Dinner At Netherfield
Caroline Bingley and her sister descended on Netherfield, determined that they would put the best face possible on their brother's forthcoming marriage. He was, evidently, quite determined to marry Miss Jane Bennet, regardless of who she was, and they were equally determined not to act in such a way that would bar future access to his most comfortable home. They were, then, quite delighted for dear Charles and had always been so fond of Jane.
Both were unaware, as they began their journey into Hertfordshire, that even more invidious news lurked behind the friendly facade of their brother's country estate. For Caroline Bingley, the news of the wedding had at least brought the comforting thought that one wedding frequently begets another. Mr. Darcy would almost certainly be one of the party during this happy time. It would be natural for his thoughts to also turn to matrimony. And, of course, she would be right there, so clever, so elegant, so available.
Little did either lady guess what small comfort they would find in the thoughts of matrimony currently harbored in the breast of the very gentleman on whom Caroline was depending. Even as their carriage entered Netherfield Park, Fitzwilliam Darcy was in the library of his future father-in-law, applying for the hand of Mr. Bennet's dearest, loveliest daughter. And Darcy did not come away disappointed.
Despite his misgivings, Mr. Bennet had consented to the marriage. But Darcy and Elizabeth determined to keep the knowledge of their engagement to themselves for a day or two. They did not wish to detract from the joy all felt over the pending marriage of Jane to Mr. Bingley. Moreover, they both felt that the attention their announcement would receive from the entire town would materially lessen their own joy in this time courtship. They agreed that they would first share their happy news only with Bingley and Jane.
Caroline slipped easily back into her accustomed role at Netherfield and, in her waning days as hostess of that estate, issued an invitation to Jane Bennet to join the Netherfield party for a celebratory dinner. Her brother, aware of what was due to his friend, insisted that Miss Elizabeth Bennet be included in the party, an attention to that lady that his sister found both mystifying and mortifying.
Miss Bingley had not forgotten that Mr. Darcy had, in the past, thought the younger Miss Bennet handsome. Indeed, she had found it necessary to draw his attention to this unseemly attraction more than once. But it had been some time since Elizabeth Bennet had fled Derbyshire, smarting from the humiliation of a sister disgraced. Caroline was quite sure that this dismal family picture had soured Darcy forever on the charms of any of the Bennets.
In due course, the evening of the dinner arrived and Caroline bordered on philosophical as she awaited the arrival of the Misses Bennet. Darcy had not mentioned Elizabeth once since Caroline had arrived and had even refused to respond to her barbed references to fine eyes and lack of fashion. She felt confident that whatever power Miss Elizabeth Bennet may have had over Mr. Darcy had long since evaporated. She looked forward to an evening during which the happiness of the engaged couple might fill the house with thoughts of matrimony. She had dressed with particular care, selecting a very elegant dress and her best jewels, and had arranged the seating at dinner so that Darcy might be close enough to fully admire the finery. The country attire of Miss Bennet and her sister must pale in comparison with the latest fashion from town and Darcy was discriminating enough to appreciate the difference.
Dinner itself proved to be particularly unsatisfying. Despite Caroline's best efforts and the carefully planned seating arrangement, Darcy's gaze seem to be frequently turned to the other side of the table where Miss Elizabeth Bennet sat between her sister and Mr. Hurst. Elizabeth Bennet, however, did not seem to be able to meet his gaze. This was sufficient to assure Miss Bingley that Elizabeth was still extremely embarrassed over the family scandal and would be unlikely to cause any problem.
When the ladies retired to the drawing room after dinner, Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst ushered Miss Bennet to the divan and began their campaign to repair the rift they had created in the spring. They were only too aware that entrée to Netherfield, or any place their brother lived, depended on the good will of Miss Jane Bennet. Despite what they knew of her good nature, they were careful to offer every imaginable courtesy, spurred on by visions of endless evenings of cards with Mr. Hurst. They felt no such compunction about Miss Elizabeth Bennet who they left to amuse herself looking over such books as were lying on the drawing room tables. Elizabeth was perfectly content to have it so. She certainly did not envy Jane the acquisition of two such sisters, but thought that if anyone could bear that burden with good humour it would be Jane Bingley.
When the gentlemen entered, all flattery to Jane was at an end. Bingley immediately took his place by her side and the sisters' attention was turned to his companion. Darcy gravely strode to the fireplace, where Elizabeth was examining a book, and peered over her shoulder at it's contents. She glanced up at him briefly, her eyes twinkling and a smile lurking just at the corners of her mouth. It was enough for Miss Bingley.
