Beginning, Next Section
Author's Note: I've had this idea running through my mind for a day or so, and I've got Meesh to thank for it! The last line of "The Darcys visit the Collinses" gave me the idea...and so the story begins at Longbourn...
rs. Collins! Mrs. Collins, where are you! You must come--quickly! Make haste, make haste!"
Charlotte Lucas Collins groaned as she heard her husband's loud voice echoing throughout the Longbourn halls. One would think after twenty-four years of marriage that he would know where he could find his wife, she thought as she glanced around the library. She rose swiftly from her chair, however, and tried to follow where the voice had gone.
She found him dashing about the kitchen, disturbing Cook and nearly tripping over a large sack of potatoes on the floor.
"Yes, Mr. Collins?" she asked.
"Oh, there you are, my dear. We have something of great importance to speak of!"
Charlotte had long been used to such matters, and thought nothing important was to be spoken of whatsoever.
"It has to do with Netherfield. It has finally been let again!"
Charlotte's eyes widened in surprise. The last time Netherfield Park had been let had been...
Good heavens. When Mr. Bingley had leased the place, and met Jane Bennet. All those years ago...
"Come, my dear Charlotte. Have you nothing to say on such a momentous occasion?"
"What else is there to say, my good sir, except that I am glad to hear of it?"
"You do not wish to know who has let it?"
"I am sure you are soon to acquaint me with all the particulars."
"It is taken by a young man with a good fortune from America. Can you imagine? An American living at Netherfield! What could Mr. Bingley have been thinking?"
"Most likely that he did not wish to live at Netherfield any more, and found someone who did."
"Still...are the shades of Hertfordshire to be thus polluted? Americans!"
Charlotte was much confused by this prejudice her husband seemed to harbor against Americans, and could not figure out for the life of her why. After all, people were people. Still, there was a great deal which confused her about her husband, even after twenty-four years. It was not that he was so complex, for he was a rather simple man. But William Collins was a man of changing opinions, and knowing which one he had on any given day was a challenge.
"Now, Mr. Collins, we must consider that we know nothing of the gentleman about to come into the neighborhood. If he does have a good fortune, it may be in our best interest to become acquainted with the man. After all, sir, we do have five daughters..."
"A fact I am daily aware of, madame. Five daughters, and no sons. How such a hideous thing should ever have happened to me, I cannot imagine. I still think that if you had followed Lady Catherine's advice about the conception of children that we would have a son today."
Charlotte allowed the rebuke to slip away, refusing to feel resentment toward the man she had married. "So are you to meet our new neighbor, sir, or not? Only consider that our daughters will have nothing should you, heaven forbid, perish before they are married."
Mr. Collins mulled the thought over in his mind. "My dear Charlotte, you are quite right. I had not thought of it in such a light. I shall pay a visit to our new neighbor as soon as he comes to Netherfield."
Charlotte smiled. "Good."
William Collins glanced over the dinner table as the servants began to bring in the dishes. He still have difficulty understanding how he had only had daughters, and such different daughters. He loved his children very much, but they were such diverse girls.
His eldest daughter, a very elegant young lady of two-and-twenty named Isabel, was his pride and joy. She was not beautiful, but she was an extremely pleasing girl, and a very obliging one. A goodish sort of girl. Lady Catherine, Lord rest her noble soul, had commented on Isabella even when the child had been only three.
"Mr. Collins, your eldest is going to be in a fair way when she becomes older. You should take care to discipline her well, teach her the essentials, and insure that she has a governess. Mrs. Collins, however, shall see to that, unlike the former mistress of Longbourn."
His second daughter was one-and-twenty, named Caroline, and was the most studious of his daughters. He had to confess that Caroline was his favourite child, for she of all his children read books on such subjects as befit a lady. Pity she was not better-favoured in her appearance...still, he had no doubts that his little Caroline would have no trouble finding a husband, when her time came.
His third and fourth daughters had been born twins and, at twenty, were just out in society. The first child had been named Julia in honour of his wife's mother, but when it had come time to naming Julia's twin, his wife had become most stubborn and had chosen to name her Elizabeth--truly a detestable name, he felt, for it was the name of his cousin, the woman he had once considered marrying, the woman his noble patroness had cursed to her dying breath.
And had Lady Catherine known that Charlotte had named one of her daughters Elizabeth, she would have been enraged. So was it any wonder that Elizabeth had received more than her share of scoldings and reprimands--when her father knew that it was actually her?
His youngest child, a girl of fifteen, had been named Victoria. She was, unfortunately, a rather frail child, somewhat sickly, and he feared that she, like Miss Anne de Bourgh, would never be able to make her presentation to society. She was in fact that lady's particular favourite, and whenever Miss de Bourgh condescended to visit Longbourn, she always made a special case of visiting Victoria. Mr. Collins considered it a most gracious honour.
He looked at his children, sighing when he came to the identical faces of his twins. Which was Elizabeth? He could almost swear that the one sitting closest to her mother was, but he could not be certain.
God has plagued me as he plagued my cousin, Mr. Bennet. What have I done that has been so horrible that I should deserve such a lot?
Still, he was a man to suffer in silence, never contemplating aloud of his misfortunes. He was a martyr in his own mind, and what could prove such a notion better than being forced to call upon the gentleman who had just let Netherfield?
he gentleman from America turned out to be one Mr. Connor, a man no one from Hertfordshire had yet to meet, save Netherfield's former master. Within a fortnight of the news circulating about that Netherfield Park had been let again, the new owner set foot on the grounds, causing eager mothers and daughters to speculate wildly about what sort of person he could be like.
Mr. Collins was among the last to call, partially out of a sense of dread and partially because he tended to put everything off until it absolutely had to be done. He had been a much prompter man while Lady Catherine had lived; her death had caused a relaxation of certain habits he had acquired in her life. When he finally did make his call, he returned full of news about the new neighbor to his wife and daughters, and he found nothing he could not praise.
"My dear Charlotte, I feel I have wronged Mr. Connor greatly by speaking out so against Americans. He is the very essence of a gentleman...very obliging, friendly, and easy mannered."
"I dare not ask if you mentioned your apprehensions to him," Charlotte murmured, more to herself than to him, as she worked on a tapestry.
"I must confess that I did tell him I had been uneasy," he replied. "Yet the man did not take offense! He merely laughed and said that he would have been the same way had I come into his country with such haste."
Charlotte had a feeling that Mr. Connor was just being polite and had undoubtedly taken a great deal of offense at her husband's stupidity. I suppose that ruins any chance the girls have of getting him, she thought, looking over the eager faces of her children.
"Was he a handsome man, Papa?" Isabel asked. "Did he have a fashionable vest? Did he--"
"Yes, he did, my child. He was dressed in a style that would be most befitting to a member of English nobility. As for his looks, I must confess that he is quite an amiable-looking young man."
Isabel smiled at the news that this stranger was a handsome man, for that was all she had ever learned to care for about men, aside from their fortunes.
"Did he seem an intelligent fellow, Papa?" Caroline asked.
"Well now, my Caroline, you must remember that he only just purchased Netherfield. Most of the belongings are Mr. Bingley's. Yet I suspect from the easy way he had of finding things that he is a very scholarly gentleman. He had a complete set of Fordyce's Sermons."
Caroline beamed, for those were her father's favourite books and hers as well.
Mr. Collins waited in expectation for some inappropriate question from Elizabeth, who at a card table with her sister Julia. The two played at some unladylike card game or other that Elizabeth had undoubtedly learned from her namesake, Mrs. Darcy, the summer he had had the bad judgment to allow his wife to send the girl to the Darcys. To his utter mortification, she returned not only knowing every card game there was (and a few he had not yet heard of), she had also learned to play chess, and quite skillfully.
He waited in vain. His fourth daughter could not be provoked to ask a question about their new neighbor, although Julia ventured forth to ask, "Papa, do you believe that he could be persuaded to attend the next assembly ball in Meryton?"
"I certainly made the invitation open to him, and he most graciously accepted."
The news was greeted by his eldest two daughters with some good cheer. At the card table, however, there was a calm acceptance, followed by Julia laughing when she bested her sister at the game they were currently playing.
I simply do not understand those two, he thought. Julia would be a good girl, if Elizabeth were not so headstrong. Where she goes, Julia goes as well. I simply must find a sensible husband for Elizabeth--and soon.
"He is all things for all ladies," Elizabeth said as she watched Julia brush her hair. She was sitting on the bed, a novel her father had forbidden her to read laying untouched beside her. "Amazing the attributes one can give a person."
"Do you suppose he has half those qualities Papa has given him?" Julia asked as she managed to get the last snarl out of her long, thick blond hair.
"I cannot make it out at all. I would like to believe him everything amiable and sensible, handsome and obliging. Yet my father's definitions of those words are often vastly different from my own."
