Posted on: 2011-12-25
"I hope, Mr. Darcy," said Miss Bingley over breakfast at Netherfield, "that you mean to give us a display of your splendid marksmanship."
Mr. Darcy raised his eyebrows slightly. "I wasn't aware that accomplished women took an interest in shooting, Miss Bingley."
She preened slightly. "Accomplished women admire accomplished men, sir, and none shall deny, I hope, that marksmanship is a fine gentleman's accomplishment." She looked around the table almost challengingly, but no one showed any inclination to contradict her.
"I say, Caroline, that's a capital idea!" declared Mr. Bingley. "I haven't seen Darcy shoot in an age."
"On the contrary, you saw me shoot only yesterday."
"Oh, hunting! That's not at all the same."
"Yes, shooting at birds in flight is much easier than shooting wafers," murmured Miss Bennet, who had been listening with interest.
Mr. Darcy, who had somehow ended up sitting near her at the breakfast table, caught her words and his lips twitched. "Quite," he replied in a low tone, surprising her, then addressed the table. "I hardly think very many members of our party would be interested in watching me show off, Bingley."
"Well of course we would," protested Mrs. Hurst on behalf of her sister. "I know I can speak for Mr. Hurst in this and as for Caroline and I, I don't think anything delights us more than a true demonstration of skill."
Mr. Hurst voiced his support and Miss Bingley, of course, was all flattery. Mr. Bingley seemed ready to send for servants to set it up immediately. Mr. Darcy, however, did not appear satisfied. He had noticed the amused serenity of Miss Bennet in all of this. "I do not believe Miss Bennet, for one, has any interest in such a display," he said. "You think it a great folly, I daresay."
She met his eyes and smiled her maddening smile. "That depends, Mr. Darcy, on how fine of a marksman you actually are."
"My dear Eliza," exclaimed Miss Bingley, "Mr. Darcy is one of the first marksmen in all of England! Why, he's renowned for it! Isn't that right, Charles?"
"Perfectly right," he agreed. "He carried off all the honors in school, and even now he's often asked to give a demonstration at house parties. You could say, in fact," he smirked, "that Darcy's part of the in house entertainment."
"In that case," replied Elizabeth, "I should very much enjoy observing. I do so appreciate a little good entertainment."
Accordingly, later that morning, all guests of the house except Miss Jane Bennet assembled on the south lawn, the side most protected from any wind. Fortunately it was a very still day, perfect for shooting. A table had been set up with an array of weapons spread out on it, from pistols to rifles. Instead of pasteboard wafers as targets, the servants had set up a wooden disk on a pole, marked with a center point. A small boy was employed to run up to the target and point out the latest bullet mark after each shot.
Miss Bennet's last mocking remark had put Mr. Darcy on his mettle. He was not, contrary to the opinions of some young ladies, a vain man, and usually downplayed his personal accomplishments, but it could not be denied that her presence at the demonstration may have added to his other inducements to do well.
For about a quarter of an hour he shot the various guns, each by turn, at increasing distances, until the target was set some twenty paces away. He cut a rather fine figure in his tailored clothes, tall and straight, aiming each gun precisely, and, true to Miss Bingley's word, he never missed. The ladies (except Elizabeth), clapped at every successful shot while the gentlemen observed him with an eye that suggested they were attempting to discern his secrets. Darcy endured both with perfect composure and indifference, but it could have been noticed by the observant that he glanced rather often at Miss Bennet, who watched everything with great interest but without appearing unduly impressed.
Presently he stopped to take a break and refresh himself with a glass of lemonade while the servants reloaded and replaced the now bullet-ridden target. While the others crowded around Darcy, Elizabeth strolled over to the table and began to inspect the weapons. One in particular attracted her, a medium sized, pearl handled pistol that had been made by Manton. She picked it up, studying it closely.
Miss Bingley saw what she was doing, and her eyes widened in alarm. "Miss Elizabeth!" she cried, "What do you think you're doing?"
Darcy glanced over sharply and began to stride in her direction.
Elizabeth glanced up. "It's perfectly all right, Mr. Darcy," she said calmly. "I know how to handle a gun."
He halted a few feet from her, looking at her dubiously and obviously ready to lunge for the weapon at any moment. "It is loaded, you know."
"Yes, I assumed as much." She smiled innocently, continuing to finger it.
"Don't be absurd, Eliza!" said Miss Bingley sharply. "Shooting guns is for men only! No lady could possibly do it properly!"
"Do you agree?" Elizabeth asked Mr. Darcy.
