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Posted on Saturday, 10 May 2008
Fitzwilliam Darcy paced his bedchamber, finally coming to rest in a large armchair by the fire. His mind was in turmoil. For eight and twenty years he had survived on the foundation of duty and honor under society's dictates. Each hardship cast his way had been conquered by maintaining a standard set by duty to his family. The death of his mother followed by the death of his father, running the family estate and supporting his young sister -- he had held his head high through them all. He was renowned for his superior estate management and greatly respected for the fair and honest treatment of his tenants. He was fully prepared to seek a bride of wealth and connection, a woman who would further his own position in society and that of his young sister. All of these things ruled his existence, gave him purpose and direction -- until he met her. Elizabeth.
She had driven him to distraction. With every moment, he thought of her sharp wit and playful manner. He saw her eyes sparkling with merriment, questioning the rules of society with which he had been engrained since infancy. She challenged him and teased him without pause or regard for his position in society. Images of her from hours earlier as they danced at the Netherfield ball replayed over and over in his mind. Oh how he loved to hear her laugh, even if he was merely hearing it from across the room.
His eyes had never left her throughout the evening, so entranced was he by her lively disposition -- so opposite from his own. Even her confrontation about Wickham during their dance enticed him. In the moment she had sparked his ire, yet now he was haunted by the fire in her eyes, revealing a passionate nature never displayed by women of his circle. In short, she was the polar opposite of the society women clamoring to be the next Mistress of Pemberley.
"How is this possible?" he muttered to himself, "Of all the circumstances I have endured, is this...is she to distract me? It cannot be!"
He needed advice. Confident he may be with estate matters, affairs of the heart were different. He longed for his father's advice, knowing that with his support, he would have the strength to either forget her or face society's approbation with his father by his side. But which path would his father advise? His parent's marriage did not seem to be one of convenience, but his mother's family was of no comparison to the Bennets. He needed someone to help him clear his mind, to justify the conflict he felt. At this point he simply needed assurance he hadn't gone mad! Bingley's advice, though easily accessible, would be highly predictable. How could Bingley object to his friend's pursuit when he was also clearly besotted by a Bennet? His cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam's advice was equally objectionable, unless of course he wished to be ridiculed until the end of his days because "stayed and fastidious Darcy" had gone completely soft over a woman. Being a reserved man with a small circle of friends, and an even smaller circle he could rely on, he decided to fall into old habits and rely upon himself. Darcy rose from his chair and paced along the foot of his bed.
"Get a hold of yourself man!" he chastised himself, "You are a Darcy! At this rate you're no better than Beaumont!"
Andrew Beaumont, son of the Earl of Norfolk, had been a great friend to Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley during their Cambridge years. He had impressed Mr. Darcy with his logic until he did the completely illogical. After spending the summer months after Cambridge in Essex, he announced his engagement to Miss Evelyn Howard, an acquaintance of his younger sister. Though the Howard family had some favorable connections, most were through Miss Howard's friendship with Miss Beaumont. The Howards had recently lost what little fortune they had and Miss Howard would have been forced to seek employment. It was rumored amongst the ton that she had joined the Beaumont siblings in Essex as Miss Beaumont's companion. The Earl had refused his consent and adamantly demanded that his son give up the connection. Upon Andrew's persistence with the match, the Earl disinherited him in favor of his younger brother. Fortunately Andrew had already inherited a small estate from his maternal grandfather, allowing the new Mr. and Mrs. Beaumont to live comfortably. Mr. Darcy, along with the rest of London society, had dropped the acquaintance with little remorse.
Mr. Darcy resolved to uphold the standards he had been taught since infancy. His cousin, the Viscount of Matlock, had done his duty by marrying the well dowried daughter of a Duke and he would do the same. There was no hurry for him to wed, but he must avoid the senselessness of making a poor match while on holiday in a remote country town. Darcy devised a course of action to avoid weakening his determination. The first and most necessary step would be to avoid meeting with Elizabeth. Second would be to limit his interaction with Miss Bingley as far as civility would allow. A reminder of what type of wife he could expect to find amongst the ton would hardly be helpful. Thirdly, he would attempt to keep himself as busy as possible. If delving head-first into estate business had proved ample distraction to overcome the grief of losing his father, it should in turn distract him from thinking of Elizabeth.
Finally satisfied with his resolve, he retired for the night, thinking of his father and all of the Darcys and Fitzwilliams before him. However as he slept, his mind was no longer able to suppress the visions of the woman he truly desired - Elizabeth.
The next morning dawned clear and bright. As Darcy awoke, he banished any lingering memories of the night's alluring dreams and strode to his writing desk. He seated himself and dipped a fresh quill into the inkwell. Lifting his pen, he squared his shoulders and committed a few short words to paper, the words he had repeated to himself as he drifted off to sleep the night before. His determination had not diminished overnight and the finality of these words on paper would reflect the finality of his decision. He would not allow infatuation to overcome him, and he would not dare to describe this infatuation as love.
Mr. Darcy rang for his valet and prepared for the day ahead. Glancing towards his desk, he walked over and placed the note into his coat pocket. As one part of his plan was to keep himself occupied, he decided to lengthen his morning ride. He would head into town and peruse the local bookshop. Surely their selection would be inferior to that of any bookseller in London or his own collection in town or at Pemberley. However Netherfield's library shelves were sparsely filled and surely anything available in Meryton would be an improvement. As an added incentive, he may even chance upon some of the younger Bennet sisters in town. What better way to strengthen his resolve than to encounter the extraordinary lack of propriety displayed by her squealing flirtatious sisters?
At Longbourn, Elizabeth rose later than was her usual custom. She and Jane had stayed up after arriving home from the ball discussing Mr. Bingley. Elizabeth was thrilled to see her sister feeling all the happiness she rightly deserved. If only Mr. Bingley would propose, perhaps Mrs. Bennet would see reason and give up her constant attempts to match Elizabeth with Mr. Collins. Elizabeth knew she could hardly accept such a man as her husband, but her mother's encouragement of her suitor continued unabated.
Elizabeth threw a wistful glance out the window, sorry to have missed the chance to walk out and enjoy the serenity of such a beautiful day before breakfast. As she descended the stairs, she became increasingly aware of her mother's voice, and then alarmed as she overheard the words being spoken to Mr. Collins. "She will be honored sir, to be the next mistress of Longbourn! Of course you and Elizabeth shall take care of us after the two of you inherit!" As unfortunate as it was to be the intended recipient of Mr. Collins' imminent proposal, she was lucky enough to escape the house through the still room before her presence was known. As she darted through the back gardens, she could hear a shrill voice calling from her bedroom. "Lizzy! Lizzy?! Where is that girl? Jane, Jane! You assured me Lizzy was here preparing herself, and of course she should prepare with Mr. Collins awaiting her! Oh, if she could have but the slightest compassion for my nerves! Oh, Hill, Hill!" Elizabeth could not help feeling remorseful at leaving the rest of the household to bear the brunt of her mother's frustrations; however staying home to reject a most unwanted proposal from Mr. Collins would only increase her mother's vexation.
Mr. Darcy spent the early morning exploring the countryside before turning his horse towards Meryton. After leaving his mount to be cooled down and watered, he headed through the village square, thankful that few of the gentry were in town at this hour given the late closing of the ball the night before. Upon reaching the bookshop, he leisurely searched for familiar titles he might enjoy during the remainder of his stay in Hertfordshire. Finding a section of the shop containing used copies and many first editions, he decided to peruse these books more thoroughly. He was impressed to find A Political Romance and pulled the book from its shelf for closer inspection. He had read Sterne at Cambridge, but not since, as satire was not one of his favorite genres. He quickly thumbed through the first section, thinking that Miss Elizabeth Bennet would be able to appreciate Sterne's mockery of upper-class squabbling. He rolled his eyes as his own turn of thought, pulled the note out from his pocket at laid it across the open pages.
"Be strong, man." Mr. Darcy muttered under his breath. Embarrassed that someone may have heard him, he glanced over his shoulder to see the shopkeeper approaching him. Snapping the book closed, he turned around to receive his greeting.
"Mr. Awdry at your service sir, may I be of assistance?"
"Thank you sir, I was just browsing after making my selections here." answered Mr. Darcy, gesturing to the books he had selected.
"Excellent choices sir, if there's nothing else you need, would you allow me to package those for you?"
After taking the three titles handed to him, Mr. Awdry hesitated. "And the Sterne, sir?"
"Not today, thank you." answered Mr. Darcy as he returned A Political Romance to its place on the shelf. Reaching for his money clip as he walked to the counter, he looked up to observe a breathtaking yet horrifying sight.
Elizabeth Bennet had entered the village square and was meandering past shop windows across the street. She turned into the bakery just as Mr. Awdry handed Darcy a brown parcel containing his purchases. Thankful for the opportunity to escape without greeting Miss Bennet, Mr. Darcy left the bookshop and headed directly to the stables. Thanking the stable boy and handing him a sixpence, he mounted his horse and urged the stallion into a quick trot.
Just as Netherfield Park came into sight, he straightened in his saddle as a startling thought came to mind.
Placing his hand over the empty pocket of his jacket, he remembered the note so carelessly left behind. "I really have gone distracted." he grumbled as he turned his horse and galloped back towards Meryton.
Elizabeth left the bakery in good spirits, allowing the pleasant taste of Mr. Thompson's sweet rolls to ease the morning's troubles from her mind. She decided to visit Mr. Awdry's shop and enquire if he had received any new releases from town. Hearing Mr. Awdry reply to the negative, but that he expected a small shipment the next day, she wandered through his collection of used books. Mr. Bennet's birthday was nearly three months away, but she enjoyed seeking out unusual titles for her father. Noticing a book that was slightly askew, she reached to push it into place when the title caught her eye. She smiled softly as she pulled Sterne's book from the shelf. She recalled her father's pride in owning one of very few original copies of the work. Her grandfather had acquired this copy before the book was edited by the publisher to half its original length. Gently leafing through the yellowing pages, she was surprised to find a small fresh sheet folded and tucked within. Never one to deprive her curiosity of its satisfaction, she discreetly removed the sheet and unfolded it. In admirably neat and distinctly masculine handwriting, she read the following:
November 27, 18__
Be warned heart, my mind shall conquer you!
Elizabeth stifled a scoff at the absurdity of the words before her. She did not doubt that many people made decisions that followed their minds and not their hearts; however if a man needed a written note to convince himself not to follow his heart, surely he was fighting a losing battle! Glancing over her shoulder and seeing no one to observe her actions, she pocketed the note. While she knew not the author of the pilfered note, being dated - quite fastidiously she might add, who would date a note to themselves? - as written today, there was a fair chance he may return for it. Sharing her father's amusement in exploiting the follies of others, she could not resist the temptation to replace the note as soon as possible with a response of her own. She returned the old book to its shelf and bid Mr. Awdry good day, promising to return on the morrow in case the shipment from London had arrived.
As she made her way to the door, she narrowly avoided colliding with a tall figure practically running into the shop.
She curtsied, vainly attempting to restrain her smile at his decidedly flustered countenance.
"I....." he faltered slightly. Then with a curt bow, he replied evenly, "Miss Bennett....I beg your pardon, I was not attending."
