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Authors: Pamela Aidan

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Literary, #General, #Romance

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Miss Elizabeth Bennet was not to be found in any of the public rooms of Netherfield on the two gentlemen’s return from their ride. Nor did she appear in the course of the afternoon. Darcy had kept an ear attuned for any strains of music from the drawing room or a low, pleasing voice issuing from the ladies’ parlor, but the house was silent save for the noise of servants about their duties. By supper, he began to feel disgruntled and at short ends. Having arduously come to the conclusion that he desired her presence despite the havoc it would wreak upon his composure, he found her absence now grated upon him.

It was not until six-thirty, when dinner was announced, that she finally joined them, dressed in a clean frock lately sent from Longbourn. Her hair had been brushed back into order in a simple but becoming style and bound with a plain ribbon. Darcy’s resentment of her absence for the whole of the day melted somewhat in the pleasure he received from seeing her at last. His pleasure was, however, short-lived.

“Miss Eliza, how have you left our poor Jane?” cried Miss Bingley, cutting off Darcy as he stepped in their guest’s direction. He checked his movement and retired, unwilling to become part of a charade of Caroline’s contrivance. Miss Bingley possessed herself of her guest’s arm, patting it solicitously as Elizabeth informed the party that she was distressed that she could not make a favorable answer to their kind inquiry. The gravity of her demeanor and the concern in her eyes gave Darcy to be ashamed of his earlier impatience with what he had deduced to be coyness on her part. She was clearly troubled, and her vigilance over her sister was evidenced by the weariness in her face.

“We are truly grieved, are we not, Louisa? Jane is such a sweet girl to be suffering so.” Miss Bingley eased Elizabeth toward the dining table and seated her at the end opposite Darcy’s chair. Darcy frowned in displeasure at the seating arrangements. Perhaps he could take Hurst’s seat for the evening? “It is so shocking to have a bad cold,” continued Miss Bingley.

“So shocking,” echoed Mrs. Hurst. “Mr. Hurst, your chair.” She motioned her husband to the place beside Elizabeth. Hurst, to Darcy’s consternation, lowered his bulk into the seat with uncharacteristic speed. “I dislike being ill, excessively.”

“As do I, Sister.” Miss Bingley shuddered. “Excessively! Therefore, I never indulge in it. Why, my constitution will not allow it. There now, Miss Eliza. I hope you are settled in.”

Darcy took his accustomed seat at the table at Bingley’s left and resigned himself to entertaining Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst, who made persistent demands for his attention or opinion. Occasionally he was able to steal glances down the table to observe how Elizabeth was managing with Bingley’s brother-in-law as her only companion. Her conversation and behavior were, to say the least, subdued, and he could not catch anything of what she was saying. Once, he heard a disdainful outburst from Hurst, but the only words that he could distinguish were “not like ragout,” which made no sense to him whatsoever.

As soon as the last course was removed, Elizabeth excused herself and returned abovestairs to resume the care of her sister. At her withdrawal, Darcy was only too glad to accommodate Bingley and consent to retire, along with Hurst, to the gun room for a brandy. But before he rose from his seat, Miss Bingley called them all to attention.

“Well” — she sniffed in a dramatic fashion — “I daresay I have never met with such intolerable manners in my life! Indeed, if we were not favored with insufferable pride one moment and with impertinence the next, I know nothing of the matter!”

“Of whom do you speak, Caroline?” asked Bingley, a thunder-cloud gathering upon his brow. Darcy also stared at her in silent incomprehension. He leaned back in his chair, crossing his legs, and absentmindedly began twisting his napkin.

“The chit who just walked out the door, Bingley,” came the answer from a most surprising quarter. Hurst threw down his napkin. “Can you imagine? Preferring a plain dish to a ragout! No style at all, or conversation either, for that matter. Silent as a nun until you press her, then out comes the most opinionated nonsense.”

“What! Mr. Hurst” — Miss Bingley laughed — “does her ‘beauty’ not make up for these defects? I have heard her eyes rated as quite fine.” Hurst’s only reply was a disparaging grunt, causing Darcy to wring another twist in his napkin.

