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It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a married man in possession of an estate that is under entailment must have a son to inherit it.
Thus, Mr. Thomas Bennet of Longbourn was quite properly delighted when his beloved wife Elizabeth presented him with a fine, healthy son one year after their marriage. Mrs. Bennet was a woman of beauty, taste, sense, and refinement, and these characteristics combined with Mr. Bennet's intelligence and wit assured that their firstborn son would inherit a great deal more than a fine house and farm.
However, the birth of young Master Thomas Bennet did not bring such pleasure to all quarters. The senior Mr. Bennet's cousin James Collins, whose own son, William, would inherit Longbourn should Mr. Bennet die in default of heirs male, was disappointed and angry.
"I must do something," he said to his wife. "I must ensure that Longbourn goes to our William. I should have inherited the estate myself, but that cursed entailment denied me what was mine by birthright. I must find a way to make it work in our son's favour."
Mrs. Collins, who unlike her cousin's wife possessed neither good sense nor taste, agreed with everything her husband said. She was acutely aware of her shortcomings as well as the fact that her husband had chosen a bride from well beneath his own social strata, and that this unequal marriage was the reason why Mr. Collins' grandfather had entailed Longbourn upon Mr. Bennet and his heirs. "You are quite right, my love, but I do not see what you can possibly do. The boy is healthy and likely to prosper, and Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are young and can produce many more boys before they are through. We must do as best we can for young William's education. Perhaps the Church; that is a gentleman's profession, is it not, my love? And if William is fortunate in his patron, it could be a profitable profession as well."
Mr. Collins' face showed his distaste. He was a gentleman, and discussions of profit were therefore unpleasant to him. His wife, whose father had been a tradesman, had never understood that. "We shall see about that, my dear." He left the room hastily, leaving his wife to wonder at his words.
Mr. Bennet smiled at his wife across the dining-table. "Wine with you, my dear?" he asked, holding up his glass.
"Of course, my dearest husband." She raised her own glass and they both sipped, never taking their eyes from the other.
"Did young Thomas have a good day?" he asked, breaking off a piece of bread to eat with his soup.
"Oh, yes! He grows quite strong, my love. He holds up his head and looks around him with such intelligence. And he smiles so much! The nurse says it is just intestinal distress, but I wonder."
Mr. Bennet smiled again, indulgently. It was good to see Elizabeth so taken with their son. She was so delicate that she would not be able to bear many children, and she was consumed with young Thomas' progress.
Mrs. Bennet hesitated for a moment, then asked, "Thomas, may I bring him to you in the drawing-room tonight, just for a moment? I shall ensure that the nurse has fed him properly so that he should not bespoil your coat." This was a reference to an unfortunate incident of the previous week, in which the young master had deposited his dinner on his father's clean linen.
Despite his wife's apprehensions, Mr. Bennet had been more amused than disturbed by that incident, and he had genuine affection for his son. He said, "Of course, Elizabeth! I should dearly like to see young Thomas. When I have finished my port, by all means bring him to me." He had all the reward necessary for his selfless act in the glowing countenance of his lovely wife.
When her husband joined her in the drawing room some time later, Mrs. Bennet happily poured his coffee and said, "I shall go and fetch young Thomas now, if that is your wish."
Well-fed and mellowed by the excellent port, Mr. Bennet nodded agreement, and Mrs. Bennet climbed the stairs to the nursery. Mr. Bennet sipped his coffee, thinking contentedly of his wonderful family, until he heard his wife begin to scream.
The nurse adjusted the blankets in the basket and looked around her doubtfully. She had managed to get to Meryton without arousing any suspicion, but she felt as if she had a sign pinned to her back that read "KIDNAPPER." And where was that confounded man, anyway? She had followed his instructions to the letter, and he should have been here outside the inn to meet her, but here she stood with a baby that was not hers and no prospect of getting rid of it. She could hardly go back to Longbourn; by now they would know that she was missing, along with the heir.
As if on cue, young Thomas began to fuss, and the nurse rocked the basket until he fell asleep once again, his little mouth working. He would be hungry soon; she had put up bottles of goats-milk for the man to take along, since she did not know whether he had engaged a wet-nurse. Oh, this whole operation was a disaster from the beginning! She should never have agreed to it! But the money...yes, the money would allow her to marry her Luke, even though he was only a farmhand. She smiled when she thought of the surprise and delight on Luke's face when she presented him with the money.
Despite these happy thoughts, the nurse was seriously considering returning to Longbourn and facing the righteous wrath of Mr. Bennet when a chaise finally drove up, and the man disembarked. He was small and swarthy, and the nurse had a moment's doubt about leaving the baby with him; however, he was accompanied by a young woman who took the baby from the basket and held him expertly, relieving the nurse's mind somewhat.
"Do you have the money?" she asked nervously.
The man handed over a box; the nurse removed the top and smiled at the pile of notes inside. Yes, Luke would be delighted indeed. She replaced the top of the box, touched little Thomas' arm one last time, and climbed into a waiting post-chaise that would take her home to Yorkshire and Luke.
Another post-chaise carried away the man, the young woman, and the baby. They traveled through the night and most of the next day, until they arrived at a town that the man considered properly retired. They will never find the child here.
He went to the small church and placed the basket on one of the pews. It was late afternoon, and there was a young woman seated in a pew a few rows in front of him. The baby was sleeping, but when he woke, the man was sure that the woman would be able to care for him. Despite his appearance, he was not a cruel man; he was simply following his master's instructions, and he saw no reason to endanger the baby. He rose from the pew and left the church without looking back.
Mrs. Frederick Tilney stared disconsolately at the altar of the tiny church. Why, oh why? she cried silently, as she had so many times in the past four days, since her little boy had died. The physician had instructed her to stay abed for at least another fortnight, but she had been restless; she had weakly dressed herself and slipped away to the church, searching for whatever comfort she could find there. Mrs. Tilney had been educated at a French convent school; though she now worshipped with her husband at this Anglican church, she still sometimes had private conversations with the Blessed Mother, to whom she had been introduced by the kindly nuns and whose name she shared: Mary.
Why did you take him away from me, Mother? she asked in despair. Is it because I come to this church now, instead of yours? But is it not proper for a wife to cleave to her husband and his church? Mary had not even really wanted to marry Frederick Tilney; her father had arranged the marriage with the stern young colonel, who had been enraptured with the pretty, dark-haired Miss Drummond, although she sometimes suspected that the basis of the colonel's affection was her fortune of twenty thousand pounds. Mary was a dutiful wife, and she quickly gave birth to a son, named Frederick after his father; two years later she bore another son, who had been born much too soon and died so quickly that he had not even been given a name.
I know I am selfish, Mother, she thought. I still have little Frederick, and he is healthy. That should be sufficient. But it is not. Oh, it hurts, Mother, it hurts! She crossed her arms over her stomach, still distended from the pregnancy; her breasts were swollen and painful with the milk her body still produced for the dead baby. And Mary hung her head and wept broken-heartedly for her lost son.
A thin wail broke the silence, and her head snapped up. She did not even notice that the front of her gown had become soaked with milk at the baby's cry; she reacted instinctively, as a mother, standing up and looking about. She was alone in the church; where was the baby?
She ran down the aisle, looking in each pew, until she found the basket. She carefully peeled back the blankets and saw the baby staring up at her, waving his hands and wailing loudly. He had bright eyes and dark hair like her own, unlike little Frederick, who had inherited his father's fair hair and blue eyes. Mary reached out to him, and the tiny fingers wrapped around one of her own. The child shook with the anger and violence of his cries. Poor thing, he must be hungry!
