The Netherfield ball–how romantic! But perhaps not for everyone, especially Charlotte Lucas…
November 26, 1811
The night of the Netherfield Ball, Mama pulled Charlotte aside. “Your gown looks very well indeed.”
“I am glad you are pleased, Mama.”
“It is a shame we must give up hopes of Mr. Bingley, but his preference for Jane Bennet is very clear. Mr. Collins however—”
“Is quite set upon Eliza.”
“Whilst that may be true, he certainly seems to enjoy keeping company with you. Remember the Phillip’s party? You did very well together. What is more—and perhaps most significant—Eliza has no preference for him herself. That should free your conscience and permit you to take full advantage of any opportunity that arises.”
“You make this sound like a military campaign.”
“My dear, a ballroom is a battlefield of sorts, and I do not wish you going out unprepared. Take every opportunity you might have to dance and converse especially with those who might impact your future.”
That was the surest way to end the conversation.
All the maneuvering and the sense of scheming. Her shoulders twitched. A ball should be a pleasant occasion, not one that tested loyalties.
Mama was right, though. Eliza made it clear she had no warm sentiments toward Mr. Collins. How could she not? The great boon he offered her family, the honor he offered her. Somehow, all her romantic notions blinded her to the harsh realities around her. But then again perhaps reality was not so hard when one was pretty, witty and popular.
Since Papa was not required as Master of Ceremonies, Mama insisted they not arrive so early to be the first ones there. A small crowd had already gathered in the retiring rooms when they arrived.
Charlotte barely found a place to sit and don her dancing slippers. She edged and shouldered her way through the press, past the greeting line of Bingleys, and into the ballroom where she could finally take a breath, albeit a small one.
The entire upper society of Meryton must be making their appearance here tonight and a very fine appearance it was. The best dressed among them were the Netherfield part, but as they were fresh from London, one hardly expected anything else. But not a few were clothed well enough to meet even the ‘superior sister’s’ satisfaction.
“So you finished the new trims on your gown after all.” Eliza sidled past two officers and slipped into a tiny open space beside Charlotte.
“Are they to your liking?” Charlotte held her skirt out.
“Very much so. I could not envision it when you described it to me, but it looks very well indeed.”
“Your approbation is always very welcome.”
Eliza chuckled. “Listen to you, so very formal, almost as though we had not been friends all our lives.”
“Quite befitting the event, I think.”
“Perhaps so. I might send Kitty and Lydia to observe the example of your deportment. They are in very high spirits tonight. Lydia has already made connection with some of her favorite officers, Lt. Denny and Lt. Carter.”
“I thought her like the rest of Meryton, quite disposed toward Mr. Wickham.”
“She is, but he is not in attendance. It seems he was called to town on business and has not yet returned.” Eliza’s shoulder’s sagged a little.
“That is a shame, for there will be many young women vastly disappointed for his absence.”
“I do not imagine his business would have called him away just now, if he had not wished to avoid a certain gentleman here.”
“You mean Mr. Darcy?” Charlotte looked over her shoulder.
Mr. Darcy stood in his usual place at the edge of the room, so tall he was easy to find among the rest of the guests.
“I do indeed. I am not certain I can forgive him for destroying the happiness of so many here tonight.”
“You cannot mean that. I know you are disposed to dislike him, but you cannot assign him so much blame.”
“I can and I do, but let us not continue to speak of something entirely disagreeable, when something only somewhat disagreeable might do. Mr. Collins continues to enjoy his stay with us at Longbourn.”
“I am pleased you are at last enjoying his visit.”
“I said he is enjoying it—as to the rest of us… I suppose Mama is as well.” Eliza’s gaze drifted across the room, finally resting on Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins near one of the fireplaces.
“So you …”
“I have not yet been driven to distraction having the happy ability to derive great amusement in the ridiculous. My father has a point to be made when he says ‘For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?’”
“You cannot truly believe that.”
“I can and I must. How else can one endure a guest who follows one around like the oddest little gosling following a mother goose? Truly he is at my elbow at every turn. I cannot sneeze lest he offer me a handkerchief.”
