Fair Stood the Wind
The Assembly Rooms at Meryton were hot, crowded and consumed with curiosity. The local oracles had prophesied the attendance of their new neighbour and, unlike the oracles of old, had gone on to estimate his fortune, his height and his single state with uncommon accuracy. All that remained was to view the gentleman and his party - the oracles having fallen into dispute as to their number and relationship to the main attraction of the evening.
The five Bennet sisters had been kept close to their mother all evening, for that worthy lady was intent upon throwing one or other of them into the path of the newly-arrived Mr Bingley as soon as possible and in any event before Lady Lucas got to him or, worse, that Mrs Goulding and her bony niece.
Elizabeth Bennet did her best to stifle a sigh of boredom. Her mother's careful arrangements ("Jane you must sit on my right and Lydia, you on my left, since you are the most handsome of my girls") had left her sandwiched between her sister Mary and a pillar and, since the former had brought one of her interminable conduct books, she was scarcely more company than the latter. Elizabeth exchanged looks of commiseration with her best friend Charlotte Lucas, also seated firmly beside her Mama, and did her best to possess her soul in patience.
Up on the stage the serpent-player gave a preparatory honk and the band swept raggedly into the third set of the evening. The dancers bowed and curtsied, and began the figure, Mr Wright leading off with his left hand as usual and having to be firmly put back in place by his partner. Elizabeth counted the people present, counted the ladies, counted the gentlemen, calculated the number of women who would be without partners, counted the number of feathers in Lady Lucas's headdress, divided the number of feathers by the difference between the numbers of ladies and the number of gentlemen and was faintly cheered when it turned out to be a negative prime number. She sighed and was just about to commence an attempt to calculate the floor space of the ballroom, based on an estimated average length and breadth of the floorboards, when the main event of the evening finally occurred.
The doors opened and the party from Netherfield swept in, led by an undeniably handsome, if somewhat over-dressed lady. The object of everyone's curiosity was a smiling, young gentleman of perhaps four-and-twenty, regrettably shorter that the first entrant, whom he introduced as his sister. However, despite that, he was by no means ill-looking and appeared good-humoured which, as Mrs Phillips remarked in a rather too penetrating whisper, was better than mere long-shanks any day of the week.
This remark gained immediate and unfortunate point when the rest of the party entered, another lady and gentleman who ignored each other so pointedly they had to be married and a final gentleman. This latter was a very tall, dark young man, somewhat older than Mr Bingley, well-dressed in a dark-blue coat of austere cut, who had chosen to disfigure a particularly fine countenance with a pair of green-lensed spectacles. The buzz of speculation which had begun to die down, rose again to renewed heights, a noise which did not go unnoticed by its object who became, if possible, even more upright and impassive.
Mr Bingley was making introductions and an immediate and rather ill-bred silence fell as everyone strained to hear. "My sister Hurst and her husband and my particular friend Captain Darcy of the Royal Navy."
There was a moment's fascinated silence until, after a hurried wave from Sir William, the band was recalled to its duty, and the set began from the beginning. Undercover of the music, the search for some source of information on this newcomer began with little attempt at concealment.
To everyone's surprise, it was young Mr Goulding who supplied the keenly felt deficit. Denied a long and deeply desired career at sea by his position as his father's heir, and by his mother's completely erroneous conviction that he was "delicate", he had been forced to satisfy himself with newspaper accounts of the war at sea. As he said to his particular friend Robert Lucas. "That must be Darcy of the Achilles. You must have read about him! Took the French privateer Liberté off Ushant last year and intercepted a prime convoy the year before. Made over £30,000 in prize-money alone. Was captain in that business in the Baltic - you must have read about it Bob, it was in all the papers!"
This was better than even the most enthusiastic mama could have dreamed. A wealthy sea-captain, who must be single for when would he have had time to marry? And visiting Netherfield too, what could be more convenient? He must be in want of a fine, healthy, and above all young wife (this with a particularly unpleasant look in the direction of Charlotte Lucas) "Lydia, sit up straight and pull your shoulders back," said Mrs Bennet in what she incorrectly thought was a whisper.
Elizabeth sighed and did her best to hide behind her pillar. Every time she thought her mother could embarrass her no further, she was proved wrong. She did her best to convey her apologies by a look but Charlotte, with colour rather higher than usual, was ignoring her.
The set ended and Mr Bingley wasted no time in soliciting an introduction to Jane, and Elizabeth thought that she was very probably the only person in the room who could see just how nervous her sister was. Although she was used to the attention paid her beauty, the outbreak of speculation and comment which followed the invitation, was still discomposing. Captain Darcy danced with Miss Bingley and, so far as Elizabeth could see, they exchanged no more than a handful of words throughout the set.
The set ended. Mr Bingley was introduced to Amelia Wallace and Captain Darcy... Captain Darcy was bowing before Charlotte Lucas. Elizabeth looked down to hide her grin as Lady Lucas returned Mrs Bennet's ill-natured expression and, when she looked up she saw Charlotte was pink with pleasure, for at nine-and-twenty she had been forced to concede the floor to younger girls for the last two years, and appeared, thought Elizabeth in particularly good looks. The gossip had reached positively frenzied proportions as Charlotte and her partner threaded through the measure, especially as they exchanged considerably more conversation than the Captain had with his previous partner.
Elizabeth shifted on her cane-bottomed chair and wished the evening were over, the anxiety which she had striven hard to suppress all evening, flooded back and she clasped her hands in her lap and began to calculate how many seconds could pass before she could hope they would be going home.
"Lizzie, if you cannot sit still like a Christian, you can take Kitty and repair the flounce on her hem, that clumsy Harker boy trod on it." Gathering up a complaining Kitty, Elizabeth headed to the room at the rear where a servant waited with pins and thread for such emergencies and together they patched up the errant hem, although the length of the tear meant it took them quite a quarter hour to repair it. Kitty was wild to return to the dancing but Elizabeth lingered near the door for a breath of cool, fresh air.
The stars were out and the full moon was visible over the market cross. She stepped out a little way for a proper view and was startled to see the unmistakeable figure of Captain Darcy being helped into what was presumably Mr Bingley's carriage.
As she returned to the light and heat of the ballroom, she thought to herself how unmannerly it was to be so very over-come by drink so early in the evening.