He hesitated. "I have known some women who could shoot a pistol reasonably well. The force of the recoil is more than most females are strong enough to control, though, and the noise overpowering. I have seen women break down into tears after attempting it. If you wish to shoot, Miss Bennet, I would suggest something smaller."
She looked at him consideringly. "You think me so faint of heart, Mr. Darcy?"
"Not at all, but you will allow that I have some advantage of experience over you, and that is not a lady's weapon--"
Something about the autocratic way he spoke the words you will allow made up Elizabeth's mind. Casting only one swift, sharp glance at the target (which lay not only twenty paces back, but a few feet to her left), she raised her arm and fired.
Miss Bingley shrieked and Darcy jumped and cursed, leaping to wrest the gun from her hand. "Miss Bennet!" he said sharply, clearly very angry, "This is not a game, madam! This is a dangerous weapon, not a toy. To fire like that, carelessly, when there are so many people about is an act of almost unprecedented foolishness which I would never have believed that you, of all women, would be capable--"
"Uh, Darcy?" said Mr. Bingley.
But Darcy ignored him. "What point were you trying to prove?" he continued furiously, laying the gun down on the table before turning back to her. "Did you really think you could win an argument by behaving like a willful child? I thought you had too much sense to--"
"Darcy!" said Bingley again, more forcibly.
Darcy looked at him impatiently. "Well? What is it?"
He grinned. "Look." He gestured. Following his gaze, Darcy saw that a servant had brought up the new target and to his utter astonishment he further followed the man's pointing finger to a bullet buried neatly in the exact center. For a moment he just stared at it, his mouth slightly agape, and then the color began to rise in his face. Speechless, he looked from it to the woman in front of him, and back to it.
Elizabeth, who had remained perfectly calm during his tirade, just smirked slightly and, moving past him to the table, ran a last, caressing hand over the pistol. "It's a beautiful weapon," she said serenely. "I only wish I had one as fine myself." Then she pulled her shawl a bit more securely around her shoulders and walked back to the spectators, perfectly satisfied in having achieved her point and lowered his pride.
But Mr. Bingley was not about to let either of them get off so easily. "Why didn't you tell us you were a marksman too?" he demanded delightedly. "I've never seen a woman who could shoot like that before, and I would love to see you do it some more! Why don't you join Darcy?"
"Oh, no, I assure you I have no intention--"
"Don't be a fool, Bingley!" said Darcy tersely, channeling his embarrassment into anger. "It was a one time, lucky shot! I doubt she could make such a shot again if her life depended on it!"
The woman who had been just about to modestly decline Bingley's invitation, having no real desire at all to shoot further, stiffened, and her eyes flashed. "Would you care to wager on that, Mr. Darcy?"
"First shooting and now laying bets?" Miss Bingley sneered. "Why, Eliza, you are becoming positively mannish."
"I do not make wagers with women," he replied irritably, "and since nothing could prevail upon me to take your money, I see no reason to make an exception in this case."
"Your answer presupposes that you will win. But since I am much more familiar with my shooting abilities than you are familiar with my shooting abilities, reason lies on my side. No, Mr. Darcy, you will not have to take my money."
A sudden feeling of being out of his depth overtook Darcy, with a, despite himself, curiosity to see what she could do. "You do not seriously mean to say that you shoot guns on a regular basis."
"Why not? My father has no sons, and being an expert marksman himself, it is not unnatural that he felt the need to pass his skills on to someone else. Of all his daughters, I am the most like him--in every way."
"Well I don't care what Darcy says, I want to see you shoot again!" declared Mr. Bingley. "I think it's fabulous that you have such a skill."
"Come, Darcy, let the girl shoot," expostulated Mr. Hurst, aroused to unaccustomed animation.
"Fine," he said in a clipped tone, "but Miss Bennet will pardon me if I refuse to bet on the outcome."
"I'll bet on it," said Bingley cheerfully. "I'll bet ten pounds that Miss Elizabeth repeats her shot and more. Who'll take it? Hurst?"
"Not I." He shook his head.
"I'll take it, Charles!" proclaimed his sister suddenly, leaping with admirable promptitude to her idol's defense. "I bet she fails with the first attempt."
"Far be it from me to instruct you on how you should spend your money, Miss Bingley," said Elizabeth, "but I would reconsider if I were you." Receiving nothing but a disdainful look for her trouble, she sauntered back over to the gun table. "Shall you like to go first, Mr. Darcy? To show me how it's done?"
