Beginning, This Section
Posted on Wednesday, 24 October 2007
Most of the officers arrived at Netherfield early, anxious for merry making. After greeting his guests, Mr. Bingley singled Wickham out to bring to his sisters' attention.
"Louisa, Caroline, Captain Wickham has just joined Colonel Forster's regiment. He is also Darcy's oldest friend."
This information seemed to impress Caroline Bingley, the younger of the sisters, a great deal. She was a lovely, elegant young woman, dressed in the height of London fashion. Although they had never met, there was something vaguely familiar about her; Wickham could not place it but it intrigued him. Taking advantage of the opportunity, he requested a dance of her and was happy to receive a promise of the second set. From the way she occasionally glanced at Darcy, who was speaking to some of the officers nearby, he had a feeling she was reserving the first set for him.
In the drawing-room, Denny wasted no time in pointing out to Wickham each young lady as she arrived, noting who her family was and what their worth was estimated to be. Wickham was astonished that in many cases Denny even knew the amount of the lady's dowry.
"The dark haired one standing next to Pratt is Miss Clarke. She's a respectable 8,000. The Colonel fancied her before he met Miss Watson. She's a bit less, but her other attributes are... shall we say... ample. The wager is he will be wed before the year's out. Then there are the oldest Lucas girls; they are pleasant enough and have a bit of a dowry, but with so many younger sisters, it won't go far. Same with the Bennets. It's a shame there, as they are the real beauties of the neighborhood, and more enjoyable ladies you'll not find. Just coming in with their aunt are the cousins Miss Newman and Miss Long. They are a bit on the dim side, but I've heard they've over 4,000 between them."
"How do you know all this?"
"Lydia told me. She has a wealth of information and is more than willing to share it."
"Miss Lydia Bennet seems a bit on the young side. I wonder that she's out in company."
"I'll tell you why, she wouldn't have it any other way!" laughed Denny. "Once her sister Kitty was out, there was no way Lydia would willingly stay at home - not while her sisters were out enjoying themselves. She bellowed to her mother and her mother bellowed to her father. Simple as that, she's out in society."
"A rather strong willed girl."
"But lively and quite entertaining."
Wickham caught the eye of a petite, auburn haired young lady of about 20 standing near the door. She blushed when she realized he saw her, but she did not turn away. She smiled and held his eye until approached by another officer.
"And who is the young lady in the green gown, speaking with Carter?"
"The freckled one? That is Miss Mary King. Her family is nothing out of the ordinary, though rumor has it that she may soon be coming into a bit of money." Denny nodded toward the reception line. "The big fish here is Miss Bingley. She has a tongue could cut glass, but it would be well worth putting up with; I've heard she's a dowry of 20,000. Now she is the woman to set your sights on - if she'll give you the time of day."
"I'm to dance the second set with her," commented Wickham with a smile.
"And that," said Denny, "is why you are a captain, and I am not."
When Miss King looked his way again, Wickham excused himself and requested an introduction through his friend Carter, who readily complied.
After a deep bow, Wickham asked, "Miss King, might I have the honor of your hand for the first set?"
"I am sorry, Captain, I have already promised those dances to Captain Carter. But I would be happy to dance any other set with you."
"The third, perhaps?"
"Very well. I shall look forward to dancing the third set with you, Captain Wickham." she said, curtseying prettily. She gave him a coy smile, which Wickham returned; anticipating their dance all the more. He took his leave and returned to Denny.
In his absence the Bennet family had come in; Lydia and Elizabeth Bennet were in conversation with the lieutenant.
After greeting each lady, Wickham said, "Miss Elizabeth, I wouldn't dream of dancing the first set with any lady but you. I hope I am not too late."
"I'm afraid you are, sir," she answered with deep regret. "I am obliged to dance the first with Mr. Collins."
"And I am dancing them with Denny," giggled Lydia.
"I fear I am unlucky tonight," sighed Wickham. "Miss Elizabeth, if you are free for the fourth set, perhaps my luck will change."
Elizabeth was disappointed he had not asked her for the second set, but she reminded herself that he had been saving the first for her.
"I would be happy to dance the fourth with you, Captain."
"And if I could have the second, Miss Elizabeth..." began Denny.
"You may, sir," she replied.
Kitty Bennet soon joined the group. Wickham requested and was granted the pleasure of dancing the first set with her. Kitty was thrilled. She would have the first dance with the captain that evening, and made plans to remind her little sister of it often in the future.
Darcy saw Bingley welcome the Bennet family as they entered the house, then watched Elizabeth as she and one of her sisters spoke to an officer in the drawing-room. When they were soon after joined by Wickham, Darcy felt a tightening in his stomach that he preferred to ignore.
A few minutes later Elizabeth continued further into the room, Darcy moved in her direction. He approached her and inquired politely after her family; she answered in kind. She could not help but notice how well he looked in his fine clothes, so tall and dignified. She even thought he seemed less severe than formerly. The kindness he had shown to Captain Wickham came to her mind and she graced him with a smile.
Darcy was stunned, so much so he could do little more than watch her move off to greet one of her friends. The tight feeling was gone, replaced by another which was light and heady. He had been right about this night, Miss Elizabeth Bennet was perfect.
