Lady Catherine’s Sound Advice ~ A Short Story
Posted Sunday, September 17, 2006
When Lady Catherine arrived at Darcy’s townhouse in all her royal splendour, she was very put out to find that he had not had the courtesy to stay at home when she wanted to visit. ”I shall wait in the green parlour,” she informed the butler receiving her as she sailed past him. ”You will bring me some tea and cakes. Mind you, I take my tea with honey, never with sugar.”
”Yes, your ladyship.”
”When my nephew comes home, you will summon him to me immediately.”
She seated herself on the chair that was most like a throne, noticing the cold fireplace. ”I do not approve of penny pinching when it comes to keeping a house warm and welcoming. At Rosings there is never a danger of getting a fever from having to spend time in a draughty drawing room. I do not think of my own comfort; it is due to dear Anne’s indifferent health.”
“Indeed, my lady.” The butler bowed gracefully and Lady Catherine was satisfied but not finished. “Remove those flowers, they are starting to wilt. We never allow such an eyesore at Rosings; it is a sign of careless housekeeping. I dare say that Darcy, being a bachelor, lacks the keen eye for the refinements of floral decorations an accomplished lady would have and thus the neglect of the art in this house is not to be wondered at. But this may all change soon.”
”As you say, your ladyship.”
”You should tell the housekeeper that this room would be vastly improved if the furniture were arranged differently. When it comes to furniture, there is to be not too little of it, nor too much. You should dispose of that small table. Its colour clashes most awfully with that of the chairs, and leaving it out of the arrangement would give so much more space.”
”Indeed, my lady. It is there merely because we find it rather useful for keeping things upon it.”
Our most noble decorator of interiors was not quite happy with this reasoning but she deemed it unworthy of her to start arguing with her nephew’s butler who left to arrange her serving of tea to her satisfaction. By the time Mr. Darcy came home her ladyship had warmed herself up with two cups of overly sweetened tea with a tiny drop of brandy in it and consumed cakes and biscuits that were quite tolerable. In all honesty it had to be said that as lamentable as the habits of the housekeeper were, her nephew had a pleasingly competent cook. The servants were quite attentive to her needs. The table stayed, however, and Lady Catherine had condescended to put her teacup down on it.
”It is about time you returned, I have been waiting here for four hours,” she informed her nephew haughtily.
”Beg your pardon, Lady Catherine. As you did not warn me of your coming, I could not anticipate the pleasure of seeing you here, and thus the delay in my welcoming you.”
”There was no time to write, I had to talk to you at once, as I have an errand that cannot wait one minute. But for four hours I was forced to linger, sitting in that uncomfortable chair of your grandmother Darcy’s. She never had much appreciation for the material comforts, nor the superb taste inherent in our side of the family, I am sorry to say, however excellent her accomplishments otherwise may have been.”
Darcy started to reply but Lady Catherine went on: ”Where on earth can you have spent so much time? I hope that you are not becoming a sad gad-about, wasting time boxing, drinking, wagering and visiting worthless friends. Sit down.”
”Well, I do not think that my friends are worthless; whether they fulfil your exacting criteria I do not presume to know,” said Mr. Darcy and remained standing.
This provided a convenient opening. ”I could mention a few people who are completely worthless of your attention, and I should be most seriously displeased if you insisted on calling them your friends,” Lady Catherine articulated very severely.
It was plain that Darcy could tell he was being reprimanded but maybe he was at a loss to know why, as he merely commented: ”Is that so?”
”That family is a disgrace! I fear that due to Mr. Bingley’s unfortunate engagement, you have to let your friendship with that heedless fellow cool in order not to be forced to associate with the bad lot. I do not want to allow you and our proud lineage to be dragged down with their shame.”
Darcy had a look on his face that Lady Catherine could not quite read. ”I gather that you are talking of the Bennet family.”
”Who else? Which other family permits their daughters to run wild without a governess and encourages impertinence and indecency? Which other family has recently been embroiled in scandal? Which other family has welcomed a horrid, immoral, low-born gamester into their ranks?” Her ladyship gestured theatrically all through her monologue.
”The Bennets’ present relationship with George Wickham is certainly unfortunate,” Mr. Darcy agreed.
