In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen leaves us to wonder what happened in Hertfordshire over Christmastide whilst the militia was stationed in Meryton. Take a behind-the-scenes peek with me at what might have happened.
November 27, 1811
Monday passed quickly with last minute repairs to Kitty’s gown requiring a pleasing amount of time and energy spent in the company of her sisters and away from Mr. Collins. Pity such good fortune could not have extended the rest of the week and into the Netherfield Ball. No he dogged her every step like a hound—no, like a gosling trailing after a mother goose.
Following such a performance, the previous evening, she could hardly hope to be left in peace today. She must find it now whilst everyone else slept for there would be none once the family awoke. What other reason to be out and about at such an early hour the morning after a ball?
The morning was cold and wet, and rather disagreeable, all told—just cold enough to leave her nose red and tingly. Clouds hung low in the sky, grey and somber, as though the sun could not be bothered to try to peek through. A few birds called, not the pretty songbirds, but the cawing crows whose call was more ominous than appealing. The brown and crunchy landscape seemed uniformly dreary, with none of the footpaths near the house calling to her. Even the little wilderness near the house seemed dull and lifeless. Even the traces of wood smoke on the breeze failed to smell friendly and inviting. But still, it all had the very great advantage of being entirely without Mr. Collins and that was enough to make up for nearly every other fault.
Dew collected along the hem of her skirts and she briskly trod the path up Oakham Mount. She lifted her petticoats slightly to avoid another patch of mud. At least the rain itself had obliged and went its way the day before. If only the footpaths could have dried out a little more quickly.
A slender branch slapped at her face. She snapped it off and slashed at the tall grasses tangling with her skirts tenacious in their attentions as Mr. Collins.
“I cannot believe the obstinacy of the man,” she muttered. “He has all the social grace of a leech. If he should ever even think…”
Think? Was there any doubt as to his intentions were? Only a blind man might mistake them—or one as bent on ignoring the uncomfortable as Papa.
“Why must Mama push so hard and insist upon what she does not truly understand. I know why she thinks it a good thing—but so soon? How can she think she knows his character? It is certainly not the same thing as knowing his position. How am I ever to convince her only a fool dares rush into an alliance no matter how ideal it seems.”
He was to leave soon. If she could just continue avoiding him a while longer. Perhaps, Mama might be worked on in his absence. Even better she might be able to promote Mary’s cause as a most willing substitute.
She cast the branch aside. Yes, that was the best plan, but how was she to avoid him?
Surely the tenants needed to be called upon today—that should keep her out all morning. Then she might pay an afternoon call to Miss Goulding. Mr. Collins had, after all, stepped on her dress. That should take up most of the day. Only two more days to fill.
Oh, yes! There would be dinner at Lucas Lodge as well. Charlotte could be counted on to distract him then. That would do very well for everyone.
She paused and leaned back against a large elm. Even if she were successful in avoiding Mr. Collin’s attentions now and turning him towards Mary in the future, how could she persuade Mama to leave off her quest to see Elizabeth married to the first available gentleman?
A fly buzzed past her face. She slapped it away.
Was she expecting too much? Did she owe it to her family to accept an obsequious man whose conversation she could hardly tolerate just because the estate was entailed upon him? Some would certainly argue it was her duty.
Jane was so good and obliging, she might be willing to martyr herself so, but she had hopes of Mr. Bingley.
Jane had a very good chance of marrying well and saving them all just as certainly as if Elizabeth married Mr. Collins.
She gulped in a deep breath. The weight of their future was not wholly on her shoulders after all. She sucked in another breath.
Best return to the house now lest Mama have too much opportunity to make plans for her. She turned back down the path for Longbourn.
Mama met her just outside the small wilderness near the house. “Where have you been? I have been looking for you for nearly an hour.”
More likely it was a quarter hour. Mama’s sense of time was notoriously linked to her level of vexation.
“Hill knew I had gone walking.”
“Walking? Walking? Who goes walking the morning after a ball?”
“I walk every morning, why should this one be different?”
“Because you are wanted in the house immediately.”
“Wanted? What for?”
“Never you mind that. Just come along.” Mama grabbed her wrist and dragged her back to the house.
She nearly stumbled and fell. A suffocating pressure gripped her chest.
“I … I must call upon the tenants.” She pulled her hand back, but Mama did not release her.
