Charlotte ran her hand along the back of the sofa, her gloves skidding lightly along the upholstery. Her eyes scanned the room. The pair of chairs by the empty fireplace, the windows covered in lavender drapes, the aged mirror over the mantle.
Of all this, she was now mistress.
She gazed at the portrait of Mr. Bennet, painted in his prime, and remembered the man who had been her neighbor for twenty-seven long years, and who was now, by his failure to produce an heir, the means of her husband having his own estate. In a way, he could be credited with her having a husband at all. If he had not agreed to host Mr. Collins all those years ago, and supported Elizabeth’s refusal of her cousin’s proposal, Charlotte would have never met and married Mr. Collins.
And now, seventeen long years after her wedding, she was here. The mistress of Longbourn. Second only to Netherfield Park, it was one of the most respectable estates in the area, belonging to one of its oldest families.
And now, it was hers.
“Was your journey pleasant?”
Charlotte jumped and looked over her shoulder. “I didn’t hear you come in. Forgive me, Mary. How do you do?”
“As well as can be expected, Mrs. Collins,” replied Mary Bennet.
“Please, call me Charlotte. We are such old neighbors,” said Mrs. Collins kindly.
“I think not,” Mary said plainly. “Nearly everything is packed. We shall be gone tomorrow.”
Mary turned and left the room, leaving a bewildered Charlotte behind her.
Charlotte shook off the feeling of guilt that had tried to settle on her shoulders and went upstairs to see to her children. She did not particularly enjoy her husband’s company, and she found the act of begetting children quite off-putting, but the results of her endurance were more than adequate recompense.
“Mother, have you considered my request?” asked a voice to her left.
She turned and looked into the face of Charlotte Rose, her eldest daughter. She was quite a pretty thing if Charlotte could say such about her own daughter. She had the look of her Aunt Maria about her.
“I have, Lottie, and since you have been so helpful throughout this move, I have decided to grant your request.”
“Oh!” the girl squealed, jumping on her toes and clasping her hands in front of her. “May I choose my chamber now?”
Before her mother could answer, the eldest of the Collins children ran off and began opening doors and comparing views. Charlotte shook her head at her enthusiasm.
“Oh, to be fifteen again!” she mumbled to herself.
She went into the nursery to help settle in her younger daughters.
Two years after her marriage, she had been delivered of a girl, Charlotte Rose, Lottie to her family. Only eighteen months later she had born a son, William John. He was followed in two-year increments by Catherine Ann and Mildred Grace. Believing she had done her duty, and not wishing to die in childbirth as her years increased alongside her womb’s fecundity, Charlotte told her husband she wished for no more children. Having birthed four babes, he couldn’t possibly expect more of her.
Mr. Collins acquiesced as she knew he would and no more was said about it.
Unfortunately, when young William was but five years old, he succumbed to a fever and was buried in the churchyard. Charlotte was devastated.
Within a year of his death, at thirty-seven years of age, Charlotte was with child. When she delivered a boy, she thanked God she would be spared further confinements. Lying in bed exhausted and spent, so happy and relieved was she that she didn’t hear her husband clearly at first when he suggested a name for the babe. She cuddled the white bundle closer to her and asked again what he had said.
“William, after his father. It’s fitting, don’t you think?” Mr. Collins said with an obsequious smile.
He clearly had no idea of his suggestion being denied.
“We already had a son called William. Do you not remember, Mr. Collins?” she asked, her voice calm.
She remembered perfectly. How his skin had felt so hot and yet so thin, his cheeks flushed and his forehead clammy. She remembered how he had struggled for breath as she held him, praying with every fiber of her being for God to spare her only son. How she had bargained with fate, promising to be the best mother, the best wife, if only her boy would live! And how lost she had felt when the last ragged breath had left his body limp in her arms, his eyes unmoving, his chest eerily still.
She had let out a mighty wail the likes of which Hunsford had never heard, lost to everything but the profundity of her grief. She had not been practical Charlotte in that moment. She had been nothing but a mother, deprived of her life’s greatest achievement and proudest joy.
