Darcy was simply bored. Bingley had talked him into attending this country assembly and he had never felt more out of place. There was nothing to do here except dance, which Darcy could easily do without. He had only danced twice tonight -- once with Louisa Hurst out of courtesy and once with Caroline Bingley out of sheer annoyance at her constant presence.
Charlotte Lucas had been obliged by the scarcity of gentlemen to sit down for two dances; and during part of that time, Mr. Darcy had been standing near enough for her to overhear a conversation between him and Mr. Bingley, who came from the dance for a few minutes to press his friend to join it.
"Come, Darcy," said he, "I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance."
"I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. At such an assembly as this, it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged, thankfully, and I am unacquainted with all the other women in the room."
"There is a young lady sitting behind you that I daresay is very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you."
"Which do you mean?" and turning round, he looked for a moment at Charlotte and turned away in disgust when he caught her eye. "She is not nearly handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humor at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me."
Charlotte stood up and went to Elizabeth, where she indignantly relayed the conversation. This absurdity amused Elizabeth immensely; she found herself looking at Mr. Darcy for another fifteen minutes with laughing eyes. Charlotte did not catch the humor that Elizabeth saw; she walked away to scoff at Mr. Darcy with one of Mrs. Long's nieces.
Darcy had not been blind to the girl with the twinkling eyes that had been watching him for so long. He had very little idea of who she was. His only way to seek an introduction was through Bingley, who he impatiently waited for at the edge of the dance. As soon as the music ended, Bingley came back to Darcy to attempt to coax him into dancing once again. This time, however, his friend hardly needed to be asked.
"Look here, Darcy, the assembly shall be wasted if you do not dance tonight with a local young lady ." Bingley said, looking up at his friend, anticipating the inevitable negative reply.
"I agree with you wholeheartedly, Bingley. Might I request an introduction from your partner? There is a young lady I wish to dance with." Darcy looked away as he spoke the last sentence, unsure of how Bingley would perceive it.
"Leave it to you to single out a lady before you choose to dance with her! Which do you mean, Darcy?" He looked at his friend curiously, awaiting an answer.
"Do you see the raven-haired lady with the sparkling eyes?" Darcy looked straight into Elizabeth's eyes and was surprised by the challenge she returned to him. He looked down to see Bingley staring off in the other way. "No, no, Bingley, the one in the scarlet dress. In that direction." Darcy pointed his head towards Elizabeth.
Bingley started laughing. "That's done easily enough, Darcy. Why, I could introduce you to that young lady myself. She's Miss Bennet's younger sister, Elizabeth." He started walking in the direction of Elizabeth, leaving Darcy to follow
"E-liz-uh-beth." He enunciated each syllable carefully. He found himself being introduced to her and even sooner found himself gliding along the dance floor with her opposite him. Darcy never professed to liking to dance, though it seemed a magical experience at that moment.
Elizabeth had accepted his request for her hand out of curiosity about the man that had so slighted her friend. She had seen beyond the simple indelicacy of his remark and finally came to the conclusion that it was either a display of the most inflated case of arrogance in history, or simply an annoyed man stealthily dissuading his friend from pairing him up with someone he'd rather not know.
Determined to find out, Elizabeth smiled at her partner and began her inquisition. "I have become aware, Mr. Darcy, that dancing is not looked upon favorably by you. It is with this in mind that I ask why I find myself dancing with you."
"Sometimes one must dance." Darcy replied shortly, somehow surprised that he was allowed to speak to Elizabeth as well as command a view of her countenance for a full half hour.
Not to be dissuaded by so brief a reply, Elizabeth pressed forward. "It is not for a politic reason that you dance with me, for I am not one of your party. Your dancing quota for the day is up, Sir, for you have already danced with Mr. Bingley's sisters. Surely, a man that detests dancing as you do can have no reason to dance beyond what is required of him. Yet still, somehow, I find myself opposite you. How is that?" Having executed a decent speech, Elizabeth smiled sweetly at Mr. Darcy. He really is quite handsome, especially when he smiles like that.
