Chapter 6: Trip to the Theater

Elizabeth ran to her room, not thinking about anything else. He had asked for permission to kiss her, and, with the way her heart was beating, she had been about to allow it. But how could she kiss a man that she hated? A man, who, she thought, only looked at her to see a blemish. But, then again, that is not what he had said. It did not take long for me to determine that you are one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance. It was almost too much to believe. Then, he elaborated. She could feel herself blushing at the memory of his words, and her lips tingled at the thought of being kissed. What would a kiss feel like? Did this mean she was attracted to him? She thought back to what she knew of his character from Hertfordshire and Kent.

He did not seem to care for anyone but his own family and friends. But he did not act that way with her this morning. Instead, he had been kind, caring, as though he really wanted her to think well of him. Elizabeth supposed this to be the result of his having fallen in love with her. She was now considered a friend and soon-to-be-family. What would that make her family? Time would have to tell on that score.

Mr. Darcy had acted infamously with his treatment of Jane and Mr. Bingley. How could he improve her view of him on that score? He had admitted, nay, boasted of his involvement to his cousin. But, perhaps, their marriage would bring Jane into contact with Mr. Bingley. Perhaps, she could arrange for the two to visit Pemberley at the same time. Marriage to Mr. Darcy would be more bearable if it allowed her to bring happiness to Jane.

If she could accomplish that, then perhaps she could fix relations between Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham as well. She would have to tread carefully on that score. She remembered the hatred in Mr. Darcy's eyes when they met on the Meryton road. If he were to direct that hatred to her after they were married, her life would be miserable. Married women are dependent on their husbands for support.

Elizabeth was interrupted from her reverie by a knock at the door. Mrs. Gardiner entered and sat down on the bed. "How are you my dear?"

"I am as well as I can hope to be," was all the reply Elizabeth could muster.

"Edward says that you have accepted Mr. Darcy."

"I suppose I have. We talked for a little while, before he had to leave."

"Do you love him?"

Elizabeth replied at once. "No, I do not." She could not love him until he changed his ways.

Mrs. Gardiner studied Elizabeth again. "Does he love you?"

"He says that he does." Elizabeth's gaze out the window and lifeless voice were worrying her aunt.

"Then you must give him time and be open to looking for ways to care for him. If he does love you, he will take good care of you. He is rich enough that all your needs should be settled, many even before you realize you need them. Love can grow, have no fear of that." Mrs. Gardiner paused as Elizabeth thought about what was said. "I know you wanted to marry for love, but that is not always possible. You never know. You may find him quite loveable once you get to know him."

"Thank you, Aunt Madeline." Elizabeth said, not believing what her aunt said could be true.

Mrs. Gardiner decided it was time to move the discussion forward. "This is going to be a very important night for you, my dear."

"Why, Aunt?" Elizabeth had not even remembered the theater in all that had occurred that morning. Her voice expressed her surprise, and Mrs. Gardiner smiled at her niece's innocence.

"Mr. Darcy has invited us to sit in his box at the theater. Did he not tell you that?"

"No, he did not. Uncle Edward asked him to leave before we had discussed much."

Mrs. Gardiner watched her niece for any signs of distress, but apart from appearing confused, she did not give away much. "With the announcement in the paper this morning, everyone will look to you tonight. It is, in essentials, your introduction into London's high society."

Elizabeth blanched at the thought. She had never thought of how society would view her. It had never mattered before. Her aunt must be correct. The woman who snatched up Mr. Darcy would be of interest to everyone, married or not. "Oh, Aunt! What am I to do?"

Mrs. Gardiner laughed. "That is the easy part, Lizzy. You must be yourself. You charm everyone you meet, even the private Mr. Darcy, according to the events of this morning. The ladies, like Caroline Bingley, who feel you have stolen him, will hate you no matter what you do. Ignore them as you always do. Everyone else will be glad to meet you as long as you are honest and lively. Now, to prepare, we must find you a dress. You are about my size, so come with me to look for an exquisite ball gown."

Elizabeth rose, but before she could walk, she took her aunts hand and pulled her into a tight embrace. "Thank you for everything, Aunt Madeline. I do not think I could go through with this without you."

