Modesty & Mischief
Chapter Nineteen: Bennetism
"Oh, Lizzy! What riches! So this is what can be had for ten thousand a year!" The Bennets had arrived on schedule, and Mrs. Bennet's vulgar enthusiasm was promptly unleashed. She had never seen Pemberley, but having imagined much of the fine estate, she was finally able to compare her dream with reality, point by excruciating point. Elizabeth had fairly begged her husband to stay away in these first moments, for she knew how her mother would be, and did not want him mortified. Mr. Darcy, however, was determined to bear it all with good humour, and stood with his wife as she received her family.
"I am happy you like Pemberley, Mrs. Bennet," was his unruffled reply.
"Like it! Oh, Mr. Darcy, do not be silly! For who would not love this enormous house? I knew how it would be! I was sure Netherfield was nothing in comparison, for Mr. Bingley only has five thousand a year- although that is fine for Jane. What luxury! Mr. Bennet, why are you not saying anything? Look at the carpeting! Where is your astonishment?"
Mr. Bennet, who had visited Pemberley on his own already, replied that his own astonishment, on finding it exactly as he remembered, was very small. He gave Mr. Darcy a look of heavy sympathy, however. "My dear sir, close off as many rooms as you can, or you will be subjected to these same compliments in each of them," was his aside of advice to the gentleman.
"And such curtains! I know they cannot come cheaply. Nor this elegant table! Nay, Lizzy, you have got a fine life here, to be sure!"
"Yes, Mama, I am very happy," said Elizabeth, embarrassed for her mother's total want of tact. "But do not let me keep you here- you must be tired. And I am sure you want to settle your things before supper."
"Oh, no, I shall get to all that soon enough. I must see everything at once!"
But good Mr. Bennet took his wife firmly by the elbow, and would not let her shake free. "Come, Madam. Let us go up. There will be ample time later, I am sure, for you to affix a price tag to every piece of furniture in the household."
"A price tag! What a strange man you are. Oh, very well, I shall go, but only because I am so tired from the horrible journey! I was jostled all across the country in that stage until I thought I should be ill indeed. My nerves are destroyed, dear Lizzy- destroyed! You must see that I am sent up smelling salts at once, for I know I shall faint from all this commotion."
"If you wish to avoid the hubbub," commented Mr. Bennet, dragging his wife from the drawing room, "I suggest you cease to create it."
Mr. Darcy had to swallow a laugh at this, and waited until the Bennets had quite gone before he allowed himself to express his mirth.
Lizzy turned to him, already weary, and groaned. "Well, William," she said, "I did not marry you for your money, and you did not marry me for my family; but now I am rich, and you are rich in relatives. Surely it is an equal exchange." She kissed him for his tolerance, and the two spent an hour quietly together, grateful for the time it took people to unpack.
Kitty and Georgiana had taken charge of Mary Bennet and Maria Lucas, and the four girls were in the music room going over all the finery of the instruments and reveling in the happy arrangements of the room itself. Even Miss Mary forgot to give a lecture on the sins of overindulgence and greed as she sat down at the pianoforte, which was quite the prettiest one she had ever seen. This did not stop her, however, from debasing it at once by playing it herself, accompanied of course by the tasteless sound of her own lamentable singing.
While Mary was thus entertained, Maria went breathlessly around the room as if afraid to touch anything. "Oh, Kitty!" I cannot believe it! How kind of you both to invite me! Miss Darcy, you are too good!" Georgiana protested it was nothing, and asked if Miss Lucas would not like to see her room and have time to prepare for supper. Maria said she would, and went up with Miss Darcy. Kitty had a harder time persuading Mary away from what cannot fairly be called music, but eventually she convinced her sister that it was a virtue to be punctual for the family meal, and so Mary went morally upstairs to ready herself in time.
An hour later, all those in the household were seated at table, and the Bennets dominated the lot. Colonel Fitzwilliam, who had been at Miss Campbell's house all afternoon, had missed their arrival, and being the only person present who had not ever shared a meal with the Bennets, one may imagine the expressions his countenance took on throughout the course of the conversation.
"It is just like home! All together again! Except of course without Lydia, or Jane. And it is much finer here. I declare this dining hall could swallow up our first floor altogether! I am so amazed! Miss Darcy, you must be a happy girl, to have grown up in such a house. You shall have no trouble getting a very good husband, I'm sure!"
Georgiana, who had absolutely no idea how to respond to such an outburst, only stared at Lizzy, who sighed.
"Is everyone quite comfortable in their rooms? Mary? Maria?"
"I dare say they are," cut in Mrs. Bennet, before either girl could answer. "Miss Lucas, I am sure you never had half such a room when you stayed with the Collinses at Hunsford. No, of course not, although they will have Longbourn, too, when Mr. Bennet dies. But that is nothing when Lizzy has Pemberley! I feel that we are all quite provided for!"
Maria could not deny that her room at her sister Charlotte's house was not at all comparable to her room at present, but as it was a very uncomfortable subject, she only nodded mutely.
"Yes," continued Mrs. Bennet, "I am sure this is even more wonderful than Rosings Park! Even with Mr. Collins always going on and on about it, always telling the price of the chimney piece or the size of the breakfast room, I am sure it is nothing."
"They are about the same size," Mr. Darcy informed her, in a tone of perfect civility, which he was finding it a little difficult to maintain. But he would be pleasant, for Elizabeth's sake. He had learned his lesson with Kitty, and every Bennet would be borne with patience.
"The size of a house little matters, Mama," droned Mary, winding up for a sermon, "when you consider that it is the meek who are to inherit the earth, and the poor who are blessed."
"Yes, thank you, Mary," said Elizabeth sharply, hoping she would cut her sister off at once. She wished in a moment that she had allowed Mary to continue, for her mother's next speeches were far more damaging to the family character.
"Well if the size does not matter, then I do not know what. You would do well to worry about it, Mary, for when your father dies and the Collinses take Longbourn you will not have a house at all, unless you manage to get married. It is a good thing we purchased that new gown for you. You must try to be obliging at the ball, and meet some nice young man who is not particular about beauty."
"Well? Oh, Lizzy, you know I am right. And while we are on the subject, Kitty, you must also be looking out for a good match. I dare say you have met some well-to-do gentleman or other? You have had six weeks to do it."
Kitty blushed; knowing that she had accomplished what her mother wished for, and was horrifed that Mrs. Bennet would find out about Mr. Newcastle's proposal and hound her to death on the subject. Kitty sent pleading looks around the table to Elizabeth, Georgiana, and Mr. Darcy, but she need not have worried; none of those intelligent people would have dreamt of betraying her secret.
"Catherine has made many friends in the neighborhood, Mrs. Bennet."
"Well, Mr. Darcy, I hope she shall make some particular friends. I am sure that you and Elizabeth can take charge of that, for she is to be with you another six weeks, and twelve weeks together is plenty of time for arranging such things. Why that is three months! Kitty, you are a pretty sort of girl, though not half so handsome as your sister Jane. But then, neither is Lizzy, and look how well she has done! Are you not a single man, Colonel Fitzwilliam?" Fitzwilliam jumped, and his eyes darted from Kitty to Mary in acute discomfiture.
"Mrs. Bennet, I beg you, desist." Her husband glared at her, and then looked at his favourite daughter regretfully. "Lizzy, my love, tell me about your life. Has anything happened lately? You have hardly had a chance to tell me anything."
"Thank you Papa, but there is not much to tell." Elizabeth and her husband had decided to wait before divulging the news of her pregnancy. They would not tell Mrs. Bennet until she was literally walking out the door to return to Longbourn, for the Darcys were in no hurry to hear the predictably embarrassing expressions of that lady's joy, and designed to keep them as brief as possible. "Mr. Darcy and I celebrated our first anniversary last week; that is an occasion worth mentioning."
"And were there presents?" Mrs. Bennet demanded hungrily. "I am sure there were."
Elizabeth was unprepared for the question, though she chastised herself that she should have expected it. Reluctantly, she gave the answer. "Yes, Mama, my husband gave me a very thoughtful gift indeed."
Kitty and Georgiana both looked at her in bewilderment. They had not been told of any presents. "What is it, Lizzy? Can you tell us?" asked Kitty.
"I can." Elizabeth looked at Kitty warningly, as if to prepare her for something. "Mr. Darcy has commissioned my portrait."
Kitty gasped, and Georgiana cried, "Who is to paint it?"
"Mr. John Douglas has agreed to paint it," replied Mr. Darcy, watching Kitty's face turn white, then red, as she struggled with this information. "Whenever he returns to Derbyshire with Mr. Stirling, he will begin. He was meant to start the painting on the day of our anniversary," Darcy explained to those at that table who did not know the story, "but unfortunately he has been out of town to help a friend."
"Then he will return to Derbyshire?" Georgiana asked, for Kitty's sake, since Kitty could not speak at present.
"As soon as does his friend. I had only just arranged it when he was called away . He plans to have Elizabeth sit for him at the beginning of January."
"Who is this Mr. Douglas?" demanded Mrs. Bennet, whose wits may have failed her in every other aspect, but were sharp as talons when gentlemen were the subject. She sensed at once that the painter was of no little interest to the young ladies.
"He is the most accomplished portrait artist in the country that I know of," answered Mr. Darcy, "though very young. I imagine you will hear of him before long. His master was Comghall."
"Ah!" cried Mr. Bennet. "I have read of him. A very famous painter! Do you not have some of his works in this very house?"