"So you think him none of these things at all."
"I think I shall reserve my judgment of him until I see him." Elizabeth opened her book, then shut it a moment later. "Julia, do you ever fear that you will never find someone?"
Julia turned to look directly at her. "You mean a man to marry? Certainly."
"Yes. When I am at a ball and there is a vast shortage of gentlemen...I worry. Every time Papa proclaims that not a single one of his daughters will marry before Isabel, I shudder at the idea of dying an old maid." Julia stood and walked over to the bed. "I fear for what might happen if Papa should die."
Both girls fell silent at the horrid thought of their father dying. From the time of Victoria's birth, when the doctor had calmly informed Mr. Collins that there would be no more children, the threat of disinheritance had been over their heads. The same manner by which he had inherited the estate would be the same that would take it away from his children.
"We shall be quite without," Elizabeth agreed. "And so we must find husbands. I think it a most tedious business."
"I suppose you would just as soon never marry."
"Forgive me, Julia, but whenever I go to a ball, I cannot help but feel as though I were a piece of cattle to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Or perhaps I should say the first available one?"
"You talk like one of those ladies who believe that women should have more active roles in the world," Julia said.
"A lady have an actual opinion? Heaven forbid."
Both girls chuckled.
"Do be serious, Beth. You do want to have a fine house and a handsome gentleman to call your husband, do you not?"
Elizabeth's almost violet eyes drifted dreamily for a moment. "I believe that the most important thing I would wish to have would be love. If the man has no money or is not handsome, it would be nothing as long as I loved him."
"Even if he were an American?"
Elizabeth turned her gaze to her sister's identical one. "That would be an added inducement into matrimony," she said with a wicked gleam in her eyes.
"Beth! You should not say such a thing," Julia said, but she laughed nonetheless. When her laughter subsided, she added, "Are you thinking of setting your cap at Mr. Connor, then?"
"I am not setting my cap at anyone at the moment. But if I find Mr. Connor to be everything I think he might be...I may well consider it." Elizabeth opened a drawer beside the bed and stuck the forbidden book underneath some old gloves as Julia blew out the candle. "But mind you, I am not saying I shall for certain." Elizabeth smiled in the darkness, the smile remaining as she fell into a dreamless sleep. She barely heard her sister's reply.
"Of course not."
he days between Mr. Connor's arrival at Netherfield and the ball which would finally see his introduction into Hertfordshire society passed quite dully. It rained for several days, and had it not been for the prospect of new company, and a ball at which to meet said company, the time would have passed most slowly. As it was, the days passed with much frustration on the part of Misses Julia and Elizabeth, for it meant days cooped up within the house.
At long last, the evening of the assembly ball arrived, and Longbourn immediately went from a house in stupor to one of panic and mania. Mr. Collins rushed from room to room in the house, constantly calling for one or another of his daughters, wanting to insure that they knew the importance of their impressions on Mr. Connor. He told Isabel three times to change her gown, feeling that the ones she wanted to wear would not appear becoming to a man of Mr. Connor's stature. He found no fault with Caroline, and beamed cheerfully each time he passed her in spite of the spectacles nearly falling off her nose and the hunched way she sat over the book she was reading.
So nervous was Mr. Collins that he thrice scolded Julia for absolutely no reason, believing her to be Elizabeth, and praised Elizabeth for making a rather scathing comment about being grateful that there was only one Mr. Connor and not twenty of his ilk, thinking her to be Julia.
Poor Victoria on this occasion was quite forgotten by her father and elder two sisters. Julia and Elizabeth, however, found her in the drawing room, staring at their chess board.
"Would you like to learn how to play, Victoria?" Elizabeth asked. "I can show you as I showed Julia."
"Oh, no. Miss de Bourgh does not believe chess to be very ladylike," Victoria answered softly, but there was a naked longing in her eyes that answered her sister's question differently.
Charlotte swept into the room at the moment. She had been planning to retreat to her library when she had heard Elizabeth's voice in the drawing room.
"Miss de Bourgh is a very obliging woman," Charlotte said, "but I believe her to be very much like her mother."
Elizabeth sighed. From what Mrs. Darcy had told her, Lady Catherine had been an absolute virago, and an interfering one at that.
"What could possibly be wrong with being like her mother?" Victoria asked. "After all, her mother was the late Lady Catherine de Bourgh, a woman of greatness."
Julia coughed to prevent herself from laughing. Elizabeth's lips twitched but did not smile.
"If you change your mind, Victoria, just tell me," Elizabeth said.
The assembly ball was well underway when the Collinses arrived. Isabel called out, "Papa, is he here?"
Mr. Collins searched the room but found no evidence that Mr. Connor had arrived. "No, my dear, not at present. But I am sure that he is soon to make his appearance!"
Isabel, quite content that the gentleman would arrive in time, set forth to find other gentlemen to pay her attentions. She was not soon without male company, for a girl as lovely as Isabel rarely was. Caroline found a place to sit by the piano and would be content to sit and observe for the evening, occasionally being called upon to dance by a friend of her father's, importuned to the task by that man.
Julia and Elizabeth, left to their own devices, opted to circle about the dance floor. As was the case of their eldest sister, they were not long without several gentlemen paying their respects to them, and requests for dances with the two were soon accepted.
As Elizabeth whirled around the dance floor with her partner, a distant relation named Mr. Phillips, she wondered, as she generally tended to do, if her popularity at these occasions was due to her looks or to the peculiar rarity that she and her sister generated. Had she not been born identical to Julia, would her golden blond hair and violet eyes hold the same attractions for these gentlemen? She sometimes thought not, for when she bothered to look in the mirror, she knew that she was not beautiful as Isabel was.
The dance came to an end, Elizabeth made her bow to her partner and rejoined her sister just as a hush fell over the crowd. Standing at the entrance to the ballroom were a tall gentleman, two extremely well-dressed young ladies, and two other gentlemen.
"He brought ladies with him," Isabel came up to her sisters to gasp. "I cannot believe this. How could Papa not know that Mr. Connor was engaged...or married!"
"Perhaps they are simply relatives," Julia said. "Calm yourself, Isabel."
"Oh, Lord," Elizabeth murmured as she saw who had gone up to greet Mr. Connor and his party. "It's our Uncle Lucas."
"Oh, no," Julia groaned under her breath. "No one shall be able to speak to him now for an hour."
Gilbert Lucas was the eldest of Charlotte's brothers, who fashioned himself in much the same pattern as his father, but who had not that gentleman's sense of situation. Mr. Lucas was guaranteed to speak on at length about the most nonsensical topics...and that he was Mr. Collins' closest friend was of no surprise to Julia or Elizabeth.
Surprisingly enough, however, Mr. Lucas only greeted Mr. Connor and was introduced to the other gentlemen and ladies. This directed everyone's attention to them. Very quickly, word circulated to put Isabel's fears to rest. The women with Mr. Connor were his sisters, one of them married to the shortest of the three gentlemen, an Englishman named Mr. Shawcross. The other gentleman, who was so attractive that he would have drawn stares even if he not been taller than his friend, was named Mr. Ashton, and within moments another rumour had circulated around the room. Mr. Ashton, it was said, was even wealthier than his friend. Some said he owned the better part of America.
"He is quite handsome, do you not think?" Isabel smiled becomingly. "More handsome than Mr. Connor."
"I suppose one could make a case for it," Julia said, but it was clear that her attention was focused on the original point of interest to everyone...Mr. Connor.
The music began again, and Mr. Shawcross extended his arm to his wife and led her out to the dance floor. Mr. Connor glanced around, smiling in a very pleased way.
"He is everything Papa said he was," Isabel said. "I cannot wait for our introduction!"
Charlotte came up to her daughters. "I am certain your father shall bring him around in just a moment, and if he cannot find the time, then my brother shall do us the honour."
Mr. Collins, however, was not completely insensible of his duties toward his daughters. He spoke to Caroline, who joined her mother and sisters immediately, then approached Mr. Connor. A moment later, the gentleman was before them.
"My dear Mrs. Collins, daughters, this is Mr. Connor. Mr. Connor, my wife Charlotte, Miss Isabel Collins, Miss Caroline, Miss Julia and Miss Elizabeth." The parties made their bows.
"We are most delighted to make your acquaintance," Charlotte said.
"I have been looking forward to meeting all of you. I have heard much of the beauty of your daughters, Mrs. Collins, and am pleased to report that the reports are far exceeded by the reality." His eyes lingered on Isabel much longer than the others. "And if it is not already claimed, I would request the honour dancing the next with Miss Collins."
"I would be most honoured, sir," Isabel said, her eyes gleaming.
"You are most obliging," Mr. Collins said loudly. He noticed Mr. Ashton, standing at the edge of the scene and looking with some interest. "We hope that your friend is as eager to dance as you are, sir."
