Chapter 14

During dinner Mrs. Bennet scarcely spoke at all; but when the servants were withdrawn, she thought it time to have some conversation with her guest, and therefore started a subject in which she expected her to shine, by observing that she seemed very fortunate in her patron. Sir Edmund de Bourgh’s attention to her wishes, and consideration for her comfort, appeared very remarkable. Mrs. Bennet could not have chosen better. Miss Collins was eloquent in her praise. The subject elevated her to more than usual solemnity of manner, and with a most important aspect she protested that “she had never in her life witnessed such behavior in a person of rank—such affability and condescension, as she had herself experienced from Sir Edmund. He had been graciously pleased to approve of both the discourses which she had already had the honour of preaching before him. He had also asked her twice to dine at Rosings, and had sent for her only the Saturday before, to make up his pool of quadrille in the evening. Sir Edmund was reckoned proud by many people she knew, but she had never seen anything but affability in him. He had always spoken to her as he would to any other lady; he made not the smallest objection to her joining in the society of the neighbourhood, nor to her leaving her parish occasionally for a week or two, to visit her relations. He had even condescended to advise her to marry as soon as she could, provided she chose with discretion; and had once paid her a visit in her humble parsonage; where he had perfectly approved all the alterations she had been making, and had even vouchsafed to suggest some himself, —some shelves in the closets up stairs.”

“That is all very proper and civil, I am sure,” said Mr. Bennet, “and I dare say he is a very agreeable man. It is a pity that great gentlemen in general are not more like him. Does he live near you, madam?”

“The garden in which stands my humble abode, is separated only by a lane from Rosings Park, his lordship’s residence.”

“I think you said he was a widower, madam? has he any family?”

“He has one only son, the heir of Rosings, and of very extensive property.”

“Ah!” cried Mr. Bennet, shaking his head, “then he is better off than many boys. And what sort of young gentleman is he? is he handsome?”

“He is a most charming young gentleman indeed. Sir Edmund himself says that, in point of true beauty, Mr. De Bourgh is far superior to the handsomest of his sex; because there is that in his features which marks the young man of distinguished birth. He is unfortunately of a sickly constitution, which has prevented him making that progress in many accomplishments, which he could not otherwise have failed of, as I am informed by the gentleman who superintended his education, and who still resides with them. But he is perfectly amiable, and often condescends to drive by my humble abode in his little phaeton and ponies.”

“Has he been presented? I do not remember his name among the gentlemen at court.”

“His indifferent state of health unhappily prevents his being in town; and by that means, as I told Sir Edmund myself one day, has deprived the British court of its brightest ornament. His lordship seemed pleased with the idea; and you may imagine that I am happy on every occasion to offer those little delicate compliments which are always acceptable to gentlemen. I have more than once observed to Sir Edmund, that his charming son seemed born to be a duke, and that the most elevated rank, instead of giving him consequence, would be adorned by him. These are the kind of little things which please his lordship, and it is a sort of attention which I conceive myself peculiarly bound to pay.”

“You judge very properly,” said Mrs. Bennet, “and it is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?”

“They arise chiefly from what is passing at the time, and though I sometimes amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.”

Mrs. Bennet’s expectations were fully answered. Her cousin was as absurd as she had hoped, and she listened to her with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance, and, except in an occasional glance at Jonathan, requiring no partner in her pleasure.

By tea-time, however, the dose had been enough, and Mrs. Bennet was glad to take her guest into the drawing-room again, and, when tea was over, glad to invite her to read aloud to the gentlemen. Miss Collins readily assented, and a book was produced; but on beholding it (for everything announced it to be from a circulation library) she started back, and begging pardon, protested that she never read novels. Willie stared at her, and Nicholas exclaimed. Other books were produced, and after some deliberation she chose Fordyce’s Sermons. Nicholas gaped as she opened the volume, and before she had, with very monotonous solemnity, read three pages, he interrupted him with—

“Do you know, papa, that my aunt Phillips talks of turning away Bridget; and if she does, Colonel Forster will hire her. My uncle told me so himself on Saturday. I shall walk to Meryton to-morrow to hear more about it, and to ask when Mrs. Denny comes back from town.”

Nicholas was bid by his two eldest brothers to hold his tongue; but Miss Collins, much offended, laid aside her book, and said—

“I have often observed how little young gentlemen are interested by books of a serious stamp, though written solely for their benefit. It amazes me, I confess; for, certainly, there can be nothing so advantageous to them as instruction. But I will no longer importune my young cousin.”

Then, turning to Mrs. Bennet, she offered herself as her antagonist at backgammon. Mrs. Bennet accepted the challenge, observing that she acted very wisely in leaving the boys to their own trifling amusements. Mr. Bennet and his sons apologized most civilly for Nicholas’s interruption, and promised that it should not occur again, if she would resume her book; but Miss Collins, after assuring them that she bore her young cousin no ill-will, and should never resent his behaviour as any affront, seated herself at another table with Mrs. Bennet, and prepared for backgammon.

 

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