Posted on Wednesday, 23 April 2008
"You give your opinion very decidedly for so young a person. Pray, what is your age?"
Elizabeth Bennet had reached her limit for answering impertinent personal questions and wanted only to be allowed to eat her soup. She gave Lady Catherine de Bourgh, her interrogator, an arch smile that was disarming when bestowed on more easily charmed people, like, unbeknownst to Miss Elizabeth, the gentleman seated to her left, and his cousin who was watching the exchange from across the table, and replied, "With three younger sisters grown up, your ladyship can hardly expect me to own to it."
The arch smile did its work on the two gentlemen, who, though they were themselves charmed by it, did not expect their aunt to be similarly affected by such sauciness; she was, as it happens, not, but Elizabeth's impertinence had the very effect desired by that young lady. Lady Catherine was affronted, and responded only with a horrified gasp, and then turned her attention to subjects more worthy of her notice, specifically her daughter's poor appetite and superior manners.
Elizabeth was pleased to finally have an opportunity to taste her soup; white soup was not her favorite, but it was definitely more appealing warm than cold, so it was with relief that she managed to finally lift a spoonful of it to her lips before it had a chance to cool completely. Unfortunately, before she managed a second spoonful she felt her napkin slide off her lap under the table. Not feeling it wise to risk continued soup consumption in such a stately and yet unpredictable place as the Rosings' dining room without her napkin firmly in place, and, while gently bred, used to a level of informality at home such that she did not think to simply ask for another one, Elizabeth leaned over to reach under the table and retrieve the wayward linen square.
It should be here noted that the thought processes I am now to relate were very rapid in their execution, though the telling of them will seem to imply that Elizabeth spent a great deal of time leaning under the dining table contemplating things she should probably not have. In fact, the notions which led her to mischief occurred to her mind in a twinkling, and thus were perhaps not given the due consideration they might have if Elizabeth had been able to consider them at leisure. It is very likely that if common sense had been afforded the opportunity to intervene, baser instincts, or what might more charitably be called curiosity, would not have been allowed to hold sway. Alas, there are moments in life when common sense begins to seem more like a rare commodity, and for Elizabeth, one of those moments occurred under the table at Rosings.
When Elizabeth reached for her fallen napkin, which had landed very near Mr. Darcy's foot, she happened to glance at his calf, encased, one might even say caressed, in a fine and very expensive looking silk stocking. Though she regarded Mr. Darcy as a highly unpleasant person whose company she would just as soon avoid, she had willingly admitted to both herself and her closest confidants, namely her sister Jane and her dear friend Charlotte Collins nee Lucas, ever since her earliest acquaintance with Mr. Darcy that he was very handsome, a fine figure of a man, and when forced to accept his presence in her vicinity was not averse to admiring his person while at the same time deploring his manner. And among those features that Mr. Darcy possessed that were pleasing to the eye of the ladies of his acquaintance, including, as I have said, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, was a very fine, masculine, muscular, shapely pair of calves. To have any glimpse at all of those attractive appendages was a rare treat for any lady, as Mr. Darcy, an avid horseman, was wont to wear boots much of the time, but Elizabeth, and the rest of the ladies in the neighborhood of Meryton, had been given a prime opportunity on the occasions of the assembly at Meryton and the ball at Netherfield to peruse his lower extremities and derived no small pleasure from the sight. So, it is little wonder that given the opportunity to examine those handsome features at such close proximity, without the protective barrier of a pair of boots (as no nephew of Lady Catherine de Bourgh's would ever consider appearing in her dining room in less than properly formal attire consisting in part of breeches and hose), Elizabeth gladly embraced the opportunity.
Unfortunately, the mesmerizing sight led her to the utmost impropriety of embracing Mr. Darcy's calf as well. No, I misspeak. The wicked impulse which Elizabeth's admiration for Mr. Darcy's calves led her to obey would more properly be called a caress than an embrace. To be specific, the hand that reached out to pick up the recalcitrant serviette instead found itself, almost without Elizabeth's conscious permission, stroking a path down the back of Mr. Darcy's right leg, from the tantalizing muscle just below the back of the knee, all the way to his ankle. It was not a slow path, nor was it a speedy one, but it startled Mr. Darcy all the same, the truth of which was evident to Elizabeth when he not only jerked his leg, but let drop the soup spoon with which he was attempting to eat his own rapidly cooling first course.
