The entire party ensconced in the front drawing room rose quickly at the end of the hurried footman's speech, and so the effect of Mr. Phillip Bennet's entrance was lost on no one. Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst both gave quiet gasps as the astonishing personage of the heir of Longbourn made his way through the door, and even his own sisters, Jane and Elizabeth, were startled to see him barging into the room.
Mr. Phillip Bennet did indeed barge in through the doorway, resembling an army forcing its way through the gates of a castle under siege, for Mr. Bennet had not inherited his father's small physique, but was in contrast a bear of a man. Standing at the burly height of over six feet he had shoulders and arms that would look more appropriate swinging a hammer in a smithy's shop rather than encased in the superfine material of his fashionable gentleman's coat. His legs were lanky and muscular as well, in proportion to the rest of his body, and were set off to perfection in his buckskin breeches and gleaming Hessian boots. No tassels swung from their tops, but they were gleaming from his valet's diligent polishing. A single fob hung from his waist, his shirt-points were starched to perfection, and his cravat was elegantly tied. Most magnificent of all, however, was the man's arresting visage. Obviously having inherited the Bennet good looks, he was as handsome as his sister Jane was beautiful. His locks were fair and curly, brushed into a wind-swept look that was part deliberate and partly to the credit of his outdoor lifestyle. His nose was straight and elegant, his chin decided, and high cheekbones and piercing blue eyes gave him an arresting appearance. He was, simply put, the most good-looking man the occupants of the room had ever seen. However awe-inspiring his handsome features might be, the expression on his face was enigmatic. His mouth was turned down in a frown of concentration, but his eyes were quickly roving, taking stock of the inhabitants of the room. He soon alighted on the figures of his two sisters and with a strong and determined step, he crossed the front parlor to their side.
"Philip!" Jane exclaimed, one hand holding her shawl around her shoulders and the other rising to catch a cough in her hand. Her fever had left her, but the cold had settled in her chest, and so she had been sitting by the fire to breath in the warm air to help soothe her battered lungs.
"What a surprise! You must have just arrived, dear brother, and found us not at home I assume?" Elizabeth continued, looking sardonically at her older sibling.
The twenty-four year old man looked between the pair of them, and finding them both in reasonably good health smiled a devastatingly handsome grin and replied back in a deep booming voice, "How you do read my movements so closely dear sister? I would swear that I have no secrets that you would not soon winkle them out of me somehow."
"As I have said time and time before, dear brother, you are far too predictable a creature, and so there is no "winkling" any secrets out of you when there are none to be found in the first place! But Philip, you failed once again to realize your manners. You must allow me to make you known to our host here at Netherfield, Mr. Bingley," Elizabeth replied while catching her brother's hand and turning him gently in Mr. Bingley's direction. Mr. Bingley craned his neck to look his beloved Jane's elder brother in the eye, and saw Philip raise his left eyebrow as he made no attempt to hide his assessment of the new neighbor. The man was wholly disconcerting.
"Mr. Bennet, I am pleased to make your acquaintance. Please let me introduce my sisters Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley, my brother Mr. Hurst, and my friend Mr. Darcy to you…" Mr. Bingley replied a bit shakily. The Bingley sisters curtsied silently in response to Philip's strong bow, for once the social niceties deserted them and they could find nothing to say in response to this shocking newcomer. Mr. Darcy, on the other hand, who was nearly as tall as Philip Bennet, though not as muscular, was still a noted athlete and Corinthian himself, and he was, while impressed, not intimidated by this man's presence.
"It is an honor to meet you all. You must forgive me for abruptly descending upon you like this, but I was most perturbed to learn that my sisters had been away from home this past week, apparently from illness. My mother's report, I find, was more serious than the situation is here at present. She led me to understand that Jane was in high fever and must keep to her room. Of course, you must understand my feelings upon hearing such information, I rode over at once."
"Highly commendable sir! Your deep concern does you nothing but credit. Please make yourself comfortable here, for as they say, 'the more the merrier' and I assure you it would make us very merry indeed if you would join our party," Mr. Bingley replied jovially, having recovered his equanimity during Philip's quiet speech. The Bingley sisters offered encouragement to their brother's offer in a dazed manner, they having not yet found their composure after meeting such a man.
"Thank you very much Mr. Bingley for your kind offer, but as I promised my mother I would dine at home, I really must return to Longbourn."
