Ok, so I’m not being very patient. I can’t wait to share these with you. So, I’ll be posting a new chapter every two weeks on Saturday until the book is published. (Don’t forget, comments really do inspire me to write faster…just saying…)
Find previous chapters HERE
The door clattered open and heavy footfalls, familiar ones, clattered in.
Of course, who else?
At least he might be pressed into service, carrying mama’s order. That was something. A very little something, but something.
“Cousin Elizabeth,” he gasped and panted, “I am glad to have finally found you. Your sisters are gone ahead, to the vintner I believe. We should hurry to catch up to them before … before …”
“I am quite certain no calamity will befall them before the chandler brings Mama’s order out.” She turned her shoulder and stepped toward the counter at the back wall of the shop.
He followed too closely.
“I did not realize you were waiting on the shopkeeper.”
What else did he think she was doing here? Playing buffy gruffy among the candlesticks?
She bit her lip. The man did not understand sarcasm, so any clever remark would be wasted upon him.
“Mr. Wickham has gone on with your sisters as well.” Mr. Collins straightened his back and dusted off the edge of his coat.
“So then they are well escorted. With four officers to guard them, I hardly think Kitty and Lydia will come to any harm.” She laughed and tried to ignore him edging slightly closer, enough for their elbows to touch.
“That was not my concern.”
She sidled away. “If you have something to say, sir, perhaps you should come out and speak more—”
“Here we are, Miss Bennet, exactly as your mother requested.” The chandler trundled out, several packages in his arms. He handed them to Mr. Collins. “I trust you will find it all to your, and her, satisfaction.”
“I am sure we will. Good day.”
“Good day to you and to your little pretty as well.” He waved fingertips at April who cheeped prettily.
Mr. Collins shuffled after her, tucking packages awkwardly under his arm as they went.
She hurried toward the vintner, but Mr. Collins managed to catch up, with enough breath left to talk.
Blast and botheration. At least he kept his peace as a group of other shoppers trundled past.
“About your sisters, Cousin Elizabeth, their behavior is positively wild.”
“I wonder that you should speak to me about it. Are they not my parents’ responsibility?” She stared resolutely ahead. If she caught his gaze there would be no controlling her expression.
“Indeed they are. That is true.”
“And is it not my duty as a daughter to honor my parents?”
“Yes, of course. It is to your credit that you should see it so.”
“And would it not dishonor them to take their place in correcting my sisters in their actions and attitudes, usurping as it were their authority?”
Mr. Collins’ jaw dropped and bobbed open and shut rather like a large trout on a hook.
“So you must agree, that what you suggest, whilst you might find it pleasing and expedient, is in fact completely at odds with the values and principles you must teach in your own sermons. I can in no way do what you ask without compromising the values you and I hold dear.”
His eyes bulged to complete his convincing impressing of a gaping fish.
April snorted in her ear, and Elizabeth increased her pace. Hopefully that would relieve Mr. Collins of any excess breath for speaking.
“You are a very fast walker, cousin.” He huffed beside her.
If only the vintner had been just a bit further way.
Lydia and Kitty burst out of the shop, packages carried by Denny and Carter. The merry little party laughed and carried on with voices far too loud for any definition of proper behavior.
Across the street, a party of matrons stopped and stared, whispering among themselves.
Why did Mr. Collins have to be right? He would certainly never hear that admission from her, though.
At least he could not get a word into the conversation with rapid banter flying between Lydia and the officers. Kitty managed the occasional remark, but generally she was not quick enough to keep up. Good thing Mary had not come along, she did not do well in such conversations.
The trip to the butcher’s was mercifully quick. The officers announced their intention of escorting the ladies home. Elizabeth tried to stay close to Kitty, but Mr. Collins lingered behind the group and signaled Elizabeth to walk with him.
“Just ignore him. It is easy enough to pretend you did not see,” April whispered from the depths of her hood.
“But I did see, and he knows that I saw. It is a hopeless business. He will express his displeasure to Mama and Papa if I do not comply and they will in turn express it to me. I do not have the wherewithal to experience that again, at least not right now.” Elizabeth slowed until Mr. Collins caught up with her.
“I believe you are correct, cousin. I thank you for drawing it to my attentions. I should address your parents. It does you credit to suggest it. I acknowledge your wisdom and will do as you recommend immediately upon our return to Longbourn.”
She squeezed her eyes shut. There was no way that would turn out well. Mama would be offended, though she would pretend not to be for politeness sake. Papa would listen, then turn him out of the study and lock the door, never admitting him again—which would leave him squarely for the ladies to entertain.
Oh, what joy would be hers.
“Lady Catherine will surely be pleased to learn of your insight and your deference to your elders. Exactly the kind of behavior she most approves of in those in her domains.”
Was he describing a woman or a dragon?
A shudder snaked down her spine. If she married him, would she have to spend time at Rosings and face the demands of another peevish dragon? From his description of its keeper, Rosings sounded every bit as petulant as Longbourn.
She swallowed hard and forced her lips into a small smile, as befitted the compliment Mr. Collins intended to offer.
“There is though, a wee matter of concern that I would speak to you about.” He held up thumb and forefinger.
What whim of Lady Catherine did he expect her to cater to … no, something in his eyes suggested it was nothing so simple or straightforward. She stumbled over a small stone.
He reached for her elbow to steady her, but she caught her balance and pulled away before he could touch her. April flapped her wings for balance and hissed at Collins as he passed too close to her.