The splat of a soupy spoon that narrowly missed her head and landed on the lush carpet awoke Elizabeth to the enormity of her indiscretion, and she immediately grabbed her napkin and attempted to straighten up in her chair. She was prevented from doing so when the back of her head collided unexpectedly with the front of Mr. Darcy's with a painful and alarmingly audible thud. Had that appalling sound not alerted their various dining companions that some agonizing event had just occurred under the tabletop, the cries of dismay from the two hapless principals in the disastrous meeting of their craniums were sufficient to announce that they had experienced some accident.
Elizabeth saw stars, which appeared to be rotating around not only her own head, but also the face of Mr. Darcy, which was now placed but inches from her own and wreathed with a strangely tender combination of pain and concern. For the moment, her own pain limited her perception of the rest of the world to that intense sight. She did not even hear the strident tones of Lady Catherine de Bourgh as Mr. Darcy gazed worriedly into her eyes and asked, "Miss Bennet, are you hurt?" - a question posed perhaps unnecessarily, as the manner in which she was clutching the back of her skull, not to mention the tears that had started in her eyes, might have provided an answer more clearly than the lady was able to voice at the instant. But Mr. Darcy, who had a sizable welt blossoming on his own forehead at that moment, was not at his most sensible, it being all he could do to keep his eyes on Elizabeth's face, and not take advantage of the other enticing views afforded him by the unusual postures he and she each had adopted in relation to each other while conveniently out of sight of their companions, not to mention he had very recently received a sharp blow to the head, and had his calf stroked by a comely female for whom, unbeknownst to her, he had not indifferent feelings.
Theirs was not a terribly articulate tête-à-tête, therefore, carried on mainly, due to both physical pain and emotional confusion, by two pairs of attractive and wondering eyes in the absence of sensible words, and might have continued in this way for some time if it was not interrupted by a voice coming from the other side of the table, and likewise underneath its wooden surface.
For Lady Catherine, of course, who was already prodigiously displeased with the behaviour of her guest in having opinions contrary to Lady Catherine's own, became even more so with every second that passed. It appeared to her that Miss Elizabeth Bennet's hoydenish - even wanton! - demeanor was beginning to have a deleterious effect on her two nephews. Lady Catherine had not seen Elizabeth push her chair back ever so slightly and lean down into the space betwixt herself and Mr. Darcy, but she did happen to turn away from her minute examination into Miss de Bourgh's worryingly slight soup consumption in time to see Mr. Darcy give a start, followed by the graceful, glittering, soup-flinging parabola of his spoon when he, one may only presume involuntarily, launched said utensil straight up in the air; Lady Catherine followed the arc of said item of silver as it rose to its zenith and then plummeted, disappearing into the gap between Mr. Darcy's chair and Miss Bennet's, which seemed, unaccountably, to be abandoned. Lady Catherine witnessed with a kind of horror Darcy's rapid descent in pursuit of the wayward article of silver - surely he knew better than to be crawling under the table after such an insignificant object! Diners at Rosings did not retrieve their own fallen spoons! And where, Lady Catherine wondered with no small amount of consternation, had Miss Elizabeth Bennet disappeared to?
Lady Catherine was not to wonder long on that account. The accident which ensued after Mr. Darcy went in pursuit of his spoon took place outside of the noble lady's field of vision, but the aural evidence of it was unmistakable, as was the certainty that Mr. Darcy had met with both Miss Bennet and misfortune there. Lady Catherine had many strictures to offer on the occasion, but found herself so oversupplied with indignation at the moment that she was unable to utter anything but a sharp, "Darcy! Come back up here at once!"
Darcy did not appear on command, nor did he seem likely to return to an upright position in a manner timely enough to satisfy his increasingly incensed aunt. His cousin, fortunately, was willing to take up his cause.
"I think, Aunt, that something untoward must have occurred," Colonel Fitzwilliam said, attempting, with much success, to hide his amusement, and keeping his eyes trained, as were those of the entire company still seated at the table, not to mention the servants arrayed about the room, on the vacant spaces that should have been occupied by his cousin and Miss Bennet, as if at any second they might both appear to offer some explanation for their prolonged absence.
"Fitzwilliam, retrieve your cousin at once!" Lady Catherine commanded.
Colonel Fitzwilliam obeyed with an alacrity not borne out of the habits of military training in promptly following orders, nor out of a great respect for his aunt's authority, but instead from a decided liking for the particular command - for everyone is eager to carry out an order to perform the action that they are most longing to engage in. The Colonel, in addition to hearing the sickening clunk of his cousin's head coming into contact with that of his aunt's dinner guest, not to mention the resultant exclamations from the injured pair, could not but notice the failure of either one to reappear above the tabletop, and feeling a real concern for their well-being, not to mention a great deal of curiosity, and a fair amount of envy that the two of them were at present apparently free from the conversation of the lady presiding over the dinner table, felt that he ought to investigate the current state of affairs under the tablecloth. He was pleased to be afforded the opportunity to disregard propriety himself and delve under the board. Colonel Fitzwilliam therefore very cheerfully and obligingly pushed his chair back and leaned under the table, where he was highly gratified by the sight of his cousin gently holding the face of Miss Elizabeth Bennet in his large hands and gazing with unmistakable concern into her eyes.
