The butler ushered them into the parlor. It should have been called her throne room; an overstuffed palatial chamber in which she held court, dispensing her opinions upon anyone she lured or trapped within.
“The Bennets, madam.” The butler bowed and left, giving Elizabeth one last twitch of his eye as he passed.
Appropriate bows, curtsies and greetings were exchanged with the already arrived Collinses.
“The time, Dr. Bennet, have you noticed the time?” Lady Catherine pulled herself straighter in her imposing gilt chair. Her foot beat a rapid tattoo on the carpet, narrowly missing the golden sphinxes supporting her throne. Good that she did not have a scepter, or she might have struck him with it. “The Collinses preceded you by a full ten minutes at least.”
“Pray excuse us, your ladyship.” Mama clasped her hands. “Consider though, two young ladies—”
“I require you to be the first to arrive, Dr. Bennet. Always. Anne must not suspend her evening’s enjoyment waiting for your consultation.”
“Of course, your ladyship. I assure you, it will not happen again.” Papa bowed low, glaring at Elizabeth on the way down. “I will attend to her now.”
“Go on then.” She waved him away and pointed her long, bony finger at a settee. “Sit down. I will not have you stand about stupidly.”
Mama and Jane sat down. Elizabeth took stock of the remaining space. No, not even Miss de Bourgh might fit in those tight quarters. She hurried across the room and sat beside Charlotte.
Lady Catherine glowered. Goodness, what did the woman expect, for her to sit upon Jane’s lap? Perhaps perch on the settee’s arm like some sort of royal pet—a pug mayhaps? She dare not ignore the command all together.
“You look very well tonight, Lizzy,” Charlotte whispered.
“Thank you, Mrs. Collins.” Elizabeth shifted her eyes toward Mama.
Charlotte rolled her eyes to the ceiling. She was simply, but neatly dressed. Her wide face with round cheeks could hardly be declared pretty, much less beautiful, but her heart was kind and sense of the ridiculous well refined.
Lady Catherine cleared her throat and flipped a wrinkle out of her skirt. “As I was saying…”
All eyes turned to her.
“My nephews and a party of friends arrived yesterday and need company to amuse them in the evenings. I insist you to attend us often whilst they visit.”
“Certainly, your ladyship. I can think of nothing better for my girls—”
“My wife and I are always present to serve you in any way possible.” How did Mr. Collins manage to bow despite being still seated?
“While your daughters could undoubtedly benefit from well-bred company,” Lady Catherine sniffed in Elizabeth’s direction, “except for my niece who had just come out, the party’s ladies are merely tradesmen’s daughters seeking to improve themselves. Though their wealth gives them some standing, no one with so new a fortune can be considered of consequence.”
“No, your ladyship.” Mr. Collins’s head wobbled so hard it might have fallen off, save his securely tied cravat. Plump and round-faced, his well-oiled hair stuck to his head and his brow usually glistened with sweat.
“A family name and good connections are no small thing in the world.”
“And a connection to Rosings Park is a most valued one indeed.” Mama’s words tumbled out almost on top of Lady Catherine’s, earning Mama a withering raised eyebrow.
“Although they have been educated in the best girls’ seminary their parents could afford.” Lady Catherine sneered at the word. “We must prepare ourselves for vulgarity of manner and coarseness of opinion. I expect their conversation will be unpolished and their accomplishments of little note.”
“Those are not unredeemable faults, though,” Elizabeth said. “Fine company and examples such as yourself and Miss de Bourgh might be the very tonic to cure their malady.”
Charlotte pressed her lips into a tight line. Dear friend that she was, she would save her rebuke for a private moment. And Charlotte would be right. Comments in that vein would probably not serve her well.
“Perceptive of you, Miss Elizabeth, most astute. That is precisely why I have permitted them to come. I take the responsibility of rank quite seriously. I cannot shirk my duty to offer betterment to those willing to seek it, no matter the inconvenience to me.”
“Indeed you are all that is gracious and kind,” Mr. Collins said.
“My girls have blossomed under your tutelage, my lady.”
“And Mrs. Collins.”
