The morning after the Netherfield ball saw the Bingley sisters and Mr. Darcy up early. Over breakfast, they found much to discuss about the previous evening's events. Bingley was still above stairs preparing for his journey into town. With his absence, the conversation turned to the comportment of the various members of the Bennet family.
First, they laughed over the horror of Mary Bennet's performance at the piano-forte. Next they alluded to Mrs. Bennet's foolish and loud conversation throughout the evening. Then they discussed the clergyman's presumption in speaking to Darcy without introduction. Miss Bingley was greatly enjoying all of the disparagement of Elizabeth Bennet's family, and could not possibly leave Miss Eliza herself out of her criticisms.
Caroline set her sights on Mr. Darcy. "Mr. Darcy, I did my best to warn Miss Elizabeth Bennet of the defects of Mr. Wickham, but she would not hear me." Darcy looked up at Caroline in surprise, pleased by this apparent act of friendship, or so he thought until she continued, "She was most rude in rejecting my assistance. I suppose that her 'fine eyes' are blinded by his charms."
She smiled and lowered her own eyes, anticipating a reply that would for once and all dismiss Darcy's attraction to Elizabeth Bennet.
Darcy tried not to react at all to Miss Bingley's remarks, but the sting of Wickham's influence over Miss Elizabeth Bennet wounded him deeply. He had had much trouble falling asleep thinking of her obvious partiality for that man and trying not to imagine what caused her to feel it so strongly. The idea of Elizabeth Bennet falling victim to Wickham's ways bothered him more than he cared to admit.
He set aside his napkin and walked over to the window to look out at the day in hopes that Miss Bingley would not be able to see his discomfort. "Mr. Wickham is gifted with the happy manners that make it easy for him to make friends. Whether or not he can keep them is a different matter." How he loathed that man!
"I, for one, do not find him charming in the least. I do not understand how any woman could be taken in by him. I had not thought Miss Bennet so lacking in understanding. Well, he certainly has her friendship, though to what degree I do not know. She defended him most passionately." Caroline looked closely at Darcy.
His anger flashed powerfully, choking him. First his sister, now his... Elizabeth. He tried not to think of Georgiana's heartbreak and glanced at Miss Bingley in what he hoped was a passably indifferent manner, "I am sorry to hear that. He is not worthy of her. I hope she will soon understand his character."
Long study of Darcy convinced Miss Bingley that he was indeed affected by her information. She shook her head doubtfully, "I have heard that she is quite pleased by him. Apparently they spent nearly an entire evening in close conversation at a recent gathering. They seemed quite unaware of the rest of the room, as I hear it."
Darcy nodded, thinking that that must have been when Wickham convinced her that Darcy had somehow wronged him. That seemed to be what she was leading up to in their conversation as they danced. He recalled that she indicated that Wickham had 'lost his friendship in such a way that he was unlikely to soon recover from it.' He struggled with his jealous feelings.
"But do not trouble yourself for Miss Eliza on that account," offered Louisa Hurst. "I believe she will be safe soon enough. Her mother practically announced her engagement to her cousin the clergyman last night. What was it she said? Oh, yes." Mrs. Hurst pursed her lips and shook her head about, gesturing wildly as she shrilled, "Mr. Collins has taken quite a fancy to Lizzy. It will not be so grand a match as Jane and Mr. Bingley, but to have two daughters married will be such a comfort to my nerves."
Louisa's imitation of Mrs. Bennet was dead spot on. Both sisters laughed so hard that tears flowed down their cheeks. They looked to Mr. Darcy expecting an appreciative reaction to such a performance, but were sorely disappointed. Mr. Darcy's complexion had paled. His lips were pressed tightly together and his hands were clenched tightly into fists.
Despite Mrs. Hurst's assurance, he could not consider Elizabeth 'safe' in marrying that man. He looked at the two possibilities presented him with mortification. No woman had ever affected him as Elizabeth Bennet did, to be certain. Now he saw that she was pursued by the womanizing Wickham and a simpering idiot who idolized his aunt DeBourgh. He was appalled. He was also quite uncomfortable with the strength of his interest.
Caroline's assessment was that either he was indignant over Mrs. Bennet's presumption of a match between Charles and Jane, OR that Eliza Bennet had a much stronger hold over Darcy than she'd suspected. In case the latter were true, she intended to drive home her rival's low situation while she held such advantage, regardless of any pain she might bring to Mr. Darcy. As to her brother's situation, she would come to that as soon as her first concern, turning Darcy's interest from Eliza Bennet toward her, was accomplished.
"Well, I suppose if you view the match from the Bennets' point of view it is a good one," she said.
"Oh, Caroline, surely not," replied Louisa. "With such a man?"
Her sister answered. "Consider, Louisa. Mr. Collins is to inherit the Bennet's 'estate' on their father's death. He is clergyman to the family of DeBourgh, with a very fair living in Kent for such a person. He is really an appropriate suitor for Eliza Bennet's hand. She has no fortune. She has extremely low connections. Her family is ridiculous in the extreme. And in truth, can you imagine a man better suited to be son-in-law to Mrs. Bennet?"
