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The Young Gentleman sat alone in his library. The leather bound volume was in his hands more from habit than from a desire to read, and he found himself again unable to comprehend the words.
The immediacy of shock and disbelief had eased, but the ache of grief was still fresh and strong, and tinged with soft regrets.
He lay aside his useless book and stared into nothing as his mind ran back over their eight years of marriage. They had not been exactly as he'd anticipated when first captivated by the beautiful, vivacious, seventeen year old.
Life then had promised so much. He'd not been of age more than a season when he was introduced to the young and lively Francis Gardiner. Her face and figure drew the eye immediately, and her attractive energy and easy laugh suggested a perfection. The perfection was confirmed in him upon her obvious gratification at his interest -- he was her everything, her knight in shining armour come to carry her off. She thought him so clever, so handsome, so funny, so rich -- such a gentleman in every sense of the word. Given his independence there was nothing to stand in the way of the marriage.
He'd be lying if he said their life together had been without disappointment. Though he'd continued to dote over her in the early years, he'd learned that 'liveliness' did not necessarily equate to 'easy tempered', nor did beauty and admiration fully compensate for a partner with whom one could share in beliefs and understanding. But other joys came to distract them from their differences and regrets, and they primarily came in the shape of little girls - four to be precise. Jane, Elizabeth, Mary and Catherine.
The ache deepened as he thought of his little girls growing up without their mother. She may have tended to fuss or over-react regarding her children, but there was no doubt that she loved them dearly - even Elizabeth whom, he sometimes feared, she'd blamed for not being a boy.
She had so wanted to give him a son. Jane had been the perfect little girl, and Fanny had so completely anticipated the next would be the perfect little boy that her disappointment upon the arrival of a second girl was acute -- oddly enough, far more so than upon the arrival of the third and fourth daughters.
Her desire to give him a heir did not abate. Mr Bennet smiled as he thought of his wife's enthusiasm for the marriage bed. It was the aspect of their union in which her understanding and imagination had not seemed limited. Kitty was only eight months old when the doctor informed his wife she was again with child. She was overjoyed - certain that this would be their son - but it was this joy which turned to sorrow.
At least her parting had been mercifully quick. She'd risen to retire for the evening, and he'd not been at all alarmed when she took the back of the chair to steady herself as a wave of dizziness washed over her, as it often did in the early months of carrying a child; but this time the dizziness deepened rather than passing, and he'd moved just in time to catch her as she fainted completely away. It wasn't until he lifted her to carry her to the couch that he felt her coldness, and noticed the spreading red stain.
She never awakened, and had passed before the urgently summoned doctor could arrive. He found some comfort though, in the thought that she may have known she was in his arms, and might have somehow understood his words of love and empty assurance.
A cautious knock brought him back from his musings, and his mother ushered the two older girls in to say goodnight. Seven year old Jane came forward to place a quick kiss on his cheek then stepped back to offer a proper goodnight. It was as though, in an anxiety not to add to her fathers sorrow, she had retreated to form and correctness, to being the big girl - the responsible one - sometimes, it seemed, almost taking on the role of mother to the younger girls.
Elizabeth though, appeared not to share in Jane's sensitivity, and simply crawled onto her father's lap, begging for a bedtime story - rejecting an offer from her grandmother to read instead because of her inability to 'do the voices right'.
A glance at his mother suddenly alerted him to how much the last month had aged her. She'd been rock, a godsend, stepping into a role of greater responsibility with the girls; but she was no longer young and he couldn't expect her to continue in this way indefinitely.
Mr Bennet hugged Elizabeth tightly as he looked from his mother to Jane and -- unexpectedly -- everything seemed to take on an overwhelming clarity. They needed him to be the strong one, to take control. Fanny was gone now, and he was the parent, it was up to him to act for their good, to see to their spiritual, emotional and physical needs; it was a responsibility from which he shouldn't, couldn't, hide.
"I can do the voices right Papa," Jane offered.
"Even the lion's deep voice?" Mr Bennet asked with a low growl.
"Yes, Sir," Jane nodded seriously, whilst Elizabeth protested noisily that Jane could not.
Mr Bennet laughed as he stood, hoisting Elizabeth onto his hip and putting his hand out to take Jane's.
"Well, I think we should be able to deal with Mr Aesop between us Jane," he replied, pausing to give his relieved mother a kiss on her cheek before leading the girls to their nursery.
Upon taking up residence at Netherfield Mr Bingley very soon discovered that, though the smaller population in the country might offer less variety of people than that of town, the country inhabitants compensated through knowing the most intimate details of their neighbours affairs.
His open and friendly nature seemed to overcome any qualms his neighbours might have otherwise felt about their inquisitiveness regarding his situation in life. Not only were they happy to inquire into his affairs, they were equally willing to share items of interest about other residents of the area. It is therefore, a matter of little surprise that after having been in Hertfordshire less than a week he had already heard three retellings of the history of the Bennet family.
He had listened with only half an ear to the first telling, but was enough caught by references to the beauty of the daughters of the household to give fuller attention to subsequent retellings.
It appeared that Mr Bennet was not yet thirty when left a widower with four young daughters. Never expecting to recover from his loss to the point where he could again consider marriage and with his estate entailed down the male line, Mr Bennet thrust himself into looking after his girls and into working hard to provide them with security for the future. Through improvements to his property and - in partnership with his brother in law - wise investment in trade, he had achieved much to this end. Longbourn alone was now worth somewhere between three and four thousand in yearly income meaning that, in combination with the return on his investments, he had been able to settle a comfortable seven thousand pounds on each of his girls.
Some people, however, saw much of his continued industry as unnecessary, as his daughters' security had been assured through other means. Only four years after the death of his lovely young wife, he chanced to fall in love once more. It was a completely unlooked for circumstance as, in making his children his priority, he had not partaken in society more than that which was minimally required.
It had not been love at first sight. When his mother's childhood friend had come to visit, bringing her twenty-four year old niece as a companion, he had only tolerated the necessary disruption to the household and performed the requisite civilities out of familial respect. What actually caught his interest was not the attractiveness of the niece, though handsome she undoubtedly was, but her disinterested nature and the attention and encouragement she willingly gave to his girls. When to this was added the discoveries of her intelligence, her quiet appreciation and understanding of his own cynical humour, her good sense, and her soundness of principles he was unable to keep himself from often seeking out her company and conversation -- thus sealing his happy fate.
His mother had been able to attend his second wedding with none of the apprehensions she carried to his first. This was not primarily because Sarah was from a well connected, respected, and rather wealthy family, nor was it because of the twenty-two thousand pounds she brought into the marriage, but due rather to a confidence that Sarah was a quick, intelligent, and loving gentlewoman who seemed the perfect counterpart to her son in so many ways.
The blessing of a son, just a year after the couple wed, confirmed the neighbourhood's conviction that this partnership was marked for fortune and nothing had occurred in the years since to prove them wrong.
Bingley found his interest in the Bennet family peaked enough to feel an eagerness in anticipation of an introduction to their society, but during his first short stay in Hertfordshire he was only to have the pleasure of meeting with Mr Bennet. It's possible that only a man of Bingley's optimism would consider it a pleasure as such, as Mr Bennet was in some ways a rather disconcerting man. There was something in his manner which, whilst never impolite, held the slight suggestion that he was enjoying a private joke and men bolder than Bingley had found this considerably off-putting.
Bingley though, enjoyed their morning chat. He was by no means deficient in intelligence and was pleased with superior company. There was however, a slight disappointment when, upon returning Mr Bennet's visit, he did not catch a glimpse of even one of the daughters, but he encouraged himself with the thought that he would doubtless have the opportunity to gain more than a simple glimpse of these reputed beauties at the assembly to be held at Meryton shortly after his return from his visit to London.
Bingley's party was running much later than he'd have preferred. His sisters seemed to be taking even more time to prepare for the evening's outing than when in London; no doubt feeling it imperative that they should impress these country folk with their sophisticated superiority.
The men had been waiting some time -- even Bingley's brother in law, Hurst who, on occasion, could be every bit as fastidious about fashion and dressing as the women. Bingley's good friend Darcy, who would much rather have stayed at home, began to think the assembly a better option than sitting around watching Bingley's impatient enthusiasm to be gone. When Caroline and Louisa finally appeared they received very little from the gentlemen by way of comment on their appearance and had to be satisfied with complimenting each other. Caroline though, in mistaking Mr Darcy's look of relief for one of approval, was ready to be happy with her effort.
Upon their arrival at the noisy bustling hall, they were welcomed with appropriate deference by Bingley's new acquaintances. Bingley took pleasure in introducing his party to his newly acquired neighbours and talked happily whilst keeping half an eye out to see if the Bennet family was yet in attendance. He smiled as he perceived Mr Bennet toward the rear of the hall looking rather stern, but being laughed at by a very pretty, petite young woman who - he did not doubt for a moment - must have been one of daughters of whom he'd heard so much. Neither man nor daughter though, seemed inclined to brave the push around Bingley and he resigned himself to biding his time with the confidence that he would meet the whole family during the course of the evening.
It was a full half hour later when Bingley finally received the anticipated introduction and it seemed to come only upon Mr Bennet receiving prompting from a woman whom Bingley momentarily considered might be the elder of his daughters but who, on closer observation, was obviously his wife. She seemed somewhere in her thirties and the conspiratorial manner in which they leaned together to speak, coupled with his apparent pleasure at her closeness, completely gave them away as a couple.
She slipped her arm into his and allowed her husband to lead the way to Mr Bingley. Mr Bennet welcomed his new neighbour in an appropriate manner before bringing Mrs Bennet forward for his notice. Some unseen signal had also brought his daughters from the crowd to receive an introduction.
"This is my second eldest Miss Elizabeth." Mr Bennet dutifully performed his role.
Mr Bingley was presented to the pretty, bright eyed girl who had taken his notice earlier, and smiled broadly as he sincerely expressed his pleasure at meeting her.
"...and my youngest daughter, Miss Catherine," he continued as another pretty girl stepped forward with a smile which, though becoming, did not quite convey the impression of liveliness as Elizabeth's.
"... My third, Mary, is currently staying with my wife's sister in London, but the eldest is about somewhere... ah, here's my girl... Jane dear, may I introduce Mr Bingley."
Bingley was more than charmed as this young woman, with the most beautiful of faces, smiled up at him and softly welcomed him to the neighbourhood.
He stayed with the Bennets until the commencement of dancing, bringing forward his sisters who, on the whole, were quite pleased with this new acquaintance, as none they had otherwise met that evening seemed worthy of continuing notice. Both attractive and fashionable women, Miss Caroline Bingley and Mrs Louisa Hurst also proved clever and informed conversationalists. The Bennets may have been uniformly charmed had not an implied derision of much of the Meryton company covertly crept into the latter part of the exchange, leaving at least three of the Bennets with a wariness toward the women.
The party broke apart shortly after the music began; Mr Bingley leading Jane to the floor, Elizabeth and Catherine being claimed by the young men who'd previously solicited their hands for the first dance. Mr Bingley's sisters took their places opposite Mr Hurst and Mr Darcy.
The evening progressed as country assemblies generally did, with music laughter and conversation, only the focus of conversation at this gathering was, of course, Mr Bingley's party. Having already had the opportunity to talk a great deal of Mr Bingley, the immediate point of interest became Mr Darcy whom, it was generally reported within minutes of him entering the room, possessed an estate worth over ten thousand pounds annually. When to this was added his fine tall person, his noble mien and handsome features, the whole of the company was initially well disposed to admire him, but an arrogant and aloof manner soon made the company feel differently toward him.
During the first half of the evening, aside from dancing once with each of Bingley's sisters, he simply walked around the room looking forbiddingly out of place and occasionally speaking to one of his own party. Relief obviously came to him later in the evening after allowing Bingley to introduce him to Mr Bennet - a man whose eyes held a more subtle, but kindred, expression of trapped exasperation at being required to spend the evening in such a manner. The two settled into what became a relaxed conversation on estate management and on the current state of politics in the country.
In Elizabeth's mind, Mr Darcy's appreciation of her father's company might have gone some way to mitigating the negative opinion she had soon formed of him, had not she been personally slighted by the man earlier in the evening. She had been obliged, by the scarcity of gentlemen, to sit down for two dances; and during part of that time, Mr. Darcy had been standing near enough for her to overhear a conversation between him and Mr. Bingley, who came from the dance for a few minutes to press his friend to join it.
``Come, Darcy,'' said he, ``I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance.''
``I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. At such an assembly as this, it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged, and there is not another woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with.''
``I would not be so fastidious as you are,'' cried Bingley, ``for a kingdom! Upon my honour I never met with so many pleasant girls in my life, as I have this evening; and there are several of them, you see, uncommonly pretty.''
``You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room,'' said Mr. Darcy, looking at the eldest Miss Bennet.
``Oh! she is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld! But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you.''
``Which do you mean?'' and turning round, he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said, ``She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me.''
Mr. Bingley followed his advice. Mr. Darcy walked off; and Elizabeth remained with no very cordial feelings towards him, though she told the story with great spirit among her friends; for she had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in any thing ridiculous.
Mrs Bennet shook her head in wonder upon hearing the story.
"Oh Lizzy, I'm glad you have the good sense not to take the matter to heart. You know you are both beautiful and intelligent, so declining the introduction was Mr Darcy's loss, not your own."
"Thank you for saying so dear mother," Elizabeth smiled, for though she was able to laugh at the situation, a little balm on her vanity certainly did not go astray. "He was right though, in observing Jane as the most handsome girl in the room. His friend certainly seems very taken and Jane, in return, appears to have forgone some of her customary reserve upon such a short acquaintance."
Sarah Bennet smiled her agreement. " On initial assessment, he does seem a pleasant young man."
"He does - possibly a little too open for my personal taste - but very pleasant indeed. It is odd that he is so very different to Mr Darcy. I do wonder at them being friends."
"It may become evident as we come to know them better, Elizabeth. There might be more to Mr Darcy than we see here tonight. Your father certainly seems to be enjoying his conversation. They have been avidly talking this last half hour."
Elizabeth rolled her eyes as she looked across and found them indeed deep in discussion. "I might wish that my father would not find him good company. I do not at all like the idea that I should have to be polite to the man for the sake of either his friend, or my father."
"Oh Lizzy," Mrs Bennet cautioned, "do not nurse this incivility. I wonder how much of his behaviour might stem from a discomfort at being outside his own circle. He does seem to exhibit a certain amount of social self-consciousness."
"Pompous arrogance more the like. Oh please do not defend him mother. I am too much enjoying my dislike."
Mrs Bennet was unable to suppress a light laugh at her step-daughter's perverseness.
