Mr. Bennet was just beginning to recover from his confrontation with Darcy, after confirming his family did not overhear him and finding himself thankful they were a noisy lot, when the butler showed his cousin, Mr. Collins, into his study. He did not attempt to stifle a groan and clutched his head between his hands for a brief moment.
Mr. Collins’ eyes seemed unusually glassy as he said, “Mr. Bennet, I have come with the express purpose of seeing to the safe reception of a letter of utmost urgency from my esteemed patroness. I shall allow you to read it without delay.” He fumbled in his pocket, even less coordinated than usual, before finding the sealed parchment and laying it on the desk in front of him.
Mr. Bennet looked on in annoyance at his cousin’s obvious inebriation. Given the circumstances of the previous few days, he felt it better actually to read the letter. He ignored his cousin sermonizing on the improper behaviour of his most favourite daughter. If he had not already expended so much interest and energy on Darcy, he might have even been moved to anger at the gentleman before him. Instead, he turned his attention to the note, praying fervently to find some amusement within.
Monday, March 30
You can be at no loss to understand my reason for writing to you. I understand your second eldest daughter, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, has presumed an engagement with my nephew, Mr. Darcy. This union cannot take place. He is engaged to my daughter. I am ready to settle twenty five thousand pounds for the silence of your household on this matter and to supplement your daughters’ dowries so they might make beneficial matches. You may rest assured that no scandal shall come from the compromising position in which they were found yesterday morning, as my staff and clergyman’s household have all been instructed to silence. You may relay your acceptance of the arrangement and the particulars of your choosing to me when Mr. Collins returns to Hunsford.
The Rt. Hon. Lady Catherine de Bourgh
Mr. Bennet was more than a little tempted by her ladyship’s offer. He certainly could use the money, and he would not need to lose his Elizabeth to the despicable Mr. Darcy. He did have his reservations about his cousin, among others, and his ability to abide by Lady Catherine’s edict of silence on the matter.
“Mr. Collins, has Lady Catherine commanded your silence on a matter of some delicacy?”
“Yes, Mr. Bennet, and she is worthy of all obedience…” Collins had to cease his speech due to a round of hiccoughs.
Mr. Bennet seized the opportunity, giving Collins a stern look. “Then I suggest you practice that silence now. My wife and youngest daughters remain ignorant on this subject, and so do the servants. If you do not wish to incur her ladyship’s wrath, then you must control your tongue.”
“You are, of course, correct, sir! And it is so affable of you to remind me so diligently. May I presume that you have agreed to her ladyship’s proposal?”
Mr. Bennet had not entirely decided. In fact, he was rather tired of the subject for the day and just about to make a request for more time to decide when Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy barged into his study.
“Papa! I must speak with you at once.” He immediately recognised Elizabeth’s glare of disdain at Mr. Collins as she spoke.
“Yes, and I should like to speak with you.”
Elizabeth continued to eye Mr. Collins, insisting, “I must request a private audience.”
“And so I agree.” Mr. Bennet’s lips curled up in amusement. “Mr. Darcy, could you show Mr. Collins the way to his wife? Afterwards, you may wish to sit with the ladies in the morning room again or leave entirely.” Mr. Bennet did not trust Collins near his wife and daughters and hoped Mrs. Collins could convince her husband to depart for Lucas Lodge.
Mr. Bennet was annoyed that his attempts at baiting Darcy were unsuccessful. He had expected the man to be more affronted when asked to leave the library and told to escort Collins, as a servant would. And wonder of wonders, the proud man showed no reaction to being forced into more company with Mrs. Bennet or to leave for Netherfield. Darcy only looked towards Elizabeth and gave her a little smile and a nod, then graciously obliged.
Once alone, he looked at his daughter and began, “You shall not have to marry Mr. Darcy, Lizzy. Her ladyship has graciously condescended to ensure silence on the subject.”
“How can you trust a woman who so carelessly demanded to send me away? Who insulted me and our family with the vilest language? You must see we cannot be so assured! If gossip were to get out, it will materially harm the reputations of my sisters.”
“With a dowry of six thousand pounds, surely they shall draw the attention of some respectable men. It shall be more if I invest wisely.”
Elizabeth gasped in disbelief. “Of what are you speaking?”
“Her ladyship confirms Mr. Darcy’s engagement to her daughter and, in the interest of seeing that union preserved, has offered a sum of twenty five thousand pounds in addition to her earlier assurances.”
“Mr. Darcy has vigorously denied any engagement with Miss de Bourgh. He refuted it to his aunt’s face!” Elizabeth’s face took on an unexpected expression of panic. She soon recovered and calmly stated, “He has declared our engagement just as openly.”
“The general expectation of Mr. Darcy’s marriage to Miss de Bourgh is well-known. I daresay few would believe any gossip of an engagement with you.”
“Can you not see this is an outrageous attempt at bribery? I very much doubt that, should there be no scandal and I release Mr. Darcy from our understanding, he shall marry his cousin. Lady Catherine would be incensed, and I believe her to be vindictive.” She paused a moment and narrowed her eyes. “In fact, she might act against us even if he would marry her daughter. I also find it hard to believe she would honour the payment or that she even has the monies.”
“I would do anything, rather than see you in so unequal a marriage guaranteed to bring you nothing but misery.”
“Even putting all of my sisters at risk? You must be sensible!”
“I know you can never respect the man after all he has done.”
“You know nothing of the sort! Pray, have you read my uncle’s letter?”
Mr. Bennet snorted in disgust. “I am sure your uncle has only been intimidated, or perhaps charmed, by Mr. Darcy in coming to his defence. There is little use in my reading it.”
Elizabeth snatched the letter from her father’s desk and began to read aloud…