Ramsgate, July 1811
"I do not see why we could not go to town, or Bath," Lydia said petulantly. "The sea is so dull."
"You could stay inside, with the others," Elizabeth offered, shielding her eyes against the spray of the ocean. It was a chilly day, and, much as she loved her family, the prospect of spending hours cooped up in such a small establishment with her sisters and two small cousins was rather more than she could bear. Lydia's company, while irksome, was nothing in comparison.
"Or not," her sister said decidedly. Mary and Lydia had been at loggerheads all morning, and then some crisis with a ribbon had shortened everyone's tempers -- except Jane's, of course.
They walked briskly along the seashore, enjoying the wind against their faces, and the rush of the ocean to the east. Elizabeth and Lydia were the most active of the sisters, and had hurried out as quickly as they could, Mrs Bennet's expectations of rain notwithstanding. At first they thought this particular strand entirely deserted, but when they hurried into a small shelter once the prophesied thunderstorm arrived, they heard from beside them the sound of voices. Elizabeth would have gone past, but Lydia, always eager to eavesdrop, stamped on her foot to keep her in place. She was rather overenthusiastic and her sister fell unceremoniously.
"-- if you truly love me," a man was saying. What a dreadfully caddish thing to say, Elizabeth thought idly, sitting up with a pained wince.
"Oh, I do," a lady replied anxiously, "but, I cannot -- I am sure it would not be right -- "
"My darling," he whispered, "in such a situation as this, nothing could be less wrong. I will return tomorrow -- a look, a word, will tell me your decision."
This charming speech had Lydia sighing rapturously. Elizabeth glared at her sister as she rubbed her aching foot, before standing tentatively. Everything appeared to be in working order.
"Lydia," she hissed, "we cannot stay -- "
"Oh, hush, Lizzy," Lydia replied. Elizabeth paid her no mind, and began pulling her forward, when they heard the man's footsteps hurrying in the other direction. The lady turned around, caught sight of the two of them hiding underneath the eaves, and burst into tears. Elizabeth's compassion was immediately provoked, and she easily reversed her decision, hurrying up the stairs.
"Excuse me, ma'am, but is there anything we can do for you?" she asked. "Is there someone we could bring to you -- I beg your pardon, but you look very ill."
The lady shook her head. She looked hardly fit to be seen by any man but the most intimate relation, bareheaded with her hair dressed only in a single heavy plait down her back. Shawl, bonnet, and gloves were all cast aside. Elizabeth could not make out her face, but thought she must be very young or very rich, to throw aside propriety, decorum, everything, with no greater cause than the ungentlemanlike person they had overheard.
"There is nothing anyone can do for me," she said dramatically.
"Oh-h-h," cried Lydia, "how wonderful! It must be dreadfully exciting. Is he very handsome?"
The lady lifted up her head in astonishment, and Elizabeth saw that, although she was as tall as a small man, and well-grown, she was only a girl, Kitty's age, or even younger.
"Lydia!--my sister is very romantic," she said apologetically to the girl, who smiled weakly.
"So am I, or at least, I thought I was." At this, she burst into tears again. Somewhat at a loss, Elizabeth gently guided her to a bench, placing the shawl around her shoulders, as the prophesied rain seemed to have arrived.
"Well, you must tell us all about it," Lydia declared, plumping herself down beside the girl. "Why, this is a very smart bonnet. Did you make it all by yourself?"
"I -- I bought it like that," the girl said in bewilderment.
"We would not wish to force any confidences," Elizabeth said, "but if there is anything we can do for you . . ."
"I -- I wish there was someone I could talk to," the girl said wistfully. "My companion is no use at all, and I am starting to almost think that perhaps she does not think so well of my brother as she ought."
Before Elizabeth could say anything, Lydia's attention was diverted by this. "Oh, you have a brother? Is he handsome?"
"The handsomest man in the world," the girl said stoutly. Then she blushed. "Except Mr Wickham, of course."
"Well, you must tell us all about Mr Wickham, then," Lydia exclaimed. "I adore men, especially the handsome ones."
The girl looked shocked. "You need not say anything you do not like," said Elizabeth, with a stern look at her sister.
"I . . . I should very much like to confide in someone. I do not know what to think."
"Well," Lydia laughed, "that is never our difficulty. We always know what to think."
