The Super-Excellent Disposition
Jane pushed back her long dark mane, no longer wavy while it was soaking wet, and prepared to get out of the tub. The towel rack full of snowy linen seemed just too far out of reach...
"Jane! Jane, you've been in there all morning!"
Jane Bennet lifted her eyebrows at the agitated whisper, though the speaker outside her door could hardly see. "It's only six-fifteen, Elizabeth. When in the world did you get out of bed? I left you sound asleep at three-quarters-past five." She got the towels quickly around her while speaking.
"Sh." Her sister's whisper became less urgent and more cajoling. "Jane, I must get in. I rose soon after you got up, and I've been waiting to wash since then. Do hurry."
Lukewarm water fell from Jane's dark hair into the wooden tub as she wrung it-being now out of the tub, and in her warmest cotton dressing gown. She smiled when Elizabeth had finished. It was, after all, her turn to smile.
For many years Elizabeth had been, by wit and inclination, the only Bennet daughter enabled to laugh at the follies of her sisters. Not that this laughter was untempered by Lizzy's sweetness of heart. But...
"Dear heart, I shall only be five minutes longer," trilled Jane in a perfect imitation of either Kitty or Lydia.
On the other side of the door, Elizabeth groaned. "Jane!"
"I am out. Come you in now and get ready for your beloved."
"I shall never thank you enough, for you do not deserve my thanks."
"Certainly I do." Jane opened the washroom door with a certain grin that had seldom been on Jane's face before they both had become engaged. "I'm the only one, under present circumstances, who understands the necessity of beginning your toilette three hours before you come downstairs."
"I do thank you," the nightgowned Elizabeth said, her mouth twisting into a rueful smile. "Might I ask you to help me with some new lace my mother has bought, afterwards? I think... he'll like it."
"And I think if you keep smiling at me in that intolerably smug manner I'll push you back into the tub," she continued brightly.
Jane smothered a peal of laughter as she pushed by Lizzy and ran to their own room. Their mother might plague them, their father might benevolently tease them, their little sisters might sigh and the whole of Meryton join in gossip over the eldest Bennet girls' engagements, but the girls each had in the other a compassionate ally.
Most of the time.
Though summer was now certainly over, its warmth remained. The coolness of autumn had not yet made inroads upon the outings of the Bennet family. Both elder Miss Bennets walked slowly over the lawn after breakfast with their mother was over, for their father was in London with their uncle Gardiner and would not return until the middle of the next week. Remaining indoors while their mother bemoaned his absence at "such a very busy time, for me, when he knows I need him here to help with the gentlemen's company!" appealed to no one. Mrs. Bennet herself was quite happy in sorting out how much embroidery, and of which kind, should go on the second-best tablecloths. Even Jane could escape the house without a guilty conscience.
Kitty soon came out and joined her elder sisters on the shrubbery walk. "Jane, Mamma is scolding me more now than ever. Why is it she never scolds Mary so much?"
Her eldest sister bent a warm smile on Kitty's pettish face. "Mary is not with the family as much as you, Kitty. And were you as model a daughter as was ever born, my mother would scold you now; she is too busily occupied to always speak kindly."
Elizabeth caught herself and did not roll her eyes. "True enough, Kitty. And the more you help her with the linen, the more she shall scold you-but it does not follow that she does not want help."
"I shan't go in there. You needn't hint at me."
Elizabeth poked Kitty in the ribs; whereat the younger gave a ticklish squeal. With such encouragement for her playfulness Lizzy soon broke away from Jane's arm and gave chase to Kitty down the garden path, and not in vain, for Kitty never ran more than ten steps if she could help it. She was soon caught and getting more bedraggled than ever in a gorgeous tickle fight.
"Jane, I hoped you would assist," Elizabeth said with sparkling eyes and very little breath. "This little frog I found is too slippery for one person to hold-"
"Lizzy, do let her go."
"Ouch!" said Elizabeth with the utmost surprise. Kitty broke free wearing a diabolic grin and Jane stared at her. Kitty, the peevish and spoilt? Ordinarily even Lizzy's mild teasing made her too petulant for company, but she seemed to be enjoying this as fine sport.
Lydia's influence was already fading, Jane thought, and then shook her head at herself for rejoicing in her ruined, but still much loved, sister's absence.
Meanwhile Kitty held up Elizabeth's sash and hair ribbon in triumph. "I think I've won, have I not?"
