We finally get to the ball! And Wickham comes!
Elizabeth smiled at Jane in the mirror as they put finishing touches on each other’s hair. Jane was all excitement; she could scarcely imagine a better evening in her life. Elizabeth, however, felt more apprehension than anything, not least because Mr. Collins had requested the first two dances of the evening. She also thought she would have to contend with Darcy’s attentions. She told herself again that it was only until Jane secured Bingley; then she could be herself and offend him as she was certain she would. Five seasons with no suitors had taught her how easily she achieved that.
Additionally, she hoped to avoid Mr. Wickham. The last thing she desired to hear was anything complimentary about Darcy. It was better to keep her first impressions of him. If his admiration of her was as real as Miss Bingley—and even Mr. Wickham— seemed to believe then it would occasion him some pain when the time came for her to spurn him. She had no doubt it would mostly be his pride and vanity that would be wounded, but she desired to know as little about his better traits as possible.
After making it through the receiving line, she entered Netherfield’s drawing room. It was as much a crush as Meryton had ever experienced. Mr. Darcy very shortly came to her side.
“How are you, Miss Bennet?”
“Very well, thank you.”
“You did not take ill?”
Elizabeth furrowed her brow. “No, I have been very well. I have a very strong constitution.”
“I am glad to hear it.”
He then stood silently before her for a moment and although she dearly wished to find someone to converse with she could find no easy answer in eyesight. Left to study him, she thought she detected fatigue in his eyes.
“Forgive me, I am distracted by the splendour of the ball. I trust you are well.”
Biting her bottom lip she cast about for a topic to discuss. “I was happy to see the sun this morning. Four days of rain is more than I can bear. I would ask if you were similarly frustratedbut I suppose the house was all busy-ness preparing for the ball.”
He looked uncomfortable as he answered. “It was, I believe.” He looked over her shoulder and suddenly excused himself.
“Eliza,” she heard her dearest friend, Charlotte Lucas, call out to her. Upon reaching Elizabeth’s side, she asked softly, “Whatever did you say to poor Mr. Darcy? I saw him run off as though he was chased.”
“You will be happy to hear I have avoided my impertinent ways. Rather, I believe your presence is what scared him off.”
“I think he admires you.”
Elizabeth stifled a groan. She did not wish to hear this from yet another person and rapidly changed the subject. “How nice you look Charlotte!”
Her friend blushed at the praise. “Thank you. I love the flowers you have put in your hair. Will they hold up while you dance?”
Elizabeth recalled her conversation with Mr. Darcy and began to laugh. “My dearest Charlotte, are you suggesting I sit out a few sets?”
She gave Elizabeth a sly smile. “You cannot blame me for trying. One can barely look tolerable on the floor when you are, with all your liveliness.”
“Hush. Now, who is on your card?”
Charlotte smiled. “Several officers and Mr. Bingley already. What of you?”
“Only my cousin Mr. Collins, who I do not anticipate being gifted in the dance.”
“Mr. Darcy did not ask? I had imagined that was what he was saying to you.”
“Why would a man excuse himself as though frightened if he had been simply asking for a dance? Your imagination is too much at times.”
The two friends circulated amongst the room for a few minutes before the dancing began. Mr. Collins swiftly claimed his set. As feared, a more mortifying experience Elizabeth could not imagine.
She felt as though she barely survived before Mr. Carter requested a dance. He talked pleasantly of the weather and the ball. He briefly mentioned their newest officer, Mr. Wickham, and then shared a humorous story. He was a lively dancer and Elizabeth was grateful that, no matter what the rest of the evening held, she had at least enjoyed one dance. After the dance, she found Charlotte and was in conversation with her when Mr. Darcy suddenly approached.
“May I have the next dance, Miss Elizabeth?”
“You may,” she replied instantaneously.
“Thank you.” Then looking at Charlotte, he said, “And I wonder if your supper set is free, Miss Lucas?”
Stuttering in surprise, Charlotte answered, “It is, sir.”
“And may I have the honour?”
Mr. Darcy hastily bowed and left without another word. The two ladies watched after him in astonishment.
“Well, I dare say I owe that piece of civility to you, Eliza.”
“Civility? For the man to dance at a ball? And with one of the sweetest and prettiest ladies in attendance?”
