Posted on 2012-05-16
The moment those idiotic words escaped my lips, I knew I was well and truly in it over my wader tops. Only I could be so dolt-headed and boorish as to utter words like "tolerable" and "not handsome enough" to describe a lady within her hearing. Oh yes, I never meant her to overhear, but that is a paltry excuse. Some may call me proud, but what could I have been thinking? Would not my excellent father have reacquainted me with his shaving strop for speaking such? I could have used words like "pleasant," "agreeable," or "she is pretty enough to tempt me" in my refusal to dance, but no, I had to stuff my boot as far down my throat as humanly possible. As soon as she sashayed past me with that enigmatic little smile on her lips, and her devastating lavender scent served to tighten my breeches, it was crystal clear she was much more than merely pretty. In fact, as I glanced about, she was quite the most beautiful young lady in the assembly room, even considering her "angel" of a sister, Bingley's Miss Bennet. And now I have insulted her to her face! Blast it, Bingley, why could you not just leave me be? Let me suffer thoughts of my day at Ramsgate in silence.
But what is this? She has joined forces across the room with the eldest daughter of that pompous fool that met us as we entered the room. What was his name, Duke? Luke? Ah yes, Lucas, Sir William Lucas. Oh no, now Miss Lucas and my beautiful, but unknown Bennet sister are glancing directly at me and laughing behind their fans, no doubt to remark upon my less than gentlemanly behavior. If I could but melt and slither between the floorboards to freedom… But no doubt my beautiful miss would think me far too cold to melt. If only she knew of the passion within me that yearns to escape. What unease! What mortification! Perhaps if I were to sneak behind that potted plant near the wall? Ah, this is much better. No one will notice me here, and I can pass my time in social purgatory hidden from view, watching the dancers from between these blasted leaves, until even Bingley longs for his bed.
Unfortunately for Fitzwilliam Darcy, however, there were two ladies in the room who took note of his unusual disappearance.
"Charlotte, did you see Mr. Darcy duck behind that plant? What can he mean by it?" Miss Elizabeth Bennet whispered to her lifelong friend.
"Perhaps Mr. Darcy is just shy and awkward, Lizzy. It would certainly explain his odd behavior this evening, would it not? Lurking in corners, skulking about the periphery of the room, dancing with and talking to no one but his own party. And not much of that."
"I refuse to believe it! How can a man of sense and education, who has lived in the world, be so shy as to hide from the simple folk of Meryton? No, Charlotte, Mr. Darcy is just what he appears to be - haughty, insufferable, and no one I would care to know, despite his great estate and ten thousand a year."
"Shame on you, Eliza! A man so unsure of himself in a ballroom he hides behind a plant is a man we should seek to help, not a man we should censure. I think, my dear friend, you are letting your pique at his perceived slight run away with your reason."
Elizabeth sighed in defeat. "Perhaps you are right, Charlotte." She thought a moment. "Though I may regret it, I am willing to give Mr. Darcy a second chance. What do you think we should do?" After a moment's thought an impish grin lit her face and she seized Charlotte's hand. "Come, let us visit the refreshment table for a cup of Mrs. Potter's potent punch, and then take a closer look at that 'plant,' shall we?"
Darcy viewed the two ladies approaching his lair with alarm. Should I run? He debated with himself. Maybe if I am still and very quiet they will not notice I am here. Yes, I think that is my best course of action.
Upon reaching the plant, Charlotte examined a leaf. "What kind of plant is this?"
"Some member of the ficus family, I should think." Elizabeth stroked a leaf of the tall, but bushy plant between her forefinger and thumb. "It certainly appears strong and stout, Charlotte, but as you have wisely told me," she said with a smirk, "first impressions can be very deceiving." She balanced the punch as she sank her forefinger into the soft earth surrounding the plant's trunk. "It does feel somewhat dry though." She winked at Charlotte, "Perhaps if we offered Mr. Ficus some punch?" Charlotte giggled as Elizabeth thrust the cup between two branches.
Darcy looked down in surprise at the hand waving a cup of punch in front of him, and he automatically took the offered cup.