Her husband’s idiotic rambling brought her back to the conversation and his insulting suggestion.
“Well, yes, but, as the boy is no longer with us, a man wants his name to carry on, that is, I am his father…”
He spluttered on and Charlotte settled her eyes on the window, the church just visible in the distance, and next to it, the churchyard that held her beloved boy in its peaceful clasp.
“No, Mr. Collins, we will not,” she said simply.
He looked at her stupidly for a moment, but her eyes remained fixed on the window.
“What was that, my dear?” he asked.
“We will not name him William.”
“But surely, I am his father, my name, I must—”
“No,” she said forcefully. “I have already birthed and buried a son called William. There will not be another.”
Mr. Collins stood gaping at her, his mouth opening and closing like a fish.
“I shall call him Lucas George, after my family and my grandfather.” She looked at the baby fondly. “He was always kind to me.”
Mr. Collins had left the room then, and she had written it in the family Bible before he could argue further.
He never came to her rooms again. Charlotte did not find it a hardship.
Charlotte dragged her thoughts back to the present and instructed Molly, the maid that helped with the children, on who was to sleep in which bed and where to put the children’s things. She was very much looking forward to hiring a governess for the girls, now that their income was increased. She had already placed an advertisement and expected letters of inquiry to arrive any day. Lady Catherine had offered to find someone suitable for her, but Charlotte had demurred and said she would handle it herself.
She stepped into the hall and found Lottie standing outside the door of a soft blue bedroom with a glorious view of the gardens and a stream beyond.
“I think this is the one, Mama,” she said excitedly. “What do you think?”
“Elizabeth? Do you mean Mrs. Darcy? Certainly it is lucky then! I shouldn’t mind marrying a wealthy man from Derbyshire!”
Truly, Charlotte didn’t know where her daughter’s excitability came from. It certainly wasn’t from her.
“Do you like any others?” she asked her daughter.
Mary Bennet came out of another chamber further up the hall and gave them a look Charlotte could not comprehend before descending the stairs. Charlotte sighed and turned her daughter the other direction.
“I like the pink one as well, but the view isn’t as nice.”
They stood in the doorway of a spacious chamber, papered in warm pink, with floral patterned curtains and delicate furniture.
“Lydia and Kitty’s chamber. I think not.”
Charlotte was not a suspicious person, but she wouldn’t want her daughter following in Lydia Wickham’s footsteps. Allowing her daughter to sleep in the wild woman’s previous bedchamber couldn’t be a good idea.
But no more could she allow her to sleep in Elizabeth’s room. Elizabeth, her dear friend, who had refused the very man she herself had married, the man who had fathered her children. Elizabeth, who had held out for a good man and been wildly rewarded for it.
It just felt… wrong somehow, to give her daughter her friend’s room. It should be a guest chamber, or possibly Lucas’s in the future. After all, Elizabeth had always been the son her father never had. If any of Charlotte’s children took Elizabeth’s room, it would be Lucas. The boy who had been the impetus to Charlotte disobeying her husband, whose birth had asserted her will in a way nothing else could have. The son who finally made of Charlotte a woman in her own right.
Yes, that would suit. Lucas would have Elizabeth’s room when he was old enough to leave the nursery. Until then, it would stay as it had been.
“Come, dear.” Charlotte took her daughter’s arm and led her farther up the hall. “What about this room?”
The space was large and airy, with a lovely view of the park and a comfortable window seat. The walls were papered in soft green and the coverlet had delicate pink flowers embroidered over it.
“I thought this a guest chamber. Is it not too large for me?”
“This room belonged to Mrs. Bingley, when she was Jane Bennet. The eldest and most beautiful of the beautiful Bennet sisters,” said Charlotte with a smile. “I think it fitting, do you not?”
Lottie blushed and nodded her head. “It is perfect. Thank you, Mama.” She impetuously threw her arms around her mother and just as swiftly released her to explore her new room.
Charlotte shook her head and went downstairs. Jane’s room was much more appropriate for Lottie. Her conscience was clear.