“You will not convince me otherwise. He wishes to recommend himself to your friends.”
Elizabeth chewed her bottom lip. It was becoming increasingly unlikely that Mr. Darcy’s actions were that of a mere flirtation. Worse than that, she had not even taken a moment to remind herself of her resolve before agreeing to his request to dance when, scarcely more than a week ago, she had delighted in refusing him. After nervously sipping her punch, she could not deny the feeling of excitement she felt when he came to claim his set.
She saw the looks of amazement on the faces of her neighbours to see her stand up with the reserved gentleman. She dearly wished she would not soon become part of their gossip. But one dance hardly made a proposal.
They stood across from each other in complete silence for several minutes, and Elizabeth warred with herself over the idea of speaking first. Generally, she would love nothing more than to vex him, but she was trying to hold her tongue.
“I dearly wish to know your thoughts,” he suddenly asked.
His words startled her, just as it was their turn to move, and she nearly missed a step.
“I should remark that private balls are pleasanter than public ones.”
The steps separated them and when they returned he raised his brow at her. “But you do not conform to frivolous conversation. What you should remark and what you actually wished to say are two very different things, I am sure.”
“You are attempting to get me to say something impertinent.”
“Perhaps I am.”
“I was considering the very great similarity in the turn of our minds. Neither of us wishes to speak unless we are certain to amaze the whole room.”
“That is no very great resemblance to your own character. You think it a faithful portrait of mine, undoubtedly.”
“I must not decide on my own performance.”
“I recall you saying you enjoyed sketching a character.”
His gaze went over her head, and she turned to look. She saw Mr. Wickham talking with her parents before leading Lydia to the floor.
“I also remember you agreeing that a country society would offer little opportunity to meet new people.”
“I did…” she was growing confused.
“In the event that Mr. Wickham’s character is not easily sketched allow me to shed some light. He is able to make friends, whether he is equally capable of retaining them is less certain.”
“He has told me it was only a trivial misunderstanding betwixt you; that he counts you as one of his greatest friends.”
A deep shade of hauteur overspread his features, but he was silent as he sought out Wickham’s face on the dance floor.
Soon they were interrupted by Sir William Lucas. “You both dance so gracefully I hope to see this often repeated when a certain desirable event,” he glanced at Jane and Bingley, “shall take place. Oh, but I will let you dance.”
He went away quickly, and Elizabeth watched Darcy. He remained focussed on Jane and Bingley for some time.
“Now, I would ask you what you are thinking, sir.”
The moment the words left her lips she wished them back for his eyes snapped to hers. He studied her for a long moment, and they were separated again by the dance.
“Perhaps it is as you say, our minds turn in the same direction.”
She held her breath for a moment. “But do they turn with the same feeling?”
“That I know not.”
“I would remind you of the words you said about never judging with prejudice,” she said rapidly.
“And are you attempting to make out my character again? I do not know if the present will give either of us credit.”
“But if I do not take your likeness now, I may never have another opportunity.” She heartily hoped that Bingley would propose tonight. Then she could end this facade, and when she did she certainly believed he would no longer care for her. Surprisingly, the thought brought a prick of pain.
“You are contemplating something again.”
“No, I am merely focused on the present.”
“Are you? For I promised to give you many opportunities to sketch my character in the future.”
The dance ended, and they parted in silence.
Immediately Miss Bingley came to her. “You ought not to have spoken so much to Mr. Darcy during your dance, Eliza. This entire evening is taxing for him.”
She counted to three before replying. “I would hate for my company to be counted as the sole purpose the evening is taxing for him. I believe, when planning this very ball, your brother made mention Mr. Darcy could go to bed early if he so wished.”
She turned from Miss Bingley. Mr. Collins hovered by her side for the remaining dances before supper, hence deterring any other offers. She was pleased to see Jane receive so much attention from Bingley, although he did appear to sit out several dances. Looking about the room, as she tried to ignore Mr. Collins’ babbling, she saw Wickham was very attentive to her parents and danced with Kitty, and then Mary during the supper set. Charlotte appeared to be enjoying her dance with Mr. Darcy. He talked easily with her. She smiled, though, when they came to her at the end of the dance, and they all entered the dining room together.