"Oh, forgive me!" Mr. Connor took notice of his friend as well. "This is my friend, Mr. Ashton."
This brought Mr. Ashton to the ladies' attention. Closer to him, Elizabeth found that he was not quite as attractive as his friend, but to her he was much more fascinating. He smiled politely at the group, his amber eyes lingering on Isabel as his friend's did, but moving on and settling on Elizabeth. She met his gaze and held it.
"Elizabeth, make your bow," her father hissed at her, mortified by his daughter's unabashed staring at the stranger.
By rote, Elizabeth curtsied, smiling, but her eyes never left Mr. Ashton's face.
The music ended, the dancers and audience applauded, and the orchestra prepared to play the next dance. Mr. Connor extended his arm to Isabel. Only Elizabeth saw the dismay and resignation on Julia's face, as Isabel took it with a look of feminine triumph at being Mr. Connor's first choice to dance with.
"To answer your question, Mr. Collins, while I am not gifted at the dance, I do enjoy it when the occasion warrants," Mr. Ashton replied. "Miss Julia, may I have the pleasure of this first dance?"
He had extended the invitation to the creature whose eyes had been so bold as to meet his and not look away. Within seconds, Mr. Ashton realized his error when the wrong sister smiled at him. "I would be very honoured, sir," Julia said, a mischievous glimmer in her eyes. She knew he had not wanted to dance with her, but she would dance with him anyway. To reveal his gaffe would be most embarrassing.
Elizabeth, however, did not realize that he had made a mistake, and thought that his interest was actually in Julia...as if he had found something in her personally that he did not like. Her smile faded and as soon as she could, she distanced herself from the dancers on the floor and the rest of her family.
Mr. Collins stared after her, then looked at his Caroline. The slight Mr. Ashton had made in refusing to dance with Caroline made him sigh. "A most displeasing gentleman. As Isabel was not around, he should have asked you to dance, dear. Yet I should not wish you to attract his attention. He is unworthy of you."
Caroline nodded in agreement, then returned to her seat by the piano, her duty in being introduced duly completed.
Elizabeth sighed as she watched Julia dance with Mr. Ashton. She had thought, for a moment, that he had found her very interesting. It was a disappointment to find that he had no interest in her at all, or else why would he have asked Julia to dance? Still, Elizabeth could not fault his preference. Could she choose anyone else for Mr. Ashton to dance his first with other than herself, she would have chosen Julia. And Julia seemed to have cheered immeasurably from her upset over Mr. Connor, not that she was overly upset about his choosing Isabel to dance with anyway.
Elizabeth turned to see her friend Miss Susan Lucas smiling at her. "Oh, hello, Susan." She smiled in return.
"I thought I saw you over here. Why are you not dancing?"
"I did not feel much like dancing. Besides, after having Mr. Phillips for a partner, my feet are aching over much."
Susan giggled. "Mr. Connor seems a most amiable gentleman, does he not?"
"I do not pretend to be qualified to answer that question. I have barely said two words to him."
"He finds Isabel fascinating."
"Everyone finds Isabel fascinating. She is the sort who can get by with saying very little, for she has looks enough to make men overlook her lack of good sense." Elizabeth sighed. "I should not say such things of my own sister, but there it is. It cannot be avoided."
Susan sighed. She was a mere seventeen, but very wise. She had not been born to beauty such as Isabel's. She could not even claim the prettiness her friend Elizabeth enjoyed. If she found a husband, it would be a most surprising thing, and her younger sisters, all prettier than she, were in dread of her not marrying and preventing them from attaining society of their own.
"Something else is vexing you, Beth." She looked out at the dance floor, following her friend's gaze. "Mr. Connor?"
"Of course not. I told you, I know very little of the gentleman."
"His friend, then?" Elizabeth did not respond, but Susan knew she had guessed correctly. "Mr. Ashton is a very fine gentleman."
"He is." There was something in her voice which warned Susan away from the subject. Elizabeth looked out and saw Julia laughing at something Mr. Ashton had just said.
I cannot possibly be jealous of my own twin. Yet she was. Elizabeth turned away, vowing to think nothing more on the subject as the music ended.
"You will excuse me, Beth, but I have promised this dance to Mr. Lathrop," Susan said.
Elizabeth smiled. "I believe you have intentions for Mr. Lathrop," she said.
"My mother sincerely wishes I did. My sisters as well. Yet I have talked with Mr. Lathrop often, and he does not wish to marry one such as myself...with no connections, or fortune, or..."
"Susan, I think you are a handsome girl. And if those gentlemen such as Mr. Lathrop do not think so, consider it their loss, not your own."
"Oh, Beth, I wish I could think as you do. But I know better." Susan excused herself, leaving Elizabeth alone to observe again.
From her viewpoint, which hid her from the view of the dancers, she saw Mr. Connor linger with Isabel before her father approached again--undoubtedly to thank Mr. Connor again for honouring Isabel with a dance--and Mr. Connor found himself with Caroline.
A gentleman, I see. Then Julia will get her dance with him after all.
Elizabeth turned to find herself looking into a familiar pair of amber eyes. "Mr. Ashton," she said, her voice slightly cold.
"I was hoping that you would do me the honour of dancing this next dance with me."
Elizabeth could not tear herself away from his gaze. "I...thank you, yes."
The two took their places on the floor. Almost immediately, Mr. Ashton said, "You must forgive me, Miss Collins, for not dancing with you previously. I had thought...that is...I did not catch the introduction properly."
Suddenly Elizabeth understood. "You thought my name was Julia."
"But my father had told me to make my bow. He called me Elizabeth."
"I did not hear that. My mind was on far more pleasant things than your father's voice."
Elizabeth smiled. "Perhaps it would be best not to say anything to Julia. She might be upset. It was quite an honour for her to be your first dance partner here in Hertfordshire."
"Quite right," he said, not bothering to mention that the first words Julia had said were, "My sister's name is Elizabeth."
For Elizabeth, the evening was nearly perfect. The only damper she had came when Mr. Connor danced with Julia. It was clear that she found him as interesting as Elizabeth found Mr. Ashton, but as soon as he finished dancing with her, Mr. Connor immediately returned to Isabel. Julia was quite heartbroken, and Elizabeth felt for her. She had been in the same position not long before, when she had thought Mr. Ashton had preferred Julia to herself.
Elizabeth could not help wondering if perhaps her interest in Mr. Ashton was a bit sudden, as she knew very little about him. The thought was dismissed as soon as it arose. There was nothing wrong with being interested in a gentleman, and there would certainly be opportunities to see him again.
"What a gentleman Mr. Connor turned out to be! He even danced with Elizabeth!" Mr. Collins was pleased with the evening.
Isabel giggled at her father's remark. Of course, she had a good deal of room to speak, for Mr. Connor had danced no fewer than four dances with her, and she believed that he became more entranced with her the more they were together.
"He certainly was an obliging gentleman," Charlotte said. "Good evening, Victoria dear. How are you feeling?"
"What? Victoria, what are you doing up still at this hour? You should rest, for your delicate health cannot stand such abuse."
"I merely wished to hear about the evening," Victoria said. "Was Mr. Connor such a gentleman?"
"He was, dear. He was friendly and open--"
"And handsome. And so rich!" Isabel twirled about the room, excited in her prospect.
"Isabel, it is not ladylike to speak of such things," Julia said.
"Elizabeth, you would do well to hold your tongue and not speak of matters that do not concern you," Mr. Collins replied. "There is nothing wrong with Isabel being sensible and making a match with such an eligible gentleman."
Elizabeth rolled her eyes--outside of her father's view, of course. The twins were used to their father blaming what he considered ill behaviour on Elizabeth, regardless of whichever twin did it. It was still most annoying.
"And when you consider that we have very little for your dowries, the possibility of Isabel making such a match bodes very well for all of you." He frowned. "And as for the exhibition you made of yourself with that friend of his, you would do well to remember yourself."
Elizabeth's eyes darkened at her father's castigation of her dancing the same number of times with Mr. Ashton that Isabel had with Mr. Connor.
"Yes, I give you leave to like Mr. Connor, Isabel. He shall make you a most excellent husband." Mr. Collins smiled benevolently at her, completely missing the stricken look on Julia's face.
"Thank you, Papa," Isabel said, her smile bright.
lizabeth would have given most anything to see her sister smile all through the next day, but Julia did not even consider it. She knew that she truly had no right to be sad, but she could not help feeling that there had been some sort of connection between Mr. Connor and herself. It had obviously been felt only by herself. She finally confided her hurt to her sister when they were alone in their room.
"I have endeavored to forget that I even considered him," Julia said, her violet eyes trying to be cheerful for her sister's sake. "After all, anyone who prefers Isabel to myself is hardly worth my consideration."
