Fitzwilliam sets upon a course of action, but is it the right one?
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Some might construe that she deserved Collins’s correction, but some might equally construe that it was Fitzwilliam’s fault that she was put in such a position in the first place. He raked his fingers through his hair, ruining his valet’s careful work. Had he behaved in a more civilized fashion in the first place, she would never have had reason to address him in the manner she had.
And in truth, she had been right. A Colonel of His Majesty’s army should be in better control of himself.
What would Michaels do when, not if, but when he found out?
Great heavens! That might be the final straw for him. That was not to be borne…
He scrubbed his lips with his palm. Why had Darcy never told him how many personalities were involved in managing an estate? Father had never dealt with such things, had he?
No, he was above managing such things himself. That is what the steward did whilst he was away—as he was a great deal of the time. How often Father criticized Darcy for spending so much time at Pemberley, sullying his hands with the management of the place. Was that why Pemberley ran so well? Father had always said it was that Darcy had a particular knack for finding good stewards.
Why did this have to be so ruddy complicated?
The parsonage rose up on the horizon, quaint and covered with roses and ivy. Such a pretty looking little place for such an odious man.
Collins himself—lovely chap and gracious host that he was—met them at the door.
“Colonel Fitzwilliam? How good of you to call upon us this morning.” Collins took Fitzwilliam’s hat and coat and handed them to the flustered housekeeper, all the while glowering at Mary. “I pray my cousin has not been a trial to you.”
“Her company has been most pleasant, I assure you. I fear I am the one who disturbed her when she would rather have been left alone.” Fitzwilliam took her sweat-marked spencer and bonnet despite her protests and passed them to the housekeeper.
“Shall we adjourn to my study, sir?” Collins turned his shoulder to Mary.
“I do have several matters I wish to consult with you on, but I should rather include Mrs. Collins and Miss Bennet as well. I would find their insight quite valuable.”
“Certainly, certainly, sir. This way, please.” Was Collins speaking through gritted teeth? He ushered them to the back of the house.
The room was furnished as a woman’s parlor—a rather ugly one—but what an odd arrangement to locate such a room with such an unattractive view? Why would the man’s study face the road and the favorable prospect? Fitzwilliam gritted his teeth. It would be a joy to see him replaced by a curate.
Mrs. Collins pushed up awkwardly from the couch, her increasing belly left her ungainly, like some sort of large sea creature washed up on the shore.
“Pray, madam, do not rise on my account.” Fitzwilliam waved her down.
“Mrs. Collins!” Collins glowered as she lowered herself.
Mrs. Collins and Mary jumped.
“Are you contradicting me?” Fitzwilliam pulled himself up a little taller and adjusted his voice to a tone more appropriate to drilling men.
“By no means, sir.” Collins hopped several steps back.
His reaction should not be so satisfying.
“Shall I ask the housekeeper for refreshments?” Mary glanced back at Mrs. Collins.
The now pale woman nodded. “I would appreciate it.”
Mary ducked around him and left the room.
“Pray, sit down, sir. We are at your disposal for whatever you may need. I am honored that you would consider my assistance useful in any manner.” Collins bowed deeply.
Fitzwilliam turned the largest chair in the room to face Mrs. Collins and settled into it with far more ceremony than necessary. But it seemed to make an impression on Collins, and that was his purpose.
Mary scurried back in and perched on the couch beside Mrs. Collins. Collins stood beside them, hand lightly on the couch back, clearly waiting with bated breath.
Fitzwilliam leaned back and crossed his legs. “I have several matters on my mind this morning. I think perhaps you and your wife may be particularly suited to assist me with them. To start, I would seek your advice in dealing with a particularly … sensitive matter on the estate.”
“Certainly sir, I am most obliged to offer what wisdom I may.”
One must not roll one’s eyes. It did nothing to maintain a look of authority in any situation.
“It has recently come to my attention, quite accidently, that one of the tenants of the estate has been behaving in a way I most heartily disapprove of. I suppose by strictest definitions, he has done nothing wrong, but I find his behavior abhorrent, so much so that I should wish him off the estate immediately, should I have my way. But, there are of course those who depend upon him who might be injured if they were suddenly uprooted.”
“Might I ask sir, the nature of the man’s transgressions? I am certain that your judgement of what is acceptable on Rosings Park is by all means good and correct. I only ask as a means of helping me to determine how the matter may be approached, you see.”
It would be a delight to see that ghastly self-satisfied expression fade away. Hopefully very soon.
