In the last episode, we were at the Meryton Assembly. The scene is still the same. The question is, will Darcy & Elizabeth meet in this variation? Will they dance? Or will the story follow canon? Well, you’ll have to read it to find out.
Meanwhile, if you haven’t read the earlier chapters, you need to start with the Prologue here, then Chapter 1 here, and Chapter 2 here, then Chapter 3 here, otherwise you might be a bit lost.
~ Chapter 4 ~
Fortunately, Sir William was waylaid on the way and distracted from his purpose, and soon Lydia and Kitty drifted off, their attention drawn elsewhere. Elizabeth sighed with relief. She was only too aware of how poorly her sisters’ behaviour reflected on her family, and she would rather not confirm Mr. Darcy’s apparently poor opinion of everyone present.
Sometime later, Sir William appeared at her side again, but it was not Mr. Darcy he brought. It was Mr. Bingley.
“Mr. Bingley here has sought an introduction, Lizzy. He would like to ask for this dance. Mr. Bingley, I present to you Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”
Light blue eyes smiled into hers. “Miss Bennet. Delighted to make your acquaintance.”
“You already know my daughter Maria, of course.”
“I should hope so! We danced together.” Mr. Bingley bowed and turned to Elizabeth. “Miss Bennet, may I have the pleasure of this dance?”
“By all means, Mr. Bingley.”
“I hope you do not mind my taking your friend from you,” he said to Maria. “I promise to return her.”
Maria smiled, and said she looked forward to it.
Elizabeth was conscious of Mr. Darcy staring at her as she made her way to the dance floor. She smiled brightly at Mr. Bingley and did her best to ignore his friend. She quickly forgot all about him as she discovered that Mr. Bingley was not only an excellent dancer, but was charming as well.
“Have you lived near Meryton all your life, Miss Bennet?”
“We live a mile away, in Longbourn. It is a very convenient distance. We walk to Meryton three or four times a week, weather permitting.”
“Very commendable. I rarely walk. I go everywhere on horseback, but I daresay walking is even better for one’s health, especially in the countryside.”
“I love to walk, whenever I can. However, if you are at all fussy about your boots, I would not recommend it.”
“Oh, I am not fussy about anything. Besides, a little bit of mud never hurt anybody.”
He smiled at her warmly. There was something very appealing about Mr. Bingley. As the dance went on, she found him very easy to talk to, and was soon telling him how much she missed her sister Jane.
“Why don’t you go to London more often to visit her?”
“My father does not like me to go away. He and I have a great deal in common, you see, and he misses me if I leave.”
“He could go to London as well, surely?”
“That’s the problem. He dislikes London and never wants to go there, even to visit my sister.”
“What a pity! But if you should wish to go any time, you are welcome to borrow my carriage. It is well-sprung and will get you to London in no time.”
“I appreciate the offer, Mr. Bingley, but I don’t have plans to go to Town at the moment.”
Their conversation continued in much the same manner throughout the dance. Mr. Bingley was invariably solicitous, and Lizzy felt that he was willing to go of his way to help her. It was a novel sensation to talk to a gentleman who was so obliging.
Yes, thought Elizabeth, as the dance reached its conclusion, I could come to like Mr. Bingley very much indeed.
Half an hour later, as she and Maria stood together observing the dancers, Elizabeth was still at a loss to find fault with Mr. Bingley. She had watched him interact with several people and concluded that it would take someone very critical to find fault with him. The only fault she could find was not with Mr. Bingley, but with herself. Much as she liked him, she could not quite imagine herself marrying him.
The trouble was, she wanted more out of marriage than simply convenience. Something inside her yearned for love. She was aware, of course, that she was expecting too much. Mrs. Bennet was always complaining that Mr. Bennet had spoiled Elizabeth for her role in life by encouraging her to read too much. It was very probably true. Elizabeth’s father was very well read, but he was not a practical man. He was not fully involved in the everyday running of the estate, which was possibly why the estate produced so little income. Meanwhile, the Bennet family members were paying the price for his neglect. They were always having to perform little economies so they could continue to live within their means. They were not impoverished, exactly, but they could not order fashionable clothes without having to give up something else.
