Beginning, Section II
Charlotte strongly suspected that Mr. Collins was in fact Mr. Henry De Bourgh, but she did not know what consequences it had for herself yet.
Henry De Bourgh, according to Mrs. Jenkinson, would inherit his father's estate. If her marriage was legal, she would become mistress of that estate at some point, perhaps. But that would be a very awkward thing indeed, and she could not see her husband do it. He had hinted that nobody would know anything about his secret life, so he would not bring the wife from that secret life out into the open, would he?
It was more likely that he would leave her behind when he decided to resume his place in the De Bourgh family.
Perhaps her marriage was not even legal. Charlotte considered that. She knew very little of such matters and to find out for certain she would have to consult somebody with expert knowledge. If it was not legal, it did not really matter, for Mr. Collins would leave her anyway, and she assumed he would play it so as to make her a widow. If she was legally married, however, it would pose a problem in the future, both for her and for Mr. Collins, because they would not be free to marry again. Perhaps he did not bother to abide to the law, having broken it already by getting married under an assumed name, and doing all sorts of things with a mask on. Perhaps he thought he could get away with it.
Charlotte wished he were home, so she could ask him directly, but of course he had gone away to avoid his brother and father, another reason to make her believe that her suspicion was really true.
In London, a gentleman was in a state of extreme agitation. He ran his hands through his hair repeatedly and made it stand on end. "I am in a fix," he said again.
"Oh?" said his friend, who was painting something and not really paying attention. "Can't help you with money, old chap."
"I got married."
"Congratulations," said the painter, stepping back and squinting at his work. "Done."
"Married, do you hear?"
"Yes, I heard you. It is not uncommon for men our age. Sounds like something I might do one of these days. A rich heiress...so I do not have to paint stupid murals to earn my bread, but so I can concentrate on real art."
"Under an assumed name."
"Well, no," the painter considered. "I enjoy a little fame as Felix Corbett already. To take on an alias would be disastrous."
"I got married under an assumed name!"
"No, worse! What do I do with her?"
"Does she know you married her under an assumed name?" Corbett asked.
He winced. "Tsk. That is not so nice, De Bourgh. And that for someone with such a mighty name. I'm sure all your proud ancestors would turn in their graves. What did you take?"
Corbett muttered something under his breath that indicated that De Bourgh was a complete oaf. "Why not John Smith? Can it get any more ordinary? He was a poet, you fool. And who did you marry?"
"A Miss Lucas from Hertfordshire."
"She found me out and she forced me to marry her."
"Tricked?" Corbett asked incredulously. "Ha ha. I knew your little games would come to light some time. Though I should have loved to join you if I had not been a poor painter who actually has to work for his bread."
"But what do I do?" De Bourgh asked. "Do you know any legal stuff? About marriages and bigamy and so on?"
"Good Lord, do you think I ever opened those books at university? Of course not. However, I have this chap I was at university with for a year -- before I was advised to seek my fortune elsewhere -- who buys some of my work now and then, and I am sure he would know. I did a ceiling for him at Pemberley last year and I charged him ridiculously little, so he owes me a favour. What do you say?"
Corbett and De Bourgh were lucky, because the friend Corbett knew was in London at that time. They called at his townhouse and they were immediately shown in. "See? I am a well-connected man," Corbett whispered.
"I am glad," said Henry De Bourgh dryly.
A man walked into the room. "Corbett! Did I forget to pay you? Or did you paint another masterpiece again that you want me to buy?"
"Darcy!" Corbett shook his hand cordially. "I have not come about paintings or payments, but I have come for my friend De Bourgh here."
Henry De Bourgh had begun to frown when Darcy had entered the room, and now Darcy smiled when he heabrd the name of De Bourgh. He shook his hand. "I believe you are a relative of sorts, Mr. De Bourgh. Do we not share an aunt?"
"That is possible," Henry groaned. "Of all the people in London, did you have to take me to the one who knows my aunt?" And one who had seen him in his disguise, too.
Corbett shrugged. "That should be the least of your problems, from what I understand of the rest of them. Darcy, this poor fellow needs your advice. He got married."
"Uhh," said Darcy. "I am not married. What do I know about it?"
"If you would marry a girl under an assumed name, would you assume that you were really married?"
Darcy pondered the question. "Why should I want to marry anybody under an assumed name?"
"Let us not get academic," Corbett begged. "Just concentrate on the legal question."
"Yes, I should think I was really married."
"Thank you, Darcy. Well, Henry? Does this solve any problems or does it make them worse?"
"It was a worthy woman, I hope?" Darcy asked.
I cannot say her name. You have met her. De Bourgh shrugged. "She more or less forced me."
"She found out I was not who I said I was."
"So she knows who you are."
"No, she does not."
Darcy raised his eyebrows. "And yet she married you? She must have been desperate! In the off-chance that you were not irresistible, that is."
"Har de har. In the meantime, I am in a fix."
"It would seem so, man!" Darcy exclaimed. "It cannot be undone. Unless you have the marriage annulled in case it was not consummated, or if you make your alter ego disappear, you will not get rid of her, nor could you marry anyone else."
