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Chapter 1 - A New Neighbor
Posted on Thursday, 24 April 2008
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Thus it was that after church Mr Bennet was accosted by his sister Mrs Phillips.
"Mr Bennet! Have you heard that Netherfield is let at last?"
The gentleman admitted that he had not.
Mrs Phillips took his non-committal response as encouragement. "My own Mr Phillips told me about it this very morning, Mr Bennet." She adjusted her bonnet to protect her skin from the spring sunshine.
Mr Bennet merely raised one eyebrow, although he could now hear the chatter of the townsfolk of Meryton, and the matter of Netherfield's new occupants seemed to be on all minds save his own.
"A fine gentleman, a Mr Bingley, has come from London, so Mr Phillips says, and he has no wife, and five thousand a year, Mr Bennet. Five thousand!"
Now Mr Bennet understood his sister's enthusiasm. A wealthy gentleman in a district so bereft of eligible young men that many young ladies remained single long after they would have been well married in better locations could not fail to be of interest. He must own that he too held an interest in the matter, having five daughters and his estate entailed upon a distant relative in the absence of a male heir.
Perhaps he should have sought another wife after Mrs Bennet's death, but there had been so much to arrange, and then the relief of a quiet household absent his wife's nerves and her moods had been so great he hesitated to risk his peace with another lady who might prove even sillier.
Instead, he had engaged a recently widowed distant relative as governess for his daughters. Mrs Carlisle had proved an admirable addition to the household, so severe in demeanor and appearance that there could be no suggestion of impropriety, and so capable that Mr Bennet had no difficulty resuming his former habits.
Now and again he experienced a touch of guilt that he had not allowed his sister Mrs Gardiner to give his girls a London season, but when Jane had come out things had been too unsettled and finances too tight for him to even consider such a thing. It would, of course, be entirely unfair to deny his older girls a season and allow it for the younger ones.
"Perhaps we should give the gentleman time to appreciate the joys of country living before we descend upon him with the unmarried daughters of Meryton, Mrs Phillips?" Mr Bennet suggested.
She puffed up in indignation, looking, Mr Bennet thought, entirely too much like an affronted pigeon. "Why Mr Bennet! A man in your position should not tease so!"
This was one of the many times Mr Bennet found being in such close proximity to someone so like the late Mrs Bennet a tiresome experience. He knew -- too well -- his position. Whether he chose to make light of it or allow misfortune to sour his disposition was no business of anyone but himself.
Mrs Carlisle redeemed the situation as she so often did, saying in tones fit to freeze the air itself, "Such speculation is most improper, Mrs Phillips. Mr Bennet's actions are quite reasonable." She returned her attention to her sole remaining charge. "Come, Lydia. We must not linger in pointless gossip."
As always, Mrs Carlisle reminded Mr Bennet of a black crane, all angles and harshness. Though she had been a widow near fifteen years, she still wore black, her gowns serviceable and neither enhancing nor concealing her stick-thin figure. She had been severely plain the day she arrived at Longbourn, and severely plain she remained, with her dark hair pulled back and tucked into her bonnet and not a trace of finery.
"Hmph!" Mrs Phillips shook her head at him and turned towards the town of Meryton leaving Mr Bennet to walk in peace towards Longbourn, his estate.
His daughters ahead of him on the road presented a pleasant prospect. Jane, the eldest and at two and twenty perilously close to spinsterhood, was the acknowledged beauty of the district. She had inherited her mother's beauty, leavened with a calm disposition and sweet temper. If Jane had any fault, Mr Bennet mused, it was her wish to believe the best of all people.
Her sister Elizabeth, twenty and possessed of no particular beauty other than her green eyes and a playful manner that bewitched as well as charmed, kept Jane's optimism checked, ensuring that Mr Bennet felt no need to intervene.
Eighteen year old Mary was perhaps the least attractive of his daughters. She had been a small and sickly child, and her eyes remained weak. Her sober and studious nature intimidated many, although she was no less willing to enjoy a dance than her more outgoing sisters.
At sixteen, Kitty was still enjoying the novelty of being out, her liveliness hiding the ease with which she could be influenced. Mr Bennet had no fears that anyone would take advantage of her, for she still deferred to the excellent Mrs Carlisle on most matters, and to her older sisters on the rest.
As for his youngest, Lydia was the most like her late mother, though hopefully with Mrs Carlisle's guidance would not disgrace herself when she came out. Even with her hair braided back and the plain dresses of a girl not yet out, she attracted attention. Though only fourteen, Lydia was so eager to be out that she overstepped almost every time she left Longbourn.
It was, he reflected ruefully, not a family a man might be proud of. Attractive, certainly, but he did wish that one of them could have been born male. Lizzie, most likely, for her sportive nature concealed a leavening of solid good sense. With her love of the outdoors, Lizzie had taken to managing Longbourn in her father's name with both good grace and admirable skill.
Again, Mr Bennet found a touch of guilt intruding into his thoughts. He must own that Lizzie managed Longbourn better than he, but such management only enriched his heir, a distant cousin he had never met. At least Lizzie's skill spared him complaints from his tenants and ensured that Mary had few difficulties with the household accounts. While by no means wealthy, Longbourn was a respectable estate for a country gentleman, even if it was managed by that gentleman's three oldest daughters.
As had been their custom for many years, the Bennet sisters repaired to the south parlor upon their return to Longbourn. Lydia had barely seated herself before she asked the question that had clearly been nagging her for the entire walk from church. "Will the gentleman who has let Netherfield be congenial, do you think? I do hope so! We have had no neighbor on that side for so long."
"Oh, indeed." Jane said before Mrs Carlisle could reprimand Lydia for her over-eager chatter. "It would be nice if our new neighbor were to tend to the outer fields. Lizzy was saying that field adjoining our sheep pasture is a complete wilderness." She lifted her work basket and pulled out the gown she was making over, held it up to the sunlight streaming in the windows so she could inspect her work.
Kitty nodded her agreement. "Surely Papa would like to have another neighbor to hunt with and visit. I think he is not so fond of Sir Lucas, though he is perfectly amiable." She considered her own work basket, then asked, "Jane, may I help you? You will look a perfect angel at the next Assembly."
"Thank you, Kitty." Jane smiled serenely. "You have a new gown for the Assembly, do you not?"
"Indeed I do." Kitty knelt beside Jane. "You have your hem marked. Shall I start there?"
Jane held the gown up. "What think you, sisters? Should the sleeves be long or short? Aunt Gardiner's latest Harpers says that both are in mode this season."
Lydia cocked her head. "Make them long, Jane, do. That fawn will make your whole face glow, and with a little lace edging the sleeves will show your delicate hands to advantage." She took out her own basket and set her lace pillow upon her lap. "I believe I have enough of this pattern for your hem now. It is a copy of the latest in mode." She unwrapped her lace bobbins and set them on her lap, taking care not to tangle them. "Mary, would you please play for us? I believe there is light enough not to strain your eyes." She cast a quick look towards Mrs Carlisle, relaxing when that lady nodded her approval.
Mary seated herself at the pianoforte -- which stood in the center of the parlor, positioned so that light from the windows reached it for much of the day. "What would you like me to play?"
"Oh, anything! You play so nicely."
Lizzy smiled, mischief dancing in her eyes. "You should be careful of such requests, Lydia. Mary might decide to treat us to practicing scales."
All of the Bennet sisters laughed when Lydia protested, "But she would still play them nicely!"
Lizzy bent to her own basket and extracted a large wrapped parcel. "I meant to give you this tomorrow, Mary, but I might as well give it early if you are to play for us." She handed the parcel to her sister. "It is a compendium of Mr Mozart's most recent works."
"Oh, Lizzy!" Mary breathed. "Thank you!" She blinked rapidly as she carefully unwrapped the parcel and folded the wrapping to be used later. "Would you join me in one of the duets? There must be some."
"Certainly." Lizzy seated herself beside her sister. "Though I am sure I will only make your playing most ill with my own poor skills."
"Modesty is becoming, Miss Elizabeth, but one should not belittle oneself." Mrs Carlisle observed. She drove her needle through black fabric of the dress she was altering with quick, tiny stitches.
Lizzy only smiled and bent her head to the pianoforte.
Chapter 2 - Of Gentlemen and Sheep
Posted on Monday, 28 April 2008
The next day after she and her family had broken their fast, Lizzy changed into her old riding habit - it was two years old and thus far from being in mode - and began her weekly tour of the estate. As usual, she rode Demeter, a gentle mare Lizzy had raised from a foal and trained herself. Mrs Carlisle had refused to allow young Lizzy's fear of horses to prevent her from learning to ride as well as any young lady ought, and the sickly little filly had quite overcome Lizzy's youthful fears. She could - and often did - ride any horse in Longbourn's stables, even the two stallions - although that was an exercise Lizzy never took lightly, and never at a time when the stallions might endanger her.
In poor weather, Lizzy would often have the grooms and stable-hands hitch up the curricle so that she might do her rounds without risking her health. Mrs Carlisle would never allow her to forget it if she were to catch cold through her own foolishness. If only Papa were not so ridiculously proud of her ability to drive! It was less than proper for a lady to drive herself, though acceptable within the confines of Longbourn.
