Posted on Sunday, 26 September 2004
"We neither of us perform to strangers."
Mr. Darcy to Elizabeth sitting at the piano, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 31
Colonel Fitzwilliam's manners were very much admired at the parsonage, and the ladies all felt that he must add considerably to the pleasure of their engagements at Rosings. It was some days, however, before they received any invitation thither -- for while there were visitors in the house, they would not be necessary; and it was not till Easter-day, almost a week after the gentlemen's arrival, that they were honoured by such an attention, and then they were merely asked on leaving church to come to dinner in the evening. For the last week they had seen very little of either Lady Catherine or her daughter. Colonel Fitzwilliam had called at the parsonage more than once during the time but Mr. Darcy they had only seen at church. The invitation was accepted of course, and at a proper hour, they joined the party in Lady Catherine's drawing room.
On their entering, Mr. Darcy was standing at the mantelpiece, as was his wont, making every impression of a man owning the place. Impeccably clothed for dinner, his formidable height drew Elizabeth's glance at once. For the first time Elizabeth was forced to acknowledge his exceptional handsome countenance and the efforts he had taken with his evening wear. That she could not remove her eyes from his features right away vexed her. He briefly bowed, his eyes flickering negligently over her and her party that he, besides those glimpses at church, had not seen for a week.
Her ladyship received them civilly, but it was plain that their company was by no means so acceptable as when she could get nobody else. She was, in fact, almost engrossed by her nephews, speaking to them, especially to Mr. Darcy, much more than to any other person in the room. Only Colonel Fitzwilliam seemed glad to see them. Anything was a welcome relief to him at Rosings and, besides, Mrs. Collins's pretty friend had caught his fancy very much. As dinner was announced, he was sad to leave her side and perform his duty by leading his aunt to dinner. Mr. Darcy went in with Miss de Bourgh, Mr. and Mrs. Collins followed, and Maria, Elizabeth and Mrs. Jenkinson concluded the procession.
Sitting at the end of the board, Elizabeth was at leisure to watch the whole party. Lady Catherine, her nephews on both sides, steered the conversation. Mrs. Jenkinson fussed in her usual fashion over Miss de Bourgh, both ignored by Mr. Darcy sitting at the other side. Elizabeth, neither at that moment nor at any other could discern any symptom of love; and from the whole of his behaviour to Miss de Bourgh, she derived this comfort for Miss Bingley that he might have been just as likely to marry her, had she been his relation. He said very little, only when spoken to, but Elizabeth meant to perceive a certain tenseness that she fancied must be impatience -- impatience for being forced to spend his time in such inferior company. He seldom lifted his eyes from his plate and when he did once or twice look her way, his expression was indefinable.
His behaviour was so strongly to the contrary of that of his cousin that her ire revolted. She could not think with equanimity of his conduct in Hertfordshire and how it had affected the whole neighbourhood. This evening she felt his disregard more painfully than at the time he attended the assembly in Meryton. There she had hardly known him, now she begun to loathe the way he ignored the entire party; it tickled her indignation prodigiously. As since entering the room an odd depression had gripped her she was thankful there was no need to say much as Lady Catherine spoke for them all, answering every question directed at anyone at the table with her usual condescension herself.
However, any ordeal must end and as the coffee was pronounced ready, the party moved to the drawing room and Colonel Fitzwilliam seated himself by Elizabeth. They talked so agreeably of Kent and Hertfordshire, of travelling and staying at home, of new books and music, that Elizabeth had never been half so well entertained in that room before and she rapidly began to unwind. Colonel Fitzwilliam, being all that any woman could wish for in an admirer, drew more witty remarks from her than she had uttered in months. Her vivaciousness wakened, her wit sparkled and her contagious laughter soon drew the attention of the entire party. Even Miss de Bourgh looked on with some interest and the conversation was such that Lady Catherine, to her own consternation, was not able to throw in a word and began a conversation with Mrs. Jenkinson conversing on the recklessness of youth. Her elder nephew seemed to have the time of his life, wholly engrossed by his partner's lively spirit, fuelling Miss Bennet's imaginations with his own amusing counters that were retaliated instantly. The other nephew, on the contrary, sat withdrawn watching the teasing intercourse. Her parson, however, a man with sense and education, perceived the behaviour rightly as unsuitable, and cast exasperated looks at his wife. That decent woman blinked several times demonstratively at the fair speaker, only to be totally ignored. At last she harrumphed and said loudly,
"Lizzy, did you not promise to play the piano? Please, oblige us and cheer us with some music; with your permission, of course, milady.