“Of course.” Fitzwilliam rose and paced along the length of the room, feeling Collins’ eyes following his every step. “You must understand. I am not opposed to a show of force when that is the only means by which a wrong may be righted. My service in France should make that point very clear. There are some situations which might only be met with a show of force to stop a very great wrong.”
“Absolutely, sir. I do not believe any would question the rightness of that action.”
“However,” Fitzwilliam turned very slowly until he was facing Collins, looking him square in the eye. “I find it repulsive and cowardly when force is used against a weaker party. There is never an excuse for a proper gentleman to use force against one whose position is weaker than his own. That is not only ungentlemanly, it is unmanly and not to be borne. I know you must agree with me, I do not mean to belabor the point.”
Collins ran a finger around the inside of his collar and tugged it away from his throat.
Excellent! No more self-satisfaction. What would one call that? Mounting anxiety, perhaps?
Fitzwilliam resumed his pacing. “Quite by accident, I came across a scene I quite disliked. One of the men of the estate enacted violence against one of the members of his family. No doubt the whole affair would have been hidden from me, if possible, but as it was, I came upon it and witnessed the evidence with my own eyes.”
“Perhaps there was further provocation than you know, sir. It is necessary for a man to keep his household in order.” Collins’ eyebrows rose as he cocked his head.
“I thought that might be the case, but upon investigation, I can only conclude it was a brutish show of temper, designed only to bring ease to the man. The other party behaved themselves entirely correctly and was not at all deserving of the treatment.”
Mary’s face colored, and she stared at her hands. Mrs. Collins looked back and forth from her husband to Mary.
“I should very much like to remove the brute from my estate and never see him return again.”
Mrs. Collins’s eyes bulged, and she pressed a hand to her chest. Poor woman had far greater sense than her shallow-pated husband.
“Perhaps, sir, that is too harsh considering the circumstances. You have not said there was very great injury involved.” Mary whispered, a little look of pleading in her eyes.
Did she not realize this was for her benefit? Difficult woman!
“In truth, I am not entirely certain of the extent of the injuries, nor do I know for how long this has been going on.” He clasped his hands behind his back and clucked his tongue.
Dr. Grant from Cambridge would be proud to be aped so well.
“Perhaps one should assume the best under the circumstances?” Miss Bennet’s voice trailed off as Collins turned a glower on her.
Fitzwilliam cleared his throat hard. “And simply forget it all? No, I can hardly abide such a suggestion. That would leave me to do nothing, and I am a man of action.”
“Then perhaps the minimum action possible, a word of warning, perhaps, a gentle word of warning.”
“Cousin, I am quite certain the colonel is in no way interested in your opinions—”
Fitzwilliam leaned forward, turning a shoulder to Collins. “Are you suggesting that he might be apt to behave better were I simply to warn him it was necessary?”
“I have known that approach to work.”
“Then you have dealt with a far different sort of person than I. Most only respond to threats and consequences.”
Mary bit her lip and looked away.
“As I was saying, Colonel, it is my opinion—”
He caught Collins’ gaze and held it in a crushing grip. One, two, three … ten measured breaths, until Collins’ face turned ashen, and he withered.
Better, much better.
“Perhaps, Miss Bennet, if you are so certain, I shall give your approach a try first. Then, if it proves unsuccessful, I can resort to measures more comfortable to a soldier. After all, I have great admiration for your advice and your wisdom. You are a font of good sense and it behooves one to pay attention to…”
Mary sprang to her feet and met the housekeeper at the doorway. Those were not the steps of a woman who was pleased with him.
Perhaps he was laying it on a bit thick, but Collins was no smart man and subtlety would surely be lost on him.
Mary brought the tray and placed it on the table nearest Mrs. Collins.
“Tea, Colonel?” Mrs. Collins’ face flushed to match Mary’s.
“Thank you very much.” Fitzwilliam returned to his seat. Perhaps for the ladies’ sake he should change the subject. He took a plate of dainties from Mrs. Collins. Nothing fancy, a few things thrown together at the last moment, probably under Mary’s direction. A passible enough show of hospitality considering the moment.
Damned efficient woman.
Tea in hand, Collins managed to find a chair for himself. Sweat trickled down the side of his face, and he kept his face turned aside from Mary. As dense as he was, perhaps the message had gotten across.
“Was there another matter on your mind, Colonel?” Mary’s teacup rattled subtly in her hand.
“Indeed, Miss Bennet. I have a favor to ask of you and Mrs. Collins.”