"Miss Eliza Bennet, pray play for us this evening. We do so enjoy hearing you at the pianoforte. Is that not so Mr.Darcy?" Darcy inclined his head slightly and Miss Bingley swept Elizabeth away and seated her at the pianoforte, a safe distance from the fireplace. Elizabeth played. Elizabeth sang. Before the first song was half through, Mr. Darcy had stationed himself at the pianoforte where he could command an excellent view of the performer. Elizabeth had just completed the closing bars of the second melody when she found herself as unceremoniously supplanted by Caroline Bingley as she had previously been engaged. "If ," Caroline thought, "Mr. Darcy wished to watch a performance, he could watch a capital one."
Mr. Darcy, it appeared, did not wish to view this particular performance. Once Caroline had chosen a lengthy selection and begun to play, he turned from the instrument and offered his arm to Miss Elizabeth Bennet. "Miss Bennet, I believe you will find a much better selection of books in the Netherfield library. May I show you the way?" Darcy had put his free hand over the one she had placed on his arm and led her out of the drawing room. Caroline ground her teeth in time to the music….
When they had gained the library, Darcy leaned against the door and grinned. Elizabeth answered him with the smile he had once despaired of ever seeing directed at him. He simply gazed at her for several moments, evoking in Elizabeth a memory of an evening at Pemberley that seemed lifetimes in the past. Suddenly, he became very solemn.
"What is it, sir?" she inquired. "Have I displeased you in some way?"
"You? My Elizabeth, never. But we shall soon relinquish our secret and I fear that the time until our marriage may not be the happiest period of our lives."
Her face mirrored his changed mood. "Perhaps not. but. . . ." She came toward him and took both his hands in hers.
Darcy stood absolutely still and looked directly into Elizabeth's eyes. Then he lifted her hands to his lips. He turned her left hand over and kissed the palm. He was rewarded with the sound of a soft, sudden sigh. Slowly, he took both hands in one of his and pressed them to his heart. With his free hand, he brushed a curl back from her forehead and then ran his fingertips along her cheek, all the while gazing intently into dark eyes which met his with equal intensity. His hand slipped around to the back of her neck and drew her toward him as he lowered his lips to hers. She move to meet him and they kissed tentatively. Darcy's hands moved to Elizabeth's shoulders and then slowly down the length of her arms, gently caressing her skin through the soft material of her gown.
His kiss was gentle; he touched her as if she would break, holding himself in check, afraid that the force of his passion might frighten her. But, as the embrace continued, he felt a change. Elizabeth suddenly gripped the fabric of his waistcoat and began to return his kiss. He was aware of her lips warm and responsive against his and could feel her quick breath on his mouth. Her hands slid over the waistcoat, under his jacket, until her arms were around him, her hands firm on his back. He responded in kind, slipping his arms around her pliant frame and gathering her to him, delighting in the knowledge that this lovely woman would, indeed, meet his passion with her own.
The world around them stopped for long minutes. Lost as he was in the wonder of holding the woman he loved in his arms, Darcy was the first to realize that they must regain their composure before they were discovered. Slowly, reluctantly, he separated from her. The kiss ended, but still she remained in his arms, unwilling to leave the strength she felt there. Darcy looked into her face and saw what she felt. It took all of his will to disengage himself and hold her from him. Convention, however, prevailed. They released each other, although his Elizabeth insisted on retaining a hand, and turned to face the time remaining until they wed and . . .
Miss Caroline Bingley had finished her song and gone in search of the missing members of the party. Her brother had tried to stop her, but had not been able to think of a reason that could outweigh her determination. She had not missed the reference to the library and repaired there straight-away. She had reached the door and pulled it open only moments after Darcy and Elizabeth had parted. She found them, eyes locked, oblivious to any movement in the room.
Caroline froze in shock and mortification. What could this mean? What had Elizabeth Bennet done? Elizabeth and Darcy turned toward the doorway where Caroline stood rooted, but seemed not to see her. Even when they finally recognized that she was there, they made no sound. Miss Bennet would have pulled her hand away, but Darcy would not release it. They looked back at one another for a moment, but still nothing was said. Elizabeth looked briefly at Caroline and blushed deeply but Mr. Darcy gave her a smile such as she had never seen and the two walked past her into their future.
© 1997 Copyright held by the author.