For Elizabeth, the first two dances were dances of mortification. Mr. Collins was awkward, solemn, and often moved wrong without being aware of it. On the contrary, aside from an apology or two for being a bit out of practice, Mr. Collins thought he was quite the thing. Dancing with his beautiful cousin, how could he be else? Lydia and Denny enjoyed the intimacy of the dance and were pleased with the picture they presented, as they knew they moved well together. But then, they were no strangers as dance partners. Kitty was happily imagining the jealous looks she must be getting from the other young ladies as she danced with Wickham. She found him completely charming. He found her an able and pleasant partner - for his first set. The night was still young.
And to one side of the room, Darcy watched. He was offended on Elizabeth's behalf that her oaf of a cousin would even stand up with her. But she handled the situation with dignity and good humor, even thanking her partner at the end of the dances. Personally, Darcy would have liked to throttle the man.
The officer that had been dancing with the youngest Bennet girl was the next to dance with Elizabeth. He saw them glance at Wickham when he stood up with...Miss Bingley? Darcy thought it an odd paring, though had he heard their conversation, he would have been amused.
"I understand you are from Derbyshire, Captain Wickham."
"Yes, I am."
"I visited Pemberley in the spring this year, it was beautiful. I've never seen the like. Does your home compare?"
"I can assure you, Miss Bingley, that the estate where I grew up is every bit Pemberley's equal."
"But I find Hertfordshire is also lovely, especially in the autumn. Don't you agree?"
"Uh, yes. I have found many pretty prospects here, the grounds at Netherfield are the best in the neighborhood. But I find I do miss the superior society of London. I imagine you do as well, being such an old friend of Mr. Darcy. Did you meet at school?"
"No, we grew up together."
"Truly? You must have lived quite close. Does your family's estate border Mr. Darcy's?"
"In a way. You could say that the estate of my youth does share Pemberley's borders."
"With such property, I am surprised I have not heard of your family before. Have you many brothers?"
The remark was not out of the ordinary, but the glint in her eye as she said it revealed to Wickham why her air had seemed so familiar. He had seen it often enough at university gatherings, with some of Darcy's friends and the ladies they escorted. Miss Bingley clearly was above the company she kept tonight, or at least she believed she was, and had hopes of rising higher. He gave her his most charming smile.
"I'm sorry to say I have no brothers. I am the only son, the only child, in fact. An only person now, as both my parents have passed on."
"Ohhh," said the lady. Wickham could almost hear the numbers being calculated in her head. Recollecting herself, Miss Bingley added in a more subdued tone, "I am sorry."
The set was nearing its end by this time, Wickham thought it best to end the deception as well. He offered to get Miss Bingley some refreshment and commented as they left the floor, "It was a long time ago. My father served Mr. Darcy for many years."
"Pardon?" exclaimed Miss Bingley. So shocked was she that she stopped in mid-stride.
"My father. He served Mr. Darcy, both Mr. Darcys really, for a number of years. He was their steward."
"Their steward? He was their steward?" Miss Bingley sputtered.
"And a finer man has never lived," came a voice from behind her. She turned to see Mr. Darcy. "Mr. Wickham shall always be highly esteemed for the years of exemplary care he gave to all the Pemberley estates."
"Thank you, Darcy. That means a great deal to me," said Wickham earnestly.
Darcy met his eye. "I speak only the truth."
The two men quietly acknowledged each other as Miss Bingley, forgetting her desire for refreshment, quickly excused herself citing her hostessing duties. Wickham then chuckled to himself as he went off to collect Miss King for the third set.
Nearby Miss Lucas was in conversation with Elizabeth. Darcy gathered his courage and applied to the latter for her hand for the next set. Taken completely by surprise, she accepted him before she knew what she did. She had never met a man who bewildered her so.
He was a puzzlement: before they had even been introduced, she had overheard him make a rude comment about her, something that those who knew him best would think out of character. Tonight he appeared every bit the gentleman. She wondered if she might get a glimpse of the man Captain Wickham had described.
"I dare say you will find him very agreeable," said Charlotte after Darcy had walked away.
"Perhaps I would, had anyone else of our acquaintance found him agreeable. But I have heard peculiar reports concerning him of late. I hardly know how to act."
The music soon started again. As Mr. Darcy approached to claim Elizabeth's hand for the set, Charlotte whispered to her, "Don't be a simpleton. One should be as agreeable as may be with a man of his consequence."
Elizabeth made no answer. She herself was astonished by the amazement on her neighbors' faces as she and her partner took their place in the set. Dancing with Mr. Darcy apparently was quite an accomplishment.
They danced in silence for a time until Elizabeth teased him into speaking a little: on the dance, the number of couples, and the merits of talking while dancing. She gave him a pert smile with each retort, prodding him gently into conversation. Eventually he obliged by starting a new topic.
"Do you and your sisters often walk in to Meryton?"
"Yes. When you met us there the other day, we had just been forming a new acquaintance."
"Captain Wickham." Darcy felt his stomach tighten again.
"I understand he has been very lucky in your friendship, sir."
Darcy did not answer at first, uncomfortable with praise he felt he ill deserved. Granted he had done for Wickham what his own father would have done, but his attitude toward the man at the time was hardly laudable. He also would have preferred not to speak of Wickham, or any other man, especially when he had Elizabeth all to himself.
"The captain has more than repaid any service I've rendered by his own excellent service to the kingdom," he said shortly.
It appeared, thought Elizabeth archly, that the proud Mr. Darcy could also be modest.
"Come now, sir. He said that you saved his life."
He met her eye in confusion. Darcy would never claim such a thing for himself so could not understand why Wickham would make such a statement.