Mary lifted the baby from the basket, expertly unbuttoning the front of her wrapper. She draped the blanket over her shoulder and began to nurse the baby, not caring if such an activity was improper in church. She smiled down at her new son, thinking, The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Oh, thank you, Mother!
Mary Tilney took the baby back to the Abbey and explained to her husband how the Blessed Mother had answered her heartbroken pleas. Colonel Tilney did not have the heart to deny his wife, although her Papist tendencies disturbed him; he felt genuine affection for her, although it was difficult for him to show it, and he sometimes shouted at her and frightened her when he meant to be loving. The colonel was not entirely sure that it would be desirable to raise his heir, young Frederick, in the same house as a child who was likely the product of an immoral relationship. Some slatternly local girl had probably rolled in the hay with a stableboy and left the shameful result on the mercy of the parish. Well, the child could not help the circumstances of his birth, and it would comfort Mary for the loss of the baby. He would raise the boy as a gentleman and watch him carefully. Any lower-class tendencies must be nipped in the bud.
Thus the Tilneys' second son - named Henry for Mary's father - grew up at Northanger Abbey, and never knew that the mother who had given him life was not the one who tucked him into bed and warmly kissed him good-night. And he never knew that the father who had been so delighted at his birth still thought of him daily and grieved for him sincerely.
Thomas Bennet searched far and wide for his son, but in those days of King George England was a much larger place than it is today. It was easy to overlook such a retired village as Northanger, and even the fine old Abbey, improved and modernized thought it had been by Colonel Tilney's father. Finally he had to abandon the search, although he never abandoned hope; his lovely, delicate wife was not so fortunate, and she passed quietly from this world less than a year after little Thomas' disappearance. The physicians said that she died from a consumption, but Mr. Bennet knew better; she died of a broken heart, and he cursed himself for his inability to repair it.
He wore black for the proscribed time, but he never really stopped mourning Elizabeth. He mourned her beauty, her refinement, her way of making her husband comfortable and their home loving. After a genteel period, rapacious mammas began to present their daughters to him as a replacement, but the more lovely and accomplished they were, the more they reminded him of Elizabeth, and the less he could bear to have them by him. He withdrew from society, spending a great deal of time in his study at Longbourn, and his formerly sparkling wit became warped by bitterness into something hard and prickly, used to wound rather than to give joy.
An uncharacteristic appearance at a village assembly introduced him to Miss Fanny Gardiner, who was the exact opposite of Elizabeth, having no taste, sense, or refinement of which to speak. However, she was pretty enough, and had a vivaciousness that called out to Mr. Bennet in his solitude. In a moment of what he thought was love but later recognized as madness, he offered for her, and before he fully realized his mistake she was installed as mistress of Longbourn and expecting a child.
The new Mrs. Bennet gave birth to a daughter, a beautiful pink and golden little girl named Jane after her mother's sister. Mr. Bennet loved this daughter as well as he loved his absent son, but he wondered how he could provide for her if he had no son to join him in cutting off the entail. Well, Mrs. Bennet is young, he told himself; she will bear a son soon enough.
Two years later Mrs. Bennet bore him a second daughter. The baby had dark hair like her father, and something in her eyes reminded Mr. Bennet of his first wife. She could have been the daughter Elizabeth and I had together, if only... Mrs. Bennet cared not for this daughter; her consequence lay in producing sons, and a daughter who was so unlike her could not excite any affection in her small heart. When Mr. Bennet gently suggested that the girl be called Elizabeth, Mrs. Bennet agreed absently. Mr. Bennet never discussed his first wife, and Mrs. Bennet had never learned her name.
After three more confinements Mrs. Bennet had yet to give birth to a son. Mr. Bennet resigned his fate, and his estate, to his cousin, young William Collins. He sometimes despaired of how he was to provide five dowries; then he would pick up a book and drown himself in words, so much more pleasant than cold reality, the same reality that had taken away Elizabeth and little Thomas.
He loved his five daughters, especially Lizzy, as well as he was able, with his heart so scarred by loss. His affection manifested itself in teasing, which sometimes took a hard edge that pained the two eldest girls and cost him the respect of the youngest. For his wife there was occasional tenderness, especially when her former vivacity made an increasingly-rare appearance; but more often Mrs. Bennet was anxious and silly, and at those times her husband avoided her company as much as he was decently able.
Mrs. Bennet wondered why Mr. Bennet doted so on Lizzy, when Jane was so much more beautiful, Mary so much more accomplished, Lydia so much more good-natured, and Kitty...well, that was perhaps understandable. She supposed it was because Lizzy favoured Mr. Bennet's colouring, but little did Fanny Bennet suspect that her husband loved his second daughter so well because her spirit and sparkle, as well as her fine, dark eyes and hair, brought back sweet memories of the only woman he had ever loved.
Henry Tilney turned away from the window, where he had been watching the passersby hurrying through the swirling mists of London. "Forgive me, Darcy," he said, trying bravely to smile. "Even after four months, everything is still very fresh."
Fitzwilliam Darcy shook his head at the younger man. "I must meet this Miss Morland," he said with a smile. "Any young woman that can lay Henry Tilney so low must be formidable indeed."
Henry laughed. "Catherine, formidable?" He turned back to the window and sighed. "On the contrary. She is the sweetest girl in the world."
"Did you hear that, Bingley?" asked Darcy, turning to the third man in the room. " 'The sweetest girl in the world.' Did you ever think our old friend would fall so hard for 'the sweetest girl in the world'? He whose fastidious taste considered no young lady handsome or intelligent or well-read or accomplished enough to tempt him!"
Charles Bingley had truthfully been thinking that it must be wonderful to love a young lady as much as Henry seemed to love Miss Morland, but he said only, "I would like to meet her as well, Tilney. When do you propose to introduce us to your bride?"
Henry laughed. "Not until we are safely married, you dog." He paused for a moment, then added bitterly, "Whenever that may be." There was an uncomfortable silence; Henry's two friends were acquainted with his circumstances, his father's refusal to allow his marriage to the woman he loved. Although they teased Henry about Catherine, his friends had too high a regard for his taste, and too intimate a knowledge of General Tilney's temper, to think for a moment that the General's harsh assessment of Henry's fiancée was warranted.
"Tell us about her, Tilney," said Darcy. He was trying desperately to keep up his old friend's spirits and failing abysmally. He exchanged a worried glance with Bingley. "Is she accomplished?"
"Of course she is," said Bingley heartily. "All young ladies are accomplished! Miss Tilney is very accomplished," he added with a small sigh that amused Henry greatly even in the midst of his distress. Bingley had long carried a torch for Henry's sister, Eleanor, albeit in vain; her heart belonged to another. Henry suspected that Bingley's tendre for Eleanor was simply an old habit, one that would be abandoned when another pretty young lady crossed his path.
"There we must part company, Bingley," Darcy declared. "I have an extremely exacting definition of an accomplished woman. Well, Tilney? Do you think Miss Morland would fit that definition?"
"No, Darcy," said Henry, "Catherine is not your type at all. She is sweet, direct, warm-hearted, and not at all accomplished."
"You astonish me, Tilney. I had such high hopes for you," Darcy teased. "If you were not such an impudent rogue, I may even have let you marry Georgiana when she was old enough."
