Letter 29 - Mr. Collins

Miss Adeline Westley
23 rue Saint Paul

12 February 1903

Dearest Addie,

It is cruel that we should be apart at a time like this. I cannot express fully the utter helplessness I feel, Addie, while you are in such a delicate state and all that is in my power to do is scribble on bits of paper. If I ever have the misfortune to lay eyes on that presumptuous bastard I shall cheerfully channel all of my strength into damaging every bit of him that I can reach! I have so many questions, Addie, but I do not wish to burden you with them. Perhaps it is better that you do not remember much of your ordeal. The important thing is that you are safe now. And you needn't apologize to me, dearest, for your brazen tongue or anything else. You are right, of course, I am not there, and cannot know the extent of your sufferings. It was rather supercilious of me to assume that I knew more about your uncle and your own mother than you do. It is I who must beg forgiveness, and ask that you not judge me too harshly for my pretentiousness. I hope it is not equally imperious of me to refute your assertion that a marriage to that bastard would be no worse than finding yourself the wife of Mr.Rousseau or the young Mr. Fortescue--you musn't think such a thing, Addie, it is patently untrue! But I do not blame you for feeling disillusioned. I only wish to comfort you, and convince you that all is not lost. Please do not lose hope, Addie.

What Peter thinks of your misadventure I cannot say, for I have not had the opportunity to relate it to him. He has left us, Addie. He did not return for dinner on the evening of the day I overheard his argument with Stuart, nor did he return at all for several more days. Mum and Dad were quite worried, although Dad--being used to Peter's regular absences for travel--took a rather less hysterical approach than Mum. Poor Mum was frantic, but my ungrateful brother had not the decency to inform her that he had taken a small flat in Victoria Street two weeks previously and, I can only assume in a fit of bad temper, chosen that notable day to take up residence there. When he at last deigned to alleviate our fears by honouring us with his presence--or rather, when he at last realized that he really couldn't do without certain personal effects that he had left behind--he had the grace to apologize to Mum for upsetting her, but would not be budged from his decision to leave us. This was not entirely unexpected, as he has threatened it for the better part of a year, ever since he returned from Oxford, but Mum's pleading (and I should think her excellent cooking, no doubt) were enough to keep him home until now. I must admit, Addie, that I had been wracked with worry myself, but my brother felt no need to apologize to me. He departed with those few items he had come to collect, and could only be coaxed into a commitment to return for Sunday dinners after much effort on Mum's part and a rather stern look from Dad. His parting comment, thrown over his shoulder as he took his leave, was, "Don't be anxious if I miss a Sunday or two, Mum, I'll likely be taking a good many overnight excursions for Mr. Morgan." I only just managed to restrain myself from kicking him the rest of the way out of the Mews. I realized at that moment, Addie, as I watched him disappear around the corner, that I could hardly take the vague accusations of such an inconsiderate wretch over the most excellent and worthy conduct of my own dear Stuart, and decided then and there to put the argument from my mind. We have seen Peter only occasionally since that time, and I know Mum suffers because of it, although she attempts to hide it. I shall likely regret telling you this, Addie, but Peter did ask after you--it was the first Sunday he materialized in the Mews for dinner, three weeks ago Sunday. He asked, but I considered him unworthy of knowing--him having ignored you these nine months! I only told him you are "as well as can be expected," and then added, "If you wish to know more--here's an idea, Peter--write to her yourself," and we spoke no more on the subject.