"I suppose that is a fair request, but may I ask one thing of you? Will you refrain from repeating the story of Mr Darcy's insult to your father. It is rare that he is able to enjoy a new acquaintance's company without resort to seeking the ridiculous in them. He truly appears to appreciate Mr Darcy's conversation, but I'm afraid any knowledge of a slight toward you would taint the pleasure of such intercourse."
"For you mother, I will promise not to spread the story further, but I reserve the right to think of Mr Darcy what I will."
As would be expected, the assembly was the topic of conversation the following day. Kitty was thrilled to have danced every dance at only her second ball since coming out. Mrs Bennet smiled and commended her impeccable behaviour during the evening.
"I'm not at all surprised you were never short a partner. You were every part the lady."
"Then what is the commentary on me, mother?" Elizabeth queried with an amused look in her eyes. "I had to sit out a set."
"You forget, my dear, that I was within hearing when you deflected a suitor for that dance toward Charlotte."
"Me, turn aside a request to dance...?" Elizabeth answered in mock denial. "Jane may be able to turn away suitors in their droves, but those of us who are merely 'tolerable' must take every opportunity we are given."
Mrs Bennet shot a cautioning look at her step-daughter, but it was unnecessary as Elizabeth had already moved the conversation to the fashion of the evening.
"Did you notice the lace on Mrs Hurst's dress..." she began with a cheeky smile at Mrs Bennet.
"Oh Elizabeth, no lace!" her father interrupted. "I had thought you above the silliness of such interests."
"But Father, such gossip is quite requisite the morning after a ball," Elizabeth grinned at him, completely unabashed.
"Ben, do you wish to escape this insanity with me? We could take a ride down to the lower property to look at the drainage options."
"Ah, drainage, now there's an interesting topic," laughed Elizabeth. "Ben, you had much better stay here and learn of the lace."
The look of disgust the eleven year old boy sent Elizabeth, was enough to show his affinity lay with his father as far as drains and lace were concerned.
"May I ride Perseus today, father? The master says I have a way with him."
"I see no difficulty as long as you stay by me. And, as for drainage Elizabeth, I'll have you know that I had a quite enlightened discussion with Mr Darcy on the subject last night and it was the most entertained I've ever been in a ball room."
Elizabeth simply laughed and watched as her father placed a kiss on his wife's cheek, gratefully taking his leave from the ladies and from the frightening possibility of further discussion of anyone's finery.
"Did you bring up lace simply to drive them from the room?" Mrs Bennet asked with a barely suppressed smile.
"I only wish to learn from Jane what she thinks of Mr Bingley," Elizabeth laughed, "and I know she's never particularly forthcoming with too large an audience."
"He seems a pleasant man," was the only answer Jane offered at first, but further prompting brought a more open response.
``He is just what a young man ought to be,'' she admitted, ``sensible, good humoured, lively; and I never saw such happy manners! -- so much ease, with such perfect good breeding!''
``He is also handsome,'' replied Elizabeth, ``which a young man ought likewise to be, if he possibly can. His character is thereby complete.''
``I was very much flattered by his asking me to dance a second time. I did not expect such a compliment.''
``Did not you? I did for you. But that is one great difference between us. Compliments always take you by surprise, and me never. What could be more natural than his asking you again? He could not help seeing that you were about five times as pretty as every other woman in the room. No thanks to his gallantry for that. Well, he certainly is very agreeable, and I give you leave to like him. You have liked many a stupider person.''
``Oh! you are a great deal too apt, you know, to like people in general. You never see a fault in any body. All the world are good and agreeable in your eyes. I never heard you speak ill of a human being in my life.''
``I would wish not to be hasty in censuring any one; but I always speak what I think.''
``I know you do; and it is that which makes the wonder. With your good sense, to be honestly blind to the follies and nonsense of others! Affectation of candour is common enough; -- one meets it every where. But to be candid without ostentation or design -- to take the good of every body's character and make it still better, and say nothing of the bad -- belongs to you alone."
Mrs Bennet laughed at this exchange between the sisters, thinking it summed them up perfectly.
At very much the same time a discussion was taking place which similarly summed up the inhabitants of Netherfield.
Bingley had never met with pleasanter people or prettier girls in his life; every body had been most kind and attentive to him, there had been no formality, no stiffness; he had soon felt acquainted with all the room; and as to Miss Bennet, he could not conceive an angel more beautiful. Darcy, on the contrary, had seen a collection of people in whom there was little beauty and no fashion, and few about whom he had felt any interest. Miss Bennet he acknowledged to be pretty, but she smiled too much.
Mrs. Hurst and her sister allowed it to be so -- but still they admired her and liked her, and pronounced her to be a sweet girl, and one whom they should not object to know more of. Neither would they mind getting to know more of the Bennet family as a whole.
"Mrs Bennet appears a very elegant woman. She has kept her age very well for someone with grown daughters," Mrs Hurst offered.
This might have been an appropriate moment for Mr Bingley to enlighten them concerning all he'd learned of the Bennet family history but, frankly, the details seemed of little importance to his way of thinking plus, with his thoughts centred on Miss Bennet, his mind was somewhat elsewhere.
"I have a sense of familiarity about Mrs Bennet, Louisa, and it will not settle," Miss Bingley added. "I am glad that, though we will not have the company we are used to, there is at least one tolerable family in the district. Mr Darcy, you did not seem averse to Mr Bennet's conversation."
"He is a sensible and intelligent man," Darcy agreed.
"And what, Sir, did you think of the younger daughters. I believe they all are reputed beauties."
Darcy hesitated a moment before answering. At some point during his conversation with Mr Bennet, he had begun to feel an edge of guilt over his precipitous judgement of the second Miss Bennet. In passing, her father had related, with amused affection, an - admittedly cynical - opinion of Elizabeth's. This insignificant little aside had managed to catch Darcy's attention.
"They are not unattractive girls," he replied noncommittally, causing Caroline to smile at what she saw as 'damning with faint praise'. She could like the Bennet girls more if Darcy liked them less.
"And so, you like this man's sisters too, do you?" Elizabeth continued at the Bennet house. "Their manners are not equal to his.''
``Certainly not; at first. But they are very pleasing women when you converse with them. Miss Bingley is to live with her brother and keep his house; and I am much mistaken if we shall not find a very charming neighbour in her.''
Neither Elizabeth nor Mrs Bennet were convinced, but the time for reply was lost in an exchange of greetings as Charlotte and Maria Lucas were announced.
Kitty and Maria soon excused themselves in order to walk together into Meryton, leaving the others to continue in their talk of the ball. Charlotte Lucas was a sensible, intelligent young woman. Half way in age between Mrs Bennet and Elizabeth she had a close friendship with both. She too, joined in the gentle teasing of Jane regarding Mr Bingley's, quite obvious, interest.
``I don't believe I mentioned this last night Jane, but I happened to overhear Mr. Robinson's asking Mr Bingley how he liked our Meryton assemblies, and whether he did not think there were a great many pretty women in the room, and which he thought the prettiest? and his answering immediately to the last question -- "Oh! the eldest Miss Bennet beyond a doubt, there cannot be two opinions on that point."''
"You are jesting Charlotte," Jane blushed. "I'm sure you misheard."
"Oh, Jane! It is certain she did not. I heard him call you an "angel" myself. Why is it that the only time you ever practise suspicion is when in receipt of a personal compliment?"
``It appears my overhearings were generally more to the purpose than yours, Eliza,'' said Charlotte. ``Mr. Darcy is not so well worth listening to as his friend, is he? -- Poor Eliza! -- to be only just tolerable. The man must be deficient in eye-sight.''
"It's wonderful of you to say so, Charlotte, but I think his deficiency lies more in the area of gentlemanly manners."
"It was very wrong of him to behave in such a way, but do try not to take it too personally," put in Jane. ``Miss Bingley told me that he is reserved unless among his intimate acquaintance.''
"Oh, do not worry for me," Elizabeth answered light-heartedly. "I do not value Mr Darcy's opinion enough to feel more than the slightest of stings. I am certainly not seeking his approval."
``I wished he had danced with you Lizzy,'' said Miss Lucas, ``but in a way, his pride does not offend me so much as pride often does, because there is an excuse for it. One cannot wonder that so very fine a young man, with family, fortune, every thing in his favour, should think highly of himself. If I may so express it, he has a right to be proud.''
``That is very true,'' replied Elizabeth, ``and I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine.''
"Mr Darcy's comment seems more indicative of vanity than pride," Mrs Bennet offered. "Though I would suggest such a judgement should not be made on the basis of one evening's observation. I think I shall hold my verdict until I've at least had a conversation with the man. He may improve on acquaintance. Elizabeth, you'll have another opportunity to assess the whole party when they dine with us in two days time."
Jane's smile stalled the complaint on Elizabeth's lips. Her dislike of Mr Darcy did not stand against her sister's pleasure at Mr Bingley's company. She would see what the night brought, but certainly anticipated little pleasure of her own account.
As Darcy dressed for dinner at Longbourn, he realised he was actually looking forward to the evening. Mr Bennet had proved himself a well informed and amusing conversationalist, so time in his company did not seem a chore. His only acknowledged reserves about furthering his acquaintance with the Bennets lay with the four unmarried daughters of the house. He was well aware that many who sought his company were simply influenced by his prospects as a single man of fortune. At least his initial conversation with Mr Bennet had not lead to suggestions that he might like to meet one or other of his girls...
He hardly admitted to himself a second niggling point of concern in regard to Bingley. His friend was quite taken by the undeniably beautiful Jane. It was not unusual for Bingley to quickly become infatuated with a lovely woman, but each time, it unsettled Darcy's happy notion that in a few years Bingley would make a very suitable husband for Georgiana. Charles was a great friend, was well situated financially, and possessed a cheerful and gentle nature. Such a match would suit his wishes for Georgiana's security and happiness very well, so he could only hope that this infatuation too, might fade.
Dinner proved to be a pleasant affair. Mrs Bennet demonstrated both competence and ease as a hostess, creating a welcoming and comfortable atmosphere. Even the Bingley sisters seemed to relax a little. The only time Darcy felt a little tense was during his introduction to the family; as he exchanged stiff and formal greetings with all the girls - including Mary who had that morning unexpectedly returned from London. By the end of the evening though, he wondered if his stiffness might have communicated it's intended message too well, as the daughters paid him little attention at all. Darcy was primarily left to discussion with Mr and Mrs Bennet and Caroline, who was seated next to him. There was the occasional contribution by Bingley, but only when he could tear himself away from his conversation with Jane.
The company was by no means lacking, but occasionally his attention drifted to the rest of the party or, more particularly, to Elizabeth. He had looked at her earlier in the evening only to confirm his opinion that her attractiveness was not much above the ordinary but, just as he had been assuring himself of the accuracy of his initial impression, she'd glanced up and chanced to meet his gaze. He could not exactly catch the meaning in her arch look, but her expression had quite caught him. Her eyes contained a spark... an intelligence... a beauty he had not expected...
Not at all sanguine with such a reflection, he strengthened his determination to find fault. His examination though, proved counter productive as he found himself caught by her easy and playful manners, and even somewhat distracted by her light and pleasing figure.
She had spent much of the evening enjoying the cheeky company of her younger brother; and also that of her returned sister as they sat together, obviously sharing anecdotes and catching up on the two months they had spent apart. Mary, Darcy noted, was not unattractive, but neither was she as obviously pretty as her sisters. She had character in her face though, and a confidence and deportment which could draw the eye. Darcy's eye however, returned again to Elizabeth, who, he guessed from the expression on Mary's face, was currently teasing her sister. Mary blushed as Elizabeth whispered something to her in a conspiratorial manner, but a smile also overspread her face. Elizabeth laughed delightedly at Mary's response and shot Mrs Bennet a knowing look before returning her attention to Mary.
Darcy pulled his mind back to his immediate company, actually paying Caroline more attention than was his wont, simply to distract himself from the girl with the bright eyes and playful laugh. He relaxed more after the women withdrew following dinner, and was easily able to put all thought of her from his mind as discussion turned to things of more practical import such as sport and horses.
On rejoining the women though, he decided that there would be no harm in speaking to Elizabeth himself, and as a step in this direction attended to a discussion between Elizabeth, Bingley and Jane. An action of Elizabeth's though, prevented any such exchange taking place. Shortly after Darcy joined their circle she put an end to all conversation with the suggestion that Mary might wish to play. The proposition was greeted with support by many in the room, particularly as Mary's recent stay in London had been for the very purpose of extending her musical study. The determined enthusiasm for piano Mary had shown from a young age had been nurtured by Mrs Bennet, who had insisted that Mary be exposed to many musical experiences and to talented masters who could stir and develop her love and understanding of the art.
Mary becomingly demurred in favour of anyone else who might like to play, fixing her eyes on Lizzy and - possibly in retaliation for the teasing she'd received at Elizabeth's hands that evening - suggesting she might rather provide the entertainment.
Elizabeth simply laughed, stating there was no possible inducement which would could lead her to display her comparative inadequacies at the piano, particularly before their new company.
"I'd rather pass myself off with some credibility," she grinned cheekily. "What is more, I'm sure your Master West would be disappointed at your reluctance to share your gift, especially after all the long hours you have both invested in your music over these past months."
The party's notice of Mary's blush was drawn away by a comment from Miss Bingley.
"Would that be Mr Jonathan West?" she queried, genuinely interested. "He really is a captivating performer. I've sometimes had the privilege of hearing him at London soirées."
Mary's pleasure at the compliment to her mentor was obvious.
"Yes, he is the same man - not simply a marvellous pianist, but also a wonderfully patient teacher. If I could play with just half his skill and feeling, I believe I could want no more."
"He must have no complaint with either your playing or company if we are to see him at Longbourn this coming week," Elizabeth smiled, causing the colour again to rise to her sister's cheeks, "but until then, I think we must make do with your own performance. Oh, do indulge us at the instrument dear Mary."
Indulge them she did, and even Darcy had to admit her performance was superior. At the request of the party, Mary stayed at the instrument for the rest of the evening, effectively preventing any further attempt by Darcy to speak to Elizabeth. He returned to Netherfield wondering how such a pleasant evening could leave him so wholly unsatisfied.
As the Netherfield and Longbourn parties did not cross each other over the next few days, it is perhaps not surprising that Darcy was able to put all thoughts of Elizabeth from his mind. She was not the first pretty and pleasant girl he'd ever met, and he was certain she'd not be the last.
