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Cunning and Compromise Chapters 3-4 (Post 2)

September 12, 2017 03:28PM

Chapter3



Third Dance of the Netherfield Ball

Up until that moment Darcy had held out hope that Wickham's assertion of Miss Elizabeth's dislike of him were merely a cruel joke. However, he could not ignore the list of his faults stated emphatically in her own clear melodic voice. His heart sank, his feet stopped, and once again he was just standing there, several feet away from the woman he loved, staring. In hindsight, he could see how that may appear as disdain. He had never had the ease in company or the ability to converse with strangers that some men possessed, but his name and social standing had always filled any deficit in the parlors and ballrooms of Derbyshire and London. Miss Lucas inclined her head toward him and Miss Elizabeth turned toward him. Determined to change this pattern of behavior, he executed an awkward bow and said, "Miss Bennet, if you are not otherwise engaged, may I have the next dance?"

Her gaze went to her feet, to Miss Lucas, then swept the ballroom as if looking for some way out of responding to his request. Finally, she looked him straight in the eye and reluctantly responded. "Thank you sir, you may." Having engaged her for the next set, his instinct was to retreat and watch her from a distance until it was time to claim her for the dance, yet it was precisely this type of aloofness that led to her dislike. He would stay and have a conversation with the two ladies. What do women talk about? Georgiana barely spoke unless prompted, Miss Bingley mostly spoke about him, which was not a great topic in the present circumstances, Mrs. Hurst typically parroted assent to her sister's conversations, and he refused to take his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh as a model. Looking at Miss Elizabeth, a vision of her on her arrival at Netherfield when her sister fell ill, cheeks flushed, eyes brilliant, and petticoats six inches deep in mud flashed into his mind. They did have at least one shared interest.

"Miss Elizabeth, I have observed that you are a rather great walker. I have had little chance to visit the country outside of my daily rides in the environs of Netherfield. Do you have any favorite locations to suggest to a visitor?"