Collins jumped, knocking a biscuit off his plate. “A favor? Whatever it is, she will be happy to accommodate whatever you should ask.”
“Whilst I appreciate your enthusiasm, sir, I would much prefer to hear from Mrs. Collins after I have explained the nature of my request.” Fitzwilliam drummed his fingers along the side of his tea cup. “As I am certain you all are aware, Lady Catherine’s condition does not improve, and Mrs. Jenkinson has made it clear that she is not at all up to the task of managing her care any longer. She will be in need of another companion or, perhaps more properly a nurse, very soon. I do not know the first thing about how to request such a service nor what qualities to consider for such a position. Both of you ladies seem much more adept at managing Lady Catherine’s needs than I, particularly you, Miss Bennet.”
Collins’ hand flew up, just the way he emphasized a point during his sermons. Far too dramatic for Fitzwilliam’s liking. “Cousin Mary is indeed the embodiment of compassion and understanding for her ladyship. I am quite certain she would be happy to fulfill the commission—”
“Excuse me, Mr. Collins. Have you forgotten Michaels is to take her as his bride very soon?”
“But what is marriage to the opportunity to serve—”
Fitzwilliam slammed his hands on the arm of the chair. “Enough man! Are you daft? I am not asking for her to be Lady Catherine’s companion, but for her and Mrs. Collins’s assistance in finding one! Would you make inquiries on my behalf and make recommendations on how to fill the position?”
Collins jumped back in his seat, jaw agape. Was he really that thick?
Mrs. Collins glanced at Mary. “I … we … would be honored to assist in any way we can, sir.”
“Certainly they will.” Collins bowed from his shoulders. “And if there is any way in which I might offer my own wisdom—”
“The ladies, I believe, are much more able to understand the needs of a woman at this time and stage of life. I am certain they are entirely up to the task without your interference, Mr. Collins. Keep yourself to the concerns of the parish and allow the ladies to manage this task on their own. I shall be very displeased, Mr. Collins, if I hear you have been meddling in their business.”
Great lord above! He sounded just like Aunt Catherine!
“Of course, sir, of course. I would never meddle. I only want to insure—”
“Then follow my instructions and let them be about their business.” Fitzwilliam slapped the chair arms again.
“As you say, sir, as you say.” More bowing.
“We are honored that you would trust us with such an important task.” Mrs. Collins wrung her hands in her lap.
“With your permission, sir, I shall enquire of my sister, Mrs. Darcy as well—”
Collins whirled on Mary. “You will do no such thing. What has she to do with Rosings? You know how Lady Catherine feels about her!”
“Hush, Collins! Please continue, Miss Bennet.” Fitzwilliam gripped the arms of his chair until he lost feeling in his fingertips.
Mary stared at her hands. Clearly she was still afraid of him. “I only thought Mrs. Darcy, with her connections in society, might know of appropriate candidates for the position: widows of good character, spinsters whose brothers may no longer need their assistance.”
“Excellent notion. I know of no one with so much good sense. Ideas like that are exactly why I have asked for your assistance. In fact, you have given me an outstanding thought of my own. I should like to invite you to Rosings as Lady Catherine’s guest, whilst you engage in this favor. It is only fitting that you should enjoy Rosings’ hospitality whilst you extend such efforts on our behalf.”
Mary swallowed hard but did not look entirely pleased with the suggestion. Contrary creature, what was there not to appreciate?
“Sir, I … I do not know what to say. It is entirely unnecessary. I am quite able to engage in those efforts here, with Mrs. Collins.”
“Nonsense. Mrs. Collins is most welcome to come to Rosings to work with you. I shall see one of the small sitting rooms upstairs made into an office for your use. I would not wish to see Mr. Collins disturbed. I know that you have parish business to attend. Nothing should distract you from your sacred tasks.”
“You are most generous, Colonel Fitzwilliam.” Collins’s voice was strained and tight, but what could he possibly say?
“Then it is settled. I shall send a servant for your trunk. Shall I tell Mrs. Jenkinson and Lady Catherine to expect you for tea this afternoon?”
Mary glared at him.
So blasted difficult.
“Excellent. This afternoon then”. He rose, bowed, and left.
The housekeeper hurried to hand him his coat and hat, but he did not pause to put them on. Better to be out of the vicarage as quickly as possible. A moment longer in Collins’ proximity and he might be driven to violence himself. How had Aunt Catherine settled upon him for the living? More importantly, how soon might a curate be hired and Collins sent packing to his new estate in Hertfordshire?
How does Mary feel about his gracious offer? Tell me in the comments.