The Last Waltz: . . . another pride and prejudice journey of love (4 page)

BOOK: The Last Waltz: . . . another pride and prejudice journey of love
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But perhaps his imminent departure to Hertfordshire was timely; for as much as he found Miss Marston’s demeanor agreeable and her looks quite attractive, he must admit a short diversion to the country and the prospect of seeking more intelligent and stimulating topics of conversation was enticing.

She expressed her regret that business must take him away but assured him she would be waiting eagerly for his return.

He felt only a twinge of guilt as he silently acknowledged that despite his regard for her, he was bored,
perfectly
bored.

 

CHAPTER
FOUR

Mr. Bennet descended the carriage. He pasted a look of amiability on his face, despite the fact that he wished to be anywhere but where he was—welcoming someone new to the neighborhood. Even though he had vexed his wife with his reluctance over the last several days, he knew she was right. He must do his fatherly duty and introduce himself so that his daughters might benefit from the acquaintance.

There seemed to be some confusion as he was led inside, the young woman unsure exactly what was expected of her.

Mr. Bingley quickly appeared in the foyer. “Oh, I’m glad to see
someone
has let you in. Things are still a bit unsettled here as I’ve yet to hire a housekeeper. Good morning. I am Charles Bingley.”

“Thomas Bennet of Longbourn. I have come to welcome you to the neighbourhood.”

“How very good of you, sir. Please come into the parlour and make yourself comfortable.”

Once they were seated, tea was ordered. “I prefer a little brandy in mine if you do not object,” said Mr. Bennet as he carefully observed his host.

“No objections whatsoever,” beamed the hospitable Mr. Bingley. “I might be persuaded to join you myself.”

Mr. Bennet assessed the young man seated beside him. He judged him to be all that was congenial. Yes, he would be a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

“Have you met many of your neighbours?”

“Several. A Sir William Lucas called upon me yesterday. Quite a friendly chap. He informed me of his two daughters . . . ah, oh yes, a Miss Charlotte and a Miss Maria.”

“Yes, I would imagine that most of the families you’ve met are those blessed with an abundance of daughters,” said an amused Mr. Bennet.

“And you, sir, have you any daughters, Mr. Bennet?”

“Five.”

“Five daughters?” responded Bingley as his eyebrows shot up a good two inches.

“Yes. And my wife is very eager for you to meet all of them,” he said, unable to hide his enjoyment of teasing the young man. “I understand you will be attending the Meryton Assembly on Saturday.”

“Yes. Sir William was kind enough to invite me.”

Their conversation was interrupted as a young servant girl entered the parlour with the tea. Normally her duties did not extend past the kitchen, and she looked around the room seemingly at a loss.

“Just place it over here, Maggie. Then you may go.”

The young girl curtsied, and the teacups slid precariously across the tray before she righted herself. Steadying the tray, she hurriedly crossed the room and placed the refreshments on the table. Again she bobbed a curtsey and quickly disappeared.

“As I said, things are still a bit unsettled. My sister Caroline will get the staff situation straightened out when she arrives tomorrow with the rest of my party. We shall all attend the Assembly on Saturday. Even though I am sure my friend, Mr. Darcy, will argue against it.”

Mr. Bennet responded to the name. “Mr. Darcy? Mr. Darcy of Pemberley?”

“Why yes, are you acquainted with him?” asked Bingley as he poured a generous dollop of brandy into each teacup.

“No, I am not, but if it is the same gentleman, I believe two of my daughters met him some years ago.”

“Excellent! Perhaps that is just the inducement I shall need to persuade him to attend!”

********

As Lizzy joined her family in the parlour, there was a great discussion in progress. Not wishing to enter into the fray, she steadfastly made her way towards the settee and picked up her embroidery. Her mother was bemoaning the fact that because of their father’s obstinacy they would never know Mr. Bingley, and that she was, indeed, sick of hearing of him.

Mr. Bennet folded his newspaper and set it aside. “Had I known that this morning, I should never have called on him.”

“You have called on him?”

“I’m afraid we cannot escape the acquaintance now.”

Mrs. Bennet and her two youngest daughters danced and reveled at the news as Mary gave them a look of disapproval. Jane sat and smiled demurely, while Elizabeth didn’t so much as raise her eyes from her embroidery.