"Maybe he does not want to," Corbett said shrewdly. "Do you, Henry? Maybe that is the problem. Henry De Bourgh could not appear in polite society with the woman he married as somebody else and he does not want another wife."
"Actually, this is rather a challenging problem," Darcy remarked. "But unless you decide what you want to do with her, we cannot do anything for you."
Henry De Bourgh nodded. "Thank you. I understand. I shall have to think about it."
He said goodbye to Corbett outside Darcy's house and returned to his lodgings, where he threw himself on the bed and groaned. His childish desire for adventure had landed him in a good scrape this time, even worse than that time he had been pursued by the law and made a narrow escape. Before he could do any more damage to himself it was perhaps best to say goodbye to his secret life soon.
The question was what he should do with Mrs. Collins. He was married for life.
As William Collins.
Not as himself.
Suppose he wanted her to be married to himself too. He did not know yet if he did, but he could suppose. He would have to make Mr. Collins really disappear, as opposed to just leaving and surfacing as Henry De Bourgh, which he had planned before. He could never marry a woman who was not really a widow.
After thinking it over for two long hours, he suddenly sat up straight. It was all very well if he made plans here, but who could say if she wanted to be married to Henry De Bourgh or to be William Collins's widow. He had no idea. Unless he knew what she wanted, he could not plan anything.
Charlotte was working quietly when she heard a horse approach. Thinking that it might be Mr. Collins, she got up and walked to the window, but it was dark outside and she saw nothing. She sat back down to wait. Her guess had been right, for she heard his manservant unlock the door and go out. Charlotte put down her work and stared into the fire. Her fingers seemed unable to do their work anymore.
After several minutes she could hear somebody come into the house, but he did not enter the drawing room. The footsteps went directly upstairs. Slowly Charlotte resumed her work.
It was several more minutes before he came. He was not dressed as Mr. Collins, which pleased her a little. "Good evening," he said, lingering a bit in the doorway. "Are you well?"
"I am well," she said quietly.
"Good," he answered.
Charlotte expected him to go away again, but instead he advanced further into the room and sat down. "Are you well?" she returned the question politely.
"Hmm," he said vaguely, lost in thought. "Tell me, Mrs. Collins...if you were a widow, would you marry again?"
Charlotte concentrated on her needle while she considered the question. "That depends."
"On whether anyone should ask me or not."
"But you would not, like the first time, use force...?"
"I think not."
It was now his time to consider and he was silent for some time. "Does that mean you have what you have always desired and that you feel no need to change your circumstances?"
"I have enough to keep me content. I never desired much. I do not see why I should change my circumstances. Is a widow's position not good? I trust that you will leave me enough money to manage."
"Why are you asking me such questions?" she asked curiously.
"Just because..." Henry De Bourgh rose and made for the door.
Charlotte called him back, for she was not done talking to him, and she would rather have him to look at for a little while longer than to have to face him in disguise. "And you? What would you do?"
He looked puzzled. "If I became a widower?"
"No, when you are dead, so to say. When you are no longer Mr. Collins but Mr. De Bourgh, and free to marry whoever you choose."
He stood stock still and stared at her. "You know," he stated blankly.
"I am not stupid, nor am I blind. Your father and brother stayed with Lady Catherine and I saw them there," Charlotte explained.
"I do not resemble them."
"You do. I think it is time you ended your charade now that I found out."
"You promised you would not tell."
"Oh, I shall not, but think of how other people will see me when they see me tolerate Mr. Collins's presence? I am not certain I could bear to be thought mercenary and cold-hearted and stupid for the rest of my life."
"I do not understand why that did not bother you at first either."
"Because I was eager to get away. However, I think," she said reflectively. "That I shall start having problems with the situation at some point." Perhaps she would want to scream at other people that Mr. Collins was not so bad, that she was not to be pitied for being married to him. She did not know if that would ever happen. "It is more prudent to prevent that from happening."
"You realise what that means," he said.
"I do. You will return to your family and I shall be your widow. You will marry again," she said bravely, "and perhaps I shall too, if the situation arises, and people will be none the wiser."
Henry groaned and fell down face-down on the couch. "I cannot marry again," he said in a muffled voice. "It will be bigamy."
For some reason Charlotte was pleased to hear that. "And what will you do with me?" she wondered out loud.
"That is a very good question," said Henry. "Perhaps you know how to answer it, because I do not." He thumped his fists on the couch helplessly.
"I would not have asked it if I did," Charlotte answered. "I do not understand how you could have embarked on this scheme without considering the consequences!"
"Well, Madam," he said sarcastically, lifting his head up just enough to be able to answer her without sounding muffled. "I did not foresee that I would be tricked into marriage. I could ask you the same -- why did you not consider the fact that your husband might run into such trouble, when you knew he was not what he seemed when you proposed to him?"
Charlotte shrugged. "I suppose I did not think."
"Did you think that his padded waist was all there was to him?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Did you think that that was enough to disguise a person?"
Charlotte realised that neither of them was entirely to blame. She had entered into this marriage with just as little consideration as he had. "I suppose I did not really think about it."
"You were more concerned with the prospect of having your own cow and chickens," said Henry.
"In a way," she admitted.
"Then you are not much better than the average fortune hunter," he stated.