"You can bestow no higher compliment," cried Henry, bowing gallantly. "Miss Darcy is lovely and accomplished indeed, but she is not my Catherine." He laid one hand on Darcy's shoulder and one on Bingley's. "Thank you, my friends," he said softly. "I understand what you are trying to accomplish, but I think I simply need time to get used to the idea that Catherine and I must be apart." He drew a deep breath. "It is difficult to be alone at Woodston. My solitude preys upon me." He paused and turned away, pacing restlessly and running a hand through his tousled brown curls. "I see Catherine in every room, looking about her in wonder and delight as she did when she called on me there, never realizing that I already envisioned her as its mistress." He turned back to the other men, smiling bravely. "Thank you, Darcy, for inviting me to visit you here in town. The society of my oldest friends could do me nothing but good. But I think I must be getting back to Woodston before my curate revolts. Besides, I have a Newfoundland puppy that I am training to retrieve, and he is making great progress."
Darcy and Bingley exchanged another glance. "I have a suggestion that may help take your mind away from your troubles," said Bingley. "You know that I have been looking for an estate to purchase." Henry nodded. "I have found one in Hertfordshire called Netherfield. I am only leasing it for now, but I have an option to purchase it. The grounds are rich in game, and I have the warrant, so there will be sport. The neighbours are delightful people. I will be returning the day after tomorrow, and Darcy, my sisters, and Louisa's husband Hurst will join me. Do come along, Tilney," he cried, grasping his friend's arm earnestly. "I would sincerely like for you to come along. And you must bring your Newfoundland. There will be plenty of birds for him to chase." He hesitated. "And perhaps you will not be so oppressed by your memories."
Henry smiled down at Bingley's eager face. "How can I spurn such an invitation?" he laughed. "Yes, I will come along, Bingley, if my curate's schedule allows. Is there an M.P. or a lord about the neighbourhood who is willing to frank my letters? I plan to inundate Catherine with epistles and I would not have the poor girl using up her dowry in postage."
"I shall provide for you as best I can," Bingley promised, and the young men began to form plans for their removal to Hertfordshire.
They had met at Eton, where Henry had arrived at the age of twelve, frightened as the new boys always are, but displaying a brave façade that inspired Darcy's sincere admiration. Frederick Tilney, exercising two years' seniority, tormented his younger brother with impunity. Darcy considered the elder Tilney a bully, and he stepped between Frederick and Henry when the former attempted to thrash the latter for some small infraction. Darcy was the party administering the thrashing that day, and when Frederick crept away to lick his wounds, a considerably impressed Henry asked Darcy if he would instruct him in boxing.
Darcy had studied pugilism since boyhood and was glad to pass his knowledge on to the younger man. The students did not have a great deal of spare time, but what they had was spent in instruction and learning of the sweet science. Henry was a quick study, but still small; Darcy, at fourteen already tall and rangy, defeated him easily in their practice matches. He respected the younger boy far too much to allow him a victory that he did not earn.
Three years later, Darcy had moved on to Oxford, and Henry Tilney was in a position to perform the same office for Charles Bingley that Darcy had performed for him. Bingley's slavish gratitude had endeared him to Henry, who never scorned sincere adoration from his fellow human beings.
Henry eventually followed Darcy to Oxford. By that time he had reached his full height of six feet, his shoulders had broadened, and his strength had developed by constant practice, and at last Henry Tilney defeated Fitzwilliam Darcy in a sparring match. Darcy took his defeat with good grace and a determination to never let it happen again.
The friendship, and occasional competition, had continued as they pursued their lives after Oxford. Henry had introduced Darcy and Bingley to one another, and they had become instant friends, both being eldest sons from the north of England; however, they did not scorn their old friend Tilney, who had taken orders and been named to a family living in Gloucestershire. Henry sometimes suspected that Darcy also enjoyed the warm regard that radiated from Bingley like fire from the sun, and this evidence of Darcy's vanity amused him greatly. Henry Tilney had few vices, but one of them was his tendency to indulge himself overmuch in the foibles of others.
He was also amused at the pursuit of his friends by bright-eyed young ladies and their anxious mammas, whom Henry declared could sniff the two young men's fortunes from across a crowded ball-room. Henry was extremely popular as well, being unfailingly witty and charming and an excellent dancer into the bargain, but the ladies usually abandoned him for his richer friends when the dreaded words "younger son" were uttered. And then he had met Catherine.
Henry could not really identify what he had found attractive about the young lady whom Mr. King had introduced that night at the Lower Rooms in Bath. Her admiration was obvious, and had never wavered, even in the face of his father's embarrassing solicitude. Henry knew perfectly well that General Tilney's assumptions about Catherine's expectations were false, but he sincerely enjoyed her company, and it would not have served his interests to correct his father's ideas. He wanted to know more about this sweet, serious girl, and he wished to promote her budding friendship with Eleanor. His sister had so few real friends.
Henry had been fascinated with baby Eleanor, born when he was two years old, and he had spent a great deal of time with her. When she had been old enough to toddle about, he had held her hand and helped her; when she had been old enough to play, he had joined in her games; when she had been old enough to learn to read, he had taught her. Henry saw hints of Eleanor in Catherine, and was not terribly surprised when they became friends. And when the General had banished Catherine from Northanger, Henry had ridden all day to ask for her hand, half-fearing that his father's mad ideas had prejudiced her against him forever but ultimately trusting in her warm heart. And his trust had not been mislaid.
The General had not sanctioned the marriage, and the Morlands regretfully refused their permission as well. It was not that they did not like or trust Mr. Tilney, they explained, but they could not allow a marriage that his father had forbidden. They understood that the late Mrs. Tilney had ensured that her son had a comfortable fortune independent of his living, but they could not brook disrespect to his living parent. However, when the General gave his blessing, they were prepared to do so as well. Henry had understood completely, although Catherine's tears had rent his heart.
The lovers engaged in a clandestine correspondence, which helped to soften the torments of absence, but as the weeks turned into months and the General showed no signs of retreating from his entrenched position, Henry's innate charm dimmed into something like melancholy. The increasingly despondent tone of his letters had alarmed his old friends, and Darcy had hastened to invite him to stay at his townhouse in London.
And now to Hertfordshire, Henry thought as he drove his curricle toward Woodston, there to gather his clothes and guns and dog. I do not expect to find anything there that will make me stop longing for Catherine, but perhaps it will distract me for a time. Anything is better than being at Woodston, alone with my memories.
Henry stepped out of Bingley's carriage and looked around him with a smile. What a charming little village, he thought, a great deal like Woodston. His smile faltered a bit. Or like Fullerton. His friends' scheme to distract him from his misfortunes was only successful to a point; he saw Catherine everywhere. She invaded his thoughts at odd moments, and he would sigh and his eyes would grow distant, and Darcy and Bingley would look at one another and shake their heads. They were very worried about their friend, and when he had shown a spark of interest in attending the Meryton village assembly, even Darcy was persuaded to accompany him, although such entertainment was not at all to his fastidious taste.
"Shall we be quite safe here, Mr. Darcy, do you think?" he heard Caroline Bingley ask behind him. This brought the grin back to Henry's face. Miss Bingley was clearly in love with either Darcy or his fortune. Henry had watched her machinations with high glee, and teased Darcy about it incessantly in private. He was rather surprised that Darcy did not give her the cut direct, but rather allowed her importunities to continue. Perhaps he likes her, after all? Henry watched his friend's face carefully; Darcy's countenance showed no particular regard for Bingley's sister, but as this was quite usual for Darcy, anything was possible.