"Yes," thundered Lady Catherine, "it is about time someone changed the tune. Oblige us, Miss Bennet."
Heading the command, Elizabeth was instantly on her feet, stating it would be her honour. She requested Colonel Fitzwilliam's assistance to turn the pages, took him by the hand without ceremony and pulled him away from the stunned audience into the music room where she took place at the instrument. The colonel was hardly able to follow her at an appropriate speed.
The first piece coming to her eyes among the sheets clustering the music rack was 'Fur Elise' by Beethoven. It suited her fine. She began to play and soon the eyes of each member of her audience grew round in wonder. It was not to say that she played wrong or any such marginality, no, the music was performed with such rapidity as to bewilder the listeners and with such power that Colonel Fitzwilliam feared the window panes would rattle had they not been covered with shutters for the chill of the evening. And all the time that he sat besides her, he chuckled silently.
In the course of her playing, when she worked the keys as if to murder the instrument, finally Elizabeth became aware of the fury that had gripped her. She was wholly sick of the follies of Mr. Darcy and consorts. It had been her sole aim to show Mr. Darcy with her demonstrative actions that his cousin found it not beneath him to pay attention to her, though he being the son of an earl. How dare he look down his nose with such haughty disdain! Ending her play rather with a bang than with a gentle accord, she came to the evidence of her surroundings again. It had quite escaped her notice that her adversary had stationed himself before the piano. He had watched her with his usual unreadable contemplation and said dryly,
"It is ever a pleasure to hear you play, Miss Bennet. No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you can think anything wanting." Then he had the impertinence to smile.
That was the limit, felt Elizabeth, fuming silently and fatigued with her own folly. She made no answer rather she ignored him. Lady Catherine anyway spared her the trouble by calling hither,
"I have told Miss Bennet several times, that she will never play REALLY well unless she PRACTISES more; and though Mrs. Collins has no instrument, she is VERY welcome, as I have often told her, to come to Rosings every day and play on the pianoforte in Mrs. Jenkinson's room. She would be in NOBODY'S WAY, you know, in that part of the house. And if ANNE had ever been able to practise, I am sure she would have performed to everybody's satisfaction, with NOTHING left wanting."
Before Elizabeth could decide if she felt willing to thank for the condescension, she perceived Colonel Fitzwilliam besides her, who hung desperately on to his last sense of reason, abandoned to fits of laughter. Eying him grimly, not in the mood for being laughed at, she admonished him stiffly,
"Where was the humour in this, sir?"
He had pulled out his handkerchief and dabbed his eyes, chuckling. "I beg your pardon, Miss Bennet, though it breaks my heart, I am not in the condition to answer that question."
He came no further as his aunt appeared in the doorway. With a look of thunder, she ordered icily,
"Fitzwilliam, it is about time you tend to the other guests. The card tables are to be set."
While Colonel Fitzwilliam wordlessly bowed to Elizabeth and disappeared into the drawing room (chuckling nevertheless), his aunt eyed Elizabeth sternly.
"Miss Bennet, I would be very much obliged if you made a more moderate approach to music with your next piece. I like my cups safely on the saucers and, indeed, it would not add to MY comfort if you were slain by the chandelier. -- Darcy, do turn the pages!"
Elizabeth blushed and looked perplexed at the ceiling where, indeed, a most gorgeously glittering chandelier hung above her head. She shuddered. As her attention focused again on the piano, the lady had left the place and her look was caught by that of Mr. Darcy who was moving to her side. His face was strangely altered until she perceived that it was graced by a smile, alarming in its tenderness. Fatigued from her own folly, she found not the power to turn her eyes away from the vision. At last, his eyes left hers and fell on the music sheets.
"What shall you play next, Miss Bennet?" he asked with a voice, never heard of him. Usually somewhat metallic, though deep, it washed over her like velvet, jolting through her very being. In unison with his stone melting smile, it had a peculiar influence on her senses. Panicking, she jumped up and with flying fingers searched the sheets for a tune she knew by heart, fervently wishing she had stayed at the parsonage feigning a headache.