Jane had married reasonably, but not well enough to help her sisters or mother with anything more than a trivial amount of pin money. Three years ago, when Mr. Collins proposed to her, Elizabeth had been contemptuous of anyone who married for practical reasons. Now she was older and wiser. She had seen how her friend Charlotte managed her husband. Charlotte had even worked out the best way to interact with Lady Catherine, Mr. Collins’ condescending and interfering benefactor. In short, although Elizabeth had predicted a disaster for her friend when Charlotte had first married, she had been proven completely wrong. Charlotte was perfectly content. She had her own household. She had a little girl and was increasing again, and she wasn’t dependent on anyone for a roof over her head.
Still, every part of Elizabeth revolted at the idea of trying to capture a man for his property. She wanted love. But would love ever come her way? At three and twenty, it seemed to be less and less likely, and the prospect of having to endure her mother for the rest of her life seemed much more real.
Not that Elizabeth would marry someone like Mr. Collins even now. She shuddered at the very thought of it. However, if an opportunity arose for her to escape Longbourn and the constant lamentations of her mother at being saddled with four unmarriageable daughters with no dowry, Elizabeth would certainly consider it seriously. Mr. Bingley was a godsend, that is, if he was genuinely interested in her.
She chuckled to herself. The poor man had done nothing more than to dance with her, and already she was considering whether or not to accept his proposal. It was absurd.
“Why are you laughing, Lizzy?” Maria was looking at her quizzingly.
“I was thinking how true it is that a lady’s imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”
Maria gaze moved from Elizabeth to Bingley. “He does seem to be taken with you.”
Elizabeth shook her head. “It was just a stupid fancy on my part, no more. It will take a great deal more to fix his interest, I assure you.”
“Then, as my sister would say, you have work to do.” Maria sighed. “Imagine what it would be like to marry someone with a property such as Netherfield. Imagine being the mistress of such a grand estate. You would be very lucky indeed if you managed to capture him, Lizzy.”
“If I fall in love with him, I will not hesitate, but I will not deliberately set out to capture him in cold blood, Maria, whatever Charlotte’s view of the matter may be. Having said that, if he did become sincerely attached to me, I would not discourage it, even if I was not in love with him.”
It was Maria’s turn to shake her head. “If you aren’t careful, someone will snatch him from right under your eyes, and all for the lack of trying.”
“I’m not desperate, Maria. Your sister did not marry until she was twenty-seven, so I still have some time to acquire a husband.”
“I wash my hands off you, Lizzy. Don’t say I haven’t warned you. If you won’t listen to me, I will not be held accountable.”
“Why don’t you set your sights on him yourself, then?”
Maria gave a wry smile. “I would, only I’m not as pretty as you are, and so far, he only has eyes for you.”
It appeared Maria was right, because not too long later, Mr. Bingley solicited Elizabeth’s hand for a second dance. Since she was the first young lady to be asked twice, Elizabeth took to the dancing floor with many envious looks turned in her direction.
There was little occasion for conversation this time, since the dance was a jig, but Elizabeth enjoyed herself, and laughed a great deal with Mr. Bingley. Once again, he proved himself a skilled dancer, and Elizabeth was sorry when the music stopped, and Mr. Bingley returned her to her friends.
There were very few eligible young men to dance with, and after the excitement of dancing with Mr. Bingley, Elizabeth wished she could have danced more. However, as there were not enough gentlemen to go round, she was left without a partner for the next dance. Still, it was a good opportunity to amuse herself by watching other people.
“Come, Maria,” she said to her friend. “Let us make ourselves comfortable over there, where at least we sit down as we sip our ratafia.”
At that moment, someone approached to invite Miss Lucas to dance, and Elizabeth was left to her own devices.
