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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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“I can guess the subject of your reverie.” Miss Bingley’s bored tone assured Darcy that his thoughts had not been read on his face.

“I should imagine not,” he replied.

“You are considering how insupportable it would be to pass many evenings in this manner — in such society.” She sighed a commiserating sigh. “And, indeed, I am quite of your opinion. I was never more annoyed! The insipidity, and yet the noise — the nothingness, and yet the self-importance of all these people! What would I give to hear your strictures on them!” She tucked one hand inside the crook of his arm and with the other smoothed away imaginary wrinkles in his coat sleeve.

“Your conjecture is totally wrong, I assure you. My mind was more agreeably engaged.” Darcy politely but firmly removed her hand. “I have been meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow.”

“Indeed, sir!” she returned with a careful indifference. “And which lady may be awarded the credit of inspiring such reflections in one so inured to flirtation?”

“Miss Elizabeth Bennet,” came Darcy’s unguarded reply, and in such a straightforward manner as to give her no clue concerning the seriousness of his regard.

“Miss Elizabeth Bennet! I am all astonishment. How long has she been such a favorite? And pray when am I to wish you joy?”

Refusing to be drawn into saying anything that might fuel her suspicions, Darcy replied vaguely and ignored her continuing drollery. He wished only for the evening to end. A desire for a glass of brandy, a crackling fire in the hearth, and a comfortable chair from which to enjoy both while he contemplated the new pieces of the puzzle of Miss Elizabeth Bennet occupied his thoughts to such a degree that Charles could get no more than a few syllables out of him. Whether out of gratitude for Darcy’s forbearance with his preoccupation with the eldest Miss Bennet that evening or out of a sense for Darcy’s need of solitude, he arranged for the rest of their party to return to Netherfield as they had come.

As they settled in for the journey, Bingley cleared his throat a few times, only to be ignored. “Darcy, is there something the matter? I’ve never seen you so.” He laughed nervously.

“The matter? No, Charles, nothing is wrong. At least, I do not think so.” His voice trailed off as he looked out the carriage window into the cool, starry night. After a few moments he gathered himself together and turned back to his friend. “Your little foray into the country has brought more than we expected, I daresay. That is all.”

Chapter 6
Feint and Parry

T
he evening with Colonel Forster and his officers had been, in Darcy’s opinion, a welcome one. Although not of a military bent himself, he appreciated the company of gentlemen whose ideas of honor and service, king and country, were not unlike his own. He listened with more than polite attention to the colonel’s stories of his campaigns against Napoleon and even more so when the man recounted a meeting with Admiral Nelson himself, a hero of Darcy’s from his youth. Even Charles had allowed himself to enjoy the evening once he arrived and downed a glass of good port toasting the ladies of Meryton along with the younger officers. Their journey to the rented rooms that served as the officers’ club had been punctuated with vituperation at the perfidy of his sister in inviting Miss Jane Bennet to Netherfield on a night she knew him to be engaged elsewhere. The evening’s dreary, wet weather had mirrored Bingley’s mood, tempting Darcy to come short with him. But knowing Bingley’s rare bad tempers to be mercurial, he had held his tongue and merely cocked an eyebrow at his more extreme vows of revenge.

They were now on their way back to Netherfield in a rather mellowed state of mind and quite ready to seek the quiet comfort of their beds. Thus, the degree of noise and activity among the servants that greeted their arrival home was beyond what either gentleman expected or desired. Catching Stevenson flying through the hall, Bingley demanded of him the reason for the unsettled state of his home.

“Begging your pardon, sir, but Miss Bingley’s guest was taken very ill and —”

“Miss Bennet! Do you refer to Miss Bennet?” cried Bingley.

“The very same, sir.”

“What has happened? What is being done? Good heavens, man, do not keep me in suspense!”

“The apothecary is sent for, sir, and we await his arrival at any moment. We thought you were he.” In light of his master’s agitation, Stevenson unbent and continued in a sympathetic tone, “I do not know any of the particulars, sir. If you applied to your sister…?”

Without a backward glance Bingley bounded up the stairs in search of Caroline, leaving his friend to fend for himself. Darcy followed him up the stairs but at a more sedate pace and with the object of seeking his own rooms. He laid his hat, gloves, and stick on a table in his sitting room while acknowledging his valet’s greeting.

“It seems there has been some excitement here tonight, Fletcher.”