At that moment Sir William Lucas passed near them and complimented Mr. Darcy on his dancing and in his choice of partner. He continued speaking about superior dancing and how he hoped to have the pleasure of seeing it again soon, at a certain desirable event, indicating Mr. Bingley and Jane Bennet, who were dancing nearby.
Sir William's allusion to his friend struck Darcy forcibly, as his eyes were directed with a very serious expression towards him and his partner. Recovering himself shortly, he turned to Elizabeth and said,
"Sir William's interruption has made me forget what we were talking of."
"We were speaking of your rescue of Captain Wickham."
"The captain is too kind. I did nothing remarkable."
"Perhaps," she said unconvinced, "Although Captain Wickham believes otherwise. He said he would not be alive today were it not for your kindness."
What on earth has Wickham been telling her and why? thought Darcy. Was it not it enough that all ended well? Can't he leave it be? It easily could have gone another way. Then for the third time in that set, Darcy was caught off guard: Yes, it very easily could have gone another way. He had never before considered what might have happened to Wickham had Darcy never been made aware of the attack, or if he had chosen not to intervene. Wickham might well have died in that hospital, unknown and among strangers.
Elizabeth, noting his thoughtfulness, added, "Or perhaps you did do something remarkable."
Darcy shrugged. He could not have acted differently so there was little point in claiming merit. "T'was normal Christian charity, nothing more. You were more actively involved in the care of your sister than anything I did for Wickham."
"Jane is my sister and I love her dearly, and who would not," she gave a glance to her sister and Bingley. "But I understand that you and the captain did not always get on."
"That is true."
"I remember hearing you once say, Mr. Darcy, that you hardly ever forgave, that your resentment once created was unappeasable."
"Also true. May I ask to what these questions tend?"
"Merely to the illustration of your character," said she, "I am trying to make it out."
"And what is your success?"
She shook her head. "I do not get on at all. I hear such different accounts of you as puzzle me exceedingly."
"I could wish, Miss Bennet, that you not sketch my character at the present moment, I fear that the performance would reflect no credit on either."
"But if I do not take your likeness now, I may never have another opportunity."
"I would by no means suspend any pleasure of yours," he replied with a bow of his head.
She said no more, and they went down the other dance and parted in silence; on each side dissatisfied, though not to an equal degree. Elizabeth was even more puzzled by Mr. Darcy than she had been before their set. On his part, dancing with Elizabeth had begun as everything Darcy had hoped, and ended, thanks to Sir William and Wickham, with him disconcerted and disturbed.
Further down the set another conversation had been taking place, between Miss King and Captain Wickham.
"Did you enjoy your dance with Captain Carter, Miss King."
"Yes, thank you. But I am afraid I did not attend as I should have, my mind was occupied with other things."
"Might I inquire what had you preoccupied?"
"Anticipating this very dance, sir. I had been very anxious to make your acquaintance."
"I am flattered to be the cause, though somewhat baffled where you could have learned of me."
"From my friend, Mary Bennet. She told me her sisters have talked of nothing else since they met you."
"I wonder they found enough to speak of; I should think myself a very dull topic."
"Not at all! Mary told me that you had been all over the Continent, fought in the war, captured a province, and were wounded saving your entire regiment!"
"The entire regiment?"
"Well," she blushed, "I assumed you had some help."
"Yes, I did have a bit of help," he smiled at her naivety. "Perhaps I can clarify a few facts, which you may then relay to Miss Mary. As a soldier, I naturally have traveled a bit, but am afraid I have not been all over the Continent. I spent most of my time in Portugal, and aside from a month or two in Italy, I never left the Iberian Peninsula. I did indeed fight in the war and was slightly wounded in my last battle. Although my men and I secured a rather strategic area, we can not claim to have saved the regiment nor captured a province; we did however liberate a good number of grateful townspeople from the French. Perhaps it is not as exciting a tale to tell, but it is an honest one."
"Oh, it is infinitely more interesting than what Mary told me."
"And now I am grateful to be back in our beloved England, where I am sure you have had adventures of your own. I should very much like to hear of them."
"Me? I've not done anything. I have never even been to London. Oh, I did visit my uncle in Liverpool two years ago, but did not see much beyond the shipyard, though I did get to wade in the surf. I understand you are from the north. I heard the country is beautiful there."
"It is. I was born in Derbyshire. The peaks are a wonder to behold."
"I should like to see them someday."
"Perhaps you shall."
The smile Wickham gave her left Miss King feeling that maybe she did have more to look forward to than a wish of future travel.
At the end of the set, Wickham escorted Miss King to her friend Mary Bennet. As she was anxious to speak to her friend after the dance, she declined Wickham's offer of refreshment. He, however, obtained a promise of a dance later in the evening with her friend. While getting himself a glass of wine, he noticed a familiar face posted by the dining room entryway.
"Lenny! Darcy told me you were here with him. I hear congratulations are in order, and soon to be again."
Still standing at attention, Jeffries stood even straighter and his chest seemed to puff out a bit more. "Thank you, Captain Wickham."
As Jeffries was obviously on duty, Wickham faced the main room so it would not appear as if they were in conversation. It would not do to have Miss Bingley think a mere servant was on familiar terms with one of her guests.
"Darcy didn't say, have you a boy or a girl?"
"A girl, sir. A daughter, and she's beautiful. Elise is a miniature of her mother, and nearly two years old now."
