Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Chapter XI

Chapter XI

That the party setting forth from Longbourne should experience any degree of discomfiture, Mrs. Bennet and her daughter were determined to ignore. To Aunt Philips such an idea did not occur, for her character was comprised of such equal parts of ignorance and good humor that she was never in the least conscious of what might, in others, produce mortification. This lady carried on a rambling conversation with no one in particular as, within the first miles, she began to unpack and disgorge the contents of her hamper. 

Such a sumptuous array of roasted chicken, rabbit pies, cheeses and tarts did much to assuage whatever insults to his dignity Mr. Collins had suffered at the outset. He was by nature a solid trencherman whose appetite was rarely satisfied. However much he must esteem Lady Catherine de Bourgh, her table and consequently his own (by means of her constant intervention) tended toward the abstemious. Therefore, by the time Mrs. Philips produced the first of several bottles of claret as a means of aiding digestion, he betook himself of her generosity with growing amiability.

Kitty and Maria, seated on either side of Mr. Collins had no opportunity to share their impressions but could only, when the gentleman happened to lean forward to betake himself of  "just one more morsel," exchange a glance or two. At last, Mrs. Philips addressed them with an apology, for she had quite forgot to bring either a jug of tea or bottle of ratafia for the younger members of the party, and, she went on, "I am sure your mama and Mr. Collins will agree that you are far too young to be drinking claret."

With this pronouncement, Mr. Collins agreed at length. "Does not the Bible in numerous places adjure us to beware the fruits of the vine?" Refilling his cup, he went on, "Indeed, Proverbs is most clear:
Who has woe? Who has sorrow?
    Who has strife? Who has complaining?
Who has wounds without cause?
    Who has redness of eyes?
 Those who tarry long over wine;
    those who go to try mixed wine.
In the end it bites like a serpent
    and stings like an adder.
 Your eyes will see strange things,
    and your heart utter perverse things."

Until these words had been spoken, neither of the girls had given any thought to thirst, but now they were forbid to share in the libation, it seemed very sad thing and the road became exceptionally long. Further, Kitty found her aunt's conversation trivial without being entertaining. Still more tedious were Mr. Collins lengthy comments on every imaginable subject. How odd her mother could eat and drink with such company, especially with the man whose very name was to be unspoken in her home. This circumstance prompted in Kitty such an unaccustomed period of reflection on human nature that she felt quite in harmony with her sister Mary.

By this time, the elder threesome had embarked on a round robin of increasingly shocking tales of inebriation which bordered on competitive. All the while, the claret bottle (and its successors) circulated among them.

"I knew a man once," Aunt Philips was saying, "who was so often in his cups his fellows called  Belchy for fun. Pleasant enough to begin, but after a bottle or two one wouldn't know him. Not but what he was only at my card parties several times before Mr. Philips forbade him entry, but it goes to show you, doesn't it?"

Mr. Collins nodded. "So the book of Neuterdominty, that is, Deuteronomy  tells us: ... 'wine is the poison of dragons, and the cruel venom of the ass...er, asp'."

Kitty, scheming.
Kitty, recognizing the signs of a fit of giggling about to overtake her, was force to bite her handkerchief and stare out the window. Nothing she could see looked familiar, which at least meant that they had left the environs of Longbourne well behind, but she was not at all certain how far they were from London. Her previous visits, accompanied by her sisters, had flown by, but she suspected today's journey would be endless. As the dull countryside passed, she reflected that, if only she might have a bit of claret, time might pass more pleasantly. She and Lydia had more than once tasted their father's bottle and found it quite conducive to jollity. It was with a good deal of pleasure, therefore, when she saw the elder members of the party begin to smile and nod. It would not be long, she thought with a smile, before she would be able to introduce Maria to a taste of the wicked vine.


It was no surprise to Mary that her father slept late and that, when he did join her in the dining room, he forbore to break his fast with more than a dry piece of toast and cup of tea. That he would hardly be discussing his own evening, she thought it unlikely that he would ask after her own. Oddly, this came as something of a disappointment. Not that she had ever before considered confiding in her father, but she thought that she had survived her adventures rather well and wished there were someone who might congratulate -- or at least envy-- her.

Her thoughts were thus occupied when Sara entered with a fresh pot of tea and a small bouquet. This latter she handed to Mary, whispering, "There is someone to see you!" Mary felt her color heighten as she read the attached note:

A. Wittington indeed! Of all the effrontery! That he should address her, let alone  in the language of flowers, was beyond anything. Still, an understandable curiosity compelled her to consider what the message might be. Though Mary was well acquainted with the subtleties of the symbolic language, she was sadly incapable of identifying any blooms beyond a daisy or common rose. There were two roses in the bouquet, of that she was sure, but each shade meant something different-- and none of those was anything she could wish, for considering her petitioner's behavior on the previous evening.

"Miss?" Mary found herself addressed by the maid who looked at her speakingly and glanced at the door.

"Er, no. Thank you. Nothing else," she stammered. Should she go to see who had called? If it were Mr. Wittington, she felt sure he would have been denied her presence by one who had been a witness to his impudence. And, if she did not go, surely she would wonder all the way to Eastbourne who it had been. Rising, she excused herself to her father and made her way to the front of the building. There she found herself greeted by Frank Little.

"How kind you are to call, Mr. Little," she exclaimed. "I do not know if I thanked you last night."

Mr. Little bowed over her hand briefly before addressing her. "No need, no need, Miss Bennet! I merely wanted to assure myself that you suffered no lasting anxiety after last night's encounter."

"I am quite well as you can see, and I do thank you most gratefully for your protection."

Mary watched in amazement as he puffed out his chest and bowed again. "Had I not had the pleasure of escorting you back here last night, I would have boxed that coxcomb's ears. I do not come in the way of such high company as yourself so often, as you might guess, but I am prepared to fight for a lady's honor like a veritable Ajax, whoever the rascal may be."

Mary smiled at the warmth of his expression, and at the notion of what Mr.Wittington's response might be to hearing himself referred to in such terms by a mere clerk. "I am thankful it did not come to that, for it would be an insult to your dignity, to be sure, to linger a moment longer in his company."

Mr. Little stood beaming at her now, both wordless and, she suspected, mindless of the time. Unsure of how to extricate herself, she was almost glad to hear her father's step in the hall, despite how much he must be sure to wonder at her speaking with a strange gentleman. When he did encounter them, however, he merely bowed and said, "Come now, Mary. We must be on the road if we are to make Eastbourne by nightfall."

"Of course, Father," she agreed. "Thank you again, Mr. Little."

She followed her father up the stairs, her heart somewhat a-tremble. What she must surely reveal to him during the length of the day's travel would change his opinion of her forever. Perhaps as much as the adventure had changed her own notion of who she was and the possibilities her future might embrace.