Fun and Games
A Hobbit's Tale: Part IV by Lillian C.
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Mrs. Bennet proved to be a rather poor judge of health, for the very morning after her visit to Netherfield, Jane was sufficiently improved to leave her room. It was settled between Jane and Elizabeth that they would return to Longbourn the following day, much to the delight of the latter who was anxious to be free from the company of a certain proud elf lord.
Binglorn, though overjoyed to see Jane well enough to leave her room, was not a little dismayed to find her determined to remain but a day longer. He pleaded with her to delay her departure so as not to needlessly endanger her health, but Jane was firm. Finding her so resolute, he decided to hire a conveyance from Bree with which he would see the Miss Bennets safely home.
Among the feelings Darcë felt upon hearing of the eminent departure, relief was actually the most prominent. He was exceedingly disturbed by the emotions that Elizabeth Bennet's presence aroused within himself, and common sense told him that for the greater good of everyone she could not too soon take her leave.
At the dinner table, a contented smile was stretched across Mr. Bennet's face as he saw that the seats to his left and right were no longer vacant. To be confined for several days in a house with four silly females was such a sore trial for him that he had been tempted to remain permanently in his bedchamber and assume his wife's nervous complaint. Fortunately, his eldest daughters chose to return just in time to prevent him from taking such desperate measures.***
Mr. Bennet also found an unexpected diversion in a supposedly urgent letter he had received at least two months ago but had not yet been interested in reading. He had it before him at the dinner table, and his chuckling occasionally interrupted the conversation around him. Elizabeth watched her father with a smile but said nothing.
"Pray Mr. Bennet, what is that you have there?" Mrs. Bennet inquired once her curiosity was aroused.
"A letter from the man who will turn you out of the house when I am dead," he nonchalantly replied from behind the parchment.
"OH MR. BENNET!" Mrs. Bennet cried, causing everyone within hearing to wince. She pushed her chair noisily from the table and covered her face with her handkerchief.
"His name is William Collins, and he means to pay us a visit…Judging from the date on the letter, I should expect him within a few days."
"UNDERHILL! MRS.UNDERHILL! MY SMELLING SALTS!"
"Mrs. Bennet, if you will allow me to read his letter aloud, you may find there is little need for you to fall into the depths of despair at present." Mrs. Bennet immediately ceased her convulsions and whimpering and looked at her husband questioningly. "He writes: My dear Mr. Bennet, the knowledge that one day I will be the means of bringing destitution to your amiable wife and daughters pains me to no end, but I assure you that it has always been my fondest wish to offer certain amends for the inevitable. I am pleased to write that I have now the ability to do so, for I have had the great fortune to be distinguished with the patronage of the honorable, magnificent Saruman the White of Isengard, whose position of prestige and great influence in higher matters requires the services of one with exceptional skills in diplomacy and a keen understanding of the world. This most kind, most affable and wisest of patrons has naturally solicited me to assume the position of his agent in the North, believing that my considerable endowments and my connections will be serviceable to him in that region. Thus, I am soon to depart for Eriador and, with the blessing and encouragement of my noble and benevolent patron, will seek to make myself known to the Bennet family."
Evidently pleased with the contents of the letter, Mrs. Bennet beamed and excitedly fluttered her hands about. "What a clever man he must be indeed! Pray do not mention my having disliked him before. If he intends to make any… amends to one of my daughters, I shall be the first to welcome him!"
"Ugh! He sounds like a stuffed pigeon to me!" Lydia remarked with a snort. "And who is Saruman the White of Isengard?"
"A person of very great importance, I would imagine," Mrs. Bennet said thoughtfully. Elizabeth, observing her mother's features with interest, thought she could very well guess at the schemes being fabricated behind them.
"As would Saruman himself," Mr. Bennet replied with a small smile. "He is a wizard but unlike Gandalf the Grey, has taken up a permanent residence."
"Very sensible," Mrs. Bennet commented with a sharp nod. "I do not take well to those who wander about constantly, appearing and disappearing and making other people uneasy!"
"Aye Mama, but a Ranger looks all the better for his wandering ways!" Lydia said, looking slyly across the table towards Kitty who immediately burst into giggles. Lydia promptly joined her.
Mr. Bennet looked between the two girls, his face expressionless, and said, "I am sure I need not take to great wandering to discover that here sit two of the silliest girls in Middle Earth."
