Mr. Bennet of Longbourn was not a nervous man. It would have done him ill to be so, as he was surrounded by six women, the majority of whom he found quite foolish. He took much joy in the fact that his second daughter, Elizabeth, seemed to share his general disposition towards the world. It was a relief to have at least one person in that overly feminine house who understood and appreciated his wit. But even the most even-tempered man can have difficulty remaining so if the mistress of the house and the mother of five unwed daughters catches the scent of a well-placed, unmarried gentleman.
From the moment that Mrs Bennet heard that an unmarried man of some fortune named Mr Bingley had let Netherfield, Mr Bennet did not receive a moment of peace. She was at him continually to make Mr Bingley's acquaintance so that his daughters could have an introduction. There was no denying or deferring her on this point. However, Mr Bennet did not give up the opportunity to tease her and pretend that he would not meet Mr Bingley. It was only after she protested that her nerves could no longer stand the strain that he admitted he had visited Mr Bingley and found him to be an amiable sort. He further brought the news that Mr Bingley would be bringing a party to the upcoming ball.
This news was met with a frenzy of activity by the Bennet ladies. Kitty and Lydia immediately began assembling their outfits and fighting over dresses and trimmings. ("I am the elder, Lydia, so I ought to have first pick!" "You are also the shorter - I need this one to properly cover my ankles!"). Elizabeth looked at Jane and raised her eyebrows in amusement. Jane gave her a small smile in return. As for Mary, she busied herself trying to determine which piece of music she should prepare in the case someone asked her to play. Things did not get any less frantic as the ball approached, especially when they heard from Charlotte Lucas that she was told Mr Bingley was bringing quite a sizable group to the ball.
The rumours that Mr Bingley was bringing a large group to the ball were a bit exaggerated. When the Bingley party arrived, it contained Mr Bingley, his sister Mrs Hurst and her husband, and his sister Miss Bingley and her intended, Mr Darcy. The ladies were wearing the newest fashions and many in attendance whispered of the daring nature of their clothing. They were lovely in a bored-looking sort of way, and they certainly did nothing to contradict the impression that they had no great interest in their present company. Mr Bingley was perceived entirely differently. He was delighted to make everyone's acquaintance and inquired most earnestly about his new neighbours. Although he was universally found to be the most charming of the men, the fact that Mr Darcy was worth ten thousand a year was whispered around the meeting hall, and many were saddened to discover that he was already spoken for by Miss Bingley.
Elizabeth was unconcerned about Mr Darcy's romantic situation. She was much more interested in the amiable Mr Bingley's, as he showed a distinct interest in Elizabeth's dearest sister Jane. Likewise, the other three Bennet sisters were occupied with things far removed from Mr Darcy. Lydia and Kitty were giggling as they danced with officer after officer, and Mary was sitting near the door with a critical look on her face. Elizabeth knew that nothing made Mary happier than feeling superior, so she also appeared to be having an ideal evening.
Mr Bingley wasted no time in asking Jane to dance, and Elizabeth, seeing her sister well matched on the dance floor, sought out her dear friend Charlotte Lucas.
"Did you see the look on Miss Bingley's face?" Charlotte said with a giggle. "She rather looks as if she has smelled something unpleasant."
"Mr Darcy appears no more pleased with the evening than she," Elizabeth responded, watching the couple. "Why do they not dance? It would certainly make for more pleasant amusement than standing around looking sour."
"Let us move closer and see if they sound more pleasant than they appear," Charlotte said, pulling on Elizabeth's arm. Elizabeth allowed herself to be pulled closer to Miss Bingley and Mr Darcy. To tell the truth, she was curious and welcomed the opportunity to observe them more closely. Charlotte and Elizabeth took two chairs near where the couple was standing.
Elizabeth snuck looks at them as often as seemed safe. Miss Bingley was certainly beautiful, without a single hair out of place. Mr Darcy was tall and handsome enough, although he had a face that did not look like it smiled easily.
"You are quite fortunate to have me, darling," said Miss Bingley. "There certainly is no one else here handsome enough to tempt you."
Charlotte inclined her head slightly towards Elizabeth, who had to hold back a laugh about the seriousness with which Miss Bingley insulted all the other ladies in attendance.
"You are the picture of loveliness," replied Mr Darcy.
Elizabeth could no longer hold back her mirth and began to laugh. She quickly began to cough in an attempt to hide her laughter. This drew the attention of the couple and they stared as Elizabeth coughed over her giggles. She waved off a young man's offer to retrieve her a cup of water and composed herself.
