In the last episode, Darcy’s interaction with Elizabeth followed canon to some extent. This next chapter goes in a different direction. The scene is the circulating library in Meryton.
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, Chapter 3 here, and then Chapter 4 here. Otherwise you might be a bit lost.
~ Chapter 5 ~
News travelled fast, and Mr. Darcy’s snub of Miss Bennet was talked of by everyone. The fact that he had not asked any young lady to dance had already turned many people against him, and his insult to Elizabeth clinched everyone’s opinion that Mr. Darcy was a churlish gentleman without much to recommend him. The fact that very little was known about him added fuel to the fire. He was universally despised, and even though everyone pronounced him to be a good-looking gentleman, the mysterious Mr. Darcy was judged to be too proud for his own good.
“He did not take the trouble to dance with any of our young ladies. And to snub my Lizzy! Odious man!”
Mrs. Long and Lady Lucas, who were calling at Longbourn, nodded vigorously in agreement.
“Another time, Lizzy,” said Mrs. Bennet, “I would not dance with him, if I were you.”
Elizabeth chuckled. “I believe, ma’am, I may safely promise you never to dance with him.”
“Quite right. Still, you must not mind him, Lizzy. He is of no consequence.”
“Mama! I do not mind him in the least. What Mr. Darcy does is of no concern to me at all.”
“No concern to you? When he snubbed you in such a manner? So you would sanction his behaviour? A penniless young man with nothing to recommend him?”
“If he does not care to be agreeable, I am sure that has nothing to do with me. I am very glad he did not dance with me. It spared me the trouble of being polite to him. Besides, I can have nothing to say to someone who does not care to dance.”
“I do not care to dance,” said Mary, stoutly, seeing an opportunity to take part in the conversation.
“Then you and Mr. Darcy share something in common. You’re both boring.” Lydia swirled one of her ringlets around her finger and began to hum.
“I am not boring. Being frivolous doesn’t make you less boring. A well-bred lady is never frivolous.”
“La! Dancing isn’t frivolous,” laughed Lydia. “Everyone likes to dance, except you and Mr. Darcy.”
An argument ensued, in which Mary said that she could not expect someone as empty-headed as Lydia to understand her dedication to more serious occupations, and Lydia insisted that people who did not enjoy dancing were the dullest type of people in the world.
Elizabeth was glad that the conversation had turned away from her. She would have liked to have forgotten his snub by now, but despite the passage of several days, Mr. Darcy’s rejection still rankled, and she resented his high-handed dismissal. The fact that the whole of Meryton felt sorry for her did not improve her feelings towards him.
Mr. Bingley, meanwhile, was doing everything right. His fortune was already a high enough recommendation, but in addition, he was gentlemanly and eager to please, and quickly charmed his way into Meryton’s heart. Consequently, he was invited everywhere, and, determined not to turn down a single invitation, he was frequently seen dining with Meryton’s most prominent families.
He had dined once already at Longbourn, and had won Mr. Bennet’s approval by engaging in sensible conversation over port, and by revealing unabashedly that the origin of his family’s fortune was in trade, without either being ashamed or trying to hide it. Mr. Bennet had declared him an honest kind of fellow.
When Mr. Bennet and his family met over breakfast the morning after Mr. Bingley’s visit, Mr. Bennet made a point of saying that Mr. Bingley was a cheerful young fellow.
“If he offers for you, Lizzy,” said her father, “I will happily bestow my blessing, even if I think that, of the two, you are the cleverer. You will have him running around in circles.”
“What nonsense you speak, Mr. Bennet! If Lizzy is fortunate enough to receive an offer, she will do the proper thing, and allow him to run her around in circles, or he might change his mind the last moment, and she will be jilted. I hope you will not take one of your father’s foolish notions into your head, Lizzy.”
“I have no intention of having anyone running around in circles,” said Lizzy, “myself included. Papa, you should know better than to encourage mama in her hopes. She is already implying to everyone who will listen that an engagement is imminent.”
Mrs. Bennet looked indignant. “You should listen to your elders, foolish girl! I saw the way he looked at you over dinner. You would be certain the thought has already crossed his mind.”
Although Mr. Bingley’s attentions went some way to making up for Mr. Darcy’s snub, Lizzy was not sure how she felt about it. There was no sign of a thunderbolt yet, and she wasn’t convinced that he was serious. It was all very confusing. If she could have willed herself to fall in love with Mr. Bingley, it would have made matters much easier. Fortunately, at this stage she didn’t need to decide one way or the other, at least until Mr. Bingley made his intentions clear.