"My name is . . . Georgiana," the girl began haltingly. "I usually live in town -- "
"In town! How wonderful!"
"Lydia, stop interrupting," hissed Elizabeth. "Please continue, Georgiana."
"Well, I was very ill this spring, and I do not like London, so -- "
"How can you not like town?"
"So my brother thought I might like to come here, with my companion. Anyway, I had only been here about a week, when I saw Mr Wickham. He is the son of a very respectable man, and papa was his godfather. I was so glad to see him, because I was rather lonely although my brother writes faithfully, and Mr Wickham has almost been like another brother to me."
Elizabeth's eyebrows shot up.
"When I was little," she said hastily. "Now . . . now we have fallen in love. He asked me to marry him, and I have accepted him."
"Do you not have a guardian? Your father, or your brother?"
"Papa died almost five years ago," Georgiana said, sniffling. "My brother is my guardian -- well, and one of our cousins, but I do not see him so often -- he is in the army."
"Why does Mr Wickham not ask your brother's consent, then?" Elizabeth inquired.
"Well, it is obvious, Lizzy," Lydia said, with a particularly inane laugh. "He must be rich, and you poor -- oh no, the other way around, with that bonnet. Your family will never allow you to marry him, so you must run away to Scotland and defy them all, and live happily ever after with Mr Wickham. Oh, how romantic."
Georgiana stared. "Well . . . yes," she said reluctantly. "You see, my brother . . . oh, I do not want to sound proud, Mr Wickham says I am proud like my brother, that is why I do not wish to elope, but it isn't pride, not really, it is only that everyone has such expectations, we all do, really, and I would rather do anything than disappoint my brother, he is the best man in the world -- "
"Better than Mr Wickham?" Elizabeth inquired gently.
"Well . . . I am certain George would be as good as Fitzwilliam if he could be," she admitted.
"George and Georgiana!" Lydia giggled. "How droll!"
The other girl bit her lip. "Er, yes. He calls me 'Georgy' though. I am supposed to remember to call him 'Mr Wickham' always, but I forget. He was always 'George' when we were growing up. But you see, my family is -- my great-great-grandfather was too proud to accept a title when it was offered, but we are very old, papa said that the first D -- the first one of us came over with the Conqueror, and we are respectable and wealthy and well-connected and all of that. And George is the son of our steward."
Lydia gasped. "It's just like a novel!"
"If I had known it would be so dreadful, I would never have read any!" Georgiana declared. "I just know my family will not approve, even my brother. Mr Wickham says that if I really loved him, I would marry him, and let the family go hang, but . . . oh, I do love him, I do! Only, I love my brother too, and my family -- he cannot understand about family, Mr Wickham I mean, he has no brothers or sisters and his parents are dead, and he isn't even friends with Fitzwilliam any more." Something furrowed her brow. "He will not talk about it, and my brother wouldn't either. Oh, I wish he were here He always knows what to do!"
"No, my brother." She looked pleadingly at them. "Oh, what do I do? I already said I would, but then I thought about it and asked for time to think about it, and he was rather angry. But my brother always warned me . . ." She hesitated.
Elizabeth forestalled Lydia, although she could see that her sister's behaviour was driving Georgiana toward decorum and caution more thoroughly than a hundred lectures and sermons ever could. "What did your brother warn you about?"
"I am sure George does not want my fortune -- he wishes I was poor, so that we might have only ourselves to please -- but my brother always said that only a fortune-hunter would ask a lady to elope with him. Mr Wickham isn't, of course he's not, but I cannot help but . . . well, why should he not at least try and ask my brother?" Before either could speak, she went on eagerly, "Fitzwilliam can be very strict about some things, but he has always let me have my own way when it was important to me. If he could be convinced that Mr Wickham really loves me, I am sure he should give his consent."
"You seem to care more about your brother than Mr Wickham!" Lydia said indignantly. "Why, if I --"
"Excuse my impertinence, but what is your fortune, Georgiana? Does Mr Wickham have much to gain by marrying you without a settlement?"
"It is not that -- he loves me, I am sure of it!" she insisted. Then she lowered her eyes. "I . . . I have thirty thousand pounds."
Lydia's jaw dropped. "Good Lord! I think you're the richest person I have ever met. You could have anyone you wanted with that kind of money! I'd hold out for an earl at least if I were you. Unless I was in love, of course," she added belatedly.