She supposed Papa wished she had been born a boy, for he had once been the talk of Hertfordshire, the best whip in the county. He had certainly not objected to teaching his boisterous young daughter to handle the ribbons.
Demeter knew the route as well as her rider, and walked along it placidly. Fortunately, there were few complaints from the tenants these days, and none were injured or ill. The crops were in good order, the fields a good mix of grains, pulses and fallow lands to ensure that nothing became overworked.
That "Miss Lizzy" was a welcome sight she considered a reflection on the time she had spent learning what a good landowner did and how one ensured that one's tenants remained healthy and happy. Her easy, unaffected manner, while never improper, had convinced many a tenant's wife to confide in her, allowing her to solve problems before they became serious.
She let the hunting grounds be, for they bordered upon Sir Lucas's estate as well as Netherfield Park. Some time back all three estates had agreed to share this corner to increase the prospects of all three land owners. Unless she knew Sir Lucas and her father had other plans, Lizzy did not enter the hunting grounds on her tours. She would have to include the gentleman from Netherfield in those calculations now.
A few words with the field hands managing the home cattle confirmed her impression that Longbourn's herds remained in good health. None of the hands were experienced with cattle, there being a shortage of skilled cow herds and shepherds, but they would learn. All three young men were the sons or grandsons of long-term tenants with few other prospects, and grateful for the opportunity to improve their station.
The sheep field was in somewhat less good order, for here Lizzy had been unable to find anyone capable of whistling a sheepdog, much less a shepherd willing to manage Longbourn's small flock of prime Merinos imported from Spain. Their heavy fleeces were wonderfully soft and fine, the kind of wool ladies prized for their shawls and winter clothing. Lizzy had read that the soft wool took dye well. Last summer's shearing had brought prize rates from the markets, more than enough to justify keeping the sheep despite the lack of a trained shepherd.
The sixteen animals clustered together, their heavy fleece not yet uncomfortable. Nearby, watching for any sign of trouble, young Jackie Hill stood with a staff in one hand. There were no dogs, for young Hill lacked the wit to train a dog. He was gentle with the sheep, though, and a sweet-tempered lad who could charm any animal into holding still to allow him to inspect them for potential injury or illness.
The cow hands checked thrice daily to ensure nothing untoward befell him, leaving Lizzy to coax details from him when she checked the fields. Though young Hill was short of wit and untrained, he cared for the sheep with as much dedication as anyone could wish. Lizzy credited his care with ensuring the animals thrived in the cooler, damper climate of England. She doubted Longbourn's small herd would ever rival the fleeces Mr Macarthur was sending from the colony of New South Wales, but it provided the finest wool in Hertfordshire.
Once she had satisfied herself that all appeared well, Lizzy signaled Demeter towards the sheep. Before the horse had taken more than a few paces, the thunder of gun fire nearby assaulted her ears.
Demeter shied, prancing with nervousness, forcing Lizzy to spend several long moments calming the mare. By then, her worst fears were realized - the panicked sheep were fleeing straight for young Hill, who stood slack-jawed, too frightened to move.
With no time to think of anything but protecting one of Longbourn's charges, Lizzy urged Demeter into a gallop. She bent low, guided the mare into the narrowing space between the sheep and their shepherd.
Demeter's hooves thudded against the earth and the mingled scents of horse, soil and disturbed grass swirled to mix with the less wholesome smell of frightened sheep. She passed between the sheep and young Hill so close that the skirt of her habit all but slapped Hill's face. There was no more space on the off side - sheep bleated their panic and tried to flee into their equally terrified fellows.
Lizzy brought Demeter around as tightly as she dared, and sent her towards the sheep again. This time, the flock broke ahead of her, skittering towards the south fence.
Her heart pounded as she slowed Demeter to a more sedate pace. "Master Hill? Are you hurt?"
Young Hill shook himself all over. "Nay, Miss Lizzy. You never hurt the sheep, did you?"
She almost laughed. How like young Hill to care more for his woolly-headed charges than for himself! "No, Master Hill. They should be well enough." She cast a glare towards the hedge marking the boundary between Longbourn and Netherfield. "Unless some fool decides to go shooting again."
Only then did Lizzy realize that two gentlemen watched from the other side of the hedge. She flushed at the realization that they may have heard her comment, then anger mingled with the fear she had not had time to feel. She nudged Demeter over to the hedge, taking stock of the gentlemen.
The taller was darker and more severe in countenance than his fair companion. She allowed that both were well-proportioned and handsome men, and sat well upon their horses. They seemed to find her appearance amusing, to judge by the glint in the eyes of the dark gentleman, and the smile the fair one wore.
Once Lizzy was close enough to the hedge to speak without raising her voice, she said, "Well sirs, I do hope your hunt was successful, being as it near cost your neighbors a man's life."
The blank shock on both gentlemen's faces fanned her anger. "Did you never think that perhaps there might be fields on the far side of your little wilderness? Surely gentlemen of quality would not presume to hunt in so small an area."
The dark gentleman reddened, and the blond looked shamefaced. "I am sorry, Miss..."
"Bennet. Elizabeth Bennet, at your service." Lizzy said crisply. "My father owns Longbourn and would appreciate warning before you endanger his men and livestock again."
The blond gentleman's face bid fair to match the scarlet trim of his cravat. "I do apologize, Miss Bennet. I have only recently taken the lease of Netherfield Park, and I fear I grew a little over-excited."
Lizzy raised an eyebrow. "Netherfield Park is a handsome estate, sir. No blame attaches to you that many of the outer fields are neglected and have the appearance of hunting fields." She did not repeat her assertion that this particular neglected field was far to small for safe hunting.
The blond gentlemen grew even more scarlet. "I fear the fault is all mine. Darcy - my friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy."
Lizzy bowed in the saddle. "My pleasure, sir." Mrs Carlisle would be pleased. I did not sound angry.
Darcy returned the gesture. "Madam."
His curtness seemed to be embarrassment, for Lizzy would have sworn his ears were reddened by his blush.
"Darcy tried to tell me this was not the ideal place to shoot, but I would have none of it." The blond gentleman bowed. "Charles Bingley, at your service Madam."
Lizzy responded with a respectable courtesy. "My pleasure, sir."
Darcy must have collected himself sufficiently to speak properly by then, for he said, "Your servant, Miss Bennet? He is uninjured?"
At least both gentlemen had some degree of decency, Lizzy thought. "Master Hill is well, sir. Thank you for your concern." She turned to follow Darcy's gaze, and sighed under her breath when she saw that Hill was inspecting each sheep in turn, ensuring that the animals were indeed unharmed.
"Excuse me, Miss Bennet, but... I have never seen sheep such as those before. Would you by any..." Bingley's voice trailed off as the impropriety of asking such a question of a lady occurred to him.
Lizzy met his eyes. "They are merino sheep, imported from Spain, Mr Bingley. We think very highly of them here at Longbourn."
Darcy's features grew more severe, his blush fading.
"Perhaps you could talk to Mr Bennet at your leisure, Mr Bingley?" Lizzy suggested. "Longbourn has been our home for many years, so Mr Bennet may know more of the management of Netherfield than your agent has told you." Small matters like the location of the hunting fields, she thought.
"Capital!" Bingley was all smiles again. "I must say Longbourn looks to be a fine estate, and a credit to Mr Bennet."
Lizzy bowed once more, this time to hide her expression. Of course it would be assumed that Papa managed Longbourn. She should have expected nothing less. "Thank you, Mr Bingley." She forced herself to smile. "If you wish to continue hunting, there is a large field to the south which borders on Sir Lucas's and Longbourn's hunting grounds. I believe the arrangement was made some time ago to ensure that all three estates had sufficient space for game." An imp of mischief caused her to add, "Perhaps you might care to visit Sir Lucas to be sure he is not in the fields when you visit?"
Darcy's lips twitched, but failed to overcome his severe countenance.
Bingley smiled. "Excellent, Miss Bennet. I am sure we shall all be amiable neighbors."
"Miss Lizzy!" Young Hill's distress caused Lizzy to turn. "I think the old gel be lambing!"
"Excuse me, gentlemen." Lizzy said. "I fear I have an emergency." She raised her voice. "I shall be with you directly, Hill."
Rather than waste time farewelling the gentlemen, neither of whom impressed her greatly, Lizzy dismounted and tied Demeter's reins to the hedge. She gathered her skirt in one hand, but before she could take her emergency salves - she had never thought to see them used on sheep! - she heard Darcy's voice quite clearly.
"Really, Bingley! What were you thinking, encouraging such shrewish behavior!"
Shrew, is it, Mr Darcy? Lizzy thought grimly. We shall see about that.
Chapter 3 - The Discomfort of Gentlemen
Posted on Tuesday, 6 May 2008
Temptation and Mr Fitzwillian Darcy were not strangers. In truth, Darcy's acquaintance with temptation was both long and less than friendly. Since the death of his father at a relatively youthful age, Darcy had managed Pemberley's estates and house as well as ensuring that his much younger sister Georgiana received an education and upbringing appropriate both to her status and her nature.