Bingley though, was not nearly so prosaic. Jane proved every part as beautiful on the second meeting as she had on the first, and he'd enjoyed his opportunity to spend more time in conversation with this sweet and undeniably beautiful woman. He was relieved when Sunday provided the opportunity to see her at church. His eyes continually drifted in the direction of the Bennet family during the service. To him it seemed the final hymn would never come - but come it did, and it took all his self control to politely speak with other friendly neighbours who demanded his notice, before he was able to make his way to Jane's side.
On perceiving his friend's eagerness to speak with Jane, Darcy frowned slightly and silently stepped back from the community happily chatting outside the old church building. His eyes moved over the congregation with a certain ennui, seeing little to deserve his attention. Mr Bennet was speaking with that boorish Sir William, cutting off his best chance of enjoyable discussion, and a simple perverseness kept him from joining the rest of his party in conversation with Mrs and Miss Bennet. The frown returned to his face once more as he observed the satisfied smile on Bingley's face.
A light laugh, not too far distant, then drew his attention. It surprised him to find Miss Elizabeth and young Benjamin in an animated discussion with the elderly Reverend Sommers. The Reverend and Elizabeth seemed to be thoroughly enjoying a story the lad was sharing with them and he could just catch snatches of a wild tale of a runaway ride on "Perseus" that week. A smile crept to the corners of Darcy's mouth as he casually moved a little closer to gain a greater sense of the story. He could remember experiences in his own youth when his overconfidence with a magnificent, head strong animal had led to similarly embarrassing results. He though, had never thought to make a tale of such experiences, keeping them to himself, almost afraid to share that which he'd then perceived as failure.
"Father says not to tell mother though," Ben warned in a lowered voice, "or she'll not trust Perseus with me again."
"Why ever would that be?" asked Reverend Sommers with a dry humour, his eyes still twinkling at the bravado and enthusiasm shown by the lad in his retelling of the adventure, and still very much amused at the boy unknowingly returning home with stray azaleas caught in the curls in the back of his hair.
"It wasn't Perseus's fault," Ben defended. "I should have remembered that Mr Black's dogs are not to be trusted and taken another path - but as sore as my behind was the next day, I cannot regret it. The feeling I had when we made that fence - and with inches to spare too, I swear - is indescribable."
"It's a great shame we're not Catholic, Reverend," Elizabeth countered. "You could set him penance for his recklessness."
"A shame indeed!" Reverend Sommers laughed. "What would you suggest as appropriate?"
"I think a week's servitude to his second sister would teach him just the right lesson."
Ben hardly reacted but simply rolled his eyes at his sister while the Reverend laughingly agreed it would do him the world of good, before moving off to speak to more of his parishioners.
As Charlotte then appeared to claim Elizabeth's attention, Ben wandered off to find different occupation. His sister could not have been more amazed when, upon looking up some minutes later, she found Benjamin and Mr Darcy in conversation. There was nothing new in Ben's friendliness to a relative stranger; and she was used to the fact that Ben would talk of horses where ever he could find an ear - what surprised her so much was that Mr Darcy seemed to be an active participant in the exchange, and that he appeared to be enjoying himself.
Charlotte followed her friends eyes. "Sarah may have been correct about precipitous judgements," she commented. "Mr Darcy no longer seems nearly as aloof as he did upon first acquaintance."
"I'm still unconvinced that my initial impressions are not correct," Lizzy smiled, "though it does appear that he finds other members of my family more tolerable than myself."
Interest always moves on, and the community's fascination with Mr Bingley and his party was soon overwhelmed by the announcement of Mary Bennet's engagement to the celebrated young pianist, Jonathan West.
If any of the Bennets had previously had any doubts as to the nature of the relationship between Mary and Mr West, they were answered almost as soon as the somewhat awkward and gangly youth entered the house hold. Mary's embarrassment at the occasion soon gave way to an obvious pleasure at Jonathan's company, and the glow and animation this brought to her countenance could only appropriately be named beauty.
Mr West proved himself to be an intense but intelligent young man, whom the family found very easy to like. Being strong to his purpose, he quickly sought the opportunity for a private audience with Mr Bennet. The father was more prepared for what was to come than might be expected, having only the week before received a long letter of recommendation from the young man's patrons - Sarah's sister, Lady Sophia Carlisle, and her husband Lord Carlisle. The reference had attested not only to Jonathon's character, prospects, and excellent talent, but also to his sincere attachment to their neice. Having a strong faith in the discernment of his brother and sister, Mr Bennet did not scruple to grant the lad his consent.
Of the Bennets, Mary alone seemed surprised that she could secure the heart of such a man. Though she had long ago overcome the childhood insecurities she'd felt upon comparisons with her sisters, Mary had never imagined she'd be the first to be married and experienced no small amount wonder the circumstance. Her family though, laughed at her incredulity, telling her there was no wonder in it at all. They simply delighted in Mary's good fortune, and felt all the joy of having a loved one so happily engaged.
The addition of Jonathan to Hertfordshire society gave more variety and interest to the parties they commonly attended. This new layer of cultural sophistication held great appeal, especially for the women of Netherfield, but Elizabeth still felt these women difficult to please. It became more generally evident though, whenever they met, that their brother continued to admire Jane; and to Elizabeth it was equally evident that Jane was yielding to the preference which she had begun to entertain for him from the first; but something still made Elizabeth unsure of whether Jane was considered completely 'suitable' by the sisters. She had heard them both speak of Darcy's sister - and of her thirty thousand pounds - on more than one occasion, and she wondered if these were hints intended for Jane.
Even so, Jane was in a way to be very much in love. Elizabeth considered with pleasure that it was not likely to be discovered by the world in general, since Jane united with great strength of feeling a composure of temper and a uniform cheerfulness of manner, which would guard her from the suspicions of the impertinent sisters. She mentioned this to her friend Miss Lucas.
``It may perhaps be pleasant,'' replied Charlotte, ``to be able to impose on the public in such a case; but it is sometimes a disadvantage to be so very guarded. If a woman conceals her affection with the same skill from the object of it, she may lose the opportunity of fixing him; and it will then be but poor consolation to believe the world equally in the dark. There is so much of gratitude or vanity in almost every attachment, that it is not safe to leave any to itself. We can all begin freely -- a slight preference is natural enough; but there are very few of us who have heart enough to be really in love without encouragement. In nine cases out of ten, a woman had better show more affection than she feels. Bingley likes your sister undoubtedly; but he may never do more than like her, if she does not help him on.''
``But she does help him on, as much as her nature will allow. If I can perceive her regard for him, he must be a simpleton indeed not to discover it too.''
``Remember, Eliza, that he does not know Jane's disposition as you do.''
``But if a woman is partial to a man, and does not endeavour to conceal it, he must find it out.''
``Perhaps he must, if he sees enough of her. But though Bingley and Jane meet tolerably often, it is never for many hours together; and as they always see each other in large mixed parties, it is impossible that every moment should be employed in conversing together. Jane should therefore make the most of every half hour in which she can command his attention. When she is secure of him, there will be leisure for falling in love as much as she chooses.''
``Your plan is a good one,'' replied Elizabeth, ``where nothing is in question but the desire of being well married; and if I were determined to get a rich husband, or any husband, I dare say I should adopt it. But these are not Jane's feelings; she is not acting by design. As yet, she cannot even be certain of the degree of her own regard, nor of its reasonableness. She has known him only a fortnight. She danced four dances with him at Meryton; she saw him one morning at his own house, and has dined in company with him four times. This is not quite enough to make her understand his character.''
``Not as you represent it. Had she merely dined with him, she might only have discovered whether he had a good appetite; but you must remember that four evenings have been also spent together -- and four evenings may do a great deal.''
``Yes; these four evenings have enabled them to ascertain that they both like Vingt-un better than Commerce; but with respect to any other leading characteristic, I do not imagine that much has been unfolded.''
``Well,'' said Charlotte, ``I wish Jane success with all my heart; and if she were married to him to-morrow, I should think she had as good a chance of happiness as if she were to be studying his character for a twelvemonth. But in our dear Jane's case it is not such a matter of import. If she misses Mr Bingley, she will certainly catch another. I am still to understand why she returned early from town last season to avoid suitors.''
``You would have done the same, Charlotte; those two men showed themselves self-absorbed and petulant in their rivalry for Jane. She knew them enough to be certain she'd not find happiness with either of them.''
"Oh la! Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other, or ever so similar before-hand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always contrive to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation; and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.''
``You make me laugh, Charlotte; but it is not sound. You know it is not sound, and that you would never act in this way yourself.''
Occupied in observing Mr. Bingley's attentions to her sister, Elizabeth was far from suspecting that she had become such an object of some interest in the eyes of his friend. Since the dinner at Longbourn, Darcy had found himself drawn to her in observation at every meeting. He was, however, finding that perverse circumstances never seemed to give him an opportunity to converse with her. If he had not known it to be to be impossible, he might have almost imagined her to be avoiding him. It was at this gathering at the Lucas's home that he determined to put an end to this frustration. and, as a step towards conversing with her himself, attended to her conversation with others. His doing so drew her notice.
``What does Mr. Darcy mean,'' said she to Charlotte, ``by listening to my conversation with Colonel Forster?''
``That is a question which Mr. Darcy only can answer.''
``But if he does it any more, I shall certainly let him know that I see what he is about. He has a very satirical eye, and if I do not begin by being impertinent myself, I shall soon grow afraid of him.''
On his approaching them soon afterwards, though without seeming to have any intention of speaking, Miss Lucas defied her friend to mention such a subject to him, which immediately provoking Elizabeth to do it, she turned to him and said,
``Did not you think, Mr. Darcy, that I expressed myself uncommonly well just now, when I was teasing Colonel Forster to give us a ball at Meryton?''
``With great energy; -- but it is a subject which always makes a lady energetic.''
``You are severe on us.''
``It will be her turn soon to be teased,'' said Miss Lucas. ``I am going to open the instrument, Eliza, and you know what follows.''
``You are a very strange creature by way of a friend! -- always wanting me to play and sing before any body and every body! -- If my vanity had taken a musical turn, you would have been invaluable, but as it is, I would really rather not sit down before those who must be in the habit of hearing the very best performers.''
On Mary and Jonathan joining the circle though, Elizabeth found herself pressed from all sides, and finally agreed to sing if accompanied by Mary.
``Very well; if it must be so, it must.'' And gravely glancing at Mr. Darcy, ``There is a fine old saying, which every body here is of course familiar with -- "Keep your breath to cool your porridge," -- and I shall keep mine to swell my song.''
The two sat down at the piano and turned over some music until agreeing a light traditional song. Elizabeth's performance was unaffected and pleasing. The song may not have been a showpiece, but it perfectly suited Elizabeth's soft lilt; and by request she was kept back to share some more lyric melodies before leaving Mary and Jonathan to the instrument.
Darcy again stood frustrated at the apparent end to his opportunity for conversation with Elizabeth, as some of the younger members of the gathering persuaded Jonathan to indulge them with Scotch and Irish airs to allow for some dancing at one end of the room.
Mr. Darcy stood near them in silent indignation at such a mode of passing the evening, to the exclusion of all conversation, and was too much engrossed by his own thoughts to perceive that Sir William Lucas was his neighbour, till Sir William thus began.
``What a charming amusement for young people this is, Mr. Darcy! -- There is nothing like dancing after all. -- I consider it as one of the first refinements of polished societies.''
``Certainly, Sir; -- and it has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world. -- Every savage can dance.''
Sir William only smiled. ``Your friend performs delightfully;'' he continued after a pause, on seeing Bingley join the group; -- ``and I doubt not that you are an adept in the science yourself, Mr. Darcy.''
``You saw me dance at Meryton, I believe, Sir.''
``Yes, indeed, and received no inconsiderable pleasure from the sight. Do you often dance at St. James's?''
``Do you not think it would be a proper compliment to the place?''
``It is a compliment which I never pay to any place, if I can avoid it.''
``You have a house in town, I conclude?''
Mr. Darcy bowed.
``I had once some thoughts of fixing in town myself -- for I am fond of superior society; but I did not feel quite certain that the air of London would agree with Lady Lucas.''
He paused in hopes of an answer; but his companion was not disposed to make any; and Elizabeth at that instant moving towards them, he was struck with the notion of doing a very gallant thing, and called out to her,
``My dear Miss Eliza, why are not you dancing? -- Mr. Darcy, you must allow me to present this young lady to you as a very desirable partner. -- You cannot refuse to dance, I am sure, when so much beauty is before you.'' And taking her hand, he would have given it to Mr. Darcy, who, though extremely surprised, was not unwilling to receive it, when she instantly drew back, and said with some discomposure to Sir William,
``Indeed, Sir, I have not the least intention of dancing. -- I entreat you not to suppose that I moved this way in order to beg for a partner.''
Mr. Darcy with grave propriety requested to be allowed the honour of her hand; but in vain. Elizabeth was determined; nor did Sir William at all shake her purpose by his attempt at persuasion.
``You excel so much in the dance, Miss Eliza, that it is cruel to deny me the happiness of seeing you; and though this gentleman dislikes the amusement in general, he can have no objection, I am sure, to oblige us for one half hour.''
``Mr. Darcy is all politeness,'' said Elizabeth, smiling.
"He is indeed," put in Sarah Bennet, who had been standing close enough to hear the last part of the exchange, "and I believe an appropriately polite response would be the gracious acceptance of his offer."
"And considering the inducement, my dear Miss Eliza," added Sir William we cannot wonder at his complaisance; for who would object to such a partner?''
Elizabeth looked archly but, though her every inclination was to turn away, she knew she was trapped.
"I thank you Mr Darcy," she replied demurely as she offered him her hand, and shot her step-mother a covert look of exasperation, but all she received from Sarah in reply was an amused smile.
Elizabeth's resistance had not injured her with the gentleman, and he was thinking of her with some complacency as led her to the dance.
Bingley threw his friend a welcoming grin before returning his attention to Jane, leaving the new comers to themselves. Elizabeth, believing that Darcy had been coerced into the dance as much as herself, expected little conversation. Darcy though, had different ideas on the matter, and exerted himself to speak.
Elizabeth initially did not trouble herself with either talking or of listening much, giving only the most cursory of replies. However, upon discerning Miss Bingley watching them with an undisguised scowl, the mischief in her caused her to decide to feign enjoyment. Her dislike for Darcy was not enough to overcome the temptation to irritate the ever condescending young woman. Darcy, who had begun to despair of a topic which might catch his fair partner's interest, felt a distinct relief when Elizabeth finally turned her smile and attention upon him.
"You alluded to Pope a few moments ago Mr Darcy. I do not wonder at you enjoying his work, as you both appear equally severe upon our sex."
"Do you not feel that men bear his censure in equal parts?" Darcy queried with a smile. "I'm sure Hervey would argue neither were men safe."