The first Sunday after their arrival was awkward for Charlotte. Longbourn Village had a small chapel, but had not had a regular rector for decades. The family attended services in Meryton, the same church her parents had attended when they were alive. Her younger brother and his wife and children now sat in the Lucas family pew. When she came to visit in the past, she had sat there with them. Now she would sit in the Bennet pew. She supposed it was the Collins pew now. Would they change the name on the plate at the end of the row? Should she speak to the curate about it, or would her husband manage it?
Shaking off her silly questions, she stepped into the church on the arm of her husband, her children trailing behind. The room had been filled with hushed whispers, as it was before every service, but today they receded to a dull hum when Charlotte entered.
She didn’t know what they had to gawk about. They had known her since she was a tiny child. She was neither a stranger nor particularly interesting. Even though she was new to her position as mistress of Longbourn, everyone had long known she was destined for that role.
There had been some speculation, a few years after she wed, that Mr. Bennet might remarry and father a son. Mrs. Bennet had become ill with a fever and was not likely to live. The town had been abuzz with the news and what it would mean for the area if Mr. Bennet became a widower when everyone had expected Mrs. Bennet to become a widow!
Alas, Mrs. Bennet had rallied, possibly just to spite everyone who had spoken ill of her, making it impossible for her husband to remarry and sire an heir. She still went into Meryton most days to visit her sister, and only the death of her husband had put a stop to her frequent dinner parties.
After Mr. Bennet’s death, Mrs. Collins had told Mrs. Bennet and Mary, the only unmarried daughter, that they may live on in the house for six months, through their deep mourning, and if they needed longer they need only ask. Mr. Collins was not pleased; he had thought six weeks plenty of time for them to bury their patriarch, prepare for mourning, pack up the home they had lived in for decades, secure a new house to live in, and arrange their travel plans. Charlotte had simply told him that what was done was done and that the Bennet women would remain six months and possibly longer. He had huffed uselessly and then left the room, mumbling to himself as he went.
As expected, Mr. Darcy, Mrs. Bennet’s wealthiest son-in-law, had arranged for Mrs. Bennet and Mary to spend the next six months at the seaside. Mrs. Phillips, Mrs. Bennet’s sister, was to accompany them. At the end of that period, the women were to decide if they would like to have a small house in Meryton or relocate to the seaside permanently. Darcy and Mr. Bingley, Mrs. Bennet’s second-wealthiest son-in-law, had agreed to purchase her a small house wherever she chose to live, so long as it wasn’t in Derbyshire.
Mary Bennet had been invited to stay with three of her four sisters, but she had turned each of them down, electing to stay with her mother, though no one was entirely sure why.
Charlotte knew all of this. She was a regular correspondent with Elizabeth Darcy, and even exchanged the occasional letter with Jane Bingley. She should not, and indeed did not, feel guilty over taking Mrs. Bennet’s place in Longbourn and in Meryton society. It was something that had long been expected. Every woman knew that when her husband died, she would move to the dower house or to another home altogether, or possibly with one of her children. It was the way of the world.
And yet, Charlotte did feel a twinge of something when she looked at Mary. Plain Mary Bennet, the small shrub in a garden of bright flowers. Had she been a Lucas, she would have been considered quite pretty, though small and quiet. But the Bennets were famous for their beauty, and pretty simply wasn’t enough to earn her a place in their exalted company.
Jane was, and always had been, something of an angelic presence, ethereal and elegant. Elizabeth was like a bubbling brook—always moving and laughing and bringing life everywhere she went. Kitty was small and slight, not unlike Mary, but Kitty’s wide eyes and pink cheeks gave her an innocent expression, even though she was somewhat temperamental. She had grown into a lovely lady, something Mary had never seemed to do. Lydia had always been brash and exuberant and somewhat crass. Age had robbed some of her beauty, but no daughter of Frances Bennet could ever completely lose her bloom, and Lydia retained some of that robustness that had been so attractive in her youth.
