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Charlotte's Gambit

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It was the usual practice of the Bennet and Lucas ladies to congregate the day after a ball to review, congratulate, commiserate or otherwise share the tribulations and triumphs encountered by those ladies at such an event. So it was that, on the 27th of November in the year eleven, Miss Charlotte Lucas made her way along the road connecting the respective homes of the two families. The weather was unseasonable for the time of year and, for the second day in a row, the sun was shining. As there was no particularly good reason to hurry, she did not, and the distance, which she would normally traverse in twenty minutes, took nearly thirty - for the lady had much to think on; her best friend Elizabeth Bennet was, she suspected, likely to receive an offer of marriage that very day.

Mr. William Collins, the heir presumptive to the Bennet estate and rector of a parish in Kent, had come to visit the Bennets with the avowed purpose of offering for one of the five daughters of Mr. Bennet. As Jane, the eldest, was apparently being courted by a most eligible young man whose appearance, fortune and consequence far surpassed that of Mr. Collins, the latter had been encouraged by Mrs. Bennet to direct his attentions to her second eldest daughter, Elizabeth. Mrs. Bennet, being of limited intelligence and understanding, possessed the belief that any marriage for one of her daughters, no matter how dissimilar the characters of the two parties, was to be preferred to having that daughter remain in an unmarried state. She was, therefore, insensible to the fact that Elizabeth did not favour the match and was equally blind to the knowledge that her own husband did not favour Mr. Collins. It took Mr. Bennet but five minutes of Mr. Collins’ company to recognize that the latter’s understanding of the world, despite a university education, was no more profound than that of Mrs. Bennet.

Charlotte perfectly comprehended Elizabeth’s feelings on the matter of matrimony, for it was a subject frequently canvassed between them. She was certain that Elizabeth would reject Mr. Collins, if he made his offer that morning, something that seemed quite possible, as he was required to return to Kent in several days. Charlotte fully expected to find Longbourn in turmoil when she arrived. She would be surprised only if Elizabeth accepted Mr. Collins’ offer; but, assuming she did not, Charlotte pondered whether she might turn Mr. Collins’ attentions to herself. A woman in her circumstances - plain featured, with little fortune and rapidly approaching spinsterhood - was in desperate want of a situation. At seven and twenty, her marriage prospects were already poor and would not appear to improve as time passed.

She had measured Mr. Collins’ character carefully, attended him as constantly as possible during the Netherfield ball, dancing with him once – an act of extreme forbearance on her part as he was possibly the worst dancer she had ever partnered – and generally attempted to impress him with her particular attentions. He was, she had quickly realized, a silly man. His only attractions as a husband were his status as a single man, a clerical living which provided adequate support for a wife and family, and, ultimately, his position as heir to the Longbourn estate. He was tall and not altogether unattractive, although rather heavy and possessed of an air of gravity which she supposed he assumed as befitting a vicar. As she knew herself to be both intelligent and pragmatic, she believed that she could manage him well enough that their life together, if not likely to supply her with much happiness, would provide contentment and security.

When she finally arrived at Longbourn, the turmoil she had anticipated was much in evidence, but the cause was not as she had expected. That no one answered when she knocked on the door was the first intimation that something of particular moment had occurred. Then, instead of hearing Mrs. Bennet’s lamentations and anger that Elizabeth had refused Mr. Collins, she encountered a household in tears and shock. At first she could not understand what had happened and she could make little sense out of the wild exclamations issuing from the youngest Bennet daughters, Kitty and Lydia, until one salient fact became clear.

Mrs. Bennet had died – suddenly and unexpectedly.

Overcoming her initial shock, Charlotte promptly entered the house, peeked into the parlour to observe Mr. Collins expounding on some matter to Mary Bennet. As she did not expect either capable of providing the details of what had occurred in a reasonable manner, she passed by the open door in search of either Elizabeth or Jane. To her relief, she found the former. Elizabeth’s countenance bore evidence of sorrow and her manner was distracted. Charlotte grasped her hand and led her into the nearest room which, fortuitously, was empty.

“Now, Eliza,” she said, her tone brisk, “do you feel able to tell me what has happened? I can scarce encompass the idea that your mother has died. She looked most healthy last evening. How did it happen?”

Elizabeth appeared to be trying to gather the shreds of her composure, and Charlotte patiently allowed her time to do so, although her own curiosity was demanding answers.

At last Elizabeth began. “You must have discerned that Mr. Collins was planning to make me an offer of marriage?”

Charlotte nodded.

Elizabeth whispered, “I had hoped he might not, but that was not to be. Mama was insistent and required me to afford him a private interview. He made his offer. . .” She snorted before continuing, “which took some time to be articulated. I refused, of course, and he eventually accepted that I did not wish to marry him. Mama was not, however, inclined to allow the matter to rest in that state and, after failing to persuade me to change my answer, went to my father to get him to order me to accept. He did not and I had expected that he would not.”

Charlotte was puzzled. Events had played out much as she had anticipated, but how this related to the death of Mrs. Bennet was not obvious and so she asked that very question.

Elizabeth closed her eyes, leaned back in her chair and sighed.

“I can remember Mama saying so very clearly, that if I did not marry Mr. Collins, she would not speak to me again. Then my father made a rather sarcastic response that I must henceforth be a stranger to one of my parents, for if I married Mr. Collins, he would never speak to me again and my mother would do likewise if I did not marry him.”