“Yes, sir. A young lady became ill at dinner, sir.”

“A problem in the kitchen?”

“Oh, no, sir.”

Darcy waited a few seconds before raising his brows, signaling his desire to know more. Fletcher, betraying no surprise at his master’s interest in the health of a country miss, supplied more detail.

“I had heard that she arrived at Netherfield quite damp, sir. A result, no doubt, of traveling on horseback for three miles in the most appalling downpour.”

“On horseback!” Darcy’s incredulity encouraged his valet to continue.

“Yes, quite, sir! Mr. Bingley’s sisters were astonished as well. The young lady was supplied with dry apparel immediately but fell seriously ill in the midst of supper. I understand they are awaiting the apothecary, or what passes for one in this place, sir.”

His face grave, Darcy nodded his comprehension. “Fletcher, there is no question that the lady is indeed ill?”

“I would not know, sir.”

Darcy snorted his disbelief. “Come, come, Fletcher!”

His valet evidenced some hesitation but then confessed, “I have heard talk among the upstairs maids which would indicate genuine concern that the lady has become feverish, sir.”

As Fletcher helped him out of his clothes, Darcy puzzled over such strange behavior. To set out on a journey of three miles on horseback in threatening weather did not seem, to him, a course of action that the gentle Miss Jane Bennet would undertake. The inducement of an evening at Netherfield he acknowledged to be great for a country-bred girl. But a country-bred girl would be equally aware of the folly of chancing a soaking. Why had she not taken her father’s carriage? Surely he would supply her any means in his power for furthering her acquaintance with the Bingleys. Mr. Bennet was, without a doubt, a curious fellow but not one to disregard the welfare of his daughter. Therefore, to what purpose or by whose design had she come in this manner?

Now dressed in his nightclothes, Darcy dismissed his valet and carried the candle into his bedchamber. Setting it down, he dropped gratefully onto the welcoming bed and slid beneath the downy coverlet. He reached over and cupped the candle’s flame, blowing it out with a sigh. As he stretched out his long limbs and plumped his pillow, a new aspect of the matter struck him. If Miss Bennet became so ill she might not be moved, would her next eldest sister not come to see her? He was certain of it, and that prospect he reflected upon with some satisfaction until sleep claimed him.

The next morning dawned with the bright sun and gusty winds that usually follow a storm. The breezes had licked up much of the rain from the evening before but not enough by the early hour at which he rose to tempt Darcy to a morning ride. He knew he ought to work out the fidgets to which Nelson was undoubtedly treating his groom, but the mud they would kick up would be horrendous, and the horse’s hooves would cut up the turf dreadfully. No, as much as he would relish an hour on horseback, he did not relish cleaning up the dirt in which he would return. Nelson and his groom would have to work out an understanding on their own.

Coffee awaited him on the sideboard, and cup in hand, he sought out the library and the letters from his steward and housekeeper at Pemberley that required his attention. An hour later, noises from the hall alerted him to the presence of the rest of the household, and folding his letters, he went to join them in the breakfast room.

“Mr. Darcy, up before us as usual, I see.” Miss Bingley greeted him with a smile and a nod at the empty cup and saucer he laid on the sideboard. As Darcy helped himself from the platters arrayed before him, a servant entered and bent to speak privately to Miss Bingley. When he had left, she turned to her family at table with a sigh. “Miss Bennet is no better, I fear. It seems she must remain our guest a little longer.”

“Can anything more be done for her, Caroline?” Concern flooded through Bingley’s voice. “Perhaps a physician from London should be summoned.”

“Surely, Charles, that is her family’s decision! It would not do to act so precipitously. Mr. Darcy, you concur in this, do you not?” Miss Bingley looked to Darcy, confident of his support. In consideration of his friend’s anxiety, Darcy would not reply at once. With reluctance he seconded Miss Bingley’s opinion of the matter but took care to couch it in terms he hoped would soothe Bingley’s concern. The meal progressed in silence for a time but was interrupted when the door suddenly opened, revealing an extraordinary sight.

Framed in the doorway was Miss Elizabeth Bennet, her cheeks a becoming rosy hue but the rest of her person in a pronounced state of dishevelment. From the condition of her boots and petticoat, it was obvious that she had been some time out-of-doors, most probably walking across fields. Her hair was windblown despite her bonnet, its ribbons in a hopeless tangle, and the hems of her dress and pelisse were spattered with mud. Darcy’s lips twitched in delight at the charming picture she made, her eyes brilliant from exertion yet guardedly defiant of any censure that might be accorded her unannounced and untidy appearance.

