Fitzwilliam Darcy walked confidently into the London ballroom and surveyed the gathered ladies and gentleman. This was the Season, he had decided, when he must choose a wife. He need not be betrothed by the end of the night, but such a large party provided an excellent opportunity to make a beginning. Darcy had always accepted that he would choose a bride based primarily on her connections and suitability for the position of mistress of Pemberley, sister to his sister and mother to his children. He would choose a woman for whom he felt at least some friendship, but love was not a necessary component. Still, he had for years half-consciously cherished the flicker of hope that he might find a wife he could love, and who could love him. As he made his way to the refreshment tables, he felt a bit grim, as though he were marching into a desperate battle. His perfectly tailored clothing and noble bearing were his uniform and his wealth and position his weapons. With these things at his disposal, he should have no difficulty finding any number of women happy to accept him, perhaps even a few who were amiable. Still, he did not relish the task, and he was not precisely sure why he was so ambivalent. Darcy appreciated a pretty face and an elegant figure as much as the next man, but he felt no anticipation for the chase. At least the ladies here would be more accomplished and offer more refined conversation than what he had found in the wilds of Hertfordshire last autumn. That was something to look forward to.
His thoughts were interrupted by one of these very ladies, who had appeared at his side, ostensibly to procure a cup of punch. "Mr. Darcy, how lovely to see you," the young woman said, curtsying.
Darcy bowed and returned her greeting. "It is likewise a pleasure to see you again, Miss Hetherston." His purpose still firmly in mind, Darcy briefly considered whether Miss Hetherston might be considered a candidate. She was a pretty girl, about twenty, fairly intelligent, with a good fortune and noble blood. He had only a superficial knowledge of her character, but he knew no harm of her, so he resolved to observe her in order to learn more. "Have you been in London long?"
"Since just after Christmas, Mr. Darcy," she answered. "My family spent the holiday with my uncle in the country. He is the Earl of Rountree, as you may recall. I visit several times a year, but I still cannot help but marvel at the majesty and prestige of that great estate. I imagine you can understand that, sir, being the owner yourself of such a magnificent estate. Pemberley! Although I have never seen it myself, I have often heard it spoken of as one of the most beautiful in England." Miss Hetherston fluttered her eyelashes at Darcy.
"I am indeed, proud of Pemberley," he acknowledged, "although I cannot take credit for all of its beauties."
"And how is your dear sister, Georgiana? Shall she be making her debut soon?"
Darcy felt a prick of annoyance that Miss Hetherston should refer to his sister, whom she had never met, by her Christian name. "Miss Darcy is very well, but I believe it may be another year before she makes her bow. She is still quite young and I do not wish to bring her out before she is ready."
"Oh, tush, Mr. Darcy! Girls younger than Georgiana have been presented at court. Do not worry so about her tender feelings. Within a week of her debut, she will thank you for it, I promise. She will be surrounded by beaux and you will not be troubled much longer with the care of your sister." The young lady sent him a saucy smile.
"I cannot agree with you, Miss Hetherston," Darcy said icily. "I do care very much about Miss Darcy's tender feelings. Her health and comfort are, in fact, the most important things in the world to me, so you will excuse me if I do not take your advice. I bid you good evening." He bowed and abruptly left her.
As he walked away Darcy almost immediately regretted his curtness. Miss Hetherston had removed herself from his list of eligible young ladies by her speech about Georgiana, but if he had disagreed with her more tactfully or simply changed the subject perhaps she might have introduced him to a few of her friends. As it was, he would have to make his own way into the crowd. Quarrelling with the first woman he spoke to was clearly not the best way to begin the evening. Still, there must certainly be other eligible ladies who would not speak so unfeelingly about Georgiana. Surely a lady must be present who would value, love, and respect his dear sister. It was only a matter of finding her. The large room was crowded, and the task of sifting through the many guests in search of a bride might have been daunting, but Darcy had made his resolution and intended to carry it out.
He was not long alone, for the ladies were soon upon him. Darcy's fine figure and fastidious attention to dress were nearly as effective as his wealth at drawing a crowd of female admirers. Young ladies wished to capture his attention for themselves, matrons schemed on behalf of their daughters, and some married ladies even wanted him in their beds. Fortunately for Darcy's purpose, the former were the first to cross his path as he made his way across the room. Deep in thought and only vaguely aware of his surroundings, he nearly collided with a young lady who stood with a small knot of her friends, almost all of whom were known to Darcy.