Darcy could not keep his smile from widening as he replied. "If you are inquiring as to why I chose to dance with you, it is because I perceived your exquisite eyes following me around the room. I could hardly rest, Miss Elizabeth, till I could become acquainted with you. As this is an assembly, one cannot hope to become acquainted any other way than to dance, can he?"
Elizabeth had, for once, not formed an opinion as to what his reply to her question would be. That she was taken aback by his reply would be exaggeration, but to say she was wholly unsurprised would not do her justice. Her outward composure steadied her inward confusion as she replied simply. "One would not think so, Mr. Darcy. Am I to understand you wished to dance with me based simply on outward appearances?"
Darcy had no patience with falsehood, yet could not help being slightly disappointed at what an honest answer would sound like. He risked it, however. No woman that deserved respect would berate him for being honest. "You understand completely, Miss Elizabeth."
"Is it on this same principle, then, that one refuses to dance with someone?" Elizabeth tried not to sound accusatory, though could not help that the implications were such. Oh dear. I suppose he thinks I'm angry at him for what he said about Charlotte....
"If you are inferring that the beauty present or absent in a woman is what determines whether I should dance with her, I must disappoint you. One can rarely be introduced on a dance floor, and it is only those that catch my attention pleasantly that I wish to dance with. That is what I meant by physical appearance, for how can someone I am unacquainted with catch my attention any other way than with what I can see?" Triumphantly, he watched Elizabeth replace her smile with a grin. Good. I have induced her into forgiving me for what I said about her friend. And I did it without lying to her! Wonderful!
Thus, the dance ended. Darcy could not believe it. He immediately requested Elizabeth's hand for the next two. She gladly obliged him. Opposite him once more, Elizabeth smiled at Darcy and again began their discourse.
"As is customary, Mr. Darcy, I must ask why you have asked me to dance." Good going, Bennet. He must think you abominably rude! Well, why does he have to smile so much? I have no idea what I'm saying...
"If we are enjoying each other's company, as I have the presumption to say we are, should not we continue as long as possible?" Can you never keep your damn presumptions to yourself, man? What can she think of you now? Immediately after you disprove yourself an arrogant man, you make a statement such as that! Say something sensible!
"I rarely have the opportunity to tell anyone that they presume correctly, Mr. Darcy. You are ranked highly in favor with me. I wonder, though, what all the scheming mamas will say about our dances." Oh no...you told him too much. Don't ever tell a man that he means something to you, isn't that what you've always believed? And you right out told him that we might be perceived as a couple. What if it bothers him? Say something sensible!
"So do I. Is it custom here, then, that a lady is considered 'destined' for a gentleman after two sets of dances in succession in one evening?" This is getting interesting. She seems to be enjoying this. I know I am. I've never been half so amused on the dance floor.
"That is custom. My own mother will be very proud of me for having 'secured your attentions' for so long." She blushed, embarrassed. What if he thinks that I mean it as mercenarily as I said it? I didn't mean --- oh dear! Why can I never say what I need to when I speak to him? Oh do stop smiling, Mr. Darcy!
"My attentions are readily given to you, Miss Elizabeth. Continuing with this dancing, however, would put us on the fair way of being considered engaged, would it not?" ACK!!! Did I just announce my intention to her outright? What she must think of me! Maybe if I play it off as a joke...I don't know anything of her connections or her family. She is only the most bewitching woman I've ever encountered....oh get off this train of thought! Think of Aunt Catherine! Darcy shuddered involuntarily. Good. Now say something sensible.
Again, the dance ended. Darcy offered his arm to Elizabeth as he escorted her from the dance floor. They stood still together in silence till Darcy, seeing Caroline approaching, spoke softly to Elizabeth.
"Let us take a walk where we may discuss our engagement in private." The words were spoken so only Elizabeth and Caroline could hear them.
Elizabeth nodded her agreement to his proposal and the pair wandered happily about the gardens around the assembly hall. Elizabeth was happy to get some air, and Darcy was happy that Elizabeth was happy to get some air, as it allowed him to once again claim her undivided attention. Unbeknownst to either of them, Caroline was surreptitiously picking her way behind them; as she had no use for air and cared even less for Elizabeth's undivided attention, she was unhappy.