"D----d silly way to spend an evening," muttered Mr. Hurst, who had stumbled heavily from the second carriage. Henry gazed at him with distaste. He was a wine-sodden, lazy good-for-nothing, who did not have the fortune to support his fashionably dissolute lifestyle but showed no compunction at feeding at his brother-in-law's trough. It astonished Henry that Bingley had not only allowed his sister to marry such a man--although how could he have stopped her? Louisa was of age--but that he continued to allow the sot to deplete his pantry, his cellars, and his woods. Not that the birds were in that much danger from Hurst; he was usually too much in liquor to strike many of his targets. Henry wondered if he should perhaps put a flea in Bingley's ear in regard to Hurst, but he knew that Bingley was far too good-natured, as well as too affectionate a brother, to put his sister and her husband from his house.
Bingley led the way inside, where their hats and cloaks were taken, and they walked down a passage and into a large room lit by a multitude of candles. Jaunty music had swelled and ended as they drew closer, finishing just as they stepped into the room. The laughing dancers froze in their tracks and turned toward the newcomers, and the Netherfield party found themselves the object of every eye in the room.
They all stood there in varying states of discomfort until they were approached by a large man in evening dress. He greeted Mr. Bingley familiarly, and they were all introduced in turn to Sir William Lucas. Henry was amused to notice that their arrival precipitated the arrangement of several whispering groups about the room, with members of each group occasionally detaching themselves to run toward another group and whisper some more, throwing occasional appraising looks at Bingley and Darcy. The hounds have caught the scent, and the hunt is on!
Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley stood to one side, contemptuously inspecting the assembled company. This did not surprise Henry at all, for he found the sisters proud beyond his comprehension; they could claim only a succession of tradesmen, however successful, as their ancestors, yet they carried themselves with as much disdainful arrogance as any aristocrat. Miss Bingley in particular excited Henry's firmest dislike. She was contemptuous toward Catherine, whom she had never met, extracting the highest amusement from Henry's engagement to a mere country clergyman's daughter, and her cutting remarks had tested Henry's patience more than once since he had arrived at Netherfield.
Darcy hung back as well, his countenance haughty and forbidding. Henry knew that expression was a cover for the inexplicable reserve that sometimes came upon Darcy in a crowd of people with whom he was not intimate. Henry being who he was, he had little sympathy for the coolness of his friend's manners amongst those of less consequence than Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley.
Bingley tugged on Henry's elbow. "Sir William is going to introduce us to those young ladies," he whispered, indicating two girls standing with an older woman. "Do you not think the fair-haired one uncommonly pretty?"
"I am afraid that I must disagree with you, Bingley," responded his impertinent friend. "She is very pretty indeed, but uncommonly pretty? That would indicate that her prettiness lay out of the common understanding of that term, a form of prettiness that would not be recognized by the public. I know you are not unchivalrous; therefore, I must conclude that your language is shockingly imprecise. I suggest that you procure Johnson's Dictionary or Blair's Letters on Rhetoric for that pathetic assemblage you call a library at Netherfield."
"Tilney, you are the only man I know who would talk of Johnson and Blair in a ballroom. Here is Sir William; do come along!"
Despite his teasing, Henry was willing enough to be introduced to the young ladies, both of whom were indeed very pretty, and he walked toward them with Bingley. To his surprise, Darcy was at their heels.
"Mrs. Bennet," Sir William was saying to the older woman, "Mr. Bingley has expressed a wish to become acquainted with you and your daughters."
"Sir, that is very good of you," simpered Mrs. Bennet. "This is Jane, my eldest, and Elizabeth. Mary sits over there, and Kitty and Lydia, my youngest, you see there dancing. Do you like to dance yourself?"
Henry ducked his head before Mrs. Bennet could see his grin at her rather bald hint. When he had his expression under control, he looked up to meet the gaze of the dark-haired girl, Miss Elizabeth, whose brown eyes had a twinkle that matched his own. Henry smiled at her, and her own smile widened in response. He found himself staring at her, and finally wrenched his gaze away. Have I met this woman before?
"There is nothing I love better, madam," Bingley was saying in his usual enthusiastic manner, which sometimes reminded Henry of his Newfoundland puppy. "And if Miss Bennet is not otherwise engaged, may I be so bold as to claim the next two dances?"
Miss Bennet's delight at his request shone in her expression. "I am not engaged, sir."
"Good," said Bingley, still grinning, his eyes locked with Miss Bennet's. Poor Eleanor, thought Henry in some amusement, I suspect that Bingley may be lost to her forever.
"You do us great honour, sir," Mrs. Bennet fawned. "Thank the gentleman, Jane!"
Miss Bennet looked down in confusion while her sister murmured, "Mamma!" Henry felt for the girls; he well knew the mortification of having relations for whom one must apologize.
Mrs. Bennet, undaunted by her daughter's admonition, turned her attention to Darcy. "And you, sir? Are you fond of dancing, too?"
Bingley snapped out of his reverie. "Oh, I beg your pardon. Mrs. Bennet, may I present my friends, Mr. Darcy and Mr. Tilney?"
Word of the gentlemen's relative social status must have made the rounds of the whispering groups, for Mrs. Bennet ignored Henry and spoke only to Darcy. "You are very welcome to Hertfordshire, I am sure, sir. I hope you have come here eager to dance as your friend has?"
Darcy bowed, and said rather shortly, "I thank you, madam, I rarely dance."
"Well, let this be one of the occasions, sir, for I wager you will not easily find such lively music or such pretty partners!"
Darcy merely bowed again and walked away. Henry, pained by his friend's rudeness, hastily said, "I am not as disinclined to dance as Mr. Darcy, madam, and if Miss Elizabeth is not engaged for the next two dances, I hereby apply for the honour of being her partner."
Mrs. Bennet continued to glare at Darcy as Elizabeth quietly accepted his offer. Bingley and Henry quickly excused themselves and walked back to where Darcy stood.
"Darcy, what are you about?" Henry asked him. "I know your tendency to be withdrawn in company, but there is no need to be unpleasant to Bingley's neighbours."
As he spoke, Mrs. Bennet's rather piercing voice carried over to them. "Well! Did you ever meet such a proud, disagreeable man?"
Elizabeth's musical voice murmured, "Mamma, he will hear you!" Henry was glad to hear that his first impression of his dance partner was correct; she had a sense of refinement that seemed absent in her mother.
"I don't care if he does! And his friends, disposed to be so agreeable and everything charming. Who is he, to think himself so far above his company?"
Darcy darted a venomous look back toward the Bennet ladies, and Henry took his elbow and steered him away until they could hear no more of Mrs. Bennet's shrill speech.
"Let me be, Tilney." Darcy wrenched his elbow from Henry's hand.
"Gladly. Your behaviour is abominable, sir. I would prefer to not be associated with you at all."
Henry and Darcy glared at one another while a miserable Bingley stood nearby, unable to side with one of his friends over the other and sincerely wishing that they would shake hands and forget the entire incident. Fortunately for Bingley's nice sensibilities, the music started for the next dance, and he and Henry were obliged to claim their partners and enter the set, leaving Darcy to stand to one side of the room, his chin higher and his expression haughtier than ever.
Henry's partner proved as lively as he had hoped. They exchanged remarks on the dance, the size of the room, the weather, and the state of the roads. Miss Elizabeth had a spirited way of expressing herself that delighted him, and he responded in kind, causing her to laugh more than once. Henry needed no more in a dance partner.