Irritated, wary and excited all at once, Darcy stalked up silently, selected a small pistol, walked back to stand opposite the target, jerked his arm up, took rapid aim, and fired. The shot went true. "That I can duplicate," he said, but then to her surprise he himself reloaded it and handed it to her.
Offering him a small curtsey, she moved into the spot he had just occupied, and without any apparent effort to take aim, hit her mark. "You lose, Miss Bingley," she said lightly, handing the still smoking weapon to the footman. That woman scowled.
"My, she's very fast, isn't she, Darcy?" exclaimed a gleeful Mr. Bingley. "I don't believe I've ever seen you shoot so quickly!"
"That's because I've never regarded marksmanship as a race," said Darcy tightly. "Since we are neither fighting a battle nor killing live birds, haste is both unnecessary and undesirable. Precision is the desirable characteristic of an expert marksman, not speed."
"I don't think Miss Bennet lacks precision!" chortled Mr. Hurst, in whose esteem she was rising by the minute.
"Would you feel better if I shot more slowly?" asked Elizabeth sweetly. "I can fiddle with my gown perhaps, or squint at the target as if I had difficulty seeing it properly. Would that please you, if I did that?"
His only response was to scowl at her and take up another small firearm, a particularly elegant dueling pistol. "Move the target back another five paces!" he barked.
Bingley gaped a bit. "I say, that's a bit far, isn't it? It's not actually possible to be accurate at that distance, and certainly not outside."
"So they say," agreed Darcy suavely, as he took up his stance. His aim was steady, his arm very straight and firm, and when the sound of the shot died down the boy gladly pointed out his hit, located not far from the center of the target. The group broke into applause.
"Now that, Eliza," called Miss Bingley, "is what they call superior marksmanship."
"Indeed," agreed Elizabeth calmly. "May I, sir?"
"Do you believe you can?"
She was handed, in this case, that pistol's matching partner. Darcy moved to the side and watched her closely, his heart beating with an unexpected excitement to see how she would do. He did not want Miss Bennet to beat him at his own game--but he had to admit, if only to himself, that he would be a little disappointed if she failed now.
She did not fail. She took, admittedly, a little more time to line up her shot, and to his amusement gripped the larger gun in both hands instead of one this time, but it was still only a moment before it jumped and barked. Her mark, when it was revealed, was even closer to the center than his.
Elizabeth turned to Darcy, a triumphant tilt to her brow. She expected to see him even angrier than before, but he seemed to have regained his customary infuriating composure. "I will concede that you shoot remarkably well for a woman," he said.
"Remarkably well for a woman?" she repeated incredulously.
"Come now, Darcy, that's ungenerous and you know it," called Bingley.
"You mistake, Mr. Bingley," replied Elizabeth quickly, "I have no need of Mr. Darcy's generosity. I simply resent the implication that, just because I am a woman, my skills are necessarily inferior to his, regardless of whose bullet hit closer to the mark."
"Miss Bennet," he said, "your skill with a pistol, though surprising, is certainly impressive. However, to truly match me, as you appear to wish to do, you would need to have equal skill with hunting guns such as shotguns and rifles, which are hardly a woman's weapons." He smiled smugly as he spoke.
Her eyes moved to the rifle lying on the table behind him, and she smiled. "Who says I do not?"
His smile vanished. "You cannot be serious."
"Why ever not? Why, Mr. Darcy, only a few minutes ago you were exclaiming on how impossible it was that I should manage to hit that target twice--and yet I have done so, three times in a row now, and at an even greater distance. Do you not think you ought to temper your assertions before you make them?"
"A rifle is far too large and powerful for a woman to control," he spoke with conviction, "especially one of your stature. You would injure yourself in the attempt, and I cannot allow it."
"Cannot allow?" She lifted one eyebrow. "Mr. Bingley," she called, "may I try out your rifle?"
"Yes, of course!" he exclaimed, coming happily towards them rubbing his hands together, like an eager schoolboy.
"Bingley, this is madness!" protested Darcy, frowning heavily as admiration for Elizabeth warred with genuine concern. "Do you want to have a second sister put up in your rooms, with the doctor called? What will you tell her father to explain how you came to allow her to do such a thing?"
"Mr. Bingley, if my father was here he would assure you that I am as competent with a hunting gun as I am with a pistol--a point which I mean to prove to Mr. Darcy, if you will but let me."
Bingley hesitated, obviously torn between following his friend's advice and doing what he really wanted, which was to see Elizabeth shoot some more.
"Mr. Darcy," interposed Elizabeth, "since you are opposed to wagers, how about a competition? The first person to miss a shot retires. If, as you expect, I miss on the first attempt, then I will retire without further complaint and concede that women should not attempt to shoot anything larger than a pistol. My parents will in no wise blame you, I promise," she added. "They know my stubbornness as well as anyone."
