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Chapter 1: New Arrivals
Posted on Saturday, 7 June 2008
‘Beautiful', Elizabeth Bennet thought to herself.
With arms spread wide, she enjoyed the cool, light breeze brushing against her skin and the sun warming her upturned face as she stood on Oakham Mount. Sighing contently, she began to spin; wayward strands of hair slowly escaping her bonnet and skirts whirling happily about her ankles. Once sufficiently dizzy from her dancing, Elizabeth landed with a thud on the ground among the tall grass and field flowers and began giggling like a small child. Certainly any passer-by would find such a scene singular, but as Jane Bennet reached the peak of the hill and approached her sister, she merely shook her head in resignation and sighed.
"Really, Lizzy", Jane attempted to scold; however, her gentle smile belied her true feelings. "You will dirty your skirts and we will never hear the end of it from Mama."
"Jane, if I worried about such frippery, I would never have traversed the muddy road that got us here in the first place," Elizabeth answered, her eyes dancing merrily. "I might add, that should you care about such things, you would not be here either."
With another sigh and furtive glance around to ensure no one was about, Jane gathered her skirts and sat gracefully next to her sister. The two sat in companionable silence for several minutes, until the sound of distant horses invaded the peace of the scene. Jane sat upon her knees and craned her neck to see over the high weeds spotting two figures on horseback racing quickly across the field far below them.
"Two gentlemen are approaching the Netherfield estate. Perhaps, they will apply to the groundskeeper to view the property", Jane commented as her eyes followed the swift movements of the riders.
"Well, let us hope for the future owner's sake that he has little fortune, is beyond a marriageable age, or is unpleasant to look at," laughed Elizabeth.
"Lizzy! What awful things to wish upon someone!", cried Jane looking askance at her sister.
Feigning innocence, Elizabeth reasoned, "Oh Jane, I mean it only for his protection. Surely you must know how Mama and all the mothers of Meryton would react should a single man in possession of a large fortune choose to reside in the area? The man would never have a moment's peace and would certainly find himself engaged to a woman by the end of the week."
"Really, Lizzy! I am certain his arrival will not affect anything so severely." And with that exclamation, Jane helped her sister to her feet and the two walked arm-in-arm toward Longbourn.
As the two sisters entered the house, they realized how wrong Jane had been in her estimation. While Jane helped Elizabeth out of her spencer, a shrill cry of joy could be heard from the drawing room. Elizabeth smiled smugly and arched her brow as Jane led the way down the hallway. Upon opening the door, the girls were immediately confronted with the news that a Mr. Charles Bingley had just agreed that morning to lease Netherfield Hall, a mere three miles from Longbourn.
"Five thousand a year! Oh, sister what a fine thing for my girls!" beamed Mrs. Bennet. Mrs. Long readily agreed and the two women began discussing the latest fashions in wedding clothes and how limited Meryton's shops were. "Of course they will have to buy everything in London!"
As Elizabeth took a seat near the fire, Jane poured both herself and her sister a cup of tea. As she poured she remarked, "Mama, you should not plan for such an event just yet. We know little of our new neighbor. For all we know, Mr. Bingley may be promised to another already. Perhaps, that is why he is renting the estate in the first place."
"Jane, would you have a care for my nerves! Do not be so silly! No reports from Meryton have said anything about a fiancée! You must know I am thinking about him marrying one of you! Five daughters and an entailed estate," cried Mrs. Bennet.
As Mrs. Bennet continued to bemoan her dismal circumstances and demand her smelling salts, Jane took a seat next to Elizabeth.
"Are you prepared to concede that I was correct, dear sister?" asked Elizabeth innocently.
"Perhaps, you were Lizzy. I think it best we not mention seeing him and his companion riding," answered Jane.
"Oh goodness, certainly not! Mr. Bingley is unfortunately doomed already. But, whoever his friend may be, he is safe as of now. Surely if she knew about his existence, Mama would set spies upon him in an instant and Kitty would be married to him by winter!" laughed Elizabeth.
As Hill rushed into the room with the smelling salts, Elizabeth rolled her eyes and whispered,
"Let the poor man visit his friend in peace."
The two sisters calmly sipped their tea, as their mother insisted she felt the flutterings of an episode coming upon her.
Unfortunately, for Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy of Derbyshire peace would not be so readily found at Netherfield Hall. The following morning found that gentleman hiding in Mr. Bingley's rather limited library. Reclined in one of the large, leather chairs, Mr. Darcy read a volume of Coleridge's poetry. As he turned the page, he heard the door creak open. Sighing and closing his eyes, he prepared himself for the onslaught.
"Mr. Darcy! How surprising to see you here so early this morning!" cried Miss Bingley. Sidling up to Mr. Darcy's chair, she smiled prettily and soon took a seat in the chair nearest him.
"It should not be much of a surprise, as I told Fosset to inform your family of my whereabouts should any of you inquire. Bingley is to meet me in order to take another tour of the grounds this morning," he quietly stated.
"Oh a walk? How lovely! I shall certainly join you both. I do so enjoy the country air," she simpered. Rising from her seat, she began to leave in order to prepare herself.
"Miss Bingley," Mr. Darcy called. "Just last night you were saying how the pollen affected you and how much you preferred the air in Town. I would not have you venturing outside if it meant risking your health. And we are to ride today. I am certain neither your brother nor myself would ask you to change out of that dress which becomes you so well." He cringed as he glanced up at the pumpkin colored silk and lace she was draped in this morning.
Touched and excited by this apparent evidence of his care, Miss Bingley smiled and concluded that she should remain in the house after all. She bid him a fine morning, and rushed off to relate this latest development to her sister, Mrs. Hurst.
When the sounds of the swishing fabric of her dress and the click of her heels could no longer be heard, Mr. Darcy rose and hurried determinedly from the room. As he slipped into his great coat, he asked a passing maid to inform Mr. Bingley that he would meet him in the field where they concluded the first part of their tour yesterday. As the maid curtsied and left to carry out his instructions, Mr. Darcy heard the distinct laughter of Caroline Bingley coming his way.
"Mr. Darcy is that you? I am in great need of your opinion on an important manner," she called.
With the knowledge that he had not yet been seen, Mr. Darcy slipped on his gloves and fled from the house. A confused and disappointed Miss Bingley entered the front hall just as the door clicked shut behind him.
Chapter 2: Recognition
As she did every morning, Elizabeth walked idly through the fields at the foot of Oakham Mount. She ran her fingers over the tall weeds and buds and inhaled the sweet scent of pinks. She listened intently to the call of the swallows and wondered where her younger sisters had gotten to. Soon she heard the foot falls of a horse and bent down to press her hand firmly to the ground. Unable to determine its direction or distance, she called out for her sisters.
"Kitty! Lydia! Dearests, can you tell which way it comes?"
With no answer and recognizing she was quite alone, Elizabeth determined it would be best to remain still. She had faith that the rider would see her and avoid her; at least, she hoped he would. Curling her fists in determination, she remained still despite the rising fear she felt. She slammed her eyes shut and prayed for the best.
A frustrated Mr. Darcy raced quickly through the high grass, feeling the tallest whipping at his boots. Pushing his horse faster than he should and distracted from the morning's events, he failed to recognize the presence of the figure not too far from him. Glancing up and catching sight of her, he quickly reined his horse. His stallion reared and the force of the movement threw Mr. Darcy, with a surprised cry, to the ground with a sickening thud.
Having heard the cry of the horse and rider, Elizabeth knew they were not far from her. With her hands outstretched in front of her, she walked slowly toward the direction of the sound. Just as she became frustrated and determined her best course of action would be to run in the direction of Longbourn for help, her fingers encountered the soft hair of the horse's mane and the strong features of its face. For a moment she felt comforted.
"There, there," she aid soothingly as she stroked the frightened animal. "I am sorry to have given you such a fright." Fearing that the rider was injured, Elizabeth called out hoping he would answer.
"Sir? If you can hear me, speak so that I may find you!" With that, she kneeled down and began feeling around for the rider. Soon her small fingers came in contact with the hard leather of his boot.
"Someone help me!" she cried frantically. "Sir! Please speak to me! I will find my sisters and get help as quickly as I can." As Elizabeth began to rise, the felt the weight of his hand on her arm stopping her progress.
"That will not be necessary," Mr. Darcy groaned as he sat upright. Dusting off his coat and gingerly touching a particularly painful bump rising on his head, he remarked, "I think you have done quite enough already, madam."
Detecting the anger in his tone, Elizabeth bristled and fired back, "Well, perhaps, if you were not riding like the devil you would not have almost ran me down and almost caused your horse undue injury!"
Surprised by the vehemence in her voice, Mr. Darcy glanced up for the first time. He gasped softly as he encountered a pair of fine, green eyes alight with annoyance. Shaking his head to rid himself of such thoughts, he took a deep breath and raised himself painfully off of the ground. Once steady on his feet, he reached out his hand to assist the young lady.
"Forgive me, I spoke too harshly," he replied quietly. "I apologize for my distraction. I could have done you serious injury."
He was surprised when the young lady rose from the ground on her own and felt slighted by her refusal of his assistance. As she dusted off her skirts, he disappointedly retracted his hand.
"I am well, Sir and I accept your apology," Elizabeth stated simply. With a sudden gasp, she remembered the sound of his falling and grew concerned.
"Are you well, Sir? You were thrown quite forcefully." Elizabeth turned her eyes towards Mr. Darcy's face, hoping he would tell her of his injuries.
Noticing that the young lady looked somewhat past him as she questioned him, Mr. Darcy's brow furrowed. As he touched the bump on the back of his head again and found no blood there, he assured her that he was well.
"I thank you for your concern, Miss..." he trailed off realizing he did not yet know her name.
As Elizabeth opened her mouth to answer, she heard the frantic call of her sisters.
"Lizzy!" they cried in unison. Lydia and Kitty were following a frightened and pale Jane.
Reaching her sister, Jane placed her hands on each side of Elizabeth's face and assessed her for injuries. Once satisfied that her beloved sister was well, she exclaimed, "My God, Lizzy what happened? We heard your cry out!"
Mr. Darcy was surprised to see this sister furiously rear on the younger two and express her disapproval of their leaving "Lizzy" alone.
"I am well, Jane. This gentleman fell from his horse and I merely wished to assist him," she calmly explained.
Mr. Darcy's eyebrows rose in wonder as he realized she left out his part in the near-accident. Unwilling to allow such a thing to happen, he cleared his throat, drawing their attention away from their sister.
"I fear I must take full responsibility for the event. I was riding far too swiftly, and, not realizing your sister's presence, was forced to rein my horse very quickly," Mr. Darcy confessed. He glanced down at the ground as he realized the gravity of what might have happened.
Realizing his discomfort, Jane raised her hand to his shoulder and remarked, "My sister and yourself are well, Sir. That is all the matters."
Amazed with this act of charity, he opened his mouth to thank her, but was prevented by the sudden arrival of his jovial friend.
"Darcy! I see you are meeting my new neighbors before I even have the opportunity!" Bingley stated good-naturedly.
He sprang from his horse and landed before the group smiling. "Good morning," he greeted. "I am Charles Bingley. I have just recently leased Netherfield Hall." He bowed formally and smiled brightly at Jane.
Lydia's loud snickering quickly drew his attention from Jane's face and back to reality. Without thinking Lydia exclaimed, "Oh we knew of your arrival! But we are the first Meryton to actually see you! See Kitty, I told you he must wear a blue coat!" Lydia finished by harshly jabbing the aforementioned sister in the side.
Blushing at her sister's outburst and lack of manners, Elizabeth pinched Lydia's arm to silence her.
Apparently unaffected by the youngest Miss Bennet's declarations, Mr. Bingley introduced the tall, silent man beside him as Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley in Derbyshire. Stirred out of his reverie and watching Elizabeth intently, Mr. Darcy bowed solemnly.
Noticing Mr. Darcy's quizzical gaze upon her sister, Jane introduced herself in the hope of distracting him.
"And these are my youngest sisters Miss Lydia and Catherine Bennet," Jane said as Lydia and Kitty daintily curtsied. "And my sister Miss Elizabeth Bennet."
Knowing the gentlemen's attention to be on her, Elizabeth gazed fixedly at the ground and dropped into a graceful curtsy. As she rose, she shivered slightly as she felt Mr. Darcy's gaze upon her. Refusing to raise her eyes, Elizabeth hooked her arm in Jane's for support; a gesture she hoped would reveal her discomfiture to no one, but her dear sister.