With her mother long dead and then her father, she looked to her brother as her guardian and her guide, a regard Darcy regretted only in that Georgiana had no women of her class to act as either friend or confidante. His assumption of such responsibility at an age when other young gentlemen were amusing themselves hunting or playing the affections of young ladies -- and trying to avoid getting themselves caught in a marriage to those same young ladies...
Though Darcy was not unhappy with his life, there were times when his responsibilities chafed. Even this visit with his friend Bingley was as much chore as it was pleasure, for he found himself guiding his younger friend on matters relating to the management of a large establishment.
Not that he had any expectation Bingley would become a parasitic creature who exploited his tenants and lands and then complained bitterly at the failure of the estates to provide. It was simply that Bingley continually asked for advice on this or that matter, and Darcy felt honor-bound to give it as best he could.
None of which explained why he found himself unable to turn his thoughts from the unseemly spectacle of an obviously well-bred young lady acting as though she were the son of the landowner.
Miss Elizabeth Bennet had shown horsemanship and courage to rival any man's when she had so skillfully herded those wretched sheep from the half-witted boy set to tend them. That was entirely admirable. Her later behavior was not.
Darcy found his face heating at the memory of her rebuke, one doubly humiliating because it was so well deserved. He should have prevented Bingley from shooting in so small a field. Yet, for a lady to pass such censure was intolerable. The management of an estate was a man's duty. Surely if Mr Bennet were unable to tend to the estate himself there was another who could perform the task in his stead.
"Come, Darcy, I swear you have not heard a word I have spoken." Bingley's tone was, as ever, cheerful and friendly.
Darcy raised one eyebrow. "I assume that the praise of one field is much the same as that of another."
Bingley flushed. "I am sorry, William. Netherfield Park is so... so perfect for my situation I forget that you have been managing Pemberley for some years now."
"My apologies," Darcy said. "The strangeness of your neighbor's arrangements has been bothering me."
"And not the young lady's pretty face?" Bingley's grin held no malice. "It would be no shame for that to captivate even you, Darcy."
"Heaven forbid." Darcy shook his head, and nudged his horse -- one of Bingley's geldings -- closer to his friend. "Surely you found it odd that a young lady should be acting so."
"Quite so," Bingley agreed. "But Darcy, she may not have a choice."
In answer to Darcy's curious look, Bingley explained. "The agent was telling me I could have trouble finding good men for Netherfield Park. The wars took their toll, of course, but in addition when Lord Altmont married so well, most of the experienced men took themselves to Tormont Hall in the hopes of hiring on there, and never returned." He gestured in a way Darcy took to mean helpless agreement. "It does explain why there are so few men here."
He had not noticed, Darcy realized with some chagrin. Though he prided himself on his discernment, he had failed to see that there was indeed a lamentable shortage of mature men. Old and young aplenty amongst Netherfield's servants and tenants, but fewer mature men than he would have expected amongst the tenants, and fewer still among the servants. "You are correct." Darcy forced a smile. "I should have noticed."
If only Miss Bennet's angry eyes -- and the twinkling amusement they had shown later when she teased them about the hunting fields -- would leave him be! He could not associate himself with such a woman. Even were she an heiress she should not have knowledge of such things as breeds of sheep, much less the effrontery to advise a gentleman about them.
Yet... The calm way she had responded to the half-wit shepherd's plaint about one of the ewes lambing, the courage with which she had ridden to the boy's rescue, the kindness she had shown the lad. Darcy had to admit that if Mr Bennet's son had acted in the same fashion he would have been impressed and more than willing to assist in any matter necessary.
He had an uncomfortable suspicion that Miss Bennet would not regard his reasoning kindly, and worse, that she would point out every flaw he failed to see with the impeccable manners she had displayed. Was there ever such contradiction in one slender female?
"If I remember correctly," Bingley was saying, "Miss Elizabeth Bennet is one of five Miss Bennets. The four elder ones are accounted to be beauties, and the youngest is not yet out."
That open, earnest smile would bring trouble from some unscrupulous cad or fortune hunting harpy if Bingley would not learn to guard his nature.
Darcy nodded. "If all have the looks of Miss Elizabeth Bennet, they would be beauties in any company." Not that she met the standards of classical beauty. Her face was too strong for that, but those expressive eyes and her confident manner overwhelmed such flaws. If her figure was flawed in any way he had not seen it.
Bingley laughed. "Ah, so she did catch your eye!" He touched the brim of his hat in a mockery of a bow. "I am impressed, my friend. But fear not. The Miss Bennets do not move in such elevated realms as you."
This time, Darcy raised both eyebrows.
"The agent is a little loquacious," Bingley admitted. "One might even say a gossip, if he were female." His smile widened. "I fear I shall never remember everything he told me. I can only hope I remember the important advice in time to spare myself disaster."
"That is a hope to which we all aspire." Darcy could not stop his throat tightening. The disaster that had so nearly befallen Georgiana could not fail to destroy any pleasant thoughts that might tempt him.
The memory of Miss Bennet did not merely tempt. Even knowing that Miss Bennet was surely beneath him did not release him from the trap of mingled admiration and dismay. So much of her actions in that brief incident had been admirable, and yet the impropriety of a gentleman's daughter acting in his stead... She must know her actions marked her at best a shrew, at worst a hoyden.
Despite his resolve to think no more of Miss Elizabeth Bennet, Darcy could not keep his thoughts from returning to her, each time finding more both to admire, and to deplore. If this was to be the pattern of his stay at Netherfield, he had best find excuse to return to Pemberley, and soon.
Chapter 4 - Unexpected Visitors
Posted on Thursday, 15 May 2008
Lizzy did not fully regain her equanimity until after she had returned to Longbourn and changed into a simple day dress of sprigged linen. Her encounter with her new neighbor and his friend was bad enough, but poor Jackie Hill had been quite at a loss when one of the ewes had chosen that moment to give birth.
That birthing was an uncomfortable and unpleasant procedure, Lizzy had long since realized. She had never dreamed it could be so horribly messy. Nothing she had read about animal husbandry mentioned that.
Not that she had directly assisted, of course. She had merely encouraged young Hill and kept the poor boy from panic. Most of the time, she had kept her eyes averted from the sight. Bad enough that she had to provide assistance to young Hill: Lizzy had no intention of exposing herself to far worse by actually observing an animal's birth.
The glimpses she had seen were quite sufficient. She only hoped she had been correct in assuring young Hill that the bloody mass the sheep had expelled after the lamb's birth was perfectly normal, and that it was indeed right and proper that the ewe should eat it and the blood-streaked sac surrounding the lamb. She had been at least as relieved as young Hill that the ewe's licking had caused the gangly newborn to start bleating and struggle to its feet.
The dry commentary in Papa's books said only that the ewe would eat the afterbirth for strength and would lick the newborn lamb clean, after which it would stand for its first meal. Nothing had been mentioned about how much blood there would be, or that the ewe would bleat her protests in deafening tones and try to flee with her lamb half-born, or any of the rest of it.
At least she had not fainted. That would have been too humiliating. Nor had she disgraced herself by helping Hill. The most she had done was to give him some rags to clean his hands afterwards and talk him through the whole procedure. She did not doubt that he would follow her instructions to burn the rags when he came in from the fields.
Still, the lamb was healthy and -- according to young Hill -- male. Another ram gave better breeding options if the youngster remained healthy, and the possibility of stud fees from other estates wishing to improve their wool. Sir William had expressed an interest in cross-breeding Longbourn's merinos with his Whitefaced Dartmoor sheep to see if that produced a finer version of the Dartmoors' sturdy -- but harsh -- wool.
If the lamb survived this winter, he would be able to be put to stud next fall with Longbourn's other ram. Between that and this season's shearing, Lizzy hoped her experiment would earn back the money she had taken from her dowry fund to purchase the merinos. The thousand pounds apiece she and her sisters had saved was a small dowry, but far better than Papa could have managed on his own. All they had from Papa was fifty pounds a year, and the gentleman who would take them with so little to recommend them was either besotted or a fool.
Once she had changed and tidied her hair, Lizzy took herself to the dining room where maids were engaged laying out dishes for a luncheon. Two of the three were daughters of Mrs Hill, Longbourn's housekeeper. Lizzy asked the older of the daughters, Jenny, to have Mrs Hill meet her in the still room as soon as convenient.
The still room was cool and dry, filled with the mixed scents of dried and drying herbs. Bundles of lavender hung from the ceiling, and wooden boxes for dried herbs lined the shelves. Many of the boxes were empty, the supplies depleted over winter and not yet replenished. Their replacements hung with the lavender until they were sufficiently dry to be laid flat and would keep for as long as needed.
Lizzy had spent many happy times here with Jane, tying cut herbs to hang for drying. Of late she was as likely to be here with Lydia, teaching her sister what herbs were most beneficial for which purposes between answering an endless stream of questions about what it was like to be out, and whether there were likely to be any eligible young gentlemen in the district when she came out.
