Posted on: 2010-12-16
Mrs Bennet had made as much fuss as possible. Given the hysterics she had displayed, one might have thought that she was indeed being turned out to starve in the hedgerows as she had so frequently prophesied, when in fact she was moving to a rather handsome little house Mr Darcy had purchased for her, close (but not too close) to Pemberley.
Mrs Bennet, thought Charlotte Collins, really ought to be grateful. Not only had she succeeded in marrying all her daughters more or less respectably – less in the case of Mrs Wickham, though that was a topic not talked about much if one could help it – but Mr Bennet had lived to the age of seventy-one, thus affording his wife the pleasure of spending another seventeen years as mistress of Longbourn with a comfortable income and hardly a thing to worry about. Then, after her husband had succumbed to a lung fever, Mr Collins had allowed her six full months to vacate the house. No, thought Charlotte firmly, Mrs Bennet really had no reason to complain. Longbourn was a sizeable house and would, under good management, be a profitable estate. What use could it be to a widow with all her daughters settled and no son needing an inheritance?
Charlotte, with four unmarried daughters of her own, not to mention two very fine sons, felt that her family had long outgrown the confines of Hunsford parsonage. Besides, she was glad to have exchanged the neighbourhood of Rosings Park for the proximity of her own dear parents. Lady Catherine had become steadily more disagreeable over the years, however much one might have considered that impossible, and had in the end not only advised but decreed the very colours of the ribbons Mrs Collins should wear when going into society.
For nineteen years, Charlotte had waited and endured. She had borne Lady Catherine's insulting interference, she had borne her husband's folly and the unspeakable embarrassment of her marital bed, she had managed an ever-growing household on a limited income and never had a word of complaint passed her lips. After all this time, she felt she deserved to be mistress of Longbourn. The distinction had not come easily.
It was the 22nd of December and the upheaval of moving was finally over. The fire in the parlour crackled merrily and illuminated a room at long last tidy and still. Charlotte sat by the work table alone. Mr Collins had taken the children across to Lucas Lodge to pay their respects to Sir William and Lady Lucas yet again. He had upbraided her for not joining him, but Charlotte had stood firm, claiming that she urgently had to settle accounts with the housekeeper. In truth, the household accounts were in good order and she only wanted some time to herself. The bustle of the last few weeks had left her exhausted. A couple of peaceful hours would hardly be enough to restore her. For her parents she felt affection rather than respect, and this was better expressed in a quiet morning visit with only her two youngest to accompany her.
Charlotte leaned towards the candle to get better light for her work. She had not done three stitches when Mrs Hennings, the housekeeper, came in.
"Beg your pardon, ma'm," she said and set a small box on the table. "Sukey just found this in one of the closets. It's Christmas decorations. I thought you'd want to look at them and decide whether they should be sent on to Mrs Bennet."
"Thank you, Hennings." Charlotte suppressed a sigh. What was the use of having a housekeeper if she still had to deal with every little matter like this? "I will look at them later."
The housekeeper curtseyed and tiptoed out. Charlotte returned her attention to her sewing work, but found that her eyes kept drifting to the box. Why she was so curious about it she didn't know. Something abandoned by Mrs Bennet couldn't be of much value. Perhaps it was the astonishment that Mrs Bennet should have left anything behind at all, given that she had even taken away the picture hooks and the pokers. Charlotte put away her work and lifted the lid of the box.
Inside, an assortment of scrunched up paper apparently held some fragile objects, and one of those lay, unwrapped, on top. It was a figurine of the Virgin Mary, a simple plaster cast painted with fairly clumsy brushstrokes, undoubtedly by one of the Bennet girls in her youth. Charlotte set it on the table beside the box and reached for one of the bundles, wrapped in an old laundry bill. It contained a figure of a camel in the same style. The younger girls might like this in their room, thought Charlotte, who possessed a rather more refined nativity scene carved from rosewood, which she had already set up in the hall. She unwrapped further figurines and lined them up: the donkey, two shepherds and a sheep, a wise man. Where was the child?
Eventually she found him, but she barely looked at the figure once she had unwrapped him, because her own name on the paper caught her eye and she recognised the handwriting. Some old letter of Elizabeth's, written but never sent, had enveloped the infant Jesus. After only a moment's hesitation for decorum's sake, she began to read.
My dearest Jane,
I hope this finds you well and you are as merry as can be in the company of Aunt and Uncle Gardiner. If the diversions of London do not have an uplifting effect on your spirit then I shall declare you beyond help! I enjoyed your account of your visit to the theatre and I am convinced you were not telling me everything. Surely the gentleman who so gallantly picked up your fan also cast you a look of great admiration? Even in London, there cannot be many beauties equal to you. Please tell me how you liked the concert to which Uncle was proposing to take you last week. I wish I could have gone, too. Alas, the only concert I am likely to hear these days is the aria of complaints from Mama, but I shall not tire you with accounts of that. Papa hides in his library, Mary cannot open her mouth without lecturing and Kitty and Lydia speak of nothing but officers. I miss your company so!
