I promised you I would post 4 times this month, so here is the 2nd September installment. In this variation, Elizabeth and Mr. Bingley meet first, and he begins to show favour to her, as Jane is up at the Lake District with her aunt and uncle. I will be posting again this Friday. So without further ado, here is Chapter 7. (If you have not read the previous chapters, here is the link to Chapter 1.)
A week after her encounter with Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth received a letter from Miss Bingley inviting her to join her and Mrs. Hurst for tea while the men visited the officers in Meryton. Elizabeth was surprised and could not help but wonder if she had extended the invitation solely because her brother had suggested it.
Mrs. Bennet was convinced this was a sure indication that a marriage proposal was imminent.
Elizabeth was not as confident as her mother that this invitation was even a hint of such an intention, but she was curious how Mr. Bingley’s sisters would treat her. She hoped she would find their company agreeable and they would treat her with the civility that was her due as their guest.
The evening before the tea, rain seemed to be threatening. As the Bennets sat down for dinner, Elizabeth asked for the use of the carriage on the morrow.
“You shall not use the carriage!” her mother cried. “You will take the horse.”
Elizabeth eyed her mother suspiciously. “With the threat of rain you will have me take a horse? I will not be presentable when I arrive!” She looked down and stirred her food around on her plate. “Besides, you know I detest riding.”
“Your father needs the carriage horses,” Mrs. Bennet said adamantly.
Elizabeth frowned and glanced up at her father. “Certainly, Father, you must see this is absurd!”
“Your mother is correct. I did have plans for them.”
“But if it rains, you will have no need for them.”
Mr. Bennet looked at his wife, who was shaking her head. He then looked back at Elizabeth. “I am sorry, Lizzy.”
Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders. “Well, then, I shall walk, for I shall certainly not ride.”
“You shall do no such thing!” Mrs. Bennet cried. “If it rains, only imagine the mud that will be on your dress, shoes, and stockings.”
Mr. Bennet looked at his daughter with a sly smile. “If Mr. Bingley were to be there, I wager he would not mind it if there was a little mud on you!”
“Oh, heavens, Mr. Bennet! He would most certainly mind!”
“So it is settled,” Elizabeth said as she dabbed her mouth with her napkin. “As I do not think Mr. Bingley’s sisters would approve of their brother continuing to attach his affections to a lady who arrives for tea with six inches of mud on the hem of her dress, I shall insist upon taking the carriage!” Elizabeth looked at her mother with a victorious lift of her brows. “Or I shall not go at all.”
Mr. Bennet drew in a long breath. “Mrs. Bennet, I suppose I can do without the horses for such a good cause.”
Mrs. Bennet grumbled. “Oh, if you put it that way, you may take the carriage!”
“Papa, I will send the carriage home once I arrive at Netherfield, and you can send it back to retrieve me after a few hours. Or perhaps Miss Bingley will see fit to send me home in their carriage.”
Elizabeth was grateful she had secured the carriage, for she doubted she would have been able to walk even a mile in the deluge that began shortly after she set out. As she was helped out of the carriage at Netherfield, she was grateful for an umbrella which shielded her from the rain, but she still entered the house slightly damp.
Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst politely welcomed her and then apologized for the inclement weather, as if it was their fault. Elizabeth assured them that she would not hold it against them. When they looked at her with expressions of confusion, she realized they did not understand she was teasing and thought it best to watch what she said to them in the future.
As they conversed over tea, Elizabeth endured an interrogation by the two sisters. Who were her relatives? Where did they live? Had she been presented at court? Why not? Had she been taught by a governess or any masters? She felt their questions were much like the rain outside – increasing in intensity as the afternoon passed, with little intention to cease.
Elizabeth wondered if Mr. Bingley knew his sisters would be asking such personal questions, and, more importantly, what would they do with the answers she gave them. It was apparent they were not impressed with her responses. Having had no formal education and having relatives who were not well connected, she readily noticed their disdain.
