Previous Section, Section V
Part Two, Chapter 5
Elizabeth returned to Longbourn that morning knowing she was relieved but still feeling vaguely upset and anxious. Her mood was not aided by meeting with Lydia's wild enthusiasm upon stepping into the front hall.
"Oh there you are, Lizzy! What do you think? Mr. Bingley really is to hold a ball at Netherfield! And in less than a fortnight! Look, here's the invitation just come by the morning post!"
The card was thrust into Elizabeth's unready hands as Kitty ran into the front hall from the breakfast room. "Isn't it too wonderful, Lizzy? Lydia says we maybe sure of dancing with all the officers."
"I have no doubt she intends to," replied Elizabeth in a cynical monotone as she regarded the invitation, but her youngest sister by this time was too busy twirling about the hall and mentally filling her dance card with officers to notice.
A ball at Netherfield would prove to be an interesting development, considered Elizabeth as she removed her coat and bonnet once in her own room. She could not deny that, though the likelihood of familial embarrassment at such an occasion was great indeed, the opportunity to dance with Darcy again was very agreeable to her. She paused a moment as she straightened her wind tousled hair to remember the warm smile with which he had parted from her only ten minutes ago. Very agreeable indeed. . .
But unfortunately, there was more to be thought of than the pleasure of a certain gentleman's company. Though Darcy's information of the morning had done much to alleviate Elizabeth's mind, his obvious secrecy on some points of his connection with Mr. Wickham left her still somewhat uneasy. She had resolved to trust her friend, but she was at a loss as to how she ought to behave to his rival. If Lydia was right and the regiment was to be invited to the Netherfield ball, further contact between the two men was inevitable. It was quite likely that Elizabeth herself would see Mr. Wickham in the intervening period, but how did one behave to such a man?
November 1, 18__
My brother tells me there is to be a ball at Netherfield within the fortnight. I am sure it will be a very happy event indeed. I will think of you with fond envy on the evening of the occasion, wishing that I was both out in society (at last) and staying in Hertfordshire with all the people I love best in the world.
You must have an excessively pretty gown, wear flowers and pearls in your hair, and dance at least the first two with my brother. I depend upon you, Elizabeth, to ensure that he enjoys himself and does not sulk in a corner as I am told is sometimes his habit. You have my full permission to dance every dance with him if necessary!
Mrs. Ainsley is to visit her sister in a week, so I am to be on my own at the London house until she returns. You must write to me twice a day to keep me from loneliness, a fault I am too apt to suffer from as it is. Oh Elizabeth! How anxious I am to see you again. Pray secure an invitation to Town from your dear aunt and uncle as soon as may be!
Yours in all sisterly affection,
Elizabeth was to learn by experience how to approach the enigmatical Mr. Wickham on the very afternoon of the Netherfield ball. He had come to tea at Longbourn with his brother officers Misters Denny and Sanderson upon the request of Lydia and Kitty, who had encountered them in Meryton while spending all their pocket money and half of Jane's on ribbons they would never use to trim any bonnet.
Their second eldest sister had been unpleasantly surprised at the unexpected arrival of such a visitor, but found after her initial discomfort that a steady avoidance of Mr. Wickham's eye and the adoption of a little more conversational reserve than was her custom in company cured any immediate awkwardness. By the time the little party had finished their second pot of tea, Elizabeth was quite ready to declare the encounter a success.
She found, however, that her relief had been felt too soon. Sensing that the gentlemen would not stay much longer, Elizabeth had excused herself with the intention of taking a walk before dressing for the ball. She was just coming down the stairs after retrieving a coat from her room when Mr. Wickham stepped out into the front hall.
He extended his hands to her and said affably, "Let me help you with that coat Miss Bennet. May I enquire where are you bound?"
Knowing it would be ridiculous to refuse his courtesy, Elizabeth handed him the garment and turned so that he might place it over her shoulders. "Lucas Lodge. I must return a book to my friend Miss Lucas, and I thought the errand afforded a pleasant excuse for a short walk before the ball this evening."
"Ah!" replied Mr. Wickham with his admittedly charming smile, "I perceive you are as fond of the outdoors as I am. Lucas Lodge. . . that is on the way to Meryton from here, is it not?"
"Well, yes, but. . ."
"Won't you allow me to escort you so far as Lucas Lodge on my way back to Meryton? I'll just slip back into the drawing room a moment and inform Denny and Sanderson that I've decided to return a little earlier."