"Do not trouble yourself sir, I was able to perceive your stampeding approach and prevented the inevitable. I hope there is no unfortunate matter causing your haste."
"Nothing of import, excuse me."
With that, Mr. Darcy turned on his heel and continued into the shop.
Not surprised in the least at such a lack of civility from Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth merely shrugged and continued on her way. She headed home, wondering who had written the note now hidden in her pocket. Perhaps young Mr. Goulding, or one of the Lucas boys would be the recipient of her teasing. After all it could not possibly be Mr. Bingley as he seemed perfectly happy to allow his heart to lead him to Jane. As for Mr. Darcy, that gentleman would first need to be in possession of a heart in order to lose his control over it!
Relieved to have is encounter with Miss Elizabeth at an end, Mr. Darcy turned his attention to same shelf he had perused only an hour earlier. Taking Sterne's title, he quickly opened it to remove the note he had so carelessly misplaced. Looking at two unaltered pages of text where his note should have been, he furrowed his brow and returned to the front page of the book to search more carefully. A less-than-manly gasp was heard from the back corner of the Meryton bookshop as Mr. Darcy reached the last page of the book. The note was gone.
Leaving the shop nearly as quickly as he had entered it, Mr. Darcy mounted his horse and headed back towards Netherfield Park. If he had hoped to be calmed by the monotony of time spent with Miss Bingley and the Hursts, he was sorely mistaken.
Posted on Wednesday, 14 May 2008
Though the acclamation was typically used to describe another house in the neighborhood, on the twenty-seventh of November, Netherfield Park was in uproar. After the astonishing behavior she had witnessed at the ball, Miss Bingley was determined to quit Hertfordshire as soon as may be. Mr. Bingley had positively mooned over Miss Jane Bennet the entire evening while the remainder of the Bennet family made a complete spectacle of themselves. She had planned to enlist Mr. Darcy's aid in confronting her brother during breakfast, but that gentleman had yet to return from his morning ride.
In the breakfast room with Miss Bingley and the Hursts, Mr. Bingley had announced that he would postpone his trip to London in favor of paying a call at Longbourn. Try as she may, Miss Bingley was unable to dissuade him. She had bemoaned the unsuitability of mixing with society in Meryton each day since their arrival, and to her brother, the rant sounded no different than it had each day previous. Mrs. Hurst did point out the impropriety of calling so shortly after the ball, but her brother simply responded that propriety be hanged, he wanted to see Miss Bennet, and he could not imagine the Bennets objecting to his company. Mr. Bingley left the breakfast room and headed for the stables, wishing he had been wise enough to leave the house before breakfast as Darcy had.
Naturally this turn of events threw Miss Bingley into a vengeful fit of nerves. Her bitter monologue was immediately audible as Mr. Darcy entered the house before luncheon. Seeing that she was addressing the Hursts as their party moved away from him, he lightened his steps, hoping to reach the staircase unnoticed.
Unfortunately it was at this moment that Mr. Hurst turned around and bellowed, "Ah, Darcy, there you are. My wife and sister have been lamenting your absence. Do join us for luncheon!"
Having no means of politely excusing himself, Mr. Darcy fell into step behind the group pondering how convenient it was that Mr. Hurst chose this particular day to be sober and sociable.
"Surely you see the danger in this Mr. Darcy?" implored Miss Bingley from across the dining table. "To be paying call the morning immediately following the ball. Such a thing would never be attempted in town, the country manners of Meryton are such a poor influence on Charles!"
"I doubt the likelihood that anyone will begrudge your brother's attentions, though it may be a slight breach of propriety." Mr. Darcy replied evenly, reaching for his glass.
"Begrudge him!" Miss Bingley scoffed, "Certainly not, they rejoice at having caught him. The expectations he has already invited have surely been increased by his marked attention last evening. You must assist us, dear Mr. Darcy, in helping Charles to recognize the mistake he is making."
At this moment, Mr. Bingley entered the room with a beaming smile, which only diminished upon hearing his sister's words. Fortunately for Mr. Darcy, his attention was caught by Mr. Bingley's entrance before he could make an offensive reply.
"And what mistake have I made this time, Caroline?" her brother asked warily.
Miss Bingley started slightly, but with little shame at being overheard, immediately repeated her objections to her brother's interest in Miss Bennet.
"As much as I appreciate your concern, I see little use in attempting to dissuade me from the woman I love. On that note, I cannot abide your company if you insist on disparaging someone so faultless as Miss Jane Bennet. I shall retire for the remainder of the afternoon and return to you at dinner." With that, Mr. Bingley quit the room as quickly as he had entered it.
Elizabeth arrived home from the bookshop and found Jane in the garden clipping lavender stems and collecting them in a basket.
"Lizzy! There you are. We were beginning to be concerned at your absence, so I decided to work here in the garden and watch for you."
"I see, and your attending the garden had nothing to do with escaping our mother, Jane?" she asked teasingly. Jane smiled broadly in response as she continued, "Do not trouble yourself, dear sister, for if this is the secret behind your love of horticulture I will not be the one to tell Mama. Simply allow me the use of some blooms for a new batch of lavender water and you shall be assured of my silence on the subject."
"Of course Lizzy," replied Jane, giving her younger sister a sideways glance with a modest version of their father's twinkle in her eye. "I must admit mama did become rather exuberant when Mr. Bingley called on us."
"Oh Jane," giggled Elizabeth, "That certainly does account for your cheery mood, you seem almost giddy!"
"Yes Lizzy, surely you can understand my happiness! Mr. Bingley was perfectly charming as he declared that his thoughts were so fixated on all of his friends at Longbourn this morning that he could not help but visit."
"Yes, I'm sure he was all anticipation for a good chat with Mr. Collins, discussing dance partners with Lydia, and finishing out his morning looking at Mama's new Irish lace! How kind of him to say that he looked forward to seeing us all, though I'm sure your Mr. Bingley only had eyes for you as he said it."
At the last, Jane blushed and changed the subject to avoid further doses of her sister's teasing. "Mama was quite concerned for Mr. Collins, Lizzy. The two of them searched the house for a quarter of an hour looking for you this morning. Mr. Collins spent much of his time this morning asking after your return, but I believe he has now gone to visit Mr. Martin at the church. Mama was indeed quite beside herself until she spied Mr. Bingley coming up the drive."
Elizabeth knew her sister well enough to translate Jane's restrained comments as meaning her mother had been frantic and Mr. Collins had spent the morning lying in wait to stalk her as prey. She could very well imagine her mother's erratic behavior, calling for smelling salts to relieve her distress over Elizabeth's disappearance, only to be instantly cured when Mr. Bingley arrived. She entered the house, grateful for the empty hallway that allowed her to sneak upstairs to her room unnoticed. With a mischievous smile, she tossed her bonnet aside and sat down to pen the teasing response she had thought up during her walk home.
Elizabeth came down for luncheon only to be scolded by Mrs. Bennet for running off again and missing Mr. Bingley's call.
"Of course what should your company mean to Mr. Bingley!" lamented Mrs. Bennet, "Except that you may provide yourself as a convenient chaperone. He should have proposed today if you had been home instead of sticking your nose in every book in the county!"
"Surely Mama, Jane's beauty is such that Mr. Bingley will be unable to restrain himself from calling again regardless of my absence today. In fact, if Mr. Darcy were to have accompanied him, my tolerable appearance may have proved so little tempting as to drive the man away with Mr. Bingley in tow."
"Oh, hang Mr. Darcy! What is he to you, pray? You, Lizzy would do better to concern yourself with how you are depriving Mr. Collins of your company. You disappeared this morning before any of us were down for breakfast, only to return so late that now Mr. Collins has gone to pay his respects to the rector. You know how Mr. Martin's wife likes to carry on, and of course she will invite him to dine. Now one of their daughters will snatch him up and then what shall become of us!"
"Perhaps it is as you say, Mama. If he should betroth himself to one of the Miss Martins, we would hardly hear the end of his favorable opinion on the subject. However, should he return this evening unattached, I am sure Mr. Collins will happily continue to regale us with tales of the superior society of Lady Catherine DeBourgh."
"Oh child, your impertinence shall be the death of me!" Spat a flustered Mrs. Bennet, "You are determined to leave us starving in the hedgerows! You have already lost your chance today with Mr. Collins, although I doubt manners such as these will improve your ability to catch him tomorrow!"
"Mama," interrupted Jane, "Perhaps you would care for us to call on our Aunt Philips this afternoon? It may be a bit early to discuss the Netherfield Ball, but I believe she would enjoy our company."
"Yes! Oh Jane, you must tell her of your call from Mr. Bingley! We must not tarry and wait to call on her until tomorrow. It shall all go just as I have planned! Tomorrow you shall be at home, for Mr. Bingley shall call upon you again, and surely he will propose!"
Elizabeth gave Jane a grateful smile for once again diffusing their mother's displeasure. If only she had been able to do so without bringing up the topic of her expected union with Mr. Bingley, but subjects that did not drive Mrs. Bennet's thoughts to matrimony were few and far between.
Not one to typically enjoy the society of this particular aunt, on this occasion Elizabeth was delighted to visit their Aunt Philips, and she obediently joined her sisters above stairs to retrieve her bonnet and pelisse. Certainly Mary would be agreeable to stopping at the bookshop along the way to the Philips' home. After Jane had left the room, she pocketed a small note that would soon find itself lodged within the old, yet recently well-aired pages of certain novel.
Netherfield Park was no longer in uproar as dinner was a decidedly subdued affair. Miss Bingley was still at a loss for handling her brother's new-found confidence. She infinitely preferred his typical cheery and bendable manner, as it was far easier to manipulate. As soon as the meal was finished, Mr. Bingley excused himself, asking if Mr. Darcy would care to join him in the library.
"Are you planning on escaping the house at an ungodly hour again tomorrow?" Mr. Bingley asked while pouring a glass of port for each of them.
"Forgive me, I meant no slight to your hospitality by being absent for so long, but yes, I was planning to ride into Meryton in the morning."
"No apologies necessary. I have always understood your desire to avoid my sister's company and given her behavior since we arrived in Hertfordshire, I'm inclined to avoid her myself. There is some business I have in town as well, might I join you?"
"Certainly, Bingley. I would never be adverse to your company."
"I may not be prepared to leave at first light, as I do enjoy a good breakfast before leaving the house, but if you do not mind waiting for me, I promise to be ready to depart before my sisters make an appearance."
Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy rode away from Netherfield Park the following morning. Mr. Bingley wore his usual contented grin and Mr. Darcy tried to mask his apprehension, silently cursing himself for not thinking to simply purchase the copy of A Political Romance the day before. On their way towards Meryton, Mr. Darcy enquired as to the time of Mr. Bingley's appointment in town.
"Appointment? No my ‘business' is nothing of a serious nature. I actually just wished to visit a few shops and see if anything catches my eye. Miss Bennet was truly angelic at the ball, her hair adorned with the tiniest sparkling hairpins. I complimented her on them, and she mentioned that they were a particular favorite of hers, an heirloom from her grandmother. It put me in mind to give her a gift of equal beauty that she might have a treasure to remind her of myself as well. Would you care to accompany me?"
