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Jane Austen’s Reading Salon is the board where we freely showcase our writing: short stories, excerpts, deleted scenes, poetry, and other assorted samples, both Austenesque and beyond Austen’s world. This is a “read-only” board. Read to your heart’s content and check back periodically for new posts.A A A
August 14, 2015
William Collins pushed back the shock of golden brown hair that always fell across his forehead and studied his face.
It was not angular. There were no high cheekbones nor was there a prominent chin.
His eyes were evenly spaced but not of any particularly intense colour. In fact, they reflected the colour of his hair, which meant there was nothing to set them apart as an admirable feature.
His nose was good. It was straight and not too large. There was no hook at the end, nor were any distracting hairs protruding from it. One thing. One solitary thing that was good about his face was not enough.
He looked at his mouth. Not large, nor small. Merely regular.
He allowed the hair to flop down on his forehead once again as he pulled at what he considered a definite imperfection. His jowl was far too soft and fleshy to be attractive.
Blowing out a great breath, he began stuffing his shirt tails into his breeches. How was he to persuade Miss Kitty to consider him if he had no particularly handsome features to recommend him?
It was as his father had said. He would be the last in their family to be master of Longbourn because ladies did not marry lumpy puddings such as he.
He plopped down onto his bed and pulled on his boots, which, though freshly polished, were old and well-worn as well as still rather dull. Much like the rest of him.
Until now, he had not thought himself so lacking as his father had proclaimed him to be. He had excelled in his studies far more than his father would ever have thought possible, and despite his father’s assurance that he would not, he had made some friends — even a few who were important enough to help him acquire a valuable living. True, none of them wished to visit, but they did correspond, and that was something, was it not?
And yet, here he sat in what would soon be one of the rooms of his estate, having to face the prospect that he might grow old and lonely just as his father said simply because he was dashed ordinary. It was not being ordinary, however, that grated the most. No, what stirred his spirit and caused him to scowl was the fact that in this, he feared he could not prove his father wrong.
The sigh which escaped him could have surely moved the heavy green drapes that hung on either side of the window had he been close enough. He fell backward onto his bed and stared at the canopy above him. All his striving was to come to naught, and simply because he was not handsome enough to persuade Kitty Bennet to look at him as Miss Elizabeth looked at Mr. Darcy or Miss Bennet looked at Mr. Bingley. Miss Kitty did not even look at him with that transient fondness of a flirt like Miss Lydia looked at every officer who came within her line of vision.
He could not charm Miss Kitty into liking him, for he had less charm than he had becoming features. All was lost.
If it were not for the man lying close to heaven’s gates in the room just down the hall, Collins would take himself back to Kent and throw himself into his preaching with such fervour that some pious young girl might come to admire him for his oratory skills. Those he had – when he was in the pulpit.
“Surely, there must be a way to sway her. Mustn’t there be?”
The empty room had no response to such a question, and neither did his mind. However, there was a duty to be done. He was the heir apparent, and with Mr. Bennet incapacitated, it fell upon him to see that all was well within the house and in regard to his family.
He smiled at that.
Family. No matter if he married or not, he had a family. And it was one which seemed to tolerate him far better than his own father ever had.
Bolstered by the thought, he pushed up to a sitting position and then rose from the bed. Pulling on his waistcoat and jacket, he wondered if the funds at Longbourn would allow for him to have a man to help him with these things.
His father had thought it an extravagance which was likely because it would have taken from the funds he needed to chase every new scheme that was placed before him. There were several hundred if not thousands of pounds which were planted with hopes of heavy returns. Sadly, his father was as wise as he was kind, and his fortune dwindled steadily. Collins had not been left penniless when his father died, but along with what remained of his inheritance, he had also been bequeathed a fine array of bills. Therefore, his coffers were neither empty nor well-filled.
He straightened his cravat, gave his sleeves one more tug, and exited his room.
“Good morning, Mr. Collins,” Kitty greeted as he began his descent of the stairs.
