Posted on Sunday, 19 September 1999, at 8 : 25 p.m.
Okay, inspired by Kourt's latest chapter.. this little nonsense can take place at any time in the course of the novel...
Darcy's eyes opened wide and he stood motionless in the still night air, praying that the noise had gone unnoticed. Not for the first time did he thank the anonymous individual who had seen fit to remove the assorted canines to the sanctuary of the stable, thereby allowing Darcy safe and silent access to the grounds.
Five minutes passed and still no light appeared from within the house. Darcy set his mouth in a determined line and placed his foot upon the first rung of the ladder. By the fifth rung he was already cursing his choice of footwear for, although boots would have been the logical selection for outdoor use, he had chosen the soft-soled shoes designed for indoor wear, believing that stealth and quiet were called for on this night.
Passing the top sill of the ground floor window Darcy paused and glanced down. That was a mistake! Despite the lack of illumination, he was very much aware of the wildly spinning gorse bushes and shrubbery directly below him. Darcy clung to the sides of the ladder with a deathgrip, his eyes tightly closed, willing his world to cease its gyrations.
Within a minute or two his head and stomach submitted to his demands and Darcy opened his eyes once more, this time gazing upward. His heart gave a gratified leap in anticipation of its reward when he reached his target: the window another ten feet or so above his present position. A brief thought entered his head as to how he would get his intended prize safely down to the ground via the ladder once he had realized his goal, but Darcy banished that unpleasant contemplation as quickly as it had come. He certainly didn't want to be imagining falling from this ladder into the garden below, or worse! To drop his lovely lady because his knees were too weak at the thought of such a height.... Oh, what a blow to his self respect!
Self respect? Pah! he berated himself. Vanity is more like it! Then he chuckled. Almost immediately he clamped a hand over his mouth and waited once more for some indication that his presence had been revealed to the household's inhabitants.
All was still silent with only the distant sound of a nightbird disturbing the air.
Darcy continued up the ladder. Finally reaching the window, his fingers searched along the bottom ledge of the sill for some sort of purchase with which to pry it open.
"Why have I never paid closer attention to what the servants are doing?" he mumbled, resolving that at the first opportunity he would enquire of his own staff as to how to open the windows.
The ladder wobbled slightly with Darcy's struggles and he momentarily panicked, envisioning himself impaled upon the rose bushes outside of Mr. Bennet's library window, but the instability readjusted itself, and Darcy was once again able to attend to the problem at hand.
Feeling the hinges along the left side of the window frame, he moved his fingers to the opposite side in an effort to discover the latch. While thus occupied, Darcy attempted to peer through the glass, trying to determine just where in the darkness his lady love lay slumbering.
How she could sleep he could not fathom, for his sleepless nights had numbered into the hundreds since first beholding her enchanting eyes and bewitching smile. An involuntary sigh escaped him at these recollections, and he redoubled his efforts at the window's edge.
His fingers finally found purchase, and the frame began to inch free. Alas, too late did Darcy realize that it would open outwards.... toward himself on his precarious perch!
Scrambling down two rungs and waiting breathlessly, eyes scrunched shut as the ladder wove to and fro, scraping against the stone wall of the house, Darcy's better judgement rebelled, sending a lightning thought ricocheting through his head.
What demon possessed you to formulate such a plan?
But the reply was nearly as quick in coming.
Twas no demon, but a she-devil! Ahhh, Elizabeth......
A delighted groan sounded from deep in his chest as Darcy reached up to swing the window fully open over his head. Not wasting a second more, he clambered up the remaining rungs and practically vaulted over the window ledge and into the room.... to land on his face after tripping over the trailing ends of the window coverings.
He knew that secrecy was lost at that moment. Hurriedly, he tried to soothe the lady's alarmed cries with softly murmured words of "Hush, my love" and "It's only me", but to no avail. The high pitched wails were becoming louder, and there was now the sound of many footsteps approaching from the recesses of the house.
Darcy could only think of one thing to do. He had to stop her frightened cries, and so he moved toward the bed, reaching out his hand to touch her shoulder gently.
"Ahhhhh!!!" she shrieked, nearly in his ear. Darcy winced in pain. "Oh, lord help me! Mr. Bennet!!! Mr. Bennet!!!"
Darcy drew back from the figure in the bed as the horrible realization dawned on him. I climbed in the wrong window!
His head swivelled left and right, panic preventing his thoughts from catching up with the turn of events. The lady continued to moan piteously, having flung herself backwards onto her pillows, raising her hand to her brow in a most affected manner. Darcy began to fear that he may have caused her irreparable damage in frightening her so.
BANG BANG BANG
"Mrs. Bennet? Are you quite all right? What is the matter?"
Darcy's eyes were nearly popped from his head at this new threat to his well being. Mrs. Bennet????? Oh, good Lord! How could I have ever made such a grievous error?? He glanced over at the woman now muttering something about murder and whimpering dreadfully. How am I to extricate myself from this nightmare?
BANG BANG BANG
"I say, Mrs. Bennet! What is going on?"
Darcy backed toward the window, peering out at the dark expanse of lawn below. His only escape route was the way he had come. He swallowed nervously.
"OH MR. BENNET!! COME QUICK!" Darcy's silhouette in the window had sent Mrs. Bennet into yet another fit of shrieking and wailing.
Virtually leaping out of the open embrasure, Darcy flailed wildly for the ladder, finally managing to grasp a rung with the tips of his fingers before being condemned to an unceremonious flight to the ground. Almost without thinking, he raised his arm and swung the window closed, but he had used too much force and the resultant crash as the frame made contact with the sill shattered the glass pane. Tiny shards of broken glass rained down on Darcy's head. The sound of a woman screeching reverberated through his brain. Darcy felt his head spinning and the stone wall in front of his nose began to look as if it was getting farther away.
It was getting farther away!
Darcy's stomach was valiantly trying to keep up with his falling body as the ladder picked up speed on its descent. All too soon the earth rose up to meet his back and with a WHUMPH Darcy met the lawn.
Dazed, he lay there for several seconds just blinking up at the night sky, the ladder laying across his chest. Then the sounds from above and a light streaming from the now open bedroom window caused him to recollect his surroundings... and the situation. Darcy fairly threw the ladder from him and managed to get his feet under himself. A bit unsteady, he stumbled across the lawn to the wooded copse at the end of the garden where he had tied his horse. He grabbed at the reins and dragged himself into the saddle. Before his feet were resting in the stirrups, the animal was already headed for Netherfield at a canter.
