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Posted on Thursday, 13 July 2006
There was but one topic of conversation in the Meryton assembly hall, and it was the singular subject on which most personages in attendance had little or no actual knowledge. Speculation regarding one Mr. Bingley, who had recently taken occupancy of Netherfield Hall, had run rampant since his arrival in the neighborhood. To date, he had been called upon by a few of Meryton’s prominent gentlemen and returned the courtesy, but the ladies of the town were left to lament that the husbands in question remained incapable or unwilling to oblige their thirst for details regarding Mr. Bingley’s family, fortune, bearing, or – most vexingly – appearance. Thus, the general feeling in the ballroom was one of great anticipation, as the gentleman himself had promised to attend the evening’s festivities and thereby generously indulge all Meryton’s desire to see and judge him for themselves.
Mr. Bennet, country gentleman and father to five unmarried daughters, four pretty to varying degrees and one quite plain, and husband to a wife determined to marry them off with dispatch, anticipated this evening no less than the ladies of his estate, for it promised an end to their relentless interrogation. He knew not what ladies supposed gentlemen to discuss during calls of neighborly courtesy, but from the constant inquiries of his wife and daughters over recent days, he could only conclude that they imagined a far more intimate interview than a brief discussion of local game and crops. How he should have ascertained the gentleman’s attitudes toward marriage, his habits of personal expenditure, or the accomplishments of his sisters – or indeed, even how many ladies they numbered – Mr. Bennet was at a loss to explain. So happy was he that his wife and daughters should at last have their own opportunity to spy upon Mr. Bingley, he had been quite content to stay at home for the evening and enjoy a few hours’ peace in his library. It was no sacrifice to miss the evening’s events, when he was certain to suffer the reenactment in days to come.
Miss Elizabeth Bennet, the second eldest of Mr. Bennet’s progeny and not the plain one, greeted her friend Miss Charlotte Lucas with a playful curtsy and knowing glance. The two young ladies laughed at the fever of gossip plaguing the assembly – not because the addition of an eligible young gentleman to the neighborhood interested them less than anyone else, but because they possessed the antidote of first-hand information.
Mr. Bingley had called on Charlotte’s father, Sir William Lucas, only a day earlier, when Charlotte had the good fortune to be at home and make his acquaintance. She was therefore able to tell her friend with certainty that Mr. Bingley had not five sisters, as was the rumor of the moment, but only two – one married and one not. Both were presently in residence with him at Netherfield, as well as Mr. Bingley’s brother-in-law, a Mr. Hurst. Another friend of Mr. Bingley completed their party, but of this gentleman Charlotte knew little. She could confirm, however, that Mr. Bingley’s income was close to 5,000 per annum, and while his fashionable dress displayed his wealth, his pleasant manners marked him apart from the strutting peacock of Elizabeth’s conjecture.
So affable was Mr. Bingley that he had not only expressed his anticipation for tonight’s assembly, but had reserved Charlotte’s hand for the first two dances. Thus, the entire room awaited Mr. Bingley’s party with increasing impatience, as only their arrival would signal the beginning of the evening’s principal entertainment, and, shortly thereafter, the dancing.
The moment of Mr. Bingley’s entrance was announced by a general hush, as the gentleman’s name died on the lips of those in attendance a brief moment before it was loudly pronounced by Sir William in welcome.
"Mr. Bingley!" Sir William attempted the deep and stately bow he normally reserved for presentation at court, but the effort suffered a bit in the execution, presumably from want of practice. "How good of you to join us for the evening’s amusement. Capital! You and your friends are welcome, indeed, sir!"
Mr. Bingley and his companions returned polite, if rather less voluble, greetings, and all eyes were on the party as they made their way into the hall. Mr. Bingley, in the center, bore the general scrutiny well, his broad smile revealing a predetermination to be pleased with the event and available company. He was flanked by his sisters. Elizabeth presumed the one on his arm to be Miss Bingley. The other lady, a great deal shorter than both her siblings, was well-matched with a squat gentleman whom Elizabeth determined to be Mr. Hurst. Both ladies were fashionably dressed and appeared smugly satisfied with their initial survey of the assembly, as it presented no one whose bearing or attire could compete with their own for elegance.
The third gentleman stood a bit apart from the rest of the party. He was tall and fine-featured, although his expression was quite inscrutable in its controlled composure. Elizabeth could not rid herself of the feeling that this gentleman was familiar to her, although she could not imagine in what circumstance they might have become acquainted. As he walked past, their glances met for a brief moment, and Elizabeth fancied she saw a glimmer of recognition in his eyes, as well. The instant was over and the gentleman some distance away before she felt a tugging at her elbow that jarred her from her reverie and reminded her to draw breath.
"Is he not quite handsome?" asked Charlotte.
"I daresay he is," Elizabeth replied, a moment before realizing that Charlotte most likely referred to Mr. Bingley and not his mysterious friend.
The musicians seemed to recall the occupation for which they had been hired and struck up a bit of light accompaniment as a prelude to the dances. The cover of music provided the crowd an opportunity to resume its nattering, ladies remembered to smile, and the event began once again to resemble a lively assembly rather than Sunday service. When the first chords of the minuet sounded, Mr. Bingley arrived to claim Charlotte’s hand. Elizabeth was engaged by a Mr. Greene, the amiable eldest son of the local physician and her one-time compatriot in all manner of childhood mischief, and the two went down the dance with spirited conversation and much laughter.
No sooner had Elizabeth curtsied to Mr. Greene in completion of the set than her youngest sister, Lydia, was dragging her off to join their mother and sisters, where Sir William stood poised to introduce Mr. Bingley.
"Mr. Bingley, may I introduce you to Mrs. Bennet."
Mr. Bingley made a gallant bow. "It is indeed a pleasure to make your acquaintance, madam. I believe I have had the honor of meeting Mr. Bennet previously."
"How good of you to remember, sir," Mrs. Bennet said with a curtsy. "And these are my daughters." She introduced them all in turn, beginning with Jane, the eldest and the beauty of the family, and proceeding to Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia in turn. Each girl murmured polite greetings and curtsied demurely. Mr. Bingley flashed broad smiles at all before settling his gaze on Jane.
"I am delighted to make your acquaintance." Jane blushed in the warmth of his clear admiration, and no one in the group was the least bit surprised when Mr. Bingley applied for her hand in the next set and was graciously accepted. He led her off to join the dance just starting, and Elizabeth took delight in noting the envious stares that followed the handsome pair from every corner of the hall.
Sir William, well satisfied with the results of this exchange, looked about for another matchmaking challenge and addressed Mr. Bingley’s quiet friend, who had witnessed the interchange from a distance of a few paces.
"Mr. Darcy, allow me to introduce you to one of our finest families." Mr. Darcy’s dismay at this appeal was unmistakable, but whether it could be accounted to the imposition upon his solitude or a sort of alarm at learning the ladies before him constituted Meryton’s finest, Elizabeth could not determine. Her mind was otherwise occupied, for she was certain she had heard that name before but could not recall the circumstance.
"Mr. Darcy of Pemberley in Derbyshire, allow me to present Mrs. Bennet of Longbourn, and her daughters."
Elizabeth could not retrieve the gasp of "Pemberley!" that escaped her lips, and she curtsied deeply in an attempt to hide both her blunder and her resulting blush. Unfortunately, even had Mr. Darcy himself been inclined to overlook her exclamation, Sir William was determined to pursue the topic.
"Miss Eliza, I had quite forgotten! You have recently traveled to Derbyshire yourself. Did you have the opportunity to view Mr. Darcy’s estate there?"
Elizabeth sighed and met Mr. Darcy’s cold stare, which seemed to juxtapose curiosity and disdain in equal portions. "Yes, sir, I did visit Pemberley. My aunt and uncle were kind enough to include me in their tour of the Peak District this summer past."
"And how did you find Pemberley?" Elizabeth thought she detected a small degree of warmth infiltrating Mr. Darcy’s otherwise frosty manner. It was now clear to her why she had thought his face familiar; the portrait hanging in his family gallery was a very true likeness, indeed.
"It was quite lovely, sir." In truth, Elizabeth remembered that grand residence as the highlight of her travels. Its natural splendor and simple elegance now represented to her the epitome of a beautiful estate. There seemed no advantage, however, in making feeble attempts to articulate her impressions. Mr. Darcy was no doubt accustomed to hearing Pemberley praised generously and disingenuously, and Elizabeth’s opinion could add nothing to his own appraisal of his home. Understatement seemed the better part of flattery in this situation, but Mrs. Bennet was never one for subtlety.
"Oh, Lizzy, you are too droll!" Her mother seized with delight upon this opportunity to further conversation between yet another of her daughters and an unmarried gentleman of consequence. "Everyone knows how enraptured you were with Pemberley, of all places! Did you not judge it to be the most beautiful of all the palaces and fine estates in the district? Why, Mr. Darcy, we heard of nothing but Derbyshire for days after her return, so delighted was she with the place!"
Elizabeth looked about in vain for a distraction to end her mother’s effusion. She could not remember an assembly where Aunt Philips or Lady Lucas, or both, were not permanently affixed to her mother’s company – yet where were they this evening? Her own discomfort at Mrs. Bennet’s fulsome adulation was mirrored on Mr. Darcy’s pale mien, and the giggles of Kitty and Lydia only heightened the humiliation.
"Mama, please," she attempted in vain. "I am sure Mr. Darcy is well acquainted with the fine attributes of his own estate."
"What was it you said then, Lizzy?" her mother asked, oblivious to her daughter’s increasing discomfort. "That you should be perfectly happy to spend all your days in Derbyshire. Oh, but the highest of your compliments you always reserved for Pemberley! I distinctly recall hearing you say, child, that to be mistress of Pemberley – that would be something!"
"Excuse me." Mr. Darcy nodded curtly and turned on his heel to seek out the members of his own party. Elizabeth thought her mortification was complete, but Mrs. Bennet proved otherwise by loudly decrying Mr. Darcy’s abrupt retreat.
"Well, girls! If that is not the most ill-mannered gentleman I have ever met!" She pronounced her censure for all the room to hear, and Elizabeth forcefully swiveled her mother to face the opposite direction.
"Mama," she whispered, "Can you not see that your comments embarrassed Mr. Darcy?"
"Embarrassed?" Mrs. Bennet continued in her raised voice. "Why ever should he be embarrassed by compliments on his fine estate? He should count himself fortunate, to be destined to suffer flattery everywhere he goes! I know that I should not mind such a burden!"
