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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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The squire pushed back his chair from the dinner table and suggested, with a broad wink, that the gentlemen might enjoy a bit of something that his business agent had acquired for those of discriminating taste. It awaited them in his card room; would they be pleased to accompany him? Darcy rose along with the other gentlemen, at the same time anxious and loath to leave for reasons he preferred not to explore.

After accepting his glass of very illegal French brandy, he turned to discover himself being observed by an older man on whose countenance there played a look of interest. At Darcy’s involuntary stiffening, the look transformed into one of bemusement, and Darcy received, to his astonishment, a salute from the man. In puzzlement, he returned the salute, lifting his glass in like manner, and tipped a few drops down his throat. The brandy was excellent, and Darcy closed his eyes momentarily, the better to appreciate its warming glow. When he opened them, he beheld the beaming face of his host.

“Mr. Darcy, I venture to claim that even you have not often partaken of such a fine example of the distiller’s art!” The squire barely paused for Darcy’s assent before continuing, “I only wish that we could get American tobacco as easily as French brandy.”

“We could, if it were British tobacco again,” bellowed the major, coming across the room to join them. “I say, be done with all the palavering. Show them the business ends of our cannon in their capital’s streets and put an end to this nonsense! United States! Phaugh! Mark me, sir. They’ll be marching on Canada colony if someone at St. James’s does not mind more than the cut of his waistcoat. When I was there in ’seventy-nine…” Thereupon ensued a heated discussion of the impending war, from which Darcy happily excused himself.

He found a comfortable chair in a quiet corner and settled back into its depths with no more purpose than to enjoy the truly fine brandy. Holding up his glass to catch the light from the lamp at his side, he noted with approval its delicate amber color and how it glittered deliciously, scattering the reflected light. Before the thought could be stopped, he was comparing its display with what he had observed in Miss Bennet’s eyes. He swiftly brought the glass down on the table.
Fool!
he admonished himself under his breath as he shifted uneasily in the chair.

Wondering what had become of Bingley, he looked about, locating him near the fireplace conversing with the man who had saluted him and who thanks to his host he now knew to be Mr. Bennet. Darcy could well imagine how intensely Bingley was trying to gain the older man’s good opinion, for the earnestness on his face was almost painful to behold. Although Mr. Bennet appeared to be giving Bingley his equally earnest attention, Darcy thought he detected a glitter of sardonic amusement in his eye and was not entirely pleased. His sense of duty to his friend argued that he go to his rescue but, given his own curious exchange with the gentleman, Darcy felt a decided reluctance to intervene. He was only too thankful when the squire suggested that they rejoin the ladies.

The short distance down the hall from the room the gentlemen were quitting to the one they were entering seemed deceptive to Darcy, for the contrast between the two spoke of a journey between worlds. The card room had exuded the familiar atmosphere of masculine society: the aroma of brandy and pipe smoke, the creak and sigh of leather chairs, and the noble regard of hunting trophies from years past bending their gazes down from the walls upon a domain of men. Conversation swirled in the low-lit, wood-paneled room from horses and the hunt to the price of corn and talk of war. Understandings were reached, bargains struck, and connections made that would assure the peace and prosperity of the region for some time to come.

The world into which they were entering glowed in a myriad of candles, flowered wallpaper, and the sweet scent of tea and sherry. All bespoke a female society, whose unwritten rules and unpredictable behavior had never ceased to cause Darcy consternation. The exceeding amiability of his parents’ marriage and the good sense and excellent understanding of those whose company they had enjoyed had ill-prepared Darcy for the nuances of the drawing room or assembly hall. Prevarication and pretty, insincere speeches had not been part of his education. Such behavior had been uniformly regarded as unmanly and insulting. Yet upon his entrance into the wider world of his peers, he had discovered that their habitual use was expected and even praised, especially when the two sexes met in society.

Unwilling to engage in the banality or intrigue that passed for drawing room conversation, Darcy attempted to retrieve his poise for the expected joust with Elizabeth Bennet. The anticipated matching of wits had not occurred and had left him curiously dispirited. Thinking to catch Bingley before they were plunged into the drawing room, he moved in his direction, but his friend seemed quite intent upon gaining the room and did not notice him. Proceeding then on his own, Darcy stepped inside and moved to a table set with assorted sweets and sherry. He studied it briefly and selected one of the sugary concoctions. As he savored it, he looked up to discover Bingley encouraging Miss Bennet to sit upon a small couch and then gesturing toward the table of sweets. She gracefully nodded her assent, and flushed with pleasure, he strode purposefully toward Darcy and the refreshments.