"Excellent! What a pleasure to meet you all!" beamed Mr. Bingley. "I hope I shall see you all at the assembly tomorrow night. I am very fond of good company and dancing."
Amazed by the vivacity and humor of the young man in front of them, Elizabeth happily answered, "You shall see my sisters there Mr. Bingley."
"Wonderful! And may I engage your hand for the first dance, Miss Bennet?" he asked hopefully.
Groaning inwardly, Mr. Darcy realized his friend was infatuated once again with a pretty face. Jane quietly assented and smiled gently at her new neighbor. Sighing in resignation, and preparing himself for a day filled with talk of the "beautiful Miss Bennet", Mr. Darcy turned his gaze toward Elizabeth once again. Watching the breeze play softly with her hair and the genuine smile which appeared as she listened to her sister's acceptance, Mr. Darcy became enchanted. Taking hope from his friend's success, Mr. Darcy determined to ask Elizabeth for the first dance as well.
Clearing his throat nervously, he asked, "Miss Elizabeth, if you are not otherwise engaged, would you do me the great honor of dancing the first with me?"
At this Lydia, snorted. Jane shot her an angry glare, but Elizabeth appeared unaffected. She blushed prettily, and felt cheered by Mr. Darcy's interest in her. She smiled as she imagined what dancing with the gentleman before her would be like. Her smile soon fled her face and she grew serious as she realized how she must answer him.
"I thank you for your offer, but fear I must decline. I am afraid I am not attending the assembly tomorrow evening, Mr. Darcy." Feeling suddenly melancholy, Elizabeth professed herself exhausted and asked Jane to escort her back to Longbourn.
As the two gentlemen bowed and said their farewells, Mr. Darcy was certain he heard the eldest Miss Bennet whisper, "They are bowing Elizabeth". When Miss Bennet withdrew from her sister's side, Elizabeth curtsied quickly. Taking her sister's arm, the two women retreated through the tall grass.
Mr. Darcy gasped and his eyes held a sudden recognition. The younger Miss Bennets set off toward Meryton and just as the gentlemen mounted their horses to resume their tour, Lydia cried, "Do not be too put out Mr. Darcy! Lizzy never attends assemblies! Mama does not allow her to attend! She professes that since Lizzy cannot see the steps, she cannot learn! What good is going to a ball if you cannot dance?" With another snort, Lydia ran to catch up with her sister.
Mr. Darcy shut his eyes and cursed his own blindness for not allowing him to recognize Elizabeth's.
'She could not see my hand,' he thought to himself.
Chapter 3: Evening
Posted on Saturday, 14 June 2008
Mr. Thomas Bennet of Longbourn was considered by many in his society to be a singular creature. He preferred reading and academic discussion with intelligent individuals to the polite and insincere conversations of a ballroom. Let us not assume from this, that he was adverse to good company. He was only adverse to good company when it was coupled with gossip, discussions of lace and satin, and dancing. For this reason, the night of the Meryton Assembly found Mr. Bennet contently sitting in his library in front of a roaring fire.
Four hours previously, his home had been filled with the chaos caused by his youngest daughters as they fought over a particular pair of slippers. Thankfully, Jane had mitigated her younger sisters' arguing by offering them leave to take any pair they wished from her closet. As the two rushed off happily, Jane returned downstairs to the peace of sitting with her father and favorite sister in the drawing room.
"You look remarkably well this evening, Jane," he had said to her. "That blue becomes you."
"Thank you Papa," she answered quietly, blushing at his praise.
"Jane always looks well, Papa. I defy anyone to think any differently!" Elizabeth cried. "Although, I do wonder at her taking such particular care with her appearance this evening. Why, I am certain Sarah was with her for over an hour," she finished with a wink.
"I am sure I do not know what you are talking about," Jane reprimanded gently.
"What is this Lizzy? Does your sister have a beau that I should be made aware of? Perhaps, I should attend this evening after all," he said playfully. "I will see to it that Sir William Lucas claims every dance with her to prevent the overtures of this unworthy young man!" Waggling his eyebrows, he then nudged his second eldest and the two laughed happily.
Her cheeks flushed with embarrassment, Jane rose from her chair in frustration. "You two are incorrigible!" she cried. "I will leave you to yourselves since you seem in no condition to be in company this evening!" With a smirk that hinted she had already forgiven them, she swept from the room.
Catching her breath and wiping tears from her face, Elizabeth settled back into her chair. With a look of mock disapproval, she said, "Papa, that was truly cruel! You have unsettled poor Jane!"
"Bah! Your sister needs to be unsettled on occasion," he said dismissively. "She is far too good to be in company with the rest of us."
Shaking her head, Elizabeth rose to see that her mother and sisters left at seven o'clock as they had earlier appointed. As she moved toward the door and past Mr. Bennet's chair, he grasped her arm to draw her attention back to him.
"And Elizabeth, please do not relate this event to your mother. She will certainly take it as evidence that my headache has vanished and will force me to attend this evening," he stated.
"Of course, Papa," she said kissing the top of his head. With that, she counted her steps out of the room and left, clicking the door shut behind her.
Now, as the clock struck eleven, Mr. Bennet waited for his favorite daughter to return to her seat across from him. In Elizabeth, he found the best sort of company; someone who held his taste in discussion and thought. As he turned the page of his book, he heard Elizabeth's approach and, marking his page, put the tattered copy aside. She entered soon after, shawl in hand, as she had become chilled by the dampness of the evening.
"Shall we resume our game then?" she asked brightly. Gathering her skirts up, she resumed her seat and tucked her feet beneath her. "Did you finally make a decision?" she mocked.
"You play far too impulsively my dear. Patience is the key to any endeavor," he answered. He steepled fingers and rested his elbows on his desk. "Knight to B6", he finished.
"I have never been particularly good at patience Papa, as you well know! That is Jane's realm of experience," she exclaimed.
For a moment, Elizabeth stared at the board, envisioning the black knight moving forward. Instinctively, she reached out and moved her fingers toward the rook nearest her. Once she felt its uneven, rough top, she slid her fingers down to its based and slowly moved it forward. Arching her brow, she settled back into her seat.
As Elizabeth crossed her arms in satisfaction, Mr. Bennet cried, "Impulse!"
But as he surveyed the board and the space her piece now occupied, his eyes widened. With a sudden strike of clarity, he realized she would take his king on her next turn. Elizabeth began snickering across from him and as he looked up he saw her eyes dancing with victory.
"I take your silence as encouraging. You see it now do you not?" she asked triumphantly. Holding out her hand to him, she professed, "Well-played, Sir!"
Dumbfounded, he took her hand. As he shook it, he cried, "Well-played, indeed! I have been bested by my student for the fourth time!"
Smiling, Elizabeth sat back in the worn leather chair. Many an evening had been spent in such a way; she holding the victory and her father lamenting the injustices of the student beating the master. As her father dissected for her each of his mistakes, she heard Hill hurry into the front hall to open the door.
"Ah, I think our evening has come to an end my dear," Mr. Bennet said disappointedly.
As she heard him busying himself with replacing their pieces into a box, she reached out to give him a sympathetic pat on his hand. The giggles of her younger sisters and the excited chatter of her mother could be heard from the hallway.
‘They must have had a fine time,' she thought to herself.
Elizabeth felt a sudden pang of regret; a feeling of disappointment she had never experienced to such a degree. She played idly with the cross at her throat as she imagined fine colored satins swirling about the assembly hall as lively music played in the background. Surprisingly, among the figures in Elizabeth's mind was the man whose presence and voice had so distracted her the previous day. She saw him finely dressed and talking good naturedly with his friend, Mr. Bingley. Unable to see his face, she envisioned other details about him; a noble stature, a well-informed wit, and a voice filled with authority. As she continued to create the assembly in her mind, Elizabeth sighed softly.
Startled by the despondency in her voice, Mr. Bennet glanced up to find her pensively looking toward the fire.
With his brow furrowed, he asked, "Is everything well, Lizzy? You seem distracted."
Snapping from her reverie and turning to face him, she hurriedly professed that she was well and only a little tired. Before he could press her further, his library door unceremoniously flew open, admitting the younger Miss Bennets and Mrs. Bennet.
"What an assembly my love!" she cried, as she dropped onto the sofa. "Although, I must confess I found Lady Lucas' dress shockingly plain! The lace, Mr. Bennet..."
"No lace! No lace, madam! I beg you!" he boomed as he stood to tend to the fire. Elizabeth hid her smile behind her hand at this evidence of her father's habitual dislike of fashion.
"Well, never mind then. There are far greater matters to acquaint you with my dear!" she cried excitedly.
Just then, Jane came in bearing her sisters' shawls that had been carelessly discarded in the hall. As she entered, Mrs. Bennet beamed with pride and rose to embrace her eldest daughter.
"Jane was a favorite among all the gentlemen, particularly our new neighbor, Mr. Bingley!" she exclaimed happily.
Lydia, who by this time had thrown herself into the chair next to Elizabeth, felt left out of the conversation. To rectify such a travesty she jumped from her seat and cried, "He danced with her twice, Papa!"
Not to be bested by her younger sister, Kitty declared, "And he could not take his eyes off of her when he was not dancing with her!"
"Kitty, Lydia, please!" cried Jane, horrified at her younger sisters' announcements.
With a glint in his eyes, Mr. Bennet turned to his eldest to ask, "So this is the young man then?"
Knowing her sister was suffering acutely from so much attention, Elizabeth reprimanded her father gently. She knew Jane would not wish to discuss such a subject in the presence of everyone and did not wish to grant their mother another opportunity to continue with the topic. Elizabeth underestimated her mother's resourcefulness and Mrs. Bennet found an opportunity anyway.
"Kitty speaks truthfully, my dear! Mr. Bingley was very attentive to Jane! Did I mention he has five thousand a year? And his sisters, what charming women they are!" Mrs. Bennet continued as she preened herself in the gilded mirror on the wall.
"So there were ladies with him after all? Pray Jane, what were they like?" Elizabeth asked excitedly.
"They were quite lovely and..." rejoined Jane.
Before she could continue with her descriptions for Elizabeth, Mrs. Bennet boomed, "But the man he brought with him, Mr. Darcy as he calls himself, is not worth our concern!"
At the mention of Mr. Bingley's friend, Elizabeth gripped her chair tightly in an effort to steady herself. Praying her voice would not shake, she asked, "What was the gentleman like, Mama? He must have been very disagreeable to produce such a sentiment."
"He was Lizzy! He is handsome to be sure and rich, ten thousand a year I believe, but ill-bred indeed! He said not a word to anyone and danced only four dances! He slighted all of your daughters, Mr. Bennet! He was the most proud, disagreeable man I have ever encountered" she cried. Sighing and looking toward Heaven, she grumbled, "If only Mr. Bingley had his fortune."
"Mama, I highly doubt Mr. Darcy's not wishing to dance this evening was meant as a slight toward us," Jane said gently.
Troubled by such a description of the man who had occupied her thoughts, Elizabeth waited, hoping Jane would reveal something more. She prayed that whatever else was revealed of the mysterious Mr. Darcy it would be praise rather than criticism.
‘Is this truly the man I met?' she wondered.
Noticing Elizabeth's furrowed brow and heightened color, Jane quickly continued that she believed Mr. Darcy was only distracted that evening and perhaps, improved on closer acquaintance.
"I find I must agree with Jane, Papa," stated Mary sedately from her corner where she read. "He seemed to be looking for someone the whole of the evening and, perhaps, like me, he finds the conversations at assemblies tiresome."
"Oh Lord, Mary! One does not attend a ball for the conversation!" cried Lydia scandalized by the very idea.
"Do not be ridiculous, Mary! Looking for someone; what nonsense! Who could he have been looking for? Everyone he knows in Hertfordshire was present tonight! No, he is just ill-mannered as I said earlier!" Mrs. Bennet argued. "The sooner he leaves the neighborhood, the better!"
With this, Mrs. Bennet she swept from the room to ready herself for bed.
‘Not everyone he knows was present, Mama,' thought Jane as she took the vacated seat next to Elizabeth and studied her now silent sister.
Chapter 4: Misconceptions
"How good it is to be in one's home again!" cried Miss Bingley as she took her seat near the fire in Netherfield's drawing room. "I must admit, an evening in such company is excessively tiresome!"
