Shortly after Darcy’s departure, Mr. Bingley and his sisters called on Longbourn.
“I was hoping to host a ball soon, but I will wait until your father has recovered,” Mr. Bingley said.
Elizabeth internally cringed. Jane believed it best to keep up a façade that Mr. Bennet was not mortally ill. Of course, she kept hope eternal and always looked on the best side of things. Elizabeth was far more pragmatic. If the neighbourhood knew of Mr. Bennet’s illness, they would not be expected to entertain callers. However, then Jan could not see Mr. Bingley, and Elizabeth did not have the heart to keep her dearest sister from the man that might provide a balm to her heart at such a time.
“I regret that it might mean you are unable to attend, Mr. Collins,” Bingley nodded in his direction.
“I am not put out in the least,” Collins said. “Circumstances have changed, and I have every reason to extend my stay at Longbourn.”
“Is that so?” Bingley’s brows rose in surprise. “Will Lady Catherine not require you back at your post? From everything Darcy has said about her ladyship, I am astonished she would allow you to extend a holiday.”
“Her ladyship is condescension itself. Mr. Darcy would know if he gave her what is due.”
Mr. Collins took a deep breath, as though to continue speaking and undoubtedly to scold Mr. Darcy from afar, when Lydia, blessedly, interrupted. “The spring is a fine time for balls, Mr. Bingley. Perhaps you will have one then.”
“Upon my word!” Miss Bingley cried. “Hosting two balls within six months of each other? It is never done so in London.”
“You are correct, Caroline. I suppose Miss Lydia does not understand the taxing work and preparation that goes into hosting one as Longbourn has never done so.” Mrs. Hurst glanced around the drawing room with a disapproving look.
Lydia huffed and folded her hands over her chest, ready to retort. Jane spoke before she could. “I believe Lydia thought that before too long, it would be inadvisable to host a ball due to the weather and condition of the roads.”
“Yet another concern we do not have in London,” Mrs. Hurst muttered before sipping her tea. She swiftly put it back down, her mouth pinched in distaste.
“Will you be returning to London soon?” Kitty asked. “I have always wanted to go, but Jane and Lizzy are the only ones ever invited.”
“Will you be going to town this winter, Miss Bennet?” Mr. Bingley asked with real interest.
“My plans are unfixed at present,” Jane said with a blush.
“When Lizzy marries Mr. Darcy, perhaps we can all go to Town.” Lydia bounced in her seat at the thought.
Miss Bingley, who had been sipping her tea, spewed out the beverage, spraying Mr. Collins, who was directly across from her and dumping the remainder on her gown.
“I say!” he jumped up and began patting himself with a napkin. As it did little good, he stormed out of the room.
Miss Bingley began coughing and turning a terrible shade of red. Mrs. Hurst and Jane both came to her assistance in patting her back and providing something fresh to drink.
“Shall I call the housekeeper?” Jane asked. “I hope she is not ill.”
“Perhaps we had better leave,” Mr. Bingley said.
“Yes, yes,” Mrs. Hurst agreed as she soothed the still hunched over Miss Bingley. “We must go at once.”
Elizabeth was not entirely sure, but she thought Miss Bingley’s coughs had turned to sobs of a sort. Elizabeth had known the lady would be disappointed to hear of Mr. Darcy’s engagement. She had even supposed that Caroline would be mortified to learn that he had been lost to Elizabeth. However, she could have never imagined such a scene, and her lips twitched at the humour of it all. She would heartily laugh when it was over. As she knew Miss Bingley had no real affection for Darcy, she felt no guilt at her reaction.
Mrs. Hurst shuttled her sister out of the house as fast as possible. Before leaving, Mr. Bingley spoke to Jane and then drew close to Elizabeth.
“I told Darcy he ought to inform her before he left. He said he owed her nothing and would not make his engagement a spectacle. However, to find out in such a way—I do feel for my sister, although I always told her she had no hope of catching Darcy. I hope you are not offended, Miss Elizabeth. She will come around in time.”
Elizabeth smiled at Bingley’s civility. “I am not affronted in the least. I hope she recovers soon.”
“Aye. I am jolly glad he chose you. He has been like a brother to me. And well,” Bingley glanced at Jane before turning his eyes back to Elizabeth, “I would much rather be his through marriage in this way than another.”
Elizabeth beamed at Bingley’s allusion to marrying Jane. Her heart suddenly felt so full it might burst. First, Miss Bingley made such a mess of herself, and now Bingley wanted to marry Jane!
Bingley excused himself before Elizabeth find anything to say. Their guests gone, the younger Bennet sisters returned to their own devices. Elizabeth drew Jane close and relayed what Bingley had said, earning a happy gasp and a full blush from her sister.
“Is it what you wanted?” Elizabeth asked.
“How can you doubt it?” Jane said in astonishment. “You have seen how I have encouraged him. I have worried about appearing unseemly as my attention is so often drawn to him.”