Elizabeth began to cry, “I have never seen my mother as angry, and then she suddenly stopped her remonstrances, raised a hand to her head, and collapsed on the floor.”

“Apoplexy?”

“So Mr. Jones claims.” Elizabeth sniffed, “Charlotte, did I cause my mother’s death? Am I to blame?”

Charlotte paused. Such a thought had not entered her mind. Elizabeth seemed to take her silence as agreement and began to cry quietly. Charlotte collected her composure and grasped Elizabeth’s hands.

“I do not think so. ‘Tis not the first time your mother has become so upset, is it?”

Elizabeth shook her head.

Charlotte was not about to allow her friend to succumb to unwarranted guilt.

“I realize, Eliza, that you are shocked, confused even, but you cannot truly believe yourself responsible. I cannot believe it to be anything other than an Act of God. It could as easily have happened before today or it could have happened tomorrow. Do you remember Mr. Goodyear?”

Elizabeth nodded slowly, comprehending her friend’s intent. “He died of apoplexy also and most unexpectedly.”

“Indeed. He was perhaps a few years older than your mother, healthy and active and yet, just like your mother, he was struck down suddenly and died very quickly.”

Their conference was soon interrupted by the entrance of Mr. Collins into the room. He appeared to take Mrs. Bennet’s passing as an additional affront and was voicing his displeasure at being treated so poorly by the Bennet family. Elizabeth dried her eyes and Charlotte could see that to encounter the gentleman after what had passed between them was a chore Elizabeth was not prepared to undertake. Mr. Collins’ pique with Elizabeth was evident and the looks he cast in her direction contained such a mixture of censure and anger as to make it obvious to Charlotte that neither Elizabeth nor her cousin found the company of the other agreeable. Thus, as it fit quite well with her own plans, Charlotte made an offer that both Elizabeth and Mr. Collins were eager to advance.

Before she and Mr. Collins departed, she spoke with Mr. Bennet to offer her condolences which he accepted with, for him, unusual civility. As she spoke with him she was struck by an absence of grief. That he was disturbed was clear and he was possibly unhappy, but a deep grief at the loss of a loved one was not in evidence.

So it was that, within a quarter hour, Mr. Collins accompanied Charlotte Lucas back to Lucas Lodge.

The death of Mrs. Bennet had not, to any degree, lessened Mr. Collins’ preference for the sound of his own voice and he had no shortage of subjects on which to dwell. Not unsurprisingly, Elizabeth’s rejection of his offer was quickly deemed to have served him well, for he could not be happy to be married to such an impertinent young woman and his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, would not have kindly received such a woman. However, within minutes, he was talking about Mrs. Bennet’s death and Charlotte could almost believe he thought it fitting retribution for having misled him so badly as to encourage his suit with Elizabeth. From there it was a short step to blaming Mr. Bennet, for assuredly some misdirection and poor guidance in the education of his daughters must have led the young lady to act so improperly. As he continued in this vein, Charlotte began to wonder if Mr. Collins was not wishing that Mr. Bennet had been the one to die so that he, Mr. Collins, could assume his rightful place as master of Longbourn and deal with the Bennet ladies as he considered appropriate. Where she had hitherto allowed his words to wash over her, not absorbing more than one word in five, she now began to listen to his words more carefully and, by the time they reached her home, her opinion of the desirability of attaching herself to him had undergone a major change, for his words revealed a degree of vindictiveness and small-mindedness that was. . .worrisome.

She had not thought the man possessed of such an uncharitable disposition, but it appeared likely that, if Mr. Bennet was to die in the next few years, the heir to Longbourn would not treat his daughters with kindness or consideration. These thoughts plagued her throughout the evening and her abstraction was noticed by Lady Lucas who, when the men withdrew to her husband’s study for a glass of wine, spoke of her concerns to Charlotte.

“Charlotte! What are you about? If you have any intentions towards Mr. Collins, which I presumed was the object in inviting him to dine with us, your lack of attentiveness to him will serve you poorly.”

Charlotte made a brief answer to her mother, deflecting the matter without disclosing the content of her thoughts, for, during the evening’s conversation, her father had made a most interesting remark, although the appreciation of it was hers alone.

”I am astounded at Mrs. Bennet’s passing. She was but forty years of age and only a few years younger than Mr. Bennet. So young! I had not expected it.” Said Sir William.

So Mr. Bennet was not much older than five and forty! Charlotte looked at Mr. Collins carefully and then considered what she knew of Mr. Bennet as the seeds of a plan began to sprout. However, her situation with Mr. Collins posed a problem. If he were to offer for her, she would have no course but to accept and that was becoming increasingly distasteful. She could no long contemplate accepting an offer of marriage from him with any satisfaction. The possibilities inherent in Mr. Bennet’s situation were interesting, but even should her effort in that direction come to naught, she would not become Mrs. Collins. She would risk her parent’s disapprobation, if necessary, but it would be much better if she could dissuade the gentleman from making an offer in the first place.