"No doubt if you speak of men as individuals, each were held accountable for his own actions. Women though, he seemed to judge as a whole. Are not women also entitled to be judged on their own actions - rather than all be tarred by the folly of some?"
"Oh, but you reproach Pope wrongly," Darcy laughed, liking how her eyes sparked as she warmed to the subject. "He says nothing against womankind. The mischief is caused by the spirits of the elements, not by woman herself."
The debate could not but continue, and to Elizabeth's mortification she found that which she intended to be an act simply to vex Miss Bingley, became increasingly natural as she found Mr Darcy's informed and intelligent conversation engaged both her mind and her imagination.
She remembered herself as she allowed herself to be led to the refreshments table following the dance; but the beginnings of self-reproach concerning her unguarded behaviour, died upon the approach of Miss Bingley.
"Mr Darcy," she purred, taking possession of Darcy's newly disengaged arm. "How very sweet of you to humour Miss Elizabeth with a dance. She must have been unaware of how much you dislike the practice unless intimately acquainted with your partner."
"You are mistaken, Miss Bingley," Darcy answered easily with a smile at Elizabeth. "I have been most agreeably engaged."
"He is all kindness, is he not Miss Bennet?" Miss Bingley continued, not wishing to leave a compliment in Elizabeth's ears.
"Not at all," Darcy answered calmly. "I enjoyed both our dance and conversation very much."
Elizabeth gave him a genuine smile before excusing herself to join Charlotte. As she moved away she found her opinion of the man now confused. No doubt her discomposure would have been even greater had she heard his next exchange with Miss Bingley.
"Your civility is everything it should be Mr Darcy, but you need not pretend with me -- one who knows how you truly think. I know you feel how insupportable it would be to pass many evenings in this manner -- in such society; and indeed I am quite of your opinion. I was never more annoyed! The insipidity and yet the noise; the nothingness and yet the self-importance of all these people! I cannot believe their audacity in expecting Mr West to provide them with music for country dances, and I cannot condone Miss Elizabeth Bennet pressing herself upon you in such a manner-- What would I give to hear your strictures on these people!''
"You need not doubt my sincerity Miss Bingley. Your conjecture is totally wrong, I assure you. I have, in fact, been rather agreeably engaged with Miss Bennet. Indeed, I wonder that you would think me unable to appreciate the great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow."
Elizabeth returned home torn in her thoughts on Mr Darcy, unsure of whether to give predominance to his unkind dismissal at the assembly, or to his manners and compliments of that evening. Though she was loath to relinquish her quickly formed, but dearly held, low opinion of the man she finally had to admit that her practised avoidance of him over the past few weeks had given her little personal information regarding his true nature.
After going over the matter in her mind -- far more than she liked -- she could in no honesty come to a firm decision on the matter. Her father approved of him and enjoyed his company, which would normally speak highly in his favour; her step mother, after an initial hesitancy, also seemed to like the man; and since Sunday Benjamin had thought him everything to be admired. Elizabeth though, was still unable to completely set aside his rudeness at the Meryton assembly, nor deny the persisting sting of his thoughtless words. Neither was she able to decide whether his impeccable manners at the Lucas' party mitigated his earlier behaviour - or whether, in showing that he knew how he should act, it actually gave his early behaviour less excuse.
Darcy, however, had no such tension in his thoughts of Elizabeth. His initial disappointment at her inattentiveness as their dance began, only served to highlight the pleasure when she actually turned her smile upon him. Her mind and expression had by no means disappointed and to be personally regarded by her bright eyes was a treat indeed. He simply looked forward to meeting her again.
As it happened, this desire was answered the following day. Elizabeth, having been out of sorts all morning, took the first opportunity which the afternoon presented to absent herself from the house. She felt her spirits lift as she allowed herself to amble down neighbouring country lanes. A smile crept to her lips as, despite the chill of early winter, small patches of blue gem and crocuses added colour and vitality to the landscape, and she could hear the call of skylarks skittering amongst the young trees in a fresh copse of evergreens off to the side of the lane-way. To her left the fields opened up and her smile broadened as she discerned her young brother giving Perseus his head as he came over a nearby rise, his father not far behind. She held her breath slightly as he approached a low wall without pause, but he cleared it easily. Slowing now, he espied Elizabeth and turning the gelding in her direction, he grinned as he trotted toward her.
Her attention on Ben, she failed to notice that the second rider was definitely not her father until he was almost upon them, tipping his hat in salutation with a friendly "Good morning, Miss Bennet".
"Why, Mr Darcy!" Elizabeth answered in surprise. "I was watching Ben and not fully attending. I had assumed he was accompanied by my father."
"Father was called away by Mr Simpson," Ben answered " and I was going to have to exchange Perseus for Swift if I was to be allowed to continue my ride unaccompanied, but thankfully Mr Darcy called by at just the right time. His offering to ride with me saved me from such a fate. Never was an animal so completely misnamed."
"Did Mr Darcy offer or was he coerced?" Elizabeth asked a little cynically. Mr Darcy might have proved a pleasant partner during the preceding night's dance, but his condescension in accompanying an eleven year old boy on a ride was outside her expectation.
"I assure you Miss Bennet, it was my suggestion," Mr Darcy smiled as he swung down from his mount, "and in return Ben has shown me a number of the more interesting views of the area."
Elizabeth was about to reply when her attention was drawn away by the appearance of a third rider, who this time did prove be her father.
"I'm glad I managed to come upon you," he addressed himself to Mr Darcy after greetings had been exchanged all around. "My steward only required my attention for little under an hour, and I thought to relieve you of the burden of my son."
"No burden in the slightest," Darcy laughed. "We've had a remarkably enjoyable ride together."
"I'm glad to hear it," Mr Bennet smiled, "but I will take him off your hands regardless. His afternoon lessons beckon."
"Oh Papa..." Ben began, but his father quickly interrupted.
"There's no point in protesting Benjamin. I'd not only have to face the disapprobation of your tutor if I allowed you to neglect your studies, but also that of your mother."
Ben, understanding complaint would be fruitless, instead opted to delay his fate by drawing out the conversation, and decided that a disagreement with his sister would be just the thing.
"Lizzy, you're quite a distance from home. Perseus is well able to take us both."
"Thank you for your kind offer," Elizabeth answered in a tone which, Darcy could not fail to notice, was laced with sarcasm, "but I think I might continue on as I am."
"It would save you much time."
"I'm certain it would. I am, however, enjoying my walk."
"It's pure foolishness to be intimidated by horses," Ben replied in a superior tone.
"Ben, it has been years now, that you have been trying to taunt me into becoming a horsewoman with the charge of cowardice. If you had the least bit of intelligence you would realise by now that it does not work."
"Your fear of horses is irrational," Ben pushed on regardless.
"I am not afraid. I simply do not like riding."
"Father, don't you feel it would be safer for Lizzy to return with us?" Ben tried, sensing his disagreement with Elizabeth had already run dry. "I'm willing to walk with her if she will not ride."
"Don't think that I am unaware of the motive behind this sudden concern for your sister's safety," Mr Bennet laughed. "You are not escaping your lessons. Elizabeth is more than capable of finding her way home without falling in to harms way... Good afternoon Mr Darcy. We will see you at home Elizabeth."
Elizabeth, who had expected Mr Darcy to also make his farewells and remount his stallion, was very much surprised when instead he offered to walk back with her to the point where their paths to Longbourn and Netherfield would diverge.
Feeling even more positive toward him for his kindness to her brother, Elizabeth assented, and they strolled back at rather a leisurely pace, Darcy leading his horse behind.
"It is certainly a beautiful afternoon," he commented, admiring more the added brightness that exercise had lent her eyes than the immediate aspect of the countryside.
"Indeed," Elizabeth concurred and readied herself for the polite and inconsequential conversation one shares with a slight acquaintance, only to find herself once more surprised as Mr Darcy directed the discussion to talk of her brother. In little time at all she had relaxed into laughing and sharing tales of the mischief in which Ben could find himself.
"It occupies all our time to keep him from trouble," Elizabeth concluded.
"It occupies everyone's time to keep him out of trouble? Even yours Miss Bennet?"
"Why do I detect a tone of cynicism in your question Mr Darcy?"
"It's simply that, only this morning, Benjamin, in lamenting the lot of a sole male child with four older sisters, told me that Miss Jane coddles him, Miss Mary lectures him, Miss Catherine competes for attention, but that you, Miss Elizabeth, encourage his impish ways."
"Not in the slightest!" Elizabeth replied, her wide eyed, mock innocent look conveying the exact opposite to her words. "Poor Kitty," she laughed, deflecting the subject from herself. "He does occasionally exasperate her, but she has grown out of competing with him this long while. I'm sure it was just a legacy of losing her position as youngest child after a period of six years."
"That can be a difficulty," Darcy replied with disarming sincerity. "I was an only child for more than ten years before my sister's arrival, but though I do recall real struggles with jealously, she soon became most precious."
"I have heard both Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst speak highly of Miss Darcy. You must count yourself fortunate to have a sister rather than a younger brother like Benjamin. I am certain she would give far less trouble."
Something in his unsettled expression made Elizabeth wonder of she has in some way erred by this comment, and she moved on so as not to let the uneasiness lay in the air. "Is Miss Darcy likely to be joining you at Netherfield this season?"
"No, she is still full young, and education keeps her in London for the moment," Darcy replied, recovering himself. "London is an easy distance though, and I plan to spend a few days with her in a fortnight's time."
"That will be a pleasant reunion, I'm sure. There is a certain sadness when necessity demands separation. I occasionally wonder at how Longbourn will seem when Benjamin leaves for Eton next year... How did you deal with such a change in your life Mr Darcy?"
"Leaving Pemberley for school?" Mr Darcy queried - wondering if he'd ever been asked so personal a question by a female, before reminding himself that she was only interested on her brother's behalf, not his.
"Benjamin will be fine," he answered. "He is the type of lad who will adapt with little difficulty. His natural intelligence and exuberance will make the transition easy for him. I predict that early on will not escape the occasional caning for impertinence, but this will only serve to make him a greater hero amongst his peers."
Elizabeth smiled at his image, agreeing that school must be easier for some boys than others. "And you Sir, were you this type of lad?"
"I wish I had been, but I fear I am ill qualified to recommend myself to strangers." Seeing a flicker of surprise register in her eyes he sought to explain himself. "I have not the talent some people possess of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch the tone of their conversation, or appear interested in their concerns as I often see done."
"You should put yourself to the practise more Sir," Elizabeth replied with an arch look, somehow mixing both censure and empathy in her tone, "because you are more than capable upon exertion."
"I'm sure you are perfectly correct, but I still find it difficult to perform to strangers."
"How then, did you get on at school, Sir?"
"It was initially daunting, but my height and my family name assisted somewhat; I was clever at lessons, and it certainly did not hurt that I had a cousin three years my senior, who was extremely well liked and a sporting hero none-the-less, to introduce and support me. I soon had a small group of close friends."
"It is a difficult expectation on young boys," Elizabeth answered seriously. "I am by no means shy, but I would have not enjoyed being sent so far from my family and friends."
"It is a proof of your own attachment to Hertfordshire. Anything beyond the neighbourhood of Longbourn, I suppose would appear far."
"When it comes to being parted from Ben, I suppose it might," Elizabeth laughed, "but I am not so provincial as to think it in reality."
"You cannot have been always at Longbourn," Mr Darcy stated in a way which seemed more a question.
"No, we sometimes visit at Ambleside, but that is a great distance. More often one of my sisters or I might stay with my mother's brother in London and, since Mother's youngest sister married two years past, she has wintered in Town and often we will all go up to London to visit."
If it crossed Darcy's mind as at all strange that Elizabeth's tone seemed to differentiate between, "my mother' and 'Mother', it was only for a moment, and the conversation moved on.
"I must admit I try to avoid London during the season."
"Not a safe place for a single man of fortune?" Elizabeth queried.
"No indeed!" Darcy answered with a slight smile on his face.
"Don't you miss the theatre and concerts?"
"I do enjoy much of London's entertainment," he replied. "If I could only avoid all other social obligation..."
Darcy initially looked a little abashed as he registered that Elizabeth was laughing at him, then his smile broadened perceptibly.
"I'm glad you find such amusement in my suffering," he commented dryly, but there was humour in his eye.
"Mr Darcy, you hardly strike me as an object of pity," Elizabeth replied before exclaiming upon the sight of Longbourn. "Oh, I had not notice we'd come so far! Mr Darcy, you have walked at least a mile out of your way."
"I noted the turn some time back, but was too much engaged in our conversation to wish it to end, but it now appears it is time to part," he commented as he drew his horse to him and easy swung himself into the saddle. "Good afternoon Miss Bennet."
"... Mr Darcy," Elizabeth responded with a slight curtsey. "Thank you for seeing me home."
"My pleasure," he replied seriously before turning his horse for Netherfield.
As Elizabeth wandered slowly toward her home her mind was fully occupied with thoughts of the man. The afternoon's exchange had gone a great way toward answering her morning's questions, and she found her resentment could not hold. It came to mind that her overhearing at the Meryton Assembly might in fact be a providential thing, as a knowledge of his true opinion would keep her from forming any unrealistic desires where Mr Darcy was concerned. She was not about to become another Miss Bingley, crowding him with unwanted attention. No, she would protect herself. This Mr Darcy was too easy to like.
Only the next morning the women of the Bennet household received an invitation to dine with the Bingley sisters at Netherfield. The men were dining with the officers at Meryton and, as Miss Bingley wrote in her elegant hand, she and Louisa were
"in danger of hating each other for the rest of our lives, for a whole day's tête-à-tête between two women can never end without a quarrel."
As it happened, Mrs Bennet and Kitty had already arranged to meet with Charlotte and Maria, and Mary owned that she would much rather spend the day with Jonathan, leaving it to Jane and Elizabeth to 'save' Caroline and Louisa from a lifetime of hatred. Elizabeth anticipated no great pleasure from the outing and would have been pleased for an excuse to stay away herself. If she had only known that Caroline felt even less an inclination for Elizabeth's company, she could have stayed at home without scruple but, as it was, politeness seemed to require she attend.
While Sarah Bennet composed a note to be returned to Netherfield and Mr Bennet arranged for the coach, the two elder sisters moved upstairs to prepare for the engagement and were ready to leave within the hour.
"I certainly hope we arrive at Netherfield before this storm breaks," Jane commented as their father handed her into the carriage.
"I wonder if we should not say at home," Elizabeth added hopefully.
"This may be the first time I've heard you express concern over the weather. We're as like as not to find you out wandering in the rain," her father laughed, knowing of her reticence in regard to the Bingley sisters' company.
