Fitzwilliam George Alexander Darcy rose from his seat in the Bingley carriage and reluctantly descended to earth before the assembly hall above the only inn to which the small market town of Meryton could lay claim. A window from the hall above opened, allowing the lively but poorly executed music of a country dance to invade the serenity of the night air. Grimacing, he looked down at the hat in his hands and then, with a sigh, positioned it at precisely the correct angle on his head. How, exactly, did you allow Bingley to manoeuvre you into this ill-conceived foray into country society? he berated himself; but before he could begin a review of the events that had deposited him there, a hound perched on a nearby carriage set up a mournful howl.
"Precisely," Darcy commiserated aloud as he turned to the rest of his party. Immediately, he saw that his friend’s sisters held the same expectation for an enjoyable evening as himself. The expression that passed between them as they shook out their skirts was at once equal parts elegant disdain and long-suffering. His gaze then travelled to his young friend whose face, in contrast, was alive with excitement and curiosity. Not for the first time Darcy wondered how Charles Bingley and his sisters could possibly be related. The Bingley women were properly reserved, but Charles was invariably and indescriminately gregarious. Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley were elegant in their dress and manners. Charles was…well, he was now quietly fashionable in his dress—Darcy had at least taken him in hand in that regard—but he still retained an unfortunate propensity to treat anyone merely introduced to him as an intimate friend. The Bingley sisters were not easily impressed and radiated a studied boredom in regard to all but the most exclusive of entertainments; their brother took pleasure in everything.
It was just this exuberance of character that had made Charles the object of several cruel jokes among the more sophisticated young gentlemen in Town and had been the means of bringing him to Darcy’s notice. Unwillingly privy to the planning of one such humiliation conducted during a game of cards at his club, he had heard enough to disgust him and form the resolve to seek out the unfortunate youth and warn him away from those he had thought his friends. To Darcy’s surprise, what had started as Christian duty became a satisfying friendship. Charles had come far since his first visit to Town, but there were still moments, like the present, when Darcy despaired of ever cultivating in him a proper reserve.
"Shall we go in, then?" asked Charles, appearing at his side. "The music sounds delightful, and I expect the ladies shall be equally so." He turned and extended an arm to his unmarried sister. "Come, Caroline, let us meet our new neighbours."
Darcy took up a position in the rear as the Bingley party moved forward into the small hall and ascended the stairs to the assembly room floor. Having disposed of their hats and the ladies’ wraps, Bingley, his brother-in-law Mr. Hurst, and Darcy ushered the ladies to the entrance where they paused to assess the features of the room and its rustic occupants. At that unfortunate moment the music came to a halt, and the dancers made their final turn in the pattern, causing most of the room to face the door. For a few breathless heartbeats Town and Country took stock of each other and proceeded to rush to a dizzying variety of conclusions.
Darcy nudged Bingley forward into the room as the dancers quit the floor in search of refreshment and gossip. He could feel the eyes of the entire room upon him and wondered that he had ever doubted the rudeness of country manners. It was as bad as he had feared. The room was a-buzz with speculation as he and the rest of Bingley’s party were exclaimed over and weighed to the last guinea. He could almost hear the clink of coins as they counted his fortune. In the space of a few moments, the man to whom Darcy guessed he might lay the blame for their invitation to the evening’s entertainment came hurrying toward them. Bowing a degree more than was necessary, he took Bingley’s hand in a vigorous clasp.
"Welcome, welcome, Mr. Bingley and all your fine party, too, I am quite sure," exclaimed Sir William Lucas as he encompassed them all in a great smile. "We are so very honoured that you have come to our small assembly. Of course we are all anxious to make the acquaintance of your estimable guests..." Sir William’s voice trailed off as he turned an expectant countenance upon Darcy and then Bingley’s sisters.
With great enthusiasm, Bingley made the proper introductions. His own bow to the obsequious little man was one of the merest civility. To Darcy’s pained annoyance, instead of depressing Sir William’s deference, it had, to the contrary, the unfortunate effect of increasing that gentleman’s regard and secured the man’s continued efforts to engage him. Finally, after the ladies and Mr. Hurst were introduced, Sir William ushered them all to the refreshment table where Miss Lucas, his eldest daughter, stood with her mother and family. There, the Bingley party was introduced to the rest of the Lucas family, and Bingley, knowing his duty when it presented itself to him, offered himself to Miss Lucas for the next dance. Sir William presented his arm to Miss Bingley, and the Hursts followed the two couples out onto the dance floor.