He swatted at April.
Elizabeth ducked and dodged his flailing, but slipped on the gravel and bounced hard on her shoulder.
“Cousin Elizabeth!” Collins dropped to his knees beside her, reaching for her hand.
Elizabeth scrabbled back. “Pray leave me be!”
Collins jumped back hands in the air.
“Are you all right?” She searched over her shoulder for April.
April peeked out of her hood. “I am well. Please get me away from him.” She trembled against Elizabeth.
She scooped up the tiny dragon and clutched her against her chest. “I would thank you to keep a distance. You could have injured both of us.”
“Pray forgive my clumsiness, but no harm has been done. You are uninjured, are you not?”
“My shoulder will be worse for the wear, no doubt. But it is April—”
“That is precisely what I have wished to talk to you about. That creature of yours.”
“That creature, as you call her, has been my companion since I was ten years old and I would thank you to treat her with a little more respect.” She pushed to her feet and dusted sharp bits of gravel from her skirt.
Oh, the shoulder would need a hot compress tonight!
“It is not natural to be so attached to an animal. It is not right, even with one so unnaturally long lived. I can see you are fond of the little thing, but do you not think it is time to pursue more grown up concerns?”
Every muscle tensed and trembled. “I have not the pleasure of knowing what you are talking about, sir. Companion animals are quite common in society. How many have dogs or cats? How is April any different? I cannot help but imagine that even Lady Catherine might keep such a creature.”
His face shifted just slightly. “She does not permit it to ride upon her person, nor does it follow her everywhere she goes. The creature has a proper—containment—outside where such creatures belong. She does not talk to the bird as though it were a person—she hardly visits it at all.”
“What kind of bird does she keep?”
“Some sort of fancy feathered chicken I suppose. It boasts a feathered headdress many women admire and tail feathers an arm’s length long. I have never seen the likes of one before—very rare I am told. It is a mark of her superior rank that she has it at all. The cage sits on the road to the main house and all who drive past may see the exotic livestock she possesses.”
A cockatrix? The woman had a cockatrix for a Dragon Friend? The most difficult and arrogant of the minor dragons? The cockatrix were said to be well aware of their rarity and proud of it—at one time almost driving the cockatrice race into extinction because of their reluctance to accept any but the most superior males.
She pressed her forehead. Of course. Of course, it had to be.
“But the relevant point here is that she treats it as an animal, not a person.”
No, the relevant point was that Lady Catherine was excellent at hiding the true nature of her friend and their relationship. No cockatrix would tolerate the treatment Collins implied.
Heavens, a harridan, a cockatrix and a fire drake—what kind of place must Rosings Park be?
“Cousin, are you listening to me?” He leaned far too close to her face.
“Of course I am. I was carefully considering your words.”
“Then you will do as I ask and relegate that bird to her cage.”
She jumped back. “Absolutely not. As long as fine Ladies carry about their pugs, then I shall keep April with me.”
Collins’ face screwed into tight knots as he ground his teeth. “That was not a request.”
“You have no claim over me to be making such requests.”
“I insist you hear me out. You do not understand what detriment that creature and all your talk of dragons is doing to you.”
The blood drained from her face. Oh, for something she could lean upon until the dizziness passed. “What are you talking about?”
“That story you told your young cousins at Christmas. Dragons, the Blue Order and whatever other nonsense you were filling their heads with.”
“That story was for the children and the children alone.”
“You have no business plying them with silliness and hoping they will grow into sensible beings. Already they are confused and deluded. One of the boys and the girl were calling their ridiculous little bird a tiny dragon. They even called the housekeeper’s cat a dragon. What nonsense! Are you so absorbed in yourself that you cannot see how you are harming the children? They even call your bird a dragon and claim that she can talk.” He threw a hand in the air.
Did he do that for emphasis when he preached, too? Vicars who did that were so distracting and annoying.
“And they had told you this? They have come up and shared with you this intelligence?”
“No, I do not talk to children. But they are allowed to roam the house freely enough. It is difficult not to hear their—”
“Their play, Mr. Collins. That is what it is called, play and imagination. Something that is utterly normal and even considered good and appropriate by some.”
“Perhaps by liberal philosophers, but not by me. They should be taught sense and reality, not this frivolous fancy. I am sure their father will agree with me, and I will seek him out if necessary.”
“To make you stop with all this fanciful dragon nonsense and to stop the horrible example you set with that bird. They are starting to permit their creature the same indulgences yours is allowed. Disgraceful!”
“So that is what I am to you, disgraceful? It is a wonder then that you are even speaking with me. Do you not fear that you will taint your reputation with Lady Catherine? That she might not approve of the company you are keeping in me?”
“That is not at all what I meant. Not at all. Perhaps I should have taken time to first compliment your many perfections. I am told young females appreciate such things. Then allow me to begin again. Your person, your intelligence, your manners are all very agreeable—most agreeable.” His eyes raked her up and down.
She wrapped her cloak tightly around herself.
“The only faults I can find in you are the ones I just related to you. Not faults of character or breeding; easily remedied I would say. You are all but a perfect—”
She lifted her free hand and stepped back. “I have heard entirely enough, Mr. Collins. Pray importune me no further.”
His eyes bulged and he drew a very deep breath that would no doubt fill many, many words.
She spun and ran toward Longbourn woods.
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