Wholly Unconnected to Me
Dr. Bennet, Lady Catherine's personal physician, has brought his family to live in the shadow of Rosings part to benefit from the attentions of his patroness. Headstrong Elizabeth seems to thwart the great lady at every turn, but for the sake of Anne, Elizabeth is forgiven-until she refuses to turn her back on Mr. Darcy.Act 1
Mama swept into Elizabeth's room, feathers fluttering and taffeta rustling a whispered warning.
At her dressing table, flanked by faithful Betsy, Elizabeth steeled herself for the spine chilling voice that would follow.
"Betsy, go attend Jane."
The young maid dropped a cowering curtsey and disappeared.
"Jane is in much greater need of Betsy's attentions." Mama swished in. "I will finish your hair. I do not think I like what she has done with it though. I will adjust it. You do not object, do you? "
Mama's skirts brushed against the dressing bench. Elizabeth willed herself silent and stared at Mama's reflection in the looking glass. The set of her mouth, the glint in her eye, all warned that there could be no right answer to that question, only varying degrees of wrong ones.
Mama picked at her curls and wound one into place, securing it a mite too forcefully with a sharp hair pin. Why did she have to be so rough? Elizabeth's own mother—she swallowed a familiar lump in her throat—had been so gentle. How was it Papa chose such a completely opposite woman to be his new wife?
"I do say, Lizzy—"
A chill ran down Elizabeth's neck. That nickname had the sound of derision when it fell from Mama's lips. From Mother, it had always been so sweet.
"You are looking very well tonight. Very well indeed. You will never be handsome as Jane, of course, but tonight you might even be considered pretty."
"Thank you, Mama."
"Stand up and let me see." She pulled Elizabeth up by the elbow. "Turn about." She folded her arms over her chest. "I am surprised at what you could do with my old gown."
Mama flicked at the tiny tassels hanging off the Vandyke sleeve trim. "I know all these bits and bobs were not part of my gown."
"No, they were not. I bought very little, though. Most of it came from the excess from Jane's gown, or the trim from my older ones."
Mama leaned close and peered at the lace on the neckline, her breath hot on Elizabeth's skin. "I do not recall any of our gowns having these." She tugged one of the pale green tassels.
"Mrs. Jenkins showed me how to make them, at Lady Catherine's request. I added them out of respect to Her Ladyship. I thought it would please her." It would not do to note she liked them, too.
Mama harrumphed. "I will grant your intentions were appropriate. But—"
"I wonder if perhaps it is not just a bit too much."
Elizabeth balled her fists, focusing on the sharp stab of her nails in her palms.
"Lady Catherine is hosting this dinner to introduce your sister to a prospective match. Jane is to be the center of attention tonight."
"How do you think it will appear—" Mama circled her, "you showing up in a gown so fine? You have done so much with it, it looks quite new. You do not wish to direct attention away from Jane, do you?"
"Not at all, Mama. Jane is so lovely in her new dress no one will pay notice of me in this reworked frock." She forced a smile. "I only wanted a gown suitable to the occasion and pleasing to Lady Catherine so that I would not be an embarrassment to any of you." She blinked sweetly through the burning bitterness of words. Though this was the answer Mama sought, it cost her dearly to voice it.
"Then you will not complain about changing it?"
Of course! She knew this was coming. Why should she have expected anything else? "Not at all, Mama."
"I should think that blue gown you wore last week quite appropriate. It is modest and demure—"
"Mrs. Bennet! Lady Catherine's carriage approaches." Papa called from downstairs. He used his commanding, not to be argued with, air that always made Mama even more irritable. What joy was hers.
"We are coming, Dr. Bennet."
Elizabeth's stomach clenched at the saccharine taste of her stepmother's tone. How did he tolerate it?
"We cannot keep your father waiting." Mama strode to the press and pulled a lace fichu from the drawer. "You do not have time to change. Put this on and be downstairs quickly." She threw the lace at Elizabeth and stalked to the door. She looked over her shoulder. "I can count on you to help me make everything about Jane tonight?"
"Yes, Mama." At least that sentiment was entirely honest.
The door clicked shut. Elizabeth stood before the mirror and arranged the fichu. It looked quite lovely with her gown. Mama would be very displeased.
Elizabeth settled into the soft velvet of Lady Catherine's oldest coach. How many did she have? There was this one, the barouche box, the chaise, the landau, oh yes, and Miss de Bourgh's little phaeton. No wonder she could afford to keep her father on retainer as her personal physician.