"The portraits of my late parents were done by his hand."
"And his young apprentice is to capture my Lizzy, eh? Well, that is a fine gift indeed. I hope I shall come back to see it soon after it is accomplished."
"I am sure you shall."
"And so shall I! Oh, my daughter's picture to hang in the halls of Pemberley! I know it will be very large. And by a famous artist, too! I shall go distracted, I know I shall!" Mrs. Bennet's glee was, for once, happily infectious. Colonel Fitzwilliam declared that it was high time Mrs. Darcy's image was rendered along with the rest of the family. Maria Lucas thought it quite the most romantic thing she had ever heard of, and let out a heartfelt little sigh. Even Mary, after an obligatory comment about the unnecessary evils of 'graven images', admitted that she would very much like to see a canvas of her sister done by a true proficient.
And Kitty? How can her heart be described at that moment? She had only just taught herself not to hope. It had been two full weeks since Mr. Douglas had attended his comrade to Sussex, and last Kitty had seen him, the future had seemed bleak indeed. To know, all at once and unmistakably, that he would not only be back in Derbyshire, but at Pemberley itself within a fortnight! The sensation in her heart was so intense that Kitty knew it must be love; and what she had fought so hard against since John Douglas had gone away, she now surrendered to.
Begging a headache, Kitty excused herself. She stumbled out of the dining hall and up to her chamber, where she fell on her bed and sobbed like an exhausted child. In a moment, Georgiana was beside her with a handkerchief and a steadying embrace.
"Oh, Georgiana! I shall see him again! At least I shall have that much happiness. I do not even care that I must dance with Mr. Newcastle. Let him dance with me; let him come propose to me again, what does it matter? If there is even the slightest chance"-- here Kitty stopped herself, feeling she shouldn't express her unfounded wishes too recklessly.
But Georgiana no longer cared about moderation in such moments, for she was in love herself. "I know, Kitty. I know," she empathized, her own emotions threatening to overcome her. "We are both so very full of hopes! At least we do not have to deny it to each other."
"That is such a comfort!" Kitty threw her arms around her sister, and their hopes and fears mingled together as both imagined what might happen when Arthur and John returned, two weeks hence.
* * *
At the same moment in time, Mrs. Lydia Wickham had just settled her affairs in Lambton, and was making herself quite comfortable at the inn. Her heart was also high with hopes, but not of the innocent sort. She was occupied with plans of the mischief she was very soon to cause at her sister's home, and it excited her to be within a few short miles of the scene.
After taking a glass of wine, Lydia kicked off her shoes and lounged in a chair, wondering how she was to contain herself for two days. She had half a mind to go to Pemberley right off, so impatient was she to see the looks on their faces, but she was saved from any further deliberations on the issue by a knock on the door, and the chambermaid's subsequent entrance.
"A Mr. Weldon is here to see you, ma'am," said the girl.
Lydia clapped her hands. Already! He was a day early, but so much the better. "Tell him to come in," she commanded. The maid glanced fleetingly at Lydia's bare feet and the open bottle of wine on the side table, but as it was not her place to say anything, she showed up the lady's guest without a murmur.
"Mr. Weldon!" He was tall and handsome, and Lydia felt herself quite in danger of having a flirtation.
"Mrs. Wickham. How nice to finally meet George's little wife. He has told me all about you; I confess he can never stop talking of how beautiful you are, and how rarely formed. I must say he told the truth for once. You are quite an appealing girl." He kissed her hand, and though his compliment was as inappropriate as it was insincere, Mrs. Wickham went mad for it.
"And you are just as he said too! For Wickham told me how lively you would be. How glad I am that you could come tonight, for I did not expect you until tomorrow."
"If I am disturbing you, send me away," he said, settling himself comfortably in the chair close to hers.
"Lord, I would never. I'm so bored! You haven't interrupted a thing. I am only having some wine and resting my head from the journey. Besides, you may do whatever you like; you are my chaperone, so you are in charge of me."
"Am I indeed, Mrs. Wickham?" He smiled invitingly at her.
"Oh, if you would only call me Lydia, for I am sick of being 'Mrs.' all the time," she replied coyly.
"Shall I pour you another, Lydia?"
She giggled and held out her empty glass, which he brought back full, while he retained the bottle itself from which to drink.
"So tell me, Mr. Weldon- or shall I call you Robert, too?"
"Must you even ask?"
"I guess not! Tell me, Robert, what do you know about Pemberley? Has my husband told you anything about the Darcys?"
"Wickham told me that Mrs. Darcy is your sister, and that she has grievously injured you. He described her husband as insufferably arrogant."
"And I hear that you have been exiled from their house, and denied an invitation to their ball on Friday."
"It is all too true. But we shall go and shock them! I dare say there will be enough amusement to go 'round- they shall not mind an extra sister."
"Oh, yes, we will dance and drink and be perfectly at ease. I have never been at a ball that I did not discover some pretty girl or other to make it worth the trouble of going."
"If I were only unmarried!" exclaimed Lydia, fluttering her eyes at him. "But in any case, you will dance with me."
"I intend to, yes."
"And promise you shall also dance with Kitty, for she loves a handsome partner!"
"Who is Kitty?"
"My little sister. Don't worry, she is very pretty, it will be no chore to stand up with her. Lord, she is fun!"
"Your little sister? Wickham told me that you were the youngest girl."
"Oh, that. Well it is true; Kitty is two years older, but she does anything I say. And since I married, I think of myself as ever so much older than she is!"
"I imagine you are much more worldly."
"Yes, I am; I have been a season in Brighton as well as all my travels with Wickham, while Kitty has only been at Longbourn."
"And at Pemberley, do not forget."
"But what does that matter, when Lizzy and Mr. Darcy will not let her have a bit of excitement? She can't have learnt a thing. I'm sure she is dying for us to come. Poor Kitty! I would be so bored!"
"I will endeavor to entertain her," promised Mr. Weldon slyly, "and any other young lady who is suffering for want of a little fun."
"Oh, Robert! This will be the best laugh I have had! I can hardly wait for Friday." Lydia heaved a sigh. "However are we to amuse ourselves for two whole days?" She pulled her chair very close to him.
"I can't imagine, dear Lydia," he replied, insinuating with his eyes that he could. "But I must ask you a favor. There are no further rooms available here, and I hoped...."
Lydia laughed. "Why of course! You will share my room."
"It may be thought indecent, you know."
"That is too bad. Let the maids say whatever they like, for I am sure I do not care a straw what they think."
"And would your husband quite approve?" Weldon asked, with no intention of heeding the answer if it did not suit him.
"Oh, but yes. Wickham will be so glad that you watched over me at every moment, for I am sure he would want me protected. Is that not why he sent you?"
"It is." Weldon laughed. "And I shall not fail to perform my duty by him; indeed, I will provide you with every service that he cannot render himself." Lydia looked up at him from under her lashes, quite comprehending him. The remorseless pair finished their bottle of wine, and that is the only further activity between them that can be described as even remotely decent.
CHAPTER TWENTY:Last Minute Details
Pemberley, on the day before the ball, was in a flurry of ecstatic activity. Servants furiously polished floors with bees' wax, set up the card-room, and cleared the magnificent ballroom of all impediments to the dancing. New candles were fixed in the chandeliers, linens draped across the entry carpets, the cloakroom emptied to accommodate hundreds of wraps, and the refreshment and supper areas arranged to perfection. In came the abundance of turkey, tea and wine; away were locked certain small valuables; into a frenzy went the young ladies over every last preparation.
Their own gowns being nigh on perfect, and the gentlemen they cared to impress being too far off to appreciate them anyway, Kitty and Georgiana busied themselves instead with the particulars of their guests' ensembles. Maria's gown was proclaimed 'de trop', Mary's deemed agreeable enough, and Kitty very generously made a present of her own favorite bracelet to her starkly unadorned sister. Mary accepted the offer stiffly, protesting the vanity of such baubles, but a little smile touched her eyes as she tried it on her arm 'for Kitty's sake'.
The day was short, as days always are when there is too much to be done, and although every lady did her best to get her beauty rest at the close of it, it was all they could do to get any sleep whatsoever. Even Mary heard the bells at Lambton chiming twelve before she finally fell into a sleep filled with dreams of a most uncharacteristically decadent nature.
Lunch the next afternoon was taken late enough that no one should want for anything more before supper at the ball, and the party at Pemberley were joined for their repast by the residents of Glenstead and their recent guests from London. Jane came in first, going directly to her mother with Little Charles, and thither also went all the baby's aunts, who descended on him at once. Mr. Bingley showed in his sisters, Caroline and Louisa,who were typically arrayed in the very height of fashion, and still had the airs to match. Louisa's husband, Mr. Hurst, followed them, (and not surprisingly, that gentleman was already tottering, having imbibed more brandy at three-thirty than any of the others would have by the end of the ball itself.) It was a large and vigorous family party that came to the table together, and Mrs. Bennet, quite reliably, had the first word upon being seated.
"Well! Now we are all together again, just as if we were back last year in Hertfordshire! Except Lydia- my dear little girl! If only her father had not sent her away! But she is in London, and that is an end to it. Still, though, it would be nice to have a little reunion. You must set it up, Lizzy." But Elizabeth ignored this last, and concentrated on the mention of her youngest sister.
"Sent her away? What, was Lydia at Longbourn?"