The rain did in fact pour down before they reached Netherfield, and both girls did get slightly damp in their quick dash from the coach to the residence, but a few minutes in front of one of Netherfield's roaring fires soon had them both dry and comfortable.
At one point in the afternoon Elizabeth realised she was finding Caroline and Louisa's company quite agreeable. Their powers of conversation were considerable. They could describe an entertainment with accuracy, relate an anecdote with humour, and laugh at their acquaintance with spirit.
Caroline, too, might have almost liked Elizabeth had not Mr Darcy admitted his admiration. Still, she had no complaint with her company as long as the men were not present. Whilst the others held the conversation, Caroline took the time to covertly study Elizabeth. She was undoubtedly pretty, though she did not have the remarkable perfection of her sister, Jane. Miss Elizabeth may have possessed a certain beauty but, Caroline reassured herself, no more than she herself possessed and, in Caroline's opinion, Elizabeth lacked the poise and the carefully cultivated and fashionable manners she was sure Darcy would expect in a wife. She had not seen the Miss Bennets in town, which suggested they did not move within the refined circles to which she and Louisa were privileged to belong. Both Caroline and her sister had worked long and hard to ingratiate themselves with the right people, to direct their brother in his choice of friends, and to play the games that society demanded. It seemed to Caroline that they were poised at the point of moving into even more esteemed circles too and, though it meant they were missing some of the London season, her brother's taking up residence at an estate was an integral part of the necessary image. Louisa had certainly slipped in allowing her affections to be stolen by a man of so little property, but Hurst's connections were of quality and he knew how to move in society, and utilise his contacts amongst his fashionable friends, as well as any man.
Caroline knew the full value of her own beauty and 20 000 pounds and fully intended her assets would not go to waste. She felt far more generous toward the Miss Bennets as she favourably compared her own wealth with their comparatively insignificant 7 000 pounds and contrasted her own fashionable sense with their less sophisticated country ways. The Bennets, she thought with a generous condescension, were attractive and pleasant country neighbours, but they would hardly fit comfortably within her social set in town. Just then, for a moment, her sense of familiarity concerning Mrs Bennet pushed at the back of her mind, begging for consideration, but it passed as deep voices, laughter, and general clamour in the entryway announced the return of the gentlemen.
Caroline, inwardly cursing that the men's early return would again throw them in the company of the two elder Miss Bennets, immediately left to attend to the gentlemen, hoping to divert them to another part of the house whilst she and Louisa saw their friends on their way.
The sight that greeted her, however, put any such immediate entreaty out of her mind. Instead, shocked exclamations found the way to her mouth as she examined the three men who stood muddied and soaked through to the skin. The confusion was then exacerbated as the other women joined the company; Jane and Elizabeth having decided the arrival of the gentlemen was the signal to take their leave.
Bingley immediately put an end to any suggestion of the girls leaving by finally coming forward with an explanation for their state.
"The road is impassable ladies. This rain has brought the creek up high at the crossing and our own chaise is bogged deep, blocking the road to Meryton."
"Is there not some way to go around, or at least to shift the chaise?" Elizabeth asked, trying not to look at Mr Darcy as he removed his soaking coat; his dishevelled appearance, even more attractive than his stately one, making her less inclined for his company as she reminded herself she was not to think of him as a man in that way.
"We three and the driver were unable to budge the chaise Miss Bennet," Mr Bingley grinned before going on to describe the length of their efforts to budge the vehicle, culminating in a vivid description of how Hurst had ended up face first in the mud.
Elizabeth was further surprised as Darcy joined in the laughter at the misfortune of his normally fastidious friend.
"I'm afraid ladies, that you have little choice but to accept Bingley's hospitality," Darcy affirmed with a smile, trying not to look particularly in Elizabeth's direction. "Perhaps if the rain breaks, Bingley, you might be able to send someone on horse back for some of the ladies clothes but, Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth, there is no way your carriage will make it through to Longbourn tonight and, I would venture to guess, perhaps not for a few days yet."
As men went off to bathe it was left to Caroline to, as graciously as she could, prepare rooms for the Bennet sisters. This was certainly not what she'd had in mind when inviting the Longbourn women to dine, but she would have to make the best of things. This was at least an opportunity to display her superior skills as hostess of the household and, it occurred to her, it might also be a perfect opportunity to showcase her comparative superiority to Miss Elizabeth Bennet in other ways. A country girl could never have the sophistication and attractions of a well bred girl such as herself. She would watch for Elizabeth's inevitable weaknesses and find the means to subtly highlight them in Darcy's presence. Such musing allowed Caroline to perform her duties with the beginnings of a smile on her face.
Supper passed uneventfully as Caroline had been able to seat Elizabeth as far as was possible from Darcy, and if this meant that Jane had to be seated closer to Charles it was a small price to pay. She was almost sure enough of her influence with Charles that, if it became necessary, she could convince him of Georgiana Darcy's superior merits as a partner; Jane was a lovely woman, but her 7000 pounds and small town connections could never compete with 30 000 pounds and the Darcy name. If her influence was not enough, she believed she might call on the weight of Mr Darcy's persuasion to right the scales.
Caught up in these musings, Caroline failed to note just how many times Darcy's eyes drifted to the other end of the table. Her concerns returned though, when the men rejoined the women in the parlour after brandy. As usual, Darcy had her full attention before he had walked even a few steps into the room. She smiled in his direction and spoke a welcome to him, but her smile became somewhat frozen as Darcy only gave a brief comment in reply, before walking to Elizabeth and enquiring as to how she was finding her enforced stay. Elizabeth had not time to give more than a cursory reply before Caroline suggested some music.
She offered the instrument first to Elizabeth, feeling particularly pleased with this means of separating her from Darcy. She'd not heard Elizabeth play, but recollections of at least two previous occasions when Elizabeth had demurred in favour of Mary's performance, had created in Caroline's mind the impression that Elizabeth's performance would be somewhat deficient. This simple request seemed a perfect opportunity not only to expose an insufficiency in Elizabeth but -- better still -- to then display her own superiority in taste and skill when she immediately followed Elizabeth to the performers' seat.
Elizabeth politely suggested someone else might wish to lead the way, but Caroline earnestly resisted and Louisa paid no heed, so Elizabeth moved to the instrument. Much to Caroline's chagrin, Darcy drew a chair alongside Elizabeth and offered his services as a page turner.
"That is kind of you Mr Darcy, but as I've had no opportunity to look through Miss Bingley's and Mrs Hurst's music books, I might rather play from memory."
"As you wish," Darcy agreed, as he withdrew his chair slightly to a position which commanded him a better view of the fair performer's countenance.
Elizabeth ran her fingers up and down the keyboard to get the feel of the piano, then complemented Caroline on the instrument's light touch before beginning Beethoven's Pathétique. She was hardly a few bars into the piece when Caroline realised she'd obviously misread Elizabeth's previous reluctance to perform. It occurred to her, too late, that Elizabeth's motivation might have been a pride in Mary rather than an embarrassment over her own ability. The audience retained an appreciative silence as the emotion of the music held the room, and Caroline's chagrin grew as she read the appreciation in Mr Darcy's eyes.
"A superb piece, played beautifully," Darcy murmured in the quiet that ensued after the final notes faded.
"You've been hiding your light under a bushel," Louisa added, "Why have we not heard you play before now?"
"Oh, that is easily explained by the presence of Mary and Jonathan," Elizabeth smiled, pleased at the positive response to her performance. "Without such a comparison I can tell myself I am quite accomplished, but that is an illusion which is swiftly shattered when I listen to Jonathan perform. He's magnificent."
"You're certainly no novice," Caroline put in, trying not to make it sound like an accusation.
"It is a favourite piece of mine," Elizabeth answered with a laugh, "There are other pieces I simply murder."
"Her playing was a constant source of exasperation to her masters and to mother," Jane put in. "They all saw a natural talent in Elizabeth, but it took a great deal of persuasion to make her attend to the discipline of practise."
"Yes; it was a genuine relief when Mary began to answer some of Mother's hopes in music. I don't have Mary's single minded drive. I enjoy too many things and as a consequence have never quite managed to become truly master of even one."
"I believe you to be a great reader Miss Eliza Bennet," Caroline added in a tone which somehow managed to hold underlying disapproval, "taking little pleasure in much else."
"I deserve neither such praise nor such censure," Elizabeth exclaimed.
"There was that time though, when you were not yet fifteen," Jane added good-humouredly, "and your avid ambition was to become a blue-stocking,"
"I must admit that the idea still holds a certain appeal," Elizabeth laughed. "Oh for the discipline!"
"Speaking of which," Caroline interrupted, glad to be able to turn the subject and make a negative comparison at the same time, "is the disciplined Miss Darcy much grown since the spring? Will she be as tall as I am?"
"I think she will. She is now about Miss Elizabeth Bennet's height, or rather taller."
"How I long to see her again! I never met with anybody who delighted me so much. Such a countenance, such manners, and so extremely accomplished for her age! Her performance on the piano-forte is exquisite."
"It is amazing to me," said Bingley, "how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are."
"All young ladies accomplished! My dear Charles, what do you mean?" Caroline burst forth.
"Yes all of them, I think. They all paint tables, cover skreens, and net purses. I scarcely know any one who cannot do all this, and I am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time, without being informed that she was very accomplished."
"Your list of the common extent of accomplishments," said Darcy, "has too much truth. The word is applied to many a woman who deserves it no otherwise than by netting a purse, or covering a skreen. But I am very far from agreeing with you in your estimation of ladies in general. I cannot boast of knowing more than half a dozen, in the whole range of my acquaintance, that are really accomplished."
"Nor I, I am sure," said Miss Bingley.
"Then," observed Elizabeth, "you must comprehend a great deal in your idea of an accomplished women."
"Yes; I do comprehend a great deal in it."
"Oh! certainly," cried his faithful assistant, "no one can be really esteemed accomplished, who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved."
"All this she must possess," added Darcy, "and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading."
"I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any."
"Are you so severe upon your own sex, as to doubt the possibility of all this?"
"I never saw such a woman, I never saw such capacity, and taste, and application, and elegance, as you describe, united."
Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley both cried out against the injustice of her implied doubt, and were both protesting that they knew many women who answered this description, when Charles tactfully reminded Caroline that she had offered to play after Elizabeth.
As Miss Bingley moved to the instrument the smile in Darcy's eyes immediately alerted Elizabeth to the fact that he had not missed the irony of Caroline's about-face in defence of accomplished women. Elizabeth though, was unsure of whether to return his smile as, only moments before, she had been treated to a further glimpse of the arrogance that had initially made her so wary of this man.
Sleep is often difficult enough to find in a strange room but, as she lay awake that night, Elizabeth realised that it was not a sense of displacement keeping her from her dreams, but rather thoughts of the enigmatic Mr Darcy. The laughing and dishevelled man she's seen in the hallway only that afternoon, seemed a world away from the haughty man of the Meryton Assembly. Some of his comments that evening though, had again hinted at his viewing the world with a general disdain. Her mind rolled over his comments regarding women. Had he no clue as to the rock and the hard place between which society had placed them? Those with knowledge, wit and opinions were seen as intimidating; not knowing their rightful place. Others, discouraged from such attainments, dutifully painted tables, covered skreens, and netted purses, and for their efforts found themselves condemned for being exactly as men demanded... On the other hand, at least Mr Darcy did not seem to wish women ignorant...
As the night moved on, phrases such as 'Not handsome enough to tempt me...' and '...I am very far from agreeing with you in your estimation of ladies in general...', swirled in Elizabeth's head; but as she finally drifted to sleep they mixed with snippets of his intelligent conversation, instances of unexpected gallantry, and with images of his smile.
The cloud seemed to be breaking as Elizabeth joined the others the following morning, and she became hopeful of an early return home. These hopes were further strengthened upon her father unexpectedly being shown into the breakfast parlour.
"I've been sent to confirm the whereabouts of my daughters," Mr Bennet remarked following his greetings. "Though I never doubted they were safely at Netherfield. The bogged chaise seems to rather adequately explain their failure to return home last night."
"It seems you must have passed my servant on your way," Bingley answered. "He was sent this morning with a message and with the awkward commission to return with a supply of clothing, despite only being able to pass on horseback."
"I wouldn't be too concerned Mr Bingley. I'm sure Mrs Bennet will see to it that he's adequately assisted."
"Will that be necessary now father?" Elizabeth asked. "Might not it be possible to return home with you?"
At this Darcy looked up with concern.
"I'm afraid dear, that it will take some time to recover Mr Bingley's chaise," Mr Bennet answered much to Darcy's relief, "then more repairs will be needed to the road before another vehicle will be able to safely pass; and, as far as horseback is concerned, even if I could convince you to ride tandem with me, I think the conditions of the road are still too precarious to consider it."
"I was rather thinking of returning home on foot."
"In this dirty weather!" Caroline exclaimed before realising it might discourage Elizabeth from her plan of leaving.
"You'd not be fit to be seen," her father laughed. "Not to mention that you'd likely be caught in a storm. I can just imagine what Sarah would have to say if I allowed that."
It seemed to Elizabeth that she would simply have to resign herself to a few days at Netherfield and, as the men settled down with their coffees to discuss options for recovering the chaise and repairing the road, she mentally chastised herself for allowing the thought of spending more time in Mr Darcy's presence to disconcert her so. She had discovered over the past week that he could be a very pleasant man, and she thought she'd forgiven his insult. This early faux pax had alerted her to the fact that he'd not entertain any romantic notions toward her, so no awkwardness of that kind could be expected to arise if they formed a friendship, so why did she feel so wary? Why did she allow the intimations of a personal arrogance within him to concern her so much?
A direct query from Jane as to how she was feeling, brought Elizabeth's focus back to the present as the discussion on appropriate repairs to the road continued.
"I suppose your plans for the future will make a difference to the extent of the repairs you effect," Mr Bennet commented. "You only have taken a short lease, so if it is not your intent to stay it would be folly to outlay too large a capital investment on the road."
"At present I consider myself quite fixed here," Bingley replied, unable to keep from directing a meaningful look at Jane before seeming to remember his company and quickly moving on to comment, " but whatever I do I do in a hurry, and therefore if I should resolve to quit Netherfield, I should probably be off in five minutes."
"That is exactly what I should have supposed of you," said Elizabeth, in order to draw attention away from Jane's blush.
"You begin to comprehend me, do you?'' Bingley exclaimed, turning towards her.
"Oh! yes -- I understand you perfectly.''
"I wish I might take this for a compliment; but to be so easily seen through I am afraid is pitiful.''
"That is as it happens. It does not necessarily follow that a deep, intricate character is more or less estimable than such a one as yours.''
"I did not know before,'' continued Bingley immediately, "that you were a studier of character. It must be an amusing study.''