"But Philip you just arrived here!" Elizabeth exclaimed with some surprise. A split second before Philip moved, she read his true intention and she reached out her arm as if to stop him. Philip laughed at her, in a barrel-chested laugh, for it was comical to think of the diminutive Elizabeth preventing Philip from doing anything. In one fell swoop, he bundled his sister Jane into his arms, sweeping her off her feet and holding her tenderly and as lightly as one would carry a china doll. Jane gave a startled, yet still graceful, yelp of surprise as she was unexpectedly picked up and cradled in her brother's arms.
The whole room stood absolutely stunned at such a maneuver.
"You must excuse me for such a rude display, but all of you I am sure would make excuses for why Jane and Elizabeth should stay another night convalescing, but I find her today fit for travel the four miles to Longbourn and our mother truly does want her back home. Come sisters dear, the carriage awaits!" Philip, his arms full of his beautiful sister, managed to bow elegantly to the room, then shift one hand to grab Elizabeth's arm, and promptly direct the family to the door. Elizabeth looked as though she would either die with blushing mortification, or burst out laughing at such an absurd situation.
The rest of the room stood paralyzed as the Bennets made their exit, Elizabeth waving awkwardly as Philip near dragged her out the parlor door while still carrying his precious bundle. Jane called back forlornly, "Good day Mr. Bingley, Miss Bingley, I am forever indebted to you for your hospitality and hope you will call on us at Longbourn so we might begin to repay you…."
"Yes indeed, we will call on you to be sure Miss Bennet," Mr. Bingley called awkwardly, yet earnestly back.
An hour later, the Bennet siblings were all still arguing while standing in their mother's comfortably furnished sitting room at Longbourn Estate.
"Really Philip, did the occasion really demand such dramatic rescuing? Jane and I are fully capable of handling social situations on our own you know. We don't need your overbearing touch at all…" Elizabeth scorned, while at the same time laughing in between every other word. She despised being manipulated by her brother, but she could not help but find the humor in the situation.
"Overbearing did you say? I'm sure you also meant to say officious, underhanded, and rude as well," grinned Philip lazily back at her.
"Oh why Philip did you have to do that? It really was horribly rude of you, although I'm sure you meant well, and it was quite gallant of you coming to my rescue, but I am telling you there was no need, Elizabeth and I were perfectly safe under Mr. Bingley's roof…" Of the three siblings, Jane was the only one who appeared truly upset by the whole affair. She coughed into her handkerchief, before succumbing to weakness and sitting on a chaise-lounge nearby.
"See! You have upset our dear sister! Now what have you to say for yourself?" Elizabeth accused, pointing a finger in Philip's direction.
"Nothing in my defense but to beg a humble pardon, sweet Jane. You know it was not my intention to bother you in any way, but I thought I would take charge of the situation as you are better served here at home than visiting with strangers."
"But they are not strangers! They have become dear friends and Mr. Bingley is everything that is honorable and gentlemanly and…" but Jane quickly stopped talking as both Elizabeth and Philip turned earnestly in her direction.
"Jane…do you care for Mr. Bingley? What of the future? You can't possibly harbor any hopes in that direction can you?" asked Philip suddenly very serious. "I mean you hardly know the man! And even if we did, what difference would it make? Our future is secure and he can be nothing to us!"
"You are right I suppose," trembled Jane meekly.
"Philip you have no right to glower at Jane so! Even if she did harbor a preference for Mr. Bingley, what is the danger of it?"
"Danger? Why of arousing hopes in his breast that you know must go unfulfilled! It is entirely nonsensical to continue this argument, they can be nothing to one another and it was right to separate the two of them before the situation got worse as it had in the past and…"
"So you admit that our forced removal from Netherfield was your design to separate the two of them and not out of concern for Jane's health!" Elizabeth retorted back.
"Of course it was because of her health! But you also could not expect me to ignore such a dangerous situation as the two of you trapped in two men's company who might see it as license to begin importuning you with uncomfortable attentions that must be rebuffed…."
"But we do not require your interference, Philip, we are perfectly able to do so ourselves!" shot back Elizabeth.