"I beg your pardon, Miss Mosely," he said, bowing to the petite blonde he had nearly knocked over. "I fear in my haste I did not look where I was going."
"In your haste, Mr. Darcy?" Miss Mosely answered. "Where can you have been going so quickly?"
"Nowhere in particular," he answered with a self-deprecating smile. "But my mind was elsewhere and I have a deplorable habit of hurrying everywhere I go." Darcy turned and acknowledged Miss Mosely's friends with an elegant bow. "Ladies."
The ladies all curtsied in return and a very ordinary conversation began. Once Darcy had been introduced to the two ladies who were unknown to him, he paid little attention to what was actually said as he surveyed his fair companions. They were competing for his notice, so little actual speech was required of him as he perused the faces and figures, linking each in his mind with what he knew about her fortune and connections. One by one he added every young lady in the group to the list from which he had a few minutes ago removed Miss Hetherston. Miss Mosely he nearly dismissed for her extreme youth - she had been at school with Georgiana - but in the end he decided that she might do as well as any other. Girls of sixteen did marry men much older than he, after all. She was rather a sweet girl, which was more than could be said for at least half of the ton. His initial appraisal complete, Darcy returned his attention to the conversation taking place, just in time to be addressed by Lady Charlotte Farnlow.
"Mr. Darcy, I understand from Miss Caroline Bingley that you were a few months in Hertfordshire last autumn. How did you find the country?" she asked.
"Yes, I was indeed in Hertfordshire for several months with Charles Bingley and his family. I found the countryside quite charming, but I am afraid the society left much to be desired."
Lady Charlotte laughed. "So Miss Bingley said! You must tell us all, Mr. Darcy. What dreadful people and things did you see in Hertfordshire?"
Darcy hesitated for a moment, as images of his time in the country flashed through his mind. He knew that a relation of the antics of the Bennet family alone could provide ample amusement for his pretty companions, and indeed that family figured in almost every instance of the worst behavior he had been exposed to in Hertfordshire. The two eldest Miss Bennets, however, he could not include in his reproaches. In spite of the pains he had taken to separate Bingley from Miss Jane Bennet, he knew she was a perfectly well-behaved young woman. As for Miss Elizabeth, although her behavior towards himself had sometimes puzzled Darcy, she was genteel, amiable, and warm-hearted. He could find nothing to censure in the conduct of either. It seemed improbable that two such unexceptionable young ladies should be the daughter of such a harridan as Mrs. Bennet, but so it was.
"It was quite an experience, I assure you," Darcy said, determined to tread carefully. "I was acquainted with a family whose many daughters, all unmarried, behaved in rather a vulgar manner, caring for nothing but dancing and chasing after officers of the local militia."
"Oh dear," tittered Miss Olivia Wilton. "And was not their mother or their governess able to check their wild behavior?"
"Unfortunately, Miss Wilton, it seems the youngest daughters' impropriety reflected that of the mother, who had never engaged a governess for any of her daughters, the youngest of whom is out in society, such as it is, at the age of fifteen."
"How dreadful!" exclaimed Lady Charlotte. "Your account matches perfectly with Miss Bingley's. I did think perhaps she had exaggerated the matter, but it appears not, for I know you never exaggerate, Mr. Darcy."
"I know not what Miss Bingley has told you," Darcy said, "but it is quite true that she was not at all pleased with society in Hertfordshire. To her credit, she played the gracious hostess when Bingley held a ball at Netherfield. It was well attended and enjoyed by all, but not all of Miss Bingley's guests repaid her courtesy by behaving with decorum."
"You must tell us of the ball as well, Mr. Darcy," Lady Charlotte said. "Miss Bingley told me that she wished to forget the ball had ever happened, and will not speak in specifics. Surely you do not feel such hesitation to talk to of it?" she hinted.
"There is not much to tell," Darcy hedged. He was a little surprised that Miss Bingley had refrained from her favorite pastime - disparaging the characters of her Hertfordshire neighbors. Perhaps she wished to avoid any possible mention of Jane Bennet.
Lady Charlotte raised an eyebrow. "Come, Mr. Darcy," she said. "You must tell your friends here about the Netherfield ball. In detail, if you please, or I shall know you are hiding something."