Charlotte flinched and turned the same rich red as the settee. Perhaps she might blend in and avoid further notice.
“Of course, who could imagine anything else?” The sweeping plume on Lady Catherine’s turban bobbed, amplifying each nod into a grand gesture fit for a royal audience. “How could anyone fail to bloom in the shadow of Rosings? You may take comfort in knowing dear Anne has suffered no ill effects from the tradesman’s daughters’ presence … “
Elizabeth balled her fists and pushed them deep into the settee. Miss de Bourgh suffer harm from them? The very thought! With her high-handed remarks and her ill-informed opinions, her guests were the ones in danger of being ruined by that scrawny, spoiled, freckled—
“What say you, Miss Elizabeth?” Lady Catherine asked.
“Excuse me, your ladyship?”
“Pay attention, young woman. How many times have I—”
“Forgive me. When you mentioned Miss de Bourgh, I recalled all her notable qualities and fell lost in consideration of what more I might learn from my acquaintance with her.”
Charlotte stepped on her foot, hard.
Lady Catherine fixed narrowed eyes upon her whilst Mama gaped at Lady Catherine. No one breathed, though the loudly ticking clock reminded them perhaps they should.
“Of course you were—and who could blame your distraction.” The turban feathers dipped slowly.
“We hired the new maid you recommended,” Charlotte said.
“Naturally, why would you do otherwise?”
“What my dear wife means,” Mr. Collins leaned forward and slightly in front of Charlotte, “is we are humbly grateful for your advice in the matter. She is everything you promised and a boon to our household already.” He snuck a pointed look over his shoulder at Charlotte and Elizabeth.
Odious man! How could Mama have ever expected her to marry him? Poor, poor Charlotte now forced to endure him the rest of her life.
Lady Catherine rose and everyone else followed suit. She took several steps toward the doorway. “Ahh, Anne, you have been sorely missed tonight.”
Miss de Bourgh made her grand entrance, stopping two steps into the room. No doubt to give them a moment to bask in her majestic presence. A girl of four and twenty, she appeared no more than four and ten by stature and figure alone. Her sallow complexion turned positively jaundiced against the rich coral silk of her poufed sleeves. The full skirt and train weighed her down and made any movement a prodigious effort. No wonder she was late. It was a great wonder she arrived downstairs at all.
She leaned on the arm of a tall, well-built gentleman. He carried himself like a soldier, confident and proud. The line of his nose and jaw resembled Miss de Bourgh and Lady Catherine enough to pronounce him kin. Behind them another gentleman, escorting a much taller, handsome young lady, waited to be admitted. Shadows shifted and shuffled, bespeaking more persons waiting in the hall behind them.
“Pray, take our place, Miss de Bourgh.” Mr. Collins bowed and gestured toward the settee.
Miss de Bourgh approached with tiny, mincing steps so unhurried she might never reach her destination. Two more ladies and three gentlemen filed in. Papa closed the procession and stationed himself near Miss de Bourgh. He helped her sit, offering her additional pillows and blankets until she waved him off with a flick of her frail hand.
The rest of the party stared at the room, their shoes, and Lady Catherine.
“Are you going to introduce us, Aunt, or shall we all just gawk dumbly at one another?” Miss de Bourgh’s escort asked. His ramrod straight spine did little to belie a glint of mischief in his eyes.
“Nephew.” Her glare would have withered most plants and all but the most stalwart of men. “Col. Fitzwilliam, Mr. Darcy, Miss Darcy, may I present my vicar, Mr. Collins, Mrs. Collins, my physician, Dr. Bennet, Mrs. Bennet, Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”
Mr. and Miss Darcy were no doubt siblings, given the way they favored one another, and perhaps cousins to Miss de Bourgh and Col. Fitzwilliam. Brother and sister shared the same uneasy posture and uncomfortable set of their jaws. Did they not like company, or perchance Lady Catherine?
Lady Catherine looked at the Collinses and Bennets. “May I present my nephews’ friends, Mr. and Mrs. Hurst, Mr. Bingley, Miss Bingley and Mr. Wickham.”