After tea, Elizabeth could not help but be concerned about the conditions outdoors. She wondered whether she ought to send for her carriage before it was impossible to traverse the roads.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the return of the men.
Mr. Bingley was elated to see that Elizabeth was still there. He greeted her and immediately declared, “I must say, the roads are unfit for man or beast.” He looked at her apologetically. “I would be remiss if I sent you out in this storm, Miss Bennet. Our carriage barely made it home.”
“Is it truly that bad, Charles?” Miss Bingley asked in a whimper. She looked at Mr. Darcy. “What is your opinion, Mr. Darcy? Certainly the short distance to Longbourn would not be treacherous for Miss Bennet.”
“No, Bingley is correct. I am grateful we took our leave when we did. The officers wanted us to stay, but we were uncertain how the roads would fare under these conditions.”
“Yes, better safe than sorry,” Mr. Hurst said, as he walked over to the table still laden with tea and cake. “Insufferable out there!”
“Miss Bennet, if it is acceptable to you, I will send a rider to Longbourn to let them know you will be staying the night.” Mr. Bingley gave her an encouraging smile. “It should be easy enough on a horse, but would be almost impossible in a carriage.”
“Thank you. I appreciate your hospitality.” She laughed. “I know James, our driver, will be relieved he does not have to return for me. I am certain it is raining as hard at Longbourn as it is here.”
“Indeed, it must be!” Bingley smiled and clapped his hands. “I shall have the maids make up a room for you directly!”
“Thank you, Mr. Bingley.” She looked down at herself. “Unfortunately, I did not bring a change of clothes.”
“Caroline or Louisa can loan you something to wear for the remainder of your stay.” He looked at his sister. “Would you be able to provide her with something?”
“We would be happy to oblige you, Miss Bennet,” Miss Bingley said with a forced smile. Despite her words, her tone reflected much the opposite.
“Thank you,” Elizabeth said as she looked from Miss Bingley, who was several inches taller than her, to Mrs. Hurst, who was several inches shorter. Hopefully they would find something suitable for her.
They continued to talk, and Elizabeth readily noticed that Mr. Darcy was not as engaged in the conversation as he had been when they met the other day on their walk. Although he had said little that day, now he sat with one hand rubbing his jaw and the other hand resting on his knee, his fingers tapping incessantly. He seemed distant, observing more than participating in the discussion.
If Elizabeth was correct in her estimation of his demeanour, he was not pleased that she was staying at Netherfield. It was apparent that Mr. Bingley’s sisters were not, either. She felt he was studying her and consequently determining that she did not meet the strict expectations he held for his friend.
Later, the men excused themselves to freshen up, and Miss Bingley had a maid take one of her gowns and a nightdress to Elizabeth’s room.
After more idle talk, the ladies went to their rooms to prepare for dinner. A maid accompanied Elizabeth to show her to her room and help her dress. When she saw the gown Miss Bingley had sent, she stifled a laugh. She had been occasionally amused by the clothes Miss Bingley wore, but this was unlike anything Elizabeth had ever seen. She wondered if it was something the woman had actually ever worn.
It was a bright gold voile fabric that had the modern style of an empire waist, but the neckline was much higher than currently fashionable. The sleeves were puffed, then continued down the arms, where an abundance of lace extended over her wrists. When she slipped into the gown, it seemed to suffocate her with warmth. This was going to be a very long evening.
She thanked the maid and sent her away, then went to look at herself in the mirror. She felt the gown’s colour made her look pale; it completely hid her natural figure as it was too large and bulky, and she feared that she would trip over the hem, as it was several inches too long. She wondered how she would eat without getting a mouthful of the lace. As she looked at her reflection, she widened her eyes and gave a shrug of her shoulders. There was little she could do about it.
When Elizabeth joined the others in the parlour, she took care to lift the gown’s hem so as not to stumble. Mr. Bingley joyously declared she looked lovely. Mr. Darcy covered his mouth with his hand, and she was certain he was hiding a smirk. She thanked Mr. Bingley for the compliment and his sister for the use of her gown.
