I always wondered what might have happened if Elizabeth really was as good at reading people as she first seemed to think she was, and if Darcy had better manners. Though Merlin is in this story, there is no magic.
Big thank you to my beta Debra Anne, who also has some great P&P stories ;)
Elizabeth Bennet had been obliged, by the scarcity of gentlemen, to sit down for two dances; and during part of that time Mr. Darcy had been standing near enough for her to overhear a conversation between him and Mr. Bingley, who came from the dance for a few minutes, to press his friend to join it.
"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."
"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."
"I would not be so fastidious as you are," cried Bingley, "for a kingdom! Upon my honour, I 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."
"You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room," said Mr. Darcy, looking at the eldest Miss Bennet.
"Oh! She is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld! But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you."
"Which do you mean?" and turning round, he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said, "She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me." (Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 3)
Fighting back tears, Elizabeth hurried out of the room and onto the balcony. Why his words pierced her more than her mother's, she could only guess, but she supposed that it was because she had always known her mother was fickle with her opinions. She had therefore grown impervious to her mother's cutting remarks, and put downs about Elizabeth's beauty in comparison to her classically beautiful and sweet sister Jane. However, to hear that the handsomest man she had ever seen had only found her tolerable was particularly painful. She leant on the edge of the balcony and let the tears trickle down, trying to pull herself together before anyone found her like this.
Darcy was feeling disgusted with himself. He had seen an acutely pained expression cross Miss Elizabeth's face after his remark, and then she had rushed out of the room. Never before had he felt like such a cad. Luckily, nobody else had seen her exit, for they were all concentrating on their next dance partners. Determined to set right his mistake, he silently slipped out the door he had seen her exit from, and found her staring out from the balcony rail. In the moonlight, he could see tear tracks glistening on her cheeks, and he inwardly kicked himself for causing her so much pain with his offhand remark. He walked up to her quietly and offered her his handkerchief.
The last thing Elizabeth had expected was a handkerchief held out before her. She followed the arm back to its owner, eyes widening in surprise to find the handsome face of the very man who had insulted her. "I am sorry," he said softly, the rich timbre of his voice oddly soothing.
She accepted the handkerchief and sighed as she used it to blot her tears. "Do not apologise for speaking the truth. Heaven knows I should not be offended when I hear the same from my own mother often enough."
"Your mother insults your beauty?" His eyes widened in shock. He stared at her upturned face incredulously. Now that he had had the opportunity for a more thorough look, he found her quite bewitching. Her eyes, even clouded with tears, were entrancing, and she had a very pretty face. She was perhaps not as classically beautiful as her sister, but he found her looks infinitely more preferable.
"I am afraid so. I have learnt, for the large part, to ignore her remarks, for she can be rather petty, and besides, I know Jane is more beautiful than I." She did not know why she was telling this to a relative stranger, especially one who had insulted her so, but it just came rushing out. She sighed. "I suppose hearing the most handsome man I have ever seen refer to me as only tolerable, simply cut far deeper than my mother's words ever could." She bowed her head, cheeks flushing with colour.
Darcy was finding that he could not bear her sad face any longer. He was feeling incredibly guilty for his thoughtless remark, and very sad on her behalf. He took one of her hands and turned her slightly to look at him. "Miss Bennet, my remark was thoughtless, and incorrect, for I was merely trying to discourage my friend from making me dance. I hate to admit this, but I am rather uncomfortable at balls, where everyone is often staring at me, and that makes me quite irritable. I barely glanced at you, and would have made the same remark had you been Aphrodite herself. In truth, now that I have had the opportunity to observe your features for more than half a second, I find that you are indeed quite beautiful, and that it was most blasphemous of me to have made such an insulting and incorrect comment earlier. I hope you can find it within you to forgive me."
His gaze was earnest, and while Elizabeth would have been initially inclined to disbelieve his words, she had been blessed from a young age with the instinctive ability to read the truth on people's faces. It had served her well over the years, and she had quickly learnt who her true friends were and who were not. Mr Darcy was not lying.
"Thank you, Mr Darcy, it is most kind of you, and you have my forgiveness," she said softly.
"On the contrary, Miss Bennet, it was most ungentlemanly of me to have made such an untrue remark in the first place. Thank you for your forgiveness." He was relieved and thankful that she seemed to have such a kind nature - there were many who might have held a grudge.
They relapsed into an awkward silence, neither knowing what to say now that Darcy had received her forgiveness. Both scrambled for a topic, with Elizabeth finally striking upon something she was curious about. "Tell me, Mr Darcy, you have an estate in Derbyshire if the rumours are to be believed." At this, he tensed, desperately hoping that she would not turn out to be another fortune hunter after his estate, but her next words impressed him. "What crops does your estate grow?"