"Apparently not." His cold, indifferent tone had stung her, though. Somehow it mattered deeply what he thought of her, but she was too proud to defend herself. Making excuses was too easy.
"Alright. So be it." He glanced at her face, which was pleasant and interesting rather than pretty, although he did not really care about pretty faces. It was enough to him that a wife looked well enough to be seen in public with and that he could be proud of her, and anyway, somehow after a while you got used to a face and it became dear to you, and you did not see the relative beauty of it anymore. And her face had become dear to him, or was it not just her face?
He liked her, despite the fact that she had married him for mercenary reasons. Perhaps he could argue himself into acquitting her from that. Had she really been mercenary? Marrying him had probably been the wisest thing to do. Even if it had landed them in this trouble. And he did not think that because he had such a high opinion of himself, no, he considered her situation very objectively. Perhaps he would have done the same, had he been in her position.
She looked a little offended by being called a fortune hunter, though. He saw that. Perhaps he should say something to make up for it. "I do not think you are a fortune hunter."
Charlotte frowned. "No?"
"Well, a cow and a few chickens are hardly what one would call a fortune."
"Not to you, maybe, but you come from a very privileged family," she pointed out to him.
"I am not speaking about peasants -- I know very well that in some circles a cow is a very important possession -- but I am speaking about you," he said. "I should not say any more, since I do not seem capable of saying what I mean."
"If you consider independence to be a sort of fortune, then you are right. I wanted independence, no matter what."
"I can understand that," he said slowly. "And you will be made even more independent if Mr. Collins dies."
"Does he have to die?" Charlotte asked. She had rather not.
"I am getting sick of the fellow," Henry admitted.
Somehow it made Charlotte grin. "Really? I thought you liked him."
"Please!" he cried. "How can anyone like him? Heavens, he is a moron! Everyone must be pitying you."
"Hmm," she said pensively. "In that case nobody would blame me for running off with Mr. Henry De Bourgh, would they?" Suddenly she blushed. "I do not mean that -- that -- that will happen," she stammered. "I do not want to force you into doing something again."
If it were not a disgrace to elope, Henry was sure she would not need to apply very much force. "Would you want to elope?" he asked.
"I should not want to create a scandal."
"Would you want me, though?" he asked, looking at the ceiling because he was afraid that she would see his reaction to his question.
"Would I want you for what?" Charlotte asked carefully. She thought it was best to inquire after his meaning in case she should have misunderstood him. "Or do you mean what would I want you to do?"
"Argh!" cried Henry, jumping up swiftly and leaving the room with a rather embarrassed expression on his face.
Charlotte stared after him in confusion and disappointment. Why did he leave? She thought of what he could have meant and what she would have wanted him to have meant. After a few minutes -- for she was a quick thinker and did not need much time to sort her feelings out -- she got up and went in search of her husband. She found him in his bedchamber, where he was lying on his bed. Apart from one candle by the bedside, the room was dark. It was all very well that she now knew her heart, but it was quite another matter to tell him what she had concluded. "Mr. De Bourgh?" she said, for he did not seem to have noticed her arrival.
Henry removed the pillow from his face and looked rather flushed. "Yes?"
"I came to tell you a few things."
"Oh," he said weakly. She had spoken so calmly that he doubted that what she had to say was romantic.
"I must tell you that although it would not be my business to have any opinion on the matter, I should not like it if you married again, but that I --"
"No?" Henry flung the pillow aside and sat up straight, his eyes wide open. "And why not?"
"Well, because -- are you upset that I should say this?" she asked anxiously. Perhaps she had taken too many liberties.
"No!" He sat up straighter. "Please tell me."
"I do not know why I should not like it. I merely know that I should not. I realise that I have no right..."
"You have every right!" he exclaimed. "In fact, you are the only one who has the right to express an opinion on the matter. You have that right because you are my wife."
Charlotte felt the warmth steal into her cheeks. She did not know what to say. I am his wife! Does that mean he will keep me?
Henry suddenly seemed to have found enough confidence. He walked towards her. "You are my wife. I will not abandon my wife unless she tells me to. If you do not tell me to, we shall find a way around that fool Henry's problem. He is me -- I am not pulling out another identity now," he added, just to be sure that she would not misunderstand him.
"I know you are Henry," she smiled.
The sound of him saying it for the first time was very pleasant and she did not ever want him to call her Mrs. Collins again. "I did not know you knew my name," she said stupidly.
"I may not have said it, but that does not mean I did not know it," he answered softly. "Come here, Charlotte."
Charlotte advanced the two steps that separated them.
"Charlotte..." said Henry. "You married a fool." He could not put it any differently.
"I knew that when I married you," she replied, allowing him to take her hand. She sat down on the bed.
"Yes, but you were under the assumption that it was Collins-like folly. While everyone, I think, would agree that Collins is a pompous old bore --" Or perhaps not so, because Collins had succeeded in marrying this woman and perhaps he would be the object of envy. Imagine that, Collins the object of envy. And for his noble patroness too, to be sure. "-- I rather think I am much more foolish as myself." And he had succeeded in marrying this woman as well, but nobody would ever know of it unless he came up with some excellent solution.
