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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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Without turning, Darcy gathered himself to deflect Miss Bingley’s barb and discipline his own unruly thoughts. “She, a beauty?” he replied, his diction precise and clipped. “I would as soon call her mother a wit.”

The light mists of an autumn morning rose gracefully around Netherfield, whispering invitations to field and wood that Darcy was hard-pressed to decline. This was especially so as he did not anticipate the morning’s activities with any expectation of enjoyment. Reluctantly, he turned from the library window and his contemplation of the enticements that creation was unveiling to consider the ordeal before him. That it would be an ordeal rather than a pleasure, he was in no doubt. Indeed, Morning In was that sort of social ritual which he could very well do without, but the present circumstance and its very nature made it a necessary evil.

Darcy picked up the book he had been intent upon reading before being drawn to the beauty of the morning and sank into one of the large wingback chairs that now graced the library. In this next step in Bingley’s venture into the life of the landed gentry, Darcy knew himself to be of little help and questionable ability. There was no question but that Bingley must establish himself in his new neighborhood, and that meant receiving its prominent residents. Although they were not in the first circle of London Society, the Bingley family was of considerable social stature and would certainly assume leadership in the society of Meryton and its environs. Such expectations required a Morning In. It could not be avoided. His brow furrowed, Darcy fingered the pages of his book, absently turning them as he contemplated the morning in front of him.

“So, here you are!” Bingley’s voice pierced the silence before the sound of his steps reached Darcy’s ears. “I’ll warrant you’ve been here since before breakfast.” He quickly surveyed the room. “Yes, I see your coffee on the desk, so I am sure I am right. I knew you were either here or gone ariding.” He cocked an eye at Darcy as he took the other chair. “Fortifying yourself for the onslaught?” He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Or planning a strategic retreat?”

“The former, tiresome whelp,” Darcy replied with reluctant humor. “Although the latter would be more to my liking, as you well know.”

“Oh, it will not be so very bad, Darcy,” Bingley replied, leaning back into his chair and stretching out his legs to inspect briefly the shine on his boots. “We will have met most of them before, either at the assembly last Friday or at church yesterday. I am quite looking forward to receiving.” He glanced at Darcy’s face and then returned to a study of his boots. “That is, some of them. Looking forward, I mean, to seeing…” His voice trailed off.

Darcy rued the breach that had opened between them since his warning concerning Miss Bennet and hated that Bingley felt uncomfortable talking about her with him. He knew he had better repair it before time made it a chasm. “I imagine there will be some members of certain families who will make an appearance this morning, Charles.” He was rewarded with a cautious smile, so he continued quietly. “I hope, for your sake, Mrs. Bennet does not bring all her daughters with her, else you will have to divide your attentions as thinly as you did yesterday.”

Bingley laughed aloud. “I accept your well wishes, however difficult it was for you to extend them, and heartily concur. I had no idea what a sensation we would cause merely by attending church.” He shook his head in disbelief. “You saw how it was! I could not finish one sentence before being inundated with five more questions or invitations.”

“Miss Bennet, as I recall, was not one of the throng,” Darcy pointed out.

“No, nor her sister Miss Elizabeth Bennet” came Bingley’s pensive reply. Darcy elected to ignore this last observation. “They, both of them, were engaged the entire time in a protracted conversation with the vicar and his wife.”

“No smiles?” asked Darcy, then wished he had refrained from the jibe.

“As a matter of record, yes,” replied Bingley evenly, not entirely sure of the intent of his question but, evidently, determined not to be intimidated. “I was able to catch her eye before Caroline hurried us into the carriage.” He paused and assumed a dramatic pose with one hand pressed to his heart. “I was rewarded with a smile that has nourished my hopes for almost — can it be? — twenty-four hours.” He and Darcy both laughed then, as much at Bingley’s drama as with relief to be again on intimate terms.

When they had regained control, Bingley rose. “It is almost time, you know. I was coming to tell you that a lad from the stable had run up with news of a carriage about a mile from the gate.” He paused, took a deep breath, and looking Darcy straight on, continued, “I know how you dislike these things and count myself well blessed that you have consented to stand by me through it. I cannot think how I would —”

“There is no need, Bingley,” Darcy interrupted, turning slightly away. “Your friendship is reason and reward enough for whatever service I can render you.” He strode quickly over to a small table supporting a decanter. “Now, let us complete our preparation for the morning. What say you to a small glass of fortitude before we face the dragons of Meryton?” Anticipating a positive response, he removed the crystal stopper and poured the amber liquid into the awaiting glasses. Bingley appropriated one and, lifting it, saluted him. Darcy solemnly returned the gesture.

