The Caroline Complication

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Chapter 3

Elizabeth spent most of the night in Jane’s room, and was much relieved that Jane’s fever broke in the early morning. However, she hoped for her mother’s opinion in whether a doctor ought to be called, so she sent a note to Longbourn. Very quickly after the note was dispatched, Mrs. Bennet arrived at Netherfield with her three youngest daughters and her best Sunday dress. Elizabeth noted that Lydia and Kitty had likewise dressed well, and wondered at their effort for a home that housed no officers. Mary was, as always, Mary.

Mrs. Bennet visited with Jane, after which she declared Jane far too ill to attempt the trip back home. Upon hearing this, Mr. Bingley cried that Jane must stay for as long as she needed for a full recovery, and Mrs. Bennet nearly tripped over her words thanking him effusively.

“Such a gentleman, Mr. Bingley! I do so appreciate everything that you’ve done for Jane!”

“Do not think twice of it, madam. All that matters is Miss Bennet’s health.”

For once, Elizabeth and her mother agreed – both were well pleased to hear how concerned Mr. Bingley was with Jane’s health. However, that was where the agreement ended. Based on Jane’s own wishes, Elizabeth campaigned for a trip home, and Mrs. Bennet just as fiercely declared that if Jane were to travel, she might catch a chill and be even more ill than she already was.

Lydia and Kitty seemed generally uninterested in Jane’s health. They bothered Miss Bingley with far too many questions about her upcoming nuptials.

“When will it be? Oh, how divine! And what will you wear? Did Mr. Darcy give you a token when you became engaged? It all seems so very romantic!”

Elizabeth fancied that she could see Mr. Darcy attempting not to roll his eyes at such foolishness, but Miss Bingley did not seem to mind the questions. She answered with grace and poise, until Lydia (in her usual way) crossed the line of propriety.

“Mr. Darcy is quite a catch! I have my eye on a young man as well – he looks very dashing in red – and I could do with some advice on how to get him to propose. How did you convince Mr. Darcy?”

Miss Bingley looked shocked and said that Mr. Darcy had required no convincing. She then shot a pointed look at Mr. Darcy until he commented that he had not required any inducement to enter into such a pleasing arrangement. To Elizabeth, he did not sound especially enthusiastic, but he played his part as was expected of him.

Elizabeth noticed Mary eyeing the pianoforte and realized that she would have to intercede to keep her family from further embarrassing themselves (and by extension, Jane).

“Mama,” she said, “surely my father needs the carriage today?”

“Oh yes!” cried Mrs. Bennet. “We have imposed on your hospitality for too long. Mr. Bingley, thank you again for being such a wonderful host to our Jane. We will miss her at home fearfully, but her health comes first!”

“I know you will miss her, but it has been lovely to have her at Netherfield. Would that she were not ill for most of the time!” said Mr. Bingley good-naturedly.

Good-byes were said and Mrs. Bennet and her three youngest were sent on their way back to Longbourn. Elizabeth wondered if the Bennets’ behavior would earn a comment from Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst. She did not have to wait long to find out.

“Goodness, Miss Eliza, your sisters are keen to know details of our engagement! I supposed one of the risks of having five girls out at once is that the younger may marry before the elder. Miss Lydia, in particular, seems to have her eye on an engagement quite soon. You and Miss Bennet shall have to hurry to make it to the altar first!”

Elizabeth knew that her sisters’ eagerness was being mocked.

“You must pardon Kitty and Lydia,” she said, addressing Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley. “They have not had the benefit of education in the finest schools as some others have. It does give them somewhat of an excuse for their behavior – they do not yet know better. I hope someday that they will follow the path of charming kindness that the two of you have so amply demonstrated.”

With that, she returned to Jane’s side, breathing a sigh of relief that her social torment was at an end.

***

The following day, Jane felt well enough to return home. Elizabeth knew that their mother would be vexed at their sudden arrival after her speech the day before about Jane staying at Longbourn, but Jane was adamant and Elizabeth cared far more for Jane’s comfort than their mother’s. Mr. Bingley loaned them a carriage to take them home, and helped Jane climb in. Mr. Darcy likewise offered his hand to Elizabeth so that she could more easily ascend. Elizabeth was startled at the warmth of his hand, and glanced up to see him looking directly at her. Their eyes locked and something passed between the two of them. Elizabeth later thought that it had been a look of understanding, but in what way could Mr. Darcy have any understanding of her? And why did he continue to knock her off balance at every turn? She could not make any sense of it, unless it was some sort of cruel trick that the rich and bored play amongst themselves. One thing was certain. She had had enough of Mr. Darcy for quite some time, thank you very much.

Darcy had a much different reaction to the touch of Elizabeth’s hand. It had felt as if sparks were running up his arm when she placed her hand in his. He was afraid that he could no longer ignore the attraction that she held for him. But what was the use in acknowledging it? It needed to go away. He was promised to another, and nothing could change that. He gave himself the remainder of the day to remember the feeling of her hand in his before he had to begin the monumental task of forgetting her.

***

Mrs. Bennet was indeed displeased at Jane and Elizabeth’s arrival home.