“To think that I have entertained the sister of Wickham’s wife in my drawing room! His father was a steward!” She was fuming. “Oh, it robs me of my speech. I have always endeavoured to surround myself with respectable people with a strong moral backbone, and this is how I was deceived. I am quite undone! I have told Mr. Collins and his wife that they are not to invite any Bennets to visit ever again. She did not submit as readily as I could have wished, but he was most gratified when I observed that we are very lucky to have escaped having a loose woman presiding over our vicarage.”
Darcy’s manner seemed most unsatisfactory, thought Lady Catherine. He scowled at her darkly, as if he was annoyed by her. Could that be so? Surely not. His natural tastes and respect to his aunt must dictate his emotions and he was certainly scowling because the thought of the Bennet scandal repulsed him. He would join in her strictures, for they were rational and just. He was not the type to look approvingly upon females who were too free with their favours or anyone aspiring above their station. It was not to be borne, it was intolerable, and Darcy would eventually agree when it was pointed out to him.
”My dear aunt Catherine,” he said at last, his voice controlled and level, ”I have never seen any impropriety in Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s behaviour and there can be no justification in calling her a loose woman.”
”One rotten apple in the family means that they can grow other bad apples. The Bennets showed their true colours when they acknowledged the shameful marriage and allowed the wicked couple to return. They should have severed all acquaintance at once. I do not approve of the condoning of sinners, as acceptance of amorality taints everyone. As far as I am concerned, all the Bennets are now equally loathsome.”
”But Lady Catherine, why should you be concerned?” asked Darcy. ”What are the Bennets to you?”
”A bunch of undesirable elements if I ever saw one!” Having said that, Lady Catherine considered the matter settled once and for all, but Darcy was insistent.
”Why are you so incensed over their undesirability? You do not even know any of them besides Miss Elizabeth.”
”Do not presume to tell me what I know and don’t know, nephew. I can recognize conniving and contemptibility from miles off, and if ever there was a family of cunning little upstarts it is them. You only need to look at Miss Elizabeth to know it for certain.”
Her relation had a wistful expression, and Lady Catherine briefly reconsidered the wisdom of her last words. As Anne had observed, Mr. Darcy had done rather a lot of looking at Miss Elizabeth already; now it was time for that to stop. She should not have reminded him of something that might have given him pleasure. Fortunately Lady Catherine knew just what to say to put an end to all remaining partiality on Darcy’s part, if any.
”Miss Elizabeth Bennet is a prettyish sort of a girl, but her upbringing has been sadly neglected. She is far too eager to express her opinions in a forward manner, lacking respect for her elders. Her pride made her ignore most of my advice and such people cannot be helped in improving themselves. It is naturally impossible for me to receive a woman with her connections, but I fear that her stubborn self-reliant wilfulness must offend even those who would not mind associating socially with the servant class.”
“There is no accounting for taste.”
She was not sure about his meaning but forgot about it promptly as some refreshments for Mr. Darcy’s benefit were brought in by a maid. Lady Catherine made some insightful comments about the potential for improvement in the way the maid carried out her duties. Her nephew did not seem to care overmuch for eating, but aggravation always made her mouth dry, so Lady Catherine partook gladly of sandwiches and tasted some wonderful elderberry wine. Sad to say, her own servants could never get the recipe quite right.
”So, you were brought to town by an errand that cannot wait for a minute, but you have been rambling. Am I ever to find out what caused this honour?”
Lady Catherine straightened majestically. ”I have come to do my duty as the eldest of this family and stop a disastrous marriage from happening.”
Darcy seemed startled and apprehensive, as if expecting the worst. ”Why, whose?”
Whatever Darcy was expecting, he was not expecting that. He was rendered speechless.
”Please shut your mouth, nephew, it is most unattractive to make such faces at me.”
”Who is it that I am supposed to marry?”
”You are not. I forbid it.”
Darcy had no answer to that either. He would never argue with a distinguished elder relative sharing the wisdom of her years, she thought. He was a good boy, even if he was somewhat less discerning of true quality than one could hope. She was looking forward to the opportunity to further improve his character when he would be living permanently at Rosings. True, there were only minor matters to attend to. His mind had already benefited quite a bit from her patient instruction during his formative years, and what with the close relationship they had, he was of good stock. Blood will always tell. If only this proud blood of theirs could continue unsullied by inferior elements…
She thought that she had made her marital prohibition clear but for good measure, she felt inclined to add: ”I’ll have you know that I shall not countenance that union for a moment.”
”I don’t know what the hell you are talking about.”