Mr. Darcy expression hardened as he replied, "Join you in a shop full of ladies frippery? I think not. And besides, a gift Bingley? I doubt that would be appropriate given your current situation with the lady."
"Not you too Darcy!" Bingley laughed, "You have already heard my sisters voice their concerns on that score. I am perfectly aware that my admiration of Miss Bennet has been plain for the neighborhood to see, but as my intentions are honorable, I see no reason to dampen my displays of affection."
"Bingley, I would be the last person to doubt your honor, but for Miss Bennet to receive a gift from a gentleman who is not her betrothed...surely you see the risk to her reputation?"
"I say Darcy, I had not thought of it in those terms. I shall simply have to rectify the situation before I present any gifts to my lovely Jane! Certainly there would be no impropriety in my lavishing her with all the finery she deserves after I propose!" Observing his friend's startled countenance he added, "Come man, surely you know I cannot go much longer without asking Jane to become my wife. I simply need the opportunity!"
With that, Mr. Bingley grinned and raised a playful brow at Mr. Darcy before urging his horse into a gallop. The two gentlemen raced across the fields until the village of Meryton came into sight. Mr. Bingley tipped his hat to his friend as he headed towards the goldsmith's shop while Mr. Darcy continued on to pay another visit to Mr. Awdry's back shelves.
Mr. Darcy was the first patron to enter Mr. Awdry's bookshop that morning. Certainly it appeared unusual that he should require any additional books after coming in twice the previous day. Mr. Awdry merely shrugged his shoulders at the idea. As long as this rich gentleman continued to purchase a few titles each time, he was welcome to enter the shop as often as he liked.
After making a good show of perusing the shelves and selecting a few books, Mr. Darcy moved to back corner of the store, removing the book he had cursed all the way back to Netherfield Park the day before. He carefully thumbed the pages. Irrational as it may be, he hoped somehow his note was overlooked the previous day and could now be retrieved. His breath caught in his chest as he found a folded sheet of paper, tucked in the same location, but definitely not the sheet he had left the morning before. Too shocked to dare opening the inexplicable note, he discreetly moved it to his pocket and paid for his purchases. The mysterious paper burned in his pocket as he left the shop. As much as he had intended to read the note in the privacy of his room at Netherfield, he was not half a mile from Meryton before he sought out a secluded grove to satisfy his curiosity. He took a deep restorative breath as he pulled the note from his pocket and unfolded it to read the following:
While I cannot pretend to be an expert on great battles nor minor skirmishes within one's own person,
I must say that after defeating the heart, the mind shall miss its counterpart exceedingly.
Mr. Darcy's countenance took a sour turn as he read the teasing words before him. Though he had not known what to expect, he certainly had not anticipated such a mocking response. Surely there were very few people aside from Colonel Fitzwilliam with the gall him tease him in the face of his imperious nature. All the more disturbing was the truth made evident by the writer's elegant script, it was clearly written in a feminine hand. As he read the note again, his serious mien was broken by a slight twisting of his lips. The note was impertinent, but certainly she, whoever she may be, could not have known the identity of her recipient. That this woman would not only remove his note, but replace it with a response showed a very singular type of wit. He could not but find some amusement in the way his own words had been intentionally misconstrued. Mr. Darcy shook his head and chuckled, placing the note back into his pocket as he leisurely returned to Netherfield Park.
The rest of Mr. Darcy's day was as peaceful as he could have expected. Miss Bingley's agitation was only increasing with each day their party remained in Hertfordshire. She was further incensed when Mr. Darcy returned alone, stating that her brother would again be spending the day at Longbourn. When Mr. Bingley did return to Netherfield, he was greeted by a stream of complaints, which he completely ignored as he went above stairs to dress for dinner.
That evening, Mr. Darcy resigned himself to spending the following day catching up on his business affairs, which would include writing to his steward and London housekeeper that he would stay on in Hertfordshire for some time. After requesting use of Mr. Bingley's study on the morrow, he retired to his rooms. Before he rang for his valet, he remembered the note still tucked into the pocket of his waistcoat. He had already determined while riding back to Netherfield that leaving a response in the morning was absolutely essential. The mocking words he had read challenged and intrigued him. Though it would occur under rather odd circumstances, this written debate would certainly prove to be much more of an entertainment than the drawing room conversation available at Netherfield. Sitting at his writing desk, Mr. Darcy readied his pen and quietly declared, "Very well madam -- let the games begin!"
No one was surprised to see Mr. Bingley riding up the drive at Longbourn before the youngest Bennets had even dressed for company the next day. He was all smiles and friendliness as he joined the family for breakfast and took what was now generally thought of as his seat, which was of course beside Jane. Mr. Bennet was quite amused by the gentleman known in his mind as Jane's barnacle, but took no offense at his undeclared intentions. He much preferred to watch this charade of a courtship come to its natural conclusion and teased that it would be most economical for all involved if Mr. Bingley simply took a room at Longbourn. At first, this had alarmed Mr. Bingley, and fearing he had offended Mr. Bennet, he stuttered his apologies for calling so frequently. A glance at the mirth misting over the older man's eyes and a gentle smile from Jane were all it took for Mr. Bingley to know all was well.
After the meal, Mrs. Bennet suggested a stroll in the garden to her two oldest daughters the men she considered to be their future husbands. Mr. Bingley enquired about a meadow he had seen on his rides from Netherfield. Elizabeth was quick to comment on the beauty of the location, explaining that she and Jane had often walked there as children and she could still remember looking up at her older sister as she made daisy chains to adorn their hair. Not being a man of great stamina, Mr. Collins begged off and headed towards the library. Mrs. Bennet narrowed her eyes at her second daughter as they left the house, unable to understand her most ungrateful child. Try as she would to arrange an opportunity for Mr. Collins to propose, Elizabeth thwarted her plans at every turn. It was as though she had no desire to catch Mr. Collins at all!
Again Mr. Bingley returned to Netherfield in the late afternoon, not joining company until they were to dine. After dinner, Mr. Bingley again excused himself to retire to his rooms, much preferring to daydream of Miss Bennet than observe his sister's harsh countenance. No sooner had he left the room than Miss Bingley addressed Mr. Darcy, imploring him to convince Mr. Bingley to return to town at once.
"I apologize madam, but that I shall not do."
Miss Bingley paled as Mr. Darcy continued. "I agree her connections are less than ideal, and I have already related to him as much. However I abhor deceit of any kind and will not lure him to town under the pretense of a short trip with the premeditated intent of persuading him never to return to Hertfordshire."
"But surely, Mr. Darcy, you would not wish to see your friend continue with the false conviction that she returns his affections?"
He did question Miss Bennet's feelings for Mr. Bingley, and pitied his friend for the embarrassment he was sure to face through a connection to the inferior Bennet family. However Mr. Bingley was set on his course, and after all, this unofficial courtship had been taken too far for him to abandon Miss Bennet without exposing himself to censure. Seeing no reason for his friend to leave and harboring his own desire to stay in the neighborhood, Mr. Darcy replied, "I cannot detect a regard for him in her manner, but would require further observation of her countenance to be truly convinced of her indifference. As he seems determined to spend a great deal of time in company with Miss Bennett, I see no harm in my accompanying him on one of his future visits."
This statement earned the response Mr. Darcy had intended. Miss Bingley blanched and clearly struggled to form a suitable reply. Unwilling to disagree with the object of her aspirations, yet unable to agree with a visit to Longbourn, Miss Bingley quietly made her excuses to retire for the evening.
Posted on Wednesday, 21 May 2008
Elizabeth was becoming quite vigilant in her morning ritual of walking out early to avoid Mr. Collins. Normally she did not take quite such early walks in such cold weather, but even if she did catch a cold, she would be grateful for the excuse to remain above stairs in a room which propriety would not allow Mr. Collins to enter. Though often frustrated by her mother's lack of understanding, she was glad Mrs. Bennet was not resourceful enough to conjure up the notion of rising early and preventing her from making her escape. Her efforts became worthwhile when she reached the bookshop and opened A Political Romance to find another note tucked within its pages. She had not been certain of finding another note, but many of her acquaintance were drawn to her sharp wit and playful manner. She hoped this unknown gentleman had wit enough to attempt a verbal sparring match with her and be equally intrigued by the oddity of their means of communication. She was delighted to see he had attempted to rise to the challenge, and was unable to restrain a large smile and the tiniest of giggles. Unfortunately her outburst did not go entirely unnoticed, and as she turned away from the bookshelf, she found herself under the scrutiny of Mr. Awdry's questioning glance. She blushed lightly and moved over to a rack of fashion plates in a poor attempt of showing them to be the reason for her excitement. Mr. Awdry merely shook his head, wondering at Miss Bennet's uncharacteristic behavior and frequent visits.
As she returned to Longbourn, Elizabeth strolled slowly along the path, already formulating her reply as she read the following.
November 29, 18__
A person can hardly allow their heart to run reckless, with its emotionally driven and changeable desires. Indeed it shows a great strength of character to only act on carefully considered, logical conclusions. Forgive me if this concept is less exciting than the romantic notion that one should forsake everything else they hold dear in the name of following their heart?
Elizabeth made sure the note was concealed before the Longbourn came into view. She quietly entered the house and spent a few moments refreshing herself in her room before joining the family for breakfast.
Though his intent to visit was only expressed to vex Miss Bingley, Mr. Darcy reluctantly joined Mr. Bingley in calling on Longbourn. He could not yet disagree with Miss Bingley's opinion of the Bennets, however he acknowledged that his friend's honor was engaged, and there was little choice but to accept the inescapable match. Mr. Bingley was as determined to see Miss Bennet as ever, and the two men arrived scarcely a quarter hour after breakfast. As the gentlemen were announced, Elizabeth said a silent prayer of gratitude for Mr. Bingley's early arrival, as it would again shield her from Mr. Collins' attentions. Elizabeth knew Mrs. Bennet would be so focused on devising an opportunity for Mr. Bingley to propose that she would be distracted from providing the same service to Mr. Collins. So engrossed was she in these musings that Elizabeth scarcely noticed Mr. Darcy entering the room behind Mr. Bingley. Catching his intent stare in direction, she released a sighed. She may have to spend the morning in Mr. Darcy's disdainful company, but at least his presence would be an additional buffer between herself and Mr. Collins. Foolish as her cousin may be, he could hardly propose marriage in a room full of guests.
Mrs. Bennet immediately signaled for Mr. Bingley to be seated beside Jane. Before her mother could direct an unwelcome companion to the seat beside her, Elizabeth stood and moved to speak with Jane and Mr. Bingley.
Mr. Darcy stood behind the sofa upon which Jane and Mr. Bingley were seated, ostensibly admiring the view of Longbourn's gardens from a nearby window. His intention had been to observe Miss Bennet, but at present he overwhelmed with emotions that justified his resolve to limit his time in Miss Elizabeth's company. He realized how mistaken he had been in presuming that he could meet her with indifference and feared his admiration would be evident in his features. He replayed his decisions from the night of the Netherfield Ball, and all the reasons he could not allow her to tempt him.
Mr. Darcy's thoughts were interrupted by Mr. Bingley's voice.
"Wouldn't you agree Darcy?"