As the party conversed before the meal, Mr. Bingley spoke enthusiastically of their meeting with the officers. He had never met a finer group of men and enjoyed hearing their stories of places they had been.
“Have they seen much fighting?” Miss Bingley asked.
“These men are not the Regulars so they have seen very little action,” Mr. Darcy said indifferently.
“Do they intend to crush any French sympathizers we may have here in Meryton?” Elizabeth asked with a teasing smile.
Mr. Bingley leaned in towards Elizabeth. “Oh, I am certain nothing like that happens here.”
“At present,” Darcy said, “things are rather calm on the home front. They chose Meryton because it is close enough to the amenities in London, while at the same time it is far enough away from its temptations.” He picked up a book he had brought in and opened it.
Elizabeth laughed wryly. “The militia need not travel to London to find dissolute diversions. Unfortunately, they likely can find those same temptations in any village such as ours here in Hertfordshire.”
“Heavens! I would hope this neighbourhood is not so corrupt as to indulge in questionable behaviour!” Miss Bingley cried. She turned to her brother. “If that is the case, Charles, we must give up the place at once!”
“But I…” he began.
Darcy put up his hand. “I am certain Miss Bennet means that in every city, town, and country village one might find those who behave in an imprudent manner. It is not just in London.” He looked at her. “Am I correct?”
“Yes,” she replied, turning to Miss Bingley. “I hope you do not think I speak from seeing first hand that kind of behaviour in the neighbourhood.”
“You see, Caroline? All is well here!” cried Bingley. His sister gave a small, tight smile.
“I do not see the reason for their being here and do not think it good at all,” Caroline complained.
“Their presence here is, in equal parts, both good and bad, depending on one’s perspective and expectations in relation to society and commerce, I suspect,” Elizabeth said.
Caroline looked at her with a blank look, while Mr. Darcy turned his eyes down to his book with a small smile.
They were soon called to their meal, and Elizabeth was grateful to sit down to dine. She was hungry and was looking forward to the meal.
The conversation around the table was friendly. Mr. Bingley and his sister lead the discussion and spoke more than anyone else. Elizabeth answered politely when asked a question, but again, Mr. Darcy said little, seemingly more intent on observing than conversing.
After the meal, the ladies repaired to the drawing room and waited for the men to join them. Elizabeth was feeling quite overheated in Miss Bingley’s gown and could only think of throwing it off as soon as she could. She wondered whether the nightdress provided for her would be just as stifling.
She had begun to sense that Mr. Bingley’s sisters were not enthusiastic about having to offer her refuge. She did not feel quite like an unwanted trespasser, but more like someone they were resigned to entertain because of their brother’s partiality.
When the men finally joined the ladies, Mr. Darcy was not with them.
“Where is Mr. Darcy?” Miss Bingley asked.
“He went to the library,” her brother answered. “You know how much he likes to read. I am certain he will join us directly.”
“I would enjoy seeing your library,” Elizabeth said.
“It is nothing like Mr. Darcy’s library,” Miss Bingley said with a long sigh. “I have never seen anything that compares to the library at Pemberley.”
“You are an avid reader, are you?” Mr. Hurst asked.
“I do love to read, although I do not have access to a large selection of books.” Elizabeth smiled. “Perhaps I can visit the library later to see if I can find something diverting. I did not bring a book, and I enjoy reading before going to sleep.”
“Good luck finding something interesting!” Mr. Darcy announced as he entered. “Bingley, you simply must address your lack of books.”
Bingley let out a groan. “I need you to help me decide which books to buy for it. The next time we are in London, we shall go to one of your favourite book stores.”
He shook his head. “Bingley, what good is having a library filled with books if you do not read them?”
Elizabeth saw that he turned and looked at her, and then back to his friend, who merely shrugged.