Mary was smart and useful and while not particularly warm, she was not unkind. She efficiently managed her mother, and Charlotte knew that was no small feat. She had been doing so since her sister Kitty married fourteen years ago. And yet, Mary did not wish to live with her sisters, nor had she made much effort to catch a husband. Charlotte could understand not wanting to live with family. That was why she had married, was it not? She had not wanted to be a burden to her brother. He was still supporting her youngest brother in the army and her baby sister who had just turned three and twenty. She would have to remember to help forward a match for her.
But why had Mary not wanted to marry? Charlotte had long suspected that Mary would have accepted Mr. Collins had he offered for her. It was Mrs. Bennet’s folly in pushing him toward Elizabeth. She understood that since Jane was taken and Elizabeth was next in age it made a sort of sense for it to be Elizabeth, and Mrs. Bennet probably relished the idea of getting her least favorite daughter off her hands, but Charlotte couldn’t help but see how obviously foolhardy the whole scheme had been.
Anyone with the smallest skills in observation could have told Mrs. Bennet that Elizabeth was likely to say no and that Mr. Bennet would support his favorite daughter in her refusal. But even if Elizabeth had said yes, would Mrs. Bennet really have wanted to live at Longbourn with her second daughter? Did she honestly think Elizabeth would have let her get away with anything? She would have had a reduced allowance, limited access to the carriage, and absolutely no power. Frances Bennet would not have liked that at all.
If she was looking for a daughter to save the estate, she would have done better to promote one of her more malleable daughters, like Kitty, or one who at least felt a strong sense of familial duty, like Mary or Jane. To Charlotte’s mind, the only worse choice for Mr. Collins would have been Lydia, who would have refused him as well but in a much less gracious manner. She could understand that Jane was involved with Mr. Bingley and that she had a good chance of securing a wealthy man with her beauty, but that still left Mary and Kitty as better choices. Why on earth did Mrs. Bennet promote Elizabeth? Silly, ridiculous woman.
And there Charlotte felt the source of her guilt. Mary would have been a good wife to Mr. Collins, possibly better than she had been. Yes, Charlotte was very good at managing him and she liked to think she kept him from embarrassing himself more than another woman could have done, but did that contribute to his happiness? And she had barred him from her bedroom several years ago. She knew with certainty that particular action had not contributed to Mr. Collins’ felicity. Would Mary have been a better wife? More able to bear his speeches and his intimate company? Or would they have sunk into a well of pedantic morality together?
They would never know, of course. Charlotte intended to live a long and happy life, greatly outstripping her husband if she could manage it. But she could have done differently. When Mr. Collins walked with her, that first time after his proposal to Elizabeth had been refused, she could have pushed him toward Mary. But she hadn’t. She had thought she was such a good friend, occupying Mr. Collins when Jane and Elizabeth needed a break from his company, but never trying to secure him for herself even though the opportunity was plainly there. He was a man looking for a wife and ready to fall in love with the first woman who encouraged him. She was looking for a solvent husband with decent prospects. But Charlotte had held back, not willing to poach her friends’ territory.
Mr. Collins was a Bennet cousin, in line to inherit the Bennet estate, and desirous of marrying a Bennet daughter. She knew it was a great wish of Mrs. Bennet. She could have told him Elizabeth was not the right wife for him and to count himself lucky the lady had seen that before it was too late; he would do much better with Mary. She could have told him to try the third sister, pushed him in Mary’s direction, sung her praises and told him what a good match it would be. He would have listened to her, as he always did. But no, once she perceived her duty fulfilled with Elizabeth’s refusal, she had viewed Mr. Collins as a fair prospect.
But he was not.
He belonged to the Bennets, and to them he returned. She was naught but a poacher. And Mary knew it. Apparently, so did most of Meryton.
She held her head high and walked to the Bennet pew. She supposed it was a small mercy that Mary and Mrs. Bennet had already left for the seaside. Sharing the pew would have been very awkward. Now, there would be six months for the town to become accustomed to the Collins family in that row before Mrs. Bennet returned and took her place beside them.