“Are you not interested in meeting our new neighbours, Lizzy?” asked Mr. Bennet. “If for no other reason than to make sport of their follies?”

“I am sure I shall meet them in good time, sir,” she answered as she kept her eyes on her employment.

“Is it not your intention to attend the Assembly? I recall how you once rhapsodized about such gatherings.”

“I see no point in attending an Assembly as I have no intention of dancing.”

Mr. Bennet knew she was not having any of it, but hoped he would still be able to coax her.

“I think it would do you good to attend, Lizzy. I cannot remember the last time you have left the house.”

Elizabeth could remember
exactly
the last time she had left the house. It was the day, over ten months ago now, that Dr. Graham had informed her that her leg was as good as it would ever be. He did not expect any further improvement of her gait. When he took that hope from her, he took with it her confidence and most of her dreams. And with her dreams went the incentive that had been her life force.

Of course, the doctor had been delighted with her progress, astonished that she had regained the use of her right leg at all; such were the extent of her injuries. It was a testament to her determination, he had said, that she had overcome such odds.

Since she had first sustained her injuries, she had suffered through two operations, the first one shortly after the accident. It had taken almost a year for her leg to heal from that ordeal, and she had been confined to her bed for most of the duration. Her progress had been agonizingly slow, but finally she had gained enough strength in the muscles of her leg to allow her to stand and eventually walk, though awkwardly and with much pain.

A second operation was performed almost two years ago. Dr. Graham had been convinced that another operation to remove some splintered bone fragments would help relieve her discomfort and improve her stride. Again her recuperation had taken many months, but she diligently had attended to all the exercises and endured all the treatments that had been required of her with the hope that she would one day again walk with no impairment.

But all that she had gone through did not fully accomplish its mission. Though her pain had diminished and her awkward manner of walking had improved considerably, her leg had not regained its former strength and would often grow stiff. She also had been left with two disfiguring scars on her leg and a gait that made her feel uncoordinated and graceless.

“I am most happy to stay home with you and read, Papa.”

Mr. Bennet eyed his daughter carefully. “I have never ordered you to do anything, Elizabeth, but perhaps I have been coddling you too much.”

Distracted, the needle with which she had been working struck her forefinger, causing a small droplet of blood to mar her sampler. She looked up and offered him a frown.
Surely he will not force me to go!

“I will make you a bargain, Lizzy: attend this one Assembly, and I promise I will not impose on you again to attend another social function for a year.”

“If you recall, sir, I attended an Assembly at your urging once before. How could you ask that of me again?”

Mr. Bennet’s eyes softened. “Lizzy, you cannot spend the rest of your life secluded away in this house because of the thoughtless conduct of one foolish young man.”

“He was more than just a foolish young man to me, Papa. He was my best friend. He was someone I trusted. If
he
could so easily disregard my feelings, what chance is there that others will show more tolerance?”

She turned her eyes away from her father as she recalled the painful events of that night that still haunted her. After much persuading, her father had convinced her to attend the Assembly at Meryton to celebrate her seventeenth birthday. Her best friend, Jeremy McGregor, who had always shown partiality for her company, was also to attend and had promised to dance with her.

As soon as she had entered the Assembly Room, however, she had witnessed all the unforgiving stares and heard the cruel whispers. She looked around, hoping to seek the comforting presence of her friend. Eyeing him across the room, she breathed a sigh of relief and gave him a smile. But when the evening had almost come to an end and Jeremy still had not asked her to dance, she had gathered up all her courage and self-consciously walked across the room to where he stood. Every pair of eyes turned in her direction. Taking in a deep breath she nervously approached him. “Will you not stand up with me, Jeremy?”

A few snickers from his friends as they stood nearby could be heard, but then the room became deadly silent. Jeremy looked into her eyes for a moment but, embarrassed by his own shameful behaviour, quickly stared down at his feet. “I . . . I have promised the last set to Miss Sarah,” he stated in a meek voice. “I am sorry, Elizabeth.” When he finally found the courage to look up, he witnessed her sad expression and her unshed tears. Elizabeth could see the regret in his eyes, but it did not lessen the sting of his rejection.

“I have no desire to repeat such an unpleasant evening, Papa.”