Mr. Collins had not appeared to have noticed her abstraction and when the gentlemen rejoined the ladies in the drawing room, he immediately sought her company. Her parents had dismissed all of their other children and encouraged Charlotte and Mr. Collins to sit at one end of the room while they removed themselves sufficiently to allow the couple some privacy. Mr. Collins began speaking of Rosings Park and Lady Catherine’s patronage.

“She is most attentive to the needs of her tenants and calls upon them regularly. She visits the parsonage at least once a week to inspect the kitchens and. . .”

“Surely that will no longer be required when you are wed. It will be your wife’s role to determine the state of the kitchen, will it not?”

“No, No. That cannot be. Her consequence and condescension cannot be denied, Miss Lucas. She gives most excellent direction in all matters and it must be our pleasure to abide by her advice.”

“And if your wife’s thoughts were in opposition to Lady Catherine’s and perchance were correct, surely you would not expect your wife to comply?”

Mr. Collins was speechless at the concept that his patroness would offer incorrect advice. His head shook to express a denial that such could ever be the case, but Charlotte was not yet ready to concede.

“I understand from your comments, Mr. Collins, that Lady Catherine advised as to the proper placement of furniture in your home. I am prepared to concede that her advice is likely to be useful for an unmarried man not used to making such arrangements, but I have been quite accustomed to arranging and fitting out a room. This room, for instance, is the result of a joint effort by my mother and me. I assure you, Mr. Collins, that in my home I would expect to be mistress and, while I would respect Lady Catherine’s advice, I would not feel obligated to adhere to it. There can” and her voice took on an additional degree of firmness, “be but one mistress in any home.”

Mr. Collins was silent and that unusual situation persisted for almost a full minute. Charlotte was not sure how he had received her comments. Her hopes he would find them sufficiently objectionable as to cease his attentions were disappointed.

“Miss Lucas, I am sure that Lady Catherine would be most pleased to allow you to direct your own household.”

Charlotte was not convinced of the veracity of such a statement and, if she read Mr. Collins’ demeanour correctly, neither was he. It would appear that further evidence of her unsuitability would be required. She encouraged him to speak further of his duties as a parson.

Charlotte could see that her parents were, as unobtrusively as possible, attempting to ascertain the progress of Mr. Collins’ courtship. They had no reason to suppose that she, who had frequently expressed her poor opinion of marriage and men, would not be endeavouring to secure for herself Mr. Collins’ regard and his offer of marriage. It appeared to her that it was Mr. Collins that they attended and she suspected his recent discomposure had caused them both some concern. She could, ut of the corner of her eye, see them whispering together.

“What is Charlotte about?” whispered Lady Lucas to her husband. “Mr. Collins appears distressed.”

Sir William allowed this to be so but decided against joining the courting couple when Mr. Collins began once more to speak fulsomely and Charlotte was nodding respectfully as he spoke. If they had been privy to their daughter’s thoughts - that she was, in fact, congratulating herself on finding, from his discourse, the means by which Mr. Collins’ attentions could be dissuaded – they would have been horrified and astounded in equal parts. However, as they and Mr. Collins were in ignorance of her deliberations, the latter’s request to call upon Charlotte after breaking his fast the next morning that they might converse further, was greeted with pleasure and quickly accepted by Sir William.

It should not be thought that Sir William and Lady Lucas were unfeeling as to the distress being experienced at Longbourn. Mrs. Bennet had been their neighbour for many years and the families had always been close; however, Mrs. Bennet was dead, Mr. Collins was seeking a wife, they had an unmarried daughter and securing Mr. Collins for said daughter was a matter of the utmost importance. Mrs. Bennet could hardly complain about it in any event, although neither of the senior Lucases doubted that, were she alive, her complaints would have been severe and of some duration.

Charlotte rose from the dining table earlier than her usual wont the next morning, for she preferred to affect her plan beyond the range of her mother’s hearing. That lady, she knew, would understand full well what her daughter had done were she present and her disapproval could not be doubted. As the weather remained fine – a circumstance for which Charlotte gave thanks - it turned out her forethought proved warranted, for Mr. Collins was turning down the road leading to Lucas Lodge when she encountered him. It was a matter of a moment to attach herself to his arm and begin directing him to a path which circumvented Meryton.

Mr. Collins’ ability to sustain a conversation without noticeable intervention by his audience had not suffered any diminution overnight and Charlotte was content to allow him freedom to expound as much as he might wish while waiting for the opportunity she was sure would arise. It did.

“I must admit to some surprise, Mr. Collins” said she, “that you would submit your sermons for Lady Catherine’s approval. Do you incorporate her suggestions?”

“Without fail, Miss Lucas! For how could I not? My patroness is everything that is wise and knowledgeable, and is most concerned that the members of the Hunsford parish be instructed in a proper understanding of Holy Scriptures. It is not to be expected that those of such a lesser station in life could possibly ascribe to the correct comprehension on the subject. It is Lady Catherine’s duty, and therefore mine, to provide appropriate guidance and promote a proper understanding.”

“I see. Mr. Lawrence, Meryton’s vicar whom I believe you have met, does not submit his sermons to anyone for approval. I had thought a vicar was supposed to take direction from his Bishop and from such books of sermons as are prescribed by his superiors.”

“My dear Miss Lucas,” Mr. Collins said with condescension, “you must allow me, by virtue of my station as a reverend, to possess a fuller understanding of such matters.”