He found himself both surprised and relaxed as he leaned on the rail beside her. He had never met a female with an interest in crops and farming before. "Indeed, the rumours are true. My estate in Derbyshire is called Pemberley, and its primary crops are wheat and sugar beet, although we do have seasonal crops of maize and many vegetables, especially potatoes. We also run a large flock of sheep for wool and a small herd of cattle for meat." He was rather gratified to see that instead of her eyes glazing over in ignorance like most ladies' did when hearing talk of farming, she was gazing at him with interest. "Pemberley also has a vast orchard of fruit trees, and a large conservatory that houses many citrus, and some of my sister's and my favourite fruits."
"Well, while your estate does indeed seem as grand as the rumours, and you seem to farm very profitable crops, it is perhaps your conservatory that I am most envious of. My father's estate, Longbourn, grows wheat and potatoes mainly, and only has a small orchard. I dearly love fruit, and I would love the variety that you must have available to you all year round." Her voice was friendly and sincere.
Never in his life had Darcy ever met a lady who was more interested in his fruit trees than his money. "Indeed, my sister and I greatly enjoy all the fruits that our orchard and conservatory offer."
"Do you by any chance house a tangerine tree in your conservatory? For I have only ever had the opportunity to try one once, and it quickly became one of my favourite fruits, although, since they are from China, they seem to be difficult to acquire." She smiled as she thought back to the time her Uncle Gardiner had accepted some as partial payment from a foreign merchant.
He smiled in return. "I do; it was my mother's favourite fruit, for it has a much richer and sweeter flavour than an orange. My father made sure to acquire four such trees for my mother, and they have grown quite large now, and bear many fruit." His face softened as he thought of happy memories of his mother enjoying her tangerines. "We also acquired a pomelo tree some years ago that bears sweet fruit as well."
"Oh! I have heard of pomelos, but I have never had the opportunity to try one before." Her eyes were bright with interest and Darcy was enchanted. "I am afraid you are making me more envious than ever over your conservatory. I need only hear that you also grow strawberries, and I am sure that I shall turn a particularly unbecoming shade of green," she laughed, and Darcy found her even more beautiful. He realised that she was quickly becoming one of the most beautiful women of his acquaintance.
"Well then, I am afraid you shall have to buy new dresses to match the change in your complexion, as my conservatory houses many strawberry plants. They are my favourite fruit," he admitted, smiling down at her. She could not help smiling back and admiring his handsome features in the moonlight.
"They are mine as well, for I love nothing more than to sit under the shade of a large tree with fresh strawberries and a bowl of thick cream." She closed her eyes in rapture, and Darcy quickly elevated her status to the most beautiful and entrancing woman he had ever seen. Then she opened her eyes with a soft sigh. "Well perhaps we should change the subject, for I have always thought that envy was a particularly horrible shade, and I should not like to wear it. Tell me what breed of sheep you run, for I have been trying to convince my father to make a foray into sheep, and have been researching the best breeds."
"We have a large flock of both Leicester Longwool sheep, and some Merino sheep which my father and I imported from Spain. They all produce large fleeces of high quality wool"
"Oh, yes, those are the exact breeds I liked best when I researched sheep. I thought it would be best to start off with the Leicester Longwool, for it is quite expensive to acquire and import Merinos. It is my opinion that it would be best to gradually incorporate more Merinos into the flock at a later date, after ensuring that the first, small flock are doing well and producing large fleeces."
"Your farming sense is sound, and I find myself most intrigued, Miss Bennet. I have never met a lady with so much knowledge of such things." Darcy could feel his fascination for her growing.
"Well, with only five daughters and no sons, my father found no reason to censure my interest in farming," she blushed and hoped he would not think her unladylike for her interests.
"Then it is fortunate that I followed you, for otherwise I would be stuck in the ballroom attempting to feign interest in silk and lace. That seems to be the most popular things for young ladies to talk about in my presence, and I confess that I know little about either."
"I am sorry to admit that neither do I. When I go to the modiste, I do not bother with the names and colours of fabrics, I simply choose those which I think looks best," she laughed lightly and he chuckled, delighted with her.
"I accompanied my sister to her modiste for her first few visits, but after that, I made sure my aunt was available when Georgiana wished to go, for the plethora of fabrics was simply overwhelming and my sister appeared to be disappointed in me when I could not tell the difference between baby blue and a pale sky blue." He looked appropriately abashed, and she laughed, fascinated with this intriguing man, who had at first seemed so stern and distant.
"Your mother could not accompany her?"
"I am afraid she passed many years ago, and my father was also lost to us more than five years gone. It is now only my sister, who is more than ten years my junior, and myself."He had never admitted such private things before to a stranger, but as they talked, he was already beginning to feel the foundations of a friendship being built. He felt he could trust her.