“But that was over three years ago, Lizzy, before your last operation,” said Jane. “Your leg has improved so much since then.”

Elizabeth gave her sister a scornful fleeting glance, then turned her attention back to her father. “I do not wish to go,” she stated emphatically.

“Lizzy, I would rather you agree than make me insist upon it.”

“I am begging you, Papa, please, do not make me go,” she said as she fought off tears.

They had come to this impasse several times over the past ten months, and each time, Mr. Bennet would acquiesce to his daughter’s will. After all she had endured, he did not wish to add to her distress.

He took in a deep breath, knowing that he was about to do that very thing. “You leave me no choice, Elizabeth. You will attend the Assembly. Am I understood?”

“But, Papa . . . what is the point? I shall not dance, and what other purpose is there to attend? I . . . I promise I will leave the house tomorrow. Yes . . . I will call on Charlotte and have a nice long visit. Truly, I promise, Papa, just please do not make me go to the Assembly.”

Jane shifted uneasily in her chair, her guilt now weighing heavily on her. “It will not be
that
bad, Lizzy, honestly. No one will force you to dance; we only wish your company. I am sure it will turn out to be a most enjoyable evening. Please, Lizzy, attend for me.”

Elizabeth turned her eyes back to her embroidery, refusing to look at either her father or her sister. Resigned that her pleas were falling upon deaf ears, she released a shaky breath. “I will attend if I must, but I assure you, Papa, I
shall not
dance and I shall hold you to your promise. I will not be prevailed upon to attend another social function for a full year.”

 

CHAPTER
FIVE

The night was ripe with anticipation. Mrs. Bennet was eagerly awaiting the arrival of Mr. Bingley as she stood beside Jane and fussed over her.

“Stand up straight, Jane. Pull your shoulders back. A man could go a long way without seeing a figure like yours, if you would only make the most of it.”

Elizabeth sat some distance away between her friend Charlotte and a potted plant. She tried to make herself as inconspicuous as possible as she watched the dancers whirl before her.

She had insisted on getting there well before the Assembly started so that she might already be seated by the time the others had arrived.

Delighted to see her friend, Charlotte could hardly wait to engage Elizabeth in conversation. After relating all the latest news and gossip that she could think of, she waited with much patience for some response, but Elizabeth did not seem the least bit interested in anything she had to say.

Charlotte’s several useless attempts at discourse on various subjects received only monosyllabic responses. It was hard to believe that this was the same Elizabeth who once talked incessantly with unveiled enthusiasm. She was at a loss as to what topic might engage her friend.

“Would you like me to get you some punch, Elizabeth?”

“Charlotte, all I would like is for this evening to end so that I may go home.”

With an exasperated sigh, Charlotte looked over to her mother and sister. She watched as they conversed with Jane and Mrs. Bennet, and then a sudden hush descended over the Assembly.

A party of five, consisting of three gentleman and two ladies, entered. The ladies were finely dressed; their attire was obviously not purchased in the country, but more likely in the fashionable modiste shops found on Bond Street in London.

Elizabeth looked up, and her body tensed. She unconsciously leaned closer to the potted plant.

“Look,” observed Charlotte to her friend, “It is the party from Netherfield.”

Elizabeth remained silent as her eyes fixed upon the man whom she had once fantasized about. Five years ago she had thought of him often. But as the years passed and her hopes of walking normally faded, so did her dreams of him. She had not thought of him at all for almost a year, not since the day Dr. Graham had given his final verdict.

Well, maybe that is not entirely true. I may have thought of him once or twice since then . . . .

“Mr. Bingley is the younger, lighter haired gentleman. And the ladies are Mr. Bingley’s sisters I understand. One of them is married to one of the other two gentlemen.”

Elizabeth stared across the room and unknowingly held her breath.

Charlotte made no further attempt at conversation, as obviously this topic, too, was undeserving of a response from her friend.

The two women sat side by side wordlessly as one set concluded and dancers lined up for the next. The music started up again, and the gentlemen bowed as the ladies across from them curtsied.

“Do you know to which gentleman she is married?”

The question had so suddenly invaded the long silence between them that Charlotte was momentarily startled. Had she finally happened upon a subject that was of interest to her friend?