"I envy you, to be settled and with a family. Please convey my best wishes to Els...Mrs. Jeffries. She could not have found a better man."
"Thank you, sir."
"I see you've been demoted back to footman for the evening."
"Miss Bingley was in need of an extra man and requested my services from Mr. Darcy. It's not so bad, I get a prime view of the festivities. The master offered to let me return to Town a few days early so I could avoid it, but given the ball, I thought it best to stay.
"Didn't think Darcy could manage on his own?"
"It's not that, sir; he has plenty of times before, but tonight I didn't feel right leaving him in the care of Bingley's man. He's fine enough for Mr. Bingley, but for the master... "
"You wanted him to be especially well-groomed tonight."
Jeffries didn't answer, but Wickham saw his eyes stray to Miss Elizabeth. She was speaking to Miss Bingley across the room and the ladies did not appear to be getting on. Wickham glanced at Darcy, who was also observing the women.
"You've a right to be proud, Lenny; you've outdone yourself tonight. She seems quite taken with him."
Although he remained silent, Jeffries stiffened a bit.
"Oh, I'll keep his secret. Lord knows he's doing his best to keep it even from himself. You and I are probably the only ones can see his interest. I understand she stayed here for a time."
"Yes, sir. She tended her sister when she was ill. Quality she is; kind and considerate, courteous to the staff. Not one to put on airs and be waited on hand and foot."
"I agree, she's a rare find among the gentry. She's a woman that can make a man consider her worth as more than what capital she can bring into a marriage."
Jeffries stiffened again.
"Don't worry, I'll respect Darcy's prior claim." Wickham took a sip of wine and added, more to himself, "However, he need not know that."
When the music began again, Wickham and Elizabeth took their place for the fourth set. It was not long before the dance allowed for some conversation.
"How did you enjoy your dance with Mr. Darcy?" Wickham asked.
"Well, thank you. And yours with Miss King and Miss Bingley?"
"Enlightening. I saw you and our hostess speaking before this set. She did not look happy."
"She was giving me a bit of advice, insolent girl, and was irritated when I told her I did not choose to heed it."
"It seems you are not a man to be trusted. Did you know," she dropped her voice to a whisper, "That you are merely the son of a steward?"
"Definitely not to be trusted, although I probably deserve her indignation. I did tease her a bit during our dance."
"Couldn't help it, I'm a steward's son."
Elizabeth laughed lightly, turning toward where she had last seen Miss Bingley. Instead she met eyes with a solemn Mr. Darcy. He acknowledged her with a nod of his head, but his somber look continued.
On turning back to her partner she said, "I spoke of you to Mr. Darcy, too."
"He seemed quite surprised that you said he saved your life. He claimed he did nothing extraordinary on your behalf."
"To Darcy's eyes, it may not have seemed much. As I said, I'm sure he was only doing what was expected of him, but it was a pivotal time for me."
"We spoke of pride before, but I believe a worse fault may be striving to live up to expectations."
"Do you not consider that a virtue, living up to one's expectations?"
"That, Miss Bennet, depends on whose expectations they are. Could you see yourself happy by living up to the expectations your mother has set for you?"
Elizabeth glanced at Mr. Collins sitting out with Charlotte and cringed.
"I see your point."
"Although I benefited from that tendency in Darcy, I fear it may cost him dearly one day."
"But a man in Mr. Darcy's position may do as he pleases, free of censure from any quarter."
"Ah, you have not met his aunt, Lady Catherine, nor his uncle the Earl."
"Formidable are they?"
"Let's just say Darcy likely got his pride from the Fitzwilliam side of the family."
Elizabeth pictured a more severe, older version of Darcy standing with the image of Lady Catherine that Mr. Collins had inspired. She shuddered.
"But there is hope for him yet. Lady Catherine would never have approved of his continued assistance to me, especially after I lost all. I'm sure she would consider it throwing pearls before swine."
"Yet Mr. Darcy continued to help you."
"He did, to my amazement. I was completely surprised that he offered to assist with my commission after he had already supported me in my law studies, though I suspect his cousin had a hand it. Fitzwilliam could see I wasn't cut out for the law."
"It was fortunate that Mr. Darcy agreed," she said, unconsciously turning her eyes again toward Darcy. As he had been watching her, their eyes locked, sending a warm shiver down Elizabeth's spine. In that instant she thought she was close to understanding the man; but it was lost to her when the dance required a change in direction.
Turning to Wickham she said with a blush, "What a strange creature I am; I dance with him and speak only of you, then dance with you and speak only of him. What must you think of me?"
"Only the best, I assure you," replied Wickham with bow of his head. He was quite satisfied with the progress of the dance.
It seemed like an eternity to Darcy, but eventually the set ended. He didn't know why, but it had disturbed him a great deal. Elizabeth appeared to have enjoyed her dance with Wickham, more than Darcy liked. She had even laughed once or twice in the beginning, although toward the end the partners had become rather serious in their conversation.
And she had seen him watching. Darcy could not help it. He tried to observe her sister, to determine if that lady's feelings toward his friend Bingley reflected the same expectation as that of the neighborhood, but his eyes kept being drawn back to Elizabeth. The first time their eyes met, she had seemed startled that he was there, but she had smiled at his acknowledgment, and for all too brief a moment, it had given him peace.
