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Authors: Pamela Aidan

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

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BOOK: An Assembly Such as This
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There could be no doubt that his manner had finally abashed her. She missed the next move in the figure, nearly tripping over the demitrain of her dress. Darcy moved quickly to rescue her from a certain fall. Elizabeth moved away from his clasp as quickly as possible, murmuring a disjointed thanks.

“It is my pleasure to be of service, Miss Bennet,” he told her quietly. She said no more, and they finished the set in silence and in silence parted after Darcy escorted her to a group of her friends. He could not prevent his gaze from searching her out after he took up a position across the room. She had left her friends and seemed engaged in a minute examination of one of the bouquets of flowers that graced the area. Her pensive air communicated itself to him clearly, and he wondered, with growing sympathy, what Wickham had told her that was robbing her of peace.

More devilry to lay to his account, the wretch! What tales can he be spreading to cause her to so trespass the bounds of propriety? And Forster! This could explain his coolness tonight when I greeted him. Wickham! Not here, yet here all the same. An evil imp, come between me and…
He stopped this line of thought.
Come to cut up my peace!

Darcy suddenly felt the need for some fresh air and solitude. With a last glance at Elizabeth, he turned, made his way through the gay line of dancers, and sought the first egress to the outside. The chill air hit his face and, as he anticipated, began to clear his head. The threads of emerald and gold in his waistcoat shimmered and blinked, catching Darcy’s eye as he paced the veranda in the light of an unforgiving moon. He snorted as he remembered Fletcher’s admonishment that his problem with “the lady” was no more than a comedy of errors.

If this be comedy, Fletcher, your tragedy I could not bear.
He stopped and looked up at Lady Moon.
I am not angry with her. She is not blameworthy, she is…
It was the cold, surely, that caused him to shiver.
My other half?
Darcy shook his head and, wrapping his arms about him, clapped his hands against his sides and stamped his feet.
Your foolishness seems to have followed you out-of-doors. So, why are you out here freezing? You can be just as much a fool warm as cold.

Chapter 10
Beyond the Pale

“M
r. Darcy, you are not going out-of-doors!” Darcy looked over his shoulder as he shut the door and beheld the amused face of Caroline Bingley. “Shame on you, sir,” she continued in playful dismay, “to leave me alone to entertain the barbarians — and within my very gates! Most unhandsomely done!”

Darcy laughed lightly and offered her his arm. “You are too late, Miss Bingley. I am just returned from a quest for fresh air. I will say in my defense that it is doubtful my absence has occasioned the display of any untoward behavior on the part of your guests. All seems well,” he added as he looked about them. “In any event, you may certainly command the services of your brother should you need reinforcements.”

At his assurances, Miss Bingley’s look changed to one of distress. “Charles! He would be of no use at all, provoking man!” At Darcy’s quizzical look, she hastened to elaborate, “It is
his
behavior that has suffered most in your absence. Such thoughtlessness as he so plainly displays in paying exclusive court to Miss Bennet cannot long be ignored by the other guests.” She lifted her hand in a helpless gesture. “Mr. Darcy, what is to be done? If his friends do not counsel him, I fear he will commit a grave error — one that may well shut the doors of Society against him.”

“He is still by her side, then?” Darcy’s face grew somber.

“Oh, yes” — Miss Bingley sniffed — “he may as well be leashed. Truly, Mr. Darcy, people are beginning to talk! Only just now, that insufferable Sir William was hinting to me that my duties as Netherfield’s mistress would soon burden me no longer. If he could say such a thing to me, he has said as much to others. Of that you may be sure.” She paused and, laying her hand on Darcy’s arm, looked beseechingly up into his face. “Charles will listen to you. You have ever been his
good
friend.”

“I will speak to your brother, Miss Bingley. That is all I can promise.” Darcy looked past her to the doorway of the ballroom, and she followed his gaze, but he saw no more than the ridiculous clergyman who had accompanied the Bennets that evening.

“Your guidance is all I could wish for Charles. He is, indeed, fortunate in his friends.” She gave Darcy’s arm a discreet pat. “On another subject entirely, did I not see a letter from your aunt, Lady Catherine De Bourgh, arrive today? The lady requires you at Rosings for Christmas, no doubt?”

“The letter was from Lady Catherine,” Darcy admitted as he led her back into the ballroom, “but my aunt knows better than to command me to Rosings for Christmas. Visits are, of a necessity, always undertaken in the spring and, if possible, in the company of my cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam. My cousin Anne, Lady Catherine’s daughter, is of a delicate constitution and is especially discomfited in winter,” he explained.

“Then, will we have the felicity of your company in London for the holidays as well as the Season?”