A figure appeared in the light of the open window, casting a long shadow across the illuminated lawn. A hand rose to scratch at the man's head, for it was indeed a man. He seemed genuinely perplexed by the evening's events. What on earth would someone be doing breaking into his wife's bedroom? His wife's bedroom??
He glanced at the ladder laying across the grass and a smile spread across his face.
Perhaps if I leave it outside her window, the man may come back. And this time I won't be so hasty to respond if he truly wishes to steal her away!
Turning back towards the room, Mr. Bennet shook his head pityingly at his wife's performance and made his way back to his own bed.
To the Trellis, Man!
Mrs. Bennet fluttered her hands about nervously. Any moment now, the gentlemen would be announced. Her eyes darted around the room, taking in each of her daughters in succession.
Jane, my dear sweet Jane. Oh, yes. Mr. Bingley can scarcely not be affected when he sees her! Lizzy... oh, why does she look so discomfitted and cross? She will frighten the poor gentlemen away with her ill manners! Not that Mr. Darcy's company would be missed, but oh - and Mary is wishing herself back at her music. Can that girl ever sit still long enough without wanting her fingers upon the keys? Kitty, now she has some potential. If only Mr. Bennet would relent and allow her to -
Her internal monologue was interrupted by the rattle of the doorknob and Hill's voice announcing:
"Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy, Ma'am."
Mrs. Bennet immediately launched into a non-stop greeting and update on family and neighbourhood news, briefly interrupted by a request of Kitty to ring for tea, and interspersed with enquiries regarding the state of Mr. Bingley's health, the length of his stay at Netherfield and if he would be free to come to dine at Longbourn one evening soon.
Mr. Darcy, she noted, was as sullen as usual, having stationed himself at the window as he had been wont to do the previous year, she recalled. As she glanced at him involuntarily, Mrs. Bennet faltered slightly in her oratory as a sudden spate of deja vu struck her. For just one second, the sight of Mr. Darcy at the window....
But no. She shook her head ever so slightly. No, no. That is ridiculous!
Despite the distraction of her thoughts, there was no noticeable pause in her dialogue. Mrs. Bennet soon put aside the fanciful notion of Mr. Darcy in her bedroom (although it gave her heart an excited little flutter, for he was undeniably handsome!) and was well pleased with the afternoon's prospects.
Darcy turned back toward the window. He had intended to observe Miss Jane Bennet to determine the extent of her regard for his friend, but one look at Mrs. Bennet had brought the previous evening's disastrous events blindingly to the fore. He shuddered as he recalled how narrowly he had escaped such a mortifying exposure.
Out of the corner of his eye he observed Elizabeth. Instantly, all of his discomfort was replaced with the sensation of himself melting into a puddle at her feet. He itched to be out of this room; out of the company of her mother; in the solitary company of Elizabeth... with her luxurious chestnut curls set loose, tumbling about her shoulders and framing her face.... her eyes gazing at him with a look of -
Her eyes! She was watching him in puzzlement. Darcy self consciously shifted his feet and studied the carpet. Did it suddenly get hot in this room? He toyed with his ring. And there's Bingley nattering away. Argh, how I wish I had his ease of address.
A movement outside caught Darcy's eye. He started as a ladder suddenly appeared and banged against the side of the house just above the window in front of him. He leaned closer to the glass and peered upward.
"Oh, pay them no mind, Mr. Darcy," came the voice of his hostess. "They are about repairing a broken window."
Darcy turned his attention to Mrs. Bennet to see her waving a hand in the air, trying to appear somewhat collected, but not succeeding at all. It was obvious that she was greatly affected by the memory of something. Darcy, unfortunately, was too intimately acquainted with the details to wonder what ailed the lady. Bingley, however, was ever curious.
"A broken window? At this time of year that is most inconvenient. The night air is rather chilly." Bingley looked expectantly at Mrs. Bennet.
She took a rather unsteady breath, but it was Elizabeth who ventured an explanation.
"Yes, it is. But it seems that the wind played havoc with the curtains in my mother's room last night, knocking over a washstand which fell against the window, shattering the glass."
Bingley accepted this explanation with a small frown. "But I don't recall it being particularly windy last night," he said, almost to himself.
Several heads turned away to look at various points of the room.
Darcy's turned to the window again, and he jumped when confronted with the face of Mr. Bennet peering back at him.
"Oh, I'm sorry, son!" the gentleman called in a voice muffled by the glass barrier. He raised a hand to eliminate the reflective glare so that he could better see the occupants of the room. "I didn't mean to startle you."
Ah, thought Mr. Bennet. Bingley! That's who it was! Yes, I can see him getting his windows all confused. Well, I'll just remedy that right away!
He backed away from the window and called up to the man on the ladder. "When you're finished up there, Thomas, move the ladder around to Miss Jane's window. I think the ivy needs trimming." Then he quickly walked around the corner to enter the house and join the others.
"Ah, Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy!" Mr. Bennet said cheerfully, his eyes on the former. "What an unexpected surprise to see you here at Longbourn. Did you arrive last night?" He paused. "At Netherfield, sir."
"Oh don't be silly, Mr. Bennet!" his wife cried. "You know perfectly well that he has been in residence these three days already!" She stopped, unusually aware that she may have said something amiss.
But Bingley appeared not to notice. Cheerfully, he replied. "Yes, Darcy and I came on Tuesday, but after three days of shooting, it was time we ventured out into company."
"And who better to spend it with than the idly chattering ladies of Longbourn?" muttered Mr. Bennet. His eyes took in the young man's wandering gaze as it travelled toward his eldest daughter. Ah, I was right! Then he looked over at the second young man standing somewhat apart from the rest of the room's occupants.
Darcy had his back to the window and the effect of the light behind him placed his figure in deep shadow. No detail could be discerned on his face, and Mr. Bennet heard the sharp intake of several ladies' breaths around the room (or were those from the readers?). His wife was waving her handkerchief about as if in a great state of agitation. Glancing to his right, he noted three of his daughters looking quite flushed. Although Kitty and Mary had their gazes trained on the inscrutable figure at the window, Elizabeth's eyes were averted, and that gave her father pause for thought. Jane was undeniably focussed on Mr. Bingley, and he on she.