Her ladyship was shocked. ”Pray, do stop using such vulgar language in my presence. I do not encourage people to address me so impolitely.”
Darcy was not suitably chastened. ”Oh, I do beg your pardon. Why the hell are you here and what the hell are you talking about, your ladyship?”
Lady Catherine sighed in a long-suffering manner. “You cannot profess to be ignorant of my objective. I have told you that you cannot marry Elizabeth Bennet, that sad excuse for a human being. She is a manipulative little opportunist and I would hate to...”
She was just getting started with her rational arguments but Darcy interrupted her rather rudely. ”What can you mean by travelling all this way just to spout nonsense about Miss Bennet at me?”
”Oh, goodness me, where are your manners, boy? I get palpitations from such shocking behaviour.” She clutched at her chest dramatically and had to take a large sip from the bottle of cordial that she found in her reticule before she could go on, feeling slightly ill. ”Is it possible that you are unaware of this? Is it not true then? It is reported that you will shortly announce your engagement to Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”
Darcy made the strangest face again.
”Oh, it is a relief to see that you are as offended as I was when I heard it. It is utterly shameful that your name should be connected to hers in village gossip.”
He did not look at her. He was so appalled that he turned around to stare out of the window in consternation. It was quite understandable under the circumstances but he continued to do so for far too long to be polite. She would have to educate him on the matter but she had more important things to say first – let him do his window-gazing for now. It showed deplorable manners but she could not be expected to fix every single thing the same day. In any case, it gave her the opportunity to ring for some more tea, prepared just to her liking.
After Darcy abandoned his window he started pacing across the room, a sure sign that his emotions had stirred most violently. Good, Lady Catherine wanted him to be aggravated; it would alienate him from the girl who caused the trouble.
“Did I not tell Mr. Collins that I could not believe you would stoop as low as to disgrace yourself with that kind of woman?” In fact, she had said quite a lot, not all of it suitable for Darcy’s delicate ears. Mr. Collins had hastened to assure her that she was completely correct and that she was to be commended for the fluency of her verbal expressions even concerning a sensitive matter such as the present scandal. He had talked at some length about her supreme understanding of social standing, inherited traits and family ties and had been silenced only after Lady Catherine sympathized with him for having inherited cousins whose traits could not raise his consequence.
Mr. Collins’ consequence aside, she had to attend to Darcy who was saying: “Why did you and Mr. Collins take it upon yourselves to discuss whether or not I would disgrace myself with any lady? I should not think that it is your concern, let alone his.”
”Not my concern! I am almost your nearest relative and I depend upon it that you could not forget your place so monstrously as to make this unsavoury gossip true. I fully expect you to do your duty.”
”You have to consider what is due to our family. You are not to marry that young woman; I absolutely forbid the union.”
”Whatever is due to our family and regardless of whether I am willing to do it, I dare say that your worries in this present case are for naught, Aunt. I have no reason to suspect that she would have me.”
”Bah! Humbug. She is a fortune hunter who would have snapped you up a long time ago if she could.”
“Not very likely, Aunt.” He turned away from her again. “You have excited yourself into a state for nothing. I have it on good authority that she is not interested in marrying me.”
“Whose authority could be better than mine? I am telling you that she wants you. Who could have started such a rumour but herself?” She began tapping her fingers impatiently.
”Who told you that there is such a rumour?” Darcy asked sharply.
”Why, it was Mr. Collins. Apparently his father-in-law had written that Jane Bennet had entered a most advantageous engagement and hinted that the second sister would be doing the same shortly.”
”Why would he think that?
”How should I know where some country bumpkin gets his ridiculous ideas?”
“Capital… Capital… Hmmm, I remember that Sir William Lucas wanted to present Miss Elizabeth to me as a suitable dancing partner,” mused Mr. Darcy. “Wonder if he fancies himself a matchmaker.”
Her ladyship nodded graciously. “Perhaps, but I presume that it is that woman’s doing. She is scheming enough to try to improve her consequence by circulating such a story.”
Lady Catherine sighed. ”Don’t be silly. Your alleged fiancée.” Darcy was asking very stupid questions and was clearly not in full possession of all his faculties. She almost lost her courage. Her nature was normally confident and her brain seldom assailed by second thoughts. She had wished and planned for her daughter’s union with this man for so long… But would she truly wish Anne to marry a simpleton?