Like her older sisters and their neighbors and friends Charlotte and Maria Lucas, Lydia was well aware that there were few young gentlemen in the Meryton area, a fact that greatly limited her chances of making any match at all. Sir William Lucas's only son was barely thirteen years of age, and the Bennets and Lucases had for many years been the most gently-bred families in the district.
Despite his title, Sir William was in no better straits than the Bennets, so neither Charlotte nor Maria had the benefits of a London season. The other families with whom they might exchange calls were those of wealthier tradesmen, such as attorneys and the like. Even there, the lure of military life and the potential for advancement an officer might enjoy led many of the family sons away from the district.
Mrs Hill entered the cellar in a flurry of skirts and aprons. "Miss Lizzy! There's naught amiss with our Jackie?"
Lizzy hastened to reassure her. "No, Mrs Hill. Your son is well, though he had quite the fright. If he comes home with bloodied clothing, it is from the lamb that made its appearance today."
Mrs Hill dropped a belated courtesy, her hands unclenching from her work apron. "A lamb, Miss Lizzy? Our boy wived a lamb?"
"Indeed he did." Lizzy smiled. "A fine, healthy young lamb to add to our flock. When I left the little one was already on his feet." She took a long, slow breath. "I suspect the excitement of it will lead him to forget that the birthing was a messy business, and that he took quite the fright beforehand when the sheep were panicked by shots from Netherfield Park's adjoining field."
Lizzy explained as much of the incident as was proper to share with the housekeeper, emphasizing that young Hill had suffered nothing more than fright.
Mrs Hill lifted one hand to her mouth, then slowly lowered it as Lizzy quieted her fears. "Thank you, Miss Lizzy," she said when Lizzy had finished. "You've been so good to our boy. There's not many as would do that for a half-wit."
"Young Hill is very capable with the sheep, Mrs Hill," Lizzy reminded her. "They trust him, and so long as nothing startles him he cares for them as well as anyone could hope. I asked the cowherds to check him this afternoon to be sure he has settled, so there should be no problems beyond needing to launder - or perhaps re-make - his shirt."
Mrs Hill relaxed, and essayed a tentative smile. "Thank you, Miss Lizzy. I'll see that he's properly cleaned up and has a clean shirt to wear out tomorrow."
Once Mrs Hill was gone, reassured that her youngest child had suffered no harm, Lizzy selected one of the bundles of dried lavender to scent the trunk freshener she was making. She would enjoy the time between now and luncheon relaxing with her sisters.
"Oh, poor Lizzy! You didn't ruin your credibility with the gentlemen, did you?" Lydia asked.
Lizzy only laughed. On fine afternoons, she and her sisters walked to one of the district's many scenic locations. The exercise was healthy, and Mrs Carlisle's insistence that they walk at least two miles each day, unless the weather prevented it, ensured that she and all her sisters remained in the very bloom of good health. "After seeing me taking a man's role, I very much doubt I have any credibility with the gentlemen," she assured her sister. "It must be left to Jane, Mary or Kitty to snare them."
"Lizzy!" Mary and Jane chorused their protest.
"If they are so foolish as to pass over Mary or Jane, then Lydia's coming out will surely end their resistance."
Kitty shook her head. "Oh, no! You cannot mean for me and Lydia to wed fine gentlemen when you, Jane and Mary are so much more accomplished than we are."
Mrs Carlisle made a clucking sound. "Miss Catherine, you are quite as accomplished as your sisters. Miss Elizabeth being seen managing estate matters is unfortunate, and her involvement a necessary evil. It is not, I think, an impression that cannot be redeemed by proper behavior when in the gentlemen's company at the Assembly."
"Oh, but you did not see their faces, Mrs Carlisle," Lizzy brushed aside a young oak bough that grew across the path and held it so that her sisters might pass without impediment. "I could hardly have been in worse case had I worn Papa's clothing and spoken like a man."
At Mrs Carlisle's horrified gasp, Lizzy added, "They are very fine gentlemen indeed, and no doubt unaccustomed to young ladies being forced by circumstances into unladylike paths."
All of her sisters laughed, although Jane said, "Lizzy, you should not tease so. The gentlemen may merely have been surprised."
"Miss Jane is correct." Mrs Carlisle's judgment was, as always, impeccable. "One should not draw conclusions based on so little evidence, Miss Elizabeth."
Lizzy bowed her head to acknowledge Mrs Carlisle's point. "Have no fear, Mrs Carlisle. I shall be a paragon of ladylike virtue from this moment on." She jumped lightly over a fallen branch. "After all, I too must find a husband willing to take me for what little I have." She turned to help Mary, who had never been as robust as her sisters and tended to stumble on rough paths.
"Silly!" Lydia said with a smile. "You are just as accomplished as Jane and Mary and Kitty."
They emerged from the woods near the front gates of Longbourn and walked along the estate's long drive. Lizzy's breath caught when she saw the two horsemen dismounting at the door.
"Goodness!" Lydia whispered. "Are they the gentlemen?"
Lizzy nodded. She had not expected to see them at Longbourn
"They are very fine gentlemen," Kitty murmured.
On that point, Lizzy had no doubt. The bay geldings both men rode were well-boned animals and accepted the grooms' lead without objection. The men were, as she had noted that morning, as handsome as any lady could desire, and wore fine clothing of the very latest in mode without being excessive. She found that she had reached up to adjust her bonnet, and forced her hands down with a touch of irritation. She would not primp or preen before these gentlemen, no matter how fine they were!
The gentlemen must have heard the sisters' footsteps, for conversation had quite ceased. Both men turned, and Mr Darcy's eyes grew very wide, as though he were startled. His face paled, then grew red.
His gaze fixed on Mary, he demanded, "What are you doing here? Your mother would never allow it!"
Chapter 5 - Games and Words
Posted on Tuesday, 27 May 2008
The shock of Mr Darcy's extraordinary outburst left Lizzy unable to speak for a moment. Fortunately for her resolve to appear the very picture of ladylike virtue before the gentlemen, Mary recovered her voice first.
"I beg your pardon, sir," she said as sweetly as anyone could desire. "I fear you have the advantage over me."
Darcy started. He reddened further, until even his ears flamed scarlet with his blush. After a moment, he offered a short bow. "My apologies, madam. You resemble... a lady I know well." He swallowed, his interest apparently consumed by the gravel beneath his feet. "I fear I have given grave insult. Your resemblance to that lady startled me into... improper speech."
Mary responded with a low curtsy and a sweet smile that Darcy undoubtedly did not see, for his gaze remained firmly upon the ground. "All is forgiven, sir. It must surely be disquieting to see a person one thought far away engaged in other pursuits at a location such as this." No trace of amusement leaked into her voice, although Lizzy could see the gleam of mischief in her sister's eyes.
Darcy looked up, clearly startled, though his embarrassment remained obvious upon his face. "You are all generosity, madam."
I must be reasonable, Lizzy reminded herself. The gentleman had received a great shock and was surely deeply embarrassed. That was reason enough for the shortness of his address.
Jane intervened with a smile and a courtesy. "Sirs, you must be calling upon our father, Mr Bennet. Shall we have someone inform him of your arrival?"
Mr Bingley spoke, all smiles and amiability. "That would be capital, Miss Bennet."
Darcy kept his gaze on the floor as a servant led him and Bingley through Longbourn to the library. If he met no one's eyes, he need not acknowledge his humiliation.
Bad enough that he had taken one of the Miss Bennets for his cousin, but to have blurted out a demand like that - gripped as he was by the terrifying prospect of his aunt bringing herself to this quiet part of Hertfordshire - was inexcusable. Worse, his ill-manners might blight Bingley's standing with the young ladies, and while they were well beneath his station, the daughters of a country gentleman of limited means were a fair prospect for his friend to consider.
The Bennet family could not be of any great note, or he would have seen them on one of the many times he had visited London during the Season. Darcy was certain he had never seen any of the young ladies prior to this day. He would surely have noticed a young lady with Miss Elizabeth Bennet's remarkable eyes, or one as like his cousin as her sister.
The young ladies could not have shunned London for fear their looks were inferior, for even the youngest, still in the plain, demure dresses befitting a girl not yet out, her hair braided back in a severe style, was handsomer than many a woman claimed to be a beauty. The lady he had taken for his cousin was perhaps the least attractive of the sisters, but she would shine when away from her sisters - just as a primrose could never stand against the showier beauty of a rose, but when not overshadowed was no less lovely.
That left either inferior birth, or a lack of funds. Darcy suspected the latter, for he saw nothing about Longbourn that would mark its owner of being of lesser consequence.
There were other signs of economies, too - including a maid escorting him and Bingley to Mr Bennet, not a manservant - enough that Darcy had placed Mr Bennet as an impoverished gentleman of minor consequence in the short walk to Longbourn's study.
There, Darcy and Bingley were cordially greeted by an older gentleman. Darcy judged the gentleman to be in his mid-forties, a man who had been handsome in his youth and had mellowed to a vaguely avuncular figure with graying hair and glasses.
Once introductions were dispensed with, the gentleman, Mr Bennet, invited them to sit and partake of some port. The crystal glasses showed signs of much use and were of a dated style, though excellent quality.