"Grandpapa was an earl," Georgiana confessed. "He was Lord Lieutenant and everything. That's why it's so difficult. I hate disappointing them all. I do wish I -- not that I was poor, that would be dreadful, but that I didn't always have to wonder if people like for me or for my brother or for our money."
"Goodness, I never care about why people like me, as long as they do!" said Lydia.
Elizabeth interposed, "Georgiana, what do you wish?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Do not think about what your brother wants for you, or what Mr Wickham wants from you. If you could have any wish, in this moment, fulfilled instantly, what would it be?"
"I don't want to think or argue or cry," Georgiana said slowly. "I -- oh, I want my brother! I hate decisions, I just want him to be here and tell me what to do." She looked near tears again.
Lydia snorted. Elizabeth ignored her and said, "You said your brother corresponds faithfully with you."
"Yes. He is over ten years older than I am and we have been apart most of our lives, it is how we talk to each other best."
"Have you written him lately?"
Shamefacedly, Georgiana shook her head. "I could not think of anything to say. He is so clever, I am sure he would guess something."
"He must be very worried about you."
"I am sure he is," she replied, and began crying again. Elizabeth handed her a handkerchief. "I -- I wrote a letter today, but I was not sure whether to send it. I said that Mr Wickham was here and I had seen a great deal of him . . . that was not dishonest, was it? To George or Fitzwilliam?"
"Certainly not," Elizabeth said warmly. "What I think you should do is tell your brother how much you long to see him, and send that letter express."
"How silly you are, Lizzy," pronounced Lydia. "It shall be just like a novel, your brother shall separate you for years and years and you will meet up again only one of you will have consumption and die just as you catch sight of one another. It would be far better to marry him now and enjoy yourself."
"My sister," said Elizabeth, "can think of no greater luxury than living in every distress that poverty can inflict, with the object of one's tenderest affection."
"I am not afraid of being poor," Georgiana said bravely.
"Spoken like a true heiress!" exclaimed Elizabeth, smiling to lessen the sting of her words. "Write to your brother, Georgiana; you are still young, this is hardly the end of the world."
She looked uncertain for a moment, then nodded. "You are right. I trust him. Thank you so much. Oh! what time is it?"
"It must be noon by now."
"Oh dear, Mrs Younge will be wondering where I have gotten to. You won't tell?" She began gathering up her things.
"I promise," said Elizabeth.
"Nor I!" chimed in Lydia. "That would ruin the surprise when he dies at your feet, Georgiana."
Georgiana smiled weakly and whispered, "Thank you so much, Miss . . ."
"Bennet," said Lydia. "I am Lydia Bennet, and this is my sister Elizabeth."
"Miss Bennet, Miss Lydia." She curtseyed and hurried away as quickly as her long legs would take her.
It was a great injustice, Elizabeth decided, that a man, already strikingly handsome, and judging by his equipage well-born into the bargain, should have such eyes. It was too dangerous when they had so much else.
The person attached to the eyes met her gaze briefly, then withdrew his coldly. She was fully prepared to be piqued, but had no time; he bent his head down, and instead of vanishing into the mass of tourists, he and his unseen companion worked their way through the crowd toward her. She scarcely knew what to think, before she heard a voice cry,
It was Georgiana! Was this the mysterious Mr Wickham? Or her equally-enigmatic brother? She opened her mouth to reply, but realised she did not even know how to address her.
"Miss Bennet," Georgiana said breathlessly, "I am so glad you are still here! I owe you so much."
"Thank you, but it was really very little," Elizabeth replied, but the younger girl earnestly protested,
"Oh no -- but you cannot know. I will always be indebted to you. Oh! May I introduce you?"
"Of course," she said smilingly.
"Miss Bennet, my brother, Mr Darcy. Fitzwilliam, this is Miss Elizabeth Bennet, who I have been telling you about."
"Miss Bennet, it is an honour," he said in a quietly resonant voice, with a look full of such gratitude that she could not keep herself from blushing fiercely. If a man must have eyes like that, they should at least not be so . . . so . . . expressive.
So, she mused, in the end, Georgiana had trusted her brother more than her lover. Elizabeth was glad of it.
"Please, Miss Bennet," Georgiana was saying, colouring as she did so, "may we have the honour of your company, and of course your aunt's and your sister's, at our home this evening? Or tomorrow, if that is more convenient for you?"
