Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered
Although it is very true that Mr. Darcy had rather wished for the Misses Bennets' Netherfield visit to come to an end, he realized as Bingley's carriage drove off towards Longbourn that his feelings were a mixture of relief and regret. The more than usually teasing behaviour of Miss Bingley towards himself, and her manners bordering on the impolite versus Miss Elizabeth Bennet had been the cause of his insight. He feared that he had been on the brink of giving Miss Bennet too much attention, and that Miss Bingley had noticed it. Consequently, he had spent the last day of their stay very much to himself and scarcely spoken at all, especially not to Miss Elizabeth. Taking great care to avoid any suspicions of her being able to influence his felicity. He was convinced that he had made his point and was glad that the reason for this disturbance of minds (Miss Caroline's and to some extent his own) was now removed.
Miss Bingley exclaimed something about having the house to oneself again and could not help adding: 'But I fear Mr. Darcy is pining for the loss of Miss Eliza Bennet's pert opinions and fine eyes.' He was able to answer truthfully :'On the contrary, I assure you '. However, almost as soon as he had murmured those words, while his gaze was following the disappearing vehicle, he began to contemplate the loss mentioned. He became gradually aware of a peculiar sense of emptiness. He suddenly found himself staring at the sofa, where she had been seated with her lovely profile bent over a book. Or his thoughts had pictured her in front of the fireplace as she was eagerly accusing him of a propensity to hate everybody. He was not aware of the faint smile on his lips at is inner reply : 'No, I do not hate everybody; certainly not you, Miss Bennet'. As he noticed that Miss Bingley's eyes were admiringly fixed on him, he abruptly finished his reverie and made an effort to devote himself to his present book.
Then a Tuesday followed that Sunday of partings. The parting not being such sweet sorrow to him as it apparently was to Bingley, he all the same felt that it was necessary for him to accompany his friend on a visit to Longbourn, to find out how Miss Bennet was recovering. He decided, that this courtesy to the elder sister could not be interpreted by Miss Elizabeth Bennet as any particular attention from him. They were riding through Meryton, as they caught sight of all the Bennet sisters engaged in an animated and very agreeable (from the looks of it) conversation with several gentlemen, some of them officers in their red uniforms. Mr. Bingley directed his horse towards the party and dismounted, saying that they were on the route to Longbourn to inquire after Miss Bennet's health. Darcy made a bow and was about to follow him, determined not to fix his eyes on Elizabeth, when they were suddenly arrested by the sight of the stranger, and recognized him as George Wickham, the very last person he wished to meet with.
The latter, after a moments hesitation, touched his hat and Mr. Darcy made the slightest movement of his head and urged his horse to carry him away from the unwanted company. He caught one glimpse of astonishment in a pair of dark eyes and experienced some regret on this hurried removal from her presence. He did not know, that Elizabeth had noticed the cool manner of their greeting and the mortified expression on his face. She watched his tall figure disappear and perceived that his head and shoulders seemed stiffened with repugnance. What could this mean? It was obviously not the first time those two men had met and she reflected on the significance of it all. Conveying her attention back to Mr. Wickham she saw that the moment of embarrassment had passed and he was again all smiles and charming manners.
Darcy had some time to ponder this meeting, until Bingley joined him for their ride back to Netherfield. He was disturbed to know that Wickham was in the neighbourhood. And even more so, if he were to apply his notorious charm of manner to the Bennet daughters...He broke off. Why was this thought so appalling to him? Wickham had always had a way with women, none knew this better than Darcy, who had been observing his rampaging during their years at Cambridge, and later ... He checked his thoughts and they took a somewhat different course. In former years he had been amazed at the man's conquests and, though it was now awkward to admit, sometimes secretly envious and wondering how he did set about. Taking a deep breath he told himself that this was no concern of his and smiled in a somewhat forced manner at his approaching friend, whose face showed every sign of happiness and content.