"I am sorry for your loss. It cannot have been easy to lose both parents and be forced to raise your sister while running a large estate," her words were soft and genuine - a far cry from the fake platitudes of the ton that he had received when his father passed.
"Thank you. It was not, but I share guardianship of my sister Georgiana with my cousin, who is a colonel in the army, and Georgiana is by nature quiet and shy. It has been a delight to see her grow up, though I wish she could have stayed a child forever. I dread the day I shall have to hand her over to a deserving husband," he sighed, and his features saddened as he thought of how close he had come to losing her last summer.
"While it will not be easy, I am sure when the time comes, you will acquit yourself admirably and relinquish her to a worthy man who loves her," she tried to reassure him after noticing his sad face.
"Unfortunately, my sister was recently taken advantage of by an old family friend who was looking for revenge upon me" He sighed sadly and glanced at her. He found her eyeing him with genuine sympathy, and it gave him the resolve to continue his story. "I had refused to give him a valuable living as a parson. His disreputable actions towards young girls, and penchant for gambling were well known, so I rejected him. Last summer, he found my sister and attempted to convince her to elope with him for her dowry, though she was but fifteen. Luckily, I arrived in time for her to confess all to me, and he had not compromised her, so he was sent on his way. Unfortunately, she was devastated by the idea that she would be taken advantage of for her dowry, for I have always endeavoured to keep her sheltered from the evils of the world. She is now quite withdrawn, and I did not wish to leave her, but my family felt that seeing me only served to remind her of her guilt, and so I decided to leave her with my uncle and aunt and come with Bingley." He had shocked himself by confessing his private affairs to a virtual stranger, but he instinctively knew that she would not use this knowledge against him, nor spread it around.
Elizabeth was touched by his confession, and felt sorry for the hardships he had faced. "I hope she will recover her spirits soon, and that you will do the same, for I can see that you are also feeling guilty; and until you absolve yourself, your sister will feel remorse over injuring you as well," her soft voice soothed him as he thought over her words. "My own philosophy is to remember the past only as it gives me pleasure, for it cannot be changed, it can only be learned from."
"Thank you, I believe you are right. I will endeavour to adopt you philosophy, although I fear it will be a steep learning curve. I only ask that you not divulge the information I revealed to you about my sister, for she would be devastated if rumours were started." His eyes begged for her discretion.
"Rest assured, Mr Darcy, that I will not betray your trust in me." Her eyes were sincere, and Darcy relaxed.
"You have my thanks." Upon hearing music reach a crescendo inside, Darcy suddenly realised that they had been out on the balcony for an entire set. "Perhaps we should go in now, before someone misses us," he proposed reluctantly. He had been enjoying his conversation with Elizabeth. She had considerably brightened an evening that he had been sure he would not enjoy.
She nodded. "It would be best if I slipped in first, so that no one thinks anything untoward has occurred," she suggested. He agreed, disinclined to give up her company, but knowing that it was the right choice.
"I shall see you later then, Miss Bennet. It was a pleasure talking to you." He took her hand and bestowed a soft kiss on it.
She blushed, and was glad that the moonlight hid her reddened cheeks. "Goodbye for now then, sir," she quickly returned inside and headed over to retrieve some refreshment, hoping distance and a cold drink would encourage her cheeks to stop glowing. A short time later, she spotted the tall form of Mr Darcy re-entering the room.
Luckily, nobody had noticed their disappearance, for they were all either dancing, gossiping, or watching the dancers. She sipped her glass of punch and watched as her sisters danced happily with their partners; Jane, especially, seemed quite pleased under her peaceful facade as she danced, glancing periodically over at Mr Bingley. Elizabeth smiled, pleased that her sister seemed to have found an amiable man. She was sure he must have many good qualities to be such a prized friend of Mr Darcy's.
Darcy, upon his return, had immediately ascertained Elizabeth's location and wondered how he could get a proper introduction to her, since he had turned down Charles' offer earlier. He had been relieved to note that Caroline Bingley, Charles' sister, had been caught in conversation with one of the matrons, and had therefore been unable to seek him out and stay by his side like a leech, as she was wont to do.
Still searching for a way to get back to the woman who had captured his interest so thoroughly, his eyes landed on Sir William Lucas, who loved to be helpful and was the evening's host. Moving casually in that direction, and closer to Elizabeth at the same time, he continued on his path until Sir William noticed him. "Ah, Mr Darcy! How are you enjoying this evening?"
"It has brought me far more pleasure than I had anticipated, sir. I want only for a dance partner for the next set, and I believe I will have had a most enjoyable evening."
His hint was immediately taken up, and upon seeing Darcy's gaze land on Miss Elizabeth, he smiled. "Indeed. Allow me to introduce you to one of Hertfordshire's beauties. She is a most desirable dance partner, and you are lucky that she does not appear to be engaged right now." He led an eager Darcy closer.