Moments after they had replaced their glasses, a sharp rap was heard on the library door, which opened to admit Miss Bingley. Almost before she rose from her curtsy, she extended her hand to her brother and fixed both gentlemen with a determinedly bright smile. “Charles, Mr. Darcy, our first guests are even now descending from their carriage, and I am told another has been sighted not far behind. We shall have a full morning, I am in no doubt.”

“And you will preside over it beautifully, Caroline,” Bingley said, looking down into his sister’s face. “You will be reigning over Meryton society in no time.”

Miss Bingley acknowledged her brother’s compliment with a tightening of her smile. “We shall see, Brother,” she said, and then turned toward Darcy with an altogether different expression. “Mr. Darcy, I must thank you again for sharing your prayer book with me yesterday. I cannot imagine how I came to lose mine. It is so vexing! I am sure I will find it soon. I am never without it, you know.” During this extraordinary speech, Bingley had looked questioningly at his sister, but at her last statement, he started visibly, then looked to Darcy for his reaction to Caroline’s newest cast for his approval.

It took all Darcy’s self-control to prevent the telltale twitch of his lips as, with a solemnity worthy of a bishop, he assured Miss Bingley of his confidence in the success of her search. “Although,” he concluded, “such constancy in the perusal of its lines must make its loss almost immaterial, for you will surely know much of it by heart.” Miss Bingley was saved the necessity of a reply by the announcement of the arrival of guests. With a deep curtsy and swish of skirts, she quickly left the library.

Bingley was able to contain himself only long enough for his sister to be safely away. “What,” he managed between gasps for breath, “is all this about her prayer book?” Darcy’s look of innocence did not deter him for an instant. “Come, you must tell me! Caroline never looked at her prayer book since she left finishing school nor paid attention to a sermon. When you came down to breakfast yesterday prepared to attend services, I thought my sisters’ eyes would drop out of their heads! I’m sure I should slip their maids a guinea each for the uproar they endured waiting upon Caroline and Louisa a second time in one morning.”

“Why should they be astonished at my attending church?” Darcy replied. “They have seen me do so regularly in Derbyshire and surely are aware that I have a pew in St.——— ’s in London that Georgiana and I rarely fail to attend.”

“I am not sure. Perhaps because we are not in Derbyshire or London.” At Darcy’s puzzled expression, Bingley plunged on. “I believe they think you do so only to be seen.” He hastened to explain. “They attend only if they hear that some influential personage is planning to be there. Your more frequent attendance is excused, I gather, on the grounds that you must feel obliged to set an example to your tenants and sister and that your position requires you to put in an appearance to maintain certain connections.” Bingley lapsed into an embarrassed silence.

Darcy’s left eyebrow had risen quite decidedly during Bingley’s recital, and at its end, he took a step backward and slowly circled the chair, drawing his friend’s attention to the book he had intended to begin, the first volume of
The Works of the Reverend George Whitefield.
Bingley colored and then laughed shakily. “Of course, did they know you as I do. Such silly ideas…”

Darcy leaned over the chair back, picked up the volume, and with a wry smile tossed it to Bingley, whose face immediately flooded with relief. “They may not be that far off in their estimation, Charles. I cannot deny that duty has been more often my motivation than anything approaching real devotion.” He nodded toward the book in Bingley’s hands. “At least, that would be Reverend Whitefield’s assessment.” Bingley quickly put the book on the desk, as if it had suddenly become too hot to hold.

“But you wish to discover the meaning of her prayer book.” Darcy gave a short laugh. “It is quite simple, really. You remember, of course, that we were late arriving at Meryton Church due to your sisters’ change of costume. When we had finally found seats and opened our hymnbooks, my attention was most decidedly caught by a feminine voice coming from behind us. Such a sure, rich soprano I had never heard outside of a London choir, and against my better judgment, I turned slightly to see who it might be.”

“Miss Elizabeth Bennet, was it not, Darcy?” At his friend’s nod, Bingley continued, “Yes, I heard her also and was vastly pleased to listen to her. Her voice drowned out the caterwauling that Louisa calls singing.”

“I will not comment on your sister’s ability, but about Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s, I do concur.” Darcy paused, attempting to recall the moment. “It was an unexpected pleasure to hear hymns sung with such feeling and beauty. I confess, they are what inspired me to attempt Whitefield again after avoiding him for some time now.” He gave himself a slight shake. “Regardless, Miss Bingley noticed my distraction and its source. Shortly thereafter, she discovered the loss of her prayer book, and, as was only correct, I offered to share mine. I hardly needed it, as I
know the most common ones by heart. This fact, I believe, she noticed as well, and putting the incidents of the morning together, we arrive at the reason for the conversation of a few moments ago.”