Mrs. Gardiner accepted the embrace, tears filling her eyes. "Now, now. Enough of that. Your uncle and I will be by your side the entire time. There will be no cause for sadness or worry. All will be well. Focus on your excitement to see the play. Sitting in a private box will make it that much easier to see and hear the play, I am told."

Elizabeth chuckled under her breath. "I suppose I will never sit on the main floor again."

"That might very well be a good thing. Follow me. I have some splendid gowns cut in the latest fashion because my husband knows all the dressmakers in town. He has even borrowed some jewelry from an old friend. You will look like a princess and be the envy of everyone at the theater."

As Elizabeth followed her aunt upstairs, she could not help but think she would prefer a dress that made her invisible. Jane joined them after returning from an excursion with the children, and her aunt filled her in with the change in circumstances while Elizabeth was busy trying on a gown.

The carriage was ready at the proper time, and the three ladies and Mr. Gardiner climbed in the carriage and started off. The ride was silent. Elizabeth could not concentrate on anything for more than a moment, and her aunt and uncle supposed the silence would help her prepare for the storm.

Elizabeth, sitting next to Jane, tried to remember everything that Mr. Darcy had said about an accomplished woman at Netherfield, but all she could remember was that she should be a good reader. The rest had been Miss Bingley's words. Perhaps she was not so hopeless after all. When the carriage stopped, Mr. Gardiner descended first. Before he handed out Elizabeth, he gave her one piece of advice. "Everyone here is hoping to intimidate you and make you run home, but we all know your courage rises with every attempt to intimidate you. I know you will make me very proud of you tonight."

Elizabeth realized those were her words, and she felt a small fire build in the pits of her stomach. This night can only be as frightening as she allows it to be. She stepped out of the carriage, feeling more confident than she had previously believed possible. Mr. Gardiner escorted all three ladies into the lobby, where they paused a few feet inside the doors to find the rest of their parties. The lobby was crowded with busybodies and other theatergoers waiting for someone of their party. It was difficult to find Mr. Darcy, and they almost gave up hope before they realized the predicament he was in.

He was surrounded by a group of well dressed people, mostly women, who were all attempting to get information out of Mr. Darcy. Colonel Fitzwilliam was next to him, enjoying the extra attention that came with attending functions with his cousin. Mr. Darcy, on the other hand, looked distinctly uncomfortable. As soon as he would remove one lady from his arm, another would latch on.

Finally, he spotted Elizabeth across the room, with one of her half smiles and raised eyebrows. Thrilled to see her, he made his excuses to his current company and led Colonel Fitzwilliam away. The other gentlemen of the group walked away, but the women simply turned and watched Mr. Darcy.

"Good evening, Mr. Gardiner, Mrs. Gardiner, Miss Bennet, Miss Elizabeth. Allow me to introduce you to my cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam."

Everyone bowed or curtseyed at the appropriate times, and Elizabeth accepted Mr. Darcy's arm as they began to walk to their seats. The ladies across the room staring with envy nearly caused Elizabeth to burst out laughing, but she hid it well enough. Mr. Darcy watched her reaction, and the corners of his mouth tilted up in a small smile. He could not help thinking that this was how it should be.

They stopped only to greet a few couples along the way. They were friends or distant family of Mr. Darcy, and he introduced everyone to Elizabeth as his betrothed. She answered all of their questions with grace and charm, and everyone seemed pleased to meet her. Mr. Darcy's courage grew with each introduction he made. He knew he had made the right choice in choosing Elizabeth.

Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner were introduced as Elizabeth's aunt and uncle, but there was no mention of warehouses or tradesmen. It was not deceitful; it was simply ignored for the night. No one who saw the group could imagine that their money came from trade.

Colonel Fitzwilliam escorted Jane, happy to have such a beauty on his arm. After each introduction, he would tell her what he knew of the people she met and delighted when she would laugh at his jokes. The merriment between them caused Elizabeth to wonder if he knew that this was the woman Mr. Darcy had congratulated himself on separating from Mr. Bingley. The thought was unpleasant and helped her keep her excitement in check.

From the box, Elizabeth sat down on the edge of a seat in the first row. From that vantage point, she looked out around the theater. It was as her aunt had suggested, more than half of the eyes in the room were turned toward their box. Mr. Darcy, feeling Elizabeth would want some time alone, released her and instead turned to Mr. Gardiner, inviting his family to dinner the next day. When Mr. Gardiner agreed, Mr. Darcy moved to sit next to his betrothed.