"Yes; but intricate characters are the most amusing," Mr Bennet joined the conversation with a smile at Lizzy. "They have at least that advantage.''
"It is now obvious from whom you inherit your interest, Miss Elizabeth,'' Darcy commented with a smile. "The country though, can in general supply but few subjects for such a study. In a country neighbourhood you move in a very confined and unvarying society.''
"But people themselves alter so much, that there is something new to be observed in them for ever,'' Elizabeth countered, warming to the discussion.
"That is certainly the case," added Mr Bennet, "though we must acknowledge there is not such a variety of people to be met with in the country as in town. The girls spend far more time staying with relatives in London than I, but for my part I do not covet such a lifestyle, being unashamedly set in my country ways."
"When I am in the country,'' Bingley laughed, "I never wish to leave it; and when I am in town it is pretty much the same. They have each their advantages, and I can be equally happy in either.''
"If the girls are often in London, it is surprising," Miss Bingley added in faux innocent tone, "that we have not met before... we obviously mix in quite different social circles."
Caroline was successful in communicating her meaning, as Darcy felt a slight twinge of discomfort at the thought that the Bennets were not exactly in his social sphere.
"Yes, I have thought it surprising too," Jane answered, completely missing the supercilious overtones in Caroline's comment.
"Were you in town last winter?" Bingley inquired, feeling a pang of lost opportunity in the thought that he might have known her earlier.
"Yes, we spent November with Mother's sister," Jane answered.
"Ah, we were in Derbyshire with Darcy 'til mid December," Bingley replied.
"Yes, we did not enter town until the height of the season," Caroline added with the suggestion of a sneer in her voice.
"There Jane," Mr Bennet answered, sharing a quick amused smile at Elizabeth regarding Caroline's superior attitude, "if you had not been so eager to return home last winter you may have had an earlier acquaintance with Miss Bingley."
Darcy could not help but observe that reference to the girls' early return home seemed to bring embarrassed colour to Jane's cheeks. Neither did Jane's discomfort escape Elizabeth. Given her sensitivity, it was no surprise that Jane had found the falling out between Lord Henry and Mr Church, in their rivalry for her attention, a very trying circumstance. Elizabeth completely understood her sister's need to withdraw herself from the dangling behaviour of these men.
"Did Mother and Kitty enjoy their time with Charlotte and Maria yesterday," Elizabeth asked in order to turn the subject.
"The weather prevented the visit," Mr Bennet answered, "which is perhaps a good thing, otherwise all of my womenfolk may have been trapped away from home, and Benjamin and I would have had to sift for ourselves."
"It would hardly be a difficulty with Mrs Hill so competently in control," Elizabeth laughed. "I'm sure you would have survived."
"No doubt we might have managed... Well, I dare say it's time to be on my way," Mr Bennet commented as he rose to his feet. "Thank you very much for the coffee Mr Bingley, and for your gracious hospitality to my daughters; and remember my offer of any aid you might need in the rescue of your chaise and the repair of the road."
"I will certainly keep that in mind if I find myself in need of assistance," replied Bingley, thinking though, that with Jane as his guest he'd rather the road stay impassable for the longest possible time.
It was not long after Mr Bennet's departure that Bingley's messenger arrived home with one of the Longbourn servants in assistance. With a fresh supply of clothes for Jane and Elizabeth, the ladies retired to take care of the Bennet girls' needs and the men were left to themselves. Caroline managed to contrive that the men did not see their guests again until it was time to dine, and though Bingley again found himself happily seated close to Jane, Darcy was once more placed at the furthest distance from Elizabeth. Telling himself there would be ample opportunity to spend time with her over the next few days he resigned himself to being patient, but this did not stop his eyes from often turning in her direction.
He was rather disappointed when Caroline's diligence again managed to keep the male and female members of the party separate for much of the afternoon, but eventually Caroline's resolve failed as she herself yearned to be in Mr Darcy's company. Mr Darcy was writing when the women finally joined the men in the drawing room. Miss Bingley seated herself near him to watch the progress of his letter, and repeatedly called off his attention by messages to his sister. Mr Hurst and Mr Bingley were at piquet, and Mrs Hurst and Jane moved to observe their game.
Elizabeth took up some needlework, and was sufficiently amused in attending to what passed between Darcy and his companion, her empathy for the poor man rising every minute. The perpetual commendations of the lady either on his hand-writing, or on the evenness of his lines, or on the length of his letter, with the perfect unconcern with which her praises were received, formed a curious dialogue. Mr Darcy might have reverted to his stiffness, but in this circumstance Elizabeth could perfectly understand his reticence.
"How delighted Miss Darcy will be to receive such a letter!''
He made no answer.
"You write uncommonly fast.''
"You are mistaken. I write rather slowly.''
"How many letters you must have occasion to write in the course of the year! Letters of business too! How odious I should think them!''
"It is fortunate, then, that they fall to my lot instead of to yours.''
"Pray tell your sister that I long to see her.''
"I have already told her so once, by your desire.''
"I am afraid you do not like your pen. Let me mend it for you. I mend pens remarkably well.''
"Thank you -- but I always mend my own.''
"How can you contrive to write so even?''
He was silent.
"Tell your sister I am delighted to hear of her improvement on the harp, and pray let her know that I am quite in raptures with her beautiful little design for a table, and I think it infinitely superior to Miss Grantley's.''
"Will you give me leave to defer your raptures till I write again? -- At present I have not room to do them justice.''
"Oh! it is of no consequence. I shall see her in January. But do you always write such charming long letters to her, Mr. Darcy?''
"They are generally long; but whether always charming, it is not for me to determine.''
"It is a rule with me, that a person who can write a long letter, with ease, cannot write ill.''
"That will not do for a compliment to Darcy, Caroline,'' cried her brother -- "because he does not write with ease. He studies too much for words of four syllables. -- Do not you, Darcy?''
"My style of writing is very different from yours.''
"Oh!'' cried Miss Bingley, "Charles writes in the most careless way imaginable. He leaves out half his words, and blots the rest.''
"My ideas flow so rapidly that I have not time to express them -- by which means my letters sometimes convey no ideas at all to my correspondents.''
"Your humility, Mr Bingley,'' said Elizabeth, amused at the repartee, but not willing to let the argument go Miss Bingley's way, "must disarm reproof.''
"Nothing is more deceitful,'' said Darcy, "than the appearance of humility. It is often only carelessness of opinion, and sometimes an indirect boast.''
"And which of the two do you call my little recent piece of modesty?''
"The indirect boast; -- for you are really proud of your defects in writing, because you consider them as proceeding from a rapidity of thought and carelessness of execution, which if not estimable, you think at least highly interesting. The power of doing any thing with quickness is always much prized by the possessor, and often without any attention to the imperfection of the performance. When you told Mr Bennet this morning that if you ever resolved on quitting Netherfield you should be gone in five minutes, you meant it to be a sort of panegyric, of compliment to yourself -- and yet what is there so very laudable in a precipitance which must leave very necessary business undone, and can be of no real advantage to yourself or any one else?''
"Nay,'' cried Bingley, "this is too much, to remember late afternoon all the foolish things that were said in the morning. And yet, upon my honour, I believed what I said of myself to be true, and I believe it at this moment. At least, therefore, I did not assume the character of needless precipitance merely to show off before the ladies.''
"I dare say you believed it; but I am by no means convinced that you would be gone with such celerity. Your conduct would be quite as dependant on chance as that of any man I know; and if, as you were mounting your horse, a friend were to say, "Bingley, you had better stay till next week," you would probably do it, you would probably not go -- and, at another word, might stay a month.''
"You have only proved by this,'' cried Elizabeth, feeling a little annoyed at Mr Darcy speaking of his friend in such a way in front of Jane, "that Mr. Bingley did not do justice to his own disposition. You have shown him off now much more than he did himself.''
"I am exceedingly gratified,'' said Bingley, "by your converting what my friend says into a compliment on the sweetness of my temper. But I am afraid you are giving it a turn which that gentleman did by no means intend; for he would certainly think the better of me, if under such a circumstance I were to give a flat denial, and ride off as fast as I could.''
"Would Mr Darcy then consider the rashness of your original intention as atoned for by your obstinacy in adhering to it?''
"Upon my word I cannot exactly explain the matter; Darcy must speak for himself.''
"You expect me to account for opinions which you choose to call mine, but which I have never acknowledged. Allowing the case, however, to stand according to your representation, you must remember, Miss Bennet, that the friend who is supposed to desire his return to the house, and the delay of his plan, has merely desired it, asked it without offering one argument in favour of its propriety.''
"To yield readily -- easily -- to the persuasion of a friend is no merit with you.''
"To yield without conviction is no compliment to the understanding of either.''
"You appear to me, Mr Darcy, to allow nothing for the influence of friendship and affection. A regard for the requester would often make one readily yield to a request without waiting for arguments to reason one into it. I am not particularly speaking of such a case as you have supposed about Mr Bingley. We may as well wait, perhaps, till the circumstance occurs, before we discuss the discretion of his behaviour thereupon. But in general and ordinary cases between friend and friend, where one of them is desired by the other to change a resolution of no very great moment, should you think ill of that person for complying with the desire, without waiting to be argued into it?''
"Will it not be advisable, before we proceed on this subject, to arrange with rather more precision the degree of importance which is to appertain to this request, as well as the degree of intimacy subsisting between the parties?''
"By all means,'' cried Bingley; "Let us hear all the particulars, not forgetting their comparative height and size; for that will have more weight in the argument, Miss Bennet, than you may be aware of. I assure you that if Darcy were not such a great tall fellow, in comparison with myself, I should not pay him half so much deference. I declare I do not know a more aweful object than Darcy, on particular occasions, and in particular places; at his own house especially, and of a Sunday evening when he has nothing to do.''
Mr Darcy smiled; but Elizabeth thought she could perceive that he was rather offended; and therefore checked her laugh. It seemed Mr Bingley was by no means completely defenceless against his clever friend. Miss Bingley warmly resented the indignity he had received, in an expostulation with her brother for talking such nonsense.
"I see your design, Bingley,'' said his friend. -- "You dislike an argument, and want to silence this.''
"Perhaps I do. Arguments are too much like disputes. If you and Miss Bennet will defer yours till I am out of the room, I shall be very thankful; and then you may say whatever you like of me.''
"What you ask,'' said Elizabeth, "is no sacrifice on my side; and Mr. Darcy had much better finish his letter.''
Mr Darcy took her advice, and did finish his letter but, after enjoying such a lively dispute with this attractive young woman, he kept it in mind that it would just be a deferral. It might be worth initiating a few more disputes simply to see the fire in her eyes as she rose to the occasion.
Miss Bingley smiled to herself as she sat back to continue to watch Darcy at his correspondence, believing Miss Elizabeth had shown her behaviour as impertinent and contrary during the last exchange. She obviously has no idea of how to please a man, Caroline thought to herself with a smug satisfaction.
Life's far too busy at this time of the year! I hope you're all surviving its stresses and appreciating its joys. At the risk of being politically incorrect, I'm wishing you all a meaningful and joyful Christmas.
The evening passed without event. Miss Bingley requested that Elizabeth again play for the party. Though unhappy with the idea that it exposed a talent in Elizabeth, the fact that it kept her from conversation with Mr Darcy made it the best alternative in Caroline's eyes.
As she played, Elizabeth could not help observing how frequently Mr. Darcy's eyes were fixed on her. After his comment at the assembly she hardly knew how to suppose that she could be an object of admiration to so great man; and yet that he should look at her when he was indifferent was still more strange. She began to imagine that perhaps she drew his notice because there was a something about her more wrong and reprehensible, according to his ideas of right, than in any other person present but, as she looked up and caught a smile from the man himself, she quickly put aside such thoughts. It was difficult to keep the colour from rising to her cheeks at such an intense scrutiny, and half of her concentration was lost in trying to remind herself that Mr Darcy was not the kind of man over whom she should indulge in an infatuation. If Elizabeth's playing suffered from her distraction, Darcy did not notice; he was too far involved in indulging in an infatuation of his own.
As the next day dawned the last of the cloud disappeared from the sky. Following breakfast the men removed themselves to supervise the extraction of the chaise and did not return until mid afternoon. Upon entering the house Darcy found himself disappointed to find that Elizabeth was not immediately to be found.
"I believe they have gone walking somewhere-a-bouts," Caroline answered her brother's query, not wishing to be specific with the information that the Bennet sisters were enjoying stroll in the shrubbery.
"Well, I might see if I can find them. Care to join me Darcy?"
Darcy, who was by no means reluctant to take up his friend's suggestion, was just about to rise when Caroline answered that a refreshing walk was just what she desired.
"After the physical exertions of this morning," Darcy dissembled. "I believe I'd rather wait in the drawing room."
He soon felt his decision a poor one, as Caroline immediately retracted her plan to walk in favour of staying back in the house to finish a book. No more than half a paragraph could have been read, before the book was wholly lain aside, as she turned her attention on Darcy, trying to provoke him into disliking their guest by talking of Elizabeth's country manners and impertinent ways.
". . . and she spoke again today of perhaps returning home on foot!" Caroline went on after numerous one word answers from Darcy failed to deter her. "To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ankles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! what could she mean by suggesting such a thing? It seems to me to show an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country-town indifference to decorum. I dare say Mr Darcy, that such an exhibition would effect your admiration of her 'fine eyes'."
"Not at all, Miss Bingley," he calmly replied. "I'm sure they'd be brightened by the exercise."
Such a remark had Caroline even less kindly deposed toward Elizabeth, when only a few minutes later -- having left Mr Bingley and Jane strolling together outdoors -- she joined Mr Darcy and his companion in the drawing room. Greetings were followed by a few minutes of silence. Elizabeth spoke simply to dispel iciness she felt in the air.
"Mr Bingley informs me that you had a rather successful morning, Mr Darcy. I believe the road should be passable tomorrow."
"If the weather holds, I'm sure that will be the case Miss Bennet," he answered, wishing at the same time for more rain to slow the repair progress. Despite Elizabeth having been at Netherfield for two days, the time had not really answered his hopes of knowing her more fully. She was there in front of him, but somehow Caroline always managed to be there too and, most often, in between himself and Elizabeth.
"Did you enjoy your walk Miss Bennet?" Darcy asked, finally determining to have some correspondence with Elizabeth, regardless of Caroline's presence.
"Very much Mr Darcy, there's a wonderful sense of freedom in going out of doors after days of being kept in by rain. I believe that Longbourn will be rejoicing today, because Benjamin can become rather unsettled when trapped in doors for too long a period."
"Yes, I can imagine that such irrepressible enthusiasm might not respond well to circumstances which seek to stifle its expression."
