to a conversation with your friends.”
“Mrs. Philips suggested you might be in need of another player to fill out the table.” She sat down. Best not to acknowledge the tension that radiated from her hostess in waves like heat from a hob.
“Indeed we are.” Mrs. Philips sat across from Mr. Collins and handed him a deck of cards.
Their white backs were stained in places and some of the edges were worn. Mr. Collins shuffled awkwardly, but at least he did not drop the cards.
“My patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh makes it a point to open a new deck of cards for every card table she hosts. She is the soul of generosity.”
Mrs. Philips smiled a tightly strained expression that seemed to reflect her patience more than her good humor. Eliza wore that same expression at times.
“Rosings Park, we are given to understand is a very fine place indeed,” Mrs. Philips muttered.
“I am sure it is, very sure.” Papa said.
“I do not mean to draw ill comparisons to your very fine establishment. By no means. I feel quite as if I have been welcomed to the small and intimate breakfast parlor at Rosings. Lady Catherine favors that room in the spring and summer.”
Mrs. Philips feathers ruffled and she twitched like an angry hen.
“Please, madam, you must understand the chimney-piece alone in her favorite drawing room cost eight hundred pounds. Her taste is the most refined and elegant in all of England, to be sure. It is indeed the highest compliment I might offer to compare anything favorably with Rosings. I indeed regard it the highest of condescension that she herself has planned all the improvements in my own humble abode.”
“Oh, now I see. I believe I had misunderstood your intent, but I do understand there was no slight intended at all.” The tension in Mrs. Philips’ shoulders eased.
So, Mr. Collins was not entirely insensitive to the feelings of others. Had Eliza recognized that?
Mrs. Philips tapped the table. “Perhaps we should play Mr. Collins?”
“Perhaps so, but I should like to hear more about Rosings and your establishment there.” Charlotte leaned forward a little.
Mrs. Philips brows rose. “Miss Lucas, you are all politeness and curiosity.”
“Charlotte certainly knows how to make people feel welcome, the spit and image of her mother, the consummate hostess.”
“Please, Papa, it is not seemly to offer such complimens,t particularly in public.” Charlotte’s cheeks burned but at least Papa was all kindness and affability. Unlike Mr. Bennet.
“Your humility does you credit, Miss Lucas. It is after all one of the chief of virtues in a young woman.” Mr. Collins handed the shuffled deck to Mrs. Philips.
A warm little place filled within her heart. Compliments like his were so rare—was this the way one normally responded?
“Lady Catherine has been so generous and solicitous to my wellbeing—she is so attentive to such things you know. No detail in the parsonage is below her notice. She even saw to the fitting of the closet with shelves. Everything is arranged with all proper attention to my station, neither too high nor too low. Imagine my relief—for I am a bachelor and know little of keeping an establishment— to know everything is in right and proper order.” Mr. Collins’s chest puffed up a little and he picked up his hand.
As they played, he continued his glowing descriptions of the work done on his home and the generosity of his patroness.
To be sure, abundant elements of the ridiculous surrounded every word he said. But through that, and undertone of satisfaction, even joy in the situation of his life spoke as well.
How very agreeable to be so satisfied so early in one’s life. He was fortunate to be so young and already so settled, and in such a pleasant sounding situation.
“Mr. Collins, the suit is hearts.” Mrs. Philips rapped the card on the table.
“Forgive me, madam.” Tiny beads of sweat dotted his upper lip. “I know little of the game at present, but I shall be glad to improve myself to learn more if you will but instruct me.”
Charlotte folded her hand and placed it on the table. “Perhaps we should begin again and change partners. Papa is an excellent player, and I am not at all opposed to assisting a less certain player through the finer parts of the game.”
Mrs. Philips bristled, eyes glittering like a hen about to peck. “There is no need—”
“What a very generous and thoughtful offer. I should hate to be a strain upon our generous hostess’s good graces.” He rose.
Papa did like-wise and changed places with him. Mrs. Philips muttered protests but Papa gathered the old hand up, shuffled and re-dealt the game.
Charlotte picked up her cards and smiled at Mr. Collins.
Some of the tension in his face eased and he settled more comfortably in his seat.
She played her first card, along with a mild comment about the rules of play.
Mrs. Philips huffed under her breath, but Mr. Collins nodded, granted a bit too vigorously, and on his next turn, played very well indeed.
A little congratulation, a reminder of rules now and then, and an occasional raised eyebrow or tap on the table rendered him a tolerable player.
Was he naturally observant and pliable, or was he hungry to be given an example of right conduct. Not that it particularly mattered, both were agreeable qualities.
At the end of the rubber, Mary Bennet moved to the piano in the corner. Lydia and Maria demanded she play a tune for dancing.
“I think dancing, in a private home, such as this, in so agreeable a company, to be a very appropriate occupation for young persons.”
“I find dancing quite agreeable.” Charlotte stood.
Mr. Collins scanned the room. Eliza was already lining up with one of the officers and Jane with Charlotte’s own brother.
The corner of Mr. Collins’ eyes drooped just a mite.
Rejection was hard, even when you never actually asked.
Jane looked toward them. “We need another couple for the set.”
“Would you care to dance, Miss Lucas?” he asked, still staring at Eliza and Jane.
Yes, Eliza and Jane were the prettiest, most eligible girls in the neighborhood, and they were his cousins who would suffer when he inherited Longbourn. It was entirely right and proper that he should look to them first.
But they did not seem to like him and she…well she just might. She took his arm on the way to the impromptu dance floor. Eliza and Jane certainly had first claims on Mr. Collin’s interests, but if they relinquished them…it might be a very pleasing possibility.