"What do you think of the view, Miss Elizabeth?"

"It seems a great view, Mr. Darcy. It should be easier to drown out the voices around me to hear the play. I never understood why some people come to see a performance, and then sit and talk the entire way through it."

"You are right. For many individuals, the theater is just another way to show off a pretty dress or a new hair style. You are, by the way, looking very lovely tonight."

Elizabeth blushed and looked away. Her aunt had selected a green dress with blue trim and a very low neckline. She felt like she needed to hold her head high just to keep herself from falling out of the dress. However, she had to admit, when she finally looked in the mirror, she did look very well. The jewelry that Mr. Gardiner had chosen for her was modest and simple but gave her a brilliance that she had not seen on herself before.

"You are too kind, sir."

"I speak nothing but the truth, my dear." He paused to kiss her hand. "You are the envy of every lady here tonight.

Elizabeth blushed and looked away. "It must be because of the company I keep. They would otherwise have no reason to notice me. I wish they had better things to look at."

Mr. Darcy saw her agitation, so he changed the subject. "I asked your uncle to dine with me tomorrow. He accepted. Will you join him and his wife? I would like for you to meet my sister."

"I am sure Jane and I will come with my uncle. It would be a pleasure to meet Miss Darcy." Elizabeth shifted uncomfortably. She knew she had to appear calm but the thought of seeing him every day was distressing.

Before Mr. Darcy could respond, there was a knock on the door announcing the arrival of the Matlocks. Mr. Darcy took Elizabeth's hand and introduced her to his aunt and uncle. Lord Matlock was nothing more than civil, but Lady Matlock made up for it by grasping Elizabeth's shoulders and kissing her cheek as though they had been friends for many years. There were audible gasps from many boxes across the theater.

Lady Matlock released Elizabeth's shoulders, linked arms with her, and moved to the front row, where Elizabeth once again sat down. "It is such a pleasure to meet you. Ever since William told us of his plans to marry, my own son has been regaling us with tales of how you put the great Lady Catherinein her place." At Elizabeth's shocked face, she elaborated. "Do not worry about her. She is a bitter, old lady and does not like anyone. She even tried to convince Steven not to propose to me. She said that I was not worthy to be married to a Lord. My family was rich but untitled, you see. No one listens to her anymore, and she never leaves Rosings, so that is the end of our interactions with her. I could not be happier."

Elizabeth laughed at such an account. It was easy to believe that Lady Catherine would disgust most of those she knew, apparently including her own family. Elizabeth continued the conversation by describing some of the antics of her own family. Lady Matlock laughed at each story, and the two decided that they could become friends. The conversation then turned to the play itself, and Lady Matlock discovered that Elizabeth was well read and shared many insights, although she had never seen this particular play performed before.

Mr. Darcy, who had been talking to the Gardiners and Lord Matlock, moved to sit in the free chair next to Elizabeth and joined their conversation. Elizabeth became more demure, but they continued the conversation until the performers began. Colonel Fitzwilliam took the seat next to Jane in the second row, leaving the Gardiners and Lord Matlock to sit in the last row.

Elizabeth's eyes were shinning as she watched the stage. The view was definitely better, and it was easier to make out what the actors were saying. She gasped and laughed throughout the play, and Mr. Darcy, although he was silent and did not normally display any emotions on his face, smiled as he watched Elizabeth's enjoyment. Halfway through the first act, he reached for her hand and squeezed it lightly. Elizabeth startled but did not pull her hand back. Mr. Darcy, therefore, kept her hand, occasionally drawing circles over her palm with his thumb. The contact unnerved Elizabeth, but she focused on the play and attempted to ignore it.

When the curtains fell, signaling intermission, he released her hand. Recognizing that she seemed agitated, he offered to fetch drinks for Elizabeth and Jane. Elizabeth readily accepted and watched him leave to speak with a servant. Jane moved to the seat vacated by Mr. Darcy, and the two sisters and Lady Matlock happily discussed the play until Mr. Darcy returned.

The door opened moments later. Elizabeth startled when she saw that he returned and could not finish her sentence. Mr. Bingley was with him! Jane, seeing her sister's countenance, turned to look towards the door and gasped. She had not seen Mr. Bingley in months, and, now, he was standing next to Mr. Darcy.