“Is that not a pleasing solicitude?”
No one had ever paid Charlotte such attentions.
“All things in their measure, I suppose. But this is too much.” Eliza shuddered starting at her shoulders, all the way down to her toes. “In all seriousness, yesterday he clung like my shadow all day, even watching whilst I sewed. He noted the evenness of my stitches and how his grand patroness favored such industry in young ladies. I have begun to believe, the woman herself has no accomplishments apart from critiquing the accomplishments of others!”
Charlotte giggled. “I suppose it is the privilege of the very wealthy to pay others to be accomplished and avoid the trouble themselves.”
“If he tells me once more how acceptable I would be to Lady Catherine, I shall—Mr. Collins! Is not Netherfield the perfect image of elegance tonight?” Eliza blushed.
Mr. Collins wove his way through a knot of guests to stand beside Eliza. His round cheeks flushed with the effort of crossing the crowded room. “Cousin Elizabeth, the musicians are gathering. I am here to collect you for the first set.”
Hopefully Mr. Collins did not recognize the creases in her brow as the profound expression of dread that Charlotte knew them to be.
Mr. Long, John’s best friend appeared just behind Mr. Collins. “Have you a partner for the first dance, Miss Lucas.”
“Will you do me the honor then of dancing with me?”
“Thank you, yes.”
The Netherfield ball–how romantic! But perhaps not for everyone, especially Charlotte Lucas… They followed Eliza and Mr. Collins to the chalked dance floor. The room was large enough for two lines of dancers, though some care would be required to avoid interfering with each other should they be required to cast down the outside of the set. Hopefully the dances would be carefully chosen and avoid grand moves like a pousette—that could create some difficulty for less accomplished dancers.
The musicians played a few opening chords and Miss Bingley called the dance. Charlotte winced. Perhaps her intention was to point out the weaker dancers among them.
Such a maneuver might be acceptable in London, but here in the limited society of Meryton, everyone knew who were they accomplished dancers. The differences did not need to be emphasized so publicly.
Mr. Long was a pleasing partner and just flirtatious enough to be fun, but not so much as to make anyone wonder at his true intentions. Poor Eliza, her partner proved far less agreeable to her.
Mr. Collins was one of those fellows who struggled hearing the count of the music. Add to that his propensity to confuse right and left, and he made for a mediocre partner at best. Eliza did not help matters with her petulant little huffs and cross looks. Did she not see how they flustered Mr. Collins and made him lose his place in the dance? Simply knowing his partner’s displeasure seemed to shake all other concerns from his mind.
Charlotte held her breath. The next step required Mr. Collins to dance behind the line and back up the center. She grimaced as he nearly collided with the lady from the line next to them. He stepped on Miss Goulding’s hem and she stumbled to the stomach clenching sound of fabric tearing.
Eliza rolled her eyes and sighed. No doubt she would pay an apologetic call to Miss Goulding tomorrow. Foolish girl! Why did she not recognize all Mr. Collins needed were a few gentle cues to remind him of the steps and a few smiles of encouragement to keep him in acceptable rhythm? He had proved a tolerable partner when she had danced with him at the Philips’.
Just because Eliza was quick and clever did not mean the rest of them who were less witty and nimble were insufferable dolts. Did she have any idea the pride she condemned in Mr. Darcy was as much her failing as it was his?
The set ended and their partners lend them off the floor to opposite ends of the room. Footmen appeared with trays of iced punch. Mr. Long brought her a glass and they chatted amiably. He was a pleasant young man, but his companionship bitter sweet. He was nearly seven years her junior and in search of a greater dowry than she possessed. It was difficult to enjoy his company knowing she was there simply to pass the time until Mary King was free.
Another set formed with Jane and Eliza near the top. Partnerless, Charlotte wandered the fringes of the rooms, shifting om one conversation to the next with an ease learned by watching Papa in a crowd.
By no means the central topic of conversation, Mr. Collins bore mention more than once. Opinion seemed divided on him. Some finding him absurd, others regarded him quite unobjectionable. Most saw his appointment to Hunsford’s vicarage as evidence of his worthiness and good character. Perhaps. it was only in his own family that found him so disagreeable.