Later, as she was regaling Jane with the story, she archly added, "it is a good thing that I did not have to rely on Mr Darcy's gallantry, for it seems he possesses none. It is fortunate that your Mr Bingley has enough for both of them."
Jane blushed prettily. "I do not think that he is my Mr Bingley," she responded.
"I do not think that anyone who was there tonight could deny that he wishes to be," Elizabeth said.
"Well, we shall just need to see him again to become sure of the fact."
The Bennet daughters did not have to wait long to see Mr Bingley again. In fact, he called the next day, much to the delight of everyone except Mr Bennet (who had no quarrel with Bingley, but was deeply displeased with the squealing noises emanating from Kitty and Lydia). Mr Bingley continued to be amiable and pleasant, and it was clear to anyone watching that he very much admired Jane. The two youngest girls reminded him of a previous promise to hold a ball and he allowed them to set the date, much to their delight.
For the second time in a fortnight the household became a whirlwind of preparation. Dresses were negotiated, hemmed, and taken in, shoes were fought over and decorations were carefully added. The entire family then fit themselves into the carriage for the ride to Netherfield.
The number of people already at the ball was nearly overwhelming. Elizabeth found herself clutching Jane's hand, trying not to lose her in the crowd. Even with so many people Mr Bingley spied them almost instantly and made his way towards them. Unfortunately, he had been speaking with Mr Darcy, who came along as well.
"Is it not a wonderful crowd?" Mr Bingley asked with a smile.
"I would say that your ball is already a success," Elizabeth said, speaking loudly to be heard over the din. "It is quite the event of the decade. Hertfordshire rarely sees an entertainment like this. They will be speaking of it for years!"
"Miss Bennet, Miss Elizabeth, have you met my dear friend Darcy?" Bingley asked.
"We have not been formally introduced, but he was an essential aid to me at the last ball we attended together."
Mr Darcy responded with a raised eyebrow. "Oh, come!" cried Elizabeth. "Was it not you who sent that lovely young man to check on me during my coughing spell?"
"I am afraid not, madam," he said with dignity.
"Please pardon my sister, Mr Darcy. Lizzy's sense of humour is often perplexing to those who don't know her well."
"Now, tell the truth, Jane. My sense of humour is just as frequently perplexing to those that see me every day."
Jane laughed and allowed that Elizabeth might be correct.
"Lovely, lovely!" cried Bingley. "But now, let us dance. Miss Bennet, if you would do me the honours. Darcy, it appears that Caroline has stepped out for a moment. Perhaps I can persuade you to take Miss Elizabeth for a turn?"
Darcy did not at all look pleased, but he could not turn down his friend's request.
"Miss Elizabeth, if you would be so kind as to give me this dance," he said, with a bow.
Elizabeth was equally caught. She did not want to dance with pompous Mr Darcy, but she looked in Jane's pleading eyes and softened. For Jane's sake, she should at least attempt to be civil.
"Of course," she said, following Darcy to the dance.
Elizabeth, who loved to dance, hoped that she would be able to entertain herself enough with the dancing that she was not relying on the conversation. She did not have high hopes for Mr Darcy's conversational ability.
She looked over at Jane and Mr Bingley, who were dancing further on down the line. "They look so happy together," she commented.
Darcy glanced down at them and Elizabeth thought she saw a flicker of anger cross his face. However, she told herself, he generally looks unpleasant. Maybe it was just Darcy being Darcy. She could not imagine what fault he could possibly find with Jane, who was absolutely the most perfect person that Elizabeth knew. She tried to brush it off and strike up conversation.
"How do you find Netherfield, Mr Darcy?"
"The estate itself has much potential. I am as of yet unsure about the location."
"Ah, I see. It must be exceedingly difficult for a man of your calibre to associate with the common folk."
Darcy started at that, and looked Elizabeth in the eyes for the first time. "I apologise if I caused offence," he said. "Please know that none was intended."
Elizabeth could not imagine what he did intend with the location comment, but before she could respond she saw Caroline Bingley enter the ballroom and begin looking about. Elizabeth suspected that she knew who Caroline looked for, and she also suspected that Caroline would be none too pleased to find her fiance dancing with another woman.
"I believe your intended looks for you, sir. Thank you for the dance. It was educational, to say the least." And with that, she dropped a small curtsy and left the dance floor, believing that she had fulfilled her duty to Jane. She ran off to find Charlotte Lucas and tell her the story of her odd dance with the very odd Mr Darcy.