As the music began and the other dancers took their places, Darcy positioned himself against the wall, away from the table and the knots of neighbours and relatives that framed the room. Everywhere he turned, eyes narrowed on him in frank appraisal or fluttered in a mock of modesty. His countenance hardening, he withdrew into a stance of studied indifference, masking the cool disdain that vied with hot annoyance in his chest as he watched the ebb and flow of country society before him.
Why had he agreed to this waste of an evening? There was no beauty, conversation, or fashion to be found in the entire room saving those with whom he had arrived. Rather, he was surrounded by the common, the dull, and the trite, that class of the barely gentrified whose idea of conversation was no more than gossip--and that of the vulgar sort of which he now was the current object. Darcy could not help but compare his present circumstance with the last time he had been to Tattersall’s in search of a suitable new Thoroughbred stallion for his brood mares. Then and there, he privately vowed to purchase no more horseflesh at auction.
Hoping for relief from his solitary disquiet, he looked about for Bingley as the dance came to an end, finally locating him across the room in the process of being introduced to a matron surrounded by several young women. Darcy watched in resignation as Bingley bowed to each of them during the introductions and then offered his arm to the handsomest girl, securing her for the next dance. Bingley’s ease in any society in which he found himself always amazed Darcy. How did one converse with perfect strangers across the boundaries of class or station and in such a setting? A score of cautions and strictures acquired over a lifetime loomed darkly in Darcy’s mind, adding to his discomposure and deepening further still his withdrawal from social intercourse. His eyes followed Bingley and his partner through the first patterns of the dance and then returned to the matron and her entourage. What he saw there caused him to groan, startling a passing young gentleman who, after a brief glance into Darcy’s stony visage, hurried on.
The object of Darcy’s displeasure wore the expression of a plump, old tabby that had just been presented with a bowl of rich cream. Her satisfaction and avarice were almost palpable as she kept close watch on Bingley and the girl. Her daughter? Likely, he determined, although there is little resemblance. There was no doubt in his mind as to where her thoughts were leading; he had seen that look too many times to be mistaken. Bingley must be warned against showing any particular attention in that direction. The slightest sense of partiality and the woman will be encamped upon the doorstep of Netherfield.
Darcy made his way to the refreshment table, his back stiff with displeasure at the duty to his friend that lay before him. Accepting a cup of punch from the girl behind the table, he suffered her smiles and giggles with a show of composure he was far from feeling. At that moment, Bingley appeared next to him, secured a cup from the girl with a smile and a wink, and turned to his friend.
"I say, Darcy, have you ever seen so many lovely young ladies in one place in your life? What do you think of country manners now?"
"I think of them as I have always thought, having certainly been given no cause this evening to do otherwise."
"But Darcy, surely you can not have been offended by Sir William’s attentions," Bingley smiled ruefully. "He is a good sort, a trifle officious, but..."
"Sir William’s attentions were not uppermost in my mind as I considered your question. You can not be unaware of the vulgar gossip we are figuring in even at this moment?" Darcy’s jaw clenched in agitation as a rapid review of the room confirmed the truth of his observation.
"They probably wonder, as do I, why you have not danced as yet tonight. Come, Darcy, I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance. There are many pretty girls who would, no doubt..."
"I certainly shall not! You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. At such an assembly as this," Darcy’s eyes swept the room disdainfully, "it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged, and there is not another woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with."
"I would not be as fastidious as you are for a kingdom," exclaimed Bingley. "I can not stand seeing you so! Upon my honour, I never met with so many pleasant girls in my life as I have this evening; and there are several of them you see, uncommonly pretty." “You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room,” he replied, looking at Bingley’s partner from the last dance.
“Oh! she is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld! But come, she has a very charming sister who would, I believe, suit even your taste, at least for an evening. Let me procure an introduction. She sits out the dancing just over there."
“Which do you mean?” replied Darcy, turning in the direction of Bingley’s gaze. A few chairs distant from where they stood sat a young woman of about twenty who, in contrast to himself, was obviously enjoying the evening. Although sitting out the dance for a lack of available gentlemen, her small feet would not accept their banishment from the dancing and tapped discreetly beneath her gown. Her eyes bright with amusement in the scene before her, she seemed a favourite with many, being saluted by both ladies and gentlemen as they passed by her in the dance. She was near enough that a slight change in the direction of her gaze caused Darcy to wonder if she had been listening to their conversation. His suspicions were confirmed when her smile seemed to take on a more quizzical appearance.