Mr. Darcy introduced Mr. Bingley to his uncle and the Gardiners. Everyone looked uncomfortable. Lord Matlock was livid at being introduced to another man connected to trade. The Gardiners, familiar with the events of the winter, were politely but unwelcoming to the gentleman who had jilted their niece. Mr. Bingley fidgeted with his sleeves as he attempted to hold a conversation with Mr. Gardiner. Mr. Darcy appeared as though he had not planned for Mr. Bingley to return with him and shift his weight back and forth.

Elizabeth watched him, wondering what he was about and hoping that they would next come talk to her group. She realized that this was the first opportunity she had to use her connection to Mr. Darcy to help Jane. Mr. Darcy, feeling her gaze on him, turned to her. Elizabeth arched one eye brow as though to challenge him. Eager to find out what she was about, he returned to her side and handed Jane and Elizabeth their drinks.

Mr. Bingley followed him, feeling more uncomfortable than ever. He wanted to see Jane again, but remembered Mr. Darcy and his sisters' warnings about her lack of feelings for him. He had come to the theater in hopes of seeing Mr. Darcy. He was curious why he had proposed to Elizabeth after telling himself that Jane was beneath his notice. After bowing to Elizabeth, he started. "Allow me to congratulate you, Miss Elizabeth."

Elizabeth refused to look down in embarrassment. She had to get used to this! "Thank you, Mr. Bingley. I am surprised to see you here. It has been a long time since we last saw you."

"You are right. I have not seen you or your sister since the twenty-sixth of November." He turned to Jane. "Miss Bennet, it is a pleasure to see you again."

Jane greeted him politely, but looked down at her hands in agitation. The wounds of Caroline Bingley were too fresh for her to forget.

For the first time in Elizabeth's memory, Mr. Darcy rescued the conversation. In the long pause, he remarked on the talents of the performers, and the four were then able to continue the conversation until the bell sounded, indicating it was time for Mr. Bingley to find his seat. He bowed to the ladies and promised to call on them, if he could find time.

Unfortunately for Mr. Darcy, Colonel Fitzwilliam maneuvered past him in time, and claimed the seat between Elizabeth and his mother for the second half of the play. Mr. Darcy, scowling at his cousin, moved to the seat behind Elizabeth, next to Jane, as the performance resumed.

The second half of the play went slowly for Mr. Darcy. He spent most of it watching a small curl that had escaped its place tickle Elizabeth's neck. It wiggled when she laughed, which was very often. When the play ended, he had to quickly look away and attempt to calm his feelings. In turning around, he saw that Mrs. Gardiner was watching him. The group waited in the box for the majority of the theater to disperse. However, the lobby was still crowded with people hoping to meet the future Mrs. Darcy.

Lady Matlock took Elizabeth by the arm and led her through the crowd, introducing her as "my future niece" to everyone. Elizabeth met so many people that she was sure she would never remember half of them. When she admitted as much to Lady Matlock, the lady laughed and replied, "That is as it should be. I think it was well into my second season before I felt comfortable navigating through the ton, and I had grown up with most of them. Thankfully, you will have me to guide you. I can already tell we will be friends." Lord Matlock grunted behind her, causing Lady Matlock to laugh again. "Do not worry, Miss Elizabeth, my husband likes you too, or he would not object to my plans."

Elizabeth smiled, not sure if it was a joke or not. Mr. Darcy caught up and distracted them. After saying their goodbyes to the Matlocks, Mr. Darcy took her arm and escorted her to Mr. Gardiner, who was waiting near the carriage. Elizabeth curtsied and allowed him to kiss her hand before he helped her climb into the carriage. With the carriage finally moving away from the theater, Elizabeth let out the breath she had been holding. "I am glad that is over."

Mrs. Gardiner laughed. "You seemed to be enjoying yourself inside. Was the play to your liking?"

"It was fabulous. You know Much ado About Nothing is my favorite of all the Bard's plays. But all those people! You would think we were on display in some public house."

"Perhaps it explains Mr. Darcy's reticence when he enters a new society."

Elizabeth thought it over. "I suppose it does." She then quickly changed the subject and the four merrily talked the rest of the way home.