However, after a moment’s silent contemplation she realized that simpleton or not, her nephew could not be allowed to marry into the Bennet family. So she bravely pressed on and articulated her message once more. “Promise me that you will not reward the scandalous ambitions of that designing, devious girl.”
Darcy’s expression was beginning to look like thunder. Wonderful: the more he dwelled upon her deficiencies, the less likely he would be to be captured by her arts and allurements. His voice was icy when he asked: ”What designs and ambitions do you suggest she has?”
”Why, she wants to marry you, of course.” Was he not able to internalize this information? Poor boy, he had grown up with well-bred people and it was bound to be an unpleasant surprise for him to discover with how little respect and decorum some young women behaved, how unbecomingly they wanted to attract attention to themselves and how manipulative they could be in order to entrap a man into a marriage he did not want. ”I understand how insulted you must feel, and I assure you that I share your every sentiment.”
But Darcy continued to display his feeble understanding. ”Why do you think she wants to marry me?”
”Heaven and earth, what sort of question is that? Think, nephew, think. Who wouldn’t? You have ten thousand a year.”
This pragmatic reply did not seem to satisfy Darcy for some reason. ”Thank you for your vote of confidence regarding my personal charms to ladies. It is good to know that my principal attraction is quantifiable,” he said.
Lady Catherine was not prepared to dwell on that particular aspect; she craved for action. ”Your charms and attractions are irrelevant. The crucial matter is what is to be done about the rumour.”
”Nothing?” he suggested cheerfully.
His aunt gave him a sharp rebuke. ”Nephew, you are out of your senses. It is an impossibility to sit back and do nothing about this nauseating business. You must deny this gossip at once.”
”Generally people who go to much trouble to deny gossip just call more attention to the rumours and make people think that there is no smoke without fire.”
”But you need to set these rumours to rest.”
”Rumours lead a life of their own. I do not see what I could do even if I wanted to,” Darcy said blandly.
”How can you talk in that nonchalant manner, nephew? How could you not want to be rid of these insulting insinuations?” Lady Catherine started to stomp her feet but discovered that it was not a very effective gesture, if the stomper was seated and had her feet on a soft carpet.
”People will forget idle talk fast enough if a wedding is not forthcoming,” Darcy explained. “It is better to leave the matter well alone and avoid drawing more attention to it by declarations intended to scotch the gossip.”
Her ladyship sighed impatiently. Dear Darcy was an upstanding citizen, handsome, well behaved and rich to boot but sometimes he showed a sad passivity and want of initiative, and it fell to her lot to give him useful ideas. ”You do not have to refer to the allegations openly in order to destroy their credibility. You could easily annihilate them tomorrow by announcing your engagement to my dear Anne.”
Darcy looked offended. ”Absolutely not. It would be humiliating for Anne and quite beneath her dignity to be forced to get engaged to marry just to dispel some village gossip in Meryton, a place she has never been to nor has any occasion to visit.”
”Nonsense, my dear nephew. It does you credit that you are so thoughtful of Anne’s dignity, but your marriage would not take place simply to dispel village gossip. It is your destiny. You are perfectly suited and very well aware that it was the dearest wish of your mother and myself already when you two were in your cradles.”
”Yes, it has been repeatedly brought to my attention, but much as I respect you and my late beloved mother, I –we-- cannot marry just to oblige you.” This refusal was uttered quite firmly.
The disgruntled Lady Catherine was enticed to harrumph. She realized she would have to tread more carefully around this subject. While it was clear that Darcy could not in his heart of hearts desire to reject Anne’s hand, it would not do to appear manipulative. Darcy was not one to react well to social pressure; he would have to be fooled to think that marrying Anne was his own idea.
He confirmed Lady Catherine’s suspicions. ”If I ever decide to wed I must first and foremost consider my own wishes and affections and not those of my relatives, living or dead, because it would be I spending my life married to my wife and not them.”
The recollections this remark evoked incensed Lady Catherine and she had to take another sip of the cordial. ”That’s what the scheming hussy said. I hope you have not been listening to her since her ideas are a disastrous influence for any decently brought up person.”
”That’s what who said?” Darcy asked, confused again.
”Her, of course. Who else? Elizabeth Bennet,” her ladyship said impatiently.
”Why would she say anything like that? Come to think of it, what did she say exactly?”
”That if she was offered marriage she would only consider her own happiness and pay no heed to my peace of mind because I am totally unconnected to her. I do not have to tell you that I am not used to such incivility. Really, after all my hospitality toward her, one would expect a little more gratitude and little less cheek, but apparently that was not to be expected with her.”