"How long will you be staying at Netherfield, sir?" she asked him halfway through the second dance.
"As long as I am able, madam. I have an excellent curate, but I do not like to stay away from my parish for more than a fortnight at a time."
"That is a noble sentiment indeed, Mr. Tilney, especially when you have the company of such good friends as Mr. Bingley to tempt you away from your duties."
"Bingley is indeed a very good friend of many years' standing, as is Darcy." Henry's pique against the latter gentleman was already fading.
Elizabeth glanced over her shoulder to where Darcy stood watching the dancers, then turned her gaze back to Henry. "Mr. Darcy's temper does not seem to be compatible with yours and Mr. Bingley's."
Henry sighed. "I assure you that, when he is amongst his close acquaintances, Darcy is perfectly amiable. Unfortunately, he has a tendency to be more reserved in company."
Elizabeth's expression indicated that she would have chosen different adjectives to describe Darcy's behaviour, but she said only, "I am afraid that will not increase his popularity in Meryton. We are a sociable set, and such conduct is not easily excused."
"I should think that his ridiculously large fortune would go a long way toward excusing his conduct with many people," responded Henry impertinently, and Elizabeth blushed and laughed.
"In some quarters, Mr. Tilney, I am afraid that is very true!"
"And alas, a poor, overworked parson like myself is left friendless and forlorn to make his own way in the cruel world," added Henry with a loud, dramatic sigh.
Elizabeth laughed again, a musical sound that Henry liked a great deal. "I hardly think you friendless, sir. Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley have condescended to give you their friendship, and such an honour cannot be disregarded." She regarded him appraisingly. "And I dare say that there is a young lady back in Gloucestershire who would consider herself a particular friend of yours."
"Your intelligence is excellent, Miss Bennet," said Henry, laughing. "Although the young lady actually resides in Wiltshire. I see my reputation has preceded me."
"Only that you are Mr. Bingley's friend, that you are a clergyman, and that you are a younger son of a respectable family from Gloucestershire."
The music built to a crescendo and stopped with a flourish. Henry bowed and offered his arm to Elizabeth, who laid a gloved hand upon it. "Then how did you know about my fiancée?"
"I am not sure," Elizabeth confessed. "I had a feeling--I feel as though I have known you for a very long time."
Henry looked down at her, the laughter gone from his brown eyes. "I feel the same way. I meant to ask you, have we met somewhere else, London perhaps, or Bath?"
"I have never been to Bath. When I am in town, I stay with my aunt and uncle in Gracechurch-street, near Cheapside."
Henry knew that neither his father nor his fashionable friends would have stepped an elegant foot anywhere near Cheapside. "Do you attend the assemblies in town, madam?"
"Sometimes. We cannot get vouchers to Almack's, of course, but there are other dances. However, my aunt and uncle live very quietly in general." She was silent for a moment. "What is your fiancée's name?"
"Her name is Catherine Morland. She lives in a village called Fullerton, where her father is the vicar."
Elizabeth repeated the name several times, turning it over in her mind, and finally shook her head. "No, I do not believe that I know Miss Morland." She smiled up at Henry, and he smiled in return, two pair of twinkling dark eyes exchanging unspoken, unconsciously comprehended messages of friendship and trust. "I suspect that we must simply consider this a case of like sensibilities recognizing one another."
She still had her hand on his arm, and he covered it with his own. "I agree, Miss Bennet. And I hope that we shall have another opportunity to discuss our like sensibilities."
"As do I, Mr. Tilney."
Henry's smile grew wider, and he gave her an elegant bow and would have moved away but for the approach of another young lady, plainer and some years older than Elizabeth.
"Mr. Tilney, may I present my very good friend, Miss Charlotte Lucas?"
"Your servant, Miss Lucas." Henry bowed again. "You are Sir William's daughter, I believe."
"That is correct, sir." Miss Lucas looked from Henry to Elizabeth, then back again. "I hope you will forgive my forwardness, Mr. Tilney. Eliza is accustomed to my plain speaking. But I have been watching you dance, and I must say that if I did not know differently, I would think you two brother and sister. You have the same dark eyes and hair, and your mannerisms are very similar."
Henry laughed, not at all offended by Miss Lucas' comment. "Then you would be surprised to meet my sister, madam. She is fair and blue-eyed like my father and elder brother. I favour my late mother's colouring."
Miss Lucas smiled. "Of course I did not mean to say that you were actually related. It is just very curious. Do you not agree, Eliza?"
"Oh, yes. Mr. Tilney and I were just saying that when one meets a person of like sensibilities, one feels as though one has known that person for a very long time. Perhaps our empathy has overflowed into our manners."
"Although I am afraid that Miss Bennet has a much better picture of my character than I do of hers, Miss Lucas. Since you are her particular friend, will you do me the honour of being my partner for the next two dances? Perhaps I can ferret out a few of her secrets, as she has managed to discern mine without benefit of such a roundabout and devious method."
Charlotte laughed; clearly she was as susceptible to the Tilney charm as her friend was. "I thank you, Mr. Tilney. I would be delighted to assist."
Henry found Miss Lucas' manners to be perfectly pleasant, though not as animated as her friend's. When the dances were over, Miss Lucas introduced Henry to her younger sister, a pretty girl named Maria, whom Henry promptly asked to dance. At first, Maria's sweetness and youth reminded him rather forcibly of his first dance with Catherine at the Lower Rooms in Bath. However, Maria's extreme shyness, which manifested itself in monosyllabic replies to his bantering, only brought to his mind Catherine's true excellence of character and made him miss her all the more.
During the second dance, Henry fell silent, his thoughts with Catherine, which seemed to suit Miss Maria perfectly. This unusual reticence allowed him to overhear a conversation between Darcy and Bingley. The latter gentleman, whom Henry was amused to note was dancing once more with Jane Bennet, had left the set in an attempt to persuade Darcy to join the dance.
"Come, Darcy," said Bingley, "I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance."
"I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. At such an assembly as this, it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged, and there is not another woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with." Henry sighed; that his friend, whom Henry knew to be genuinely warm and amicable among his intimates, could display the same pride as Bingley's sisters pained him greatly.
"I would not be so fastidious as you are," cried Bingley, "for a kingdom! Upon my honour, I never met with so many pleasant girls in my life as I have this evening; and there are several of them, you see, uncommonly pretty."
I really must procure Johnson and Blair for Bingley, thought Henry. An Oxford man should have a great deal more precision in his speech.
"You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room," said Darcy, his glance traveling to Bingley's partner.
"Oh! She is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld!"
Henry grinned involuntarily at Bingley's enthusiasm. He well remembered a time when Eleanor Tilney had been the most beautiful creature Bingley had ever beheld.
Bingley continued to speak. "But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you."
Henry saw Elizabeth Bennet seated nearby, having fallen victim to the unfortunate shortage of gentlemen. A dose of Elizabeth's spirit may be just the cure for Darcy's arrogance, thought Henry with a grin.
"Which do you mean?" said Darcy, turning around to look for a moment at Elizabeth. Henry saw Elizabeth glance up and catch Darcy's eye, but Darcy withdrew his own gaze and coldly said, "She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me."
How dare you, Darcy! thought Henry indignantly. She is sitting just next to you! I am sure that she hears you! He glared at Darcy, all his former anger returning. Elizabeth looked up at Darcy as well; a disinterested observer would have noted the similarity of their expressions, but none of the attendees were paying them any mind.
