Posted on Thursday, 4 February 1999
"There is so much of gratitude or vanity in almost every attachment, that it is not safe to leave any to itself." -Pride and Prejudice, Vol. I, Chapter VI
It is a truth universally acknowledged that nothing in the world brings out the keenest sentiments, either of acute excitement or aggravation, in its participants, as does a ball.
The younger Miss Bennets remained talkative and lively on the way to Netherfield; even the middle sister ventured to suggest that if Mr. Bingley had had his pianoforte tuned in the interim he had stayed there, it might be a tolerable occasion.
"Well spoken, Mary," inserted her father. "It is a comfort to think that should Mr. Bingley ever be in doubt of the merits of his instruments, he has you to do them justice."
"I believe Papa means to remind you, Mary dear," inserted Jane gently, with some embarrassment, "that you must remember the presence of Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst, before you appear quite so eager to play for the company." Mary flushed and looked embarrassed.
"Yes, Mary--and don't sulk so if you should be called upon to play a jig, as you did at Sir William Lucas'," inserted the youngest, who was in the utmost gaiety of spirits. "Of course-" she addressed the whole party-"This will be ten thousand times grander than either his or the Meryton assemblies! For you know, if it were Sir William's affair, he would be always walking here and there, and muttering, 'Capital! Capital!' Lord, what a peacock! I wouldn't be Mariah Lucas for a thousand pounds-or Charlotte, for that matter! What do you think, Lizzy? Or are you too concerned with what Mr. Wickham will be wearing tonight?"
"Oh, hold your tongue, Lydia, for heaven's sake!" snapped her mother, much too pointedly for the taste of Elizabeth. Her vexation only increased when she turned to their cousin. "Pay her no heed, Mr. Collins-children have such dreadful foolish notions. Isn't that right, Lizzy? Lizzy-tell Mr. Collins that Lydia is quite misguided."
Elizabeth escaped the task by returning to Lydia's former remark.
"Lydia, I am sure either Mariah or Charlotte Lucas would credit their good fortune in having such a father as Sir William."
"Oh, nonsense, girl, how can you talk so!" rejoined her mother irritably. "You know the Lucases are two of the silliest people in Hertfordshire-and their children will grow up to be just like them without something done to remedy--although they are respectable people, it must be horrible indeed to think of the girls constantly living in fear of what their father will do or say next to humiliate them. And poor Charlotte, such a good girl! When I think of her fate-it must be bad enough being resigned to spinsterhood, without having to face the prospect of living with those two as parents!" Mrs. Bennet here cast Mr. Collins a look of great import. "That's why I say, it is best to take care of such matters as soon as possible--that way everyone is happy."
Elizabeth very conscientiously adhered to her study of the landscape outside the carriage, and so contrived to fail to hear the remainder of her mother's rejoinders to Mr. Collins on the subject of marital expediency….
She could not help pondering the fate of her friend, however. At seven-and-twenty, had Miss Lucas's primary concern in life been her apprehension over her father's public conduct she would have counted herself among the most fortunate of creatures. Yet to a woman, admittedly plain, with no pretensions to the kind of feminine sensibility that would cause a man to overlook that defect, life at such a late age held far more of real anxiety than a woman with a lesser degree of pride than Charlotte's would admit. Lizzy could not think ill of Miss Lucas, yet it sometimes puzzled her, that Charlotte never showed any alarm on the subject of her own future. Certainly the concerns of the whole family were not so vital-there were brothers to inherit the estate, and a plethora of relatives upon which to be dependent should the occasion arrive; but it did not sit follow that Charlotte should herself be so placid about the affair.
Doubtless Elizabeth would have been only slightly less alarmed had she known with what anticipation her placid friend now stood in the ballroom at Netherfield. Though her countenance was ever complacent, Miss Lucas's thoughts were far from turned away from that object, which many felt ought to be first in her mind. The evening's scene brought a plethora of fresh faces to the country, and Charlotte's keen eye surveyed them all at leisure, free to judge their merit both as gentlemen and suitors.
She had the double, if dubious, advantage on the occasion, both of knowing something of the visitors in advance from the industriousness of the Meryton gossips, and of knowing herself to be hardly an object of attention to them. Of the several gentlemen in which she most interested herself one had already disappointed, by failing to appear: George Wickham was nowhere in sight, and Charlotte anticipated her friend's chagrin upon discovering his absence. The other personage in whom her interest lay was Elizabeth's cousin, Mr. Collins, of whom she had heard such a ridiculous amount that she secretly delighted in the prospect of meeting the man behind the pomp. She did not anticipate him to be worth much more than her amusement; but, as it was a certainty that he would be mortifying Eliza by his constant flattery, Charlotte was prepared to do what she could to salvage her friend's dignity by directing his attentions, as needed, to herself.
The third gentleman whom Charlotte was bent on observing was Mr. Darcy. She had long been forming a theory regarding his subtle, yet ever-increasing attentions to Elizabeth Bennet, and suspected that tonight would provide ample opportunity to confirm our deny her suspicion. He certainly appeared to be unaffected, though his composure at all times would give one no indication of his true feelings. Beside his friend he seemed particularly graven: Bingley was all ease and friendliness, Darcy a monument of dignity. Charlotte did not wonder at his making Elizabeth an object of attention: they were so very un-alike that he must see her as something of a curiosity. Miss Bennet and Bingley were, by contrast, so very similar that they were almost bland. Charlotte could not help marveling at Jane's good fortune in engaging the affections of a man who was both wealthy and well-suited for her. She did not expect that pleasure for herself; it had long since become an object of mild curiosity to her, whether she might experience any sort of passionate attachment. Yet to the prospect of finding herself the object of such an attachment she was wildly alive; and the perspicacious Miss Lucas stood constantly in readiness, fully aware of the consequences should she fail to act quickly in securing the obligatory offer of marriage.