The second set ended and Lt. Denny walked Eliza directly to Charlotte.
“What a capital way to spend an evening. I know the colonel and Mrs. Forester mean to host a ball themselves, but no doubt it will not nearly so grand an affair.” Lt. Denny bowed, his color high from the dance.
“Every event has its own character. I am quite certain the Forester’s ball will be entirely delightful.” Charlotte said.
“I am sure you are right, madam. Pray excuse me.” He bowed and disappeared into the milling crowd.
“Lt. Denny is a good dancer. You looked very well together.”
“Not nearly as well as Jane and Mr. Bingley. Make no mistake, his eyes and his head are full of her.” Eliza searched the crowd, presumably for her sister.
“Then I am very glad for her.”
“I am, too. She is so good. She deserves to be happy.”
A footman strode up, offering cups of Negus from a silver tray. They each took one.
Charlotte sipped the hot sweetened port. “Miss Bingley has spared no expense.”
“Mama will be talking of this for weeks. Perhaps even months.”
“Your sisters too, I imagine. Lydia and Kitty seem to be enjoying themselves.”
“They have been so looking forward to this.”
Was Eliza truly blind to the embarrassing way they were carrying on, or was she too uncomfortable to mention it?
“Miss Bennet?” Mr. Darcy stood before them, as stiff and uncomfortable looking as man could appear in company.
“Mr. Darcy?” Eliza started and stared at him.
“Will you dance the next with me?”
Eliza cast about the room like a fox searching for a way past the hounds. “I…that…I have no partner for that set.”
“Very well.” He nodded, a little light in his eyes. With a bow, he disappeared back into the crowd.
If Eliza’s distress had not been so real, it would have been greatly amusing. An offer to dance from the most eligible man in the room generally did not result in such dismay.
“I dare say you will find him very agreeable,” Charlotte said.
“Heaven forbid! That would be the greatest misfortune of all! To find a man agreeable who one is determined to hate! Do not wish me such an evil.”
“Truly, listen to yourself. You scolded me for my practical outlook. I shall return the favor and suggest that you, not to be a simpleton, and allow your fancy for Wickham to make you appear unpleasant in the eyes of a man of ten times his consequence.”
Eliza might have replied, by Mr. Darcy returned to bring her to the set.
They took their place, in the dance. Was Eliza aware of the looks cast their way by the neighboring couples? Their surprise at his partner was as great as her own.
The music began, Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot. How fine they looked together, moving together with elegance and grace. Eliza would be vastly unhappy to know they were by far the smartest couple on the floor. They spoke little, but somehow it seemed entirely right that they should not. Their precisely matched movements spoke all that anyone needed.
Mr. Collins and Mary presented such a painful contrast. Mary danced little and was the worst sort of partner for a man like Mr. Collins. It showed, to the grave discomfort of everyone in their near vicinity. Both turned the wrong way round and lost their place in the dance. If only Mary had the sense to realize her limitations and arranged for them to take the second couple’s place instead of the first. Those simple steps would have been far more manageable for both partners and would have saved them much embarrassment.
Was it truly so difficult to be a considerate partner? It did require so much? A little forethought and a few quiet requests and so many would be so much more comfortable. Truly no one deserved to endure the stumbling, awkward spectacle Mary and Mr. Collins presented on the dance floor. If only she had been dancing with him instead, and Mary with a more accomplished partner. Everyone would have been so much better off.
At last the horrible set ended, and the dancers retreated. Mr. Collins escorted Mary off the dance floor and found glasses of punch. How would it look if she were to seek out Mr. Collins? His face bore little evidence of his ordeal but something in the way he held his shoulders suggested he was not wholly insensible.
“My dear Charlotte,” Eliza slipped out from behind a tall officer. “I am afraid I must tell you that you were very wrong.”
“I am surprised you should say that, for your dancing together was most elegant indeed.”