"She was, Lizzy," replied Mr. Bennet. "But I am sorry to say she returned to her husband when we departed for our journey here. Try as I might, I could not fit her in the carriage."
"How can you say so, when you are the one who made her leave us?" complained Mrs. Bennet, oblivious as ever to the joke. "But who cares about that? Enough of us are here; I am satisfied. Oh! I am so excited! I have been pining for a ball!"
"Yes, Eliza," broke in Caroline Bingley, who had no tolerance for Mrs. Bennet. "What a marvelous idea. Why, Louisa and I were just saying that there has not been a ball at Pemberley for ages." She looked to Mrs. Hurst, who nodded her verification of this. "I know the last one I remember took place before you even met Mr. Darcy. It was so diverting! I remember every dance with infinite pleasure." Miss Bingley always remembered with pleasure the years before she had met the present Mrs. Darcy, who occupied the position she herself had dearly hoped to fill. However, Miss Bingley was no longer rude to Elizabeth as she had once been, no matter how injured she felt. She may have lost her chance to be Pemberley's mistress, but she was in no hurry to forfeit her right to come as its guest. "Louisa and I have been so looking forward to the party. And you look so well, Eliza! Your face is not at all as thin as I remember. What have you been doing?"
Elizabeth, who understood that this was Miss Bingley's idea of a compliment, thanked her graciously, and quickly turned the subject. For it would not do to have people noticing the subtle changes in her figure, and guessing at the cause of them. Her new topic was therefore Georgiana, and how she was to be hostess at the gathering that evening.
"Dear Georgiana!" effused Miss Bingley to the young lady, for Caroline would still take every opportunity to show how much she doted on the shy miss. "Aren't you just the adult? How charming! And are you prepared to undertake such a task? Are you not anxious?" Georgiana only smiled.
"Oh, thank you for your concern, but truly, I have so long been anticipating this night that I cannot feel anxious at all. Indeed, Kitty and I assisted with much of the planning, and so there shall not be any surprises. I am quite at ease! But what about you- do you require anything, Miss Bingley?"
Caroline, who had never known Georgiana to speak more than two words together, was amazed, and therefore speechless. Mr. Darcy beamed at his sister's display of new confidence, and Mr. Bingley complimented her at once.
"Yes, Caroline, she is quite grown up. Though I dare say it will be difficult to let go of our old ideas of her as a girl; you were such a dear child, Miss Darcy, that it is hard to give you up to the world."
'Ah, but perhaps we shall not have to," observed Colonel Fitzwilliam, grinning. "I see she still has a capacity for blushes."
"Not at all!" protested Georgiana, fanning her face with her hand. "Does no one else find it very warm tonight?" All those at the table who knew her well were unable to keep from chuckling at her transparency, and Georgiana gave in to it, laughing along with them and showing all the more how much she had lately matured.
"Well, well," said Mr. Bennet, when he had swallowed the last of his ham, "I suppose this is the moment when all you ladies must go upstairs and do whatever it is you do for three hours."
"It is indeed," agreed Mr. Bingley. "And it is also the moment when I am heartily glad to be a man!"
The ladies all looked deprecatingly at Bingley for this, and swept up to their chambers with a unified air of mock disdain towards men everywhere, while the gentlemen had a good guffaw at Bingley's wit.
"That's it, old boy!" whooped Mr. Hurst. "Dispose of 'em all in one fell swoop!"
"I myself would rather not be rid of such fine women, but they can never be happy at these affairs 'til they have utterly perfected themselves," said the Colonel, thinking bemusedly of one lady in particular, and wondering what tortures of beautification she was currently being subjected to.
"Then I say, let them do it," declared Bingley. "I love to see ladies at their handsomest! Although, to be fair, my Jane is utterly perfect as she is."
"I will join you in that sentiment, with the substitution of my own flawless wife, of course," said Darcy, who always felt that though Bingley was a lucky man in marriage, his own fortune in having Elizabeth was far greater.
"And I have a lady in mind," said Fitzwilliam, "though I dare not name her. I can say, however, that she is just as enchanting with or without satin and fans."
"I suppose," added Mr. Hurst, grudgingly, "that Louisa is a very pretty lady for a wife. I know I do not care how she dresses." The gentlemen all looked at Mr. Bennet, whose wife alone was left unspoken for.
"If this is to be the turn of the conversation," said he, "I fear I must beg to be left out of it."
There was a general chortle, and Mr. Darcy laughed in sympathy with his father in law, for he too had had his fill of Mrs. Bennet. "In that case, let us give it up. Come, shall we have a game of billiards?" The men thought that a splendid plan, and they had a rousing match to pass the time while the women toiled delicately in the rooms above them.
* * *
"What do you think?" Kitty was ready for things to commence. She twirled around in front of Georgiana, all golden and sparkling with a borrowed tiara tucked in her curls and the yards of crepe billowing behind her bodice and catching the light.
"Kitty!" breathed Georgiana, standing up in awe. "You are lovely! You must know it."
"You are just the same. I love your hair piled high like that. Oh, look at us!" The two girls stood in the mirror together, flushed with the beauty of youth. "Have you ever felt so pretty in all your life?"
"No," admitted Georgiana, leaning her head together with her friend's. Only one thing was wanting in both their hearts, and thinking on it, they sighed.
"If only!" they said, in a unison of longing. Comforted by the mutual expression, the two girls embraced, and would have spent a nice long chat together before going down to the party if they had not been interrupted by Maria Lucas, who fluttered through the door very pink and very pretty, but with her hair quite undone.
"I do not mean to complain," she said to Georgiana, "but Miss Caroline Bingley has had both your ladies' maids in her room this half hour attending her- and my hair!"
"Oh, dear. No, stay- I shall do it, Georgiana. You still have to put in your flowers, and I only have my gloves to fetch. I shall see you in a few minutes, at the door!" Georgiana nodded eagerly and watched her friend go. "Come, Maria. We shall steal Mrs. Joel, for I imagine that Miss Bingley is by now as attractive as she shall ever be," was the last she heard of Kitty down the hall. Alone, with a half-hour before the arrivals would begin, Georgiana's nervousness, which she had so coolly denied to Miss Bingley two hours before, began to rise within her. Could she manage it? Of course she could! But what if she could not think of what to say? Her spirits argued back and forth, and she found herself pacing the room. She did not hear the soft knock at her door, or the sound of someone coming in.
"Georgiana?" It was her brother, dashing and tall in his dark coat, who startled her out of her reflections.
"William! I did not hear you!"
"Will you forgive the intrusion?"
"I came to give you something." He placed a long box in the palm of her hand, and held it there a moment. "It was our mother's. You were to receive it when you made your debut in society." Darcy's eyes suspiciously wet. "I hoped I'd never have to give it to you. But you are such a lady now that I can hold it back no longer. Take it."
Georgiana opened the box to discover a large sapphire set in a little diamond circle, suspended from an intricate platinum chain. She drew in a breath of wonder. Suddenly her eyes were as glassy as her brother's, not so much at the beauty of the jewel, but at the meaning behind its being given.
"Oh, William!" she threw herself into his arms as she had done so often as a little girl, and he happily allowed it, taking such a moment no longer for granted. When he fastened the ornament around her throat a moment later, she touched it reverently, and bowed her head. Her brother was amazed at how womanly she was.
"Yes, it is time for you to have it. Truly, our mother would be proud- so very proud- of what you have become." Georgiana could not speak. Darcy placed a tender kiss gingerly atop her curls so as not to disarrange her, and went out of the room, wiping his eyes.
It was a long, slow breath before she was the master of herself. When her eyes were quite dry again, however, it was as if some transition had taken place. She searched herself for apprehension, and wondrously found only poise. She was ready! At once, Georgiana called for Hannah to secure the white hothouse flowers at her crown. The good lady brushed her mistress from head to toe, settled her gown, and helped her on with her gloves.
"Miss," said the valued old servant, "I hope you'll forgive me, but I heard your brother a moment ago, and I have to agree with him. You certainly are like your mother tonight."
"Thank you, Hannah!"
"Enjoy yourself, Miss."
"I shall!" Georgiana lay a hand to her throat, put her shoulders back, and joyfully went down the stairs to the ball.
Chapter Twenty-One:The Ball: All Astonishment
Receiving the guests was far pleasanter than Georgiana had ever dreamed. With Kitty beside her, her brother standing a step behind with Elizabeth, and her mother's gift around her neck, she was well fortified. All her friends came down the line, greeting her with warm affection that multiplied her strength, and she had not a single moment to falter bashfully as she had feared she might, not long ago.
The Radkes were first, Persis and Ivy nearly squealing with happiness, followed fast by Augusta Stamp and her family. Next arrived the Morrisons, and Sir Michael and his wife were generous in their praise of the ladies' good looks, which pleased them enormously. Sarah and Josephine looked mightily tall and sophisticated in all their formal attire, but a wink from each as they passed into the ball room told that their earthy good humor was in tact. Even shy young Mr. Morrison met them with enthusiasm, and he was not long after seen in close company with Miss Stamp, who looked as though she might faint from excitement.