“I believe it is a Mr. Hurst, the shorter of the two gentlemen.”

Elizabeth began to breathe normally again and immediately chastised herself.
You are not a naïve fifteen year old anymore
, she scolded herself.
Leave your childish dreams in the past where they belong.

Yes, he had been part of her childish dreams. But life had given her more than a dose of reality.

No one will ever want me like this, least of all . . . him.

Elizabeth knew that aside from all the obvious requirements a man of Mr. Darcy’s wealth and consequence would demand, any woman he might consider a suitable match must surely also possess pulchritude and perfection in her manner.

Perfection begets perfection.

If she could have magically disappeared, she would have. She had to find a way to get through the evening without betraying her situation. If he remembered her at all, she wanted him to remember her as she once was—the most perfect version of herself.

She observed as Sir William led Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy over to her mother and Jane, introducing them. When her mother looked about the room to point out her other four daughters, Elizabeth felt her heart race. Please, Lord, do not let my mother entreat me to join them, she silently prayed.

She was relieved when her mother did no more than wave a hand in her direction. She wanted to turn away before his eyes met hers but found herself anticipating his gaze. As he looked over at her, he narrowed his eyes and stared for a moment. She looked for signs of recognition in his countenance but could discern none. Before she could even acknowledge him, he had already turned away. Obviously, he did not remember her at all. She sighed.
It is as it should be. Who am I to be remembered?

Charlotte observed the change in colour of Elizabeth’s complexion as her eyes met those of Mr. Darcy’s. Was he what had finally piqued her friend’s interest?

At the start of the next set, Mr. Bingley and Jane took to the dance floor, and Elizabeth could not help but observe Mr. Darcy as he danced with one of Mr. Bingley’s sisters. He was hard to miss, as his height made one’s eyes automatically draw towards him. His hand reached for his partner’s and when they clasped, Elizabeth felt a slight dip in her stomach—an irrational reaction, as she tried unsuccessfully to look away.

When the set had ended, Mr. Darcy headed for the punch bowl while Mr. Bingley brought the rest of his party over to Elizabeth and Charlotte for an introduction. As it turned out, the woman Mr. Darcy had danced with was Mr. Bingley’s unmarried sister, a Miss Caroline Bingley, whose curtsy was perfectly executed. The other couple was Mr. Bingley’s married sister, Louisa, and her husband, Mr. Hurst.

Charlotte and Elizabeth stood as the introductions were made. Mr. Bingley was indeed convivial as he endeavoured to put everyone at ease. His sister Caroline displayed a certain air that Elizabeth was unsure if she resented or envied; it was a confident manner that Elizabeth only vaguely recalled possessing.

Mrs. Hurst merely stated, “A pleasure, I am sure,” as she curtsied, and Mr. Hurst appeared incapable of speech as a stiff bow was all he produced.

With relief, Elizabeth sat down as the party retreated. However, Mr. Bingley turned to Charlotte and requested the pleasure of her company for the next set.

Darcy observed his friend on the dance floor, and then began a cursory scan over the room, briefly resting his eyes on Elizabeth. Had it only been five years ago that they met? For some reason, it seemed so much longer since he had been that naïve young man.

He observed her sweet smile as she looked out over the dancers. She had definitely matured since last he saw her. The prettiness and appeal he had recognized in that young girl all those years ago had been transformed into a rare loveliness that was hard to describe. She was not beautiful, at least not in the classic sense, but everything about her seemed to petition his very soul. If he had to choose one word to describe her . . . it would be . . . yes . . . beguiling. He forced his eyes away from her.

As he started to move about the room, his gaze next fell upon Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst, who were whispering between themselves, no doubt conversing on their obvious disdain for the unsophisticated company around them.

Caroline Bingley was not an unattractive woman, at least not in looks. She was tall, and her figure was thin and willowy. However her face, though unblemished, always had a look of disapproval, except when she looked upon him. In those instances, she would produce a pleasant façade, which he supposed was meant to be appealing, but had quite the reverse affect.

He passed Mrs. Bennet and Lady Lucas and heard snippets of conversation that included phrases such as “ten thousand pounds a year” and “a large estate in Derbyshire.” He was used to hearing such things whispered about him, but usually it was in the more elegant ballrooms of London.