"Which is exactly why children should be taught restraint at a young age," Caroline put in immediately, seeing Benjamin's behaviour as a further example of the Bennet's unsuitability. "There is little more tiresome than children who do not know their place. I'm sure your sister gives you no such concern Mr Darcy."
Mr Darcy looked momentarily uncertain as thoughts of Ramsgate came unbidden to his mind. An answer did not immediately come to his lips, so he felt a certain relief when Elizabeth, feeling indignant at the slight toward her brother, spoke instead.
"I believe Miss Darcy is sixteen, so hardly a child Miss Bingley," she answered perhaps a little too sharply, "and though I feel that it is important for children to practise good manners and propriety, I hardly think that an active boy looking for alternate outlets for his energy, within his own home and with his own family, can be in any way construed as being worthy of censure!"
"I believe that good behaviour starts in the home," Caroline countered, "and cannot be expected outside the family if not practised within." She was about to appeal for Mr Darcy's agreement when the impertinent Elizabeth cut in once again.
"If you are implying that Benjamin is not expected to show good manners at home, you are very wrong indeed, but neither is he expected to always sit quietly. Personally I find that children who are allowed an appropriate expression of their youthful interests, who are given choice in smaller matters when young, and matters of more significance as they mature, find it easier to be discerning when they receive the liberties that come with age, because they have had the practice of it."
"And I believe that minors do better to rely on the judgement of their elders. As does Miss Darcy. Don't you agree Mr Darcy?"
Darcy caught Elizabeth regarding him with a look which possibly held censure. He could almost see her casting him in the role of an overbearing and controlling older brother.
"She is very desirous of pleasing," he answered, choosing his words carefully, "but it is my wish that she grow into a young lady of discernment."
"Oh! I do not mean to imply that Miss Darcy is not discerning! She has such exquisite taste in the art, music and décor, and her sense of style is delightful. How could it be otherwise with all you have invested in superintending her education. . ."
Caroline continued in her opining, but had no idea that her flattery was misfiring as Darcy chided himself that Miss Bingley's assessment was all too correct. He had spent his time and money concentrating on the external, overseeing her education and her companions, but he had not prepared her to see through the illusions of the Wickhams of this world. In trying to shelter her, had he in fact exposed her to danger? There was a time when his hopes for her all seemed so simple. He would prepare her with the proper accomplishments of a young lady and, at the right time, see her well settled, hopefully with his friend. What happened at Ramsgate nearly defeated all these dreams.
". . . would not you concur Mr Darcy?"
"Hmm. . . Indeed. . ." he muttered, not really aware of what Caroline had continued to talk on about.
Elizabeth almost missed the look of triumph Caroline threw in her direction, as she noticed Darcy's distraction and wondered what thoughts were in his head. He certainly had treated Benjamin as an individual. Not as simply a child who should be seen and not heard; but maybe he thought differently in regard to the place of female children. She could not decide whether to excuse his concurrence as vague abstraction, or whether to be annoyed at it.
"Well then, it seems we shall just have to differ," Elizabeth replied, opting for the latter before excusing herself to go to the library.
Caroline's sense of triumph increased as she watched Elizabeth depart, but it deflated somewhat when Darcy's own excuses immediately followed. Caroline straight away prepared to go after him, but on seeing him repair to his chambers, went instead to find Louisa to inform her of how she had bested Elizabeth and made her appear foolish in front of Darcy. Her smile might have been less smug had she seen him come out of his room with a book in his hands only minutes later, and walk toward the library.
"I hope I'm not disturbing you Miss Bennet," he apologised as he interrupted her perusing some titles.
"Not at all," Elizabeth replied with a cold politeness.
"The tone of your voice suggests otherwise," Darcy intrepidly pushed on. "Tell me, with what did I agree whilst in the drawing room."
"So you were not attending to Miss Bingley?"
"Not fully, I'm afraid. To tell the truth, by the end not at all."
Elizabeth's laugh lightened the room. "This is a delightful opportunity Mr Darcy. I could tell you she said anything. That you agreed to allow her to be hostess to the seasons premier party at Pemberley; that you've promised her your firstborn son, that..."
"Enough! You'll give me nightmares," Darcy laughed in return. "Now seriously, did I concur with anything too ridiculous."
Elizabeth regarded him with a half smile. "Only that children are nothing but ornaments to compliment a household, and that they should have no thoughts independent of their elders."
"Ah," he said in a long and drawn out breath. "I dare say she had you feeling sorry for my sister."
"I must admit, I wondered if I should, but then you looked so distracted at the time that I also questioned if I should not give you the benefit of the doubt," Elizabeth replied as she sat down and opened the volume in her hands.
Darcy immediately took the chair facing Elizabeth's. Despite her eyes being on the page, Lizzy could feel him regarding her, and she finally looked up at him to confirm her intuition, a slight blush rising in her cheeks.
"Are you trying to make me nervous Mr Darcy? I must warn you, there is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises with every attempt to intimidate me."
Darcy simply laughed. "I shall not say that you are mistaken because you could not really believe me to entertain any design of alarming you; and I have had the pleasure of your acquaintance long enough to know, that you find great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions which in fact are not your own."
Elizabeth could not but grin at such an assessment of herself. "I would ask that you keep these insights to yourself, Mr Darcy. It could spoil a lot of my fun if such secrets became widely known. You would teach others not to believe a word I say."
"You're secret is safe with me," Darcy replied as he moved forward in his chair, leaning his elbow on his knee, and resting his chin in his hand as he continued to regard her with a slight smile.
But am I safe with you? Elizabeth almost asked as she shifted under his gaze.
"I suppose the question of the place of minors is more than an academic one to you Mr Darcy. How long have you had sole guardianship of your sister? Do you enjoy having her at your disposal? Many men take pleasure in their power of direction." She spoke simply to break the intensity of the moment, not really aware that her early suspicions were exposing themselves in her question.
"In fact, I don't have sole guardianship. That pleasure is divided with my cousin, as I had not long come of age when my father died," he answered more soberly. "She's been in our care since she the age of eleven."
"I'm sorry Mr Darcy," Elizabeth answered, a little embarrassed at being flippant about so serious a subject. "I'm still reacting to some of Miss Bingley's comments. The idea of a parental role being one of control above nurture quite irks me, but I shouldn't be imputing her beliefs to you, particularly after you've gone to the trouble to disassociate yourself with them. It must have been difficult to take on those responsibilities at such a young age."
"I can't say it's always been easy. There have been times in which I've felt inadequate to the task." Darcy replied, wondering why he didn't mind admitting such a thing to Elizabeth. The only person he ever shared these thoughts with was his cousin, Richard. "I was very taken by what you said earlier about learning the practice of discernment in small things. My sister is a very sweet, quiet girl. . . intelligent and thoughtful, but possibly too willing to think others' opinions better than her own. Lately I have wished that she might have more confidence in her own thoughts and observations."
"Then you must direct her to do so," Elizabeth answered with a cheeky smile, making Darcy laugh at the intended irony; but before she could comment further they were joined by Mr Bingley and Jane, returned from their walk.
"Miss Bennet was sure we would find you in the library," Mr Bingley commented.
As the two newcomers settled down with them, the subjects for discussion necessarily became more general, and light conversation was enjoyed until it was time to retire to dress.
As she prepared herself to go down to supper, try as she might, Elizabeth struggled to get thoughts of Darcy from her mind. The more time she spent in his presence, the more of an enigma seemed. How did the man she was speaking with that afternoon fit with the silent and disdainful man he often appeared to be in company? On this occasion though, her thought quickly moved from that question, to one of how she felt toward him. It seemed that no matter how many times she reminded herself that she was 'not handsome enough to tempt him', no matter how often she tried to clear her mind of him, or to remind herself of instances of his disdain, her treacherous thoughts kept returning to snippets of intelligent conversation or lively debate, to his eyes so often upon her and, unfailingly, to his smile. Such retrospections gave her an unfamiliar sensation of pleasure and excitement, but at the same time there were balanced by a sudden and strong feelings of vulnerability.
Again at supper, she found herself seated as far from Mr Darcy as the table would allow, and with determination she even managed to eek out an impoverished form of conversation with Mr Hurst, once more confirming the man as shallow and self absorbed. In trying to avoid the topic of sport, she found he could be engaged in social gossip regarding the leading members of the ton, and Elizabeth was occasionally amused as he dropped names intended to impress, of people whom she'd come to know quite well since her aunt, Sophia, had moved to town. At one point she even had to move quickly to redirect the conversation after it appeared that last seasons incident over Jane "a beauty from the country" might become a matter for discussion.
When, following port, the men rejoined the ladies in the drawing room, Caroline -- as was her practice -- settled herself down next to Mr Darcy and tried to engage his attention. Mr Hurst, after being disappointed in his hopes for a game of cards, had nothing to do but to stretch himself on one of the sofas and go to sleep. Elizabeth had a stilted exchange with Mrs Hurst, who was principally occupied in playing with her bracelets and rings, before moving to join the conversation between Jane and Mr Bingley, and was pleased to hear that the gentleman was entertaining the idea of holding a ball.
"I believe it would be an appropriate response to all the hospitality we have received from our new neighbours."
"Charles, are you really serious in meditating a dance at Netherfield?" interrupted Caroline, who was listening in, as her attempts to distract Darcy from the book he had taken up had proved fruitless. "I would advise you, before you determine on it, to consult the wishes of the present party; I am much mistaken if there are not some among us to whom a ball would be rather a punishment than a pleasure."
"If you mean Darcy," cried her brother, "he may go to bed, if he chooses, before it begins -- but as for the ball, it is quite a settled thing; and as soon as Nicholls has made white soup enough I shall send round my cards."
"I should like balls infinitely better," she replied, "if they were carried on in a different manner; but there is something insufferably tedious in the usual process of such a meeting. It would surely be much more rational if conversation instead of dancing made the order of the day."
"Much more rational, my dear Caroline, I dare say, but it would not be near so much like a ball."
"At least private balls are much more pleasant than public ones," Caroline conceded. "Public balls, where trades-people parade and try to put themselves above their level, are really quite appalling."
"I don't feel that parading and pushing oneself above ones level is reserved for public balls," Darcy commented dryly. "Pretentiousness may be quite evident amongst those who are newly rich, but is not reserved for the merchant class alone."
"At least they have worked to deserve their wealth," Elizabeth replied. Given her respect for her uncle on her mother's side, she was always uncomfortable with any implied criticism of the rising middle classes. "Isn't this more reason for self congratulation than having everything handed to one on a silver platter."
"Wealth and property are also maintained through hard work and good practices, and as such is equally earned." Darcy replied levelly. "I'm sure you see this in your father's estate."
"Yes, I do appreciate my father's hard work, but I also see many wastrels and many who exploit their position of advantage."
"And many of the merchant classes have risen on exploitation. So much of this war we now face is to protect their commercial interests."
A tactful change of subject by Bingley put an end to the debate before more could be said, but Elizabeth still remained peeved at the exchange which, again, seemed to suggest an arrogance of position.
Miss Bingley soon afterwards got up and walked about the room. Her figure was elegant, and she walked well; -- but Darcy, at whom it was all aimed, had returned to being inflexibly studious when it came to his book. In the desperation of her feelings she resolved on one effort more; and turning to Elizabeth, said,
"Miss Eliza Bennet, let me persuade you to follow my example, and take a turn about the room. -- I assure you it is very refreshing after sitting so long in one attitude."
Elizabeth was surprised, but agreed to it immediately. Miss Bingley succeeded no less in the real object of her civility; Mr. Darcy looked up. He was as much awake to the novelty of attention in that quarter as Elizabeth herself could be, and unconsciously closed his book. He was directly invited to join their party, but he declined it, observing that he could imagine but two motives for their choosing to walk up and down the room together, with either of which motives his joining them would interfere. "What could he mean? she was dying to know what could be his meaning" -- and asked Elizabeth whether she could at all understand him?
"Not at all," was her answer; "but depend upon it, he means to be severe on us, and our surest way of disappointing him will be to ask nothing about it."
Miss Bingley, however, was incapable of disappointing Mr. Darcy in any thing, and persevered therefore in requiring an explanation of his two motives.
"I have not the smallest objection to explaining them," said he, as soon as she allowed him to speak. "You either choose this method of passing the evening because you are in each other's confidence, and have secret affairs to discuss, or because you are conscious that your figures appear to the greatest advantage in walking; -- if the first, I should be completely in your way; -- and if the second, I can admire you much better as I sit by the fire."
"Oh! shocking!" cried Miss Bingley. "I never heard any thing so abominable. How shall we punish him for such a speech?"
"Nothing so easy, if you have but the inclination," said Elizabeth. "We can all plague and punish one another. Tease him -- laugh at him. -- Intimate as you are, you must know how it is to be done."
"But upon my honour I do not. I do assure you that my intimacy has not yet taught me that. Tease calmness of temper and presence of mind! No, no -- I feel he may defy us there. And as to laughter, we will not expose ourselves, if you please, by attempting to laugh without a subject. Mr. Darcy may hug himself."
"Mr. Darcy is not to be laughed at!" cried Elizabeth. "That is an uncommon advantage, and uncommon I hope it will continue, for it would be a great loss to me to have many such acquaintance. I dearly love a laugh."
"Miss Bingley," said he, "has given me credit for more than can be. The wisest and the best of men, nay, the wisest and best of their actions, may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke."
"Certainly," replied Elizabeth -- "there are such people, but I hope I am not one of them. I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can. -- But these, I suppose, are precisely what you are without."
"Perhaps that is not possible for any one. But it has been the study of my life to avoid those weaknesses which often expose a strong understanding to ridicule."
"Such as vanity and pride."
"Yes, vanity is a weakness indeed," he replied, knowing full well this was her means of commenting on their earlier exchange about class. "But pride -- where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation."
"Your examination of Mr. Darcy is over, I presume," said Miss Bingley; -- "and pray what is the result?"
"I am perfectly convinced by it that Mr. Darcy has no defect. He owns it himself without disguise."
"No" -- said Darcy, "I have made no such pretension. I have faults enough, but they are not, I hope, of understanding. My temper I dare not vouch for. -- It is I believe too little yielding -- certainly too little for the convenience of the world. I cannot forget the follies and vices of others so soon as I ought, nor their offences against myself. My feelings are not puffed about with every attempt to move them. My temper would perhaps be called resentful. -- My good opinion once lost is lost for ever."
"That is a failing indeed!" -- cried Elizabeth. "Implacable resentment is a shade in a character. But you have chosen your fault well. -- I really cannot laugh at it; you are safe from me."
"There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil, a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome."
"And your defect is a propensity to hate every body."
