Elizabeth examined her reflection and found herself at least satisfactory. She was looking forward to the assembly tonight. They always brought out new aspects of the personalities in the small country neighborhood she knew so well. Young men became more attentive, old men more like young men, mothers like huntresses seeking mates for their offspring and the young ladies, she had to admit even though she was one herself, were the most entertaining. How one responded to attention, lack of attention, or attention being paid to a sister or friend was often entertaining. In this Elizabeth had much practice as her sisters each drew quite a bit of attention - for very different reasons. Her older sister Jane because of her ethereal beauty, her younger sister Mary for her pedantic and sermonizing air and her youngest sisters Kitty and Lydia for their boisterous flirtatious behaviour. Indeed, Elizabeth imagined if there were other keen observers of character attending this evening the Bennet sisters would give them much to be amused by.
Another, less usual, cause for Elizabeth's eagerness and indeed that of all her sisters was the anticipated attendance of Mr. Bingley, the new tenant of Netherfield Park, and his party which was rumored to contain as many as twelve ladies and as few as one gentleman. Shortly after the commencement of the assembly this impatiently expected party arrived. It was revealed to contain in fact three gentleman and two ladies. Upon their auspicious entry the rest of the assembly noticeably quieted.
"Only two ladies after all." Elizabeth said to her companions, her sister and friend Charlotte, as they watched the Netherfield party make their way in to the crowded assembly room. "Do you know who they are, Charlotte?"
Elizabeth was sure Charlotte, as Sir William Lucas' daughter, would be privy to the latest gossip. He made it his business to know everyone else's and although their own father had paid a call on Mr. Bingley earlier in the week neither Elizabeth, her sisters, nor their mother had been able to procure much beyond the basics from him about their new neighbor. Elizabeth was certain Sir William had been more forthcoming with his own daughter.
"I am told that the ladies are Mr. Bingley's sisters. The shorter gentleman there is husband to one of them and the tall handsome one is Mr. Bingley's closest friend. He is, I believe, from somewhere in the north."
"Mr. Bingley and his friend are very handsome." Jane observed.
"And if his clothing and demeanor are any indicator I would wager the friend has at least as much as Mr. Bingley's five thousand a year." Elizabeth guessed.
There seemed to be a buzz swirling around the room concerning Mr. Bingley's friend and soon Mrs. Bennet scurried over to inform her eldest daughters of the latest intelligence.
"Girls," she began nearly breathless from her sojourn across the room. "We have more than one opportunity before us. Mr. Bingley's friend, Mr. Darcy, is worth at least ten thousand a year. He has a house in town and is the grandson of an Earl. We must secure an introduction. Perhaps if we contrive to come upon them just as the dancing resumes we can they each have a Bennett for a partner."
Elizabeth and Jane, used to their mother's excitement and fluttering, were not surprised by her enthusiasm or her machinations. Elizabeth watched in amusement as Mrs. Bennet considered all of her daughters one by one determining whom to throw in the path of these rich important men. Jane got barely a glance as she would clearly be one of the two. Most likely she would be deemed worthy of Mr. Darcy as he was the richest man in the room and Jane the most beautiful woman. It was the question of whom to dangle in front of Mr. Bingley that perplexed her now. And as the gentlemen in question were moving in their direction she had little time to decide.
Mary sat but a few feet away with her hands folded in her lap. Mary was not a beauty. She looked as though she might still be going through an awkward stage waiting to grow into herself. Mrs. Bennet did not have time to wait for any of her daughters to grow more beautiful. She had to work with what she had. Catherine was promising but still appeared as young as she was. If not for Lydia, who was younger than her by a year, Mrs. Bennet would not even have allowed her out. What was the point of being in society trying to attract a man when you still looked like a girl? Lydia looked older than her fifteen years however. Although not strictly speaking pretty she had such a lively and pleasing nature that Mrs. Bennet was sure she could attract a good husband. Her prospects were second only to Jane's. However; at the moment she was across the room giggling with Charlotte's younger sister Maria and so she was not an option.
