When Mr. Collins emerged precipitously into the Longbourn back garden on that fateful day, he was not, however it might have appeared, fleeing from the site of a great humiliation. He was, perhaps, escaping from the wailing apologies of Mrs. Bennet, whose indelicate recriminations against Miss Elizabeth still echoed in his ears. While her feelings did not much differ from his own, they were more violently expressed than Mr. Collins found comfortable. He had thus taken the resolution that a turn in the fresh air might do him good, and left Mrs. Bennet to pursue her recalcitrant daughter upstairs.
Perhaps on another day he might shortly have entered the house again, and there encountered Miss Lucas; perhaps she might have borne him and his injured pride away to Lucas Lodge, Mrs. Bennet’s cries following him down the lane. His life might have unfolded quite differently.
But on this day he found that he was not alone in Longbourn’s back garden. Mr. Bennet’s scholarly daughter sat on a bench among the flowers, an open book in her lap and an abstracted look on her face. It was a look he himself knew well; he felt it on his own face when he pondered over Fordyce’s Sermons. He was not accustomed to seeing it on a lady, but after the histrionics he had just escaped, its calm sobriety was not unwelcome.
As he watched her, trying to remember her name (not Jane or Elizabeth, not shockingly spoilt Lydia… Mary, that was it, Mary), she looked up from her book and saw him.
“Do sit down,” Miss Mary said, her gaze direct. “You will catch cold in this wind.”
Mr. Collins approved of this regard for his health. He sat next to her, and looked with appreciation upon his companion’s quiet, rigid posture. Not for Miss Mary the languid beauty of her oldest sister, or the sparkling vivaciousness of her despised second-oldest sister. Here was correctness, and an interest fixed on him that he found agreeable after his recent rude treatment.
“Thank you,” he said, exercising the full charm of his smile. “You are kindness itself. I must confess that you outshine your sisters in this.”
To another’s eye, the flush that overspread her cheeks might not have flattered her complexion. To Mr. Collins, it proved only that she esteemed his words, and reassured him that he had not lost his famous gift for bringing joy to the female sex, a conviction which had come under siege this afternoon. She was clearly in possession of the knowledge of her sister’s behavior; he doubted that anyone in hailing vicinity of Longbourn could not be.
“Elizabeth has always thought only of herself,” Miss Mary said, her mouth tightening. “I should not criticize my sister – but well! you have seen how our house is all uproar. I cannot promise you that any recriminations I, or my mother, or even my father, might make will have any effect upon her willfulness.”
It was true, a properly demure young lady would not speak so unguardedly about her sister. However, Mr. Collins found that under the circumstances her words fell like balm of Gilead.
“Let her maintain her attitude,” he said, loftily. “I care not for her rejection, for it has shown me that I was deceived in my affections, and neither wish for her hand nor her regard. Your sister would not suit me, and I must look elsewhere for my bride.”
Miss Mary met his eye for a second, then looked away in maidenly confusion. She had none of the quiet grace of Miss Bennet or the sure self-possession of Miss Elizabeth. She was only and completely in the here and now of this garden, sitting by him and giving her attention wholly unto him. She was no great beauty or the toast of society; she was just a girl, unpretentious and with a certain solid dignity.
“I wish you joy,” Miss Mary said, her voice unaccustomedly soft, her eyes averted. “It will be difficult to find a woman worthy to be the mistress of Hunsford.” Her fingers curled around the binding of her book, the angle of her elbow stark in the austere lines of her gown.
“Yes,” Mr. Collins agreed. “Lady Catherine has told me the same, on many an occasion. She is all solicitousness, all condescension. My wife will be honored with the kindest of patronage.”
As he spoke of Lady Catherine, finding Miss Mary an attentive listener, Mr. Collins began to comprehend the full magnitude of the misstep he had so nearly made. Lady Catherine would surely not have approved of Miss Elizabeth, all shamelessness and effrontery. His life would have been made unbearable, if ever she had spoken to her ladyship in the manner he had been forced to endure today. Hunsford and Rosings would not have been large enough to hold the explosion that would have ensued – and he would have brought it upon himself.
He said some small part of this to Miss Mary, and watched her flush again in justified mortification at the headstrong conduct of her sister. “I cannot excuse her,” she said, her mouth strained.
Mr. Collins thought not.