Meanwhile, she was determined to derive as much amusement from the situation as possible, including trying to discover as much as possible about the mysterious Mr. Darcy. She may not like him, but his circumstances piqued her interest. Something didn’t quite add up about Mr. Darcy, and she intended to find out what it was.
It was two weeks since he had arrived in Netherfield, thought Darcy, and he was desperately in need of reading materials. The owner of Bingley’s estate had either taken all his books with him or sold them off, so he was faced with empty shelves in a beautiful mahogany panelled library. Bingley was not at all bothered by the empty bookshelves. Acquiring books was not a priority for him, nor was it for Miss Bingley, who paid lip service to books but rarely read anything beyond the latest Gothic novel. So, one bright and sunny morning, the Tuesday after the Meryton Assembly, Darcy proposed an outing to see what the Meryton circulating library had to offer. Miss Bingley and her sister expressed great eagerness, and Mr. Bingley looked forward to encountering some of his new friends, so the four of them set out, leaving Mr. Hurst dozing on the chaise-longue.
The circulating library, known as Clarke’s, was set up in a spacious Georgian building, and could have accommodated a great many more books, but Mr. Clarke had set it up to please the local readers. The largest section of the bookshop was devoted to Minerva Press publications. It was immediately obvious that it was the focus of the reading public. The area was crowded with a host of young ladies perusing the volumes, whispering and chattering to each other as they compared impressions of the latest sensational novel.
Bingley immediately made himself and his group known to the owner, Mr. Clarke, and asked about the subscription fees. Mr. Clarke, who had never had such distinguished clients, did his best to ingratiate himself by being as pretentious as he could possibly be.
“Our collection is humble,” he said to Mr. Bingley, “but we are at your disposal. Any book you require can be ordered for you from London – for an additional subscription, of course. Our local readers are not as fond of the classics or of history as you undoubtedly are, alas! However, I do have several volumes of Greek philosophy upstairs. if you wish to look at the catalogue, sir, I will fetch them for you.”
“Not for me, Mr. Clarke,” said Bingley. “I hated the classics at school. I hope never to read one again. However, my friend Mr. Darcy here is more of a scholar. He would undoubtedly be interested.”
“I would be interested, too,” said Miss Bingley. “I always think there is nothing equal to the classics to improve one’s mind.”
“I have no interest in the classics at the moment,” said Darcy. “I would rather look at irrigation systems.”
Miss Bingley would have liked to say she enjoyed irrigation systems, too, but she knew no one would believe it.
She yawned. “I cannot bring myself to be interested in irrigation systems. Matters of business hold no interest for me. However, I admire your dedication and determination to assist Charles with Netherfield, Mr. Darcy.”
Darcy did not reply. He turned his attention instead to the catalogue Mr. Clarke had handed him. Miss Bingley hovered next to him for a few more moments, but seeing he was not inclined to speak to her, she grew restless.
“I will see if there is something else that would interest me, though I think it very unlikely in such a limited collection.”
Her interest in the classics had waned as quickly as it had appeared, and Darcy noted that she made her way unerringly to the Minerva Press section.
Bingley, meanwhile, had already encountered several acquaintances, and was happily engaged in exchanging pleasantries.
Darcy named a book from the catalogue.
“Where can I find this book?”
“I will fetch it for you, sir.”
“If your books are organised by subject, I would prefer to look at the other books you have as well.”
Mr. Clarke pointed him to a remote corner of the room that was obscured by a column and a bookcase.
“I hope you find something you like, Mr. Darcy.”
Darcy hoped so as well, though he did not hold up much hope for it. He had already taken Mr. Clarke’s measure, and did not think him a very good judge of the classics. Nevertheless, any book would be better than nothing, which is what he was presently having to contend with at Netherfield.
Elizabeth’s favourite part of coming to Clarke’s was not, as one would expect, the opportunity to meet with other acquaintances. She came because she had found a corner where she could read without interruption for an hour or two, which was difficult at Longbourn. Whenever Mrs. Bennet found Elizabeth reading, she would give her something else to do. She did not approve of what she called Elizabeth’s bookish inclinations, saying that reading filled a young lady’s mind with foolish ideas. Sometimes, she took refuge in the library with Mr. Bennet, but her father preferred solitude and did not always encourage her to join him.
No one had ever interrupted her in this corner of the library. Her friends knew that she preferred to be left alone. The armchair she sat on, her feet raised on an ottoman, was concealed, and she had come to think of it as her own private space. She was happily reading a volume of essays by Samuel Coleridge when she heard footsteps.
