Chapter 1

The view from Charlotte Collins' parlour window calmed her mind and settled her spirits. The gently sloping lawn, which dropped pleasingly towards the laurel hedge, was framed by well-tended borders whose regimented rows of flowers were a testament to the diligent efforts expended upon them by their keeper. The diligent efforts which had formerly been expended upon them, Charlotte corrected herself. The flowers, and the lawns, and the laurel hedges would soon have a new master, and doubtless there would be alterations according to his tastes and indulgences.

That thought did sadden Charlotte. Although she could not say that she had loved life in Hunsford parsonage, perhaps the garden had been its most redeeming feature. She had spent little time in it, but had spent many hours admiring it, and being thankful for the occupation which it provided her husband. Her late husband, Charlotte amended again. For Mr Collins would no more walk the lawns, trim the hedges, or gather the prize blooms.

The funeral service had concluded some time earlier, although Charlotte herself had not attended. She had seen the empty hearse pass the house as it returned from the churchyard some minutes ago, but had yet to move from her stance at the window. She was reluctant to turn away and face the myriad duties which remained before her. However, her practical nature soon began to reassert itself and she began to list in her mind the tasks in order of magnitude and importance.

There were bills to be paid: notably for the bell ringing and the burial, in addition to the everyday expenses that had always been her domain. Then there were letters to write and interviews to arrange, not least the summons to attend upon her husband's patroness, Lady Catherine De Bourgh, at Rosings "at her earliest convenience." It seemed that the convention of a widow secluding herself from society need not apply if the alternative would inconvenience Lady Catherine. Charlotte had been summoned and Charlotte would attend.

Despite these pressing concerns, the first priority for her own peace of mind would be to undress the room in which, until an hour beforehand, Mr Collins' mortal remains had been lying. Originally Lady Catherine had encouraged her to have Mr Collins laid out in the parlour, but Charlotte had quietly rebelled and had had the coffin arranged in her husband's study.

"I was almost at the point of adopting exactly that arrangement, Lady Catherine," Charlotte had explained, most respectfully, "until I suddenly considered that the study is the only room in the house which offers a glimpse across the park to Rosings."

Lady Catherine had seemed momentarily disconcerted by this idea, and Charlotte had pressed home her advantage,

"You will, of course, appreciate the delicacy with which I say this to you, Lady Catherine, but the esteem in which my husband held you convinces me that Mr Collins would wish to spend his final moments in this house with his face turned towards the source of his, and indeed our, blessings and good fortune."

Charlotte had at first been concerned that the level of obsequiousness might have been excessive even for Lady Catherine's tastes, but true to form the latter had accepted the words without looking beyond them for any contrary motives or meanings.

Having always been possessed of a quick mind, Charlotte had learned early upon entering into her marriage that quiet subservience and a tendency to occasional periods of selective deafness were invaluable strategies in her dealings both with her husband and with his noble patroness. On this occasion her small victory had meant that her own sanctuary, the parlour room which had been almost solely her domain, would remain unchanged by the events which were altering all else in her world. The study, however, was now in need of attention.

The walls and ceiling had been draped in black and the curtains had been drawn, as had those across all the house, until Charlotte had dared to break another rule and open the rear parlour drapes in search of daylight. The coffin was, of course, no longer present, but the table upon which it had rested was still standing in the centre of the room, while the usual furniture had been pushed to the walls. With some little effort, Charlotte was able to pull most of the black coverings from the walls. The removal of the ceiling covers and the repositioning of the furniture would have to await the return of her father and brothers from the church, as her current interesting condition made any exertion ill-advised and uncomfortable.

After the loss of her first baby before it had even drawn breath ("quite common, my dear, and certainly regretful, but not unexpected," as Mr Collins had termed it), Charlotte was determined that this child would be cossetted and protected and that no harm would befall it. Thus the study remained by necessity largely a room of mourning, however, the minor alteration to the d├ęcor at least removed the worst of the gloom from the apartment, and allowed her access to the shelves which lined the walls. Running her finger along a dustless row of volumes, she selected a worthy religious tome and returned to the parlour to redraw the curtains and await her family's return in the fashion of a conventional widow.

None would know that her heart sang rather than sank at the thoughts of what her future would now hold.