An endless stream of neighbors continued through the door; at eight-thirty they were only half done; and the party was all animation and laughter as they filled up the ballroom. Soon Miss Campbell was there, and both Georgiana and Kitty were thrilled to see that Colonel Fitzwilliam came to her side at once, and that she received his attentions with unconcealed pleasure. What a marvelous evening it promised to be, and how quickly did the time fly to quarter of nine, then the hour itself- and could there be any more guests? It was just beginning to seem that the tide of people had ebbed, when█
Kitty and Elizabeth sent up the gasp in simultaneous horror. Mrs. Wickham! No, it could not be true! None of the family quite believed their eyes. But there she was, and what a scandalous picture she made, with a tight red bodice forcing up her d╗colletage, feathers in her hair, sidled up to an unfamiliar man. She had even gone so far as to dampen her skirts, and they clung to every crevice. Good God!
"Hah!" she shouted with delight. "Look at you all! Your mouths are wide open. Mr. Weldon, did I not tell you they would be amazed to see me? Oh! I know I shall die laughing!" It seemed she would indeed, hanging on to her escort as she doubled over and giggled so violently that she nearly fell out of her dress.
They were amazed. They were staggered. Lydia had got the best of her sisters and the Darcys, who were saucer eyed in their shock. There was a good long pause before a recovery could be attempted by any of them.
"Well say something." Mrs. Wickham stood akimbo, her head cocked to the side as she waited for their reaction, but there was only silence. "How rude! Very well, I shall do it all. Mr. Weldon, this is my sister Lizzy and her husband Mr. Darcy, and this is Miss Darcy, and here is Kitty, who I told you all about. Mr. Weldon has already promised to dance with you! What fun!" Still, she had no answer. "Are not you happy to see me, Kitty?" she demanded. Her sister was made to recollect herself.
"Hello, Lydia," she barely whispered.
"And say hello to my friend." But Mr. Darcy, who had finally found his wits, saved Kitty from having to do this. He stepped forward between his young sisters and bowed so coldly that anyone but Lydia would have fled.
"Good evening, Mrs. Wickham; Mr. Weldon." Darcy's greeting sounded remarkably like a threat. "How is it that you have come to Pemberley tonight?"
"Oh," said Lydia, untouchable in her impertinence, "this is my chaperone. He is travelling with me, so that I will be safe."
"And what about yourself?"
"We thought you to be in London!" cried Elizabeth, able to speak for the first time.
"That is a nice hello, Lizzy. After not sending me an invitation, the least you can do is say you are sorry," Lydia huffed. "My husband has to be in London, so I told Papa I would go there, too. But I went to the inn at Lambton instead! What a joke! I have fooled everyone! And Weldon and I have been lying in wait these two days, wondering what you would do when we arrived! I could hardly wait!"
"You have been staying together?" gasped Elizabeth.
"Lord, yes. In separate rooms, I mean," Lydia hastily corrected herself, for though she did not care what Lizzy thought, she was aware that there were some transgressions that were unforgivable, and she did not want to be removed from the party for having committed one. She felt quite at home now; the joke had been played off, and it was time to make merry! She took Mr. Weldon's arm. "Well? Shall we go in?"
"Just a moment!" said Elizabeth. She was prepared, if her husband was not, to create quite a scene. Lydia would not be permitted to bring a stranger in among all these people- for who knew the kind of damage he might do? A chaperone? She doubted it. Traveling alone with Lydia? Elizabeth sensed that his character was corrupt without even having to hear him speak, and felt it was her duty to her guests have them both removed.
But Georgiana, who had not said a word, had been quietly gathering her strength all the time. Before Elizabeth could say anything further, Miss Darcy stepped forward and curtseyed graciously to the new arrivals.
"Good evening, both of you!" she said brightly, and her family jumped at the tone of her voice, which was calm and sweet and wholly unexpected. "You certainly did surprise us, Mrs. Wickham, if that was your aim." Her brother flinched to hear her say Lydia's surname. "I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Weldon. Do come in out of the cold! I certainly hope you will enjoy yourselves, now you are here. You must pardon me for my terrible greeting just then- I am quite new to being hostess." She smiled so easily that one would have thought she greeted her dear friends, instead of the wife of the man who had once attempted to abduct her.
Lydia smiled back, triumphantly. "Well at least you have got manners, Miss Darcy. My sisters certainly have none. I dare say we shall come in! It is frozen cold out there. Lizzy, stop looking like that. It is only me! Lord! What a house! Is this not quite a house, Mr. Weldon?"
"I have never seen such an estate. You are too hospitable, Mr. Darcy, to allow us to trespass on such short notice." Weldon's tone was so disgenuous that Darcy turned his head in disgust, and could not thank him for the compliment.
"Oh, yes, it is vast. I knew you were rich, Lizzy, but this is beyond everything! I must see the ballroom this second!- take me in, Weldon?"
"Of course, Mrs. Wickham. And I shall come back for you, Miss Bennet." He raised an eyebrow at Kitty, who looked incredulously at him, for she had no intention of being claimed as his partner.
"Go in," said Mr. Darcy, between his teeth. He could not bear them in his presence one more moment, and as the pair of malefactors made their way obscenely in among the decent company, Darcy wondered how he would enjoy a single second of this party. His post was no longer to entertain and host his guests, but to protect their sons and daughters. He glanced at Kitty, praying she could hang on to the improvements she had made now that Lydia was loose in the house.
"My God!" whispered Elizabeth, still in shock. "What can she be thinking?"
"Very likely she is not thinking at all." Mr. Darcy's anger was barely contained.
"The outrageous presumption- to bring a strange young man- and she a married woman!" Elizabeth was ready to cry for shame over her sister. "Leave it to Lydia to create such an entrance. Oh, Georgiana, I am so sorry."
But Georgiana's temper had not shifted since she had welcomed Mrs. Wickham. She remained entirely composed, and tried to convince the others to become likewise. "Let us not be so excited about her. You owe me no apology, for it is not your fault she has come. And where is the harm in receiving her? Apparently she wanted to play a joke. Well, she has done it. Nothing more than that has taken place." It was true, and the family all looked at each other. Lydia had done nothing terrible- yet. It was only a healthy fear of what she might do that had infuriated them.
"How can you do it?" Kitty shook her head at her friend. "How can you be so calm? How could you be so gracious with them?" Mr. Darcy agreed with her.
"You are giving them far too much the benefit of the doubt. She has trespassed on a private function without an invitation, for the express purpose of making mischief. She has brought in a man of whom we know nothing. I shall have no rest now, making sure he does not go off with some unsuspecting girl and make a wreck of her!"
"William, don't! Please, for my sake, you must enjoy the evening. Lydia and her friend will be nothing to any of us. Remember that you promised not to allow the past to take a toll on us any more. I will not have this ball ruined for the sake of Mr. Wickham's wife!" Georgiana was determined. "Elizabeth, she is your sister. Your sister must be welcome to you." Lizzy opened her mouth to say something about that, but was hushed. "No, not another word. We have a guest arriving."
It was true. They were obligated to resume their festive spirits, though not one of them could recapture the easy joy of five minutes before, especially since their late-coming guests answered to the name of Newcastle.
"Oh, my dears!" During the general salutations of the two families, Felicity took the opportunity to throw herself on them. "Both our carriages hit some very bad ice and all the horses shied- in short, it was terrible. It has been a very dramatic ride! But we are here at last, thank goodness. Sweetest Miss Bennet, it has been weeks! I know you were very ill. You look to be in health now, though?"
"I declare; she is beautifully recovered." Mr. Newcastle fixed his eyes on Kitty. "Yes, Miss Bennet, you look marvellously well."
"Good evening, Mr. Newcastle," was her miserable reply. Kitty was nearly as shocked to see him, as she had been to see Lydia. He had made no further effort to solicit her over the last two weeks. She had assumed that he must have discovered the true nature of her fortune, for not even his sister had come to call in his stead. But in truth, both narcissistic Newcastles had a dreadful aversion to any sickness that might distort their fine, healthy features, and they had doubled the allowed recovery time suggested by Mr. Darcy in an effort to avoid becoming ill themselves. Therefore, imagining himself to have been much missed by Miss Bennet, the vain gentleman offered her his arm.
"I know you must remember," he said, looking at her meaningfully, "that I have first claim to your attentions this evening."
"Yes." Kitty remembered. Her stomach had already turned once when Lydia had appeared in the door. It now did another revolution, and she knew she would be sick in a moment. But there were no excuses; the guests were all in, her duty with Georgiana was done and the orchestra was poised to play the first dance, which was promised to Mr. Newcastle. Without looking at her family, Kitty took his arm, and allowed him to lead her into the ballroom. Felicity followed right behind them with her parents, whispering to them loudly about Kitty's charming dress, face, manner, etceteras, and professing her love for Miss Bennet in no uncertain terms.
"Marvelous," muttered Darcy, wishing he could put both Mr. Weldon and Mr. Newcastle in the same carriage, and set it galloping from Pemberley at once.
"Poor Kitty," Elizabeth sympathized anxiously. "Well, at least he will not have her alone."
"All will be well," insisted Georgiana. But she had to make herself believe it. This was all disastrous! One nasty surprise after another! Mrs. Wickham and that dangerous looking gentleman... Mr. Weldon seemed so familiar- his face- where had she seen it? Not to mention poor Kitty, trapped in the first two dances with that wretched partner... but it all must be borne, and without another murmur. Georgiana squared her shoulders. "I think it must be time to start the dancing- we have been over an hour already!"
"People are getting restless," agreed Elizabeth. "You must take your place, for you are to lead off. But who is your partner?" She knew at once that it was the wrong question.