She stole a look at Mr Darcy, who was smiling reassuringly at his sister, his manner distinctly protective. Possibly over-protective, Elizabeth thought, but after such an event she could not blame him. "I would be delighted," Elizabeth said, "and my aunt also. Lydia, I am afraid, has other engagements both this evening and next." Or she would, if Elizabeth had anything to say about it. She would not subject poor Miss Darcy to Lydia a second time.
"We look forward to seeing you," Mr Darcy said softly. Elizabeth coloured madly but met his eyes squarely with her own.
"Thank you, Mr Darcy."
Georgiana, glancing from one to the other, smiled archly before dropping her gaze. Elizabeth belatedly added, "And Miss Darcy, of course -- thank you very much for your kind invitation."
"It is the least we can do," said Mr Darcy, and with that, brother and sister took their leave.
Meryton, October 1811
It was only a dinner. Why, then, had he remained in her mind? More so, even, than his sister, who by all rights should have had the greater share of her thoughts? Elizabeth Bennet had always preferred the company of pleasant, gregarious, friendly men like her uncle. She had always expected to marry someone of that sort.
Why was she thinking of marriage?
Fitzwilliam Darcy, in any case, was as far from those men as could be imagined. His manners were well-bred, quite civil and polite in the formal sense, but wanted warmth and liveliness and spirit. If his eyes were too expressive, he made up for it by an unbending reserve which pervaded every word, look, even his silences. She perceived a distinct trace of hauteur in him, which she strongly disapproved of, and the gravity of his demeanour was less than appealing. His appearance was at first difficult to criticise, for quite simply, in that respect, he was without flaw, but she quickly decided that to be a flaw in and of itself. His features were too perfectly balanced, his hair too tidy, his complexion too unblemished, his figure too well-proportioned. There was nothing striking in his manner of dress, for he was dressed as plainly as a Quaker, barring the signet ring which betrayed his lineage and independence to all and sundry. No, he was not the sort of man she liked. She had only spent so much time thinking about him because, despite his failings, he had -- not charisma, for people were as often drawn away as towards him -- but presence. When he was there, nobody failed to notice it; when he walked somewhere, a path simply appeared before him. No, he was not her sort at all. She was utterly indifferent to him.
She pressed her trembling fingers against her skirts as she curtseyed. When their eyes met, she knew how ridiculous she was being, and could have laughed at herself. Instead she smiled at him, and prepared herself for the inevitable. She could only thank heaven that he had met the Gardiners first, rather than her mother and younger sisters.
It was only a dinner. A dinner with three strangers, no less, the only known face that of his fifteen-year-old sister, who after the events of yesterday, and the last six weeks, seemed scarcely capable of speech, and then only when there was least danger of being heard. Usually, he loathed such occasions; although age and experience had largely stripped him of his childhood shyness, he retained a vestige of it in the intense discomfort he felt among unfamiliar people or in unfamiliar situations.
Yet there was no stiffness or reserve at all. Ideas and conversation flowed freely, at first owing almost entirely to the efforts of Mr Gardiner and his niece. They were a naturally gregarious, friendly pair, and so evidently fond of society that society could not help but be fond of them. Miss Bennet paid more attention to Georgiana than to him, while the Gardiners showed the deference due him as their host, and no more. Fitzwilliam Darcy had never been less flattered in his life. He was delighted.
To be sure, he had the vaguely uncomfortable feeling that they were not quite his sort. Although dressed fashionably, their clothes were not rich -- but that signified nothing. His own severe apparel was hardly indicative of his fortune. Perhaps it was an occasional awkward construction -- he could not say, but he felt certain they were not the kind of people he would associate with in town.
For now, however, they were not in town, and the company of such sensible, intelligent, truly well-bred people was such a rarity, he determined to enjoy it while it lasted. He might have been less liberal-minded had he been more fully acquainted with the Gardiners' antecedents, but as it was, he remained in blissful ignorance. Shortly after forming this resolution, happy chance revealed that he and Mrs Gardiner had more in common than greater reserve than their companions.
"Derbyshire?" he exclaimed. "Why, that is my own country, Mrs Gardiner."
She blinked. "You are Mr Darcy of Pemberley, sir?"
"Yes, I am. Are you familiar with my home, ma'am?"
