Posted on 2022-04-03
The 26th of November was certain to be memorable for the gentle populace of that particular corner of Hertfordshire.
After a succession of rain, the day of the ball at Netherfield Hall dawned clear and bright. The sun and the unseasonably warm late autumn weather served to dry the mud in the lanes throughout the day to such an extent that the carriages converging on the great house in the evening had little trouble on their journey.
When Elizabeth Bennet stepped from her family's carriage, aided by one of the great house’s footmen, it was onto carpets laid out on paving stones free of mud and washed clean of dust. Pulling her wrap more closely around her against the faint chill of night, she looked up into the ebon sky, which showed few stars against the combined radiance of a full moon and the blazing light shining forth from every window of Netherfield’s public rooms.
“A fine night for frivolity, my dear, is it not?” said her father, who had come to stand beside her.
As she turned her head to reply, Elizabeth caught sight of a man’s silhouette against an upper window, his tall frame blocking out much of the light as he held aside a gauzy curtain. She paused for a moment, her mind deducing the likelihood of the man’s identity -- most decidedly not the person she most wanted to see tonight -- and in that very breath he released the drape and stepped back into the room.
“For most, I should think,” Elizabeth said to Mr. Bennet. Then thinking of that very man she suspected had just spied upon them: “And those who feel inclined toward silence and reserve must accept that Nature herself has crafted this night especial for the purpose, and either enter into her joy or retire early.”
“Indeed,” her father said, “but as I have already come, I suppose I have no choice but to enter.”
The two shared a smile before Mr. Bennet, brought to attention by the shrill tones of his wife, offered his arm to that lady and preceded his five daughters up the stairs to the house. In the drawing-room, greetings were shared with the host and hostess of the event: Mr. Bingley showed his absolute delight at the sight of Miss Bennet and her family, while his sister Miss Bingley succeeded in displaying none at all. Mrs. Hurst, Bingley's eldest sister, stood with them, but barely acknowledged the Bennets before returning her attention to the crowded hall behind her. Of her husband there was no sign -- likely, he was already at cards, Elizabeth thought.
The rooms open to guests were awash with light and filled with people, a veritable crush of the finer members of local society. And until that very moment, as she searched in vain among the clusters of red coats for a particular gentleman, Elizabeth never had a doubt that Mr. George Wickham would be one of them. She had greatly enjoyed the handsome militia officer’s acquaintance thus far and had dressed with unusual care that night with the hope, left unspoken even to herself, that she might enjoy his attentions for the course of the evening and end it having conquered what was left unsubdued of his heart.
But in the instant she recognized the absence of his form and face in the crowd, a suspicion entered her mind that there was a more sinister reason for his failure to appear: that he might have been omitted from the invitation by Mr. Bingley under the influence of his more determined friend. That Mr. Darcy should have denied Mr. Wickham the pleasure of a dance was the least of his offenses against the gentleman, but it was the more vexing to Elizabeth as it had a more direct impact upon her own pleasure.
Her suspicion was amended slightly in the confirmation of Wickham’s absence by a somewhat forward query put to his fellow officer Mr. Denny by Elizabeth’s youngest sister, Lydia: “He was obliged to go to Town on business yesterday,” the lieutenant replied before adding, with a lift of his brow and a significant smile, “though I do not imagine his business would have called him away just now, if he had not wanted to avoid a certain gentleman here.”
The latter part of his intelligence went unheard by Lydia, who like a butterfly in a riotous garden had already fluttered away to her friends Maria Lucas and Sarah Long and another group of officers. To Elizabeth, however, it served as a source of great frustration. While she must, perforce, clear Mr. Darcy of her first surmise, her displeasure with that gentleman remained sharpened by her disappointment at the suggestion that he was yet indirectly responsible. As Mr. Denny excused himself, Elizabeth simmered in her ire.
“Good evening, Miss Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth stiffened as she turned to acknowledge the greeting of the tall, handsome man from Derbyshire who had approached her so unexpectedly. It took all of her will to offer a sufficiently courteous salute and not to snatch her hand back too quickly as Mr. Darcy bowed over it. Her powers of speech, however, were not likewise under regulation and she deemed it more prudent to remain mute than to give utterance to the sentiments she so strongly felt toward him.
They stood in an uncomfortable silence for some moments, during which Mr. Darcy continued to stare at her in the fashion to which she had nearly become accustomed over the course of their acquaintance. Unintimidated and spurred by her passionate emotions, she returned his gaze frankly until he withdrew his own.
“Your family is well?” he asked as he adjusted and readjusted the signet ring on his smallest finger.
With some effort, she drew her fascinated gaze away from this indication of an agitation she could not comprehend and looked to the receiving line, where Mrs. Bennet still held forth on some topic with Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley, the latter straining to conceal her impatience. Mr. Bennet stood to one side in patent amusement, while Mary blended in with the tapestries beside him. “As you see.”
“Ah. Yes,” he said, “And your journey was pleasant?”