Then Henry saw Elizabeth turn away and smile; a moment later, she stood and walked past Darcy, giving him an insolent grin as she passed, and went to stand with Charlotte Lucas. A moment later, both ladies burst out laughing, stealing glances back toward a mortified Darcy, whose expression showed that he knew exactly what the ladies were discussing. Henry grinned; Darcy's punishment was complete. Bravo, Elizabeth. He turned his attentions back to Maria, and ended the two dances with an elegant bow that made her blush profusely and anchor her gaze permanently to the floor.
The rest of the assembly passed in a similar manner. Henry danced with as many ladies as possible and was pronounced charming by everyone; Bingley could in propriety dance no more with Jane Bennet, but seemed to spend a great deal of time by her side nonetheless; and Darcy stood haughtily to one side of the room, refusing to dance or to talk with anyone outside his party, disgusting both the populace of Meryton and his old friend Tilney with his prideful behaviour.
Henry danced once again with Elizabeth Bennet, and spent some time talking to her; more than one mamma turned a significant glance in Mrs. Bennet's direction, but she hastened to tell them that Mr. Tilney was engaged and that his attentions to Lizzy were merely polite. Mrs. Bennet was not at all put out by Henry's ineligibility. She generally disapproved of satirical young men, although she had married one herself, and considered such a trait especially unattractive in a clergyman.
Henry and Elizabeth parted with a strong inclination on both sides to continue the acquaintance. Elizabeth liked Mr. Tilney a great deal, but did not fancy herself in love with him, especially after he informed her of his engagement; indeed, she had felt upon their introduction that his heart had already been claimed, although she could not say how she came by that knowledge. Henry found Elizabeth to be a lovely young woman, with an intelligence and playfulness that reminded him of his sister. Although he wished to know her better, he knew instinctively that she would never usurp Catherine's place in his heart. Henry Tilney had learned from his sister the value of the companionship of women, and he looked forward with much pleasure to future meetings with Elizabeth Bennet.
The Netherfield party gathered in the drawing room, where a footman helped the ladies to tea. Bingley poured sherry for the gentlemen, except Mr. Hurst, who had spent the evening consuming glass after glass of wine and was sprawled on a sofa, snoring gently. Miss Bingley divided her time between abusing the Meryton natives who had attended the ball and soliciting Mr. Darcy's approval of her cruel jibes. To Henry's dismay, Darcy did not seem disinclined to agree with her. Had Darcy changed so much in the year since they had last been together? Henry felt as though he hardly knew his friend.
"And so none of the Hertfordshire ladies could please you, Mr. Darcy? Not even the famous Miss Bennets?" asked Miss Bingley in an arch tone that annoyed Henry greatly. You would not know beauty if it marched in front of you wearing a sign, dear Caroline.
Bingley still wore a grin remarkably similar to that which he had worn whilst in the presence of the eldest Miss Bennet. "Well, I never met with pleasanter people or prettier girls in my life!"
Darcy stared at him. "Bingley, you astonish me. I saw little beauty and no breeding at all." Bingley's face fell, and remorse prompted Darcy to add, "The eldest Miss Bennet is, I grant you, very pretty."
Bingley smiled again. "A fine concession! Come, man, admit it! She is an angel!"
"She smiles too much," Darcy muttered.
Is such a thing possible? thought Henry in amusement.
Miss Bingley chimed in. "Oh, Jane Bennet is a sweet girl. But the mother!"
Bingley sighed, and Darcy rolled his eyes.
Miss Bingley turned her piercing gaze upon Henry. She considered a moment, then smiled unpleasantly and said, "I heard Eliza Bennet described as a famous local beauty. What do you say to that, Mr. Darcy?"
"I should as soon call her mother a wit."
Henry turned away from Darcy in dismay, while Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst burst into laughter. "Oh, Mr. Darcy, that's too cruel!" cried Miss Bingley. "What say you, Mr. Tilney? How do the ladies of Meryton compare with parson's daughters from Wiltshire?"
"The two sets of ladies are equal in my eyes," said Henry mildly. "They are unspoiled and charming, without the pretensions and false sophistication that disgust so many of my sex." Henry's countenance remained neutral as he spoke, although he saw Darcy turn away to hide a sudden grin. Miss Bingley saw Darcy's expression, and her smile remained fixed, though it took on a forced aspect; her eyes narrowed, their intense gaze directed toward Henry. Henry smiled back at her, not at all disturbed. I know how to take up with your sort, madam. You do not disconcert me.
Bingley shared Henry's astonishment at Darcy's mocking response to his sister's question. "Darcy, I shall never understand why you go through the world determined to be displeased with everything and everyone in it."
"And I will never understand why you are in such a rage to approve of everything and everyone that you meet."
"Well, you shall not make me think ill of Miss Bennet, Darcy," said Bingley resolutely, and carried his sherry to the other side of the room.
Miss Bingley attempted to wrench Darcy's attention back upon herself. "Indeed, he shall not. I shall dare his disapproval and declare she is a dear, sweet girl, despite her unfortunate relations, and I should not be sorry to know her better."
"No, no, nor I. You see, Mr. Darcy, we are not afraid of you," said Mrs. Hurst.
"I would not have you so," responded Darcy politely. Henry was at a loss to account for Darcy's conduct that evening, so he sipped his sherry in silence, inspecting one of the ancient portraits that hung about the large room.
Just then Mr. Hurst roused and half-shouted to no one in particular, "Wha? Yah, very true. D----d tedious waste of an evening." His wife had the good grace to look embarrassed.
After a few more overtures to Darcy, which he ignored, Miss Bingley finally retired. Bingley and the Hursts trailed her up the wide stairway, and Darcy and Henry were left alone.
"More sherry, Tilney?" Darcy refilled his glass.
"No, Darcy, I thank you," said Henry, still staring at the portrait, which was of a remarkably unattractive child and a small, dirty-looking dog.
"You are dull this evening, sir. It seemed that you had an enjoyable time at the assembly, but perhaps my impression was mistaken."
"On the contrary. I enjoyed myself a great deal."
Darcy studied the younger man. "Usually after a dance you are more lively, Tilney. Are you well?"
"I am quite well, I thank you." Henry was silent for a moment, then abruptly turned to Darcy and said, "What are your intentions toward Miss Bingley?"
Darcy was startled. "My intentions? What do you mean?"
"Well, you encourage her arrogant behaviour with satirical remarks and you permit her excessive attentions. I can only conclude that you are in love with her."
"I am not in love with her, Tilney," Darcy protested. "But I cannot be uncivil to Bingley's sister."
"Why not? You were uncivil to an entire roomful of people this evening."
Darcy shook his head impatiently. "Why are you so concerned about people with whom you are barely acquainted?"
"I am acquainted with them now, and so would you be, had you not been so disagreeable." Henry paused and placed a hand on his friend's arm. "I never thought you to have improper pride, Darcy."
Darcy looked uncomfortable. "I have not the gift you do, Tilney, of recommending myself to strangers. I most certainly did not set out to be uncivil."
"I know that, of course, but the people at the assembly did not. Miss Elizabeth Bennet, for example. She is a delightful young lady, but you insulted her within her hearing."
Darcy raised his eyebrows. "You take an active interest in that lady's misfortunes. I hope you have not already forgotten Miss Morland?"
Henry's voice grew quiet, and he turned away. "I have not forgotten Catherine for a moment. What sort of brute do you think me?"
