“The prospect of the Netherfield ball was extremely agreeable to every female of the family. Mrs. Bennet chose to consider it as given in compliment to her eldest daughter, and was particularly flattered by receiving the invitation from Mr. Bingley himself, instead of a ceremonious card. Jane pictured to herself a happy evening in the society of her two friends, and the attentions of their brother; and Elizabeth thought with pleasure of dancing a great deal with Mr. Wickham, and of seeing a confirmation of everything in Mr. Darcy’s looks and behaviour. The happiness anticipated by Catherine and Lydia depended less on any single event, or any particular person; for though they each, like Elizabeth, meant to dance half the evening with Mr. Wickham, he was by no means the only partner who could satisfy them, and a ball was, at any rate, a ball. And even Mary could assure her family that she had no disinclination for it.”
But what of Mr. Bennet?
The night had begun as most tedious social affairs for Mr. Bennet: his wife’s shrill panics that Jane’s gown would not be fine enough to attract a man of five thousand a year, her proclamations that Lydia would be a favourite of all the officers, and of course, her concession that his Lizzy “looked well enough.”
Yet, here he stood to one side of the ballroom. How he despised the ridiculousness of the activity! Of course, balls were a necessary evil for a gentleman who boasted of five daughters and an entailed estate, especially one whose wife lacked economy, but he would much prefer the solitude of his treasured book room and a nice glass of port!
As he observed Mr. Bingley’s guests, his gaze was drawn to the dancers where Mr. Collins, exuding an air of pretentious self-importance, led Lizzy to the start of the first set. She caught his eye and rolled hers just before the music began. He pressed his lips together hard. Smirking from the side of the room never served him well.
Mrs. Bennet’s latest scheme to match Lizzy with their ridiculous cousin was not at all his preference, yet it provided an amusement he was loath to part with as of yet. It was not as if his most intelligent daughter would ever become betrothed to someone as imbecilic as Mr. Collins. He had no reason to worry, so he would find humour in the farce whilst it lasted.
Mr. Collins trod upon her toes, and he chuckled. The thin line of Lizzy’s lips and the glint in her eye indicated she was not best pleased by her cousin as a partner. Of course, Mr. Collins was as much a dancer as the king was sane!
With a groaning exhale, he glanced to the side of the room where his wife revelled in the attention of the other ladies of the neighbourhood, wearing a smug smile as she exclaimed her good fortune for all to hear. During a lull in the music, Mrs. Bennet’s voice carried across the room.
“Mr. Bingley is so charming and rich! What a fine thing for my Jane!”
“Mr. Collins may not be so rich as Mr. Bingley, but he will do for Lizzy very well!”
With a shake of his head, he made to depart the ballroom intent on some male company; he could abide no more of his wife’s effusions. He had borne them since Mr. Bingley’s arrival at Michaelmas and could bear it no more!
One last glance at the dancers revealed Lydia and Kitty giggling and flirting inappropriately with the soldiers they partnered. His foot stepped in their direction. Should he check their behaviour? Lydia might cause a scene if he interceded. His two youngest were the silliest girls in all of England; no one would expect them to behave with propriety, would they? His shoulders dropped as he pulled his foot back. Sorting those two could take the entire evening. Who had time for such a tedious chore? Certainly not him!
He turned his back to the dancers and entered the card room. Sir William Lucas and Mr. Goulding, who often amused him, were seated at a table in the far corner, so he headed in their direction.
“Bennet!” cried Sir William Lucas, as he approached. “You are joining us so soon?” Sir William passed a few crowns to Mr. Goulding who grinned.
“Of course, he is.” Mr. Goulding looked up from his winnings to Mr. Bennet. “We are all well aware he does not dance, and I was certain Mr. Bennet would seek respite from his wife sooner rather than later. She has too much to crow about tonight.”
As Sir William watched Mr. Goulding retrieve the coins from the table, he sighed. “You could not have waited another quarter hour, Bennet?”
“No,” Mr. Bennet responded with a chuckle. “Goulding always wins these wagers, so why do you continue to accept such bets?”
“I hope to win back my losses.” Sir William’s voice was a grumble.
Mr. Goulding laughed. “Do not persuade him to relinquish the habit. I enjoy surprising my wife with a little trinket or gift from my winnings.”