It was only as she sat down that she realized that Mr. Darcy was standing not too far away. The chairs were positioned so that he was turned away from her, and she could not see his face. It was a pity, because she would have liked to see him close up. From a distance, in the candlelight, his face was cast in shadow, giving him a mysterious appearance. But she could not observe him without turning her head and making it obvious.
If only Mr. Darcy had been more obliging, thought Lizzy, with a flicker of frustration, then she might have been dancing instead of sitting there awkwardly, tapping her foot to the music.
Darcy was feeling even more out of place than he had expected. At first, a few of the more determined mamas had approached him, their daughters in tow, but he had deterred them, as he always did. He had all the more reason now to discourage them. The less people noticed him, the better. He would stay at the Assembly for only as long as necessary to establish his presence and to deflect any speculation. Then he would return to Netherfield and hopefully not be obliged to see any of these people ever again.
However, as he stood watching, it occurred to him that, once the initial curiosity had passed, no one was noticing him. All eyes were on Bingley. All the usual fawning, flattery and obsequiousness was addressed to his friend. At first it amused him, then it piqued him, and as the evening continued, it vexed him. It should not have vexed him. After all, that was precisely why he had come here, of all places. He wanted to be inconspicuous. It was just that he was so accustomed to being sought after that it was oddly demeaning to realise that, when he was not Mr. Darcy of Pemberley, he was so little regarded. It was sobering to see how much of the attention he had always received was due to his fortune and how little to his own character. The irony was that he had wanted to be invisible when he came here, but now that his wish had been granted, he felt dissatisfied.
A part of him rejoiced in suddenly being a nobody. For the first time in his life, he was plain Mr. Darcy, ordinary Mr. Darcy, with nothing to recommend him. On the Continent, as a Cornet in the Cavalry, he had been a lowly officer, but he had still had certain responsibilities, sometimes even taking over tasks from his lieutenant or captain. The men depended on him. In Cornwall, too, he had been in charge of his uncle’s estate, however small and remote it was. Here, however, no one depended upon him for anything. He could simply be himself.
The sensation was both terrifying and liberating. He was on unfamiliar ground. His identity in England had always been closely tied to being the master of Pemberley. Without it, he felt stripped of his armour, exposed and vulnerable. Yet there was also a sense of freedom in not being defined by the property he owned. Here, he was first and foremost a man.
As his emotions fluctuated between joy and apprehension, he did not notice that Bingley had come to stand next to him. Considering that he was supposed to be alert to the possibility of being recognised, his inattentiveness was unacceptable.
“Come Darcy. I hate to see you standing around by yourself. You had better dance.”
“I will not. You know how much I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. At such an assembly as this it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged, and there is not another woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with.”
“I would not be so fastidious as you are,” cried Bingley, “for a kingdom! Upon my honour, I never met with so many pleasant girls in my life as I have this evening; and there are several of them who are uncommonly pretty. Miss Elizabeth Bennet for example.”
“Who do you mean?” Bingley indicated a young lady seated on her own not very far from him. Darcy turned around, and looked for a moment at her, until, catching her eye, he withdrew his gaze and coldly said, “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me.”
At this moment, a friend of Miss Bennet came up to her with a smile, beckoning. Miss Bennet rose, and the two moved away to another part of the hall. Darcy noticed that she moved with an appealing mixture of grace and energy.
“Not handsome enough? How could you say that? Really, Darcy! I will never understand you.”
Bingley was at it again. He should know by now that Darcy didn’t like strangers. Besides, he had never grasped the appeal of skipping around the room with a lady he didn’t know. It made him profoundly uncomfortable. What was he supposed to say to a complete stranger when they were interrupted constantly by the steps? It was impossible to keep up a conversation of any sort, and he disliked having to answer polite but indifferent questions about himself. This was doubly true now, when he didn’t want to reveal anything about his past. He would have to lie when they asked him where he was from, as they would inevitably do, and he abhorred telling lies.
Bingley, however, wasn’t taking no for an answer. Sometimes, his friend was like a puppy with a shoe in his mouth, impossible to shake off.
“Why don’t you dance with Miss Bennet, if you like her so much?”