Bingley shook his head, a show of consternation on his face as he opened the library door. “You bear up under it very well, Darcy, I must say.” He then peered down the hall outside and, turning with a twinkle in his rarely clouded eyes, exclaimed, “All clear!” and started down the corridor to the drawing room.

Chapter 3
En Garde!

arcy allowed a few heartbeats to pass before following Bingley. Slowly he closed the library door behind him, waiting another few moments for the solid click of the heavy oak door to cease its echoing in the empty corridor. Measuring his stride, he made his way, pausing at a pier glass to check his cravat and straighten his waistcoat.
he accused the reflection in the glass.
Just slip in quietly, secure an easily defended position, and wait the blasted, tedious thing out!
The face in the mirror looked askance at him, seemingly dubious about this tactic.
Advise me on a better course then, sir, and it shall be done!
The mirror figure eyed him steadily for a few moments, but as it had no alternative to offer, its regard crumbled.
I thought as much!
growled Darcy as he pulled at his waistcoat.

The sounds of conversation and light laughter began to impress themselves upon his consciousness, and with a final look of derision at his hapless reflection, he squared his shoulders and presented himself to Stevenson, who deftly opened the drawing room doors and prepared to announce his arrival. As the footman drew a deep breath, Darcy placed several fingers on his arm, shaking his head and motioning him to keep silent. Quickly stepping aside, Stevenson allowed him to pass by and closed the doors.

Darcy stiffly observed the room. It was not yet full, it still being early. Bingley had been right that most of the visitors were people he had already met. Caroline Bingley was performing her duties of hostess to perfection, although, Darcy thought, her smile did not reflect a correspondingly perfect sincerity. He cautiously examined her court, composed of an assortment of wives of landowners and prominent merchants. Bingley was already nursing a cup of tea and involved in conversation with the vicar and his wife while a bevy of young ladies hovered within earshot, waiting anxiously, no doubt, for the vicar to leave. Darcy turned to observe the young gentlemen and militia officers who had gathered in a semicircle around the great bow window that looked out onto the carriageway approaching Netherfield.

“Sir,” murmured a serving maid. Darcy looked down at the tray she held for his inspection. “With Miss Bingley’s compliments, sir.” The aroma of his favorite coffee, prepared as he preferred, arose from a cup that lay next to a choice selection of biscuits. He glanced over to Miss Bingley, bowed slightly as she inclined her head in acknowledgment of his notice, and availed himself of the refreshment. At that moment a frisson of excitement arose among the cluster of men at the window. Several of the young men broke from the group and began to disperse about the room, principally moving closer to the doors. Curiosity overcoming his reserve, Darcy moved into one of the abandoned places at the window to view the cause of such expectant behavior.

A carriage of common style drawn by only one horse swept up the carriageway. It had barely stopped when the door was flung open and a flurry of petticoats descended onto the graveled drive. “Miss Lydia.” One of the men near him laughed. “Now we shall have some fun!” said another, and both turned to join their fellows at the door. Darcy vaguely recalled the face beneath the bonnet from the assembly but could not place her within a family. He sipped his coffee, curious to see what would come out of the carriage next. What he saw caused him to halt in midsip.
The tabby!
He gulped down the scalding brew.
That meant…!

Outside, Mrs. Edward Bennet was busy shaking out her dress and shawls in preparation for ascending the steps of Netherfield. Behind her were Miss Jane Bennet and another sister, helping their mother in those preparations and, with her head only just poking out of the carriage door, Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Mrs. Bennet turned, addressing some remark to that daughter as she stood on the carriage step. Miss Elizabeth replied and then flashed a good-humored, rueful smile to her elder sister as their mother proceeded up the stairs. Darcy’s unwitting interception of that intimate message caused him to flush with embarrassment, and he pulled back from the window with alacrity. Turning, he spied an empty chair with an excellent view of the door and took possession of it.