A few days after the above conversation, a short, rotund man entered through the gates of Longbourn, riding upon a gaunt, half-starved horse that seemed to groan dejectedly beneath his burden. This man, who was of course Mr. William Collins, held his greasy head high, affecting an air of dignity that contrasted ridiculously with the slow, listless movements of his steed. ***
During the time in which horse and rider traversed the short distance from the gate to the house, the Bennet family had assembled outside to receive their visitor and had had ample opportunity to observe him. Kitty and Lydia exchanged audible whispers, each punctuated with snorts and giggling, and Elizabeth and Jane were constantly forced to check them. Mary and Mr. Bennet each intently studied Mr. Collins' appearance, one with profound contemplation and the other with half-concealed chuckles.
Mrs. Bennet stood before them all, wildly waving her handkerchief about and throwing various exclamations in Mr. Collins' direction: "Oh, what hardships you must have endured to come here! I was so afraid you would be attacked by ruffians or devoured by dragons, and then you would not have been able to come!"
"I should say not, my dear," Mr. Bennet remarked dryly. "You are welcome to Longbourn, Mr. Collins!"
Mr. Bennet was answered with a profuse bow that nearly leveled the poor horse and sent Mr. Collins tumbling upon the drive. The horse remarkably stood firm, however, and with the assistance of the gardener and the stable hand, the huffing and sweating man was set safely upon his feet. As the stable hand led Mr. Collins' horse away, Elizabeth smilingly noted the new spring to its steps.
At first, to some parties, the conversation at dinner that evening could be called somewhat amusing; but by the time the second course was served, it became evident that Mr. Collins had little to say that did not relate to his esteemed patron or his esteemed patron's abode.***
"The Great Saruman the White," he marked the name with a bow of his head and with his hand upon his heart, "is indeed the essence of charity and goodwill, and he has bestowed unspeakably generous distinctions upon myself - I have been invited twice to dine at Orthanc! Oh, I cannot put into words the grandeur of that fortress, but one should expect no less of the residence of such a personage as," his arm extended in a sweeping gesture that unfortunately knocked the contents of Mary's glass into her lap, "Saruman the White!"
"Quite so, I am sure," Mr. Bennet replied with admirable calm despite the commotion. "I see that you are very fortunate in your patron. But, of course, I must assume that the great Saruman the White finds himself equally fortunate in such a servant."
"Ah sir! My abilities, as meager and inconsequent as they may be-I flatter myself-are of no inconsiderable assistance to Saruman. He has told me many a time, as proceeds from his immeasurable goodness, that my presence in Isengard is a great comfort to him."
"I see. Interesting," Mr. Bennet said, throwing a wink towards Elizabeth, who had been hiding her smiling face behind a napkin.
"How very desolated he must have been to send you away such a great distance!" Mrs. Bennet unaffectedly observed. Elizabeth withdrew further behind her napkin.
"Indeed, madam," Mr. Collins agreed with a solemn nod. "But, as my dear patron condescendingly says, if I more useful to him at such a great distance, the sacrifice must be made. However, the sacrifice need not be entirely desolate."
As he spoke, Mr. Collins looked leeringly at Jane who sat across from him. Jane blushed deeply under Mr. Collins' bold gaze and would have shuddered in disgust if her sweet temperament had allowed it.
This silent exchange did not escape the notice of Mrs. Bennet, and when the soonest opportunity arose, she explained as delicately as could be expected that Jane would be very soon engaged. And so, naturally, his eye fell upon Elizabeth.
Jane was taking a turn in the shrubbery with Mary when Elizabeth burst upon them out of breath and with a look of desperation in her eyes. Kitty and Lydia followed soon after.***
"My dear Jane, Mary," Elizabeth greeted as she recovered her breath and composure, "Shall we not all walk to Bree?"
"Indeed, yes! Let us all go!" Lydia insisted. "Rangers have been hard to come by of late, but Kitty and I can share. Can we not, Kitty?"
"If that is to be your errand, then I shall not be of the party," Mary stated primly.
"So much the better! You would spoil our fun! Stay here and entertain Mr. Collins!" Kitty said.
Elizabeth ignored the arguing that ensued and, taking Jane's arm, led her towards the gate. The other three followed without ceasing their bickering.
"But are you well, Elizabeth?" Jane inquired with concern. "Perhaps you should rest this afternoon."
"I shall be quite well once we are off!" Elizabeth briskly replied.
The sisters had not walked five steps from the gate when they began to hear the pursuit of a great deal of huffing and puffing. Elizabeth groaned loudly and quickened her pace.
"My dear Cousin Elizabeth!" Mr. Collins called from the gate. "Ah, all my dear, young cousins! A most welcome surprise! Do allow me to escort you on your walk!"