"Please cease this incessant arguing before you tear my nerves to shreds!" Exclaimed an elegantly bundled Mrs. Bennet from the armchair near the fire. She seemed to be all in lace, from her cap, to her shawl, to the edge of her dress, and in her hand she held a lacey handkerchief to her eyes which were threatening to overflow with distraught tears. She never could stand to see her precious children fight. It had been worse when Philip and Elizabeth were much younger and used to go on adventurous expeditions outside only to return muddied and bruised from some earlier altercation. The sight of them would send her nearly into hysterics, demanding that their nurse be fetched immediately to remedy the situation.
"I beg your pardon Mamá," Philip replied, hovering over the figure of his mother in the armchair, clasping one of her white hands in his own massive one.
"Yes, I apologize Mother, we have been acting scandalously since we arrive home, and in your own sitting room as well! Will you forgive us, or shall we move into the hedgerows after all?" laughed Elizabeth.
"Oh let there be no more of these hedgerows! I regret infinitely in bringing them up in the first place!" said Mrs. Bennet, sitting straight in her chair with some annoyance.
"What's this? Plaguing your mother dear girl?" said Mr. Bennet as he entered the room. "Glad to see the family is all assembled here once again but what do you mean by creating this domestic disturbance? Can't we all live together in peace for at least ten minutes at a time?" laughed Mr. Bennet.
"Yes, please let us have some peace, at least in this room. Jane dear, ring for tea," sighed Mrs. Bennet.
If the inhabitants of Longbourn Estate had finally reached a peaceful resolution to their arguments, it was some time before good manners were restored inside the front parlor room of Netherfield. Mr. Darcy had, upon the Bennets' exit, retreated to the window to witness their safe departure and to indulge in his own quiet reflections, but the women of Netherfield were making their own opinions known to the rest of the party in quite a vociferous style.
"I do not care if he had the face of Gabriel himself! Such a brute of a man and obviously ill-bred to come charging into the room sweeping people off their feet and leaving without standing upon ceremony at all!" Miss Bingley, would be gratified to know that the sudden rage that consumed her did much to give her features needed animation and spirit, but her voice being prone to a high register, left the rest of the room wincing at the volume of her remarks.
"And I am saying that I fully agree with you dear sister, but you must admit he did in fact have the face of Gabriel for I am sure I have seen his likeness in the work of the great Italian artists in that book I have….you know…Michelangelo…quite a coincidence of course for he is long dead and never met Mr. Bennet, but you must admit no less remarkable…" sighed Mrs. Hurst, obviously much affected by the romantic sight of such a handsome man carrying a damsel in distress out of the house.
"And I say it doesn't signify who he resembles. I am more concerned with his manners…or lack thereof!" shot back Miss Bingley.
"Well, I admit it was unorthodox and surely unnecessary," said Mr. Bingley with a trace of uncharacteristic bitterness, "but there is no need to set ourselves against him. He was acting in the best interests of his sisters, for really, he doesn't know us at all!" Mr. Bingley, it appeared, was a most empathetic man who could see the situation from any man's perspective.
"Unorthodox…yes, one might even call it eccentric…" drawled Mr. Darcy without turning back to face the room.
Bingley stopped suddenly and turned toward Darcy's back. "No, don't say it, man. No call for that at all. I wouldn't say they were eccentric, merely unusual. You seem to imply there is something wrong with them if you put it that way and I won't stand for it I tell you."
"And we are saying there is something wrong with them and this entire neighborhood and we would be best served to return immediately to London," finished Miss Bingley grimly.
"Well I won't go. Not for a hundred pounds. You all heard me promise to call on the Bennets again…."
"While she was being hauled about by her elder brother as he rushed her unceremoniously through the door!" interrupted Miss Bingley.
"I won't break my word," replied back her brother with just as much resolution.
Mr. Darcy frowned as he gazed out across the landscape. He mused silently to himself while the heated arguments continued behind him, but he wasn't attending to them anymore. The point was clear that Bingley intended to stay and his sisters threatened to take themselves back to London if he would not come to his senses and escort them himself.