"Yes, Kitty, but might I ask-"
"And these are my trophies." She looked at them fondly. "Well, I'll find a case to put them in. Lizzy, you might like to look over your right shoulder." At which Kitty ran off towards the house, waiting only a few seconds before bursting into laughter as she ran.
"Oh, Elizabeth," Jane said, looking round. She was trying so hard not to smile that Elizabeth could hear it.
"I'm not turning around," said she. "I'm going straight into the house and keep whoever it is here, Jane, I beg you. Tell them-tell them-"
"Go, Lizzy! You're a sight, and it IS Darcy."
Elizabeth choked and began to sprint for the house, her hair and dress flying like flags in the wind.
'Twas as fine a day as he could ask, Darcy reflected as he strolled along the Bennets' neat shrubbery walks; he grinned at the great space between the footprints he followed. Jane he had left on the other side of Longbourn; Mrs. Bennet and Kitty had hardly delayed him, and with so clear a trail on the ground, nothing else could hinder his search for long.
Elizabeth's curls trailing in the wind were foremost in his memory. He quickened his stride. But-dash it-
The footprints had vanished!
He stopped, knelt, muttered, dusted his knees, looked up across the fields, and found himself gazing intently at a large, cozy barn sleeping in the afternoon sun.
Miss Elizabeth reached the barn panting and fuming at her impulsiveness. She, a woman of almost one-and-twenty; she had thought herself more mature than Kitty! Apparently not. But who would have thought Kitty could be so diabolically...prankish, if not clever? Even as she hunted for a relatively clean corner in which to hide, Elizabeth giggled appreciatively at the joke played on her. After all, it was her fault for losing her self-possession, and poor Darcy could wait until tea-time without coming here to look for her; she would not budge. She began to wonder if Jane had had a part in all this madness.
Her good-natured approach to the joke suddenly vanished as a man's footsteps, striding quickly toward the barn in afternoon silence, sounded like thunder in her ears. She swung shut the door of the stall she happened to be investigating and made herself still. Breathing through her nose, Elizabeth held her skirts around her. Who knew what she looked like after walking in all this dusty, ubiquitous hay! Darcy-oh, let it be Simmons. Let it be anyone but...I know that step-oh, dearest, go away! Just for one hour!
He had no intention of doing anything of the kind; he had entered the barn already and was moving as stealthily as a cat on the loose fragmented hay covering the floor. Millions of dust motes and smaller hay fragments caressed his coat, clinging lovingly to it as he moved through the air-this bothered him not at all; he hoped that by waiting long enough he might hear a full-blown sneeze from one of these stalls. As the planks of the doors were rather higher than his eyes, he tried pushing them gently. The first one creaked.
No response... he pushed it open.
Nothing but straw.
Pushing open a door on a defenseless damsel in a barn, however-it didn't seem right, and his conscience at last forbade it. He drew back to stand before the stalls with his hands in his pockets. Were there not even animals that belonged here in the afternoon?! They would surely moo, neigh, bark, do something to tell him there was a lady in their sanctuary. But nothing moved or smelled like animal in here, except the hay. Botheration. And then he sneezed.
Now, Darcy's sneezes never were milk-soppish, but this one, taking him by surprise as it were, and being induced by air thick with dust and straw and whatever else floats in a respectable barn, could have shamed elephants.
The echo had not died away when he heard the end of a lady's started yelp on his right.
Fair game! Thought Darcy in delight, sniffing cautiously after the sneeze. He went to the last stall and gently knocked.
Straw rustled, the faintest noise.
"Elizabeth..." he coaxed.
"Go away," She pleaded gently. "Only until tea-time. Please, Mr. Darcy!"
"I would say I could not refuse you anything, but that I refuse to be denied your presence on a day like this. Come, Miss Elizabeth Bennet-"
The door threatened to brain him as it opened outward. "All right then, Darcy, you shall have it! Such as it looks right now..."
Manfully did Darcy bite his lips at the sight of his loveliest Elizabeth in a post-trauma morning-gown with her curls frosted all over with golden straw, her indescribable eyes mutinously turned up to him.
"Well? Did I not inform you it was best to let me be for a mere half-hour?"
He didn't bother correcting her. "Dearest Elizabeth. When have you been more lovely?"
She gasped; she knew when he was being quite serious. Or did she?