“I can only hope,” Miss Mary said, meeting his eyes with an intense gaze, before looking down shyly, “that you will not judge all of us by her shocking standard.”
“Never, my good lady,” Mr. Collins said, with all the gallantry he possessed.
He found, looking upon her now as if for the first time, that she was pleasant to his eye. True, she was no beauty; but having been frustrated in his aspirations for the beautiful Miss Bennet’s hand by the ready existence of an eligible suitor, and spurned in his honorable representations for the beautiful Miss Elizabeth’s hand, the desire for beauty had momentarily dimmed in Mr. Collins’s mind. Miss Mary’s face would not transport those who beheld it to visions of rapture, but neither would it blind men to the defects of her character. (And it had not escaped the notice of Mr. Collins, who while being a clergyman was still a man, that although she had no beauty, her figure was trim, if spare.)
Moreover, his assurance had brought a smile to her face, and it softened her. In repose, the lines of her face were inclined to be stern, and a person less charitably inclined than Mr. Collins was at present might even have described them as ‘pinched’. But when she smiled, she looked more approachable, as the simple pleasure his words had brought her shone from her eyes.
As if a thunderclap had come from above, Mr. Collins realized that Miss Mary’s regard for him was utterly transparent, for all that it was appropriately modest and retiring.
“You are kindness itself, Mr. Collins,” she said, the smile still hovering on her lips.
Without even expending much effort, Mr. Collins suddenly found himself in possession of the regard of an eligible young lady. He discovered that the sensation was intoxicating. He had made a young lady smile – he had brought blushes to her cheeks! With perceptive eyes and clear vision, he had seen beyond the crass worldly charms of the older Bennet sisters and condescended to address the quiet girl of the family, and now he found that his thoughtfulness had delivered to him a treasure whose existence he had never suspected.
Mr. Collins had not known before how truly invigorating being the object of a woman’s regard could be. His heart beat faster, his hands grew clammy with anticipation. She was looking at him with a smile in her eyes, and he felt as if he was a knight out of children's tales, or King Solomon meeting the Queen of Sheba.
(True, Miss Mary was no Queen of Sheba. But Mr. Collins told himself virtuously that beauty should not be after all the foremost attribute of a clergyman’s wife.)
“Miss Mary,” he said, and watched her bite her lip, to hear him say her name. He said it again, and this time he softened his tone, let himself linger over it. “Miss Mary.”
“Mr. Collins,” she said, in a betrayingly hoarse whisper, when he did not continue.
Mr. Collins smiled at her. She blushed, her color hectic, and then tentatively smiled back. He did not stop smiling, and saw the moment hope began to grow in her eyes.
He found himself speaking of Rosings, of Lady Catherine and Lady Anne, his stomach awhirl. He had never found it natural to speak to ladies, and it had taken him much time and effort to become comfortable in their presence, and to find the easy facility with words that a clergyman needed. Studying out the easy compliments that ladies found agreeable had helped him in that pursuit - but today his confidence had been rocked by Miss Elizabeth’s absolute refusal of his suit, and he retreated into well-worn conversational paths as his thoughts revolved quickly through these new developments.
Yet Miss Mary did not seem to mind that he was telling her stories she had most likely heard before. She looked at him with a shy intense gaze, listening with her entire self. She was not humoring him – she did not cover disinclination and shallowness with a false politeness, as Miss Elizabeth had done – she was not lost in aspirations to Netherfield, as Miss Bennet was – she was not openly discourteous and spoilt, as Miss Lydia was.
She was only and completely his, and Mr. Collins’s heart was abruptly hers.
He halted in the middle of a story about a Rosings fireplace, feeling once more full of the courage and self-assurance that had earlier fled from him. “Miss Mary,” he said, his voice resolute. “Would you do me the kindness of walking about the garden with me?”
It was too early to declare himself, on the same day as he had spoken to her sister. Mr. Collins would always observe the proprieties.
But he thought, as he offered Miss Mary his arm and she took it, that it would not be long before he was speaking to her father – again.
