Chapter Two, Aftermath
“No, Charles. I cannot fathom being associated with the rest of that family. Not even in the country,” Caroline opined from the piano forte. She had just finished playing a quiet air to, she said, soothe her ears from the off-pitch screeching of the middle Bennet daughter.
Darcy crossed his legs and saw the lovely eyes and warm smile of Miss Bennet in his imagination. Her behavior and conversation were decorous and intelligent both. Her next younger sister had been – well, if not as decorous, then equally as intelligent as well as spirited and pleasantly pert. For the country. “Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth were suitable, surely,” he retorted from his chair.
Bingley flashed him a laughing-eyed smile but Caroline actually snorted. Delicately, but that was indeed what she did. “Do not ask me to visit the younger sisters,” she said flatly.
“I shan’t,” Darcy agreed immediately.
“Did you hear the musical one?” Mrs. Hurst burst out in an excess of emotion, Darcy felt. “Such a display. And her dancing!” she continued with a look of startled sympathy to both Mr. Darcy and her brother.
Bingley shrugged. “One cannot expect lightness of foot in every partner, Louisa.” He rose to his feet and crossed to the hearth. “Miss Elizabeth, though, was charming. As was Miss Bennet. Fine dancers, the pair of them. Energetic and possessed of great conversation, wouldn’t you say, Darcy?”
Darcy opened his mouth to speak but Caroline shut the piano forte with no little irritation. “Miss Elizabeth Bennet has a satirical eye,” she pronounced. “She would not do in London at all, Charles. You just remember that.”
Hiding a smile with a tilt of his head, Darcy deemed it fit to change the subject. Having danced with all the Bennet sisters – a damning himself for a status-bound fool for so doing, as the younger two were simpering chits, the middle girl awkward and unaware – he did not wish to dwell upon their imperfections. His admiration for the eldest Miss Bennet he kept to himself as much as he could.
However, over the next fortnight, he could not ignore the subtle excitement that moved under his skin when in company with her.
The first time, he noted in his diary, was at a small dinner party Bingley hosted. He was having different families over to dine as they invited him to do likewise. Darcy, as a guest in the house, was not in general inclined to dine out with the locals too often, but Bingley had nudged him to do so with a gleam in his eye.
“Come, Darcy. You must. Miss Bennet will certainly be in attendance.”
After the second such mention over the billiard table one afternoon, Darcy angled a brow at him. “Do not pretend, Bingley, that you are not looking forward to the company of Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”
He grinned. “She is delightful company, is she not? But in truth, I am having rather too much fun watching you to properly appreciate Miss Elizabeth.” At Darcy’s disbelieving expression, Bingley elaborated with slightly more sobriety. “Darcy. You have done your duty as long as I’ve known you. Perhaps the smiles on Miss Bennet’s lovely face are your reward, eh?”
Disgruntled and irritated, Darcy rolled the cue on the green baize cloth of the table. “No. I cannot and should not. Her family are inferior.”
“Careful, Darcy. You are beginning to sound like Lady Catherine, your aunt.”
Darcy had no wished to be classed with his aunt, Lady Catherine, so he said no more of the inferiority of the Bennet connections. Though Mr. Bennet was a gentleman of no mean understanding, he was not a man of fashion or fortune. Mrs. Bennet was a foolish woman who spoke with too much volume and too little wisdom. He inwardly cringed every time that woman opened her mouth.
Thankfully, she was rather in awe of him. He did nothing to put her at her ease; it was not his duty to do so and he preferred that she keep her distance.
“Oh, Mr. Darcy. Good of you to come,” Colonel Foster said in greeting at a dinner with the regiment. The conversation carried on about them in a mild way, scarlet coats weaving through pastel gowns as if there were dancing. “Wasn’t sure you would.”
A bit abashed, Darcy nodded. “I enjoy an evening spent among sensible men, Colonel. Thank you for including me in the invitation.”
After a brief bow, Darcy made his way past the milling people to the wall. And then, he heard, “Oh, la, Colonel Foster. You must know that your invitations are always welcome.”
Damnation, was Darcy’s initial thought. Mrs. Bennet’s annoying voice followed him everywhere. But soon, he spied the honey-hued locks of Miss Jane Bennet and his ill humor passed from him like water through a sieve. Her movements as she dipped in polite curtsies and shook hands were set to music. Her smile was grace. And when she caught his eye from across the filling room, she grinned more broadly, dimples denting creamy skin in such a way as made him wish to taste them.
He was in serious danger. He went to meet her anyway.
“Miss Bennet,” he began. She offered him her gloved hand along with her smile and he took it gently, bending over it to touch her knuckles briefly to his lips.
He heard her quickly indrawn breath and winced internally. It was not a natural skin contact, so was unexceptional, but she had not been to London. Still, he retained her hand in his own for another moment after straightening.
“Mr. Darcy,” she murmured, slipping her hand from his. “I did not know you were to be of the party.” She apparently recovered herself and offered him another warm smile.
With his own, he answered, “I would hope my presence does not darken the evening for you.”
“Not at all.”
They talked of books and walked slowly about the room. Occasionally interrupted by an officer or one of Miss Bennet’s friends, he still enjoyed this time with her. It was startling, how much he wished to be alone with her. To be able to sit and just relax in her soothing, rich conversation.
