Posted on Thursday, 10 August 2006
She’s an angel!
What an angel!
Jane, my angel!
Darcy felt if he’d heard that word one more time his head would explode. Bingley’s overuse of the noun indicated one thing and one thing only; he was drunk.
Well, so am I! Darcy grunted, reaching an unbelievably long distance to retrieve his glass.
“Gone,” mumbled Bingley.
“It is?” Darcy peered over at the bottle but was sure he could detect liquid to at least a quarter of its height.
“Yes, she’s gone. Home. This morning.” His friend hiccoughed on the last syllable.
“You poor sod.” Darcy stood up, intending to help his host turn over. It couldn’t be comfortable with his nose buried in the carpet. The room chose that moment to tilt to the left, however, and Darcy was forced to lean to the right to keep his balance. Then the treacherous floor dropped out from under his feet and he found himself beside Bingley. “F — ooey!” Muffled laughter indicated the carpet was amused by his predicament. Darcy was not. He poked Bingley’s head. “Jane,” he taunted.
“Oh, my angel!” The wail faded into the floorboards. ‘Maaaarrrry meeeee!” There began an obscene caterwauling which could only be Bingley singing.
Darcy put his hands over his ears, missing and slapping his face by mistake. Annoyed, he slapped Bingley’s in return.
“Ow,” but the singing stopped.
“Ask her tomorrow.”
“Ask who what?”
Darcy crawled to the chair he’d left, chasing it slowly around the room. “That angel woman. Marry her tomorrow.”
“Did she say yes?” Bingley’s head rose for the first time in an hour and he looked around. “Hold still, Darce,” he said, screwing up his face in dire concentration. He closed one eye; there were only three of his friends visible that way. “It’s too crowded in here,” he sighed, letting his head drop to the floor in resignation.
Darcy had caught the wayward chair and managed to seat himself in it, reasonably upright. “Have a ball, Bingley, and I’ll dance with Miss Bennet.”
“Oh, no. You can’t have my angel, not even for one dance.” With supreme effort he pushed himself up to a sitting position. “Did she say yes?”
Darcy stared at him, admiring the pattern imprinted on his cheek. “You didn’t ask her yet.”
“I didn’t?” Bingley pulled at his shirt, stretching the creases flat. “Must remedy that. Get me my horse.”
“You are in no condition to ride,” Darcy scolded. “I’ll drive you.”
The lateness of the hour, combined with the length of time the two friends expended in getting to the stable, ensured that there was no one around to stop them. Between them, a beast was harnessed to a vehicle and, after Darcy had climbed onto the front to take up the reins, Bingley fell into the back and went to sleep. His friend drove them to Longbourn.
The early rays of the sun assaulted the landscape as Darcy brought the cart, for a cart it was, to a halt with Longbourn House visible in the not so distant distance. He tried to wake Bingley but to no avail; the man snored on.
Darcy blinked against the brightening sky. A figure could be seen approaching from the direction of Longbourn and he swallowed his heart which had just leapt into his throat. Once it was back in position, beating wildly, he applied the same energy to his arm, waving at Miss Elizabeth as she drew nearer.
“Mr. Darcy?” she hesitated, stopping about twenty paces away.
“That’s just perfect!” he cheerfully said. “Good morning, Miss Bennet. I would suggest you come no closer than that. My friend here is in no condition to receive visitors this morning.”
Her eyebrows rose but she came no closer. “May I enquire as to his trouble?”
“Too much emotion. His heart is full to bursting and he lapsed into unconsciousness.” Darcy bowed dramatically, taking care to keep one hand on the side of the cart.
“You are unusually jubilant, sir! Do you take such delight in Mr. Bingley’s misfortune?” She tried not to laugh.
Darcy’s expression became serious. “His misfortune is my own as well. I have not succumbed to sleep, however, and am rewarded with the fair vision of radiance that is my heart’s desire.” This time he tipped his hat in her direction.
“I beg your pardon, Mr. Darcy!” Elizabeth was mystified by his strange behaviour. “What did you have for breakfast?”
“I have dined on naught but love,” he sighed.