"Really, Mr. Wickham, I should hate to divide you from your companions. I quite often make the trip al--"
"Please, Miss Bennet, do let me accompany you. It is approaching dusk already, and I think it wise you ought not to walk alone. A servant from Lucas Lodge can take you back to Longbourn, for it will certainly be dark by the time you return."
Seeing that it was futile to discourage him, Elizabeth gave up her hopes of a solitary ramble and consented to be escorted to Lucas Lodge. Once Mr. Wickham had informed his companions of the scheme, the two set out.
It was clear from the outset that Elizabeth's escort was in a communicative mood. "I am very glad we ran into your sisters at Meryton," he began. "We officers enjoy being taken in by the local society, which usually provides us with better food and better conversation than we are likely to find with the regiment."
Elizabeth laughed a little at this. "Come, Mr. Wickham, are you attempting to win my sympathy by convincing me His Majesty's Officers live the barbaric life of the uncivilized unless property attended to by eager matrons and their eligible daughters? Tut tut, sir. It takes more than a prettily concocted story to secure my compassion."
"I see you are in a teasing mood, Miss Bennet," he replied with a laugh that sounded a trifle forced to Elizabeth's critical ears. "I assure you I had no such intention."
"Ah, you may not have, Mr. Wickham, but as for the eager matrons and eligible daughters, I believe hidden intentions among them are abounding. . ."
Unable to misunderstand her meaning, he made a show of looking away in reluctance to agree with her. "Yes, I think I know to what you refer," he replied in a quiet, almost distracted kind of voice.
"Mr. Wickham, my younger sisters are very young and very foolish," said Elizabeth bluntly, seeing no reason to pretend otherwise. "I would ask you to overlook their folly as best you can and pay them no mind."
"I am sure that as a sensible, mature elder sister you feel the brunt of Miss Lydia and Miss Kitty's girlish whims more keenly than perhaps one who is unconnected with your family. I cannot deny that their enthusiasm is extreme, but I do not think it is necessary for you always to be so distressed about their behavior."
"Yes, well, we are all prone to indiscretions at one time or another," replied Elizabeth with seeming casualty. She turned to her companion and asked gravely, "Wouldn't you agree, Mr. Wickham?"
He smiled at her with a clear countenance, revealing nothing. "I suppose that's true, Miss Bennet."
"For instance," she continued swiftly, "a young man might find as many opportunities for imprudence and selfishness as a young woman - perhaps more even, as a man's sphere is so often much larger than a woman's."
"It is arguable."
He was infuriatingly cool, decided Elizabeth. "Have you never succumbed to an impulse, perhaps even a childish one, which you regretted afterward, Mr. Wickham?"
He laughed. "Yes, I can't deny it, Miss Bennet. I was a young terror at grammar school; but as such behavior earned me the undying admiration of my peers, I cannot say I entirely regret it."
Not precisely the sort of information I had hoped for thought Elizabeth wryly. "Yes, I have no great difficulty in believing it, sir," she said aloud. "But have you never committed some unfortunate breech of conduct as a result of the imprudence of young manhood, for which you know look back with remorse?"
He regarded her a moment with searching, questioning eyes. Elizabeth did her best to make the expression of her countenance impenetrable. Then, slowly, a somewhat bemused but jovial smile crept over his face. "Why do I get the feeling you are trying to tempt me into some sort of confession, Miss Bennet?" he asked, not unkindly.
"Indeed no. Nothing could be further from my mind."
"Then may I ask to what these questions tend?"
"Merely to an illustration of your character. I am trying to make it out."
He smirked. "And what is your success?"
"I do not get on at all. I hear such different accounts of you as to puzzle me exceedingly."
This remark at last seemed to spark genuine interest with him. Or was his countenance difficult to judge because of the fading light? "Indeed? May I inquire from what other source you have had an account of me?"
"Can't you guess?"
"Darcy?" he asked, without making much of a show about pondering the possibilities.
"Indeed," replied Elizabeth, equally plainly.
He was silent a moment, as if considering how to proceed. Then he inquired lightly, "And what has my boyhood companion been telling you about me, Miss Bennet?"
"Very little, Mr. Wickham."
He allowed her a moment to elaborate, then when it was clear she did not intend to, asked, "And this all the reply I'm to expect?"
"I'm sorry if you find it unsatisfactory, sir. Let me, however, assure you of one thing."