The upholstery reeked of Lady Catherine's perfume—stale roses and something else that combined into a most fitting stink, one that always brought to mind the great lady. Elizabeth glanced at Mama. She was deep in a lecture to Jane about how best to comport herself to please the lady and her gentlemen guests. If there was anyone in the world who did not need such a lecture, it was Jane. She was just like Mother. She even looked a great deal like her. Mama fawned over her for it and Papa did nothing to discourage it. If anything, he seemed to approve. How did Jane bear it with such a quiet grace? Elizabeth certainly would never be able to do so.
Papa pointed through the side glass with his chin.
"Is that the Collinses in Lady Catherine's chaise?" Elizabeth asked.
"I do believe it is." Papa thumbed his lapels.
"I will be most glad to see Charlotte."
"Charlotte?" Mama leaned toward Elizabeth. "Do you not find that most unbecoming familiarity?"
"If it makes you uneasy, Mama, I will not address her so in public."
"See that you do not. I would much prefer it if you did not exchange such intimacies with her at all." Mama folded her hands in her lap.
"I do not see what is wrong with Lizzy having a particular friend." Papa said.
Mama cocked her head and gave him that particular look.
Elizabeth squeezed her eyes shut and suppressed the urge to plug her ears with her fingers.
"You do not see what is wrong? That woman is an interloper. She should not even be here!"
"She is my cousin's wife."
"A place she does not deserve to have. By all rights, Lizzy should have been mistress of the parsonage by now." Mama planted her hands on her hips, her elbow jabbing Papa in the chest.
"Collins did us enough of a favor when he recommended me to Lady Catherine. We can hardly require him to marry one of our girls as well."
"Whom else should he have married? Lady Catherine herself presented Lizzy as a suitable match for him. He should not have gone against her will, had Lizzy behaved as she ought."
"As I recall, it was Jane he was most interested in." Papa cast his gaze to the ceiling and pinched the bridge of his nose.
This same conversation had been repeated yesterday when the invitation from Rosings had come. Elizabeth had been able to duck out of the room then, but no such except was possible now.
"Of course he was most interested in Jane. That is to be expected."
"Mama, please stop." Jane looked at her feet and shifted deeper into the cushions.
Mama patted her knees. "What man would not be attracted? But that is exactly why Lady Catherine deemed she must marry higher than a vicar. He was quite good enough for Lizzy."
"And yet he still chose elsewhere. What does that tell you, Mrs. Bennet?"
"That Lizzy should be more attentive…"
Ah yes, that familiar tirade that Mama resorted to so often these days. Not a day had gone by since Mr. Collins's marriage that she had not heard it, usually followed by the lamentations of how much it cost to keep an unmarried daughter—who should be married—in the house.
Jane slipped her hand into Elizabeth's and squeezed.
Dear Jane, ever her stalwart support. Perhaps if Lady Catherine's choice for Jane was by some miracle suitable, she might move in with them after they married. Happy thought indeed.
"…your failure to secure Mr. Collins is costing your sisters dearly. Mary will not be able to have a new gown and my poor dears Kitty and Lydia…"
But Mary did not need a new gown to catch a beau. She alone of them already had the eye of a reliable young man neither too high nor too low for her station. And her stepsisters—Elizabeth pressed her lips together tightly. If Mama caught her smiling, an ugly scene would ensue, but still it was difficult.
"We are nearly there!" Mama lurched across the coach and squeezed in beside Jane, smashing Elizabeth into the side of the coach. She pinched Jane's cheeks hard enough to make her wince and tucked in stray hairs that Elizabeth could not see. "Sit up straight Jane. No man will look at a slouch. Remember, you are the guest of honor tonight. Lady Catherine has selected these gentlemen specifically with you in mind."
"I hardly think that the case, Mrs. Bennet. As I understand, her nephews are visiting and brought with them several friends."
"Perhaps, perhaps," she tugged Jane's bodice a bit lower, almost too low. "But that does not change the fact she noted Jane as suitable company for these young men of quality. So, do not squander this opportunity my dear. Since we are no longer in London, we cannot afford to waste—"
The driver opened the door and the step dropped in a loud clank. Elizabeth hung back to be the last one out of the coach. It was going to be a long night and there was no sense in starting it a moment sooner than necessary.