Darcy wondered privately how he felt about the whole matter. His ever rational and ordered mind was left in confusion as he realized he was more emotionally invested in Miss Elizabeth than he had ever intended to become. It must be true that she had touched him deeply, for why else would he be so disconcerted by her most peculiar relatives? Miss Bennet and Mrs. Bennet, certainly, were in no way remarkable (or interesting for that matter) but the issue of her father, with his blunt manners and off-putting sense of humor, and her brother, with his lack of polish and impetuous decisions, left Mr. Darcy feeling uneasy. If it were just the fact that they were ignorant rustics, he would have long lost interest, and would have resigned himself to writing off Miss Elizabeth's charm as insufficient in the face of her family's unfortunate circumstances. But damn it! What were their circumstances? Darcy made a mental list of all the facts he had gathered that did not seem to fit together. One: The Bennets were obviously wealthy. How fortunate their circumstances, he could not tell, but he estimated Longbourn to be worth at least a clear eight thousand pounds a year. Two: Elizabeth was well-educated and opinionated, apparently encouraged at home to explore interests not often allowed young ladies. Three: The Bennets somehow knew the Earl and Countess of Worth as well as Lady Jersey. How were they connected to these members of the elite Ton when the Bennets themselves professed they did not reside in Town? Four: The Bennet men had seemed overbearingly eager to extract the sisters from the company of the Netherfield party. Darcy did not accept the excuse of concern for Jane's health, but suspected they were hiding pertinent information about their family. Five: Finally while Darcy would first suspect scandal as the root of all this intrigue and mystery, the county appeared to honor the Bennets highly, the local gentry granting them the title of principle family in the area.
"I say Darcy, you even attending anymore? I was asking if you meant to come with me tomorrow to call on the Bennets and see how they do?" Bingley asked, interrupting Darcy's silent meditations.
"Best not tomorrow, my friend, our attentions would look marked indeed. Besides, haven't you promised me hunting in the countryside? I would much rather have a bit of sport," replied Darcy finally turning around to face the room. "Let us call on the Bennets the day after tomorrow."
Bingley grinned. "Fine. Sport you shall have! As long as I have your promise to accompany me to Longbourn the following day."
"Done," replied Darcy shaking his friend's hand to seal the deal.
The following morning dawned cool and clear, excellent weather for the men of Netherfield making their way among the fields in search of game, but it also proved fine conditions for the man in the hired gig making his way along country lanes to the estate of Longbourn. He held one restive hand to his head in order to keep his parson's hat from flying about from a sudden gust of wind that might make itself known to the gig atop one of the many hills along the way. His other hand clung to the side of the vehicle for balance, for he was a nervous man, and did not entirely trust the hired man driving him not to take the corners too quickly. His face told the tale of his youth, not yet in his twenty-eighth year, but his sedate manners and pedantic style of speech made him boorish beyond his years.
Early in the afternoon before tea, he finally reached his destination, that of his cousin's home, and alighted with some difficulty from his perch upon the seat of the gig.
"Ah, Mr. Collins I presume? Welcome to Hertfordshire and welcome to Longbourn," bowed Mr. Thomas Bennet as he exited his front door, his wife upon his arm.
"Cousin Bennet! Mrs. Bennet!" gushed an enthusiastic Mr. Collins, sweeping his hat from his head and bowing with far too many flourishes. "It is my honor to finally meet you sir and madam, and allow me to say that it is indeed that, an honor, as I mentioned in my correspondence to you, that I am finally allowed the opportunity through the magnanimity of my patroness Lady Catherine de Bourgh and my Bishop, to offer you the olive branch of Christian peace and reconciliation that we might heal the breach that has unfortunately existed between our two sides of the family for far far too long."
His speech finally having come to an end, Mr. Bennet extended his hand to his heretofore estranged relative, all the while attempting to keep his face composed.
Mrs. Bennet had had trouble following Mr. Collins' convoluted message, but she was a gracious hostess, and any attempts to make amends in her family would not be rebuffed. "How kind of you Mr. Collins to bring with you the blessings of your Bishop and patroness, but do let us talk about it all inside, for if I stand out here much longer I might catch a chill, which would do terrible damage to my nerves. Let us have some tea to warm ourselves in the downstairs sitting room."
"Your excellent servant madam! Allow me the privilege of escorting you indoors, I beg of you!"
Mr. Bennet, finding his usual place beside his wife usurped, humbly followed behind the nonsensical man inside his own house. He could not repress his good humor, however. Mr. Collins' letter had promised delights of the ridiculous, and the man proved even more spectacular in person. Now if only he might find a way to keep the silly man's eye from alighting upon his beautiful daughters…