“I am only concerned, Mr. Collins, to obtain a greater appreciation of the work of a minister. As an example, Mr. Lawrence preached a sermon several months ago that took issue with the standard of morality all too frequently displayed by those amongst the first ranks of society. He was disinclined to afford them any particular privilege in respect of their behaviour, holding them to the same standard as a common man. He said, and I hope I have not quoted him incorrectly, that proper behaviour knows no rank, that a lord was no better, in the eyes of God, than a tradesman.”

Mr. Collins blanched and began to sputter, “How. . .I do not understand that a vicar could spout such. . .Lady Catherine would be aghast at such thoughts.”

“Really?” replied Charlotte, “I had thought it very much in keeping with the scriptures, for had not our Lord commented on the difficulty of the rich being welcomed into heaven?”

Mr. Collins had been reduced to silence and was regarding Charlotte with some concern.

“Surely, Miss Lucas, you do not subscribe to such beliefs?” He paused briefly before continuing, “You would, I am sure, be directed by your husband on such matters. It would not do for the wife of Lady Catherine’s vicar to espouse opinions with which her ladyship disagreed. She would be most seriously displeased I am certain. Her ladyship is much concerned that the distinctions of rank be observed, and that those of inferior station receive direction from their betters.”

“I am sure you are quite correct, Mr. Collins, but surely, as her ladyship is most concerned with the wellbeing of her charges in the parish, she would welcome a dissenting opinion as a means of improving her understanding of a subject?”

Mr. Collins was quite sure that her ladyship would in no way be pleased to be contradicted and made his opinion known.

“That is unfortunate, Mr. Collins. In one respect, Eliza Bennet and I are very similar in that we delight in debate and argument, and neither of us is reluctant to express our opinion.”

Mr. Collins, who had not been impressed by Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s impertinence, was becoming increasingly concerned that Miss Lucas was of a similar disposition, and was sure that such a woman would never meet with Lady Catherine’s approval. With what he considered a subtle interrogation, he endeavoured to determine what other opinions held by Miss Lucas might cause him concern in his role as Lady Catherine’s helpmeet. As Charlotte was eager to provide such information, by the time they had returned to Lucas Lodge, any thoughts that Mr. Collins entertained as to the suitability of Miss Charlotte Lucas as his prospective wife had been extinguished. He left her at Lucas Lodge with no intent of returning. The idea of departing immediately for Hunsford and escaping the confusion and stress at that existed at Longbourn soon possessed an urgency that Charlotte was most willing to encourage and, by the time he reached Longbourn, he had resolved to travel to Kent the very next day.

Charlotte, upon entering her home, was questioned by her mother who did not mask her surprise and displeasure that Mr. Collins had not indicated an intention to call again. When apprised that an invitation to luncheon had been proffered and declined, she was speechless for some moments before closely questioning her daughter as to her conversation with Mr. Collins that morning. As Charlotte could not disclose her true intentions, she was required to dissemble and gave her mother to understand that they may have miscalculated Mr. Collins’ intentions for, as she informed Lady Lucas, “Mr. Collins appeared greatly impressed by my opinions and thought that his patroness would be vastly entertained by them. I can only account for his reluctance to dine with us his by his claim that her ladyship greatly desired his return to Hunsford. I can also only suppose that Mrs. Bennet’s passing has made Longbourn an uncomfortable situation.”