"Well, sir, the best view of the neighborhood is from Ockham Mount. Its raised prospect allows a breathtaking view over the rolling fields." A thorough summary of the various walks about followed. Miss Elizabeth spoke of her love of long rambles through the wilderness. The more sedate Miss Lucas offered suggestions for picturesque rides by horseback, as he found on inquiry that Miss Elizabeth did not ride. He thus engaged both Miss Elizabeth and Miss Lucas in a lively discussion for the intervening period. By the time the lines began to form for the next set, he had resolved on addressing another of her reproofs and asked Miss Lucas to dance the following with him to which she readily agreed. Happy with his efforts, he escorted Miss Elizabeth to the dance floor secure in the prospect of improving her regard without raising her expectations.

~~~


Would the wonders of this evening ever cease? Elizabeth thought to herself. The bewilderment she'd felt after her talk with Mr. Wickham was only exasperated by Mr. Darcy's current behavior. She was certain he had heard at least part of her recriminations against him and yet he did not defend himself or retreat to his solitary pride. Instead he had asked her to dance. Her. Apparently he now deemed her handsome enough to be tempted as she was the first of the local ladies to be solicited by the proud man from Derbyshire. While she had promised herself that she would never dance with Mr. Darcy should he ask, it was far too early in the evening to give up dancing entirely and she had no previous engagement to claim. She was certain that her reluctance in accepting was obvious to the gentleman and yet he remained to converse with her and Charlotte between the sets. True, for a gentleman who has lived in the world his conversation skills were appalling. He had floundered for a topic, and when he finally found one, the conversation was mostly carried by Charlotte and herself. Yet, he did offer a topic related to Elizabeth's own interests, remained attentive, and participated where he could. His request of a dance with Charlotte was perplexing. Was this an attempt to address her overheard criticisms?

When he had first entered the Meryton assembly rooms, she had noted his fine, tall frame, handsome features, and noble mien along with the rest of the company, yet since the fateful attack on her vanity that evening, she had scarcely looked at him but to find fault. She now allowed herself to take stock of the man standing across from her waiting for the dance to begin. True, his face wore the same closed expression that he always wore, but have his eyes always been so expressive? As the dance begun, she admitted to herself that Wickham was right in that regard, the look he gave her at the moment was not one of contempt. Wondering about Mr. Darcy's abilities at making polite conversation, she made some slight observation on the dance. He replied, and was again silent. After a pause of some minutes, she addressed him a second time with: – "It is your turn to say something now Mr. Darcy. I talked about the dance, and you ought to make some sort of remark on the size of the room, or the number of couples."

He smiled, and assured her that whatever she wished him to say should be said.

"Very well. That reply will do for the present. Perhaps by and by I may observe that private balls are much pleasanter than public ones. But now we
may be silent."


"Indeed" he replied, startling her a little by continuing the conversation when she had given him a reprieve, "I am already finding this ball far more pleasant than the last we both attended. But I had not at that time the honor of knowing any lady in the assembly beyond my own party."

"True; and nobody can ever be introduced in a ball room."

"Perhaps," said Darcy, "I should have judged better, had I sought an introduction; but I am ill-qualified to recommend myself to strangers. I certainly have not the talent which some people posses of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done."

"And yet, you were tempted to ask me to dance tonight." Elizabeth said with a significant look at the word 'tempted.' Mr. Darcy had the grace to blush at the reference to his earlier slight.

"We have spent a week under the same roof and enjoyed many conversations. I need not feign interest in you." Elizabeth blushed. Interest. There was that word again.

"And Charlotte?"

"I confess I initiated the conversation tonight with a desire to speak with you, but after conversing with Miss Lucas for some time I found her to be an amiable well informed girl. And as I do not wish to be perceived as thinking myself above my company I asked her to dance." Elizabeth again blushed. So he had heard.

"Under a prudential light, it appears neither of our conduct bears well under scrutiny." As Elizabeth returned his gaze, she wondered how she could have ever perceived contempt in it. True, his expression did not change, but those eyes burned her with their intensity.

"Apparently not," he replied ruefully. "I would warn that ease in conversation and the outward appearance of goodness does not always equate to goodness itself. Those who can easily charm may have insincere motives." Elizabeth could not help but glance down the line at Mr. Wickham where he danced with Miss Bingley. Mere hours ago, Elizabeth would have responded to such a claim from Mr. Darcy with a stalwart defense and the warmest reproofs against unappeasable resentment and the folly of pride. However after Mr. Wickham's confession she could only muster a weary sigh.

At that moment, Sir William Lucas appeared close to them, meaning to pass through the set to the other side of the room; but on perceiving Mr. Darcy, he stopped with a bow of superior courtesy to compliment him on his dancing and his partner.

"I have been most highly gratified indeed, my dear sir. Such very superior dancing is not often seen. It is evident that you belong to the first circles. Allow me to say, however, that your fair partner does not disgrace you, and that I must hope to have this pleasure often repeated, especially when a certain desirable event, my dear Eliza (glancing at her sister and Bingley) shall take place. What congratulations will then flow in! I appeal to Mr. Darcy: – but let me not interrupt you, sir. You will not thank me for detaining you from the bewitching converse of that young lady, whose bight eyes are also upbraiding me."

During Sir. William's unfortunate interruption, Elizabeth surreptitiously continued her contemplation of Mr. Darcy's eyes. In the space of minutes they shifted from admiration of Elizabeth to annoyance at the interruption and the platitudes of Sir William. They briefly softened and returned to her face when Sir William referenced his fair partner, but squinted in suspicion at Jane and Mr. Bingley when he alluded to their future marriage.

To call Mr. Darcy's attention back, she retorted, "speaking of imprudent speech! Sir. William is the best of men, but should know better when to moderate his speech and leave speculation out of courtship. Jane and Mr. Bingley's feelings are nobody's concern but their own."

"Surely your mother would disagree," snapped Mr. Darcy. "It would be a most advantageous marriage." His voice was derisive and his eyes again cold and calculating. There was the contempt she had seen previously, as well as a challenge.

"Perhaps, but in the end Jane will follow the dictates of her heart." In her haste to defend her sister's honor, she forgot her audience and continued, "we made a vow to each other that nothing could induce us to marry but the deepest love." In his eyes she now read shock, disbelief, and longing and immediately realized her mistake. "Oh Mr. Darcy! What must you think of me! Please disregard... I did not intend..."

~~~


They danced in silence for some time after this outburst. Darcy's social graces, meager as they were, could not soon recover from hearing his Elizabeth speak of deepest love. In the weeks that he had labored to suppress his own feelings for her, he had consulted only his own objections to the match. Until this evening, the possibility that she would not accept him should he deign to ask had never crossed his mind. He had not even considered whether she was in love with him. If Miss Bingley had made such a statement, he would have regarded it as a ploy to elicit a proposal out of him. But he had looked into Miss Elizabeth's eyes when she spoke and now saw the mortification that held her tongue. He knew enough of her frankness to know that this was a genuine sentiment and not mere feminine arts and allurements.

He would be happy to continue the dance in silence if only Miss Elizabeth would regain her spirits. In all of the times he'd watched her dance, he'd never seen her so dour. Calling on his best mentor for easy conversation, he echoed her earlier sentiments in the most jovial voice he could muster. "Come Miss Elizabeth, I do believe that we must have some conversation."

"Indeed sir," she said, recovering herself somewhat, "we've covered the local hills and dales and we've discussed the dance and couples and the ballroom. I do believe we've had enough personal revelations for one dance, and we've censured idol gossip. What would you suggest?"

"What think you of books?" said he, smiling.

"Books – oh! no. I am sure we never read the same, or not with the same feelings."

