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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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She had delivered him a facer; he acknowledged it without hesitation and, now, with some detachment. Her turning of his thinly veiled setdown into a supposed compliment had been masterfully done. But what had possessed him to speak to her so in the first place? He reviewed the events of their meeting in his mind. Had it been her archness in reply to his desultory attempts at small talk, or had he been put off at the very beginning by the obvious change in her demeanor after Bingley’s introduction? Bingley, she liked, but what did she think of him?

Do I cut the same sort of figure in her mind as Miss Bingley,
he asked himself,
or is her manner a pretense, a game of flirtation she hopes will capture my attention?
Absentmindedly, he twisted the ruby-crowned ring on his smallest left finger. Or could it be altogether something else? He recalled her repartee with Bingley over his slighting of her at the assembly and her threat to exact penance. Suddenly the muscles in his stomach tightened, the events at the assembly replaying clearly in his mind. That was it! It had to be! She had overheard his graceless, ill-considered comment.

“Idiot!” the self-appellation escaped his lips.
Having received no apology, she thinks to exact her due by force of wit.
Darcy pondered his theory as he gazed at its object, who was, at the moment, têtea-tête with Miss Lucas.
What should I do, if anything?
he asked himself guiltily. He owed her an apology, without a doubt, but what would he say? “Forgive me, Miss Bennet, I was a perfect ass last Friday?” And if he did, what would be her reply? Would she forgive him with a pretty speech or use the opportunity to deliver him a setdown before the entire neighborhood?

He paused in his consideration of the possibilities to close his eyes, putting several fingers to work on his temple. No, no matter that he had hurt her pride, he would not lay himself open to the vituperation of a country nobody for the amusement of herself or her friends. If she had chosen to sulk, he would be bound, but as it was, she had elected to draw swords. Darcy looked up again and found Elizabeth Bennet at the side of her elder sister, both of them looking at a portfolio of Miss Bingley’s latest sketches.
A bold move!
He smiled to himself.
I understand you now, but I fear you are not up to weight if you think to play that game with me!
The smile was now accompanied by a satirical eye as he bent to the task of discovering more fully his adversary’s qualities.

Circling the room, exchanging a word here, a nod there with Bingley’s new neighbors, Darcy observed her without notice. Her voice, he noted, was well modulated and pleasing to the ear, but that was to be expected given her singing in church the day before. Her manner among her friends bespoke an openness and sincerity that was charming but certainly not reflective of the deportment expected in the level of society to which he was accustomed. Her face, he decided, was of the “milkmaid” variety: full, clear, and healthy but lacking the distinction required to be considered fashionably classical. She moved gracefully enough, he acknowledged, but the flutter of her gown betrayed a lack of symmetry about her person that would not please the purist.

Unusual in her manners, to be sure,
he pronounced to his waiting sensibilities,
but lacking the physical and social graces that bespeak a truly genteel upbringing. It is well for her the officers are enchanted, for that is all the further she may look.
Darcy waited in vain for his emotions to second his verdict, but they were frustratingly unwilling to accede to his judgment, urging instead that more information was called for and a final decision on the lady should be postponed to a later date. Turning his attention to the lady’s family, Darcy knew no such reluctance. No one with ears or eyes could fail to note the shrill, nakedly calculating manner of her mother and the immodest forwardness of her youngest daughters, whose only recommendation was their youth. He exhaled sharply, expressing his disgust with them.

“Come, come, Darcy, such a negative view. I am sure that tomorrow’s shooting will be most enjoyable.” Absorbed in his internal debate, he had barely noticed that he had drawn near Bingley and the group of gentlemen with him. Evidently a shooting party was being planned, and his snort had been taken as distaste for the idea. Nothing, he suddenly realized, could be further from the truth. A day out-of-doors with dogs and guns, far from the intricacies of a country drawing room, was exactly what he needed.