What was she thinking? Intrigued, he allowed himself to examine her. At that moment, his object turned toward him, the smile still gracing her face, but now with one delicate brow arched in question at his blatant scrutiny. He hastily turned away, his discomposure with her discovery of him setting him further at odds with his companion. If Bingley imagined he would be content with what other men overlooked while he enjoyed the company of the only passable young woman present, he must think again!
“She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men," he objected sharply. "You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me." Leaving Bingley to make of his advice what he would, Darcy turned abruptly and walked as far from the vicinity of the disturbing female as he could. For the rest of the evening he occupied himself dancing with his friend’s two sisters and, when not engaged with them, discouraging any who attempted to draw him in conversation. His indignation with the utter waste of an entire evening among undistinguished strangers was reflected in a countenance which assumed such a forbidding cast that he was soon left to himself. He could only sigh with relief when the assembly finally came to an end and Bingley’s carriage pulled forward to receive them.
While Bingley extolled the pleasures of the evening, Darcy settled back into the squabs, observing his companions. As he had suspected, Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst would not concur with their brother’s raptures and were in nowise hesitant to express their complete dissatisfaction. As the Bingley family discussed their differences, Darcy turned his gaze out the open carriage window into the night. Some small commotion at the inn’s entrance attracted his attention, and leaning forward, he espied several of the local militia playing the gallant to a group of young women emerging into the night. With great flourishes and exaggerated bows, they competed to escort the ladies to their carriage. A low, delightful laugh escaped from one of the ladies, drawing Darcy forward to seek out its source. There, beneath the crackling torch, he found it and, with a tingling jolt, saw that it was the young woman of the enigmatic smile who had so discomposed him earlier. He watched as she gently refused the arm of the young officer and motioned him off to assist one of her sisters. Then, with a sigh of pleasure, she gracefully adjusted her wrap and lifted her face to the beauty of the night sky. The simplicity of her joy caught him, and as the carriage lurched forward, Darcy found that he could not take his eyes from her. With an inexplicable fascination, he watched her until a turn in the street took her from his view.
“A-hem.” Darcy settled back into his seat and faced Bingley, whose cough and raised eyebrow asked a question he was not willing to answer. With a shrug, Darcy again turned his gaze out the window and into the night, steadfastly dismissing all thoughts of country misses, especially those with amusing secrets lighting their eyes. ~~~~~~&~~~~~~
The morning following the Meryton assembly found Darcy alone at table nursing a cup of black coffee as he perused a letter from his sister. The Bingleys and Hursts were not yet down, recovering, as it were, from the previous evening’s events. Discerning no reason to break his habit of rising early, he had come down to find he had the breakfast room to himself and an eagerly anticipated letter from his sister Georgiana awaiting his attention on the sideboard. He had poured a cup of the steaming brew, tucked the letter under his arm and looked about him for a comfortable place to enjoy both. If he had been at his London home or Pemberley, he would have headed for his library at either establishment. This, however, was not Pemberley, but Netherfield. Its library was sadly neglected and quite the most uncomfortable room in the place. He would have to settle for the more public breakfast room and hope that his hosts would indulge in enough sleep to allow him the privacy his letter deserved.
As the rich aroma wafted around him, Darcy broke the seal on a more substantial letter than he was used to receiving from his sister. Lately, since the Wickham incident, her letters had consisted of a few lines merely: reports on her lessons, her progress at the pianoforte, names of visitors, and the like. The gentle glow which had heretofore characterized Georgiana had receded to grey ash in her heart wrenching retreat from the world. Darcy prayed that the glow was only banked for the moment and that her exposure to such evil had not permanently damaged her ability to take her place in Society. He unfolded the fine pressed sheets and read:
I pray this letter finds you well and happy in your sojourn with Mr. Bingley and his family. How do you find Netherfield? Does it please, as Mr. Bingley promised?
How did he find Netherfield? The manor was pleasant enough, except for the library. It was certainly enough for Bingley to handle at this point in his life. Yes, it would do...if only the society... He returned to the letter.
I received your letter of the -th on Wednesday last and meant to respond immediately to your kind solicitude but found that, at the time, I had too little to warrant the trouble of sending a letter to Hertfordshire. That has now materially changed, and I doubt that I can express myself in a way that will adequately convey my present feelings.
Darcy sat up a little straighter as a tingle of concern sped down his back. He reached for his coffee and took a large sip.
