So here it is again, the next chapter in my new novel, which should be coming out the third week in February. This time we’re in familiar territory, namely, the Meryton Assembly, and Darcy and Elizabeth are in the same room. I should warn you, though, that things don’t work quite in the same way!
~ Chapter 3 ~
Mr. Bennet refused to attend the Assembly with the rest of his family. He was satisfied that he had gone to enough trouble already by calling on Mr. Bingley and inviting him to dinner. He made it abundantly clear that he was now looking forward to a peaceful evening alone.
Elizabeth was sorry her father was not coming with them. He was the only one who wasn’t caught up in the bustle of preparations, and she could usually count on him to make witty comments about the newcomers, but she could not persuade him to join them.
“I have no interest in watching all the young ladies making fools of themselves over a single young gentleman.”
“It’s not just one gentleman, Papa!” Lydia rolled her eyes. “There are eight of them. Just imagine. And all of them from London! La! I shan’t know who to dance with first.”
Mr. Bennet raised his eyebrow. “I rest my case.”
Elizabeth laughed. “Are you entirely sure you want to forfeit the opportunity to make sport of it all? Think of what you’ll be missing.”
“I am not in the least worried I’ll be missing something. In fact, I’m absolutely certain that I’ll be obliged to hear every single insignificant detail once you’ve returned home.”
At the last moment, just as they were about to set out for the Assembly, Mrs. Bennet tried one last time to convince Mr. Bennet to come.
“But Mr. Bennet, how can you be so inconsiderate? How are we going to meet Mr. Bingley if you won’t introduce us to him?”
“If he is interested in any of our girls, he will seek an introduction from Sir William Lucas. He is the Master of Ceremonies, not I. It is his job to do the introductions.”
“Sir William,” said Mrs. Bennet bitterly, “will undoubtedly be too busy parading his own daughter Maria in front of Mr. Bingley to spare us a thought.”
“Well then, Mr. Bingley will marry Maria, and that will be that.”
“Oh! I see you are determined to ruin our girls’ chance of marrying.”
“I am not determined to do anything. I am merely hoping for some time to myself. Is that too much to ask?”
Seeing that her mother was growing more and more agitated, Elizabeth broke in.
“If we don’t hurry, we will be too late to witness Mr. Bingley’s arrival.”
Mrs. Bennet realised she had wasted precious time trying to convince Mr. Bennet.
“Why are you dawdling, Kitty? We have to leave at once!”
Kitty blinked. “I am not dawdling, Mama.”
“Then make haste!”
It was only a mile from Longbourn to the Assembly Hall, but it took them an age to reach there. The line of carriages that had already arrived was long, and the Bennets were obliged to wait for their turn. Mrs. Bennet began to complain and wish they had left earlier, while Lydia and Kitty stuck their heads out of the window to peer at the occupants of the other carriages. Nothing that Mrs. Bennet said could stop them. It was only when Elizabeth told them their curls were becoming windblown that they brought their heads back in. By and by, the carriage crept forward to the entrance. It finally came to a stop and a footman came to open the door.
Mrs. Bennet poked Elizabeth in the back.
“Hurry, Lizzy. I don’t want Mrs. Long’s daughters to meet Mr. Bingley before we do.”
Elizabeth was given a push as she descended, and her sisters tumbled out after her, presumably also subjected to Mrs. Bennet’s poking fingers. Unlike Elizabeth, who preferred a more dignified exit, Kitty and Lydia giggled excitedly and took their mother’s prompt as license to behave as giddily as they pleased.
“Come on, girls,” said Mrs. Bennet, herding her daughters like a mother goose with her goslings. “Let’s find Mr. Bingley.”
As Elizabeth entered the Assembly Rooms, she bit back a smile. She had never seen such a crush of people. The room was filled to the rafters. The mamas were out in full force, fussing and giving frantic last-minute instructions. The prospect of having several eligible and wealthy young gentlemen in attendance had driven them into a frenzy. Fashion plates had been studied, ribbons and lace had been purchased from as far away as the market town of Hitchin, and many a curl had been burnt with the curling irons in a desperate attempt to hold their shape.
Mrs. Bennet’s rush to arrive, however, proved to be pointless, because the Mr. Bingley and his friends had not yet arrived.
“How very vexing of Mr. Bingley not to have arrived by now,” said Mrs. Bennet, to her sister. “The orchestra is getting ready to start.”
“It shows a definite lack of consideration, sister.” Mrs. Philips fanned herself rapidly and stared fixedly at the doorway. “He must know that we are all counting on his presence.”
Elizabeth left her mother and her aunt to their complaining and joined a group of young ladies, but the conversation was the same everywhere. No one could talk of anything else. Everything was on hold. The evening could not begin properly until Mr. Bingley had made an appearance. Sir William delayed the dancing as long as he could, but as the crowd grew restless, he was forced to order the orchestra to begin.
Elizabeth danced the opening set with Mr. Robert Eckles, a young man with round blue eyes and a red face. She had known him since childhood, and knew they had nothing in common. They exchanged pleasantries from time to time, but otherwise did not make much of an effort to converse. Mr. Eckles was a good dancer, fortunately, and Elizabeth was able to enjoy dancing.
As the dance concluded, Elizabeth looked around for another partner. There were very few young gentlemen she could dance with, but they were all otherwise engaged. However, there were some things she wouldn’t do. When a white-haired widower who was going deaf, Mr. Rice, asked her to dance with him as he always did, she declined, as she always did, but with the usual sense of frustration. Turning him down meant, of course, that she could not dance with anyone else for that set. She had always found that rule of etiquette ridiculous. Why did a young lady have to deprive herself of dancing for half an hour just because she did not like that particular partner?
Sighing, she went to fetch a glass of ratafia and joined her friend Maria Lucas, who was also sitting out the dance.