"I never met with more pleasant people or prettier girls in my life!" cried Bingley as he bounded happily into the room. "Some of them were uncommonly pretty! Eh, Darcy?"
Darcy entered quietly, and after pouring himself a glass of wine, admitted that Bingley had been dancing with the only handsome girl in the room. Taking a seat across from Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst, he took a sip of wine and said nothing more.
Noticing his reserved behavior that evening, Miss Bingley was determined to draw him out in hopes he would support her sentiments regarding the good people of Hertfordshire.
"But could none of the young ladies please you, Mr. Darcy?" she asked hopefully.
"Not even the famous Miss Bennets?" joined Mrs. Hurst. At this declaration the two sisters laughed gaily and Darcy shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
As their laughter quieted, Miss Bingley declared, "Oh, but Jane Bennet is a sweet girl and I declare I should like to know her better!" Yet, her smile soon faded as she professed, "But, her mother!"
At the mention of the strident Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Bingley blanched and gulped a large mouthful of his wine. "Perhaps, she improves on closer acquaintance?" he wondered aloud.
Happy that Darcy did not rise to defend the Bennets, Miss Bingley continued her game, proclaiming, "I hear that Miss Eliza Bennet, is a famous local beauty. I wonder at her not being in attendance this evening. Whatever could she have meant by it?"
At the mention of Elizabeth's name, Darcy's grip strained against his goblet and, realizing the very near danger of breaking it, he set it down on the table beside him. Idly twisting his signet ring and settling back into his seat, he prayed that the sisters would not discuss Elizabeth at length.
Before Miss Bingley could continue with her diatribe, Mrs. Hurst's eyes brightened happily as she realized the valuable and fascinating information she had gathered that evening from Mrs. Long and could now reveal to the company.
Excitedly she cried, "But my dear sister, did you not hear? Eliza Bennet is an invalid!"
"Whatever do you mean, Louisa? An invalid?" asked Miss Bingley. Her eyes brightened at the mystery of the idea.
"Yes, dearest. I had it from that woman, Mrs. Long." Leaning forward, Mrs. Hurst continued in hushed tones, declaring, "Eliza Bennet is unable to leave her house, because she is quite blind," She spoke this final word in a near-whisper and nodded gravely at her sister.
Just as soon as Mrs. Hurst finished, Darcy rose quickly from his seat and stormed toward the chimney piece. Once there, he stared intently into the fire and cursed their ill manners silently. As he watched the flames lick the iron grate, he wondered, as he often did, how his obliging and kind friend could possibly be from the same womb as these women.
Unaware of Darcy's increasing discomfort, Miss Bingley exclaimed, "Blind, you say! How shocking! Why it is no wonder then that she is left at home!"
At this pronouncement, Darcy shut his eyes. He had known she would not be there; she had told him herself. Yet, even with this knowledge he had looked for her. His mind screamed that he only wished to ascertain if she was truly well after their near-accident the previous day, but something else argued that there was another reason. While he did not understand why he felt so drawn to her, he did not find the feeling unwelcome, but instead, surprising and pleasant.
He was stirred from his reverie by Miss Bingley, as she callously declared, "Never able to stir out of doors. Why, she must be a perfect simpleton!"
"Well, what is one to expect of someone with such a malady. There must be no possibility of acquiring an education or even the simplest of social graces," proclaimed Mrs. Hurst.
As the two sisters continued to discuss Elizabeth's "infirmity", as they insisted it was, Darcy gripped the cool marble of the mantle in anger. He felt an inexplicable concern for Elizabeth Bennet and the possible results of such a feeling began to worry him. Only Darcy's profound and unwavering devotion to Bingley caused him to refrain from expressing his thoughts of the two sisters aloud. Just when he believed he could take no more and prepared to flee from the room, Bingley rose from his seat.
"Caroline! Can you show no compassion?" asked Bingley as he stared at his sister in wonder.
Shaking his head in disappointment at his sister's behavior, he continued, "Besides, Darcy and I saw none of what you speak of when we spoke with Miss Elizabeth yesterday. I found her remarkably pleasant! Is that not so, Darcy?" Bingley approached the mantle and looked at Darcy expectantly.
While Bingley waited for Darcy's reply, Miss Bingley paled slightly.
"You met her yesterday?" she asked, with a slight quiver in his voice.
"We met Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth as we were touring the estate yesterday. I found them both perfectly delightful," exclaimed Bingley. At the thought of Jane, his frustration lifted and he smiled and gazed happily into the fire.
Recognizing the displeasure in her brother's tone and realizing Darcy may share her brother's opinion of Miss Elizabeth Bennet, Miss Bingley chose to remain silent rather than risk losing that man's admiration. She waited anxiously for Darcy's answer, and hoped he would deny her brother's assertions.
Soon Darcy spoke and Miss Bingley found herself sorely disappointed as he quietly affirmed, "Indeed, Bingley. Both Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth seemed quite intelligent and genteel."
With that, the gentleman professed that he would retire for the evening, thanked Bingley for his hospitality, and bid the company a good night. As he strode resolutely toward the hallway, he glanced at Miss Bingley, only to find her slightly more paled and her mouth set tightly. At this sight, a small smile of satisfaction spread across his face.
Upon exited the room, he heard Mr. Hurst awaken from his slumber brought on by the good wine. Hurst loudly announced, "Yes, quite! Damned silly way to spend an evening!"
Stifling a laugh, Darcy ascended the stairs.
Chapter 5: Morning
The sun rose the following morning to find Elizabeth slowly making her way down the stairs and into the front hall of Longbourn. As she walked, her left hand glided along the smooth, cool plaster of the wall and guided her toward the door. At the door, she was greeted happily by their housekeeper Mrs. Hill.
"It's a fine mornin' miss," declared Hill as she helped Elizabeth into her spencer.
"It certainly sounds as if it is. There is nothing more pleasurable than being woken by the sounds of the sparrows," said Elizabeth as she smiled happily.
"You'll be in the gardens then, miss?" asked Hill tentatively as she secured Elizabeth's bonnet. While she did not wish to seem overbearing nor intrude on Elizabeth's freedom, she worried about the long distances Elizabeth insisted on traversing alone every morning.
"I will be after a short walk," Elizabeth said with a wink. Before the housekeeper could protest or call for Jane, Elizabeth slipped out the door.
The warmth of the sun greeted Elizabeth happily and the brisk, dampness of an early autumn caused her to shiver. Undeterred by the chill, for such sensations allowed Elizabeth to sense what the world around her looked like on such a day, she continued down the path toward the wilderness behind Longbourn. While many in her family did not approve of her early morning walks and felt that she would surely meet with some catastrophe while walking alone, she had long ago begun to ignore them. With the help of Jane and Mr. Bennet, and certainly through her own determination, she had learned the paths that stretched and weaved around her father's estate. She knew each step and was aware of every ditch. She walked the paths leisurely, always making certain that with each step she found a firm footing.
On this morning, Elizabeth wound her way, with a practiced adeptness, to a stone bench on the far side of the property. Sitting down on its chilled surface, she untied her bonnet and laid it aside. The previous evening had given her much to think on and she found herself unable to sleep peacefully. Never before had she felt the disappointment of being unable to attend an assembly as acutely as she did then. Such a feeling was certainly not foreign to Elizabeth, but she rarely felt melancholy. Sometime in the early morning as she lay restlessly in bed, she determined that something must have changed within her.
‘Perhaps,' she admitted to herself, ‘I am restless.'
While her mind argued that she was merely weary of the limitations placed on her over these past years, something else insisted it was much more. As she was attempting to ascertain why it was she wished she could have attended the assembly, she heard footfalls in the gravel across the lawn. Soon after, Elizabeth discerned the light sweeping sound of skirts and the gentle breathing of her elder sister.
"It is a fine morning, is it not, Jane?" asked Elizabeth as Jane reached the bench.
"It is indeed," Jane answered breathlessly. Sitting down next to her sister, Jane asked, "What brings you to such a solitary spot this morning?"
At this, Elizabeth smiled and Jane noticed a slight blush color Elizabeth's cheeks. Choosing not to press her sister further, Jane allowed silence to envelop them and instead, turned to face Longbourn as Elizabeth had. Soon after, Elizabeth spoke.
"From the way Lydia and Kitty carried on last night, I must assume it was a pleasant evening then?" Elizabeth asked.
"It certainly was," answered Jane quietly. After witnessing her sister's disappointment the previous night, Jane was uncertain how much she should speak of the evening's festivities.
Elizabeth realized Jane's simple answer was undoubtedly due to the fact that she did not wish to pain her with the details of an evening she was not a part of.
To comfort Jane, Elizabeth declared merrily, "Come, Jane. You must tell me everything. Did everyone look well? Was everyone well-behaved and polite or did indiscretions occur? In truth, the latter would make for a far better story."
Cheered by the vivacity in Elizabeth's questions, Jane owned that everyone was, unfortunately, well-behaved. She told Elizabeth of the gowns, sparing no detail so that her sister could envision the scene. Jane described the dances and which couples danced them. She related their younger sisters' actions and the two discussed how they might discourage Lydia and Kitty's boisterous behavior.
As the hour for breakfast approached and the two sisters strolled toward Longbourn, Jane reached a detail of the evening that brought a blush to her lovely face.
"Mr. Bingley and I danced twice," she said gently.
"Ah yes, Mama did seem very pleased by that event," Elizabeth added. "And what did you think of your dance partner?"
"He was just as a young man ought to be; kind, intelligent, and genteel," Jane said happily. "He was a favorite among everyone."
"Yes, but does he wear a blue coat? According to Kitty and Lydia that is very important," asked Elizabeth gaily.
Jane laughed and confessed that Mr. Bingley did, indeed, wear a blue coat.
After a brief pause, Elizabeth asked, "And what about his friend then?" She hoped her voice was steady as she wished to give the appearance of being indifferent.
"No, he did not wear a blue coat," Jane professed lightly. "Although, Mr. Darcy did look very well in black."
At Elizabeth's shock expression, she began to laugh.
"Jane you are teasing me! I cannot believe it! Where has my kind and gentle sister gone?" Elizabeth cried and she dramatically pressed her hand to heart as if wounded.
Collecting herself, Jane professed that the joke was well-deserved after Elizabeth and Mr. Bennet's behavior the previous evening.
"Oh, very well then!" Elizabeth conceded. "Perhaps, that was deserved."
Elizabeth reached out to stop Jane's progress down the path. Once they stood, Elizabeth asked somewhat fearfully, "But, tell me. How was Mr. Darcy received by everyone? Mama seems to despise him."
With a sigh, Jane professed, "He did not speak with many people, Lizzy. He spoke only with Mr. Bingley, Miss Bingley, and Mr. and Mrs. Hurst. I am afraid many in Meryton share Mama's feelings and are in agreement that he is arrogant."
As she noticed Elizabeth's disappointment, Jane hurriedly continued, "Miss Bingley told me that he never speaks much, unless he is with close and trusted acquaintances. She claims that he is lively and quite agreeable with them."
This statement seemed to cheer Elizabeth somewhat and the two sisters continued toward the house. As the rounded the path toward the front of Longbourn, Charlotte Lucas entered the gate.
"Oh, look Charlotte has come!" Jane exclaimed.
Jane linked arms with Elizabeth and the two ran toward Charlotte.
"Good morning, Charlotte!" cried Elizabeth breathlessly.
"Jane! Lizzy!" declared Charlotte happily as she embraced them. "My father is to give a party and you are all invited. He particularly requests your presence, Lizzy. Something about needing to win back two pounds."
"Lizzy, you didn't!" cried Jane.
"Sir William insisted we play and Papa approved," Lizzy declared proudly. "I will not be blamed for his underestimating me!"
At this, the three women laughed, linked arms, and made their way inside.
Chapter 6: Anticipation
Posted on Thursday, 19 June 2008
"Sarah!" cried Lydia and Kitty in unison from the floor above.
The young maid raced up the stairs with the youngest Bennet sisters' newly pressed gowns bundled in her arms. After delivering them to their respective owners, she leaned against the wall in the upstairs hall and wiped at her damp forehead. Having a single mistress required dedication, but having six mistresses required an endless amount of patience. Thankfully, Sarah possessed just such a serene nature, and had been with the Bennet family for several years. Once she had caught her breath, she continued down the hall toward Elizabeth's room.