"Quite right," Elizabeth said. "Many has been the man who falls in love with beauty first, then discovers that his wife is not what he would desire her to be."
"By the same token, many has been the woman who finds herself in the same situation."
"Are you by chance referring to Mr. Ashton?"
"Mr. Ashton," Julia said with satisfaction. "Do not fool me, Beth. I know you have been repeating the name 'Elizabeth Ashton' to yourself since you met him."
"I have done no such thing."
"Of course not."
"Julia, please. I have only just made the gentleman's acquaintance, and you have already married the two of us off."
"You cannot help but believe that Papa has done the same."
"Papa does not find Mr. Ashton a suitable beau," Elizabeth said with a sigh.
"That is only because he believes Mr. Ashton has slighted his precious Caroline."
"Do you think he was in error?"
"Yes, I do. He meant to ask you to dance with him." Julia's eyes gleamed with mirth. "And I must ask you what you honestly think of Mr. Ashton."
"What do I think of him? I think him to be a most amiable gentleman, friendly, intelligent...and even if he is not the most open person one shall ever meet, I daresay that he is one of the most honest."
"Dear Lord, we must keep him away from Papa or else all your chances with him are lost."
"Yes...he cannot help but see Papa for the man he is, and though I love him, I cannot be blind to his faults."
"His insistence that you instigate all the trouble we get into, for one thing."
"You must admit, sister, that I do--"
"Well, when one recollects, I suppose that you have gotten us into many a scrape over the years. Amazing that Papa allowed you into society."
"Mama was the one who persuaded him, and after he asked Isabel and Caroline if they would mind greatly, it was agreed upon."
"How did you discover that?" Julia was startled.
"I asked Mama. He assured Isabel that she would far outshine her sisters in beauty and sense, and Caroline that she would marry before us, unless, of course, he found a suitable gentleman for one of us."
"He meant you."
"I am constantly amazed that he has not married me off already to the first buffoon he could find. I would think that getting me away from the rest of the family would be his first goal."
"Yes, where you cannot teach your sisters unladylike games and manners."
A tap at the door interrupted their conversation, and was followed a moment later by the entrance of their youngest sister. Victoria carried the chessboard with her.
"Beth? You promised you would show me how to play chess," she said softly. Victoria jumped when Julia burst into laughter. "Did I say something of amusement?"
"Sorry, Victoria. 'Twas a private joke about Beth teaching us manly pursuits against Papa's wishes, nothing more."
"Oh." Victoria hesitated. "Perhaps I should not learn the game after all. If Papa would not approve..."
"You are forever hovering over our games, asking questions which are most distracting," Elizabeth said. "I am going to teach you the game, and you shall undoubtedly become a master of it and give us sage advice the next time we play."
The ease with which Victoria agreed to learn confirmed what Elizabeth had suspected--that Victoria was hungry to learn. She plunked the board down on a sitting table. Elizabeth drew two chairs to the table, sitting in one. Victoria smiled in eager anticipation of her first lesson in chess.
Long after Victoria's first lesson in chess had been finished, and Julia was asleep, Elizabeth awoke to write her letter. The previous year, her father had informed her that she would no longer be allowed to write to her closest friend, as she was an undue influence, which had broken her heart but had left her with no alternative but to write to her on the sly. She passed the letters on to either her mother or Susan Lucas, and Susan would bring the responses she sought.
She lit a candle, praying she would not wake her sister. Elizabeth's consideration for this was not based on Julia's ignorance of the furtive correspondence, for she knew all the particulars, but rather out of consideration for the depressing day her sister had had, listening to Isabel in all her glory of a new conquest.
Dinner had been especially difficult, as Mr. Collins had joined in his daughter's praise of the gentleman. Julia had said nothing, but Elizabeth had been unable to refrain from speaking plainly.
"I do not consider one day's acquaintance to be enough to base one's entire future upon," she said.
Both her father and eldest sister had frowned at her. "Elizabeth, I have danced with many gentlemen for whom I have felt nothing. When I danced with Mr. Connor last evening, I felt a connection between us. I know I felt it, and I was certain that he felt the same. For some people, one day's acquaintance would be enough."
"It certainly could be with you, my dear," Mr. Collins said. "And as for you, Miss Elizabeth, if you do not learn to keep a civil tongue in your head, you shall never find a husband and the responsibility of finding you a suitable mate shall fall on my shoulders."
Elizabeth felt a glimmer of fear at her father's words, which had prompted the sleepless night she was now experiencing. So she would write to her friend.
Dearest Mrs. Darcy,
The hour is quite late, and I find myself writing to you in the hopes of being able to calm myself. Be assured that we are all well here at Longbourn, and in good health. Good spirits, however, are not as widespread.
I do not know if your good sister Mrs. Bingley has told you that her husband has let Netherfield Park, but he has. It was let to an American gentleman named Mr. Connor, and we were first introduced to him last evening at the assembly ball in Meryton. I must confess that Papa portrayed our new neighbor as a most amiable gentleman, and most worthy of notice, and I have no doubt that he is. Julia and I took Papa's opinions with the same seriousness we always do, and so naturally we were rather skeptical. The gentleman, however, was most likely everything Papa believed him to be. He danced with many of the young ladies in the room, including myself. Yet it was clear, even from the first, that his interest was fixed on Isabel. This would not be such a disaster but for Julia's interest in the gentleman. Julia insists that she is not interested in him at all, that she merely had harboured some hopes of gaining his interest, much as I did. She cannot, however, hide much from me, and I knew that she liked him a good deal more than she appeared. I cannot explain it, and I do not pretend to try.
Isabel, unfortunately, has apparently chosen this time to choose a suitor she would wish to marry, as she said this evening, and she has chosen Mr. Connor. Isabel's choice is naturally due to Mr. Connor's rather sizable fortune, and the pertinent fact that he is likely to buy Netherfield outright if he likes Hertfordshire. Of course, Papa approves of the match, having always insisted that Isabel would marry first, and has not even noticed Julia's feelings and opinions, not that he ever has.
As for myself, I believe that Mr. Connor is not the paragon everyone has made him appear. I cannot blame him for my sister's disappointment any more than I can understand Julia's fascination with the man. You would think, however, that men would learn that beauty is not everything. Beauty fades, yet inner strength and intelligence rarely do. Perhaps I am making too much of the situation, for as I have said, we barely know the gentleman. Still, as well as you know Papa, you can guess that he has it fixed in his mind that Isabel shall marry Mr. Connor, and soon.
There is one more little bit of interest here, and that is Mr. Connor's friend, Mr. Ashton. He appeared at the ball last evening with his friend, and I must confess that he is a most fascinating man. We danced four dances together, a most unusual honour which Papa castigated me for later (rather, he castigated Julia). I find that he is an interesting man, one which I would not mind knowing better. I am hoping that he will attend the party that the Lucases are giving next week at Lucas Lodge, so we would have a chance to speak more. I fear, however, that Papa may attempt to prevent it, for he has taken an unfounded dislike to Mr. Ashton, because the gentleman did not dance with Caroline before either Julia or myself. Pray for me, my dear Lizzy, so that I may have the strength to bear it.
I hope that all is well at Pemberley. Give the family all my best, and tell the boys that I shall best them yet at cards, if they do not cheat. (They shall deny this, naturally, but I know that William and Edward marked the cards last time we all played together.)
Your frustrated goddaughter,
Elizabeth blew gently on the page to dry them before sealing the letter and writing the direction on it. She gazed out the window for a moment, thinking about Mr. Ashton. Undoubtedly, that gentleman was abed as she should be...but perhaps he was not?
"Oh, nonsense," she murmured to herself. "Nonsense."
She hid the letter in the dresser on top of the book she was currently reading. Her father would likely ban her from reading anything ever again if he knew she was reading Tom Jones, but Elizabeth only read the book in her room in the evenings, so her father would not find out. Shutting the drawer, she blew out the candle and snuggled under the warm coverlets on her bed.
She had no inkling that three miles away, a lamp was burning in an upstairs window, and the gentleman who was awake at that hour could think of nothing but golden blond hair, a pair of enchanting violet eyes, and a mischievous smile.
The Miss Collinses, they discovered, were a sort of motley group of young ladies. Miss Connor commented to her sister later that it seemed almost impossible that five such young ladies could have been born to the same two parents, yet they had. Mrs. Collins seemed a sensible woman, who was able to keep her daughters in line fairly well. She had certainly taught them well, as all of them had manners aplenty, but the eldest two and the youngest tended to make small lapses of judgment which did not reflect well on the family. The youngest could be excused for her actions, as she was not out in society and clearly of a sickly constitution. The eldest two, however...