"And that is?"
"No matter what the information that gentleman provided me concerning yourself, sir, I think we must agree to disagree about the nature of the man himself."
"I see." He paused, and then with a companionable sigh and a smile for her he said, "Well, Miss Bennet, you are certainly entitled to your own opinion and I would not dream of dissuading you from it. Mr. Darcy is a fortunate man."
This response caught her off guard. "I beg your pardon?"
His smile was a little disarming. "To have such a lady as the sworn defender of his good character."
Elizabeth colored in displeasure. "I think you assume too much, Mr. Wickham."
He laughed. "Perhaps. It may surprise you to hear, Miss Bennet, that I know your good opinion of our mutual friend is not unfounded. When he chooses, Mr. Darcy can be very generous, liberal minded, and what is more, exceedingly good company."
"Yes," agreed Elizabeth warily, wondering what Mr. Wickham was up to.
"He is a famously attentive brother, as you must know. I expect you are acquainted with his sister, Miss Georgiana Darcy."
"Indeed I am. She is a dear friend in fact."
"Is she indeed? I am sure you could have none better, Miss Bennet. I, of course, have not met with her in several years but I remember her as a sweet tempered and endearing child, and have heard since that Darcy has taken a tremendous deal of care of her since the death of their parents. I expect she has finished her schooling by now."
"She benefits from the lessons of a private tutor and companion, a Mrs. Ainsley, I believe, who usually stays with her while she is in Town."
"Ah. Poor girl, I daresay she is fairly lonely there. She was a very timid child, and if I know Darcy at all, she may look forward to being 'sheltered' from society until the age of forty and cloistered in that great house only to be let out when she has become a true pianoforte virtuoso."
Elizabeth laughed a little at this portrait of both her friends, despite its source. She could not deny there was some truth to it. "I'm afraid that may indeed be the case, Mr. Wickham. I had a letter from Miss Darcy only a week ago complaining of loneliness. Apparently her tutor is currently absent in order to visit a sister. I hope to see Miss Darcy myself in London before the winter is gone."
Mr. Wickham's features had turned contemplative. "All alone in the London house?" he asked quietly, almost as if he were speaking more to himself than to Elizabeth.
"Yes, I am sorry to say."
He seemed to return his attention fully to his present companion with a broad smile. "Then I hope your scheme of visiting her materializes before long, Miss Bennet. It is not good for young girls to be kept too much alone."
By this time, Lucas Lodge had come into view and the divide in their paths was approaching. Her companion had become thoughtful again, and as Elizabeth had no idea what she ought to say to him beyond the ground they had already covered, she remained silent.
When they had reached the top of the drive to Lucas Lodge, he said, "Well, Miss Bennet, I will leave you here. Thank you for humoring my conscience and allowing me to escort you thus far."
She smiled reservedly and took his extended hand. "You are very welcome, sir. I thank you for your consideration. Will I see you at the ball this evening?"
"Ball? Oh yes, of course, the ball at Netherfield! Ah. . . I had intended to but unfortunately. . . The trouble is, Miss Bennet, something rather sudden has arisen, which I learned of only this afternoon, and I'm afraid I must make for London as soon as I return to Meryton. I am sure I will have the pleasure of dancing with you at some other time."
"I see. Well, in that case, I hope your journey to London is a safe and speedy one."
"Thank you. Goodbye."
"Goodbye." Elizabeth watched his retreating figure for a moment, as if his back might reveal more to her than his conversation had. But she soon despaired of the effort, and resolving to put Mr. Wickham from mind Elizabeth continued up the drive to Lucas Lodge.
"Oh, there you are, Mr. Darcy," said Caroline Bingley as she appeared from the shoulders up behind the door. "Why do you always insist on cloistering yourself in the library?"
A reply had poised itself on Darcy's lips, but he silenced it when he concluded that identifying Miss Bingley herself as the reason for his retreat would be a remark ill received. He ignored her instead.
Miss Bingley was shutting the door firmly behind herself. "I must speak with you on a matter of some importance, Mr. Darcy. Are you at leisure to hear me?"
Darcy saw from her determined expression that whether he was at leisure or not he had little choice but to abandon his book and hear what she had to say to him. He could only pray it would not be too tiresome. Closing the volume on his lap, Darcy drew himself up in the armchair and coolly regarded his interruption. "How may I be of assistance to you, madam?" he asked resignedly.