With much forbearance, Elizabeth answered this and similar pleasantries that followed until she was rescued by the approach of Mr. Bingley with Elizabeth’s elder sister on his arm. To that gentleman she was able to provide more enthusiastic politeness, though her feelings towards his friend at that moment prevented her at first from her usual equanimity with him. As Jane’s unacknowledged suiter, however, and as one of the most pleasing gentlemen she knew, it was difficult to remain in any state of complete disaffection with Mr. Bingley. After returning his smile and query as to her health, they engaged in conversation about their expectations for the night ahead. Mr. Darcy stood silently, fidgeting with his diamond-studded cufflinks, until he was approached by a servant who whispered to him and he then excused himself.
Elizabeth breathed more easily when he had withdrawn, and she felt yet more fully liberated as she removed herself from the love-struck pair and went to greet familiar fellow guests before the opening of the ball.
All too soon, however, it was time for dances of mortification, as her cousin Mr. Collins arrived to claim her. The two numbers could not be gotten through quickly enough, for that tall and ponderous young clergyman was a poor dancer and offensive. He moved wrong and spent more time apologizing than attending, leaning towards her as they passed, and stepping on her toes or gown or, worse, those of the other dancers! For Elizabeth could bear the humiliation on her own account, but to have his display injure others was too much. She had never wished for the end of a set more than she did now.
But at last it was over, and Elizabeth found herself claimed by other young men eager to have a pretty and pleasant partner. She danced with one of the neighborhood gentlemen, as well as one of the officers. It was particularly enjoyable for her to engage with the latter, as she was able to hear word of Mr. Wickham and his doings.
Between dances, she sought out Jane or her friend and neighbor Charlotte Lucas. It was as she stood in discussion with that latter young lady after the third set that she was again approached by Mr. Darcy, who requested a dance. In her surprise, and unable to think of a reasonable excuse, she accepted. No sooner had he walked away, though, than she lamented her absence of mind to Charlotte, who chided her for her preference of Wickham over a man ten times his consequence.
Nevertheless, when Mr. Darcy returned to claim her for the dance, Elizabeth went with him still harboring a grudge for his clear determination to ruin her entire evening. Thus their conversation, when it did begin, was less civil than otherwise prudent.
To her pert statements he answered with such equanimity and wit that even Elizabeth, though grudgingly, perforce had to acknowledge his cleverness and patience. It did not prevent her from continuing her barbs, however, and from answering him, when he made a query on how often she and her sisters walked into Meryton, with an allusion to the very man he, by all accounts, disliked and had wronged so greatly.
“When you met us there the other day, we had just been forming a new acquaintance.”
Mr. Darcy reacted immediately to her speech, his features stiffening granite and cold, and he said not a word. Elizabeth, though wishing she could continue, knew not how, and the silence stretched between them. At last Darcy spoke, his manner constrained: “Mr. Wickham is blessed with such happy manners as may ensure his making friends -- whether he may be equally capable of retaining them, is less certain.”
“He has been so unlucky as to lose your friendship,” Elizabeth replied with some passion, “and in a manner which he is likely to suffer from all his life.”
Mr. Darcy made no reply to this, and, indeed, had not any opportunity, for at that moment Sir William Lucas collided with him as he crossed the floor. With such an opportunity for demonstrating his courtesy, the elder gentleman spoke in praise of the younger’s skill and grace and waxed poetically on the good fortune of seeing the two dance so well together. Mr. Darcy suffered his attentions with patience, though his stoic mein was belied by his eyes darting around the crowded floor.
At last, Sir William was just closing his remarks with his wish to see a repetition of the event of their coupling in the dance some time soon in the future, when his words were cut short by a scream so chilling that it slew through the music and stopped every dancer in his tracks. Instruments screeched to a halt and voices stilled as heads turned towards the sound that issued from the direction of the doors leading to the gardens. Elizabeth, her heart leaping to her throat, stepped from the line. Strange as it was, she knew that voice.
The scream cut off, and then, before even the first murmur could swell as the guests turned to each other in confusion, it arose again with renewed hysteria.
Sir William, standing beside Elizabeth, murmured something indistinct and helpless, and she turned toward him. He looked pale and agitated, but her attention was drawn beyond him to Darcy, who stood still and silent, his gaze above the crowd and fixed on the balcony doors, his face impassive. An odd expression lit his eyes, and when he met her gaze she tried to decipher it, but failed.
“Miss Elizabeth,” he said, his voice firm with command, “remain here.”
“But that is my sister,” she said, grasping his arm when he would have gone around her. “Something is horribly wrong.” When he cocked his head in question, she closed her eyes and shook her head, helpless in her confusion. “With four sisters, you cannot find it surprising we should know each other’s shrieks and screams. It is Lydia. Something is very wrong.”
He peered keenly at her for a moment, but as he opened his mouth to speak the screaming stopped, replaced by the sound of a woman’s sobs and men’s cries for help. With a distracted air, Mr. Darcy excused himself from her, bestowing a kiss to her fingers as he removed her hand from his arm, and then disappeared into the crowd. She watched him be enveloped by the sea of people with a tight feeling in her chest, the tips of her fingers unnaturally tingling, and she frowned at the confusing emotions that suddenly roiled her heart. She knew not how long she stared after him, when she became aware of growing murmurs around her, and then suddenly chaos erupted. Word of the happenings began to spread, and a wave of fainting ladies and frightened voices swept the ballroom.
Mr. Denny was dead!
Yes, the 26th of November was certain to be very memorable, indeed.