“You have far more important business to attend. The tenants can wait.” Mama flung open the front door and marched in, Elizabeth still trailing behind her. “Now come to the morning room for breakfast.”
“When has breakfast become such an urgent endeavor?”
“No more of your cheek girl, go in and sit. Eat with your sisters.”
Elizabeth sat beside Kitty and pretended interest in a slice of toast.
Mr. Collins entered the room with great solemnity. “May I hope, Madam, for your interest with your fair daughter Elizabeth when I solicit for the honor of a private audience with her in the course of this morning?”
Elizabeth jumped to her feet.
So did Mama, clasping her hands in front of her chest. “Oh dear! Yes, certainly. I am sure Lizzy will be very happy. I am sure she can have no objection. Come, Kitty, I want you upstairs.”
“Dear Mama do not go. I beg you will not go. Mr. Collins must excuse me. He can have nothing to say to me that anybody need not hear. I am going away myself.”
Mama rapped her knuckles on the table. “No, no nonsense, Lizzy. I desire you will stay where you are. I insist upon you staying and hearing Mr. Collins.”
Elizabeth dare not disobey so direct an injunction. Perhaps getting this over quickly was the best alternative.
Mama and Kitty walked off, leaving Mr. Collins to begin.
Could a man use more words to say less? His horrifying proposal waxed on until she nearly bit through her tongue. When at last she could loose it, her efforts were of little avail. He denied her at every turn. To such perseverance in willful self-deception Elizabeth would make no reply. Immediately and in silence she withdrew, determined, if he persisted in his ridiculous endeavor, to apply to her father whose negative might be uttered in such a manner as must be decisive.
Not a quarter of an hour later, a servant fetched her to her father’s study and shut the door behind her. Mama stood primly near the fireplace whilst Papa rested pensively in his favorite chair.
“Come here child.” He beckoned her to him. “I have sent for you on an affair of importance. I understand that Mr. Collins has made you and offer of marriage. Is it true?”
“Very well, and this offer of marriage you have refused?”
“I have, sir.” She bit her lip and clutched her hands tightly before her.
“Very well. We have now come to the point. Your mother insists upon your accepting. Is it not so, Mrs. Bennet?” He nodded somberly.
“Yes, or I will never see her again.” Mama stepped forward and punctuated her words with her hands.
Papa chewed his cheek and adjusted his glasses. “An unhappy alternative is before you Elizabeth.”
She held her breath.
“From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.”
She exhaled heavily and mouthed ‘thank you’ as Mama sputtered and stammered and stamped.
Of course, Papa would support her—she hardly imagined anything else. But their immediate dismissal from his library stung. Could he have not exerted himself just a little more on her behalf, rather than leaving Mama stalking her from room to room, pleading cajoling and even at length, threatening for her cause.
Only Charlotte’s visit took Mama from her side. By the end of the day, Mr. Collins pleaded Mama cease her lamentations and insistence upon remedying the situation, his favors were officially withdrawn.
A man who could change his mind with so little effort surely could not have been much affected by sentimentality. Any affection he might have had for her must have been a work of his imagination. Surely this justified her decision, proved beyond doubt his unsuitability for her.
Did it not?
Something in the disappointment in Mama’s eyes made her wonder.
November 28, 1811
A night’s sleep—helped along with a touch of laudanum— produced no improvement in Mama’s humor—or health. Her nerves overcame her and sent her to the refuge of her chambers. No doubt, it was her way of avoiding Mr. Collins who could not be moved to depart any sooner than his planned Saturday.
At breakfast, Lydia suggested a walk into Meryton to inquire after Mr. Wickham’s return. Even if the question had not piqued her curiosity, Elizabeth would have been ready to agree simply for the pleasure of avoiding Mr. Collins.
His company was motivated all her sisters to join in the errand. Jane herself suggested adding a visit to Aunt Philips to their journey. Poor dear must be deeply troubled by the level of tension in the house, she was hardly one to invent reasons to be away lest she miss a call by Mr. Bingley. Not surprisingly, Jane’s suggestion met with rousing approval.
Chill November air bust against her face as they poured out the front door. Cold sunshine greeted her, far more inviting than the weather when she last walked without Mr. Collins’s company.
Lydia and Kitty surged ahead, tittering among themselves, the excitement in anticipation of meeting officers clearly too much to contain. They dashed ahead, kicking up little clods of dirt and splashing the occasional puddle as they ran. Elizabeth walked more carefully, avoiding puddles that would spoil her newly cleaned nankeen half-boots and her petticoats. Such things disturbed Mama and she was disturbed enough right now.