Charlotte looked at the plate on the end of the pew and was surprised to see it had already been changed. She had planned to speak to the curate about it after the services, but it was no longer necessary. Where the pew had read BENNET in bold letters, it now said Longbourn in a flowing script. She couldn’t help the way her lips pursed on their own at the sight. Did they mean to slight her or her husband by not using the name Collins? Or was it a simple reminder that Longbourn was the seat of the Bennet family, and that they belonged to the estate, not the other way around?
Choosing to let the insult slide, at least for now, Charlotte settled in the younger children and awaited the sermon.
Her first weeks as mistress passed as she expected. She ordered new coverings for several windows and the furniture in the main drawing room. A governess was chosen for her children, and she commissioned a family portrait along with individual miniatures of each of her children. She was so pleased with the result that she asked the artist to come back in two years’ time to paint her eldest daughter for her come out.
Charlotte’s income was increased by such a degree that she didn’t entirely know what to do with all of it. The expenses were higher, as was expected with a home so much larger than the parsonage, but Charlotte was long used to economizing and had managed to put aside a little money for her daughters’ dowries even while living on a more restricted income. Now, she was putting away a clear twenty-five percent, the majority of which was marked for young Lottie. She would be coming out soon, and Charlotte was determined that her daughter would have choices of her own. She would have a few thousand pounds, enough to make her attractive to a suitor of at least some means. She did not always understand her romantic eldest child, but she did hope for the best for her. And that included a better husband than her father.
She had lately been considering whether she ought to send Lottie to a seminary for a year before she came out. And of course there was the question of whether or not she would be presented. She knew her parents would have wanted it. Her father had been knighted, after all, and her mother presented as his wife. Charlotte herself had never been and could therefore not sponsor her daughter, but she thought Elizabeth or Jane might be willing to do it, especially if Lizzy’s daughter was coming out at the same time.
She must prepare to see her daughters safely into marriage. After all, Lottie would be out in less than two years, then Cathy and Millie just a few years later. Maybe it was the air in Longbourn, but Charlotte was beginning to feel some sympathy for Mrs. Bennet.
In hopes of making a favorable impression and endearing herself to the neighborhood, Charlotte thought she should host an event for her most prominent neighbors. Netherfield had been bought by the younger son of a wealthy landowner and he and his wife had had the Collinses to a dinner party. They were a bit younger than Charlotte, but amiable and willing to be pleased. She had spent the entire evening keeping Mr. Collins from extolling the virtues of Lady Catherine and the joys of being a landed gentleman, but it was not entirely unpleasant.
They had a son a few years older than her youngest daughter, and she would like to be on good terms with them. A dinner party seemed too bland and not entirely appropriate to host in the home of the recently deceased Mr. Bennet. Charlotte was wearing lavender and purple, out of respect for the man she had inherited an estate from, and Mr. Collins still sported a black band on his arm, but after so long a time no one could expect them to refrain from all society. Still, a dinner party did not seem wise. Mrs. Bennet had been famous for them and for all her silliness, the woman had known how to set a good table. Charlotte did not want her first event to be compared unfavorably to Mrs. Bennet’s.
Her father had loved to entertain and always held parties: balls, musical evenings, gatherings in the garden. He was the most sociable man in Meryton and had left large shoes to fill. Her brother was not inclined to do so and she feared what Mr. Collins might do if he thought it a good idea to take his father-in-law’s place.
Finally, she knew what she should do. She would host a picnic! The weather was fine this time of year and the larder was filled with fresh produce from the gardens. She would set to work with her daughters in making sachets to give all of the ladies and would think of something for the men. Bookmarks, perhaps? She would make her own mark on Hertfordshire society and they would see she was not a usurper with an obnoxious husband, but a valuable member of the neighborhood with much to offer besides her obsequious husband and entailed estate.
Charlotte and Lottie spent hours sorting out the details of the picnic and writing out invitations. They had decided to include children in the event and Lottie had begged her mother to allow her to be in charge of the children’s games. Charlotte had agreed and by the time the day of the picnic arrived, all was in order.