"Yes," she sighed, but she was not really paying attention to what he was saying. He had kissed her once when she had not wanted it. Why was he not kissing her when she did? She was a bit shocked that she did, but it was so, she discovered as she analysed her feelings.
"Hullo, Charlotte?" Henry nudged her a little uncertainly when she seemed so absentminded. "Are you still with me? Or are you cursing your situation? I am very sorry about being such a fool. I am not being a very good husband, am I?" Why else was she agreeing that he was a fool? He had hoped she would deny it, but she had not.
"No," Charlotte said heartily. Kiss me, fool. But she was shocked at the audacity of her thoughts and hoped she had not voiced them. She bowed her head.
"How can I make up for it?" he asked penitently.
"Well..." she said with her head still bowed. "You could tell me you found a solution..." Or he could show her, which would be even better.
"I..." Henry said helplessly. "...have not."
"But it is easy," she said, lifting her head with a mischievous look. Just kiss me.
"Fool!" Charlotte decided to help him out a little.
"Mrs Collins will be coming to breakfast today," Lady Catherine announced over breakfast. She looked very disapproving, for Mrs Collins should have been there by now. "Are you dressed for the occasion, Anne?" she looked at her daughter critically, but she had been speaking to Anne's inflammated ear -- Anne having placed herself very strategically -- and Anne had not heard her. "ANNE!"
A nudge and a twitch from Mrs Jenkinson told Anne that her attention was required at the head of the table. "Yes, Mamma?"
"You must look like a lady, Anne. You cannot sit at the breakfast table looking as though you raided Mrs Collins' closets."
Anne could not care less, but she knew she would not have any kind of life if she did not change into a pretty gown with lots of white frills that would make her look ill. And who knew, maybe Mrs Collins had very interesting closets. Her mother was always going on about them anyway. What business did she have looking into other people's closets? It was odd. She had not gone upstairs in the Collinses' house because the stairs were too tiring, but her mother had and she had apparently rummaged through Mrs Collins' closets, or else she would not know that Anne looked as though she had raided them. It was all very puzzling to Anne. She forgot what her mother had been saying, but threw in a "yes, Mamma," for good measure.
"Well, then go, girl!" Lady Catherine waved. "You might make it in time before Mrs Collins gets here."
"But my tea..." Anne knew it would turn cold and she hated cold tea.
"You will be given new tea."
As it was, Mrs Collins had completely forgotten about her breakfast engagement and her husband was unaware of it, nor was he inclined to ask his wife if she had any engagements, because he was quite content to have her all to himself.
It was not until Lady Catherine had started on her third pot of tea that Mr and Mrs Collins were announced. Anne was temporarily not in the room, also having been forced to drink cup after cup. Lady Catherine glanced at her guests, wondering if she could reprimand them for being late. That would be bad manners, not something she cared about generally. "Mrs Collins..." she began icily, the temperature of the scones that had once been hot, at the time when Mrs Collins had been due.
"I am so sorry," Charlotte apologised. "But Mr Collins had returned and a wife's duty is first and foremost to her husband, would you not agree, Lady Catherine?"
There was nothing Lady Catherine could say to that. She had stressed the point often enough and managed a weak attempt at a polite smile that distorted her features so evilly that it would never be interpreted as such.
Henry leered obsequiously, mumbling "indeed, indeed." He then apologised so profusely that it could not fail to flatter Her Ladyship. "Had I known I was depriving Mrs Collins of the chance to partake of Rosings' most excellent breakfast with you, I should not have made any demands on her time, Lady Catherine. For the world, your humble servant would never have willingly kept you waiting and I am deeply sorry for the inconvenience my thoughtless behaviour caused you. The next time I shall immediately ask Mrs Collins if we are not invited to Rosings, or better, I shall first pay my compliments here and ascertain myself of it. I can scarcely believe our gross neglect. You must forgive us, Lady Catherine, but I would understand perfectly if you should never want to see us again. Oh! Miss De Bourgh." Henry bowed to his cousin, who looked sick upon seeing him. "I trust you are in good health."
Actually, I look pretty ill in this gown, Anne thought, suppressing multiple shudders upon seeing Mr Collins. But that might be because I see you. How could Mrs Collins suffer him?
Henry, after a very boring breakfast session with Lady Catherine, had decided that Collins had to die at some point and then he could let Henry De Bourgh resurface. Perhaps Henry even had to resurface before that time, to make it less obvious. But could he go about it? London was a good place or perhaps Mr Collins could meet with an untimely death at the hands of a highwayman.
He had his plan.
It had been William Collins who had left the parsonage for a visit to an eminent scholar who was not expecting him -- this was Mr Collins' habit, since he believed that anyone would welcome him with open arms because of his noble patroness -- but it was Mr Henry De Bourgh who knocked on the door of the local constabulary in the Hertfordshire town of Meryton, considerably upset and bewildered and stripped of all his valuable possessions.
It was not a random choice of town, far from it. Henry believed that in a town that was acquainted with the character of the Reverend Mr Collins, people would be less eager to investigate the report of his death, especially since it was carried by a person graced with such an eminent and respected name as De Bourgh -- Lady Catherine's words, not Henry's.
"I was robbed," he said helplessly. "By highwaymen."
It was believed immediately, what with highwaymen frequenting that area regularly. And this young gentleman looked worthy of being robbed.