"What about you, Mr. Darcy...?" Darcy turned to stare at Caroline in sick wonder at this barb. She finally finished her question, "...Can you think of any man more appropriate?"
Darcy refused to answer, merely looking away and shaking his head. He was aware of intense feelings of nausea.
Louisa spoke up, "Caroline, I cannot agree with you. I feel pity for her. To be married to such a man!"
Both Caroline and Darcy struggled not to look at the near-comatose form of Mr. Hurst. Their eyes met and Caroline shrugged.
Louisa did not notice and continued, "Can you imagine retiring for the evening and having that man accompany you to your chamber! His... greasy hair, his sweaty... hands...ugh!"
All three shuddered, Louisa because she knew what it was to be married to a man she did not love, Caroline because she had never even been pursued by a man as unattractive as Collins, Darcy because he was imagining Collins and Elizabeth together.
Darcy pictured that man kissing those beautiful lips. He pictured that man pawing her. He pictured that man climbing into bed with her. His nausea increased ten-fold. He tightly held to the window frame.
"I believe I can guess what you are thinking, Mr. Darcy," said Miss Bingley.
Weakly, he replied, "I imagine not."
She pronounced hopefully, "You are thinking that I am correct in my assessment that Mr. Collins would be an eligible match for Miss Eliza. You are thinking that we are silly to discuss such romantic notions as whether or not such a man would make a pleasing husband. For a girl such as Eliza Bennet, he will be a good match."
Darcy struggled to banish all thoughts of Mr. Collins attempting to please Elizabeth Bennet from his mind.
He was amazed at Miss Bingley's statement. He could not decide which part of it he disagreed with most. He decided not to be drawn into a discussion of Mr. Collins' eligibility as a match, but instead said, "I do not think that it is silly to wish for a marriage partner to be pleasing. I think that it is silly to assume that people should marry with a complete and utter disregard for such considerations."
Miss Bingley was taken aback. She decided to pursue her goals from a different angle. She turned to her sister, "Really, Louisa, I do not think that Mrs. Bennet could have behaved any worse. I do not believe it possible. I am astonished at her," she said. "Not only did she talk freely of her daughter marrying Charles, but she actually said that if they were to marry it would throw her other daughters in the way of other rich men! Such audacity and presumption! As if our brother could ever sink so low in his connections."
This last was said with somewhat less conviction, as Caroline shared the opinion of the others in the room that Charles Bingley was strongly attached to Jane Bennet. She was equally convinced that she did not desire to see such a match take place.
She continued, "To think of that woman being Charles' mother-in-law. No, it is not to be borne."
Darcy did not respond at first. He was contemplating his reactions to the idea of either George Wickham or that ridiculous clergyman becoming more than just common acquaintances to Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Which would be worse? Wickham would eventually make any woman miserable with his spendthrift ways and his libertine manner. Collins was ridiculous beyond belief. But truly, was there any man he would see as a good match for her? A small part of his mind whispered, "She is only for you, Darcy. Make her yours!"
He had never really considered marrying anyone before. Now to find himself thinking of an alliance with someone so far beneath him... no matter how bewitching and intoxicating he found her... he was astonished at himself. How could he so lose sight of who he was? He thought again of her mother and her silly sisters. Even her father behaved very oddly. How could he possibly think of such an alliance? What would his family say if he so forgot his obligations and responsibilities to them? No. He must put her from his mind. However, he knew his own strength or, in this case, lack thereof. Every time he saw her he became more enamored. He must remove himself from her presence.
Miss Bingley waited for Darcy to say something. When she realized he was not going to, she continued, "I wish we could persuade him not to return from London at all. Really, Mr. Darcy, you must make him see."
Decided that removal from Hertfordshire was necessary, Darcy nodded emphatically, "You are correct. Removing to London would do us all a world of good."
Miss Bingley was ecstatic. She smiled triumphantly at her sister, "Yes, yes. It would be a disastrous match. You must help Charles see that, Mr. Darcy."
Darcy sought to justify his suggestion, to the company as well as himself. He said, "I believe that you are correct. It would be a most unfortunate match. Moreover, I am not convinced that the lady's feelings are the same as your brother's. Her heart seems not likely to be touched. I fear that she receives more encouragement from her mother than from her own inclination. I should not like to see Charles in a marriage to a woman who did not love him."
Miss Bingley said, "Then we should all go to London. We can make him understand the seriousness of the situation and make certain he stays there for the winter." Most satisfied at the turn of events, she walked to the window to stand beside Darcy. "It is a lovely day, do you not agree, Mr. Darcy?"
He looked at her smug smile, trying to forget the smiles of the lady he wished were standing beside him. He pushed aside the twinge of doubt he felt in planning to separate Bingley from Jane Bennet and the pronounced sense of loneliness he felt at the idea of not seeing Elizabeth Bennet again. Then, he looked out the window and quietly replied, "It seems a cold and bleak day to me."
Darcy squared his shoulders, resolute in his course.
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