Darcy leaned on the oak frame of the stall where he and Elizabeth faced one another; her face was still caught in a slightly stunned expression. However, he had only spoken the truth. She was lovelier in this old barn and that frosting of straw over her curls than she had ever seemed before, though he did not know why at all.
He leaned over her and puffed gently, blowing the largest fragments of hay out of her hair.
"No dearest, I thank you for opening the door-though next time I shall step away from it first, if I have the chance."
"Darcy," she exclaimed, "did I hit you?"
"No. Not through any fault of your own, however."
"And you tracked me all the way here just to tease me, I must assume."
Her eyes had inevitably lost their anger and were gleaming their familiar bewitching gleam, much as she tried not to relax. Darcy felt his knees wobble.
"That purpose would serve as well as another."
"Mm." She retreated a few steps into the stall, casting a saucy glance at him over her shoulder. "I suggest you find another one to make up for making me almost hit you with that door."
"I beg your pardon??"
"That will do nicely; I grant it."
"Eliza-" he began as she turned to face him again; but soemthing went wrong under Miss Bennet's feet. The hay upheaved, and Elizabeth clamped her lips over a scream as a white bundle wriggled out from under her and "BaaaAAAAA"'d plaintively at Darcy.
"By Jove," Darcy laughed, stooping down to the young lamb's level. "Another stray whose pardon I've got to beg. And I do," he added solemnly to the lamb's accusing stare. "Do you accept, sir?"
"It might be a madam," Elizabeth said faintly, still with clenched fists.
"If it were, I should have you apologize! To each his own." At which the sheep decided to butt Darcy in the waistcoat-eliciting a surprised grunt-before galloping out of the stall, either to join its fellows on the south meadow or chew on Mrs. Bennet's kitchen garden.
"There's gratitude for you," Elizabeth remarked as Darcy brushed himself off. He harumphed again: "At least I'm well repaid for dishonourably chasing you here; and you had not even to exact the revenge yourself, sweet one."
Elizabeth grinned, her bad temper completely gone with the hoofbeats of the lamb. "'Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably!'" she quoted with a merry chuckle.
"Are we indeed?" he replied under his breath. He stepped forward, and Elizabeth got herself behind the stall's manger. "You may once have been my dear Lady Disdain, but that lady is no longer living-"
"Not even with such meet food to feed upon as Signior D'arcy? I suppose not, because he stopped being meet food quite a long time ago; yes, I must agree with you there. How dull to agree so readily!"
"Will you stay until tea?" He asked, eyes dancing.
"I must do something about this dratted dress before then, sir."
"Stay until then."
" 'Then' is spoken, so now shall I go-"
" -'but first I shall tell you about your-' sister, Kitty. Do you know she has almost as diabolical a sense of humour as have you?"
"I'm beginning to see it. It is astounding, Fitzwilliam, how one's own family can surprise, amuse, and humiliate one, after more than twenty years spent accustoming oneself to their habits and tempers. If Georgiana should undergo a rapid change in the near future, do not go blaming me for it! 'Tis only the course of nature."
"Georgiana is too near a perfect sister for me to want much change in her, but if it occurs, I shall not blame you, dearest. Not even if I should." He had put one foot on the manger, thus to talk more comfortably with her, and she smiled.
"I really must go soon, my love..."
"Not so fast," he exclaimed. "We hadn't got to the end of the play yet."
"We're not close to the end yet, Mr. Darcy."
"We can skip." He threw out his arms dramatically, making her giggle. " 'Beatrice, do you not love me?'"
" 'Why, no! No more than reason.'"
"Then your sister is much mistaken, for she did tell me you did," he paraphrased in a completely natural tone.
"Do you not love me?"
"Why no, no more than reason!"
"Then your friend Bingley is much deceived, for he did swear you did."
"She said you fled to the shrubbery for me!"
"He said that you were well-nigh dead for me," said Elizabeth, more faithfully to the play perhaps, but with a struggling countenance.
"So, you do not love me?"
"No, truly, but in good fellowship-" She protested, like a good Beatrice, but not very enthusiastically.
Darcy decided to skip some more.
"Very well," he sighed, "I will marry thee, but by this light-" (dimming a bit by now) "I take thee for pity."
"I will marry you, but partly to save your life, for I was told you were in a consumption," rejoined Elizabeth with spirit and not a little laughter.
"Peace," Darcy half-growled, laughing as he leaned over the manger. "I will stop your mouth." And he did, tenderly, making Elizabeth forget altogether that she had only half an hour to dress before tea.
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