Lady Lucas was far from satisfied with this account, for her daughter did not appear as discouraged by the loss of Mr. Collins’ attentions as she might have expected; however, as she could not see a means by which he could be questioned, the matter was allowed to drop. Nonetheless, she hoped to encounter the gentleman the next day, when she proposed to call on the Bennets to offer her condolences, in the hope of rekindling his interest and attentions to Charlotte. Unfortunately, by the time the Lucas family arrived at Longbourn, Mr. Collins was more than an hour on the road to Hunsford and, for the purposes of this story, disappears from our concern.

~~~~~~~~~

Life in the surroundings of Meryton progressed much as it had done for years. The presence of the _____shire Militia afforded the young ladies dwelling there a greater degree of attention than they could normally expect, as the young officers were much in want of society and the young ladies had much of it to offer. Excluded from their number, however, were five of the most attractive girls in the county for, due to the exigencies of mourning, the Bennet sisters could not partake of the usual entertainments. The Militia was to depart at about the same time as the first full mourning period was to end, and Kitty and Lydia, the two youngest Bennet sisters, felt the loss keenly. Elizabeth was heard to mutter frequently that she supposed her two youngest sisters were more grieved by the loss of the Militia’s company than that of their mother.

Kitty and Lydia who were, by nature, boisterous and unruly, had been made even more so following the attentions of the Militia officers. For her own part, Charlotte had observed that their behaviour before Mrs. Bennet’s passing had begun to infect that of her own younger sister, Maria. The enforced separation of Lydia and Kitty from the militia’s society had allowed Charlotte to bring her sister under better regulation and improve her behaviour and she could not regret the militia’s departure now that the Bennet family’s mourning period had ended.

It is not to be supposed that the Bennet sisters were entombed in Longbourn and excluded from all society. They visited their Aunt Philips in Meryton once weekly and she returned that visit with the same frequency. As well, close friends of the family would call and a few would even be invited to stay the evening and dine. Charlotte knew herself to be the most frequent visitor and, if her visits had an object in addition to enjoying the company of Jane and Elizabeth in particular, it was not one that could be vouchsafed to them.

Jane, Elizabeth’s older sister, assumed the mantle of Mistress of Longbourn and, while she performed the duties with all graciousness, it was clear that she worked more assiduously than necessary to hide a heart that had suffered from two blows. The first, the loss of her mother, she felt keenly, for Jane had long been her mother’s favourite and, if that lady had frequently caused her no small mortification due to her ill-breeding and impropriety of manner and talk, Mrs. Bennet had nonetheless been loved dearly by her eldest daughter.

However, the departure of the Netherfield party caused the greater heartache for Jane Bennet. It was perhaps fortunate that she was not out in society after that unhappy event, for the gossip that attended the departure of Charles Bingley would have mortified her exceedingly had she been privy to it. That gentleman, a recent tenant of Netherfield Park, had paid such attentions to Jane Bennet as to lead to a general expectation that he would offer for her and that they would be married before the end of the year. Instead, he left Hertfordshire without taking leave of any of his neighbours and such information as existed was to the effect that he would not return before spring, if at all. Charlotte had been in his company infrequently and never during such occasions had he paid her – or any other young lady excepting Jane - much attention. His loss, and that of the rest of his party, caused Charlotte to regret his absence only to the extent that it caused Jane to suffer. At Longbourn, the matter was moot, since the death of Mrs. Bennet would have precluded any courtship for six months.

With her own situation, Charlotte was increasingly content. She visited Longbourn at least three times a week and encountered the Bennet family at service on Sunday. As well, she had learned over the years the habits of the family. She knew that Elizabeth walked out frequently in the mornings - weather permitting; that Jane preferred to stroll within the small park surrounding Longbourn; and that Mr. Bennet would ride out every Wednesday morning to visit his tenants’ farms. As his route would invariably bring him in close proximity to Lucas Lodge, it was not particularly difficult to locate herself on that path in anticipation of meeting him. She would not encounter him every week but, when she did, she would smile, he would dismount to walk with her and, for perhaps a half hour, she would engage him in conversation. At first she was inclined to direct their discourse to matters of the estate and his tenants but, as their ease grew, other matters were canvassed. She did not claim to read as extensively as he, but she was prepared to expand her horizons and he was not unwilling to assist her by recommending and loaning books to forward that purpose.

When she called upon Elizabeth and Jane, Mr. Bennet was increasingly inclined to leave his bookroom and join their company. The interaction between them was not obvious to anyone and Charlotte was careful to direct no particular notice of him. As a consequence, his daughters were oblivious to Charlotte’s attentions to their father. In truth, none of them could conceive of his marrying again, or that Charlotte might have any intentions in that direction.

Thus the matter stood when, just over six months to the day that Mrs. Bennet died, Charlotte Lucas arrived at Longbourn. Her visit was not casual. All five sisters were visiting their aunt in Meryton. She had encountered them as they walked thither and declined to accompany them, citing another engagement.

She had been greeted at the door with some puzzlement by Mrs. Hill, for never before had she called when the Bennet sisters were from home. Her request to be taken to Mr. Bennet was accepted reluctantly and Charlotte could see that the housekeeper was concerned at such a breach of propriety. It had taken an assurance that the visit entailed a matter of some delicacy and urgency pertaining to the family that convinced Mrs. Hill to announce her to Mr. Bennet. He had been sitting in his favourite armchair, a cup of coffee resting on the table beside him and a book in his hand. He greeted her with some surprise.

“Miss Lucas, to what do I owe the pleasure?”

Charlotte waited until Mrs. Hill had closed the door behind her and gave him a brief curtsy. She suddenly found herself bereft of words. She had planned this moment for six months, had rehearsed her speech countless times, and spoken words of encouragement to herself all the way from Lucas Lodge to Longbourn. And now she was as witless as the veriest simpleton.