Elizabeth deposited her mother on a settee in the farthest corner of the hall and left her in Mary’s keeping, determined to search out Charlotte immediately. If she could not make her mother see reason, she at least must laugh at her expense, and quickly, else her pride might never recover. To be thrown at Mr. Darcy as a would-be mistress of his estate – a suggestion he could only receive as completely absurd – within a minute of their introduction! The only consolation was the knowledge that fortune was against their ever meeting again, moving as they did in social circles so thinly overlapped.
So preoccupied was Elizabeth with spying Charlotte’s yellow gown in the crowd, she failed to notice the wearer of a well-tailored dark-blue coat until she had nearly stumbled into him. Fortunately, she caught herself just in time to avoid a collision, and the tall gentleman whose back she now confronted so intimately was engaged in conversation and did not notice. Her relief was temporary, however, for the gentleman’s conversation partner soon revealed him to be the last man in the room she would wish to encounter.
"Come, Darcy. I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about in this stupid manner." Mr. Bingley’s jovial tone was unmistakable, as was the somber timbre emanating from the figure mere inches before her.
"I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner." Elizabeth inched backward slowly, anxious to increase the distance between herself and Mr. Darcy, but sufficiently interested in the gentlemen’s converse to remain within earshot. A girl of Lydia’s age and evidently of similar temperament jostled her in an impatient attempt to pass, and Elizabeth lost the thread of their conversation for some moments. She attuned her ears to Mr. Darcy’s voice in time to make him out as saying, "You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room."
He could only speak of Jane, of course, and Elizabeth was gladdened to hear her sister admired by not one, but two such gentlemen, and further delighted to hear Mr. Bingley’s response: "Oh! She is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld!" Elizabeth moved slightly to the side to obtain a view of Mr. Bingley’s face, and the honest admiration she read in his countenance thrilled her, for Jane’s sake. She had not thought, however, that by taking Mr. Bingley in her own line of sight she would necessarily be placing herself in his, and the gentleman’s next comment replaced all pleasure with alarm.
"There is one of her sisters just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say very agreeable."
"Which do you mean?" Mr. Darcy inquired, turning around and catching Elizabeth’s stunned glance immediately. His eyes widened as he drew breath to speak, and Elizabeth, in a moment of what she would later identify as genuine panic, withdrew her gaze and fled the spot immediately.
She was engaged for the next set and thereafter detained by Kitty and Maria Lucas, who were energetically dispersing the news that a regiment of the militia was soon to settle in Meryton. Thus she managed to avoid Mr. Bingley and his party completely for the better part of the next hour, although she did notice Jane in conversation with Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst across the room. She began to relax a bit in her surroundings – a true mistake, as she made the unfortunate slip of entering the vicinity of Sir William and Mr. Darcy just as the first gentleman was searching his rather limited imagination for a topic of conversation that might engage the second.
"What a charming amusement for young people this is, Mr. Darcy! There is nothing like dancing after all. My dear Miss Eliza, why are you not 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."
Elizabeth’s cheeks burned afresh as she suffered the grave stare of Mr. Darcy yet again. "Indeed, sir, I do not intend to dance any more this evening. I find myself quite fatigued. I entreat you not to suppose that I moved this way to beg for a partner." She entreated Sir William with her speech, but Mr. Darcy with her eyes, hoping he would somehow understand that despite all appearances to the contrary, she held no more interest in dancing with him than he with her.
Sir William, as ever, was not to be swayed by such slight insinuation. "Surely, Miss Eliza, a lively young lady such as yourself cannot be fatigued so early in the evening! You excel so much in the dance, that it is cruel to deny me the happiness of seeing you; and I would wager that Mr. Darcy is quite adept in the science himself, as it is one of the first refinements of polished society."
Mr. Darcy once again fixed Elizabeth with an intense gaze and spoke in a tone that was as impersonal as it was proper. "Of course. Miss Bennet, would you do me the honor?"
Elizabeth had no wish to offend him, but neither did she wish to impose upon his clear reluctance or suffer his scrutiny for a full half-hour. She pressed her lips together and inhaled deeply before addressing Sir William.
"Sir, surely Mr. Darcy would agree that polished society holds no monopoly on dancing. Even a child can dance. We need not impose upon Mr. Darcy to prove his refinement by engaging in such a pursuit, and for my part, I am not inclined to dance further this evening. Dancing or no, I fear Meryton society does not polish to its finest luster on this occasion." She boldly cast an apologetic smile in Mr. Darcy’s direction, curtsied with a lighter spirit than she felt, and sought a quiet corner to be alone with her humiliation.
With this exchange, Elizabeth’s amusement for the evening was at an end. Having refused Mr. Darcy’s offer, she was now obliged to feign indisposition and dance with no one for the remainder of the assembly. And thus deprived of dancing, she had no means by which to prevent her mind from revisiting every detail of their interactions. It was a history as utterly mortifying as it was brief. Her mother, Sir William, even his own friend – Mr. Darcy must feel himself the subject of a great conspiracy to throw her into his path. What he must now think of her, after her rather ungracious deferral of his courtesy, she shuddered to imagine.
Her embarrassment was not sufficient however, to keep Elizabeth from surreptitiously tracking Mr. Darcy through the hall. He spent the evening in similar solitude, only occasionally speaking to one of his own party and thereby engendering much ill will among the good people of Meryton. The general impression his behavior created was that of a gentleman too arrogant to associate with country folk; but Elizabeth imagined that the proud set of his jaw belied the unease with which he shifted his feet. Surely he could not avoid overhearing the presumptive remarks about his fortune and character now bandied about the crowd, and she surmised that his silence displayed nothing so much as a reluctance to fuel further speculation.
Elizabeth recalled the remarks of his housekeeper at Pemberley, a generous woman who held only the truest approbation of her master’s character. Some people call him proud, she had owned, but I am sure I never saw anything of it. To my fancy, it is only because he does not rattle away like other young men. One could certainly never accuse Mr. Darcy of ‘rattling away,’ Elizabeth considered with amusement. If he spoke more than ten words for the remainder of the evening, she did not notice it; and rarely did her eyes leave his tall, noble figure. She was reminded of the housekeeper’s excellent opinion once again – I am sure I know none so handsome. On more than one occasion, she discovered his solemn gaze locking with hers across the room, and she diverted her eyes quickly to study the ceiling or the seam of her glove.
Little could Elizabeth have known that her reluctance to dance had not injured her in his estimation. To the contrary, Mr. Darcy passed a great deal of the evening meditating on the pleasure of being followed by a pair of fine eyes, especially those so happily situated within a pretty face and enlivened by intelligence. He found it all too easy to imagine spending many pleasant evenings not dancing with Miss Elizabeth Bennet.
Elizabeth smoothed a stray lock of hair from her sleeping sister’s face. Jane’s complexion, normally as fair and even as her temperament, was mottled with fever; her cheek distressingly warm to the touch. Elizabeth was loath to leave her sister’s bedside, but she knew she could not excuse herself from all social obligation to her hosts. Someone must make a reputable showing on behalf of the Bennet family, and as its singular example of genteel breeding lay abed with fever, the duty fell to Elizabeth.
She sighed wearily as she descended the grand staircase of Netherfield Hall, feeling her spirits sink lower with each step. No doubt she would one day find great amusement in the sequence of events which precipitated this evening. Jane arriving for dinner on horseback in a rainstorm, then taking ill just as the fish course was served; Elizabeth appearing on foot early the next morning, looking no less ill than her sister for having traipsed through muddy fields; Miss Bingley forced to offer not one, but two Bennet sisters hospitality for an undetermined duration. On some future occasion, in some other drawing room, it would make an entertaining tale with which to regale her friends. And she was certain that nothing would provoke greater laughter in the telling than a description of the expressions that greeted her upon her presentation in the breakfast room. She recalled the confused countenance of Mr. Bingley, divided between utter joy at housing Jane under his roof and genuine distress at the illness to which he owed this good fortune; the slack-jawed disdain of Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst, who unwittingly displayed a family legacy of poor dentition as they eyed her muddied hem; the lascivious leer of Mr. Hurst as he appraised a shapely leg … of mutton.
Even now, Elizabeth was tempted to laugh at the scene – until she recalled the foreboding expression on Mr. Darcy’s face. The disapproval and suspicion she had read in his countenance that morning now chastened her as she neared the drawing room. She resolved to speak only as propriety demanded, to politely decline whatever amusement might be offered, and to generally make herself as invisible as possible.
Elizabeth was therefore relieved to find the entire party engaged at the card table. Miss Bingley followed a bland inquiry on her sister’s condition with a cry of genuine dismay. The strength of the lady’s emotion quite surprised Elizabeth until she realized its basis to be the game of loo, rather than Jane’s health. Miss Bingley entreated her to join the group, but Elizabeth politely declined, declaring her intent to read. She walked to a small table that held a collection of books.
"Miss Bennet," called Mr. Bingley from the card table, "Allow me to offer you a wider selection from my library. I only wish the books there numbered more, for your benefit and to my credit. As few as I have, they are far more than I ever look into. Nonetheless, they are free for your perusal."
Elizabeth assured him that the books on the table before her would be sufficient for her needs and selected one at random, hoping to retreat behind its cover for the remainder of the evening. Unfortunately, the volume she had selected so carelessly was an agricultural treatise which served little to distract her from the continuing conversation.
"It is astonishing," Miss Bingley declared, "that our father left such a small collection of books. How fortunate you are, Mr. Darcy, to have such a delightful library at Pemberley!"
"It ought to be good," Mr. Darcy said. "It has been the work of many generations."
"What a shame, then, that Miss Eliza Bennet has cannot avail herself of its treasures this evening, as she is a great reader to the exclusion of all other amusement. I assure you, Miss Eliza, the grandeur of Pemberley’s library is unmatched anywhere in England. As are all the other features of that elegant estate."
Mr. Darcy saved Miss Bingley the trouble of enumerating Pemberley’s elegant features by interjecting, "Miss Bennet has seen Pemberley and its library for herself, and is likely to have formed her own opinion of it."
Miss Bingley looked at Elizabeth as though making her acquaintance for the first time. "Is it so, Miss Bennet? You have seen Pemberley?"
"Yes, briefly. I recently toured the Peak district with my aunt and uncle, and we visited many of Derbyshire’s fine estates." Elizabeth, noting Mr. Darcy’s studied indifference, hoped to close the topic to further conversation, but Miss Bingley persisted.
"Oh! Then you must share with us your impressions!"