"I am sorry you think so; but if that be the case, there can at least be no want of subject. We may compare our different opinions."

"No – I cannot talk of books in a ball-room; my head is always full of something else."

"A pity that. I suppose there's always fashion, though I doubt I'd do justice to the lace and trim."

At this Miss Elizabeth's eyebrow rose and she finally broke into her usual dazzling smile. "Well that will never do. I suppose you are better versed in agriculture, what is your opinion on crop rotation, sir?"

Darcy smiled and replied, "It has vastly improved crop yield at Pemberley."

"Of course! We may have exhausted the scenic paths of Hertfordshire, but perhaps you could speak of Pemberley and Derbyshire; I have never been that far north." Having finally hit on a topic on which Darcy could easily converse, he spent the remainder of the dance regaling her with an account of his home and the rustic beauty of the county.

~~~


Miss Bingley had watched Mr. Darcy walk away in the greatest agitation. He had abandoned her yet again! This time, her fears were confirmed as he approached Miss Eliza Bennet. How could he not see the impudence of that girl? Nevertheless, Caroline knew Mr. Darcy, and she knew that he would grow weary of the crowd and retire to the library. She need only await her chance.

"Miss Bingley, I must compliment you on the elegance of this ball," Mr. Wickham intruded into her reverie. "The way you interspersed floral arrangements and benches around the periphery of the room to create more intimate seating spaces is an elegant touch. It puts me to mind of Lady Hethefield's masquerade ball last May. Always one of the most elegant events of the season."

She had all but forgotten his presence and was now surprised that the gentleman noticed such a detail and that he had been present at such an illustrious event. Unlike Mr. Collins's empty comparisons to the grandeur of Rosings Park or Sir. William Lucas's vague references to St. James's, Mr. Wickham had picked out a particular aspect of her preparations and correctly traced its inspiration to one of the greatest hostesses of London. "Indeed, Mr. Wickham, it was a sad crush. I've always found her combination of floral arrangements and seating to both break the confines of the crowd and facilitate discussions with ones friends. Were you present then?" Were it not for the fact that Lady Hethefield was a distant relation of Mr. Hurst, Caroline would not have been invited to such an event herself.

"Indeed, I was staying with my dear friends Lord and Lady Rutledge at the time. I've always found the largest benefit of such a layout to be privacy, perfect for a tête-à-tête, is it not?" He said with a roguish smile as he toyed with the lace along her sleeve. "Particularly at a masquerade. Though they do present thrilling possibilities for
country balls as well."

Goodness, Caroline mused, I must be careful around this handsome officer. She noted their relative isolation from the other guests. Romantic gestures, silky words, and a dashing red coat could not compensate for the loss of Pemberley. "And how did you find the Rutledges? We were introduced last season at the theater. Do they not have a daughter just out?"

"Yes," said Wickham averting his eyes. "She returned to Shropshire mid season and was wed to a local squire. Longstanding attachment, you know." They spent the remainder of the break between sets discussing their mutual acquaintances amongst the ton.

As the first strains of the music began, Caroline noted that Mr. Wickham's florid bow was deeper and more elegant than his neighbors. He danced with a light foot and a fluid grace. When the dance brought them together Mr. Wickham stood just a tad closer than strictly proper, his hand lingered just a second longer than necessary, as if he did not want to let her go. When the dance separated them, his eyes lingered on her with a smoldering gaze. All the while he amused her with salacious on dits from the haut ton.

While Mr. Darcy was superb dancer, his movements were always so precise and correct, as if he were practicing with Georgiana. Her presence was barely acknowledged and his manner always remained cold. Mr. Darcy danced around her, Mr. Wickham danced with her. Just as she was ruminating on these different dancing experiences, a turn in the dance revealed Mr. Darcy as he danced with Miss Eliza Bennet. In the years that she had known the gentleman from Derbyshire she had rarely seen him smile except at his sister. She had rarely seen any expression on his face save for the cool indifference of a personage who was indeed superior to his company. He had certainly never smiled at her. Yet there he was, smiling at Miss Bennet with such warmth in his eyes that it chilled Caroline to the bone. Her step faltered slightly, but then Mr. Wickham was there, smiling and claiming her hand as if she were the most important person in the room.

~~~


How refreshing it was to converse with a woman of his own ilk. The coaxing tones, the solicitous behavior, the lingering touch he recognized all of his own tactics. Granted, thus far these had all been aimed at Darcy, but he'd soon sway her to his way of thinking. She really was a talented hostess. From what he could gather, this ball had been entirely planned and executed within a matter of weeks and in an estate which had only recently been leased and had lain vacant for god knows how long. While the ball was not the grandest he'd attended, it did contend with many ton events he'd experienced. Her style, elegance, and taste was evident all around him. Granted, she was not the most beautiful woman, but once he coaxed her into relaxing and amused her into a genuine smile she was rather pretty.