Elizabeth laughed. “I had thought so, but Charlotte believed you concealed your emotions too well.”
“I wish he had said something to me. I have remained uncertain of his feelings.”
“I think he was unsure of your response to him and merely overwhelmed by the scene. He likely did not mean to say something so personal to me. When next he calls, I shall endeavour to give you two privacy, and then your hearts may be revealed to one another. You do love him, do you not?”
“Yes!” Jane gushed. She placed a hand on Elizabeth’s. “I only wish you were as happy with your engagement as I am at the merest hint of my own. I wish you would love Mr. Darcy.”
“Dearest, Jane! I cannot make myself love a man.”
“Perhaps not, but you can certainly try. Do not endeavour to find fault with him.”
“I do not!”
Jane raised a brow, and Elizabeth sighed. “Very well. I do not seek to find flaws in him anymore. I truly have been attempting to think of it in the best light. However, it is still so new, and there is such a rush around the wedding. I fear it may be many months before I am at all reconciled to it, and by then, I shall be Mrs. Darcy.”
“Perhaps, if Mr. Bingley does offer for me, you do not have to go through with it. I know Bingley would help our mother and sisters, and we do have relations. You had always desired to marry for love.”
“I did,” Elizabeth agreed. “However, I have made my choice and will not withdraw it. I do not think Mr. Darcy’s heart would be broken if I called it off, but his pride would be gravely wounded. It is not only my life to think about. I may never have found a man I love. If I did, who is to say that we could wed? I am certain that I have as good a chance to be happy with Mr. Darcy as I do with nearly anyone else.”
“Jane,” Kitty called from the stairs. “Mama wants you!”
Jane excused herself, and Elizabeth remained to finish her tea and to sit in silence. She had not lied to Jane, but in her heart, she wondered if she could ever love Darcy or be truly happy with him. They appeared to be very different. He was handsome. She could not deny it or the attraction she felt for him. She now understood why matrons told their daughters not to engage in such behaviour until betrothed. Who knew kissing could feel so divine? However, there was much to marriage besides lovemaking, and the thought of sitting alone with Darcy every night and attempting to make inane small talk filled her with unease.
The clock struck the top of the hour, and Elizabeth straightened her shoulders. There was no time to think about such things. Ringing the bell for the maid to come and clean up the tea things, including Miss Bingley’s mess, Elizabeth focused her mind on how to raise her father’s spirits. He would enjoy the tale about Miss Bingley and the tea. After, she would read to him. Hearing the doorbell ring and then sounds of her Aunt Phillips, Elizabeth hurried to the library before she would have to listen to any of the Meryton news and gossip. She had no head for such frivolity at the moment.
At dinner, Elizabeth heard from her sisters all that was said during Aunt Phillips’ visit.
“My aunt says the most handsome lieutenant has joined the regiment,” Lydia declared at the table.
“She said he was the most charming young man she had ever met, too,” Kitty added.
“What did they speak about?” asked Elizabeth.
“Oh, just the weather and that Meryton was the nicest market town he had ever visited.” Lydia shrugged.
“Well,” Elizabeth sighed. “He must be charming to turn such topics into something worth hearing.”
“Lizzy,” Jane admonished.
“I believe Kitty and Lydia follow too much after officers,” Mary said as she nudged her glasses up her nose. “There is more to matrimony than a fine uniform.”
“I suppose all young ladies prefer a handsome and well-dressed young man to those not blessed with beauty.” Mr. Collins glared at Elizabeth. “However, one must consider not only the worthiness of the man’s character but his situation in life. It does not do a young lady of gentle breeding any credit to stoop too low—that is a man with a small income—or too high.” Again, he gave Elizabeth a meaningful look.
“Thank you for the reminder, Mr. Collins,” Elizabeth said through grit teeth. “Your words perfectly support what my mother and father have always taught us.”
“You will forgive me, Cousin Elizabeth, for saying that I find that lesson and a great many others require refreshment among my young cousins. As the head of this family—”
“Sir!” Elizabeth and Jane cried at once.
Elizabeth trembled with rage and dared not trust herself to speak. Kitty and Lydia, who had giggled quietly to each other during Mr. Collins’ lecture, looked upon the man with horrified expressions. Even Mary seemed displeased with the rector.
“Pardon me,” Mr. Collins entreated. He appeared genuinely remorseful for a moment, but it did not last long. He had too much conceit to believe himself in the wrong for more than an instant. “I meant to say, as soon to be head of this family—”
“Mr. Collins,” Jane said, “you do us a great service by gracing us with your godly wisdom. However, I hesitate to point out that while you are the heir of Longbourn, you are a distant cousin. Upon my father’s demise, you will not be our guardian. We shall not be under your dominion, and you will be the head of an entirely different family.”
The man sat back as though struck. “I see. I came to Longbourn hoping to find a means to lessen the blow to Mr. Bennet’s daughters. I came, although I knew they could not give me any material advancement in life, ready to offer matrimony. At your father’s unfortunate illness, I have continually said that I would not be unkind. In marrying your sister, you all would be assured of always having a home at Longbourn.”