Mr. Darcy cleared his throat. "Yes, I suppose I would," he answered carefully, having not the slightest idea what he had agreed to.
"Wonderful. Miss Bennet, perhaps you might suggest where we shall walk today? I particularly enjoyed your meadow yesterday; the stories of your childhood memories there were truly enchanting."
Jane blushed and answered softly, "Thompson's pond was another favorite of our youth, particularly for Lizzy. It may be too muddy to approach the bank with all the rain we have had this past week, but there is a nice wooded path circling it, and it is a relatively short distance from here, not more than a mile."
Mrs. Bennet was quick to arrange the walking party. "Yes, that will do very well Jane, you always have such elegant taste."
Mrs. Bennet scanned the room, formulating the best way to arrange the three single men in her drawing room for a walk with her daughters. Obviously Mr. Bingley should walk out with Jane, she thought, but what of Mr. Darcy? Proud and disagreeable he may be, but he had chosen to come with his friend, and the opportunity must not to be overlooked. He is rather bookish, alike to Lizzy and Mary, but Lizzy is for Mr. Collins and Mary would never catch the eye of such a man. Lydia deserves such a rich man, if only she was not already engaged to spend the morning with Mrs. Forster, oh well, she would not look at a man without a red coat anyway. That leaves Kitty, she is nothing to Lydia's liveliness or Jane's beauty, but yes, I believe she shall do rather nicely.
"Mr. Darcy, I am sure Kitty would be glad to accompany you, and Lizzy, of course you should like to walk with Mr. Collins." With a nod of her head, Mrs. Bennet waved her handkerchief, dismissing them to retrieve their wraps and considering the matter settled.
Startled expressions were clear on the faces of two members of the proposed group upon hearing Mrs. Bennet's arrangements, but neither Mr. Darcy nor Elizabeth would have thought to commiserate with the other. Once the party exited the house, Mr. Collins hastened to Elizabeth's side and offering his arm, placed her hand upon his elbow before she had a chance to refuse. Kitty only took the briefest glance at Mr. Darcy's stern countenance before turning to walk with Elizabeth and Mr. Collins, leaving the intimidating man to follow them at his leisure.
Mr. Darcy was well suited to his position at the rear of the group, as no conversation was required of him and he had ample opportunity to survey the others. Upon observing Miss Bennet, he was surprised to see resemblances of the gentle manner in which his mother used to address his father. His mother had always spoken softly, a reflection of her calm disposition, and as his sister had inherited this trait, he could not but see the same in Miss Bennet. The lady did seem more open with Bingley away from her mother. He now suspected her conduct was parallel to his behavior amongst society mamas. Many of his acquaintances from Cambridge had younger sisters, and he could scarcely speak a civil word to the young ladies out of respect for their brothers without raising expectations. Miss Bingley was a prime example, and unfortunately she was one of many.
Mr. Darcy also observed the interaction between Mr. Collins and Miss Elizabeth. Mr. Collins did not seem to be a dangerous man, he was simply irritating, but he was completely oblivious to the exasperation clearly written on Miss Elizabeth's face. Mr. Darcy had observed a similar reaction at the ball, and Mr. Collins' overtures had not diminished. His intentions were clear and there could be no impediment to a marriage between the two considering his position as the heir to Longbourn. He could not but feel sympathy upon seeing her endure Mr. Collins' company, regardless of the fact that she would soon be bound to him for the rest of her days.
Finally the walking party reached a knoll overlooking the pond, and seeing the small bench situated at its crest, Mr. Bingley offered Jane the opportunity to sit and rest. Mr. Bingley then turned to converse with Mr. Darcy as Mr. Collins rambled on to no one in particular about the surrounding flora and how such specimens would thrive at his parsonage under the advice of Lady Catherine. Elizabeth gladly took the opportunity to quit her cousin's company and seated herself beside Jane. Unfortunately, upon witnessing her movement, Mr. Collins moved to stand beside her, and his comments alternated between courting his cousin and displaying reverence to the nephew of his patroness.
As Mr. Collins' monologue continued, Mr. Darcy turned his head away from the rest of the party and stared into the horizon. Elizabeth grew angry that he would willingly arrive at Longbourn only to stalk off as though they were unworthy of his attention. He was under no obligation to mix with Meryton society if he found their company insufferable. If only she could have read his thoughts, she would have known it was only Mr. Collins he found insufferable, and on that subject, they were in perfect agreement.
Observing that he had lost Mr. Darcy's attention, Mr. Collins finally ended his speech. Sensing the awkwardness of the moment, Mr. Bingley attempted to dissolve the tension.
"Well then, shall we return?"
Closing her eyes, Elizabeth lowered her head and breathed a small sigh of relief as Mr. Bingley offered his arm to Jane and the couple moved away from the bench.
Elizabeth opened her eyes and was surprised to see not a pale and clammy hand, but a firm masculine one reaching to assist her. Looking up to see Mr. Darcy's stern countenance, she took his hand and murmured her thanks. Seeing that the rest of the party was walking towards the path, Elizabeth removed her hand from Mr. Darcy's and turned to follow. Mr. Darcy hesitated, clearing his throat before moving to walk beside her.
After a few moments of silence, Elizabeth addressed her companion. "I am surprised to see you visiting at Longbourn, sir."
"I had not thought you approved of your friend's intimacy with certain families in the neighborhood."
"If you refer to your own family and more particularly to your sister, Mr. Bingley's honor is now engaged and I see little option for recourse that would not damage his reputation as well as hers." replied Mr. Darcy, clearly showing that he was reluctant in his acceptance to the match.
Elizabeth turned to look at him sharply, "Yes, I suppose he is now among the men in the neighborhood who deserve our pity for their bad fortune."
"I would not think a man ought blame bad fortune for result of his own actions."
"And what of those who lives have been influenced by the actions of other men? Are they also unworthy of regard?"
Mr. Darcy's countenance darkened as replied, "I gather you no longer refer to Mr. Bingley, but rather a member of the militia."
"How very astute of you, sir. I refer to the very one. Or are there so many men you have cast off that it is difficult for you to keep track of them all?"
Ignoring the latter portion of her remark, he replied in a measured tone, "I could hardly consider myself a gentleman if I had not severed all acquaintance with that......rogue." He turned away as he practically spat the last word, unwilling to pass Wickham's name from his lips.
"Yes, as the son of a steward, he must be devoid of honor and integrity, even after receiving the same education as any gentleman. It is quite interesting sir, that I have heard several remarks from yourself and Miss Bingley implying a disreputable nature in Mr. Wickham's character, yet I have drawn no evidence to support such claims from his manner or his history with your family."
"And yet you have reached your conclusion so decidedly while only considering that scoundrel's estimation of his own worth?" he retorted quickly, his face alight with agitation. "A villain of the worst kind can acquit himself where there is no testament of the truth to refute him."
"And who better to provide such a testimony than yourself, Mr. Darcy?" Elizabeth glared into his eyes, daring him to further vilify himself.
Mr. Darcy paused and glanced back and forth, seeming to gather himself before he continued walking, and stated evenly, "I have no desire to discuss his dealings with my family, and am under no obligation to relinquish my privacy. Mr. Wickham's character is displayed well enough through his disreputable habits, leaving debt and disappointment everywhere he goes."
Elizabeth was mollified slightly by display. At least he showed a good deal of concern over the matter, where she had believed him to have cast the man off nonchalantly as a pebble in his shoe. "Certainly you have a right to keep your privacy, sir, but as to your reasoning for doing so, I must point out one major flaw. If he were so dishonorable a man as you claim him to be, the traits you describe would hardly make themselves known until the damage has been done, leaving little opportunity for recourse to those he has used ill. Does that not place a man with your knowledge of his character under some obligation to expose him for the protection of those who unknowingly cross his path?"
Mr. Darcy widened his eyes in exasperation. "Would you have me follow him everywhere he goes, from Devonshire to Scotland, warning the general populous away from placing their trust in him?"
Elizabeth observed that he seemed rather frustrated by her implications. She turned away to hide her amusement as the image of "Sir Darcy, Defender of the Innocent" riding from county to county appeared in her head.
"No sir, I would hardly expect you to play the part of a knight in shining armor. However," she continued seriously, "if Mr. Bingley knew of a true threat to my family or the neighborhood in general, I imagine he would at least concern himself enough to warn my father of it."
Both fell silent at this, and continued on until Longbourn came into sight. Elizabeth felt exhausted from first dealing with her cousin's senseless conversation and then arguing with the most disdainful man she had ever met. So absorbed was she in her anger at Mr. Darcy, she neglected to think on how his choosing to accompany her had kept Mr. Collins from her side. Mr. Darcy continued to silently berate himself for multiplying his folly by not only agreeing to the excursion, but walking beside Elizabeth on their return. Not only had she been infuriating, she had been right, and he was left feeling obligated to address Mr. Bennet regarding the scoundrel befriending his daughters.
Upon returning to the house, the party had only reassembled in the drawing room for a few minutes before Mr. Darcy announced that he would be taking his leave. Mr. Bingley bid farewell to Mr. Darcy, asking him if he would be so kind as to inform Miss Bingley that he would be dining at Longbourn. He then returned his attention back toward Jane. As Mr. Darcy left the room, Elizabeth moved to take a chair very near the sofa where Jane was seated with Mr. Bingley at her side. She was sorry to ingratiate herself into their conversation, but would not risk being seated alone in Mr. Collins presence. Mrs. Bennet called to Elizabeth, accusing her of interrupting a private conversation, but Mr. Bingley was kind enough to dissolve the situation. He declared that Miss Elizabeth was no interruption at all, and he would be pleased to hear another delightful story of Jane's childhood days.
When the ladies retired to dress for dinner, Elizabeth was pleased to remember the note she had retrieved earlier in the day. Never being one to take long in her preparations, particularly for a family dinner at home, she quickly changed her gown and straightened her hair before pulling out her writing supplies.
The following day was Sunday, and while two persons currently residing in Hertfordshire were disappointed to have the locked doors of Mr. Awdry's bookshop separating them from a certain book, the rest of the populous prepared for church.
Mr. Bennet escorted his wife and five daughters to their family pew, greeting friends and neighbors along the way. The Netherfield party had already arrived, Mr. Darcy and the Hursts were already seated, and Mr. Bingley was standing in the aisle conversing with Mr. Long.
"Good morning Mr. Long, Mr. Bingley." greeted Mr. Bennet.
"Yes, a pleasure to see you this morning, Mr. Bennet, Mrs. Bennet." replied Mr. Bingley. Turning to their daughters he added, "Ladies, I trust you are all well this morning."
As the Miss Bennets rose from their curtsied replies, Mrs. Bennet gave her eldest daughter a slight nudge, unaware that her daughter hardly needed encouragement to address the handsomely smiling gentleman before them.
"We are all quite well, sir, thank you." Jane answered demurely. "The weather has continued to be rather fine, and we all enjoyed the opportunity to walk to the service this morning."
"I also observed that is quite pleasant out. Perhaps you would allow me to escort you home, Miss Bennet?"
"I believe I can answer for my daughter that she could enjoy your company, and if you would be so kind as to remain with us for luncheon, she could wish for little else." Mr. Bennet cut in, "But if you will excuse us, I believe Mr. Martin is ready to begin."