I know that you have been greatly concerned about me since the events of last spring and, frankly, dearest Brother, I have been very uneasy. I could not find it possible to trust anyone, excepting yourself, or accept the merest commonplace without suspicion. I desired no social intercourse and took no joy in anything save my music which, I must confess, also took on a melancholy air. This did not go unnoticed by the new companion you sent me. Mrs. Annesley, wise woman that she is, forbore to tease me with it or offer bracing reproofs. She did, however, insist on taking extended walks about Pemberley, claiming that only I could truly show her its beauties and, of course, my favourite views. She also encouraged me to take up what Mother had to lay aside so long ago: visiting the families of our tenants. After considering her proposal, I found that I desired to make these visits; indeed, that I should have done so long ago. The letter fell gently onto the table as Darcy’s tension evaporated with a sigh he could not repress. The remainder contained the usual reports of educational and musical progress, albeit with a more lively tone than he had received from Georgiana in some months. He closed his eyes briefly. She will be well, he silently assured himself. Hearing footsteps, Darcy quickly folded the letter, slid it into his coat pocket and rose from his chair.
I know not how, precisely, it came about, Brother, but I find myself no longer cast down about the past. It will always affect me, but now I know it will not rule me. Mrs. Annesley’s gentle council and quiet self-possession have been a soothing balm and a worthy model. You have chosen well, dear Brother, and I am mending under her care into a stronger vessel.
Miss Bingley swept into the breakfast room, checking only for a moment upon seeing that Darcy was alone at the table. Motioning to a servant to abandon his post at the door to serve as waiter, she nodded in response to Darcy’s bow and allowed him to select a chair for her. "Mr. Darcy, you are a model for us all," Miss Bingley looked up at him as he assisted her in sitting down. "Up so early--before dawn, I dare say--after such a fatiguing evening in such fatiguing company. I wonder at your fortitude, sir!"
Darcy retrieved his coffee and resumed his seat at the far end of the table. "I can not lay claim to such merit, Miss Bingley. Merely habit, I assure you." "A well considered habit, Mr. Darcy, I am convinced. But, your coffee must have gone cold! Let Stevenson pour you fresh. There can be little more disagreeable than cold coffee! I can not abide it," Miss Bingley shuddered prettily. Darcy hid the twitch of an incipient grimace behind his cup as he took another sip. It had gone tepid, but he would not give Caroline Bingley encouragement to play out the cosy domestic scene she was creating. Snapping his cup down upon the saucer, he began to rise when she surprised him with a question about his letter from Georgiana. "Pray, tell me what your dear sister writes. I long to know how she gets on with her new companion. Does she complain of her, or is it too soon for that? I do wish she could have come with us to Netherfield," she sighed pettishly. "What a relief her company would be from the local country squires and their ‘worthy’ dames." Miss Bingley rearranged the food on her plate as she contemplated her new neighbours. "Charles insists that we make calls. I am sure, Mr. Darcy, you will agree that it will hardly be a pleasure. No more so than last night’s assembly was a pleasure. I ask you, sir, was last night not trying to your sensibilities?"
Relieved that the subject of his sister’s letter seemed to have been forgotten, Darcy cast about for remembrances of the previous evening. Tried his sensibilities? An echo of the distaste he had felt reverberated through his body. Yes, most trying. Officious bores, simpering young women and forward older ones. All of them measuring, weighing, their eyes following every move… Suddenly he remembered eyes with expressive brows arched in challenge at him, intriguing eyes alight with secrets and amusement. He must have dwelt on the memory for some little time, for the loud clink of a spoon vigorously stirred against the sides of a cup recalled him to the presence of his questioner. Miss Bingley’s smile barely covered the pique she was obviously feeling at his inattention, for her eyes were narrowed as she waited for him to answer her question.
"Trying, Miss Bingley? Perhaps to those gentlemen like myself who find no great pleasure in dancing. But, surely you were the recipient of much kind attention and admiration?" Darcy’s smile was smug. She could not deny the obvious solicitude that had enveloped her at the assembly. Disdain of that solicitude would be unbecoming while, at the same time, acknowledgment of social success in such restricted society was nothing with which to feather her cap, especially in his company "You will excuse me, Miss Bingley?" he continued, claiming rather than requesting his release. With an uncertain smile, she could do no more than nod as he rose to take his leave.
As he strode toward the door and the stables beyond, the picture of quite a different young woman, her eyes lifted to the night sky, formed in his mind, catching him in mid-stride. Shaking his head, he resumed his way to the stables. To horse, sir! It is the fields and fences you’ve come to explore, not the local nurseries! He entered the stable yard, gratified to see Nelson ready at the mounting block and eager for a good run. Swinging into the saddle, he brought his thoughts into line with the desires of his mount and made for a beckoning countryside awash in the rays of a glorious autumn morning. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~&~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~