"Forgive me, Tilney," said Darcy in the same quiet tone. "You are quite right. I know you better than that. Come, we are both fatigued from this late evening, and we must rise early if we are to have sport. Let us retire and be comrades again in the morning."
His friend agreed, and they each took a candle and went to their respective bed-chambers. Henry lay wakeful for some time thinking of Catherine and the delight she would have shown in the evening's activities. Darcy, however, had no crises either of conscience or sensibility that served to murder sleep, and he slumbered deeply and peacefully, dreaming of Miss Elizabeth Bennet's impudent smile.
After a fortnight at Netherfield Park, Henry was obliged to return to Woodston. Parish business kept him busy and distracted for nearly a week, but the arrival of a tear-stained missive from Catherine restored him to lowness. Henry moped about the parsonage for several days until he received a note from Bingley, earnest even in its blots and missing words, pressing him to return to Hertfordshire. Henry was disinclined to accept the invitation, feeling that his curate, Mr. Taylor, had already shouldered more than his share.
Mr. Taylor was a married man of middle age, the former chaplain of General Tilney's regiment. An injury received in the line of duty rendered him unfit for further military service, and the General had granted him the curacy of Woodston, a situation ideally suited to a man of energetic temper and uncertain health. The salary was liberal, his duties were not onerous, and he was fond of the young rector, whose warm heart and easy manner endeared him to those of discerning sensibilities.
"Perhaps you should return to your friends," he said gently. "Hertfordshire did you a great deal of good. It is not beneficial to dwell on your unhappiness."
Henry turned a troubled face to his curate. "I like not burdening you with my obligations, sir. I know how your leg has been paining you of late."
"I am well able to take care of the parish for a few more weeks," said Mr. Taylor. "Your parishioners are not well served when the parson is so afflicted."
"I suppose you are right," sighed Henry. "I shall write to Bingley immediately."
Mr. Taylor nodded in satisfaction and turned his mind to finding a way to convince General Tilney to give his blessing to his son's marriage to Miss Morland. The curate had met Henry's fiancée when she visited Woodston, and had seen the pride and affection in Henry's eyes when he looked at her, and the obvious regard that Miss Morland had for Henry. Mr. Taylor also understood the General's temperament, so unlike his younger son's. Sometimes it was hard for Mr. Taylor to believe that they were of the same blood. However, it would be a Christian act to bring the Tilney family together once again, and he was determined to help however he could. The General still had a high regard for his former chaplain, and Mr. Taylor's influence could be invaluable.
A few days later, Henry had set off once again for Hertfordshire, his guns and trunk sent ahead with a servant and his Newfoundland puppy, Bear, sprawled across his master's booted feet in inimitable Newfoundland fashion, nose lifted to the wind. Henry found that, once he was underway, the road slipping at a rapid pace beneath the trotting feet of his matched team of bays, his spirits lifted considerably. He looked forward to seeing Bingley and Darcy again, and Bingley's neighbors with whom he had become friendly, especially Lizzy Bennet. For so Henry now thought of the second Bennet daughter; she was no longer Miss Bennet, not even Elizabeth. He still addressed her properly as Miss Bennet, of course, but in his mind, she had acquired the diminutive he had heard her family use.
Long practice and natural aptitude rendered Henry an excellent whip, and he had no taste for unnecessary show; thus it was not obligatory for him to pay a great deal of attention to his driving, and the sameness of the road before him allowed his thoughts to race ahead to Hertfordshire. His acquaintance with Elizabeth had increased during the fortnight he had spent there. Nearly every night there was a gathering at one of the great houses in the neighbourhood, to which Bingley and his guests had often been invited. Henry remembered one evening in particular at Lucas Lodge. He had joined Elizabeth, who was whispering, as usual, with Charlotte Lucas. Both ladies seemed happy enough to admit a third to their tête-à-tête.
"Speak no secrets, Mr. Tilney," laughed Elizabeth. "Your friend Mr. Darcy is very impertinent. He has been listening to my conversations all this evening. What can he be about, sir?"
"I have long ago given up attempting to understand Darcy's mind," said Henry. He glanced around at his friend, who was staring at their grouping, a crease between his eyebrows.
"But if he does it any more, I shall certainly let him know that I see what he is about. He has a very satirical eye, and if I do not begin by being impertinent myself, I shall soon grow afraid of him."
"Bravo, Miss Bennet. A set down should do Darcy no harm, and may even do him some good." Although he continued to tease Darcy about Miss Bingley, Henry still feared that his friend was being unduly influenced by that lady's superior pretensions.
Darcy approached them soon afterwards, though without seeming to have any intention of speaking. Charlotte looked at Elizabeth with a smile. "Eliza, here is your opportunity to question Mr. Darcy on his conduct this evening."
Elizabeth immediately turned to Darcy and said, "Did not you think, Mr. Darcy, that I expressed myself uncommonly well just now, when I was teasing Colonel Forster to give us a ball at Meryton?"
"With great energy; but it is a subject which always makes a lady energetic."
"You are severe on us."
"Indeed, Darcy," laughed Henry. "Miss Bennet and Miss Lucas will find it difficult to believe, but I have known a time when you enjoyed a ball as much as any young lady." Darcy merely smiled.
"It will be her turn soon to be teased," said Miss Lucas. "I am going to open the instrument, Eliza, and you know what follows."
"You are a very strange creature by way of a friend! Always wanting me to play and sing before anybody and everybody! If my vanity had taken a musical turn, you would have been invaluable, but as it is, I would really rather not sit down before those who must be in the habit of hearing the very best performers."
"But rarely do we have the opportunity to hear an artist of such loveliness," cried Henry gallantly. "Do perform for us, Miss Bennet, and give us a treat for the eye as well as the ear."
Elizabeth, who by that time had been long enough acquainted with Henry to understand the exact worth of his nonsensical compliments, laughed heartily and said, "I should not wish to overpower your senses, Mr. Tilney. I had better stay here by the fire and allow the other ladies to take my place."
On Miss Lucas's persevering, however, she added, "Very well; if it must be so, it must." And gravely glancing at Mr. Darcy, who had remained silent during her banter with Henry, "There is a fine old saying, which everybody here is of course familiar with -- 'Keep your breath to cool your porridge;' and I shall keep mine to swell my song."
Despite Henry's teasing, both he and Mr. Darcy enjoyed Elizabeth's performance a great deal, as did many of the others gathered in the Lucas' drawing-room. Henry was loud in his praise, while Darcy kept his opinion to himself; Henry, misunderstanding his friend's silence, was pained to think that Darcy's tastes had grown so nice as to condemn a presentation such as Elizabeth's. Her performance was pleasing, though by no means capital, although she had an easy and unaffected manner that gave her listeners more pleasure than did Miss Mary Bennet, who took her sister's place at the pianoforte. Mary, at the end of a long concerto, was glad to purchase praise and gratitude by Scotch and Irish airs, at the request of her younger sisters, who, with some of the Lucases and two or three officers, joined eagerly in dancing at one end of the room.
"I suppose we shall have no more conversation this evening," muttered Darcy. Henry raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.
Sir William Lucas approached the gentlemen and said. "What a charming amusement for young people this is! There is nothing like dancing after all. I consider it as one of the first refinements of polished societies."
Darcy gave him a withering gaze. "Certainly, sir; and it has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world. Every savage can dance."
"Then you should be a true proficient, Darcy," said Henry under his breath.