How kind of her to draw the distinction of rank so clearly.
Mr. Darcy and Col. Fitzwilliam rearranged the room to permit all to sit in the great lady’s presence. The Hursts seemed all too pleased to be near her;Miss Bingley, too, though with slightly more dignity. Mr. Wickham and Mr. Bingley took seats next to Jane. At least Mama did not cackle aloud with glee.
Clearly the Darcys and the colonel had endured an audience with Lady Catherine before. They sat as far from her as possible.
Elizabeth waited for the others to be seated and took the one remaining place, between Charlotte and Col. Fitzwilliam. His warm easy manner marked him a likely jester in the Lady’s court.
Mr. Collins leaned toward the Darcys. If he did not attend his posture, he might soon topple from his chair. “I understand your party arrived—”
“Just yesterday, they arrived yesterday,” Lady Catherine said, “traveling in three coaches with drivers and six outriders.”
“We could have driven ourselves, but that sends her mad,” Colonel Fitzwilliam murmured, lips barely moving. “I was sorely tempted.”
Elizabeth blinked rapidly and stole a sidelong look, but his serene countenance betrayed nothing.
“Had you a pleasant journey?” Mama asked.
Mr. Darcy glanced at his sister. Tall and pretty as an Almack’s fashion plate, she seemed to have everything in her favor, save courage. Poor dear shrank into her chair each time Lady Catherine turned her way.
Mr. Darcy inclined forward as if to shield Miss Darcy from view. His broad shoulders and imposing presence made a formidable barrier. “It was—”
“Tolerable. Travel is at best tolerable. A necessary evil, I always say. It is much more agreeable for one to receive company than to be received. Do you not agree?” The creases in her forehead made it clear a response was neither expected nor welcome.
“She has obviously not visited the right houses,” Col. Fitzwilliam whispered
What an uncanny trick, to speak without moving one’s lips. She ought to petition him to teach her. Elizabeth hid her chuckle with a hearty cough.
“Are you unwell, Miss Elizabeth?” Lady Catherine’s voice cut sharp as a surgeon’s knife.
“Certainly not!” Mama wrung her hands in her lap. “We would never allow anyone with signs of illness to come—”
“No, no, your ladyship, I was merely taken by the unique wisdom and insight of your words.”
“Oh,” she settled into her seat. “As you should be.”
Col. Fitzwilliam sputtered and choked.
Charlotte kicked Elizabeth’s heel and pointed her chin toward Papa.
He hovered near Miss de Bourgh, eyes dark and sharp and ominous as a raven’s.
She studied garish patterns in the carpet. Mama’s ire she could endure. Papa’s she could not. What did he expect when everything about this situation was so entirely ridiculous?
Talk, mostly Lady Catherine’s, swirled around her. How far had they traveled? They came from London under fair weather and on fine roads. She made pronouncements on the best inns and the evils of travel by post.
How interesting, considering she traveled little herself and certainly never by post.
The housekeeper appeared in the doorway. “Dinner is served.”
Lady Catherine rose. Papa and Mr. Collins offered their arms in escort. She strode past them and took Mr. Darcy’s arm.
His mask was too practiced to discern him pleased or aggrieved. He was well-favored though, his features as refined and regular as chiseled marble. Had he merely been blessed by nature, or had Lady Catherine ordered it so?
Papa escorted Miss de Bourgh. Elizabeth lingered near the wall as the higher ranking ladies and gentlemen exited until she was left alone with Miss Bingley.
“It is uncomfortable when the ladies outnumber the gentlemen,” Miss Bingley murmured. She was angular and birdlike with plumage that far outshone her wit.
“I am one of five sisters. I find it a most common occurrence.”
“You have no brothers? How shocking. One would think, if anyone could get sons, a doctor would.”
“One might, but clearly he could not. Worse still, he chose to be born the second son of a country gentleman, with only a profession to supply his fortune.”
Miss Bingley drew a breath, but paused, mouth open, her brows drawn together in an odd little crease. Elizabeth halted a step and ushered the poor confused woman ahead.