During the following days Darcy spent a lot of time wandering or riding about the grounds of Netherfield. More than once during those rambles did he happen upon that particular group of trees bordering to the surrounding meadows; vaguely hoping against his reason that 'she' would miraculously turn up again. He recalled her sudden appearance, clear eyes and rosy cheeks, breathing a bit heavy from the exercise and maybe slightly annoyed at his skeptical 'On foot?' Then she had raised an eyebrow glancing at him, and fascinated him with her reproachful : 'Would you be so good as to show me to her?' Maybe this was the first time he had noticed the strange pleasure of being subjected to her disapproval. As he directed her with an arm gesture, she immediately went ahead with locks of hair dancing around the nape of her neck and skirts swaying at her rapid pace. He had been surprised to suddenly find himself in such high spirits.
It was a puzzlement, that this country girl should take up so much of his time, even after she had left the house. He could not explain this urge to hear her voice, to have her opinion on almost any subject. When they were playing cards in the evening and Miss Caroline Bingley had given her view on some topic, he noticed that he was trying to figure out what would have been Miss Bennet's reaction to it. He actually missed her sharp wit and decided opinions... He was spending a lot of time playing billiards too, as it was such dull and grey autumn days with a succession of rains. And when he was alone in the room, and there was the faintest sound from outside, he would glance at the doorway and figure her there...In that same soft-looking yellow silk gown with its bothering neckline, dark hair framing her dark eyes. He recalled the blush on her face as she found him alone, and cursed his failing abilities to say something charming that would have kept her within sight a little longer. Why he had only bowed to her and probably been staring at her like some fool. No wonder she had turned her back upon him, appearing rather confused, and been gone the next moment. Leaving behind her the faint fragrance of perfume and his own aroused feelings, which at that time had caused him both astonishment and vexation. He made an effort to ignore the whole incident and with one firm stroke sent the red ball across the green cloth placing it where it was meant to be.
Darcy began to anticipate new opportunities to enjoy the company of Miss Bennet at the Netherfield Ball . Even if they were often in argument when they conversed, he did not mind that. She did not annoy him, the way Caroline Bingley so frequently did by her artful sentences filled with hints to please and flatter him. Compared to that, the chats with Miss Elizabeth Bennet were fresh and exciting. He wanted more of her amusing observations and was delighted to imagine himself the object of her pert uttering and the teasing sparkle in her eyes. Sometimes half asleep he'd remember the way she had played with his dog, believing herself alone...It was as if her teasing manner was conveyed to her whole body... just playing and still.... so full of life and joy....If I'd been the dog ... she would not have gotten away with it so easily. I would have caught her and...Good God, what is the matter with me ... And he would rise from his bed, pour out a glass of water and walk over to the window, violently gulping it as he stared out into the black and lonely night.
The windows of the great stone building were spreading their light into the dark of the gathering November dusk, and every time the door was opened a flood of light and music found its way to the courtyard.
Guests had been arriving for the last hour and Mr. Darcy, who had been at first calmly seated listening to Sir William Lucas and some of his neighbours discussing where to buy the best thoroughbred mare, acted upon an increasing restlessness and started to walk about in his usual manner. From time to time he would look out to watch for newcomers.
After a while, as he was pausing at one of the great windows overlooking the drive up to Netherfield's' main entrance, he observed that yet another carriage had arrived. It's inhabitants were assisted down to the ground and soon an abundance of colour in the form of gowns, ribbons, flowers and lace was moving up the steps. He had by then identified the bearer of one very obvious feathered head dress to be the trying Mrs. Bennet and as his gaze was eagerly searching the faces around her, soon enough found what he was looking for; Miss Elizabeth Bennet in a silk evening cloak of a glossy brown shade with a hood covering her hair and thus, in an enchanting manner, framing her face and eyes.