“On the contrary, Bingley, an excellent idea.” Darcy clapped him on the shoulder, the relief engendered by the prospect of a day so spent rendering him more voluble than usual among strangers. “Gentlemen, has Bingley told you of his newest acquisition? It is the sweetest fowling piece you have ever seen…”

Later, over dinner, Miss Bingley recounted the events of the morning to those gathered at table. Mr. Hurst had pled a thunderous headache before the meal had been announced and was happily entertaining a decanter of brandy in his room, leaving his fellow men and his wife as audience for Miss Bingley’s recital. Bingley settled comfortably in his chair at the table’s head, giving all the attention to his sister, as his good nature allowed. Miss Bingley’s façade of self-possession during the departure of their guests had not fooled Darcy for an instant; she fairly crackled with the compulsion to recount, analyze, shred, and preen. Bingley had warned him of the futility of any attempt to check her while they had awaited the summons for dinner in the gun room. He had told him he would give his sister free rein — as if he could do otherwise — and Darcy should prepare himself for an evening of cattiness and gloating.

“And no, you may not plead a headache, as that excuse has already been proffered by Mr. Hurst. And if you think for one moment that you can escape what her brother cannot, you are knocked in your cockloft! It is part of being brother to a woman whose chief concern is attaining the first circles of Society.” He sighed to Darcy as he squinted one eye and looked again down the barrel of the fowling piece, checking his latest adjustment to the sight. “She must thoroughly examine today’s campaign. What do you think” — he handed the rifle to Darcy — “is it right?”

“Wanting to be in the first circles, or her method of rising to them?” Darcy responded, bringing the weapon up to his cheek and settling the stock into his shoulder.

“Neither, sir! I refer to the sighting.” Bingley rejoined sharply and then fell silent while Darcy, in some regret for his flippancy, checked the alignment. When he finished, he snapped it down and placed it firmly into Bingley’s hands.

“Charles,” he began.

“You are most fortunate in your sister, Darcy,” Bingley interrupted him quietly. “Miss Darcy does not plague
you
so. Has she ever given you a moment’s worry?” Darcy went very still at his words, waiting. “But she is so much younger than you and will be in the first circles immediately she comes out,” Bingley continued without noticing his lack of reply. He started to chuckle to himself. “Imagine if Caroline were my younger sister!” He invited Darcy to join in his amusement at the thought. “Oh, it is too delicious.” A knock at the door ended the absurdity as Stevenson announced dinner. “Ah, duty calls; and you, my friend, are required to be in attendance, if only to help pick up the pieces of what is left of our neighbors when she is finished,” Bingley said.

As promised, Bingley did not attempt to govern the dinner conversation, except for an occasional “Tsk, tsk, Caroline!” and shake of his head. Meeting with such little opposition to her comments seemed to encourage Miss Bingley to think that her observations and opinions were shared by the company about the table. Mrs. Hurst, of course, echoed or embellished her sister’s sentiments, each inspiring the other to new heights of criticism and ridicule.

“Now, Louisa, that is too cruel!” Miss Bingley gave her sister’s hand a small slap. Mrs. Hurst protested contrition until her sister continued slyly, “I counted only
two
chins on the lady, but then I did not have the felicity of seeing her sitting down, as you did.” Mrs. Hurst let out a small shriek, covering her mouth with her hand while Miss Bingley settled back in her chair with an ill-concealed smirk. “Really, these country folk are not very entertaining.” She glanced covertly at Darcy. “It was all horses and hunting with the gentlemen. And the ladies! Not a one could speak of current fashion or had even the slightest acquaintance with the theater! Poetry is likely as unknown a language here as is Italian,” she concluded with an arch smile in Darcy’s direction. Mrs. Hurst giggled obligingly, but his lack of response appeared to decide her upon a more sober course.

“Charles, I have chosen to accept three particular invitations to dine and one afternoon social during this next week. Please oblige me by making room in your schedule for them.”

“May I ask, dear sister, where we are engaged?” Bingley templed his fingers and rested his chin on his thumbs as he turned and winked at Darcy.