Mr. Bennet decided that action was called for. "It is a very fine day and very warm in here, I think. Wouldn't you agree, Lizzy?"
Elizabeth's head came up to stare wide-eyed at her father. Darcy stepped forward slightly, his face emerging from the shadow. His movement caught her eye, and involuntarily she looked at him. "Yes, Papa," she murmured. "A fine day for walking."
"Yes, yes," fluttered Mrs. Bennet. "All of you. Out, out into the gardens with you."
No sooner were the words from her tongue than her two eldest daughters were up out of their seats and leading the way from the room, the two gentlemen directly on their heels. Mary and Kitty looked at one another, then at their father.
Mr. Bennet shook his head. "Stay if you prefer. I"m sure your sisters will get along quite well without you." He then got up and left the room.
"Well," was all Mrs. Bennet had to say.
"Well," said Mr. Bennet as he strolled alongside the young people, idly (or seemingly so) pointing out various aspects of the building to Mr. Bingley's somewhat attentive ear. "Ah, watch where you step, sir!" He reached out an arm to guide the younger man around the ladder, which was protruding into the path on which they were walking.
"Oh, my!" exclaimed Bingley, glancing upward. The others all looked upward as well.
"Yes, I fear the ivy is getting a bit overgrown on Jane's window." Mr. Bennet hid a smile at the blush that rose in the cheeks of his daughter and her suitor.
They walked on in momentary silence. Mr. Bennet, satisfied that the mystery had been solved, now slowed his steps until he ended up beside Elizabeth, who was accompanying Mr. Darcy on the walk about the grounds. The three of them were steadily falling behind the lead couple, mostly due to the fact that the young gentleman seemed to be moving in a rather uneasy manner. As Mr. Bennet observed (from the corner of his eye, of course), he amended his former opinion. Mr. Darcy was not uneasy. He appeared to be favouring his right leg. Mr. Bennet peered harder, examining the younger man more closely.
Yes, now I see it. He most definitely walks with a careful step, and seems to be taking pains not to let it show. I wonder......
Mr. Bennet turned his watchful eye on his daughter. Forgotten were Bingley and Jane in light of this new mystery. The other couple continued on ahead and were around the corner of the house well in advance of the other three. As he studied Elizabeth, Mr. Bennet began to formulate another theory. However, no sooner did the thoughts enter his head than he dismissed them, nearly laughing aloud at the absurdity of the notion. Imagine, the proper and staid Mr. Darcy climbing a ladder in the darkened night, up to the window of .... well, he may have thought it to be the window of Elizabeth, (and who could rationally deny that attraction?), but the sheer folly and impetuousness of the act, not to mention the ridiculous outcome when Mrs. Bennet wound up the unexpected prize! No, no. Mr. Bennet dismissed the notion as utterly inconceivable.
Still..... Mr. Bennet glanced once more at the two young people beside him. Without appearing uncommonly rude, he attempted to study Mr. Darcy's attentive expression.
Oh, yes! He most certainly does admire my Lizzie! And what man wouldn't? He drew his shoulders back proudly. For she is by far the grandest young lady in the neighbourhood!
Mr. Bennet began to contemplate a idea. Well, it was obvious that the previous night's visitor must have been Bingley, but perhaps Darcy could be led along the same garden path, given the proper stimulus..... and providing the appropriate equipment was laid out for him. The more Mr. Bennet thought about it, the more satisfied he became with his plan.
"If you will excuse me, Lizzy. Mr. Darcy," he said quickly, and turned away to seek out the gardener.
Elizabeth stared after him. What on earth was all that about?
Darcy only spared a second's worth of attention to the departing man before his eyes turned once more to his beloved Elizabeth.
"Is there something wrong?" Elizabeth wore a slight frown as she tried to discern what ailed her companion, for illness it must be, judging from the almost vacant expression in Darcy's eyes, and the way he seemed to sway slightly on his feet as if he would fall to the ground any moment.
Wrong? No. Nothing could be further from the truth. Darcy continued to stare at the woman before him, completely oblivious to the fact that he hadn't actually put voice to those words.
Elizabeth looked away self-consciously and shuffled her feet on the flagstones. "Well." She cleared her throat. "Well, perhaps we should see where Jane and Mr. Bingley have gotten to?" Moving down the path toward the end of the house, Elizabeth looked back discreetly to see Darcy following her, but he didn't seem to be entirely aware of his own actions, for although his feet appeared to move of their own accord, his mind was obviously not keeping up.
Rounding the corner of the building, Elizabeth paused as she gazed about the garden, trying to ascertain where Jane may have gone. Darcy stationed himself at her elbow.
The scent of her hair was insinuating itself through his thoughts, which took on a dreamlike quality as he subconsciously leaned in closer to Elizabeth. She seemed unaware of his proximity, evidenced by the fact that a sudden clattering from the direction they had just come startled her, causing her to leap backwards into Darcy's arms.
He was likewise startled by the noise, but not so much so that he failed to appreciate his good fate. Tightening his arms in a protective manner around the lovely lady, Darcy peered over his shoulder to see the cause of the commotion.
"Over here, Thomas," came the voice of Mr. Bennet. "That's right, let's look sharp."
Both Elizabeth and Darcy sprang to one side as the solid ends of a ladder came into view, steering around the corner blindly, heading straight for them. Despite their flight, however, the ladder continued to swing itself to the side where they now stood, forcing the couple to step back again... and again... and again.... and -.
"Oh!" cried Elizabeth, but the sound was muffled by the fact that her face had been forced into Darcy's midriff as they fell backwards into the garden. She lay for some seconds in this fashion, not by choice, but out of necessity, for her feet were entangled in the roots of the bush that they now lay under.
Darcy was in no better position. The ground was soft enough to prevent him from sustaining any concussion upon his rather rapid descent, but Elizabeth's falling on top of him as well had temporarily knocked the breath out of him, and, although he longed to apologise to her for their current ungainly, (and improper to say the least!), situation of the moment, it was utterly impossible for him to do so! He could merely lay there, weakly struggling for air, while all of his dignity fled. Well, not all of it, for there was a part of him thoroughly enjoying the lady's proximity.
"Very good, Thomas. I think you'll see what I mean when you get to the top there."