"And yours," he replied with a smile, "is wilfully to misunderstand them."
"Do let us have a little music," -- cried Miss Bingley, tired of a conversation in which she had no share. -- "Louisa, you will not mind my waking Mr. Hurst."
Her sister made not the smallest objection, and the piano-forte was opened, whilst Elizabeth, try as she might, could not fail to return Mr Darcy's smile. It was simply too hard to stay cross at him. There was a pleasure too, in finding a man who did not feel threatened or intimidated when she expressed an opinion. Some men became offended, whilst others tried to pompously lecture her on the superiority of men's understanding. Darcy, however, seemed to honestly enjoy engaging her in lively debate. It was a refreshing change.
She seated herself, and was surprised as Darcy moved beside her.
"And what, Miss Bennet," he asked in a low voice as Caroline selected her music, "do you think your defect might be?"
"Possibly impertinence," she whispered back.
"Not so," he replied just before Caroline began to play. "Though it might be your greatest asset."
Caroline, her attention more on Darcy than on her song, audibly misplayed the opening bars of the piece as she noted Elizabeth's colour rise in response to Mr Darcy's intimately spoken comment. It took all her self control to finish her performance at the appropriate adagio pace rather than presto, though she did abridge the number of repeats to bring the piece to a timely end, before insisting Elizabeth take her place at the instrument.
A real relief washed over Elizabeth at Caroline's request that she play, and she graciously accepted. She'd found Darcy's sitting so close at her side unsettling in a way with which she was utterly unfamiliar, and though the sensation created was not exactly unpleasant, she was pleased to be released from its intensity to move to the familiar security of the piano-forte.
Darcy felt a loss at Elizabeth's removal. In truth, he had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her. His eyes followed her lithe figure as she lightly moved to the instrument, and hardly noted Caroline as she availed herself of the seat which Elizabeth had just vacated.
"From the right aspect she might be considered pretty by some," Caroline peevishly whispered, unable to hold her tongue at his slight, "though I am a little surprised at your obvious admiration. I've always believed your tastes more discerning. Pray, when am I to wish you joy?
"A lady's imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony, in a moment, but men know that these three are very different things."
His tone may have held within it the very essence of ennui, but for the first time since his youth he experienced the threat of a feminine allure and, after a few moments recollection, was not sorry for Elizabeth's removal. He began to feel the danger of paying Elizabeth too much attention.
Elizabeth lay in her bed that evening, her thoughts again with Mr Darcy, almost resigned to the fact that she would never get a full night's sleep whilst at Netherfield. There were times earlier in the evening when she might have truly accepted that he found her attractive, but his attentions to her -- or rather lack thereof -- as the evening wore on, seemed to make a lie of any such assumption. Still, in a way, her difficulty in understanding his feelings took second place to discerning her own. Offended by his incivility at the assembly, she'd begun with a certainty of his vain arrogance which she'd hung onto with a tenaciousness through the early weeks of their acquaintance. It was an easy impression to maintain. . . as long as you did not speak with the man. Conversation proved him to be a far more complex creature, displaying his intelligent and informed mind, giving glimpses of good humour and opinions, and ironically showing a disarming reticence co-existing alongside a considerable sense of self assurance. In less than a week (had it really only been five days since the Lucas's party?) she had come to see a different Mr Darcy. Despite some of his opinions still suggesting arrogance, she could not help but like him. The question was, how far did that like go?
In a bed chamber not too far removed, Darcy lay asking himself much the same question. He knew without a shadow of a doubt that he was drawn to Miss Elizabeth Bennet, but had no answer as to how far he should let this attraction take him. When he had singled her out for his attention he had only in mind to sate his craving for some pleasant female company, thinking that her smiles and liveliness would leave him contented. He had no notion that time spent with this girl, rather than satisfying, would instead increase his hunger. Now, without any intention that it be so, he found himself feeling caught as though enchanted.
It had been a number of years since he'd abandoned as naïïve, his youthful dreams that he could possess such feelings toward a woman. He'd been attracted to women before, he'd enjoyed their friendship and appreciated their beauty, but he'd not felt like this. In his mind he'd worked out how his life was to be. He'd planned to enjoy the liberties of a single man for a few years yet, to travel, spend time with friends, enjoy sports and entertainments, and appreciate the smiles of a number of women. When the time was right he'd settle down with a pretty, good tempered, well connected and wealthy heiress. With his own wealth and heritage one would not think such a thing too much to ask, but now his infatuation with a pert country lass, with no more than 7 000 pounds to her name, had suddenly complicated everything, and he didn't know whether to indulge the feeling, or whether to work his hardest to repress it.
He knew what his family expected of him, but was Pemberley really in need of 30 000 or 40 000 pounds from a wife's settlement, and did the Darcy name really need the enhancement of a connection to another noble or ancient family? Shouldn't a connection with a respectable country family be enough? In any case, he told himself, he needn't attempt to cross bridges before he came to them. He had only known Miss Elizabeth for a short while, and there was no point in committing himself to any plan of action until he was sure of what would constitute his own happiness. Obviously, he told himself, to make such a decision he needed to know even more of -- and to spend more time with -- Miss Elizabeth Bennet. He fell asleep with a smile on his face.
After his reserved behaviour in the later half of the previous evening, Elizabeth was surprised to find Darcy all attentiveness at breakfast. Caroline had not yet risen, and Darcy took the opportunity of uninterrupted conversation with pleasure, particularly pleased when Elizabeth disagreed with his opinion on Fanny Burney as an author, bringing that defiant spark again to her eyes. Darcy even found himself overstating objections to Evelina, just to get a rise from his fair debating partner, and he had to laugh out loud when Elizabeth caught his tactic.
"You don't actually believe a word you're saying, do you?" she asked, and his laughter in reply confirmed her suspicions correct. "Thank goodness. I was beginning to feel I had vastly overestimated your good sense. No reasonable man could ever believe an egregious fop like Lovel due respect simply on the basis of family and wealth."
"At least he had some sound opinions on women and strength," Darcy grinned as Elizabeth almost choked on her tea.
"I assume you're referring to his 'insuperable aversion to strength, either of body or mind, in a female' Mr Darcy," she replied when she recovered herself, "but you will not induce me to take the bait of your teasing when I know you feel otherwise."
"Even if I state concurrence with Lord Merton that 'a woman wants nothing to recommend her but beauty and good-nature; in everything else she is either impertinent or unnatural."
"I will not bite Mr Darcy," she smiled, shaking her head, "for I have it from your very mouth that you think differently on the subject."
"From my own mouth? I do not recall that we have ever spoken on the matter."
"Not specifically perhaps, but comments you've made in regard to your sister's education," she replied with a slightly raised eyebrow, "alongside your most exacting list of what is to be expected in an accomplished woman, do rather suggest a view quite removed from Lord Merton's."
"It does not necessarily follow though, Miss Bennet," he laughed, "that I agree with the public exhibition of such learning. I may feel it only appropriate for personal edification."
"I very much doubt that, Mr Darcy," Elizabeth replied, boldly holding his eye. "It would be an unlikely opinion for a man who'd consider feminine impertinence an asset."
"My, isn't everyone up early this morning," Caroline announced as she entered the parlour, causing Elizabeth and Darcy to quickly, almost guiltily, sit back and break their eye contact.
Miss Bingley was unhappy to find her brother and Jane together at one end of the table, and Mr Darcy and Elizabeth at the other, and Charles's reply did nothing to reassure her.
"Good morning Caroline dear," he greeted her with a warm smile. "We're simply trying to make the most of our guests company before their departure. Will you not join me in attempting to convince them to stay just one more day. I'm sure the roads will be much safer with another day to dry out."
"And I'm sure they are perfectly passable now," Jane answered with a slight blush at the compliment of his invitation. "Elizabeth and I have truly enjoyed our stay, but we have imposed on your hospitality long enough."
Despite all inclination otherwise, at Mr Bingley's entreaty Caroline felt obliged to generously second her brother's invitation. She was pleased to find though, that both the Bennet sisters' resolve to leave that day remained firm, and her friendliness toward even Elizabeth increased as she moved upstairs to help them prepare to leave. Finding Elizabeth already packed, Caroline happily moved with Jane to her room to assist in the removal.
"Thank you again for your hospitality over these past days Caroline," Jane smiled at the woman she now considered her friend.
"You have been a very welcome addition to the household," Caroline answered only half insincerely. Though she'd have preferred that Jane had spent less time with her brother, the elder Miss Bennet was not her particular concern.
Louisa joined the two as Jane packed up her few belongings. As talk continued inconsequentially, a sense of comfortable ease built up in the room. Given this atmosphere of intimacy, Mrs Hurst, still not satisfied as to why Mrs Bennet always seemed so familiar, felt it not inappropriate to make some more personal enquiries of Jane.
"Jane dear, I believe we were interrupted when speaking of your mother the other day. Did you say she was from London?"
Jane could not recall the earlier conversation, but suspicion was not in her nature, and she accepted Louisa's question at face value.
"No, my mother was a local girl. . ."
Not more than an hour later the Netherfield party bid farewell to their visitors. Caroline watched even Darcy's attentions to Elizabeth with an equanimity which, incidentally, matched her supercilious smile.
"Pretentious upstarts," she whispered to Louisa as they re-entered the house, but loud enough for Darcy to also hear. "No doubt it was learned from their mother. The gall of that woman, putting herself forward with all the airs and graces of a well bred gentlewoman, happily accepting precedence when she in fact has no family worth speaking of."
"Yes Caroline, at least the girls' father is a gentleman, but what he was thinking to marry so far below him I will never know. It makes me boil to think of Mrs Bennet treating everyone with her condescending graciousness, when she has no reason at all to think so well of herself. When next we meet she will only receive the attention she deserves from me."
"And from me Louisa!" Caroline smiled as she knew they now had Mr Darcy's attention, and she happily included him in the conversation as they entered the parlour. " Mr Darcy, did you know of Mrs Bennet's family connections?"
Given the look on his face, the question was completely unnecessary.
"I have an excessive regard for Jane Bennet, she is really a very sweet girl," Louisa said deliberately as her brother entered the room after having waited to see the girls' carriage disappear in the distance, "and I wish with all my heart she were well settled. But with such a mother, and such low connections, I am afraid there is no chance of it."
"I think she said that their uncle is an attorney in Meryton," Caroline sniffed.
"Yes; and they have another, who lives somewhere near Cheapside," sneered Louisa.
"That is capital," added her sister, and they both laughed heartily.
"If they had uncles enough to fill all Cheapside," exclaimed Bingley, "it would not make them one jot less agreeable."
"But it must very materially lessen their chance of marrying men of any consideration in the world," Darcy replied thoughtfully.
To this speech Bingley made no answer; but his sisters gave it their hearty assent, and indulged their mirth for some time at the expense of their dear friend's vulgar relations, leaving Bingley to wonder why it had to be such an issue. Obviously Sarah Landsdowne had not thought the relatives which Mr Bennet acquired from his first marriage any insurmountable barrier to her becoming the second Mrs Bennet, and her grandfather was an earl and great uncle a marquis. . . at least that's what his neighbours had told him when he'd first moved to Netherfield. With a shake of his head he left the room; he'd heard quite enough.
Dinner that day at the Bennet household was lively, as the family was glad to see the two older girls returned. Ben regaled them with stories of the muddied rides he'd had on Perseus immediately the rains had stopped.
"I would have called to visit you," he finished, "but given there was barely an inch of me not covered with muck, I thought the better of it."
"A wise choice," Sarah smiled at her son. "Unexpected visitors are not always accepted with open arms, whether muddied or not."
"I was most tempted to visit for that very reason," Benjamin grinned. "I'd have loved to see the look on Miss Bingley's face."
"As we're speaking of uninvited guests," Mr Bennet said dryly as his family's responses to Benjamin's comment subsided, "I received some most unusual correspondence this morning. It appears Sarah, that we have been forgiven by one Mr Collins for the iniquitous sin of having begat Benjamin. It seems, though our actions have cut him off from his 'rightful inheritance of Longbourn', that since he received ordination at Easter he feels it his duty -- now let me find the passage -- 'to promote and establish the blessing of peace in all families within the reach of my influence; and on these grounds I flatter myself that my present overtures of good-will are highly commendable'.
"Surely you are teasing sir," laughed Sarah. "He cannot have written such a thing."
"I kid you not dear," he smiled, handing her the missive.
"Oh my," Sarah shook her head in disbelief as she ran her eyes over the contents of the letter. "I know of Lady Catherine. She no doubt enjoys the deference of such a man as this Mr Collins. Oh, I do like this part about his kind intention of christening, marrying, and burying his parishioners whenever required, and there's more! 'If you should have no objection to receive me into your house, I propose myself the satisfaction of waiting on you and your family, Monday, November 18th, by four o'clock, and shall probably trespass on your hospitality till the Saturday se'nnight following, which I can do without any inconvenience, as Lady Catherine is far from objecting to my occasional absence on a Sunday, provided that some other clergyman is engaged to do the duty of the day', but that's only three days away!"
"Yes my dear, it seems the letter was misdirected en route. As time seemed pressing I took the liberty of sending him an express this morning, suggesting that the visit be deferred to the second week of December."
"But that is when the girls and I expect to be in London to shop for the wedding."
"Precisely dearest," Mr Bennet smiled. "The three references to his 'fair cousins' make me uneasy. The girls have had their fair share of unwanted attentions in the recent past. I will not have him here at the same time as my daughters."
"Little wonder we love you father," Elizabeth laughed as she rose and moved around the table to kiss him on the cheek. "It's good to be home."
Elizabeth curled up in her own bed that night, and slept like a baby. It was good to be home; and a relief to have some distance between herself and the undeniable charms of Mr Darcy. While she remained unable to interpret the motives for his friendliness, she felt her heart safer away from the man.
Darcy, on the other hand, spent a rather restless night turning things over and over in his head, trying to tell himself he was fortunate to learn of Elizabeth's connections before matters had progressed to a point of no return. The news had gone far to answer the dilemma he'd weighed the preceding evening regarding the conflict between his own desires, and that which he perceived to be his familial obligations. He might have been able to justify tying his family to the daughter of a respected country gentleman, but how should he now act knowing that her relations included those whose condition in life was so decidedly beneath his own? Still, even while he told himself of the impossibilities of the situation, his treacherous mind kept returning to her face and her laugh, to the lively conversation of that very morning, and to the amused fire which had showed in her eyes as they'd held his.
"Oh my," he groaned audibly. This was too much. In a perverse manner, the knowledge that he could not have her -- rather than curb his longings -- only served to increase them, and all the ways in which she appeared to most suit him remained foremost in his thoughts, no matter how he tried to push them aside.