The disturbance at the window could not, of course, have been unnoticed by the Bingleys, brother or sister. Miss Bingley turned a frowning countenance upon her brother, who excused himself from the vicar and strode hastily to the window. Seeing only an empty carriage pulling away, he had just turned to inquire of Darcy when the drawing room doors opened. Stevenson appeared and, in a voice choked with suppressed amusement, announced, “Mrs. Edward Bennet, Miss Bennet, Miss Elizabeth, Mary, Catherine, and Lydia Bennet.” For a moment, the silence in the room was complete, as portentous as at the anticipation of the first sight of a new bride. Oblivious to the entrance she was making, Mrs. Bennet clucked to a daughter behind her to stop fidgeting and advanced into the room to make her curtsy to her hostess. When the Bennet girls finally appeared in the doorway, the entire room seemed to let out its breath. Miss Bennet, a becoming blush coloring her features, softly smiled at the ladies and gentlemen who greeted her as she made her way over to Miss Bingley. The youngest Bennet sister entered so closely behind the eldest that she almost tripped over the train of her dress, affording her an excuse to latch onto the nearest male arm for support. Giggling and tossing her curls, she greeted the young man by name and was soon surrounded by several of the young gentlemen and officers, entirely forgetting the necessity of making her curtsy to the ladies of the house.

Darcy watched apprehensively as Bingley pushed through the knot of persons surrounding his sisters and stood next to the divan so as to greet the newcomers properly. With some relief, Darcy noted that the manner of Bingley’s greeting to Miss Bennet was formal and correct in all respects save, perhaps, the intensity of his regard. A shriek, followed by a giggle, brought Darcy’s attention sharply back to the officers, where he identified its origin in the anticipated “Miss Lydia.”

Despite his resolve, Darcy’s gaze was drawn again to the doorway, which now framed the last of the newcomers. Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Her arrival provoked more than one young officer to abandon his place and advance toward the door. These movements soon obscured her from Darcy’s view, but not before he had seen an expression on her face that had been replaced with a smile in response to the warm greetings of her friends. Indeed, its nature quite surprised him. Unconsciously, he rose from his chair in search of a more advantageous angle from which to observe the lady until he found himself, much to his chagrin, standing next to Charles behind the divan just as she sank into her curtsy to Miss Bingley. Watching her intently, he hoped to discern a trace of that ironic expression which, even now, he was beginning to discount as his own imagination.

Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s head was still inclined as she rose, but Darcy could see that she held her lower lip captive, biting it in a futile attempt to prevent a dimple from appearing. Her eyes flashed upward briefly before being cast down again in the proper manner.

There! Yes, I was not mistaken! The impudent little piece!
Darcy drew up straighter, congratulating himself on not being deceived by the bland expression now on Miss Bennet’s face as she regarded her hostess.

“Miss Elizabeth,” drawled Miss Bingley. “You already have been introduced to my brother, Mr. Bingley?” Without pausing for an assent to her question, Miss Bingley indicated her brother standing just behind her. “Charles,” she began as she shifted her gaze over her shoulder, “Miss Elizabeth Ben ——” Whatever she had been about to say stuck suddenly in her throat as she beheld not only her brother but Darcy as well eagerly awaiting the introduction. “Miss Elizabeth Bennet,” she repeated, her smile tightening slightly.

Their guest sank into another curtsy as Charles bowed. When she arose this time, Darcy noted, it was with a decidedly softer complexion.

“Miss Elizabeth, I believe we met briefly at the assembly Friday last, and for three days since I have owed you an apology.” Bingley’s smile belied the seriousness of his words.

“An apology, Mr. Bingley?” she responded in the same spirit. “I would readily accept any apology you have to offer, but I insist on first being made aware of its occasion. Pray enlighten me, sir, if you please.”

“You insist, then, on a confession as well as an apology?” Bingley’s pretense of horror elicited a low, charming laugh from his inquisitor.

“Most assuredly! Quickly now, or your penance will be that much more severe.”

“Heaven forbid, I shall confess all! Here it is: I neglected to claim the dance you had so graciously promised me. Shameful, is it not, Miss Elizabeth?”

“Yes, indeed, sir. I should be mortally offended at such a slight.”

“There were extenuating circumstances, I assure you,” Bingley hastened to explain. “Immediately before the dance was to begin, I discovered Miss Bennet in need of some refreshment, which, believing there was sufficient time before the set formed, I offered to procure. On my journey to the table I was accosted by two — no, three gentlemen —”

“Of the road, no doubt?” Elizabeth interrupted him. “I warn you, Mr. Bingley, nothing less than three highwaymen will satisfy my pique.”

“Three highwaymen it was, I am certain of it,” agreed Bingley, affecting such a look of desperation that Elizabeth dissolved into laughter, which he immediately seconded.

“You are forgiven, Mr. Bingley, but only because your desertion was in the assistance of my sister. Such gallantry must always be encouraged.”

“Thank you. You are very kind, Miss Bennet.” He glanced beside him, meeting Darcy’s guarded visage. “But I am remiss and will soon be required to extend another apology, for which I will not be so easily forgiven.” Bingley drew himself up. “Miss Elizabeth Bennet, may I introduce my friend, Mr. Darcy?”