"You will excuse me, Miss Bingley, but the observations of a tourist can be of small consequence in this room. I would not dare to place my own judgment alongside the perspective of one who has lodged there as a guest, much less of its proprietor."
The lady was undeterred. "Did you also visit Chatsworth? How did you find it in comparison? I am certain I have not seen Pemberley’s equal anywhere, for my own tastes. I have often advised Charles that he should secure property in the neighborhood to build his own home and take Pemberley as his example. The severity of Derbyshire’s landscape, of course, may present some challenge. But with the best architects and gardeners, any wild location may be tamed to present a delightful prospect, I am sure."
Elizabeth smiled at the idea of Miss Bingley attempting to smooth the Derbyshire countryside as though it were a rumpled coverlet. She thought she noticed the corner of Mr. Darcy’s mouth twitch slightly as well – whether in discomfort or enjoyment, she knew not.
"I will happily agree, Miss Bingley, that to approach Pemberley’s elegance through imitation would be a challenge indeed. For I am certain I have never seen a place for which nature has done more, or where natural beauty has been so little counteracted by awkward taste."
At this, Mr. Darcy’s expression was one of obvious amusement; a pleasure not at all in concert with his opponent’s having laid the winning card. Their game at an end, the players determined to break for coffee.
Feeling the danger of remaining in company so determined to draw her out, with nothing but a dry agricultural treatise to otherwise occupy her, Elizabeth asked Mr. Bingley if she might survey his library after all. She refused his kind offer to let Miss Bingley guide her there, claiming some familiarity with Netherfield from her acquaintance with the hall’s previous occupants.
Indeed, she located the library with little difficulty and went directly to examine its sparse collection. She sought an entertaining novel, or some well-loved poems – any text sufficiently interesting to engage her eyes and still her tongue. It was all too tempting, in the company of ladies like Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst, to allow prudence to trail some paces behind her wit. She was well aware that she and Jane’s installment at Netherfield held all the appearance of a brazen scheme to hold captive the attentions of wealthy gentlemen. The truth was none too far from the appearance, Elizabeth acknowledged ruefully. What she was powerless to alter in her mother’s shameless behavior she must counteract by closely governing her own conduct.
A noise from the direction of the doorway startled her, and Elizabeth turned to face Mr. Darcy as he entered the library with a slight bow.
"Forgive me for alarming you, Miss Bennet." He stopped a few paces from her and fixed her with a gaze of unsettling intensity. "But I realized that I had neglected to inquire earlier after your sister’s health. Pray, is she much improved?"
Elizabeth looked into the open hall behind him, anxious for how improper this encounter must appear to any passers-by. She neither saw nor heard anyone, however, and Mr. Darcy’s measured tone and countenance reflected only polite concern.
"I thank you, sir," she replied, at last remembering to curtsy. "She still suffers a fever, but is resting comfortably."
"I hope her illness will be of short duration. She is fortunate to have a devoted nurse in her sister. Certainly, your presence and care will speed her recovery."
"Thank you. We are indebted to Miss Bingley’s hospitality, but I also hope that my sister may soon recover sufficiently to allow us to return to Longbourn. The rest of our family will be equally eager to see her returned to health. Though Jane’s illness is not grave, no one who appreciates her gentle spirit can feel at peace while she suffers."
"Then your dedication is a credit to you both." Mr. Darcy bowed and turned to leave.
"Surely, you must understand the situation." Elizabeth regretted the words the instant they left her lips. She was left no choice but to explain them, however, when the gentleman halted and faced her with a quizzical expression.
"Forgive me, Mr. Darcy," she began haltingly, "I only meant – when we visited Pemberley this summer, your housekeeper informed us of Miss Darcy’s recent illness. May I be so bold, sir, as to return your kindness and inquire after your sister’s health?"
"I thank you for your concern, Miss Bennet. Her recovery is nearly complete, but she remains in London for the time. I do not wish her to travel until she is restored to full health."
Mr. Darcy’s countenance softened measurably as he spoke of his sister, and Elizabeth noted with appreciation how this warmth of brotherly affection enhanced his noble features. It seemed some ember of Promethean fire still smoldered beneath the stony visage of pride, she mused. Perhaps the inscrutable Mr. Darcy might prove human after all.
She was once again reminded of Pemberley, and the unstinting praise of his housekeeper as she deemed him the best of brothers. Whatever can give his sister any pleasure is sure to be done in a moment. There is nothing he would not do for her. Such devotion, when bolstered by the advantage of unlimited means, must make Miss Darcy a very contented young lady indeed.
"Do you find something to interest you, Miss Bennet?"
"In Mr. Bingley’s collection." He indicated the sparsely populated shelves. "You see my friend speaks truthfully when he admits to neglecting his family library."
"I have not yet had the opportunity to examine the titles closely," Elizabeth admitted. "But I am certain I shall find something perfectly adequate to my tastes."
"Then I shall leave you to your choice."
Elizabeth lingered in the library longer than she ought, finding relief in solitude and comfort in the company of old books. It mattered not that Mr. Bingley’s haphazard collection offered little intellectual appeal. She took pleasure in the simple act of turning heavy ivory pages and enjoyed the familiar feel of worn leather as it warmed in her palm. She embraced each friendly volume as a traveler abroad cleaves to any countryman. In the end, despairing of finding more scintillating fare, she selected a book of sermons in hopes it would serve as a reminder to curb her speech in Miss Bingley’s presence. Thus armed with admonition, she returned to the drawing room.
The party was once again assembled around the card table, and Elizabeth resumed her place on the sofa.
"And how does your sister fare, Mr. Darcy? Is she quite recovered from her illness?" Miss Bingley’s inquiry hung in the air for some moments.
"Thank you, she is well."
Elizabeth cringed, sorely regretting her earlier conversation with Mr. Darcy in the library. She had not considered the amount of insincere fawning he must routinely suffer on the subject, from persons far better qualified to make such inquiries than she. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair as Miss Bingley continued.
"Oh! I am glad of it, for I take such delight in Miss Darcy. What a disappointment it must have been for her, to take ill and miss traveling to Ramsgate this summer."
"Small disappointment, indeed, when compared to the untimely passing of her companion."
"Oh, yes – her companion," said Mrs. Hurst. "I would never have guessed her to be of such delicate constitution, to succumb so quickly. She always seemed rather coarse to me. What was her name? Mrs. Yorke? Mrs. Yount?"
"Mrs. Younge." Mr. Darcy rose from the table and went to pour himself a drink.
"What a tragedy, indeed, for Miss Darcy’s sake," Miss Bingley said. "Surely, she must have been desolate without her. You were fortunate, Mr. Darcy, to find a suitable replacement so quickly. I can only hope the poor dear finds comfort in her music. To be sure, I have never known any lady so naturally talented as Miss Darcy, or so accomplished at a young age."
Mr. Bingley gratefully seized this opportunity to turn the conversation from talk of illness and death. "Oh, yes, so very accomplished. I am continually amazed by ladies’ accomplishments. I have not met the lady who does not paint tables, or net purses, or engage in some equally clever pursuit."
"Surely, Charles, you cannot equate such trivial skills with true accomplishment." She applied to Mr. Darcy for support as he resumed his place at the table.
"Indeed," he said, "the term ‘accomplished’ is applied far too liberally. I cannot boast of knowing more than a half-dozen women that are really accomplished." He looked pointedly at Elizabeth, who immediately chastised herself for allowing her eye to stray from the page before her. She knew she ought to remain silent and return her attention to her book, but Mr. Darcy’s stare seemed designed to elicit a response.
"Then you must comprehend a great deal in the idea of an accomplished woman."
"Yes, I do." His purpose in continuing to hold her gaze was unfathomable, as was the meaning behind the slight, but deliberate nod of his head.
"Oh, certainly!" Miss Bingley cried. "No one can truly merit the distinction without a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages. And to all this, she must add a certain something in her manner of air and walking, and in her tone of voice, else the term will be but half-deserved."
"I wonder now at your knowing even a half-dozen such ladies! I am certain I have never met even one as you describe." If this impertinence could not deter Mr. Darcy’s continued attention, Elizabeth thought, the power to do so rested beyond the realm of her own accomplishment.
"Yet to all this, she must add something more substantial – the improvement of her mind by extensive reading." Mr. Darcy now made a more pronounced tilt of his head and focused his gaze toward the vicinity of her left elbow. Elizabeth followed his line of sight to the small table beside her. On it lay three books she had not noticed earlier – Rasselas by Samuel Johnson, Shakepeare’s As You Like It, and Blake’s Songs of Innocence. She took up the small volume of poetry and opened it gently to discover a bookplate inscribed "Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy" in an elegant hand.
Elizabeth looked up sharply, but the gentleman had already returned his attention to cards and could not receive any silent expression of gratitude she might have managed.
The measure of time Elizabeth deemed sufficient to satisfy courtesy passed quickly now, as her mind was happily engaged by a book and the card-players likewise absorbed in their game. She took her leave to attend Jane, quitting the room in higher spirits than she had entered it. She congratulated herself on ending the evening without damaging Mr. Bingley’s opinion of Jane and having, however improbably, elevated herself in Mr. Darcy’s esteem to some degree. She hoped that his generosity with his books implied a more generous opinion of her character. Perhaps he comprehended that her motives were not her mother’s and would not look upon her again with the same suspicion.
Elizabeth was halfway up the staircase when a draft reminded her she had forgotten her shawl. She ventured back toward the drawing room to retrieve it, but stopped just short of the doorway when she heard her own name mentioned in conversation.
"Eliza Bennet is one of those young ladies who seek to recommend themselves to the other sex by undervaluing their own." Miss Bingley’s unmistakable voice carried out into the hallway. "It is a very mean art, in my opinion."
Elizabeth laughed against the back of her hand. The loss of Miss Bingley’s friendship caused her no pain. The same could not be said, however, for Mr. Darcy’s reply:
"Undoubtedly. There is meanness in all the arts young ladies employ for captivation. Whatever bears an affinity to cunning is despicable."
As a dismayed Elizabeth braved the drafty staircase without the benefit of her shawl, Fitzwilliam Darcy felt the irony of his statement pricking his conscience. Had he not condescended to similar arts this evening, on two occasions? First, in soliciting a private conversation with Miss Bennet, and second, in contriving to place his personal property in her possession. While he felt such measures beneath his dignity, he found he could not regret their success. Of the three books he had placed upon the side table, only two remained. He imagined Miss Bennet clutching his book in her hand, gathering it close to her body, and carrying it to her chambers. It was as if a small piece of him now traveled with her, and he felt a curious mix of pleasure and trepidation at its surrender.