Ah, it was a good morning, indeed, if Kitty’s smiling face was the first he had the pleasure of seeing. However, it would be a better morning if he could remember to speak instead of just staring when she spoke to him.
“Good…morning,” he finally stammered to her retreating form. Yes, that would impress her. He shook his head and hurried down the stairs to the breakfast room.
Thankfully, the breakfast room was pleasantly empty when he entered. He would have a few moments to gather his thoughts and recover from his embarrassment before having to speak to anyone.
Tea sloshed over the side of the cup into which Collins was pouring.
“I did not mean to startle you.”
“Think nothing of it, Miss Elizabeth. I was merely too immersed in my thoughts to pay proper attention to my surroundings.” He glanced at her as he mopped up the tea his saucer had not caught.
“I am afraid it is a horrid fault which I must own.” His hand stilled. Had she actually smiled at him? And not in a what a fool fashion? Hmm. That was unexpected.
“I believe there are several of us in this house who fall prey to such things on a regular basis,” Elizabeth replied as she brought him a fresh cloth before taking her seat. “I have been known to wander for hours, lost to time, while pondering. And it is best to make some small sound before speaking to either Jane or Kitty when they are intent upon their stitching, or one might be the cause of a pricked finger.”
“I shall endeavour to remember that, and I thank you for alerting me to the danger.” He sat down and began eating his egg. “The eggs are good.”
“They are,” Elizabeth agreed. “Have you been to see the outbuildings at all?”
Collins shook his head. “None but the stable.”
“Then, on a fine day, Mr. Darcy and I shall have to take you on a tour.” She pulled in a deep breath. “They will be yours eventually.”
“Ours. They will be ours,” he corrected with a small smile. He knew the blessing he would receive through the inheritance of Longbourn. Without it, he would likely have always remained a parson. Not that that was so bad a thing, but to be the master of one’s own estate? Ah, that…that was success. That was position. That was more than his father had ever had.
“Thank you,” Elizabeth said softly. “You have been most gracious with my mother.” She took a sip of her tea.
“How could I be otherwise?” Collins asked in surprise, but then his brows drew together as a thought struck him. “I never knew your father, and he never knew me. He only ever knew my father, and if one were to describe my father to me, I would fear such a person.” He shrugged. “I did.”
“You feared your own father?” Elizabeth’s hand covered her mouth, and her eyes were wide.
“No need to apologize. It is hard to imagine when one has been in possession of a father who is what a father should be – indulgent, kind, not overly serious, nor one to raise his voice.” Again, he shrugged. “At least, that is how I imagine a good father should be.”
The hours he has spent locked in his room for some small indiscretion which had sent his father on a screaming rampage which ended in a bruise or two and a hungry night had given him plenty of time to imagine what a proper father should be – the sort of father he hoped to be.
Elizabeth tipped her head and looked at him for a long while as he finished his egg and spread jam on his toast. Finally, she smiled and returned to her tea.
“Then, I hope you will have a long time to spend with my father.”
There were tears in her eyes, and he looked steadfastly at his toast until his own tears were forced to retreat. It was another failing on his part. He was too soft. The mere appearance of tears in the eyes of a lady should not cause him to become weepy, but, much to his shame, it did. “That would be my prayer as well, Miss Elizabeth.”
He lifted startled eyes to her.
“We are cousins. You may call me Elizabeth.”
“Are you certain?” He had never called any lady by her Christian name.
“Very well, Elizabeth.” The word felt so strange on his tongue as if it was missing an article of clothing to make it complete.
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
“N…no. My mother died at my birth, and my father never remarried.” Which was likely good for the ladies of the land, since none had to be tied to such an ogre as his father.
He nodded. “I often wished for a sibling and, of course, my mother, but that is not what God had designed for me to have. And knowing such, I attempted to be content.”
“Do you have any other cousins?”