“Miss Lucas?” He repeated.

“Mr. Bennet.” Her mouth finally worked as it should.

“Yes?” Mr. Bennet was becoming increasing concerned and puzzled. A young woman, whom he had always regarded with considerable respect and viewed as an intelligent source of conversation, was acting in a most unaccountable manner.

“Mr. Bennet. . .”

“I think we can agree that is my name, Miss Lucas.” He replied quizzically.

“Indeed it is. Indeed! Before I begin, Mr. Bennet, I would like to extract your promise that what I have to say will remain a matter of confidence between us.”

Mr. Bennet looked astonished and concerned. “You wish for our talk to remain secret?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Why?”

“I think that will be obvious when I explain my purpose. Do I have your word, sir?”

Mr. Bennet considered her carefully. He had yet to invite her to sit and she was clearly becoming uncomfortable standing before him. Her presence in his bookroom, alone with only him, was a major breach of propriety and, if her father were to learn of it, he would insist upon their marriage. However, he could not suppose that she had intended to entrap him and, as only Hill knew of her visit, he was sure that her presence could remain hidden from her parents or anyone else. He waved her to a chair.

“Please be seated, Miss Lucas. You have my assurance that our discussion will remain between us. Now, perhaps you might enlighten me as to your purpose.”

Charlotte smiled wryly, “I have just repeated Montrose’s Toast to myself.”

His eyebrows rose, “And what is that you are risking, Miss Lucas?”

“Your good opinion, Mr. Bennet.”

His eyebrows rose even further. “I cannot imagine that you could do anything that would ruin my opinion of you, Miss Lucas. I believe that I rank you with my Lizzy and my sister Gardiner amongst the most sensible women of my acquaintance. So remove my confusion, if you will.”

“I wish to marry you, sir.”

A silence lasting some several minutes fell between them. Mr. Bennet’s astonishment at her declaration left him speechless and when he finally regained his power of speech, could only blurt out, “For God’s sake, why?”

Charlotte summoned her courage once more. It was, after all, a simple matter of complementary needs.

“I am in want of an establishment, a husband and family, while your estate has been endowed with an heir who, I am sure we both can agree, is one of the stupidest men in the country. I am young enough to provide an heir, perhaps several. Your company is one that I enjoy and I have reason to believe that mine is not distasteful to you. I am not pretty. I understand that, but I will be a good wife in all respects. I am capable of providing intelligent conversation, and I am quite competent to perform as Mistress of Longbourn.”

She had stated her case. The matter was no longer under her control. She must wait for his response.

Mr. Bennet, now that the shock of her statement had receded, was able to consider her and her proposition more carefully. He scrutinized her. She was, as she had admitted, a plain woman, but her body was well formed and, after a life with an attractive but silly woman, life with a plain but intelligent woman had great appeal. He had not thought about remarrying. Indeed, he had resigned himself to the fact that his wife’s child-bearing years were seemingly over – in truth, he had not visited her bed for several years before her passing, so little did he enjoy her company – and an heir could not arrive under such circumstances. Charlotte Lucas was certainly still of child-bearing age, not unattractive when she smiled and most agreeable company. He could even envision a comfortable existence with her after his children had departed for homes of their own. He had come to know her quite well over the past few months and, for a brief moment, wondered if that had been by her design. He pondered that matter briefly and concluded that it was, more likely than not, but, as the result was to his liking, he saw no purpose in questioning her method. He made his decision.

“Shall I speak to your father then?”

Her eyes lit up and her smile almost made her beautiful. She nodded vigorously.

“When shall we marry?”

She closed her eyes and gave the matter some thought.

“It is already Saturday so a little more than a fortnight will be sufficient to allow for the banns. As soon as may be, after that. I see no purpose in delaying the matter.”

“Will you not need time to acquire your wedding clothes?”

She smiled and shook her head, “I would not delay the wedding on that account. I may acquire what I need afterwards.”

“No frills? No lace?”

She laughed, “You have not noticed the marked absence of such on my gowns, I must assume.”

“I rarely notice such and enjoy discussions of the subject even less.”

“Your daughters. . .”

“Yes, this will be a surprise.”

“That, sir, will be classed as a major understatement.”

“Do you think it will affect your dealings with my daughters?”

Charlotte was pensive. Mr. Bennet was immediately struck by the difference between her response and that of his late wife who, he was sure, would have quickly been overset with flutterings, spasms and disjointed claims of being ill-used and misunderstood. Thoughtfulness was something to be treasured and respected, and he was considering the improvement in his life that could arise from their marriage when she finally replied to his question.

“Elizabeth and Jane and probably Mary will, I believe, be quite happy with the prospect once their amazement has subsided. I think Kitty will also deal with it well, although her response will, for a while at least, mirror Lydia’s. It is Lydia, I confess, who I expect will be a major concern.” She looked at him ruefully. “Lydia’s behaviour was quite reprehensible, you know, prior to Mrs. Bennet’s passing. She was in great danger of ruining the reputation of your other daughters.”

Mr. Bennet was about to deny that such could have happened but Charlotte remained firm.

“You must allow me my better understanding on this matter, Mr. Bennet. I was there. I observed her. It is only her removal from society due to the mourning period that has moderated her behaviour. From the little I have heard, she is extremely eager to rejoin society and I have no reason to believe her behaviour will have improved.”

Mr. Bennet was taken aback, “What would you have me do? Lock her up for the rest of her life?”

Charlotte smiled. That he would ask such a question indicated that he would most likely heed her advice.

“That will not be necessary; however, some controls, some limitations must be applied. Lydia will not accept them readily and I must have your support if we are to improve her behaviour. It can be done but it will not be an easy task.”

“Or a quiet one, I fear.”

“Probably not, although I suspect that should you decide to visit your brother in London for a week or two, by the time you return, the worst may have passed.”