Mrs. Shawcross would tell her sister that the young lady their brother had shown extreme interest in, Miss Isabel, was something of a lackwit. In private conversation, Isabel had talked of the beaux she had and the balls she had attended recently, and of course, she had spoken at great length about their brother. "It seems to me, Lucinda," Mrs. Shawcross said, "that Miss Collins thinks of nothing more than the size of Robert's fortune. 'Tis a pity she is so beautiful."
"If you truly believe her to be an insensible young lady," Miss Connor said, "perhaps it is her good fortune to be beautiful. Were she a plain girl, like her sister, she would never find a husband."
"I would not mind her beauty if she were not showing a clear interest in Robert--and if he were not showing an interest in her." Mrs. Shawcross sighed.
Miss Caroline had said very little during their visit, keeping her nose buried in a religious book of some sort. Her mother had chastised her for it in low tones, but nothing she could say could convince her daughter to put away her book.
Which left them with the twins, with whom they were already on a first name basis. "Such manners," Mrs. Shawcross said with a smile.
"Such ladies. Friendly and open," Miss Connor agreed. "Why could Robert not have chosen one of them, rather than the eldest? I could see him with Julia easily."
"And why not with Elizabeth?"
"Elizabeth's too feisty for Robert. I do not think she would be as happy with him as Julia might be." Miss Connor smiled. "Did you notice, Sophie, how her eyes lit up when we talked of him?"
"Do you think Julia...?"
"Perhaps. I cannot imagine why, as he spent most of the ball with her sister and only danced once with her. Who can explain love?" Her eyes drifted as she thought of a man she had loved for a long time.
"Thinking of Mr. Ashton again?"
"I cannot help it."
"Tell me you have not been calling yourself 'Lucinda Ashton' under your breath."
"I do not attempt to deny it."
"As I have told you before, do not raise your expectations too high. He has not yet proposed, and he is rumoured to be engaged to his cousin."
"I think it a most dreadful practice, for a man to be forced to marry one's cousin. There is something most unhealthy about it. He should marry me."
"You would think it dreadful for him to marry anyone besides you."
Miss Connor smiled. "Perhaps you are right, Sophie. Perhaps you are right."
The evening of the Lucases' party arrived. The flutter of activity was not on par with that of the assembly ball, excepting Isabel, who wanted to look her best for Mr. Connor and was torn between about half a dozen gowns.
"I should have bought a new one!" she cried in frustrated. "Everyone else has seen these old rags!"
"Mr. Connor has not, which makes it new to him," Charlotte reasoned. "You look as you always look, Isabel."
Julia dressed with extreme care as well, but with a good deal more composure and far less confidence.
"You do look beautiful, Julia," Elizabeth said as she finished dressing.
"I have heard that Mr. Lucas invited the militia that are encamped just outside of Meryton to his gathering."
"Why do we have a militia here, anyway? There is no war here, except perhaps between Papa and yourself."
"I have no idea, but they are here. Perhaps there will be a handsome head to turn Isabel's attention away from Mr. Connor."
"And perhaps man will be able to fly one day," Julia said. "Unless the man is ten times handsomer than Mr. Connor, and has at least the amount of money that he does, Isabel will not look twice."
"Yet there is something about a gentleman in a uniform. Perhaps it will charm her."
"Beth..." Julia sighed. "Thank you for trying to give me a bit of hope. It does no good." She hesitated a moment. "I must confess that I do not know what I see in the man."
"What did the two of you speak of while you danced?"
"We spoke of America. He has such a way of expressing himself that just...and he talks of his country with such pride and love."
"I do not suppose you sneaked in a few questions about Mr. Ashton, did you?"
"No. If you wish to know about the gentleman, Beth, you must speak to him yourself."
"I fully intend to this evening," Elizabeth said, a secretive smile playing at her lips. "Try to keep Papa from noticing us, would you?"
"I shall certainly try." Julia's smile was a bit sad, and she felt something akin to jealousy in her heart, for the sister who had someone when she did not.
Lucas Lodge, Charlotte observed, had not changed much since her father's passing nine years earlier. It had a desperate elegance to it, as though the person who had decorated the rooms had attempted to make it appear as though those who lived within the walls were more affluent that they were. She had not truly realized how inadequate Lucas Lodge was until she had married Mr. Collins and thrust herself into the world of Rosings, and then later as the mistress of Longbourn.
She greeted her brother with all politeness and left him to the agonies of her husband, who never failed to point out how charming--and yet how lacking--Lucas Lodge was. She searched for her daughters, who had darted in different directions the moment they had been allowed to do so. Isabel, she was amused to see, had immediately found Mr. Connor, and was fixed at his side. Caroline was, as ever, hiding in a corner, reading a book. Charlotte smiled. Caroline might appear to all present as though she were a meek young lady, but Charlotte had a feeling that there was more to her second child than Mr. Collins suspected.
Charlotte rarely had trouble distinguishing which twin was which, and even less so in the past week. Julia, she knew, was the one recovering from disappointment. Uncertain if her upset was from Mr. Ashton's apparent interest in Elizabeth or whether she had had her hopes pinned on Mr. Connor, Charlotte forced herself to remain silent about the issue. Julia was a very proud young woman. Should she mention that she knew Julia was unhappy, the girl would most likely deny it, and might even resent her mother for the interference. As for Elizabeth...
Charlotte's eyes roamed the room, trying to catch a glimpse of Beth. For a moment, she thought the girl had disappeared altogether, but then she caught sight of the royal blue hair ribbon Beth had intertwined in her golden blond hair. She was standing beside the piano, speaking quietly to Mr. Ashton.
Charlotte smiled. She was prodigiously proud of all her daughters, but if she could ever confess to having a favourite among them (and she would never do such a thing aloud, naturally), she would admit that it was Elizabeth. She was going to make some man, quite possibly Mr. Ashton, a wonderful wife. If only Mr. Collins could see Beth for the treasure she was...
Charlotte tore her eyes from Elizabeth, confident that she was doing quite well. She found Julia, however, looking longingly over at Isabel and Mr. Connor.
Aha. So it is Mr. Connor who has captured Julia's fancy. Poor girl. Mr. Collins and Isabel are determined that she shall never have him.
"Dear! You simply must come and meet this most astounding gentleman!" Mr. Collins' voice rang out from across the room.
Charlotte, resigned, joined her husband and thought of her daughters no more.
From the moment Elizabeth had set foot in the room, she had felt those heated amber eyes looking her way. He was standing next to Miss Connor and Mrs. Shawcross, and when his eyes caught hers, they brightened. Almost as though she were hypnotized, she walked over to him.
"Good evening, Miss Collins," he said.
"Good evening, Mr. Ashton." Elizabeth quickly made her greetings to the two ladies with him, and the quartet made easy conversation for several minutes.
"Caroline, you simply must play some music!" Isabel cried. "Mr. Connor and I would like to dance!"
Elizabeth nearly groaned aloud. They had not been present ten minutes, and already Isabel was making a spectacle of herself in front of the party. Caroline, reluctant to leave her book, protested that surely someone else would do in a pinch, but Isabel would not have any of it. She insisted Caroline play, and so to the piano her sister went.
Mr. Shawcross, who always tried to make appearances with his wife on the dance floor, extended his arm to her. Miss Connor was claimed a moment later by a gentleman in a red coat, leaving Elizabeth alone with Mr. Ashton.
"Would you like to dance?" he asked.
"Honestly, no, sir. Do not take offense, for it is not that I do not wish to dance with you...just not at this particular time."
"Then perhaps you would like to find a place to talk?"
Elizabeth smiled. "I should like that quite well, sir."
Mr. Ashton found two seats for them. "You have quite an unusual family, Miss Elizabeth."
"Yes," she replied, not sure what that meant, if anything.
"Your eldest sister is quite lovely."
"Yes, she is." Having heard that particular phrase many times over in her twenty years of life, Elizabeth had learned to give the correct response. When she had been younger, she had tended to say that Isabel was as lovely as a toad, which had subjected her to many a scolding from her father.
"I do not think she would do my friend much good, however."
Elizabeth frowned. What did he mean by that?
"Do not mistake me. I do not mean that it is anything against her family. The objection is against the lady...if I may be permitted to say so."
"I am not certain we are on such terms that I may intimately discuss my sister in such a manner."
"In other words, you think her as much of a featherhead as I do."
Elizabeth coughed delicately to prevent laughter, but the twinkle in her violet eyes could not be contained.
"Then I shall drop the subject altogether, madam, and you are safe from having to challenge my statement. Besides, I am far more interested in you than in your sister and my friend."
Elizabeth blushed prettily.
"Where do you live in America?" she asked.
"In Philadelphia. My family has a beautiful home in the city, and an equally lovely one in the country."
"Yes. The one in the city belongs to my brother, Jonathon, and the other to my father."
"I see. Are you to inherit the other?"