Georgiana pressed her fingers to her temples and shut her eyes. This was the final element of distress for the little hostess, who finally lost her calm. "I have no partner! Mr. Stirling was to dance the first two with me, but he is gone, and no one asked me on the way inside, so what shall I do? You two must lead. I don't care anymore. I'm tired." She sounded remarkably like an unimproved Kitty.
Mr. Darcy took pity on her. Taking his wife on one arm and his sister on the other, he turned them around to join the party, and Georgiana very reluctantly let herself be brought along.
"Let us just go in, dearest," suggested Elizabeth. "I shall pair you with the highest ranking young man- it is your privilege as hostess. Let me arrange it."
"No. I do not want to dance," she retorted. They were nearly out of the hall now, and she was almost ready to run upstairs, even if it did mean complete disgrace.
"You must," said Darcy, gently. "You do not have a choice." They arrived in the archway of the ballroom and observed the party before them, who were mingling delightfully in and out of the surrounding rooms and halls, forming little circles of conversation, and looking eagerly toward the orchestra for the first strains of a dance.
"If I must," was Georgiana's resigned concession, for she knew it was her duty to stand up, and however unwilling she was, she would not fail her brother's trust. She scanned the room, thinking of Elizabeth's offer, and tried to locate the most titled gentleman among them, though it made no difference. She sighed, and put the wishes of her heart aside. "Who am I to dance with?"
The answer came from a voice just behind her.
"With me! Or had you forgotten, Miss Darcy?"
Georgiana spun around to see if the owner of the voice was real. He was, and from her throat came a little blissful, indefinable syllable. Arthur Stirling stood there, fine in his splendid evening clothes, his hair combed but still wet as though he had just come in from the rain, his eyes glowing at her. He was the most beautiful sight she had ever seen. Arthur thought exactly the same thing as he stared at Miss Darcy, who was elevated to Olympian heights in her cloud of sky-colored satin, sapphires and curls. The two young people shone at each other in a rapture, utterly without words. He put out his arm and she took it; they both nodded to the Darcys, and then moved across the floor to begin the ball.
Another gentleman was there as well. He stood behind Mr. Stirling during the reunion of the unconfessed lovers, grinning good-naturedly at Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, who received him warmly as Arthur led Georgiana away to the head of the line.
"Mr. Douglas, how very good to see you," said Elizabeth, sincerely pleased to welcome the young man. "We had no idea that you both would be here. What a wonderful surprise!"
"Does this mean that Mr. Stirling's father is recovered?" asked Mr. Darcy.
"For the most part he is. Arthur wasn't goin' to leave him, though."
"What made him change his mind?"
"Can't you guess, Mrs. Darcy?"
"Well, what happened?"
"You want the details, I see. Women!" He chuckled. "I hate to say anythin' too particular, but I suppose it's all right if I tell ya this much: Mr. Stirling spoke pretty often of his current dance partner while he was in Sussex, and lamented quite a few times over how he hated to disappoint her. As you can imagine, his father got right tired of him, and told him if he didn' come back up to this ball and keep his promise to the young lady, he'd cut him off entirely." Mr. Douglas chuckled. "And his mother, who thinks the world of your family, was the one who packed him up and pushed him out the door. Arthur was so torn, I couldn' stop laughin'. He would rather have died than left his parents in a state, but on the other hand, he wanted to be here so badly that I had to force him to go over to the Manor first and wash up after the journey. So there you have it. That's why we're here, and that's why we're late."
This account of the events that had brought Stirling back to Georgiana's side was such a touching and humorous one that Elizabeth laughed and felt her eyes mist over all at once. She squeezed her husband's arm, and they shared a look of tender anxiety. They knew all about such separations, journeys and reunions, and their spirits, which had just been so afflicted, were significantly improved by the tale.
Across the ballroom, the couples had taken their places, and Darcy turned to his wife with a bow. "Will you dance, Elizabeth?" She smiled, and her eyes glinted with their old mischief.
"If you are willing, I must take advantage of the moment. Please excuse us, Mr. Douglas?" The young man nodded cheerfully, and the Darcys went to join the line, which Georgiana and Arthur were leading with all the grace of happiness.
All seemed very well, but we cannot forget Kitty, who suffered one final shock when she saw her friend arrive to the dance accompanied by Mr. Stirling. At once, she flew into a state of tormented preoccupation. She was thrilled for Georgiana, of course, but that glad feeling was quickly supplanted by an overwhelming desperation to know one thing: was Mr. Douglas among them?
At that moment, the orchestra began the minuet. Kitty was so busy searching the room that she hardly remembered to curtsey to her partner. Where, where was he? Suddenly, in her heart, there was a great crash of recognition.
He was there! Strong, and striking, and looking straight at her. Kitty's first impulse was to run to him, but the dancing was in full motion now, and she was caught. Full of feelings she was not at liberty to express, she made the first turn of the dance around Mr. Newcastle, though he no longer existed. Her heart and mind had abandoned him, and flown across the room to John Douglas.
Chapter Twenty-Two: The Ball: Misapprehension
When the second dance came to an end, the gentlemen led their partners in the obligatory promenade around the room, and duly requested whether or not the ladies would like any refreshment. To this, Kitty hastily agreed, though she was not thirsty. The distraction of a drink would buy her a few moments away from Mr. Newcastle, and she was frantic to be rid of him. When he had crossed the room, she saw with relief that Mr. Stirling had also left Georgiana's side, and Kitty hastened to her friend, bursting with a thousand unspoken exclamations.
"They are here! They have come!" she cried, when they had found two chairs that were semi-private, hidden halfway behind a large fern.
"Yes!" Georgiana was radiant. "Both of them! Have you seen Mr. Douglas?"
Kitty nodded. "But I have not spoken to him."
"Go and find him, then."
"I am afraid to do it; remember how we left each other? What can I do?"
"Either he has forgotten, or it makes no difference to him. He must want to see you. Else why would he come?""
"To dance, to be with his friend, to see your brother- a hundred other reasons!"
"You are mistaken, Kitty."
"I hope I am. But what of you? I think you are the happiest girl in the room."
"I am. I am! I do not know what I am."
"I know what you very soon will be, and then where will I have to go to visit you?"
Georgiana blushed. "Oh, I do not presume- but I wish- oh, Kitty, this is a wonderful night!"
"Wonderfully chaotic, you mean. I cannot believe Lydia! And Mr. Newcastle- oh, if I have to bear him another second- he will not stop! I am determined to make him understand me. I cannot return his feelings- if indeed they are feelings, which I doubt. How much would I rather be dancing with"█
"Shhhh! Here he comes!"
Kitty, assuming that her friend must refer to Mr. Newcastle, turned in her seat and tried to fit her entire body behind the massive fronds of the plant beside her. "Do not let him see me!" she whispered.
Georgiana looked at her friend confusedly. "I thought you would want to speak to him?"
"No, no! Why would I? I want to speak to Mr. Douglas!"
It was Mr. Douglas who peeked behind the fern at that moment. "Who wants to speak to me? Miss Bennet! There you are. I thought I saw ya try to get behind this thing. Are you hidin'?"
Kitty, red as paint, glared at Georgiana for not having made herself clear. "I am not hiding, sir; only trying to speak with my friend."
"I don' mean to intrude. Shall I leave you two alone?" Georgiana shook her head vigorously.
"Oh no, that is unnecessary. We have not seen you in so long, Mr. Douglas! Mr. Stirling was just telling me that you only arrived home a half-hour before the party. It is so good of you to come straight here, when you must be so tired."
"I slept in the coach, so I'm plenty rested, and glad to be here! It's been too long since I've had the pleasure of your company, ladies."
"Likewise, I'm sure." Georgiana gave Kitty a pressing stare, trying to get her to say something. But it was Mr. Douglas who accomplished that objective.
"Miss Bennet, did I hear you say you wanted to speak with me?"
Kitty searched herself frantically. She could not very well say that she had thought only of him for two weeks and that seeing him again made her weak and confused and full of feelings, or ask him if he was there expressly to see her. The only other subject her mind offered up to her was- "I wanted to ask you about my sister's portrait."
"We can talk about that, if you like. I've a couple of questions for you as well. What say you to talkin' over the next dance? Or are you spoken for already?"
"I am not engaged, sir."
"Grand! Well, I see your old partner is coming," Douglas grimaced slightly, "so I'll leave you to refresh yourself. I'll find you when the music starts, Miss Bennet." He bowed and went away.
Kitty had only five seconds to gasp, "Oh, thank Heavens!" and grab Georgiana's hand, before Mr. Newcastle was upon them, looking irritated.
"Here you are! Why are you sitting behind this big plant when you know I am trying to bring you your tea? I've been all over the room to find you."
"I did not mean to inconvenience you; I was only resting a moment. Thank you," she said, accepting the cup, and thinking that Mr. Newcastle was much more bearable, now that she knew there was soon to be an end to him
"Did I just see Mr. Douglas standing here?" Kitty nodded happily. "What is that Scot doing at a party like this? I am sure he never danced two steps in his life. In any case, I thought he was away. But I see that Mr. Stirling is returned, so his friend must have tagged here after him. What a nuisance."
Kitty thought how very unattractive a man can be when he is jealous, and resolved not to mark Mr. Newcastle's ugly surmising with a response. A moment later, Mr. Stirling joined them. He greeted Kitty warmly, Mr. Newcastle with indifference, claimed Georgiana for the next dance, and moved away across the floor with her, both of them smiling blissfully. Mr. Newcastle seemed to think this a very good example to follow.
"Come, Miss Bennet. Let us go back to the dancing, as well."