Elizabeth spotted the two men and smiled, placing her empty cup upon the table as they reached her. "Miss Elizabeth, allow me to introduce you to Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley, in Derbyshire. Mr Darcy, this is Miss Elizabeth Bennet."
"Miss Elizabeth, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. Would you do me the honour of dancing the next set with me?" Darcy was polite as he gently took her hand and bowed over it. Elizabeth curtsied in response.
"Mr Darcy, I am happy to meet you, and my next set is yours." She smiled up at him.
"Thank you, Miss Elizabeth." He returned her smile. Sir William was pleased to have been of service, and left to find someone else to aid.
"Well done, sir," Elizabeth congratulated him once Sir William had gone, for quickly finding a way to be introduced properly to her.
"Thank you. I found it far easier than I expected, for I have never needed to engineer an introduction before. I find that normally there are far too many people looking to be introduced to me," he admitted sheepishly.
"I am sorry you have had to experience that, and I certainly do not envy you that," he could see the sincerity in her eyes, but then she suddenly smiled impishly, "but I suppose that is the price one must pay if they are to have a conservatory." He could not help but chuckle as her eyes sparkled mischievously up at him.
"It would appear so, Miss Elizabeth." As they waited for the current dance to finish, they conversed more thoroughly on farming practices. Darcy was delighted to find that she was indeed well read on the subject, and had been the impetus behind many of the improvements to her father's estate. Elizabeth was likewise pleased to discover that Darcy was very intelligent, and treated her as an equal, rather than using the condescending tone that she often received when attempting to talk to gentlemen about farming.
Soon enough, it was time for their dance set. Darcy extended his arm to her, and she smiled as she took it and allowed him to lead her to the dance floor. Darcy found himself eagerly anticipating this dance - a novelty after the many dances he had danced over the years simply out of duty.
Bingley, leading Jane to the floor for their second dance together of the evening, stumbled as he saw his normally grave friend standing on the dance floor. Even more surprising was that his partner was none other than Elizabeth Bennet - the lady he had refused to dance with earlier. But what was most shocking of all was the soft smile Darcy was wearing. Bingley could count on two hands the number of times he had seen his friend smile. It was such a rare occurrence that he found himself staring for a few seconds, his mouth wide open in shock before he caught Darcy's eye. His friend quirked an eyebrow at him, seeming amused by his astonishment. He quickly recovered and took his place across from Jane.
Darcy chuckled as the dance started. "My friend seemed rather shocked to find me dancing."
"Indeed he did. It seems your behaviour was most surprising to him," Elizabeth laughed.
"No doubt I will be interrogated as to my motives later this evening. I am sure he is at this very moment wondering whether I have gone mad, to be willingly doing something I have often professed a dislike for," he admitted.
"Well I hope you are not currently finding the activity too distasteful," She eyed him with a touch of flirtation in her enchanting eyes.
"No, indeed. I am finding that I am enjoying it very much. Perhaps I simply had the wrong partners for previous dances."
"Well, I am pleased that this has not turned into a trial for you." Her bright smile was infectious, and Bingley nearly missed another step as his friend's small smile morphed into the largest grin he had ever seen adorn Darcy's face.
Caroline Bingley, who had also been shocked to see Darcy on the dance floor, glowered with jealously when the country chit he was dancing with managed to evoke a bright smile from him. She had never seen Darcy smile before, and was upset that she could do nothing about it, stuck as she was with Mrs Long, who was prattling away about her nieces. She was quickly turning a sickly green that clashed horribly with the orange gown she was wearing.
Someone else was also watching with concealed fury. All her plans would be shattered if he fell for the smiles of this country savage.
Darcy was blissfully oblivious, enjoying the feeling of Elizabeth's hand in is, and the warmth her smiles evoked in him. They conversed animatedly on agricultural books, before moving on to poetry and novels. He found himself disappointed when the set ended. "Thank you for the dance, Miss Elizabeth. It was the most enjoyment I have had in a long time."
"You are more than welcome, Mr Darcy. I, too, greatly enjoyed our dance," she admitted, for she too had found great pleasure in their dance and conversation.
"Perhaps at the next occasion where there is dancing, you would honour me with another dance?" While it was irregular to ask for dances before knowing of any events, he found he needed to reassure himself that he would have a chance to dance with her again, and hopefully he would get to enjoy the feelings dancing with her had evoked again.
"I would be delighted."
"Is your last set taken? If not, perhaps..."
"I am afraid it is," she said regretfully, "but I look forward to our next opportunity to dance."
"As do I. Good night, Miss Elizabeth." With a bow he left her, and her next partner was quick to claim her for the last set of the evening. Darcy found himself back on the sidelines watching jealously.
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