Oh, no!! Elizabeth cringed both outwardly and inwardly at the sound of her father's voice. Goodness, he can't see us here like this! What would he think??
But she need not have fretted. In the course of their fall, both Darcy and Elizabeth had tumbled well back off the path on which they had been standing, and were even now virtually invisible to the casual observer, or even Mr. Bennet who stood but five feet away with his eyes following the ascent of the gardener up the aforementioned ladder.
Darcy had finally managed to regain his breath and was about to speak when Elizabeth clamped a hand over his lips. He tilted his head to meet her gaze. Her lips were pursed in a silent shushing gesture as her chin rested on his stomach, her eyes pleading with him to lay still and be quiet. Darcy smiled inwardly, but then, as fate would have it, he was made painfully aware of a sharp rock protruding into the small of his back. He longed to shift himself, but Elizabeth's desperate expression kept him still. Seeking to detour his awareness of his pain, Darcy instead focussed his mind on the lady beside him. He closed his eyes and concentrated on determining her exact position in relation to himself.
He started at his feet. Elizabeth's skirt covered his legs. He could feel the warmth of her body pressing against him. Her own legs must extend beyond his if her head only managed to reach his ribs. That meant that the rest of her body, with its curvaceous lines must therefore be -.
Oh, no! This won't do at all! Darcy's eyes flew open. His panicked glance told him all he needed to know.
"Alright, I'll leave you to it, then. There's no hurry."
Elizabeth laid her head down flat on Darcy's stomach as her father walked within a few feet of them, on his way back around the corner of the house. For a few moments nothing moved but her eyes as she waited for the gardener to climb down from the ladder. Finally, Thomas also disappeared down the path.
"Oh," Elizabeth groaned as she shifted her weight. She wiggled her left arm to pull it free from under Darcy's body.
Darcy's eyes opened wider as he realized that it hadn't been a rock pressing into his back at all, but Elizabeth's hand.
The colour rose in both of their faces as they took in their intimate postures. Then Elizabeth pushed herself to a sitting position with a most unladylike effort. Darcy likewise scrambled to his feet and offered her assistance in getting to hers.
Neither was prepared to offer any comment on what had just transpired. Each dusted off their clothes in silence before stepping back onto the path once more.
"I, um," Elizabeth began in a husky voice. "I think we should find my sister and your friend."
"Mmm. Yes," Darcy replied, his gaze transfixed on a small green leaf in Elizabeth's hair.
"I say, Darcy!" called a voice, startling the two from what wits they still possessed.
A Trellising We Will Go...
Both turned to see Mr. Bingley and Jane approaching from across the side lawn. Bingley wore a smile half again as wide as his face. Jane was also smiling happily, with a sparkle in her eye.
Elizabeth moved forward to meet them. "Jane, whatever is that in your eye?" she whispered hurriedly.
Jane looked at her, completely befuddled. "Oh, Lizzy! Don't be so obtuse!" she whispered back.
Elizabeth was taken aback, but turned to stare at Mr. Bingley quizzically.
"Darcy, you just won't believe my good fortune!" the young man was saying. He pulled his friend aside so that they now stood next to the bush from under which Elizabeth and Darcy had just emerged.
Darcy cast a nervous glance behind him then quickly turned back to Bingley. "And just what is it you would tell me, Bingley?"
"Only that Jane - er- Miss Bennet has given me permission to call upon her, to court her!" Bingley's expression was so pathetically lovesick that Darcy had to avert his gaze.
"Oh," Darcy muttered. "And here I thought you'd proposed."
"What?" Bingley leaned forward to hear better.
Darcy shook his head. "Never mind."
Jane was looking up, following the line of the ladder with her eyes. "Lizzy, what is the ladder doing outside your window, now?"
Darcy's head swung around while Elizabeth blushed. His suddenly thoughtful gaze travelled up the length of the ladder to the window visible within a neatly trimmed frame of vines.
"Oh, I'm sure that Thomas is just doing a little repair work, Jane," Elizabeth hissed, impatiently trying to avoid the subject of her bedroom window in the presence of the gentlemen.... one in particular.
"Oh, there you all are!" Mr. Bennet called as he rounded the corner. He took in the assortment of expressions on the faces before him and smiled to himself. Ah, it appears my efforts have not been in vain! he thought, mentally rubbing his hands together in glee. "Come, come. It must be cooler out here than I thought. All of you have red cheeks!" He held out one arm to direct the foursome toward the house.
Elizabeth and Jane hurriedly complied, Bingley following quickly behind while Darcy gazed thoughtfully up at the side of the house before falling in at the rear with Mr. Bennet. For a moment, Darcy nearly believed that his host could read his thoughts, but when Mr. Bennet began to casually speak of luncheon being soon served, he realized it was merely his fertile imagination. How could the man know where Darcy's mind had wandered? Ridiculous idea!
By the time they had all re-entered the house, divested themselves of their coats, wraps and hats and once more were comfortably seated in the parlour, Mrs. Bennet fluttering about Mr. Bingley like a butterfly, the flush had receded from their faces.
In a matter of moments, luncheon was served, and everyone rose to take their seats at the table. As luck would have it, Darcy ended up seated next to Mrs. Bennet, while Elizabeth was at the other end of the table. Bingley sat between Elizabeth and Jane, while at Darcy's other elbow, Mary took up her spoon, Kitty next to her. Mr. Bennet had a prime vantage point, being able to gaze down the length of the table and observe everyone's expressions.
Darcy glanced up and met Jane's eyes. For a brief second he fancied she could see what he was feeling, her own expression being one of sympathy. Mrs. Bennet's voice cut into any further contemplation along this line, however.
"I trust that your stroll through the gardens was a pleasant diversion?" she enquired, more of her daughters than of the gentlemen.
"And diverting too, I imagine," murmured Mr. Bennet quietly. Only Elizabeth was near enough to note his words. She gave him a penetrating look, then quickly turned away, her face suffused in colour.
"But the colours have yet to appear to full advantage," continued Mrs. Bennet, blissfully unaware of the distracted minds around her. "And the flowers have lost their bloom," she lamented.
"Not all, my dear," Mr. Bennet added drily.
His wife stared vacantly at him, uncomprehending, before shaking her head. "You do talk such nonsense."