“Ah, Darcy,” Bingley addressed him, a grin spread from ear to ear. “Step aside, man. I am commissioned on an errand for a lovely lady and must needs return quickly, or I fear I will be supplanted.”

Darcy looked over Bingley’s shoulder as he bent to his task. “No, you need not fear, Bingley. The lady’s mother is saving your place. If I am not mistaken, she will harry anyone who would dare try to sit next to her daughter until your return.”

Bingley paused just long enough to ascertain the truth of Darcy’s words and then chuckled quietly. “Mrs. Bennet has her uses, Darcy.”

“And what of Mr. Bennet?” asked Darcy in a low voice. “Were you satisfied with your interview?”

“A most interesting man and very acute! Not like his wife at all.” Bingley straightened, balancing his burden of a plate of biscuits in one hand and two glasses of sherry in the other. “I believe we have reached an excellent understanding.” Darcy rolled his eyes. “Cynic!” responded Bingley. “But I have no time to waste on you, Darcy. Miss Bennet awaits, and mother or no, I do not intend to lose my chance now that I have finally engaged her.” With that, Bingley departed in haste.

And where is the other Miss Bennet?
Darcy searched the room while he reached for another biscuit and a cup of tea. A slender female hand claimed the cup before him. He looked up to find it in the possession of Miss Bingley.

“Mr. Darcy, permit me to prepare you a cup. It
is
one lump, is it not?” Darcy tried valiantly to twist the grimace he felt surfacing into something that resembled appreciation. “There…just as you like it.” Miss Bingley offered him the tea with an air of intimacy that Darcy could not like.

“Thank you, Miss Bingley.” He accepted the cup and stepped back a pace. “Please, do not let me detain you. I believe the gentlemen over there anxiously await your return.” He motioned generally in the direction of one of the groups of guests.

Miss Bingley made to move past him but checked at his shoulder to whisper, “It is all
so
tedious, is it not, Mr. Darcy?” The tickle of her breath on his ear was unwelcome, and it took all of Darcy’s years of training to rock smoothly back on his heels away from her. He covered his move by snatching another sweet. “You must be bored to distraction in such undistinguished company!” she continued. “Why, the squire is a veritable caricature.”

“Not the kind of society to which we are accustomed, I grant you,” Darcy admitted, “but, Miss Bingley, you must admit
some
utility to the evening. Your brother is well regarded among these people already, and this evening’s end will see him more so. You, as his chatelaine, will undoubtedly assume a leading role in the community as well. You are, in point of fact, nicely begun. Your reception tonight was most gracious, and it would seem that you are universally admired. That cannot help but advance your brother’s influence.”

Miss Bingley’s eyes flashed, and her lips took on a pout. “Not quite
universally
admired, Mr. Darcy.”

“Miss Bingley, surely you are mistaken! I am astonished,” rejoined Darcy, though himself quite certain of the source of her discontent. “Of whom do you speak?”

“Miss Elizabeth Bennet,” she confessed. “I detected her insincerity at Netherfield, and her behavior here tonight only confirms the truth.” Miss Bingley shook her head sorrowfully. Then, with her shot delivered, she excused herself, latched onto a young man dressed in what was locally considered the height of fashion, and requested his escort across the room. As they left, Darcy heard her exclaim upon his neckcloth, advising him to speak to her brother’s valet about its proper arrangement.

The moment Miss Bingley’s back was to him, the frown on Darcy’s face disappeared. He lifted the cup to his lips to disguise the sardonic smile that the frown had masked and that he could no longer prevent appearing.
Elizabeth Bennet — jealous! How rich!
Darcy shook his head and, following through with his pretense, sipped the now tepid brew. Immediately he wished he had not. Looking about him in desperation for a napkin, he found none to hand so was forced to swallow the wretched stuff. By way of remedy, he quickly bit into another sweet and abandoned his cup at the nearest table.