In their conversation before the dance he'd laid down the groundwork. He called on his intimate knowledge with several well connected families of the ton to convince her of his connections – at this point she need not know how intimate some of those relationships were. He'd alluded to their isolation, and made some discrete caresses. The full assault came during the dance: unbroken eye contact, lingering hands, scandalously close proximity and a few well timed sighs. Seduction was truly the only art he'd managed to master in his lifetime and despite her town bronze, he could tell she was not immune. As charming as he was, he was also charmed. He had rarely met anyone who could keep pace with him in witty gossip and salacious tales. They were both unabashed social climbers, and amongst themselves, they did not have to hide that fact.

"Miss Bingley, I must say it is rather gratifying dancing with the most beautiful woman in the room," he said, embellishing slightly. "Why, there is not a lady present with even half the elegance of dress and comportment you display."

"Such pretty words, Mr. Wickham," she demurred, though her manner showed no hint of modesty.

He reveled in the fact that despite her single minded mission for the night, he managed to hold her rapt attention. That is, until she managed to catch a glimpse of Darcy nearing the end of the set. He was no less surprised than her to see him smiling. His stony mask had dissolved into actual enjoyment. Hell, he hadn't seen Darcy smile like that since they were children, on the last Christmas before his mother passed away. Good
for him, the man had allowed the burdens of rank to suck the joy out of his life for far too long. However, seeing his own interests at jeopardy, he quickly focused on Miss Bingley. He walked her down the line as if she were a princess. Calculating the topic of conversation that would most revive her, he turned to their surrounding company.

"How unfortunate Mrs. Long looks tonight in that puce gown. Judging by the fraying hem, and outmoded style it has long been a favorite of hers."

"Oh, the fashion of these country nobodies has vexed me so. Although, the poor wretches have so few options. There is no modiste of note in the vicinity. Louisa and I visited the shop in search of fabrics and trim and they have but the merest selection." Wickham valiantly contained his mirth at the mention of his first encounter with the ladies.

"I do not know that selection would much improve on the overall fashion of the neighborhood, for selection cannot improve taste."