“Wednesday night with Squire Justin, Thursday with Mr. and Mrs. King. They are accounted quite prominent and are said to be worth three thousand a year, if you can imagine! Friday we dine with Colonel Forster and his wife. Do you suppose the woman laughs so on purpose, Louisa, or am I the only one put in mind of a donkey?” At each name Bingley sank a little lower in his chair, and when the colonel’s name was mentioned, he looked to have given up hope. “…and Saturday evening at Sir William Lucas’s.” Miss Bingley ticked off the last name on her list and looked up to see her brother brighten considerably. “Is this acceptable, Charles?”

“I leave the social aspect of the campaign in your capable hands, Caroline. I request only that you leave me some time for more gentlemanly pursuits and that you plan on attending services while we are here. Regularly,” he added, with a look which communicated that he would brook no objections.

Miss Bingley’s eyes flew involuntarily to Darcy, whose return of her regard was the picture of blandness. “Of course, Charles. That goes without question, as you well know.”

“Now,” said Bingley, capitalizing on the success of his demand and the disorder into which it had cast his sister, “I wish to observe that the morning went splendidly. Caroline, you are to be congratulated.” Miss Bingley demurred sweetly. “I have no doubt that our Morning In will be the subject of much conversation and that we are well launched into Hertfordshire society.” He allowed his sister her opportunity to disclaim her achievement, however briefly, and proceeded with determination. “You must know that I have proposed a shooting party for tomorrow morning and expect that six or more gentlemen will come. If you will arrange the breakfast and notify the household staff, I will endeavor to alert the stablemaster, groundsman, and gamekeeper of our plans.” Bingley’s fingers tapped the arms of his chair at each detail, his face flushed with the delight of having his own estate to order as he wished. “It will be my turn tomorrow, my dear sisters, to advance beyond the ground you have taken today.”

During the ensuing rush of questions, admonitions, and assurances between Bingley and his sisters, Darcy withdrew into himself. He had noted his friend’s despair at not hearing a particular name in his sister’s list of social engagements and, subsequently, his elation at the mention of Sir William. Having personally observed the close relationship of Miss Lucas with one of the Bennet sisters, it was not difficult for him to deduce the reason for Bingley’s revival.
He hopes that Miss Bennet will also be one of the party. It is entirely probable. Which means…
He let the thought go unfinished and forcibly brought himself back to the problem of his friend and Miss Bennet.

He reached for his wineglass and, cupping the bowl gently in his hand, swirled its contents as he stared unseeing down into the deep red vintage. Perhaps he was reading more into Bingley’s regard for her than was or ever would be there. His friend would be the first to admit to a propensity for falling in and out of love faster than a hare has kits. There was no reason to suppose this attraction was any different. Darcy brought the glass to his lips and held the wine momentarily at the back of his palate before allowing it to slide down his throat, feeling its warm and heady glow spread.
Let it take its course. Offer other inducements to distract his attention. Keep him busy with Netherfield
. He carefully replaced the glass on the table before him.
Surely, it will pass.

As Darcy replaced his wineglass on the table, his hostess motioned for the footman to refill it, but he covered the bowl with his hand and shook his head.

“Is the wine not to your taste, Mr. Darcy?” she asked assiduously. “I would gladly send for another.”

“No, do not trouble yourself,” Darcy replied. “The wine is excellent.” He began to rise from his place but was forestalled by Miss Bingley’s request.

“Mr. Darcy, you cannot be leaving so soon. We have yet to hear
your
impression of Hertfordshire society.” She looked round the table to garner support for her request. “I am sure it will be most amusing.”

Darcy looked to Bingley, covertly seeking deliverance, but his friend could only grimace and shrug his shoulders. Shooting him a ferocious frown, Darcy resumed his chair and turned a countenance of hastily assumed indifference to the ladies. “As you say, Miss Bingley, the country people here are ‘not very entertaining.’ They are, though, the sort commonly referred to as the ‘backbone of the Empire,’ and as we must look to them to supply much-needed brawn, it is, perhaps, unreasonable to expect a surfeit of wit.”

BOOK: An Assembly Such as This
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