"I was born and raised in Lambton, sir. It is --"
"-- but five miles from Pemberley!" He blushed at his own uncharacteristic effusiveness. "I beg your pardon, Mrs Gardiner."
They immediately and enthusiastically commenced discussion of Derbyshire's many beauties, its general superiority to all other counties, the particular charms of various rocks and trees to be found in Lambton, and above all, the pleasure to be found in merely looking at Pemberley. Darcy was accustomed to compliments to himself and his estate, but few so heartfelt and warm as Mrs Gardiner's. By the time they realised the degree to which they had dominated the combination, the doctor's daughter and the master of Pemberley were well on their way to becoming fast friends.
Yet, despite his affinity with Mrs Gardiner, and the majority of the evening's conversation spent with Mr Gardiner, it was Miss Bennet who, over the next few months, he could not forget. Perhaps it was only gratitude, and admiration. She was a clever, sensible girl -- not a bluestocking, but he suspected she might have been, had the opportunity presented itself. He was, to be honest, somewhat alarmed by her liveliness, but soon discovered that although a little too prone to laugh at everything and everyone, she could think seriously on serious subjects. Her opinions were thoughtful and in general well-reasoned, their delivery notwithstanding; her manners, while not fashionable, were unaffected and engaging; and although he could not miss the imperfections of her face and features, there was a beautifully intelligent expressiveness in her eyes that drew his own to look more carefully, and then look again. He could only call his feelings bewitchment, enchantment, and similarly disagreeable terms, for he felt as if his reason and reserve and everything that made him himself was being slowly stripped from him, and he could not say he entirely cared for the sensation.
He had never even imagined himself in love before. If he had, he might have been better able to describe his feelings, and even to overcome them. He felt himself to be -- floundering. Fitzwilliam Darcy was not in the habit of floundering. Neither was he in the habit of forming sudden likes and dislikes. He was thoroughly bewildered, bothered, and bewitched, and very much disapproved of all three. He tried not to think of her, and had almost suceeded. If Georgiana did not bring her up, he sometimes passed two or three days without thinking of her. He really felt he had practically overcome the whole -- whatever it was.
And now! To find her here, of all places! The Almighty, Darcy decided, had a very singular sense of humour. Why did he have the ridiculous idea that their paths would inevitably cross, no matter where or how far he went?
He returned her smile with a bow. "Miss Bennet," he said carefully, "what an unexpected pleasure."
"Indeed, Mr Darcy."
Was she laughing at him?
Elizabeth felt a half-dozen stares settling on her. Sir William heartily said,
"I see that you are already acquainted with Miss Eliza, Mr Darcy!"
Introductions were quickly passed around. The first of the men, good-looking in an almost boyish fashion, was the famous Mr Bingley, tenant of Netherfield Hall, while the others were his family -- his two sisters, and the husband of the eldest. Even their attention to Jane did little to endear the ladies to Elizabeth; with a judgment too unassailed by any attention to herself, she was very little disposed to approve of them, and within a very few minutes found nothing to alter her opinion. Mr Bingley was good-looking, although not striking -- neither tall nor short, heavy nor slim, dark nor fair -- and he seemed very agreeable. In fact, Elizabeth suspected his entire character could be summed up in the word. After one look at Jane, he was all smiles and friendly conversation for the rest of the evening. Mr Hurst merely looked the gentleman.
In his turn, Darcy could not have been less impressed by all but Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth. Considerable abilities enhanced by a solid education and a tendency towards detachment and impartiality had given him a naturally reliable judgment, but this was one of the rare occasions where his expectations were not only met, but exceeded. He pitied the eldest Bennet girls for such a mother; even Lady Catherine did not compare. And, fortunately, there was only one Lady Catherine, but Mrs Bennet was joined by her two youngest daughters, shameless flirts the like of which he had never laid eyes on in his life. Miss Mary was not nearly so . . . painful, except when she performed, for her voice was weak and affected and her playing spiritless and dull.
That Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth should have come out of such a family was little short of remarkable. Darcy remembered the charming, sensible Gardiners, and guessed that Mrs Gardiner must have been a good influence on her two eldest nieces at a particularly opportune time. Darcy had rarely, if ever, been so impressed upon such short acquaintance -- with people utterly unconnected with him, no less. He thought he should like to know more of them; although he preferred to associate with those of his own station, he did not carry it to extremes -- he was willing to set such considerations aside when the situation warranted, as he had with Bingley. His family, except for his father, had strongly disapproved of the connection -- they still did, in fact, and lived in fear of a nearer one. Quite ridiculous, of course; it was 1811, after all.