“You must be careful, then,” smiled she. “I have heard it gives one indigestion.”
His laughter filled her ears, shocking her with the odd sound. “Miss Elizabeth, it is your wit which sustains me. Have I told you what fine eyes you have, my dear? I could drink their depths and, combined with your wit, I should require nothing else to survive!”
Elizabeth’s mouth hung agape. She could not believe this was the same arrogant snob she’d left at Netherfield the previous morning. A groan from the back of the cart distracted them both. Darcy’s eyes lit up. He reached over the side and prodded Bingley.
“Don’t be so rude. There’s a lady present. Get to your feet.” He grinned and watched his friend stumble out of the cart, falling onto his face in the dirt.
“Oh, Mr. Bingley!” Elizabeth cried, rushing forward to see if he was injured. Darcy reached him at the same time.
“Angels!” Bingley smiled, looking up at several Miss Elizabeths above him.
Darcy cuffed him lightly. “Not your angel this time,” he said with an intensity in his eyes.
Elizabeth looked from one to the other, no mystery to their behaviour now as the smell of liquor wafted in the air around them. “I think you gentlemen should return home,” she said, trying to lift Bingley with a spectacular lack of success.
“Home,” crooned Bingley, raising a small cloud of dust as he slipped from Elizabeth’s grasp.
“Yes?” Darcy looked over at her questioningly.
“He obviously cannot stand.” She stared at Darcy’s feet, clad in a pair of soft shoes, not the boots one would expect a gentleman would use for a cross country excursion. They were not clean, not at all. “Perhaps if we work together?”
Darcy nodded, then shook his head to stop Miss Elizabeth from jumping up and down. Together they took hold of Bingley’s arms and pulled him to a sitting position. Darcy then suggested hoisting his friend on his shoulder so that he could carry him to the cart and deposit him that way. Elizabeth looked doubtful but, amazingly, after one unsuccessful attempt where the gentlemen ended up in reversed positions with Darcy underneath Bingley, it was accomplished. Unfortunately, both Darcy and Elizabeth also ended up in the cart alongside Bingley.
“Angels... so many angels.....”
Elizabeth tugged her skirts free from under the gentlemen. “What is all this about angels?” she whispered to Darcy.
He grinned, staring at her with something akin to laughter in his eyes. “He’s been referring to your sister as an angel for weeks now. I’m beginning to wonder if he remembers her name.”
Blushing, Elizabeth turned her face away. She was delighted to hear this confirmation of their suspicions that Bingley was in love with Jane. Hearing it from the man himself would have been better, but considering his condition at that moment it was not necessarily as believable. Then again, was Darcy any more credible in his state?
She suddenly recollected where they were and hastened to climb out of the cart. “Mr. Darcy,” she said, watching him struggle to follow her example. “I think I should drive.”
A scowl turned his handsome face less attractive. “Have you ever driven before, Miss Bennet?”
“Well, no,” she admitted, “but it cannot be difficult. I doubt you would do any better and I have the advantage, at least, of being sober.”
Darcy opened his mouth and shut it again. Then he took her hands in his, holding them as if there were reins between his fingers. “Show me how you will do it.”
Elizabeth pulled her hands free. “I think it would be more effective with the reins than merely pretending they exist. Let us go, sir. No more delays.” She stepped up to the seat and waited.
Darcy sighed and climbed in beside Bingley, kneeling behind Elizabeth and reaching around to take her hands again, this time with the reins in place. “Very well, shall we walk on?” He slapped the leather as if her hands were not there but no lurch of the cart responded to his command.
“Do you see why I suggested I drive?” Elizabeth patiently asked, trying to ignore his chin pressing into her back and his arms resting in her lap.
Darcy scrunched up his eyes and examined the horse. “I will have to speak with Bingley about his stock. That is the ugliest chestnut I’ve ever seen.”
“It’s a Guernsey,” she told him, snickering. “At least it’s a bull. I can’t imagine a cow getting you this far from Netherfield.”
“Ah!” cried Darcy. “That explains the atrocious conformation!”