Lady Catherine must have chosen the tallest man in all of England for her butler. He towered head and shoulders and perhaps another head again above Elizabeth. His deep gravel voice and somber expression might have intimidated her, but he offered her a quick wink before he led them inside.
Many candles lit the over-decorated foyer, glinting off mirrors and crystal. Their scent bespoke beeswax, an extravagance reserved for Rosings. Lady Catherine did not permit Mama or Mrs. Collins anything but tallow candles. Much more appropriate for a small income she said.
"I will choose my own candles without…"
"What is that Lizzy?" Papa turned over his shoulder and raised his eyebrows.
"Nothing, Papa, I was merely noting the many lovely candles." Her cheeks burned. Papa always knew when she was lying.
"Stop muttering." Mama did not bother to even look at her.
Papa gazed up to the ornate ceiling moldings and shook his head.
The butler ushered them into the parlor. More like her throne room—the overstuffed palatial chamber in which she held court, dispensing her opinions upon anyone she could lure or trap within.
Odd, only Charlotte and Mr. Collins tended her.
"The Bennets, madam." The butler bowed and left, giving Elizabeth one last twitch of an eyebrow as he passed.
Appropriate bows, curtsies and greetings were exchanged.
"You were very nearly late tonight, Dr. Bennet." Lady Catherine pulled herself a little straighter in her imposing gilt chair and tapped her foot loudly. Good thing she did not have a scepter in her hand or she might have struck him with it. "The Collinses preceded you by a full ten minutes at least."
"We are most sorry, your ladyship." Mama dipped her head. "But we do have two young ladies—"
"I expect you to be the first to arrive, Doctor. Anne is in need of your advice as to which of her tonics she should have before dinner and which after. She should have had that advice earlier, so she could have been with us by now."
"Of course, your ladyship. This will not happen again. I will attend to her now." Papa bowed deeply.
"See that you do. Go on then." She waved him away. "Sit down. I will not have you standing there so stupidly." She pointed at a small settee.
Mama and Jane sat down. Elizabeth looked at the remaining space. No, she could not fit there, not even Miss de Bourgh might. She hurried across the room and sat beside Charlotte.
Lady Catherine fixed a dark glare upon her. Goodness, what did the woman expect? For her to sit upon Jane's lap? Or perhaps perch upon the arm of the settee like some sort of royal pet—a hawk perhaps? Would it have been better to ignore her command all together and stand? Mama mirrored Lady Catherine's expression. Another recitation of 'How dare you vex your father's patron' was sure to be repeated on the way home tonight.
"You look very well tonight, Lizzy." Charlotte whispered.
"Thank you, Mrs. Collins." Elizabeth quickly glanced at Mama.
Charlotte nodded. The corner of her mouth twitched downward just the slightest bit.
Lady Catherine cleared her throat and flipped a wrinkle out of her skirt. "So, as I was saying…"
All eyes turned to her.
"Yes, as I was saying, my nephew and a party of his friends arrived just yesterday and are in need of the company of younger people for amusement in the evenings. I shall expect you to attend us often whilst they visit."
"Certainly, your ladyship. I can think of nothing better for my girls—"
"You know my wife and I are always here to serve you in any way possible." Mr. Collins managed to bow despite the fact he was still seated. How was that possible?
"All of you ladies may certainly benefit from well-bred company."' Lady Catherine glanced at Elizabeth. "But, except for my niece who had just come out, the ladies of the party are merely tradesmen's daughters seeking to better themselves. Though their wealth gives them some standing, no one with so new a fortune can be considered too highly in society."
"No, your ladyship." Mr. Collins nodded so hard his head might have fallen off had his cravat not been tied so securely.
"After all, a family name and connections are no small thing in the world."
"And a connection to Rosings Park is a most valued one indeed." Mama's words tumbled out almost on top of hers, earning Mama a raised eyebrow.
"Although they have been educated in the best girls' seminary their parents could afford," she sniffed at the word. "We must prepare ourselves for vulgarity of manner and coarseness of opinion. I expect their conversation will be unpolished and their accomplishments of little note."
"Those are not unredeemable faults, though." Elizabeth said.
Mama's face crumpled into a wrinkled mass.
"That is to say, your ladyship, that fine company and an example such as your and Miss de Bourgh might be the very tonic to cure their malady."