He shook his head. “None of whom I know. Your father was the only one whom my father ever mentioned.” If there were others, they must not have had money, for money, land, or possessions of any value were what made relations and acquaintances important to his father.
“So we are it? We are your family?”
“As the good Lord reigns above.”
Elizabeth fell silent and once again studied him as she ate.
He would dearly like to know what was going through her head, and a longing to fill the silence with some sound nearly overwhelmed him. Sitting in silence, being scrutinized, while still feeling out of place in a new surrounding, begged him to release some of his anxiety in the form of words.
“It is a beautiful day.”
The words would not stay contained, no matter how he tried.
“It might be a good day for a walk to Oakham Mount. That is what it is called, is it not? That hill to which you like to walk.” He clamped his lips closed. When the words started, they often just spilled out in great torrents.
Elizabeth chuckled. “Yes, that is what it is called, but I should like to confine myself to the garden and the wilderness just beyond.”
Dunderhead. Her father was ill. Of course, she did not want to be far from home.
“I was not thinking,” he muttered. “It would be best to stay close. I should have thought of that.”
“Things are out of the ordinary, and you have just gained a family.”
She was one of the most kind and understanding ladies he had met.
“You are very gracious,” he said. “Not at all obstinate,” he muttered and then froze with his tea lifted halfway to his mouth.
Carefully, he moved just his eyes to see if Elizabeth had heard him. From the way her eyebrow arched, she must have.
“I do apologize. I am sure Mr. Darcy meant it in the most flattering way. He is quite taken with you.”
He shrank into himself as he saw her expression change from one of curiosity to unpleasant surprise.
“My thoughts do not always stay where they should,” he said before clamping his lips closed.
“Mr. Darcy said I was obstinate?”
“Oh,” Collins groaned.
He had hoped Mr. Darcy would one day be his friend, and it had appeared like the man was becoming such. However, now, he doubted greatly that such a thing should ever happen.
“I asked him about my cousins when we were at Rosings. My lady, Lady Catherine, that is, had suggested I consider marrying one of you.”
He swallowed. This was going from bad to worse. Her look of surprise was not receding.
“I had to consider it. It seemed a good plan to mend the breach my father had caused in our family.” He pulled at his cravat. “I thought it most proper to inquire after the eldest, but I was assured Miss Bennet expected to have a happy announcement shortly. Naturally, I then inquired after the next in line.” He made a small gesture towards her with his hand. “You. And Mr. Darcy immediately told me that you would not make a proper parson’s wife at all. He was quite adamant. However, having met you, I do not know why he would disparage one so lovely as yourself.”
His brows furrowed. “Why are you so pleased?” Her look of surprise was completely gone.
Her head dipped, and a faint blush stained her cheeks.
“Because I think I know why he said what he did, and,” she looked up at him, “he is not wrong. I can be entirely too stubborn at times, and I would make a deplorable parson’s wife. I do not possess the nature that is necessary for such a role.”
“I apologize. I should not have said anything.”
“No,” Elizabeth replied firmly. “I am pleased you did.”
“But Mr. Darcy will be angry.”
Elizabeth chuckled. “I very much doubt that. He is not so dour and disapproving as I once thought.”
“Disapproving?” Collins’s eyes were large and his lashes fluttered twice at the thought. “Mr. Darcy is all that is good.”
“Oh, I agree,” she replied quickly. “However, he can be disapproving. You may ask him about that some time. I will not mind at all if you do.” Her lips had quirked up into a teasing smile.
She was so obviously in love with Mr. Darcy.
“Wait.” He returned his last piece of toast to his plate without taking a bite. “You thought Mr. Darcy was disagreeable?”
“And yet, you are betrothed to him?”
Again, she nodded. “Astonishing, is it not?”
“I admit to being somewhat flabbergasted,” he admitted aloud while inwardly he rejoiced. If Mr. Darcy could persuade a lady who thought him disagreeable to marry him, was it not also possible that Mr. Darcy could help a gentleman, hoping to do the same thing, on to success?