Mrs. Bennet turned back to Elizabeth. She knew that Elizabeth was often mentioned alongside Jane as a local beauty and to be fair Elizabeth was a good-looking girl. But Mrs. Bennet did not think her father had done her any favors by indulging her in teaching her whatever she wished to know including philosophy, history, languages and many other things most gentlemen did not want their wives to know and speak about. But this was a ball and Lizzy did dance well and make a lovely first impression. It was only when she had the chance to talk too much that she revealed her unladylike mind. Therefore by the time Mr. Bingley reached them Mrs. Bennet had practically planned her daughters' weddings. Sir William performed the introductions which did not include Mr. Darcy who had moved to the opposite side of the room and claimed the hand of one of Mr. Bingley's sisters for the set that was commencing. Mrs. Bennet was momentarily at a loss as they went through the introductions and she pointed out each of her daughters. She had intended Jane for Mr. Darcy but what if he was engaged to the sister? Could she risk wasting Mr. Bingley on Lizzy? As it turned out Mr. Bingley took the decision out of her hands. After being introduced to the two Bennet ladies present and made aware of the three others he made his own choice of whom to dance with.
"Miss Bennet," he said extending a hand to Jane. "May I have the honor of dancing the next with you?"
"Of course Mr. Bingley." Jane answered with a smile that clearly delighted her partner.
Mrs. Bennet went off to ascertain the status of Mr. Darcy and Miss Bingley leaving Elizabeth to happily accept Mr. Long's hand for the set. Jane had promised the next to Mr. Long and so when that set began Elizabeth relinquished her partner to her sister and sought her friend Charlotte at the refreshment table.
"Are you enjoying yourself, Lizzy?" Charlotte asked handing her a glass.
"You know I am. I do love to dance."
"Jane seemed delighted with her partner." Charlotte observed. "And he even more so."
"Well it shows his good taste at the very least. And he is clearly very amiable and eager to please, but I will reserve any further judgment until we know him better. What of his friend? What do we know of him? Beyond the obvious." As she said this they both observed the two men in question come to stand close by, but with their backs to the ladies. They lowered their voices but continued to converse.
"The obvious?" Charlotte asked.
"That he is rich and handsome is apparent. Beyond that I can see that he is not pleased to be here, but whether that stems from his disapproval of his company, an innate shyness in a new situation or a bit of dinner that did not agree with him I cannot discern. I tend to think it is the first, but will try and reserve judgment on that as well."
"My wise friend." Charlotte laughed. "I think we had better put some of your other talents to use in reigning in our sisters." With this Charlotte inclined her head toward Lydia and Maria whose giggles had reached indelicate proportions.
"Indeed." With that the friends strolled arm in arm across the room to prevent the young girls from making more of a scene. Just a few feet from where they had stood Mr. Bingley was attempting to persuade his friend to dance.
The conversation revealed the nature of each of them. Mr. Bingley found the evening to be meeting all his highest expectations while Darcy found nothing to at all please him. When Bingley suggested his friend should dance the glare he received in response was most telling. Darcy made it clear that he had no intention of dancing with anyone beyond their party.
"You have been dancing with the only handsome girl in the room," said Darcy pointedly.
"Oh! She is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld!" Bingley, looking around, saw Miss. Elizabeth strolling with Charlotte. "But there is one of her sisters who is also very pretty and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you."
"Which do you mean?' Darcy asked following Bingley's eye in the direction Elizabeth and Charlotte had walked. They had already subdued their respective younger sisters and were now seated once again. Darcy locked eyes with Elizabeth for a moment and then turned back to his friend.
"She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humor at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me."
Elizabeth wondered if Mr. Bingley and his friend had been speaking of her when Mr. Darcy looked at her briefly, but she had been too far away to hear what was said and there were too many other interesting things to occupy her active mind and so she did not dwell on this small curiosity.
On the whole the evening delighted all the Bennett ladies. Mrs. Bennet could see the wisdom in her pushing Jane toward Mr. Bingley as he had chosen to dance twice with her and even introduced her to his fashionable sisters. Jane was highly gratified by this as well but less effusive in the display of her feelings. Elizabeth felt Jane's pleasure almost as her own and had enjoyed herself in her own right being obliged to sit down for only one set. Mary had heard herself mentioned to the Netherfield party as one of the most accomplished ladies in the neighborhood and this did much to flatter her vanity as she thought her more worthy pursuit of accomplishments were too often ignored in favor of her sisters' beauty or boisterousness. Lydia and Kitty had never lacked partners and they asked for nothing else from a dance.