Those were, that instant, lifted up to the facade and began to form an inquiring expression as she caught him watching her. Was it the many torches, held by footmen to assist guests safely into the house, that were reflected in the flash of her glance? He immediately took one step away from the window, and severely reproaching himself on so imprudent behaviour, hastened back to the ballrooms which were by that time swarming with guests.
Later there was some minor commotion among the groups of guests, as their host made his way through the rooms, politely conversing with Jane Bennet on his right arm and Elizabeth Bennet on his left. Darcy, sensing this slight stir, turned his head and absolutely started with admiration at the sight of Elizabeth. She was wearing a most becoming yellow gown that closely followed the upper part of her body and was low-cut showing the skin of her lovely neck. There was a twinge inside him. The shade brought about a bewitching glitter and sparkle in her eyes and in her dark curls, tiny white flowers were skillfully intertwined. Though he had recently decided not to let her presence affect him like he had permitted it to do during her stay at Netherfield, it was not in his power to ignore her appearance. He found her remarkable beauty to be quite stunning and was now practically unaware of what he was doing.
He turned round to be able to watch her adorable figure moving over the floor at Bingley's arm. She was cheerfully conversing and letting her eyes register what was around her. Was she looking for someone? Then he saw an officer approaching her with a smile of high esteem on his face. He must have had something agreeable to say to her, judging from the bright smile that flashed over her face as she answered him. Their conversation was continued and Darcy- with some inner emotion - saw her bite her soft lip, obviously from disappointment, as he could perceive that some of the light left her face and the look in her eyes was nearly dull for a moment. The next instant he was perplexed to have them both focus their attention upon him. He at once averted his own gaze to some insignificant object and was somewhat puzzled by the contents of their dialogue.
He walked away and took his stand by a window, in order to contemplate the possible cause for Miss Bennet's displeasure and above all, to prevent any signs of his inner turmoil from being detectable. This renewed experience of her effect on him, in spite of what he had so sincerely intended, was not to his liking. He was used to be in full command of his outer and inner man, and it was now as if he was loosing control due to some deplorable emotional mishap. He could only believe that he had not been sufficiently on his guard, and that now he had seen her and got used to the way she looked, he would not again have his head quite turned.
To ascertain that things were perfectly normal, he approached to make some polite enquiries. She replied in a civil but rather cold manner, whereupon she turned away with a noticeable degree of ill-humour. As he had no idea that she blamed him for Wickham's absence and was resolved against any sort of conversation with himself, Darcy was a bit surprised. Still every proof of her prejudice against him and of her total lack of ingratiation were the very reasons that once more enticed him into paying attention to Miss Bennet.
All his life, he had been accustomed to women smiling at him, admiring every word he uttered and by every other possible method trying to make themselves agreeable to him. They wanted his name, his wealth, his connections, his estate and - though he had rarely been aware of it - some might even have wanted his person. He was sick and tired of it.
He had never been allowed to approach a woman on his own initiative, using his own ingenuity and social ability. He was not used to it at all. He really did not know how to carry it out successfully. It was a challenge and he reacted to it with instants of irresolute wariness, moments of firm resolution, an irregular pulse and a pleasurable sense of vitality.
When the ball commenced, he could not refrain from watching and noticed that the clerical relation of the Bennet's was Elizabeth's partner for the first dance. This must be of some significance. Rumours had it that this man was visiting his relatives with the intention of choosing a wife amongst his cousins. Was it to be Miss Elizabeth Bennet then? What an appalling thought. He did not appear to be worthy of her. She ought to be able to marry someone of slightly better consideration in the world ...
Mr. Collins brought distress to his cousin during their dances; he was not attending and often moved in the wrong direction without even being aware of it. Darcy, perhaps due to some unconscious jealousy, felt an undignified stroke of malice at this awkward display. It was visible on his face in the form of a contemptuous grin and he received immediate punishment as Miss Bennet noticed it and glanced reproachfully at him. Once again he was secretly pleased to have her aware of him. Any proof of his being on her mind, even in a form calling for blame was curiously agreeable. The next moment brought some clear-sightedness and made him realize, that it would not do for him to continually centre his attention on her every move, so he took to stalking about the room observing the other guests.