"I was travelling with a gentleman I had met on the way, hoping we would be less of a target and also because he turned out to be my aunt's clergyman, b-b-but --" Henry was quite overcome. "-- he refused to co-operate and he was k-k-killed."
The authorities were properly shocked.
"His name was C-C-Collins, I believe. He refused to hand over his p-p-possessions because they had been g-g-given to him by his p-p-patroness, my aunt. He lived in Kent."
And quite well-known in Meryton, since he had married one of their girls. "Charlotte Lucas' husband!"
"Eh...I do not know that," Henry looked suitably confused.
"How was he killed?"
"He was shot and thrown into a river."
"Could you describe the highwaymen?" They did not ask where they might fish up Charlotte Lucas' husband, not having had much sympathy for the man.
"Not well, sir," said Henry regretfully. "They were masked and I was too intent on obeying their orders to pay any good attention to them."
"And you say they shot Mr Collins because he did not co-operate?"
"Yes, sir. He did not want to give them his money."
"And then they left you alone?"
"Well, they had got my valuable things and they had to dispose of the body," Henry shrugged. "They said they would throw it into the river, but I cannot say with absolute certainty that they did. I...I took care to ride off as fast as I could when they let me go."
That was understandable, the authorities could see that. A short conference among them led to the decision that they would wait for the body to surface somewhere and in the meantime someone should be sent to Kent to inform Mrs Collins. They were rather reluctant to do so, fearing that they would burst out into congratulations and it would be embarrassing to see the widow smile and how could she not smile upon hearing that news?
"I will do it," Henry bit his lip as if taking a very hard decision. "B-B-Before he died he gave me a p-p-personal message for his wife. I should feel it as my duty to him to relay it to her personally and to inform my aunt that her clergyman died."
Everyone was glad to be rid of the task. Informing Sir William was much easier, much as he esteemed his son-in-law verbally.
It was a few days after Henry had left that Charlotte was summoned to Rosings. Those summons were by no means exceptional and she did not intend to hurry, but she was bent on finishing her work first. She was not Lady Catherine's personal servant even if that lady thought otherwise.
When she arrived there, Lady Catherine was looking very grave. Henry had not told her what he was going to do and she was surprised to see him there, as himself, but she had to conceal it. Lady Catherine introduced him to her. "This is Mr Henry De Bourgh, my nephew. He has recently returned from a trip to the Continent." What endeared him to her was that he had evidently come to her first after his return. "He has some bad news for you. Sit down."
Charlotte was amazed to hear that Lady Catherine could actually place some sympathy in her voice. She would never have guessed.
Henry stepped forward and bowed again. He seemed to have trouble finding the right words and his voice was low and sympathetic as he told her the whole fabricated story.
Charlotte listened in silence. She was affected by it, albeit for other reasons than Lady Catherine assumed. It seemed as though she was rid of Mr Collins forever and Henry could be hers. But she could not let that show and she pulled a grave face, trying to find something to say that was suitable.
Lady Catherine thought that her nephew did his duty most excellently and sought to rival his behaviour by speaking many kind words to Charlotte, who did not know whether to laugh or cry, but who decided that gravity and silence were probably what was expected of her on the occasion. She was even invited to remain at Rosings for the night until the shock had worn off.
Henry prepared himself for bed, but first he had something else to do. His aunt had amazingly enough shown herself to possess hitherto unsuspected human virtues and given Charlotte all the sympathy she thought the bereft widow needed and this had rather prevented him from showing her any kindness himself. But he had not seen her for a few days and he wanted to know what she thought of his plan. In order not to encounter Lady Catherine in the hallways, he lowered himself onto the narrow ledge under his window and made his way towards Charlotte's room. On his way he passed Anne, who was looking out of hers. That was a drawback, because what excuse could he come up with for being on this ledge?
Fortunately Anne did not seem to think he had come for her, even though they had been engaged until she was twelve. "Hello," she said shyly. "Are you trying to escape?"
"I want to go to the pub," Henry improvised.
Anne bought the excuse, because she knew Lady Catherine would frown upon pubs. She nodded. "Do not fall off the ledge. My mother's favourite flowerbed is right beneath you and she would be very upset if you broke the flowers."
"Right," said Henry. "See you tomorrow, Anne." He shuffled on.
"Henry!" Charlotte said when he knocked on her window. She opened it and assisted him in.
He first took the opportunity to embrace her and then spent a considerable time talking to her. Finally he decided that he should return to his own room and get some sleep. Anne was still looking out of her window when he passed it. It was no wonder that the girl was always ill and sniffing if she spent such long periods of time in front of an open window in a flimsy night-dress, Henry thought.
"Let me guess," said Anne. "You could not get off the ledge."
"How do you know?" Henry was fascinated.
"Because that was much too short for a visit to the pub," Anne said knowingly. "Darcy and the Colonel always stay out much longer."
Henry did not know the Colonel personally, but since the Colonel was Lady Catherine's brother the Earl's son, she mentioned him numerous times a day. "I decided against going."
"Good, because they sell beer there and I do not like beer." The Colonel had kissed her once in a drunken mood and he had tasted of beer, but there was no need to tell Henry that. He might tell her mother and then all hell would break loose.