After some minutes of comfortable silence, Elizabeth turned to Darcy and said with admirable equanimity, "I couldn't help but notice, Mr. Darcy, that you referred to our ENGAGEMENT when you suggested this walk." She paused, and perceiving the still-evident smile on his lips, added, "Have I missed something?"
Caroline was surprised at the amazing fauna and wildlife present in Hertfordshire. One would not even think we were in England! She glumly wrinkled her nose at a centipede that was seated on the leaf in front of her. What are they saying? I need to find out how Miss Eliza has tricked him. I wish they would speak more loudly!
Darcy chuckled at Elizabeth's feigned innocence. "Miss Elizabeth, if the scheming mamas have not pronounced us 'the most delightful couple in all of Christendom' yet, I promise you I will eat my hat." She's smiling at me. Her eyes sparkle delightfully in the moonlight. I wish....
Elizabeth calmed her laughter and answered Darcy in a sweet voice. "It isn't as if I doubt what you say Mr. Darcy. I agree with you completely. In the minds of all of Hertfordshire, you have proposed to me tonight and we are enjoying the company of each other and the heavens." He has the darkest eyes I've ever seen! I feel almost as if I were falling into them. Dear Lord, I never want to stop...Elizabeth! Stop it, or you'll get hurt. A man like him does not give consequence to country girls like yourself.
Caroline stomped her foot angrily behind the shrubbery. She had finally succeeded in hearing what Elizabeth was saying, and it confirmed her fears. 'You have proposed to me tonight and we are enjoying the company of each other and the heavens....' She has no right to say that about my Darcy! Oh you stupid creature, stop looking at me! It's rather rude to gawk at a lady when you know she wishes you away with all her heart! Caroline sniffed at the wary centipede. Hertfordshire creatures have no more manners than the humans they live among.
Darcy's voice and eyes softened from the mirth they had enjoyed before to tenderness. Elizabeth's eyes were downcast, and Darcy proceeded to forget every rule of propriety as tilted her chin upwards to face him. He kept his hand on her face as he spoke. "You think country gossip would make all of our friends and family, those that know us best, forget who we are simply because we spent so much time in another's company? Really, Darling, it speaks ill more of society's habits than our own reputations if you and I are 'paired together.' In fact, I think we should give them all a taste of their own medicine." You're either a fool or a genius, Darcy. If she goes along with this, well, no other woman would be crazy enough to go with an idea of yours unless she adored you. All the more reason to do it, man!
Elizabeth's breath caught in her throat when she heard him call her Darling. Is he joking? Is it just for the effect? Does he really...did he mean...??? Desperately, she clambered for something to say. "Why is it, Mr. Darcy, that you sometimes refer to yourself using the 'royal We'? You mention 'our engagement' and that 'we' should give them their medicine, but you also employ the word 'I'. Is it custom in town to be so dubious?" By the end of her speech, Elizabeth had regained her confidence and her sparkle. Clarify that, Mr. Darcy...and don't move your hand.... .
The centipede wiggled its head (or was it its tail?) at Caroline for the third time since she tried to lean over the shrubbery. She wasn't going to risk getting that thing attached to her, but it kept moving near her. Elizabeth and Darcy stopped walking and sat down at the edge of a large, ornate fountain. Perfect! I can hide behind the fountain and hear every word they're saying, without the company of this insipid wildlife! Caroline stealthily made her way towards the fountain as Darcy replied to Elizabeth.
"It is really quite simple, Elizabeth. The whole countryside believes us nearly engaged, so why not allow them to think so? You and I are good friends, are we not?" Darcy paused at this, allowing Elizabeth to nod. His hand had somehow made its way into her hair and was indulging itself in the warmth of her curls. "Then we shall act as any pair of friends are wont to do. Bingley and I call each other with what we feel the most comfortable with, so you and I shall do the same. I spend as much time conversing, riding, reading, and walking with Bingley as we can endure, so you and I shall do the same." Now what will she think of me? If she doesn't like the idea....no, she seems like...it'll keep the gossips quiet for at least a generation if we manage this...what if...her hair is so soft...