The second time was different; although their eye contact had lasted but an instant, she touched him, deeply. He felt she saw past his carefully maintained demeanor and saw him as he truly was, the man he dare not show. He was no fool, he realized he preferred her to any other woman of his acquaintance - to any other woman in creation. But to let her or anyone know, could mean disaster. He would not subject her to the same speculation and common gossip that her sister and Bingley now suffered under.
Not long after these thoughts, Miss Bingley came to asked how Darcy was enduring the evening. When he answered in a few monosyllables, she did her best to draw him out, inquiring after his sister, his cousins, even his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. As he was in no mood of humoring Miss Bingley, Darcy kept his answers short until Colonel Forster joined them. The two men were soon discussing the latest news from the Continent, while Miss Bingley, bored and a bit put out, wandered off to find a more appreciative guest.
The gentlemen were engaged in an interesting conversation when they were interrupted, rather rudely, by the Bennets' cousin, who introduced himself after an eternity of trivial nonsense, as Mr. Collins. Darcy did not catch half of what the peculiar man was saying, but he gathered that he was a minion of his Aunt Catherine and was determined to talk Darcy to death. Eventually the man stopped to take a breath. Darcy briefly acknowledged him in a futile attempt to dismiss him. Unfortunately, he began again with an even longer speech singing the praises of his patroness, and this time he apparently did not need to stop for air. By and by, Mr. Collins paused long enough for Darcy to give a slight bow and move determinedly away. It was fortunate that Miss Bingley did not choose that moment to inquire after Darcy's evening.
Elizabeth was thoroughly mortified when Mr. Collins returned. His assurances to her of how pleased he was with the reception Mr. Darcy had given him only served to humble her more. What must Mr. Darcy think of them all? At that moment Charlotte proved what a good friend she was by asking Mr. Collins to get her a cup of punch, sending the man away at least for a few minutes.
Scanning the room for Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth found him on the far side of the room, near the windows. He was looking out into the darkness, appearing deep in thought.
"Excuse me, Mr. Darcy, may I have a moment of your time?" she asked.
He turned toward her, perhaps more solemn than she had ever seen him.
"Miss Elizabeth," he said with a bow.
"Please accept my apology for the way my cousin inflicted himself on you, sir. I tried to persuade him to wait for a proper introduction, but he was very anxious to assure you of your aunt's health."
"No apology is necessary, Miss Elizabeth. Your cousin's impatience is no reflection on your own excellent sense and disposition. Think no more of it."
"You are too kind," she said, then added pertly, "And all politeness."
He smiled, remembering those same words when she declined to dance with him at Lucas Lodge. "And with more reason, as you finally consented to dance with me."
Blushing, she said archly, "I could hardly refuse, sir; not when you were finally in humor to give me consequence."
Confused by the obvious reference to another conversation, Darcy searched his memory for what she could be referring to, and paled when he found it: the reproach he had given Bingley at that first assembly. If she had heard that, she also must have heard his insult.
"Now I find the tables have turned, Miss Elizabeth," he said in complete contrition. "The ill humor I was in that evening is no excuse for my intolerable behavior. Please accept my apology for being a total bore, and a blind one at that. You are a most becoming woman and I was a fool to say otherwise."
"It appears, Mr. Darcy, that we have just exchanged apologies. Perhaps it would prove politic to declare a draw and begin again."
"Agreed, Miss Elizabeth," he bowed. "Agreed."
Later that evening, feeling he was entitled to sit out a dance or two, Wickham retrieved two glasses of wine from the refreshment table and approached Darcy, who had resumed his station at the side of the room. He was observing the three eldest Miss Bennets, who were not far off speaking with Mr. Bingley and Miss King. Darcy acknowledged Wickham with a nod and thanked him for the wine.
"You look like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders, Darcy. This is a ball, you know, not a funeral. At least try to appear like you are enjoying yourself."
"I can see that you are."
"I am, considerably. You have no idea what a pleasure it is to finally be able to have a rational conversation with one's dance partner."
No, I don't, thought Darcy ruefully, recalling his rather confounding set with Elizabeth. He did take comfort in the fact that their brief conversation later had been most satisfactory.
Wickham continued, "I managed to attend a few balls while on the Continent, but not many of the young ladies present spoke English; and while my Spanish is passable, my Portuguese is abysmal. One could barely converse with one's partner beyond simple flirting; and even that could be easily misconstrued. I know more than one lad that found himself looking down the barrel of an angry father's musket."
"The hazards of war I suppose," remarked Darcy drolly.
"Yes," he agreed, "But we've no such worries tonight. I have enjoyed all my dances immensely, especially my set with Miss Elizabeth Bennet." Darcy's eyes narrowed as Wickham continued. "She is an exceptional young woman. I am still hoping to get a dance in with the eldest Miss Bennet, if I can manage to get her away from your friend. If I were still a betting man, I'd wager that she is the most beautiful woman in Hertfordshire."
"You would probably win." Darcy was relieved that Wickham had moved on to another sister.
"Bingley seems quite taken with her."
"He is. The lady, however, may not be quite as taken with him,"
"How so? She seems happy with his attentions."
"And just as happy with those of anyone else."
"Perhaps. Or perhaps she can maintain her reserve while in society as well as someone else I know."
Darcy glared at him. "I don't know what you mean."
"The lady may be just as adept at keeping her thoughts to herself as you are, Darcy. Don't give me that look; we've attended enough of the same functions throughout the years that I am quite familiar with the face you put on for the general population. As soon as your eligibility becomes known you become inscrutable. I am merely saying that Miss Bennet may be equally proficient. Anyway, why do you even care?"
