The church door flew open and footsteps resounded through the church, forcing its lethargic inmates into sudden animation. Mr Collins, whose sermon on fire and brimstone had taken on a decidedly monotonous rhythm, was awakened into new fervour. His eyes rounded and his voice rose, ringing with conviction now that he had found a target for his wrath. Even his conviction, however, did not regain him his audience, for the congregation turned en masse to survey the newcomers. Heads turned, necks stretched, and hats fluttered. Twittering echoed around the stone pillars.
Mr Collins tried his best to ignore these disturbing signs of inattention. He proved himself worthy of his position indeed, for he did not falter for an instant and, when the restlessness of his flock became too apparent, he turned his eyes on the one person who was worthy of the benefit of his words-indeed, had had a hand in suggesting those very words-his noble patroness Lady Catherine de Bourgh. She sat rigidly upright in her pew and kept her gaze calmly fixed upon him. Her daughter Anne, though generally too sickly to be curious, shifted in her seat so that she could sneak a glance at the new arrivals, until a sharp pinch forced her to recall the gravity of their elevated stature.
But, at last, even Lady Catherine de Bourgh herself could not ignore the disturbance, for the newcomers, instead of squeezing silently into whatever empty bench they could find, came straight in her direction and signalled for her to shift down towards the other side of the family pew. Lady Catherine, torn between the diminished dignity of moving from her accustomed seat or the prospect of causing a scene in the Lord's presence, moved closer to her daughter. At this insult to his dear patroness, Mr Collins stuttered, not once, but twice, an event of such unprecedented magnitude that he succeeded in drawing all attention back to himself again.
"I am sorry we were tardy, Lady Catherine. I know we wrote that we would arrive before church today," said a cheerful young voice in a loud whisper. Those closest to Lady Catherine's pew strained to listen above Mr Collins's voice, and a few turned to convey her words to the ears of their less fortunate neighbours. An elderly lady's voice could be heard complaining forcefully that no one ever told her anything. "What is the young lady saying?" She received several disgruntled looks.
"One of our horses was lamed," continued the young lady, "and we had to wait until a fresh one could be brought. It took forever." Mr Collins fixed a quelling look at the young lady in question. She was apparently chastised, for she said nothing more. But no sooner had Mr Collins resumed the familiar flow of his sermon than the young gentleman leaned across his sister and added in a whisper, "I hope we have not missed too much of the service," he remarked. "My watch must have been stolen by pickpockets when we stopped in Bromley, for I could not find it, and I have no idea of the time." Lady Catherine did not deign to reply. Mr Collins paused in the middle of a sentence and cleared his throat.
Georgiana Darcy, who was sitting to the right of Anne, wished Mr Collins would simply ignore the newcomers, instead of drawing even more attention to them. Her party seemed to have become the focus of all eyes. If only their pew faced forward, instead of standing sideways where everyone in the congregation could see them! She squirmed in her seat, trying her best to look unruffled. If only she were sitting with her brother, Darcy, whose tall form was partly hidden by a pillar.
Such thoughts did not avail her, however, for there she was, with all eyes turned towards her group. She needed to project an air of calm dignity. She grasped her hands together in her lap and concentrated on practising serenity.
One pair of eyes-dark and insistent-stood out from the sea of eyes turned towards her. Her tremulous serenity collapsed. A glance across the empty space to the pew opposite theirs-one of the pillars of the community, clearly-revealed the source. A dark-haired, impeccably dressed young gentleman was watching her-not the others, but her in particular. His knowing gaze rested on her deliberately, and she had the uncomfortable sensation of being evaluated. She looked away quickly at the sea of eyes to her left. She preferred them to that one single evaluation. But looking away did not help, for she could still feel the touch of that steady gaze upon her. Unable to resist, she turned to him again. He nodded at her politely, with a hint of a smile that suggested sympathy with her predicament. She flushed this time, flustered more by his pity than by anything else that had transpired.
Fortunately, by now the new arrivals appeared sufficiently cowed by Mr Collins or Lady Catherine or both, for neither of them uttered a sound until it was time to sing the next hymn, upon which they sang with voices like angels.