Elizabeth sat opposite her father in the small room in the back of the house now officially designated as his new study.
“I’m on the heels of concluding another round of rather lengthy and at times contentious debate with Mr. Collins,” said Mr. Bennet. He exhaled a deep, resigned breath. “I find myself particularly mindful that I have a legal responsibility as well as an ethical one to pass the estate to him intact just as it was passed to me.”
Ceasing his speech, the gentleman set his pipe aside, arose from his chair, and drifted over to the window.
“I have lost so much, and I do not intend to spend what’s left of my days embroiled in costly litigation with Collins over what ought to be done as regards his rightful inheritance, especially given there’s a less bothersome alternative. Rather than make an enemy of my cousin, there is a way for the two of us to partner in the scheme to rebuild the manor house.”
“Papa, you know that I will be happy to do everything in my power to see all your fondest wishes for the estate unfold.”
Mr. Bennet turned and faced his daughter. “That is precisely what I had hoped you would say, my dear Lizzy. For you see, there is a vital part you can play. I have already discussed this with Mr. Collins, and he and I are of mutual accord in our scheme. As he is Longbourn’s heir apparent, he and I may be in a position to restructure the edicts of the entail to our mutual satisfaction. As it turns out, his terms are strikingly similar to what I had envisioned with but one exception.”
“This sounds interesting. What are the gentleman’s terms, if I may ask?”
He cleared his throat. “Before I disclose any of that, pray hear all I have to say. The damage to Longbourn House, while substantial, by no means rendered it completely unsalvageable. I am not a young man, my child, and with the entail on the estate such that it exists, I do not know that I have the fortitude to rebuild. However, if I knew that my own family would benefit from the endeavor, I would consider it a strong inducement to restore the house to its former state—perhaps enhance it with many of the modern conveniences I have been reading about.”
Her suspicions heightening and her patience wearing thin, Elizabeth said, “Again, what are Mr. Collins’s terms?”
“He shall marry whichever of my daughters he chooses.”
Elizabeth colored. She stared. Surely that ridiculous man has signaled Jane out as the future Mrs. William Collins, she silently considered. She had not failed to notice the way he leered at her elder sister whenever he thought no one was looking. She thought to protest the injustice that her sister should be subjected to such humiliation. “Papa, you are aware that Jane is in love with Mr. Bingley, and he is in love with her.”
“I am very aware of the tender feelings in that quarter, and I have made Mr. Collins aware of them as well. No—it is not Jane whom he has chosen.”
“If not Jane—then who? Mary? I should hate to see any of my sisters married to such a ridiculous man, but I suspect Mary will not be terribly disappointed.” Indeed, though Mary was not one to engage in flights of fancy over the prospects for her future marital felicity as was so often done by her two youngest sisters, her propensity to cite passages from Fordyce’s Sermons to any one of her sisters who would listen made her a likely candidate.
“I tend to agree with you. However, it is not Mary either. I regret to inform you, my child, but it seems my cousin has set his cap on you.”
Elizabeth gasped aloud! She sprang from her seat. “Papa! Surely you did not go along with his proposition. The man is a fool. Surely misery of the acutest kind would accompany both of us all the days of our lives were such a union to take place.”
“My dear Lizzy, I assure you that you have not said anything that I have not considered myself, but these are extraordinary circumstances—desperate even. Such measures as my cousin and I have agreed to are the only viable options. He will not consider changing the terms of the entail otherwise, which means there is no possibility for a happy conclusion for the rest of your sisters.”
He drew nearer to her. “You know that I must rebuild if your sisters are to stand a chance of securing marriages with respectable gentlemen. Mr. Bingley likes Jane—it is my wish that he will do more, but until he has placed a ring on her finger, nothing is certain. Even then, it shall remain my responsibility to provide for our family for so long as I live. I shall not accept charity from that young man. It is unfortunate enough that I am indebted to every merchant in Meryton.
“Mr. Collins has also agreed that, together, we shall endeavor to enhance your sisters’ dowries substantially. Under the restructured entail, that stipulation will take effect after the two of you are married.”
Mr. Bennet shook his head. “Mind you, my child, were this a month or so earlier, I would not possibly entertain the idea of your accepting such a man, but the situation has drastically changed. I must now consider that if you were to marry the man, it would be a very good thing for our family.”
“Papa! You cannot be serious. How can you possibly advise me to enter into an alliance in which I would be wholly incapable of respecting my husband?”
“Do not think I have come to this decision lightly. I know you well enough to know that such a marriage might well subject you to a severe degree of distress and discomfort, but I also know you well enough to know that you are a very clever girl. You were not designed for ill-humor. You will find a way to make the most of what would otherwise be a bad situation.”
“I will not do it, Papa! I cannot do it.”
“You can marry Mr. Collins, and you will marry him. For you to disobey me in this matter and to do otherwise would very well be the means of garnering my fiercest disapprobation. I am certain neither of us would ever wish for such an unhappy outcome.” He waved his hand in the air dismissively. “Now, run along my child, and share the good news with your mother that you are amenable to accepting Mr. Collins’s hand. I am sure she will be pleased enough for both of you.”
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