Mr. Bingley nodded his agreement as the Bennets moved towards their pew.
Mr. Collins had left for the church earlier than the Bennet family, but his brief separation from the family did not save Elizabeth from finding him seated beside her during the service. As they rose to sing the first hymn, she was pleasantly surprised to hear that he did not sing off-key, however the inflection in his voice as he gave his own importance to the words prevented any enjoyment of his performance.
After the service, Mr. Bingley joined the Bennet family as they spoke to their acquaintances. As the crowd thinned, Mrs. Bennet began her usual orders to arrange the party for the walk home. Jane was already on the arm of Mr. Bingley, and the two were wandering towards the parish garden.
"Oh, Lizzy dear," cooed Mrs. Bennet, the tone of her voice forewarning Elizabeth that something was afoot, "I believe Mr. Collins is still in the sanctuary speaking with Mr. Martin, go in and let him know the family is preparing to walk home. Be sure to collect Jane and Mr. Bingley on your way out." She gave her daughter a large wink, and taking her husband's arm, walked in the direction of Longbourn with her three youngest daughters in tow. Elizabeth knew her father too well to doubt that he was aware of Mrs. Bennet's scheme, however she also knew him well enough to know that he would prefer to hasten his steps to his library than attempt to dissuade his wife.
Not long after the eldest Miss Bennets and their admirers had left the church, Elizabeth observed a certain nervousness in Mr. Bingley's countenance. Noting the frequency with which he placed his hand over his breast pocket, she recalled that this was his first opportunity for a moment alone with Jane. She discounted the times her mother had ushered everyone from the room left the two alone as a pair of goldfish in a teacup. She could easily understand his reluctance to propose under such strained circumstances, knowing Mrs. Bennet was listening at the door, ready to burst in at any moment. Elizabeth summoned her courage, and soon allowed Mr. Bingley and Jane to trail behind.
Conversation between the two had been very stilted since leaving the church, and Jane's concern was mounting, until suddenly Mr. Bingley stopped short and turned to face her.
"Miss Bennet, I am sure you are aware of my regard, but I have longed for the opportunity to speak freely of my feelings for you. May, I?"
"You may." Jane answered in little more than a whisper.
"Oh my dear Jane," he replied, taking her hands in his, "From the moment I first saw you at the assembly, I was enchanted. You are truly the most beautiful woman of my acquaintance and I have never known a tenderness or compassion such as I have found in you. I have long since been unable to think of my future without your comforting presence and I long to know that I shall never again face a day without you by my side." He dropped down on one knee, pulling an elegantly crafted ring from his pocket, "Miss Jane Bennet, please tell me you will fill my days with pure joy and consent to be my wife."
At that moment, Mr. Bingley knew no amount of teasing would ever cause him to hide his well-known smile, as he saw its equal in his beloved's face. Upon hearing her soft "yes", he slid the ring into its rightful place on her finger. Looking again at her brilliant smile, he could no longer restrain himself, rising from his knee to catch his beloved Jane about the waist, lifting her as he spun in a circle, laughing with elation over finding pure bliss.
Still chuckling, he placed her back on her feet, and returned her hands to his. "Forgive me Jane, you have made me so happy, I seem to have forgotten myself."
"Believe me, Mr. Bingley," she met his gaze, displaying her emotions as boldly as she would dare,"there is nothing to forgive."
"Jane, if it is agreeable to you, I would love to hear you call me Charles."
"I would like that...Charles."
Jane could not keep a smile from her face as she said his name. She had thought of him as Charles for so long, but had not dared to speak so aloud, even to Elizabeth.
"Jane," he said softly, placing a hand on her rosy cheek, "Do I ask too much...I would very much like to kiss you."
Embarrassed, Jane nodded slightly in response, and so it was that she received a very gentle first kiss.
They gazed into one another's eyes, their trance being broken as Mr. Bingley once again laughed with his overwhelming happiness and she laughed softly in return. Turning again towards Longbourn, they spoke of the joy they found in one another, and Mr. Bingley asked when he might speak to her father.
"I am sure Papa would be happy for you to speak to him as soon as you wish, I simply cannot wait to tell Lizzy."
"Let us speak to her now if it pleases you, we should catch up to them sho.....I say, Collins!!" Mr. Bingley shouted. He was quite alarmed to look down the road and see two familiar figures walking rather close together. With a backwards glance at Jane, he ran towards the pair, observing the odious man holding Elizabeth on his arm rather closely to himself, leaning in as he spoke to her. A horrified expression was evident on Elizabeth's face when she turned her head at the sound of Bingley's voice. Within moments, Mr. Bingley reached the couple, with Jane gracefully hurrying herself along in his wake.
"I say Collins," said Mr. Bingley, looking sharply at his future cousin, "we did not realize we had lost sight of you." As Mr. Collins remained oddly silent, but kept himself leeched to the lady beside him, Mr. Bingley turned to address his future sister. "Is everything alright?"
"It is, Mr. Bingley." she replied, finally managing to loosen her captor's grasp, though not able to remove herself completely. "I was just telling Mr. Collins we should have slowed our pace or turned to find you."
"I apologize for neglecting you, Miss Elizabeth."
At this moment Jane arrived, and Mr. Bingley smiled lightly at his new fiancé as he continued, "I am sure Jane would enjoy your company on the short remainder of our walk home."
Jane had already moved to her sister's side, and as she took Elizabeth's free arm in hers, Mr. Collins finally relinquished the other.
"Thank you, Mr. Bingley." Elizabeth said earnestly, and turned with her sister to walk briskly in the direction of Longbourn. When they had obtained a reasonable distance from the men, Jane gently questioned her sister.
"Lizzy, I certainly hope nothing grievous occurred before Charles reached you? We should never have allowed you to be left alone with our cousin. I do not know how I could have been so absentminded."
Elizabeth relaxed as she let out a frustrated sigh, "Truly it was nothing of consequence, I cannot forget it soon enough and I am merely grateful no one bore witness to it but yourself and ‘Charles'." Elizabeth raised her eyebrows as she spoke Mr. Bingley's new appellation. "And may I ask how it is that now you are to be called ‘Jane' and he is ‘Charles'?"
A broad smile again crossed Jane's features as she replied, "Lizzy, I am so happy to tell you! Charles has just proposed! He said was sure I had long been aware of his feelings and that he could not go on without knowing I would be by his side. It was everything I could have possibly imagined. Oh but Lizzy, what you must have endured in my absence, I shall never forgive myself."
"Nonsense, Jane. Any discomfort I experienced while having another ridiculous conversation with our equally ridiculous cousin was well worth it to see you so happy!"
Meanwhile a less pleasant conversation was had between the two gentlemen still standing halfway between the church and Longbourn.
"Mr. Collins, I must ask that you tell me what was occurring between yourself and Miss Elizabeth while Miss Bennet and I were separated from you."
Mr. Collins stood up straight, and raising his nose slightly, stated "I was simply flattering my betrothed with those little delicate compliments which are always acceptable to ladies."
"If I am not mistaken, sir, Miss Elizabeth is not your betrothed, nor does she consider your ‘compliments' to be acceptable."
"Oh but surely you see sir that my cousin and I have been designed for each other. Mrs. Bennet has readily given her blessing, and I am sure as Elizabeth becomes more accustomed to the manners which are appropriate between engaged persons, she will no longer feel the need to demure as is the habit of elegant females."
"I would not use a mother's blessing as reason to consider yourself formally engaged. I would also advise you to refrain from offending Miss Elizabeth, and let your behavior towards her be reflective of propriety. "
As Mr. Collins seemed unable to recognize any great difference in their opinions of his conduct, Mr. Bingley turned towards Longbourn and resolved to speak with Mr. Bennet on matters concerning not one of his daughters, but two.
Immediately after their midday meal, Mr. Bennet retired to his library. A few moments later a loud shriek was heard from the front parlor, signaling that Mrs. Bennet had noticed her daughter's engagement ring. Mr. Bingley took this as his cue to address Mr. Bennet, and a knock at the library door soon followed. Mr. Bennet bade his visitor to enter, and was not surprised in the least to see Mr. Bingley stride into the room, closing the door behind him. Before Mr. Bingley could be seated, Mr. Bennet began to speak.
"Ah, here you are, Mr. Bingley. Given the racket emanating from my parlor, I imagine you have finally asked for Jane's hand and are now here to request my blessing. I gladly give it."
Though stunned by Mr. Bennet's bluntness, Mr. Bingley was quick to acknowledge his consent. "You assume correctly, Miss Bennet was gracious enough to accept me during our walk from the church. I thank you for your blessing sir. I promise I will provide for your daughter well, and I love her very deeply."
"Yes, yes, very well then, I will not keep you from her." Mr. Bennet reached for his book as he spoke, subtly dismissing his future son from the room.
"I beg your pardon, sir, but there is another matter I would speak to you about." Mr. Bingley replied rather seriously as he seated himself across from Mr. Bennet.
Noting the serious tone of the ever-jovial man's voice, Mr. Bennet jerked his eyes up and nodded for him to continue.
"I am afraid the walk from the church was more eventful than you realize. Shortly after Miss Bennet accepted my suit, we bore witness to a rather disturbing scene between Mr. Collins and Miss Elizabeth."
"What?! Do not tell me that oaf has worked up the audacity to overstep his place. I demand to know exactly what occurred."
"Nothing of a compromising nature from what I observed, I only saw them walking rather closely to each other, which seemed to be as pleasing to him as it was disturbing to her, and he leaned closer in a familiar manner as he spoke. Of course as soon as I witnessed this, I moved to assist her. Miss Elizabeth was visibly distressed by his conversation and seemed very relieved by my interruption."
"Yes, well," Mr. Bennet visibly relaxed as he spoke, "I believe we are all distressed by conversation of any length with my cousin."
Concerned that Mr. Bennet did not appear to think the matter a serious one, Mr. Bingley continued, "I am sure you will be glad to know I reproved Mr. Collins quite thoroughly, pointing out the evils of his conduct. I fear, however, that he was not as receptive to my admonishments as perhaps he should have been."
"Thank you sir, that will save me the trouble of a most unpleasant and nonsensical conversation with my cousin. If you will send Elizabeth to me, I will speak with her to confirm the details of her walk home and ascertain that all is well."
"As you wish, sir." Mr. Bingley said with a twinge of resignation seeping into his voice. He attempted to mask his frustration in light of his newly found understanding with this gentleman's daughter. It seemed men of the Bennet line had a propensity for dismissing his opinions. Perhaps a few too many years yielding to his domineering sisters had weakened his ability to express himself forcefully. He had allowed his sisters to make his decisions when he lacked a strong opinion on the subject at hand, but as he would soon have a wife and four new sisters, this was a matter of importance.
A few moments later, Elizabeth occupied the seat Mr. Bingley had just vacated. She sat quietly waiting for her father to speak, apprehensive of how he would react the information Mr. Bingley had imparted. He may be offended enough to send Mr. Collin's away, but if believed her to be compromised, he may demand that she marry the odious man.