Bingley was the first to move toward her. “Miss Elizabeth! Welcome, welcome…Please come in and sit down! You have walked all the way from Longbourn?” At her nod he shook his head. “You must be very tired.” Pulling out a chair, he gently pushed her into it. “Please, do sit. There now, you have come for news of your sister.”

Darcy knew a moment of unreasonable jealousy when Elizabeth raised a grateful face to Bingley as she accepted the seat. “Thank you, sir. You are very kind.” She paused briefly, tugging at the ribbons of her bonnet. “What can you tell me of Jane, Mr. Bingley? Is she very ill?”

“I regret to say my sisters tell me Miss Bennet did not sleep well. She continues to be feverish and is unable to leave her chamber.”

Elizabeth rose quickly from the chair and begged that she be taken to her sister immediately. “Come, Miss Eliza,” drawled Miss Bingley in soothing tones, “Louisa and I will take you up. We were just about to visit your sister ourselves, were we not, Louisa?” Between them, the two women quickly swept their new guest out of the room.

Darcy was careful not to watch as the ladies departed but instead finished his breakfast, a pensive Bingley keeping him silent company. Finally, he laid aside his napkin and regarded his friend with compassion tinged with some exasperation. “Bingley, no one will be served by the two of us keeping vigil outside Miss Bennet’s door. I have some letters to post. What do you say we take them into Meryton ourselves? We shall have to stay on the roadsides and no mad gallops…” He left the question unfinished. During his discourse Bingley had stirred and, by its end, evidenced some interest.

“I would be sorely tempted if you were to, say,…allow me a go on your Nelson?” he replied with an impish grin.

“I would be writing your death warrant should I allow something so harebrained! You are not so disconsolate that I would tempt fate merely to cheer you.” Darcy tried to look severe in the face of Bingley’s attempts to look inconsolable. “Come now” — he abandoned his pose — “do we ride for Meryton or shall we wander the halls of Netherfield, waylaying everyone who comes out of Miss Bennet’s chamber?”

“Meryton it is, Darcy!” Bingley joined him in laughter but then paused and continued in a more serious manner. “I am glad that Miss Elizabeth has come. She will know her sister’s health better than the servants or, Heaven forbid, my sisters. I think Miss Bennet would want her sister by her rather than strangers.” He was silent for a moment, then seemed to come to a decision. “If Miss Bennet is not better when we return, I shall invite Miss Elizabeth to stay at Netherfield until her sister can safely be removed to her home. There is nothing objectionable in that, is there, Darcy?”

“Nothing at all, Bingley. All the demands of propriety are met. It is an excellent idea.”

“Good! Then, I shall meet you in the stable in twenty minutes, no…one half hour, and we will be off to Meryton to post your oh-so-important letters.” Bingley’s lightened mood lent a spring to his step as he made for his chambers to change into riding clothes. Needing far less time to change, Darcy poured himself another cup of coffee and took it to the window, leaning one shoulder against the frame.

Was Elizabeth’s presence at Netherfield truly an excellent idea, as he had just told Bingley? To be so often in her company, here, where he had achieved a certain level of easiness, threatened his comfort; yet it was the perfect place to deepen his acquaintance with her. Here,
she
would be the guest, the outsider, and
he
would have the advantage that familiarity bestowed.

He shifted his stance, lifting the cup to his lips as he contemplated what the next few days might hold. No society of strangers to placate or play to, no competition for her attention, no clever, meaningless chitchat to invent or maintain. He could fence with her — that their interaction would resemble that activity, he had no doubt — at leisure. Regardless of the excellence of the idea, the real question confronted him: Which did he desire more, his continued comfort or the thrumming excitement of verbal swordplay with Miss Elizabeth Bennet?

“Mr. Darcy, can you inform me of my brother’s whereabouts? Miss Eliza has entrusted me with a request.”

Miss Bingley’s habit of interrupting his thoughts was growing wearisome, but he turned to her with a polite reply. “He has gone to change into riding clothes. We thought it best to leave you to your nursing in peace so you will not feel obliged to entertain us as well as your patient.” He laid aside his cup and bowed, adding just before he left, “Do not let Bingley leave before you have spoken with him. He has come upon an excellent idea.”

BOOK: An Assembly Such as This
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