Elizabeth waved her empty hand at Charlotte and they chortled together. Just then a young gentleman bowed in front of Charlotte and queried, "Miss Lucas, if you are not otherwise engaged, might I have the pleasure of this next set in your company?" Elizabeth eyed Charlotte, smiling brightly, her expressive brow arched in happiness for her friend. Like her younger sister Mary, Charlotte rarely received more than one or two invitations to dance at a Meryton assembly, and this evening she had already danced two sets.
"I should be delighted, sir." Charlotte took his offered arm and was led to the set that was just then forming.
Elizabeth watched the dancers for a time and, glancing over her shoulder, inquired of her shy companion, "Are you enjoying your punch, Mr. Ficus?"
In truth, Darcy had done nothing but stare dumbfounded at the cup in his hand since it was handed to him. At her question, he brought it to his nose for a tentative whiff, shrugged and took a precautionary sip before he responded truthfully. "It is very good, thank you, madam."
"Could I not coax you from behind your plant, sir? I promise not to bite, and you are far too handsome to hide behind a plant."
Darcy stepped out from behind the plant, a bit of color suffusing his already ruddy cheeks. He stood next to Elizabeth in companionable silence a time while they watched the dancers, and he continued to nervously sip Mrs. Potter's very effective tongue lubricant, for no other reason than to keep his hands occupied. Perhaps it was guilt, or perhaps it was the pleasant, punch-induced buzz he began to feel, but whatever the reason Darcy finally turned to her. "Miss Bennet, I can go no longer without offering my deepest, most sincere apology for my previous statement."
Elizabeth gazed up at him, an innocent twinkle in her big green eyes. "But sir, I am not Miss Bennet, and just now you said you liked the punch," she nodded toward the cup in his hand.
"But I thought… Bingley said you were…" Darcy smiled down at the empty cup in his hand, now finally realizing her playful nature. "Madam, your fine eyes betray your words. I am confident you know I refer to my outrageous words from earlier this evening, when I was resisting Bingley's demand that I dance. I know you overheard my unforgivable gaff, but nevertheless I do beg your forgiveness." A wave of sadness crept over his face as he continued. "My only excuse must be that my mind was much occupied by an unpleasant experience that had just recently befallen my dear sister."
Elizabeth saw the shadow on his face, and her compassion overcame her intense curiosity over the 'unpleasant experience.' She replied, "Then you are forgiven, sir."
A wide smile that reached his eyes, and then spread to two glorious dimples, lit his countenance. "Might I be forgiven sufficiently to request the next set with the most beautiful young lady in the room?"
Elizabeth gasped at the sight, but given such an opening her teasing nature could not resist the temptation. "Yes, sir. If you will accompany me I shall introduce you to my sister Jane, and you may apply for her hand directly," she averred with a straight face. "But as your friend is just now dancing with her he may have something to say on the matter."
Darcy burst out laughing, causing many in the room to turn their way, in particular one young lady in a pumpkin-colored frock and a sharp-eyed matron watching her beautiful eldest daughter dance with Mr. Bingley. "Madam, you take great pleasure in deliberately misunderstanding me. You know I meant to apply for your hand."
Elizabeth sighed with a theatrical shake of her head. "Alas, I am afraid I must decline your kind offer."
Darcy's surprised shock immediately wiped the mirth from his face. In his seven and twenty years this was the first time any lady had ever refused to stand up with him, and so naturally his curiosity got the best of him. "And may I ask why?"
"Two reasons," Elizabeth replied with a mischievous smile on her lips. "First, sir, we have not been properly introduced, and I may not stand up with a gentleman I have not been--"
"Mr. Darcy, I am happy you have decided to forsake your plant and join us this evening," Charlotte interrupted enthusiastically, just arrived from her dance.
"Thank you, Miss Lucas," he bowed. Eyeing Elizabeth he queried, "Might I ask the favor of a proper introduction to this young lady?"
"Why certainly, sir. Elizabeth, I have the great honor of presenting Mr. Darcy of Pemberley, in Derbyshire. Mr. Darcy, this is my best friend in the world and close confidante, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, the second of the Bennet sisters from Longbourn."