They exchanged a few pleasantries about the weather - remarkably fine for so early in the year - and how Bingley found Netherfield - very much to his liking, of course - before Mr Bennet said, "While this is all very flattering, I very much doubt gentlemen such as yourselves have graced my humble home with your presence merely to be neighborly." There was a hint of something more than the amiable country gentlemen in his gaze, a suggestion that some deeper motive lurked.
"Indeed you are correct, sir." Bingley leaned forward. "We came - well, I did, Darcy bears no blame for any of this - to apologize for scaring your sheep this morning. If Miss Elizabeth had not been present they may have injured your shepherd."
"Who is as woolly-headed as his charges, I know." Bennet set his glass down on the sideboard with a clink. "I must ask you to believe that he is the best we could find for the task."
"I had heard that good hands are in great demand here," Bingley agreed. "How bad is the situation, truly? I fear that while Netherfield's agent talks much, not all of what he said is particularly useful."
Bennet smiled, all avuncular charm once more. "He gossips, you mean? Fear not. My Lizzy will know anything you might need."
Despite his best efforts, Darcy could not help but look startled. Surely Bennet would not openly acknowledge his daughter's unfortunate situation?
The older man sighed heavily and leaned back into his chair. "I should not allow her to do it, I know, but then who would?" He shook his head. "There is not a man worthy to trust with an estate for miles around and I am, alas, sorely unsuited to the task."
Bingley, of course, took Bennet's words at their value. There were times Darcy despaired of his friend's trusting nature - he had caught the thread of irony in the older gentleman's words, the hint that Mr Bennet was not entirely displeased that his daughter had been forced into a man's role.
Bennet eyed him with a sharpness at odds with his genial appearance. "Mr Darcy, I assure you I am aware of the difficulties this places upon my Lizzy's shoulders." The older man spread his hands. "Suffice to say that Longbourn is entailed upon a distant cousin in the absence of male heirs, and thus any economies my girls are able to make can only benefit them in the matter of dowries."
Such a blunt admission of one's financial woes was perhaps unwise, but Darcy imagined the matter was common knowledge in this area, and hence something Mr Bennet found no difficulty admitting.
In a clear attempt to smooth over the tension, Bingley leaned forward and said, "Sir, would you be good enough to tell us more about your sheep?"
Despite supper being - as usual - excellent, Lizzy tasted very little of the meal. She was conscious of their unexpected guests, Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley, and the way Darcy's sharp gaze seemed to catalog every item in Longbourn's dining room from the plate to the wallpaper.
Where Mr Bingley was all charm and amiability, Darcy spoke little, and what he did say was curt, as though he found the very need to speak unpleasant. And yet, every time Lizzy chanced to glance in his direction, Darcy was clearly looking at her, for he would look away as if he feared to meet her eyes.
Her determination to be the model of ladylike behavior was sorely strained in such circumstances, relieved only by Jane's quickness to turn to more pleasant topics any time the conversation strayed into dangerous ground, and the playful word games she enjoyed with her younger sisters.
At least, until in response to Bingley's effusive praise of Darcy as a friend and the soundness of Darcy's advice, Mary answered with a quote from Othello: "My friend, honest, honest Darcy".
Lizzy's stomach tightened to true nausea even as she responded with, "Most true it is that I have looked on truth askance and strangely".
Lydia's eyes grew wide. "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer, Lizzy?"
She could have embraced her sister. "Alas, poor Mary. I knew her, Lydia."
"Aye, there's the rub," Kitty added. "To be, or not to be, that is the question."
Darcy raised one eyebrow. "Is this a dagger I see before me?" He looked directly at Lizzy, who blushed and lowered her gaze.
"Sober virtue, years and modesty guard my innocence," she murmured. "I do pray for mercy."
"Oh, Lizzy!" Kitty shook her head, smiling. "The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven."
"And yet, once more unto the breach," Darcy responded, a hint of amusement glinting beneath his severe facade. "For I have seen the vaulty top of heaven, how lovely!"
Lizzy's lips twitched, though she could not help wondering what madness had overtaken the gentleman who thought her a shrew. "An honest gentleman," she said, her head tilting slightly as she regarded Darcy. "And a courteous, and a kind, and a handsome, and - I warrant - a virtuous."
Darcy bowed slightly over his plate. "A hit!"
His smile transformed him, Lizzy thought even as she joined with the gentleman and her sisters in laughing. Smiling and relaxed, Darcy was altogether a different creature. What made him so ill-humored? "I should apologize," she said when all had calmed. "We often play this game together. It was impolite to drag you into it." She allowed a little mischief into her smile. "Though you acquitted yourself well."
"I find it a diverting and pleasing game, Miss Elizabeth." Darcy's moment of pleasure faded, and he returned to his cold, severe demeanor. "Pray, do not discontinue on my account." A tiny flicker of amusement slipped through what must be a mask. "The Bard can never be improper, even in his most... interesting moments."
"Would you say such of Homer, Mr Darcy?" Mary asked. She sounded almost prim. "Or Sappho?"
Before Lizzy could protest Mary's impertinent question, Darcy frowned, his expression darkening a little. "I would say that it would depend on the lady, Miss Mary."
"And a lady who has read of animal husbandry?" Lizzy found herself asking.
Darcy cleared his throat. "Any lady who has read that and remains a lady," He nodded to Lizzy in a clear acknowledgment that he considered her such, "may read the most scandalous of material with a clear conscience, for she is far too sensible to be led astray by either Roman or Greek immorality."
Lizzy swallowed, her face burning. She could not say whether Darcy meant to compliment or to insult her, only that she found herself feeling both at once, and had not the least idea how to respond.
Chapter 6 - Darcy by Moonlight
Posted on Wednesday, 11 June 2008
The light of a waxing moon shafted through the windows of Darcy's room at Netherfield, illuminating his restless pacing. When he had accepted Bingley's request to inspect the younger man's new estate and provide him with a reason to avoid his sisters' company, Darcy had expected nothing more than a pleasant rural excursion marred by the need to avoid Miss Caroline Bingley's incessant and shallow attempts to ensnare him, the avid cooperation of her sister Mrs Louisa Hurst, and the indolent Mr Hurst.
The avoidance was simple enough, since neither lady showed the least interest in leaving the comforts of Netherfield Hall, and Hurst was equally disinclined to sample the country air. Bingley's forbearance with his overbearing sisters was an irritant, but one easily escaped by riding, walking or hunting - or, if the weather was poor, by secluding himself in Netherfield's library.
Darcy had not expected to find himself dining with a local gentleman, much less one with five daughters with no prospects beyond their faces. Even that would have been no hardship were it not for the young ladies themselves. Despite her startling behavior earlier in the day, Miss Elizabeth Bennet had been the very model of propriety this evening, though those extraordinary eyes of hers had betrayed her more than once. She could speak with perfect calm while her expressive eyes told of her true feelings.
That in itself would be intriguing, but hardly disturbing. Miss Mary Bennet's astonishing resemblance to his cousin Anne, on the other hand, had led him to inexcusable bad manners, inspired not least by the fear that his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, had followed him to Hertfordshire in order to press him to offer for Anne.
While Anne de Bourgh was a pleasant enough young woman, she was also sickly, and completely dominated by her formidable mother. Since the death of Sir Lewis de Bourgh at a lamentably young age, Lady Catherine's determination and stubbornness had run unchecked. Even Darcy's mother's whimsical fancy that he and Anne, so close in age and cousins, would make a charming couple had been taken by Lady Catherine and twisted into inevitability. Darcy knew of only three others who had refused to accept his aunt's whims: his parents, both long dead, and Sir Lewis. The years of having no check on her demands had made his aunt unbearable, and worse, allowed her to believe that all things must eventually turn to her wishes.
Despite her resemblance to Anne, Miss Mary Bennet was in no way like his cousin, or rather, she seemed hauntingly like what Anne could be if she were not always ill and so intimidated by her mother. If that were not disturbing enough, all the Miss Bennets reminded him of his aunt's family in some way.
The eldest, Miss Jane, had a way of lacing her fingers together when she considered some question or problem that matched his aunt's habit when she was provoked into thought on some topic. Miss Elizabeth's gestures, the way her lips pursed when she was unhappy or worried... they reminded him of Sir Lewis. When something startled or disturbed Miss Catherine and she shrank into herself, it was not unlike watching Anne shrink from her mother. And the youngest, Miss Lydia...
She was very like her own mother, Mrs Bennet, whose portrait was so like portraits of the young Lady Catherine it was as uncanny as Miss Mary's resemblance to his cousin.
Discreet questions during the evening had revealed that the late Mrs Bennet had a sister Mrs Phillips who lived in Meryton, the nearby village, and a much younger brother Mr Gardiner who lived in London and was a well-to-do merchant. There could be no possible connection, and yet conversing with the Bennet sisters had the strangest resemblance to his visits to Rosings on the rare occasions his aunt had been in an amiable temper.
Darcy sighed and shook his head. Women who behaved in a shrewish fashion but a few scant hours later were all sweetness, his aunt's mannerisms haunting him so that he saw them everywhere he looked, a gentleman who allowed - nay, encouraged - his daughter to manage his estate in his stead...
