Mary and Kitty: A Tale of Two Sisters
"The door knocker is off its nail," the driver informed Mr. Bennet as he opened the coach door for him.
Mr. Bennet did not at once answer her, instead asking the servant to knock at the kitchen door to see if any of the staff could be raised. He had not written the Gardiners, there being no time for a letter to reach them, and the degree of familiarity between the families such that it was hardly necessary-- but for occasions such as this.
On the driver's return from his errand, he brought with him a servant who stood on the walk now, peering into the carriage.
"Well, my girl," said Mr. Bennet, "where are your master and mistress?"
"Gone t' the sea shore. Won't be back till tomorrow sometime."
"And you are the only one here?"
"Aye," she returned, her lower lip trembling. "The rest went off for the holiday. Or else had leave."
"Well," what's to be done?" Mr. Bennet said, half to himself.
"Oh, do come in," the maid cried. "It's dreadful lonesome here by myself and I do hear sounds in the night. And I could cook you some supper for I have watched how it's done. There's a pig's cheek--"
"I think not," Mr. Bennet interrupted. That must go on was a certainty. They might, he thought, make Eastbourne by nightfall if they drove straight through. Still, he did not like to arrive at the Wickham lodgings unannounced. What unseemly gathering they might interrupt, however, was not to be imagined. He might be equal to confronting almost any scene; he guessed, however, that this most unworldly of his daughters would not.
"Mary," said he, "this turn of events need not be a disaster. Let us find an inn and then we shall pass the afternoon in seeing some sights of the city."
Mary could but nod. The realization that her aunt and uncle were away, combined with the dreaded notion of staying at an inn whose bedding might be suspect had momentarily undone her.
"There is a place I know near the Westminster Bridge, so we may set off on the Brighton Road tomorrow morning. What do you say to a tour of Westminster Abbey, Mary?"
Westminster Abbey! Before when she had visited London with her mother their days had been full of shopping and bearing with her younger sisters' silliness. She had never yet had the opportunity to see any of the sights of which she had read in the histories.
"Oh, Papa! I should like it of all things!"
This decided, Mr. Bennet conversed a moment with his driver, nodded his farewell to the much aggrieved scullery maid, and they were soon heading in the direction of the Thames.
The inn, when they at last arrived, seemed perfectly respectable, although Mary felt a slight disappointment that only one stable boy ran forward to catch the reins on their entry to the yard and the landlord called a greeting from a distant room rather than immediately coming forward. Still, the maid who led her to a small room showed gratifying alacrity in filling her basin, brushing the wrinkles from her gown and confiding that a fat goose had been run down by a curricle earlier in the day so their dinner would be as good as a feast. Thus heartened and refreshed, she rejoined her father who took her arm in a very kind way and escorted her in the direction of the famous abbey.
"Come, Maria!" Kitty said with some exasperation.
Kitty had no inconvenient qualms about reading a private missive and immediately unfolded the paper and read:
My dear Mama,
You will be very surprised to receive from me a second letter in the space of a week, and more so when you learn its happy purpose. I have just spoken with Mr. Collins who (quite out of breath) informed me that Lady Catherine de Bourgh has condescended to favor our family with her attention. My husband was momentarily beside himself as he strove to find words equal to describing the honor that is to be conferred (providing an opportunity for me to finish the sock I was darning, the progress of which he had interrupted).
"Mrs. Collins," cried he at last, "Lady Catherine, whose bounty and
interest in the affairs of one and all far exceeds my humble expectations, has made it known to me that she intends to raise your family by yet one more degree from the obscurity from which your marriage to myself rescued your dear self."
That I did not immediately perceive the intent of this strange speech will not astonish you. Mr. Collins, as you will recall, is much given to the exercise of using all the words known to him within the space of one sentence, providing me with some diversion during these long days of summer. (Do not think I mock my husband, Mama -- I have merely come to appreciate his rare talents more than I had formerly done.)
Mr. Collins looked at me with a good deal of anticipation for some minutes when I at last informed him that I could not guess what his news might be and could bear the suspense no longer. Recalled, therefore, to the imparting of his intelligence, he went on to reveal that Lady Catherine has discovered from among her tenants a man in need of a steady wife, and that she believes that lady will be found in our Maria!
I do not know the person in question, except to the degree that all of her ladyship's tenants are superior and represent a degree of gentility one might not otherwise expect to find in such a position. Although it is clear some further details must be known before it is settled, my heart rejoices at the notion of my sister being settled so near to me.
Lady Catherine, being all that is beneficent, has offered to send her second-best carriage to bring Maria to us, but I have been able to put her off until you have spoken to my father. Please, I beg you, have some consideration for my impatient nature and do not delay in sending your response.
Your humble and most loving daughter,
Charlotte Collins"Maria!" Kitty exclaimed. "This is infamous! Charlotte does not tell near as much as she ought--besides, of course, not considering what your feelings might be. I can see now why you are so reluctant to allow your parents to learn of this."
"Still," said Maria resolutely, "it must be done. But will you not come with me now when I bring the letter to Mama?"
Kitty clasped her friend's hands and said, "I will be at your side."