"I suspected I might find you here."
Once again, Mr. Darcy’s furtive entrance to Netherfield’s library took Elizabeth by surprise. Really, she thought, the gentleman ought to be made to wear a bell, so uncannily feline was his surefooted silence.
"Forgive me, Miss Bennet. I did not mean to startle you."
A rather disingenuous statement, Elizabeth judged. Mr. Darcy gave every appearance of enjoying her distress as she awkwardly rose to her feet, nearly tripping over her skirts in a mangled imitation of a curtsy. The unruffled authority of his own posture in contrast argued against his having recently entered the room. What did he mean by coming in all this state to frighten her, for the second time in as many days? Elizabeth was not accustomed to feeling so off-balance, but she had been on shaky footing with Mr. Darcy since the beginning of their acquaintance.
"I came to inform you that your mother and sisters have arrived. They have been shown to Miss Bennet’s chambers already."
An uncomfortable silence filled the space between them, and Elizabeth found herself studying the pattern of the carpet with undue concentration. She felt him waiting to see if she would further the conversation; no doubt some sort of test to provoke more evidence of her artful cunning. Though reluctant to satisfy his suspicions, Elizabeth could not ignore the small debt of gratitude she owed him. With any good fortune, she and Jane would quit this house today and leave behind any further opportunity to thank him properly.
She came to her decision just as he seemed to reach the limit of his patience, and her speech was therefore too rushed to admit any elegant affectation.
"I do thank you, Mr. Darcy -- for telling me of my mother’s arrival, of course, but also for your generosity in lending me your books. I hope you will not mind that I still have one in my chamber upstairs. I will be certain to return it to the drawing room before my sister and I leave Netherfield."
"Please, do not trouble yourself. It is yours for as long as you wish. Do you enjoy Blake’s poetry?"
"Very much, sir." Once more, Mr. Darcy seemed perfectly content to let silence continue a conversation in his stead. Elizabeth felt certain he awaited her misstep, so searching was his gaze, but impertinence seemed the only alternative to withering under his scrutiny. "It seems, however," she continued, "that the volume you lent me is missing its mate."
She was rewarded with an expression that seemed part smirk and part smile, but by this point any rearrangement of his stern countenance was a welcome reprieve. Elizabeth released her breath in a rather indecorous sigh of relief.
"Yes, I do have the companion in my possession. You speak of Songs of Experience, of course. Forgive me for not including it, but I did not think it an appropriate selection for well-bred young ladies."
"Then I may shock you, Mr. Darcy, when I own that I have already read it."
"Not at all."
Elizabeth bit her lip and felt her cheeks flush with color. Of course, no example of her ill breeding could possibly shock the immutable Mr. Darcy. Certainly he could not mistake an impertinent country gentleman’s daughter for one of the half-dozen ladies truly worthy of his acquaintance. She was sure she could not open her mouth without emitting a highly uncharitable reply, so she forced her lips into a tight smile and took her leave as silently as he had entered. If he was offended by her ill-mannered exit, at least he could not be shocked.
Nothing could give her more happiness than to leave Netherfield that very morning! She mounted the stairs at a fast clip, willing Jane to miraculous recovery with every resounding footfall. Once removed from this house – and from Mr. Darcy’s presence – she would assign the whole experience to the confines of malleable memory and devise an assault of witty rejoinders to shrink him, in all his imposing height and inflated pride, to the size of a bothersome flea.
It was with great consternation, then, that Elizabeth found herself seated across from a very life-sized Mr. Darcy at dinner that evening. Despite her reasoned arguments and desperate pleading, Mama would not hear of Jane being moved from Netherfield. For though she was improved, she was not yet truly recovered, and Mama expressed doubt that a week would be sufficient to restore her to full health. A full week at Netherfield! The very thought cooled Elizabeth’s soup.
She would have gladly suffered a month’s tenure in that house, however, if her mother had only held her tongue. Mrs. Bennet’s ridiculous declarations still clattered in Elizabeth’s ears like cheap cutlery. Not to mention the incessant whispering and plotting of her two youngest sisters; Lydia wheedling Mr. Bingley on his promise to host a ball while Kitty collapsed in girlish giggles. Yet they at least had the good fortune to return to Longbourn, while Jane remained oblivious to all upstairs. Only Elizabeth was forced to view the amused glances that passed between Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley and endure the disapproving glare of Mr. Darcy. Mr. Bingley, to his credit, concerned himself only with Jane and seemed unwilling to brook the slightest assault upon her character or family. Elizabeth hurried through her meal as quickly as possible and excused herself to attend Jane.
She rejoined the party in the drawing room some time later, fully intending to spend a perfunctory hour of quiet reading before retiring for the evening. Elizabeth was therefore dismayed to learn that music was to be the entertainment, at Mr. Darcy’s particular request. Miss Bingley enjoined her to lead the way and paused all of two seconds for Elizabeth’s demure deferral before sweeping past her to the pianoforte.
Elizabeth busied herself studying the sheet music atop the instrument while Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst forged their way through an impressive repertoire of Italian and German art songs. She could not help but notice how often Mr. Darcy’s eyes were fixed on her; the strength of his gaze unsettled her more than she cared to admit. Elizabeth was at a loss to comprehend why she should be the object of such intent examination. Had Mr. Darcy not had ample opportunity to satisfy his suspicions of her character? She supposed him to be fascinated by the queer juxtaposition of Miss Bingley and herself. They must present to him a tableau of feminine extremes – the accomplished and the artful.
Miss Bingley now launched into a pleasant Scottish air, and Mr. Darcy rose from his seat to approach the pianoforte. She determined to maintain a cool demeanor, but her quickening pulse betrayed her best efforts to remain calm as he drew near to her. The look in his eye, which had so clearly seemed one of disapprobation when endured from across the room, now danced with amusement – or perhaps what flickered there was nothing more than reflected candlelight.
"Do you not feel a great inclination, Miss Bennet, to seize such an opportunity of dancing a reel?"
If he had asked her to fetch tea from India, Elizabeth could not have been more surprised. She felt herself the object of some sport and briefly considered a conspiracy between him and Miss Bingley to embarrass her, but a quick glance toward the lady in question revealed her to be wholly absorbed in the instrument. He could not possibly wish to dance with her at this moment, and in this setting – and indeed, she reflected, he had not actually asked her to dance. He had only suggested that she must feel so inclined.
"I know, Mr. Darcy, you wish me to say ‘Yes,’ that you might have the pleasure of despising my taste. But while I was not clever enough this morning to thwart such a scheme, I must warn you I am a quick study. I therefore tell you that I do not want to dance a reel at all – and now despise me if you dare."
"Indeed, I do not dare." He smiled at her then – a flash of humor so fleeting, it barely gave her opportunity to confirm that Mr. Darcy did in fact possess teeth. He attempted to regain his stern composure, but an egg once cracked cannot be mended, and Elizabeth suddenly understood his strange behavior in a different light. A single man in possession of a large fortune, universally the object of reverence from his inferiors, respect from his peers and obsequious fawning from ladies, must be in want of teasing, and desperately so.
Elizabeth surmised that she, being his equal in class yet so decidedly beneath him in circumstance, held a unique position among his general acquaintance. She could speak freely to him, but could little affect him. As such, he was free to take amusement from her ripostes without taking them to heart. She felt it was therefore no great compliment to her, to be singled out by Mr. Darcy to be his partner in a minuet of words. However, they were to inhabit the same house for some days, and Elizabeth already felt her patience for forced smiles and false praise wearing thin. She returned Mr. Darcy’s arch smile. In this particular circumstance, she found she was inclined to dance.
The following evening, Jane was well enough to join the party in the drawing room. Mr. Bingley immediately saw her situated near the fire and, once assured of her comfort, engaged her in quiet, earnest conversation. Mr. Hurst was asleep; Mrs. Hurst occupied in counting her bracelets; and when Miss Bingley asked Elizabeth to join her for a turn about the room, she could think of no plausible excuse not to do so. Elizabeth observed Mr. Darcy’s sharp glance in her direction. For the first time, she recognized it not as censure, but as keen anticipation of a diverting scene.
"Will you not join us, Mr. Darcy?" Elizabeth asked as Miss Bingley linked arms with her and began a slow circle of the room.
"I shall not, for you can have but two motives for such an activity, and my joining you should interfere with either."
The two ladies demanded an explanation of this cryptic comment, and Mr. Darcy readily obliged.
"Either you have secrets to share in confidence, in which case I should only be in your way; or you are cognizant that your figures appear to the best advantage when walking, in which case I can admire you better from here."
"Oh! Shocking!" Miss Bingley cried. "However shall we punish him for such a speech?"
"Why, tease him of course. You are his intimate acquaintance; you ought to know how it is done."
"Tease Mr. Darcy? Impossible. How does one begin to tease calmness of temper and presence of mind? We shall end by being the object of our own joke, if we attempt it."
"Why Miss Bingley, you suggest that Mr. Darcy is without flaws!" Elizabeth said with a sly glance in Mr. Darcy’s direction. Though holding a book, the gentleman was following their conversation as clearly as his eyes followed their figures. "Even the best and wisest of men have follies and whims that can be exposed to diverting effect. Tell us how we may laugh at you, Mr. Darcy, or we shall be forced to apply to Mr. Bingley for assistance."
"There is no need. I own my faults readily enough. My temper I cannot vouch for. I might be called resentful. My good opinion once lost is lost forever."
"Implacable resentment – that is a fault indeed, but one cannot laugh at it. You are no help whatsoever, Mr. Darcy. Miss Bingley, we have no choice but to ask your brother."
Mr. Bingley’s conference with Jane was thus interrupted, as the ladies appealed to him to reveal Mr. Darcy’s more amusing faults. Mr. Bingley, like his sister, seemed at a loss to recall any. "When writing letters, he studies too hard for words of four syllables," he owned at length.
"He is rather poor at whist," Mrs. Hurst opined from the sofa, having moved on from her bracelets to a study of her rings.
"Now there is a searing indictment," Elizabeth laughed. "Miss Bingley, I find I am forced to agree with you. It seems a hopeless business to tease Mr. Darcy, when his closest friends can offer nothing better than this, that he has greater facility with the quill than with cards."
She regarded the gentleman in question closely. She could not deny the pleasing effect of arrogance on his features – the smug set of his jaw charmed his lips into the curve of a smile even as it issued an unspoken challenge. "I shall not envy him his perfect character, however. A man so complete in his own right can have little use for the society of others. For what service are our faults, if not to draw us into one another’s confidence and encourage affection? Mr. Darcy may hug himself, but I will take delight in the comfort of family and friends."