Henry said goodnight and shuffled on towards his room. He was glad he could climb into bed, since it had been rather cold out on the ledge. The first part of his plan had worked and now for the second.
There was nothing that Lady Catherine liked better than to be of use and she personally visited the cottage she had picked as Mrs Collins new home every day to make sure the workmen did their job swiftly and with style, as she had once heard the undertaker say who had seen to Sir Lewis' burial.
Charlotte accepted it in resignation. Henry had gone home to the De Bourgh estate and she had to cope alone for a while until he would find a way to get into contact with her.
Her friend Elizabeth came to visit her and she was puzzled by Charlotte's frequently distracted manner. It made no sense to her. Charlotte should be happy that Mr Collins was dead. Why then did she act as though she missed him?
"You cannot help but grow a little fond of someone you live with," Charlotte tried to explain patiently.
Elizabeth, who was several years younger, could not possibly imagine this and she was disgusted. "I should never grow fond of Mr Collins or Mr Darcy or any other despicable man I was forced to live with for a while. I am sorry that I should have to speak about your late husband in that way, but although he stayed with us for some time, I cannot say that I developed any positive feelings towards him."
Charlotte knew this and she could not avoid smiling a little wistfully.
"Perhaps Mr Bingley is the only exception, but one does not have to live with Mr Bingley in order to like him."
"I thought it was Jane who liked Mr Bingley."
"Yes, it is Jane, but can I not like Mr Bingley as a brother? I think he would be a wonderful brother, if only his sisters and his friend would allow him to declare himself. He cannot be expecting Jane to say anything! Jane will never do that. She is too modest and she thinks she is not special enough. It is all up to Mr Bingley. I fear I shall like him less if he has not proposed to Jane by the time I return. One cannot have a better wife than Jane, I think. He would never quarrel with her. It would be a perfect marriage."
"Dear Elizabeth..." Charlotte tried, but then gave up.
"What do you want to say?"
"I wanted to say that...nobody would quarrel with Jane and yet she would not have a perfect marriage with anybody. And you might very well be perfectly happy with someone you quarrelled with."
"I doubt that I should be happy with him," Elizabeth replied promptly. "I do not like him. I believe he is plotting against Jane. People who plot against Jane are naturally evil, because Jane is good. What will you do now? I believe you have what you have always wanted now. It is too bad you are forced to remain under the patronage of Lady Catherine." She had already been introduced to Her Ladyship.
"I have good hopes of changing my situation in the future," said Charlotte cautiously.
"How?" Elizabeth cried. "Do you hope to receive a proposal from another man?" But how was Charlotte to meet another man? She would not be going out into society a great deal, so that would be difficult. Perhaps there would be a nice farmer around, but well, that was really a little below her. "It would no doubt be at Lady Catherine's instigation," she realised. "Please! Do you think she has good taste in men? You must not let her force you into a second marriage with a fool!" she cried out, convinced as she was that deep down Charlotte shared her convictions of Mr Collins' foolishness.
"That will not happen," Charlotte assured her. She longed to be able to tell her friend about Henry, but she did not know if it was wise and Elizabeth, for all her good understanding, suddenly seemed very young to her.
Henry De Bourgh was received with open arms by his family. His mother was naturally very pleased to see him again after such a long time and scolded him for writing letters so very seldom. Despite the fact that he had left his wife behind in Kent, Henry did feel happy to be home and he caught himself forgetting about her now and then as he caught up with what had happened on the estate in his absence. He would have to come up with a solution for his problem one day, but first he would have to be settled in.
"Did you ever finish your studies, Henry?" asked his mother. "We never heard anything about it. I suspect you still need to do a few terms at university."
"Hmm," Henry mumbled self-consciously. "Yes, I suppose so. However, I do not know whether I should like to continue."
"Well, it is not really as important for you as it is for Michael," said his father. "You would only misbehave."
"Probably," Henry agreed.
"Now that you are back, we must have a ball," his mother suggested. Her eldest son should be married before he got himself into more scrapes and she would be proud to show her acquaintances that Henry had come back from his travels as a handsome and apparently level-headed young man, and not as the sort of good-for-nothing that she knew her friends had secretly been expecting.
Her husband and Henry groaned. Only Michael and his younger sisters liked the idea, for they were eager to meet members of the opposite sex. Henry knew this was only an attempt from his mother to get him to meet some suitable young woman. He did not want to meet any suitable young women, because he was sure he could not contrive to have Charlotte invited. And she was still in mourning anyway, which meant he had to foil attempts at matchmaking until it was possible for him to arrange something. It was depressing.
Henry De Bourgh had thwarted all of his family's attempts to see him married. He had also worried about finding life at the family estate too sedate, but he found he did not have to worry. Perhaps only as Mr Collins he had needed something exciting to complement the dull business of being a country clergyman. Or perhaps he had simply grown up to enter a new phase in his life. Henry was a bit shocked at the thought. On the other hand this was also a good thing.
Sometimes he received news of Charlotte through Anne's letters. Apparently she was a good and reliable acquaintance and the respectful way Anne mentioned her pleased him. Not entirely unmanipulative, he encouraged Anne to spend more time with Mrs Collins, as it sounded as if she was a valuable friend. One had to be clever and look ahead -- who knew if Lady Catherine might not bring Charlotte with her if she came to the De Bourghs for a visit?