Collins glanced up from the book he was reading as Kitty entered the sitting room. Her dress reminded him of the sunshine as it bathed a meadow in its warm glow. He startled and cleared his throat while turning his eyes back to his book as a sigh attempted to escape the confines of his mind. He peeked up. It did not appear that she had noticed his moment of discomposure. For that, he sent up a small prayer of gratitude.
“Are you still reading sermons?” Mrs. Bennet inquired as she took a seat near him.
She was a nice enough lady, if a bit scattered at times, but he did not particularly relish a conversation with her just now. He wanted to pretend reading while in truth he observed the fair maiden near the window whose hair was shining like spun gold.
“My Mary has read many sermons,” Mrs. Bennet continued.
“That is very good,” Collins muttered as his eyes shifted to where Mary sat, glaring at him as she always did. Did her mother genuinely think that a daughter so obviously against a match could be swayed from her position by the commonality of reading materials?
“Oh, she is a very good girl.”
Mrs. Bennet’s look of reproof for that very good girl was in stark contrast to her tone of praise. Did the woman think him so simple as to be easily led? Did she think this way of all gentlemen or was it him in particular?
He closed his book and tapped his finger on its cover as he thought.
“You look very serious, Mr. Collins. I do hope you are contemplating some happy event.”
Only his training from the tutor under whom he studied kept him from shaking his head at her pathetic attempt to sway him with her tone and a quick glance toward her daughter.
“No, it was neither happy nor sad,” he replied with what he hoped was a pleasant expression. “I find I tire of reading sermons. It is delightful to indulge in a bit of poetry on occasion. The way some men can convey the beauty of the Almighty’s creation in so few words is one of the great mysteries. A true gift from God it is.” He clamped his lips closed before he babbled further. If she were not looking up at him from her stitching, perhaps he would not feel this infernal need to speak so strongly. She made his heart and mind race so much faster than it normally did when uncomfortable. But, it was an agony he would willingly endure to be near her. He turned his mind to what Mrs. Bennet was saying.
“I had not thought it possible for a man such as yourself to grow weary of sermons. It is most remarkable.”
“A parson is merely a man, Mrs. Bennet,” he replied, stretching out his legs and folding his arms across his abdomen in a most comfortable fashion. “We are educated, of course, in the things of God and the church, but we are at the center of our very being merely men. While learning the things which we must to fulfill our role as guide and instructor is an honour and one of great import, we find all manner of common things to be of interest and even a source of pleasure. My tutor, Mr. James, for instance, liked nothing better than a good long ramble in the fields and forest as well as a hunt. We must be complete, he would say. Being of only one focus is not very useful to anyone, he would also say. A parishioner should feel at ease in your presence. That was another of his sayings. It makes one more interesting as a conversationalist when one breaks bread with his patron or patroness as well as other members of his parish.”
“Indeed!” That one word seemed to be the only thought Mrs. Bennet could form on such a surprising revelation.
“I am not a great hunter.” Collins bowed his head humbly. “But if one wishes to eat pheasant, one must learn to make a tolerable attempt at the sport.”
“Oh,” Mrs. Bennet gasped.
Mary snickered and bent her head closer to her book.
“I quite enjoy pheasant,” Kitty said. “Although I do not like the idea of having to shoot one. In fact, I should not be able to eat it if I did.”
“A tender heart is a welcome thing in a lady such as yourself,” Collins assured her. “I am certain that is why hunting is left to the gentlemen. Our sensibilities are not so easily engaged.”
“I should not mind shooting a pheasant and then eating it,” Lydia declared with a pointed look for her sister and one of disdain for Mr. Collins.
No matter how many times he had assured Miss Lydia that he was not going to remove them from their home when he claimed his inheritance, she did not seem willing to believe him. There was a scoffing, suspicious sharpness to her personality. However, that could be due to the fact that he was a stranger and her father was gravely ill.