Darcy looked puzzled. ”How on earth did the subject of her marital prospects ever come up in your discussions?”
”I demanded that she answer me.”
”I never met with such disrespect in my life!”
”Well, I do not wonder if you were ill-bred enough to ask her about her marriage proposals.”
Lady Catherine uttered a most ladylike snort. ”Ill-bred? I? Never! I’ll have you know that Courtesy is my middle name.” Mr. Collins had made her a number of most flattering compliments and she had been particularly pleased with that one as she thought that it described her character perfectly.
”I thought it was Euphemia. What did you say to Miss Bennet?”
”I appealed to her conscience, attempted to address her better self, trying to make her see what was due to her station in life and yours, informing her of the irreversible harm that marriage to her would bring you. But she cared nothing for any of that. I told her that I would not suffer an engagement, let alone a marriage, between the two of you, and made it clear that she would never be received in polite circles. Such a dreadful misalliance, such unworthy family connections could not but bring you down in the estimation of the world.”
”And what did she reply?”
”Oh, some silliness and stupidity. It just goes to show what she is like. She said that as she is a gentleman’s daughter, she would not consider herself as marrying above her station if you chose her. As if you would!”
”As if! Of all the women in the world, why would I choose to marry her?” Darcy said sarcastically.
”Exactly so, my dear!” Lady Catherine declared triumphantly. ”Why would you? Considering that you could get Anne, it is an excessively ridiculous notion. But she is trying to draw you in. I told her that you are engaged to Anne and can you guess what she said?”
”I have no idea whatsoever, but no doubt you wish to tell me.”
”That if –if! she said!- if you were engaged to Anne you would not propose to her and therefore she would not feel bound to consider Anne’s situation and the wishes of your mother and myself a deterrent to saying yes if you were to ask for her hand.”
”No, it is impossible! She can never have said that!” Suddenly Darcy seemed all ears, extremely interested. He must have been shocked to the core by the presumption and perversity of the young hopeful. Good, Lady Catherine had better try to remember every insolence that Miss Elizabeth had uttered and repeat them to make Darcy disgusted with her.
”I told her most seriously that she must contradict that absurd, insulting rumour but she flatly denied circulating it and refused to make any reparations. I am very displeased with her; her obstinacy knows no boundaries.”
”Yes, I believe that she can be rather stubborn,” replied Darcy carelessly.
”A wretched, headstrong girl! She has no interest in the good of our family. Why, when I pointed out to her that your relatives would disown this union and that her addition to our family would drag our name through the mud, she said that she would not let it give her a moment’s concern.”
”Really, “ she said emphatically. “You would not believe how arrogantly she went on about it. There would be so much happiness attached to the position of your wife that she would not worry about losing the contact with your relatives. Then she insulted me by implying that while I might disapprove the world in general would have too much sense to agree with me, and she even said that if her lowly relations did not bother you she saw no reason why they should bother me. I must wash my hands of her; she is beyond the bounds of honour, rationality and delicacy and cannot be prevailed upon by intelligent discourse. I have never had anyone talk to me like that before.”
”Yes, you are accustomed to people who approve of everything you say.”
”I am very disappointed in her, quite forlorn.”
“Did she really say that she would be happy as my wife?” Darcy seemed surprised about it, for some strange reason. Disbelieving, even.
“She said that there would be extraordinary sources of felicity, and the disapproval of your family would seem quite insignificant next to them. Take my word for it, the selfish chit is determined to have you, no matter what.”
“I find it hard to believe.”
Lady Catherine gave a nod of approval. “Yes, my dear nephew, I can readily understand that every proper feeling in your heart revolts at the thought of a genteel female whom you have been forced to befriend putting herself forward so shamelessly. It is to your credit, but I am afraid that I am speaking nothing but the truth. Ah, what a vile thing the truth can be!”
Darcy fell silent, contemplating. Her ladyship pressed on. “Consider this: when I asked her if there was any foundation of truth in the rumour, she refused to answer the question, naturally meaning to imply that it was true. I would not have anyone wound you so as to take the allegations of your attachment seriously. Will you not contradict them?”
Darcy did not. Instead, he said: “Perhaps she was just quizzing you. She occasionally takes great delight in professing opinions that are not her own.”