Elizabeth's eyes sparkled. "It is a splendid idea, Mr. Darcy! When either of us becomes engaged to another, the gossips will never be able to hold their heads up again! What would we say to anyone who came to ask? That we're 'just friends'? Oh, it's rather perfect. I do have a suspicion, though, Mr. Darcy --- what's your ulterior motive?" These next weeks should be more than amusing. Why does everyone find him so disagreeable? He's got the most wonderful hands...
Darcy laughed and continued caressing her neck. "Alright, fair enough, you've caught me. A fiancee keeps Caroline at bay! She'll leave me alone, Elizabeth. It would be a new experience altogether if she didn't speak to me above ten times every one of my waking hours." She likes that information...she's so soft...we should probably get up before I do something I'll regret...
Caroline had been watching the scene with increasing alarm. When Darcy finished the last speech, she tumbled unceremoniously into the fountain, drenching herself and splashing the others. She came to the surface and sputtered, "Miss Eliza, if you'll do me the honor of assisting me out of this birdbath?" Caroline extended her hand to Elizabeth.
Elizabeth gripped her hand and tried to help Caroline out of the fountain. Was she listening to everything we were saying? Will she ruin everything? It seems as if she's trying to go right back into the fountain...is she trying to pull me in with her? The nerve of that woman...
Darcy, upon realizing what Caroline was trying to do, wrapped his arms around Elizabeth's waist and muttered to Elizabeth, "Really, Elizabeth, women seem to weigh much more than what they look they should." With Elizabeth (who was still holding onto Caroline's hand) securely in his arms, he walked a few steps backward. Caroline was fairly dragged out of the fountain. I wonder how long she'll let me hold her like this. Ha, Caroline looks like a drowned rat....Elizabeth's hair smells like roses....God she's soft...
It was Elizabeth that pulled Caroline to her feet and asked if she were alright. Caroline replied in a prideful affirmative and stalked off in a cloud of rage, muttering about the superiority of Hertfordshire wildlife to Hertfordshire birdbaths.
Laughing, Elizabeth turned to Darcy, who was watching her intently. "Elizabeth..." She was even polite to the rat...she's perfect....roses...
"Mr. Darcy, I wish I could call you by something less formal...do you have a first name?" She smiled at him and noticed his cravat was lopsided. Taking it upon herself to correct it, she walked over and arranged it properly. I suppose this happened when we were excavating Miss Bingley from the fountain...he has a really solid body...Elizabeth! Think about Uncle Phillips....
"Fitzwilliam. My sister calls me William." He smiled at her. She hadn't removed her hands from his chest and he was getting chills. He smiled roguishly and added, "You, my darling Elizabeth, may call me whatever you like." Her hands are still on me...maybe I was too forward...she's still smiling...maybe it wasn't so bad...the night is almost over...Caroline probably ordered our carriage...I want to see her again...
Elizabeth ruefully smiled at him. "So I may call you Will? It doesn't sound as regal as Fitzwilliam, but it's so much easier to say..." You're on a first name basis with a man you met two hours ago, Lizzy. You just agreed to a pretense of engagement. You let him touch you, and you're even now touching him. Have you gone mad!?!? If he even tries to kiss you Lizzy, show him you're not one to be handled...
Darcy nodded and gazed into her eyes intently. For a moment, each believed the other would do what they had not the courage to, but the moment passed. Each sighed with remorse and relief; they spoke no more that evening, as Darcy had to leave with his party soon after re-entering the assembly hall.
" ....and my dear Mr. Bennet, would you believe, the man that all the rest called proud, Mr. Darcy that slighted Charlotte Lucas, danced with Lizzy twice successively! Sir William told me during their dance that he had never seen a finer couple. There now, the proudest man in the room is in love with our dear Lizzy! What say you, Husband?" Mrs. Bennet had been talking nonstop for the last ten minutes; she described the assembly, the Bingleys, and all the dances the Lucas girls had to sit down for with great energy. She only asked Mr. Bennet the question to obtain the breath of air so vital to the life of even the most talkative of human beings.