“Then bravo for you,” he commented. He would not succumb to her taunts. The scripture did say that a soft answer turns away wrath, so he would endeavour to be kind and compassionate.
Lydia blinked. “You are not going to say it is not fitting for a lady?”
“No.” He opened his book. He knew ladies who accompanied their husbands on hunts. He did not care for such a wife himself, however.
“You are not going to say a thing?” Lydia pursued.
Collins shook his head and shrugged. “I see no need to say anything further.”
Her brows furrowed. “Not a thing?”
Again, he shook his head and added a smile.
“Lydia, do be polite,” Kitty scolded softly.
The reprimand was met with a decidedly annoyed huff.
“I thought you tired of sermons.” Elizabeth held out a book to him. “It is Lyrical Ballads. I thought you might enjoy Wordsworth’s writings.”
Collins snapped his book of sermons closed and took the book from Elizabeth. “Oh, I do. He is quite delightful.”
“He is,” Elizabeth agreed. “Mr. Darcy recommended this particular volume to me.”
The bookplate was inscribed with Fitzwilliam Darcy.
“Oh, I could not take his book from you.” Collins held it out to her.
“I have read it,” she assured him, “and Mr. Darcy would be pleased to be able to do you this small service.”
“You are very kind and so is Mr. Darcy.” Collins opened the book. Mr. Darcy liked poetry just as he did? This was good.
“You might be able to join him and Mr. Bingley for a hunt,” she offered. “I shall mention it to him.”
“That would be most pleasurable,” Collins replied.
A friend. He had a friend. A true friend. Miss Elizabeth would not lend him such a precious book and take up his cause by presenting him to Mr. Darcy if she were not a friend.
Mrs. Bennet found her voice with a quick gasp of realization. “Poetry is just the thing. Do read a few lines to us. Would that not be delightful, Mary?” She cast a glance at Mary who instead of glaring, completely ignored her mother’s attempts to engage her in the conversation.
“I think poetry would make sewing so much more pleasant,” Kitty said, filling the brief moment of silence that Mary’s lack of response created.
“If you would find it gratifying,” he looked first at Kitty then her mother so as not to make his intentions too obvious. He would climb a Hawthorne tree if Miss Kitty asked him to do so.
“Oh, we would,” Mrs. Bennet assured him.
Kitty merely smiled softly and nodded before returning to her work.
But it was enough.
He would read until he was told to stop or until Mr. Darcy arrived whichever came first. So, without a further moment of hesitation, he began…
“Why, William, on that old grey stone,
Thus for the length of half a day,
Why, William, sit you thus alone,
And dream your time away?”[footnote]from Postulation and Reply by William Wordworth[/footnote]
He had gotten as far as “The Last of the Flock” before he was forced to cease reading. Taking his marker from his book of sermons, he placed it instead in the book of verse. He had read those sermons numerous times. It was entirely likely that he would remember the exact page. He put the books to the side and rose to greet their guests. Again, he had to stifle a sigh as he watched Darcy lift Elizabeth’s hand to his lips in greeting. That was for what he long. Someone to be so pleased to see him. No, not someone. His eyes wandered to Kitty once again. It had been challenging to keep his eyes anywhere but where she was.
“Mr. Collins, it is a pleasure to see you.”
Collins swung his head toward Mr. Bingley, who had drawn Miss Bennet across the room toward him. “I.. I believe the pleasure is mutual,” he stammered. Believe? Such a poor choice of words.
“Mr. Collins has been reading to us,” Jane said as she took a seat.
“Indeed?” Bingley looked curiously toward Collins.
“Miss Elizabeth lent me Lyrical Ballads.” His sleeves felt out of place, so he pulled on them. Ah, better. “She assured me that Mr. Darcy would not be offended if I read it.”
“Darcy?” Bingley chuckled. “No, he is forever lending this or that book to me in hopes that I might one day enjoy the activity. However, so far he has been utterly unsuccessful, though I did read a couple of verses in that book before returning it to the shelf.” Bingley settled easily into his chair.