Elizabeth took a moment to savor the triumph of Mr. Darcy’s stunned silence. She cast her own proud smile, however, in the direction of Jane, whose countenance radiated better health than it had for some days as she basked in the warmth of a roaring fire and the gentle attentiveness of Mr. Bingley. If the two were not in love already, Elizabeth thought, they were well on their way.
Miss Bingley had tired of walking and conversation, it seemed, and suggested some musical diversion. Elizabeth magnanimously offered to turn pages for her. Mr. Darcy again took up his book. The insufficient light made it impossible for Elizabeth to read the book’s title from across the room, but the volume’s size and handsome binding unmistakably matched the volume of poetry that remained in her own chamber upstairs. Mr. Darcy was reading Songs of Experience.
The next morning, Jane felt greatly improved. The sisters shared a breakfast tray in Jane’s chamber, and Elizabeth enjoyed watching her sister eat heartily for the first time in days. The two agreed that they had imposed long enough on the Bingleys’ hospitality. Although Mama had denied them use of the carriage until Tuesday, it was determined that Elizabeth should apply to Mr. Bingley directly and request that he return them to Longbourn in his own carriage, today if possible.
Elizabeth made her way down to Mr. Bingley’s study. She had resided at Netherfield enough days to know his habit was to spend the greater part of his mornings there, in conference with his steward or attending to correspondence. She knocked gently at the door and heard Mr. Bingley invite her to enter. She admitted herself into the room to find Mr. Bingley reclined behind his desk, idly twirling a quill between his fingers as he gazed out the window. Mr. Darcy sat at a small escritoire, industriously penning words of four syllables.
"Good morning, Mr. Bingley. Mr. Darcy." Elizabeth made a light curtsy as the gentlemen scrambled to their feet.
"Miss Bennet! Forgive me, I was expecting my steward. Please, be seated." Mr. Bingley indicated a silk-upholstered chair across from his desk, but Elizabeth politely declined.
"Forgive me for intruding. I shall not trouble you for much of your time. It is only that I can happily report that my sister is feeling quite well this morning."
"I am glad to hear of it!"
"Thank you, Mr. Bingley. As I was saying, she is nearly completely recovered now, and as much as we appreciate your kind hospitality, Jane and I both feel we should impose upon it no longer. I came to inquire if it might be possible…"
Before Elizabeth could finish her request, a loud commotion emanating from the hallway drew the attention of all in the room. Three men burst through the door, the two on either end dragging the third between them. The younger man in the middle was attired in coarse garments that appeared to be freshly rent and streaked with mud. His hands were bound behind his back, but he did not struggle with his captors. Elizabeth recognized the man on the left to be Mr. Bingley’s steward, Mr. Thorpe.
"I beg your pardon, sir, but I have a matter that cannot wait for your attention," said Mr. Thorpe. "Richards, the gamekeeper, discovered this brigand poaching pheasants on Netherfield property before dawn this morning. The magistrate has been sent for, of course, but this vermin has been quite vocal in requesting a personal interview with you, sir."
Elizabeth felt the impropriety of her presence at this scene, but the three men blocked the only exit to the room. She settled for easing herself toward the side of the room and remaining as quiet as possible. She felt sympathy for Mr. Bingley, who appeared clearly out of his depth.
"Of course. Certainly… I mean, what is it he can wish to say?"
The poacher seized the opportunity to speak, and began to plead his case with Mr. Bingley. With great distress and inarticulate speech, he begged the gentleman not to press charges, asking mercy for the sake of the family he had been attempting to feed. As he spoke, his hair fell away from his features, and Elizabeth recognized the man. She did not know his name, but she knew his face. She often saw his children playing in the lane near Meryton.
Mr. Thorpe and the gamekeeper were obviously untouched by the poacher’s increasingly desperate plea, but Mr. Bingley, both generous by nature and inexperienced in the business of managing an estate, was growing visibly uncomfortable with the situation.
"Darcy," he applied to his friend, "you must have far more experience with these situations than I. What do you suggest?"
"You have no choice but to press charges, Bingley. The offender himself owns to his crime, and the magistrate has already been notified. To set him free without punishment would set a dangerous precedent. Netherfield would be overrun with poachers within a fortnight."
Mr. Thorpe and Richards attested to the soundness of Mr. Darcy’s reasoning, and Mr. Bingley was left with no option other than half-hearted compliance. The two men started to drag their captive out the way they had entered, when Mr. Darcy addressed the gamekeeper.
"Mr. Richards, are you quite certain that this man was caught before dawn? I am an early riser myself, and I noted that this morning was unusually dark. Perhaps you were mistaken about the hour of his capture. I feel quite certain, and I am sure Mr. Bingley would agree, that the man was apprehended in full daylight."
The gamekeeper nodded. "As you wish, sir, if it meets with Mr. Bingley’s approval."
Mr. Bingley was clearly confused by this turn of conversation, but nodded his assent. Elizabeth, however, understood exactly what had transpired. Her father had once explained to her the absurdities of poaching penalties. A man caught poaching at night might be sentenced to years of hard labor; an offender apprehended in daytime would likely serve only a few months in the Meryton jail. Mr. Darcy’s gesture had spared the man’s family years of suffering, and if neither the poacher nor Mr. Bingley was aware of it, Elizabeth felt a swell of gratitude on their behalf.
The men quitted the room, and Mr. Darcy returned to his letter. Mr. Bingley apologized profusely to Elizabeth for her having witnessed such a scene. She assured him that she was quite unharmed and that he had acquitted himself admirably. "My reason in coming here, Mr. Bingley, was to ask if Jane and I might be transported back to Longbourn in your carriage – this afternoon, if possible."
"Of course, you and Miss Bennet may have use of the carriage anytime you wish." Mr. Bingley seemed relieved to once again entertain simpler demands on his generosity – carriages and the like. All the charity he had wished to bestow upon the poacher, he now seemed determined to transfer to Elizabeth and Jane, and he entreated her to consider staying until tomorrow. "Surely, Miss Elizabeth, you would not risk a relapse of Miss Bennet’s illness. Not now, when she is so close to full recovery."
Elizabeth could find no reason to refuse his generous offer, and plans were made for her and Jane to return home the following day, after Sunday services.
On the way back to her room, Elizabeth found herself greatly affected by Mr. Darcy’s liberal, though understated, gesture toward the poacher. Once again, the words of his housekeeper haunted her as an oracle come to pass. He is the best landlord and the best master that ever lived. There is not one of his tenants or servants but what would give him a good name.
Tenants, servants, stewards, friends -- was there no one who would give an ill report of Mr. Darcy? Elizabeth almost wished that there were, for she was beginning to feel the consequence of paying him too much attention. If not for the vast differences in their wealth and connections, she might all too easily fall prey to romantic imaginings. She resolved to dispel any burgeoning attachment within her, or any appearance of such, by speaking to Mr. Darcy as little as possible for the remainder of her stay at Netherfield. At one point that afternoon, she found herself alone with him for a full half-hour, but she studiously kept to her book and maintained her silence. What a relief it would be to return to Longbourn at last!
For his part, Darcy did not take offense at Elizabeth’s sudden reserve. Rather, he passed the same half-hour admiring Miss Bennet’s capacity for companionable silence as much as he now esteemed her wit. As he watched her depart Netherfield in Mr. Bingley’s carriage the following day, he felt a deeper loss than that of stimulating conversation. Darcy discovered he had simply grown accustomed to her presence. Even when they were not in company together, he took pleasure in knowing her fine eyes and quick mind to be somewhere nearby. Should the radius of her influence prove greater than the three miles’ distance to Longbourn, he might truly be in some danger.
Posted on Sunday, 16 July 2006
Mr. Bingley was a gentleman true to his word, for he made good on his promise to host a ball at Netherfield once Jane returned to the full bloom of health. Preparations for the occasion had occupied the attention of all Longbourn, and indeed most of Meryton, for over a fortnight. Anticipation of the event fostered such high spirits in the Bennet household that even the somber sermonizing of their houseguest, Mr. Collins, could not bring them low. In fact, this otherwise priggish rector, who was to inherit Longbourn upon the unhappy but inevitable event of Mr. Bennet’s demise, appeared to anticipate the evening with great pleasure. He had even secured Elizabeth’s hand for the first set. Elizabeth was less than pleased to have been singled out from among her sisters for this honor, but determined not to let Mr. Collins ruin her enjoyment of the evening. If dancing with her cousin was a necessary obligation, it seemed best to dispense with it as early in the ball as possible and thereafter be at liberty to devote her attention elsewhere.
Elizabeth scanned the crowd as soon as she entered the drawing room of Netherfield, searching through the throng of red-coated officers, skipping over the familiar faces of neighbors, and ignoring the amused expressions of Miss Bingley’s fashionable London friends.
"Are you looking for someone, Miss Bennet?"
"Oh! No." Elizabeth’s pulse quickened in alarm. How could she admit that she had indeed been seeking a particular person when the gentleman inquiring was the very object of her search?
"I mean… That is to say… Good evening, Mr. Darcy." She hoped an especially graceful curtsy and the care she had taken with her appearance that evening might mask the sudden defection of intelligent speech. Much as she had attempted to convince herself otherwise, she could no longer deny that her high anticipation of the ball could be chiefly accounted to the prospect of Mr. Darcy’s company. Since her stay at Netherfield, their meetings were few in number and trivial in nature, affording no opportunity for conversation of consequence. And never had Longbourn suffered a lack of intelligent conversation so acutely as it had since the arrival of Mr. Collins.
Indeed, Elizabeth had been searching for Mr. Darcy, and to be sought out by him so quickly upon her arrival both surprised and pleased her immeasurably.
"If you are not otherwise engaged, Miss Bennet, might I have the honor of the first set?"
"I regret, Mr. Darcy, that I am already engaged – by my cousin, Mr. Collins."
Mr. Darcy smiled ruefully and emitted a low rumble which Elizabeth might have taken for laughter, had she not known the gentleman to be incapable of such. She regarded him quizzically.
"By my accounting, Miss Bennet, I have asked you to dance three times now and been uniformly refused on every occasion. Might I have the pleasure of knowing how many times I must apply for your hand before being accepted?"
Elizabeth gave him an arch smile as the orchestra struck up its tune and Mr. Collins approached to claim her. "It would appear, Mr. Darcy, at least once more."