Mr. Bennet shrugged, “As distasteful as it may be, I warrant my presence will make the task easier and. . .” He grinned with little mirth, “my bookroom has a solid door which is stout enough to bar a great deal of noise.”

They sat in silence for several minutes considering the decision they had reached.

“I shall accompany you home to speak to your father.”

“Shall I return with you to speak with your daughters?”

Mr. Bennet shook his head, “That will be my responsibility. I will spare you Lydia’s inanities. You will have more than you wish once we have wed.”

As Mr. Bennet was about to open the door, Charlotte stayed his hand.

“May I. . .ask that, when we speak to our families, the offer of marriage was made by yourself?”

Mr. Bennet nodded slowly, “And it was made yesterday when I encountered you on your walk, and we met today to discuss the arrangement. Thus, should word of your meeting with me in private become the object of gossip, it was a meeting of an engaged couple, both of whom are of age.”

Charlotte readily assented and to Lucas Lodge they went.

Sir William’s consent was sought and, once that good gentleman had recovered from his amazement and re-established control of his vocal chords, was readily given. Lady Lucas, upon learning that her eldest daughter was to become the new Mistress of Longbourn was speechless for nigh unto five minutes. Fortunately for Mr. Bennet, he had already departed to speak to Mr. Lawrence about the banns before returning to Longbourn to acquaint his daughters with the tidings of his marriage, and was spared her effusions of pleasure. A separation of six months had diminished Mr. Bennet’s appreciation of such follies and he was not eager to endure them again.

Charlotte suffered her mother's praises and her father's fulsome effusions of pleasure with equanimity. She had endured their disapprobation about her lack of marriage prospects for eight and twenty years and to suddenly be of some worth to them was something she could easily bear for a fortnight. Her mother’s only complaint was that she had so little time to arrange the wedding ceremony and wedding breakfast, but as it appeared that both bride and groom wished for an early date, she resolved to worry about the matter no more, and, as she considered the ages of the bride and groom, she became convinced that neither would benefit from an extended engagement. If she suspected that another reason – as was frequently the case - might exist for a hasty marriage, she kept her own counsel on the matter. To have her daughter as Mistress of Longbourn was a prize worth overlooking a small breach of propriety and, as the couple were to marry, the issue was of no importance. If their first child required only seven months to be born, well it would not be the first such occasion.

A note was received from Longbourn later that afternoon, inviting Charlotte and her parents to dine with the Bennets. Charlotte entered Longbourn with some trepidation, uncertain as to how she was to be greeted. Her fears were dismissed quickly when the four oldest sisters greeted her warmly. Elizabeth, in particular, was quick to signal her approval.

“I had always thought of you almost as a fifth sister, Charlotte. That you would one day be my mother never crossed my mind. I am pleased and very happy for you and my father.”

The sentiments of the other sisters, excluding Lydia, were equally welcoming. Lydia appeared to harbour some dislike of the idea and Charlotte could only suppose that she was aware that her behaviour was perceived with disapproval by her future step-mother and was concerned about how she would be treated. It showed, Charlotte thought, an unusual amount of perception by one whom she had always considered thoughtless, and boded well for effecting a change in those behaviours which were objectionable. For now, Charlotte was content to ignore Lydia’s cold behaviour on the supposition that the girl would not risk actions that would bring censure down upon her.

As there were no impediments to the marriage, it took place at the time scheduled and, accordingly, in mid-June of year twelve, Miss Charlotte Lucas signed that name for the last time, assumed the name of Charlotte Bennet which she would hold for nearly fifty years. She donned the mantle of Mistress of Longbourn until the day some thirty years in the future when, following the death of her husband, their son, John, became master of Longbourn and his wife, its mistress.

Charlotte bore two sons for Mr. Bennet and gifted him another daughter. All of her children were surprisingly handsome which, in conjunction with their intelligence and amiable natures, made them welcome company wherever they went. Mr. Bennet, when his son was born some ten months following his marriage – and quieting any rumours that might have circulated as to the reason for the short engagement – began to pay more attention to the workings of his estate. With his wife’s assistance in running a more economical household, and improvements to the income derived from the estate, he was eventually able to improve the prospects for all of his children. The Longbourn entail ended when John Bennet turned one and twenty and, as he had three sons of his own, the Bennet name was sure to continue into the future.

A few years after Charlotte Lucas wed Mr. Bennet, her second oldest stepdaughter and best friend, Elizabeth Darcy, turned to her and asked a question that had been amusing her for some time.

“Do you still hold to those principles you expressed some years ago? Do you believe a woman has as good a chance of happiness if she were to study the character of her husband for a day instead of a twelvemonth? Is happiness in marriage a matter of chance? Has your character or that of my father grown dissimilar after your marriage? Would you recommend to your own children that they should know as little as possible about their spouse before they marry?“

Elizabeth’s tone was light and teasing but Charlotte knew that a kernel of seriousness lay behind the question. She could not confess her machinations to engage Mr. Bennet’s interest. She felt no guilt for her actions for, in the end, he had gained much from those efforts. As had she. Her marriage had afforded her more pleasure than she had anticipated – in the marriage bed and elsewhere. She had always liked Mr. Bennet. Living with him had increased her esteem and respect for him; however, this was knowledge that could not be shared without risking harm to her relationship with Elizabeth and her sisters. She contented herself with a partial answer.

“I do not apologize for those words. They were a truth as I knew it then. I will confess that following Mrs. Bennet’s passing, circumstances allowed me a greater appreciation of your father’s character so that when he offered, I was quite prepared to accept him knowing my chances for a felicitous marriage were quite good.”