Darcy looked at him sharply, and Sir William only smiled. "Your friend performs delightfully," he continued after a pause, on seeing Bingley join the group with the eldest Miss Bennet; "and I doubt not that you are an adept in the science yourself, Mr. Darcy."
"You saw me dance at Meryton, I believe, sir."
"Yes, indeed, and received no inconsiderable pleasure from the sight. Do you often dance at St. James's?"
"Do you not think it would be a proper compliment to the place?"
"It is a compliment which I never pay to any place, if I can avoid it."
"I can attest to that fact, Sir William," added Henry. "Darcy is equally misanthropic whether gracing high places or low." Both gentlemen ignored him.
"You have a house in town, I conclude?"
Mr. Darcy bowed.
"I had once some thoughts of fixing in town myself, for I am fond of superior society; but I did not feel quite certain that the air of London would agree with Lady Lucas."
Henry was very much amused. The Netherfield ladies had received as much intelligence about Sir William's fortune as the Longbourn and Meryton ladies had received about the Netherfield gentlemen's, and he knew that Sir William had abandoned the trade that had brought about his knighthood and likely could not afford a house in town. This little deception was understood by Darcy as well, but his tolerance for it was a great deal less than his friend's.
At that moment Elizabeth, who had been standing with Charlotte a short distance away, began to move toward them. Sir William, struck with the notion of doing a very gallant thing, called out to her, "My dear Miss Eliza, why are not you dancing? Mr. Darcy, you must allow me to present this young lady to you as a very desirable partner. You cannot refuse to dance, I am sure, when so much beauty is before you.'' And taking her hand, he would have given it to Mr. Darcy, who, though extremely surprised, was not unwilling to receive it, when she instantly drew back, and said with some discomposure to Sir William,
"Indeed, sir, I have not the least intention of dancing. I entreat you not to suppose that I moved this way in order to beg for a partner."
Lizzy must still be angry about the incident at the Meryton assembly, reflected Henry. One could hardly blame her.
Darcy said with grave propriety, "I would be very happy if you would do me the honour of dancing with me, Miss Bennet."
"I thank you; but excuse me, I am not inclined to dance."
Sir William heartily rejoined Elizabeth, "Come, come, why not? You excel so much in the dance, Miss Eliza, that it is cruel to deny me the happiness of seeing you; and though this gentleman dislikes the amusement in general, he can have no objection, I am sure, to oblige us for one half hour."
"Mr. Darcy is all politeness," said Elizabeth, smiling.
"He is indeed -- but considering the inducement, my dear Miss Eliza, we cannot wonder at his complaisance; for who would object to such a partner?"
Elizabeth looked archly, politely took her leave, and turned away. Henry blushed for his friend, remembering how Darcy had indeed objected to such a partner in the fairly recent past.
Miss Bingley approached Darcy and began a whispered consultation, involving much low laughter on the lady's part. Henry watched them with some apprehension. Although Darcy's countenance showed no symptoms of regard for Miss Bingley--indeed, his eyes were fixed on Elizabeth Bennet for some unfathomable reason--in Henry's view, Darcy's prideful conduct since their arrival in Hertfordshire could only be attributed to Caroline's influence.
Finally he turned to Charlotte. "Would you care to join me in a dance, Miss Lucas?" he asked her with his most charming smile. "Your friend has stated her intention to sit out this evening, and I find myself without a partner and very much desirous of a dance."
Miss Lucas smiled back at Henry, and it occurred to him that she was very nearly pretty when she did so. "I thank you, sir, I would be delighted to be your partner."
Henry promptly held out his arm, and they joined the other dancers, who were delighted to have their numbers increased. Miss Mary continued to play jigs until, exhausted and laughing, they gave her leave to stop. The carriages began to be called shortly afterward, and the room emptied as the revelers gradually dispersed to their own homes.
"Thank you for inviting me to Lucas Lodge, Sir William," said Henry to his host, bowing low. "This evening has been most enjoyable."
"Capital, capital," said Sir William genially. "You are always welcome, Mr. Tilney."
"Yes, indeed," his daughter added. "We rarely have such congenial company, sir. Do call on us again."
Henry smiled down at Charlotte, who was fairly glowing with the exercise of the dance. "Thank you, Miss Lucas. I would be delighted to return if it were in my power to do so, but unfortunately I must return to Woodston tomorrow."
Miss Lucas' smile faltered and she looked away. "I am indeed sorry for our sakes, Mr. Tilney, but we cannot expect to keep you away from your parish permanently," she said quietly. "Please accept my wishes for a safe and pleasant journey."
"Thank you, ma'am," he said politely, bowed again, and went out to Bingley's chaise. Charlotte's eyes followed him, and if her goodbyes to the remaining guests had a distracted quality, no one remarked upon it.
There was a soft knock at the bed-chamber door. Henry, who was lying in bed reading the latest work by Mrs. Radcliffe, which he knew Catherine was also reading, looked up and called, "Come in."
The door opened and Darcy entered, his countenance grim. "I did not plan to make any comment upon your conduct this evening, Tilney," he said. "But I find myself unable to sleep. Your unkind remarks continue to play in my mind." He seated himself deliberately in a chair by the fireplace.
"My conduct?" cried Henry. "That is rich, coming from you, sir! You were deliberately rude to our host!"
"Sir William?" scoffed Darcy. "That foolish old man!"
"That foolish old man invited us to his home," Henry reminded him gently. "He deserved at least the outward signs of respect from his guests."
Darcy's dark eyes flashed. "Fine words from a man who does not even display outward signs of respect for his own friends!"
"I do, when they are deserving of them."
"That is unlike you, Tilney," said Darcy. "I know you are distressed over your engagement, but there is no need to punish your friends for your father's conduct."
"If I am punishing you, Darcy, it is for your conduct alone. I have never known you to behave thus! Has Miss Bingley's influence been so great? I am disappointed, sir. I thought you to have more resistance to a handsome woman's wiles. Or is it her twenty thousand pounds you find so attractive?"
"If I wish to pay court to a young lady, I am free to do so. However, you are an engaged man, you profess yourself broken-hearted over Miss Morland's absence, and yet you dance and flirt with Miss Elizabeth Bennet as if you were free."
Henry sighed. "For the thousandth time, Darcy, I am not paying court to Miss Bennet. I enjoy her company, certainly, as I enjoy my sister's company. There is nothing more between us. My heart belongs to Catherine, and it always will."
Darcy stood abruptly. "I see that you are in no state to engage in a civilized discussion. I hope that your journey back to Gloucestershire is pleasant." He bowed stiffly and left Henry in a rather inelegant state of open-mouthed amazement.
He put down the book, no longer able to concentrate on mysterious rooms and cries in the night. Darcy's statements puzzled Henry greatly; he thought he had long ago taken his friend's likeness, but Darcy's behaviour since they had arrived at Netherfield was inexplicable.
The incident had provided a sad ending for Henry's sojourn at Netherfield Park; he had left for Woodston the next day with enmity still extant between him and Darcy. However, distance could not help but temper Henry's anger as well as recall to his mind the many kind actions that his friend had performed for him over the years, from rescuing Henry from a bully's intimidation to expressing genuine sympathy over Henry's delayed marriage. My own behaviour has been no better than Darcy's, he had to admit to himself. I have been unforgivably rude to my oldest friend. I must make more of an effort to comprehend his conduct. Perhaps there is an explanation. Henry smiled broadly. Perhaps Darcy is in love! He shouted to the horses and cracked the whip over their backs, the many capes of his greatcoat flying as he raced the wind back to Hertfordshire.