“You were well placed at Netherfield! Why, Jane, would you desert such a promising position?”

“I did not want to trespass on Mr. Bingley’s good will any more than I had to, Mama.”

“Well, I should think that Mr. Bingley did not mind your trespassing! Dear me, how will I ever see my daughters married if they will not make marriage their main goal?”

“Mama, I do not think you have any cause for worry,” said Elizabeth. “Mr. Bingley seemed delighted to have Jane there, and sad to see her leave. I do not think it shall be long before he wants to see her again.”

“Oh, if he would just propose! Mr. Bennet, do you think he shall propose soon?”

“Hmm?” said Mr. Bennet. “Pardon me. I was just thinking on this letter that I recently received. We are to have a guest.”

“Oh, Mr. Bennet, you do tease me! Is Mr. Bingley coming for dinner?”

“No. This letter is from a gentleman that I have never seen in my life.”

“Oooh, Kitty!” said Lydia. “Perhaps it is an officer. Perhaps it is Denny! Papa has never met him.”

“It is neither an officer,” replied Mr. Bennet. “It is from my cousin Mr. Collins, upon whom Longbourn is entailed upon my death.”

“Oh, that terrible Mr. Collins!” cried Mrs.. Bennet. “He is taking food out of my own dear girls’ mouths. Why can he not just leave us in peace?”

“Perhaps you should hear what he has to say, my dear.”

Mr. Bennet read the letter aloud to his wife and daughters. Mr. Collins described his position as a clergyman under the patronage of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and also his desire to make amends to the Bennet girls for being the recipient of the entail. He ended the letter with an announcement that he would be coming to visit for nearly two weeks. Even Mrs. Bennet could not complain about the desire to make amends. She granted that Mr. Collins might not be such a terrible young man, and hurried off to determine what would be served for dinner.

Elizabeth had not been especially impressed with the letter, and confided so to her father. He agreed that Mr. Collins came across sounding a bit pompous and silly, but Elizabeth could detect a certain glee in his voice. Although he tired of always being surrounded by silly people, the prospect of a new one to needle delighted him to no end.

“I think the sentiments of the letter, although somewhat trite, were well conveyed,” said Mary. She appeared more excited than Elizabeth had seen her in some time to welcome their new guest.

Their father just raised their eyebrows and dropped a wink at Elizabeth. The impending visit from Mr. Collins had him in fine spirits.

***

The family did not need to wait long to meet Mr. Collins. He pulled up in a carriage within the hour of Mr. Bennet sharing the letter. The girls all rushed outside to see this cousin who would have the power, upon their father’s death, to turn them out of their home. He was generally discovered to be wanting. He was tall and heavy looking with very formal manners, but there was a certain lack of tact and humility that did not endear him to hosts.

“Ah, Mrs. Bennet, thank you and your fair daughters for receiving me,” Collins said with a bow. “It is most fortunate that Lady Catherine de Bourgh could spare me so that I could visit. I worried about leaving her but she assured me that my spending time with family was of the utmost importance. And what is important to Lady Catherine is likewise important to me!”

Mrs. Bennet was not quite sure how to respond to this outpouring of information, so she introduced her daughters and they curtsied to meet him.

“How delightful you are!” said Mr. Collins. “I do so very much look forward to speaking with you all further.”

Elizabeth noticed that he addressed this comment almost completely towards Jane, who seemed somewhat bewildered by the attention. She hid a smile. Who did not fall in love with Jane at first sight? All that showed was that Mr. Collins’ eyes were working perfectly well.

As the day continued, Mr. Collins proved to be all that Mr. Bennet hoped he would be – silly, proud, but obsequious at the same time, especially where Lady Catherine de Bourgh was concerned. He paid special attention to Jane, telling his stories directly to her, dropping silly compliments that did nothing but embarrass her. Finally, in an uncharacteristic fit of tact, Mrs. Bennet took him aside and mentioned that Jane was as of recently nearly engaged to a wonderful young man, but that all the other Misses Bennet were unencumbered. It was around that time that Mr. Collins switched his attention from Jane to Elizabeth.

“Cousin Elizabeth, you do have the most delightful way with words! I am sure that my patroness Lady Catherine would be very pleased with you, if she were to meet you.”

“Oh, Mr. Collins,” said Elizabeth, careful not to catch her father’s eye lest she explode with laughter, “I cannot imagine that anyone so great as Lady Catherine de Bourgh would have the slightest interest in anything that I might have to say. We must consider ourselves fortunate, for her sake, that it is unlikely I should ever have the opportunity to make her acquaintance.”

“Perhaps that opportunity will come sooner than you think, dear cousin,” said Mr. Collins with a secretive smile.

Elizabeth was seized with another coughing fit, which ended with her mother pounding on her back slightly more vigorously than was strictly necessary. Mrs. Bennet was pleased with the turn of the conversation and did not want to lose a potential match because Elizabeth was acting poorly.