Kitty smiled. "I am sorry," she said, feeling not one spot of sorrow in her entire being, "but I have just been asked to dance the next."
"What? Who asked you?" he demanded possessively.
"I did." John Douglas stood there, for the music was beginning, and he had come back for her as he had promised. "Miss Bennet, would ya let me?" He put out his hand to help her rise, and she took it. Their eyes met at the same moment their hands touched, and the sensation overpowered Kitty, who thought she might have to sit down again directly. But Mr. Newcastle ruined the moment with a loud clearing of his throat, and a look that seemed to order an explanation from Miss Bennet at once.
"Nice to see ya again, Newcastle," said Mr. Douglas, in a voice that held a challenge.
"I see you very often of late."
"Often? I'd hardly say so. Twice in a month isn' much at all."
"It is more than sufficient." Mr. Newcastle's meaning was clear, and Kitty had the sudden fear that someone would throw a glove, or a blow, as the two men looked hard at each other. Mr. Newcastle backed down first and not a moment too soon, but with a parting thrust to his rival. "If the lady will allow it, then I must oblige her. Take care of her for me." His words rang with superior attachment, and had the desired effect, for Mr. Douglas began to look less certain, and glanced worriedly at the girl before him.
Kitty wanted to hit Mr. Newcastle herself. How dare he make it sound as if all were settled between them? "I can take care of myself, sir," she said coolly. "Thank you for the tea." She handed him back the cup contemptuously, and went to the dance with Mr. Douglas, leaving her discarded partner to simmer in his anger.
They took their places and stood while before the dancing reached their end. Kitty was in confusion. She had no idea how to manage the situation, for never had two men vied for her attention so openly, and she only wished to tell Mr. Douglas that he was the only partner she desired. But his countenance was now withdrawn, after what Mr. Newcastle had implied, and she had no idea how to broach the subject.
To tell the truth, Kitty was becoming rather irritated with Mr. Douglas as well. She was tired of insinuations and assumptions, and wanted that everyone should simply lay their cards out, although she certainly did not want to be the one to start. But his face was so closed as he stood before her that she could not stand to keep silent, and if no one else would be the first to speak-
"Mr. Douglas, you said you had questions for me. What are they?" He looked up at her quickly; his face no longer closed but certainly guarded.
"I thought you wanted to talk about the portrait."
"I said that only because it was safe and proper." His eyes opened wide at her, and she blushed. "Please, let us talk of real things."
Douglas was still looking at her in wonder. This was not the sort of talk he was used to from young ladies of any variety, but it was the kind of talk he loved. "I don' know," he said, lowering his voice, "if real things can be discussed in the middle of a dance."
"They cannot. You must disguise them."
"How?" He looked to the left and right, and saw that the couples on both sides of them were engaged in animated discussions, but certainly stood close enough to listen in on theirs if they so chose.
"Like this." Kitty remembered how Colonel Fitzwilliam and Miss Campbell had navigated their first conversation, and tried the strategy for herself. "Mr. Douglas, you know a gentleman, do you not, who has something to ask my friend Miss Jones?"
"Miss Jones? Who is she?"
Kitty mouthed the answer. "No such person."
Mr. Douglas caught on at once. "That's wonderful! Oh, all right, let me see. Yes, I know that gentleman. His name is Mr.... Oh, I don' know, Miss Bennet. You'll have to help me think one up." Kitty stifled a laugh.
"You are so obvious," she whispered. And then, in a louder voice: "I remember that he was called Mr. Brown."
"That's it! Mr. Brown. I can' believe I forgot it." Mr. Douglas was so pleased at the joke of the veiled conversation that he entirely forgot its real purpose for a moment, and laughed heartily. "This is entertainin'!"
"It is supposed to be useful," reminded Kitty.
"Aye, so it is." He fixed his green eyes on her, the merriment they had held a moment before now replaced with serious intensity, and she felt her heart leap against her ribs with a painful thud. "Mr. Brown does have a question for your Miss Jones, if you wouldn' mind takin' her the message."
"Not at all." Her breath was short with anticipation.
"It has to do with another gentleman, a Mr. Black, let's say, whose company she keeps pretty often."
"Often?" Kitty looked at him. "I wonder you can say so. In your own opinion, twice a month is hardly anything."
"So she's only seen him twice this month?"
"Yes, for she felt a little ill, and could have no callers."
"But she would have seen him otherwise?"
"She might have had to, yes."
"Is she engaged to him?" Kitty drew in her breath sharply at the boldness of the question, and they were forced to pause, for the dance had reached them. They circled around another couple, Kitty's mind circling along with her, unable to rest on any one thought or feeling. He cared. He must, to ask such a question. How should she govern herself now? In a moment, they stood relatively still again, and the pause was unbearable. In it, Mr. Douglas' eyes turned dark, and he ran a hand roughly through his curls. "I take it from your silence that Miss Jones is pretty much betrothed, and doesn't want my friend to know it."
Now could Kitty speak; her answer was only preceded by an exhale of impatience. "Mr. Brown is quite the clairvoyant, I see. He lately has done nothing but assume things. He assumed that she was attached, and so he went away angry"-
"No; he was never angry."
"Then why were you so cold when last we met?"
"I was afraid." Mr. Brown and Miss Jones were forgotten, and Kitty implored Mr. Douglas with all her heart.
"Why? What is it?"
"Miss Bennet, I"█
They were made to separate again as the dance continued, but she was quite confident that they were but two moments from a revelation. As it was, they only looked at one another from the diagonal angle of their positions, the way two people look at one another when they would like very much for the rest of the world to disappear and let them quite alone. Yes, it would all resolve itself. One more moment.
But one more moment brought an impediment unforeseen. When they rejoined each other, they had resituated themselves within earshot of Kitty's mother. Mrs. Bennet stood not two yards hence, talking in a very loud voice to one of the guests that Kitty did not know. But she wished above all things that the dance would move again, for it was quickly established that the topic of the conversation was fiercely inappropriate, and that it involved Kitty herself.
"...My youngest daughter but one," Mrs. Bennet was saying. "And she has been staying here with her sister, for I knew if she came to Pemberley she would get a good husband! And I was right- for did you see? No, why would you see? You do not know her. But she was dancing the first two with a gentleman of four thousand a year, who is very attentive to her about everything! Yes, and that is almost as rich as my daughter Jane, which is good enough. He is very handsome, too." The woman to whom she spoke asked an unintelligible question here. "Mr. Newcastle is his name. Does not that sound fine? It makes me the happiest woman on earth to know that I will very soon have four daughters married. There is the man!" Mrs. Bennet squealed as she pointed him out.
All this was enough to make Kitty want to run from the room, but her mother was not finished. After her companion had asked another question, Mrs. Bennet laughed. "Oh, no, no, I am sure. He is a very famous artist! Well, his master was famous anyway. He is to paint my daughter Mrs. Darcy. But no, he is nothing in terms of fortune, a very poor man indeed. I find these things out as soon as I can. It is hard to have so many daughters, for you have to be so careful! One of my girls is married to a man of no wealth at all, and I must protect my last two from that happening..." Now the dance did move along, depositing Kitty and Mr. Douglas far away from Mrs. Bennet. But the damage was irrevocably done, and Kitty's partner would not look at her.
"It's the truth, you know," he said quietly.
"What of it?" pled Kitty, too far past mortification to regard her pride. "What difference does it make?" But he would not answer for a long moment. "Mr. Douglas. Please." She looked at him earnestly.
"This is just what Mr. Brown was afraid of," he said presently, with a derisive laugh. Kitty opened her mouth to speak, but he cut her off. "You know, I'm right tired of talkin' about our friends. Let's talk of somethin' else. Your sister's portrait- I remember you wanted to ask about it. Well I'm plannin' to have her sit for me in two weeks. I hope it turns out decent enough to hang in Pemberley. Mr. Darcy's a kind man to hire me for it. He knows the commission will be a great help to me."
"Mr. Darcy would never hire you out of kindness for such a task. He thinks you are the best in the country. And you are changing the subject."
"I surely am." But he did not have to. The music ended, and the dance was done. Mr. Douglas bowed to Kitty and disappeared without another word. She stood shaking for a moment, then went to vent her anger where she could.
"Mama!" she rebuked violently, when she found the impertinent woman standing unaccompanied on the side of the room.
"Oh, Kitty! Just the girl I wanted to see; oh, look at you, my dearest girl! Listen to what has happened. I was just saying to someone or other about you and Mr. Newcastle- oh, I know all about him, you sly girl! And you tried to keep it from me. Well it does not matter now. Anyway, I was just saying to someone that he was very attentive to you, and very handsome, and just as I was saying it all, can you guess who came up to me? Mr. Newcastle himself! And you will never guess why- but you will know soon! Oh, I am so happy for my girl! Oh, what will I do with four daughters married? Four thousand a year!" On and on she tittered, giving Kitty the chance neither to censure nor answer her.
Kitty was preparing, literally, to clap a hand over her mother's mouth when she saw, out of the corner of her eye, a gentleman approaching them at a rapid clip. Without stopping to explain herself, she plunged out of sight among the crowd, wove around to the back of the ballroom, and fled away down the halls to where she could be entirely alone.
"Mr. Newcastle!" cried Mrs. Bennet upon said gentleman's approach. "Kitty, here he is! Well, I say- where has she gone? She was just here." She and her wished-for son-in-law searched high and low, but did not find a trace of her. Mr. Newcastle was highly vexed, having been evaded for the second time that evening.