Addie, I have so much of interest to tell you. I hope it will distract you from your current troubles and aide in your speedy recovery. As you may well have guessed, I never did confront Stuart about the things I overheard. Indeed, I had been so concerned about Peter's welfare during those first days after his disappearance that Stuart certainly could not have known that a portion of my anxiety was owing to my doubts concerning himself. But after I made the decision to trust Stuart regardless, my mind was much more at ease. Nothing seemed amiss at all over the days and weeks that followed. Stuart was obliged to spend a good deal of time with his father, Sir John having been in ill health most of the season and Stuart being his favourite companion. But in all the intervening days we succeeded in entertaining ourselves with a variety of outings, visits, and social events. Saturday last I persuaded Stuart to accompany me to Portobello Road, as Emily Carrington had recommended that the particular type of silver napkin ring I was seeking could be obtained for a good price from a certain tradesman who made his living selling his wares at the Market. Stuart and I were having such larks watching a funny old buffer (who was peddling pins and ribbons from a cart) spoon feed and dress his Scottish Terrier exactly as if the old dog were a baby, when Stuart was hailed from the other side of the square. "Hill, is that you, old man?" I looked up to see a tall, rather well-dressed young gentlemen approaching. "Good afternoon," he said genially, extending his hand to Stuart. Stuart hesitated for a fraction of a second before taking it and turned his head slightly in my direction as he said, "Yes, it's been a long time ... ?" "Collins," the young man provided, smiling still more widely. Stuart seemed to flinch a little at the name, but replied quite affably, "Yes, of course ... Collins." The man then turned to me, although his words were directed at Stuart. "And aren't you going to introduce me? If you don't mind my saying so, Hill, she is exquisite. Is she yours?" Stuart, who had been wary up to this point, was suddenly relaxed and seemed almost bored. "You might say so, Collins. May I introduce you to Miss Bristow? Miss Bristow, Mr. Collins. I hope you've been well, old chap. It seems ages since I've seen you." Mr. Collins did not take his eyes from me, nor release my hand, which I had offered after Stuart's introduction. He simply continued to stare at me in such a way as to make me feel rather exposed and uncomfortable. I didn't know why Stuart didn't seem in the least bothered by this forward behaviour, and underneath my discomfiture I became aware of a spark of anger. Finally, Collins relinquished my hand and cast an eye up at Stuart, who was looking particularly nonchalant. "No chance you'll share, then?" Stuart appeared to be preoccupied with something behind me, and I stole a glance over my shoulder to see what had his attention. Addie, I was shocked to see a rather dirty-looking, attractive young girl returning Stuart's stare with interest from across the street. She was hawking jewelry from a small tray hung round her slim neck, although she was presently ignoring the rather plump lady inspecting her wares. I regarded Stuart in open bewilderment for a moment, then schooled my face into a more dignified expression for the benefit of Mr. Collins, who was still waiting for Stuart to answer him, and grinning rather stupidly at him. Tearing his gaze away from the dirty girl, Stuart bestowed an apologetic smile on Mr. Collins and said only, "I don't much fancy a buttered bun, Collins. But to each his own, I say. Well, it's good to see you're alive and well. Are you staying in the city?" "For a short time, yes. I find that the cuisine available in the city improves greatly upon bread and butter pudding. Indeed, I intend to consume as much baisers de Vierge as I can before I take my leave. I should be delighted to see you again--and your charming fiancée." Mr. Collins made a slight bow as he tipped his hat and turned on his heel, eyeing me again and winking at Stuart before he strolled across the street to speak to the wretched girl, who immediately began trying to interest him in a gold ring from her tray. As soon as Mr. Collins was well away from us I did my best to scald Stuart with a look of highest indignation. "I am sure," I said calmly, "you must have an explanation for your outrageous behaviour just now." Stuart merely closed his eyes and turned his face toward the sky, flexing his neck and managing to look supremely unaffected. I began to tremble. Addie, who was this man? My anger was slipping into despair as I looked at my dear Stuart, who was obviously not in the least concerned about the way I had been treated. Attempting to pull myself together, I began timidly, "Stuart, I don't understand--" but he interrupted me almost immediately, and with such hostility that it felt like a physical blow. "No, you bloody well don't understand. You never do. You think because you went to that ridiculous joke of a school that you know what it's like to be a man, but you don't. So I beg you to please keep your pathetically naive opinions and puzzlements to yourself in future. I haven't the patience to bother with them." He had raised his voice, Addie, and I'm sure everyone on the street must have been staring at us. For myself, I could hardly believe my ears. I couldn't seem to form a coherent thought, much less speak, so I simply stood there, looking at the cobblestones, until at length Stuart let out an exasperated snort, grabbed me roughly by the elbow, and steered me off down the street in the opposite direction from Mr. Collins and the girl.

Stuart said nothing more, but turned me in a homeward direction and proceeded to walk swiftly, a little ahead of me, in what I felt to be a ponderously weighty quiet. The journey home, though less than two miles, seemed to me endless. It was as though my very soul was alternately struggling for some form of understanding and solace, then crumpling inward on itself as no help or comfort presented itself. I was rather pathetic, of course, Addie, but Stuart had been my world. I was able to disbelieve Peter's pettish accusations, but this--I had seen this with my own eyes, heard it all too clearly with my own ears! How could I discount my own senses, Addie? And the continuing silence from Stuart was confirming and solidifying my every fear. The closer we drew to the Mews, the more sure I became. Stuart did not love me. Stuart had never truly regarded me very highly, and had now grown tired of me. Each step we took together in silence seemed to stamp these horrifying truths more irrevocably into my agonized consciousness. He would leave me. He would become enamored of someone else, perhaps a high born lady who had not been so ridiculous as to seek an education beyond the ladylike pursuits of music and needlework. It was over. Which is why I was so extraordinarily taken aback when, the moment we left Westbourne for the Mews, Stuart seemed to collapse as if he had been bound and had suddenly found his bonds released. Before I had time to notice that he was no longer walking stonily at my side I looked down to see him crouched on the cobbled street, Addie, clutching the hem of my dress as if he were in agony and the only comfort he could hope for was the touch of the Poiret in his hands. Addie, it was such a shock to see him like that ... but I had been so devastated, so despairing ... I hadn't time to think of anything to say. Our entire acquaintance, our brief but delightful courtship, all of my shining plans for our future lay in smoldering ruins because of what he had just done, and now he was groveling at my feet? I could only stare at him, completely bewildered, as he raised his eyes to my face and said, in the most plaintive tones I have ever heard him use, "Forgive me, Maisie!" It pleased me a little, to see him so repentant, but it also frightened me. I have never seen Stuart so vulnerable, and it made me rather uncomfortable. "I didn't mean a word of it," he buried his face in my skirt so that his next words were muffled, "I beg you, Maisie, please." Unable to stand it any longer, I urged him to get up off the street, but he refused. "Not until you say you have forgiven me." I could hear Dad whistling to himself in the stables, Addie, I knew he might emerge into the alley at any moment, and I couldn't bear the thought of him witnessing this scene. It didn't take me long to make my decision. I knelt down next to Stuart and took his head in my hands, letting my fingers run gently over his shapely ears and his smooth, dark hair. He was so handsome, so utterly without guile in that moment, and in such apparent anguish. I laid my head on his and whispered, "I forgive you, dearest--of course I forgive you! Now please get up." I was not at all sure what to expect, all things considered, but Stuart seemed to recover immediately. He straightened up, lifting me up with his hand round my waist as he did so; he smiled slightly, but looked rather like a man who has just passed through the worst of a terrible illness--content, but with an air of well-earned exhaustion. He kissed my hair fondly, and whispered, "It shan't happen again, Maisie. Never." It was perplexing indeed, but his regret seemed so sincere that my ill feelings melted away as swiftly as they had come, leaving only confusion behind. A little afraid to ask, I managed to stammer, "But, why?" He pulled me close to him, and said, matter-of-factly, "Lost my head, little love. I never did much like Collins at Oxford. He ... inspires the worst in me."