Mr. Collins’ mode of dancing proved as affected and unseemly as his manner of speech, but the man appeared determined to demonstrate mastery of both occupations at once by plying Elizabeth with insipid compliments throughout the set. These she ignored whenever possible, preferring instead to observe the graceful motions of Mr. Bingley and Jane and the admiring glances that followed them from every corner of the room.
When the set ended, Elizabeth made quick work of disentangling herself from Mr. Collins’ attentions, only to find herself transferred from the company of one ill-bred relation to another. As she searched the room for Mr. Darcy’s tall figure, Lydia emerged from the crowd with two officers in tow.
"Lizzy, you must dance with Wickham, for Kitty has been engaged by our disgusting cousin, poor girl! He was headed in my direction, I swear, but I always have been faster than Kitty by half!"
Lydia giggled coyly on the arm of Lieutenant Denny, and the other officer bowed and extended his hand in invitation to Elizabeth. Lieutenant Wickham cut a rather dashing figure, with a smile as bright as the buttons on his regimentals, and Elizabeth accepted gamely. Her own acquaintance with the man was slight and largely informed by the effusive admiration of her younger sisters. Kitty and Lydia had returned from a recent walk to Meryton full of nothing but praise for the enchanting Mr. Wickham.
Jane and Elizabeth had planned to accompany them that morning, but Mrs. Bennet had insisted they remain behind. She had it on good authority from Lady Lucas’ servant come to barter for eggs that Mr. Bingley and his friend had just arrived at Lucas Lodge to call on Sir William. It was therefore a certainty, to Mrs. Bennet’s mind, that he would visit Longbourn within the hour. In a rare coincidence, both her information and logic proved sound. Kitty and Lydia returned to Longbourn just as Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy were taking their leave, the former having called to personally extend his invitation to the Netherfield Ball.
At the time, Lydia’s impertinent insistence that Mr. Bingley also invite all the officers had mortified Elizabeth, but now she enjoyed the envious stares of the young ladies in attendance as she lined up opposite Mr. Wickham. She marveled at the uncanny ability of a handsome face to appear instantly familiar; she was struck by the feeling that they had been introduced once long ago, although she knew it to be impossible.
Elizabeth noted Mr. Darcy partnered with Miss Bingley at the opposite end of the room, and she offered him a small smile when she caught his eye. He began to return it, but all trace of pleasure fled his face when his glance fell on her partner. She looked at Mr. Wickham to discover his gaze similarly narrowed in Mr. Darcy’s direction. The animosity between the two was undeniable, their stares broken only by the commencement of the dance.
Mr. Wickham refreshed his smile quickly, although his mind was obviously occupied by what had just passed. "Has Mr. Darcy been long in this neighborhood?" he inquired in a confidential tone.
"He has resided at Netherfield as Mr. Bingley’s guest this past month."
"A month! All Meryton must claim an intimate acquaintance with him already."
Elizabeth laughed wryly. "Most of Meryton would not lay claim to anything connected with Mr. Darcy, I fear. His reserved manner has won him few friends in this neighborhood; although I daresay he little mourns the loss."
Wickham chuckled. "Ah, yes – the famous Darcy pride!"
"Are you acquainted with his family, then?"
"You may be surprised, Miss Bennet, given our cold greeting just now, but I have been connected with his family since infancy. My father was steward to the late Mr. Darcy, and I was his godson. Old Mr. Darcy was particularly fond of me and wished me to take orders. In fact, before his death he bequeathed me a valuable living on his estate."
Elizabeth suddenly realized why Mr. Wickham’s face was so familiar to her. She had seen his likeness in miniature at Pemberley. The housekeeper had marked him out as Mr. Darcy’s particular favorite in boyhood, but what were her words? …He is now gone into the army, but I am afraid he has turned out very wild.
"How come you, then, to be in the militia?" Elizabeth noted the gleam in her partner’s eye with increasing wariness, but she kept her questioning purposefully playful.
"When the living became available, it was given to another."
"How shocking! I cannot imagine Mr. Darcy, or any gentleman, doing his father’s memory such an injustice." And I cannot imagine, she thought, how Mr. Wickham should justify relating such a tale so early in their acquaintance! "What was his reason?"
Appearing to sense her suspicion, Mr. Wickham quickly altered his tone of intimate disclosure. "For that, you shall have to apply to Mr. Darcy," he quipped blithely.
Perhaps I shall do just that, Elizabeth thought to herself. For the rest of the dance, they spoke only of matters as pleasant as they were insignificant. Mr. Wickham inquired if she had traveled. She informed him of her recent trip to the Peak District, and he was only too happy to hear her impressions of his childhood home.
"How fortunate you are, Miss Bennet, to have the opportunity to travel! Much as I would like to do so myself, a man of my means cannot expect such pleasures."
"But surely, your position in the militia must allow you to see a good deal of the country – though admittedly not at your leisure."
Mr. Wickham smiled and winked brazenly. "It has brought me to this delightful place, has it not? I should be forever grateful to the Crown."
Elizabeth could not help but laugh. Were these the type of charming comments that so enchanted her sisters? Lydia and Kitty were greater fools than she had imagined.
"There is a rumor," the officer continued, "that the regiment will summer at Brighton. So at long last, I may enjoy the bracing breezes of the sea. I had planned a journey to Ramsgate this summer past, but circumstances necessitated its cancellation."
"What a pity," Elizabeth remarked with no real sympathy.
When the set ended, Mr. Wickham kissed her hand gallantly, allowing his lips to linger there a good deal longer than was proper. Very wild, indeed! – and with these same lips he would fain make sermons! Elizabeth laughed heartily at this absurdity the moment they parted ways.
Her laughter was cut short, however, when Mr. Darcy appeared suddenly before her to request her hand in the next set. She agreed happily and was left to spend the interval in some flutter of spirits. Charlotte spoke to her of matters sensible, but Elizabeth comprehended not a word. Her distraction made the minutes stretch interminably, until Mr. Darcy at length returned to claim her hand.
Elizabeth felt the amazed stares of her neighbors as she stood opposite Mr. Darcy, but none unsettled her more than the stern glare of the gentleman himself. The countenance that now confronted her displayed none of the amiable ease with which he had greeted her earlier. They passed several uncomfortable moments between the orchestra’s introductory chords and their first figure of the dance, and she began to believe he intended to spend the entire half-hour in silence. When at length she ventured a casual remark and awaited a reply in vain, Elizabeth’s pride bristled. Teasing, teasing man! Why he should seek her company and persist in engaging her as a partner only to revive the rigid hauteur of their early acquaintance, she could not fathom. Nor did she intend to suffer the slight wordlessly.
"It is your turn to say something now, Mr. Darcy. I talked about the dance, and you ought to remark in kind. Perhaps you have some observation on the room, or the number of couples."
"Do you talk, as a rule, while dancing?"
"In polite society, I believe that conversation is generally accepted to be as much a part of the dance as the figures. Surely, those who prefer the company of their own thoughts might do better to choose a solitary occupation and spare themselves the inconvenience of a partner." The measure of unchecked bitterness in Elizabeth’s tone surprised even her, but she could not regret its having the desired effect. Mr. Darcy looked a bit chastened.
"Shall we talk of books, then?"
"Oh, no – I cannot discuss books in a ballroom. With so many distractions and interruptions, one cannot give literature a fraction of the concentration that is its due."
"Then by your description, a successful conversant must be liberal with words yet miserly with meaning. To engage in such discourse would reflect no great credit on either of us, I imagine."
"You mean, I suppose, that speaking is hardly worth your effort unless you can be assured of amazing the entire room. But if you find parsing pleasantries so demeaning, Mr. Darcy, perhaps you might condescend, in this situation, to content yourself with amazing an audience of one."
"You presume, Miss Bennet, that it requires less effort to address an individual than a large gathering."
"Undoubtedly, when the individual in question is predisposed to listen." Elizabeth knew her harsh tone belied any charity intended in the statement. She was therefore not surprised when Mr. Darcy relapsed into stubborn silence. Not surprised, but exceedingly vexed. She scanned the ballroom for a pleasant diversion from this unpleasant interview, and her eyes lit on Mr. Bingley and Jane, ensconced in a corner and exchanging sweet smiles. It must be some quality of inner character that bound these men in friendship, Elizabeth thought, for their outward manners could not be more opposite. Where Mr. Bingley’s very nature was to please and be pleased, Mr. Darcy seemed determined to offend and take offense wherever he went.
"Of course," she remarked, with a glance toward the happy couple, "there are those lucky few possessed of such natural charm that they need not fear a cold reception in any setting."
Mr. Darcy’s followed the direction of Elizabeth’s gaze, but his own sight marked not Jane and Mr. Bingley, but rather a group of officers standing nearby. "Yes, I have noted that ladies are often predisposed to believe anything uttered by Mr. Wickham."
"Mr. Wickham?" Was he the tack in Mr. Darcy’s shoe that occasioned such an abrupt transformation of demeanor? The rancor between the two must go even deeper than Mr. Wickham had implied. "I cannot deny he possesses certain qualities which typically attract young ladies. He is a great favorite already with my two youngest sisters."
"He is not the sort of man I would permit my own sister to keep company with, I assure you. Mr. Wickham is blessed with such happy manners as may ensure his making friends. Whether he is capable of keeping them is another matter."
"He seems to have lost your friendship." Mr. Darcy’s silence affirmed her supposition, but could not satisfy her curiosity. "I remember hearing you say once, Mr. Darcy, that your resentment once created is unappeasable. You are very cautious, then, as to its being created?"
Obviously, Mr. Darcy intended to offer no details on the subject. Much as Elizabeth desired to hear his version of events, she was forced to admit that his discretion and gravity compared favorably to Mr. Wickham’s own behavior and bore credible witness to Mr. Darcy having the right of the matter. She resolved to let the topic rest, but found herself overruled.
"Why do you ask these questions?"
"I am merely attempting to sketch your character."
"And what is your success?"
"Surely, Mr. Darcy, a gentleman such as yourself has sat for many portraits. You must know that a constantly shifting subject results in a poor likeness. I would get on much better, sir, if you would simply be at ease."
The dance ended, and they glared at each other for some moments before acknowledging the rituals of courtesy that occupied other couples.
"I assure you, Miss Bennet, I would by no means suspend any pleasure of yours." He escorted her from the floor, bowed briefly, and was gone.
