I’m feeling a little better, so here’s another chapter for you!
George Wickham hid in the shadows of the ballroom. He did not wish for one of the ridiculous Bennet girls to see him before he intended. Then, at last, he saw Darcy enter. Surprisingly, instead of eschewing conversation with the others in attendance and inadvertently giving offence, the man spoke to the country gentlemen!
Wickham could not understand Darcy’s departure from his usual behaviour, until the first set began. An attractive young lady, but no remarkable beauty, constantly drew Darcy’s attention.
Wickham supposed Darcy courted the woman and her neighbours’ good opinion. The Bennet sisters had gossiped to Wickham that his old pal Darcy showed a preference for a lady. Wickham had not believed the report. However, he could easily see Darcy was besotted.
Darcy’s choice surprised Wickham as the handsomest woman in the room was dancing with Darcy’s long-time friend, Bingley. Wickham honestly had no idea what features might attract Darcy, as he had never seen the man show partiality for one before this night. It surprised him that a man who could have anyone and anything did not seek more extraordinary beauty or wealth. Where was the man’s pride?
Of course, Wickham knew Darcy’s pride was familial rather than due to this wealth and consequence. He would do anything but shame the Darcy name, a fact Wickham constantly took advantage of from childhood to the present day. Still, Wickham expected his former friend to make a great match from the first circles of London society to a beautiful woman of grace, wealth, and connections. The animated little brunette held none of those attractions.
When Wickham repeatedly saw the look of jealousy in Darcy’s eyes through the first few sets, he knew his plot would succeed. Wickham knew that expression on Darcy’s face well. It was often after that Darcy would find Wickham enjoying the attentions of old Mr. Darcy.
All Wickham needed was an introduction to Darcy’s lady. He fervently hoped this was the ‘Lizzy’ he heard the Bennet girls speak of earlier. He did not doubt at all that the youngest Bennet sister would perform all her parts admirably.
Caroline Bingley fumed. Darcy had not pre-arranged a set with her, and then she learned Eliza Bennet had made a move on her Mr. Darcy. His visit to this God-forsaken place was supposed to prove she was perfect for the role of mistress of Pemberley. Compared to these country chits, Caroline would show her superior fashion, taste, beauty, and hostessing skills.
The evening started poorly enough by her estimation. Distressingly, she noticed Darcy mingling with the tasteless and loud nobodies when he would not deign to speak at the most elegant balls in town. She could not account for the change in his demeanour.
Caroline’s anger grew when she noticed his eyes continually seeking out Eliza Bennet. However, she hoped he only watched for amusement. After all, he did not look particularly pleased. She would rescue him from this inane company.
Just before calling out to him, she saw her brother approach. “Darcy, why do you not dance?”
“You know how I hate to dance with strangers. Am I not doing well enough by speaking with the gentlemen?”
“I dare say, I have never seen you so approachable. However, it would be much better for you to dance. I have resided in Hertfordshire for weeks and have never seen so many pretty girls in my life. Some are beyond beautiful—a whole family of them. I believe you met with them, but if you have any questions about their character, I will answer them. Or if they do not suffice, I can introduce you to whoever you like.”
“As it happens, I have already made an arrangement with the only woman in the room I care to join.”
Bingley guffawed. “You only arrived yesterday! The only ladies you have met are the Bennet sisters. Come, man, which is it?”
“Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”
“Miss Elizabeth! I am amazed. That must have been some carriage ride indeed to feel ‘particularly acquainted.’” Bingley teased.
However, Darcy would not be baited and resolutely told Bingley to return to his partner. “Aside from dancing with Miss Elizabeth and fulfilling my duty with your sisters, I am quite content to converse with the gentlemen.”
Caroline’s control over her rage evaporated. She seized her opportunity when she saw Elizabeth head towards the punch table.
When Darcy entered the assembly hall, he had little hopes of enjoying anything but his dance with Elizabeth. He was determined, however, to please her by showing he respected her opinions and chastisement no matter how uncomfortable he felt.