There were blankets and cushions scattered under the old oak trees along the river a good distance from the house. A pleasant breeze filled the air and servants bustled about, making sure the entertainments for the children were in order and the food was laid out. Charlotte looked at it all in satisfaction, certain that her efforts would show the neighborhood that the Collins family was an advantageous addition.
The families arrived and all was well for the first two hours. Mr. Collins was leading a group of elderly gentleman in a game of croquet and Lottie was helping the small children fly a kite on the far hill. The food was fresh, the company fine, and the weather perfect. Just as she was about to congratulate herself, she heard a woman cry out from a blanket on the other side of the tree. Walking over to see what the matter was, she heard another cry and a man shout.
Rounding the large trunk, she saw the finely dressed mistress of Netherfield and her visiting cousin being helped to their feet by the former’s husband, all looking decidedly put out. As they were straightening, the man called out again and brushed the shoulders of his jacket, as if to dislodge something unpleasant. Confused as to what was happening, Charlotte followed the sound of childish giggles into the branches above and gasped. Her seven-year-old son Lucas and his eight-year-old cousin John were sitting on a branch, an ancient watering can between them. When they could stop laughing long enough, they sprinkled rain on the unsuspecting adults beneath them.
Feeling her face flush red with embarrassment and anger, Charlotte hissed at the boys to come down that instant. She hastily apologized to her wet guests and was sure they were about to laugh at the childish prank when a loud shout caught her attention. She turned around in time to see Lottie, her hat half-fallen from her head, chasing wildly after the youngest Goulding boy, who was running full speed at them with a kite string in hand, an unfamiliar dog careening after him. The boy was so small it was clear the kite was guiding him rather than the other way around. Lottie was desperately trying to stop him, or the dog, but had been unsuccessful so far.
The boy and then the dog ran through two blankets filled with lounging neighbors who squealed in their wake, plates crunching beneath their feet and food flying every direction. Lottie was desperately trying to stop them and maintain lady-like decorum at the same time and succeeding at neither.
Charlotte closed her eyes in humiliation, then quickly rushed forward to grab the child as he passed her near a food-laden table. She succeeded in stopping young Thomas Goulding from running headlong into the river and the dog dutifully stopped next to her once he saw his charge was safe. The watching partygoers broke out into spontaneous applause and Charlotte smiled at them begrudgingly and was about to make a witty comment when a loud voice cried out.
Next to her, a croquet ball flew through the air and plopped perfectly into the punch bowl, covering Charlotte and young Thomas in a great red splash. Charlotte spluttered as old Mr. Long and Mr. Collins rushed to her side. She stood gaping and shocked, dripping punch from her hat and face, while her husband prattled away an apology about the ball getting away from them and how lucky it was that the ball had not broken the bowl. His speech made so little sense Charlotte wasn’t sure which of the two men had hit the ball, but decided it didn’t matter. Young Thomas was licking the punch from his lips and chin as his mother apologized profusely and tugged him away, calling for his nurse. Charlotte’s only consolation was that it had not been her child, nor her dog, that ran so recklessly through the picnic.
She picked up a napkin and dabbed at her face, trying to find a dignified way of excusing herself when she was saved by an angel of mercy.
“This has been such a lovely day, Mrs. Collins, but I believe it looks like it will rain soon. We will take our leave now to avoid a drenching,” said the elderly Mrs. Long. “Thank you so much for such an enjoyable afternoon.”
Charlotte smiled and tried to look dignified and polite with red punch dripping from her hat. “It has been a pleasure seeing you again, Mrs. Long. Thank you for attending.”
The other families followed suit, all claiming to hope to avoid the coming inclement weather without sparing a glance at the clear blue skies. Within fifteen minutes, the guests were gone, without receiving their painstakingly made sachets and bookmarks, and Charlotte was halfway back to Longbourn, fuming, mortified, and desperate for a bath.
She had never thought being mistress of an estate would be such a trial—nor so sticky. Worst of all, she was sure the Collins family was fixed in the minds of the neighbors as the most ridiculous family to ever inhabit Meryton—and that was saying something.