Mr. Bennet shook his head. “Let us not speak of wives. I have had enough of mine for the evening.”
Sir William laughed and stood. “As I have no further money to wager, I shall return to the ballroom. I have yet to compliment Mr. Bingley on such a grand evening!” He glanced about the room with a jovial grin. “Capital!”
Mr. Goulding held up the cards when Sir William departed. “Would you care for a game?”
He nodded and wasted an hour, at least, at cards before returning to the ballroom where upon a survey of the guests, his attention was garnered once again by Lizzy who stood up with none other than Mr. Darcy!
The disagreeable man who had refused to even request a set from her at the assembly must now find her tolerable enough to tempt him at the very least. A gleeful chuckle escaped his lips. How diverting it would be tease Lizzy on the morrow!
A study of the pair was interesting indeed! Mr. Darcy wore his usual serious, haughty air, yet he stared at Lizzy with such an intent gaze. Lizzy frowned, whether offended by a statement made by the gentleman or just by dancing with him was anyone’s guess.
At the end of the set, the pair went their separate ways—Lizzy to join Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Darcy to stand near the wall to the opposite side of the ballroom. The wealthy gentleman’s gaze found Lizzy through the crowd and remained fixed upon her, but naught changed—Lizzy remained with Charlotte or dancing with the officers and gentleman of the neighbourhood whilst Mr. Darcy’s eyes bored through her. How dull!
He continued to observe those around him as the night wore on, but the evening progressed as a snail up a stone wall until supper was served. What a welcome respite from the tedious evening!
Part of his humour was restored as he savoured the wine and the meal before him until a familiar shrill tone jarred him from his agreeable occupation.
His vision darted to his wife, but his eyes set upon Lizzy, who sat nearby, her beetroot red complexion a testament to her mortification. Her brow lifted in his direction. What did she believe he could do? He could not contain his wife! She had let slip the dogs of war and could not be stopped!
Lizzy leaned forward and whispered to her mother, who waved her daughter off with a frown.
“What is Mr. Darcy to me, pray, that I should be afraid of him? I am sure we owe him no such particular civility as to be obliged to say nothing he may not like to hear.”
Lizzy dropped back down in her seat, still red-faced, but stiff in her seat. She widened her eyes at him, but he gave a shrug as a loud cackle from his youngest daughter drew his attention to the side of the room.
Lydia and Kitty each held a glass of wine in their hand, but by their louder than usual tones, they had already imbibed more than was their wont. His youngest leant forward with her free hand upon her hip whilst the officer with whom she was flirting stared down her bodice.
He moaned and glanced back to Lizzy, who now held her face in her hands. A throbbing began in his temple, and he took a gulp of wine. Perhaps it might relieve the tension before a megrim plagued him as much as this insipid evening!
His eyes avoided Lizzy and his wife, though he could hear the latter, until the discordant tones of a pianoforte rattled his brain. With an abrupt jerk of the head, which did nothing to improve the pounding within, he turned to Lizzy. Her eyes were again wide, and she sat forward in her chair, gripping the arm with one hand until her knuckles were white.
Mary’s weak voice joined the ill sounds she made on the instrument as his brain threatened to hammer through his skull. He needed to escape, but Lizzy would never give him any peace when they returned to Longbourn if he did not intercede!
“That will do extremely well, child. You have delighted us long enough. Let the other young ladies have time to exhibit.”
There! It was done! Lizzy was, no doubt, content that he had handled the situation, and he could escape to the terrace for a bit of peace and solitude. He exited the nearest door as he rubbed his temples. The musicians began tuning for the second half of the ball; a low groan escaped from his lips.
He glanced to the sky as a star streaked through the heavens. He had not wished upon a star since Lizzy was a small child, even then, it was more for her benefit than his own that he took the matter so seriously. With a deep breath, he closed his eyes tight and prayed the evening would come to a swift conclusion.
As he gradually opened his eyes, he turned towards the house and the light pouring from the ballroom windows. Had God had heard his prayer? His wife’s ear-piercing screech ripped the hope from his breast as swift as that star had flown through the sky.
His wife would ensure they were the last to leave. What had he done for God to curse him with such a fate?