Darcy’s head pounded as the evening progressed. Upon returning to Netherfield after leaving Elizabeth’s company the previous Thursday, he and Bingley were informed that both Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst had caught Miss Bennet’s cold. He thought it was all an attempt to cancel the ball until it spread to the menfolk. The invitations had to be sent by proxy and Bingley was grieved to not wait upon the Bennet ladies in person, but he insisted the ball go on. For all that Bingley’s sisters claimed that the Bennet ladies were too indelicate, they recovered from their colds much faster than Miss Bennet had.
To not unduly raise Elizabeth’s expectations, he had danced with several other ladies this evening. He was far from fully recovered, but it could not be helped, he must dance every set if he wished to dance with Elizabeth twice.
Wickham’s presence was another contribution to his painful head. Why had he misled Elizabeth that they were great friends? Nothing could be further from the truth! There must be some scheme afoot. However, there was little Wickham could do, and little Darcy could understand during a ball. He would allow himself to instead think about Elizabeth. Securing Miss Lucas, her dearest friend, for the supper set he hoped would allow him to sit near Elizabeth during the meal.
Upon sitting, Darcy learned his enjoyment would be mixed with displeasure. They were seated near Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and their three youngest daughters. Bingley, the lucky man, managed to sit at another table with his sisters and Miss Bennet.
Darcy turned his head to hide his wince at Mrs. Bennet’s shrill voice. Could he really be considering this? This for life?
He turned to Miss Lucas. “I would be pleased to serve you.”
“Thank you, Mr. Darcy,” was her impeccably civil reply. He reminded himself that clearly some were capable of proper decorum in the area.
Then he turned to Elizabeth. “I would be pleased to assist you as well, Miss Elizabeth.”
She began to answer but was interrupted by a small man he had seen dancing with her at the beginning of the ball. He nearly tripped over his chair to get to Darcy’s side. “Mr. Darcy of Pemberley!” He declared it more than asked it.
“I have heard so much about you from my patroness Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Such a magnanimous and condescending lady! And her daughter! A beauty of the first water! You will be a lucky gentleman!”
Darcy had been hoping to quickly excuse himself but when the man said those words he focused on him again. “I do not have the pleasure of knowing your name,” he said coldly.
“William Collins, at your service,” he bowed deeply and Darcy only barely returned it.
“Mr. Collins is my father’s cousin,” Elizabeth began to say, but Darcy saw the strain about her eyes. Would her embarrassing relations ever cease? How could they be so thoughtless to cause her such distress?
“If you will excuse me, I must retrieve the ladies their supper,” he turned to leave.
“I am fetching Miss Elizabeth’s. We may speak more while we are in the line.”
Darcy peered at the strange gentleman again. He seemed to be very attentive to Elizabeth. Too attentive. “Very well.” He bowed to the ladies and left with the strange man in tow.
Throughout Mr. Collins attempts to whisper about his happiness in his new situation, Darcy learned many things. Among them was that the clergyman, as heir to Longbourn, came with the express intention of marrying one of his cousins, and Elizabeth caught his eye. Never! His mind and heart screamed.
Upon sitting, his evening worsened further. Wickham was seated next to Elizabeth’s youngest sister, Lydia. Wickham nodded his head at Darcy, and he perceived Elizabeth watching. Uncertain what his enemy was playing, at he returned the civility.
“Oh, Mr. Wickham! How gallant you are to dance with three of my daughters! Surely you will do the other two the favour as well.” Mrs. Bennet screeched.
“Certainly, madam.” Wickham grinned and then looked at Elizabeth. “Miss Elizabeth, may I have the honour of one of your sets?”
She looked quickly to Darcy before replying. “Of course, sir.”
“Is the last available?” Wickham took a sip of wine, but Darcy saw his eyes show a smug glint as he looked at him over the glass.
“It is,” was there a tremor in Elizabeth’s voice? Did she wish to close the dance with Wickham? And the very dance Darcy intended to ask for, not that propriety allowed her to refuse an earlier offer and still dance!
“It will be a pleasure, Miss Elizabeth.”
“Who are you dancing with after supper, Mr. Wickham?” Lydia cried out.
“Why you, if you will have me,” he smiled roguishly and Lydia and Mrs. Bennet tittered.
Supper droned on with the voices of the most annoying of the Bennets. Mrs. Bennet appeared to even vex Lady Lucas with her exclamations that Jane and Bingley would soon marry. The thought was vexing to him too, but he would think about it later. For now, the concern that Wickham was rising in the Bennets’ esteem was troublesome enough.