"I hardly think it is surprising at all. And she is the only local lady he danced with? That's my girl. And he didn't dance twice with the Bingley sisters?" Mr. Bennet was taking an unusual amount of interest in his wife's gossip, as it newly mentioned his favorite child.
"No! He only danced the first two dances with them, and he seemed rather eager to get away from that Miss Bingley. Do you know, Mrs. Long told me that he and Lizzy were seen outside the hall together?" Mrs. Bennet lowered her voice as only she could do -- her voice did not sound like her customary piercing shriek, it sounded as if she were shrieking through a handkerchief.
"They were outside the hall at night? Alone?" Mr. Bennet was surprised. It seemed a very irresponsible thing to do, and his Lizzy was anything but irresponsible. He could understand such behavior from Lydia, but Lizzy?
"Oh yes. Quite alone. Lady Lucas was quite purple with envy! Just think, Mr. Bennet, 10,000 a year, and very likely more! A house in town! All the pin mon---" Here, Mr. Bennet interrupted the shrieks of his wife with a single prudent question.
"Then they are engaged, Mrs. Bennet?" He raised a skeptical eyebrow at his wife. "Lizzy only just met him tonight."
"Oh, my dear, if they are not engaged, they are very near to it. Why else would he single her out so? Oh, Mr. Bennet, did I tell you about how Mr. Bingley singled out my Jane? Two dances in succession! And there was not another girl in the room that he asked twice! Just think ---"
Darcy paced the floor in front of his writing desk again. Am I really doing the right thing? Is this how I wanted to end up? That woman makes me delirious, I do such nonsensical things! What will she think when she receives this? To hell with it all! I will have it delivered to Longbourn and if she doesn't meet me, I can assume she doesn't approve.
The letter he was thinking of was barely a note, consisting of the following lines:
For the sake of decorum [which I must preserve in this case -- it cannot be helped, I live with Bingley's sisters] the way in which we shall meet today will be rather secretive. Well, to begin with. There is a wooded path leading from Netherfield to Meryton, and another leading from Netherfield to Longbourn. I'll start my outing this morning by heading down the former and end it by "accidentally" stumbling upon you on the latter path. We'll head back to Netherfield together.
Yours & etc.
Should I seal it with my own crest? Would that be overstepping even our own proprieties? No, I must treat her as I do Bingley. Yes, I'll seal it now. She probably won't even recognize it. Nevertheless...Just do it, man! Darcy sealed the envelope and handed it to a servant. "Please have this delivered to Longbourn house immediately." The servant nodded and headed out.
It took Darcy some time to realize that he hadn't mentioned a specific time for her to meet him. To amend this, he headed out immediately on his horse, smiling at his good fortune. If he didn't meet Elizabeth immediately on the path, he would have a pleasant ride until he did, without hearing any of the effusions of a particular rat.
Elizabeth smiled at the dawning day. Oh what a glorious day it is! Will and I have havoc to wreak. How are we to begin? Elizabeth was barely out of her dressing room when a maid came to hand a letter to the only waking member of the household. Surprised at receiving a letter so early, Elizabeth could hardly believe it was addressed to herself. She didn't recognize the crest on the seal. On opening the letter, she laughed. Think harder, Lizzy. Who else would it be from?
Elizabeth paused when she read how he signed his name. It wasn't even his complete first name, it was the pet name she had given him. It would be as if he called me something even more personal than Lizzy.
She quickly grabbed her bonnet and parasol and headed outside towards Netherfield. As soon as she began to get nervous about meeting Mr. Darcy, she met him on the path.
He tipped his hat to her. "Good day, Miss Bennet. Do you walk here often?" He smiled. She came immediately. Perhaps we have an understanding...Don't be presumptuous, Darcy! It can only get you in trouble....
