At the Assembly
“Prepare to face the unwashed masses,” Caroline Bingley murmured under her breath as the footman opened the door to the Darcy carriage. She caught Mr. Darcy’s eye and was gratified to see him nod slightly in agreement.
“Surely, they’re not that bad,” Bingley countered, alighting after his sisters had done, his boots squelching a little in the mud.
Fitzwilliam Darcy exited the carriage and settled his hat atop his head before adjusting the cuffs of his dark superfine coat. He had a name to uphold and, his valet had reminded him, so had his manservant. Watkins had been in his service for years and had earned some familiarity with his charge. “Bingley,” Darcy said after a moment, “only look around you. A country assembly is just the place for unwashed masses.” That a driver fell off his perch to the damp ground at just that moment only illustrated his point, Darcy felt.
The ladies in his party – Caroline Bingley and Louisa Hurst – tittered but covered their amusement with discreet and rehearsed coughs.
Darcy took a deep breath of fresh country air before stepping into the loud crowded atmosphere of the Meryton Assembly. He predicted that they would be accosted straightaway and so they were. An obsequious fellow with a nose the size of Darcy’s favorite stallion’s approached within moments of their being announced.
“Sir William Lucas,” Bingley reminded Darcy. “He called first upon me and invited us here.”
Darcy bowed his head in acknowledgment of the introduction as Sir William offered a deep obeisance in front of them.
“Welcome, welcome to our Assembly. We are honored in your presence, Mr. Bingley.”
Bingley did the necessary civilities and Darcy let his attention wander. As the Darcy of Pemberley, he knew what was due him and what he owed in every social situation. As a gentleman, there were standards he must meet. One of them was to dance in public, to give an example of the art and to be courteous. The whispers and speculations that arose from his choice in partners was inevitable, but it was to him to squash all presumptions. His rank and station did not require him to be accessible. Merely civil.
Bingley was introduced to Sir William’s eldest daughter, an evident spinster with a plain but intelligent expression. Darcy knew he had to choose for himself. There was only one woman in the room outside of his party that would not be a punishment to stand up with, in his estimation.
“Sir William, would you do me the honor of introducing me to that young lady and her parents?” Of course there would be parents. Word of his estate had already flown about the room in less-than-quiet tones. Darcy hardened his jaw against the gossip that would ensue. A beauty such as he had seen would likely be inured to such. Even if she hadn’t a thought in her head.
“Ah, that is Miss Bennet. Jane Bennet.”
Darcy nodded. The two eldest Bennet girls had a reputation as the local beauties. It suited Darcy’s sense of consequence to dance with either or both of them. Jane was clearly the more attractive of the two and he was willing to partner her.
“Mr. Darcy,” Sir William said, bowing again – the fellow was positively bent over for half the evening – before a matron of middle age and apparently decent taste in evening wear. “May I present Mrs. Bennet of Longbourn. Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Darcy of Pemberley.”
With effusions worthy of royalty, Mrs. Bennet gushed her praise for an estate she had never seen before introducing him to the two daughters at her side. Miss Bennet was wearing a gown of white muslin, embroidered in a blue that was echoed in her eyes. Her hair was the color of honey and her smile was graciously warm.
“Mr. Darcy.” Her voice was pleasant as well, musical in fact, and Darcy was relieved. Dancing was much more pleasant when one could listen to one’s partner without cringing.
“And this is my second daughter, Elizabeth,” Mrs. Bennet went on.
Darcy spared the younger woman a glance, noting primarily that she was not as fair as her elder sister, as her hair was dark and her skin a clear olive tone. Her figure wasn’t nearly as good, either, though her dark eyes danced expressively as a smile flirted with her lips. “Mr. Darcy,” she said, her voice light and airy.
The musicians cued, playing the measures that announced the next country dance, and there was a sudden movement all about the long room as partners were claimed. “Miss Bennet?” Darcy extended his hand to the honey-haired sister.
She slid her gloved hand smoothly into his fingers and Darcy blinked. Unassuming confidence was communicated in her perfectly acceptable gesture and he was unwillingly impressed. He led her to the dance to stand next to Bingley and Miss Lucas. Miss Bennet and Miss Lucas exchanged smiles and Darcy could see that the two young women were acquainted and possibly good friends. That spoke well for both of them. That the beauty would be on good terms with one beneath her in appearance meant she was likely not vain. And that an intelligent woman would consider the beauty to be an equal – as a quick spurt of conversation indicated – meant that Miss Bennet was likely a well-educated woman.
Darcy was quite pleased as the dance began.
“How are you enjoying Herefordshire?” Miss Bennet asked, accepting his hand and turning as the dance required.
“I enjoy country life,” Darcy returned, turning and waiting for the other couple to execute their maneuvers. “I would prefer to spend much more of my time away from London. Have you been?”
“Yes. Did you have the opportunity to study there?” Many young ladies were taken to London for a month or so to study the masters of the arts. It was an unexceptional question.
Still, Miss Bennet blushed and glanced away and Darcy instantly regretted asking. “No, sir. I have not had that opportunity.”
