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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 with whom to converse, 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 frustrated, but I suppose the house was all busyness 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.”
Jane approached them then. “He has secured dances with us all.” She looked at her card in dismay. “I had hoped to save the opening dance for Mr. Bingley, but another asked, and I could not turn him away and dance later, of course.”
Elizabeth smiled. Only dearest Jane would have the problem of feeling too admired. She could not forget, however, her hopes for Jane’s happiness to be secured tonight. “I am sure Mr. Bingley will understand. You cannot worry for his regard.”
“Hush, Lizzy. Someone will hear,” Jane said as she looked around nervously. She tugged at Elizabeth’s card, and her eyes grew wide. “It is still nearly empty! 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.”
“Not everyone can have your ease,” Charlotte chided. Elizabeth rolled her eyes. It was not ease. What else was one to do at a ball?
Her two friends then pulled her about the room, intent on finding her more partners 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. Denny 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 daresay 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 fruitlessly hoped 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 said.
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 and 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 that I hope to see this often repeated when a certain desirable event,” he glanced at Jane and Bingley at the top of the set, “shall take place. Oh, but I will let you dance.”
He went away quickly, and Elizabeth watched Darcy. He remained focused 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 façade, and when she did, she certainly believed Darcy 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 burdensome for him. I believe, when planning this very ball, your brother made mention that 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, 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’s babbling, she saw Wickham was very attentive to her parents and danced with Kitty, and then Mary during the supper set. Charlotte appeared to enjoy her dance with Mr. Darcy. He talked easily with her. She smiled when they came near Elizabeth at the end of the dance. They all entered the dining room together.
Darcy’s head pounded as the evening progressed. To not unduly raise Elizabeth’s expectations, he had danced with several other ladies this evening. He was far from fully recovered. Fatigue still gripped him, and a cough lingered. Frequently returning to the refreshment table assisted in suppressing it. His discomfort 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. Bingley had assured him that Colonel Forster was sending Wickham to London. Why had Wickham 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 even less 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 hoped 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 said.
Darcy noted 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 man in tow.
Throughout Mr. Collins’s 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 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.
One thought on “Sufficient Encouragement Refresh– Chapter Nine”
Why oh why didn’t Darcy request the last dance after his first with Elizabeth? Wickham obviously sees his attraction to her and is playing on it! Mr Collins? What a pain he is! I do hope Darcy discourages him from proposing to Elizabeth and denies his tie with Anne!
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