"Only when something is of a particular interest to me...like this morning." She smiled back, hoping he wouldn't take her meaning to be as coquettish as it sounded. Lizzy you sound more like Caroline Bingley than her echo! What's wrong with you! All you're doing is shutting up the gossips, not 'catching a husband!' Remember that...
Darcy jumped down and offered his arm to Lizzy; they wandered around the path talking about the trees, the path, their families, the Bingleys, and the attitudes of the societies they spent time in. Elizabeth was not surprised to learn that Darcy felt uncomfortable among the hordes of eligible ladies of London, but could hold his own there and anywhere. She laughed at his imitations of Caroline trying to court him. Presently, she found herself in the Netherfield drawing room, seated by Darcy and still laughing at his suggestion to Caroline that she should come to his costume ball as a duck last autumn, and at her appearance as the plumed orange monstrosity Darcy expected her to be. It amused Darcy so much that he couldn't stop smiling the whole time he danced with her, giving her false impressions; Caroline spent the rest of the night stalking him instead of watching at a respectable distance.
Elizabeth laughed. "So you call it stalking, Will? I would call it a faithful pursuit."
He shook his head. "You are too charitable, Elizabeth. When the faithful are in pursuit of you, I dare say your opinion will be different. Caroline Bingley is the most annoying woman I've ever --" Caroline was standing in the room looking at them with her mouth agape. "-- had the pleasure of meeting." Darcy finished his sentence in a choked whisper.
Caroline took no notice of his empty-hearted ending. Her eyes were filling with tears as she stared at Darcy. In a voice that spoke clearly of her pained pride, she said, "You think me annoying, Mr. Darcy?"
Elizabeth couldn't help feeling sympathy for the poor woman. It must ache greatly to have one's favorite call her "annoying." Even worse, it speaks badly of his manners and his status of a society gentleman. I suppose he speaks of me like that when I am not present...what have I gotten myself into?
Darcy tried to amend his speech. "Miss Bingley, you completely misunderstood my meaning. Annoying...in some societies....is....liked. Were you in Cambodia, you would be rather popular because of it." He looked down at his hands, displeased. Elizabeth puts me too much at ease. I felt as if I could speak anything in her presence, and when I did, I got caught! She isn't even trying to redress the situation. How am I ever going to explain this to Caroline? What have I gotten myself into?
Caroline had switched quickly from hurt to angry. "Might I remind you, Mr. Darcy, that we are not presently in Cambodia. Considering our current situation in England, I believe I am at leave to take offense to being called 'annoying.'" She paused for breath. Darcy took his head in his hands. There is no way Elizabeth will forgive me for so insulting a lady's pride! How horrible she must think me... Caroline noticed his disapprobation with no kind feelings and immediately began speaking again. "You could have mentioned, Mr. Darcy, that you did not find my attentions pleasing. I would have focused the elsewhere. I understand fully why you are so aloof towards me, though I fail to comprehend your unexampled attentions to Miss Elizabeth. Can it be explained?"
Darcy, finally getting up enough courage to say to Caroline what he could not say directly to Elizabeth, said in a clear voice, "Miss Elizabeth is the most enchanting creature I have ever met and I --"
His speech was cut short by the agonized sob of Caroline, who had fainted into Elizabeth's arms. Elizabeth had gotten up to attempt to comfort Miss Bingley, but found herself falling under Caroline's weight. Caroline let loose another high-pitched shriek, this one muffled in Elizabeth's hair, as they both fell down on the hardwood floor. Caroline stood up momentarily, unscathed except for the tear-stains trailing down her cheeks. Elizabeth did not stand.
Caroline stood still crying for a minute, then noticed Elizabeth was not beside her. Kneeling down, she touched the burning, pale cheek. "Do something, Mr. Darcy, Miss Elizabeth has taken ill!"
Darcy immediately scooped Elizabeth up into his arms and hurried up the stairs. Not even realizing what he was doing, he headed toward his own bedchamber. That was charming, Darcy, simply charming! Now you've gone and done it. One lady in tears and one likely comatose. Your aim is all off, man! He turned the covers on his four-poster bed and nestled her there snugly. Unthinkingly, Darcy traced her profile with a finger before walking downstairs to inform Charles of his new house-guest.