Bingley being immediately and deeply besotted by the eldest Miss Bennet did not help matters, Darcy thought. Not that there was anything to object to about the lady herself, but Darcy could well imagine how Bingley's sisters would respond to their brother's infatuation. Hurst was a well-connected and wealthy gentleman, although he seemed to Darcy at times bewildered by his wife, as though the woman he had courted and the one to whom he was married were two entirely different people. Having seen Miss Caroline Bingley's behavior, Darcy could not doubt that Hurst faced exactly that.
The prospect of her condescension at the Meryton Assembly in a few days was almost sufficient to convince Darcy to cut short his visit and return to Pemberley. Almost - the Miss Bennets were attending the Assembly and Misses Elizabeth, Mary and Kitty had promised to rescue him from over-eager young ladies seeking a husband if the need should arise.
Much as he disliked social events - a naturally somber disposition together with shyness he could not altogether conceal made them a trial to him even in the company of friends - Darcy had to admit to a degree of curiosity. The Miss Bennets would, he was sure, make the Society manners of Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst appear cold and affected - all without ever appearing to be anything other than perfectly well-mannered, amiable young ladies.
If such would convince them to return to Hurst's or Bingley's London town house, Darcy would be much more willing to remain at Netherfield.
Perhaps he should write his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam and suggest he join them. He and Bingley were tolerably friendly, and Fitzwilliam shared Darcy's view of Bingley's sisters. The Colonel would also be able to reassure Darcy that the Miss Bennets were nothing more than they seemed, that he had been startled by Miss Mary's resemblance to Anne into seeing similarity where there was none.
Yes, that would do nicely. Darcy eyed the moonlight with speculation. Irregular though it might be for a gentleman to write letters by moonlight, it ought to be possible. He nodded decisively.
Chapter 7 - Among the Assembled
Posted on 2008-06-30
With four unmarried daughters out, and unattached gentlemen attending the Assembly, it was inevitable that chaos should reign in the Bennet household prior to their departure. Kitty, as the youngest and therefore most eligible Bennet sister out received the greater share of the attention, with maids making last minute adjustments to her new gown while her sisters helped to remove the rags from her hair so that she would have the mass of ringlets so much in mode.
Lydia wove freshly cut white rosebuds into her sister's hair, using the de-thorned stems to hold the arrangement together, while Mary, whose straight dark hair would not take curls, chose a simple style of such timelessness that it was never out of mode. All the Bennet girls took extra care with their appearance, knowing that every young lady of age in the district would be primped and preened to within an inch of her life in the hope of attracting the eye of Mr Bingley or Mr Darcy.
Lizzy would have found the prospect amusing, save that Mr Darcy's cold manner would quickly see him labeled by Meryton's mamas as proud and disagreeable when Lizzy was quite certain he concealed a more sensitive nature beneath punctilious courtesy. The few unguarded moments she had caught when he and Mr Bingley dined at Longbourn suggested a man who had no great love of society and concealed his discomfort beneath the kind of mask that could well seem proud or disagreeable.
Though she had no reason to like the man, she could not accept that he deserved the ill-natured gossip of those in Meryton with little better to occupy their minds. Thus, she and her sisters must rescue him from his own nature so that the impression he made upon their insignificant little town did not forever poison the small-minded against him.
Mrs Carlisle approved Lizzy's plan, and she, Mary and Kitty had spent many hours discussing how best to disarm Mr Darcy and put him at ease. Jane had not been absent from their plotting, nor had Lydia, but since all the Bennet sisters save Jane were convinced that Mr Bingley would monopolize Jane's hand for the evening, she could contribute little, and Lydia not being out was unable to act directly, though she had vowed to alert her sisters should she observe Mr Darcy trapped by one of Meryton's less observant worthies.
If Mr Darcy had known the plans made on his behalf, Lizzy was sure he would be angry and offended, and in truth, she hoped that there would be no need for them. If her hopes failed, she could apologize later and claim that she believed that he, like Papa, had little fondness for society and thus she had attempted to shield him from its malicious worst. He already thought her quite improper, so having further impropriety to lay at her feet could do her no real harm.
Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam had expected to be dragged to the Meryton Assembly on the very day of his arrival in the little Hertfordshire village. His cousin's express clearly stated as much, for it would be easiest to observe the young ladies whose resemblance to their aunt's family was so disturbing.
Having been posted in many such villages in the early days of his career, he had a good notion of what to expect of the Assembly - rustic manners, over-eager geniality, and a flock of Mamas with the vapors and a desperate need to find husbands for their surplus daughters.
The wars claimed most of the eligible young men of any rural district, for they were eager to improve their prospects. That inevitably left young ladies with few choices, and oft times made them and their mothers desperate, sometimes to the point of subterfuge and outright blackmail to snare a husband. The arrival of not one, but two eligible young men of wealth would have the town buzzing.
In society such as this, the Colonel himself would be considered more than eligible despite his lack of fortune. The younger son of an Earl was a good catch, especially for a young lady with wealth but no standing. There were sure to be those amongst Meryton's finest.
If he were fortunate, they might even be amiable young ladies who danced and conversed with tolerable intelligence. They could not be worse than the cross-eyed harridan who had tried to entrap him in Scotland.
Fortified by that notion, the Colonel felt ready for whatever the Assembly might bring.
After the obligatory dance with Miss Bingley and a courtesy dance with her sister Mrs Hurst, Darcy excused himself from the dance floor and found a relatively shadowed corner of the Assembly hall from which he might observe the gathering. Bingley had, of course, already danced two sets with the lovely Miss Bennet. Hurst retired to the tables where refreshments were laid out, leaving Caroline and Louisa to endure the naïve and inane courtesies offered by Sir William Lucas, who appeared to be the local dignitary.
Lady Lucas appeared to be fully occupied by her young sons, while the daughters - the elder plain, sensible, and undoubtedly on the shelf, the younger nervous and excitable but not without a certain fresh charm - mingled or danced.
A hint of a smile touched Darcy's lips when he noted Colonel Fitzwilliam's thunderstruck expression as he danced with Miss Mary Bennet. Clearly he had not overestimated the resemblance. That expression had not left the Colonel's face since he had been introduced to the Miss Bennets.
"Would you care for refreshments, Mr Darcy?" Miss Elizabeth's Bennet's soft question startled him from his observations. "I fear there is no library here to tempt you, but there is an excellent punch suitable for cooling one's throat after a dance."
Darcy glanced around and saw that Miss Bingley had detached herself from Sir William and was bearing down upon him. Happily, a new set was forming. "That is a fine offer, Miss Elizabeth, but I must admit I would far rather ask if you would join me in a set."
She accepted his offered hand with a smile and a curtsey - and a glimmer of mischief in her eyes. "You are very kind, sir, to do your duty with so few gentlemen available."
He led her onto the floor and took his place in one of the smaller sets. "This I would claim as a pleasure." The most eligible local woman in the room, with a fortune of twenty thousand, was a coarse-minded, skinny little thing with the misfortune of a multitude of freckles to add to the woes of an inadequate upbringing.
As he bowed and she curtseyed to begin the dance, Miss Elizabeth asked in a murmur, "Even though I consort with sheep, sir?"
Darcy found a smile creeping across his face despite his efforts to control himself. "Especially that, madam," he said in a dry voice. "One grows bored with the usual entertainments of the Ton after a time."
She raised one eyebrow at him, and gave a hint of a smile. "My. Are all gentlemen of the Ton so broad-minded?"
The movement of the dance separated them briefly, giving Darcy time to compose a tolerable answer to her teasing - teasing he found peculiarly enjoyable and challenging. "Alas, no. Many confine themselves to more staid pursuits and never know the pleasures to be found in animal husbandry."
Though she kept her face quite composed apart from that hint of a smile, the laughter in her eyes spoke more than words of the lady's delight in his response. He must remember that Miss Elizabeth Bennet enjoyed matching wits.
"So you must allow that we rustic country folk have our unique amusements," she said with that lurking amusement.
Darcy's own smile broadened. "There I must concede, madam. While I am conversant with the delights of Ovid and Plato, I had not thought to find similar entertainment amongst ovines."
"Amusements of the bovine sort are more common here, I admit, sir." Elizabeth smiled, her eyes twinkling. "Those, alas, I fear you know all too well."
What was this woman doing trapped in a backwater like this? To deliver such scathing judgment upon society in general and her own in particular, in such a way that it would raise no suspicion... "Alas, your perception is indeed accurate." Darcy managed not to grin openly, but only just. "Clearly your accomplishments would be the envy of an angel."
She blushed prettily. "There is only one angel amongst my sisters, sir, and your friend appears to have claimed her for the evening."
He could not disagree with her assessment of Bingley's attachment to Miss Jane Bennet. "He must be persuaded to share, for it would be unconscionably rude of him to monopolize such a valuable creature."
Once more Miss Elizabeth's lips twitched. "You are indeed considerate, sir, to think of the well-being of others so."