How did he do that? He made it look so simple to enter a room and be at ease. His clothing did not demand readjusting and his actions were so fluid and smooth. It was an enviable trait.
“I am not a great reader,” Bingley continued. “I do not despise the pursuit of knowledge, but to sit for hours to do anything is, in my way of thinking, dreadful. Darcy is not so content to be at leisure as he appears either.”
“It is more gratifying to be employed than idle, I will grant you that,” Collins replied, “but I must admit that being employed in the enterprise of reading, especially something as beautiful as the words of a poet, is one of the greatest pleasures in life.”
Bingley chuckled once again. “I wish I had your love for such things. It would make a rainy evening or a carriage ride much more pleasant.” He looked around Jane to where Kitty sat quietly pulling her needle through her fabric. “What say you about reading, Miss Kitty? Are you a proponent for reading or are you against it?”
Kitty put her work in her lap and cast a quick glance at Lydia, who answered for her. “Kitty enjoys novels.”
“And poetry,” Kitty added. “I also like poetry.”
“But not as much as a truly horrid novel.” Lydia’s look in Collins’s direction taunted him to reply severely. “Do you read novels, Mr. Collins?”
“I cannot say that I find an excess of pleasure in them, for I often find myself wishing to instruct the characters on proper behaviour.” His brows drew together. “There are some that are not so very bad, but then there are others that are most improper. However, I suppose if I were to think on it a great deal as your question is now prompting me to do, I must admit that there is also poetry which is not fit for everyone’s consumption.” He nodded. “Yes, yes, I do believe you are right, Miss Lydia. A novel might be preferred over poetry at times, but the reverse must also be acknowledged. It is not the form but the substance which makes a piece worthy of the time employed in reading it. There are even portions of the newspaper that are perhaps better left unread – indeed unprinted! For instance, gossip is gossip whether whispered behind a fan or scrawled in black and white for all to read.” He stopped speaking as he realized that Miss Lydia was staring at him. “Yes, I read novels, but not often,” he said in conclusion.
“I have never read an entire novel,” Bingley inserted. “However, I have read portions of them to my sisters on a winter’s evening.”
“You just abandon the story?” Kitty’s eyes were wide with disbelief. “Are you not curious to know how it ends?”
Bingley’s lips curled into a smile, and he winked. “I always know how it ends. One does not need to read the full book to know that.”
“Whatever do you mean?”
The look of utter confusion on Kitty’s face was charming. Collins would happily study it for hours.
“I believe he means he reads the ending,” Jane said softly.
“Precisely!” Bingley declared.
“Without reading the rest?”
From her tone of voice, there was no denying the fact that Kitty found such an action to be an atrocity of the greatest sort.
“Yes,” Bingley replied simply.
“I fear I cannot approve of such an action.” There was a stern, almost governess-like, tone to her words.
Bingley merely shrugged. “If the ending were enticing enough to excite my curiosity to discover the rest of the tale, I might read the remainder. Perhaps I am reading the wrong books, but none have excited my curiosity in such a fashion, and I am an admittedly curious person.”
Collins’s brow furrowed. He would never have possessed enough courage to admit such a thing as not finding any novel the least bit interesting. Even if he did find all novels dull, which he did not, Collins would not have been so ready and nonchalant in admitting to it. How did Mr. Bingley proceed as if he did not care what any of the Bennet ladies thought of him?
“We cannot all enjoy reading,” Jane said to her sister.
And Miss Bennet seemed not to be put off by such an admission? Collins looked between her and Mr. Bingley before glancing across the room to Mr. Darcy. If he could learn Mr. Darcy’s strategies to draw a lady into liking a gentleman, then he might also be able to learn to be as affable as Mr. Bingley, might he not? He pursed his lips. He would need to find a time to approach each of them, and, seeing the way in which Kitty greeted Captains Denny and Saunders as they entered the drawing room just then, the sooner the better.
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