Mr. Darcy found Bingley in his study admiring his pool table. Bingley found it remarkable that the table could be so green, after all, one does not often find wood in that color; Bingley believed most everything was made of wood. He walked around the table, frequently touching the table in awe of the shade of its surface. His fancy was interrupted by the billiard stick he found suspiciously close to his nose. "Darcy! You have arrived at a most opportune time. I see you have noticed the table. Are you up for a game of billiards? It will be rather fascinating, I think...."
Under any other circumstance, Darcy would have accepted Bingley's offer, albeit with a mild assertion that a purple table would be more admirable. Considering his frenzied state of mind, however, he abruptly stated, "Bingley, I believe you should have a talk with your sister regarding some things."
"Things?" Bingley looked perplexed. "Caroline has no patience for things. Well, she does, but not the sort of things I would speak to her about. She likes lace and expensive things and does not care to consult on them with me and....and I jolly well like it that way!"
Darcy pointed his stick threateningly at the billiards table and said gravely, "Maybe it is time for you to talk to her about them, Bingley. She does not understand things, and as her guardian, you must make her understand them."
Bingley looked at his table, alarmed, and answered Darcy quickly, lest he injure the magnificent tint of the table. "I...I will be sure to do so, Darcy, at the earliest convenience. I still fail to see how my speaking to her about things has any bearing on you, unless....unless...Darcy! Things do not have any bearing on your relationship with Caroline, do they?"
Darcy nodded his head solemnly. "They most certainly do, Bingley, and I would like her to understand things before she next steps into the presence of myself and Elizabeth Bennet!"
As it happened, Mr. Jones pronounced Elizabeth perfectly healthy, albeit unconscious. "She will wake up with a headache, no doubt. Keep her in bed for a few days, in any case. I don't want any risks to be taken."
Bingley nodded eagerly at Mr. Jones's prognosis. "Yes, yes, she'll keep to her bed for at least a week. No risks at all, I agree completely, Mr. Jones."
Darcy was less acquiescent. "Mr. Jones, do you believe Miss Elizabeth capable of keeping her bed for a week?" he said. "Having known her for but a few days, it is easy to believe her in need of stimulation. Can she be moved around the house to partake in amusements in company?"
Mr. Jones eyed the young man suspiciously. He was unused to being gainsaid on such things. That a young man so wholly unconnected with a familiar patient would dare to - it was unheard of! Nevertheless, he answered the younger man equivocally. "She must remain sedentary for a few days after she awakes. A concussion is no laughing matter, sir, and I refuse to allow Miss Elizabeth any opening for a return to the world of the unconscious. She must keep to her rooms for the period of a week."
Returning his address to Bingley, he continued, "As she'll be waking with a considerable headache, you may administer some laudanum. A small amount, mind, it can be mighty potent." He handed Bingley a small bottle. "Will you be needing anything else, Master Bingley?" At his negative, Mr. Jones tipped his hat, collected his bag, and followed the maid to the exit.
Bingley immediately dispatched a note to Longbourn informing Mr. Bennet of his daughter's health and requesting the presence of one of his daughters to wait upon Elizabeth when she awoke. Upon receiving such a missive, Mr. Bennet was obliged to relate the happenings to his wife immediately, over breakfast.
"My dear, something rather unpleasant has befallen one of our daughters. I am afraid she shall suffer greatly for it, as will one other daughter of our choice." said Mr. Bennet.
"What can you mean, Mr. Bennet? All of our daughters are perfectly well at home. You do not know what you are about." cried she by way of reply.
"Ah, Mrs. Bennet, you are mistaken. Only two of our daughters are ever perfectly well, and I fear both of them will be indisposed before the hour is out. As it is, one is indisposed at this moment." he replied.
"All of our daughters are well, Mr. Bennet! Do not vex me so early in the morning, my nerves will be discomposed for the remainder of the day."