Elizabeth’s disappointment in this turn of events only deepened as the evening wore on, and the raucous displays of her family added mortification to her melancholy. At dinner, her mother insisted on bragging loudly to Lady Lucas, and everyone else within twenty paces, of Mr. Bingley’s imminent proposal. Mary’s dissonant display at the pianoforte was concluded only by her own father’s impolitic dismissal. Kitty and Lydia capered about the hall with high spirits and higher voices. And, of course, the irrepressible Mr. Collins would expound on any topic at the slightest provocation. This combined cacophony of the Longbourn party only increased with intake of food and punch, and Mr. Darcy was witness to it all.
Elizabeth took little pleasure in the remainder of the evening. Mr. Collins attached himself to her presence, and although he could not persuade her to dance with him again, he did succeed in preventing her from dancing with anyone else.
Of Mr. Darcy, she saw little. On one occasion, she imagined she perceived his powerful stare on her, but caught only a fleeting glimpse of his figure as he quit the room. Elizabeth did not know whether to account his withdrawal of friendship to the presence of Mr. Wickham, the appalling behavior of her relations, or her own incivility, but in any case she could not blame him. An overwhelming sense of regret left little room within her for resentment.
Her humiliation was to stretch the full length of the evening, for Mrs. Bennet contrived a delay in the arrival of their carriages such that their party would be last to depart. When Mr. Collins at last left her side to see about his own curricle, Elizabeth drew her mother into a doorway apart from the group, hoping to minimize any parting effrontery.
"Oh, Lizzy! It is a happy thing for a mother, indeed, to see two of her daughters so soon to be married!" Mrs. Bennet lolled against the doorjamb, fanning herself languidly.
"Mama! I cannot imagine what you mean." Elizabeth lowered her voice, hoping in vain her mother might follow her example.
"Do not play the fool with me, Lizzy. Everyone knows that Jane has Mr. Bingley all but secured, and I have good reason to believe that you too may expect a proposal quite soon!"
Elizabeth had suspected that this was Mr. Collins’ motivation. How else to explain his dogged attachment throughout the evening? The confirmation of her suspicion, however, was the final indignity in an evening of trials.
"Mama, I beg you to curtail your celebration. If Jane should become engaged to Mr. Bingley, it would give us all cause to rejoice, but the event is by no means assured. For my own part, should the gentleman to whom you refer make an offer to me, I have not the slightest intention of accepting him."
"Of course you shall! Think of your sisters! In accepting his proposal, you will preserve their home and save us all from destitution."
"Yes, but at what price? My sisters’ respect, and my own happiness? Believe me, Mama, when I say to you that I do not and could not love him, and I most certainly will never marry him."
"Lizzy, do not be absurd! To be sure, he is not so charming or handsome as Mr. Wickham, but do not be misled by foolish fancies, child. Longbourn’s entail cannot be charmed away, any more than fine looks will fill your table."
Elizabeth sighed in resignation. It was useless to argue with her mother further, if she supposed Mr. Wickham to be the source of her reluctance.
From his position in the now-darkened drawing room, Darcy watched Elizabeth and her mother in silhouette. He could not make out Elizabeth’s side of the conversation, as she spoke in hushed tones, but Mrs. Bennet’s statements echoed through the empty room.
Two daughters soon to be married! The London ton was rife with scheming mothers, but this woman from Hertfordshire bested them all. Darcy berated himself for ignoring all the obvious signs. From their first introduction at that miserable assembly, he and Bingley had been marked men. On early acquaintance, the eldest Bennet sisters had appeared the exception to their family’s ill breeding – Miss Bennet, sweetly serene; Miss Elizabeth, delightfully arch. Neither displayed the coy, fawning manner typically assumed by fortune-hunters.
After this evening, however, Darcy could no longer overlook their suspect motivations. Watching Miss Elizabeth smiling and laughing in open admiration of another – that wastrel Wickham, no less! – he realized how he had misjudged her behavior. Her dry witticisms, which he had once presumed an invitation to friendship, had been truly designed to rebuff. And though Bingley’s affection for Miss Bennet was plainly writ upon his face, the lady’s own countenance remained placid and untouched. Now this overheard conversation sealed the painful, yet inescapable conclusion –Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth followed not their own hearts, but the conniving aspirations of their mother and the demands of their impoverished situation.
Darcy would take no pleasure in recounting this conversation to Bingley, but relate it he must. They would do well to quit Hertfordshire immediately and leave behind all mention of the name Bennet.
"Cousin Eliza! Maria! My dear Charlotte, make haste! Lady Catherine awaits us at Rosings!" Mr. Collins wiped his brow in agitation.
Elizabeth had not passed a single waking hour in Kent that she did not bless her father. How grateful she was that the typically reclusive and indifferent Mr. Bennet had seen fit one November morning to leave the sanctuary of his study, brave the voluble wrath of her mother, and refuse to insist that she marry Mr. Collins! Mrs. Bennet’s grief over this development was increased some days later, when Charlotte Lucas accepted the same offer Elizabeth had refused.
She had wondered at Charlotte’s determination to marry such a ridiculous man and was initially reluctant to accept her invitation to visit Hunsford that spring. Upon her arrival in Kent, however, Elizabeth saw how a lifetime as Sir William Lucas’ daughter had prepared her friend well for the role of Mrs. Collins. She appeared happily settled in their parsonage, which, while not grand, offered rooms enough for husband and wife to comfortably pursue separate occupations. Charlotte seemed content, and for this Elizabeth was grateful.
If the name of Mr. Collins’ esteemed patroness tripped off his lips with frequency in Hertfordshire, in Kent the rector seemed to think of little else than Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Mr. and Mrs. Collins and their guests were invited regularly to Rosings, and either Lady Catherine or her daughter, Miss Anne de Bourgh, called at Hunsford daily.
Elizabeth’s own impressions of Lady Catherine had undergone a swift progression from awe to amusement to tedium. Her ladyship’s intimate inquiries into every aspect of Charlotte’s housekeeping, her cottagers’ affairs, and even Elizabeth’s level of accomplishment quickly lost their diverting novelty, as did Mr. Collins’ toadying deference to her every whim.
On this particular evening, however, Elizabeth did not resist the call to Rosings, for an addition to their small society was promised. Her ladyship’s nephews were known to have arrived for their annual Easter visit – and who should be among them, but Mr. Darcy!
Elizabeth looked forward to the evening with great anticipation. Little had occurred in her fortnight at Hunsford that could be categorized as remotely stimulating, but her spirits were roused at the prospect of renewing Mr. Darcy’s acquaintance. She knew that the meeting might prove awkward. She had not met with the gentleman in four months’ time -- since the evening of the Netherfield Ball -- and they had not parted in the spirit of amiability she would have wished.
All Meryton had been shocked when Mr. Bingley and his party left Netherfield so abruptly. The reason cited by Miss Bingley in her parting letter, namely Mr. Darcy’s wish to see his sister, was easily understood. He had been parted from her for long weeks of her convalescence, and certainly he must be quite ill himself with concern. Much as Elizabeth lamented his hasty departure, she could not fault it. Her only regret was having no opportunity to redeem her family’s unseemly behavior at the ball. In retrospect, she hoped that Mr. Darcy’s preoccupation with his sister’s well-being might have been the source of his distant manner that evening, but she could not convince herself it was so.
Shortly after Christmas, Jane had gone to London to stay with their Aunt and Uncle Gardiner, and it was hoped she might resume her acquaintance with Mr. Bingley while in town. But if concern for Miss Darcy excused the party’s rapid removal from Hertfordshire, it could not explain Miss Bingley’s cold reception of Jane when she called at the Bingley residence, or the lady’s obvious wish to sever all connection between them. Jane wondered at Miss Bingley’s conduct, but Elizabeth saw clearly the heart of the matter. Miss Bingley knew her brother to be in love with Jane and did not approve of his choice. Her interference was cruel and unjust, but there was nothing more Jane could do to alert Mr. Bingley to her presence in town.
As they approached the grand façade of Rosings, Elizabeth felt a pang of sorrow for her sister. Jane’s letters always presented a cheerful face, but she knew how her sister must suffer. Her attachment to Mr. Bingley had not been slight or easily forgotten. Elizabeth’s own thoughts had traveled to Mr. Darcy more often than she cared to admit, and this on the basis of erstwhile friendship alone. How much greater was Jane’s preoccupation, with the force of love to multiply her distress?
Upon their introduction to the drawing room, Elizabeth’s eyes sought out Mr. Darcy immediately, only to discover him fixing her with his own steady gaze. Elizabeth curtsied to Mr. Darcy’s stiff bow, anxious to gauge whether his stern disapproval at their last meeting had softened or solidified with the passage of time. She attempted a smile, but he looked away without acknowledging the gesture. It seemed she had her answer. Humbled, Elizabeth quickly transferred her attention to his cousin. Colonel Fitzwilliam looked a few years older than Mr. Darcy, and though not nearly so handsome, he fortunately displayed a more congenial manner.
Lady Catherine announced her desire for cards, and two tables were set up. Her ladyship enjoined Mr. and Mrs. Collins to take places at her table, an honor which Mr. Collins could never decline. Elizabeth suspected that his sterling company had less to do with this condescension than the fact that Mr. Collins nearly always lost.
Mr. Darcy moved to make up the fourth, but Lady Catherine would have her other nephew instead. She seemed particularly anxious that Mr. Darcy should be partnered with her daughter, and Elizabeth and Maria Lucas were to complete the foursome.
At the other table Mr. Collins kept up a steady flow of congratulatory remarks and apologized profusely for his every stroke of luck, but theirs was the stupidest assembly of card players ever seen. Barely a word was spoken between the four that did not concern the game at hand. Miss de Bourgh was interrupted often by her companion, Mrs. Jenkinson, who could not last five minutes without inquiring as to her lady’s comfort, with regard to the temperature of the room or her desire for tea or refreshment. Maria was clearly too awed by her company to venture any sort of remark. Mr. Darcy’s taciturn bent limited his contribution to severe glances in Elizabeth’s direction, and to these she could imagine no civil reply.
At length, she decided they must have some conversation, if only to drown out the effusions of her cousin.
"I hope your sister is well, Mr. Darcy."
"Thank you, she is."
"We were quite concerned when you quitted Netherfield so suddenly last November. We feared some turn for the worse in her condition."
"I am sorry to have occasioned you any concern in that regard. My sister is now quite well."
"My own sister, Jane, has been in London these past three months. Have you never happened to see her there?" She watched his reaction carefully, to see if he would betray any knowledge of what had passed between Jane and Miss Bingley. He appeared only mildly surprised at her question, however.
"No, I have not had that pleasure."
"Miss Bennet!" Lady Catherine called from the next table. For a lady of advanced age, her faculty of hearing remained remarkably sharp. "Am I to understand that your eldest sister is also from home?"