A touch on his arm brought Darcy round to behold his host with a glass of sherry extended toward him and a look of sympathy on his face. “Not partial to tea, are you, Mr. Darcy?” Darcy took the sherry and bowed his thanks and agreement. “Don’t touch it myself, unless it has got plenty of sugar and milk. Otherwise…vile stuff! When I heard about the Americans throwing a shipload of it into their harbor many long years ago, I knew that we had lost the colonies. Any group of people with
that
much sense would be the devil to stop in
whatever
they decided to do!”

Darcy could not but smile in the face of such good nature as the squire’s. It occurred to him that his condescending opinion concerning such men and their function in the Empire might profit from some refining.

“Speaking of those with sense, here comes one now.” The squire gestured with his wineglass. “Have you been introduced to Miss Bennet? Miss Elizabeth Bennet, I mean.”

Darcy followed the squire’s gesture in time to see the lady in question pass by them, her arm linked with that of the youngest of the squire’s daughters. Miss Elizabeth’s companion was clutching what appeared to be a small piece of needlework, a sampler perhaps. Her head was hung in shyness as Elizabeth gently seated her, assured her it was “perfectly lovely,” and called to some of those nearby, “Do come and see Fannie’s entry in Meryton’s needlework exhibition.” Suitably appreciative sounds of admiration rose from the group as the sampler was examined and praised. Darcy watched as Elizabeth called their attention to the subtlety of its creator’s design and then quietly withdrew from the group while the young girl blushed and beamed at its center. She stopped a small distance away, and Darcy could see her judging her handiwork. With a small, quick grin of satisfaction she turned and joined Miss Lucas directly across the room from where Darcy and the squire stood.

The picture Elizabeth Bennet unconsciously presented as she bent toward the squire’s daughter, lending her encouragement and support, had been loveliness itself, and Darcy had caught his breath in the delight of it. The natural grace of her figure, inclined in sweet concern for a shy child, tugged at something within him that had easily resisted the officious attention and elaborate blandishments of those with a fourfold Miss Bennet’s consequence. She had struck no attitude, as was so wearisomely
en vogue
among females in London. Her subsequent charming actions had shown that her sole intent had been to give pleasure to the child and, perhaps, to her parents.

“Mr. Darcy? Pardon me, Mr. Darcy?” The squire’s voice, solicitous yet amused, broke upon Darcy’s consciousness. He blinked a few times and released his breath in a way that could easily have been taken for a sigh. “Perhaps a little of the sherry, Mr. Darcy? Ah, yes.” He paused as Darcy nearly emptied the entire glass. “Lizzy Bennet is as true as she appears. No artifice there and, as I said, uncommon good sense, all wrapped up in as neat a little package as could be desired, eh?”

As the squire rambled, Darcy could feel the mortification of what had happened course through his body. His own sense of confusion over the increasing fascination he felt for her was burden enough, but that it should be so easily apparent to the world was intolerable. When he had first entered Society, his natural reserve had earned him a reputation as proud, and in those earlier days, he had allowed this to serve as a shield. Lately, according to Bingley, it had become transformed into armor. Shield or armor, it was not serving him well now. With great effort he drew on his past habits and answered the squire in a chill, quelling voice. “I could have no opinion on that, sir. If you will excuse me?” Bowing quickly, he walked away, the squire staring after him, his eyebrows raised in surprise.

Darcy’s stony countenance dissuaded any he passed from attempting to engage him. He found a single chair with an unobstructed view of the greater part of the room and, sitting down, attempted to regain his equilibrium. He was attracted to her, that was indisputable. It was certain, though, that Elizabeth Bennet had taken no opportunity to come in his way again after dinner. For a few troubling moments, he entertained the disconcerting possibility that he simply was not of interest to her. If this were so, it would be a singular experience. Ever since his uncle had introduced him to the hallowed halls of Almack’s, he had found himself courted by haughty, matchmaking mamas and deferred to by their husbands in the hopes that he would toss his handkerchief in their daughters’ ways. Indeed, until this expedition to Hertfordshire, he could not recall a single female of marriageable age who had not couched her syllables in terms designed to elicit his approbation or entrap him into matrimony. The fantastic notion of Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s disinterest was quickly discounted. Her short and dissatisfying exchange with him before dinner had encouraged him to believe that he had escaped the category into which Miss Bingley had been placed. That he no longer was an object of amusement he received with equanimity, but that he now seemed to rank among the furniture nettled his pride.

BOOK: An Assembly Such as This
7.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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