I shall escape these domestic joys soon, though whether I shall be better pleased at the place I am going remains to be seen. Currently, Hunsford is not a name that excites great expectations in me. While I shall be glad to see Charlotte again, I cringe at the prospect of seeing her the wife of Mr Collins. At the risk of boring you with a topic we have spoken about at length and on more than one occasion, I have to tell you that I still cannot believe that she has done this. How can she stand that man and his tedious conversation every day of her life! How can she bear the narrowness of his mind and his constant fawning over Lady Catherine, which, I am sure, will be much more excruciating in her ladyship's presence than it was here at Longbourn! Don't say again that it is a sensible match for her. Why would any woman sacrifice all her hope of finding an equal partner, sacrifice even her dignity, her very sense of her own worth, for material comfort? No, Jane, you will not persuade me that this is prudence. I cannot remember when I last so wholeheartedly agreed with Mama on any subject as I agree with her that this was a very undesirable match indeed. Charlotte has sunk in my estimation and I do not think I will ever respect her again as I used to. Mr Collins is the last man in the world whom I would ever have married, except perhaps Mr Darcy. In fact, I believe the two are quite equal to each other in pompous self-importance and I –
Here the letter ended halfway down the reverse side of the paper, which seemed to indicate that Elizabeth had changed her mind about sending it. Charlotte held it with a hand that didn't tremble and stared at the words.
She had known it, of course she had known it, that Elizabeth had despised her choice, but reading it expressed so directly stung nevertheless. It stung even across a gap of nearly two decades. What struck her most about the letter, though, was neither the indiscretion – it had, after all, not been sent – nor the loss of Elizabeth's respect, which she felt certain she had regained over the years. No, what struck her most was the injustice of Elizabeth's sentiments.
Mr Collins was indeed tedious company, but he was also a kindly father, conscientious in fulfilling his duties, generous to the poor, and nobody could accuse him of having tried to enrich himself by marriage, Charlotte's portion having been just as meagre as Elizabeth's. Calling him the last man in the world whom one would ever marry seemed exaggerated at least. Lizzy possessed a keen imagination, had she not seen that there were men far worse than Mr Collins?
Charlotte had spoken the truth all those years ago when she had said that she had no romantic aspirations, and she deemed it unfair that her dignity should be regarded dependent on adherence to such ideas. She did not feel she had sacrificed her sense of her own worth in her marriage. But Lizzy had always had such high and mighty notions. At the time, Charlotte had thought it folly that her friend had rejected Mr Collins. Nobody would have been able to foresee then how things would turn out. Elizabeth might well have been missing her only chance of an establishment.
Considering how things had turned out, Charlotte had to admit to the occasional pangs of envy, especially on those rare occasions when she saw Elizabeth and Mr Darcy together. The easy understanding that existed between them, the sensible companionship and obvious attachment –
But finding a soul mate was not for everyone, Charlotte reminded herself. She had gained, through her marriage to Mr Collins, more than she could have hoped to gain in her twenty-seventh year: a comfortable home, the status of respectability and, most of all, six people whom she truly loved and who returned her affection with easy grace.
Charlotte caressed the little plaster figure of the child in the manger. When a tear fell on the letter and smudged the word "sunk," it was not drawn forth by the sting contained in that sentence, but by the memory of a dreary winter afternoon, much like this one, when her first child was born. The lad, by now half a foot taller than his mother, delighted her daily with his good sense and steady character. Seldom, however, did she indulge in recollections of that heart-melting moment when she had first held him in her arms. She had thought then that no feeling could ever compare to this, and yet she had been engulfed by the same overwhelming fondness another five times.
With her fingers curled around the infant Jesus, she evoked the sensations of early motherhood, the downy hair against her cheek, the scent of that soft baby skin, those bright eyes, the warmth of the tiny body, and the sighs of contentment when the child fell asleep at her shoulder.
"You're not the only miracle, you know," she said to the Saviour of the World. "Every time a child is born, it happens again."
The plaster Jesus made no reply and continued to stare at the ceiling with his painted eyes. Charlotte set him aside and turned her attention to the rest of the figurines. Another two wise men, the ox, more shepherds and sheep were removed from their wrappers, clammy to touch, moderately pleasant to look at. At the bottom of the box, she found the figure that she had hardly realised was missing: Joseph. When she unwrapped him, she saw that his left arm was broken off and his nose was chipped. This, then, appeared to be the reason the set had been abandoned.
"The girls will love it anyway," said Charlotte and packed the figurines back into the box. She took it through the hall, past the rosewood nativity, and up the stairs to her youngest daughters' bedroom. On a low table between the two beds she arranged the figures, Mary in the middle, watching over the child, and Joseph half behind her, surrounded by shepherds and wise men and animals so that the missing arm could barely be noticed. She stood back and surveyed her work, pushed the smallest lamb a little closer to the child, then turned to the beds and plumped up the pillows that didn't need plumping.
Back down in the parlour, she tossed the letter into the fire. From outside, she heard voices and footsteps coming up the path. Seconds later, the door was flung open and her jolly brood charged in.
"Mama!" cried the youngest and climbed onto Charlotte's lap. "Grandpapa has given me sixpence to buy sweetmeats for Christmas!"
"Aren't you the luckiest girl alive?" said Charlotte and hugged her tight. The young people took seats around her, their cheeks rosy from the cold. Her eldest daughter sat down at the pianoforte and began to play Adeste Fideles.
"My dear," said Mr Collins as he pulled off his gloves, "I hope you have settled your accounts?"
"I have," replied Charlotte. "I have."