THE BENNETS WERE ENGAGED to dine with the Lucases, and again, during the chief of the day, was Miss Lucas so kind as to listen to Mr. Collins. Elizabeth took an opportunity of thanking her. “It keeps him in good humour,” said she, “and I am more obliged to you than I can express.”
This was very amiable, but Charlotte’s kindness extended farther than Elizabeth had any conception of; its object was nothing else than to secure her from any return of Mr. Collins’s proposals, by engaging them towards herself. Such was Miss Lucas’s scheme; and appearances were so favourable, that when they parted at night, she would have felt almost secure of success if he had not been to leave Hertfordshire so very soon. But here she did injustice to the fire and independence of his character, for it led him to escape out of Longbourn House the next morning with admirable slyness, and hasten to Lucas Lodge to throw himself at her feet. He was anxious to avoid the notice of his cousins, from a conviction that if they saw him depart, they could not fail to conjecture his design, and he was not willing to have the attempt known till its success might be known likewise; for though feeling almost secure, and with reason, for Charlotte had been tolerably encouraging, he was comparatively diffident since the adventure of Elizabeth’s rejection. His reception, however, was of the most flattering kind. Miss Lucas perceived him from an upper window as he walked towards the house, and instantly set out to meet him accidentally in the lane. But little had she dared to hope that so much love and eloquence awaited her there.
In as short a time as Mr. Collins’s long speeches would allow, everything was settled between them to the satisfaction of both; and as they entered the house he earnestly entreated her to name the day that was to make him the happiest of men.
Sir William and Lady Lucas were speedily applied to for their consent; and it was bestowed with a most joyful alacrity. Mr. Collins’s present circumstances made it a most eligible match for their daughter, to whom they could give little fortune; and his prospects of future wealth were exceedingly fair. Lady Lucas began directly to calculate, with more interest than the matter had ever excited before, how many years longer Mr. Bennet was likely to live; and Sir William gave it as his decided opinion, that whenever Mr. Collins should be in possession of the Longbourn estate, it would be highly expedient that both he and his wife should take up residence and dispense of the unsightly dojo post haste. The whole family, in short, were properly overjoyed on the occasion. The least agreeable circumstance in the business was the surprise it must occasion to Elizabeth Bennet, whose friendship Charlotte valued beyond that of any other person. Would she disapprove? Or worse, would she have no desire of further acquaintance? Charlotte resolved to give her the information herself, and therefore charged Mr. Collins, when he returned to Longbourn to dinner, to drop no hint of what had passed before any of the family. A promise of secrecy was of course very dutifully given, but it could not be kept without difficulty; for the curiosity excited by his long absence burst forth in such very direct questions on his return as required some ingenuity to evade.
As he was to begin his journey too early on the morrow to see any of the family, the ceremony of leave-taking was performed when the ladies moved for the night; and Mrs. Bennet, with great politeness and cordiality, said how happy they should be to see him at Longbourn again, whenever his engagements might allow him to visit them.
“My dear madam,” he replied, “this invitation is particularly gratifying, because it is what I have been hoping to receive; and you may be very certain that I shall avail myself of it as soon as possible.”
They were all astonished; and Mr. Bennet, who could by no means wish for so speedy a return, immediately said:
“But is there not danger of Lady Catherine’s disapprobation here, my good sir? You had better neglect your relations than run the risk of offending your patroness.”
“My dear sir,” replied Mr. Collins, “I am particularly obliged to you for this friendly caution, and you may depend upon my not taking so material a step without her ladyship’s concurrence.”
“You cannot be too much upon your guard. Risk anything rather than her displeasure; and if you find it likely to be raised by your coming to us again, which I should think exceedingly probable, be satisfied that we shall take no offence.”
“Believe me, my dear sir, my gratitude is warmly excited by such affectionate attention; and depend upon it, you will speedily receive from me a letter of thanks for this, and for every other mark of your regard during my stay in Hertfordshire. As for my fair cousins, I shall now take the liberty of wishing them health and happiness, not excepting my cousin Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth had been expecting such a slight and determined to show not the least offense at it, lest he gain some measure of victory over her. She instead smiled, and said, “And I, Mr. Collins, wish you the safest of journeys-for there have been such an uncommon number of dreadfuls on the roads of late, that an encounter seems unavoidable. I am certain, however, that yours will be the exception.”
With proper civilities the ladies then withdrew; all of them equally surprised that he meditated a quick return. Mrs. Bennet wished to understand by it that he thought of paying his addresses to one of her younger girls, and Mary might have been prevailed on to accept him. But on the following morning, every hope of this kind was done away. Miss Lucas called soon after breakfast, and in a private conference with Elizabeth related the event of the day before.
The possibility of Mr. Collins’s fancying himself in love with her friend had once occurred to Elizabeth within the last day or two; but that Charlotte could encourage him seemed almost as far from possibility as she could encourage him herself.
“Engaged to Mr. Collins! My dear Charlotte-impossible!”
Miss Lucas calmly replied:
“Why should you be surprised, my dear Eliza? Do you think it incredible that Mr. Collins should be able to procure any woman’s good opinion, because you thought him ill-suited to be the husband of so great a woman as yourself?”
Such an affront would have been met with fists had it come from any other person, but in this case, Elizabeth’s affections were greater even than her honour. Seeing no hope of persuading her otherwise, she wished Charlotte all imaginable happiness.
“I see what you are feeling,” replied Charlotte. “You must be surprised, very much surprised-so lately as Mr. Collins was wishing to marry you. But when you have had time to think it over, I hope you will be satisfied with what I have done. I am not romantic, you know; I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’s character, connection, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state-especially since, oh! Elizabeth, I beg you will not be angry with me or cut me down where I stand! But Elizabeth, I can have no secrets from you-I have been stricken.”
Elizabeth gasped. Her closest friend, stricken by the plague! Condemned to serve Satan! Her instincts demanded she back away. She listened as Charlotte recounted the unhappy event, which occurred during her Wednesday walk to Longbourn. Daring to make the trip alone and unarmed, she had hastened upon the road undisturbed, until she happened upon an overturned chaise and four. Seeing no unmentionables about, Charlotte approached and knelt-readying her eyes to meet the gruesome visage of a crushed coachman. To her horror, she was instead met by the grasp of a zombie who had been trapped beneath the carriage. Her leg caught in its bony fingers, she screamed as the creature’s teeth broke her skin. She was able to free herself and continue to Longbourn, but Hell’s dark business had been carried out.
“I don’t have long, Elizabeth. All I ask is that my final months be happy ones, and that I be permitted a husband who will see to my proper Christian beheading and burial.”