Across the room Louisa saw her sister's change of expression and sighed in resignation. This was going to be a long night, and if Caroline was unable to rein in her temper it could be a disaster.
Louisa stood up and approached her sister. "Caroline, I must warn you not to make a fool of yourself tonight. You have much to lose and absolutely nothing to gain."
As expected, Caroline turned on her sister with a snarl, "He was mine! I could feel it! He was ready to make me mistress of Pemberley. Nothing will ever convince me otherwise."
"You say you could feel it? How? I never saw him look at you as anyone other than the sister of his best friend."
"Discerning you!" Caroline spat. "With that husband of yours."
Louisa's eyes flared "leave my husband out of this! Humphrey may not be perfect but he loves and respects me."
Caroline sneered her contempt and turned back to the mirror.
"Try to be reasonable, Caroline," Louisa begged. "You had four years to try to win Darcy and it simply was not to be."
"It would have if you hadn't talked me out of that plan I had last year."
Louisa stared at her sister in amazement. "Your plan to seduce him would have blown up in your face! He has at least eighty servants milling around Pemberley at any given time. Did you really think you could just wear your nightgown and burst into his study at midnight? If I hadn't stopped you Charles would probably have had you committed."
Caroline ignored her sister and continued with her diatribe. "How could he attach himself to such a nobody? She has no dowry, no connections. I can see Charles losing whatever brains he has over Jane...his brains are somewhere south of his belt...but Darcy? What can he be thinking"
"Oh for heavens's sake," Louisa exploded, "you never really knew him, never even tried! He's a reader...you read the fashion magazines. He likes to take long walks in the country...you manage to walk from a carriage to a house or shop. You thought those waspish quips of yours entertained him but in truth, they tended to lower you in his estimation. And the way you fawned over every word he uttered was a total embarrassment. Besides, Elizabeth Bennett is a gentleman's daughter. You, my dear sister, are the daughter of a tradesman."
Caroline slapped her sister's face hard.
Louisa recoiled in shock and pain. They'd had many disputes in the past but never had Caroline dared strike her. She sat down and stared at her sister waiting for an apology. When Caroline turned back to the mirror and began to primp and preen as if nothing had happened Louisa's eyes narrowed with distaste.
when had she become so disdainful for the feelings of others? She was the daughter of a tradesman; a man who had worked hard all his life to give his children a comfortable life. For this, Louisa and her brother Charles would be eternally grateful to his memory. But Caroline felt no charity towards their sire, only resentment for not having been born a lord or one of the landed gentry.
Once she met Fitzwilliam Darcy her conceit knew no bounds. How she loved dropping his name into a conversation, describing in minute detail their sojourn at the fabled Pemberley estate in Derbyshire. How she loved dreaming of what it would be like to be the wife of such a man. She didn't fool herself into believing that she loved him; she didn't even like him. But he was rich and powerful and she would be his consort.
"It's time you finish dressing, Caroline," Louisa said. "Our guests will be arriving shortly."
"Tell me something I don't know," Caroline snapped.
"If you're not at the door to welcome the Bennetts, Charles will never forgive you. Do you really want to take the chance of being barred from his home and losing your very generous allowance?"
"He wouldn't dare"
He's very much in love with Jane, and if you show her an ounce of disrespect I fear the consequences. And don't forget," Louisa added, "that Jane is Elizabeth Bennett's most beloved sister. Will you take the risk of being barred from Pemberley? How would you explain that to the ton?"
"Call my maid," Caroline commanded.
"I dismissed her for the night," Louisa replied. "I didn't want her to hear one of our sisterly conversations."
"Then fetch the rest of my ensemble."
Louisa walked to Caroline's dressing room and hesitated for several moments. Her stomach was churning and she felt nauseous. If she didn't pull herself together she was likely to throw up. She wanted the evening to be over; wanted the month to be over. She wanted to be back in their comfortable London home with all this over. She wanted Caroline to regain her senses.
Louisa returned to the bedroom and found Caroline sitting on the edge of the bed. She handed her the slippers and watched as she put them on her rather large feet. She dropped the gloves on the bed and handed her the turban.
She went to the window and stared out at the gathering darkness waiting patiently while Caroline finished dressing. In the distance she caught the first glimmer of light that signaled a coach heading towards Netherfield. She judged the distance at about a half-mile away.
"It's time, Caroline. They'll be here in a few minutes."
Caroline slipped on her gloves. "How do I look?"
Louisa smiled, "I don't have the words to describe how you look tonight, dear sister."