"Piano, Miss Bennet, pianissimo, we must heed my aunt's orders," came the impudent man's advice.
"Maybe, I should play in Mrs. Jenkinson's room," grumbled Elizabeth.
"Miss Bennet," he cried, "with me to turn the pages? That would be highly improper!"
She shot him an exasperated look and saw him shrug with a cheeky smile.
"Lady Catherine's order: I must turn the pages."
Elizabeth could hardly contain her laughter but she knew it would not do to encourage him.
"Thank you, Mr. Darcy, there is no need to turn the pages," she managed to say and placing the sheets on the rack she punched them in order, fantasising it were his nose. She began to play and steadfastly ignored him. Secretly had she hoped he would heed her dismissal but not a breath of this idea seemed to touch his mind; no, he was glued to the chair, watching her every move. In the drawing room the card players were captivated by their tasks; no one looked hither.
In the course of the recital, his presence began earnestly to affect her and she sought frantically for a reason for his odd behaviour, the alteration startling her out of all proportions. 'Why is he so altered, from what can it proceed?' she thought, agitated. A strong heat surged through her body, rendering her very uncomfortable. With horror did she see how the odious man gripped the fan she had brought with her and placed on top of the instrument. With careful attention, he began to fan her face. How was he to know that the soft, airy waves disturbed her equilibrium more than she could bear? What might be the matter with her? Omitting all the repetitions in the play, she concluded it in the shortest time possible.
"Pardon me, sir, I need fresh air, I suffer from too much warmth," she stammered, rising. He instantly rose also and offered her his arm, saying,
"I will accompany you. We shall fetch our coats at once."
His face showed such eagerness that it was impossible for Elizabeth to refuse lest she overstepped all rules of politeness. 'Am I ever to get rid of him?' she thought, blowing her cheeks. Mr. Darcy, after apprising the others of them going into the garden since Miss Bennet suffered a slight indisposition, led her into the hall where a footman fetched their cloaks. In next to no time, she found herself walking the paths in the darkness. The air was quiet and chilly, soothing her ruffled feathers, the moon full in attendance. They walked silently.
She felt exhausted by her conflicting emotions, so exhausted that they at last shrank into insignificance. The evening had been strange so far and continued to do so. Her hand - she had forgotten to don her gloves -- was tucked under Mr. Darcy's arm and he held it so firmly that by removing it she would have to tug rudely. He was deep in thoughts and after a while, his other hand came up, covered hers and began to play with her fingers. Obviously, he did not heed his own actions!
Now at the latest, Elizabeth should have removed her hand and scolded him but the feeling of his likewise uncovered fingers on her skin created a strange, mesmerising impact on her senses. (It was so fascinatingly improper!) She stared at his hand, noticing absent-mindedly how beautiful and shapely it was. All of Mr. Darcy was handsome and shapely; there was no denying it. Somewhere on the edge of her reason, she tried to recall that he was repulsive, evil and prideful but everything began to dim into unrecognisable images. The earth under her feet and the brain under her scalp slowly transformed into soft clouds of cotton wool, making coherent thoughts unattainable. She sighed. How dearly did she wish that he would be amiable and likable, a true lover on who's shoulder she could rest her head; but she could nothing do but feign ignorance, hoping, he would end his ministrations before he knew what he was doing, hoping, they would never end.
Deep in meditations, Elizabeth found herself suddenly in front of him who had ceased to stroll, watching her tenderly. Tenderly! Meeting his eyes, she knew that she had never been so endearingly looked at. Their gazes met and kindled and all her power left her. His image blurred as she closed her eyes and that he should kiss her was the most natural thing in time and space, in a world that had ceased to exist and a time that had stopped its flow. She must be dreaming.
However, there was no kiss; he only watched her with warm interest. Slowly regaining consciousness, Elizabeth, lost between repulsion and attraction, hung on to her last rational thought and murmured feebly,
"Sir, you are despicable."
"Yes, I know", he warmly said. "You will get used to it, I hope, when we are married. Allow me to say how ardently I admire and love you...