"Darcy, Miss Bennet, is... is there anything I can do for you?" asked Colonel Fitzwilliam with a cheeriness that almost entirely masked his concern.
The two confused and embarrassed visages that turned to face him when he spoke confirmed that the goings on below board were much more interesting than those above and he quite happily determined himself to stay there in the company of Darcy and Elizabeth for the time being. He smiled complacently at them and wished only that it were a more comfortable situation, but as a soldier he was used to much less easy posts of observation, and seldom had any stint of duty provided such promise of amusement as the one he enjoyed at present.
Darcy seemed at a loss for words - not an unusual state of affairs when he found himself in an unaccustomed social milieu, which the underside of his aunt's dining table must certainly be considered, but it seemed to the good Colonel that from what little he knew thus far of Miss Elizabeth Bennet, her silence under questioning was inconsistent with her usual character.
"No?" Fitzwilliam continued. "I have been sent to inform you that her ladyship requires your attendance... above board." The Colonel smiled complacently, confident that his cousin would provide him an excuse to remain as he was.
"Please convey our regrets to Lady Catherine, Fitzwilliam," Mr. Darcy replied with gravity and social correctness, "but Miss Bennet is unwell, and unable to attend her ladyship at present."
"You are unwell, Miss Bennet?" Colonel Fitzwilliam asked pleasantly, appearing for all the world as if he was not only comfortably ensconced in a congenial drawing room (which you may confidently interpret as ‘a drawing room somewhere other than Rosings'), but quite enjoying himself.
"I have a headache," Miss Bennet answered with a halfhearted attempt at a glare in Mr. Darcy's direction, borne from a consciousness that no matter how much she might wish to blame both her predicament and her pain on that gentleman, she had, in fact, been the cause of her own miserable state.
"I am sorry to hear it. And you, Darcy, are nursing her?"
Darcy quickly, and with obvious regret dropped his hands from their very comfortable position on either side of Miss Bennet's face. "I was trying to ascertain if Miss Bennet has suffered a concussion in the mishap," he said testily to his cousin, whose presence was decidedly unwelcome.
"So, now you are physician instead of nurse?" The Colonel could barely contain his amusement.
"I have seen enough concussions during a boyhood spent with you to know the signs."
"And is Miss Bennet showing the signs?"
"I am not sure..." Darcy had, though he could scarcely confess it, been distracted by other comely lights in Elizabeth's eyes when he had gazed into them, and had not made any observations about the likelihood that she was suffering ill-effects from their unfortunate meeting of the skulls. "I... I think she is not herself."
"I am right here!" Elizabeth grumbled, rubbing her head, and none too pleased at being discussed in such a way, nor at having to wait in mortified expectation of being asked by Colonel Fitzwilliam - or Mr. Darcy, for that matter - the cause of the entire incident. It seemed too much to hope that no question would be posed on the subject.
Things that seem too much to hope for usually are, I find. The Colonel asked his question, but Elizabeth was given a few moments reprieve, if a slight increase in mortification, when he posed it to his cousin instead of herself.
"So, Darcy, what was all that about up there with the spoon?"
Perhaps it was only his awkward posture, but Mr. Darcy's cheeks turned scarlet, as, Colonel Fitzwilliam happily noted, did Miss Bennet's.
"I lost my grip," Darcy mumbled, averting his gaze from both of his companions and finally picking up his spoon from the tiny puddle of soup it had created on the carpet. He noted with disgust that it now had bits of lint stuck to it. He could not eat any more soup with it.
"Lost your grip indeed!" the Colonel chortled. "And you, Miss Bennet? I hope you were not forced to seek refuge here from my aunt's interrogation! Or were you feeling faint?"
"I dropped my napkin," Elizabeth muttered, waving that article like a flag of surrender.
"I see - you have both merely been victims of gravity then? I have often found its effects to be perniciously capricious myself. Well, I am relieved - for a moment I feared that you had arranged an assignation down here, and I would hate to be such a gooseberry as to intrude!" Colonel Fitzwilliam laughed, and not the least at his cousin's expression, which told him that he was, indeed, intruding.