Charlotte's lips twitched. Dear friend that she was, she would not dare laugh and disabuse Mama or Lady Catherine of her sincerity.
"Astute of you to notice, Miss Elizabeth, quite astute. That is precisely why I have permitted them to come. I take the responsibility of rank quite seriously and feel it my duty to offer betterment to those who are willing to seek it, no matter the inconvenience to me."
"Indeed you are all that is gracious and kind." Mr. Collins said.
"My girls have blossomed under your tutelage, my lady."
"As has Mrs. Collins."
Charlotte twitched and turned the same deep red as the settee. Perhaps she might blend in and avoid further notice.
"Of course they have. Of course." She nodded.
The great plume on her turban bobbed and amplified each movement into something very grand indeed. Perhaps a tiara would have been more fitting for an audience in her throne room.
"How could anyone fail to bloom in the shadow of Rosings? You may take comfort in that dear Anne has suffered no harm from their presence…"
Elizabeth balled her fists and pushed them deep into the settee. Miss de Bourgh suffer harm from them? The very thought of it! With her highhanded remarks about everyone and everything and her ill-informed opinions, her guests were the ones in danger of being ruined by that scrawny, spoiled, freckled—
"What say you, Miss Elizabeth?" Lady Catherine asked.
"Excuse me, your Ladyship?"
"Were you not paying attention? How many times have I—"
"Forgive me. When you mentioned Miss de Bourgh, I could not help but be reminded of her very great virtues. I fear I was lost in my considerations of how I might learn even more from my acquaintance with her and what I might possibly be able to offer as a service to her." Forcing a smile to follow that speech was almost too much for her. But somehow she managed to do it. Perhaps the most blatantly insincere expression she had ever crafted, but a necessary piece of armor in this battle field.
Lady Catherine stared at her through narrowed eyes. Mama's gaze focused on Lady Catherine. No one breathed, though the loudly ticking clock reminded them that perhaps they should.
"Of course you were—and who could blame you your distraction when such a person was suggested to you." Her words were slow and measured though her eyes remained narrow.
"Elizabeth is such a good girl, a gracious and humble recipient of all Miss de Bourgh has to offer." Mama agreed through gritted teeth.
That would likely cost her yet another lecture tonight, yet she might be surprised. Mama might approve of such open flattery. It could be difficult to predict exactly how Mama would respond.
"We hired the new maid you recommended." Charlotte pressed her shoulder to Elizabeth's.
"Of course you did. Why would you do otherwise?"
"What my dear wife means to say," Mr. Collins leaned forward and slightly in front of Charlotte, "is that we are humbly grateful for your advice in the matter. She is everything you promised and a boon to our household already." He snuck a quick glare over his shoulder at Charlotte and Elizabeth.
Odious man! How could Mama have ever expected Elizabeth to marry him? Poor, poor Charlotte now forced to endure him the rest of her life.
Lady Catherine rose to her feet. Everyone else followed suit. She took several steps toward the doorway. "Ahh, Anne, you have been sorely missed tonight."
Miss de Bourgh stopped two steps into the room as she always did. No doubt to give them a moment to bask in her majestic presence.
Elizabeth forced that smile back into submission. Anything less would surely be considered impertinent.
Miss de Bourgh's dress made her appear twice as large as she was. A girl of four and twenty, she appeared no more than four and ten by stature and figure alone. Sallow complexion and straw like hair failed to compliment the rich coral silk of her poufed sleeves. The full skirt and train only weighed her down and made any movement a great effort. No wonder she was late. It was a great wonder she made it downstairs at all.
She leaned on the arm of a tall, well-built young man who bore an ever so slight resemblance to her and her mother. Behind them, another young man, with a much taller, fine looking young lady on his arm, waited to be admitted into the room. Shadows shifted and shuffled, bespeaking more persons waiting in the hall behind them.
"Please take our place, Miss de Bourgh." Mr. Collins bowed and gestured toward the settee.
Miss de Bourgh nodded and approached them with steps so small and slow she might never reach her destination. Two more ladies and three gentlemen filed in as there was room. Papa closed the procession and rushed to stand near Miss de Bourgh. He helped her sit, offering her additional pillows and blankets until she waved him off with a flick of her frail hand.
The rest of the party stared at the room, their shoes and one another.
Lady Catherine cleared her throat and all eyes fixed on her.