If she had deigned to observe the faces before her, she would have seen such an array of cheeks in bloom but, alas, she had not the wit to understand her husband's remark. Jane and Elizabeth were both focussed on their plates, their gentlemen admirers somewhat more composed as to keep their countenances unrevealing of their inner thoughts.
Mary was not so dull as many supposed, however. Observation, to her, was a skill practised often, and with much success on this particular occasion. There was much to be seen, and even more to be supposed in regard to many of the diners at this luncheon gathering. Her thoughtful gaze took in her eldest sister and the gentleman seated beside her. Something of significance had definitely occurred there! thought Mary. And it would not be too soon, either. How the two of them could go on for so long, denying their obvious destiny is beyond my comprehension. People in love are so blind to the most barefaced facts. I shall never be so dull-witted, I'm sure.
She turned her attention to Elizabeth, a sister who had not always been so easily read. Yet there it was for all to see. Elizabeth, too, was in love. She could barely hold her head up, could not meet anyone's eyes. Most unlike her normal self. But how could it come to be that both of my elder sisters could fall in love with the same man? Mary mused in astonishment. Poor Jane has agonized over Mr. Bingley for close to a year, yet Lizzy had never shown any marked preference for him before now. She glanced to her left at Darcy. Oh, and even Mr. Darcy cannot believe his friend's dilemma. He keeps looking at Jane, at Lizzy and then at Mr. Bingley. He appears so thoughtful, too. He must be preparing to advise his friend on a discreet course of action in this circumstance. Mary returned her attention to the potatoes on her plate, lightly shaking her head in perplexity.
Kitty, for her part, was neither quick-witted nor dull. She did not attain the heights of insightful thinking of her paternal parent, but she was fortunate enough not to suffer the depths of disillusionment of the other. However, Kitty was not one to find enjoyment in observing other people unless they were, perhaps, gentlemen clad in red coats! Since none of the gentlemen present fit that description, her interest in the current drama unfolding at the table wasn't worth mentioning but for one point. She fervently hoped that Elizabeth would accept Mr. Darcy's imminent proposal, since it was obvious that the man was violently in love with her and that would mean that, with both of her eldest sisters married and out of the house, Kitty would have ample opportunities to attend balls and assemblies despite her father's stricture on her participation following Lydia's folly. Of course, Lizzy would have to forget any past slights the man had paid her, not that Kitty thought they were of any significance at all.
Mrs. Bennet prattled on endlessly throughout the meal. Her reasons were twofold. Firstly, seated next to Mr. Darcy, there was very little conversation to be had from that quarter and she felt it her duty to make up for the deficiency. Secondly, seated next to Mr. Darcy afforded her a particularly singular opportunity to observe the man up close, and she could not dispel the absurd notion that had come over her earlier when she had fancied the young man being her late night intruder. Just the idea made her face flush with embarrassment, her hands tremble as she reached for her goblet of wine, and Mrs. Bennet attempted to school her disobedient thoughts into a more respectable form.
Jane eyed her mother carefully. The woman was behaving in quite a peculiar manner, even for Mrs. Bennet. As she watched her mother's eyes repeatedly come to rest on Mr. Darcy's features, Jane grew more and more puzzled. She was aware of a movement beside her and glanced up to see Mr. Bingley smiling at her. All thoughts of her mother vanished in an instant, replaced by the warm, sweet memory of the young man in the garden shyly enquiring if he may come call on her. Jane returned the smile and the two sat for some moments merely staring at one another.
Oh, my.... I think I'll be ill. Mary turned her gaze away from the insipid expressions on the faces of the couple opposite her. She stole a quick glance at Elizabeth whose own face was turned toward the window. Oh, poor Lizzy. She can hardly bear to look at them. How painful it must be for her.
Contrary to her sister's sympathies, Elizabeth was not in the least occupied with thoughts of Mr. Bingley nor her elder sister. Her mind was more strenuously engaged in puzzling out her father's bizarre behaviour. What exactly did he know about the activities in the garden, under the yew bushes? she wondered. He could not possibly have seen us! Why, he would not have allowed Mr. Darcy in the house if he had!
Elizabeth glanced quickly at her father, and then her gaze shot down the length of the table to the young man who occupied her thoughts. Out of the corner of her eye she caught sight of the ridiculous expression on Jane's face, and Elizabeth quickly looked at her mother to see if that woman had noticed. Judging by her smug countenance, there was no escaping Mrs. Bennet's scrutiny of the couple. Elizabeth sighed.
One look at Bingley across the table was enough to make Darcy impatient with his friend. Why on earth didn't the man just propose to the lady instead of all this messing about? Now they sit there, the both of them making cow's eyes at one another, and the rest of us nearly ill at the sight! Why doesn't Mrs. Bennet make one of her insightful observations and put us all out of this misery by embarrassing Bingley?
Darcy heard a sigh and his head snapped to the right to see Elizabeth turn her face away from him to look down at her plate. There was a vague upward tilt at the corner of her mouth, although Darcy doubted that she had found anything to amuse her in the present situation. Still, the softness of the curls that lay about the edge of her brow.... the delicate texture of her skin.... the curve of her lips.....
I don't believe it, Mr. Bennet mused to himself. What are those two waiting for, an engraved invitation? I put the ladders out, I point out where my daughter's rooms are, and still they sit here, moonfaced, not saying a word! Just look at the pair of them! Bingley is like a lost puppy, eyes as big as saucers staring into Jane's, and Darcy appears as if he's too close to the fire and is in danger of melting from the heat! And Lizzy! I must have a private word with that young lady. She doesn't seem to realize at all what that young man of hers is about. I'm beginning to wonder if she has even noticed his physical presence at all.
The meal continued in relative silence, sporadically interrupted by the occasional sparkling comment of the hostess, or the equally deadpan response of her husband. At long last the ordeal was over and the ladies retired to the sitting room while the men tarried over the coffee in an even more uncomfortable silence.
Bingley made the first foray into the conversational arena.
"A fine property you have here, Mr. Bennet."
The gentleman raised a sardonic eyebrow. "The gardens do offer the advantage of a quiet retreat from the house, periodically."
Darcy stifled a chuckle, while Bingley nodded his agreement.