Once again Darcy found himself drawn in by her. What power was it in her eyes, that they always made him act against his better judgment?
Caroline Bingley, more than a little dissatisfied with the results of the shooting display so far, and jealous over the conversation that was taking place, had drawn near enough to hear Elizabeth's last comment. "I'm surprised your mother hasn't warned you that men don't like stubborn women," she said. "If you ever marry I'm sure I shall pity your husband."
Darcy, whose feelings towards Elizabeth's future unknown husband did not include pity, found himself strongly suppressing the urge to defend her. "Surely there can be no harm in a little friendly competition, Darcy," said Bingley easily.
"Hear, hear!" cried Hurst.
"Miss Elizabeth will tell us if it becomes too much for her, won't you?"
"Indeed I shall."
"And you've shot rifles like this before?"
"Many times--although none quite so finely made."
"Have you ever injured yourself in past?"
"Not for many years, I assure you."
"There now, Darcy, what further objection could you have? You wouldn't want it to be said that you shrank from competing with a woman, would you?"
"Yes, would you, Mr. Darcy?" echoed Elizabeth tauntingly.
"The only one to say that would be you, Bingley," muttered Darcy.
"Perhaps you think it beneath your dignity to trade shots with a woman at all. Very well, perhaps that may be your prize if you win. None of us here shall ever mention it happening again, will we, gentlemen?" Hurst and Bingley agreed. "And I am sure we can count on Miss Bingley's and Mrs. Hurst's discretion."
He pursed his lips and raised his own eyebrow at Elizabeth. "And what do you propose as your own prize, Miss Bennet?"
"Ah, so you concede there is a chance I might win."
"Not at all, I am merely curious as to your ultimate goal in provoking me to this."
Her smile broadened. "Nothing but satisfaction, Mr. Darcy. Nothing but satisfaction."
"Do you envision yourself bragging to all your acquaintances of how you bested me?"
She shook her head. "I fear my mother would not approve. No, you are safe from me, regardless of the outcome."
"If that's so then the prize you offered me is hardly a prize at all. What incentive do I have to engage you in this so-called competition?"
"Besides avoiding Mr. Bingley's teasing? I'm afraid I cannot tell you. I would offer you the opportunity to choose your own prize, but I doubt there's anything I could give you that you might want."
Ignoring the attractiveness of several obvious but inappropriate options, Darcy looked at her thoughtfully. He had every confidence of prevailing in the match to come. "You forget that you have not yet named what you wish from me, should you prevail. Then perhaps I might better understand what sort of prizes we are contending for in the first place."
Elizabeth looked at him speculatively, the mischievous gleam in her eye increasing by the moment. "How certain are you that you shall win?"
"Then I might name any forfeit without objection from you."
"Provided it is within the bounds of propriety, yes."
"Oh do not fear for that! Mr. Bingley, are not you planning on holding a ball soon?"
"Without question, Miss Bennet."
"Then this is what I chose for my prize. If I should win this contest against one of the foremost marksman in England, then at Mr. Bingley's ball you shall dance--how many sets do you think, Mr. Bingley?"
"Oh, four at least, Miss Bennet," he answered, grinning widely.
"Four sets, and with partners of my choosing."
Darcy compressed his lips together; she thought at first he was going to be angry, but then he also looked as if he might laugh for a moment. "A hefty forfeit indeed, Miss Bennet," he replied gravely, at the last. "I rather doubt my ability to ask anything comparable of you--while remaining a gentleman, of course."
"By all means let's keep you a gentleman, Mr. Darcy."
His thoughtful aspect increased, making him look rather severe. He looked at her face, at the tip of one boot, and at her face again. "Miss Bennet," he said in a very even voice, "if I win against you, regardless of the level of skill you exhibit, you will give me your word to never shoot a rifle or other hunting weapon again, unless out of some terrible necessity, such as to save your own life."
Whatever Elizabeth had been expecting, it was not this. She stared at him in blank astonishment. "I don't understand."
"Hunting weapons are dangerous, madam, regardless of who handles them. While recent advances have improved them somewhat, the fact remains that the size and strength of the weapon and the unreliability of gunpowder pose significant dangers. They can misfire. They can explode in your face, causing burns and scarring, even blindness. I've seen it happen before. I should hate to see it happen to you."