"Are you going to introduce us, Aunt, or shall we all just stare dumbly at one another?" Miss de Burgh's escort asked.
Though he stood ramrod straight, a glint of mischief lit his eyes.
"Nephew." She glared at him with a look that would wither most plants and all but the most stalwart of people. "Col. Fitzwilliam, Mr. Darcy, Miss Darcy, may I present my vicar, Mr. Collins, Mrs. Collins, my physician, Dr. Bennet, Mrs. Bennet, Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth Bennet."
Elizabeth curtsied. What of the four who stood behind them?
Lady Catherine looked at the Collinses and Bennets. "May I present my nephew's friends, Mr. and Mrs. Hurst, Mr. Bingley, Miss Bingley and Mr. Wickham."
How kind of her to make the distinction of rank all too clear.
Mr. Darcy and Col. Fitzwilliam rearranged the room so all could sit in the great lady's presence. The Hursts seemed all too pleased to be near her, Miss Bingley, too, though slightly more dignified about it. Mr. Wickham and Mr. Bingley took seats next to Jane. At least Mama did not cackle aloud with glee.
Clearly the Darcys and the colonel had been in this chamber before. They sat as far from her as possible.
Elizabeth waited until everyone else was seated before taking the one remaining place, between Charlotte and Col. Fitzwilliam. Mama could not fault her for taking precedence she did not deserve.
Mr. Collins leaned toward the Darcys. If he did not attend his posture, he might soon topple out of his chair. "I understand your party arrived—"
"Just yesterday," Lady Catherine said. "They traveled in three coaches with drivers and six outriders."
"We could have driven ourselves, but that drives her mad." Colonel Fitzwilliam whispered, his lips barely moving. "I was sorely tempted."
Elizabeth blinked rapidly and stole a sidelong look at the perfectly postured officer.
"And had you a pleasant journey?" Mama asked.
"It was—" Mr. Darcy said.
"Tolerable. Travel is at best tolerable. A necessary evil, I always say. It is much more pleasant for one to receive company than to be received. Do you not agree nephew?" She asked, though her expression made it clear no response was actually expected.
"Said the spider to the fly."
What an uncanny trick that was, the ability to speak without moving ones lips. She might have to petition the Colonel to teach it to her. Elizabeth swallowed her laugher into a deep cough.
"Are you unwell, Miss Elizabeth?" Lady Catherine stared, her voice sharp as a surgeon's knife.
"Certainly not!" Mama snapped. "We would never allow anyone with signs of illness to come—"
"No, no, your Ladyship, merely caught by the unique wisdom and insight of your words."
"Oh," She settled back into her seat. "As you should be."
Col. Fitzwilliam coughed.
Charlotte stepped on Elizabeth's toes and flicked her head toward Papa.
He stood near Miss de Bourgh, frowning. He caught her gaze and shook his head just enough for her to notice.
She dropped her eyes and studied her hands. Mama's ire she could stand. Papa's she could not. What did he expect when everything about this situation was so entirely ridiculous?
Talk, mostly Lady Catherine's, swirled about her. How long had they traveled? They had come from London. The weather had been fair and the roads fine. She made pronouncements on the best inns and the evils of travel by post. Elizabeth kept her head down, nodding occasionally.
The housekeeper appeared in the doorway.
"Dinner is served." Lady Catherine rose.
Papa and Mr. Collins appeared on either side of her, offering their arms in escort. She strode past them and took Mr. Darcy's arm. His mask was too good. Elizabeth could not tell him pleased or aggrieved. He was a well-looking man though, a very well-looking man.
Papa escorted Anne. Elizabeth lingered until all the escorts had taken their choice of lady and walked with Miss Bingley into the dining room.
"It is rather shocking when the ladies outnumber the gentlemen." Miss Bingley murmured.
"I am one of five sisters." Elizabeth kept her eyes firmly ahead of her. "I find it a most common occurrence."
"You have no brothers? How shocking. One would think, if anyone could get sons, it would be a doctor."
"One might, but clearly he could not. Even more shocking, he had the poor judgment to be born the second son of a country gentleman and so has had to shift for himself with a career to provide his fortune."
Miss Bingley drew a breath, but paused, mouth open, her brows drawn together in an odd little crease. The poor woman had not the sense to discern the absurdity she had just been told.
Elizabeth halted a step and ushered Miss Bingley into the dining room first. The poor dear might not be able to tolerate being the last one into the dining room.