The next moment, Mr. Darcy came around the corner. Startled, and realising the impropriety of her position, she sat up quickly and rearranged her skirts. The book she was reading fell from her lap to the floor.
“Oh, I beg your pardon, Miss Bennet. I did not mean to startle you.”
Mr. Darcy bent down to pick up the book and handed it to her. As she took it, the tips of their fingers brushed, and she felt a strange stirring of awareness. She looked towards Mr. Darcy, startled. Their eyes met. He was gazing at her intently. She wondered if he had realised the odd affect he’d had on her. To cover up her confusion, she blurted out the first thing that crossed her mind.
“I do not believe we have been introduced, sir.” Then, seized with the spirit of mischief, she added. “You must be new to this town. I do not recall seeing you before. How did you know my name?”
There was a flash of surprise on Darcy’s face. She experienced a surge of satisfaction, the sweet taste of vengeance. Take that, Mr. Darcy! He was so accustomed to being noticed he could not conceive that anyone could possibly overlook him.
He recovered quickly, however. “Very true. I apologize for my impropriety. Would you like me to fetch Mr. Bingley and ask him to introduce us?”
Elizabeth did not want to speak to Mr. Bingley at this particular moment, though she could see that her chance of reading in peace was rapidly receding.
“Is Mr. Bingley here? By all means.” Then, prompted by the same spirit of mischief, she asked. “How did you know my name, sir?”
He cleared his throat. “I was at the Meryton Assembly.”
She willed herself not to laugh. “Indeed? There were many people at the Meryton Assembly. It was quite a crush. However, that does not explain how you know my name.”
She enjoyed watching him squirm as he sought for an explanation. He could hardly tell the truth, which was that he had thought her not handsome enough to tempt him. He could also not reveal Mr. Bingley’s interest in her. It would be indiscreet.
“Perhaps Sir William happened to offer an introduction.”
His hand went to his cravat. Elizabeth revelled in his discomfort.
“I see. And I assume you turned down the opportunity, since I do not recall being introduced.”
His fingers tugged at the cravat, seeking to loosen it. “Something must have distracted Sir William.”
“Or perhaps you did not wish to be introduced, because then you would have had to dance.”
Darcy sent her a searching glance. He was wondering, no doubt, if that was an innocent remark, or if she had in fact overheard him. Well, she was not about to satisfy his curiosity. Let him wonder. She had rattled him. Good. She wanted to. It might be petty of her, but she wanted to bait him, to cause him as much discomfort as he had done to her.
“Since we have already been engaged in conversation several minutes without being introduced, perhaps we can dispense with the formality of an official introduction. If you won’t tell, I won’t, either.”
His lips turned upwards, not quite a smile, but something close enough. It would do for now. Elizabeth felt pleased with herself for evoking even that much of a reaction.
He bowed. “Then allow me to introduce myself. I am Mr. John Darcy.”
She rose to her feet and curtseyed. “Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Darcy. Meanwhile, I hope you do not consider it rude if I return to my reading.”
“Certainly, Miss Bennet. I am sorry for the intrusion.”
She nodded, sat down again, took up her book, and began to read, smiling inwardly.
He had been dismissed, thought Darcy, dumbfounded. He was not accustomed to being treated this way. People usually stumbled over each other to talk to him.
Of course, that was when he was Mr. Darcy of Pemberley, not now. He had better grow accustomed to it.
Nevertheless, there was something about Miss Elizabeth Bennet that marked her as different from other young ladies he had known. There was a definite trace of laughter in her eyes as she spoke, as though she relished making him uncomfortable. Surely not? He must have imagined it.
He went to the section Mr. Clarke had pointed out and examined the books on the shelf, but his gaze kept straying to Miss Bennet. He watched her from the corner of his eye. She was sitting quite still in the armchair, immersed in her reading. What could she be reading that drew her attention so completely, he wondered? Whatever it was, it did not look like a Minerva novel.
He was overcome with a strong urge to ask her but managed to check himself. The conversation had ended. She had made that clear.
He found the book he was looking for, pulled it off the shelf, and looked through it, but his senses were focussed on Miss Bennet, and the words blurred on the page.
It was absurd. Why should he not talk to her if he wished to? He snapped the book shut and took a step forward.
She looked up at the noise.
“You seem very immersed in your book, Miss Bennet. What is it you are reading?”
The corner of her lips dimpled provocatively.
“It’s a collection of essays by Samuel Coleridge entitled ‘The Friend’.”