It played out that Stuart had been invited away for dinner that evening with his father and some of his father's friends, so I was left with Mum and Dad to spend the remainder of the day seized by various mental fits of worry and wonder. It was a great relief when, next day, Stuart arrived for tea and was in excellent spirits, despite having injured himself after falling off his horse while out riding with his father. He was the same dear, affectionate, laughing Stuart I had become accustomed to, and no trace of the cruel and arrogant version of yesterday could I detect. It is as Mum told me when I expressed some little of my confusion over his behaviour--"Marriage is much more complex than you are likely to have suspected, Maisie, and men ever more so." So I must conclude that, as long as Stuart does not behave himself poorly on a consistent basis--as long as he recognizes and apologizes for his occasional follies--I must forgive him, and still consider myself fortunate to have gained the affections of a man who can at least recognize his less noble actions and attempt to make up for them. It isn't foolish of me, is it, Addie? Because marrying Stuart doesn't feel like foolishness ... it feels like the most wonderful gift I could have hoped for, in spite of our difficulties. Stuart was an excellent companion the entirety of the evening, for he stayed for dinner as well, although I was rather frustrated at his reaction to an exasperating episode which occurred in the interval between tea and dinner, while Stuart and Dad were discussing the various injuries they had sustained while riding, and both of them were in high humor. I had been listening, thoroughly amused at Stuart's exaggerated reenactment of his most recent injury, when I happened to glance at the day's copy of the Times, which was lying on the chesterfield, I presume where Dad had left it. A familiar face caught my eye, staring vaguely up at me from a small photograph on the open page. It was Mr. Collins, the very same man who had inspired such uncharacteristic rudeness in Stuart. Upon closer inspection of the accompanying article, I realized, to my horror, that the man's body had been discovered, his throat crushed, in a small room above a pub on Wapping Wall. The room had not been let to the dead man, however, for the body had been discovered by the rightful tenant early that morning, when said tenant had arrived home after a night of carousing. Although I had no special affection for Mr. Collins, indeed the memory of him is loathsome to me in the extreme, I could not help but feel a pang of pity for him. How horrible, Addie, for any man. Curiously, the article stated that the man was unidentified. And, more curious still, Stuart exhibited very little interest in the whole affair. When I showed him the picture and expressed the assumption that, surely, he would want to go down to the morgue and identify the poor fellow, he squinted at it for a moment and then said, "Don't excite yourself, Maisie, that's never my old chum Collins. Bit of a ringer, I suppose. That's all," and went back to his conversation with Dad. No matter how I insisted, Addie, he would have none of it--although he was more amused than put out. In fact, he and Dad teased me mercilessly the remainder of the evening, suggesting that my liking for newspaper serials was affecting my good sense, and that I was allowing myself to get caught up in my own dramatic imaginations. At one point Stuart declared that it could hardly have been the man we met, since I had seen him only yesterday, hale and hearty as you please. To which I replied, "A healthy constitution is all well and good, Stuart, but it will hardly protect a man from having his throat bashed in for him!" It was really too vexing. I am sure it was Collins, Addie. I shall never forget that vacant, handsome face. I am not exactly sorry that he is dead, although I wouldn't wish it on him. But it was rather disconcerting to recall his smiling, insipid expression, and then compare it to the empty stare in the morgue photograph.

I'll close here, Addie dearest, for I have spent far too much time in writing this letter already, and I am anxious to post it with all haste, in hopes that it will reach you swiftly and find you well. Please write soon.


Maitland Bristow

14 Bathurst Mews


Cheryl said...

Stuart! No!
Man, this keeps getting better and better...

Amy Joy said...

OHHH! That was good.
I can't wait to hear what Stuart's involvement is.

P.S. I want to wear Poiret. You taught me something ;) OK so I have a lot to learn.

Sticht Fam said...

I love it! What's up with Stuart and Peter? How can she forgive that sneaky Stuart? I don't trust him.