"I am, and I must say that I prefer it. City life is, at times, very clustered. I prefer the outdoors, open spaces, being free. It is one of the reasons that I love Hertfordshire."
"Yes. I have been to London often, and all I see is a grey, depressed city. Hertfordshire is preferable to me by far."
"It is beautiful country, but have you ever had the chance to be in Derbyshire?"
"Derbyshire? I do not think I have had the pleasure."
"I believe it to be the most beautiful place in the world. So peaceful and open...and of course, it is far away from Hertfordshire and..." Elizabeth did not finish, feeling her cheeks flush again, this time with shame at what she had wanted to say. "My godmother lives in Derbyshire."
"My father has a friend who lives in Derbyshire...gentleman by the name of Darcy."
"Not Fitzwilliam Darcy?"
"His wife Elizabeth is my godmother." Elizabeth smiled. "It is amazing, sometimes, how small the world actually is."
"It certainly is." Mr. Ashton's smile matched hers. "Have you ever been to America?"
"No. I have never been outside of England. I have been to Derbyshire a couple of times, and to London with my Grandfather Lucas before his passing. He always hoped to present me at Court, but passed away before being able to do so."
"Were you close to him?"
Elizabeth was uncertain how to answer. "It was difficult to be close to Grandfather Lucas. He was a man who craved society and never showed his true self to anyone, not even his grandchildren. I cared for him a great deal, and I believe he cared for me as well, yet I cannot say we were close."
"I have several relatives much like your grandfather. Philadelphia society is much like that of London."
"You do not seem like a man who cares much for society."
"Do not mistake me, Miss Elizabeth. I believe that the right society, in the right place, is perfect. For instance, before Robert and I left for England, my mother threw a ball and invited half of Philadelphia. I knew most of the people there, but I could not honestly say that I had more than five or six close friends there. Most of society is made up of people who believe that the most important things in life are one's name and fortune. Those are the people I never particularly cared for." He sighed. "When I am in the country, however, surrounded by people that I have known all my life, I cannot help but think that I shall never want to leave. Perhaps if I had the right sort of wife, I could do just that."
"What about your parents? Do they know how you feel?"
"My mother cannot understand it. My father believes that I should get over this and take my 'rightful place in society.' I do not believe they have ever understood me."
"What about your brother?"
"Jonathon? He is a creature of the city. He adores it, and like my mother cannot comprehend anyone who does not. My sister, however, is more inclined to understand." He smiled. "What about yourself, Miss Elizabeth? Do you prefer London to Hertfordshire?"
"I do not believe I would prefer London," she said diplomatically. "What would your parents consider the right sort of wife?"
Mr. Ashton's smile broadened. "I believe they would consider a lovely young woman of good breeding with the loveliest violet eyes in the world--"
"I speak as I find, Miss Elizabeth."
"What about fortune? How indifferent would they be to that?"
"Elizabeth!" Over the din of the music and conversation, Elizabeth could hear her father calling to her.
"It is my father. He has taken a disliking to you, Mr. Ashton, though I cannot explain why. If he sees us together, I am likely to hear about it for the next two days. You must excuse me, please."
"Of course," he said, feeling a sense of loss that he would be losing her charming company. Just when he felt that they were close to being in complete understanding...
Elizabeth slipped away from him and mingled in with the crowd, praying her father had not seen her.
"Oh, there you are, Elizabeth. Come with me," he said, gripping her arm in a tight grasp and leading her across the floor. "I have someone you should meet."
Elizabeth found Julia almost immediately. Julia was so sad, for not even the officers could turn Isabel away from Mr. Connor, and Julia had to content herself with his token dance in order to talk with him again.
Elizabeth was not given much time to contemplate her sister's state as her father dragged her to a stop in front of a portly gentleman of about two and thirty who smiled at her. Well, leered would be the more apt word to use. His dark brown hair was longer than fashionable and hung in limp hunks, and his demeanor was nothing short of...slimy.
"Is she not the essence of beauty? Not much compared with my eldest, naturally, but still quite lovely in her own right. Elizabeth, this is Mr. Hollis. Mr. Hollis, my lovely daughter Elizabeth."
Elizabeth was confused a good deal by her father's sudden desire to introduce her to the man, but she did not fail him. She was polite to the gentleman, and tried to make her excuses and disappear back to Mr. Ashton, but her father would have none of it. He insisted on her dancing with the stranger now that he had introduced them, and stood at the edge of the crowd with an expectant look on his face to ensure that she did.
With a heavy sigh, Elizabeth joined Mr. Hollis on the dance floor.
Yecch, even this man's hand is slimy! Elizabeth thought as her hand was nearly crushed in his sweaty, slippery grip. She groaned aloud at the spectacle she was about to make of herself, and with Mr. Ashton watching. She sought his eyes out and found them almost immediately. There was no contempt in them--as yet--just pity and...
Empathy? Did he understand what she was feeling just then?
This is what he meant by feeling trapped. I suppose, Mr. Ashton, that you understand. Elizabeth smiled, which quickly faded as she realized that her dance partner had thought her to be smiling at him.
"Miss Collins, your father has been rhapsodizing over you for the better part of a quarter of an hour. I feel as though we are long-time acquaintances already."
Elizabeth mustered a facsimile of her previous smile as the music began. "I am sure you feel such, sir, but as I know absolutely nothing about you, I cannot say the same."
"Forgive me for my presumption! I should not have said such a thing to a lady that I do not know at all, but surely you shall forgive me when you understand that your beauty has absolutely driven all good sense and judgment from my mind."
Very early into their dance, Elizabeth realized that her partner had absolutely no idea of how to perform the activity. Someone had taught him the basics and left him at that. He was able to get through the motions, but not without nearly tripping twice, stepping on her foot, and nearly tearing the hem of her favourite gown. Worst of all, he maintained conversation during the entire time, boring her with tales of his life in Sussex, where he was an attorney.
"How did you come to be acquainted with my father?" Elizabeth asked when finally allowed the chance to say something.
"His former patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, placed her considerable trust in my late honoured father. Her daughter has since placed the same trust in myself, and when I told her that I was to visit Hertfordshire, she informed me that I simply must visit Meryton and your good father. I must say that he is everything I expected and more."
"He was?" What exactly were you expecting?
"Yes! He was a complete gentleman, and your mother! I must confess that she is the greatest lady, after Lady Catherine and her daughter, Miss Anne, that I have ever met. Although," he added with another one of those leers, "my opinion my be very soon changed on that point."
Not by me, it won't be.
When the torturous dance finally ended, Mr. Hollis insisted on leading me back to my father.
"I do not believe I saw a handsomer couple on the floor," he said, "excepting your dear sister Isabel. Did you happen to notice her, Elizabeth, with Mr. Connor?"
Elizabeth wished to say that no one with eyes could avoid noticing Isabel, since she had been hanging from Mr. Connor's arm the entire evening.
"I did," she replied.
"Perhaps Mr. Hollis could be inclined to dance another with you, daughter--"
"Perhaps later," she replied. Perhaps never! "For the moment, I am otherwise engaged."
"Oh," Mr. Hollis said, clearly disappointed. "Well...well..."
"However, Mr. Hollis, my sister Caroline has been succeeded at the piano, and perhaps you could use your tremendous powers of persuasion to lure her into a dance or two."
"Elizabeth!" her father gasped. "Apologize to the gentleman at once."
"There is no need," Mr. Hollis said. "I take that as a compliment from Miss Elizabeth, sir. She is obviously a young lady of great perception. Persuasion is a trait highly valued in my profession, and I am glad you think well enough of me to compliment me in such a way."
That had not been what the lady intended, but she refused to anger her father further by commenting further. Mr. Hollis departed in search of Miss Caroline Collins, of whom he had heard much praise.
"Forgive me, daughter," Mr. Collins said.
For possibly the first time in her life, Elizabeth had been rendered speechless by her father. He was apologizing to her?
"I should have seen your remark as it was intended, given Mr. Hollis's profession and station in life. I am glad that he understood perfectly."
Elizabeth just nodded and made a hasty retreat to another part of the room. Before she could find Mr. Ashton again, she happened upon Mrs. Shawcross and Miss Connor in conversation.
"Hello, Elizabeth," they chorused.
"Hello Sophie, Lucinda."
"You held up remarkably well with your last dance partner," Miss Connor said.
"I managed to prevent the gentleman from ruining my gown, which was all that mattered," Elizabeth replied as she saw Mr. Hollis lead Caroline out to the dance floor. She soon lost interest in the two of them, her eyes wandering in an attempt to find Mr. Ashton.
"Trying to find Mr. Ashton?" Mrs. Shawcross asked.
Elizabeth snapped out of her fog, startled. "I was just looking to see if I could spot my friend Susan Lucas."