“I told her that too. Miss Bennet, I said, you are dreadfully insincere but you will not find me so. She said that I was not entitled to know her concerns and that she could not tell if you approved of my interference with your affairs but I had no right to meddle with hers. Interference! One attempts to give a friendly warning, to help people to ensure their happiness, a most disinterested and altruistic aim, and what one gets in return is impertinence and abuse. I was seriously displeased.”
“You seem to have had a most singular, peculiar dinner party conversation. When did you discuss these things? I had not heard of her returning to Hunsford.”
“Dinner party!” Her ladyship snorted contemptuously. “Do you think that I would stoop so low as to sit at a table with her now? No, indeed not. If our conversation was strange, it is because she is a most contemptible person.”
Her headache was getting worse. The memory of the provocations of last night made her queasy. “A twisted, audacious mind with no sense of propriety like hers could not but fail to achieve happiness in a marriage to you but she would not acknowledge it to me. I most particularly asked her to promise me that she would never enter an engagement with you, and she refused to obey me.”
“Likely she was just offended at the turn your conversation was taking and made a point of disagreeing with you because she considered it impolite to question her about the subject. I dare say you went into great detail about the inferiority of her connections and pontificated about her other negative merits, which she disliked and decided not to give you the satisfaction you hoped for. I cannot credit that she has any particular desire to marry me.”
Lady Catherine could magnanimously forgive him his incredulity, although it was very irregular to doubt her word and to suspect her of behaving with anything but the highest form of decorum. “Nephew, I am afraid that you young men are often the last to know these things. You may take it from me, that woman has the effrontery to aspire to be the mistress of Pemberley. And I most definitely was not impolite, I was merely giving her a frank warning – certainly you are familiar with the celebrated frankness of my character. If it is mistaken for rudeness, it is only by those with smaller minds incapable of showing the same degree of sincerity.”
“What a pity there are so many small minds,” Darcy commiserated.
She sighed. “I can but try to make this a better world one step at a time.” Lady Catherine proudly described some of her recent efforts and dwelled at length on Lady Metcalf’s favourable reactions to them, hoping to impress her doubting nephew by her benevolence. However, Darcy seemed preoccupied and not as attentive as she would have preferred. “Are you listening, nephew?”
“What did she say about me?”
“Why, she thinks you are a very handsome and proper young man and just what a mother could hope for in a son-in-law. She congratulated me on my successful assistance in your upbringing and said that the results show the quality of your moral education.”
“No, she would never have said so!”
“She most certainly did, and then she said that she wants her son to grow up just like you. He is far too freckled, stuttering and clumsy at the moment but I have high hopes that with the suitable instruction he will improve. I have promised to lend Lady Metcalf all the possible aid in shaping that boy to gentle manhood.”
“Oh, Lady Metcalf. I am not interested in Lady Metcalf or her son, Lady Catherine. What did Miss Elizabeth Bennet say about me?”
“You do not want to know, you would be offended.”
“She said that you are a gentleman and that she considers you two equal.”
“Did she abuse me at all?”
“Was that not abuse of the worst kind? As if you could ever be on equal terms with someone like her, with uncles aplenty in Cheapside and brothers such as Wickham. To this day I do not know how I managed to keep my countenance in the face of such an insult to our family honour.” Lady Catherine was quite proud of her self-control on any normal occasion but sometimes the provocation was just too great to be borne.
“Did she say nothing about my character being repulsive to her, anything at all about unwillingness to marry someone such as I?”
Lady Catherine sputtered. “Upon my word, why should she have said anything about your character being repulsive to her? I told you, she is determined to call Pemberley her own home one day. Such dedication and decisiveness would be quite commendable if in service of some worthier cause. But her base motives will cause us grief, if you do not sever all contact with her at once. She is ready to make you the contempt of the world. I need you to promise not to have anything to do with her ever again.”
“I am sorry, Lady Catherine, but I find myself quite unable and unwilling to do so. It would be the most awkward thing. Please remember that my best friend Charles Bingley is going to marry her sister, and we are bound to come across each other occasionally. I shall not behave so uncivilly as to snub her now, after we have been on friendly terms for many months. And this talk about becoming an object of contempt is just some more nonsense.”
This was too much; this was beyond anything she had expected. His refusal to comply with her request made Lady Catherine extremely angry. “Nonsense! Uncivilly! Towards her! Do you not have a thought for us, Anne and me? Do you not care how uncivilly you are thwarting our fondest plans, ignoring our deepest desires? Are we to be thus thrust aside, and for such an inferior female?”