Seeing that his daughter would not offer her story without being prompted, Mr. Bennet broke the silence. "Well Lizzy, I have had an interesting account of your walk from church this morning. Mr. Bingley has expressed concern that Mr. Collins may have harmed you in some way, and saw him behaving very familiarly towards you. Though I find Mr. Bingley to be a rather trustworthy gentleman, I have doubts that my silly cousin would be foolhardy enough to accost you. Do be so kind as to enlighten me as to the details of your latest escapade with our outlandish relative."
"Oh Papa, please believe me he has not violated propriety in any extreme way. It is true that he held my arm closer than necessary, but it was his conversation that caused me distress."
"Yes, our distress at conversing with the man is a popular subject today, but I fail to see how this aspect has changed since the day of his arrival. I am glad to hear he has not disrespected you; Jane's young man was quite incensed at the display and gave Collins quite a lecture on his behavior. I suspect his overtures will be subdued in Mr. Bingley's presence. He shall leave us as planned at the end of the week; I cannot imagine that he would not heed the calling of the illustrious Lady Catherine deBourgh. Whatever notions he currently entertains regarding you will dissipate when he receives no invitation to return to Longbourn. Then, my dear, you shall be as rid of him as the rest of us."
"But Papa, he talks of nothing but how I shall like to be mistress of Hunsford Parsonage, and how he is certain Lady Catherine will approve of me! He speaks to me as though I am his betrothed, and none of my arguments to the contrary have dissuaded him."
"Come, come, Lizzy. Mr. Collins has not asked you for your hand nor approached me for his consent, and I am confident that if he were to trouble himself on either count, he would be soundly refused. Any person with half a wit would not take a word of his nonsense seriously. I advise you to see the humor in our cousin's harmless folly and give you leave to make as much sport of him as you like." With an amused smile, Mr. Bennet reopened his book and did not look up from it as he continued to speak. "I believe you have now spent more time in a stuffy library with an old man than is your wont on a sunny afternoon. Go on and join your sisters now as I am sure Jane would like to take Mr. Bingley into the garden. I am sure the poor man has heard his fill of pin money fine carriages by now."
The rest of the afternoon passed quickly. Mr. Bingley was happy to escort Jane into the garden, and Elizabeth was kind in her duties as chaperone, giving the couple relative privacy to relish in their new understanding. Mr. Collins spent the afternoon indoors, writing to his curate and going over passages for the sermon he would be giving in the Hunsford parish the following Sunday.
When all members of the house had retired for the evening, Jane looked at Lizzy's face in the mirror as she brushed out her sister's hair. They discussed the events of the day, Jane beaming at every mention of her beloved Mr. Bingley. She still felt a little awkward referring to him as Charles outside of her private thoughts, but whenever she let his Christian name slip out, she could not stop herself from sighing contentedly and gazing at the ring on her finger. At long last, the topic of Mr. Bingley had been nearly exhausted, and Jane reluctantly brought up her intended's conversation with Mr. Collins.
"Mr. Bingley was kind enough to relate to me the majority of his conversation with Mr. Collins, Lizzy. I am still very sorry you were placed in such an uncomfortable situation, but I was greatly comforted by Charles' assurances that we shall do our best to shield you from him. He is quite determined to be of use to his future sisters, and I admire him so greatly for his compassion."
"Jane, I shall be very glad to have your Mr. Bingley as my brother."
Posted on Tuesday, 27 May 2008
After the unpleasantness of her last walk, Elizabeth was glad to once again enjoy the outdoors in solitude. When Jane had left her room the previous evening, it had proved rather difficult to keep the events of the day from her mind. Her thoughts leapt between overwhelming happiness for Jane, and astonishment at Mr. Collins' persistence and her father's complete refusal to assist her at present. She had finally found distraction in lighting an extra candle and penning a response to the second note she kept hidden in the bottom of a small trunk. She now ambled along one of her favorite wooded paths, carrying her latest piece of teasing wit to deliver as soon as she was ready to turn towards Meryton. Little did she know that at the same moment, Mr. Darcy was turning his horse as far from Meryton as possible, knowing there was no use for venturing into Mr. Awdry's shop until the morrow.
Mr. Darcy was glad to ride directly to Meryton the following morning. He had spent the previous day once again in Mr. Bingley's study, going over his business correspondence. His steward was capable of handling nearly every aspect of the estate, as he had done out of necessity immediately following old Mr. Darcy's death, but he still preferred to be as involved as possible. Sighting the necessity of a few texts on agriculture for use with Mr. Bingley, Mr. Darcy once again entered the Meryton bookshop with an ulterior motive in mind. He exited the shop with a parcel in his hand and folded paper in his pocket, and leisurely rode in the direction of Netherfield Park. Once privacy had been gained on a sheltered path, he drew the missive from his coat and read the following.
Your comment on "romantic notions" puts me in mind to a current novel, which you most likely have never read as it is written by "a lady", wherein a Mr. Ferrars does not find happiness until he walks away from his fortune and chooses to live modestly, married to the woman he loves. If you doubt that a character who acts in such a way could exist as a hero in a published and well circulated work, the novel is entitled Sense and Sensibility.
Mr. Darcy had actually read the book, as Georgiana had been very eager to read it, and he preferred to be familiar with a text before it was permitted to her. He was reluctant to admit he had enjoyed it, and for more than the delightful conversation it provided with his sister. He was not immune to the positive aspects of a marriage based on affection; he simply did not believe such extreme depravities of situation could result in happiness outside of the realm of fiction. A novel would hardly be romantic if it expounded the difficulties that would inevitably befall its characters in the real world.
The next morning, Mr. Darcy could be seen leaving Mr. Awdry's establishment with yet another parcel of books. He had again arrived early to avoid meeting any of the local gentry while he attended his clandestine correspondence, and made a few more purchases to justify his presence in the eyes of the shopkeeper. At least the sparse library shelves of Netherfield Park provided ample excuse for his frequent need to purchase a few titles. Mr. Darcy returned to Netherfield to find the front rooms quiet and empty. He merely shrugged, assuming Mr. Bingley had departed for Longbourn the moment the last bite of his breakfast passed his lips, and the hour was still early for the rest of the household to descend the stairs. He made himself comfortable in the library, requesting that the footman inform any who would inquire that he was attending to his business affairs and was not to be disturbed for the remainder of the day.
The two single gentlemen residing at Netherfield Park deemed to join the ladies and Mr. Hurst as the evening meal commenced. The ladies kept conversation light and civil, having learned to keep any biting remarks regarding the local populous to be made out of their brother's hearing. As the dessert course was being served, Mr. Bingley addressed his sisters.
"Louisa, Caroline, as you have both been kind enough to extend your congratulations on my recent engagement, I am sure you are anxious to become further acquainted with your future sister. It is unfortunate that you have been unable to accompany me on my recent visits to Longbourn, but you will soon have the opportunity meet together as I have scheduled a dinner for the entire Bennet family here on Friday evening."
Mrs. Hurst grimaced slightly, and was formulating a civil response when Miss Bingley addressed her brother. "Now Charles, that is but two days hence, we cannot possible entertain on such short notice. I would suggest next week, but Louisa and I were planning a brief trip to town for our holiday shopping, were we not, dear sister?" Mrs. Hurst feigned awareness of this plan excellently, to which Miss Bingley nodded smugly as she continued. "When we return, we may examine our schedules and see if this dinner might be accomplished before the holidays."
Mr. Bingley's expression hardened as he replied in a firm tone, "I extended our invitation this afternoon, Caroline. The dinner will be held on the date I have already selected. If you are concerned, I am sure our housekeeper would be happy to assist you. Better yet, Mrs. Bennet is renowned throughout the neighborhood for her excellent dinner parties, and I am certain she and Jane would be delighted to coordinate the dinner with you. We can dispatch a note to Longbourn straightaway requesting for them to call on you in the morning."
Mr. Bingley listened to his sister with a placid smile. Concealing his amusement as she dissembled, contradicting her previous statement. "Oh Charles, none of that will be necessary! Why, after hosting the ball, certainly I can arrange a small dinner without assistance. It may not be a lavish affair, but I doubt the Bennet family will notice if it lacks the extravagance one would expect in town."
Satisfied with their conversation, and seeing that the meal was complete, Mr. Bingley suggested that the gentlemen might retire to the library. Mr. Hurst declined, reaching for the brandy bottle on the sideboard, while Mr. Darcy rose and bowed to the ladies before exiting the room with Mr. Bingley in his wake.
"So the Bennets shall be dining at Netherfield." commented Mr. Darcy once the gentlemen had gained the privacy of the library. "One might wonder if you will be able to keep yourself from Longbourn's door long enough for the family to prepare for the evening."
Mr. Bingley chuckled as he poured a glass for each of them. "Come, Darcy. You know as well as I it is only appropriate for me to invite them to dine, particularly in light of my sisters' reluctance to pay a congratulatory call on Miss Bennet. I recognize your distaste for her family, but I am confident even you can survive their company for one evening."
"And have you invited the riveting Mr. Collins to join the party?" Mr. Darcy asked his friend, as he accepted the proffered glass.
Mr. Bingley grimaced at the thought of dining with the loathsome clergyman. "I admit I did not mention him specifically, but as he is a guest in their home, I imagine the Bennets will have little choice but to allow him to accompany them."
"At least you will see less of your future brother once he returns to Kent. I, however, will have two persons triggering my desire to avoid Rosings."
"Brother?" Mr. Bingley asked with confusion, "Do you not mean cousin?"
Mr. Darcy rolled his eyes at his friend's naivety. "I realize nothing has been announced, but surely you see that Mr. Collins will marry Miss Elizabeth. I would not be surprised if Miss Bennet hopes the four of you might share a wedding day."
"Good heavens!" Mr. Bingley sputtered, nearly spitting out his drink. "Mr. Collins has certainly not been discreet regarding his intentions, but you cannot believe that Miss Elizabeth would subject herself to be shackled to such a man!"
"I can very well believe it. Granted the man is tedious company, but that is of little matter considering the eligibility of the match."
"I see, Darcy. I suppose then, there could be no objection to your marrying my sister as her 20,000 pounds make her an eligible match, unless of course you would prefer to marry your cousin."
The disgusted look on Mr. Darcy's face assured Mr. Bingley he had made his point, and he returned to the subject of Elizabeth Bennet. "I see that you understand Miss Elizabeth has much to consider aside from Mr. Collins' status as heir to Longbourn. The poor girl has tried to avoid his advances."
"What on earth do you mean Bingley?" Mr. Darcy asked with concern.
Mr. Bingley eyed his friend, not oblivious to his strong reaction. "As I said, Miss Elizabeth has never welcomed his attentions, and though I understand Collins has yet to propose, she would soundly refuse him. I observed him behaving an overly familiar manner and she was quite clearly distressed. I am glad Jane and I were able to intervene, and of course I tried to speak to Mr. Collins regarding his treatment of my future sister."
"That moronic clergyman imposed himself upon her? What else has been done? Why did you not speak to her father that he might order that snake of a man out of his house?" Mr. Darcy was nearly shouting as he spoke the last, quite clearly incensed at the idea of Mr. Collins in close proximity to Miss Elizabeth.