Darcy's brow rose in understanding as he bowed to Elizabeth with great formality, "And why you are not Miss Bennet, but are properly addressed as Miss Elizabeth."
Elizabeth smiled as she curtsied. "You have caught me out, Mr. Darcy."
"You mentioned two reasons to withhold your hand?"
"Ah yes, sir. You have not yet served your penance, Mr. Darcy. Surely you did not expect your transgression to escape my notice with so little as an apology?" Elizabeth teased.
"I am at your disposal, madam. What deed would you have me accomplish for the boon of your hand in dance?"
With a silly grin directed toward Darcy, Charlotte dragged Elizabeth a few feet away and hissed in her ear, "Lizzy, are you out of your mind? Throwing impediments in front of a man of such consequence when all he wants is to dance with you?"
Elizabeth shrugged. "I admit Mr. Darcy is very handsome, Charlotte," Elizabeth met his soulful, slightly 'punched,' puppy dog brown eyes with an appreciative glance, "but until a few minutes ago all I knew of him was that he knows little of ballroom etiquette, and that he has an uncommon fondness for house plants." She smiled at Darcy, unaware that he could just make out their conversation. "You know how little I care about wealth or consequence, and how much Jane and I value amiability in a suitor, to say nothing of our dance partners." She laughed; then turning serious she continued. "No, Charlotte, Mr. Darcy shall have the same attention I would show to any other young man in Hertfordshire, and unlike some others of our acquaintance he has much yet to atone for."
Charlotte sighed. "I suppose I shall not move you then." She nodded toward a corner suggestively. "There sits Mary with her usual companion." Elizabeth glanced over to see Mary reading nose deep in a book. They grinned at each other.
"Are you thinking what I am thinking?" Elizabeth giggled.
"I am. But dare we do that to Mr. Darcy? You know what your mother's reaction will be, Lizzy, if she sees him dancing with her Mary."
"Yes, Charlotte, but then he will dance with me, and mama will be beside herself, not knowing which of us she should pair him with." They both laughed. "Besides, you cannot deny it would be good practice for Mr. Darcy." With that they rejoined their penitent.
What manner of woman is this Miss Elizabeth Bennet? Beautiful, witty and she showed great kindness when she answered my preposterous words with unexampled compassion for my shyness. And now I learn she values amiability in her suitors over wealth and consequence? She is nothing like the women of the ton, those aunt and uncle would match me with, let alone my sickly cousin. I should very much like to introduce Georgiana to her; I think she could be a good friend for my sister, just the sort of friend she needs to turn her mind from the events of summer. I shall speak to Bingley tomorrow about bringing her here. Whoa, he shook his head to clear it, I should have Elizabeth introduce me to Mrs. Potter. I simply must lay my hands on the recipe for her punch. Did I just call her Elizabeth? Ah, I see I am now to learn my penance.
"Oh my poor nerves!" Exclaimed Mrs. Bennet to her second daughter and Charlotte Lucas, fanning herself at a prodigious rate. "Who would have ever thought? A man of such consequence as Mr. Darcy and my Mary dancing!" Not believing the answer she had received the first two times, she turned to Elizabeth for the third time to ask the same question. "And you say he sought her out?" This time, however, she added, "Lizzy, you simply must engage him in discussion as soon as possible and find out all his favorite dishes, for you know your sister will not desist from her musty, boring tome long enough to enquire, and I will not have Jane diverted from Mr. Bingley." To add extra emphasis she continued, "Oh, I wish I had brought my salts!"
Elizabeth and Charlotte exchanged knowing smirks. "Yes, Mama. Perhaps Mr. Darcy may ask me to dance and I can learn his favorites then."
"You!? Dance with Mr. Darcy!?" Mrs. Bennet exclaimed too loudly. "Why would he want to dance with a hoyden such as you, Miss Lizzy, cavorting outside at all hours?"
In defense of her friend, Charlotte pointed out, "Mr. Darcy is as likely to dance with Eliza as he is to dance with a young lady who reads books at a ball."