At first, he even entertained the notion of standing up with another lady or two and breaking his long-held standard of not dancing with a stranger. But, when he noticed the looks of admiration Elizabeth received from her dance partners, Darcy found he could not dance with another.
By the third set, he had even resolved to imitate Bingley, who had plans to dance twice with Jane and ask Elizabeth for an additional set. He began to move in her direction when he was accosted by the local knight, Sir William Lucas.
“Do you not enjoy dancing, sir?”
The old Darcy would have coldly tried to deter this man from his meaningless small talk, but Darcy sacrificed his comfort to be civil. “Truthfully, I much prefer conversation. I dislike being on display but find others quite enjoy it.”
“I believe there is no greater emblem of high society.”
Darcy bit back a sarcastic remark. “You must be correct, sir.”
“I am sure you must see it often as I am confident you are frequently at Court.”
In actuality, Darcy only attended when forced by familial obligation. “I never go, sir.”
Sir William’s jaw slacked a little, but he recovered. “I believe you have a house in town?”
Darcy allowed it to be so, and Sir William continued on his determining town unsuitable for Lady Lucas’s health for some time. He then raised the topic of his daughter, Charlotte, and her recent marriage to a Mr. Collins. The very one Darcy overheard Elizabeth speak of in the park and who had recently received a living from Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
Sir William asked if Darcy knew of the great lady. Darcy realised he should deny any acquaintance with the lady to reach Elizabeth before the next set began. Although disguise of every sort was his abhorrence, he determined to do so when he saw an officer approach Elizabeth, and they made for the dance floor.
Realising that he lost the dance and believing that she was too sensible to entertain serious hopes for an officer, undoubtedly of paltry means, Darcy turned his attention back to Sir William without ever seeing the officer’s face.
When Sir William was, at long last, called off on some matter, Darcy was reminded of his duty to Bingley’s sisters. During his set with Mrs. Hurst, he noticed that he could not espy Elizabeth. Growing concerned, Darcy beseeched Bingley to enquire intelligence from Miss Bennet. Darcy was excessively disappointed when he learned Elizabeth felt ill and had already left. Dark thoughts flooded his mind.
Did she leave because she did not want to dance with me?
If she could not welcome the attentions of the gentlemen she has known all her life, who all seem affable, amiable, and intelligent, why should she enjoy mine?
His mind raced over their recent encounters for some indication she had felt truly affronted or indifferent towards him. Just then, Miss Bingley approached, and Darcy felt he had no alternative but to ask her for the next set.
Once the dancing began, the lady said in an arch tone, “I was surprised to hear of your acquaintance with Miss Eliza Bennet. I wonder why you did not say a thing last night. You must have been very weary from your journey in such tedious company.”
“On the contrary, we enjoyed lively conversation and debate.”
“Debate? What could the impertinent girl have been thinking? To dare think her opinion equal to your own!”
“I daresay her opinion is better informed in some cases.”
“I wonder how you tolerate her or allow dear Georgiana near her and those sisters. The Bennet girls are nothing more than mercenary flirts. Just see how the eldest has thrown herself at Charles this evening.”
“Miss Bingley,” Darcy replied coldly, “you know as well as I, a lady does not choose her partner.” He hoped she would understand he found her behaviour lacking, but she did not seem to notice, so he continued. “If Miss Bennet is frequently seen in Bingley’s company, it is from his desire. I see nothing in her countenance which could be interpreted as either mercenary or flirtatious.”
He paused to allow the prominence of the following words, “And I assure you, I am well acquainted with both.”
Miss Bingley was not to be deterred. “Do you believe her indifferent?”
“Although my opinion is of no matter, I believe she is acting as a lady should.”
“How can you say that? She will be the ruin of Charles. Her family has a total want of propriety, no fortune, and no connections. I am convinced Miss Eliza has designs on you. I had to warn her away just earlier this evening.”