“Unfortunately, I have already danced with Miss Bennet twice. I am not allowed to dance with her another time, according to the rules. Who invented those rules, anyway? Do you think, on an informal occasion like this, I could ask her a third time?”
“You know very well that dancing with a lady more than twice amounts to announcing that you are engaged. I would suppose that it to be true in any ballroom in England, unless things have changed since I left.”
“They haven’t.” Bingley sighed. “Then I will have to content myself with gazing at her.”
Darcy suppressed a smile. This was all too familiar. Bingley had always fallen in and out of love with great rapidity. Two weeks from now, he would meet someone else, and Miss Bennet would be forgotten.
“You had better invite some other debutantes to dance. Since you are the newest – and largest – landowner in the district, it will be expected of you. There are several you haven’t danced with yet. I am certain you will find them charming.”
“You’re right. I am spoilt for choice. I have never seen so many pretty young women in one room. Though Miss Bennet outshines them all.”
Bingley bounded away happily like a large puppy.
Darcy turned his attention to Miss Bennet, who was standing across the room with her friends and a lady he supposed to be her mother, speaking with animation. Did she really outshine everyone in the room? He would not have called her conventionally beautiful, but she had a fine figure and a striking liveliness of spirits. The mother had drawn his notice earlier, when they had first entered, since she had shouted to attract Sir William’s attention. It was obvious that the mother was a fortune hunter of the most blatant sort. Mrs. Bennet would seize every opportunity she could to ensnare Bingley, he was sure of it.
Elizabeth Bennet, thought Darcy, was dangerous. He had better make certain Bingley did not make a fool of himself over her, and that her mother did not take advantage of his friend’s good nature to force him into an impossible situation.
It was a very good thing Darcy had come to Netherfield, after all.
Elizabeth Bennet, like any young lady in her position, was offended by Mr. Darcy’s dismissal of her looks. No woman liked to be described as merely “tolerable”, and Elizabeth was all the more insulted because people generally described her as pretty. In the heat of the moment, freshly bruised by the blow, she unwisely recounted what she had overheard to those around her. These happened to be Miss Lucas, her mother and Mrs. Long.
Mrs. Bennet reacted with outrage. “Who does he think he is? First strutting about here and there, then standing against the wall to stare at everyone. He is a nobody – merely Mr. Bingley’s impoverished guest. I have a mind to go straight to him and tell him what I think of him, standing there so haughtily and looking down his nose at us!”
Lizzy shook her head, laughing. By now her chagrin had already disappeared, and she could see how ridiculous the whole thing had been. She wished she had not mentioned the incident. “Now, mama, you know you cannot quarrel with a gentleman simply because he did not like my looks. I do not like Mr. Darcy in the least, so now we are quite equal.”
“Quite right, Lizzy,” said Lady Lucas. “The best thing we can do is simply ignore him. Besides, he is Mr. Bingley’s friend, and we do not want to offend Mr. Bingley, do we, Mrs. Bennet?”
Mrs. Bennet quickly saw the wisdom of Lady Lucas’s remark, and made the best of an opportunity to crow a little.
“Yes, I have nothing bad to say about Mr. Bingley. He is a perfect gentleman. I do believe he is very taken my Lizzy, which is hardly surprising, since she is very pretty, whatever Mr. Darcy’s opinion may be. Why, Mr. Bingley danced twice with Lizzy, and seemed very reluctant to leave her side.”
Elizabeth was now obliged to accept the congratulations of everyone around her. She objected in vain, saying that Mr. Bingley was merely being polite, but no one listened. Anyone would think Mr. Bingley had already declared himself. As soon as she could, she escaped with her companions.
She could feel Mr. Darcy’s gaze on her, but she was determined not to give him the satisfaction of looking at him. No doubt he was looking for her imperfections. Well, let him. His opinion mattered nothing to her, and she fervently hoped she would never have a chance to see him again.
As always, I love reading your comments, questions, and thoughts! I think here at Austen Variations we’re very lucky to have such astute readers. It make the experience of writing so much more enjoyable.