When Sarah entered, Elizabeth was already dressed in a gown of pale green, and was adjusting the sleeves that delicately touched her elbows.
At the sound of the door opening, Elizabeth asked expectantly, "Is that you, Jane?"
"No, miss. It is Sarah" the young maid replied as she shut the door behind her. "You look very well this evening, if I may say so."
Elizabeth smiled and blushed at the young girl's praise. She made her way toward her vanity, and once she felt the rough wood of her chair beneath her fingers, sat down.
"I thank you for the compliment, but if you are unable to tame this wildness on my head I am afraid I will not be fit to be seen," laughed Elizabeth gesturing to the dark curls that fell about her shoulders.
"Of course, miss," smiled Sarah.
With that, she set to pinning Elizabeth's curls in place; arranging it delicately and leaving a few curls loose at her neck. Sarah enjoyed readying the elder Bennet sisters; both were gentle and sensible creatures and Sarah had come to care for them. She took particular care with and pleasure from preparing Elizabeth for evenings such as this one. Placing the final pin and flower among Elizabeth's curls, she heard a light knock at the door.
"Elizabeth? May I come in?" Jane asked as she peered around the door.
"Of course, Jane," Elizabeth answered.
Stepping into the room, Jane took in Elizabeth's appearance and exclaimed, "Oh, Lizzy! You look beautiful!"
"Should I embarrass you, do you think?" she teased.
"Lizzy, you look very well," Jane declared.
"If I do, it is all due to Sarah's efforts and none of my own," Elizabeth admitted lightly.
With that, she raised her hand slightly and waited for Sarah to take hold of it. When the young maid did, Elizabeth smiled and thanked her for her lovely handiwork. Beaming with pride, Sarah gently squeezed Elizabeth's hand and wished both of her young mistresses a good evening. She curtsied and quietly exited the room.
"That green is very becoming on you, Lizzy," Jane said as she approached her sister.
Smiling, Elizabeth declared, "I will just have to trust that you are correct, and that you would have mercy on me and tell me if I did look abominable in it."
Laughing, Jane shook her head at her sister's customary humor regarding her condition. She watched as Elizabeth picked up her cross from its usual place on her vanity and clasped it about her neck.
"There; now I am ready," Elizabeth stated. "Shall we then, good madam?"
With this Elizabeth bowed and raised her arm like the gallant knight of a novel.
"Why yes, good sir!" declared Jane, and taking Elizabeth's arm, the two swept happily out of the room.
Mr. Bennet sat in his library, reading so as to avoid the flurry of preparation that was going on above stairs. Mrs. Bennet had insisted that her husband attend Sir William's party that evening, despite his valiant attempts to convince her otherwise, and as a result, he was dressed handsomely in his evening attire at the hour she had appointed. While he took a sip of his port, his door flew open and admitted Mrs. Bennet into the room. She entered quickly, and her skirts whirled excitedly around her ankles as she approached his desk.
"My dear husband," she began while wringing her hands in agitation. "Are you aware that your daughter plans to attend this evening?"
Setting aside his book and port, Mr. Bennet raised his eyebrows in surprise and calmly declared, "I suffer an embarrassment of riches in that area, madam. Of what daughter do you speak?"
"Oh, Mr. Bennet! How you do like to try my poor nerves!" she cried. "I speak of Elizabeth, of course!"
As he settled back into his chair, he acknowledged that he was well aware his second eldest wished to attend that evening's festivities.
"But, do you think that is wise?" asked Mrs. Bennet anxiously.
"Why would it not be, my dear? She attends all of the parties at Lucas Lodge," he answered evenly. "I see no reason why tonight should be any different."
"But, Mr. Bennet! Mr. Bingley and his sisters will surely be in attendance! What will they think of her?" she exclaimed. "Surely they will view her condition as evidence of weakness in our family! I am certain they will, and such a belief will harm Jane's chances!"
At this proclamation, Mr. Bennet colored and his face darkened. Quietly, he stated, "If they are sensible people, they will assume no such thing. And if they do, they are not worth our concern."
As Mrs. Bennet prepared to argue with him, he merely raised his hand to silence her and continued, "I will not see my daughter hidden away. They will like her for her intelligence and liveliness, just as we do."
Looking pointedly at his wife, he rose from his chair and left the room. An agitated Mrs. Bennet remained staring wonderingly at the door for some minutes thinking on what her husband had said. While she was a worrisome creature at times, Mrs. Bennet was by no means cruel. She had five unmarried daughters and an estate entailed away from them. As a result, she had made it her chief occupation in life to see them well-married and worried constantly that their small dowries and lack of position would hinder them. Mrs. Bennet depended on their handsome features, manners, and talents to recommend them.
Elizabeth was Mrs. Bennet's greatest concern. While she did not fault Elizabeth for her condition, and loved her child dearly, she worried about Elizabeth's situation constantly. Not only did such a circumstance severely diminish Elizabeth's chances of marrying well, if at all, but Mrs. Bennet grew concerned that it would damage her other daughters' chances as well. Sighing, she gathered her skirts, and as she swept from the room, said a silent prayer that her husband was right.
The lamps burned brightly at Lucas Lodge as the Bennet carriages pulled up the drive. As Mr. Bennet handed his wife and younger daughters out of the first carriage, one of Sir William's servants prepared to hand the eldest Miss Bennets out of the second. Just as Jane prepared to step down, she was greeted happily by Mr. Bingley, whose own carriage had pulled behind them.
"Miss Bennet! It is a pleasure to see you this evening!" he declared. "May I?"
Smiling, Jane took his hand and gently stepped down from the carriage. Thanking him, she turned to reintroduce him to her father.
Listening to the three conversing, Elizabeth smiled and sighed. She could not fault Mr. Bingley for forgetting her and becoming distracted by Jane's presence. Just as Elizabeth determined she would descend from the carriage on her own, she heard someone quickly approach her.
"Miss Bennet," a deep voice said evenly; a voice she recognized very well. "If I may?"
Momentarily dumbfounded by his sudden arrival, she nodded. Upon seeing her silent acceptance of his offer, Darcy took her gloved hand in his own and guided her down from the carriage. Once she stood next to him, he took in her appearance and admitted to himself that she looked remarkably well. Realizing he had not yet relinquished her hand, he did so quickly.
The loss of his hand from hers snapped Elizabeth from her own reverie, and curtsying lightly, she said, "Thank you for your assistance, Mr. Darcy."
Bowing slightly and then realizing she could not see his acceptance of her thanks, he smiled and declared, "Not at all. I apologize for my friend's abandoning you."
Elizabeth smiled at Darcy's observation and asserted that she forgave Mr. Bingley completely.
"Besides," she continued happily. "I am used to being quite forgotten when Jane is present."
Even as he smiled at her joke, Darcy detected a hint of sadness in Elizabeth's statement. He was just prepared to answer her when Bingley joined them.
"Miss Elizabeth, may I offer to escort you and Miss Bennet inside?" Bingley asked hopefully.
Smiling at this evidence of her neighbor's admiration for Jane, Elizabeth accepted. She thanked Darcy again for his assistance, and as Bingley guided her hand to his arm, she turned to walk up the drive.
Darcy stared after Elizabeth and silently cursed his friend's good luck and ease in company. Admonishing himself for his jealousy and remembering that the evening was still young, he was soon approached by Miss Bingley.
"That was very well done, Mr. Darcy," she declared as she watched the Bennets enter Lucas Lodge.
Vowing to have patience with the woman, he calmly asked, "Of what do you speak, madam?"
"Why, your charity toward Elizabeth Bennet, of course! That was quite heroic of you!" she simpered. "I am constantly amazed at your gallantry!"
"It was nothing of the sort," Darcy replied flatly.
Suddenly he realized Mr. and Mrs. Hurst were bound for the entrance, leaving him to escort Miss Bingley inside. Groaning inwardly and looking toward Heaven, he offered his arm onto which she happily latched.
An hour later found Elizabeth happily conversing with Charlotte while Jane enjoyed the attentions of Mr. Bingley and his sisters.
"It is certainly clear that he likes her very much, Charlotte," Elizabeth stated quietly.
"Yes, but Lizzy, Jane should not act so guarded if she is to secure him!" declared Charlotte. "She should not leave him in doubt of her heart."
Arching her brow, Elizabeth asked, "You would have her reveal her heart before she is even certain of his character? She has only known him for a fortnight!"
"Why, yes! She should secure him as soon as may be. Happiness in marriage is entirely by chance, you know. Two people could be married for a lifetime and not truly know one another," Charlotte declared.
"Ah yes, and I have daily proof of such an occurrence," laughed Elizabeth.
Charlotte smiled and asserted, "Then you must agree; Jane should be more open with him."
Elizabeth's face grew serious as she professed, "It is not Jane's way. She is quiet in confessing her feelings. Besides, you would never act in such a way yourself!"
Glancing at Jane and Bingley in resignation, Charlotte owned, "Perhaps not, and neither will Jane, so it would seem. Let us pray then that Mr. Bingley does!"
Elizabeth smiled at her friend's logical view on matrimonial happiness and remained silent. Charlotte took this opportunity to glance about the room and found Mr. Darcy looking their way and studying Elizabeth intently.
Surprised and curious, Charlotte looked toward her friend and declared, "Elizabeth, I think I should tell you that Mr. Darcy watches you a great deal."
At the mention of that man's name, Elizabeth blushed and asserted the she could not imagine why. Before Charlotte could pursue the discussion further, Maria Lucas bounded happily toward them almost knocking Miss Bingley over in the process.
"Lizzy!" she exclaimed. "Father is opening the instrument and begs that you would play!"
Shaking her head, Elizabeth assured her young friend that she had no intention of playing this evening. Maria was soon followed by Lady Lucas in professing how much they desired to hear her.
Charlotte gently took Elizabeth's arm and declared, "Please, Elizabeth. You have not played for us recently, and my meager talents will not do the instrument justice."
After enduring a few more words of encouragement and agreeing reluctantly, Elizabeth allowed Charlotte to lead her toward the pianoforte. Darcy looked on in amazement as she was led past him and across the room. He waited anxiously as Elizabeth took a seat at the bench, and he soon heard Sir William's voice boom above the din of the conversations in the room.
"Miss Elizabeth has agreed to play for us all! Capital! Capital!" he announced as he looked toward the instrument expectantly.
Blushing in mortification and shaking with the knowledge that she was being watched so intently, Elizabeth remained still for a moment in an attempt to steady herself. Breathing deeply, she tentatively placed her slender fingers on the keyboard and ran them lightly over the smooth ivory. Gingerly pressing three keys, she listened carefully to make certain her placement was correct. Satisfied that it was, she began.
Chapter 7: Deserving of Praise
Elizabeth struck the keys confidently as her fingers flew over the keyboard with a practiced ease. Her playing was proficient, yet pleasant and unaffected. Everyone in the room was captivated by the sweet melody and listened with pleasure. As Elizabeth played, she shut her eyes and smiled gently.
She could not have been aware of the pleasing picture she presented to Darcy, who stood riveted across the room. He watched as her hands swept over the keys and noted how her cheeks glowed from the exertion of her performance. As she lifted her hands from the final chords, Darcy clapped appreciatively and watched as she was quickly surrounded by Sir William's guests. He heard her humbly accept their praise and decline playing again.
Soon a beaming Mr. Bennet approached the instrument and escorted Elizabeth to a chair not far from Darcy. Congratulating her on her playing, he kissed her hand and returned to his discussion with Sir William. Mary Bennet, who was happy to display her skill at the instrument, succeeded Elizabeth and began a long concerto. Once it was complete and her audience slightly diminished, she received compliments happily and agreed to play some Scottish and Irish airs to satisfy her younger sisters and Maria Lucas.
Darcy paled as he watched the youngest Miss Bennets charge heedlessly toward the dance floor. He sighed and wondered that their mother and father did not attempt to restrain them. Glancing to his right, he saw Elizabeth shake her head in disappointment as she heard Lydia's boisterous laughter. Darcy determined to approach Elizabeth, but was prevented by the arrival of Miss Bingley at his side.
"I bet I can guess your thoughts at this very moment," she whispered in a conspiring tone.
Darcy smiled and declared, "I should imagine not."
Leaning closer and pressing her game further, Miss Bingley ventured, "You are thinking how insupportable it would be to pass many evenings in this manner -- in such society."