"Oh, Mr. Wickham! You are wicked," she tittered, regaining her spirits with a spiteful giggle. "Indeed no amount of taste could improve upon poor Mrs. Goulding's nose." They finished their dance in the high alt of disparaging their neighbors. As the dance ended, he delivered a final assault on the lady's affections. As he offered her is arm to escort off of the dance floor, he pulled her arm tight against his side, holding her there even as she introduced him to her sister. Then he bowed low and placed a lingering kiss on her hand, without breaking eye contact. He backed away slowly with a hand over his heart, shook his head slightly, delivered a romantic sigh and reluctantly turned and walked away from her. Although he had performed such a maneuver countless times with countless women, he found to his astonishment that he was indeed sorry to be walking away from Miss Bingley.

~~~


Mrs. Louisa Hurst stood along the wall watching the dancers. Across the room she saw her husband impatiently tap his glass for yet another refill. If she wished for a second dance with her husband this evening it would have to be soon. He enjoyed food too much to surrender to drink before dinner but for dancing she needed him moderately steady on his feet. At least he had yet to move to the card room to gamble away more of her dowry. By society standards she had married well. The Hursts were a proud old family with connections to the aristocracy and impeccable breeding. Her husband owned a charming estate in Scarborough and a house in town. To be sure, they were land rich and cash poor. But Louisa saw her opportunity and took it. Even noble families were not above connections to trade if it kept them fed and clothed and – most importantly for Mr. Hurst – drunk. His relations tolerated her because they knew that without her dowry they would be destitute; however, they never truly accepted her.

She had no illusions that her husband loved her. His vices were so strong that he scarcely opened his eyes for anything other than fine wine, fine food, gambling, or sport in that order – sadly the wine led to poor performance at the card tables and dangerous conditions at the hunt. Thankfully, he was prone to merely drink himself into slumber and indolence and was not vicious or violent when in his cups. However, this over-indulgence also left him incapacitated most evenings, so her wifely duties were infrequent and brief. After three years of marriage they were still childless, a fault her mother-in-law placed at her feet. She knew it was her duty as a gentleman's wife to bear a
son and continue the succession, yet it was hardly a task she could accomplish on her own. Upon reflection she realized that while she had married advantageously, she had certainly not married well.

It pained her to see Caroline's attempts to form just such an alliance. She had shared her disappointments in her own marriage with her sister, but Caroline was too determined to pay her any heed. Of course, Mr. Darcy was nothing like Mr. Hurst. He was unlikely to overindulge or mistreat her sister. He was far too prudent to gamble away his fortune. Yet she had seen Mr. Darcy flee her poor sister at least twice already this evening. Caroline may be willfully blind to the gentleman's dislike for her, but Louisa suffered no such illusions. The man had never been more than civil to her sister and often times he was not even that. Early in their acquaintance, Louisa had endeavored to curb Caroline's overbearing solicitude to Mr. Darcy. She pointed out to her sister that the more aggressively she pursued him the further he tried to distance himself. For a while, Caroline had heeded this advice and attempted to make him jealous by flirting with other men. A few eligible suitors had even offered for her, but none were as illustrious as Mr. Darcy. Unfortunately, when this rouse was met with indifference rather than jealousy, Caroline decided that she had to redouble her attempts to gain his attention. Louisa had long since given up hope of positively influencing her sister, and so now merely complacently agreed with her schemes.

Though Mr. Darcy was the most eligible bachelor of their acquaintance and Pemberley the grandest estate she'd seen, she knew that her sister would ultimately regret marrying a man who was incapable of love. Although his fortune would keep Caroline comfortable it also took away the one solace Louisa had in her own marriage. Mr. Hurst and all of his relations knew that her dowry was necessary for their salvation and approved of her out of that necessity. They had both received benefit from their marriage, with the capital available to them. Mr. Darcy had no need of Caroline's money and she would bring no other assets to the marriage other than herself. If she went through with this entrapment he would always resent her. His relations would despise her as a presumptuous upstart and a fortune hunter. They would have no inducement to sanction her marriage.

Recalling herself to her surroundings, she looked up to see Caroline dancing with a handsome young officer. She was smiling, he was charming, and they moved effortlessly together. This is the kind of courtship she deserves. She deserves butterflies in her stomach and skin that tingles to his touch, not cold calculation and entrapment. She had often observed her sister dancing with Mr. Darcy and had noted that his behavior towards Caroline was no different than towards herself, or any other young lady for that matter. Just to prove herself correct, she let her gaze travel down the line to Mr. Darcy. As expected, his stony glare focused on Miss Elizabeth Bennet as he delivered some form of reproof. His reaction to her response shocked Louisa, his stony mask dissolved to show shock and consternation. The pair fell silent for several moments and his face became pensive with dismay. When their conversation resumed, he smiled! That smile grew when Miss Elizabeth flashed him one of those impertinent grins of hers. They continued in this attitude until the last strains of the song, looking for all the world like a pair of lovers. As the dance ended, the handsome officer escorted Caroline to her side.

"Louisa, may I present Mr. George Wickham, who lately enlisted in the ---shire militia," Caroline said blushing slightly as the gentleman held her close, "Mr. Wickham, this is my sister, Mrs. Louisa Hurst."

"Mrs. Hurst, it is a pleasure." He managed a slight bow of the head without releasing her sister.

"Mr. Wickham," she curtsied. She then watched in amusement as Mr. Wickham made the grandest show of taking his leave of her enraptured sister.

Chapter 4



Fourth Dance of the Netherfield Ball

"I see you've found at least one officer who can please you amongst the sea of red coats present this evening," Louisa teased.

Caroline blushed. "Indeed, Mr. Wickham has such charming manners. I find I can talk to him almost as I talk to you."

"That endorsement is probably not the comparison poor Mr. Wickham would wish from you."

"I mean to say, he is quite willing to engage in the types of gossip and criticisms that you and I enjoy but can rarely draw Charles or Mr. Darcy into. He has the most discerning eye for sartorial misadventures."

"A rare quality indeed for a gentleman."

"He proclaimed that it was clear not a woman in the room aside from me – and you my dear sister," she added at Louisa's sullen look, "had access to a suitable mantua maker or the sense of taste to put them to good service if they had." She smiled at his pretty words and his easy charm.

"True."

"Of course, he has a wide range of acquaintance in London, and detected the influence of Lady Hethefield in our ballroom design." The tinkling laughter of Miss Eliza Bennet penetrated her happy reverie and she turned to see Mr. Darcy still standing with her and Miss Lucas. Recalled to her purpose, she addressed her sister on the task at hand.

"All is prepared for my excursion to the library with Mr. Darcy tonight," she said in a conspiratorial whisper. "I've asked the kitchen to discretely place a tray with dinner for two in there. We could be in there all night, after all. I wouldn't want to neglect Mr. Darcy's needs," she said with a suggestive wink. Caroline saw her sister's face fall and attributed it to her lewd suggestion. She was surprised that she was such a prude, after all she was the married woman amongst them.

"Are you sure then?" Louisa asked softly.

"Oh yes, if I'm to be compromised in the eyes of society I may as well be compromised in fact and he is, after all a man. Given sufficient temptation, he will succumb. Then he will have no choice but to marry me."

"But Mr. Darcy has thus far been so cold to your advances, are you positive you wish to condemn the both of you to a loveless marriage?"

"Louisa, I'm surprised at you! What does love have to do with marriage I ask you?"

"It has very little to do with mine, I can assure you. I would not wish a similar fate on you." Caroline noted the pleading look in her sister's eyes and did not understand it. Her marriage had brought her social standing, a house in town, a country estate and I know not what. How could she repine?

"I am truly sorry if your marriage is not all you would wish it to be, my dear. But this is the life we were raised for. Besides, I hardly think marriage to Mr. Darcy will be a chore." She took Louisa's silence as tacit approval and continued. "Now, we shall wait for Mr. Darcy to retreat to the solitude of the Library and I shall follow him and close the door. After about a half hour, you shall come search for me and inform the company."

Her plan would work. She would ensnare Mr. Darcy, and then she would have everything she had ever wanted. The image of Mr. Wickham as he had parted from her flashed in her mind, reminding her that camaraderie and companionship were not part of this future. Nonetheless, she had worked too long towards this goal to let her opportunity pass. An officer – Captain Carter maybe? – approached her and solicited her hand for the next set. She looked over to Mr. Darcy, but he appeared to be leading Miss Lucas to the dance floor. She sighed, if he was to be engaged for the next set, she may as well dance too. She placed her hand on Captain Carter's arm and walked toward the dance floor, mentally comparing him with another officer she had met that evening.