Staging such a visit also necessitated some work on his parents, Henry realised. His mother especially was not terribly fond of her sister-in-law. He knew why -- Lady Catherine had the tendency to help and advise everyone everywhere, when this advice was not always received as such, but generally taken to be meddling and interfering.
It was a difficult task for another reason. His parents, dear though they were to him, had only one thing on their minds and that was to see him married. They could not think of Lady Catherine and Anne without immediately realising that cousin Anne was young and unmarried. Any of Henry's hints at inviting them would automatically be misconstrued as interest in Anne. Why else would he invite them indeed?
It required patience and a careful approach. Henry had not been in the possession of any diplomatic skills worth mentioning, but by the time he had succeeded in manipulating his parents into thinking that it was their own idea to invite Lady Catherine, they were good enough to earn him fame and fortune in the diplomatic services. By this time also several months had passed.
Henry was quite concerned that he was no longer the same person that Charlotte had been in love with. He seemed to have changed and learned a good deal. Perhaps she would no longer like him. Perhaps she had been attracted to the boyish recklessness that had marked his previous life. There was not much of that anymore. He awaited Lady Catherine's arrival with trepidation.
Charlotte was just as anxious about seeing him again. She had come to be more acquainted with Lady Catherine, since even Her Ladyship was in need of friends nearby and considering that Mrs Collins did not have any obligations at home -- according to Lady Catherine -- she was summoned -- invited -- over to Rosings Park quite frequently. Her sense and good temper recommended her to Lady Catherine and to Anne and they would perhaps, had there not been a difference in their backgrounds, be considered friends. She had even been valuable enough to have earned an invitation to the De Bourghs. Charlotte had been thrilled. It was true that she had fostered her acquaintance with Lady Catherine carefully, in the hope that it might someday lead her to Henry before he forgot about her.
He could not write to her directly and so she had to depend on whatever Anne would tell her. He would of course not write to Anne about her, so she had no way of knowing if he still loved her. Perhaps he would not have encouraged the invitation if he had stopped caring, but on the other hand he might have very little say in whom his parents invited.
"It is a beautiful little park, nothing compared to Rosings, certainly, because it belongs to Sir Lewis' younger brother, but quite lovely all the same," Lady Catherine prepared her. "We shall come upon the gates in a few minutes."
This turned out not to be very correct, as it was closer to half an hour before they were driven through the gates. Charlotte missed half of Lady Catherine's comments about the statues and the borders, because she was too caught up in staring out of the carriage. It was not long before they slowed down in front of the house.
They were met by the family, three of whom she had seen before -- Henry, his father and his brother. Modestly, Charlotte followed Lady Catherine and Anne together with Mrs Jenkinson. She met the De Bourghs with a grave countenance, trying not to make her eyes light up at the sight of Henry. But like him, she was used to hide what she truly felt and they did not betray anything. However, it did not ease her mind, not knowing what he felt.
He had changed a little, looking more grave and serious, but the few polite words he spoke sounded sincere. He hoped she was well. Charlotte regretted that her black attire prevented her from exhibiting a more feminine reaction to meeting a handsome man, such as a smile. That was no expected from a widow, unfortunately.
"I hope you do not miss your husband terribly," Henry said sincerely.
"It was a severe blow, but I bear it as best I can," Charlotte replied cautiously.
"Nonsense, Mrs Collins," Lady Catherine interrupted. "Nothing but kindness about the dead, but one can take this too far. I say you have blossomed."
"Under your excellent guidance," Charlotte murmured. "Thank you."
"I always take it upon myself to be of assistance in such cases. Mrs Collins has worked very hard in her new house. She deserved a little distraction," was Lady Catherine's opinion.
"An excellent notion, Lady Catherine," Henry agreed.
Charlotte had been looking at his face all the while, but she could not detect any emotions in it. However, when they all turned to go inside, she caught his eye and he smiled.
In a house full of relatives it was difficult for Charlotte and Henry to become acquainted again. Yet some effort must be made, because they had been apart for several months and they could not be expected to simply continue where they had left off. They had changed in the meantime as well.
Henry De Bourgh was a proper gentleman now. When he encountered Charlotte on a morning walk he even bowed. He had remembered that it was her habit to rise early to tend to her household. With nothing to tend to here she would still be awake early, he had guessed and he had more or less been lying in wait.
Charlotte greeted him cautiously. She did not know what to expect and she waited for him to take the initiative.
"How are you this morning?" Henry inquired. "I hope you are well."
She nodded. "You have a lovely park here."
"Thank you." He glanced at her uncomfortably. What could he say or do now? He offered her his arm. "And you have not even seen the prettiest places yet, Mrs Collins. If you want, I could show you around."
She took his arm. "Charlotte," she corrected in a soft voice. "I should like to see those pretty places."
Her attire seemed less black this morning. Henry wondered if that meant something. He placed his hand over her arm and they walked on in silence, both quietly enjoying. He halted when he came to a secluded spot. There was a small pond with a bench alongside it. Nobody would be able to see them unless they came very close. "Shall we sit for a while?" he asked. "This is one of my favourite places. I frequently come here to..." he weighed the next word carefully. "...dream."