"You credit me with more than my due," Darcy said. "I am quite selfish and prefer my comfort not to be disturbed by angry suitors wishing to punish Mr Bingley for his sins."
Posted on 2008-07-16
After dancing with all four of the available Miss Bennets - the youngest being not yet out - Colonel Fitzwilliam found himself forced to admit that Darcy had not been startled into seeing echoes of the de Bourghs where none existed. The resemblance was, as Darcy had said, most striking with Miss Mary Bennet, who was so like a healthy, happy Anne de Bourgh it was downright uncanny. If that were all Fitzwilliam could have dismissed the resemblance as mere coincidence.
He could not. Not when Miss Elizabeth reminded him of the portrait of his grandmother, Aunt Catherine's mother. Darcy had not visited his cousins often of late, and had no doubt forgotten that portrait, the portrait gallery not being his prime concern. Nor was Darcy likely to have heard that Lady Mary, their common grandmother, had been quite the hoyden in her youth. To hear Fitzwilliam's father tell it, she and the old Earl of Ashton had argued often about the management of Ashfield Park, and that she had often won those arguments. The Earl claimed her experience with her own estate of Bywater - necessitated by the death of both her parents of fever when she was just out - was more extensive than the old Earl's, whose father had lived well into his sixties before succumbing to apoplexy. The Earl had also mentioned more than once that while his sister Lady Anne - Darcy's mother - thought her mother's determination and stubbornness amusing if unsuited to current mores, Lady Catherine found Lady Mary's behavior offensive and had, once married, had as little to do with her mother as was decently possible.
Both Fitzwilliam's parents claimed the problem was with their sisters governesses. Catherine, the eldest of the old Earl's children, had been taught by... well, Fitzwilliam could only call her a harridan. Anne's governess had been far more sensible, mitigating the family stubborn streak and gently molding Lady Anne into an engaging lady whose marriage to Mr Henry Darcy had been a true match of hearts and minds.
None of which answered the question of why the daughters of a minor country gentleman should bear such a remarkable resemblance to a family with which they could have no connection. Since Mrs Bennet was long deceased, Fitzwilliam could not charm her to reveal any old family gossip. The only thing he could say was that Mrs Bennet's sister Mrs Phillips bore no resemblance to any of the Bennet girls, and the two Miss Phillipses were remarkably ill-bred. Fitwilliam had gained nothing from either save a lengthy list of the Miss Bennets' faults, a list which seemed to be largely imagined.
Dancing with ill-mannered country girls was still an improvement on the entirely too condescending manners of Bingley's sisters. Though the behavior of Mrs Hurst and Miss Bingley was strictly correct, they contrived to insult all who dared approach them. Fitzwilliam found Darcy's careful arrangements to be elsewhere whenever Miss Bingley was without a partner amusing - Miss Bingley had clearly not realized that to chase Darcy was to drive him further away and increase his resolve to avoid any entrapment.
The Miss Bennets appeared to have recognized Darcy's goal and were assisting him with it, all with sweetness and perfect innocence. That they were also shielding him from the most predatory Mamas and their daughters was something Fitzwilliam found delightful to observe. Any commander would give a great deal to have such easy coordination of effort amongst his troops.
Darcy led Miss Catherine off the dance floor, only to be pounced upon by Miss Bingley, who addressed him with, "You are so kind to tolerate these shameless young ladies chasing you, Mr Darcy."
Fitzwilliam saw his cousin stiffen - usually a sign that Darcy was holding back fury - but before any unfortunate words could be spoken, Miss Catherine Bennet defused the tension with an innocent question. "Why Miss Bingley, surely you do not begrudge a young lady her chance to shine on what is likely the grandest occasion of her first season?"
Miss Bingley's horrified expression in the moment before she controlled herself and said with a smile, "Why no, of course not, Miss Catherine. Mr Darcy is very good to notice you on such an auspicious occasion."
Fitzwilliam did not doubt that Miss Catherine recognized Miss Bingley's sarcasm for what it was. Her answer gave no hint of any such recognition. "Mr Darcy is indeed very kind, Miss Bingley, to give Mr Bingley's associates more notice than their due."
Miss Bingley's face darkened. The insult had been given with such innocence that Miss Catherine appeared to be speaking of herself and not Miss Bingley. Fitzwilliam had to admire the girl for her cleverness - and her courage.
He was given no opportunity to step in and attempt to charm Miss Bingley - Miss Elizabeth Bennet approached and said, "Miss Bingley? I understand you play the pianoforte exceedingly well. Would you condescend to demonstrate your skill while the players rest?"
"I would be honored, Miss Eliza." Caroline smiled triumphantly. "Mr Darcy, would you be so kind as to turn pages for me?"
Though Darcy concealed his emotions with more skill than most, Fitzwilliam knew his cousin well enough to see Darcy's distaste for the task courtesy did not allow him to refuse.
Fitzwilliam drew closer to the two Bennet sisters and heard Miss Catherine murmur, "She needs the pages turned?"
Her sister's response was equally soft. "I do not think Miss Bingley needs assistance, Kitty."
Fitzwilliam choked his laugh, turning it into a clearing of the throat. "Miss Elizabeth, Miss Catherine? Would you do a poor parched soldier the honor of escorting him to the refreshments table?"
Both young ladies eyed him as though trying to determine whether he had heard their criticism of Miss Bingley.
"We could hardly refuse to aid one of England's gallant defenders," Miss Elizabeth said with that hint of laughter in her eyes.
Her sister was quick to agree, adding, "The poor Colonel must be parched."
"Oh quite," Fitzwilliam agreed cheerfully. "All this dancing is quite exhausting. I truly do not know how such frail creatures as yourselves can endure it."
Miss Elizabeth smiled. "For that, we have Mrs Carlisle's excellent advice to thank. Walk not less than two miles each day, unless one is ill, and then walk as much as one may until one can return to longer walks. It builds strength of breath and limb." She sounded remarkably like a dour old spinster, clearly in imitation of Mrs Carlisle's manner.
Miss Bingley began with Mozart's Rondo Alla Turka, too fast but brilliantly executed. Neither Miss Bennet spoke while she played, and they took care to remain quiet while they seated themselves. The small courtesies offered a musician intrigued Fitzwilliam: with as much other chatter as filled the Assembly hall, Miss Bingley would hardly notice two who did her the courtesy of listening.
After the final flourish and a scattering of polite applause, Miss Bingley began a sonata that Fitzwilliam privately believed she had chosen to display her skill rather than to please her listeners. His assessment was confirmed by the look exchanged by the two Miss Bennets, and Miss Catherine's murmured, "I could like her playing better if she had more heart. It is all technique."
Miss Elizabeth's responded equally softly. "Miss Bingley is very proficient. It is a shame she seems not to care for the music she plays."
"Better that than Miss King." Miss Catherine observed with a hint of a smile. "She is all heart with no technique."
Fitzwilliam could not help but notice that despite Miss Elizabeth's attempts to look stern, she could not suppress her amusement entirely. "Indeed, technique without heart is better than heart without technique. A mixture of both is preferable."
As soon as Miss Bingley finished, Sir William loudly called for Mary to play for a set of dances. Lizzy hastened to join her sister at the pianoforte, for she had noticed Mary looking pale and worn. Her sister had never tolerated loud, close gatherings well though she enjoyed them as much as she was able before her own health betrayed her.
Mary's relieved smile when Lizzy slipped in beside her told Lizzy her suspicion had been correct.
Mary began a countrified pavane, a favorite in the district, and Lizzy picked up the thread of the piece. Before long they were simply enjoying the music, ornamenting the dance as they often did when they played at home for the amusement of their sisters. When the first dance ended, Lizzy played a soft bridging section while dancers selected new partners, then moved into a chaconne.
They played several dances that way, alternating between Lizzy's choosing the next dance and then Mary, until the players returned from quenching their thirst and resting their fingers.
Lizzy had no need to ask Mary if she needed fresh air: she knew Mary too well to doubt her sister's need. Instead, once they were freed of the need to provide music, Lizzy assisted her sister to the doors of the Assembly hall and out into the moonlit night. Below, coachmen engaged in their own entertainments, but on the landing above the stairs, all was quiet.
Mary took several deep breaths. "Thank you, Lizzy. I should hate to drive us home early because of my silly ailments."
Lizzy could not help smiling. "I doubt Papa would find it a hardship." Her father had, as usual, found himself a relatively quiet corner to read a book he had brought. When his daughters were ready to depart, he would say his farewells with good cheer and ill-concealed relief - though he would certainly have many biting observations of human folly from the evening.
"Oh, Papa would be delighted." Mary sighed. "I would not deprive Jane of Mr Bingley's company when she enjoys it so, nor would I spoil Kitty's first Assembly."
Lizzy embraced her sister. "You must not forget to consider your own well-being, Mary." Coming out in a place as small as Meryton was more a matter of changing from simple, girlish dresses and braids to adult hairstyles and fashion than any grand occasion. The Lucases were the only family to hold balls for a daughter's coming out, and those were little more than Assemblies held at Lucas Lodge. For Kitty, her first season was a series of firsts - her first modish gown, her first appearance at church as a young lady, her first attendance at one of Aunt Phillips' card parties as a young lady, and now her first Assembly. Lizzy could not help but think it must be terribly intimidating to be introduced at a grand ball and thereafter attend any number of events from which one had been excluded before.