“Again, no, Miss Bingley. After my affairs in London are concluded next week, I am for Pemberley and Christmas with my sister.” He shrugged. “My father and his before him always spent Christmas at Pemberley. Our people expect it, and it has become a tradition of the Darcys that, under my father’s rule, was anticipated for weeks. It is now five years since his death, and it is time for Georgiana and I to revive that custom. I believe she would little enjoy Christmas in London, away from all the pleasant memories of seasons past.”

“Such an indulgent brother!” Miss Bingley teased.

“Perhaps,” Darcy considered, “but Georgiana is deserving of any pleasure it is in my power to supply.”

“I am certain she is,” she quickly agreed. “Will she return with you to London for the Season this year?”

“I believe her still too young for a Season, Miss Bingley, but I intend to persuade her to come to Town for some of the winter at least.” A fluttering at his elbow intruded on Darcy’s notice, and he turned to witness Elizabeth’s unfortunate relation rising from a deep bow.
What importunity is this!
Darcy nodded curtly to him, momentarily fascinated by the man’s ill-bred presumption.

“Mr. Darcy,” the gentleman began without preamble, “please allow me to pay my respects, sir, after first hastening to assure you that my neglect was due entirely to a complete ignorance of the connection between yourself and my most noble patroness, Lady Catherine De Bourgh. For you must know that your gracious and most beneficent relation has entrusted this humble servant with the care of her people by bestowing upon me the living at Hunsford parish. That I should meet here, in this place, with that wonderful lady’s nephew was beyond my power of imagining; therefore, I did not look for it and must extend to you my deepest apologies for not making myself known to you immediately, sir.” He finished breathlessly and bobbed another bow.

“You are too fastidious, sir,” Darcy replied with cool civility. “I am sure you do Lady Catherine much service —”

“In that, Mr. Darcy,” Mr. Collins interrupted, “I hope I find my meat and drink. Lady Catherine De Bourgh is a woman of such perspicacity and strength of mind that she can be nothing but greatly valued by all her relations. As her nephew, you must be anxious to know how she goes on, and I am in the happy possession of such recent knowledge of Her Ladyship that it allows me to assure you of her continued good health.”

The man is in every way a fool,
Darcy decided, his civility tried beyond the bounds of courtesy. He looked past his aunt’s parson to find Bingley, but he was not to be seen in the ballroom.
Bingley, do not tell me you are taking her into supper as well!
He groaned silently. He had to find him! But it appeared that the obsequious rambling of the man before him would continue indefinitely unless forcefully brought to a halt. At Collins’s next pause for breath, Darcy quickly inclined his head and, without a word, moved away in the direction of the supper room, determined to bring his friend to his senses.

The room set aside for the serving of supper overflowed with guests. Darcy slowed, then halted just inside the door, reluctance to becoming shoulder-to-shoulder intimate with all of Hertfordshire almost dissuading him from his search. He peered about the room, his height advantageous to his purpose, and located his quarry. Miss Bingley had not exaggerated the matter. There sat Charles, Miss Jane Bennet still at his side, surrounded at table by a goodly number of his guests, blithely disregarding all the strictures that would relieve him of the necessity of declaring himself to Miss Bennet’s father in the morning.

Idiot!
Darcy despaired silently.
What in the name of Heaven are you doing? How can I help you now?
There were no means of discreetly attracting Bingley’s notice. He could push through the throng, but what to say when he had gained Bingley’s side, entangled as he was with guests?
A servant! Yes, a servant could be sent to summon him away!
But what should he say to Bingley in such a necessarily short interview that would serve the purpose? Rather, he was more likely to arouse Charles’s unfortunate mulish streak, and Heaven knew what would come of that! No other plausible solutions were forthcoming, leaving Darcy in an uneasy quandary. There appeared to be nothing for it but to wait until Bingley was separated from his company.

With this unsatisfactory course adopted, the delicious smells of the banquet table began to play upon Darcy’s senses. Grateful to be occupied with no more momentous a decision than what he would prefer to eat, he drifted over to the board and availed himself of a plate of choice viands and a glass of wine. He then turned to the task of finding his name card among the settings that crowded the long tables. His gaze swept up and back the rows of tables, searching for the empty seat that would indicate his reservation.
There!
Darcy espied the card across the near table, but as he made for it, his attention was arrested by the bob and sway of flower-adorned curls. He looked again at the name card and then across from it, meeting Elizabeth’s startled, wary eyes. It flashed into his mind that this seating had been done apurpose, and not by Miss Bingley. He glanced over at his friend. Charles? Whoever had arranged it, it could not be undone. With a tingling of apprehension, he set his plate down and quietly took his seat opposite Elizabeth.

“…it will be soon, of that you may be assured, Lady Lucas. I do not hold with long engagements, and I do not believe I deceive myself that Mr. Bingley does either. Only look at them, and you will see that he is most impatient to settle the matter.”