“What did you say?” Darcy’s jaw clenched tightly.
“I simply reminded her of your need for a wife of good breeding, poise, wealth, and connections.”
“I have no need for you to defend my business. On the contrary, I find Miss Elizabeth enchanting and everything a lady ought to be.” Then, too angry to speak, he remained mute for the rest of their dance, leaving Miss Bingley at her brother’s elbow with the barest of bows.
Rather than give offence due to his foul mood, Darcy called for his carriage and arranged for it to return later to convey the remainder of the Netherfield Party home. He quickly realized that Elizabeth must feel as though he found her wanting and might even feel her affections trifled with.
I will count myself fortunate if she wants to speak with me again after being so abused by my acquaintances.
Despite his misgivings, before falling into a fitful sleep, he had determined to walk out early in the morning with every hope of encountering Elizabeth alone.
At Longbourn, Elizabeth’s headache did not lessen. Before she finally managed to fall asleep, she felt only disappointment. Mr. Darcy had been too good to be true. Never before had she met a man with the intelligence and a character she could genuinely esteem. Never before had she felt so accepted and respected. Unfortunately, she was only too sensible to his position in life. While she thought she resisted fanciful thoughts, she realized her heart had betrayed her.
Early the following day, Elizabeth awoke before sunrise but with no headache. She determined the matter required another perusal when she was not quite so affected. She left the house to climb Oakham Mount just as the first rays of the sun emerged. When she reached the peak, she allowed herself time to meditate on her concerns with her eyes closed and feel the sun’s warmth.
First, she considered Mr. Wickham’s testimony. She must allow that she did not honestly know Mr. Darcy very well; theirs had been a very brief acquaintance. She next conceded she did not know Wickham at all. She recalled the man mentioned not meeting with Mr. Darcy for many years and yet seemed too ready to slander him. Perhaps Darcy had changed and should be allowed to prove himself before being charged for old ways.
She shook her head at the faulty thought; it sounded too much like Jane. She did believe people could alter their behaviour, but only with sufficient motivation. If Mr. Darcy had once been a rake, he most likely would continue to be. He had either always been good or never good.
She thought again about the length of time Wickham mentioned. Why was Mr. Darcy still unmarried if he had been engaged all those years ago? Perhaps he still hoped to somehow dissolve the betrothal and marry the other lady? However, Wickham implied Darcy felt no lasting affection for the woman in question and instead believed Darcy dangerous to any lady. Then why should he not be married? Many men did not keep their marriage vows. Why should he single Elizabeth out? He had not truly flirted with her and said nothing beyond the barest civilities to her sisters. Last night, before Elizabeth had left, he had eschewed all ladies.
Additionally, the attention he gave her was in full view of her family and his younger sister. Elizabeth surmised Wickham was spinning tales but could not quite piece together why.
Elizabeth then turned her mind to Miss Bingley’s words. It took less time to puzzle out her words only reflected her fear of Elizabeth as a rival. Most irksome was that Caroline somehow knew all of Elizabeth’s sore spots, and she played right into Caroline’s plan.
There was quite a bit of truth in her words, though. Darcy would be expected to marry a woman from London high society. Elizabeth knew her beauty was easily withstood; she had no fortune or connections and only meagre accomplishments. She simply could not compete on those levels with the London ladies.
However, why should Caroline feel so threatened? Elizabeth considered Darcy’s actions at the assembly. He mingled with the gentlemen but seemed to glare at her. Yet, if he was looking at her in disapproval, in light of her family’s behaviour, then why should Caroline worry at all?
Suddenly, Darcy’s words before the ball flooded her memory. He had found her intelligent, charming, and even accomplished. He called her refreshing and stated he did not like deference. When he met Jane, he did not even spare her beauty a glance, preferring to gaze at Elizabeth. He was all kindness in the face of her mother’s antics and even alluded to embarrassing family of his own. His sister decreed him loyal, and even Elizabeth declared him constant. If she had earned his admiration, she would not lose it.