Before Mr. Darcy could explain to his cousin that his presence was not required, their assembly was joined by yet another unwelcome (indeed, even more so, for he was unwelcome in the eyes of every member of the strange coterie under the table) presence.
Mr. Collins, who had been torn between listening to the vehement exhortations of his noble patroness that order be immediately restored to her dining room, not to mention her disparagement of the behaviour of his, in Lady Catherine's words, "insolent chit of a cousin", and actually acting to restore order by chastising said chit to her face, as her displeasure grew with the failure to reappear of not only Miss Bennet but both of Lady Catherine's nephews, finally succumbed to his urgent desire to please his patroness in all things, and abandoned his clerical dignity so far as to lean under the table to offer his personal disapproval of the unseemly display so deplored by his noble patroness.
"Cousin Elizabeth!" Mr. Collins began in his stiffest and most solemn tones, alerting all that a sermon was about to commence, "I must insist that you desist from this wanton behaviour and rejoin us at table. You have upset my noble patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, most grievously, and I feel it incumbent on me, not only as a clergyman but your near relation, who might, had you made a different choice in November, have been even a nearer one, though, considering your deplorable actions at present perhaps it is just as well, considering my position as rector to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, that you did make such a choice, but your status as a single young woman -"
By this time in Mr. Collins's oration all three of his auditors had grown impatient with him, though only one of them understood the full import of his words; nevertheless, it became imperative to all that he not continue what promised to be an uninteresting, not to mention unhelpful, rant, and so all three spoke at once to silence him. The effect might have been humorous had any been in the frame of mind to notice.
"See here, Collins!"
Mrs. Collins, who for some time had been of the opinion that her dear friend Lizzy and the rich and handsome Mr. Darcy would both benefit from having their heads knocked together, was awake to the discomfort and downright unpleasantness that would be heaped upon the head of her friend, and probably also her gentleman admirer, with Mr. Collins joining the party under the table, and also concerned for poor Lizzy's condition after having suffered such a blow to both her head and her dignity, and thus when Mr. Collins ducked his head under the cloth, she followed him immediately to try to either convince her husband to abandon his mission to preach Lady Catherine's gospel, or at least ameliorate the damage he might cause to what Mrs. Collins chose to believe were Elizabeth's prospects with Mr. Darcy by offending that distinguished personage while simultaneously reminding him of his connection to poor Lizzy.
"My dear, please do come back above the table. It cannot be beneficial to your health to be stooping down here like this," Charlotte opened with her standard first argument when she wanted her husband to do something in order to get him out of her way - I mean, convince him of the rightness of some action or other.
"My dear Charlotte, I must thank you for your solicitous interest in my health, and I think it a right and proper feeling in a wife, and most becoming to your station, but I am afraid that my duty as a clergyman requires me to carry out the wishes of my noble patroness in this instance, and Lady Catherine was most clear in her opinion that this unusual assembly must be terminated immediately! It is most improper for my cousin, an unmarried female, to meet with an unmarried man, nay, two unmarried men, under her ladyship's table without a chaperon." (Here it must be stated that in his agitation, Mr. Collins may have misunderstood some of what her ladyship had offered as objections to the behaviour of her guests).
"But should you not be attending to Lady Catherine, instead of lowering yourself like this, and preaching under a table? Her ladyship cannot approve."
"No indeed!" Colonel Fitzwilliam added most helpfully, while an incredulous Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth looked on, nearly each forgetting their pain in fascination with the developing scene before them.
"I am most grateful to you, my dear, and to you, sir, for your kind advice, but as a clergyman you must allow me to have a better understanding of my duty than a woman or a military officer can have, and Lady Catherine has made her views quite clear regarding the wanton, hoydenish actions of my young cousin -"
At this point Mr. Darcy felt the need to interject.
"Miss Bennet has been the victim of an accident, sir, and she is injured!" he cried, impatiently.
"You are hurt, Lizzy?" Charlotte asked with very real concern.
"I believe Miss Bennet and my cousin are both suffering from blows to the head, Mrs. Collins, and Darcy suspects that Miss Bennet may have suffered a concussion, and therefore should not be moved precipitately. Now, my own experience of head injuries, both personal and those I have observed in my professional capacity advises that she should lie down somewhere quiet, with someone to tend her and observe her to be sure that she does not slip into unconsciousness, but I will agree that she ought not make any sudden movements, or stand too suddenly," Colonel Fitzwilliam suggested.
"If she is feeling lightheaded then she ought to remain as she is, and put her head between her knees," the ever-practical Charlotte advised.
"No, indeed, Lady Catherine wishes her to sit up at once to hear her strictures on this licentiousness of behavior!" Mr. Collins interjected.