Elizabeth blinked a few times, tried to feel offended, and failed. His gaze was so earnest, his voice so solemn. "Is not horse riding also a dangerous past time?" she ventured. "Horses are at least as unpredictable as gunpowder, and surely far more people are injured in falls than explosions. Yet if I had a love for riding horses you would not ask me to give that up, surely."
"That's true," he conceded, "but riding has additional benefits to it--healthy exercise, the ability to travel to areas that carriages cannot reach. Since you do not hunt, you have no real reason to fire a hunting gun other than to demonstrate your skill, which I believe you are amply able to do with pistols. You notice that I did not ask you to give up shooting altogether, though pistols can be dangerous too. Their smaller size reflects a proportionally smaller danger however, and I realize I have no right to request you completely set aside something you do so well."
"No sir, you do not." She eyed him in a perplexed fashion. "I am sure that this is simply a ploy to make me refuse."
"You may perceive it so if you chose, but the fact remains that I will not engage to shoot against you in a contest on any other terms."
She frowned now, weighing her own assurance against his decidedly presumptuous demand. What had begun as a game to tease and humble him had turned unexpectedly serious, and she could not understand what he was about. "Mr. Darcy," she said, "I have a stubbornness in me which always rises at every attempt to intimidate me. But what if I should marry in a few years, and my husband wishes to encourage my talent and resents my adhering to a promise made to another man?"
He bowed. "In that case, I would consider you released."
"I also think that a lifelong vow deserves at the very least an entire evening in exchange. I will agree to your terms, but in return I shall expect you to dance every dance at Mr. Bingley's ball, and you shall have no power to refuse any partner I point out to you. Moreover you shall be required to make conversation with all of them, tolerable or not."
A slight smile touched his lips. "Will you allow me two dances to choose my own partner?"
"If you wish."
"Excellent!" cried Bingley. "I declare, I can't remember the last time I was so entertained. If only Miss Bennet were well enough to join us, I would think the day quite perfect."
"Oh, my sister!" said Elizabeth. "You must excuse me for a few minutes that I may go check on her. If she is well enough, I will return immediately."
This request was immediately agreed to. While she was away, the three gentlemen, with great animation, selected two rifles they all declared well matched, and discussed the specifics of the proposed contest. Miss Bingley, finding herself vastly bored by conversation in which she had no part, and more than a little irked at Miss Bennet's unique ability to monopolize Mr. Darcy's attention, sidled up to that gentleman.
"What do you think of country manners now, Mr. Darcy?" she asked him. "Myself, I have never been so excessively shocked in my life than at Miss Eliza's conduct. Surely you can't find her eyes fine when they appear over the barrel of a smoking gun."
"Miss Bennet is… unusual," he replied carefully.
"You are always so kind in your opinions. Of course, I know what you must be feeling. Imagine finding yourself forced to endure the indignity of a contest with her, as if she was a man!"
"She does not make me think of a man."
"No, for she lacks the strength, the abilities, the dignity and skill a man might have, and in its place has only that abominably impertinent confidence, coupled with a total lack of ladylike modesty. She has the virtues of neither sex, and the vices of both!"
"Miss Bingley!" he said rather sharply. "I would hardly call the ability to fire a gun with accuracy a vice. Whatever else Miss Elizabeth may be, her virtue and respectability are not in question."
"I did not mean to imply that they are," she said hastily. "But don't tell me you didn't think her earlier display--the display to come--absolutely appalling!"
"If her marksmanship had not proved to be as superior as it is," he admitted, "then I might have. But as it is, I can only admire her skill."
It was at the moment that Elizabeth immerged from the house, putting an end to further conversation.
"Well, Darcy," said Charles in a sympathetic tone that did little to conceal his glee, "I'm afraid you'll just have to resign yourself to dancing."
"Nonsense!" he snapped. "This competition is far from over yet."
"Yes, but… well, look at her."
Darcy was looking. He had been looking on, in consternation and increasing amazement, as she coolly fired off round after round with unfailing accuracy. She was so small, her slender form and light muslin gown a striking contrast to the large rifle she handled with such ease. She had wrapped her shawl around her shoulder as padding, but he still winced every time he saw her take the force of the recoil against it. He wondered how much his own performance had been affected by her distracting presence, by the curls trailing down her neck and the delicacy of her profile as she focused on her target. Then she would walk by him, casting him a merry, mocking glance that just made him want to prove himself further before her.
The target had been moved a staggering thirty paces off now, and he knew he was at the limit of what he could achieve himself. He was still hitting it, but barely, while Elizabeth's shots were as consistently center as ever. Unless a miracle took place, it was only a matter of time before she would be declared the victor. Bingley really would never let him live this down.