"I assure you, Mrs. Bennet, not all of our daughters are well."
"Oh, what can have happened, Mr. Bennet?"
"It seems, Mrs. Bennet, that Miss Caroline Bingley caused Elizabeth to fall and hit her head early this morning. She is currently unconscious in Mr. Darcy's bedroom, and shall remain there for a week. Mr. Bingley has asked me to deliver Jane to him immediately to -"
"How wonderful, my darling! Both Jane and Lizzy at Netherfield. Why, they have been very sly with me. I knew not a word of this until just now. They must have things prepared - oh, pretty things. Elizabeth has such beautiful nightgowns, Mr. Bennet, I am sure Mr. Darcy will appreciate them. In his bedroom, no less! She is almost married, I believe. I must tell my sister Phillips. Oh, but their things, Hill!" Mrs. Bennet left the breakfast table without eating a bite.
Mr. Darcy spent ten minutes after Mr. Jones's departure in the library with Bingley, nodding at his incessant rabble about his billiards table before heading to his bedroom. At Netherfield, nobody but he recalled that Elizabeth was ensconced thence; thus, he could go there without arousing much suspicion.
Elizabeth was slowly batting her eyes when she felt Darcy's fingers on her cheek. The sensation startled her into wakefulness. His fingertips had a rough texture, but were warm and gentle. She didn't understand his purpose in the caress, but allowed it because it seemed to please him. She noticed his other hand creeping towards her face; she lifted both her hands and captured it between her own. Wordlessly, they looked at their hands, feeling the human warmth of the other. It was the most remarkable experience of their lives.
Miss Bingley was surprised to hear Miss Jane Bennet announced into her parlor. She was almost entirely unacquainted with the lady, and wondered that she should be visiting when her sister was ill. She realized, as she opened her mouth to civilly decry Miss Bennet's welcome, that Miss Bennet would be wanting to wait on Elizabeth. For this reason alone, Miss Bingley greeted Jane with some cordiality.
"Miss Bennet? I don't believe we have truly met. My name is Caroline Bingley. Welcome to Netherfield." Caroline allowed herself a genuine smile. Miss Bennet was quiet, surprisingly, and very lovely.
Jane returned her smile gratefully. "Thank you, Miss Bingley. It is a very lovely house, I must admit. However, I came on urgent business," here, Jane's smile faltered considerably. "my sister, Elizabeth, is now sick under this roof. Mr. Bingley requested my father send one of his daughters to wait upon her."
"Yes, Miss Eliza fainted earlier this morning. Come, I will show you to her. She will be in one of the guest bedrooms, I expect." Miss Bingley displayed more than the necessary civility to Jane in escorting her to Elizabeth's room. She didn't understand why she was exerting herself, exactly, except for a small inkling of guilt at another's misfortune.
"Does your head hurt, darling?" Darcy continued to slowly touch her face, reveling in the softness and smoothness of her pale cheek. Eh, you're not being very intellectual about your speech today, D-man.
Elizabeth laughed at the absurdity of his question. "Of course not, Will. I am perfectly well, thank you, though I would like to go home. Netherfield isn't kindly to its guests, as you see, and I would much prefer a safer locale, if you do not mind." One would think he took the fall, not I. Though his tendency to state the obvious is rather endearing. And his hands....
"You are at least recovered enough to make fun of me, thankfully. You are not going anywhere, however. Mr. Jones stated clearly that you are to remain in bed for the period of one week." Darcy smiled wickedly. There is much we could accomplish in a week...
Elizabeth closed her eyes as Darcy's fingers tentatively touched her eyelids. "I will not remain in this bed for a week, Will. I bore easily, I need change. There aren't even any books in here. What am I supposed to spend my time here doing?"
Darcy was sorely tempted to kiss the pout from her face. "Darling, you have nothing to fear. I will take you wherever you wish to go, and we will do whatever you like. Of course, you must not tell any one about this. Mr. Jones and Mr. Bingley would have my head, and I rather like it where it is."
"So do I." Elizabeth stated softly as she felt his fingertips move lower down her throat.