The other two women exchanged knowing glances. "Elizabeth," Miss Connor said haltingly, "if you have a particular interest in Mr. Ashton, there is something I feel I must tell you. It is something rather personal, and it should remain just between the three of us, but you must know it."
Elizabeth suddenly felt nervous. Miss Connor appeared composed, but there was a little something in her eyes that Elizabeth did not quite trust. She had a terrible feeling that she knew what Miss Connor was about to say.
Elizabeth waited in anticipation of Miss Connor's announcement.
"You see, there has yet to be a formal announcement of it back home, but...well, Mr. Ashton and I...I believe we have an understanding."
Elizabeth felt a crushing sense of loss, and she wanted nothing more than to run across the room and demand of the man with the beguiling eyes why he had not told her he was engaged.
"Nothing is settled yet, of course. There are the usual agreements to work out, and...there are times when I do not know if he truly does have a tendre for me, but I do believe that we are coming very close."
Elizabeth had wondered why Mr. Connor had brought both of his sisters with him to England. Now she knew. He had hoped that his sister and Mr. Ashton would finalize their engagement.
Elizabeth had been about to say something when Isabel walked up to the group and exclaimed, "Here you are, Elizabeth! Papa has been searching for you, for Mr. Hollis would like another dance. However, I do not think anyone could take dancing with him more than once, so I have arranged for your every remaining dance to be taken."
Elizabeth groaned. "Isabel, if I were to dance every dance, my feet might well fall off in exhaustion."
"Oh, I doubt if there are three of four more good dances this evening, for it is getting rather late and Mama likes to be home early enough for Victoria to get to hear about parties."
"I thank you for the effort."
"Mr. Connor agreed to dance the first with you, and he was going to persuade Mr. Ashton to dance the next."
Elizabeth's eyes traveled to Miss Connor's face to see her reaction to the news...but curiously enough, there was none. Elizabeth had thought, considering their relationship, that she might be jealous. Of course, she does not feel jealousy. She knows that he would only dance with me as a favour to a friend. Yet how could she watch us talking together in a close fashion and not be upset?
Elizabeth then thought that she knew why Miss Connor had told her about the almost-engagement--because she was jealous, and she had seen them together and wanted Elizabeth to know that the gentleman was already spoken for.
"You may thank Mr. Connor and Mr. Ashton," Elizabeth said coldly, "but I do not need rescuing. I am certain I can handle the situation quite well."
Isabel sniffed and said, "It was kindly meant." With that, she flounced away, making a beeline for Mr. Connor to tell him that her rather ungrateful younger sister had refused his offer.
Elizabeth wanted to hear more about the particulars of Miss Connor's engagement, but her desire for knowledge was outweighed by her fear of discovery, and Isabel's voice had carried far enough to be noticed by their father.
"You must excuse me," Elizabeth said. "I would rather suffer plagues than dance with Mr. Hollis again."
The two ladies were quite in understanding, having had to dance with many a buffoon and never wishing a second such dance on a friend. They excused her with their blessing, and Elizabeth darted in the opposite direction of her father and the gentleman, stumbling blindly out to the balcony.
For long minutes, she took deep breaths of air, trying to put everything together and still not understanding why Mr. Ashton had carried on a flirtation with her as he was engaged to another woman.
There are a good number of men in the world like that, Beth, she remembered Mrs. Darcy saying. I did not realize such men existed until the day arrived when I discovered that I had become quite close to one.
Elizabeth turned to see Julia standing there. Julia had followed her sister out of the ballroom, partially because she had sensed that something was wrong and partially out of fear that her father would make her dance with Mr. Hollis next, in absence of Elizabeth.
"Oh...Julia." Elizabeth tried to compose herself.
"Something has happened."
"Yes." Elizabeth, in short order, mentioned to her sister that Miss Connor was practically engaged to Mr. Ashton.
"Perhaps that is what Miss Connor wishes," Julia said. "It may not be what is the actual truth. How many has been the young lady who has believed herself to be engaged to a gentleman who has absolutely no interest in her? And how many 'supposed engagements' have come to nothing?"
"How could he do this to me?"
"I do not know. You said yourself that Lucinda was unsure of his feelings toward her. Perhaps she is just expressing her own hopes."
"I did not get the sense of that."
"Did he ever once express, in any way, that he was attached to her?"
"What did the two of you speak of when you were alone?"
"We spoke of his home, and he told me about feeling trapped in society."
Julia smiled. "Then I would say it is more than likely that he does not share Miss Connor's feelings about their relationship."
Elizabeth shook her head. "I think he may be ambivalent, but I still could not come between a friend and the man she is in love with. I would feel as though I had betrayed a confidence, and ruined a friendship."
"Then perhaps it is best that you found this out now, rather than later, when your heart was further engaged."
"I do not know that I would have preferred to ever discover this. Oh, Julia, I had such hopes...we had had such a pleasant conversation before, and I truly began to feel as though I knew exactly what he was thinking...I thought of America, and how wonderful it would be to live there." Elizabeth sighed. "All for naught, and just as well, I suppose. I do not know that I could ever leave you behind."
Julia smiled and hugged her sister. "It is getting a bit chilly out here," she said. "I believe I shall go back indoors. Are you coming?"
"No...no. I am fine."
"Do not stay out long, or you shall catch a fever," Julia said.
"I promise I shall not stay."
Julia walked back into the room, where she was promptly accosted by her father, looking for Elizabeth. After telling him that she believed Elizabeth was on the other side of the room, she joined Caroline in her corner of the room and watched her father head off in the wrong direction.
Elizabeth stood on the balcony for a few moments, looking out at the view. Say what they would about Lucas Lodge, it did have a nice view, and Elizabeth always admired it. She drew her strength from it, and with a steady head, walked back into the room after her sister.
Mr. Hollis, she noted, had abandoned his search for her and was dancing a second dance with Caroline, to Elizabeth's great relief. Her eyes could not, however, prevent her from seeing that Mr. Ashton was dancing with Miss Connor. The two were laughing about something as they whirled about the floor, and an icy hand clutched Elizabeth's heart yet again.
They are laughing at me. At my gullibility, no doubt. At how I believed every word he said. The villain! They deserve each other!
Charlotte had come to stand next to Elizabeth. "Is something wrong?" she asked.
"No, Mama. I am fine, I just...do not feel well. Would it be possible for us to leave as soon as this dance is over?"
"Of course, my dear. I am sure your father will understand." Charlotte suspected that there was something very wrong, but would not push further in such a public place. Later there would be time aplenty to discover her child's heartache.
When the dance ended, Mr. Collins walked over to his wife and daughter. "Ah, there you are, Elizabeth. Mr. Hollis would like another dance."
"Mr. Collins, I am afraid that we should leave," Charlotte said. "Poor Elizabeth has developed a dreadful headache and would like to go home to rest, and I am sure that Mr. Hollis would understand and excuse her."
Mr. Collins was clearly suspicious of this headache, but he did not voice his doubts. "Then we shall take our leave," he said and began the process of rounding up his children.
The party left not more than fifteen minutes later, a sullen Isabel glaring at Elizabeth for ending her evening long before she had wanted it ended. Julia was calm and composed, only her violet eyes betraying the hurt that still lay within as she had watched Isabel with Mr. Connor all evening. There was a bright glow in Caroline's eyes, for she was rarely asked to dance and certainly never asked twice. Mr. Hollis was an absolute gentleman, friendly and obliging, and she believed that she liked him very well indeed.
And as for Elizabeth, she said nothing and merely stared out the window, her thoughts on what had happened that evening and knowing that by morning she would have the headache she claimed now, for she would never be able to sleep after receiving such grievous news.
he following morning brought Elizabeth her headache and a lovely little note from the ladies at Netherfield. They invited the Miss Collinses to dinner, insisting that they could not bear to go an evening alone together (as the gentlemen had been invited to dine with the militia recently arrived in town).
"Such a compliment paid to my daughters!" Mr. Collins exclaimed while reading the note, torn from Julia's hands. "Of course, you must all go."
"I must cry off," Elizabeth said, "for my headache is no better."
Her father frowned at her. "But daughter, this is such an invitation..."
"The invitation is most likely for Isabel's benefit, so Mrs. Shawcross and her sister can get to know her better. There is no need for me there at all, as long as Isabel does."
"At times, Elizabeth, you do surprise me. You show a remarkable sensibility about such things that does you credit."
Elizabeth put a hand to her pounding head and willed herself to somehow get through breakfast without screaming.
"So it is settled. Isabel, Caroline, and Julia will go and make their excuses for Elizabeth." Mr. Collins smiled. "I am thinking that perhaps I may invite Mr. Hollis for dinner this evening. He is such a gentleman, you know, that one can never be courteous enough to, and he will certainly tell Miss de Bourgh of our generosity."
Elizabeth abruptly rose from her chair. "Please excuse me, but I must lie down."
