As the Netherfield party entered the assembly room the crowd stilled, and turned in their direction. Out of the corner of his eye Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley in Derbyshire saw one young lady facing away from the entrance and gesturing with her hands to her two companions.
As the music and dancing recommenced they were approached by an amiable looking middle aged man, whom the gentlemen of the party recognised as Sir William Lucas, the local magistrate.
"Mr Bingley, we are delighted that you and your guests should grace us with your excellent company this evening." As Sir William was speaking a middle aged woman and one of the girls that had been companion to the gesturing young woman came up behind him. "Allow me to introduce my wife, Lady Lucas, and my eldest daughter, Miss Charlotte Lucas."
Both ladies curtsied prettily, but Darcy's attention was held by the woman he had seen gesturing earlier. She was uncommonly beautiful, but was watching her friend with a rather melancholy look in her eye, having seemingly been abandoned by her other companion.
Turning his attention back to the introductions, Darcy was slightly shocked to see another party had approached seeking introductions. This party consisted of four women, one a middle aged and clearly matchmaking mama if the gleam in her eye was anything to go by. She was introduced as Mrs Bennet from Longbourn, the most prominent estate in the area following Netherfield.
The other three were younger, the oldest looked little more than twenty in his opinion. She had blonde hair and blue eyes, and Darcy could easily see his friend falling for another angel. But despite her pretty enough countenance, something in her eyes reminded him of Wickham, so he would err on the side of caution around her. She was introduced as Miss Jane Bennet.
Next to be introduced was the other young lady who had been standing with the gesturing beauty, Miss Catherine Bennet. She wasn't plain, but she wasn't uncommonly pretty either. Overall she was pleasant to look at, if rather shy in manners. Darcy suspected this may be due to Mrs Bennet's clear adoration of her eldest and youngest daughters.
Finally Mrs Bennet introduced her youngest daughter, Miss Lydia Bennet, a rather exuberant young girl who couldn't have been older than his own sister Georgiana. As she executed her curtsey upon the introduction, Miss Lydia made sure to stick her chest out in a rather obvious attempt at flirting with the gentlemen of the Netherfield party.
When Mr Bingley finished introducing Mr Darcy, Miss Bingley, and Mr and Mrs Hurst he was interrupted by his younger sister.
"Pray, Mrs Bennet, we had heard that you had four daughters, is not your other daughter present?" Miss Bingley simpered annoyingly. Upon entering the neighbourhood the Miss Bennets had been described as the jewels of the county and she wished to observe their infamous looks for herself.
Mrs Bennet looked rather annoyed at the question momentarily before plastering a fake smile upon her face. "Indeed, my second eldest daughter Elizabeth is present also but you wouldn't want an introduction to her, Miss Bingley."
Mr Darcy was appalled at this woman's audacity at disparaging her own daughter in company so, and observed that only the middle Miss Bennet, Miss Catherine his mind supplied, showed any form of shame or embarrassment at her mother's treatment of this Miss Elizabeth.
Before Caroline could further her line of questioning Mr Bingley addressed the eldest Miss Bennet asking for the next set of dances were she not otherwise engaged, to which she readily complied.
Seeking to avoid Miss Bingley and wishing to know more about the other sad beauty that had caught his attention upon their entrance, Darcy sought the hand of Miss Catherine for the next set.
"Would you not rather dance with my lively Lydia, Mr Darcy?" Mrs Bennet rudely argued before Miss Catherine had a chance to reply.
"I would not" Darcy retorted to her before looking again towards Miss Catherine to await her reply.
"I am not engaged for the next set sir," Miss Catherine said while looking decidedly away from her rapidly angering mother.
Mr Darcy led Miss Catherine toward the dance, and silently they began to move through the dance. When they were far enough into the set to avoid being overheard, the Derbyshire gentleman began his enquiry.
"Forgive my impertinence madam, but why would your mother not seek to also introduce your other sister?"
Kitty looked around to ensure they were far enough away from her family before speaking. "My sister Lizzie is by far the most beautiful of my sisters, despite mama's beliefs to the contrary. However, a few years ago Lizzie and her twin brother, Matthew, took ill. The illness took her hearing but left her alive, my brother was not so fortunate."
Kitty looked down sadly in painful rememberance before continuing her tale of woe. "Longbourn is entailed away from the female line, so for lack of a living heir, upon our father's death our cousin Mr Collins may throw us all to the hedgerows. My mother frequently voices her wishes that the fates of my brother and sister were reversed. She tried to force Lizzie against her wishes to marry Mr Collins but Mr Collins refused to marry her."
At this Mr Darcy interjected, "Why would your cousin reject your sister if she is beautiful? And why would your mother seek to force the issue if it was unwanted by both parties?"
Kitty suddenly looked rather irritated, and Darcy feared he had crossed a line, but her reply assured him that his actions hadn't incurred her ire.
"Mama wanted to secure her own safety, and knew that our cousin had admired Lizzie previously. However his response, despite being a man of the cloth, was filled with such hatred that I am glad Lizzie couldn't hear it. He said that as a clergy he couldn't be expected to take a cripple for a wife, despite her pleasing looks."
Mr Darcy just stared aghast. How could a man of God say such uncharitable sentiments about anyone let alone his own cousin?
After working his mouth silently for many moments, Darcy finally found the courage to ask how the two sisters could communicate if one couldn't hear the other.
"Oh, that is simple," Kitty giggled, "Lizzie reads lips when people speak clearly and if not we use hand signs to communicate. Only myself, Charlotte Lucas, papa and Lizzie know how to use the signs properly because we were the only ones that took the trouble to learn."
Mr Darcy was amazed, and upon the conclusion of the set asked to be introduced. He was incredibly pleased when Kitty led the way toward the beautiful woman who had caught his attention to begin the evening.
Kitty spoke clearly, while simultaneously making hand gestures towards her sister. "Lizzie, this is Mr Darcy, he has come this evening with his friend Mr Bingley who has let Netherfield. Mr Darcy this is my sister Miss Elizabeth Bennet."
Miss Elizabeth Bennet smiled shyly with a slight blush to her cheeks, which enhanced her magnificent green eyes before curtseying in response to Mr Darcy's bow. Her eyes suddenly looked mischievous as she replied to the introduction verbally, much to the gentleman's surprise.
"It is a pleasure to meet you Mr Darcy. I must say I was surprised to be introduced to anyone new this evening. Surely Kitty would not go against our mother's wishes that the cripple stay unattended in the corner. This must be your doing sir, pray tell, how did you complete this sorcery?"
She finished with a wry grin and arched eyebrow, clearly revelling in the gentleman's shock at her eloquence, not even realising how much she had revealed without meaning to of their home life.
Kitty was stifling laughter at the look on the gentleman's face until she heard an unfamiliar femalr voice. "Why that impertinent cripple. Barely considered eligible and yet she would accuse a gentleman of witchcraft."
Kitty would have replied but her companions had both started laughing, and she didn't want to upset either of them with a comment it was obvious only she had heard.
The three began an amiable conversation but were soon interrupted by a clearly disgruntled Mrs Bennet making her way toward the trio while followed by her youngest daughter.