Elizabeth didn’t bother to ask how they managed to choose such an animal nor get it hitched to the cart without noticing the difference. The important thing was to get them back to Netherfield. She emulated Darcy’s earlier movement and slapped the reins against the bull’s back, pleased when it stepped forward and plodded on. Turning presented a challenge. In addition to the creature’s ignorance of the signals, Darcy was leaning heavily into Elizabeth’s back with no apparent intention of relinquishing his post as her assistant.
Bingley was blessedly silent, for the moment, but then the other gentleman started.
“Lavender,” he sighed happily, burying his face against her ribs. “I never cared one way or another about it before but it is,” he inhaled deeply, “heavenly!”
“Please,” said Elizabeth in a tight voice, “no angels.” She heaved on one rein in an effort to make the bull turn. It seemed that the bit was not in the traditional location, however, and her exertion was in vain. “How did you get here with such an uncooperative beast?” she finally grumbled.
“Here.” Darcy motioned with his fingers for her to turn over the controls. With no other options she complied, hoping for the best. He slapped one rein against the animal’s side and it protested with a loud bellow. When he slapped it a second time the angry creature turned in the direction of the annoyance and began to move. “There, you see? Nothing difficult about it at all.” Darcy’s last words ended in a yelp as he was unceremoniously tossed backward when the cart pitched forward forcefully.
Elizabeth grabbed for the reins, not attempting to stop the bull’s progress, and glanced over her shoulder to see the gentleman sprawled across his friend’s inert form. She suppressed a laugh even though Darcy himself appeared amused by his predicament. The cart was moving and that was the most important issue for the time being. She applied herself to that and tried to ignore the sounds emanating from behind her.
“Yes, Mr. Darcy?” Elizabeth kept her eyes on the road ahead, the state of the gentlemen in the rear of the cart being far from proper viewing by society’s standards.
“Do you recall what I said when you happened upon us?”
“Of course,” she replied without hesitation. How could she ever forget? He had called her a vision of radiance and his heart’s desire. She knew that a man under the influence of too much drink could say and do things he would ordinarily not but that was so far removed from anything one might expect of the forbidding Mr. Darcy that Elizabeth committed it to memory with a quickness suited to the compliment. She could even picture quite clearly the very expression upon his countenance as he spoke the phrases.
“Oh, good.” Darcy let his head fall back against Bingley’s shoulder. “You can remind me of it later. All I remember is that it was deuced important.”
“Remind you?” she repeated in horror. That would be fine, indeed! To remind a gentleman that he had shamelessly flirted and flattered when he has no recollection of it! “Is it not considered providential to forget such follies as one performs when.... inebriated?”
“I don’t know.” He sounded terribly serious, as if the question merited the most solemn deliberation. “It has never happened to me before.”
Elizabeth presumed him to mean that the forgetting had not occurred for it was hardly likely that he’d not experienced drunkenness prior to now. “Come now, sir. You cannot expect me to believe you incapable of folly!”
“Oh!” cried Darcy, scrambling to sit up and clutching the back of the seat in his effort. “Oh, but there you cannot be more mistaken for it is the greatest mission of mine to avoid any folly which would make me look ridiculous.” He added sullenly, “I don’t like being laughed at.”
Struggling to suppress just such an outburst, Elizabeth said, “I cannot look back sir but, pray, tell me you are not pouting like a five year old denied a treat.” Had Darcy been sober she would not have dared to speak thus, however she was sure that he would remember nothing and braved on.
“Certainly not!” he said, sounding remarkably more sulky than less.
Elizabeth was more convinced than ever that had she been able to observe him there would be a distinctly prominent lower lip. “As you say, sir.”
“Come now, Miss Bennet. Condescension is beneath you. You must either accept my words as truth or call me a liar outright.”
“Is the subject of you pouting so serious as to warrant such a reaction?” Elizabeth miraculously kept a straight face. “I entreat you to consider the impetuousness of your suggestion, Mr. Darcy. You are, after all, the one under the influence of a nefarious substance, not I. Who would be looked upon with scorn or pity? Again, not I.” She added as an afterthought, “I should never call you a liar, either.”