Believing Darcy to be her ally in criticizing those in Hertfordshire, she smiled triumphantly and awaited his response.
"I assure you that my mind was much more agreeably engaged. I have been meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow," he answered quietly.
Turning her eyes toward him and blushing, she demurely inquired which woman inspired such reflections in him.
Darcy smiled slightly and confessed, "Miss Elizabeth Bennet."
Paling noticeably, Miss Bingley glanced toward Elizabeth and watched as she smiled gently at two of Sir William's guests as they offered their praise of her performance.
Turning back toward Darcy, she proclaimed, "Miss Elizabeth Bennet! I am all astonishment!"
Darcy watched as she quickly swept away from him toward Mrs. Hurst; the feathers on top of her head bobbing in rhythm with her angry step. Satisfied that she would let him be for the remainder of the evening, he returned his attentions to Elizabeth. When her final admirer departed, Darcy moved tentatively toward her.
Elizabeth sighed upon hearing Lydia's laughter echo through the room and wished Jane would come so that they may both caution Lydia about her wild behavior. She smiled as a couple expressed their pleasure at having heard her play and congratulated her on her skill. While they inquired how often she practiced, and with which master she studied, she heard Mr. Darcy speaking nearby with Miss Bingley.
"I have studied under no master," she confessed quickly and distractedly.
While the couple expressed their surprise and admiration for her intrepidness in studying alone, Elizabeth turned her attention to Darcy's conversation. She was disappointed to hear only silence and the clicking of Miss Bingley's shoes retreating across the room. The couple wished her a good evening, and Elizabeth thanked them for their kind words. Sighing, she disappointedly turned her attention towards Mary's playing, and hoped Jane or Charlotte would soon join her.
Just as Elizabeth admitted to herself that Mary's playing had become far less pedantic, she heard heavy footfalls coming toward her in a confident stride. Recognizing who it was, her breath caught and her color heightened as she waited anxiously for him to speak. Stopping before her Darcy bowed and greeted her.
"Good evening, Mr. Darcy," she answered as she willed her voice to be steady.
"I..." he paused nervously. Breathing deeply and steadying himself, he began again declaring, "I hope you are well, and suffered nothing as a result of the incident the other day."
As Darcy watched Elizabeth stifle a small laugh, he shifted uncomfortably, and feeling that her laughter was at his expense, became offended. His easy manner melted as he clenched his hands behind his back and stood straighter, his imposing height towering over those who passed him.
"I am sorry you find my concern so amusing, madam," he said quietly. "I will not burden you any longer, but wish you a good evening."
With that he bowed and prepared to leave. As he turned on his heel, he heard Elizabeth's voice behind him, and his breath caught at the urgency in her address.
"Mr. Darcy, you misunderstand me!" she cried.
Turning, he noticed a sudden sadness flash across her eyes as she took his silence as evidence of his departure. Unable to cause her pain, he stepped forward and made his presence known. With the knowledge that Darcy still stood before her, Elizabeth continued.
"I was not laughing at your concern, sir, but of the incident!" she confessed. "You had every right to be angered by it, and you must have found me quite the oddity. Surely, I must have seemed a solitary witch walking among the mists, bent on bewitching your horse!"
Smiling, Darcy declared, "Not at all, I assure you. I was merely surprised by your presence."
Looking down at his hands and taking the seat next to Elizabeth, he continued, "I am truly sorry that my distraction almost caused you harm."
"I am well, Mr. Darcy as are you," Elizabeth affirmed. "You must follow my philosophy and only think on the past as it gives you pleasure! The present is far more intriguing."
As she smiled brightly, Darcy confessed to himself, ‘Indeed it is; especially at this moment.'
For some minutes, the two lapsed into a companionable silence, until Darcy spoke again.
"I must congratulate you on your playing, Miss Bennet" he declared. "It was an enjoyable performance."
"I thank you for your praise, Mr. Darcy," she said quietly. "But there are individuals who play far better than myself and have far more patience for practicing than I."
Unwilling to permit her to speak of her talent in such a way, Darcy firmly asserted, "No, I will not allow that."
At Elizabeth's curious look, he continued, "I know of no one who could equal you in skill. You are wholly deserving of praise."
Surprised by the sincerity in his voice, Elizabeth smiled and quietly thanked him. As Darcy noticed her turn her face away in an effort to hide her blush, he decided to say no more so as not to embarrass her or reveal too much of himself. Soon after, Sir William cheerfully approached them.
"Miss Elizabeth," he exclaimed. "I must congratulate you again on a remarkable performance!"
Elizabeth bowed her head in thanks, but before she could continue, Sir William pressed forward.
"I have come to fetch you for our game! Surely, you cannot have forgotten," he cried. "Mr. Bennet! It seems that you dear daughter will not accept my challenge!"
Following this address, Mr. Bennet appeared at Sir William's side. Shrugging his shoulders and clapping Sir William on the back, he quipped, "Perhaps that is because she wishes to have mercy on you."
"Papa!" Elizabeth quietly admonished as she gestured toward Darcy, who looked terribly confused.
Looking to Elizabeth's left, Mr. Bennet noticed the serious young man sitting next to her. As Mr. Bennet's attention turned toward him, Darcy stood from his seat and straightened to his full height. Sir William happily made the introductions.
"It is a pleasure, sir," stated Darcy as he bowed respectfully.
Eyeing the young man curiously, Mr. Bennet nodded. Turning toward Elizabeth, he asked her to indulge Sir William and accept his challenge. Elizabeth reluctantly accepted and held her hand out for her father to guide to his arm.
As she stood, she professed happily, "If you will excuse me, Mr. Darcy. I have a chess match to win."
Darcy stifled a surprised laugh and stared at her in amazement. Collecting himself quickly, he stated, "I wish you the very best luck then."
"Thank you, Mr. Darcy. Have a good evening," Elizabeth said as she curtsied.
Darcy bowed low and declared, "Good evening, Miss Bennet."
Mr. Bennet gave Darcy a brief nod to indicate his farewell and departed with Elizabeth. Sir William happily followed, and Darcy watched as the three retreated from the room. As Darcy stared after them, he heard Lady Lucas speaking with a guest, and quickly discerned that they were speaking of Elizabeth.
"She was once Hertfordshire's brightest jewel," Lady Lucas professed sadly.
"How long has she been thus?" asked the guest curiously.
Darcy cursed her audacity for asking such a question, but found himself waiting anxiously for the answer.
Lady Lucas thought for a moment before declaring, "I believe it will be four years next week. We all felt the tragedy most acutely, but we are thankful that God had the mercy to spare her."
Smiling sadly, the two women moved away in order to speak with Mrs. Long.
Overcome by this revelation, Darcy sought his chair and sat heavily upon it. As he sat, he ruminated on his conversation with Elizabeth, and her effect on him. After some minutes, he concluded, even though he knew not why, that he too thanked God for sparing her from whatever attempted to take her from this life.
Chapter 8: Invitations
Posted on 2008-06-27
The following morning found Elizabeth and Jane returning from the gardens and walking leisurely toward Longbourn. Jane carried a basket of fresh pinks hooked upon her arm while Elizabeth played idly with a single bloom. They spoke animatedly about the entertainments the previous night had supplied, and Jane inquired after Elizabeth's game with Sir William.
"Why ever did Sir William look so disappointed when he returned to the hall?" Jane asked. "I do not believe I have ever seen him in such a state!"
Elizabeth smirked and declared, "I believe the outcome of our match was not what he anticipated!"
"Oh, Lizzy," said Jane, shaking her head. "Poor Sir William! You must learn to exercise some mercy on your opponents, or you shall have none left!"
Elizabeth shook her head emphatically and quickly proclaimed that she would not.
"Besides," she continued. "I would not have them show me mercy."
Smiling at Elizabeth's stubbornness in resignation, Jane owned, "Very well, Lizzy. I will not have you accept defeat unless your opponent's skill is truly worthy."
When only silence followed this remark, Jane looked toward her sister and noticed Elizabeth's brow was furrowed in thought. Guessing at the subject of her reflections, Jane tentatively observed, "I noticed you talked a great deal with Mr. Darcy last night."
Elizabeth turned her face down in an effort to disguise the light blush coloring her face and stated calmly, "I did speak with him, but not for an exceptional length of time as you would have it."
"I see," Jane declared knowingly.
Hoping to give an appearance of indifference, Elizabeth professed, "He merely congratulated me on my playing,"
Jane smiled in satisfaction, and feeling herself safe in doing so, asked, "And what do you think of him? Do you find him as proud as everyone believes him to be?"
"No!" Elizabeth exclaimed quickly.
Surprised by the strength of her own response, Elizabeth blushed and began tearing nervously at the flower in her hands.
Sighing, she continued, "Forgive me; I merely meant that I could not detect any arrogance in his address or expressions during our discourse."
Linking her arm through Elizabeth's, Jane gave it a gentle pat of empathy. Understanding her sister's silent encouragement, Elizabeth continued.
"Perhaps, as you said, dear sister, he improves on closer acquaintance," she finished quietly as they entered the house.
Before Jane could respond, they were greeted by Mrs. Bennet's shrill cry of delight.
"Jane! Jane!" Mrs. Bennet exclaimed excitedly as she entered the hall in a flurry of lace. "You have a letter from Netherfield! We have been waiting for you for over half an hour! Have neither of you any compassion for my poor nerves?"
Fanning herself feverishly, she dropped into the nearest chair. Assuring Jane and Elizabeth that she felt her faintness coming upon her again, she called for Lydia to bring her smelling salts.
"Mama, you must know that we had no intention of causing you pain," Elizabeth stated calmly. "How could we possibly have known that a letter had arrived for Jane? Why did you not send Hill for us?"
For a moment, Mrs. Bennet blushed as she realized her error, but she quickly recovered from her embarrassment and addressed Elizabeth.
"That will do, Miss Lizzy! If you did not insist on traipsing about the country every morning and dragging your poor sister with you, you both would have been here!" declared Mrs. Bennet. "And look at the condition of Jane's dress! What if Mr. Bingley should see her? You have no reason to care for such things, Lizzy, but your sister certainly does!"
Jane watched unhappily as Elizabeth started, and a look of sad recollection filled her eyes. Hoping to deter her mother's tongue lest it should injure Elizabeth again, Jane quickly broke the seal of the letter. While Jane unfolded the missive and prepared to read it, Elizabeth moved slowly to a seat near the window and sat heavily upon it.
"It is from Caroline Bingley," Jane declared happily as she smiled serenely. "She wishes me to dine with her and Mrs. Hurst today."
Her eyes bright with joy, Mrs. Bennet sprang from her seat and her faintness was quickly forgotten.
"Let me see it, Jane!" she declared as she plucked the letter from Jane's hands before Jane could complete her reading of it.
While Mrs. Bennet's eyes greedily studied Miss Bingley's invitation, Lydia and Kitty entered with the smelling salts, and Jane joined Elizabeth at the window. Studying her sister for a moment, Jane immediately perceived that Elizabeth remained unsettled by their mother's heedless remark. Jane reached for Elizabeth's hand and found it had gone quite cold.
Soon Mrs. Bennet cried, "The gentlemen are to dine with the officers! Now that is unlucky, but still you must go! It would not do to insult his sisters."
"The officers!" Lydia and Kitty exclaimed in unison as they jumped up and down excitedly.
Upon hearing the laughter and squeals of his youngest daughters, Mr. Bennet entered quietly to ascertain what had disturbed the relative peace of his morning and Jane happily addressed him.
"Papa, may I have the carriage?" she asked.
Before Mr. Bennet could answer, his wife interjected and announced, "No you shall not! You must go on horseback!"
"Mrs. Bennet, why ever would I send my daughter on horse when it looks to rain at any moment?" a bemused Mr. Bennet asked.
"Precisely, my husband! If it rains, Jane will have to stay the night and she cannot help but see Mr. Bingley then!" Mrs. Bennet cried triumphantly, glowing with pride for her plan.
"Mama!" Jane exclaimed in shock.
Realizing that her mother would not relent in her scheme, Jane applied to her father for reason. Mr. Bennet quickly recognized this was a not a battle easily won, and after apologizing to his eldest daughter, left the room swiftly. With a cry of delight, Mrs. Bennet called for Hill to aid her in preparing Jane for her afternoon at Netherfield.