A gentleman sought the comfort of his dance partner, so he moved smoothly to another topic. “Well, in the country, one can learn a great deal. Do you enjoy reading?”
Her clear eyes rested again on his face as they stepped closer in the pattern of the dance. “Indeed. I was just reading Shakespeare’s sonnets this morning.”
“A lady of taste and refinement,” Darcy said with a smile.
Her answering blush carried none of the embarrassment of her earlier fluctuation of color, so he felt he had chosen his compliment well. Indeed, their conversation regarding books and their divergent tastes was managed despite the noise of the uncouth locals. Miss Bennet stood out like a lily in a field of wildflowers. She had grace, poise and dignity, as well as a sense of humor. Able to converse eloquently, with humor, she either did not hear the not-too-quiet speculations that rambled in between their first and second dances in the set, or she ignored them.
After their second dance, Darcy bowed and escorted her back to her mother. Miss Bennet’s hand on his arm was light and without presumption, but she was willing to look him in the eye when she spoke.
“Thank you, Mr. Darcy. I enjoyed our dances.”
“As did I,” he assured her. “Might I secure you for the two after this?”
She pinked up prettily and thanked him, curtsying lightly. With a short bow to the about-to-effuse Mrs. Bennet, Darcy made his escape from that corner. Surprise was moving about in his breast. Surprise that he had found, here in the supposedly unwashed masses, a woman who excited his admiration. Careful not to stare at her, he managed to acquire a glass of sadly watered wine before encountering Bingley in between sets.
“You shall have to introduce me to your partner,” his friend said, his tone sprightly. “Miss Lucas holds her in high esteem, though her particular friend is Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”
“I would be happy to make the introductions to Miss Elizabeth.” Darcy caught the laughter in Bingley’s eye. “What?”
“To Miss Elizabeth but not to Miss Jane Bennet? My good fellow, I cannot believe it. Here in Herefordshire?”
Darcy grimaced. “Not you, too. I’ll not have it.”
“But Darcy, you’ve never shown such an inclination before,” Bingley murmured as they reached the Bennet family.
Bingley was still laughing to himself as he made his bows. “Miss Bennet,” he said, purposefully addressing himself to the eldest Miss Bennet to tease his friend, “it was a pleasure to see you dance, earlier. You are quite accomplished.”
“I thank you, Mr. Bingley. May I present my family?” Miss Bennet said with all due propriety. Darcy was highly gratified when she offered a smile to him that was warmer than that she had shown Bingley.
After the introductions were made, Bingley asked for the honor of Miss Bennet’s hand in the next set, which was the one prior to the one Darcy had himself requested. To ask for a woman’s hand in two consecutive dance sets was far too particular and was indeed only unexceptional for a betrothed couple. It was a sign of strong interest for a man to secure two such sets one after another and Darcy was not willing to have either himself or Miss Bennet gossiped about any more than was happening already.
So he applied to the next daughter. “Miss Elizabeth? May I have the honor?”
Her smile was almost impudent as she accepted. “Of course, Mr. Darcy. I wouldn’t dare refuse. My sister might never forgive me!”
The answer was unexpected. “Oh? Why might that be?” Entirely unconventional conversation, but Darcy had his attention divided between Miss Elizabeth and Bingley and Miss Bennet.
“She would deem it in very bad form to refuse to dance with a man she had previously stood up with, you see,” Miss Elizabeth explained.
“Ah. Does this situation arise often?” Darcy wondered. The music was a more stately tune and he saw that Bingley and Miss Bennet were now separated by the forms. In contrast, he and Miss Elizabeth were in the pattern of steps where more conversation was possible. “That you and your sister dance in sequence?”
Miss Elizabeth had a ready laugh. “Oh, frequently. She is about five times prettier than anyone else in the room, as I daresay you’ve noticed.” Darcy felt his color rise in chagrin, for a gentleman never made his dance partner feel less than significant during the course of their dance.
With a conscious effort, he shifted his focus more fully to Miss Elizabeth Bennet. “I beg your pardon.”
“Just do me a favor, if you would, Mr. Darcy,” she said, humor lilting along her voice just before they were to part to the more distant outer edge of the dance pattern.
He met her dark eyes. “Of course.”
“You might suggest – No, never mind.” A wash of color under her clear skin told Darcy that she had rethought her query.
Being a gentleman, he did not inquire as to what made her blush. It would be unseemly.
Their dance was enjoyable and Miss Elizabeth Bennet was a fine dancer and conversationalist. Darcy began to think that here, in Herefordshire, he had found a family he might never have found in a London drawing room. Indeed, Bingley seemed to believe so as well, for he and Miss Elizabeth enjoyed a positively boisterous reel in the next dance set, which he and Miss Bennet danced as well. The effort brought a glow to Miss Bennet’s complexion, further brightening her eyes and delighting Darcy out of all reason.
In his diary later, he reflected that if the Assembly had closed after that reel, he might have been in some danger. Alas, it did not.