Bingley stood up to invite the ladies to entertain the room, and Darcy would have been grateful for Wickham’s suggestion that Mary’s constitution was too delicate to perform this evening if he were not so concerned that Wickham was concocting a scheme. Mr. Bennet seemed to be liberally consuming Bingley’s wine. At last it was time to return to dancing, and as he escorted Miss Lucas into the ballroom, it finally occurred to him he had not spoken above five words to either his supper partner or Elizabeth.
As Miss Lucas’ partner came for her, he went to find Miss Bingley. She complained, as expected, about the course of the evening, especially the Bennets. He was happy to have no need to supply much conversation as the dance was lively, and he found himself short of breath. He steered her to the punch table. Elizabeth was there as well, Mr. Collins hovering near her.
After quickly draining his glass, hoping to stave off a cough he felt tickling the back of his throat, he turned to Elizabeth. “Miss Elizabeth, I was hoping to partner with you for another set.”
“But Mr. Darcy!” Mr. Collins and Miss Bingley both exclaimed.
Collins seemed to defer to Miss Bingley for the moment. She continued, “Surely you should not tax yourself so much after your illness.”
“You were ill?” Elizabeth asked with concern. How he had wished, she had attended his bedside rather than his valet.
“Lady Catherine would be most displeased if her nephew threatened his health just to be so inordinately civil to such a crowd of people. Mr. Darcy, I insist you sit out the remainder of the ball.”
“Thank you, Mr. Collins, but gentlemen are in short supply, and I will do my duty.”
Miss Bingley’s partner collected her so she could no longer protest, and Mr. Collins attempted to argue again.
“Mr. Collins, speaking of a shortage of gentlemen, perhaps you should find a partner,” Darcy suggested.
“Certainly, I would love to dance with my dearest cousin again.”
“But I am engaged with Mr. Darcy for this set.”
“He does not mean to dance now; I am sure of it. Come, Miss Elizabeth,” he held out his hand for her, but Darcy spoke coldly.
“The lady is engaged, but I do see Miss Lucas without a partner for this dance. It is exceedingly ungentlemanly to let a lady sit out. My aunt, especially, hates such incivility.”
“Oh! I had not seen her there. I had not meant to leave…but if it would really be the gentlemanly thing to do…”
“I am certain Miss Lucas would be pleased,” Elizabeth interjected.
He made a bow and quickly moved to Miss Lucas’ side. Darcy held out his hand for Elizabeth, but she shook her head.
“Sir, if you have been ill you really should rest yourself.”
“Are you to be my nursemaid?” He rather liked the thought, but then he thought he would rather her care for him daily, as a wife would. He smiled at the thought.
“Oh no. I am certain you are a dreadful patient,” she returned.
“And yet I had thought you the sort whose courage always rose to every occasion.”
She laughed a heavenly sound. “I will strike a bargain with you, sir. We will sit out this dance, and I will allow you the silence I am sure you wish for if you will promise to go to the card room for the last set. No one can say you have been uncivil tonight.”
“Silence? Why would I wish silence in your presence?”
She said lowly, “I was under the impression the company of this evening had been distasteful.”
He lowered his head to speak for her ears alone. “Your company is never distasteful.”
She blushed. Why had he thought he could resist her?
“You did not always think so, sir,” she raised her head and her eyes challenged him.
“I am sorry you think so. Since the beginning of our acquaintance, I have found you enchanting. My manners must be to blame.”
She looked at him cautiously for a moment before replying. “Enchanting but not tempting.”
“You are quite incorrect. I have never been more tempted … to converse.” Truthfully, he was tempted in more pleasurable ways as well.
She swallowed and paused. “You are far more civil tonight than you were during your first dance in the country.”
“I am uncomfortable forming new acquaintances.”
“And yet you remained silent for most of your time in the country. Do you now count yourself as sufficiently acquainted with Miss Lucas or Miss Long?”
She was trying to say something, yet he could not connect the clues. It made him uncomfortable. “Did you not say some relationships cultivate faster than others?”
“I did. Perhaps now we can think about events of the evening with similar feelings after all.”