He had known it wasn’t a Minerva novel. He felt pleased he had guessed right.
“Are you fond of essays, then, Miss Bennet?”
“Not all essays. I do enjoy Coleridge, however. He has an unusual perspective on things. He is quite the rebel.”
He hadn’t read the essays when they first came out in Coleridge’s periodical, though he had heard about them. Curious, Mr. Darcy resolved to ask Mr. Clarke for the collection.
“Are you an avid reader, then?”
“Why do you ask, Mr. Darcy? Does it surprise you that we like to read in the countryside?”
Darcy, taken aback by the question, was briefly at a loss how to answer.
“Do you believe us all to be entirely ignorant and provincial?” she persisted.
Was she deliberately challenging him? Her baiting provoked him to respond, rousing him from his apathy.
“No. On the contrary,” he replied. “With all the entertainments available in Town, people have very little time to read. In the countryside, particularly in winter, people have few things to entertain them, so they are more likely to read. As for being ignorant and provincial, ignorance can be found equally in town and country.”
She quirked her brow. “I see you are a champion of the countryside. Have you always lived in the country, then, Mr. Darcy?”
Now she was trying to find out more about him. That was not a direction he could let her pursue.
He dodged the question deftly. “Allow me to throw your question back at you. Are you a champion of the countryside? Do you believe it inherently superior to London?”
Her eyes twinkled. “I do not have any prejudice, one way or the other. Human nature is much the same everywhere, I suppose. But you have evaded my question. I will ask it another way. What do you think of Meryton? Do you think it has superior qualities?”
Meryton had pretty young ladies who kept him on his toes. “I suppose if I say I have not spent enough time here to pass judgment, you will say I am evading the question as well.”
She tossed back her curls, her eyes dancing. “I will let you off the hook, Mr. Darcy, by asking you an easy question. Why have you come to Clarke’s?”
“For the same reason you did. To fetch a book.”
“What book is that? I am always eager to know what people are reading. It is a way of knowing which books to read, and which to avoid.”
“I suppose you intend to avoid anything I read.”
She pressed her lips together to smother a laugh. “Possibly. It depends.”
“I can tell you from now, my book is unlikely to appeal to you.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because it is about agriculture.”
Elizabeth laughed. “I was prepared to take offense, but now I must agree with you. I have no interest in agriculture.”
She paused as she readied herself to strike again. He braced for the next question.
“Do you manage your own estate, sir?”
It was as he had expected. This time, he was happy enough to answer. She had provided him with an opportunity to reinforce the story that the Bingleys were circulating about him.
“I manage a small estate in Cornwall, though perhaps the word estate is rather generous, given that the land yields very few crops. It is not mine, in any case.”
“So you are a kind of steward, then?”
Every instinct rebelled at being called a steward. His pride cried out for him to deny it, but he could not. “I suppose that is a fair description.”
She clearly intended to discover more about him. She was perceptive, and would sooner or later stumble upon something that would reveal the truth. The wisest course of action would be to discourage her and walk away, but he found himself intrigued by her quick mind and impertinent manners. In any case, he did not sense any malice in her. He did not think her curiosity stemmed from a desire to gossip, and there was nothing simpering or false about her. She called a spade, a spade, which appealed to his inherent sense of honesty. It vexed him that he could not be honest with her. He had no choice but to pretend and conceal the truth.
It would behove him to throw her off the scent. “Miss Bennet—”
“—Darcy, there you are! I thought I heard your voice. We were planning to leave.” Bingley spotted Miss Bennet sitting on the chair. “Miss Bennet! A pleasure to see you here!” He threw Darcy a surprised look. “I see you and Mr. Darcy have become acquainted.”
“I happened upon Miss Bennet quite by chance.” He sounded more defensive than he had intended. There was something accusing in Bingley’s tone.
Meanwhile, Miss Bennet had put down her book and had risen to give Mr. Bingley her hand with a welcoming smile. She had not greeted Darcy that way.
“Are you here to borrow a book as well, Mr. Bingley?”
“Heavens, no. I rarely read. If it is a novel, I am too impatient to know the ending to read it all the way through. I can’t help skipping to the end. Then, once I know the ending, I can no longer be bothered to plod through the story itself. If it is a poem, I usually cannot make head or tail of it.” He gave a lopsided smile. “I prefer plain English. I do not understand why anyone would labour for so long to create such convoluted rhymes and meanings.”
“If I were in your place, Bingley,” said Darcy. “I would be ashamed to express such sentiments.”