The undisguised joy with which Hurst and Bingley had watched the whole affair did little to placate his feelings. Miss Bingley had sullenly retreated to the house some ten minutes or so ago, apparently receiving little satisfaction in watching all the men watch Miss Bennet, who disobligingly failed to make a fool of herself. "My dear Mr. Darcy," said Mrs. Hurst to him at one point, "I can only imagine your feelings. To think of the impudence of that girl, attempting to put you to shame so!"
"Would you suggest she let me win on purpose?" he asked irritably. "I assure you I would not wish it!"
What would he wish? He would wish to beat her, fairly and honestly, earning her respect and admiration as she had earned his. He would wish she was as rich in connections as she was in abilities. He would wish to take her in his arms and kiss her with force and passion.
But none of that translated to reality. He could not kiss her, she had no connections, and he was increasingly certain that he could not beat her either. Frustrated beyond words, he scowled as he took up his stance, peering at the distant target.
A rustle next to him distracted him. Elizabeth had moved near to watch. When he turned his head he met her eyes, warm and deep and brilliant, her face disturbingly close, so close he could see the light freckles dappling her cheeks, and the way the hairs in her right eyebrow grew to give it that distinctive arch….
"Hit me with your best shot."
As if fighting his way out of a daze he blinked rapidly and shook his head.
Taking that to mean he had not understood her, she stepped a little closer. "I said," she murmured, her lips puckering in the most provocative fashion as he stared in fascination at her mouth, "why don't you hit me with your best shot?"
Speechless, wound tight as a bow string, he turned back, tried in vain to focus, and fired before he was ready. The shot went wide.
Darcy lowered his gun and pressed his lips together, fighting to compose himself. His strongest immediate emotion was anger. She had done it on purpose. He was sure that she had deliberately used her charms--used his own attraction to her, of which he was sure she must be aware--to distract and befuddle him. It was entirely her fault. This would never have happened if she was a man.
Elizabeth, who in all innocence had no notion of the effect her teasing words had had on him, wondered what had happened to rattle him so. Once glance at his grim profile made her decide not to taunt him about it, rather, she stood back as he moved to the table, almost throwing his rifle down.
Bingley, likewise, cleared his throat and tried to look serious, although he couldn't forebear to send Elizabeth a smirk behind his friend's back. Hurst laughed outright, earning a glare that would have silenced more sensible men. Mrs. Hurst was smart enough to remain silent.
Mr. Bingley brought her her rifle. "One more shot to win, Miss Elizabeth," he told her in a low voice. "I am certain you can do it."
She was certain too, but had the uneasy feeling that she would be winning by some mischance on Darcy's part. She would have liked to have offered him the chance take his shot again, but knew he would not accept it. Slowly, she turned toward the target.
Just then a distinctive voice floated across the lawn. "Mr. Bingley… oh Mr. Bingley!" The entire party turned to see a group of three women hurrying across the grass, the front most one fluttering a handkerchief as she came.
Elizabeth groaned. Mother! All at once she felt like hiding behind the gun table. What she did do was thrust the rifle rapidly behind her back.
"Oh, Mr. Bingley," said Mrs. Bennet breathlessly as they arrived on the scene, "such a fine house as this is, don't you think! I can't imagine you'd find a finer one, no matter how hard you look."
"It is very pleasing, ma'am," he answered good naturedly.
"The butler told us that you were out here having a bit of sport, and so we thought we would come out too, for surely we couldn't be so rude as to visit without seeing you and thanking you in person for your kindness to my poor, dear, sweet Jane."
"Not at all. I'm delighted to have been allowed to help her in some way."
While they were talking Lydia had looked around with interest at the setting. She noted the presence of the table, and then its contents, and then Elizabeth's proximity to it. She saw how her hands were behind her, moved a little forward, and… Lydia's eyes widened and sparkled. "Mama!" she exclaimed. Mrs. Bennet did not answer, being too caught up in speaking to Mr. Bingley. "Mama!" she said again, more loudly this time.
Mrs. Bennet paused and looked at her irritably. "Well what is it, Lydia?"
"Mama, Lizzy's got a gun!"
"… And her whole world's come undone," muttered Lizzy. Darcy, overhearing, glanced curiously at her.
"What?!" Mrs. Bennet's eyes widened in horror and she clasped her hand to her heart. "Lizzy, you bad girl, what are you doing?"
"How can you say nothing? You've been shooting guns again, haven't you? Oh, I always knew you hated me! Do you mean to ruin us? What must Mr. Bingley think of you now?"