Elizabeth gaped at him. “Do you forget, sir, that I am to marry Mr. Darcy?”
“While I doubt the event will come to pass, it is not you who I had meant, Miss Elizabeth.” He turned his eyes upon Mary, seated next to him, and picked up her hand.
Mary gasped, tears welling her eyes, and snatched her hand away. “It occurs to me, Mr. Collins, that you are in a household of unwed ladies whose chaperones are indisposed. Would you not believe, given your situation in life, that it would be better to take a room at the inn? I am sure Hill can see to your things at once.”
“This is how it is to be, then?” Collins threw his napkin on the table and pushed his chair back. “Such ungrateful, headstrong women! Each of you will rue your words this day!”
He stood, but Lydia called after him. “By the bye, Mr. Collins, I had not said a word against you today, but I will now. You are a toad-licker, and I shan’t be sorry if I never see you again!”
Collins glared at her before wrenching the door open. Slamming it shut behind him, he stomped down the hallway. Kitty and Lydia immediately burst into laughter. Mary poked at her food, her hand trembling. Elizabeth reached for her sister’s hand.
“I am very proud of you, Mary. It must have taken a great deal of courage to refuse him. I had thought you fancied him.”
“I thought I did too,” she said as a tear streaked down her face. “When he paid me attention, I had thought he saw my worth. Instead, all he saw was a prize. Still, I might have accepted him if he had not insulted you.” Mary squeezed Elizabeth’s hand in return. “Never say you were the only one to sacrifice for this family.”
A moment later, heavy steps were heard, and the front door opened and closed. All five sisters left their seats and gathered around the window to see Mr. Collins walking toward Meryton, muttering to himself. Now and then, they heard words such as demanding, seductress, and ill-mannered.
“What shall we tell Mama?” Kitty asked.
“Say nothing tonight,” Elizabeth answered. “She is already living her worst nightmare with Papa ill. She does not need to know that her second-worst fear—her daughters scaring off a willing suitor—has come to pass. When Mr. Darcy returns tomorrow, I shall tell here that Mr. Collins removed himself to the inn. That is all she need ever know. She will have no reason to fear.”
Jane, Kitty, and Mary left for the drawing room, but Lydia remained. Shutting the door, she turned to Elizabeth and cried, “Oh, Lizzy! Do you really have to marry that awful Mr. Darcy? I should like to live with the Gardiners and be in London all the time.”
“The Gardiners have their own family to support. There would not be room for all of us. Mama would never leave Meryton. Although she enjoys visiting London, her nerves could not handle living in all the bustle. Besides, then we would be separated.”
“Will we not be separated when you marry?” Lydia asked. “Once we all marry?”
“It is a very different thing to be separated by the happy occasion of marriage and to a man who can afford frequent travel than it is to be separated by poverty and necessity.”
“Poverty? We are not poor!”
“Do you have any idea how much your trips to the milliner cost?” Elizabeth sighed. “Papa spends at least one hundred pounds on each of us a year. It would be a drastic change in circumstance for us to live on Mama’s money alone.”
“I never thought you would be so mercenary.” Lydia scowled.
“I would disagree that I am.” Elizabeth placed her hands on her hips. “Mr. Darcy is not as bad as you think. He would not suit you, but that is not to say he cannot suit me. I did not endeavour to entrap him, and had desired to refuse Mr. Collins.”
“But you would not have—”
“But I would have wanted to. A person is not mercenary when driven to the choice by necessity. There would be far less to gain out of marriage to Collins than to Darcy.”
“I could never do it.”
“Fortunately for you, you did not have to and will never have to consider that sacrifice. However, you should have a care. I would be far more ill-prepared to marry where my heart is not inclined if I so actively sought to attach it elsewhere. You may not ever have to marry for the sake of your current family. Still, you should consider your future family and if a husband can support one. Unless the man has considerable independence, a lieutenant in the militia is not the sort you should entertain.”
Lydia pouted. “If it is only a flirtation, it should not matter.”
“We cannot control who or when we love. What might begin as a flirtation could turn into more. It would be challenging to choose against your heart at such a time, and yet if you listen to it alone, you might be assured misery in the future.”
“If we were really in love…”
“Love might bear all things, but it does not make all things easy. Additionally, if judged too rapidly, the love is all too fleeting. Do not be in such a hurry to attach yourself. That is all I ask.”
“Very well. I shall try.”
“That is all we can do.”
Elizabeth smiled at her sister and linked their arms before leading her to the drawing room. She remained only for a half an hour before returning to the library or, as she was beginning to think of it, her father’s sickroom. She had never been the sort to quickly fall in love. Now, she wished she was. On the other hand, falling in love with Darcy would surely be the more heart-breaking route as he had promised her nothing but respect and fidelity. Who knew if the man was even capable of romantic feelings?