“But if you insist, Bingley, I shall help you fill your library.” Darcy waved his hand through the air. “The books you now have in there are…” He did not finish, but only shook his head. “This one will suffice,” he said, as he held up the book he was carrying.
Darcy sat down and opened the book. Mr. Hurst made a futile attempt to gather everyone around the table for cards, and Elizabeth was grateful no one seemed inclined.
She noticed a chess set across the room and walked over to it. Picking up one of the intricately carved ivory pieces, she said, “Mr. Bingley, this is a beautiful chess set. Do you play?”
Bingley laughed. “To own the truth, I am still learning. That was my father’s. Darcy has tried several times to teach me, but…” he shrugged. “One of these days I am sure the strategy of the game will suddenly make sense to me.” He shook his head. “It takes too much analytical and anticipatory thinking.”
Elizabeth sent him an encouraging smile. “I am certain you shall learn eventually.”
Darcy looked up from his book. “It has been almost four years now, and you still do not fully understand the rudimentary strategy.” He slowly shook his head. “You only need to apply yourself, Bingley.”
Bingley sheepishly shrugged his shoulders. “I suppose, although I feel as though I have not the superior mind that you have, my good friend. There are other things I would much rather do.”
Darcy let out a huff. “You ought to learn, Bingley. It is a thinking man’s game…”
“I beg your pardon, Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth said. “A thinking woman’s game, as well, if you please.”
Darcy turned and looked at her with a surprised glimmer in his eyes. “Do you play, Miss Bennet?”
Elizabeth nodded. “I do. My father taught me a few years ago. I do not often have the opportunity to play, however, as none of my sisters took the time to learn. My father does not have the leisure time for it now as he used to.”
“Would you care to play now?” Darcy stood up and walked to her side.
Elizabeth had been looking down as she replaced the chess piece she was holding and was surprised when she saw him at her side. She knew not what to say.
“Oh, please do not agree to play against him, Miss Bennet, for Darcy has little compassion for his opponents.”
Elizabeth was grateful for the diversion and laughed. “Are you saying he is ruthless and plays only to win?”
“Oh, yes, he is merciless!”
Darcy began to protest, but Elizabeth interrupted.
“I thank you for the offer, Mr. Darcy, but no. Perhaps… perhaps some other time.” She turned back to Mr. Bingley, who wore a somewhat relieved smile.
Mr. Bingley quickly stood up and extended his arm. “Come, Miss Bennet. I shall show you the library before Darcy tries to talk you into playing a game of chess against him.”
Elizabeth smiled and slipped her hand in his arm. “Thank you, Mr. Bingley. I would enjoy seeing it.”
“I think I shall join you,” Miss Bingley said. “I am in need of something to read, as well.”
As they walked, Mr. Bingley said, “I wanted to let you know, Miss Bennet, I was informed that the rider has returned from Longbourn. Your family expressed their gratitude for your being in such good care.”
“I am glad to hear that, sir. I also appreciate your kindness.”
He smiled. “It is the least we could do.” He pointed to the right. “Here it is.”
Elizabeth stepped into the library and smiled politely at the large expanse of the room with beautifully polished wood shelves, but felt an inner disappointment that most of the shelves were empty.
“I shall fill it with only the best books,” Mr. Bingley assured her. “I have just had so many other things to tend to.” He shook his head. “I hope you will find something that suits your taste.”
“I am certain I shall.” Elizabeth walked over to the one shelf that had a good number of books. She looked at the titles, and finally, not wanting to appear to Mr. Bingley that she was disappointed in his selection, found a book she had read many years ago and took it off the shelf. “Evelina, by Frances Burney!” she said. “I shall enjoy reading this very much.”
“Good! I am glad you found something.” He turned to his sister. “Do you see anything to your liking?”
Miss Bingley looked at a few titles and seemed to choose one at random.
They returned to the drawing room, where Darcy was reading. He looked up. “Did you find anything?” he asked as he eyed Elizabeth curiously.