"You may avail yourself of them on your next visit, if you care to do so." Mr. Bennet continued, including Darcy in the sweep of his hand. "Only take care to notice where the ladders may be. This is the time of year for Thomas to be pruning and making other repairs. I should not wish you to sustain any injury should one fall on you." Here he looked a little more directly at Darcy, but with such a straight face that the younger man was not entirely sure what he was to think. "But I'm sure that my daughters would be able to steer you in the proper direction, should the need arise."
Darcy was becoming increasingly uneasy at the turn of this conversation. His alarm grew at his friend's next comment.
"Yes," Bingley was saying. "I was rather puzzled by that broken window that you sustained last evening. I do not recollect any windstorm at all, yet there must have been, perhaps while I was sleeping, for Miss Elizabeth said that there was. I do often sleep very soundly, and my houseguests are often up before I am in the morning. Isn't that right, Darcy?" He turned to his friend.
"Yes!" Darcy quickly responded.
"For you," Bingley continued, "were already up and about at some ungodly hour this morning. I swear, if I didn't know any better, I'd have thought you had never gone to bed! Ha ha!"
"Indeed!" Mr. Bennet couldn't quite hide the amusement in his eyes, nor the smile that threatened to engulf his face. "I am often up very early myself, revelling in the quiet time by availing myself of a book in my library. As a matter of fact I was contemplating doing that when that unfortunate incident with the window transpired." At the startled look on Darcy's face he couldn't help adding, "I couldn't sleep, you see. Then there was all this commotion with the breaking glass, and my wife was naturally upset over the whole affair."
"Oh yes, quite," agreed Bingley. "She must have been startled by the noise. A very shocking thing to wake up to. She seems to be still quite shaken by it."
Mr. Bennet waved his hand in the air. "She will recover. One imagines so much in the darkness of the night that it is easy to make a mistake."
"Quite," Darcy croaked.
Bingley sent a puzzled look in his friend's direction.
"Now," said Mr. Bennet unexpectedly. The two young men looked at him. "Enough of this shilly shallying around. You've obviously come to see my daughters, not me. Can't blame you there. Jane and Lizzy are by far the best of the lot. Now, let's get down to business. Shall I be leaving the ladders out tonight?"
T(rellis) minus three and counting....
"Stop it! What do you think you're doing?"
"Shhhh!!!" Darcy cuffed the back of Bingley's head once more to emphasize his point. "Do you want to wake up everyone?"
"Well, no. Of course not, but- Ow!" Bingley dropped his end of the ladder to the flagstones as Darcy gave him another reminder.
"For God's sake, be more careful!" Darcy hissed. He glanced over his shoulder toward the corner of the house, expecting at any moment to be confronted by Thomas the gardener armed with a pitchfork. He turned back to see Bingley staring up at a window set high in the wall above them.
"I think this is Jane's." Bingley whispered.
Darcy followed the direction of his friend's gaze. His eyes opened wide and he shook his head vehemently. "No, no it's not."
Bingley nodded, his mind made up. "Yes, it's Jane's. I remember from this afternoon when we were walking in the garden." He bent down to pick up the end of the ladder that he'd previously dropped. "I'll just put the ladder up.... Darcy, what are you doing? Let go of it!"
"That's not Jane's window!" Darcy persisted, pulling on his end of the ladder.
"Yes it is! Let go!"
"Bingley, you are mistaken and if you don't listen to me you are going to make the most horrendous - just trust me!" Darcy pleaded with him.
Bingley was quite puzzled with his friend's behaviour. After all, he was positive this was Jane's window...... wasn't he? He looked up once more, but the seeds of doubt had been planted. Still, he wanted to make sure.
"Well then, whose room is it? Do you know?" He became intrigued as, even in the dark, he could see Darcy's expression change to one of mortification.
"I... um.. believe that it's the one the gardener was repairing earlier today."
"He was working on three, Darcy. Which one? There was Jane's, Elizabeth's and-" he paused as snippets of Mr. Bennet's comments came back to him. "Mrs. Bennet's. Her window was broken when the wind unexpectedly swung it open, and there was no wind that night! Darcy, what exactly happened? You know something. I can see it in your face. How did the window break?" Bingley suddenly remembered Mrs. Bennet's reaction in the sitting room that morning, and later how she kept staring at Darcy at the table through luncheon, as if she were comparing him to someone. With a sharp intake of breath, he stepped closer to his friend. "No, it wasn't the wind at all. 'Mistakes in the dark', Mr. Bennet said. 'Wouldn't want you to sustain an injury should a ladder fall on you', he said." Bingley peered a little closer at Darcy. "You've been favouring one leg since I saw you first thing this morning. And I wasn't joking when I said I'd thought you had been up all night. You were here last night, weren't you? You were going to do exactly what we're doing now, only you made a mistake and picked the wrong window!"
"Be quiet!" Darcy whispered in vain.
"Oh, this is rich! I wish I'd seen it!"
Darcy scowled at the other man and began to drag the ladder away across the lawn to the corner of the house. Bingley merrily followed behind with a continuous oratory.
"What did you do? Bang the ladder against the glass and break it that way? Or did you get all the way to the top and, in your haste to see Elizabeth, forget to open the window?" Bingley laughed as Darcy shot him a look of pure contempt. "Darcy, you amaze me! I never would have imagined you as the determined young Romeo climbing the trellis to his lady love's balcony."
Darcy stopped walking and pulled the ladder up to the side of the house. He studiously ignored Bingley's presence as he hefted it into place and gently leaned it against the wall. Then he turned to face his friend.
"Are you quite finished?"
Bingley grinned that absurd grin of his and nodded, not quite trusting himself to speak.
"Okay, next ladder." Darcy set off across the lawn once more to find the second ladder. It was right where Mr. Bennet had promised they would find it. He began tugging on the end to pull it from it's hiding place. "Well, don't just stand there, Bingley. Help me with this!"
"Bingley, I'm not in any mood for your games. Just pick up the other end of this ladder and let's get it into place!"
Still Bingley didn't move. Darcy looked up in exasperation. Bingley was staring up at Mrs. Bennet's window where a light was plainly visible.
"Oh -!" they said in unison, then dived into the bushes as a figure appeared in the opening.
What an unfortunate choice of cover, however... at least for one of the gentlemen. The sounds of suppressed whimpers of pain drifted over in Bingley's direction.
"Quiet, Darcy," Bingley said in a barely audible whisper. "What did you do, break a nail?" In the cover of darkness, not to mention the leafy yew branches, the devilish smile on his face was invisible.