“Do not say such things! I would most prefer not to think of this again. At least I have no reason to expect Mr. Darcy—”
“Mr. Darcy?” Mr. Collins burst from the crowd and stood a little too close. “How singular that you should be speaking of him. I have found out, by a singular accident, that there is now in the room a near relation of my patroness. I happened to overhear the gentleman himself mentioning to the young lady who does the honors of this house the names of his cousin Miss de Bourgh, and of her mother Lady Catherine. How wonderfully these sorts of things occur! It is none other than the Mr. Darcy of whom you were just speaking. Who would have thought of my meeting with—perhaps—a nephew of Lady Catherine de Bourgh in this assembly! I am most thankful that the discovery is made in time for me to pay my respects to him, which I am now going to do, and trust he will excuse my not having done it before. My total ignorance of the connection must plead my apology.”
How his eyes lit at the possibility of a connection to his revered patroness, here so far from home.
Eliza gasped. “You are not going to introduce yourself to Mr. Darcy?”
“Indeed I am. It will be in my power to assure him that her ladyship was quite well yesterday se’nnight.”
How singular he should be looking for a service to offer, even on a night like this one.
“Please sir, I am quite certain Mr. Darcy would consider you addressing him without introduction as an impertinent freedom, rather than a compliment to his aunt.”
“Acquainted as I am with the Rosings family I am all but acquainted with him. There is no impertinent informality in such a circumstance.”
“There is not the least necessity for any notice on either side. If it were, it must belong to Mr. Darcy, the superior in consequence, to begin the acquaintance. That he has not must imply his wish for privacy.”
“My dear Miss Elizabeth, I have the highest opinion in the world of your excellent judgment in all matters within the scope of your understanding, but permit me to say that there must be a wide difference between the established forms of ceremony amongst the laity, and those which regulate the clergy. Forgive me leave to observe that I consider the clerical office as equal in point of dignity with the highest rank in the kingdom—provided that a proper humility of behavior is at the same time maintained. You must therefore allow me to follow the dictates of my conscience on this occasion, which leads me to perform what I look on as a point of duty. Pardon me for neglecting to profit by your advice, which on every other subject shall be my constant guide, though in the case before us I consider myself more fitted by education and habitual study to decide on what is right than a young lady like yourself.” He bowed low and left.
Eliza stammered and sputtered as he disappeared. But what did she expect? Of course that is what he would do.
Telling someone what not to do rarely dissuaded anyone, especially a determined man. If only Eliza would be willing for a less obvious victory. Had it been her, Charlotte would have asked Mr. Collins to seek out someone, perhaps her father, Sir William, who might be able to introduce her to the man related to his revered patroness. Mr. Collins always jumped at the opportunity to serve, and what would appeal more that an opportunity to oblige so many at once?
Instead, Eliza watched with shock and horror evident in her every expression as Mr. Collins exposed himself to Mr. Darcy. Mr. Darcy eyed him with unrestrained wonder, and at the end of it he only made him a slight bow, and moved another way. Mr. Collins then returned to Elizabeth.
“I have no reason, I assure you,” said he, “to be dissatisfied with my reception. Mr. Darcy seemed much pleased with the attention. He answered me with the utmost civility, and even paid me the compliment of saying that he was as well convinced of Lady Catherine’s discernment as to be certain she could never bestow a favor unworthily. It was really a very handsome thought. Upon the whole, I am much pleased with him.”
Eliza was rarely at a loss for words. It was not a pleasing sight.
“It appears that the dining room is open. Perhaps we should avail ourselves of supper.” Charlotte gestured toward the dining room.
“Yes, that is a very good idea. I see Jane, excuse me.” Eliza faded into the stream of guests moving toward the dining room.
Mr. Collins’ face fell as Eliza turned away from him. Was he so attached to her or the idea of her? It was difficult to discern. Perhaps he did not know himself as he stood, staring a bit lost, at the crowd.
“Dinner, Mr. Collins? Are you of a mind to take supper?”
“Ah, oh yes, thank you Miss Lucas.” He craned his neck, probably trying to find Eliza.
“It might be easier for you to find her in the dining room. May I assist you?”
“That is very good of you. I am obliged.”
She led him into the dining room. “There she is, sitting near her mother and mine.”