Elizabeth glanced over her shoulder, but the door remained closed. Mr. Collins did not appear, running to catch up with them. Was it wrong to be so relieved?
It could not be easy to be one whose absence brought greater pleasure than his presence. She should be sympathetic, but only Jane could be quite that good.
“Look! Look!” Lydia pointed at two figures stepping out of the boarding house at the edge of town.
“I think it is …” Kitty grabbed Lydia’s hands.
“Mr. Wickham!” Lydia screamed and giggled.
The taller of the two figures waved energetically. That must be Denny.
Kitty and Lydia waved back and giggled. Still holding hands, they ran toward the officers.
“They should not run. It is unladylike and Mama would not approve,” Mary muttered, pointedly avoiding Elizabeth’s gaze.
Though she said nothing directly, there was no doubt Mary harbored many mixed and strained sentiments toward Elizabeth since Mr. Collins’s proposal. Eventually they would have to talk that over, but that time was not now.
“We probably should hurry on—best not leave Kitty and Lydia unattended for too long.” Jane bit her lip, staring at Kitty and Lydia.
Jane was right. They were standing too close to the officers and giggling much too freely. So close to the boarding house, they were sure to be seen by someone happy to spread gossip about them.
Mary pulled her cloak a little tighter around her shoulders and marched ahead. Jane and Elizabeth hurried to catch up.
“We were just telling Wickham how much he was missed at the Netherfield ball.” Lydia looked over her shoulder and batted her eyes.
“I am humbled that my absence should have even been noticed at such a distinguished event.” Wickham bowed from his shoulders.
Beside him, Denny mirrored his actions. Both men wore their regimentals. That alone was enough to send Kitty and Lydia swooning.
“Unfortunately, business in town could not be postponed.” He raised his brow slightly.
Perhaps he would share the rest of that thought later.
“Business always ruins the best of our fun.” Lydia pouted and sidled between the two officers. She slipped her hands into each of their arms.
Jane blushed almost the color of Lydia’s scarlet cloak.
“We are on our way to call upon our Aunt Philips. Perhaps you would care to join us on our call,” Elizabeth said.
Hopefully they would agree. At least that way Lydia could be ill-behaved behind closed doors instead of in the middle of the street.
Wickham and Denny exchanged a quick glance and nodded at one another.
“Mrs. Philips has extended us such warm, open hospitality already. It would be our pleasure to call upon her.” Wickham’s smile suggested the invitation was the highest honor he ever had been offered.
What a dramatic contrast to Mr. Collins, whose smile that left her squirming, or Mr. Darcy who seemed never to smile at all.
The suggestion must have mollified Lydia. Her deportment improved to almost proper on the walk to the Philips’s.
Jane’s creased forehead suggested she still did not approve, but the blush had faded from her cheeks. That was something.
Aunt Philips was only too happy to invite them all in. A party of young people, particularly one that included eligible young men in the company of her very marriageable nieces, could not be but a delight.
They sat in her cozy parlor and tea was soon brought in. Lydia and Kitty crowed upon the long sofa to sit between Wickham and Denny. Truly, Aunt Phillips should suggest that there were enough seats for everyone, but both looked so satisfied, she would have been hard pressed to move either of them. Mary sat, somewhat aloof nearest the windows, more often looking out of them than joining in the conversation. She really was taking the turn of events with Mr. Collins very poorly. Aunt Philips hardly seemed to notice though, happily presiding over the little party from her seat near the fireplace.
“You gave us no small concern at your absence from the Netherfield Ball, sir.” Aunt Phillips handed Wickham a cup of tea. “We were quite relieved not to find ourselves deprived of your company, Lt. Denny.”
“Denny is such a good dancer, is he not?” Lydia leaned close to Kitty, her tea sloshing nearly out of its cup.
Kitty launched into a painfully detailed description of the set they danced together, the one during which Mary King had stumbled.
Mr. Wickham leaned toward Elizabeth, glancing back at Lydia and Aunt Philips as though in hopes of a bit of privacy.
She cocked her head and inclined his way.
“I found as the time drew near that I had better not meet Mr. Darcy. That to be in the same room, the same party with him for so many hours together, might be more that I could bear and that scenes might arise unpleasant to more than myself.”