Hope blossomed as she realized that if Mr. Darcy had truly desired a match like Caroline described, he could have easily married his cousin, Caroline, or any other London lady by now. Perhaps he wanted a love match.
The only question remaining in Elizabeth’s mind was if she would welcome his attentions. She laughed to herself at the thought. No, there was no question at all! Unintentionally, she had been answering that question all along. She had truly, finally, met a man who inspired her respect and admiration. She had never so earnestly desired its reciprocation. Elizabeth realised Wickham and Caroline had meant to frighten her, but her courage always rose with every attempt at intimidation.
Darcy quietly approached Elizabeth, aware she did not hear his footsteps as she lingered in thought with eyes closed. He paused to watch her. Despite her bonnet, he could see some of her beautiful face bathed in the sun’s warm beams. He was fascinated by the variety of emotions that passed over her and was entirely enchanted by her laugh, pleased to see she was well.
Suddenly she opened her eyes and saw the earnest expression on his face, “Mr. Darcy!”
He bowed and smiled, “Miss Bennet.”
They stood facing each other, both searching for some sign. Finally, Darcy cleared his throat. “I heard you were ill last evening. Are you feeling better?”
“Yes, I thank you. Are you well this morning?”
“Yes, quite.” Another silence ensued. “I was very sorry to miss our dance last night.”
“Forgive me, I was very unwell.”
“I am glad to see you recovered.” He paused for a moment and then acted on impulse. He pulled off his hat and tossed it under a nearby tree.
Next, he looked at Elizabeth intently and stretched his hand before asking, “May I?”
Elizabeth looked unsure but nodded her consent. He stepped closer and reached to untie the ribbons of her bonnet. He could scarcely breathe due to the unintentional intimacy of his actions. Elizabeth held her breath as well.
Darcy gently pulled the bonnet off, placed it next to his hat, and smiled broadly, “Much better. I can see your whole face and your lovely hair.”
She blushed, and he was charmed anew. He took her hand and bowed over it. “Miss Elizabeth, may I have the honour of this dance?”
She laughed, “I hear no music, sir.”
“Do you not?” He began to hum the tune of a simple dance and was delighted when she joined in.
They went through several steps before he spoke again, “Shall we use this example of my obstinacy as a fault or a virtue, Miss Elizabeth?”
Elizabeth laughed again, “I suppose it depends on your level of conviction, sir.”
He met her eyes, “I have never been more certain of anything.”
“Then it must be a great virtue.”
“What makes you think so?”
She gazed affectionately, “Because I am assured of your character, sir.”
Darcy wished to alleviate her concerns about his affections and tentatively began, “I had a very…interesting conversation with Miss Bingley.”
Elizabeth blushed, “As did I.”
“I hope her words did not upset you.”
“What will you think of my vanity when I admit they did? I am acutely aware of my folly in allowing Miss Bingley and Mr. Wickham’s words to affect me.”
Darcy could not believe his ears and ceased his movements as dread filled him. “Pardon me, did you say Mr. Wickham? George Wickham?
“Yes.” Her brow furrowed. “He told me he was acquainted with you…”
White-hot anger and terror lit his insides. Wickham was here? “Miss Elizabeth, it is essential I escort you back to Longbourn immediately and then depart to Netherfield in all haste. It is probable I shall have to journey to London as well. I shall explain all when at Longbourn, and I should like to meet with your father as well.”
Elizabeth looked displeased and confused but gave him a small smile. “Very well, sir. I shall not delay you for an instant.”
Darcy collected their hats before the pair walked briskly back to Longbourn. They returned to the house just as the family had finished breakfast. However, before Darcy could ask for his audience with Mr. Bennet, Mrs. Phillips was presented.
“Sister! I heard the most dreadful gossip concerning Lydia and Mr. Wickham!” She cried out, heedless of any who heard her. “We are all ruined!”