"I simply would hate to see my friend get into a situation he may regret."
"Bingley is set up in this fine house, it is only natural for him to want to take the next step. Marrying an amiable local girl makes perfect sense."
"I've seen too many marriages of unequal affection than to wish that on my friend."
"As I said, I do not believe we have established an inequity of affection, but even supposing it is not a love match on one side or the other, their affection could grow to be equal over time."
"I am not so optimistic. Besides, there is also the inequity of their place in society to consider."
"Ah, you mean he being part of the nouveau rich, and she being from the old, established gentry. I do not think Bingley need worry about that, Darcy. Her family seems quite pleased with the match, they are very accepting of him."
Darcy raised an eye at Wickham, unable to determine if the man was being serious or not. He dropped his voice so as not to be overheard. "I was speaking of the lady's inferiority. Her family..." Darcy let the sentence drop, but shook his head to complete his meaning.
"Same old Darcy," Wickham laughed, drawing attention to them from more than one quarter. His companion gave him a dark look and would have walked away if Wickham had not drawn him back.
"I don't mean to offend, Darcy," he said in a low voice, "but from what little I know of the eldest Bennet sisters, they are both extremely eligible, and who their relations are is irrelevant. Not everyone is as discerning as you. I fully expect both young ladies to be made offers before the year is out."
"If there is one thing that war has taught me, it is not to tarry in matters of the heart. If you delay too long you may find that the object of your affection is gone when you return, sometimes beyond recall."
Darcy was struck by the meaning of Wickham's words. "You?" he asked.
"No, a friend. He was devastated. But it served as a warning to the rest of us. A loss like that puts things in perspective as nothing else will." Wickham became more serious than Darcy had ever seen him. "Thanks to you, my friend, I lived to be a cautious man, but that is one thing for which I am willing to throw caution to the wind."
Wickham raised his eyes to the group they had been watching earlier, causing Darcy more alarm than he had heretofore felt.
"Yes," Wickham continued, "In matters of the heart, one can not afford to delay."
Posted on Thursday, 7 February 2008
Although the Bennets had returned home from the ball very late, Elizabeth still managed to rise early enough for her morning walk. In truth she had barely slept at all, replaying as she had the many events of the evening; a few quite memorable, many more she would rather forget.
To Elizabeth it appeared that had her family made an agreement to expose themselves as much as they could during the ball, it would have been impossible for them to play their parts with finer success. Her two youngest sisters behaved as if they had never been taught propriety. Her mother loudly declared her happy expectation of Jane being soon engaged, caring not who heard her -- the principal "who" being Mr. Darcy, as he sat nearby at supper. When music was called for after supper, her sister Mary, despite her weak voice and affected manner, attempted to monopolize the pianoforte. She performed two songs to little acclaim, and would have continued all night had their father not asked her to give way so other young ladies could exhibit. Although Elizabeth was glad that her father had spoken, she also felt bad for Mary as it had caused her no little embarrassment.
Worst of all was Mr. Collins, who had not been satisfied with merely humiliating Elizabeth during the first set of the evening, he also refused to leave her side after she declined to dance with him again, thus preventing her from accepting dances from any other gentleman. Thankfully she gained some relief due to her friend Charlotte, who often joined them, and good-naturedly conversed with Mr. Collins.
She also owed some thanks to Captain Wickham. He had asked Elizabeth to dance a second time, but as she was obliged to decline due to her refusal of Mr. Collins' previous offer, Captain Wickham asked Charlotte to dance in her stead. After that dance, he presented Charlotte to Mr. Collins as a partner in such a way that Mr. Collins could not politely refuse to ask her to dance. When they took their place in the set, Mr. Wickham gave a slight bow to Elizabeth, then made his way to the refreshment table. Elizabeth was thus free to escape to enjoy a short conversation with her sisters Jane and Mary, and some of their friends.
Elizabeth could also look fondly back on a few incidents that had warmed her heart that evening. She watched the felicity grow between Jane and Mr. Bingley. She had the pleasure of seeing her normally reclusive sister Mary dance, not once but thrice: first with Captain Wickham, then with the eldest Lucas son, and finally with another officer. And Elizabeth could honestly say that she had enjoyed nearly all her dances. Captain Wickham was as handsome and charming as he had been on their first acquaintance, and he had shed a bit of light on the enigmatic Mr. Darcy.
She could not help but smile in satisfaction at how shocked the latter gentleman had been when he discovered she had overheard the rude remark he had made on their first encounter. But as he had apologized and they had agreed to begin again, she determined to put an end to her previous dislike of the man; although he still intrigued her. She recalled how once that evening, when she had met eyes with Mr. Darcy across the room, she could not bear to look away - as though he had something to say, but only to her. She thought perhaps she was starting to see some part of him that Captain Wickham was constantly commending. Elizabeth was definitely looking forward to seeing Mr. Darcy again.
By now it was late enough in the morning that some of her family would be at breakfast, so she turned back towards home. She heard a carriage approaching as her path met the road. She looked up only to meet the same eyes she had just been contemplating, for Mr. Darcy was looking at her from the carriage window as it passed. She was amazed at how expressive his eyes could be in those few seconds before the coach carried him and Mr. Bingley away. She had seen in his eyes surprise, longing, and sadness. And she found she was surprised, too, not only that he must be going to Town with Mr. Bingley, but at how disappointed she felt to see him go.