Georgiana was never far from his mind. He had not wanted to leave her -- only his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam's insistence, coupled with her own earnest entreaties, had persuaded him to go with Bingley at all. She stayed now with his uncle and aunt in town -- they remained ignorant of the affair, and Darcy suspected that at present, he was little more than a constant reminder of the folly she had come so close to. It was a painful, but not improbable, conjecture. Nevertheless her correspondence was as prolific as ever -- it was a comfort, if a scant one.
His thoughts were so occupied when Bingley accosted him. "Come, Darcy," said he, "I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance."
He was very fond of Bingley, but sometimes his inability to realise that not everyone in the world took pleasure in his own favourite pursuits was rather tiresome. He still found it incomprehensible that Darcy found the company of strangers draining rather than the reverse. Through a sharp pain in his head, he replied: "I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. At such an assembly as this, it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged, and there is not another woman in the room, whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with."
Miss Bingley caught his eye at that very moment, and gave a long-suffering sigh. He withdrew his own coldly and revised his opinion. It would be a punishment to stand up with them too.
"I would not be so fastidious as you are," cried Bingley, "for a kingdom!"
And I would not be undiscriminating as you are, for an empire, Darcy thought, but without rancour. This quality of his friend's was by turns endearing and aggravating.
"Upon my honour," Bingley continued enthusiastically, "I have never met with so many pleasant girls in my life, as I have this evening; and there are several of them you see uncommonly pretty."
His opinion was the same at every assembly or ball or, for heavens' sake, invitation to tea -- he had never enjoyed himself more, the ladies were the handsomest he had set eyes on, et cetera, et cetera. The throbbing ache in Darcy's head increased.
"You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room," he said, with a look at Miss Bennet. She was quite as pretty as most of the ladies they saw in town, and seemed a sweet, well-bred girl, but did she ever stop smiling? He could not help but doubt the sincerity of someone with so unvarying an expression.
"Oh! she is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld!"
Darcy sighed. Not again.
"But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I daresay, very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you."
"Which do you mean?" and turning round, he found his eyes met by Miss Elizabeth Bennet's. A scathing retort was on the tip of his tongue, but before it escaped, he reconsidered. She was close enough to overhear, and plainly listening to the conversation with considerable interest. If she were a stranger, he would not have cared -- what did the opinions of such people signify? they could have no effect on him -- but she was not a stranger. Georgiana's frightened voice came back to him. I did not know what to do, Fitzwilliam -- I was so confused, if I had not met Miss Bennet, I do not know what I would have done -- I think I would have told you, but I do not know -- she convinced me to talk to you, she convinced me to think it over more carefully --
Elizabeth Bennet might very well have saved Georgiana from a fate that might reasonably be considered worse than death. He, however little he liked it, was in her debt. What was a dance? Just a little thing -- it was the least he could do, when she sat there, slighted by other men.
"We have already been introduced," he said patiently, "but I believe I shall."
Bingley blinked in astonishment. Not for a moment had he actually expected his friend to take up the offer. "I shall, er, return to Miss Bennet, then," he said awkwardly.
"Very well." With no further ado, Darcy turned on his heel, and gravely requested the honour of Miss Elizabeth's hand. She met his gaze steadily -- a rarity even among men, whether because of fear of him, or simple disinclination to pain their necks -- and with no trace of coquetry. He noticed, idly, that even the imperfections of her face and figure added to the character of her appearance. Intelligence and spirit and beauty could not be neatly divided up in her, as they could in other women, but seemed inextricably bound together, all part of the greater whole. It was impossible to say what had come first, the appeal of an intelligent expression or engaging manners or a pretty face.
"Thank you, Mr Darcy," she said, and accepted.