“You are quite right, Mr. Hurst,” said his wife. “She has nothing, in short, to recommend her, but being an excellent walker. I shall never forget her appearance this morning. She really looked almost wild!”

“She did, indeed, Louisa. I could hardly keep my countenance.” Miss Bingley dropped her gaze to her plate, then looked up at Darcy from beneath slyly lowered eyelids. “Very nonsensical to come at all! Why must
she
be scampering about the country, because her sister had a cold? Her hair, so untidy, so blowsy!”

“Yes, and her petticoat; I hope you saw her petticoat, six inches deep in mud, I am absolutely certain.” Mrs. Hurst laughed.

Although Darcy had become inured to the Bingley sisters’ habit of shredding the characters of their acquaintances, their unprovoked attacks on Elizabeth he could no longer tolerate. This presented him with a quandary. Should he object to their malicious gossip? Doing so would probably result in more stealthy attacks on her and a never-ending stream of innuendo toward himself. Should he hold his peace? He was, after all, their guest. There must be some way…

“Your picture may be very exact, Louisa,” said Bingley sharply, “but this was all lost upon me. I thought Miss Elizabeth Bennet looked remarkably well when she came into the room this morning. Her dirty petticoat quite escaped my notice!”

Well done,
thought Darcy. Perhaps Bingley would prove up to weight and quash his sisters’ intractable habit without any interference on his part.

Undeterred, and with her attention still upon Darcy, Miss Bingley drove her point home. “
You
observed it, Mr. Darcy, I am sure, and I am inclined to think that you would not wish to see
your sister
make such an exhibition.”

“Certainly not,” he replied, a slight tremor shaking him at the remembrance of the exhibition of his family that had so narrowly been averted.

A smirk upon Miss Bingley’s lips warned him that his reaction had not gone unnoticed. She leaned toward him confidently. “I am afraid, Mr. Darcy,” she observed in a half whisper, “that this adventure has rather affected your admiration of her fine eyes.”

Darcy’s piercing, dark gaze leveled on her, and an enigmatic smile played upon his lips. “Not at all,” he replied, “they were brightened by the exercise.”

Fletcher had taken his leave, firmly closing the chamber door behind him, but Darcy remained seated before his dressing table, staring unseeing into his mirror. It had been true when he had said it, he ruminated silently, and upon further reflection, it retained its veracity.

“It must very materially lessen their chance of marrying men of any consideration in the world.”

The subject had been the barely respectable London relations of their guests and that connection’s influence upon the prospects of the young women abovestairs. Bingley had evidenced an alarming willingness to dispute their status with his sisters until Darcy had stepped into the conversation with his dampening observation. Charles had not been pleased with it and had lapsed into a silence on the subject that Darcy had hoped his sisters would emulate. Rather than take his cue, they proceeded to entertain each other with further witticisms at the expense of those they had lately professed to pity. Darcy could not imagine what prompted them to repair to Miss Bennet’s room for a consoling visit after such a display, but so they did until coffee was announced.

Alone now in his chambers, Darcy shook his head, his disquiet with the evening driving sleep away.
Caroline Bingley.
With her face, figure, and fortune, she moved easily among the first circles of the gentry and could well aspire to attain those of the nobility, despite the fact that her fortune was acquired through trade. Society’s approval of her family was only lately given, yet she behaved as rudely as a duchess and as heartlessly as a jade. Darcy shuddered at the thought of such a woman as his life’s companion and mistress to his estate and its dependents. His thoughts then turned to the more pleasing but troubling person of Elizabeth Bennet. She was the daughter of a gentleman from a long line of gentlemen who, despite her ridiculous mother and lamentable younger sisters, had inherited that gentility in full measure. But because her family had fallen upon straitened times, their status, though secure in the environs of Hertfordshire, had declined in larger society from welcome to bare acknowledgment.