The complacent purr in the woman’s voice put Darcy strongly in mind of his first impression of Mrs. Fanny Bennet. She sat opposite him but two at table, as plump and indifferent to his presence as an old tabby cat whose esurient eye was wholly focused on a particularly toothsome mouse. He had always detested cats, their selective attention to authority and their propensity to amuse themselves with the harassment of their food hardly recommending their kind to Darcy’s disciplined view of life. Mrs. Bennet, on the first evening of their acquaintance, had struck him in much the same manner.

“Such a charming young man, and so rich! A fitting match for my beautiful Jane in every way. And when one considers that Netherfield is but three miles from Longbourn! Well…as a mother yourself, Lady Lucas, you can appreciate the advantages immediately.”

Darcy flinched at the appalling vulgarity of Mrs. Bennet’s discussion of her expectations of Bingley as son-in-law. He picked up his knife and fork and, hardly knowing what he was doing, began to rend apart his meat.

“You may well imagine what a comfort it is to me to witness daily the fond regard Mr. Bingley’s sisters shower upon Jane. It is certain that they must desire the connection. And why not? The Bennet name, while not noble, is not unknown among the great of Britain.”

The bit of ham he had swallowed threatening to choke him, Darcy quickly grasped his wineglass and eased its passage with a generous imbibing.
Insupportable!
Steely contempt iced his countenance. Was the woman mad or merely adept at self-delusion? He flicked a glance across the table to Elizabeth and immediately felt the heat of her blushes upon his own cheeks. Her eyes were looking everywhere but in his direction, her lower lip caught in agitation. Darcy looked back down into his wineglass and swirled the remaining contents.

“Moreover, it is such a promising thing for the younger girls, and a great relief for myself. You wonder at my saying this? Why, to be sure…Jane’s marrying so greatly cannot help but throw her sisters in the way of other rich men.”

“Mama, please!” Elizabeth’s plea registered in his hearing, but Darcy’s indignation for his friend, and not a little for himself, discounted it.

“…and that being so, it will be so pleasant to be able to consign them to the care of their sister. Then I will no longer be obliged to go into company more than I like.”

“Mama, do lower your voice, I beg you!” There was real desperation in Elizabeth’s voice, and when he heard it, Darcy’s contempt made room for anger at the woman on behalf of her daughter’s plight.

“Lizzy, do not interrupt me so. Excuse me, Lady Lucas, where was I? Oh, yes! I was just about to assure you that, in my own good fortune, I am not unconcerned with the disposition of your own dutiful girls. I am sure that you will, in no time at all, be in the same happy situation as myself.”

Darcy observed Elizabeth turn once again to her mother, vexation and shame alive on her face, accentuated by an overbrightness in her eyes. She hissed something in an inaudible tone. He guessed it was something about himself. His conjecture was not long in being confirmed.

“What is Mr. Darcy to me, pray, that I should be afraid of him?” Mrs. Bennet’s rhetoric stung him like a slap in the face. “I am sure we owe him no such particular civility as to be obliged to say nothing
he
may not like to hear.”

Darcy took a slow sip of his wine and set the glass down with deliberation.
Never
had he been witness to such a monumental display of impropriety in polite society. Further, to be its object was so astounding, so distasteful, that it rendered him speechless. Mrs. Bennet rattled on, oblivious to the looks of discomfort directed at her by both her daughter and Lady Lucas. To his relief, Darcy saw that no one looked at him except Elizabeth, whose misery at her mother’s behavior flushed her face and shoulders with shame. An unguarded wish to relieve her in some way tempered his disgust but did nothing toward changing his new-formed, implacable resolve that there was nothing under Heaven that would stop him from preventing a misalliance between Bingley and this family. He picked up his fork and, without tasting a bite, bent his attention to consuming the food on his plate, all the while considering strategy for his forthcoming campaign.

What remained of the evening Darcy passed in careful scrutiny of the Bennet family. His first object was to make a determination of the extent of his friend’s infatuation and of Miss Bennet’s affections. Fully cognizant of Charles’s tendency to enthusiasm, Darcy could not conclude with certainty whether Bingley was truly “in love” or had only succumbed to the allure of a pretty face and gentle manners. Miss Bennet was another matter. Under Darcy’s close observation, she appeared to receive Bingley’s attentions with becoming grace and modesty, but the joyful intensity of Bingley’s intercourse was not mirrored in her own face or deportment. She seemed pleased by him, to be sure, but untouched; and Darcy could detect no more in her manner than a proper acknowledgment of the honor his friend did her by his singular regard. No, he decided, she had not the look of true attachment about her. If Charles believed so, he deluded himself.

BOOK: An Assembly Such as This
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