Darcy breathed a sigh of relief when he had finally extricated himself from the crowd of ladies clamoring for stories of the horrors of Hertfordshire without resorting to the sort of cruel derision that Caroline Bingley often employed. While Lady Charlotte had plainly been disappointed by his restraint, he had managed to leave the conversation without giving a hint of the Bennet family's identity. They did not move in the same circles as Lady Charlotte and the rest, but Darcy would consider it highly dishonorable to speak ill of the family by name regardless of his company. He hoped that his story had been convincing. He had talked in general terms of the swarm of redcoats, the unladylike manners of some of the young girls, the lack of good conversation, and the impertinence of the strange, though unnamed, clergyman who had accosted him that night. Lady Charlotte perhaps had some suspicion that there was more to the story, but there was nothing he could do about that. He had nothing more to say on the subject and she would soon find something new to gossip about.
Darcy had to admit that the conversation he had just escaped was not at all superior to many he had overheard in Hertfordshire, in spite of his expectations of refinement. The London ladies spoke in more sophisticated tones, but the topics of conversation were the same. Well, perhaps it was due to the setting. Even Miss Elizabeth Bennet had said that she could never speak of books in a ballroom, and he knew her to be quite as intelligent as she was lovely. He scanned the room, looking for a lady as handsome as Miss Elizabeth, but each was discounted. Her gown at the Netherfield ball was nothing, of course, in comparison to the finery here, but she had a prettier face than any he could see.
In his perambulations, Darcy reached the terrace door and stepped outside, where it was quite a bit cooler. The terrace was quite large, and a number of other guests had come in search of relief from the overheated ballroom. Small groups of ladies and gentlemen stood talking in the dim light cast from the house, while movement in the shadows told him that others less respectably engaged were barely out of sight. In the dim light his eyes continued to seek the like of Elizabeth Bennet. It was hard to distinguish anyone's features in the murky evening, but he looked anyway. Suddenly he was brought up short in his walk when he caught sight of Elizabeth Bennet herself, in conversation with three or four ladies by the railing. What could she be doing here? Darcy stood still, flustered by her unexpected presence and undecided as to where his next step would take him. He knew he should turn back and return to the ballroom. He admired Elizabeth a great deal, but had no intention of pursuing her, for many reasons. Approaching her would only assure the continuance of their acquaintance, which would in turn make it more difficult to shake off his infatuation. He was planning to marry some well-connected lady or other soon, wasn't he? On the other hand, it had been over a month since the Netherfield ball and the idea of looking at her, of speaking with her again was a very great temptation. He could hardly bear to turn away, although he thought himself a fool for having so little control over his own thoughts.
In the end, Darcy chose neither option, staying on the terrace but moving away from the group of ladies. He stationed himself much farther down the railing and stared out into the darkened garden, trying to contain his agitation. He strained to hear some trace of her voice, her laugh, but he was too far from the group to catch any hint of her. After some struggle, Darcy glanced surreptitiously in her direction, only to see that a handsome young man had joined the group and was paying special attention to Elizabeth. After a few moments' conversation, she took the gentleman's arm and they walked inside. Darcy found himself unable to keep from following the couple at a short distance, wondering who the lucky man was. As the darkness melted away, however, Darcy could see that he had been mistaken. The lady was not Elizabeth Bennet, nor did she resemble her in much aside of height and hair color. He stopped following the couple and stood at the edge of the ballroom, thinking himself a fool and conscious of a feeling of great disappointment. He had wandered about in search of Elizabeth's like and in the dim light of the terrace he had grasped at the slightest resemblance and his imagination had filled in the rest.
Darcy's peace for the evening was destroyed. His agitation was beginning to subside, but his heart still pounded and his neckcloth felt much too tight. He had believed that thoughts of Miss Elizabeth had been put behind him once he had begun carrying out his plans to urge Bingley away from Miss Jane, but it seemed that they had only been pushed to the side temporarily, appearing almost out of nowhere and taking him completely by surprise. Darcy inwardly cursed his own lack of self control. In spite of Elizabeth's many attractions, her situation in life made it impossible for him to pursue her, but he had not yet been able to forget her. He needed to cure himself of this imprudent fascination so he could concentrate on finding a wife. It would not do for his eyes to be constantly darting about the ballrooms and parlors of London in search of a woman who he knew was not there. Elizabeth was miles away in Hertfordshire, living her country life. Darcy wondered if she ever thought of him. As a gentleman, he hoped she did not, since he had no wish to have raised any vain hopes. As a man, however, he would have liked to know that she had admired him as much as he did her. He did not know what she thought or felt about him, though, and his mind told him that was best. He must make every effort to put Elizabeth Bennet out of his head for good.