~~~


Elizabeth watched in awe as Mr. Darcy and Charlotte conversed about small matters. When he had implied that Jane was pursuing Mr. Bingley for mercenary reasons, she had spoken with more feeling than sense. An unmarried lady should never mention love to an unmarried gentleman; it was unseemly. Over the duration of the dance her mortification at her outburst had slowly melted away. Mr. Darcy of all people had put her at her ease. The man who had discounted her as merely tolerable and unworthy to dance with upon first acquaintance had not only deigned to dance with her, but he had seen her distress and exerted himself on her behalf. The man whose pride she had thought immeasurable had made a silly joke at his own expense to tease her out of her ill humor. His pride was certainly evident when he discussed his home. However it was not the conceited pride of one who looked down on others but the pride of a man who was part of something larger than himself. The tenderness and reverence with which he spoke of Pemberley, his family, his servants, and his tenants, indicated that he viewed it as a community rather than a possession. Her admiration for him began to blossom during that conversation. That is not to say that her initial impression of him was entirely wrong. He was keenly aware that he was the head of his community and did not socialize much with the lower ranks, much as he might care for their well being and respect their importance to his own success. Upon inquiry, she discovered that he had never attended a public ball at Lambton or any of the surrounding towns.

After the dance he had escorted her back to Charlotte. While their current conversation about the planned renovation of the church in Meryton was primarily driven by Charlotte and Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy was making an effort to participate. He still looked at Elizabeth more than strictly necessary for the conversation, but now those looks implied an interest in her opinions. Incredulous as it may seem, it appeared he also sought approbation for his own contributions to the conversation. His behavior of the past half hour seemed to confirm his assertion that he was ill at ease in the company of strangers, yet his deference to her guidance was almost charming. He was attending to her reproofs to the best of his ability and she could hardly expect more. The fourth set began to form and Mr. Darcy dutifully took his leave of Elizabeth, offered Charlotte his arm and escorted her to the floor. As the pair walked away Elizabeth reflected on this enigma of this man. Her musings were cut short by a silky voice alarmingly close to her ear.

"Miss Elizabeth! May I have this dance?"

She saw Mr. Darcy turn abruptly at the sound of his voice. "I am rather cross with you at the moment, Mr. Wickham. Why would I choose to dance with a self-professed liar?" She replied archly. Mr. Darcy was now stopped halfway to the dance floor oscillating between a mercurial glare at Mr. Wickham and looks of concerned entreaty to Elizabeth. She returned a soothing look wishing to convey that she was indeed okay.

"Ah, but remember that I am a repentant liar, had I been caught up in a lie it would be a different monster entirely. I come in friendship."

Elizabeth must admit that she wished to hear more of Mr. Wickham's story. After a moment of deliberation, she agreed.

~~~


Darcy had been so pleased with the progress he was making. Miss Elizabeth had returned to her charming self and between her bewitching smiles and Miss Lucas's calming demeanor, he had passed a far more natural conversation with them than he had previously thought possible. He was leading Miss Lucas to the dance floor with hopes for a tolerably pleasant dance when he stopped cold in his tracks and turned back. Wickham was beside his Elizabeth soliciting a dance. He raged at the man's audacity. He longed to return and save her from the cad, but the pressure of Miss Lucas's hand on his arm reminded him of his duty. He was already engaged for this dance and powerless to intervene. E Elizabeth saw his distress and tried to put him at his ease. Her assurance was but little balm when not a moment later she accepted Wickham's arm and allowed him to escort her to the dance. His heart dropped to the floor where it was doomed to be trod upon by the lively steps of the country dance as he was forced to watch his Elizabeth smile and dance with an infamous rake.