Mr. Bingley was now fairly certain of the meaning behind Mr. Darcy's heated response, whether or not the gentleman was prepared to admit it. "Easy there, Darcy. According to Miss Elizabeth, he did nothing more than hold her arm rather close and spout the same courting chatter while refusing to hear her entreaties that his attentions were unwelcome. I did speak with Mr. Bennet, and while I agree he should intercede, I could not convince him that the gravity of the situation merits such action. My daily presence at Longbourn shall go a long way in deflecting the man."
Mr. Bingley attempted to hide a smirk as he added, "I must say you are conducting yourself rather protectively towards Miss Elizabeth, dare I suspect you of jealousy towards Mr. Collins? If you are harboring tender feelings, I would be most surprised indeed, however that would certainly explain your behavior on our last visit." He dared not mention how well it would explain Mr. Darcy's behavior at that very moment.
Mr. Darcy turned away, returning his glass to the serving tray, and paused there, keeping his back to the room.
"I assure you I feel nothing of the kind, Bingley." he answered through gritted teeth. "If you would excuse me, I believe it is time I retired for the evening." Without turning back, Mr. Darcy left the room.
That night, Mr. Darcy was unable to keep his conversation with Mr. Bingley from his mind. The ball was now eight days past, and he thought he had since been moderately successful in driving Elizabeth from his mind. He had felt resentment towards the idea of her being married to Mr. Collins, but was able to push it aside as merely the lot any woman of her low station could expect in life. Assuming she would be happy to accept him made her just like any other mercenary woman of the ton. Knowing now that she would refuse such a man emphasized the independence spirit which had so thoroughly captivated him. Even if he could not consider her for his own wife, she did not deserve to continue to be chased by Mr. Collins.
On Thursday morning, Elizabeth was prevented from leaving the house, but not by the parent whose interference she feared most.
"Will you not join me in the library, Lizzy?" Mr. Bennet asked his favorite daughter.
Once they entered the library, Mr. Bennet sat behind his desk and leaned back, gazing at his daughter quizzically. Unaware of the reason for her summons, and anxious to search for another note, Elizabeth broke the silence.
"Is there some matter of import you wished to discuss with me Papa? I was just about to go into the village, and I would be happy to fetch something if it would save you the trouble of venturing forth."
"Into the village, eh, Lizzy? For a girl who professes her love of ambling through the countryside to any person willing to listen, you certainly have taken a fancy to the beauties found along the road to Meryton as of late."
Not knowing how to respond without revealing her true motivation, Elizabeth looked down at her hands. Mr. Bennet observed his daughter and raised his brow before he continued.
"I happened to stop into the bookshop yesterday afternoon, and had a most interesting conversation with Mr. Awdry. He was rather reluctant to discuss it, but nonetheless he related that you have come in rather frequently this past week, seeming very interested in his first editions, yet on each occasion, you have left empty-handed. You have never been a girl prone to overspending; tell me, has your mother insisted on spending all of your allowance on lace, or are the muddy conditions out of doors obliging you to spend your every farthing on a vast supply of fresh petticoats? Then again, I recall hearing that Mr. Awdry's nephew has recently come to help him, perhaps he has caught your eye? I must say you could do far better, but should you declare yourself hopelessly in love with the lad I suppose I may be willing to consent."
Elizabeth's eye went wide at her father's jest. "Oh Papa, I can hardly be enamored when I have yet to meet the young man. Besides, I have heard he cannot be a day over eighteen!"
"Never fear Lizzy," Mr. Bennet laughed, "I realize a girl must have her secrets, and I am sure yours are far less scandalous than those of your younger sisters. However, I should warn you that as I am now aware of your affinity for the bookshop, or perhaps the company found within, I shall take you up on your offer to fetch something for me. In fact, I am finding my library's selection rather dull and may send you to Mr. Awdry quite frequently in the near future."
Elizabeth and her father smiled at each other in silent understanding. As much as he would find amusement in hearing her story, he would not press her for information or prevent her from continuing this peculiar behavior.
Upon exiting the library, Elizabeth discovered that Mr. Bingley had arrived. Another delightful morning was spent in conversation with Jane's future husband, occasionally interrupted by Mr. Collins' commentary on the delights of finding one's future mate. The gazes cast in Elizabeth's direction after these comments were disturbing in more than one fashion to at least three parties forced to hear them. Jane and Mr. Bingley were quick to change the subject, and with very little effort, encouraged Mrs. Bennet to dominate the conversation with discussion of their wedding details.
After luncheon, Mrs. Bennet announced that her daughters and their young gentleman would like nothing better than walk in the garden. Once they had all quit the house, Jane asked Elizabeth to take a turn with her, and with a loving gaze at Mr. Bingley, released his arm and took up her sister's. Mr. Collins moved to follow them, but Mr. Bingley casually stepped into his path with a raised brow and stern expression. Mr. Collins' babbled about the delicate conversations which young ladies must be allowed to hold privately, and declared that he would spend his afternoon counting the windows. Longbourn was to be his future home after all, though it was nothing to Rosings Park. As Mr. Collins trotted off, Mr. Bingley shook his head and turned to rejoin Miss Bennet and her sister. Elizabeth took the opportunity to thank Mr. Bingley for his actions, and the trio enjoyed the gardens for a little over an hour before Mr. Bingley departed for Netherfield.
Not ten minutes after Mr. Bingley left Longbourn, Elizabeth smiled as her father called her into his library to suggest that she visit the bookshop in Meryton. If questioned, she was to inform her mother that he had given her explicit instructions for a purchase of import, and she was not to be waylaid for any reason, even if said reason was waiting for Mr. Collins to make ready to escort her.
As it was, her father did indeed have business with Mr. Awdry, for the moment she mentioned she had come in at Mr. Bennet's request; Mr. Awdry called for his nephew to bring out a crate that had just arrived from London. After a few minutes, the young man appeared, and Elizabeth hid her mouth behind her hand, so as not to reveal the smile that came forth in remembrance of her father's teasing. If she were of a flirtatious nature, perhaps her father would have been more accurate in his jest than he would have liked. Matthew Awdry's current situation would prevent him from being marriageable for a gentleman's daughter, but he was definitely an attractive young man. If only he would have joined the militia instead of working for his uncle, her youngest sisters would be in raptures. While the Mr. Awdrys were preparing the package for her father, Elizabeth was able to achieve her primary objective.
The introduction to young Mr. Awdry in addition to awaiting her father's parcel caused Elizabeth to remain in the shop longer than she had intended. She arrived home just as her sisters retired to dress for dinner, and was unable to find a moment alone to read the note. The evening meal could not move fast enough for Elizabeth's curiosity, and at the earliest moment, she pled fatigue. With a few reassurances to Jane that she was well, Elizabeth climbed the stairs and locked her door before opening the missive.
December 4, 18__
Mock me if you dare, but I have read Sense and Sensibility, and while I enjoyed the lady's style, I believe her story supports my point. Your Mr. Ferrars, champion of contentedness found in nothing more than his true love at his side, is also a man who does the honorable in the name Miss Steele only to be made a pauper, and find his brother in receipt of his fortune. The next we hear of him, his brother has gained the hand of Miss Steele, but Edward is glad to be free of the fiancé for whom he abandoned his fortune and declares his love for Miss Dashwood. Does this not show the error of following the fickle whims of the heart?
To hear that this man had read and even admitted to enjoying Sense and Sensibility took a few moments to absorb. When she had first read the book and recommended it to her father, he laughingly replied that never in his days would he read such drivel, but if he were ever so inclined to read of the heartache of others, the gossip columns of his newspaper would suffice. Granted this undisclosed gentleman had a rather cynical view, but nevertheless his expressing one at all was enough to illicit her teasing.
Before the sun rose on the day of Jane's engagement dinner at Netherfield Park, Mrs. Bennet was aflutter in making preparations for her daughters. Though the dinner would only consist of the family party, she was determined to show her daughters at their best. She had always believed one daughter connected well would raise their social standing, and this was her first opportunity to exhibit her daughters' elevated status. Mrs. Bennet had petitioned for new gowns from the moment the engagement had been announced, and the appeal was repeated daily, but Mr. Bennet had steadfastly refused. Mrs. Bennet was glad she had absolutely insisted on a new evening gown for Jane, and found solace knowing that gown would be picked up within the hour. As she merrily pointed out to Mr. Bennet, his refusal had not been extended to lace and ribbons, and therefore all of her daughters would accompany Jane to the milliners that they might accentuate their existing gowns. She gave strict instructions for their purchases and insisted they be allowed use of the carriage. Elizabeth was grateful for her mother's absence, as Jane would be amenable to selecting a few hair ribbons for her while she ventured into the bookshop instead.
Dinner at Netherfield Park was an enjoyable affair for some, and a rather trying affair for others. Mr. Bingley and Miss Bennet were inseparable for the entire evening, happily displaying their affections more openly as was now within the bounds of propriety. While most of the party looked upon the engaged couple's behavior with satisfaction, two did not. Miss Bingley had managed to avoid the subject of her brother's engagement since its formal announcement, no difficult feat as his frequent trips to Longbourn left them in each other's company but rarely. But however much she wished to forget that Jane Bennet would soon be here sister, she was unable to ignore a truth so openly displayed before her. Outwardly, Mr. Darcy appeared to be as aloof and disapproving as ever. In reality, he had observed that Elizabeth was as beautiful as she had been at the ball, and his inability to repress his emotions troubled him greatly. As to Mr. Bingley's engagement, he was resigned to the match, and even happy to see the mutual affection so evident between the two. However, his disgust at the behavior of Mrs. Bennet and her youngest daughters, combined with his still seething anger at Mr. Collins, covered his face with a haughty expression which many in attendance mistook for disapproval akin to Miss Bingley's. Fortunately, both unhappy parties were not inclined to voice their grievances, and the gaiety amongst the rest of the party continued as the dinner was announced.
Mr. Bingley had personally chosen the seating arrangements to ensure that Jane was by his side and his remaining guests were as comfortable as possible. As mistress of the house, he had placed his sister at the opposite end of the table, and placed Mr. and Mrs. Hurst to either side. Mr. Collins and Mrs. Bennet were placed near the Hursts, along with Lydia and Kitty. Mr. Bennet was seated next to Jane, leaving Mr. Darcy seated beside Elizabeth.
Elizabeth was very happy to celebrate her sister's engagement, and between herself and Mr. Bennet, the company was entertained with many charming tales of her youth. With each story, Elizabeth pointed out that while she might have inclined towards mischief, Jane seemed to have been born an angel and remained as such. Mr. Bingley joined in with anecdotes of his own younger days, and though Mr. Darcy contributed not a word as he was trying desperately not to lose himself in the charms of his dinner partner, the entire head of the table was grateful for their light and peaceful conversation.
The pleasant interaction could not survive the entire meal, however, as Mrs. Bennet addressed Mr. Collins, speaking loudly enough to overshadow all other conversation at the table.
"Mr. Collins, I am sure you have noticed how delightfully well in looks our Lizzy is this evening. I have always instructed her on how ribbons best accentuate her curls, and I am sure, sir, that you appreciate the extra effort she has taken this evening."
At this, many eyes darted towards Elizabeth while she turned away with apparent interest in a painting hanging behind Mr. Bingley. Mr. Darcy's eyes lingered longer than most as he stared openly into the intricate weaving of ribbons in Elizabeth's hair.