“It does not seem there are any more seats in that part of the room.”
“There are several seats in the opposite corner though. I am not Eliza, but if my company would not be too unwelcome, we might sit there.”
He bit his lip and continued to scan the crowded room.
“I believe all your cousins are similarly occupied, and you can do no further duty toward them for now.”
“I…I believe you are correct Miss Lucas. Thank you for your hospitality. Where were those seats again?”
“Come, I will show you.” Charlotte led him to the corner farthest from any Bennet.
Mama caught her gaze for just a moment and offered a long, slow blink, complimented with a subtle nod.
They took their seats. Mr. Collins required a bit of coaching, but he soon served her from the nearby dishes and partook himself. Thankfully, his table manners were not wanting. That would have been difficult to discreetly influence.
“Mrs. Bennet seems quite assured of my cousin Jane being settled at Netherfield with Mr. Bingley. The connection appears to give her great pleasure.”
“I think most of Meryton is aware of her opinions now,” Charlotte whispered.
“I imagine my own connections to the esteemed Lady Catherine de Bourgh should also be very pleasing to her.” Mr. Collins turned his gaze to his plate.
How many times had his contributions been overlooked in the past? Next to Mr. Bingley, he must feel much as she did beside Eliza.
When supper was over someone began the talk of encouraging the ladies to perform. Before Mr. Bingley offered an invitation, Mary Bennet hurried to the pianoforte.
At the end of Mary’s second song with Eliza’s encouragement, Mr. Bennet rose. “That will do extremely well, child. You have delighted us long enough. Let the other young ladies have time to exhibit.”
Charlotte swallowed hard and glanced at Mr. Collin.
“If I, were so fortunate as to be able to sing, I should have great pleasure, I am sure, in obliging the company with an air; for I consider music as a very innocent diversion, and perfectly compatible with the profession of a clergyman. I do not mean however to assert that we can be justified in devoting too much of our time to music, for there are certainly other things to be attended to.”
He waxed on and on, almost as though once he started speaking he found it impossible to stop despite being uncertain about what to say and unhappy with what he was saying. He kept looking to Eliza and Mr. Darcy as he spoke. With each wince and grimace he prattled on and on. It was not until Mrs. Bennet smiled at him and half-whispered to Mama that he was a remarkably clever, good kind of young man that he found the wherewithal to stop.
Oh, this was so maddening. Eliza’s family seemed determined to embarrass her and instead of stepping up to help matters, she only made them worse. Whatever gave her the notion that Mr. Bennet would extricate Mary from her position of exposure without making things worse? Simply exerting herself to play a duet with Mary would have relieved everyone’s suffering.
And Mr. Collins! Eliza all but caused this latest debacle. If only she would pay him some attention he would be as devoted, and loyal and eager to please her as any woman could wish for.
As they left from dinner, Mr. Collins hurried to Eliza’s side, a puppy dogging after a disinterested master.
Maria bounded up to her, two officers trailing behind her. “Charlotte, you must dance with Lt. Saunderson. He needs a partner for the next set.”
“I…I…would be please if you would stand up with me, Miss Lucas.” Saunderson could not have been older than Maria, more boy than man.
But dancing with a boy was better than watching Eliza disregard Mr. Collins, so she proceeding to the dancefloor. Lt. Saunderson proved an agreeable partner, with a sense of humor that made up for his occasional clumsiness. After their set, he escorted her off the floor. Maria and Lt. Denny swooped in to help him find his next partner.
Eliza caught her gaze and beckoned her come.
Charlotte forced a smile and approached her and Mr. Collins who had moved little since she last saw them.
“You can see, sir, that my friend finds dancing very agreeable. I am quite certain she would enjoy dancing the next set,” Eliza said.
Was the entire room bent on assigning her partners this evening?
“I mean no offense to your good friend, for I have seen her to be a most agreeable partner, but as to dancing, I am perfectly indifferent to it. My chief object is by delicate attentions to recommend myself to you, my dear cousin. I intend to make a point remaining close to you the whole of the evening.”