Surprise, longing, and deep regret; that was what Darcy felt at seeing Elizabeth by the side of the road. It was a deeper regret than he had ever felt in his life, for at that moment he realized how much he truly wanted her.
"Say Darcy, wasn't that Miss Elizabeth Bennet?" asked Mr. Bingley. "My, she's up early. I doubt Louisa and Caroline will rise ‘til after noon today."
Darcy didn't answer. He was chiding himself for his weakness. He had never felt more like a coward - running away from a woman! But he knew if he had stayed he would regret it even more. Elizabeth Bennet was too dangerous to be near, and he had just had the proof of it. She affected him as no woman ever had, and she didn't even realize it. Perhaps that was what made her so dangerous, her total artlessness in the business. The more she attracted him, the more her family warred at his nerves. Had he stayed, Darcy was sure he could not have stopped himself from making a huge mistake, one his family would have born the brunt of.
Although she had merely been teasing him at the time, Miss Bingley had once quipped about how Mrs. Bennet would make a charming mother-in-law, and it had truly struck home after witnessing the Bennets' behavior at the ball. Darcy imagined Mrs. Bennet meeting his uncle the earl for the first time, inquiring after his income, recommending her brother's Cheapside warehouses to his aunt, pushing her flirtatious youngest girls at his very eligible cousins. The thought of Georgiana being so intimate as to be able to call those boisterous chits sisters was more than he could bear.
Before retiring for the night he had instructed Jeffries to make preparations to travel with Bingley in the morning. They would be going to London with no plans to return. Darcy would do his best to warn Bingley of the disadvantages of connecting himself to a family such as theirs, but if his friend saw fit to return to Netherfield, he would be returning alone.
The next afternoon, Darcy and Bingley were surprised to receive a note from Miss Bingley that she and the Hursts had returned to Grosvenor Street. The gentlemen called there the following day, curious as to what brought them back to town so unexpectedly.
"We saw no point in staying in Hertfordshire without you," Miss Bingley answered their queries. "Louisa and I would be bored to tears; there is so much more to do here than in the country. Frankly, Charles, we see no point in you returning, either. Our friends have already begun to arrive in Town for the winter. I am sure they are anxious to see you."
"Be that as it may, I am sure most of our friends will still be here in a few months, which is when I thought you and I might visit with Louisa and Hurst for a few weeks. I see no reason to change my plans at the moment."
"Oh, but you must! We have closed up the house; there is nothing for you in Hertfordshire."
"You took a great deal too much liberty, Caroline!" replied Bingley. Darcy had rarely seen him so perturbed. "The house will just have to be reopened. I have every intention of returning to Netherfield. Mrs. Bennet is expecting me for dinner later in the week."
"Oh that," Caroline said dismissively. "Nothing definite was decided when she mentioned having you for a family dinner. I dare say she will be too busy preparing for the wedding to even notice your absence."
"Wedding? What wedding?" Bingley and Darcy were both startled by this bit of news.
"Why, Miss Eliza and that awful clergyman cousin of hers! A sensible match, too, if you ask me, with he being the heir to their home. Miss Eliza should be snug in her cousin's parsonage before the spring, mark my words." She ended with a triumphant look at Mr. Darcy.
Darcy himself felt as though he'd been punched in the stomach, but would not give Miss Bingley the satisfaction of seeing the effect of her news. He gave her an impassive stare and turned away.
"From whom did you hear the news?" asked Bingley.
Caroline hesitated for an instant, then said decidedly "It was obvious at the ball what his intentions were."
"It is merely your assumption then? They have only just met, and I did not get the impression that Miss Elizabeth cared for her cousin all that much. Just because he makes her an offer does not mean that she will accept."
Darcy silently agreed, with a great deal of relief. Elizabeth was too sensible to accept that fool. Unexpectedly, he found he also now agreed with Wickham's assertion of the night of the ball: the two eldest Miss Bennets were indeed eligible young ladies, with many more desirable prospects. Elizabeth need not settle for the first man to ask for her hand.
"Her mother would hardly let her refuse," Caroline replied. "I should think she is duty bound to accept the man, for her family's sake."
For family's sake. The very reason that Darcy had left Hertfordshire. It was ironic that it should be the cause of his alarm now. That he would distance himself from Elizabeth out of duty to his family, and that out of duty to her family, she might condemn herself to life with a fool. Good Lord - not just life, but to bind herself in marriage to that man! Darcy felt suddenly very ill.
"Well you shall all know soon enough," said Bingley. "I plan to return to Netherfield on Monday, Tuesday at the latest. I am sure I will able to inform you that Miss Elizabeth is still turning the officers' heads in Meryton. Will you be joining me, Darcy? I say, Darcy, are you all right? You seem a bit pale."
"Fine. Just a bit of indigestion, Bingley. I don't think the bird we had at lunch agreed with me."
Although Caroline smiled in triumph at the gentleman's discomfort, she had leisure to be smug for but a moment. She still needed to keep her brother in London.
"Charles, you need not rush back to the country. A bit of distance might be just what you need right now, to put things in perspective."
"Perspective? What are you talking about?"
"You've made no secret that you admire Miss Bennet. Jane is a sweet girl, but frankly, Charles you could do better."
"Caroline," Bingley was shocked, "I thought you liked Miss Bennet."
"We do," put in Louisa, "But the rest of her family is not quite..."
"Her mother and sisters..." added Caroline, rolling her eyes.
"Not to mention the father!"