"No, Bingley," came a strained voice. "And when I manage to extricate myself from these rose bushes you will experience first hand my -"
"Who's that??" The feminine voice cut sharply through the night air.
The eyes of the two men grew so round that the whites could be seen at fifty paces if it hadn't been so dark, and even that may not have entirely concealed them. Frantically, each tried to think of some way to keep from being discovered. Finally Bingley had an idea.
"Meeeoooowwwww," he began tentatively. He heard a snort from Darcy's direction and tossed a rock over at the other man in annoyance.
Mrs. Bennet's voice rung out again. "Fluffy? Is that you?"
"Fluffy?" choked Darcy.
"MEEEEOOOOOWWWWW!" Bingley cried a little louder as he tossed a handful of dirt at Darcy. He added in a whisper, "Don't just lay there! Help me out!"
Forthwith, there were two voices caterwauling under Mrs. Bennet's window. The noise soon drove her to slam her window closed, but not before crying, "Oh, my nerves! My nerves cannot stand this racket! This should quiet you!" and emptying the contents of the wash basin into the garden.
"Oh, for - agh!" sputtered Darcy, wiping mud from his eyes.
"What's wrong?" Bingley enquired, casting a cautious glance upward to see the light in yon window extinguished. "I think we can come out from under here now." Within seconds he had wriggled himself free of the bushes to watch Darcy struggling with snagging thorns on the branches of the rosebushes. When at last Darcy had extricated himself Bingley stared at the man in utter disbelief. "What happened to you?"
"Mrs. Bennet," Darcy muttered. He brushed at the mud on his coat, but it was only a half-hearted attempt. The water dripped from his curls, across his cheek and rolled down his neck inside the collar of his shirt. Darcy grimaced as he surveyed the disaster of his attire. For a fraction of a second he wavered in his mission, but then his determination overcame his sense of decorum and he stood tall, facing his friend. "Let's get that ladder, Fluffy!,"
Bingley scowled at him, then nodded and they moved toward the bushes under which the ladder was secreted. As they bent down to retrieve it, their skulls came together with a resounding THUD. Both staggered backwards, hands on their heads.
"Bingley....." Darcy groaned.
"It wasn't my fault," Bingley countered. "You were supposed to pick up the other end!"
Darcy's eyes narrowed and he was silent a moment before saying, "Just pick up that end!" He pointed down the length of the ladder. "And stay there," he muttered as Bingley moved away.
After carefully extricating the ladder from under the tangled undergrowth, the two men struggled with it along the narrow footpath through the garden until they reached the lawn. Darcy stopped, although Bingley kept going, nearly knocking Darcy to his knees. By this time, however, Darcy had about given up on reprimanding his friend, and simply ignored it. A brief glance around the open expanse assured him of it's vacancy and he stepped forward, pulling Bingley along with him.
Along the side of the house they moved at a brisk trot until they came even with the window that was their goal. Darcy halted. Momentum from down the ladder pushed him forward again and he found himself sprawled across the flagstones to the sound of stifled laughter. By the time he had climbed to his feet, Bingley had the ladder in place and was awaiting final instructions.
"Alright," Darcy said quietly. "We're going to have to co-ordinate this. We go in together, and don't come out again without our objectives."
Bingley stared at him for several seconds without blinking. "You've been spending too much time with your cousin," he sighed. "I think you should go first."
Darcy raised an eyebrow. "Me?" Why me?"
"Well.. because... because.... "
Waving his hand impatiently Darcy said, "Oh, never mind. Just hold the bottom of the ladder for me, then."
He paused with his foot on the first rung. This time Darcy had worn his boots. He had no intention of repeating the folly of the previous night, feet slipping with each step up the ladder. Taking a deep breath, he began his ascent, eyes never wavering from his prize. Vaguely, he was aware of Bingley whispering encouragement from below but he dared not look down. This time, he smiled to himself, I have the right window. This time Elizabeth will be waiting at the top of the ladder!
With these thoughts in mind, he soon came abreast of the window. Darcy cautiously peered through the glass. For a moment he wondered why he could not discern any shape in the darkness, but soon realized that it was because the draperies were drawn. This could not deter him, however, for he now felt like an expert in the opening of windows from the outside, considering his prior experience and the fact that he had experimented with several of the lower windows at Netherfield that very morning.
Success quickly followed his attempt and the window swung open. This time, of course, Darcy was below the course of the frame and was feeling quite smug in his accomplishment. Despite the assurance that this was not the bedchamber of the lady of the house, Darcy was, nonetheless, cautious in contemplating his next actions. With great care, he levered himself over the sill and silently placed his feet down on the floor. The drapery was still closed, effectively concealing his presence. Darcy drew one to the side only far enough to peek through and verify that this was, indeed, Miss Elizabeth's chamber.
His heart was palpitating wildly. He was close, oh so close to her. Darcy closed his eyes as he allowed his senses to absorb the ambience of her room. The faint crackle of the low fire in the hearth and the scent of lavender in the air nearly lured him forward before prudence once more gained control of him.
Darcy leaned close to the opening between the draperies and applied his eye. At first there was little to be discerned in the pale glow of the dying fire. Then he could detect movement near the doorway. The door swung inwards and a figure stood in its shadow. Darcy very nearly stepped forward, "Elizabeth" forming on his lips, but the figure moved into the room and he shrank back in horror.
No. No! How could this have happened again?? This IS Elizabeth's room, I know it!, Darcy peered once more through the part in the drapery.
Mrs. Bennet approached the bed, her hand reaching out to pat her daughter's shoulder. Almost immediately she recoiled, a whimpering wail already beginning to build in her throat.
"Mr. Bennet," she whispered. "Mr. Bennet! MR. BENNET!" she finished in a screech which caused Darcy's ears to ring.
Not wanting a repeat of his last performance when encountering this woman in her bedchamber, Darcy started to back away from the draperies, toward the window, but he misjudged the distance and found himself teetering backward, arms windmilling as he sought to keep from falling out of the opening.
"Mr. Bennet!" the lady's tone changed to one tinged with a mote of relief as her husband made the commanded appearance. "Lizzy is gone!"
Gone!!! The distraction proved too much for Darcy and as his mind worked through the possible connotations of this revelation his body continued its affair with gravity and he completed the tumble through the window.