Elizabeth, for the first time in her life, was not entirely certain what to think. It was impossible to deceive herself any longer. He might not be the sort of man she usually liked -- and she would not call her feelings liking yet -- but to claim indifference would be absurd. She was pleased when he asked her to dance (for given his general behaviour, she had rather expected an icily polite demurral). It meant nothing, she knew -- placating a friend -- but she could not be unaffected. He was a graceful, elegant dancer, for all that he disliked the amusement in general, and exerted himself to talk with her. She was surprised to find the set of dances over almost before they had begun; he was far from a scintillating conversationalist, thanks to what she quickly perceived as great natural reserve and gravity, even stiffness, on his part, but aided by her liveliness and his thoughtfulness, as well as considerable intelligence on both sides, what passed between them quickly absorbed them nearly to the exclusion of all else.
As gentlemen were scarce, Elizabeth again sat in want of a partner. Darcy did not ask her again -- not that she expected him to -- but he did stop in his perambulations about the room, and engage her in conversation. She had always preferred the company of men more akin to herself, in understanding and temper. Men who were lively, gay, and friendly to all. Yet she had gone out of her way to divert their attention from herself, when she felt the relationship approaching a dangerous point. She was not the sort of "elegant female" who took pleasure in tormenting a respectable man; and she had been unable to entertain the idea of accepting any of them. All, nearly all, seemed to be lacking something; it had been similarity to herself that had drawn her, and yet they were not fully equal to her. Few, if any, possessed her quickness of thought or perception, and although she had rather enjoyed her mental superiority over all but her beloved father, she did not have his capacity for delighting in it over the course of a lifetime.
Darcy was in every respect unlike those young men she had always danced and flirted with. It was their differences, rather than similarities, that drew them together -- yet, in the ways that she had always found the John Lucases and William Gouldings of her world wanting, he was not. For all his stiffness and reserve, he was perfectly straightforward and direct with his opinions, and more than that if challenged directly. He talked to her as her father did -- as if he had forgotten, or did not care, that she was a woman and a lady, instead treating her simply as a rational creature. Their opinions were frequently dissimilar, but debate only made the intelligence and sense each possessed the more apparent, and added animation to their conversations. Elizabeth had rarely, if ever, enjoyed the company of so intelligent a person of either sex. She knew better than to think he meant anything serious by it -- she was neither young nor romantic enough to imagine herself an object of interest to so great a man -- but she meant to enjoy the experience as long as it lasted.
The evening altogether passed off pleasantly to the whole family. Mrs Bennet had seen her eldest daughter much admired by the Netherfield party. Mr Bingley had danced with her twice, and she had been distinguished by his sisters. Jane was as much gratified by this, as her mother could be, though in a quieter way. Elizabeth felt Jane's pleasure, and of course, her own. Mary had heard herself mentioned to Miss Bingley as the most accomplished girl in the neighbourhood; and Catherine and Lydia had been fortunate enough to be enver without partners, which was all that they had yet learnt to care for at a ball. They returned therefore in good spirits to Longbourn, the village where they lived, and of which they were the principal inhabitants. They found Mr Bennet still up. With a book he was regardless of time; and on the present occasion he had a good deal of curiosity as to the events of an evening which had raised such splendid expectations. He had rather hoped that all his wife's views on the stranger would be disappointed; but he soon found that he had a very different story to hear.
"Oh! my dear Mr Bennet," cried she, as she entered the room, "we have had a most delightful evening, a most excellent ball. I wish you had been there. Jane was so admired, nothing could be like it. Everybody said how well she looked; and Mr Bingley thought her quite beautiful, and danced with her twice. Only think of that, my dear; he actually danced with her twice; and she was the only creature in the room that he asked a second time. First of all, he asked Miss Lucas. I was so vexed to see him stand up with her; but, however, he did not admire her at all: indeed, nobody can, you know -- " Elizabeth flinched -- "and he seemed quite struck with Jane as she was going down the dance. So, he enquired who she was, and got introduced, and asked her for the two next. Then, the two third he danced with Miss King, and the two fourth with Maria Lucas, and the two fifth with Jane again, and the two sixth with Lizzy, and the Boulanger -- "
"If he had had any compassion for me," cried her husband impatiently, "he would not have danced half so much! For God's sake, say no more of his partners. Oh! that he had sprained his ankle in the first dance!"
"Oh! my dear," continued Mrs Bennet, "I am quite delighted with him. He is so excessively handsome! and his sisters are charming women. I never in my life saw any thing more elegant than their dresses. I dare say the lace upon Mrs Hurst's gown -- "
Here she was interrupted again. Mr Bennet protested against any description of finery. She was therefore obliged to seek another branch of the subject, and related, with much enthusiasm, and some exaggeration, the shocking compliment of Mr Darcy.