Mr. Bennet was less than pleased. He had hoped all his wife's very high and oft repeated hopes for the Netherfield party would be dashed in one way or another. He barely tolerated the recitation of the events and put a stop to it quickly with a typical harsh and little understood complaint to his wife. She barely heard such things from her husband anymore. She only acceded to his gruff requests because she knew he would not provide her the type of audience her effusions required.
Having secured the privacy of their chambers the eldest Bennet sisters reviewed the night's events.
"He is just what a young man ought to be," Jane exclaimed. "Sensible, good-humored, lively; and I never saw such happy manners! So much ease with such perfect good breeding!"
"He is also handsome," Her sister countered, "which a young man ought to be if he possibly can. His character is thereby complete."
After a few more minutes of conversation they turned to the evaluation of his companions.
"And so you like his sisters, too do you?" Elizabeth asked with no small amount of incredulity. "Their manners are not equal to his."
"Certainly not – at first. But they are very pleasing women when you converse with them. Miss. Bingley is to live with her brother, and keep his house; and I am much mistaken if we shall not find a very charming neighbor in her."
Elizabeth did not contradict her sister out loud, but she remained certain that the Bingley sisters considered the society in Hertfordshire beneath them and having not been flattered herself by any particular attention nor insulted by any particular word or deed Elizabeth felt she was able to make an impartial judgment on the whole party.
The Bingley sisters were indeed very fine ladies by the common standards of the day. They were handsome in a very fashionable way, had received fine private educations and each possessed a fortune of twenty thousand pounds. The fact that the fortune that now allowed them to think meanly of others had been acquired in trade seems to have been lost somewhere amid their vast knowledge of the lineage and wealth of others. Mr. Bingley, though pleased that his friendship with Darcy and others of the first circles allowed himself and his sisters to mingle among them, was easy in almost any company. His father had left him a one hundred-thousand-pound fortune with which to buy an estate. However; having begun to enjoy life as a tenant at Netherfield his affable and carefree nature made it a distinct possibility that he would perhaps leave an actual purchase to the next generation.
As was customary the day after an Assembly the ladies of the Lucas family visited the Bennets to talk over the events of the previous night. After Mrs. Bennet established, to her satisfaction, Mr. Bingley's interest in Jane the ladies moved on to a discussion of his friend and sisters.
"His sisters are quite elegant and seemed inclined to show you particular notice, Jane." Mrs. Bennett observed. Before Jane could demure Elizabeth chimed in.
"They are indeed elegant, Madam, but perhaps a little too aware of their own worth to be a valuable addition to our little society."
Elizabeth's mother was never quite sure what to make of her daughter's cryptic character studies and so she chose to move their examination on to another perhaps more interesting person.
"And Mr. Darcy, although he was somewhat remote, was a fine dancer when he stood up with Mr. Bingley's sisters. Perhaps one of you girls can entice him on to the floor at the next assembly. For the sake of ten thousand a year I think we can overlook a slightly taciturn nature."
"I would as soon call him slightly taciturn as I would call Lydia slightly silly." Lizzy offered.
"He did seem disinclined to talk to our neighbors. Mrs. Long said he spoke not a word to her while they sat together for a full half hour." Mrs. Bennet said.
"I believe Mrs. Long may have been mistaken." Jane put in. "I saw them speaking."
"Well, Mrs. Long is known for her exaggerations." Mrs. Bennett conceded.
"Miss Bingley told me that he never speaks much, unless among his intimate acquaintances. With them he is remarkably agreeable." Jane noted.
"I am sure that was simply Miss Bingley's attempt to make clear that she herself is one of Mr. Darcy's intimates. In any case I believe agreeable may be something of an exaggeration. We may not know too much about him. But he is clearly a very proud man." Elizabeth observed.
"Well, pride, in his case, is certainly not without some justification. He is a handsome, educated man from a fine family with a vast fortune. He has some right to pride." Charlotte said.
"That is very true," replied Elizabeth "and I suppose I can forgive his pride as mine is unaffected by it presently."
Mary had some moralism to share at this point, but no one paid her too much attention and after a bit more conversation the visit ended.