"I think she's a fantastic shot, Mrs. Bennet," he hastened to reassure her. "We are all admiration for her abilities."
"Oh Mr. Bingley, you are too kind, but you needn't make excuses for her. Miss Lizzy knows I have never approved of that dreadful habit of hers. When she came out I made it a point to put a stop to all such nonsense, I can tell you. What man wants to marry a girl who shoots a gun better than he does? If I've said it to her once I've said it a hundred times!"
"Lizzy beat all the local boys at shooting contests by the time she was thirteen," related Lydia to the world at large. "Mama made her promise to stop, but she and papa still go out and practice in the north field nearly every week."
Elizabeth wondered if it was possible for one's face to actually catch on fire from blushing so hard. She was painfully aware of Mr. Darcy's eyes on her, an sardonic glint in them. Sighing, she abandoned pretense and handed the weapon to him. "Mama, do come in the house. You must see Jane for yourself, to decide how she gets on. Mr. Darcy, please excuse me."
"I don't see what difference it makes how Jane is doing when you are so determined to destroy all her hopes!" she wailed as Elizabeth led her away.
The gentleman watched their retreat. "Well, Darcy," said Bingley, "I believe you owe Mrs. Bennet your gratitude."
Mr. Hurst snickered. "She saved your hide, no doubt about it!"
"If you think I mean to take advantage her appearance to renege on any agreement I made with Miss Bennet--!"
"I think you'd prefer to forget the whole thing ever happened," said Bingley frankly. "However, I know you too well to think that's what you'll do--no matter how much you hate dancing! Your blasted pride wouldn't let you."
Yes, his blasted pride. It was his pride that got him into this in the first place… that and his weakness for a certain fine pair of eyes. Well, he was smarting for it now. And yet… when he thought back over the morning, Darcy knew that if he had a chance to erase the experience, he wouldn't do it. Miss Elizabeth Bennet was undoubtedly the most infuriating, challenging, stimulating woman he would ever know, and that image of her, rifle cradled against her slim shoulder, eyes so clear and unafraid, that image would stay with him for the rest of his life.
"Miss Bennet." Elizabeth turned from seeing her mother off to find Darcy behind her. The gentlemen, it seemed, had returned to the house.
"As it was perfectly obvious to everyone present that you would have made that last shot had we not been interrupted," he began in the tone of one reciting an unpleasant lesson, "it only seems fair and sporting of me to offer to fulfill the conditions of our agreement, even though the competition was never officially concluded."
"That is very magnanimous of you, sir," she replied after a moment, her voice very dry. "However, I should not like you to think me eager to claim a victory I didn't earn. When last I checked, we each had completed the same number of successful shots."
"But yours were closer to the mark than Darcy's," contributed Mr. Bingley helpfully, earning himself a glare from his friend and a smothered laugh from Elizabeth.
"True, but those were not the terms of the competition," she reminded him. "To earn a successful point we only had to hit the target."
"Are you suggesting, then, that we abandon the competition and agree to a draw?" asked Darcy, whose very fervent desire to not have to dance at the ball was warring with his gentlemanly sense of honor.
But again she surprised him. "By no means. I am suggesting that we finish it."
"Miss Elizabeth," said Bingley, "I'm afraid that the conditions changed since you left the field. The wind has picked up and there's no possible way you could be expected to shoot accurately outside any more."
"Have they packed everything up already then?"
"Not yet, but they were just about to start."
"We could delay it until tomorrow," offered Darcy in a voice of longsuffering.
"Wait a whole day for a single shot? No, gentlemen, not when it was I who left the field today. I think that would hardly be fair and sporting of me." She cast Darcy one of her typically mocking looks. "I will take my shot now, if you have no objection."
"In the wind?" repeated Bingley.
"In the wind."
Darcy looked at her uncertainly. Was she attempting to throw the competition on purpose? "I do object."
"I cannot imagine why."
"Because we agreed to shoot under equal conditions, and this would not be an equal condition."
"Yet you cannot guarantee the weather for me tomorrow, not to mention the fact that I would be fresh instead of tired, an unfair advantage." Seeing the obstinacy on his face she sighed. High-handed, immovable man! "I truly have no desire to draw this out, sir. Please let me do this now."
He could not civilly object further. Relief fought with pique and won out. Mr. Hurst, who had been about to lapse into a daze on the sofa, jumped to his feet again at the news, and Miss Bennet made her way back out to the makeshift shooting range with the three men trailing after her.
