DURING DINNER, Mr. Bennet scarcely spoke at all; but when the servants were withdrawn, he thought it time to have some conversation with his guest, and therefore started a subject in which he expected him to shine, by observing that he seemed very fortunate in his patroness. Lady Catherine de Bourgh was not only one of the King’s richest servants, but also one of his deadliest. Mr. Bennet could not have chosen better. Mr. Collins was eloquent in her praise, offering that he had never in his life witnessed such self-discipline in a person of rank. Lady Catherine was reckoned proud by many people he knew, but he had never seen anything but a singular dedication to the art of killing zombies. She had always spoken to him as she would to any other gentleman; she made not the smallest objection to his watching her spar nor to his leaving the parish occasionally for a week or two, to visit his relations. She had even advised him to marry as soon as he could, provided he chose with discretion.
“I have oft dreamt of watching Lady Catherine spar,” said Elizabeth. “Does she live near you, sir?”
“The garden in which stands my humble abode is separated only by a lane from Rosings Park, her ladyship’s residence.”
“I think you said she was a widow, sir? Has she any family?”
“She has only one daughter, the heiress of Rosings, and of very extensive property.”
“Ah!” said Mrs. Bennet, shaking her head, “then she is better off than many girls. And what sort of young lady is she? Is she handsome?”
“She is a most charming young lady indeed. Lady Catherine herself says that, in point of true beauty, Miss de Bourgh is far superior to the handsomest of her sex, because there is that in her features which marks the young lady of distinguished birth. She is unfortunately of a sickly constitution, which has prevented her from following her mother’s example in regards to the deadly arts. I fear can she hardly lift a saber, let alone wield one with such skill as Her Ladyship.”
“Has she been presented? I do not remember her name among the ladies at court.”
“Her indifferent state of health unhappily prevents her being in town; and by that means, as I told Lady Catherine one day, has deprived the British court of its brightest ornament. You may imagine that I am happy to offer these little delicate compliments which are always acceptable to ladies.”
“You judge very properly,” said Mr. Bennet. “May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?”
“They arise chiefly from what is passing at the time, and though I sometimes amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.”
Mr. Bennet’s expectations were fully answered. His cousin was as absurd as he had hoped, and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance.
When tea was over, Mr. Bennet was glad to invite him to read aloud to the ladies. Mr. Collins readily assented, and a book was produced; but, on beholding it (for everything announced it to be from a circulating library), he started back, and begging pardon, protested that he never read novels. Kitty stared at him, and Lydia exclaimed. Other books were produced, and after some deliberation he chose Fordyce’s Sermons. Lydia gaped as he opened the volume, and before he had, with very monotonous solemnity, read three pages, she interrupted him with:
“Do you know, mamma, that my Uncle Philips talks of an additional battalion coming to join Colonel Forster’s? My aunt told me so herself on Saturday. I shall walk to Meryton to-morrow to hear more about it, assuming one of my sisters is willing to join me.”
Lydia was bid by her two eldest sisters to hold her tongue; but Mr. Collins, much offended, laid aside his book, and said:
“I have often observed how little young ladies are uninterested by books of a serious stamp. I will no longer importune my young cousin.”
Then turning to Mr. Bennet, he offered himself as his antagonist at backgammon. Mr. Bennet accepted the challenge, observing that he acted wisely in leaving the girls to their own trifling amusements. Mrs. Bennet and her daughters apologised for Lydia’s interruption, which, claimed Mrs. Bennet, would have earned her ten wet bamboo lashes had she still been under the tutelage of Master Liu. They promised that it should not occur again, if he would resume his book; but Mr. Collins, after assuring them that he bore his young cousin no ill-will, and should never resent her behaviour as any affront, seated himself at another table with Mr. Bennet, and prepared for backgammon.