Miss Bingley sat down opposite him. Her features had lost most of the studied indifference they usually carried, so much so that Darcy was quite unexpectedly impressed with the earnestness he found displayed on her countenance. When she spoke her voice was somber. "Charles. Something must be done."
"I'm afraid I don't follow you."
Regarding him steadily she continued, "I think you will agree, Mr. Darcy, that in matters of the heart, my brother, despite his good intentions, requires the strong guidance of those who might. . ."
"Choose better for him than he would for himself?"
Darcy was silent a moment. "I assume you are referring to the situation with Miss Jane Bennet."
"Indeed. I came to you because I wished to secure an ally."
"Ally?" asked Darcy in some surprise over her choice of word. He had no desire to become involved in the schemes of the female brain, especially those concocted by Miss Bingley. "What exactly had you in mind?"
Miss Bingley squared her shoulders and faced Darcy with the air of a self-declared authority. "Surely you must see, sir, that though the lady herself is a sweet, good natured, and admittedly very handsome creature, the idea that Charles should actually marry her is impossible. Her connections are objectionable in the extreme."
Darcy experienced a momentary pang at hearing Elizabeth and her relations so glibly described and dismissed, and standing abruptly crossed the room to the window, masking his feelings from Miss Bingley by assuming a profound interest in the lawn below. "I quite understand you, madam," was his quiet, detached reply a moment later. "But may I inquire whether you have gone so far as to ascertain the sentiments of the lady in question?"
Miss Bingley waved a dismissive hand. "Oh, I expect she entertains some fondness for him - Charles can be rather charming when it suits him to be - and I have no doubt, that whatever the strength of Jane Bennet's feelings, she receives ample encouragement from her mother to amplify them as much as possible to my brother. But Mr. Darcy, you know as well as I do that Charles falls in and out of love so easily - surely there can't be any harm in dissuading him from thoughts of marriage until a more suitable partner presents herself?"
Darcy's hands found his trouser pockets and he regarded his shoes with great interest. At last he said, without looking at his companion, "Miss Bingley, am I to understand that you wish me to use my influence with your brother as an elder and trusted friend to persuade him against entertaining the notion of Miss Bennet as a prospective bride?"
"Yes," she replied. Then she smiled. "I think you will agree, sir, that there are more suitable alternatives within my brother's close acquaintance, ladies of irreproachable connection, beauty, and accomplishment, who come from families that already enjoy an intimacy with our own."
Darcy turned and met her eye for nearly the first time in their conversation, and from her raised eyebrows and suggestive smile, he knew she was thinking of Georgiana. Despite the blow which Elizabeth's sister was likely to suffer, Darcy could not deny to himself that the prospect of Georgiana happily and safely wedded to his closest and most deferential friend was tempting indeed. Miss Bennet was a sweet tempered and beautiful girl; she would doubtless always have admirers, and Darcy comforted himself with the idea that he had never witnessed in her any particular signs of regard for his friend. Georgiana, on the other hand was shy, retiring, and decidedly wary of men after her disastrous encounter with the odious Wickham. Wary of every man except Bingley. . .
Silencing his conscience, Darcy resolved that the protection of his sister's interests were to be his first and only concern. The rest of the matter he would sort out when the time came. He turned from the window and faced Miss Bingley.
"Madam, I am at your service."
She smiled. "Excellent. I think perhaps you ought to speak to Charles about returning to Town as soon as possible."
"Returning to Town?"
"Well yes, of course. Don't you see that we must? As long as our party remains in Hertfordshire, Jane Bennet will be firmly in Charles' mind. We must restore him to London and suitable society." Then she added significantly, "Otherwise, I fear that neither of us shall be able to direct the outcome."
Darcy resigned himself. "Yes, yes, I see. Very well. I will speak to him directly after the ball tonight."
"Thank you." Miss Bingley rose. "I must attend to some last minute arrangements for this evening. I expect it shall be a very tiresome affair on the whole, but it cannot be helped. One must be seen to make an effort, even if we intend to sever our Hertfordshire connections entirely within the week." She had reached the door but paused with her hand on the knob, turning back to say, "Good afternoon, Mr. Darcy. I shall look forward to dancing with you this evening."
He bowed to her silently by way of reply, but as she shut the door, her words of a moment before rang in his ears: "to sever our Hertfordshire connections entirely within the week. . ."