“I admire your forbearance, sir, to deny yourself the very great pleasure of such an event out of consideration for the rest of the company.
His cheek dimpled with a half-smile. “I felt sure you were capable of seeing it in such light. I only hope you will not resent—”
“Mr. Darcy? Surely you cannot expect I will not harbor ill-will toward him when his very presence deprived us of your company.”
“Are you speaking of the business that kept you away?’ Lydia huffed. “What droll preoccupation could demand your attentions away from us?”
Wickham’s eyebrow twitched, and he tipped his head toward Elizabeth. “They were very droll indeed. You could hardly take interest in my succession of busy nothings in town.”
How neatly he avoided giving Lydia a direct answer. He never told an outright falsehood, distracting and side-stepping instead. Much practice must have going into the perfecting of that skill.
At the end of half an hour, they bid their aunt good day.
“Pray allow us to attend you home. It is much too soon to depart from such agreeable company.”
“Indeed it is.” Denny offered an arm to Kitty and the other to Lydia. With another peal of giggles they set off with him.
Mary snorted and stalked on, quickly over taking them on the quite roadway.
“Pray excuse me.” Jane curtsied and hurried after Mary, little clouds of dust forming at her heels.
If anyone could pacify Mary’s hurt feelings it was Jane.
Wickham glanced at her and slowed his pace a fraction, extending their distance from the others. “I cannot pretend to be sorry for a few moments to express my thanks for your gracious understanding, Miss Elizabeth.”
“You are too kind, sir. It is you who are all gentlemanly forbearance and—”
“You think far too well of me. I am hardly a gentleman.”
“Perhaps not by birth, but certainly by deportment, which is more that I can say for many who are born to the office.”
“You honor me. Would that society could be so liberal minded as well. You are most certainly an example of a true gentlewoman.” How was it that his compliments always left her feeling so warm and fuzzy inside?
“Such flattery will certainly ruin me sir. You must be careful lest you spoil me for other company.”
“Do not tell me, other company fails to flatter you appropriately?”
She cocked her head and lifted her brow. “It is not seemly to flatter young women, sir, or have you not been so told?”
“Had I been told, I would have ignored such foolishness. No accessory looks better on a young woman than a properly crafted compliment.”
“My mother would agree with you, no doubt. She always approves of whomever would complement her daughters.”
“A sensible woman to be sure.”
No one had ever said that of Mama. She pressed her lips hard not to laugh.
“May I introduce you to my parents? Mama has heard my sisters speak of you and your fellow officers so often. She has been anxious to make your acquaintance.”
“I would not suppose to force a connection upon them.”
“Not at all. I assure you. You are too modest. They will be most pleased of it. I would be delighted to introduce you.”
“I dare not suspend any pleasure of yours. I shall be pleased for the introduction.”
Hill met them at the front door. Elizabeth bid her announce their guests to her parents. Hopefully Mama would find their visit sufficient reason to leave her chambers. She had scarcely time to call for lemonade and biscuits before Mama appeared on Papa’s arm at the parlor door.
Elizabeth sprang to her feet, but Lydia cut her off.
“Look who we have brought to call. Lt. Wickham and Lt. Denny. We called upon Aunt Philips with them, and they walked us home.”
“I am pleased to make your acquaintance.” Mama curtsied.
“Indeed, sirs. The introduction is long overdue considering how your names have been attendant upon our meals these weeks now.” Papa sat in his favorite wingback near the fire.
Wickham rose and bowed. “You must forgive us for intruding upon your mealtimes uninvited.”
“Do not be silly, no one has been bothered by any such thing.” Lydia pulled his arm. “But what does bother me is the way Elizabeth monopolizes your company. It is a bad habit on her part. Mama you really must speak to her about it.”
Mama’s eyes grew wide and her brows disappeared under the lace of her cap.
Papa’s eyes twinkled and he pressed his lips together. What was he thinking?
Mama stepped back and leaned out the doorway. “Hill, see refreshments are brought.”
Surely Mama must know she and Jane would not neglect such basic hospitality. Elizabeth bit her lip. At least Mama was out of her rooms.
The next quarter hour passed quickly with fresh biscuits and good humor for all. They left in their wake Mama’s improved humor, which Papa clearly approved.
“I think, Elizabeth you might have found a most singular cure to your Mother’s ill health. Pray it continues when Mr. Collins returns from his constitutional.”
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