Elizabeth remained in her seat, fixedly facing the window as Jane was hurried out of the room by their mother. Upon reaching the stairs, Jane glanced back wistfully, only to see Elizabeth throw the twisted flower onto the floorboards and lean her head against the windowpane.
Some hours later, Elizabeth sat in the drawing room and listened fretfully to the rain as it fell heavily on Longbourn. In an effort to distract herself, she had begun mending bonnets with Kitty. Elizabeth ran her fingers slowly over the rough straw of the hat, feeling for imperfections which she could then repair. But when thunder rumbled in the distance, Elizabeth threw the bonnet to the table with a frustrated sigh.
"Has the sky lightened at all, Kitty?" she asked hopefully.
Glancing anxiously outside, Kitty answered, "I am afraid not, Lizzy."
From the corner where she sat with her needlework, Mrs. Bennet smiled and asserted that it was all going just as she planned it.
"Jane will stay the night, and she will see Mr. Bingley at breakfast in the morning!" she squealed happily.
Elizabeth remained silent; disappointed and mortified by her mother's relentless pursuit of Mr. Bingley. Troubled and unable to remain still, Elizabeth moved toward the window seat. When she felt the soft cushion beneath her fingertips, she gathered up her skirts and tucked herself against the window. Elizabeth leaned her ear against the cold glass and closed her eyes, listening to the harsh rhythm of the rain as it pelted the drive and house. Elizabeth settled back against the window frame and attempted to convince herself that Jane was well, and most likely sitting in front of a large fire in Netherfield's drawing room.
A few moments later, her attention was arrested by the steady sound of hooves striking the stone outside. When she was certain she heard the horse and rider turn urgently toward Longbourn, Elizabeth's mind immediately filled with worry for her beloved sister.
Turning quickly, Elizabeth cried, "Mama, a messenger has arrived!"
Startled by her daughter's unexpected announcement, Mrs. Bennet clutched her needlework to her chest and glanced quickly about the room. Noticing nothing amiss, her gaze narrowed as she admonished Elizabeth for her outburst.
"Do not cry out so! Would you tear my nerves to tiny shreds?" Mrs. Bennet wailed. "I have heard nothing, and if a rider has truly come, we will hear the bell!"
Still wounded by her mother's careless reminder of her circumstances, Elizabeth found she was in no humor to have her concerns ignored so lightly. While she recognized the very great difference that existed between her sisters' prospects and her own, she did not care to have her future talked of so flippantly. With this resolve, Elizabeth leveled her gaze toward her mother and assured her that a rider had approached.
Surprised by the vehemence in Elizabeth's voice, Mrs. Bennet set her needlework aside and stared fully at her daughter. She detected in Elizabeth's address a cold civility, but before she could inquire about it, she was interrupted by Mr. Bennet's entrance.
"Mrs. Bennet, a note has just arrived from Netherfield," he replied casually, but upon hearing Elizabeth gasp, he pressed on quickly. "It appears that your eldest daughter is unwell, Mrs. Bennet. Jane writes that she is not herself this evening, and they have sent for Mr. Jones. Miss Bingley has extended an invitation for Jane to remain until she is herself again."
With this revelation, Mrs. Bennet quite forgot Elizabeth's previous address, and clapped her hands happily.
"Now; what do you say to that?" she declared proudly. "It is just as I said, Mr. Bennet. She will see Mr. Bingley in the morning!"
Surprised by her mother's dismissive treatment of her father's news, Elizabeth stated evenly, "Mama, may I remind you that Jane is ill, and most likely will be confined to her bed."
"Do not be ridiculous! She will be well by tomorrow and conversing with Mr. Bingley over breakfast!" Mrs. Bennet asserted merrily.
Finding herself unable to abide her mother's profusions of joy any longer, Elizabeth stood and bid her family a good evening. Before they could comment, she swept from the room and closed the door firmly behind her. Once in the hall, Elizabeth sighed deeply, and feeling herself suddenly exhausted, retreated to the comfort of her room.
Elizabeth awoke the following morning from a fretful night of sleep. As of late she had found herself distracted; her mind filled with thoughts and emotions that came unbidden. During the previous night, this flurry of thought was worsened by her worry for Jane. Feeling anxious and determining that such reflections could wait until after breakfast, Elizabeth set her feet upon the cold floorboards and rang the bell for Sarah.
A half hour later found Elizabeth sitting to breakfast. While the family ate, her father shared another letter he had received from Netherfield.
"Jane writes that she has a slight headache, fever, and sore throat, but is otherwise quite well," Mr. Bennet revealed. "If she does die, Mrs. Bennet, I will be comforted that it was in the pursuit of Mr. Bingley."
Elizabeth dropped her fork to her plate with a loud crash and asserted, "Papa, I must go to Netherfield."
Raising his eyebrows in surprise, Mr. Bennet studied his daughter for a moment and remained silent as he thought how to answer her request. Unfortunately, Mrs. Bennet saw fit to do so for him.
"You, go to Netherfield? Why ever would you wish to go to Netherfield?" Mrs. Bennet asked, her strident voice silencing Lydia and Kitty's giggling.
"I wish to see Jane, Mama," Elizabeth answered calmly. "I am certain she feels dreadful and would benefit from my company."
Mrs. Bennet set her glass aside and declared, "Oh, people do not die of trifling colds! Jane is surely fine and has all the company she needs! What good would you be at Netherfield? You would do much better going to Meryton with your sisters to see the officers."
Her eyes alight with happiness and her mind filled with red coats, Lydia cried, "Yes, Lizzy! You must come! There are ever so many of them and they are all quite handsome!"
Kitty quickly recognized her father's withering look and explained, "And they are quite charming and very gentlemanly. Surely you would enjoy their conversations and stories, Lizzy."
Shaking her head at her sisters' fondness of officers, Elizabeth ignored their appeals and asserted, "I will go to Netherfield, Mama."
Pausing for a moment and raising her chin, Elizabeth continued, "And if I must, I will walk there."
With this declaration, the room grew quite still and quiet. Lydia and Kitty stared amazedly at their sister's proclamation, while Mary watched the scene serenely and nodded approvingly at her sister's resolve. Mrs. Bennet gazed at Elizabeth in shocked silence for a moment before turning her eyes toward her husband. She was displeased to find him smiling fondly at this evidence of his daughter's determined spirit.
The silence seemed to extend indefinitely for Elizabeth as she waited anxiously for an answer. After a few moments, she felt her father take her hand and squeeze it gently.
"Then to Netherfield you will go, my dear," Mr. Bennet stated softly.
Glancing toward his wife, who still felt the effects of her surprise, he declared more loudly, "I will call for the carriage. I shall not have two daughters ill at Netherfield. Such an occurrence would seem very curious to our neighbors and would show some semblance of neglect on our part, I should think."
Standing from his chair, he nodded to his wife and departed from the room in pursuit of Hill. Once she no longer heard the heavy footfalls of his boots, Elizabeth breathed deeply and bit her lip in an effort to restrain her laughter. Feeling herself unequal to the task, and in danger of giggling like her younger sisters, she excused herself and fled quickly from the room in order to prepare herself.
Mrs. Bennet gazed fixedly at the door for some moments; astonished by the fervor with which Elizabeth spoke.
With the dramatics of the scene at an end, Lydia quickly became bored. Sighing loudly, she professed, "Kitty, let us visit Denny first. Surely he will not be expecting us!"
Lydia waggled her brow and began laughing.
Elizabeth leaned her head back against the worn leather of her seat as the carriage rounded the drive toward Netherfield. She drummed her fingers anxiously against the carriage door and listened intently as the gravel crunched beneath the wheels and horses' strides. While she desperately wished to be a comfort to Jane, Elizabeth felt nervous at the prospect of walking the halls of an unfamiliar house. Although she learned the structure of rooms quickly, she feared incurring the censure of the Netherfield party with her careful steps and tentative touches to the objects around her.
Feeling the seat for her bonnet, she placed it upon her head and distractedly tied its ribbons. Sighing in resignation, she admitted to herself that she feared one member of the Netherfield party above all others; Mr. Darcy. Though Elizabeth found his company enjoyable, she grew concerned that upon observing her more closely, he would, as many outside of Hertfordshire did, find her behavior shocking. Even as she told herself she did not care about his opinion of her, she dreaded his reaction and prayed he would not think ill of her.
As the horses came to a stop, and one of Bingley's footmen opened the door for her, Elizabeth realized that she had no choice but to enter. Taking one final breath, she descended from the carriage.
Darcy had left the house early in an effort to avoid Miss Bingley's attentions. The previous morning had been spent listening to her very pointed comments regarding the society of Hertfordshire as she recounted their evening at Lucas Lodge. Darcy remained calm as he endured her thinly veiled allusions to Elizabeth's ‘fine eyes' and her insincere sympathy for Elizabeth's ‘condition.' Yet, by lunch he was glad for the arrival of the eldest Miss Bennet as the entirety of Miss Bingley's charm and conversation turned toward her new friend. Although receiving news of Miss Bennet's illness this morning was unfortunate, Darcy found it quite convenient, and took advantage of Miss Bingley's distraction in order to slip from the house.
While he walked slowly around the park and enjoyed the peace it provided, he thought again of Elizabeth. He had been sorely disappointed when Miss Bingley complained of a headache and pressed her brother to leave early. Bingley's good nature gave way, and they were forced to depart before Elizabeth and Sir William emerged from his study.
‘Perhaps, she captured Sir William's king as she said she would,' he wondered, smiling softly at the memory.
Shaking his head and realizing he was in a very great danger of paying Elizabeth too much attention, Darcy determined to think of her as little as possible for the rest of the day. With this resolve, he rounded the path toward the front of the house, where his attention was suddenly arrested by the sight of Elizabeth descending from a carriage.
Momentarily unsure if he should approach her, Darcy remanded still. He watched as she smoothed her skirts and reached to straighten her bonnet with her delicate fingers. Unable to withstand the temptation any longer and his previous resolve quite forgotten, he walked swiftly toward her.
Elizabeth secured the ribbon of her bonnet at her throat and thanked the footman for his assistance. After smoothing her skirts for a final time, she accepted the footman's proffered arm. Upon hearing someone's approach, she turned to her left and expected to hear Mr. Bingley's jovial voice welcoming her. Smiling, she waited happily, but was surprised when she heard the deep and even voice of Mr. Darcy.
"Miss Bennet," he greeted warmly as he bowed. "You have come to Netherfield?"
Smiling at his question, Elizabeth answered lightly, "As you see, Sir."
Realizing Darcy expected her to explain herself, she quickly continued stating, "I have come to inquire after my sister."
"Alone?" Darcy asked wonderingly, glancing beyond her and into the carriage.
Nodding her head, Elizabeth affirmed that, indeed, she had arrived by herself. She blushed in mortification, wondering if he, like her mother, would view her actions as presumptuous. Feeling herself beyond the point of redemption, she pressed forward.
"Would you take me to her, Sir?" she asked quietly.
Glancing toward the footman who listened interestingly to their exchange, Darcy instructed him to fetch Mr. Bingley to the drawing room in order to receive a guest. Bowing and looking once more at Elizabeth, the footman quickly departed to carry out this request. Turning back to Elizabeth, Darcy extended his arm.
"Allow me to escort you inside then, Miss Bennet," he stated gently.
Elizabeth accepted his offer, and allowed him to take her hand and guide it to his arm. She shivered when her fingers touched the stiff wool of his coat, and she felt the warmth of his arm under her hand. Blushing furiously, she concentrated intently on her steps. Unbeknownst to her, Darcy experienced a similar sensation as he looked down toward her hand and reflected on the pleasant feel of its weight.
Occupied with such thoughts and inattentive to their surroundings, they quickly reached the expansive stairs which led to Netherfield's entrance and Elizabeth stumbled as her half boot caught on the edge of the first stair. Gasping, she felt herself helplessly falling forward. Darcy quickly recognized her distress and caught her to his chest; taking a few steps back to retain his own balance. Once he was certain of his footing, he looked back at Elizabeth. For a moment he studied her small frame against his own and blushed at the feeling of her shoulders beneath his hands. Realizing he should ascertain if she was harmed, he cleared his throat.
"Are you well, Miss Bennet?" he asked, his voice quavering slightly.
As Elizabeth nodded, Darcy righted her and withdrew his hands from her shoulders. Elizabeth immediately felt disappointment at their loss, and blushed at her silliness.