~~~


While she did not aspire to Elizabeth's pretensions as a student of human folly, Charlotte Lucas was a shrewd observer. She knew that Mr. Darcy had agreed to dance with her for Elizabeth's sake just as she had known that a man does not spend the better part of an evening staring at a woman he dislikes. Mr. Darcy was clearly taken by her dearest friend and if his inattention to their dance was any indication, he was worried about Elizabeth and fiercely jealous of Mr. Wickham. After several failed attempts at conversations with her partner, she decided to switch tactics.

"Have you met my older brother Mr. John Lucas?"

"I have not had that pleasure." He replied without taking his eyes off of Elizabeth.

"Of course he has turned into a fine gentleman now, but as a child I'm afraid he was rather a toad." Mr. Darcy looked askance at her at this. She knew it was not terribly loyal to speak of her brother thus, but it had caught his attention. "As Longbourn is our nearest neighbor, we played often with the Bennet girls as children, my two brothers, my sister, and I. Being the eldest of the lot, John had an odious habit of tormenting the rest of us. One day, when John was home from Eton, he snatched poor Mary's spectacles and was playing a game of keep-away. Mary was distraught and rather blinded by this action but she tried fruitlessly to reclaim her glasses. I was too afraid of transferring John's wrath upon myself to venture into the fray. Jane, with her kind spirit, was making an emotional appeal to his reason which was, of course, falling on deaf ears. So Lizzy, who was quite seven years his junior, marched up to him and delivered the most scalding set down you've ever seen from a seven year old. She soundly took him to task for his un-gentlemanlike behavior towards a young lady and struck every raw nerve of pride that a young heir full of his own consequence could be expected to have. She then grabbed the spectacles out of his stunned hands, returned them to Mary, and demurely resumed her task of affixing ribbons to a kite." Mr. Darcy still remained silent and his eyes returned to Elizabeth, but his pained, angry expression was now replaced with one of admiration. "Of course, Elizabeth has never been one to flinch in the face of injustice or bow to intimidation." Mr. Darcy visibly relaxed at this confirmation that Elizabeth could indeed manage herself for one dance with Mr. Wickham. Charlotte spent the remainder of the dance distracting him with tales of little Lizzy's crusades and adventures.

~~~


As he walked away from Miss Bingley, Wickham realized that he had no current destination. Like most of his plans, this one was ill formed and ready to sway at a whim. He had to be flexible and ready to adapt. He strolled the perimeter for a time and saw Mr. Darcy still by Miss Elizabeth's side and conversing with a plain girl just on the edge of the shelf. As Mr. Darcy and the country mouse took their leave of Miss Elizabeth, he took his opportunity to lay some further groundwork. The twist that this evening's plan had taken was particularly enjoyable. It allowed him to both aid Darcy and thoroughly discompose him. Wickham was now certain that Darcy was in love with Miss Elizabeth Bennet. After their revealing conversation and the smiles that Miss Elizabeth was bestowing on Mr. Darcy during the previous set, she appeared to have overcome much of her previous dislike for him. All that was needed now was a bit of rakish charm to force Darcy into action. With that thought in mind, he approached Miss Elizabeth and, after some demurring, secured her hand for the
next dance.

"And what sort of monster are you, Mr. Wickham?" It appeared that the lovely minx would not let him off without an inquisition. "You give such varying accounts of your own character that I confess I cannot make it out."

"I fear I am no monster, merely a flawed man."

"You claimed that Mr. Darcy's anger was precipitated by an attempt to make your fortune through an advantageous marriage."

Blast. He thought she'd missed that part in her confusion over Darcy's admiration. "You see, Miss Elizabeth, not all men were born with independent means. We must seek seek our fortune elsewhere."

"I assure you, I understand better than some that handsome young men must have something to live on as well as the plain, yet his anger seems disproportionate to merely seeking a marriage for mercenary reasons."

Wickham blushed at the censure in her voice and responded quietly. "You understand that it is a delicate subject and we may therefore discuss no particulars. While neither of us were deceived to believing ourselves in love, the lady and I had come to a mutual agreement. Her relations, however, would have opposed the match so we planned to marry … clandestinely. Some parties involved reached their own conclusions as to my methods of persuasion." Miss Elizabeth's indignant silence compelled him to clarify. "I assure you Miss Elizabeth, I have no taste for unwilling ladies."

"But the willing and foolish are fair game?" she said, glancing surreptitiously around the ballroom and settling her worried eyes on her youngest sister.

"I enjoy life to the fullest, Miss Elizabeth, and enjoy the company of those who live by the same principle. Who am I to disappoint a lady with such similar interests?"

"While your interests may be similar, the consequences rarely are, are they?" He could hear the reproof in her reply.

"Come, Miss Elizabeth, let us not quarrel."