"Collins, be quiet!" roared Mr. Darcy.
"Would you all please stop discussing me as if I were either absent, unconscious, or six years old?" the completely exasperated and mortified Elizabeth pleaded. She began to consider the possibility of returning to the world above the table, but realizing that all of those below would likely only follow her, and the combination of a splitting headache and Lady Catherine's voice would not be a congenial one, chose to stay exactly where she was.
"Of course, Lizzy," Charlotte said, soothingly, "we are all only concerned for your health. Can you tell me exactly what happened?"
This last was asked so pointedly that Elizabeth was convinced that what her dear friend was truly interested in hearing was what exactly Elizabeth had done to cause the usually entirely correct Mr. Darcy to fling his soup spoon into orbit, and that was a question that Elizabeth had no intention of answering. Ever. And she fervently hoped that Mr. Darcy would, to his dying day, maintain complete discretion on the subject as well.
Fortunately for Elizabeth, their party was suddenly increased by one, and in a most unexpected and entirely alarming fashion. Miss de Bourgh, a sickly individual with an intense dislike for white soup, having grown faint with hunger due to her refusal to consume her first course and the delay in receiving a second course more palatable to her due to the failure of the rest of the party to finish their respective bowls of soup in a timely manner, swooned in the middle of her mother's diatribe against young ladies from Hertfordshire, and slid from her chair with all the grace one might expect from such a noble and yet sickly young woman, and landed in a heap under the table amidst the shocked stares of all present.
Lady Catherine, who for all her shortcomings was truly an affectionate parent, cried out immediately for Mrs. Jenkinson to bring the smelling salts and then without any consideration for propriety or her own noble station in life, practically dove under the table herself out of concern for her daughter.
It was some time before the party under the table broke up. There was little intelligible conversation after the descent of Anne de Bourgh and Lady Catherine, in spite of Colonel Fitzwilliam's affable attempts to be charming and break the tension by reminding Miss Bennet of her promise to play for the company that evening, a promise Elizabeth preferred to demur on the grounds that she did not think she could do Lady Catherine's fine instrument justice while her head was throbbing so (although in the end poor Elizabeth had to give in to that imperious lady's demands for entertainment and perform, and, as she had expected, she played quite badly - though it did not appear so to all present). The assistance of Harvey the butler and three footmen was required to extricate Lady Catherine from under her dining table, and all four men by unspoken agreement chose never to mention that they had all been presented with a fine view of Lady Catherine's unmentionables during the exercise; it is just as well that such silence was maintained, as people of their class have been known to lose a good position for lesser infractions than mentioning their mistress's undergarments in company.
When Mr. Collins finally agreed to abandon his moral obligation to observe all that occurred beneath his noble patroness's table he suffered a slight injury to his own head when he tripped and, in an attempt to keep from falling, pulled on the table cloth and upset several pieces of her ladyship's table service on his head. How Mr. Collins's ankle had come to be tied to his chair leg with a napkin is a matter that was never satisfactorily explained, but as none of Lady Catherine's dishes were broken in the incident, she did not trouble herself to come to the bottom of it.
Mr. Darcy somehow acquired a tear in his stocking during the ordeal, and was sent to his room to change before appearing in his aunt's drawing room. After spending he knew not how much time sitting in his dressing room in a kind of trance, remembering certain aspects of the affair most fondly, Mr. Darcy chose the expedient method of simply putting on a pair of boots before making his reentrance into the company.
Colonel Fitzwilliam and Mrs. Collins both managed to escape from the affair unscathed, if one can be considered to be unscathed to have emerged from the event with a case of nearly insatiable curiosity that would plague one to the end of one's days without being satisfied. For it is certain that neither Mr. Darcy nor Elizabeth ever revealed, under any amount of questioning, that the entire incident was precipitated by Elizabeth's ill-advised whim with regards to Mr. Darcy's fine calf (and it grieves me no end to say that Mr. Darcy himself received a very wrong impression of Miss Elizabeth Bennet's regard for him as a result of her actions that night, which led to an extremely distressing encounter between the two of them at a not very distant date afterwards; since that incident ultimately led to a happier conclusion for them both, allowing each to indulge in as much calf stroking as they might like with complete pleasure and propriety, however, perhaps it is useless to repine).
I am certain that there must be a moral to this tale, but I am dashed if I can tell you what it is, except, perhaps, to always keep a firm grip on your napkin. Or perhaps a better moral would be that one ought to exercise extreme caution when asking a person with an unbridled imagination to tell a story. You may decide the matter for yourself.