"Do not worry, Madam. I shall find her. Now that I have your approval on everything, I am certain she cannot gainsay me. I will bring her to you when it is settled." He stalked doggedly into the throng of guests.
"Four thousand a year!" sighed Mrs. Bennet, looking after him. "Dear Kitty!" Mrs. Bennet was overcome with ecstasy over the events of the evening thus far, and it occurred to her that she really ought to begin announcing the engagement at once.
Chapter Twenty-Three:The Ball: Scandal!:Part I: Lydia
Kitty's only thought was to find refuge. When she found it, then would she allow herself to weep her embarrassment. How glad she was to know Pemberley so well, as she wound her way unthinkingly away from everyone. She needed peace, and space, and quiet. When she arrived at the music room, she pushed open the door, ducked inside, and shut herself in alone.
Or perhaps not quite.
Her eyes adjusted quickly to the dim candles and dying fire, in which light she perceived the most horrifying sight she had yet encountered that evening. Lydia and her chaperone were draped across one another on the chaise, kissing fervently. Kitty gasped aloud, recoiling instinctively, and Lydia's head snapped up to see who had made the noise.
"Oh, Kitty! It is only you. I thought it might be Mr. Darcy, and he would give us a talking-to, I'm sure!" Lydia laughed and wiped her mouth as Mr. Weldon sat up beside her.
"Miss Bennet, your sister tells me you are always game for a good joke," added he. "This is surely diverting."
"Yes, poor Kitty, you have been here all these weeks with no fun at all. But now Weldon shall dance with you. How merry this all is! Why do you look so bothered? You do not have to tell me- I know it all. Lizzy made you hush up about Wickham and me because Miss Darcy is so delicate. Hah! Guess how I know?" Lydia dug into her reticule and produced Elizabeth's letter, which she put in Kitty's limp hand. "There! I found it at home, and aren't you glad? Now you may laugh, for have I not gotten back at her?"
But Kitty did not laugh. She tore the letter into shreds with shaking fingers and put them in the poorly tended fire, where they shriveled at once. Her brain spun with anger and abhorrence. Was this the sister she had used to follow so blindly? Is this where those steps would eventually have led her? It was hard to believe, but harder still to refute the evidence that she encountered here. All at once she realized that, before her visit to Pemberley, this would have seemed a mere trifle- shocking, to be sure, but worth a laugh. Now her entire spirit was repelled by it, and she was frightened to think what a narrow escape she had made from Lydia's influence.
"She is not amused," observed Weldon casually. "They have gotten to her, I think."
"Kitty, stop it. That face is too severe! It is only a joke"- but Kitty cut her off.
"You! You are a married woman! Does that mean nothing to you?"
"I dare say this is nothing to my husband. I imagine he does the same while we are apart, and so why should I care?"
"I have never heard, or seen, anything so- disgusting! in my entire life."
"Who cares a fig what you think? Lord, Kitty, you are sad. I remember a time when you were happy to catch a kiss or two from a soldier, so do not lecture me."
"I would never do this."
"Oh, yes you would, Kitty. You are not so dull as Miss Darcy, though I see they are trying to make you so."
"Georgiana is not dull! She is the best friend I have- I am proud to call her my sister."
"What about me?"
"You? It is a good thing indeed that Mr. Darcy did not discover you- or anybody else for that matter. You imagine he would give you a talking-to? Oh no; he would drive you out. Lydia, what have you become?" begged Kitty, praying she would repent at once. But no; Lydia grinned at Mr. Weldon, obviously taking delight in the situation, and Kitty realized at that moment that her sister was beyond repair. She felt both terrible grief for Lydia's character, and relief for her own having barely been saved from such a fate.
Lydia laughed at her revulsion. "Oh, Lord! You sound just like Mary. I know this is not you, Kitty. You are my only sister who does not care about that rot. We shall go out and dance, and have such a jolly time! Look, Weldon has a flask, and no one is looking, so you shall have some. Then you will get over all this, I am sure."
Kitty shook her head in despair. Lydia was truly shameless. "I will not drink that, Lydia. I will not dance with you, Mr. Weldon. You are both very fortunate that I do not go at once to my brother and have you turned out."
"Your brother? I suppose you mean that awful Mr. Darcy. Lord, you have changed. I really do not know you." Lydia went back to Mr. Weldon and pulled him off the chaise. "Come along; if she wants to sit in here and shout, she may do it without me. I shall have a dance!" But she turned in the door and pouted, trying one more time to regain her sister to herself, for it is not so much fun to be wicked if there is no one to share in it. "Are you sure you are not coming, Kitty? For Weldon is certainly a good partner- I can tell you!"
"Get out of my sight."
Lydia huffed, grabbed Mr. Weldon's arm, and left her sister in the music room. She was affronted at Kitty's new personality, blamed it on the Darcys, and felt it was extremely sorry that her sister should have grown so dull and cool. What she did not feel was remorse. She and Weldon were a little irritated at having been made to quit their entertainment, nothing more. The two scoundrels made their way stealthily back to the ball, arranging their disheveled hair and clothes as they went, and whispering about how sad it was that Kitty had turned so prudish.
"Well, never mind her," concluded Lydia, as they rejoined the party. "What shall we do now?"
"I know. We shall see who can get the worthier partner."
"Oh! That is a good game. Worthy how, money or looks?"
"Both in one."
They prowled around the perimeter of the room until each had fixed on a target, then parted to begin the competition.
Lydia sidled up to the gentleman of her choice, and made eyes at him until he noticed her. He seemed distracted, however, and she was forced to make the first move.
"What is wrong, sir? Are you lost?" she asked coyly.
"I am not. I have lost my partner. Have we met before, Miss--?"
"Mrs. Lydia Wickham."
"Mrs.! Well, you are a very young lady." He bowed. "I am Felix Newcastle." He did not seem perturbed by the forward nature of her greeting- indeed, he continued to be quite preoccupied, glancing over Lydia's head to find the girl who had disappeared.
"How sad that you have lost your partner! Who is it? Maybe I can help you find her." In truth, Lydia did not care about assisting him, and was only angling to replace the missing lady, whoever she was.
"I am looking for a Miss Catherine Bennet. Do you know her?"
Lydia shouted with laughter. "Know her! I should say I do. She is my sister."
Mr. Newcastle now looked at Lydia with interest. "Your sister?" he repeated.
"Mm-hmm. And I know where you can find her, too. She is hiding out, I dare say."
"Where is she?"
"Not so fast, Mr. Newcastle. For I have lost my partner, too. Oh, how I long for a dance!" It was an obvious bargain, and Mr. Newcastle dealt with her bluntly.
"Very well, let us dance, and then you can tell me where to find your sister."
"That is more than fair." Lydia led the way to the dance, sure she had won, for Mr. Newcastle was certainly the most attractive man she had seen all evening. Rich, too, she imagined, looking at his dress and carriage. Yes, she had secured both in one. Now, where was Mr. Weldon? She saw him standing several couples down, with an exceptionally pretty girl who looked to be wealthy as well. Perhaps they would have to call it a tie.
"I see my partner now," she told Mr. Newcastle. "He is there, with another lady. Do you know her?"
It was Mr. Newcastle's turn to be amused. "Why yes. That is my sister." Lydia could not help giggling. A tie indeed- they had got siblings as partners!" "Is she dancing with your husband, then, Mrs. Wickham?"
"My husband? Oh, Lord, no. That is Mr. Weldon, my dear friend. He is accompanying me while I travel, for my husband must stay in London on business."
"And what is Mr. Weldon?" queried Mr. Newcastle, thinking that if the young man were closely associated with both the Bennets and Darcys, he might be an excellent prospect for Felicity. For he was surely of a good position, and certainly he had good looks and a fine form in the dance; what else could a brother desire for his young sister?
Lydia was overjoyed at this opportunity to recommend her friend however she liked. "He is a great man," she told him conspiratorially. "If I were not married- well, it does not signify. Your sister has got the best partner in the room. Excepting one!" she batted her eyes at him meaningfully. Mr. Newcastle, his vanity stroked, was utterly taken in by this ruse.
"Well I am glad he has been introduced to my dear Felicity!" he said, wishing to get to his sister and make her conscious of the importance of her partner. Ultimately, though, his goal was to find Kitty as quickly as possible, and so he applied to Lydia a second time. "Now then, Mrs. Wickham. Is it not time that you gave me some information?"
"It is. Kitty has run away to the music room. She is quite by herself, too! You should go and find her at once."
"I shall." Even before the dance was ended, Mr. Newcastle bowed to Lydia and hurried to find his way, stopping briefly to whisper something to his sister. Felicity's eyes brightened, and Lydia saw that her gaze turned even more ardently than it already had toward Mr. Weldon as they continued dancing.
"Very nice, Robert!" mused Mrs. Wickham to herself, knowing that her companion was in a very good position now to take advantage of the young lady before him. She watched Mr. Newcastle leave the ballroom in a great rush, and laughed. "And there you are, Kitty. Now you may have you own little intrigue. I am sure you need it!" Thoughtless Lydia made her way to the refreshments for a glass of wine, completely satisfied with herself, and only wishing that someone would hurry up and call the supper, for she was quite hungry.