"Humph! 'Tis a pity I have but one Jane," was the reply she received.
The current set just then over, Mr. Darcy led Mary to her mother (and quite coincidentally to Elizabeth as well.) He bowed to the ladies.
"Mama, may I present Mr. Darcy of Derbyshire. Sir, my mother, Mrs. Thomas Bennet."
"Oh, Mr. Darcy," the enthusiastic matron gushed as she rose from her curtsey, "it is such a pleasure to meet you, and I must thank you for escorting my dear Mary through the last set. She is such a dear, sweet girl - so demure and devout - always in demand at our little assemblies," she lied.
"Yes, madam, I had noticed, and before I forget, Miss Mary," he dug a book from his coat pocket and, glancing at the spine, continued, "let me return your copy of Fordyce's Sermons to Young Women, and thank you for a most enlightening dance."
"You are most welcome, Mr. Darcy." Mary turned and strolled toward her chair in the corner, already thumbing the book to locate her place.
Hoping to keep Darcy occupied until her other daughters should show themselves, Mrs. Bennet inquired, "Are you enjoying our Meryton assembly then, Mr. Darcy?"
"Yes, I am. I am particularly fond of the punch and local flora." He said to a wide-eyed Mrs. Bennet.
"Oh, Mr. Darcy, I must advise you to stay clear of Mildred Potter's punch. We only feed that to the mules when we need to get the ornery, cantankerous things to move."
"Is that so, madam?" He eyed Elizabeth, who had suddenly discovered a great interest in the ceiling design. With an amused expression, Darcy continued. "In any case, I am sure I would enjoy the assembly even more if Miss Elizabeth would honor me with the next set?"
To Mrs. Bennet's shock, Elizabeth replied coolly, "I would be happy to, Mr. Ficus."
"Lizzy!" As the couple took their places in the set she fanned herself, "That girl will be the death of me!"
Darcy bowed to Elizabeth's curtsey at the first strains of Mr. Beveridge's Maggot. "Ornery, cantankerous mules, huh?"
Caroline Bingley, the aforementioned pumpkin-lady, hissed to her sister, Mrs. Hurst. "Louisa! Who is that chit Mr. Darcy is standing up with!?"
"One of the Bennet bunch, I should imagine. She is very pretty, dear sister, quite unlike the previous one he stood up with. You had better protect your territory," she giggled.
"Hah! Look at that frock - two seasons out of date at the very least - and her drab brown hair and beady, green eyes - how common. No, Louisa, she is no competition for me. Mark my words. My Mr. Darcy and I shall be engaged before we leave this godforsaken, barren wilderness."
Her companion looked at her sister with a disbelieving shake of her head. Had her dimwit of a sister not noticed the way "her Mr. Darcy" was devouring the lady with his eyes?
Some minutes into their dance Elizabeth sighed to break the silence that lay between them. "Tonight's assembly seems a pleasant one," she sallied.
"Indeed," Darcy replied succinctly. Little did Elizabeth know that Darcy had spent the entire time of their dance to this point trying to figure out how to broach the question that burned within him.
As they turned about each other, she had the time to respond, "'Indeed' will not do, Mr. Darcy. I talked about the dance, and you ought to make some other remark, perhaps on the handsomeness of the dancers."
They separated for a time, but when they returned together she could not remove her eyes from his dazzling smile and dimples as they promenaded to the end of the line, where he pulled her from the set, her hands within his. This beautiful, impertinent country miss had given him his opening, and Mrs. Potter's punch has given him the courage to ask his question. "Miss Elizabeth, you are by far the handsomest dancer in this assembly, the handsomest woman in this room, and the most beautiful woman of my acquaintance. Would you allow me, or do I ask too much, to call on you tomorrow morning?"
Elizabeth could not stem the laughter that bubbled up within her, as she shook her head 'no.'
Darcy returned her laughter. He understood her arch ways very well. "Too early?"
"Indeed, Mr. Darcy. But I would be happy to receive your call tomorrow afternoon."