"Yes, my dear Mrs. Bennet. I daresay all of my fair cousins are in good looks this evening, and it is a comfort to see that cousin Elizabeth shall know how to properly present herself at Rosings Park, where we sure to be invited to dine with Lady Catherine deBourgh."
Mr. Darcy was still lost in Miss Elizabeth's curls, but snapped out of his reverie at Mr. Collins' mention of his aunt. He scowled and reached for his glass, wondering at the amused expression on Mr. Bennet's face. Little did he know that his emotions had been written clearly on his face as he gazed at Miss Elizabeth. Nor did he realize how fortunate he was that the only person in the room to notice, Mr. Bennet, found not alarm, but entertainment in the scene. The confused look on Mr. Darcy's face only increased Mr. Bennet's amusement. Mr. Darcy looked away, and seeing that Mr. Bennet was not to offer any explanation for his merriment, his mind turned to speculation. His reflections were interrupted anew as Lydia spoke up and addressed Mr. Bingley.
"Oh Mr. Bingley, I do wish you would have invited the regiment. This would have been such a merry party if they were present."
Mr. Bingley had opened his mouth to respond, but before he uttered a word, Mrs. Bennet asserted, "Yes, a few more men at the table would rounded out the seating arrangements quite nicely, though I must say my girls can attract the attention of men above the station of an officer."
Mrs. Bennet proceeded to look pointedly at Kitty, and then smile eagerly at Mr. Darcy, as though expecting a rejoinder. Mr. Darcy was obviously appalled and took a large sip of wine. Again Mr. Bennet was amused. If only his wife were not so engrossed in matching Elizabeth with Mr. Collins, she would see just which of her daughters could attract Mr. Darcy's attention.
The uncomfortable pause did not last long as Lydia loudly exclaimed, "Oh mama, you know how we all adore a man in his regimentals. I would particularly love to dine with Mr. Wickham, what cheery company he would be, and of course he is most handsome." Lydia's mention of her particular desire to dine with Wickham was all the fuel needed for Mr. Darcy to firmly resolve to speak with Mr. Bennet.
Dinner finally drew to a close, and Mr. Bingley reluctantly suggested a brief separation of the sexes. After a few minutes of Mr. Bingley's forlorn glances at the door, Mr. Darcy told him to go ahead and join the ladies, and asked Mr. Bennet if he might spare a few moments to have a word with him. Mr. Bennet was rather surprised to be addressed by the serious young man, but allowed Mr. Darcy to lead him to the library as their host quickly disappeared into the drawing room.
"I appreciate your complaisance in speaking with me, Mr. Bennet. I assure you this matter should not take up much of your time."
"Well I hope it is nothing too serious, as it has already led you to speak far more words than I have ever heard you string together." Mr. Bennet chuckled. The look on Mr. Darcy's face made evident that he was not accustomed to teasing, so Mr. Bennet continued in effort to placate him. "I do appreciate your taking the time to address me with whatever this may concern. How may I be of service to you, sir?"
Clasping his hands behind his back, and looking slightly perturbed, Mr. Darcy began, "Actually, sir, it is I who am in need of providing a service to you that is long overdue. I believe the neighborhood in general is aware of my prior connection with one of the officers in the militia, though perhaps I have been too reluctant to speak of my history with the man."
"Yes, we have all been subjected to Mr. Wickham's tales of woe, and I must tell you he casts a rather dark shade on your character, though you hardly need concern yourself with the opinions held of you in this small society. I for one will assume you to be no more a villain than the average rich man."
"Mr. Bennet, I feel I must rectify some of the false impressions Mr. Wickham has undoubtedly given you. He has been generously given far more opportunities than he deserved, regardless of his origin. You may have wondered at a man of his age only just now joining the militia? Many men of humbler beginnings have accomplished far more."
Mr. Bennet was glad to hear his concerns regarding Mr. Wickham voiced, as he was beginning to wonder if he was the only person in the neighborhood not charmed by the fellow. "I believe you have stated my opinion precisely, not all young men are blessed with assistance in the church."
"Nor with 3,000 pounds in lieu of it." Mr. Darcy scoffed.
"Oh ho! Now I truly see the justice of your resentment. I suppose like many men, your pride does not tolerate such a wastrel blackening your name."
"On the contrary sir, if it were merely this, I would have remained silent. However, if you consider that a few short years after receiving 3,000 pounds he now has no better prospect than to join the militia, you may guess at my primary concerns. Mr. Wickham was correct that we were close companions as boys, but since then I have become all too aware of his dissolute ways."
"Are you suggesting concern for those who would extend him credit?"
"I am sir, as well as a certain danger to young ladies in the neighborhood."
Mr. Bennet's expression became stern as he finally realized the gravity of the situation. "I assume by your addressing me that you are concerned not only for tradesmen's daughters, but mine as well. I hope you have now imparted the worst of your knowledge of Mr. Wickham?" seeing Mr. Darcy nod his agreement, he continued, "I thank you for sharing this information as it was certainly in the best interest of my family for me to hear it. I know your friend's marriage to a Bennet will expose you to a rather silly lot, but I will endeavor to be one of a few to make this circumstance tolerable for you."
"There is no need to thank me sir. I have been silent on this distasteful subject for too long, and it eases my conscience to know that you are privy to his true nature and can safeguard your daughters accordingly." He was tempted to also warn Mr. Bennet to guard Elizabeth from Mr. Collins, but given the suspicions such conversation had arisen in Mr. Bingley, he did not dare.
Mr. Darcy considered himself fortunate that Mr. Bennet entered the drawing room ahead of him and therefore did not see his reaction to Elizabeth. He had just spent an entire hour seated beside her at dinner, but he had made extreme efforts to keep his eyes on his plate. He was not prepared to enter the drawing room to the sight of her laughing merrily with Jane and Mr. Bingley, looking just as elegant as she had in his dreams. For a few moments, the scene before him unfolded in slow motion and he imagined that as she turned and smiled, her affection was directed at him rather than her father. In that moment, he knew he was in grave danger of losing his resolve and was he on the verge of telling himself he did not care, when an unpleasantly familiar voice addressed him.
"Mr. Darcy, allow me to tell you how honored I am to again receive the great privilege of dining with the nephew of my noble patroness."
Mr. Darcy stared at Mr. Collins, unable to even give a curt nod in response. However the clergyman needed no encouragement to continue speaking.
"It gives me great honor, though I would not claim to rise above my station to consider myself well acquainted with so illustrious a person, that your presence provides a member of so esteemed a family to oversee the great step I take towards my future life, of course under the commission of Lady Catherine deBourgh. As you may know, your noble aunt has bid me to seek a wife, and I am forever grateful to have the opportunity to seek your superior discernment regarding my actions on this course. I might only hope your approval of my intended shall reflect a similar opinion from my patroness. As I have told cousin Elizabeth many times, it would be a most supreme honor if we are fortunate enough to have our blessed union take place with the nephew of Lady Catherine deBourgh in attendance. Perhaps you would advise me to notify Lady Catherine of my progress in this endeavor as she would be most pleased to know I have taken her words to heart."
"I am not aware of any formal engagement having been announced by Mr. Bennet, and as such I do not believe it is proper to broach such a topic in company."
Mr. Collins smiled knowingly and moved to pay his compliments to Miss Bingley on hosting such an excellent dinner. Mr. Darcy wondered at the ease in which he rid himself of Mr. Collins' presence, and the odd smile on his face as he bowed. He would never have guessed that in his own mind, Mr. Collins had interpreted his reprimand regarding the inappropriate nature of his discourse to mean that he would prefer to address the topic in private. The poor man would not soon realize this anticipated conversation would never come.
Elizabeth had overheard Mr. Collins' speech, along with most of the room, and was stunned to hear Mr. Darcy's subtle reproach in her defense. She could not imagine why he would trouble himself to respond to the ridiculous little man, especially for the sake of a woman of so little consequence to himself.
Across the room, Miss Bingley was aghast to be approached by Mr. Collins. She struggled for a response that would dismiss him from her company, and shot a pleading glance to her sister, Mrs. Hurst. Elizabeth thought she observed a small smile of amusement on Mr. Darcy's face as observed the scene.
Miss Bingley finally found refuge from Mr. Collins when Mr. Bingley suggested they might like some music. He was rather glad Jane did not play, as it allowed him to keep her by his side with her hand in his.
Unfortunately for Mr. Darcy, he had wandered too close to Miss Bingley to avoid her entreaty for him to turn the pages for her as she played. His expression hinged on the verge of a scowl as Miss Bingley repeated brushed her elbow against his arm while she played, much to the continued amusement of Mr. Bennet. It had always been obvious to him that with regard to Mr. Darcy, she was a huntress of the first order, and wondered if perhaps the genes provoking Mr. Bingley's barnacle-like behavior were hereditary. How anyone could mistake the man for proud, he did not understand. All he saw was a young man desperately trying to remain civil in the face of those who wished to stable him like a prized stallion. Mr. Bennet found too much hilarity in the young man's predicament to let him escape, and devised a method of prolonging the scene.
After Miss Bingley completed her concertos, Mr. Bennet paid her the appropriate compliments and requested that Elizabeth might play, innocently suggesting that Mr. Darcy continue his excellent work at turning the pages. Mr. Darcy graced Mr. Bennet with a cold stare and raised eyebrow, but remained beside the pianoforte, seating himself once Elizabeth had selected her music.
As she settled herself, Elizabeth spoke in a low voice, "Forgive my father, Mr. Darcy, I believe he is just having some merriment at our expense. I know this piece rather well, so you need not trouble yourself with the onerous task of turning pages for the daughter of such a man."
She could not determine the meaning of the look he gave her, but after he did not rise from the bench, she began to play. She assumed he was gazing at her fingers intently in order to properly turn the pages, as his hand seemed to tremble slightly each time he reached to turn them. She furrowed her brow as she observed her father, mirth beginning to water his eyes as he chuckled silently behind his hand. After her performance, Mr. Darcy paid her an appropriate compliment on her playing and offered his arm to guide her to a seat beside her father.
The rest of the evening passed congenially for all. Mr. Collins finally found a receptive ear in Mrs. Bennet, and the two loudly extolled the virtues of Netherfield Park and the future weddings of the eldest Miss Bennets. Miss Bingley, unable to garnish Mr. Darcy's attention, found solace in company with her sister. Mr. Bingley enjoyed a lively conversation with the remainder of the party, with the exception of Mr. Darcy who kept silently to himself. When the clock struck the latest hour deemed appropriate, Mr. Bennet called for the carriage and the dinner party came to an end.
Late into the night, Mr. Darcy replayed his actions during the evening's gathering. In some moments, he was proud of his restraint, yet he was concerned with regard to Mr. Bennet's actions. He suspected Mr. Bennet must be aware of his regard for Elizabeth in order for him to act in such a peculiar manner. As he thought of Mr. Bennet's orchestrating their time at the pianoforte, he drew sickening parallels to the behavior of so many other parents who thrust their daughters into his company. If this were Mr. Bennet's motivation, Elizabeth may even dare to expect his addresses. Upon further reflection, it was of little consequence, as it would simply indicate them to be of like mind to the rest of society.