"I should like to get acquainted with your favourite places," Charlotte murmured. "I am sure I shall like it here as well." She did not ask what he dreamt about if he sat here. She hoped, however, he would dream about her. "It is a wonderful spot," she said appreciatively after they had been sitting there for a few minutes. There were various shades of green and brown with small yellow flowers springing up here and there. It was not a silent place -- they could hear birds -- but very peaceful.
Henry nodded. "I hope you have time to dream now and then. Does Lady Catherine not take up too much of your time?"
"Quite a lot, naturally." Charlotte smiled. Even when Lady Catherine did not, she was too busy and practical to dream. "I am frequently at Rosings Park to hear her advice."
"But I hope you have a place where she cannot find you. Too much exposure to my aunt might be a little too much for people."
"I can bear her very well."
"You could also bear Mr Collins," he said. "I think you have a high tolerance for twits."
Charlotte gave him a sideways glance. "Was Mr Collins a twit?" she murmured.
"In some ways. I am glad he is dead."
"Are you? I should think his death only created different problems."
Henry heaved a painful sigh. "It did, but I can still be glad he is dead. I shall no longer have to see the pity and derision in people's eyes. It was not so bad if it was directed at me, but I could not bear to have people hold you in contempt simply because --" he stopped speaking.
"Because I had chosen to marry a twit?" she finished.
"I chose to marry a twit," she said quietly. "Nobody could have any reason to pity me. If anything, people ought to pity the twit, since he was forced to marry me."
"It is all his fault. How can he now get himself out of this situation?" Henry mused. "Would you marry him again?"
"Would he marry a humble older widow when his family think he ought to marry a rich young girl? I do not know your parents, but your aunt is bound to think me beneath you. I am a valuable neighbour, but I doubt that she would consider me to be an acceptable niece" Charlotte said in a practical voice.
"I care very little for my aunt's approbation."
"But the more so for your parents'."
"They will accept my choice."
Henry's parents noticed their son's preference for the company of Mrs Collins, but they did not remark on it. Before his departure Henry would never have singled out a widow of a clergyman, but he seemed to have become wiser and more sedate in his absence. The quiet Mrs Collins was a favourite with Lady Catherine, but she was also growing to be a favourite with Henry, they noticed.
Lady Catherine did not. Her sister-in-law wondered if she still entertained hopes of marrying Anne off to Henry. While Catherine might think Henry a good choice for her daughter, Henry's mother preferred to promote a match between Anne and Michael. It would not be fair if both estates should fall to Henry, after all.
"Henry," she said to him one day. "You spend a lot of time with Mrs Collins, had you noticed?"
"I had most certainly noticed," he replied. "Have you got any objections?"
"That depends on your intentions, dear boy."
"Which sort of intentions would you object to, Mother?"
"I wonder that you have to ask. Will you answer one question, though?" She waited for him to nod. "Had you met her before?"
"I had. Why are you asking?"
"Just an impression I got," his mother said lightly. "But do not worry. I shall not ask you where or how."
On the last day of her stay Henry took Charlotte for another walk. He had always behaved very correctly till that moment, but now he was seized by a great desire to do something improper, especially when she cleared her throat and reminded him that she was not really in mourning. He remembered that despite her appearance she was still his wife and he acted accordingly.
That these attentions were very welcome more than made up for the fact that some people would have considered them to be highly improper.
With their official acquaintance renewed in this manner, Henry had enough of an excuse to visit Kent a few weeks after Lady Catherine's departure. He had spoken to his mother and consulted her opinion on Charlotte's suitability. He had even spoken to his father. Neither had voiced any insurmountable objections, although they had been surprised that he would consider marriage after such a short acquaintance and marriage to a widow at that. They knew better than to reason with him, however.
Charlotte was surprised when she saw him come up her garden path. A very odd girlish feeling of excitement came over her as she waited for the maid to show him in. She had not been expecting him so soon.
He bowed when he came in. "I hope I find you in good health this afternoon," he said for the benefit of the retreating maid. When the maid was gone he stepped forward and gave Charlotte a proper greeting. "I missed you," he whispered.
"Mmm," she said in reply.
"I am here on an important errand," he announced. "Can you guess?"
She wanted one thing, but she did not want to hear she was wrong. "I am afraid my guess would be wrong."
"What if I told you that the purpose of my errand is to make three people very happy?"
"Three?" She could only imagine errands that would make two people happy.
"Yes. We must not forget about Lady Catherine. I am sure she would be very pleased to realise her services are needed to find a good occupant for this cottage and to be of assistance in decorating it."
Charlotte smiled. "What would happen to its current occupant?"
"I shall take her away."
"To my home."
"Right now?" she said in a slightly alarmed tone. There were so many things that had to be done before she could leave.
Henry had planned it all out. "Yes. Well, I shall give you time to pack some necessities, but that is all. In the meantime I shall write a note to my aunt, informing her that she will need to take action with regard to your house. After her initial feelings of being insulted by our duplicity, she will feel up to the task and attack it with great zest, I am sure."
"And what are we going to do?"
"Only good and agreeable things," he promised.