Once again his eyes sought out Elizabeth Bennet. He observed her pose unchanged. She still looked straight ahead, the same smile upon her face. As he considered her countenance, he recognized her smile as a familiar one—one he had often displayed himself. It was in place, just as a mask might have been, hiding whatever true feelings were lurking beneath.

He had been quite reluctant to attend tonight’s Assembly, given his natural dislike of social situations. However, upon Bingley revealing Mr. Bennet’s belief that he had met two of his daughters several years ago, an image of the young, dark-haired girl had flashed before his eyes, and before he knew what he was about, he had agreed to attend the country dance.

There had been something about her even then that had attracted him; something that had made her prominent in his memory. And now as he observed the unwavering, complacent smile that continued to grace her expression, she intrigued him even more.

What could such a pretty young girl possibly be hiding behind that mask of a smile
, he wondered?

He continued casually traversing the perimeter of the dance floor, keeping his eyes unfocused as not to look directly at anyone. This innate ability had served him well over the years. Yes, he had perfected many of these useful ploys; a mask of a smile to hide any true emotion and an unfocused gaze that kept the world at bay were the two that he most often employed.

However, try as he might, his eyes seemed drawn to one particular woman. It seemed he was also unconsciously moving in her direction.

Out of the corner of her eye, Elizabeth watched with trepidation as Mr. Darcy made his way across the room.

Stop! Stop! Please do not come any closer.
But as she watched him approach, it seemed yet another of her silent prayers would be ignored.

“Good evening, Miss Bennet. It is a pleasure to see you again.”

So he
did
remember their prior acquaintance. She stood and steadied herself, then responded to his bow with a slight curtsey. “I am delighted, as well, to see you once more, Mr. Darcy.”

“When Mr. Bingley told me of a Mr. Bennet’s visit to Netherfield, I had wondered if he was a relation.”

“I am surprised you remembered the name, sir; after all, it has been five years.”

“I
remember
everything about that day, including your kindness to my sister.”

“She looked so fragile that my heart could not help but go out to her. I trust she is well?”

“She is
quite
well. I will let her know that you asked after her. She speaks of you often, as well as your aunt. The events of that day are indelibly in our thoughts.”

“Yes, I would imagine so,” said Elizabeth softly as they briefly held each other’s gaze.

He then turned in the direction of the dance floor and nodded towards Miss Lucas.

“Now that you have lost your friend’s company, perhaps you would honour me with the next set?”

And just like that, the easy conversation stopped.

Elizabeth looked uncomfortable as her hands started to fidget at her sides. She turned her eyes away from him as her mind went in all directions.

Was this not the very fantasy she had dreamed of at fifteen? The music playing so heavenly around them; him standing so close to her that she could feel his warmth, smell his unique scent. All she would have to do was acquiesce, and he would touch her. Perhaps his hand would rest at the small of her back as he led her towards the dance floor, or he might clasp her hand to guide her into an intricate turn. If the set were to include a reel, he might even secure his hand at her waist. Her breath left her momentarily as she let her imagination picture such things. She then turned her gaze back to his.

“I’m afraid I do not dance, Mr. Darcy.”

He eyed her curiously for a moment, wondering if she did not dance or if she just did not wish to dance with him. He could not recall any woman ever having declined his offer to dance before.

“I admit I am not that fond of dancing either,” he said, assuming that was her reason.

“Oh, I am
very
fond of dancing, sir. I simply choose not to.”

He studied her pensively, not knowing what to make of her. Was she dismissing him?

He could not even gauge his reaction to her refusal, so singular was the event. He rarely asked young ladies to dance and was never refused.

He was now quite at a loss as how to reply to such a refusal, having no experience to draw upon. This was one of the many reasons why he so fastidiously avoided social situations; he simply was not good at the coy games young men and women played to flirt and tease each other. A man of his wealth and position had no need of such silly games; most women were more than agreeable to his company.

Now feeling somewhat awkward, he endeavoured to take his leave with as much of his dignity intact as possible.

“Another time perhaps,” he said, the coldness in his voice almost tangible. He bowed and turned abruptly.

Yes, go. Go back to your perfect dance partner. Leave me before you learn of my secret.

BOOK: The Last Waltz: . . . another pride and prejudice journey of love
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