Three more times did they dine in company during the first part of a wet and dreary November. Twice that many letters did Darcy send to his young sister, Georgiana, telling her about Netherfield and the local neighborhood.
I do confess to some curiosity about this mysterious “lady” whom you have mentioned in the last few letters you have been so kind as to send me. You are very sly, you know. If it is intrusive, of course I shall not inquire further.
But I will still wish to be enlightened!
On that other matter, I am much recovered, I thank you. My spirits are quite improved. Mrs. Annesley and I are planning on preparing to remove to London by the end of the the month. I hope we will soon see you there.
Your loving sister,
That other matter. Yes. Darcy grimaced, his jaw tight at the memory. That reprehensible, intolerable fellow. George Wickham! He would stay far, far from Derbyshire if he had any native sense whatsoever. Darcy would never forget Georgiana’s inward shattering and outward weeping when the length and breadth of Wickham’s perfidy had been lain before her.
“London. He cannot go to London, surely,” Darcy muttered, unwittingly crumpling his sister’s letter in his hand. “He would not show his face. He could not.”
Bingley invited the Colonel and some of his officers to Netherfield. Miss Bingley acted as hostess, of course, and she and Mrs. Hurst were not the only women at the table, as it seemed that one of the officers had a new wife with him.
In return, Bingley, Mr. Hurst and Darcy were invited back to the regiment. It was a bit tedious, but the rain prevented any evening ride and indeed delayed their return by an hour.
“Oh, you’re home at last? Well, what do you think has happened?” Caroline Bingley inquired, her steps languid as she strode to meet them. “We invited the elder Miss Bennets to dine with us,” she went on, taking her brother’s arm to stroll back to the evening parlor. “You know, since you were away and we needed some relief from one another.” Her smile was careless and shallow and did not reach her eyes. Darcy wondered if that were due to her boredom with her own sister or to a less-than-satisfactory supper with Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth.
“Did you have a good evening?” Bingley wondered. His eyes roamed the small room as if seeking his friend, Miss Elizabeth. For that was, Darcy had come to realize, what had happened with the amusing, light-hearted second Bennet sister. She and Bingley had rousing conversations, debates, even. One even before that very fireplace that boasted a comforting, post-outing fire. “Were the Miss Bennets in good health?”
“Oh, lord, Charles,” Mrs. Hurst cried, throwing her hands up in the air so that her many bracelets clinked together. Rising in a surfeit of rustling silk – far too much for a small evening dinner for the ladies only – she crossed the room. “You’ll never guess. Well, Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth joined us for dinner, as you know.”
“Yes,” Bingley said, his face set in stern lines as he tried to pry the answer from his dramatically-inclined sister. He made an impatient motion with his hands. “What happened?”
“They came in a small carriage and their horse threw a shoe! And what do you think?”
Darcy’s imagination immediately went to the dozen or so dangers that could have befallen the young ladies. “Were they driving themselves or did they have a coachman?”
“In that tiny thing?” Miss Bingley’s derision, Darcy let slide past him. “No, but apparently your Miss Elizabeth,” she said to her brother, “is an excellent driver.”
Bingley relaxed a little and moved to stand by the fire, warming his hands. “Good, then. So what happened?”
“They were both absolutely soaked through when they arrived here, naturally, but they had only had to walk a mile or so, Miss Bennet guessed. So we had our maids take them up and dry them off before dinner.”
Something in the way Caroline Bingley held her mouth brought Darcy to speak again. “What happened on the road, Caroline?” He did not normally address her by her first name, but they were friendly acquaintances of long standing so he was not crossing any blatant lines.
“Well, Miss Bennet turned her ankle and it was quite swollen when she emerged from her bath. Miss Elizabeth, however, is apparently made of sterner stuff, Charles. She’s hale as one of your horses.”
Bingley snorted softly; Darcy believed he was covering a laugh. “Miss Elizabeth Bennet is a hardy soul, well-formed for country life. I’m glad she is doing well. What has been done for her sister?” he asked, turning with his hands behind him.
Darcy, though wishing to ask and even indeed visit the injured lady, had to remain silent.
“Well, Carter, of course, wrapped it in a cabbage leaf and…whatever it is that she does.”
“If it’s not much improved by morning, we’ll have to send for the apothecary,” Bingley instructed.
“Of course, Charles.”
The ladies withdrew, Mr. Hurst as well, leaving Darcy and Bingley to enjoy a bit of warmed brandy before the fire. “She’ll be fine, Darcy,” Bingley murmured to his friend. “Relax. It’s only a turned ankle.”
Darcy shook himself and shifted his weight to lean against the mantle. “I’m sure. I am just imagining what might have befallen them.” He met Bingley’s amused gaze with his own more serious one. “Really, their family lacks a great many things, you know, in terms of basic propriety.” That their father only appeared with them once in public was a situation that spoke of a desultory parent at best. “It could cause them trouble, make their circumstances more difficult…”
“Or, perhaps, one of them will – as does happen, you know – marry well and help her sisters.”
Bingley’s chuckle was in no way hidden.
After they had finished, they parted to go to their separate chambers. Darcy’s mind was entirely on the injured Miss Bennet. If he were her host, he would go to her…
But he was only another guest, and could only hope that the morning brought her smile to him.