She may reign in Meryton
— Darcy sighed —
but in London, she would be disdained while altogether less worthy women are courted and praised to the skies.
He rose, then, and made his way to his bed. But sleep still eluded him as the exchanges of the evening replayed in his brain. How had it started? Ah, yes, with books. She had elected to read rather than play cards…

“Miss Eliza Bennet despises cards. She is a great reader, and has no pleasure in anything else.” Miss Bingley’s praise was elegantly edged with scorn. Darcy looked at her in surprise, her attack coming so immediately upon the lady’s appearance among them. Elizabeth had been taken aback as well, or perhaps her few moments of silence were due to weariness, Darcy could not be sure. Her eyes widened at Miss Bingley’s remark and then returned to the tome in her hands before she ventured a reply.

“I deserve neither such praise nor such censure,” she cried. “I am
not
a great reader, and I have pleasure in many things.”

Bingley, whom Darcy knew to possess the romantic soul of a knight-errant, came to Elizabeth’s rescue with a sincere compliment followed by a self-deprecating description of his own reading habits.

“I am astonished that my father should have left so small a collection of books,” interjected Miss Bingley. “What a delightful library you have at Pemberley, Mr. Darcy!”

Darcy very much doubted that the contents of his library excited quite the degree of delight in Miss Bingley’s bosom that her tone implied. It was much more likely that the wealth to which the sheer number of volumes attested was what excited her admiration.

“It ought to be good,” he replied, but eschewed any credit for it by adding, “It has been the work of many generations.”

Miss Bingley could not admit his modesty. “And then you have added so much to it yourself.” With an air of intimacy she continued, “You are always buying books.”

Darcy almost ground his teeth in annoyance at her persistent flattery and, equally, at the amused light that was appearing in Elizabeth’s eyes at his discomfiture. “I cannot comprehend the neglect of a family library in such days as these,” he maintained as he tossed the cards in his hand into the play on the table.

Miss Bingley proceeded in her raptures from the library at Pemberley to the house in general and on to the surrounding gardens and countryside, ending with an admonishment to her brother to take it for a model and to build for himself nothing less than its equal. Her brother good-naturedly agreed to her scheme and offered to buy Pemberley should Darcy decide to part with it. That possibility was of so absurd a nature that the group laughed genially.

With that topic exhausted, Miss Bingley cast out another with which to secure his attention. “Is Miss Darcy much grown since the spring? How I long to see her again! Such a countenance, such manners, and so extremely accomplished for her age.”

Bingley looked sharply at his sister, trying, Darcy supposed, to dampen her fulsome compliments. Failing, he again attempted to direct the conversation into more neutral courses. “It is amazing to me how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are. They all paint tables, cover screens, and net purses…”

“My dear Charles,” Darcy remonstrated as he forced his eyes away from Elizabeth to regard his friend, “your list of the common extent of accomplishments has too much truth.” Seizing upon the opportunity afforded him to excite Elizabeth’s opinions, he forwarded his own. “I am very far from agreeing with you in your estimation of ladies in general. I cannot boast of knowing more than half a dozen in the whole range of my acquaintance that are really accomplished.”

“Nor I, I am sure,” seconded Miss Bingley. Darcy ignored her, turning his gaze expectantly upon Elizabeth. She did not disappoint him.

“Then you must comprehend a great deal in your idea of an accomplished woman.”

“Yes; I do comprehend a great deal in it.”

“Oh, certainly,” Miss Bingley hastened to intervene. “No one can be really esteemed accomplished, who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with.” She proceeded then to catalog an array of knowledge and talents that only the best education could afford and the most enlightened parent would deem appropriate for his female progeny. “…or the word will be but half deserved,” she concluded with a pitying smile at her guest.

Elizabeth returned her regard with some consternation, her lips pressed together and a martial light in her eye. Greatly desiring to know her mind, Darcy pressed her further, adding, “All this she must possess, and to all this she must yet add something more substantial” — he nodded at the book in her hands — “in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”

BOOK: An Assembly Such as This
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