"The Bennets are one of the finest families in the area," defended Bingley.
"Exactly," snickered Caroline. Louisa joined in.
"Really, Charles! Mrs. Bennet practically throws her daughters at the officers, and excepting Jane and her less-than-musical sister, they willingly comply by chasing after anything in a red coat."
"Nonsense. I'll grant you the two youngest Miss Bennets are a bit... enthusiastic... over the military men, but Miss Elizabeth is above reproach."
"Miss Eliza is as bad as the younger girls when it comes to the officers, make no mistake about it," asserted Caroline. "I went out of my way at the Ball to warn her that Captain Wickham was not to be trusted." She spared an apologetic glance to Mr. Darcy over his old friend. "He told me the most outrages lies during our dance together, so I made a point afterward of informing Eliza about his character. She made it perfectly clear that she had her own opinion of that man and had no intention of heeding my kind advice."
Darcy remembered seeing the exchange between the two woman during the ball. The fact that Elizabeth had defended Wickham did not sit well with Darcy.
"And yet a moment ago, Caroline, you had Miss Elizabeth destined for wedded bliss with her cousin."
"Well, yes, that is still very likely..." she began.
"Think what you will," interrupted Bingley. "I shall continue to consider the Bennets a perfectly respectable family and I have every intention of calling on them when I return."
The sisters exchanged worried looks, then Louisa announced: "We had hoped to spare you this, Charles, but the reason we want you to remain in Town is because of Jane."
"Miss Bennet? Have you invited her to visit? Is she expected in Town?" Bingley asked eagerly.
Darcy eyed the two sisters with suspicion. From what he knew of their true opinion of Jane Bennet, he doubted either of them two would have issued her an invitation to visit them in London.
"No, Charles. It is just that we do not believe she admires you as much as you think."
Concern showed in Bingley's face for a moment, then he brightened. "Well, we have not known each other all that long. Perhaps she does not like me so well as I do her yet, but I know she cares for me. I can tell when she looks at me..."
"You are only seeing what you want to see, brother," said Caroline. "A woman knows these things, don't we, Louisa?"
"It's true, Charles. Jane is a sweet girl who would not hurt your feelings for the world, but I suspect she accepts your attentions more to please her mother than herself."
"And I am sure Mr. Darcy agrees with us as well," added Caroline, entreating Darcy to support their argument.
"What say you, Darcy? You do think Miss Bennet cares for me, don't you?"
Darcy was about to agree with the two women that he had seen no indication of Miss Bennet's particular regard toward Bingley, when Wickham's words came back to him: 'The lady may be just as adept at keeping her thoughts to herself as you are, Darcy.' From his own observations Darcy was fairly sure this was not the case, but it was a possibility, and enough reason to doubt his earlier belief in her indifference. However, he still did not want his friend to pursue an unwise match without at least cautioning him against it. He preferred to give his opinion in private, without the Bingley sisters echoing agreement to his every word.
"Ladies, could you excuse us please?" requested Darcy, indicating the door.
"Of course," smiled Louisa, confident that Darcy would defend their cause. "Come, Caroline, let's leave the gentlemen alone." Caroline, not as sure as her sister, hesitated a moment before following her out of the room.
Bingley, worried by the lack of a direct answer, begged his friend for reassurance.
"You do think Miss Bennet has feelings for me, don't you, Darcy?"
"I really can't say, Charles. She seems equally open, cheerful, and engaging with everyone she meets. I have noted nothing remarkable in her regard toward you. However as you have spent more time with her, you should know the lady better than I."
It was not the assurance that Bingley had sought, but at least he had not received an outright No.
Darcy continued. "I do agree with your sisters that the Bennet family is not the right sort to seek a connection with; they would be a degradation to both you and your family. There is a total lack of propriety in the parents and younger girls, not to mention the low connections on the mother's side. Their deficiencies would be a constant source of gossip and ridicule among your peers. Although Miss Bennet is pleasant enough, there is nothing to be gained in making a match with her."
"Except that I love her and she would make me the happiest of men."
"Only if it were a match of equal affection," cautioned Darcy.
"But can you say that it would not be an equal match?"
"No, I can not."
"And you can not say anything against Miss Bennet herself?"
"No, Miss Bennet is above reproach. She has always conducted herself with the utmost sense and propriety." As has her next youngest sister, Darcy silently added.
"And you do agree that I would know better than you whether she returned my regard?"
"Yes, Charles, you should. But can you tell me that she does?"
"Perhaps not yet, but I think that is even more reason to return to Hertfordshire as soon as may be," said Bingley, gaining a bit more confidence. "Will you accompany me, Darcy?"
Visions of Collins and Wickham hovering around Elizabeth, courting her favor, came to his mind, and that same unsettled feeling to his stomach. But there was nothing to be done. Although it cost him something, Darcy stuck to his earlier resolve to resist the temptation to return to the country with Bingley. Given the lady's family, he had been wise to leave when he did.
"No, I have been away from Georgiana too long as it is," he finally said. "I will be staying in Town."
"Very well, then," said Bingley. "I shall go back alone. I will send news as soon as I know anything. Wish me luck, Darcy."
"If you succeed in allying yourself with Miss Bennet's family, you will need more than luck, my friend," replied Darcy. He had been warned; what Bingley did now, he did with his eyes wide open. "But I shall wish you well, all the same."
For himself, Darcy knew it would be a long time before he felt anything akin to luck.
To Be Continued . . .