With such reflections as these preying on her mind Charlotte bore the events of the ball with considerable grace--maintaining a far greater advantage in remaining silent than most of those around her did by daring to speak. The Bennets arrived; the famous Mr. Collins was produced and proven to be infinitely more absurd than even Elizabeth's description could have prepared her for; and greatly did she feel her friend's twofold annoyance, at both the absence of George Wickham, and the presence of Mr. Collins. Elizabeth could not be pleased: from the moment she entered she had thoughts only for Wickham; rather, as Charlotte quietly noted, she had thoughts only for what Mr. Darcy had done to Wickham. Miss Lucas watched in increasing amusement the progress of the former gentleman in attempting to know more of her, much to the lady's vexation. Upon his soliciting Elizabeth for her hand, and upon her accepting in utter confusion, Miss Lucas dared only venture,
"I dare say you will find him very agreeable."
"Heaven forbid!-That would be the greatest misfortune of all!-To find a man agreeable whom one is determined to hate!-do not wish me such an evil."
However sorely tempted Charlotte may have been to remind Elizabeth that, though forthright, such a conviction would never produce a husband--particularly a husband of ten thousand a year--she resisted the impulse. Miss Bennet's irritation was far too great for such an observation, and Charlotte reminded herself that Lizzy had yet to learn to cease laughing at the world and everyone in it.
Jane, of course, fared much better with Bingley, but Charlotte observed many looks of disapproval pass between his sisters, and found her own words to Elizabeth haunting her. 'Bingley likes your sister undoubtedly; but he may never do more than like her…' Though generally one to credit her own good sense, this was not a reflection calculated to please; and when forced to own that the Miss Bennets' prospects for securing marriages, however dim, were still far greater at the moment than her own, Miss Lucas was hard-pressed to contain her own mounting aggravation. It seemed the daughters of one family had all the opportunity, the others all the resourcefulness. Had Charlotte been in Elizabeth's position she should marry Darcy and see to it that Mary, or any of the Bennet sisters, became engaged straightway to Mr. Collins, thereby allowing the estate to remain in the family, with all ending to everyone's satisfaction.
Yet as the night wore on it became readily apparent that the second Miss Bennet had no intention of seeking any such compromise, and the fate of the eldest began to seem equally in question, especially as the concern of their host's relations spread to his guest. Charles Bingley might resist the influence of the women, but the more forceful personality of his friend acting against him might, indeed, sway his resolve concerning Jane Bennet. Had Miss Lucas felt more confidence in Elizabeth's reaction she might have ventured a warning to her on the subject; but Miss Bennet had no more patience for counsel on the topic of matrimony than she had showed for the possibility of finding handsome, rich gentlemen of Derbyshire agreeable.
To Elizabeth's credit, her distaste of the subject began to seem more reasonably justified upon Charlotte's discerning their mothers, at the dinner table some time later, discussing the prospect of Jane's marriage to Bingley. Had their wit been directed in a manner less irritating, Miss Lucas might have derived a smile from the conversation; as it was she derived only chagrin.
"Oh, Lady Lucas! Did I tell you he has five thousand a year?"
"Indeed, Mrs. Bennet, I believe it was I who first told you-for was it not my husband who first made his acquaintance in Meryton-"
"Oh, yes, yes, perhaps you are right; but oh, heavens, what a grand match for my Jane! Oh, I knew this is how it would be! With a figure and a face like hers…well, I will say your girls have just as much to recommend them, Lady Lucas, though Bingley did pick my eldest over your Charlotte. But just think!-what a fine thing. When they are married, that will throw the girls into the path of other rich men, and then…"
"Of course," responded Lady Lucas dryly, quite plainly uninterested in matters in which she had no claim, before consoling herself with a third helping of cold comfort ham.
Charlotte averted her eyes in embarrassment, fully aware that Elizabeth was doing the same, but not before she heard her mother's arch-rival remark, "Well, Lady Lucas, do not trouble yourself. I am sure you will find someone for Mariah soon enough, and maybe even for Charlotte! She does her best, I dare say, and you can at least be grateful for that!"
Insufferable woman! thought Miss Lucas. To be grateful for spinsterhood! She took a brief glance around the room; it found Miss Bennet engrossed in conversation with their host, while Mr. Darcy appeared to be attempting to distract his attention from her sister with increasing unsuccess. For one moment all Charlotte's powers of perspicacity failed her, and she nearly succumbed to a wretched pang of loneliness. Yet her sense, which always proved stronger than any flight of sensibility, carried the instant, and she calmly reminded herself that in such a situation as hers it was best to be purely mercenary, without regard to any other consideration. Her eyes found the figure of the Bennets' smiling, insipid cousin. Perhaps she could take a lesson from him in that regard--for it was painfully obvious his emotions were as sincere as his intellect was dizzying. Yet he, at least, would succeed in his object--finding a wife--and for that, she imagined, he must be well pleased with himself. And so should he be; so should she, if she could procure a husband. In fact, she admitted, I would be…
"…grateful, sir, and flattered, on your honoring me with your proposals." She lowered her gaze away from Mr. Collins' leering grin. "I am sure we will be very happy."
"Oh, of course, my dear, dear Charlotte," he replied, with a rather condescending nod of his head. "I am quite certain that we shall."