"For he seemed, at first, so high and so conceited that there was no enduring him! He walked here, and he walked there, fancying himself so very great -- that was what Mrs Long said, but as you know, Mr Bennet, I have no opinion of her. I expect it was only because he sat so long by her, without saying a word, but he seemed to like Lizzy very much, for she was the only lady he danced with besides Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst, and then he sat by Lizzy and they talked for, oh, quite an half-hour. Well, I thought him a charming man, and so handsome! did I not say so, girls?"
"You did not," cried Lydia, "you said he was nothing to Mr Bingley, and dreadfully sallow -- "
"I said nothing of the kind!--for you should know that a sallow complexion is infinitely familiar to a brown. Look at your elder sisters. Was it not Lizzy, rather than Jane, who had to sit out three dances?"
Jane looked apologetically at Elizabeth, who simply smiled.
Lydia sniffed. "Well, I do not think a man is anything without regimentals, and I cannot imagine Mr Darcy joining the army, although -- " she giggled -- "he would look very nice in them. Do not you think so, Lizzy?--for although he was so proud and severe, he looked quite different when he was with you. I suppose he liked you, Lord knows why."
"Lydia!" cried Jane.
"Jane, do not you think every man ought to wear a red coat, if he can?"
"I do not," said Jane, "I far prefer a blue o -- " she stopped, flushing as the two younger girls giggled. She retreated to the safer subject of Mr Darcy's looks. "I think he looked quite well as he was -- almost as handsome as Mr Bingley."
"Almost as handsome as Mr Bingley!" cried her mother. "Why, do you not know, Jane, that Mr Bingley has only four thousand a-year, and Mr Darcy at least ten!"
"Although I would be very glad indeed to see you well-settled at Netherfield, Jane dear, since Mr Darcy seemed scarcely to notice you."
Later that evening, Elizabeth joined her father in the study. Mr Bennet quickly put her king out of its misery. "Lizzy, Lizzy," he chided, shaking his head. "I hope your mother's nerves have not contributed to your execrable strategies this evening?"
Elizabeth managed a faint smile, avoiding her father's piercing gaze. She picked up her fallen king and queen, and set them both aright. "No, papa," she said, then her mouth twisted slightly. "My own nerves are quite enough to be going on with, let alone hers."
"Then what is so occupying your thoughts?" He re-set the board carefully. "Lizzy?"
"It was an eventful evening, that is all. Restraining Lydia and Kitty, Mr Bingley seeming so partial to Jane, and -- "
"Mr Darcy seeming so partial to you?"
Elizabeth's eyes darted up, and she smiled uneasily. "Mr Darcy's partiality, I do not doubt, sprang only from his displeasure in the rest of his company. He seems to be a man who likes intelligent conversation."
Mr Bennet chuckled. "Something in short supply at such events." He moved a piece. "Ten thousand a-year, eh?"
"So it is said."
"You could do worse, Lizzy." He smiled to himself.
"Papa, Mr Darcy means nothing by it." Her hands were clenched in her lap. "He was only bored."
"Poor little Lizzy. Shall I have to call the man out, for trifling with your affections?"
Somehow Elizabeth found it difficult to laugh, although the necessity was obeyed. "I am in no danger, papa."
"Good. You are too sensible to be led astray by such a man's attention; he can mean nothing by it, all the more fool him."
Elizabeth had already confessed this to herself, but it was quite different coming from without, and particularly one whose opinions and understanding she so valued. "It is strange," she said, in a tone that caught her father's attention. "He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman's daughter. So far, we are equal. But that is not very far, is it?"
Once upon a time, John Bennet had believed himself violently in love with a girl he met while visiting his godmother. Young and idealistic, he thought her a Greek goddess -- tall, black-haired, blue-eyed, she was quite the most beautiful creature he had ever laid eyes on, and brilliant and refined into the bargain. His heart was lost long before her friends took it upon themselves to explain why no match would be tolerated between the son of a country squire and an earl's niece; long before her father inherited the earldom, and Miss Fitzwilliam became Lady Anne, they had both known nothing could come of it. He returned home, in a vulgar phrase, ripe for the picking, and found himself married to Jane Gardiner before he had quite realised what happened.
"No," he said. "No, it is not."