“Indeed?” He had not realized how insecure he felt of her feelings until such a declaration. He suddenly felt like he could move mountains.
“Jane has always been so reserved and never had her heart touched by a gentleman before. Yet, look at her now. She smiles so happily next to Mr. Bingley.”
He blinked in surprise. Had she been speaking of her sister and Bingley? He had never seen signs of real affection from either one of them. He studied them closely now. Yes, Bingley was more attentive than usual. But could mere smiles alone be Miss Bennet’s signal of admiration?
Such a peculiar family they were! Two incorrigible flirts, one sister who would rather read than speak to acquaintances, and then Elizabeth—lively but entirely proper. How could Miss Bennet turn out so differently?
Then his mind turned toward his own sister. They were both reserved, but she was truly shy, timid even, in company. And she certainly did not have the cause to worry and conceal her feelings that Miss Bennet did. But such thoughts just made him consider Elizabeth’s family again, and tonight he preferred to simply enjoy her smiles.
“I am certain Miss Bennet is everything proper,” he said at last.
“She is. Your sister will benefit from a correspondence with her.”
“My sister wants more liveliness, Miss Elizabeth. I am certain she will benefit even more from corresponding with you.”
“Thank you,” she blushed again. Of course, Georgiana would benefit even more if Elizabeth were a constant influence.
The music ended, and Wickham approached. He smiled gaily at Elizabeth and then Darcy, clearly wanting to continue the facade that they were friends. Seething with jealousy just seeing Elizabeth’s hand in Wickham’s he turned to the card room. He would call on the Bennets tomorrow and manage to say something. A call on Wickham was in order as well.
Wickham smiled at his partner. All was going according to his plan. The Bennets were charmed by him, he would easily be welcome in their home at any time. Mr. Bennet was encouraged to drink plenty of port and then took his suggestion to go to the card room after supper. Denny would take care of the rest on that side of things. Now Wickham needed to gain Elizabeth’s trust.
“Well, Miss Elizabeth, you have spent two dances with Mr. Darcy and sat near him at supper. Are you any closer to making him out?”
“I wonder why it concerns you so much? I am not in the habit of people being so interested in my affairs.”
“I have been connected with him for so long and although our acquaintance is short I feel as if I know you very well.”
She arched a brow. “And this sort of intimacy has allowed you to consider what, sir? That we are well matched?”
“I have certainly deduced what has attracted my friend.”
“And that is?”
His eyes scanned her body before returning to her face. He could nearly feel the heat of her blush. It had been too long since he felt the heat of a woman’s body, but he made his mind focus. “The sharpness of your mind, of course.”
Elizabeth scoffed. “You are incorrect. He prefers more mild-mannered ladies.”
“No, I know my friend well.”
“Then he certainly wishes for someone with greater connections and wealth.”
“If that were true he might have married any lady long ago. His aunt is after him to marry his cousin.”
“I do not care for Town,” she said it rather weakly.
“Neither does he.”
“I do care for my family and he does not.”
“That is an obstacle but one that is conquerable.”
“Really, I do not care if it is. I have no wish for his attentions,” Elizabeth said with what was clearly impatience.
“You certainly do not give the impression of a lady that wishes to put a man off. Now, your sister must be tiring of Mr. Bingley.”
“Jane loves him!” She blushed. “Forgive me. My sister is very reserved and would hate to be the source of such impertinent remarks.”
“Well, I do not know many men who would understand a lady had great feeling for him if all he received were serene smiles.”
She looked towards Miss Bennet and Mr. Bingley. “You think he does not perceive her regard?”
“I do not. And with such other objections…”
“What other objections?” she asked harshly.
“His sisters are very concerned with wealth and connections. And as you say, his friend is not impressed with her relations.”
“But…if, as you suggest, his friend would consider me surely my sister must be enough.”
“Yet you do not wish him to consider you.”
She hesitated and in that instant Wickham understood things exactly. She did not wish for Darcy’s attentions but neither did she wish to offend the man who held sway over her sister’s suitor. He may win both Darcy’s money and his woman after all, a very pleasing thought.
He smiled and spoke before she replied. “I have teased you enough for now. I certainly hope all ends well for you and your sisters. I have only your happiness at heart.”
The dance ended, and they parted in silence. On his side, he was wondering how he may use this information to the best advantage. Timing would be everything.