Meryton's small society made it far easier for a girl to come out, for children often attended under the watchful gaze of parents, observing if not participating in the activities of the adults. While it would be unfair to cut short Kitty's first Assembly, it would not be as dramatic a loss as depriving her of a coming out ball.
Not that Lizzy did not understand Mary's reluctance to allow her health to deprive her sisters of enjoyment. She understood too well, having often witnessed Mary's frustration at her own weakness. Though Mary had improved immensely from the sickly child whose health must be constantly guarded, she was more easily fatigued than her sisters, and found occasions like the Assembly difficult to bear.
Mary smiled. "It is only being amidst so many people in such close surroundings, Lizzy. A little fresh air helps." In the bright moonlight, she seemed more ethereal, less a creature of worldly concerns. "I fear I should never be happy in society."
"Then you must find a place where you may be happy," Lizzy declared. "You need not subject yourself to situations that strain your health."
"Ah, but then how should I find a husband to take care of me when Papa is gone?" Mary shook her head. "Such is the way of life - we are given trials to overcome as well as virtues to nurture."
"Misquoting Fordyce, Mary?" Lizzy laughed softly. "How very improper of you."
Mary joined her laughter. "There is nothing improper about taking the cloth and fitting it to oneself." She embraced her sister. "Oh, Lizzy, I shall miss you when we are married."
Posted on 2008-08-25
Colonel Fitzwilliam rose early in order to speak privately with his cousin before any of Netherfield's residents or guests could ensnare him. He found Darcy in Netherfield's library, a room far less well appointed than the library at Pemberley, though still more than adequate for a gentleman.
Darcy did not hesitate. "Well, cousin?"
Fitzwilliam shook his head. "You imagined nothing, cousin. It is as you said - the resemblance of the Miss Bennets to the de Bourghs is nothing less than remarkable." He grinned. "And Miss Elizabeth reminds me of our grandmother Lady Mary."
Darcy blinked. Tension drained from his body, tension Fitzwilliam had not noticed. "I feared I was losing my mind," he said to no one in particular, then, "Lady Mary? I do not recall her."
Fitzwilliam chuckled. "That is scarcely surprising. She retired to her childhood home after the old Earl died - we were perhaps five or six at the time, as I recall it - and travelled little. I believe she did so purely so she would not have to give up running the estate."
Darcy's mouth fell open. "I beg your pardon?"
Fitzwilliam wagged a finger at his cousin. "You did not visit us often enough to learn our shameful secret. Grandmamma Mary managed Bywater after her parents died, and took to Ashfield Park's management when she married the old Earl. She would not have it any other way - she used to tell Grandpapa that she had so much more experience than he so he should learn from her example. They argued fearfully, to hear Father tell it - and Grandmamma invariably carried the day."
Darcy's slow smile indicated his amusement, though Fitzwilliam could see uncertainty as well. "I can see why Miss Elizabeth would remind you of her."
"Oh, that is not the whole of it." Fitzwilliam grinned openly. "There is a portrait of her taken shortly after her marriage. Your Miss Elizabeth could be her sister."
"She is hardly my Miss Elizabeth," Darcy protested.
Fitzwilliam very nearly damaged something fighting his desire to laugh. Too much laughter would rouse the rest of Netherfield. "Come, cousin. I saw the way you looked at her. And you must admit, she coordinated her sisters with the hand of a general to see that you were spared the worst of the fortune seeking Mamas and their daughters."
Darcy spluttered, needing several attempts before he was able to speak. "She..." He shook his head. "I cannot claim I am ungrateful, but -"
"But nothing." Fitzwilliam clapped his cousin's shoulder with enough force to make the more lightly built man stagger. "I danced with some of those fortune-chasing harpies. Be grateful you had nothing worse than Miss Bingley's company." He shook his head. "Is there no way the Bennets can be connected to our family?"
Darcy shook his head. "None. You encountered their aunt Mrs Phillips and their cousins the Miss Phillips'. The late Mrs Bennet also had a brother Mr Gardiner who is a tradesman in London."
Fitzwilliam frowned. "Gardiner... That name is familiar, though from where I could not say." He shook his head. "I shall send an express to Father with what details we have, cousin." He clasped his hands behind his back. "Perhaps he and Mother will know more." He did not doubt that there was a connection. Finding that connection would be an interesting diversion from the more mundane matter of working with the young and inexperienced Captain Denny of the militia.
After the Colonel's confirmation of his suspicions, Darcy found taking breakfast with Bingley's family nothing less than a trial. Bingley himself was all amiable charm, and Hurst offered nothing beyond appreciation of the provisions, but Mrs Hurst and Miss Bingley chose to season their conversation with denigration of Meryton's society and its members.
Bingley flushed with discomfort, but said nothing until Caroline began to catalog the faults of the Miss Bennets, their slyness in wearing up to the mode gowns when everyone knew they had almost nothing to their names, their low connections and deceitful manners, for such insignificant creatures ought surely to have deportment to match, all to Louisa's laughter.
Darcy glanced at Fitzwilliam, wondering if his cousin too wished Bingley to discipline his sister. The Colonel's bleak expression suggested that he shared Darcy's view.
Only when Caroline singled out Miss Jane Bennet did Bingley say, "Caroline, that is enough. If you cannot speak with civility, say nothing."
For a long moment Miss Bingley stared at her brother with her mouth open in a most unbecoming fashion. She snapped her jaw closed, and applied herself to breaking her fast.
The sullen silence was infinitely preferable to a meal seasoned with malice. Darcy was relieved when Bingley asked if he and Fitzwilliam would accompany him while he interviewed the tenants.
At Longbourn, cheerful reflection reigned. Mr Bennet's usual barbed wit about Meryton society remained sheathed, for he was as pleased as his daughters that Jane appeared to have found a gentleman who not only admired her, but one she admired and could perhaps come to truly care for.
He had enjoyed that rapport once, before the strain of the entail on Longbourn and the steady progression of daughters took its toll on Mrs Bennet's nerves and her health. Their last child had been the long-desired son, but the infant had not lived past his first sunrise. His mother had followed him within a day, broken both mentally and physically.
Now, seeing his daughters rejoicing in Jane's conquest and ruing their inability to completely shield Mr Darcy from the more predatory ladies at the gathering, Mr Bennet wondered if those long years of endlessly dashed hopes had not broken his spirit as well. He had once been as willing to dance as any gentleman, and had taken great pride in escorting Mrs Bennet to the dance floor.
Perhaps he should have been more sympathetic and not allowed his own indolence and bewilderment to drive him to the sanctuary of his library. Perhaps... But such regrets had little point, as his Lizzy would tell him. He could not change what he had done.
Better to share in his daughters joys and make the most of the time he would remain the only man in their lives. Jane's partiality to Mr Bingley made it clear that time was limited. Soon enough the others would find appropriate husbands and move to their new families.
"Are you well, Papa?" Lizzy asked. "You do not seem yourself."
Mr Bennet shed his amusement at his own folly to smile at his favorite daughter. "No, nothing is wrong, Lizzy." He really must discipline his own mind. Fancy becoming maudlin because a young gentleman seemed partial to Jane's company. "I must say, Miss Bingley's performance was quite impressive."
"She played very well, I am sure," Jane said.
"Oh, yes, very well indeed." Lizzy smiled, her eyes alight with mischief. "It is a shame she did not appear to enjoy what she played."
Mary raised one eyebrow. "The quality of Miss Bingley's taste speaks for itself, I believe."
Lydia stifled laughter. Mr Bennet was certain he heard the words, "Oh, that orange!" in her muffled voice, but chose not to mention them.
Mrs Carlisle must have heard, for she said, "There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the color, although I must admit it was not a flattering choice for the lady in question. That particular shade is best used for trimming, since there are so few who have the right skin tone to wear it well." She nodded to Mary and Lizzy. "Your judgment is sound, Miss Elizabeth, Miss Mary, though one should not criticize even in private."
Lizzy raised an eyebrow. "How then are we to gain greater understanding, Mrs Carlisle? Is not understanding gained by thoughtful critique?"
Even Jane had to conceal laughter. Lizzy rarely teased Mrs Carlisle, but when she did it was invariably interesting to watch.
Mrs Carlisle actually smiled. "The line is a fine one, Miss Elizabeth, as you know well from the many times you tread it without crossing it."
Mr Bennet took care to appear disinterested. While he had long hoped that one of his girls would be willing to take Mrs Carlisle as an abigail should they marry sufficiently well, he had not realized until now how much he would miss the lady's sharp wit.
Lizzy made a show of dabbing her lips with her napkin. "You are very generous, Mrs Carlisle, but what of those who are still learning society's mores? How are they to gain understanding?"
Again that not quite smile touched Mrs Carlisle's thin face. "The usual method applies, Miss Elizabeth. One learns by trying, failing, and suffering the consequences."Continued In Next Section