“But you are not in my place, Darcy. I am not embarrassed to speak my mind. I’m a simple fellow and I don’t pretend to be otherwise.”
“Would you have Mr. Bingley dissemble then, Mr. Darcy?” said Miss Bennet, in a teasing tone. “I think his honesty does him credit.”
Darcy raised an eyebrow. “Do you make a virtue of ignorance then, Miss Bennet? If Mr. Bingley had applied himself to his learning better, he could have come to appreciate the fine arts. His careless attitude, however, has always prevented him from applying himself. Do not think to encourage him, Miss Bennet.”
“Dash it all, Darcy! I don’t see what enjoying poetry has to do with ignorance. I read as much as any other gentleman. I cannot help it if you have nothing better to do than to closet yourself up with books in your library and read all day.”
Darcy gave Bingley a warning glance, and Bingley coloured. Bingley had come a little too close to revealing something about Darcy’s situation in his eagerness to impress Miss Bennet.
“I am exaggerating, of course, Miss Bennet,” said Bingley, hastily. “The fact is, Darcy can sometimes be a little too serious for my taste.”
“Is that true, Mr. Darcy? Are you too serious?”
“It depends entirely what Bingley means by the word. If he means to insult me, then he is wide of the mark. There are those who consider me serious. I have always taken my duty seriously. Whether that makes me too serious, I have no way of knowing.”
“I cannot fault you on that, Mr. Darcy, but I suspect Mr. Bingley meant something else entirely.”
“If he is trying to imply that I am gloomy and withdrawn,” continued Darcy, “then I cannot be the judge of that. You, Miss Bennet, will have to make your own decision. I give you leave to judge me as harshly as you wish.”
She laughed. “You will not trick me into revealing what I think of you, Mr. Darcy, though I do believe anyone who can attend a ball and refuse to dance more than twice in a whole evening could definitely be considered too serious. However, no doubt you will find a way to defend yourself that will shed a different light on the situation.”
So she had noticed him, after all. She had only implied that she hadn’t to annoy him. For some reason, that pleased him.
“No, indeed, I have nothing to say in my defence,” he replied, enjoying the novel experience of crossing swords with a lady, “except that I do not like to dance.”
“So you think that not liking to dance is enough to excuse you when so many young ladies remained without partners?”
“Well, I think it was unforgivable, Miss Bennet, and I told him so,” interceded Bingley, looking from one to the other.
“So I am to be tried, judged and quartered, simply because I chose not to dance in an Assembly where I knew nobody? Then why do you not consider that I am now making an effort to become acquainted with you, Miss Bennet, and intend to do the same with other young ladies? Do you not think I deserve more time before you pass final judgement?”
Miss Bennet laughed. “True enough. I will suspend my judgement, for the moment at least. We will see how you behave at the next ball, if there is to be one.”
Bingley was growing restless. He did not like feeling excluded from the conversation. At her words, he brightened. “Miss Bennet, if you wish for a ball, I will be more than happy to hold one at Netherfield,” he offered.
She turned her laughing gaze on Bingley. “That is very kind of you, Mr. Bingley, but you must not hold a ball simply to discover whether Mr. Darcy intends to dance or not.”
“As for that,” Bingley countered, nonchalantly, “I hardly need an excuse for a ball, particularly if it is at your request, Miss Bennet.”
He took up Miss Bennet’s hand and kissed it.
Darcy felt a tinge of annoyance. Did Bingley have to flirt so openly with Miss Bennet? If her mother had witnessed it, she would be reaching all kinds of conclusions about Bingley’s intentions. Even Miss Bennet herself might see it that way.
Miss Bennet, however, confounded Darcy by making nothing at all of Mr. Bingley’s gesture. She glanced towards the window and her brow wrinkled.
“Well, Mr. Bingley, I am very glad we ran into each other, but I see there is going to be rain soon. I had better be on my way. I don’t want to be caught in the downpour.”
“You needn’t worry,” said Bingley. “I would be happy to have my coachman take you. I will send for him.”
She shook her head. “Thank you, sir, but I prefer to walk. There is nothing quite like a brisk walk in the country, I feel.” She curtseyed. “Now you must excuse me.”
With that, Miss Bennet took her leave and was out of the door before Darcy could do more than bow.
Once again, Darcy felt disconcerted. He had expected her to push her advantage with Bingley, but she had not. Nor had she shown any interest in lingering to talk to Darcy. Her indifference unsettled him. However, after some consideration, he consoled himself by noting that at least she had not shown a marked preference for his friend.
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