"Yes, madam. She has gone to stay with my aunt and uncle in London."
"How singular! I am astonished that your mother can spare you both at once, and for such a long duration."
"I assure you, Lady Catherine, my mother can spare us readily. She quite encourages our travels."
"Undoubtedly," Mr. Darcy said, his low voice edged with sarcasm.
Offended by his discernable scorn, Elizabeth returned her attention to her cards. She found herself once again replaying the events of the Netherfield Ball in her mind, trying to understand where his warm welcome had transformed into cool dismissal. The presence of Mr. Wickham had clearly set him on edge, but Mr. Wickham was not here this evening. If worry for his sister had played any part, by his own admission it was no longer a concern. No, Elizabeth reasoned, the origin of his persistent disapprobation must lie in the appalling behavior of her family. She recalled Kitty and Lydia’s antics, her mother’s crowing over Mr. Bingley, Mary’s woeful exhibition, and worst, her own incivility. The only likely conclusion was that he had found the impropriety so offensive that simply sitting to cards with her now seemed an odious trial.
Elizabeth knew Mr. Darcy to possess all the pride that properly accompanied his position and wealth, but she had not thought it so tainted with arrogance and conceit. She recalled his obvious affection for his sister, his discreet handling of the poacher at Netherfield, his generosity in lending her his books. How to reconcile these observations, and the regard in which he was so uniformly held by all of his close acquaintance, with his clear intent to snub any friendly overture?
The gentleman was an enigma to her, and Elizabeth should have liked to abandon all attempts to puzzle him out. But if he pervaded her thoughts from the safe distance of London, how could she close her mind to his influence when seated at his elbow? If she could somehow ignore the sight of his long, sculpted fingers resting on the table bare inches from her own, she could not forget the sensation of their strong grasp around hers as they danced, any more than she could prevent the deep timbre of his voice from interrupting her thoughts.
"I thought you preferred reading to cards, Miss Bennet. Yet this evening you seem to make an exception." He spoke in a low voice, so as to limit the conversation to their small circle. His tone was not intimate, however, but accusatory. Though she found him increasingly perplexing, Mr. Darcy seemed quite confident in his ill opinion of her. It wounded her pride to be judged so meanly, even if she must allow him some justification for holding her in low esteem.
"I take pleasure in a great many things, Mr. Darcy, reading and cards among them, as well as several other amusements which, given our limited acquaintance, you may not have had the opportunity to observe. I might just as easily conclude that you divide your time equally between writing letters and casting disapproving glares – but I would not presume my knowledge of your character to be so complete."
"How generous of you. But certainly, your opportunities to sketch my character have not been as limited as you suggest."
"Perhaps not," Elizabeth allowed as she laid a high card and claimed her victory. "I do recall learning from Mrs. Hurst that you are rather poor at whist."
Lady Catherine, obviously annoyed by her inability to make out the conversation, declared an end to card-playing for the evening. Mr. Darcy retreated to a corner of the drawing room, and Elizabeth was engaged in conversation by the very amiable Colonel Fitzwilliam. What a relief it was to talk and laugh openly with this pleasant gentleman, even under the cold scrutiny of his cousin.
Colonel Fitzwilliam asked Elizabeth to play for him at the pianoforte, offering to select the music and turn pages for her, and she was of no mind to refuse. Her performance was by no means masterful, but what it lacked in technique was more than compensated by the lively spirit with which she played, and Colonel Fitzwilliam expressed his appreciation warmly. He selected another piece, and as her fingers picked out the opening strains, Mr. Darcy rose from his chair and approached the pianoforte with deliberation.
"Do you mean to frighten me, Mr. Darcy, by coming in all this state to hear me play? You are welcome, sir, for now I may account my every mistake to your intimidating presence and need not own to my deficiency of practice."
"I believe I am acquainted with your character well enough, Miss Bennet, to know any attempt to intimidate you would be in vain. At most, I might provoke you to profess opinions not your own – in that arena, your accomplishment suffers no deficiency."
Elizabeth was cut deeply by his words. Was it not enough for him to spurn her company? Must he make a point of pursuing her with his censure? She attempted to recover her composure with a nervous laugh. "Colonel Fitzwilliam, your cousin would teach you not to believe a word I say. He expects me to retaliate, I suppose, with some disparaging remark on his behavior."
"Pray tell what you have to accuse him of," said Colonel Fitzwilliam eagerly. "I should like to know how he behaves among strangers."
"I am sorry to disappoint you, but there I cannot oblige. Any reproach of Mr. Darcy’s conduct in Hertfordshire should only satisfy his notions of my own insincerity. For I cannot claim to have witnessed anything but the strictest propriety from his quarter."
Colonel Fitzwilliam laughed. "Strict propriety! That sounds like Darcy."
"Is he always so serious, then?" With relief, Elizabeth ceded responsibility for continuing the conversation to Colonel Fitzwilliam. Mr. Darcy, however, looked rather uncomfortable with this change in topic.
"Oh, yes - even when we were boys. My brother and I used to amuse ourselves in church by attempting to make him laugh. One Sunday, I brought a snake in my pocket and dangled it above our aunt’s head during the Lord’s Prayer."
"And did he laugh?" The gentleman in question looked little amused at the moment.
"No, indeed. He took the snake away from me and made such a fuss that our uncle caught us – or I should say he caught Darcy, for by then the creature was in his possession. My good cousin took both the blame and the thrashing for the whole affair."
"I wonder that you have not suffered his implacable resentment ever since," she teased lightly.
"I might have at that, had dear cousin Anne not revealed the truth of the matter. As it was, Darcy could hardly resent me, for I received two thrashings to his one – the first for the snake, and the second for shirking the blame! But so it still is with Darcy – he always takes prodigious care of his friends, even if he would serve them better by letting them take their lumps."
"Mr. Darcy is all generosity, it would seem." Elizabeth recalled the fond words of his housekeeper at Pemberley: They who are good-natured when children, are good-natured when they grow up; and he was always the sweetest-tempered, most generous-hearted boy in the world. If only he would see fit to extend the same generosity to her!
She looked pointedly at him. "How fortunate you are, Mr. Darcy, to possess so few faults of your own that you would readily take up the burden of others’ offenses! I am sure I could not be so kind. I must warn you, Colonel Fitzwilliam, to attempt no such pranks at my expense, for I have sins enough of my own without assuming the guilt of family or friends."
Mr. Darcy looked as though he would speak, but at that moment, Lady Catherine interrupted by imperiously demanding Colonel Fitzwilliam to attend her at once. The gentleman rose from his seat beside Elizabeth with a rueful smile. "I find myself in complete accord, Miss Bennet. It would be exceedingly cruel to be made to answer for all my relations’ behavior." With an apologetic glance indicating his formidable aunt, he left Elizabeth alone in the company of Mr. Darcy.
Unable to find her place in the music, she began the piece again from the introduction. She could not fault Colonel Fitzwilliam’s musical taste, but the piece of his choosing exceeded Elizabeth’s skill, and Mr. Darcy’s watchful presence did little to aid her execution. She struggled through only a few measures before Mr. Darcy broke his silence.
"I will not deny that I feel an obligation to guard the interests of those close to me. But surely, you have met with some who would not call me generous."
Elizabeth had no doubt that he referred to Mr. Wickham. Considering how she had fared when last attempting to discuss that man’s history, she had no desire to broach the subject again. A quick retreat seemed in order, and she adopted an innocent smile.
"To the contrary, Mr. Darcy, I hear such unvarying reports of you as to satisfy me entirely. Your own cousin has just related such a tale of intrepidity – wrangling serpents in a house of God, no less! Why, children must sing your exploits in the lanes of Derbyshire. Indeed, I dare not dispute such illustrious charity, and I beg you not to feel obligated to prove it by extending any to me."
Elizabeth launched into a lively air from memory, thus declaring an end to the conversation. After standing there long moments, during which Elizabeth stubbornly refused to meet his gaze, Mr. Darcy withdrew to attend his aunt and cousins. She was able to avoid further encounters with him for the remainder of the evening, but he occupied her thoughts to the exclusion of all else.
Elizabeth mourned her inability to laugh away his slights. Whenever she resolved to grant the infuriating man no further consideration, another reason to esteem him would surface. She could resign herself to being despised by the likes of Lady Catherine or Miss Bingley, for she held them likewise in low regard. It was altogether different to suffer the disapproval of an individual impervious to any meaningful censure. His proud manner notwithstanding, Elizabeth’s estimation of Mr. Darcy as a man of inherent decency as yet encountered no contradiction. If she consulted her feelings closely, she was forced to account the pain she suffered from his reproaches to her own deepening admiration of him.
A more hopeless case could not be found. By Mr. Darcy’s own admission, his good opinion once lost was lost forever. As disheartening as it was to lose his friendship, Elizabeth consoled herself with the knowledge that mere friendship was all she could ever expect from such a man. Perhaps it was best that she be denied his acquaintance on any level, rather than suffer the disappointed hopes that should otherwise inevitably follow. Mr. Darcy was welcome to protect his notions of propriety; she should do well to likewise guard her heart.
Darcy did not know why he was surprised to encounter Miss Elizabeth Bennet at Rosings. He knew that her sister had pursued Bingley to London, and he had been sufficiently concerned for his friend to conspire with Miss Bingley to keep the information secret. It only made sense that Mrs. Bennet should take any opportunity to again recommend her second daughter as a potential mistress of Pemberley. An evening of Miss Elizabeth’s arch comments, however, convinced Darcy she was an unwilling participant in any such plot. Once again, her open demeanor with another man – this time his own cousin – made a painful contrast to her behavior toward him.
While Darcy was gratified to understand that Miss Bennet personally had no designs on his fortune, that her own complicity in any scheme was limited to the misfortune of her birth into such a family, disappointment tainted his relief. For he had not been able to forget her in the four months since quitting Netherfield, and meeting with her again this evening had sealed the impression. She was, undoubtedly, the most intriguing woman of his acquaintance, and worse, inconveniently attractive. Nothing improved her fine eyes more than the spark of proud indignation, and he seemed helpless to avoid provoking her displeasure simply to delight in their beauty. Darcy found himself completely bewitched by her, despite her evident dislike of him.
Perhaps it was best, given their vastly different stations. They would remain in close proximity for only a matter of days; Darcy imagined he could enjoy the acquaintance without risking her feelings. Miss Elizabeth Bennet could not have stated more clearly that her heart was safe from him; he relied on his sense of duty and propriety to protect his own.