She left the room, but she heard Caroline ask to be let out of the dinner at Netherfield as well, claiming that she had wanted to ask Mr. Hollis about something she had read. Her father, always one to encourage his favourite in any of her endeavours, allowed her to stay.
A steady rain greeted Elizabeth when she awoke later that afternoon, and she wondered whether or not Isabel and Julia had gone to Netherfield after all. Her father had probably not spared them the horses for the carriage. Her head was feeling but slightly better, for she knew that Mr. Hollis was to come to dinner and there was little more she dreaded than an evening of dinner conversation with Mr. Hollis and her father. Add Caroline to the matter and things did not get much better.
"Good, you are awake." Caroline bustled into the room. "Beth, you must give me your advice on something."
"Mmm...Caroline, I do not feel up to giving advice on anything."
"This is important, Beth. I do not have a single thing in my wardrobe worth wearing this evening, and I want to look my best."
Elizabeth first thought she was dreaming. Caroline, wanting to look her best? What was going on?
"What is it you need?"
"Well, I was wondering if I might borrow something of yours. Just for this evening."
Elizabeth thought for a moment. It would not be in Caroline's best interest to wear anything of Elizabeth's, for Elizabeth was two inches taller and a bit lighter than her sister. Elizabeth also tended to wear vividly coloured gowns, which would wash out Caroline's pale complexion or make her look altogether too sallow. The same problem would apply should Caroline try to wear anything of Julia's, although Julia preferred pastels.
However, Isabel was closest to Caroline in height and coloring. Perhaps something of hers would do...
"Isabel has far lovelier gowns than I. You should wear something of hers."
"Oh, I could not do that. She is not here to give me her permission."
"Nonsense. I am sure Isabel would be more than happy to loan you one of her gowns, were she here."
Caroline was clearly torn about it, so Elizabeth gave her the nudge she needed, because she had realized why Caroline wanted to look so nice.
"I am certain that Mr. Hollis would notice you if you were to wear something magnificent...and I would be more than willing to wear something ordinary. I have nothing on the scale of Isabel's outfits."
That cinched it. Caroline smiled. "All right, I shall."
"Then should we retreat to Isabel's room to find something?" Elizabeth smiled, and she began to feel her headache subside a bit. Perhaps, if she were able to guide Caroline on the path of romance, her own heartache wouldn't seem as bad.
So she escorted her sister to Isabel's room in search of a dress.
Caroline could hardly take her eyes off the figure who appeared in the mirror. "Is that really me?" she asked.
"I believe it is," Elizabeth said cheerfully, surprised at the transition herself.
No one would ever be able to call Caroline Collins a beauty, but the changes Elizabeth had wrought for her older sister were nothing short of remarkable. The dress they had chosen was a deep coral colour, which brought out the peach tones of Caroline's complexion. Rather than wearing her dark hair in a plain knot at the back of her head, Elizabeth had been able to style it in a tumble of curls falling down her back, with two locks to frame her face. Of course, Elizabeth rather thought that the greatest change in Caroline was the bright smile she wore on her face due to the way she looked, which made her look almost pretty.
"Papa will certainly be surprised to see me like this."
Elizabeth, knowing how proud their father was of Caroline in any event, said, "If he is not bursting with pride, then he is the greater fool for it."
"Oh, Elizabeth--Papa is not a fool. You should not say that about him."
Elizabeth did not reply to the rebuke. "Perhaps I should get ready now, for it is nearly dinner and Papa informed me that headache or not, I would be joining the party."
"Yes, of course. I should not have delayed you."
"I do not mind at all." Elizabeth walked to the door and was almost out it when she heard Caroline.
"Thank you, Beth. I can never repay you for what you have done today."
"I have done nothing extraordinary. You provided everything important."
Caroline smiled as her sister walked out of the room.
At Netherfield, Miss Connor and Mrs. Shawcross were most disappointed by the rain. They had felt that the ladies the invitation had been meant for would be too sensible to visit, and so none would arrive. However, at just after two in the afternoon, there was a commotion in the foyer. A maid appeared a moment later to announce, "Miss Collins and Miss Julia."
"Isabel and Julia?" Miss Connor whispered before the two entered the room. Her sister was just as perplexed, but could not say such as the objects of their disbelief walked in. Isabel appeared to be a little damp, but Julia was soaked through, her hair was dripping, and she was altogether most mortified by her appearance before these two fine ladies, the sisters of the man for whom she felt such illogical admiration.
"Hello!" Isabel was all cheer, her lovely smile brightening the room, but only for a moment. "I see that Mr. Connor and Mr. Ashton are not to be joining us this evening."
"They are dining with the officers," Miss Connor replied. "I thought I had mentioned that."
"And so you did," Julia said, her cheeks flushing redder as the two ladies stared at her. "Isabel, however, never read the note."
Isabel frowned at her. "I most certainly did, Julia. I just did not read it completely. Papa was so excited that he practically tore it out of my hands."
Julia's scowl matched her sister's, for she knew all too well that Isabel had not read the note...and Mr. Collins had snatched that note from her. Still, let Isabel say what she would. It truly did not matter to Julia.
"I was wondering if there was..." Julia started to say before sneezing abruptly. "Sorry. I was wondering if I might be allowed to freshen up before dinner."
"Of course," Mrs. Shawcross said. "I shall show you."
Miss Connor was altogether unpleased with her sister for leaving her alone with Miss Collins, and she showed her displeasure with a scathing glance. "Will you not sit down, Miss Collins?" she said, all politeness.
If Elizabeth and Caroline had anticipated that their father would be pleased by the change in Caroline's appearance, they would have been in the wrong. On Elizabeth's advice, neither had appeared in their father's sight until the moment Mr. Hollis arrived. They then descended down the stairs together, Caroline first, Elizabeth a step behind her.
Mr. Collins and Mr. Hollis were awaiting them. Charlotte stood beside her husband, a suspicion growing in her mind since she had seen neither daughter all afternoon. It was confirmed when she saw Caroline in all her splendor, and Elizabeth in the dowdiest dress she had ever seen her in.
Mr. Collins's mouth dropped open and he stood gaping at his daughters for a full minute. Mr. Hollis was also transfixed, but Charlotte noticed that as much as he admired Caroline, his gaze kept going back to Elizabeth.
Oh, Beth, you cannot hide your light even in the plainest of gowns.
"Mr. Hollis, if you would be so kind as to escort my daughter Miss Elizabeth into the dining room, the rest of us shall be with you in a moment," Mr. Collins said.
Caroline's smile faded as she realized that her father was not pleased with the change in her appearance. Elizabeth's eyes fell on her with pain and pity in them, and the shudder that she felt could not be attributed entirely to Mr. Hollis's touch on her arm, leading her into the dining room.
"You have taken leave of your senses, daughter," Mr. Collins said after Mr. Hollis and Elizabeth were gone.
"Charlotte, I realize that you are as upset as I am, but do not attempt to dissuade me from speaking my mind." He turned back to a now quaking Caroline. "It is clear to me that this is not your fault at all. Your sister talked you into dressing in such a fashion and making a spectacle of yourself."
"Dear, that is one of Isabel's gowns."
Mr. Collins did not hear his wife. "Elizabeth's motives on this occasion quite escape me, but be assured, Caroline, that I shall deal with this matter soon."
"I believe it would be best if you returned to your room. I shall make your excuses to Mr. Hollis."
Mr. Collins stared at her. Surely she had not dared to refuse him, her own father! She was supposed to obey him!
"I said no. I shall not retire to my room, for I have not exhaustion nor a headache. I feel quite well, I am in my right mind, and I like the way I look in this gown."
Charlotte was just as astonished as her husband, for all that she had sensed about Caroline in the past. She had never truly thought she would openly defy her father in such a fashion. Caroline swept past her parents, head high, and entered the dining room.
"This is all Elizabeth's fault," Mr. Collins said, furious. "She has put it in Caroline's head that--"
"That what, Mr. Collins? That Caroline might be pretty? You have always wished that Caroline might be handsomer than she appears, and now she is. It is obvious what is going on."
"And what, dear wife, may that be?"
"That Caroline has an interest in Mr. Hollis."
"Nonsense. She barely knows the gentleman."
"She knows him about as well as Isabel knows Mr. Connor."
"This is not like Caroline, Charlotte. She is not the type of girl who would ever be interested in clothes and fashion and other such gibberish. She is of a serious stamp--"
"She is also a female, Mr. Collins. She has a natural interest in a gentleman and wishes to appear to him in the best possible light. I should think you would be more than pleased."
"I do not like it, and do not think that for all your protestations that I do not know who is behind the matter."
Mr. Collins offered his arm to his wife, an indication that he was finished speaking of the subject for the moment. Later, however, he was bound to speak more freely.