‘Really, Lizzy. You are becoming as ridiculous as Lydia and Kitty!' she admonished herself.
Studying Elizabeth intently, Darcy assured himself that she spoke the truth. Looking toward the steps, he cursed himself for not bringing them to her attention.
"Forgive me, Miss Bennet," he began. "It seems in my distraction I have once again put you in danger."
Taking a breath to steady herself, Elizabeth answered lightly, "Please do not apologize. I am usually much more attentive to my footing!"
Smiling, Darcy remained silent and was surprised when Elizabeth held up her hand for him.
"If you could tell me how many I will have to climb, Mr. Darcy, I believe we can proceed without further incident," she stated calmly, a small smile appearing on her face.
Darcy informed her that there were eight, as he secured her hand in the crook of his arm and covered it with his own. Even as he told himself that this action was to ensure she did not fall again, he admitted that the feeling of her hand under his was not unpleasant. When Elizabeth nodded to let him know that he could proceed, he stepped forward and the two ascended in silence.
Miss Bingley walked quickly toward the entry, her satin skirts swishing behind her and her delicate heels clicking on the marble. She and Mrs. Hurst spent the hour after breakfast above stairs visiting with Jane, until Jane professed that she was weary. They said their farewells and declared that they would come to her again before luncheon. While Mrs. Hurst retreated to the drawing room with her needlework, Miss Bingley set off in pursuit of Mr. Darcy.
Now, after half an hour searching the house, she had been told by Fossett that Mr. Darcy was just returning to the house from his walk through the gardens. Entering the front hall, Miss Bingley came to an abrupt halt in front of a mirror, and a passing maid watched curiously as she pinched her cheeks to bring color to them and straightened the feathers atop her head. Just as she completed her preening, a butler opened the door to admit Mr. Darcy. Smiling broadly, Miss Bingley turned to greet him.
"Good morning, Mr. Darcy!" she declared enthusiastically. "Wherever have you been? We quite despaired..."
Miss Bingley fell silent and her smile vanished as she noticed Darcy did not enter alone. Gazing at the pair, Miss Bingley's eyes were immediately drawn to Elizabeth's hand upon his arm. She raised her brow and greeted Elizabeth with indifferent civility.
"Miss Eliza, what a surprise to see you here," she commented coolly.
"Good day, Miss Bingley," Elizabeth said, curtseying. "Forgive my intrusion, but I have come to visit my sister."
For a moment, Miss Bingley remained silent; studying Elizabeth's appearance and dress. Darcy's jaw tightened as he detected the derision in her gaze, and he spoke abruptly.
"I assured Miss Elizabeth that you and your brother would be more than happy to permit her see Miss Bennet," he stated; his voice clipped and even.
Upon hearing his voice, Miss Bingley smiled and nodded her assent.
"Of course," she continued civilly. "Dear Jane has been resting quite comfortably, and we have been watching over her very attentively."
Elizabeth's brow furrowed when she heard Miss Bingley's informal address of her sister and she quickly declared her gratitude for their kindness.
"Not at all, Miss Eliza," Miss Bingley exclaimed. "It is one's duty to be charitable when a neighbor is in need."
With this remark, she looked pointedly at Darcy, whose color heightened; his mouth setting in a grim line. Elizabeth felt his arm tense beneath her fingers, and she wondered what could have unsettled him. Before either he or Elizabeth could respond, Elizabeth heard Bingley's swift step as he hurried toward them, followed closely behind by Mr. and Mrs. Hurst.
"Miss Bennet," Bingley said, smiling happily and bowing quickly. "What a pleasure to have you at Netherfield! I am certain you have come to visit your sister. I feel truly terrible that you should find her in such a state!"
Elizabeth smiled, hearing the slight quiver and sincere worry in his voice. She greeted him warmly and owned that visiting Jane was the sole reason for her journey.
"It is very good of you to care for her when she is away from her family," she finished.
"Not at all! We are honored to have her with us," Bingley said.
Darcy watched Bingley intently, and noted his friend's wistful glance toward the stairs. As he thought on it, Bingley asked his sisters to accompany Elizabeth to Miss Bennet's chambers. Paling at the thought of Miss Bingley ‘accompanying' Elizabeth, Darcy unconsciously cradled Elizabeth's arm more tightly against him. Feeling his grasp tighten, and becoming distracted by it, Elizabeth turned her face toward him, her brow arched quizzically. Recognizing she had noticed his action, Darcy was relieved when Mrs. Hurst stepped forward to take Elizabeth's arm, for it prevented his revealing himself further. Elizabeth quietly thanked Darcy for his assistance and departed with the sisters.
Darcy looked on as Mrs. Hurst led Elizabeth up the stairs, attentively watching each of Elizabeth's steps, while Miss Bingley remained several steps ahead of them, her chin raised proudly and gaze fixed ahead of her.
‘My God, man, control yourself!' he silently cursed. ‘You are acting like a heedless fool!'
He watched as the three women turned on the landing and disappeared. Breathing deeply, he schooled the turmoil of his mind and set to determining how he should behave for the remainder of the day. With one final glance toward the staircase, Darcy turned on his heel and followed Bingley to the parlor.
While Elizabeth visited with Jane, Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst joined the gentlemen in the parlor for tea. Miss Bingley sat delicately upon the settee and stirred her tea. Laying her spoon aside, she quickly set to abusing Elizabeth.
"Whatever could she mean by coming all this way, because her sister has a cold?" she asked.
Bingley looked toward his sister and professed that Elizabeth's appearance showed a refreshing affection for her sister.
"Oh Charles, do be serious. To me, arriving unannounced and unchaperoned shows an abominable conceited independence," Miss Bingley declared as she watched Darcy move toward the sideboard to refresh his tea.
"Besides, her appearance was positively wild!" she laughed. "Her hair, Louisa!"
Mrs. Hurst nodded her agreement, and the two sisters giggled.
Her face suddenly serious, Miss Bingley announced, "Jane told us that her mother's brother is in trade and lives in Cheapside."
Bingley's color heightened and he stood from his chair as he declared, "They would be just as agreeable to me had they had uncles enough to fill all of Cheapside!"
Darcy turned and stated steadily, "But with such low connections, Bingley, they can hardly expect to marry well. That is the material point."
At this pronouncement, Bingley looked stricken, sat heavily upon his chair, and returned his attention to his tea. Darcy stood rigidly; the full import of his words weighing heavily on him. Raking a hand through his hair frustratingly, he crossed the room and took a seat near Bingley.
Unable to bear the grave silence, Mrs. Hurst announced, "Jane Bennet is a sweet girl. It is just a pity she should have such humble family connections."
"Yes, sister, I agree heartily," Miss Bingley assented. "But I find Eliza Bennet quite coarse, and her character wanting."
Miss Bingley watched with satisfaction as Darcy stiffened, and congratulated herself on unsettling his opinion of Elizabeth. With this victory, she felt safe to continue.
"Certainly, you would not wish Georgiana to make such a journey alone, Mr. Darcy?" she asked, smiling demurely.
"You are correct," Darcy answered dryly.
Looking knowingly at her sister, Miss Bingley proclaimed smugly, "And I am afraid such an expedition has wounded your admiration of her fine eyes."
"Not at all; they were brightened by her excursion," he answered drolly.
Smiling behind his tea cup, Darcy watched Miss Bingley start at his declaration. Before she could think how to answer him, a butler entered with Elizabeth on his arm. Bingley quickly rose from his seat next to Darcy and approached her.
Reaching for her hand and pressing it gently, he asked, "How do you find your sister, Miss Bennet?"
Elizabeth shook her head, and declared, "Unfortunately, she is quite unwell."
Nodding his head resolutely, Bingley called for Fossett and announced, "Then you shall remain with her until she is better, and I shall send to Longbourn for your things immediately."
Elizabeth smiled at his generosity and thanked him for his kindness to her and her sister. Bingley waved away her gratitude and led her out of the room and back to her sister.
When the door closed behind them, Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst looked at each other in alarmed annoyance.
"Goodness, sister! Whatever can he mean by asking her to remain?" asked Mrs. Hurst urgently.
Shaking her head, Miss Bingley exclaimed, "What good could she possibly do for her sister? Whatever are we to do with her?"
Darcy stared intently into the fire while the sisters continued to voice their concerns. Some moments later, Mr. Hurst finished his tea with a gulp, and asked if Darcy wished to go shooting. Feeling himself unequal to the task, Darcy shook his head. Standing hastily from his chair and excusing himself, he strode determinedly from the room before Miss Bingley could contrive a way to detain him.
That evening, following dinner, Elizabeth prepared herself to join the Netherfield party. She had remained with Jane for most of the day, and despite Jane's protests, through supper as well. Elizabeth pinned her hair simply and clasped her cross about her neck.
Turning toward her sister, she asked, "There; am I presentable, dear sister?"
"You look remarkably well, Lizzy," Jane smiled.
Moving toward the bed tentatively, Elizabeth felt for the bedpost, and once her palm found its carved wood, she sat upon the bed.
"I wish you could be with me," she stated quietly. "I have a feeling that Mr. Bingley's sisters wish me miles away."
"No, Lizzy; that cannot be," Jane answered quickly. "You will find them very kind and attentive when you are more acquainted with them."
Elizabeth smiled at her sister's propensity to think the best of everyone she met, and reached for her hand.
Holding it gently, she declared with a small smile, "Your Mr. Bingley is very attentive!"
Suppressing a smile, Jane exclaimed, "Stop it, Lizzy! He certainly is not my Mr. Bingley!"
Biting her lip to suppress a laugh, Elizabeth stood from the bed and instructed Jane to rest during her absence. Turning toward the door, Elizabeth began to leave until Jane called to her.
"And what of your Mr. Darcy, Lizzy?" she asked playfully, though Elizabeth also recognized a seriousness in her address.
Opening the door, she declared, "You are teasing me again, sister? You must be dreadfully ill, indeed!"
As Jane laughed softly, Elizabeth departed and shut the door quietly behind her. Once in the hallway, she recollected the direction of the staircase. She had attentively observed her steps when Mr. Bingley escorted her earlier, and felt certain she could find her way. She pressed her hand against the fine plaster and molding and began moving down the hall. Soon, she felt the curved wood of the banister, and biting her lip nervously, she descended. Elizabeth could not help recalling her misstep with Mr. Darcy, and blushed with embarrassment. Moments before then, she had determined not to make a fool of herself in his company, only to find herself stumbling inelegantly into him. Shaking her head, she clutched the banister tightly in frustration.
Finally finding herself at the bottom, Elizabeth smiled proudly. Her smile; however, faded as she realized she neglected to inquire where the drawing room was. Standing still and contemplating her situation, she failed to hear a butler approach her. When he asked if she was in need of assistance, she started. Recovering, and blushing in mortification, she asked that he lead her toward the drawing room. Bowing slightly, the butler gently took her hand and laid it upon his arm.
Meanwhile, Miss Bingley sat at cards with her brother and sister, while Mr. Hurst dozed in the corner under the effects of Mr. Bingley's good wine. Mr. Darcy sat quietly reading near the fire, and was unaware that Miss Bingley often stole glances at him. Sighing dramatically, she drew the attention of everyone in the room with the exception of Mr. Hurst, who continued to snore loudly and Mr. Darcy, whose eyes remained resolutely on his book.
"So Miss Eliza is to join us this evening?" she asked, looking expectantly at her brother. "Whatever will we talk with her about, dear brother?"
Furrowing his brow and glancing at his sister, he declared, "I imagine we shall speak with her on any topic we wish, Caroline."
"Oh, Charles; do not be so thoughtless," she answered. "Can you truly imagine that she has any knowledge of society, fashion, or literature?"
Bingley placed his cards upon the table and looked intently at his sister.
Shaking his head, he asserted, "I find her remarkably witty and I am sure we will enjoy a very pleasant evening with her."
At this pronouncement, Miss Bingley threw her cards to the table and settled back in her seat.
Gazing at her brother, she stated flatly, "Perhaps you are correct, dear brother, but what entertainments can we possibly enjoy with her?"
Bingley shook his head, and looked back toward his cards. Realizing her brother would not answer her, Miss Bingley stood from her chair and moved toward Darcy's chair. When she was near him, she glanced over his shoulder and inquired what he was reading.
"Coleridge," he replied quickly in the hope she would return to her brother and sister.