~~~


Elizabeth wanted nothing more at the moment than to quarrel with Mr. Wickham, but they were in the middle of a dance in a ballroom crowded with all of the local gentry. Her mother and aunt Phillips, poised near the edge of the room watching the dance like hawks, were ready to swiftly disseminate any gossip to be had. She was also acutely aware of Mr. Darcy, whose gaze continued to drift back to her whenever the dance allowed it. She could see no benefit to continuing this vexatious conversation in such a setting for fear of her voice rising with her temper and if she were to stalk off of the dance floor it would cause a horrid scene. "Do you care to propose a topic to transition to from here sir?" she replied frostily.

"I observed you dancing earlier with my old friend Darcy, I must say I have not seen him smile like that for ages, and even then only amongst his family."

She colored at the implications of his statement. "Your concern for that gentleman's affairs is surprising considering that mere days ago you had no compunction against slandering that gentleman's name."

"Do you never quarrel with your sisters Miss Elizabeth?"

She had not expected this abrupt turn to the conversation and replied cautiously. "Of course, with five sisters under one roof, one could hardly expect otherwise."

"And have you never given in to the urge to vent your frustrations to a friend?"

"... Of course."

"Indeed, it's only natural, and I would imagine that this does not diminish your affection for your sisters but merely reflects the current circumstances. Now imagine that all of your friends, all of your relations, all of the servants, indeed anyone you know would always favor your sister over you in such quarrels until one day you found a sympathetic ear. You were my sympathetic ear, Miss Elizabeth, and for that I am grateful. However, despite our quarrels, I love Darcy as a brother and would not wish to see him hurt or unhappy."

Elizabeth contemplated his analogy for a moment. She complained either to Jane or Charlotte daily about Lydia and Kitty's flightiness or Mary's ill playing. "I see. And have you had this conversation with Mr. Darcy himself?"

"Lord no! Darcy is content to think me a reprobate and I have too little defense for my actions to change his mind. Darcy has devoted his life to doing what is right and proper and therefore has no patience or sympathy for my follies. For my part I find it makes him a dead bore."

The dance separated them for a moment and when they came back together she decided it was time to lighten the conversation. "Pray sir, how does Mr. Darcy comport himself amongst his own people?"

~~~


Wickham had to remind himself that he wanted to give Miss Elizabeth a favorable impression of Darcy. He therefore limited himself to tales of adventures the two had gone on as children, primarily composed of Wickham charging into the fray and Darcy sensibly bailing him out.

At the close of the dance, he watched Darcy bow to the country mouse and beat a retreat. He saw him move toward the exit and quickly scanned the room. He saw Miss Bingley's eyes follow Mr. Darcy's retreat and knew that the moment was upon them. Thankfully, Miss Bingley and Captain Carter had ended the dance at the opposite end of the line from Darcy, so she would have the length of the ballroom to traverse in order to catch him in the library whereas Wickham had but a quarter. He was about to excuse himself from Miss Elizabeth when she caught his arm and asked what was the matter.

"Nothing to concern yourself over, but I must take my leave." He said, straining to see Darcy make his escape from the ballroom then turning to see Miss Bingley disengage herself from her dance partner.

"Mr. Wickham, for a soldier and a rake you are doing an appalling job at hiding your concern or your quarry!" She admonished in hushed tones, "what is wrong and what does it have to do with Mr. Darcy and Miss Bingley?"

Having no time to lose if he wanted to intervene, he conceded "Very well, Miss Elizabeth. But I must explain on the move." He glanced back to see Miss Bingley fortuitously detained by the country mouse that Darcy had just danced with and began walking the perimeter of the room with Miss Elizabeth. "Two days ago I chanced to overhear Miss Bingley explaining to her sister a plot to entrap Mr. Darcy and force him into marriage." At this Miss Elizabeth gave an affronted gasp. "She has tampered with the library door so that once the door is closed it will jam shut."

"In that case, Mr. Wickham, I shall come with you. My presence as another lady will ensure that Miss Bingley and Mr. Darcy have a chaperon and negate the necessity of marriage. If you go alone she will still be compromised by being alone with two gentlemen."

There was no way for Wickham to dismiss her logic without revealing his own intentions to replace Darcy in the trap. He rather got the impression that nothing he could say would stop Miss Bennet from intervening. "Very well, Miss Bennet. You exit the ballroom from this door and head to the library via the retiring room; I will exit from the next doors and meet you there in a moment. This will hopefully disperse with some of the gossip about our disappearing at the same time.

~~~


Author's Note: I couldn't wrap my head around writing only a few chapters at a time, so I've written the whole story (10 chapters) and am uploading them in chunks because it's too long to do in one post. If you would like a pdf of the whole story now, e-mail me at cynicallycharged@gmail.com
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Cunning and Compromise Chapters 3-4 (Post 2)

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