He saw in his mind’s eye Miss Mary established at Hunsford, sitting in his garden, of which he was rightfully proud. Perhaps she would have a book, as she had today; although he disapproved of the sort of light novels to which Miss Elizabeth was no doubt in thrall, he had always been in favor of ladies enriching their minds with instruction from books of a more serious stamp. Or perhaps they would engage in pleasant conversation as he saw to his plants, providing for his family and finding personal enjoyment at the same time. He would grow Miss Mary flowers, he thought; he liked flowers, and he liked the idea of her face flushed with gratification at the thoughtfulness of his attentions.
Perhaps she would have a baby in her arms. Mr. Collins found that vision a particularly enchanting one. He wanted a large family, and the idea of Miss Mary – Mrs. Collins, she would be – holding their child was invigorating.
He cast about in his mind for a compliment to pay her. “Miss Mary,” he said, as they paused under an apple tree, “I must tell you that I find you a most charming young lady. Your conversation is wise and your bearing has a dignity to rival even the Lady Anne.”
Miss Mary’s fingers tightened in the crook of his arm, and he felt a rush of affection. “I thank you,” she said. He could tell that she was not accustomed to such compliments. The world had missed her high quality; but then some in the world had missed his high quality too, and in this he could sympathise.
“And though I may step too far,” he said, preparing to recklessly perjure himself in the name of love, “I have become convinced that you are one of the most handsome young ladies of my acquaintance.”
Her cheeks were rosy. “I thank you,” she said again, her eyes alight with pleasure.
Two days later, Mr. Collins would speak to Mr. Bennet again, and despite that gentleman’s somewhat bewildered reception of his suit, would be given permission to pay his respects to a second Bennet daughter. He would then receive the wholeheartedly joyous response to his proposal that he had expected this afternoon, and in that moment become the happiest of men.
But it was in this moment, as Mr. Collins daringly raised Miss Mary’s hand to his lips, that he truly declared himself, and found his declaration accepted.
He would not have thought, an hour since, that he could be this happy on this afternoon. Yet after all, his affections for Miss Elizabeth had not been seriously engaged. He had been deceived by a pretty face and a winning manner, and indeed! now he was glad that his attentions had been refused. She would not have made a suitable mistress for Hunsford.
Mr. Collins was becoming rapidly convinced, however, that his Mary was just such a woman as Lady Catherine had bade him find. A gentlewoman, to be sure! And a useful woman, not flighty and given over to her own pleasure like her younger sisters, or swollen with her own regard like her older sisters. She would not bring a fortune, but Mr. Collins had reconciled himself to that unfortunate fact when he decided that he was honor bound to first seek a wife among Mr. Bennet’s daughters. Besides, looking at the sensible and sober lines of her dress, he had the distinct suspicion that she would be more likely to be able to make a small income go a long way than any of her sisters.
Yes, they would be happy together, he thought, pressing her hand in his own.
Mary smiled at him, clinging to the crook of his arm, and they walked among the trees of the garden, in perfect harmony.
two days later
They had not been engaged five minutes before they heard Mrs. Bennet’s voice echoing through Longbourn’s thin walls, resounding all the way from the library.
“Mary?” Mrs. Bennet said, her voice rising to an unholy shriek. “He wants to marry Mary?”
Mary flushed, embarrassed either by her mother’s volume or by the astonishment it betrayed.
Mr. Collins, feeling the master of the universe, drew her into his arms protectively. “Yes,” he said, stroking a finger along her cheek. “I wish to marry Mary.”
“William,” Mary said, her hands coming up shyly to rest on his shoulders.
He kissed her, and knew himself the happiest of men.
All the same, he would be glad when they were at Hunsford as man and wife, and no longer subject to the loud vagaries of Mrs. Bennet’s moods or the disagreeableness of most of Mary’s sisters. Lady Catherine and Lady Anne were far more gracious company, and on this point he was sure Mary would quickly come to agree.
“Shall we brave the congratulations of your sisters together?” he asked her, and drew her arm through his own.
This he would enjoy. Mary, the least thought of among the sisters, would surpass them all; first to be married, she would be her mother’s darling. Elizabeth and Jane would find themselves passed over, and Elizabeth in particular might well rue the day she turned down the most eligible match she was likely to ever receive only to see it go to a younger sister instead. Mr. Collins was not a vindictive man, but nonetheless he thought it right that the slights against him, and against Mary, should be avenged.
Yet more important than that was the way Mary rested her head on his shoulder, and the way his heart felt too big for his chest when he held her close.
“Yes,” Mary said, smiling, her eyes soft with joy.