Elizabeth was content with this answer and the matter was never raised between them again. As Charlotte encouraged her children to enter marriages where there existed a strong respect and esteem for their partner, Elizabeth could only suppose that Charlotte’s own happy circumstances were the basis for a moderation in her views on the subject of marriage. That her father had been happy and content with Charlotte as his wife, she had no doubts. He could never be considered a convivial man, nor a particularly sociable one, but he no longer spent most of his time in his bookroom and the pleasure and satisfaction he received in teaching his sons how to manage Longbourn was obvious to anyone with eyes to see.

And so our story ends.

Oh, you wish to learn of the fates of the Bennet sisters? That is a simple tale and simply told. Elizabeth travelled with the Gardiners to Derbyshire, encountered Fitzwilliam Darcy while touring his estate and the attraction between them grew during the week that she was in the area. He soon followed her back to Hertfordshire, courted her assiduously for several months and early in the year thirteen stood with her to be wed before the altar of the Longbourn chapel. Their courtship had not been an easy process. There were misunderstandings and faults on both sides to be corrected – one of which was the slander of Mr. Darcy’s character by Mr. Wickham; but, where there was attraction, intelligence and a willingness to compromise and forgive, a strong attachment could develop and be nurtured. No one who saw them at their wedding could believe them to be other than very much in love. The calming presence and propriety of Charlotte Bennet during the courtship period, allayed many of the fears that had hindered Darcy’s attachment to Elizabeth and, if her fortune remained modest, the propriety of her connections was no longer an objection.

Standing with Darcy and Elizabeth at the altar were Charles Bingley and Jane Bennet - for Bingley had been one of the party visiting Pemberley, Darcy’s estate, when Elizabeth was there. His attachment to Jane had not diminished over the months of their separation, and subtle suggestions by Elizabeth gave him to believe that her affections, which his friend and sisters had claimed to be absent, were very much otherwise. The re-opening of Netherfield Park was quickly accomplished and his courtship of Jane Bennet was equally expeditious. While Bingley was of a mind to propose to Miss Bennet shortly after his arrival, Mr. Bennet was of a different opinion. Cognizant perhaps of his past laxity in dealing with suitors for his daughters, and concerned about the strength and constancy of Bingley’s attachment to Jane, he required them to court for several months before agreeing to their engagement and marriage. The Bingleys lived in Hertfordshire for over a year until, despite a considerable rapport with the Bennet family, the presence of an estate being offered for sale within a reasonable distance of Pemberley, drew them northwards. The pain they felt on leaving Hertfordshire was however, more than offset by the pleasure derived from the company of the Darcys.

Mary remained at Longbourn until she was six and twenty when Mr. Lawrence, whose wife had died some years previously leaving him with two young children, found himself in want of a wife and mother for those children. Mary’s modest dowry and character recommended her to him. As she had no objection to the match, they were quickly wed and, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, lived together contentedly for many years.

Kitty benefited greatly from the guidance of Charlotte, until the arrival of young Master Bennet when Charlotte could no longer attend Kitty to the same extent. Kitty’s two eldest sisters undertook to continue to enhance her character such that the insipidness and want of resolution that had been so manifest in her was quite eliminated. Such was her improvement that she drew the notice of a gentleman with a modest estate in Derbyshire, and thus, five years after the death of the first Mrs. Bennet, three of her daughters had settled in the north. Their presence there drew Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and their children, to visit them with great frequency.

What of Lydia you ask? Well, it was perhaps too much to expect that her reformation would be either easy or complete. Charlotte, through much perseverance, was able to moderate the worst excesses of her behaviour. It eventually seeped into Lydia’s consciousness that actions which were deemed appropriate only for a child would be treated accordingly – banishment to the nursery would remove her from society – and that should she wish to partake of entertainments and company, moderation of that behaviour was a necessity. By the time she reached the age of eighteen, it was considered safe to allow her into society. A season in London was arranged under the direction of the Darcys and, as she was extremely beautiful and quite lively, she drew a number of eligible suitors. Her preference for a man in uniform had not disappeared and she eventually accepted the hand of a Colonel in the Foot Guards who had retired upon inheriting a modest estate in Devon. Their income was not sufficient to allow them to reside in London but, as the Bingleys and the Darcys were inclined to visit that city for a month or two every year, Lydia and her husband were made welcome on such occasions to join in the entertainments being pursued.

As to the fate of Mr. Collins, there is little to be said. Upon the birth of his son and heir Mr. Bennet, as was proper for him to do in his role as Master of Longbourn, wrote to inform Mr. Collins of the change in his status. A letter expressing his sense of being ill-used by both Charlotte and Mr. Bennet was received in reply. Mr. Collins saw fit to question the appropriateness of Mr. Bennet’s marriage - his patroness’ opinion that it was most improper for him to have remarried as she herself had remained a widow following her husband's passing - and even going so far as to cast doubt on the validity of the birth of their son. As the letter contained nothing of interest or sense, it was consigned by Mr. Bennet to the nearest fireplace and he saw no need to supply a response. Moreover, as no one was interested in canvassing Mr. Collins’ circumstances, the only information to be gleaned was by the Darcys who visited Lady Catherine every year. From them it was learned that he had married a young woman from Hunsford and performed as the vicar for the parish until Lady Catherine’s passing. As her daughter had predeceased her, Rosings Park had been inherited by a distant relation in the de Bourgh line and that gentleman had apparently not viewed Mr. Collins with any particular favour. As the Darcys had no further reason to visit Rosings Park, the fate of Mr. Collins became a matter of such disinterest that no one thought to inquire about him further. It can only be supposed he remained vicar of the Hunsford parish until no longer capable of fulfilling his duties.

The End.