"Oh, how I adore poetry!" she exclaimed delightedly. "I do so enjoy reading! Perhaps, I will join you, Mr. Darcy."
With this announcement, she swept past him, ensuring as she did that her skirts brushed his foot. Noticing his heightened color, she congratulated herself on her efforts and moved to a nearby table for a book. Darcy remained silent and studied his page intently in an attempt to mask his growing impatience with his good friend's sister. Soon, she rejoined him and sat daintily upon the settee across from him. Glancing at him a final time, she opened her volume.
Some minutes later, Darcy looked up to ascertain what title she had chosen, and quickly bit back a laugh. Unable to resist, he closed his book and addressed her.
"Are you enjoying your book, Miss Bingley?" he asked politely.
Smiling happily at his address, she declared the she was enjoying it immensely.
Darcy smiled, and asserted, "I am glad to hear it, for I had no idea you spoke Italian."
Noticing her confusion, he looked pointedly at the volume that lay open on her lap. Looking down at it quickly, Miss Bingley blushed when she realized it was an untranslated volume Boccaccio's writings. Shutting it firmly, she stood quickly.
Moving to replace it on the table, she declared, "While I do not speak the language, I do find that a lady should study all manner of literature."
Watching her intently, Darcy merely nodded and returned his attention to his book. Unwilling to accept his inattention and hoping to soften her embarrassment, Miss Bingley sat across from him again.
"Truly, I cannot imagine what literature Eliza Bennet has had the opportunity to experience," she announced to the room. "Surely her education must be severely limited."
Darcy's grip tightened on his volume, and his mouth set in a forbidding line. Taking his silence as acquiescence, Miss Bingley continued happily.
"Indeed, I feel heartily for her," she declared, looking toward her brother and sister sadly before continuing, "To suffer as she has and then be unable to enjoy polished society."
Bingley gazed at his sister and proclaimed, "Whatever do you mean, Caroline? You saw her at Sir William Lucas' party. She appeared to enjoy herself immensely, and everyone welcomed her happily."
"Dear Charles," Miss Bingley began. "Do you not see that she is only welcomed in civilized company out of sympathy?"
Bingley looked at his sister incredulously, and Mrs. Hurst gazed determinedly down at her cards. As silence descended upon the room, Darcy closed his book with an audible snap and turned to address Miss Bingley. Before he could speak, a butler entered and grimly informed the company that Miss Elizabeth wished to remain with her sister a little longer, but would join them momentarily. Bowing, the butler departed.
The light clicking of heels retreating down the hallway arrested Darcy's attention. Paling noticeably, he gazed at the empty doorway and silently cursed Miss Bingley's sharp tongue. After a moment's hesitation, he professed that he needed to retrieve a book from the library, and after declining Miss Bingley's offer to accompany him, he quickly left the room and closed the doors firmly behind him.
Taking a shaky breath, Elizabeth listened to the butler retreat down the hallway. She closed her eyes and shook her head before leaning her head back against the heavy wood of the archway where she stood.
Stomping her foot impatiently, she thought, ‘Civilized company? I fail to see how she may count herself among civilized company with a tongue like that!'
Certainly she had heard similar comments made in the past regarding her situation, but the presence of the butler by her side and the newness of her acquaintance with the Netherfield party heightened the mortification she felt in overhearing Miss Bingley's cruel presumptions. Thankful that the butler made her excuses for her, Elizabeth sighed and thought on Miss Bingley's words in her few moments of solitude.
‘To say such things in the company of others,' she thought sadly. ‘What will they think of me now?'
These unhappy thoughts were interrupted by the sound of someone coming toward her, and believing it was the butler returned to escort her to the room, she stood straight and smoothed her skirts in an attempt to compose herself. She now felt unprepared to spend an evening in company and wished desperately to return to her sister. Realizing that the individual had arrived at her side, she raised her head expectantly, and was surprised to be addressed by Mr. Darcy.
"Miss Bennet," he said gently as he bowed low. "It is a pleasure to see you this evening."
Feeling unequal to the task of speaking, Elizabeth curtseyed and smiled softly. Darcy inquired after the progress of her sister's recovery, and watched her features closely in an effort to discern if she had, as he suspected, overheard Miss Bingley's words.
"She is resting comfortably, but is still very much altered," she confessed.
Remembering the excuse she had given the butler, she quickly added, "I was unhappy to have had to leave her in such a way, so I remained with her longer than expected."
Darcy nodded and replied, "I see."
The two stood uncomfortably for a moment; neither one thinking of a satisfactory subject to fill the silence. Just as Elizabeth began to despair, Darcy spoke abruptly.
"May I escort you to the drawing room?" he asked nervously. "I realize now that you are unaware of where it is located."
Darcy studied her intently as he said this and was unsurprised when she paled almost imperceptibly.
‘She did hear,' he thought sadly; her alarmed features confirming his suspicions. ‘It is a wonder she did not flee entirely and retreat to the comfort of her sister's company.'
Biting her lip to quell her apprehension, Elizabeth declared, "I thank you for your assistance, Sir."
As he tucked her hand under his arm, he replied that it was his pleasure, and turned in the direction of the drawing room. Darcy chose to walk slowly in order to give her ample time to compose herself, and soon noticed that her hand shook slightly. Alarmed by the feeling, he was tempted to stop their progress and comfort her.
‘Do not be foolish,' he thought bitterly. ‘What good would I do? I would only embarrass her further by bringing attention to her discomfiture.'
Darcy continued walking, but upon reaching their destination, stopped to address her in the hope of calming her unease.
"Do you enjoy poetry, Miss Bennet?" he asked suddenly.
Confused by their sudden stop and Darcy's unusual question, Elizabeth turned toward her companion.
"I do indeed, sir," she answered uncertainly. "I used to read it quite often in my youth, and my father has recently been reading me Coleridge and Wordsworth."
At this pronouncement, Darcy's brow lifted and his eyes widened. Smiling, he declared, "That is quite convenient, Miss Bennet, as I have a volume of Coleridge's poetry in the drawing room."
Attempting to discern his reasoning, Elizabeth's brow furrowed noticeably. Blushing slightly, Darcy hurried to explain.
"Perhaps, we may enjoy his meditations together?" he asked quietly.
Understanding dawned on Elizabeth, and she smiled brightly; recognizing Darcy's offer for what it truly was. Since her youth, she had been an avid observer of humanity, and was always keenly aware of the unspoken intentions of others.
‘He must know I heard Miss Bingley,' she thought. ‘And he seeks to ease my anxiety about being in company.'
Darcy waited anxiously for her answer, and hoped she would not think his offer presumptuous. Staring intently at the marble beneath his feet, Darcy upbraided himself for allowing himself to become so discomposed in her presence, and wondered when he had lost mastery over his emotions. Glancing up, he noticed her smiling.
"I would enjoy that very much, Mr. Darcy," Elizabeth answered calmly.
Had she been able to, Elizabeth would have seen a small smile of approval appear on Darcy's face, but would have also perceived an even greater wealth of emotion in his eyes that the man himself did not fully understand. Happy with the conclusion of this exchange, Darcy led her through the oak doors in front of them.
Miss Bingley returned reluctantly to her place at the card table when Mr. Darcy left the room. Much to her brother and sister's dismay, she played inattentively, and the progress of their game was repeatedly impeded by her frequent glances toward the door. She waited impatiently for his return, and after several minutes in this way, was gratified when the door opened to admit him. She smiled brightly and prepared to greet him from her seat, but her attention was arrested by Elizabeth's presence at his side for the second time that day.
Noticing his sister's sudden reticence, Bingley stood quickly to welcome his guest. He declared happily, "Good evening, Miss Bennet! I am happy you have come to join us!"
Smiling, he led her to the sofa and sat next to her. He inquired after her sister's health, and upon hearing from Elizabeth that she was not yet well, looked crestfallen. Elizabeth felt his distress in his silence, and quickly sought to comfort him.
"I am certain she will be well in a day or two, sir. Your kindness has certainly aided the progress of her recovery," she said soothingly.
Bingley's eyes immediately brightened, and after thanking her for her compliment, he returned happily to his card game. Meanwhile, Darcy seated himself across from Elizabeth and inquired what other authors she enjoyed. Unbeknownst to him, Miss Bingley observed him closely from across the room, and noticing his quiet discussion with Elizabeth, became determined to capture his attention.
"Mr. Darcy," she called loudly. "Did you find the book you were looking for?"
She was gratified when he looked quizzically toward her. Darcy remained silent for a moment, and suddenly recollecting the pretense upon which he left the room, paled slightly and cursed his forgetfulness.
Elizabeth quickly sensed her companion's discomfort and declared, "I am afraid, Miss Bingley, that I impeded Mr. Darcy's search for his book. He must have been on his way to the library when he found me quite lost!"
Laughing at Elizabeth's easy candor, Bingley professed happily, "Fear not, Miss Bennet; I lose my way in this house almost daily, and it is my own home!"
Elizabeth and Mrs. Hurst laughed heartily at this, while Miss Bingley's annoyance was evident. She gazed unhappily at Elizabeth and studied her intently. Sighing loudly, she confessed that she was bored with cards.
"I am desperate for some other entertainment," she continued, looking toward her sister.
Mrs. Hurst quickly supported the idea, and the two women quit the card table and moved to sit near Elizabeth and Darcy. Taking the seat nearest Elizabeth, Miss Bingley smiled with cold civility and addressed her.
"Miss Eliza, I overheard your discussion of books with Mr. Darcy," Miss Bingley said gaily. "Are you a great reader?"
Amazed with the thoughtlessness of the woman in front of him, Darcy shifted uncomfortably in his seat and twisted his signet ring agitatedly. He looked alarmingly toward Elizabeth, but was surprised to find her looking serenely toward Miss Bingley.
Elizabeth smiled pleasantly and confessed, "At no time in my life was I a great reader, Miss Bingley, but I did find much enjoyment in it. Even now, I am still an admirer of literature."
Noting Miss Bingley's silence, Elizabeth realized she desired a further explanation and stated calmly, "My father reads to me each evening."
Reaching her hand toward Elizabeth's and patting it gently, Miss Bingley declared, "That is very good of him. How lucky you are to have such a father; one who is so willing to sacrifice his time for your comfort."
Elizabeth recoiled slightly at the touch and said evenly, "Indeed I am."
Glancing toward Darcy, Miss Bingley observed his heightened color and took it to be his disappointment in hearing this evidence of Elizabeth's limited abilities.
Pressing on, she cried, "Your performance at the pianoforte at Sir William Lucas' was exquisite! Louisa and I talked of nothing else for a full half hour upon our return home. Is that not so, dear sister?"
Mrs. Hurst nodded and added enthusiastically, "It most certainly is, Miss Bennet."
Smiling, Elizabeth humbly thanked them for their praise and inquired if either of them played.
Miss Bingley quickly affirmed, "We both enjoy music immensely! I myself prefer more complicated pieces. Such pieces are the mark of a true proficient."
Elizabeth's brow furrowed slightly, and she remained silent.
Miss Bingley continued heedlessly, declaring, "The piece you chose was very entertaining, Miss Eliza! I have heard it so often, but your interpretation of it was charming."
Darcy gripped the arm of his chair tightly and glanced helplessly toward Bingley in the hope he would restrain his sister's conversation in some way. Bingley, whose good nature and kind disposition often blinded him to the faults of his sister, looked on questioningly and without worry. Darcy breathed deeply in an attempt to steady his growing frustration, but started when he heard Miss Bingley's next declaration.
"Indeed, Miss Eliza, I would imagine learning new, more complex pieces must be quite difficult for you," Miss Bingley stated; her voice low with sympathy.
Elizabeth smiled faintly and nodded, but made no answer. Instead, she professed that she had been away from her sister for far too long.
With her head bowed and the lively color of her cheeks paled, she continued, "Indeed, I should return to her now."
Mr. Bingley immediately rose to call for Fossett, who quickly appeared and offered Elizabeth his assistance. Noticing the look of mortification and indignation in Elizabeth's eyes as she curtseyed and wish the company a good evening, Darcy watched sadly as she left the room. When she departed, he turned sharply to Miss Bingley and was appalled to find her looking toward the empty door in satisfaction.
Resolving to speak with Bingley in the morning regarding his sister's behavior, Darcy announced that he would retire for the eveningContinued In Next Section