“I hope, my dear,” said Mrs. Bennet to her husband, as they were at breakfast the next morning, “that you have ordered a good dinner to-day, because I have reason to expect an addition to our family party.”
“Who do you mean, my dear? I know of nobody that is coming, I am sure, unless Christopher Lucas should happen to call in—and I hope my dinners are good enough for him. I do not believe he often sees such at home.”
“The person of whom I speak is a lady, and a stranger.”
Mr. Bennet’s eyes sparkled. “A lady and a stranger! It is Miss Bingley, I am sure. Why, Luke—you never dropt a word of this; you sly thing! Well, I am sure I shall be extremely glad to see Miss Bingley. —But—good lord! how unlucky! there is not a bit of fish to be got to-day. Nicholas, my love, ring the bell. I must speak to Hill this moment.”
“It is not Miss Bingley,” said his wife; “it is a person whom I never saw in the whole course of my life.”
This roused a general astonishment; and she had the pleasure of being eagerly questioned by her husband and five sons at once. —After amusing herself some time with their curiosity, she thus explained—
“About a month ago I received this letter; and about a fortnight ago I answered it, for I thought it a case of some delicacy, and requiring early attention. It is from my cousin, Miss Collins, who, when I am dead, may turn you all out of this house as soon as she pleases.”
“Oh! my dear,” cried her husband, “I cannot bear to hear that mentioned. Pray do not talk of that odious woman. I do think it is the hardest thing in the world, that your estate should be entailed away from your own children; and I am sure, if I had been you, I should have tried long ago to do something or other about it.”
Luke and Jonathan attempted to explain to him the nature of an entail. They had often attempted it before, but it was a subject on which Mr. Bennet was beyond the reach of reason, and he continued to rail bitterly against the cruelty of settling an estate away from a family of five sons, in favour of a woman whom nobody cared anything about.
“It certainly is a most iniquitous affair,” said Mrs. Bennet, “and nothing can clear Miss Collins from the guilt of inheriting Longbourn. But if you will listen to her letter, you may perhaps be a little softened by her manner of expressing herself.”
“No, that I am sure I shall not; and I think it was very impertinent of her to write to you at all, and very hypocritical. I hate such false friends. Why could not she keep on quarrelling with you, as her mother did before her?”
“Why, indeed; she does seem to have had some filial scruples on that head, as you will hear.”
Hunsford, near Westerham, Kent
The disagreement subsisting between yourself and my late honoured mother always gave me much uneasiness, and since I have had the misfortune to lose her, I have frequently wished to heal the breach; but for some time I was kept back by my own doubts, fearing lest it might seem disrespectful to her memory for me to be on good terms with any one, with whom it had always pleased her to be at variance. —“There, Mr. Bennet.” —My mind, however is now made up on the subject, for having received ordination at Easter, I have been so fortunate as to be distinguished by the patronage of the Right Honourable Sir Edmund de Bourgh, widower of Lady Judith de Bourgh, whose bounty and beneficence has preferred me to the valuable rectory of this parish, where it shall be my earnest endeavour to demean myself with grateful respect towards his Lordship, and be ever ready to perform those rites and ceremonies which are instituted by the Church of England. As a clergywoman, moreover, I feel it my duty to promote and establish the blessing of peace in all families within the reach of my influence; and on these grounds I flatter myself that my present overtures of goodwill are highly commendable, and that the circumstance of my being next in the entail of Longbourn estate will be kindly overlooked on your side, and not lead you to reject the offered olive-branch. I cannot be otherwise than concerned at being the means of injuring your amiable sons, and beg leave to apologise for it, as well as to assure you of my readiness to make them every possible amends—but of this hereafter. If you should have no objections to receive me into your house, I propose myself the satisfaction of waiting on you and your family, Monday, November 18th, by four-o’clock, and shall probably trespass on your hospitality till the Saturday se’nnight following, which I can do without any inconvenience, as Sir Edmund is far from objecting to my occasional absence on a Sunday, provided that some other clergywoman is engaged to do the duty of the day. —I remain, dear lady, with respectful compliments to your husband and sons, your well-wisher and friend,
“At four o’clock, therefore, we may expect this peace-making lady,” said Mrs. Bennet, as she folded up the letter. “She seems to be a most conscientious and polite young woman, upon my word, and I doubt not will prove a valuable acquaintance, especially if Sir Edmund should be so indulgent as to let her come to us again.”
“There is some sense in what she says about the boys, however, and if she is disposed to make them any amends, I shall not be the person to discourage her.”
“Though it is difficult,” said Luke, “to guess in what way she can mean to make us the atonement she thinks our due, the wish is certainly to her credit.”
Jonathan was chiefly struck with her extraordinary deference for Sir Edmund, and her kind intention of christening, marrying, and burying her parishioners whenever it were required.
“She must be an oddity, I think,” said he, “I cannot make her out. There is something very pompous in her style. —And what can she mean by apologizing for being next in the entail? —We cannot suppose she would help it if she could. —Can she be a sensible woman, ma’am?”
“No, my dear; I think not. I have great hopes of finding her quite the reverse. There is a mixture of servility and self-importance in her letter, which promises well. I am impatient to see her.”
“In point of composition,” said Francis, “her letter does not seem defective. The idea of the olive branch perhaps is not wholly new, yet I think it is well expressed.”
To William and Nicholas, neither the letter nor its writer were in any degree interesting. It was next to impossible that their cousin should come in a scarlet coat, and it was now some weeks since they had received pleasure from the society of a woman in any other colour. As for their father, Miss Collins’s letter had done away much of his ill-will, and he was preparing to see her with a degree of composure which astonished his wife and sons.
Miss Collins was punctual to her time, and was received with great politeness by the whole family. Mrs. Bennet indeed said little; but the gentlemen were ready enough to talk and Miss Collins seemed neither in need of encouragement, nor inclined to be silent herself. She was a tall, heavy-looking young woman of five-and-twenty. Her air was grave and stately, and her manners were very formal. She had not been long seated before she complimented Mr. Bennet on having so fine a family of sons; said she had heard much of their beauty, but that in this instance fame had fallen short of the truth; and added, that she did not doubt his seeing them all in due time well disposed of in marriage. This gallantry was not much to the taste of some of her hearers; but Mr. Bennet, who quarreled with no compliments, answered most readily—
“You are very kind, madam, I am sure; and I wish with all my heart it may prove so, for else they will be destitute enough. Things are settled so oddly.”
“You allude, perhaps, to the entail of this estate.”
“Ah! madam, I do indeed. It is a grievous affair to my poor boys, you must confess. Not that I mean to find fault with you, for such things I know are all chance in this world. There is no knowing how estates will go when once they come to be entailed.”
“I am very sensible, sir, of the hardship to my fair cousins, and could say much on the subject, but that I am cautious of appearing forward and precipitate. But I can assure the young gentlemen that I come prepared to admire them. At present I will not say more, but perhaps when we are better acquainted—”
She was interrupted by a summons to dinner; and the boys smiled on each other. They were not the only objects of Miss Collins’s admiration. The hall, the dining-room, and all its furniture were examined and praised; and her commendation of everything would have touched Mr. Bennet’s heart, but for the mortifying supposition of her viewing it all as her own future property. The dinner too in its turn was highly admired; and she begged to know to which of her fair cousins the excellence of its cookery was owing. But here she was set right by Mr. Bennet, who assured her with some asperity that they were very well able to keep a good cook, and that his sons had nothing to do in the kitchen. She begged pardon for having displeased him. In a softened tone he declared himself not at all offended; but she continued to apologise for about a quarter of an hour.