Somehow, by some quirk of fate, he was able to latch onto the edge of the window sill with one hand, thereby forestalling the inevitable catastrophic conclusion of such a fall. However, the force with which he struck the stone wall subsequently sent the ladder sliding across the masonry with a sickeningly hideous scraping sound. It bumped against three window ledges on its way to an even louder denouement when it came to rest on top of the flagstones below Mr. Bennet's library window.
Darcy, of course, was oblivious to all but the fact that he was now hanging far too many feet above the comfort of solid earth, secured merely be the precariously placed fingertips of his left hand. However, he was soon made distressingly aware of Mrs. Bennet approaching the window from which he was suspended! He flattened himself against the wall as best he could, every muscle in his arm screaming at him for mercy.
"What was that?" Mrs. Bennet chirped.
"I'm sure you imagined it, my dear," Mr. Bennet uttered dryly.
"I most certainly did not!" she countered, stepping closer to the window's edge. "Do you take me for a simpleton? Oh, this is too much! Too much, Mr. Bennet! What are we to do? Where is Lizzy? What has been happening here lately? How are we to manage? What will become of us? How -"
"One question at a time, Madam!" Mr. Bennet broke in sharply. He glanced down at the sill and blinked in disbelief. What? Are those fingers I see -? Good gracious! He hurriedly pulled his wife away from the opening and back into the room. "My dear, I'm sure that Lizzy is only in the room of one of her sisters, talking over the day's events. You know how she enjoys that. She and Jane are often to be found in one another's company long after the rest of us have retired."
Mrs. Bennet wrung her hands together but clung to the comfort his remark offered. "Yes. Yes, of course. She is in Jane's room. I shall go and say goodnight to them both, right this second."
Mr. Bennet held fast to his wife's arm. "My dear, you have suffered an upset. You would hardly wish to cause your daughters alarm, now would you? I shall send down for some nice soothing tea to help you relax. Just let me escort you back to your bedchamber and get you settled in."
"Why, Mr. Bennet!" she cried in surprise. "That is most kind of you. Indeed, I must admit that my nerves could do with a good tonic."
"I'm sure I could arrange for that as well," Mr. Bennet muttered.
Mrs. Bennet continued on, blissfully unaware of her husband's remark. "That will do me very nicely, yes." She reached for the window to swing it closed. She had turned away before noticing that it did not close entirely due to some obstruction, nor that Mr. Bennet had hurriedly pushed it open once more.
"Come, my dear. Let's be seeing about that tea."
Their voices receded, much to the relief of the man clinging to the outside wall of Longbourn House. However, he was now free to consider the very immediate problem confronting him; just how many more seconds remained before he would make that final plummet to a painful, or possibly fatal, rendezvous with Mother Earth.
"Darcy!" The voice was Bingley's, and his friend was never so glad to hear that voice in all his born days.
"Bingley! Quickly! The ladder, man. The ladder!" Darcy grimaced as his shoulder strained with the effort of keeping him still.
"What on earth happened?" Bingley was horrified at the spectacle confronting him. His gaze travelled over the garden, resting on the ladder, and he rushed forward to grab the end of it, lifting it into place under his friend.
Darcy heard the ladder thump against the wall below him, and he tentatively reached out a booted foot to seek out a rung of support. As soon as both boots were safely moored, Darcy released his grip on the window sill. His entire arm ached and he was certain that it would be revealed to have been stretched several inches longer than its companion, but the comfort he derived from feeling the wooden rails in his hands was as warm as any blazing fire.
Bingley was still gazing up at Darcy, wondering what was taking the man so long. "Darcy? Come down! We're waiting for you."
Darcy inhaled deeply and opened his eyes. We??? He looked down at Bingley. The world began to spin. Darcy braved it to voice the thoughts in his head. "We? What do you mean? What are you on about? Who is 'we'?"
"Jane, Elizabeth and me!" Bingley said impatiently. "They are waiting in the carriage. Hurry up!"
Darcy was nonplussed. The whole evening had been one disaster after another. He felt like a battle weary soldier. But wait! Elizabeth was in the carriage? Elizabeth was waiting for him? An idiotish grin spread over his face.
"I'll be right there!" he called to his friend. Whether it was the vertigo or the euphoria of the moment, Darcy's head was spinning violently. The world was turning 'round and 'round and he gripped the sides of the ladder tightly. Then he swung his feet to the edges of the rails and relaxed his hold enough to begin slipping down the ladder. The ground met him with a jolt, his knees buckling and sending Darcy into the dirt in a most undignified position. Bingley rushed forward to help him to his feet.
"Are you quite alright, Darcy?" he asked, most concerned.
The grin had never left Darcy's face. He turned to face Bingley. "Never better, old chap. Never better."
Bingley clapped him on the back and together they hurried off across the lawn to where the carriage awaited.
The ladies were anxiously peering from the windows, letting out a small cry of delight at the appearance of the gentlemen. Bingley entered the carriage first, plunking himself down in the seat beside Jane. Darcy rather gingerly placed himself next to Elizabeth. Taking her hand in his, he shook his head, saying "I don't understand. How did you come to be out here instead of in your rooms?"
Elizabeth laughed, sending a delightful shiver down Darcy's spine. "Papa arranged it all, of course! But he told you, he said. He told you where we would be and that he'd arrange everything for you!"
"Yes," added Jane. "What on earth were you doing with those ladders?"
"He told us?" Darcy looked across the carriage at Bingley, who shrugged his shoulders. "No, I'm sure the only thing he told us was where the ladders would be and that he would be sure to keep your mother... um.... out of the way."
Jane and Elizabeth exchanged amused looks. "Naughty Papa," Elizabeth giggled. "But you entertained him sufficiently I should imagine, my dear." She gazed adoringly into Darcy's eyes.
"My poor nerves," Darcy muttered before all recollection of the evening's events began to fade in the warm cocoon of Elizabeth's regard. He let out a contented sigh as he returned her gaze.
Bingley and Jane glanced at each other.
"Sickening, isn't it?" he whispered.
Jane nodded. "I hope we don't have to witness this display all the way to Gretna Green!"
"Well, there's one way to assure ourselves of not having to see it." Bingley grinned at Jane's cautiously querulous expression.
It may have been a long trip to Scotland, but it wasn't long enough for the two couples most pleasantly engaged in not witnessing each other's displays of affection.