One rear wheel suddenly fell into a pothole and the cart dipped alarmingly to one side. Bingley rolled with the motion, striking the side wall with a thud. Darcy could not maintain his balance, coming dangerously close to falling off the wagon.
“Miss Bennet!” Darcy collected himself as best he could, dignity facing its most difficult moment with his head repeatedly being banged against the side of the cart. “Did you or did you not claim to be the better skilled driver of the two of us? I fear you have misled me.”
Feeling very unladylike all of a sudden, Elizabeth laughed out loud. “Very well, Mr. Darcy. If you can manage to seat yourself beside me up here then I shall turn over the reins into your keeping.” She had to admit that her arms were becoming sore with the effort to keep the bull moving on. At the same time she doubted that Darcy would appear next to her any time soon.
In that she was mistaken. Such an invitation was to be honoured with an immediate reply. The rapidity with which Darcy heaved himself over the back of the seat, establishing his position on her right, alarmed her for she would truly be obliged to relinquish control to him.
He settled himself in and held out his hands into which she placed the leathers. Most surprisingly of all, he clucked softly to the bull as if it was a fine blooded colt of sensitivity.
Elizabeth dared not say a word.
The chimneys of Netherfield appeared like beacons above the trees and her relief was so great that Elizabeth’s sigh was heard even over Bingley’s unmelodious humming.
“You are impatient to be rid of us, Miss Bennet,” observed Darcy, shaking his head when she was about to protest. “You need not deny it for the sake of politeness. As a matter of fact, I was about to suggest that you leave us to embarrass ourselves alone and I shall drive this brute the remainder of the way without your expertise.”
“I cannot, in good conscience, come all this way and not see you safely to your destination,” argued Elizabeth.
He looked at her in surprise. “Pray, my dear lady, consider this, I beg of you! Bingley and I shall cause enough of a stir arriving in this,” he gestured to their mode of transport, “not to mention that!” Her attention was directed to the bull. “Such a spectacle cannot avoid becoming the topic of conversation for weeks to come. I shall not have your presence added to the story to the detriment of your reputation. Please, Miss Bennet. You must part ways with us now before it is too late.”
He was looking at her so earnestly that Elizabeth had no choice but to relent. She nodded silently and watched in horror as Darcy dropped the reins and then leaped to the ground. In three easy but very lengthy strides, to Elizabeth’ approving eye, he was at the bull’s head and halted the beast. Elizabeth alighted from the cart without assistance or mishap for Darcy could hardly be in two places at once, as much as he would have desired it.
She stepped away from the cart, well out of the way in case the bull chose to make an uncharacteristic movement. She did not wish to be run over. Darcy, during this time, gently tapped the animal into motion, secured the reins so that they would not fall to the ground and entangle its feet, then approached Elizabeth with a deliberate step.
“I thank you, Miss Bennet, for myself and Bingley, too. I am sorry to have troubled you this morning and disturbed your solitary ramble.” His voice and manner were apologetic enough but there was something in his gaze which said he was not sorry at all. Then, before she could say a word in reply, Darcy picked up her hand and bestowed a kiss on the back of it. Just as quickly he released it and set off after the lumbering cart.
Elizabeth watched him jump up to the seat and perch himself there as if he was driving the most fashionable of curricles. She was tempted to laugh at the ridiculousness of it when she suddenly thought again of his more flattering words and manners.
How different he is when he smiles and flirts!
Elizabeth set off for home now that the hour had advanced sufficiently. There were still three miles to cover before reaching Longbourn.
Later that afternoon a note arrived addressed to Jane. It was from Miss Bingley and she was inviting her friend to come to dinner at Netherfield on the Saturday next. Of course, the rest of the Bennet family was also invited and Jane was assured in writing that no reply was necessary at this time. Mr. Bingley intended to visit the following day and the answer could be conveyed personally then.
Elizabeth smiled upon hearing the last bit of information. The gentleman did not appear to be wasting his time if courtship was what he was planning. She tried not to think about his friend but curiosity would perhaps win out eventually for she could not help but admit to an eager interest in seeing if he recalled anything of their morning’s misadventures.
Mr. Darcy now intrigued her in a way she had never dreamed possible.