Darcy had not found himself able to enter into the banter between Bingley and Miss Bennet, excusing his reticence with the fact that they had not yet been properly introduced. Her ability at amusing repartee surprised him. He had become absorbed in the little farce in which they had engaged, but Bingley’s return to the formalities and subsequent introduction recalled him to his surroundings. Miss Bennet’s assent to the introduction was, he thought, unusually subdued given her good humor with Bingley. He felt himself stiffen into his usual pose of indifference.

“Darcy, I have the great pleasure of introducing Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and if you will both excuse me, I see that your sister is in need of something or other; and I am the only one who knows where it is.” With a wink at the flash of alarm on his friend’s face, Bingley bowed himself away and hurried toward Miss Bennet.

“Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth murmured. As she made him her curtsy and he returned his bow, Darcy cast about for something to say, silently castigating himself for getting into the middle of exactly what he had resolved to avoid. Still bereft of an opening gambit, he fell back on the usual social inanities he so detested, looking steadily past her ear as he mouthed them.

“Your servant, Miss Bennet. You have lived long in Meryton?”

“All my life, Mr. Darcy.”

“You have not been to London, then?” he responded with surprise.

“I have had occasion to visit London, sir, but not during the Season, if that is what you mean by having ‘been to London.’” The archness of her tone caused Darcy to frown slightly at its meaning, and involuntarily, he looked her full in the face. She appeared all innocence, but something told him it was not so. Perhaps it was the almost imperceptible lift of one shapely brow or the tendency of her dimple to peep out. Regardless, he knew himself to be an object of amusement. He was not pleased to be such a figure.

“I should not consider time spent in London merely to visit dressmakers’ shops as having been to the city at all,” he replied coldly.

“Mr. Darcy, you are too kind!” Her simper was such that he knew he was not meant to receive it as anything but false and that his attempt at depressing this young woman’s impudence had utterly failed. His eyes narrowed. Why on earth should she pretend to thank him? He had certainly meant no compliment! His suspicion at her purpose was shortly to be confirmed.

“That a gentleman of your discrimination should regard my gown as a
creation! But I must disabuse you, I fear. It is a
concoction only, but be assured, I shall certainly repeat your pretty compliment to my dressmaker.” She sketched another quick curtsy before his astonished mind could form a coherent reply. “Please excuse me, Mr. Darcy. My mother is in need of me.”

Pretty compliment? Compliment, indeed!
Sputtering silently, Darcy stared after her as she made her way through the now crowded drawing room. True to her word, she went to her mother’s side, pausing only briefly to exchange a greeting with friend or neighbor as she glided gracefully past them. He forced his mind to stop reeling in circles and cast it back to the beginning, the moment when she had entered the doorway and her face had betrayed her opinion of her hosts.
Or, more correctly, her hostess,
Darcy amended, recalling her lively exchange with and genuine smiles for Charles. He looked about the room for Miss Bingley, easily discovering her surrounded by a ring of guests who, it appeared, were attending her every word. At the moment, she was holding forth on the “terrible crush” at Lord and Lady ——— ’s, what she had said to Lady ———, and what her reply had been to Sir ——— ’s little witticism, punctuating it all with a haughty sniff and an elegant shrug of her shoulders. The group tittered appreciatively, and Darcy noticed several young women attempting to imitate Caroline’s air as a wave of shoulders lifted and fell. Elizabeth Bennet was not among them, being occupied with a smaller circle of admirers and close female friends.

No, Miss Elizabeth Bennet was not impressed with the London sophistication of Miss Bingley or Mrs. Hurst, nor did she appear to feel the necessity of inveigling her way into Caroline’s good graces, as most of her neighbors were doing this very moment. Instead, thought Darcy with dawning comprehension, she found Miss Bingley’s manner objectionable! Far from cultivating her, she had, by the drollery in her eyes, assigned her a place among the ridiculous, as one might do with an amusing but slightly mad relation. Having satisfied himself on what Miss Elizabeth Bennet was about, Darcy found the discovery to have engendered two equal and opposite emotions, which struggled manfully in his breast. The first was to stiffen in indignation at the impertinence of the lady in judging her betters. The second was an impulse to laugh in agreement with her assessment. A twinkle had almost reached Darcy’s eye when he was struck with the remembrance that Miss Bingley was not the only resident of Netherfield who amused Miss Elizabeth Bennet. The twinkle was ruthlessly suppressed as he considered again her manner toward himself.

BOOK: An Assembly Such as This
5.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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