Color faded from Eliza’s face as she clenched her jaw. “Truly there is no need. I am at no loss for partners in conversation. You would by no means leave me without my share of amusement should you rejoin the dancers.”
“How could I answer such consideration and self-sacrifice by leaving your side? I am entirely content here with you.”
Eliza’s eyes bulged in a silent plea for help.
Charlotte drew a deep breath. As pleasurable as it would be, shaking Eliza now would not help matters. “Might I join you then? I am too weary to dance another set this evening.”
“Oh yes, do.” Eliza linked her arm in Charlotte’s and pulled her close, her eyes daring Mr. Collins to separate them.
“I would by no means suspend any pleasure of yours, dear cousin. Your delightful friend is a very welcome addition to your little party. Would you ladies like a class of punch?”
“Yes, yes, that would be excellent,” Eliza said.
Mr. Collins bowed, “It is my honor to serve you.”
He trundled off.
“Please, please, if you are my friend, stay with me and do not leave me to endure his ridiculousness alone,” Eliza whispered.
“I will be happy to stay with you. But you might consider, a little attention from you, a few smiles, and you will find him much more agreeable.”
“How can you say that? If I do as you recommend, who knows what that kind of encouragement might yield? No, no, I must do everything in my power to convince him of my indifference, and you must assist me. You provide him the smiles and attention, I beg you.”
What would Mama say to such a conversation?
“You need not beg. I am at your service, my friend.”
Mr. Collins returned, punch in hand, and launched into a comparison between the ballroom of Netherfield and that of Rosings part.
Another sort of man would have been rebuffed by Eliza’s indifference and might have even noticed the careful attention and encouragement Charlotte provided. But Mr. Collins exhibited a tenacity rarely seen outside a bulldog’s kennel. While everything polite and proper, he would not be deterred from the object of his affection.
The musicians played the finishing dance. It was such a merry, fun, and simple dance. Mr. Collins could have done it very well had he just had a mind to take a partner other than his beloved Eliza.
The dance closed and Papa announced the carriage had been called for, a quarter of an hour should be sufficient to see it appear. Though Eliza made clear how much she would repine Charlotte’s departure, Mr. Collins seemed indifferent.
Charlotte swallowed back the bitterness burning the back of her throat and excused herself from their company.
Papa closed the carriage door, and they began their trek home, Papa and her brothers on horseback beside them.
“So…” Mama’s voice lilted hopefully.
Charlotte closed her eyes and faced the side glass.
“But you spend so much of the evening in his company.”
“How did you tolerate him? He cannot dance and his conversation—“
“Maria, stop it. I have no need of your mean opinions,” Mama said.
“I found him an agreeable companion, and I believe he thought me agreeable as well. But, he is very decided upon Eliza. He would not dance apart from her or her sisters. He sought no company but hers.”
Mama leaned across the coach to pat her knee. “I saw your efforts my dear and I am very proud of you.”
“I am quite certain he is going to offer for her very soon. He is very determined for her. She even tried to make him dance with others tonight and he refused.”
“So that is why you did not dance with him.”
“I do not understand how Eliza can be such a fool!”
“Perhaps her foolishness will yet be to your advantage.”
“No, no, it is a hopeless affair. Nothing will dissuade him from her, and when she refuses him, he will leave—”
“He made it clear he intends to stay until Saturday…” Maria seemed to require her share in the conversation.
“Even if she refuses him tomorrow, and he stays that long, it is but another four day. What could happen in than span of time?”
“I have invited the Bennets and Mr. Collins to dinner on Friday.”
“How could you, Mama? Bad enough that I must give up all hopes of him. Shall I also be forced to watch Eliza –”
“Calm yourself, dear. It is too early for you to give up.”
“Too early? No rational creature could look at this situation and believe there is yet any hope.”
“In one of my novels—” Maria said.
“Life is not a novel and I am not romantic, much less a heroine of any kind. Please just stop. There is nothing more to be said in the matter. Mr. Collins has made his choice…and it was not me.” Charlotte let her head fall into the worn squabs.
What a fool she had been to think any man would consider her, especially one attracted to Eliza Bennet.
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