“If your fondest plans are thwarted by the mere fact that I am going to continue being a gentleman and be polite to a woman of my acquaintance even though you dislike her, they cannot be very well considered. But so be it; frankly, I do not care.”
“Oh, my poor heart!” Lady Catherine shrieked and dived for her reticule as waves of nausea swept over her. “You are going to be the death of me. What of your engagement to Anne? Are you just going to throw that away as well?”
“Listen carefully, I will say this only once, Aunt, because it is a humiliating subject for both of us. I am not engaged to Anne, nor will your conduct ever induce me to become so. What is more, I know that Anne has no desire to become engaged to me either. Consequently, it seems quite a hopeless case, and you would do better to forget your obsession.”
“Obsession!” Lady Catherine had her cordial at hand and took large, vigorous gulps. “Unfeeling, unthinking boy! How can you say these monstrous things to me? Have you lost all the sense of duty and honour? What of broken promises?”
“Neither duty nor honour binds me to an engagement to Anne, and I have never given either of you a promise of marriage nor any cause to believe that it is going to happen.”
“But I knew that it would. Your attachment to Rosings has been steadily growing. Why, even Mr. Collins has noticed it. Have you not spent more and more time with us? Have you not looked exceedingly anxious when you have been obliged to leave us? And now you throw all that away, now you scorn us, now you flout all the expectations and despise your destiny. Has that woman made you mad?” Lady Catherine waved her hands in desperation and succeeded in knocking down a vase. Darcy was unmoved.
“I have never intended to wed Anne. That woman has nothing to do with it. By the way, her name is Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”
“I rue the day when her name is Mrs. Darcy! But I see that you are determined to marry her regardless.”
Her nephew looked grim and replied in clipped sentences. “Well, we shall see. You have certainly given me new hope that I might. I would. If she will have me.”
“If! Oh, we are all undone! I never thought that I should live the day when I have to see such a hussy in Pemberley. I rue the day when I greeted her and welcomed her into the bosom of my family.”
“You may rue anything you like, but I will not tolerate you calling her a hussy in my house. Will you cease or should Sheringham show you out?”
“And now you are threatening me! Throwing your own aunt out of the house! Having to suffer humiliation such as this…oh!” She spilled the rest of her cordial on the carpet and whimpered in frustration.
Darcy stared at her sternly. ”Lady Catherine, you are drunk.”
”Certainly not! I never overindulge myself. I told Mr. Collins --”
”Yes, that silly man, citing a drunkard’s musings in his sermons… What is there in that cordial bottle of yours?”
“It is my medicine.”
Darcy did not reply, he just looked at her. She attempted to make him understand. “It is most essential for my continued well being. No one understands how much I suffer.”
“Dare say you get glorious hangovers.”
She wanted to change the subject. The aftereffects of drinking were not something a lady should discuss with a gentleman. “I am warning you. You will be cut off. Her name can never be pronounced aloud by any of your family.”
“I doubt it. Georgiana has had no problems pronouncing her name, and I wager that neither would you, were you sober.”
“I promise you, I shall never mention her name!”
“Is that a promise? Well, this is good news. I rather thought that you would mention it again and again in malicious gossip.
She huffed. “I am never malicious. I am merely observant.”
Darcy let out an impolite snicker. She was utterly vexed.
“You cannot have thought this through. Are we to be connected with a family of fortune hunters -- ill-bred, insolent, impertinent ignorants! She has never even had a governess. Unthinkable relations!” She paused to breathe and went on with a slight stutter, righteous anger giving force to her words. “Stewards and solicitors, tradesmen and tinkers! Idiotic parents! Swarms of scandalous, sinful seducers! Luring good men away from their true callings! Why, the rumour about the youngest sister is...”
”Please stop all this alliterative abuse of the Bennets. Considering your own lamentable condition you are in no position to be spreading spiteful rumours about anyone else, and it is quite beneath you to hurl insults at people you have never even met.” Darcy’s voice was dangerously low, but Lady Catherine did not heed its warning.
”Yes, I have! Yesterday. In the hall of that pitiful little house of theirs. Gawking in their nightcaps like a bunch of fools. Which they are. A bunch of fools, I mean.”
”So you talked to Miss Elizabeth at Longbourn and not Hunsford after all. I see.” His voice lowered even more. “Surely you do not mean to tell me that you have imbibed yourself senseless, got an attack of drunken rage and gone banging at someone’s door waking them up in the middle of the night again?”