The wind had grown stronger. Elizabeth stood for a moment, her eyes shut, feeling it. It was very, very difficult to shoot well in the wind, but she and her father had often done so, and she had slowly learned how to gauge it; how to compensate for it. She could not say quite how she did it, any more, except that it had become something of an instinct, as all aiming was instinctual for her. She could tell, almost without conscious thought, how this wind would tug at the ball, the direction it would push it and how quickly. She opened her eyes, focused for a moment on the target, memorizing its position, then, to the utter astonishment of every person present, closed her eyes again, lifted the rifle, and fired.
"I can hardly believe it!" cried Mrs. Bennet. "Mr. Darcy, dancing with my Mary!"
"He danced with Charlotte first," pointed out Lady Lucas.
"He's dancing every dance, and with the plainest girls in the room," marveled Mrs. Long. If either lady noticed how unflattering that remark was to their daughters, they did not say so.
"There, there now," said Sir William, coming up just in time to hear, "did I not tell you that he must be more amiable than he appeared? I'm sure it was just that he felt strange, that first night--or perhaps he tired, or unwell."
"Perhaps he had a headache," suggested his wife. "That would certainly account for it; nothing is more aggravating to a headache than movement."
"What I don't understand," said Mrs. Bennet, "is why he keeps going back to Lizzy between every dance, and yet never asks her! He can hardly claim she's not handsome enough tonight, after all the other girls he's led out. Why, compared to them she's a positive beauty! It must be her behavior that has created such a determined dislike in him."
Mrs. Bennet was mistaken in this instance, though. Mr. Darcy felt no determined dislike for Miss Elizabeth, and had every intention of asking her to dance. When Elizabeth had allowed him the supper set as the one where he would be free to choose his partner, she had no idea that she would be his choice.
"Me?" she repeated in surprise, looking at his outstretched hand. "I would think I was the last woman in this room you would wish to voluntarily dance with tonight!"
"Then you would be mistaken," he said simply.
Eyes wide, she took the hand, and he led her out to the floor. They danced for a few minutes in silence, Elizabeth casting curious glances at him while he continued in apparently perfect calm.
"Do you hate me for subjecting you to this?" she finally asked, when she could bear the silence no longer.
"Not at all."
"But you despise dancing with strange woman, and I've made you do it all night."
"Yes," he acknowledged, a bit of a wry smile disturbing the impassivity of his face. "But it was, after all, my forfeit."
"A mischievous one."
"Yes," he acknowledged again, the smile growing just slightly.
"I should never have baited you." She really didn't know why she was suddenly apologizing and explaining.
His eyes met hers. "I should never have insulted you." This his gaze shifted. After a moment Elizabeth realized it was resting on her shoulder and, glancing down, she realized that her lace had slipped a bit and was exposing the very edge of fading bruise. She blushed and her hand moved up involuntarily to adjust it.
"Was it worth it?" he asked her softly.
She met his eyes fearlessly again. "To see you dance with my sister who, like you, rarely indulges in the past time? Absolutely."
They moved through some figures and when they came back again he said, "You, Miss Bennet, are an enigma."
"I would have said the same of you, Mr. Darcy."
"I think I may have mercy on you, sir."
"By releasing me from any further obligation?"
She bit back a laugh at the sudden eagerness in his voice. "Not quite, I fear. But after supper I give you leave to dance with Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst, who you are particularly acquainted with, and also my sister Jane, who in addition to being the only handsome woman in the room, will make you a good conversation partner. That is, if you can persuade your friend to relinquish her."
"And once I am finished with them?" He made no attempt to keep the sarcasm out of his voice this time.
Her smile grew. "Then you will report back to me, of course. I am sure I will have located another wallflower by that time." He bowed stiffly as the music came to an end and she curtsied to him. "I've never had a man at my disposal before, you know, and I'm afraid that your apology, such as it was, was simply not handsome enough to tempt me." Then she leaned forward slightly, whispering. "Don't look so thunderous, Mr. Darcy. From your expression anyone would think that that it was you I shot, instead of merely a wooden target." And she swished away, leaving him gaping yet again.
"Shot me?" he muttered at last. "Yes, through the heart. Shot through the heart, and you're to blame! You give love a bad name!"
Annie Oakley, who was the inspiration for the musical Annie Get Your Gun, which was in turn the inspiration for this bit of nonsense, could shoot a dime tossed in the air at ninety feet. Also at ninety feet, she could hit the edge of a playing card laid flat, and then put five or six holes in it before it reached the ground. Although I realize that she was using later model rifles that were more accurate than those available in 1811, knowing that gave me the boldness to give Lizzy a similar target distance, if not quite such spectacular targets.