Part II: Georgiana
During that dance, while Mrs. Wickham and her 'chaperone' monopolized the Newcastles, Georgiana was parading just along the line, enjoying the company of Mr. Stirling, and observing the felicity of all her guests. Walking very close to the dancers gave her the chance to hear little bits of their conversations, and she listened very happily, for every word renewed her assurance that the ball was a rousing success.
She came across Mary Bennet- plain but no longer homely in a gown that was kind to her figure- actually dancing!
"Forgive my missteps, Mr. Austin. I am out of practice," she was saying formally.
"Not at all, Miss Bennet; you are a fine partner," returned the young man quickly, as he steered Mary again out of danger of a crash.
There was Maria Lucas, looking up and up and Mr. Morrison, and there was Miss Morrison, who had found a tall partner and was dancing comfortably at eye-level with the fellow. Both the Radkes were standing, so too Augusta Stamp, and even Caroline Bingley had condescended to take a partner who seemed to be in awe of her, which she was enjoying.
Georgiana stayed a little longer just next to her cousin Geoffrey and Miss Campbell, to hear a very sweet morsel of talk.
"Have you received your orders for after the New Year, Colonel?"
"We are to be stationed just outside London, perhaps through July. Certainly through April."
"Well, that settles my season. I shall go to Bath!" The young lady laughed merrily, and Fitzwilliam took her hand for the next step.
"Come to London, Miss Campbell," he countered, serious and warm. Clarissa blushed, and Georgiana could have sworn she saw the lady's lips move in a silent curse against her complexion. The Colonel laughed, delighted with his partner's condition. "Miss Campbell, you are overheated! Perhaps you would like to sit, and take a bit of wine?" She blushed again, and this time Georgiana was certain of the swear.
"I shall wait for supper, thank you Colonel."
"And may I sit with you?" He was not teasing now, but firmly holding her hand, and just as firmly seeking out her eyes.
"Yes," she said quietly. And then, careful to avoid another rush of blood to her cheeks, Miss Campbell tossed her head and smiled. "Unless I have another partner by that time!"
Georgiana shook her head, excited for her friends. All was so very good! Behind their banter, she saw that they began to be truly attached to one another. And she had Mr. Stirling at her side, and there were Elizabeth and William, and Jane and Mr. Bingley, all at one end; all laughing together. And Kitty had been dancing with Mr. Douglas! Where was Kitty? Georgiana began to look in earnest for her friend, whose enjoyment was of more concern to her than that of the rest. She saw neither Kitty, nor Mr. Douglas, however. Perhaps they had gone out of the room? She was satisfied at least that if they were not dancing, they must be together.
It made Georgiana laugh to see Lydia Wickham dancing with Mr. Newcastle. He certainly had managed to procure himself a worldly partner- just as he liked! She was glad to see that he was nowhere near Kitty, in any case, and having no use for the conversation of either, she passed quickly by them. Soon, she and Mr. Stirling stood alongside Felicity Newcastle and Mr. Weldon. This duo did interest Georgiana, though she could not tell why, and she paused to overhear them.
"I know you are not from Derbyshire," Miss Newcastle was saying. "How came you to be invited by the Darcys?"
"I am travelling with Mrs. Darcy's sister, there"- he said, pointing to Lydia. "I am also acquainted with Mr. Darcy's sister, though she does not remember me."
"Georgiana? What, did you meet when she was very young?"
"No, she was old enough. But she was quite too preoccupied with another man to notice me."
"Another man? I am surprised! She is so shy."
"Is she?" He laughed. "Not that I knew her. I accompanied a suitor of hers to Ramsgate, where she was boarding two summers ago."
Mr. Stirling heard all this and turned to stare at Georgiana, who was ashen. She certainly knew now why she had recognized Mr. Weldon's face. Ramsgate! Yes, for he had once arrived with Mr. Wickham, no doubt to try and have an elopement of his own with some other naîve heiress. He had clearly failed to do so, for here he was, but Georgiana bitterly wished he had succeeded and gone very far away. She would never be able to explain to Mr. Stirling what he was hearing. Oh, why did I not remember?
"Miss Darcy had a suitor to see her at boarding school? No! At least tell me they were chaperoned at all times."
"Hardly! And I am sure," he lowered his voice for dramatic effect, "that their intention was to elope."
"Shocking!" Miss Newcastle fanned herself in protest.
"Do not be alarmed, for I declare: what gentleman would not wish a few moments alone with a beautiful girl? For instance, I see a lady whom I would very much like to take away from all these people." Mr. Weldon gave Felicity a look of intense appreciation, and Miss Newcastle's eyes glazed as she surrendered to the flattery.
Meanwhile, Mr. Stirling had taken several unsteady steps away from Georgiana. He fell into a chair and gaped at her, bafflement written across every feature. His dear Miss Darcy was no longer what she had seemed to be.
She watched him go, too ashamed of her chequered past to offer any explanation for it. Of course Arthur would not keep near her after hearing such a disclosure as the one Mr. Weldon had made. To discover that the girl by his side had been receiving gentlemen without supervision at the age of fifteen- to know that she had already planned one secret wedding- it was beyond the pale. Georgiana knew she must seem tainted to him; indeed, she seemed so to herself, after listening to the second-hand details of her own life. Feeling unworthy now of his attentions, she let Mr. Stirling walk away without a word and turned to fly from the ballroom, where she would not have to see the crushed disappointment in his looks. He did not try to stop her.
Georgiana was half-way across the room when suddenly, she stopped herself.
She turned on her slipper heel and marched back to him. If he was surprised to feel her take his hand and pull him from his chair, she was even more amazed to be making such a bold move. But she would no longer be Mr. Wickham's victim. Nor was she now the defenseless child who shied from every pain. Above all, she deserved to make her case.
"Come with me," she commanded shakily. 'You may hate me when you know everything, but I cannot allow you to think ill of me yet, with so little information. Will you be fair, and hear me out?"
Mr. Stirling nodded warily, and went into a small alcove with Georgiana, where she enlightened him with as few words as possible. In ten minutes, her suitor had every main particular of Mr. Wickham's upbringing at Pemberley, his transactions with Georgiana at Ramsgate, and the loathing she harbored for him now. When she had concluded, Mr. Stirling wore the look of a stunned animal.
"Then, if your brother had not come that very day--?"
"I would be Mrs. Wickham this year and a half, and certainly the most miserable creature on earth."
"And it is all true?"
"Does it hurt you to think of him still?" Mr. Stirling looked as if he did not quite want the answer to this question.
"So you were in love with him," he muttered, his voice a hoarse representation of what it had usually been.
"No!" Georgiana could not stand to hear him say it. "Never think so, whatever else you may think. But I thought he truly loved me." She gave a sad little laugh. "I learned that such a thing can be done as a trick, manipulated with no real feeling at all. He devastated me because I found out quite young that there are such men in the world. That is what broke my heart." She sighed and stood, feeling that she must give him time to think through the facts before anything further was said. "I will understand if this must be the end of our friendship," she told him quietly. "I imagine you despise me. But I would never be easy if you only knew the half-truth." Mr. Stirling did not answer. Georgiana's heart was broken for the second time in her young life as she looked at him, for through his confusion, she knew she detected the first faint glimmer of disgust.
Oh, if only he had stayed in Sussex! If only Lydia had never come! Georgiana miserably checked her tears, determined to bear it out. She walked away from Mr. Stirling with as much composure as she could still manage. It was not much.
"Wait- Miss Darcy"- he caught up to her and turned her by the shoulders to face him. The feeling of his hands sent a shock through her, and she nearly fell; she had not expected him to come after her. He strengthened his grip, seeing her dazed, and put his feelings in plain words. "I do not despise you. No: it is him I hate." Indeed, Arthur's eyes flashed with something she had never seen there, as he contemplated the man who had tried to ruin the dear girl before him. "I hope I never encounter Mr. Wickham- for his sake," he vowed. Then he turned his eyes back to Georgiana, and they softened at the sight of her face, pale and soft under the chandeliers, already grieving the loss of him.
"Do not think I would blame you," he assured her gently. "But you must allow me to be surprised! All this time, I imagined you to be a little girl in the world of men, when you have already suffered in it. I know you better. I see you differently."
"How- differently?" Georgiana whispered the words, for she could not draw breath, and there was nothing within to support her voice.
"I already esteemed you for your beauty and sweetness- no, dear, please let me say so. I have wanted to for so long! And I have admired your spirit for enduring the deaths of both your parents. Now I may respect your courage and experience, and see you as a woman, Georgiana, for that is what you are!"
Too overcome to be embarrassed by his passionate praise, for once in her life, Georgiana did not blush- but she shone! She could have kissed him at that moment. "You do not hate me?" she cried.
"Oh no. Georgiana, I adore"█he stopped just short of an avowal, but the thing was as good as said. It was sealed between them but for a few private words, and both knew it, and both were barely contained. Mr. Stirling asked the only question he could appropriately do in the middle of a ball, for he ached to touch her, and there was but one way for it.
"Dance with me, Miss Darcy?"
"Yes!" she replied, her voice restored to her. They took hands and went to the floor, so dazzlingly love-struck that the other couples could not help but smile. When the supper was called moments later, they neither noticed nor cared, but sat together at the window, watching stars. They themselves were watched unawares by Mr. Darcy, who was very tempted to interrupt their little reverie, for in it, he saw his Georgiana slipping away from him. But Elizabeth caught his hand and hushed him with a reminder of his own history as a lover, and so he reluctantly let them alone for the moment and followed his own sweetheart in to dine.
Continued in Part 6
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