”Certainly not. It was daytime when I left.” She was feeling dizzy.
”That’s it! I have had enough of you. Of all the stupid, irresponsible things to do… Did you not learn anything from your previous midnight visit? The poor old vicar never recovered from the shock.”
“It was not my fault he died,” Lady Catherine said indignantly. “He had a weak heart.”
”How very callous! We have been humouring you, pandering to you and covering up your antics far too long. It has been Anne’s wish, and it used to be my mother’s, and we have been hoping to avoid bringing public shame upon our family. But you have gone too far and will bring it upon yourself if you are not checked. The drink has dulled your intellect.”
“Good heavens, what are you talking about?” Lady Catherine was very distressed by her nephew’s words. There was nothing wrong with her intellect; she was one of the brightest minds of England, according to Mr. Collins. She rang the bell again, intending to ask for some more fortified tea to soothe her frayed nerves. She had trouble concentrating. Darcy had launched on a long monologue, which she could only half comprehend.
”Anne, Dawson and Mrs. Jenkinson have been trying their hardest but it seems that they cannot keep you from harm all the time, and neither can Richard and I. Anne asked us to help but we cannot live with you permanently, and there is only so much that one can do on a few weeks’ visit once or twice a year. You have become too much of a burden to Anne, and she deserves a life of her own, finally. I fear that she might become ill if she has to live in seclusion with you for much longer. She longs for London, poor thing, but there is no way one can take you there if you are out of control.”
The same maid who had been the subject of her scolding earlier reappeared. “You rang, ma’am?”
“Lady Catherine will stay the night to sleep off her potations,” said Darcy before Lady Catherine could remember what she had been about to request. “She is to have nothing stronger than water. Please inform her coachman, and fix him a place to stay, too.”
“If you please, sir…her ladyship’s coachman is getting drunk in the kitchen and the cook is afraid of him.”
“Ask Sanderson and Davies to deal with him, to avoid any trouble. They can keep him in the room behind the pantry until he is sobered.” To his aunt he said; “So that is one mystery solved. Your coachman is the one who has been providing you with alcohol, isn’t he? He will naturally have to be dismissed.”
This she understood and was relieved to know the right answer. “You have no right to dismiss my servants!”
“Oh, I think we could acquire that right,” Darcy said conversationally. “Do you not think that it is time to have you declared incompetent? I shall write to my Uncle Matlock and together we shall start the legal proceedings and get the control of Rosings transferred to Anne before it is brought to ruin by a witless decision maker.”
Everything was getting hazy and there was a pounding in her head that almost drowned his words but she could make out that Darcy had insulted her way of running her estate. “Cruel, shameless boy! I do not make witless decisions!”
“But I think we have evidence that you do. What else do you call this? You bought a chimneypiece without checking the measurements. It did not fit and now you have a completely useless eight hundred pound chimneypiece that is not attached to a chimney, and it is but one example of your foolishness.”
“It is not useless, I hide a bottle there!” she protested, realizing just a second too late that it used to be a really clever secret hiding place.
“I see. Well, good that it has had its uses. I would hate to think that you spent those eight hundred pounds in vain, for an uglier thing I have never seen.”
She was feeling ill and the room started to spin around her. She closed her eyes very carefully and heard Darcy saying from afar: “If Anne wants to live in London, we can hire a few companions to stay with you constantly and as many keepers as needed to ferret out your other hidden bottles.”
Someone appeared and attempted to help her out of her chair. Her legs gave way and she hit a body part she could not identify against the table that had offended her sensibilities earlier. If only it had been removed when she said it should. But did people ever listen to her sound advice?
“I am going to write an urgent note to the Earl of Matlock, please see to it that he gets it as soon as possible. And tell Davies to begin preparations for another journey to Netherfield.”
This Lady Catherine could not bear. “Netherfield?” she shrieked, still keeping her eyes closed. “Are you going back to that horrid girl?”
“I have to go and apologize on your behalf.”
“Can you not see that she is determined to trick you into marrying her?”
“One can hope, but I do not know how much credence I should give to a drunkard’s tale.”
“Tell me at once: are you going to propose to her? Have you made amorous advances to her?”
“If there is to be a wedding you will get an invitation, but I absolutely refuse to discuss my amorous advances or lack thereof with a half-unconscious aunt.”