***

The Misses Bennet were determined not to let Mr. Collins ruin what otherwise appeared, by all measures, to be a lovely day. Kitty and Lydia proposed a walk to Meryton and Elizabeth said that she would join them, as she could do with some air. Once he had heard that, Mr. Collins announced that he too longed for a walk and would accompany them, “as my presence as a clergyman can only lend respectability to this undertaking.” Mary quickly stated that she would join them as well, which struck Elizabeth as strange. Mary was not normally one for a walk – she thought them a waste of time that could be put to much better use. However, it was becoming increasingly apparent that one Bennet daughter felt somewhat more kindly towards Mr. Collins than the others, and it was not difficult to ascertain which that was.

“Why Mary,” said Kitty, “I have never known you to like a walk!”

“I suspect it is not the walk but the company,” Lydia replied with a smirk.

“Oh, stop it, you two,” said Elizabeth. “It is not as if you two long for the clear head that a walk can bring. You just wish to be in Meryton so you can speak with the officers.”

“If Mr. Bingley would have another ball, I would do a fair amount more than just speak with them,” said Lydia, dancing about the lane.

“I will not have you speaking that way!” said Elizabeth sharply. “Those in our family know that you just mean that you would like to dance, but others who do not know you so well could misunderstand and your honor – our entire family’s honor – could be besmirched.”

“Oh, Lizzy, must you be determined to ruin everyone else’s fun just because you are having none?” said Lydia with a pout. “I wish you would meet a handsome officer and learn to enjoy yourself more!”

Elizabeth snorted. “A handsome officer is certainly not the thing in which I am interested!”

She realized too late that her declaration had encouraged Mr. Collins in a way that was entirely unintended. He beamed at her as if she had made the statement just for his benefit. Elizabeth sighed inwardly. How on earth was she going to deal with this?

Mary then made it a little – better? Worse? Elizabeth could not decide.

“You crew can have all the officers!” she cried. “For me, the best match would be a clergyman.”

All heads turned to see Mr. Collins’ reaction to this statement. He did not seem to understand the import of what Mary had said; he just continued smiling his simpering smile at Elizabeth. She, however, was a deal more astute than he (to put it mildly), and she was beginning to see an elegant solution to several problems at once.

***

The group had barely arrived in town before Lydia and Kitty spotted Mr. Denny, who was one of their favorite of the officers. They were even more excited to see that Denny had brought a friend. Mr. Wickham had newly joined the militia and was to be stationed in Meryton.

For all of Elizabeth’s talk of not being interested in an officer, she had to admit that Wickham was pleasing to the eye. He had a quick smile and lively eyes, and she found herself engaged in conversation with him quite quickly.

“Mr. Wickham, it is good that you have come,” she said, “for the young ladies of Hertfordshire have long been in need of more eligible men to fight over.”

“And who says I am eligible – or even suitable, Miss Bennet? I could have a trail of broken hearts behind me all the way to London.”

“I do not suspect that you would mention it if it were the truth,” said Elizabeth with a laugh, “so I can only expect you are teasing me. If you are looking for young ladies to tease, you might have better luck with my sisters.”

“Ah, but your sisters do not have what I look for in a lady,” he replied. “I rather fancy quickness of thought and a pleasant sense of humor, especially when both can be found wrapped up in a lovely package.”

Elizabeth felt her cheeks color at this. He had not crossed any lines of propriety, but he was dancing close to them. She was alarmed to discover that she did not mind.

“Cousin Elizabeth,” Mr. Collins interjected, with a stern look at Wickham. “Ought we not to return home? I told your mother that I would provide a scripture reading before lunch, and the time draws near.”

“I would not want to keep you from piety,” Wickham said with a twinkle in his eye. “Miss Bennet, I am delighted to have met you. I hope that I will get another opportunity soon.”

Afraid that her voice might tremble, Elizabeth just dropped a curtsy, and the group began their way back home.

***

“I did not like that Mr. Wickham,” huffed Mr. Collins. “He is far too familiar with ladies that he has just met.”

“Any ladies in particular, Mr. Collins?” asked Lydia sweetly, fluttering her lashes.

“I feel that it is proper that I defend all of you,” Mr. Collins said, oblivious to Lydia’s insinuation. “Your parents would expect that of me, as would my patroness Lady Catherine, and, if I dare speak for Him, God Himself.”

“I am not sure that there is any need to involve any of those whom you have just mentioned,” said Elizabeth, trying to keep her tone light. “I think you may have misunderstood what he was saying.”

“I misunderstood nothing, Cousin Elizabeth, and I will defend your honor to my dying day!”

Elizabeth inwardly sighed. This situation was not getting any better. She decided that it was her responsibility to move things along. “Mary, what is your opinion of the situation?”

“I think it was very lucky Mr. Collins was there, or that man might have tried to take liberties with us!”

Elizabeth bit her tongue to say that Mr. Wickham would do no such thing and let what Mary said resonate with Mr. Collins.

“Quite right, Cousin Mary,” he said, really looking at her for the first time. “I do think that you are correct.”

Elizabeth smiled to herself. The seed was planted. Now she only needed to let it grow. She intentionally walked a bit behind Mary and Mr. Collins and delighted to see them continuing their conversation the entire way back to Longbourn.

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Next: Chapter 4

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