Caroline lifted her head and assumed her practiced aristocratic pose, "stunning?" she asked.
Louisa nodded. "Stunning will do. But just remember my warning, Caroline. Act deaf when Mrs. Bennett opens her mouth, look interested when Kitty talks about the militia and how well they look in their uniforms and when Mary abuses the pianoforte, look entranced. In other words, be charming and gay and remember that the entire Bennett family will soon be part of the family"
Humphrey Hurst was waiting at the bottom of the staircase as the ladies descended. His eyes darted from one woman to the other and finally settled on his wife. Louisa ignored the question in his eyes and shrugged.
Caroline walked swiftly to the open door and stood by her brother Charles and his friend Darcy. Neither spared a look in her direction as they only had eyes for the two women who were descending from the carriage.
Hurst took his wife's arm and leaned in close to her. "What did she do to you, my dear?"
"She slapped me."
Hurst examined her face. "Oh, my dear," he said.
"We'll speak of it later, and bring a bottle of brandy when you come to my bed tonight. I'll need it. I expect Caroline will be indulging in further hysterics once our new relations depart after the evening festivities."
Hurst laughed, "it will be my pleasure, my dear."
Louisa smiled and husband and wife turned to bid hello to the Bennetts.
Once the Bennetts arrived Caroline went into an act that Louisa would later describe as masterful. She invited Mary to accompany them as they sipped sherry and smiled sweetly when Mary rushed to the pianoforte to butcher Beethoven.
Knowing that the only thing that interested Mrs. Bennet and Kitty was fashion, Caroline launched into a monologue about long sleeves, which dyers did the best work, where the finest fabrics could be found and which shops offered the best accessories.
She had a captive audience. The ladies were enthralled and couldn't keep their eyes off her. Louisa could see that Caroline was gaining in confidence assuring herself that no one would think for a moment her hopes had been dashed; that at that very moment she wanted to scream and disappear from the face of the earth.
During the course of the evening she garnered attention from the two happy couples who occasionally moved their eyes from each other to gaze at Caroline with curiousity. When this happened, she always managed a bright smile which seemed to disconcert them.
Finally, finally the evening came to a close.
Darcy, Bingley and Hurst retired to Bingley's library for a final brandy.
Louisa accompanied Caroline to her room.
Caroline kicked her slippers off and ripped the turban from her head and threw it across the room. Off came the gloves which she flung at her mirror. "Get this gown off me," she screeched.
Louisa obeyed then helped her into a nightgown. "I think everything went well," Louisa allowed, softly.
"I hate them! I hate them all! I want to go back to Shropshire and visit with Aunt Estelle."
Louisa eyed her sister, "you know you can't do that with the weddings set for next week."
Caroline threw herself on the bed, "tonight was torture," she wailed. "All those stupid people in one room. Why, oh why did this have to happen? Why couldn't he look at me the way he looks at her?" She rolled over and clasped the pillow and began to sob.
Louisa waited patiently for her sister to find sleep. With the amount of wine Caroline had consumed added to the stress she'd been under it didn't take long.
She approached the bed and gazed down at Caroline trying to find some sympathy for her sister's dilemma but could not. Louisa had tried on so many occasions to warn Caroline of her folly in trying to snare Darcy. But it had all fallen on deaf ears. Now she would be the laughing stock of London, losing Darcy to a country nobody.
Making matters worse, she would be the laughing stock of Meryton by midday on the morrow. Louisa felt a modicum of regret for the revenge she had exacted for the slap Caroline had administered earlier. But it was only a fleeting moment of remorse. Never bite the hand that feeds you, or in this case, never slap the one who is responsible for the color coordination of your ensemble.
Louisa gathered up the bilious orange gown and hung it in Caroline's dressing room. Next, she retrieved the Chinese red turban with it's bright yellow plumes. The lime green slippers with their lavender tassels were picked up along with the fuchsia gloves.
All the evidence of her deceit was now safely put away and their numbered tags replaced.
When Louisa entered her chambers she was greeted warmly by her husband who immediately handed her a snifter of brandy. "Naughty, naughty Louisa" he laughed. "What did she think she was wearing?"
"Dove gray gown with lavender and light blue accessories. But it doesn't matter what I call the colors. She can't distinuish one color from another. She relies solely on me to make her a figure of fashion.
"The look on everyone's face was priceless." Hurst threw his head back and roared. "You've threatened to do it for years but I never thought you'd have the courage."
Louisa wiped the tears from her eyes and took a large gulp of brandy. "She shouldn't have slapped me, she said.