As the profusely sweaty man approached, Kitty and Lydia shrieked and ran ahead towards Bree. Mr. Collins observed their flight with consternation.
"Is it common for the folk of Bree to allow their children to run wild through the countryside? I know Lord Saruman would most heartily disapprove of such behavior!" he said.
Elizabeth turned away to hide the annoyance that she was certain was clearly written on her face. Jane endeavored to pacify Mr. Collins, assuring him that her father, as a rule, did not permit such behavior in her younger sisters.
"Will you not join us, Mr. Collins?" Mary offered despite Elizabeth's horrified expression. "We are on our way to Bree to visit our Uncle Butterbur."
"I would be happy to accompany my young cousins on their little venture!" In what he felt was an admirably gallant gesture, Mr. Collins quickly took possession of Elizabeth's arm and led the way, fortunately not noticing her grimace. "If I am not mistaken, your Uncle Butterbur is an innkeeper? It is perhaps unfortunate that one so closely connected to you should be in trade, but fear not! I have the remarkable ability-I flatter myself-of adapting my manners to all levels of society. It is a necessary skill for one in my position, I assure you!"
"I can well believe it," Elizabeth replied somewhat absent-mindedly, for she was busily employed searching for a feasible excuse to free her arm from its odious captor.
When the small party arrived at The Prancing Pony, their ears were immediately afflicted with Kitty and Lydia's uproarious laughter. Chagrined, but not in the least surprised, Elizabeth spied her youngest sisters seated among a group of eager listeners near the fire at the far end of the room. At the center of the circle sat a man whom, according to his brown and green weatherworn raiment, Elizabeth assumed to be a Ranger. His visage did not have the grim appearance one would expect of a Ranger, though, and judging from the laughter his stories were evoking from his listeners, he seemed a much merrier sort. In fact, Elizabeth thought him rather handsome.
Seeing her Uncle Butterbur nearby, she at last extricated her arm from Mr. Collins' clammy grasp and hastened to him, intending to learn the identity of the stranger.
"Greetings niece! It is good to see you, but I've no time for chitchat. I have had a great deal of business this week and not a moment for sitting! I do hope you have come to deal with those sisters of yours. Customers always complain about that shrill giggling of theirs, and they are none too kind to the dwarf-folk that come through, always poking fun at their beards and provoking their short tempers. And it's a wonder that Rangers still insist on coming, for those silly girls have run off the last three with their fawning! …Eh? Aye, I believe that fellow is a Ranger, and the most agreeable one that's been seen in these parts! No, I do not know his name, but you may ask yourself this evening. A large supper is being served, and your sisters are determined to stay because the Ranger declares he will join the party. Not to worry, I'll have Nob see you all home this evening. - Nob! Make up some tea for my nieces! No, don't bother about those two. They look too distracted for tea. - Well, I must be off, what with the great many people thinking I will have spare rooms this evening, and supper time is nigh. You and Jane will stay, will you not? I could not bear to be left with your sisters on my hands! I'm a busy man, as I've often reminded them in vain. How does my sister? Her nerves do not try her too often, I trust? Who is that stout fellow you came in with? I don't like the look of him. Needs a bit of soap and water, if you take my meaning…"
At that moment, the said fellow stepped closely behind Elizabeth and loudly cleared his throat. Mr. Butterbur crossed his arms and eyed him severely, clearly not liking the man's close proximity to his favorite niece.
Elizabeth understood Mr. Collins' none too subtle hint and said, "Uncle, this is my father's cousin, Mr. Collins. He has journeyed from the South to pay his respects to my father. Mr. Collins, my Uncle Butterbur."
"Dear sir, it is a great pleasure to meet any relation of my dear Cousin Elizabeth's. I am most charmed by your quaint establishment here. In fact, it puts me in mind of a guardhouse situated by the gates of Orthanc, the magnificent abode of my patron. No doubt a worldly man such as yourself has heard of the illustrious name of Saruman the White of Isengard?…"
Elizabeth left her uncle and cousin to exhaust each other with their powers of oration and found a seat outside the circle of listeners. The Ranger smiled when he noticed her arrival, and Elizabeth could not help blushing.
Lydia turned around in annoyance to see who had diverted the attention of her newest favorite and, seeing it was only one of her elder sisters, exclaimed, "Oh Elizabeth! My darling Ranger here has been telling us the most droll stories!"
"And he must repeat them all for you!" Kitty insisted with a pout. "You will, won't you Wickham?"
Wickham smiled at their eagerness and said, "I will be happy to oblige."
Continue on to Part 5!
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