“Yes, I did, thank you,” Elizabeth said, lifting the book up for him to see.
“And I did, as well,” Caroline said. “I cannot wait to begin reading this.” She casually tossed the book down.
They continued to talk, and Elizabeth appreciated Mr. Bingley’s kindness and ebullient temperament. He was paying a good amount of attention to her, and they could readily laugh over any and all subjects. Despite those things in his favour, she realized there were many ways in which they were very different.
At length, she thanked the Bingleys for their gracious hospitality, and said she would retire for the evening. She was eager to slip out of Miss Bingley’s smothering gown.
“It has been a delight, I assure you,” Miss Bingley said as she stood up to usher Elizabeth out of the room. “Let us know if you have need of anything. I shall send up a maid.”
“Thank you. Good night, everyone.”
Elizabeth returned to her room and was determined to remove Miss Bingley’s gown directly. She did not wait for a maid and slipped into the nightdress and robe she had been given. They were definitely more comfortable, but not something she would want to wear every night. When the maid came, Elizabeth thanked her, but told her she had no need for her assistance.
She walked to the window and looked out. The sky was dark, but she could see flashes of light from the storm far off into the distance. She propped her elbows on the window sill and rested her head in her hands, looking out into nothingness. Mr. Bingley had many fine qualities, and she would praise him to anyone who wished to know what he was like, but…
She let out a sigh and sat down in the chair. Elizabeth looked around her and pounded her hands down into her lap. “I left the book downstairs!” She groaned, looking at the dress she had just taken off. “I am sorry, Miss Bingley, but I refuse to put that back on.” She went to the dressing room and pulled out the dress she had been wearing earlier when she came to Netherfield. “This will have to do. It will certainly be more comfortable.”
She slipped it back on and took the stairs down. As she neared the door of the drawing room, she heard Miss Bingley’s shrill voice.
“Charles! You are being unreasonable!”
“On the contrary, I am being quite reasonable. You cannot deny that she is delightful!” Mr. Bingley said.
“Only consider her family. You certainly saw how they behaved at Lucas Lodge. And her uncle is in trade and lives in Cheapside!” She let out a long sigh. “You must be aware of her obscure family connections and lack of fortune! You should not be entertaining thoughts of a young lady so beneath us! Tell him, Mr. Darcy!”
Elizabeth clenched her fist in anger and strained to hear what followed.
“Bingley,” Mr. Darcy said. “I cannot give my full approval of this attachment. She is… she is completely unsuitable for you!”
“I care nothing about those things! I find her charming and agreeable in every way, despite what you both think!”
“Bingley, there are more things to be considered about her than her being charming and agreeable,” Darcy said firmly.
“Charles, singling Miss Bennet out is the most foolish thing you have ever done!” Miss Bingley cried. “I do not know what you see in her!”
Elizabeth could bear to listen no longer and turned to hurry back to her room. She decided to forget about the book, for she would not be able to read, as angry as she was.
She walked into her room and closed the door. “The nerve of Miss Bingley and Mr. Darcy!” She stamped her foot and wrapped her arms tightly about her. They were obviously conspiring together to convince Mr. Bingley of her unsuitability. She shook her head and pursed her lips. “They will not be successful!” She would not allow them to win.
Elizabeth sat down on the bed and then fell backwards. “Oh, Mr. Bingley, what am I to do about this?” She pounded her hands down. “I have never met a kinder, more generous gentleman, but…” Her voice trailed off softly. After a moment, she added, “I cannot allow them to get away with this!”
She slowly sat up. “You are certainly one of the most agreeable gentlemen I have ever met, and I think of you with a great deal of fondness, but….” She drew in a breath. “Would it be terribly impertinent for me to continue to display admiration for you a little while longer… just long enough for your sister and friend to writhe in agony and defeat?” She smiled. “But you can rest assured, dear Mr. Bingley. I will make certain you do not lose your heart to me.” She winced. “At least I hope you will not.”