“It appears the London party has forsaken us,” she said. “I think they’ve returned to London and forgotten all about us.”
Maria shook her head. “I have it on good authority that they are coming. I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for their delay.”
“You’re always trying to find a reasonable explanation for everything, Maria, just like your sister.” Elizabeth smiled affectionately at her friend. “But people like this London group may have decided not to grace us with their presence for some arbitrary reason. We may never know the reason.”
“They will come.” Maria spoke with conviction. “They are new to the neighbourhood and they need to get to know their neighbours. They’ll have no one to call on if they don’t make the effort to acquire new friends.”
“Perhaps they don’t care to acquire friends in Meryton.” Elizabeth was, in fact, certain that they were not coming at all.
At that moment a sudden hush fell over the Assembly Rooms. The music stopped and every gaze turned towards the entrance. Five young persons, three gentlemen and two ladies, walked through the door and into the large hall.
The sense of disappointment was palpable as it became clear that there were fewer gentlemen than anticipated, but the ladies’ spirits rallied quickly. Mothers and daughters simpered as the new arrivals walked by. The mothers noted the fashionable clothes of the ladies, memorising the patterns to make sure their seamstresses would be able to produce something similar. The younger women observed the gentlemen from the corners of their eyes, trying to decide which of the three they preferred.
“Welcome, welcome!” Sir William Lucas rubbed his hands together and bowed, his loud voice carrying easily in the silence. “I shall be performing the introductions tonight. We have many pretty young ladies here who are eager to dance — and some charming young gentlemen, too, of course.”
One of the gentlemen stepped forward with an eager look, and Elizabeth gave him her full attention. This must be Mr. Bingley, she decided, judging from the vague descriptions she had received of him. He was a tall man with light brown hair brushed forward in the new fashion, and large blue eyes. He seemed genuinely happy to be there. Elizabeth had the feeling he was someone who made friends easily and was eager to please.
Could she marry such a person? It was certainly too early to form more than a first impression, but she didn’t find anything to dislike. So far, there was no thunderbolt, no sudden sense of her world shifting in any way, but she would have to wait until they were better acquainted. It was pointless to consider the matter in any case. Mr. Bingley did not even know she existed. It remained to be seen whether he would notice her at all.
He had done some foolish things in his life, thought Darcy, as he stepped into the Assembly Rooms at Meryton, but this had to be one of the worst. Bingley had assured him that there were not more than twenty-five families around Netherfield. His friend had even gone to the trouble of finding out everyone’s names and written them down. Darcy had gone through the list carefully and had made certain there was no one he knew.
However, as he entered into the packed hall, he realized the room held far more than twenty-five families. There could easily be someone here that would recognize him. In fact, it was almost certain to be the case, with such a large crowd. Bingley had said it would be a small provincial dance. Who were all these people?
His muscles tightened, his pulse began to race, and his throat turned dry. The music and the dancing had stopped, and everyone was staring in their direction. It was like entering the field of battle before an engagement, knowing that this time, he could be chosen by the hand of death. Any moment now, he thought, disaster would strike. Someone would mention his real name or ask him about Pemberley and then everything would come crashing down.
Somehow, without even noticing what he was doing, he managed to follow behind Bingley, who was being guided forward by a hearty gentleman with a round paunch. He heard someone introducing him as Mr. John Darcy, of Cornwall, and he bowed like an automaton every time the name was mentioned. Meanwhile, his vision scoured the room, looking for danger.
“Tedious occasion, eh, Darcy?” said Hurst. “I hope they have a decent cardroom at least.”
The comment was so mundane, so commonplace, that Darcy felt an absurd impulse to laugh. His nerves were at snapping point. Any moment now, the game would be up. The torment seemed to stretch on and on.
Suddenly, he spotted a familiar face at the back of the room. He froze. The man wasn’t looking at him, but Darcy knew that profile. He tried to remember the man’s name. Was it Ridgeway, or Ridgewell? What should he do? Should he stand his ground, or should he flee before it was too late?
He would stand his ground. What was the point of running away? Even if he tried to leave, the man could still see him and recognize him. It would better for Darcy to stay. Perhaps he could bluff his way through the encounter.
“Come on, Darcy. Keep up!”
Bingley’s cheerful voice was an annoyance. Darcy kept his eyes fixed on Ridgeway, ignoring his friend’s taunt. He willed the man to turn so the torment could end. He wanted to be done with it.
Then Ridgeway finally turned and looked directly at him, his brow raised in a question, only it wasn’t Ridgeway. This man was a complete stranger.
The tension that was like a spike digging between Darcy’s shoulder blades eased as he allowed himself to breathe again, but the near-encounter left him shaky. It wasn’t over yet. It could still happen.
Slowly, as they continued down the room and no one called out his name, Darcy began to hope. They were almost at the end of the hallway by now. The music had started up again, and people were turning away. Slowly, the sea of gazes began to separate into individual faces. Darcy didn’t recognize anyone. For the first time, he paid attention to the Master of Ceremonies, who was completely oblivious to Darcy’s apprehension. Sir William was chattering happily to anyone who would listen, about the time he had been at Carlton House and about how his services to King George had earned him the honour of a knighthood.
Darcy’s apprehension began to diminish, then dissipated all together. He was safe here. Apart from the Master of Ceremonies, as far as Darcy could tell, all the guests were provincials who didn’t run in the first social circles.
His pulse returned to normal. He had been spared. He was safe now, but he rebuked himself for taking such a foolish risk. Not for the first time, he wished he hadn’t come. He only hoped Georgiana appreciated his sacrifice.
You’ve reached the end of this selection. Tune in next week for the next episode. Meanwhile, any thoughts or comments are always welcome. I love reading about your reactions !!