His critical eye caught sight of Mrs. Bennet eagerly chatting to Lady Lucas, no doubt conveying some idle gossip; he noticed that Bingley, dancing with the handsome Miss Jane Bennet, had the expression of a man totally in love. Before he had time to consider this, a loud giggle made him frown at the unbridled and flirtatious behaviour of the youngest Bennet girl.
He had finished his turn and resumed his former position in time to get another more pleasing scene before him. Miss Elizabeth Bennet was drawing the attention of more than one gentleman, moving her body gracefully through the last turn of the dance. As Darcy's eyes were glued to this irresistible performance, an unexpected sensation of heat rushed through his entire body and a sudden dryness in his throat forced him to swallow.
He was utterly overcome by the unseemly nature of his own reflections and wishes, and tried desperately to hold back, so that his eyes would not betray him. His thoughts were roving hither and thither: 'I wish...to speak to her... why...I must. ..get near her ..it is....how... I shall .. ask her to dance with me... yes! Definitely! There can be nothing improper in that. It is merely what can be expected. I shall dance with Bingley's sisters of course and perhaps with Miss Jane Bennet as well. But apart from Miss Elizabeth Bennet, there is not another woman in the room , whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with. I detest dancing with women unknown to me. What would I speak about?...empty compliments are abhorrent. Why should I devote my time to inferior women. They do not usually interest me ...but despite her unfortunate family, I find Miss Bennet to be witty and hrmm... entertaining indeed. Yes that will be half an hour pleasantly spent.' He thus reasoned himself from a state of complete confusion into the opinion that dancing with Elizabeth would mean nothing at all but the common civility due to a friend of Bingley's sisters.
However he did not feel up to it just yet, and the time he took to recollect his composure, offered an opportunity for one of the officers to dance with Miss Bennet. They seemed to get on very well and the gentleman's admiring glances were somehow a disturbance to Darcy's peace of mind.
He was on the alert as she returned to her friend Charlotte Lucas and abruptly broke into their lively conversation, making a courteous bow; 'Miss Bennet - if you are not otherwise engaged - would you do me the honour of dancing the next with me?' Her reaction was, as always, not what he had expected it to be. She seemed to be confused and was having some trouble finding the words to answer his request. When she did, it was in a somewhat hesitant manner: 'Why I...I had not...I thank you, yes!' He was not sure what to make of that and he was amazed at his own deed. As every word failed him, he immediately walked away, quite content that he had actually got her to dance with him at last.
She had declined to do so twice during their acquaintance. The first occasion being at Lucas Lodge, where Sir William had tried to give her hand to him and, though extremely surprised, he would have been happy to receive it, had not the lady drawn back and declared that she was not inclined to dance and that his own consent was only good manners. This rather elegant riposte had been accompanied with the first sparkles aimed at him from her dark eyes. His initial interest in the contents of her conversation, the liveliness of which had drawn his attention, was heightened by his surprise at this most unusual reaction from a woman offered the honour of his company. And the twinkle in her eyes and smile on her lips saying : 'Mr. Darcy is all politeness.' had been agreeable indeed. The pleasure of looking into her eyes was of a kind hitherto unknown to him.
Then one evening at Netherfield he had been observing her for hours and not knowing what to say to her, had fancied to dance a reel with her. At first she had not said a word, thus making him repeat his suggestion; whereupon her answer had been sort of defensive, as if he was attacking her. She had declined to stand up with him, but in the manner of her refusal there had been such a mixture of sweetness and archness that he was not in the least affronted. He had indeed, never been so bewitched by any woman and from that moment had found it necessary to consider from time to time, the inferiority of her connections in order to keep his head clear and be realistic about it.
Those recollections passed his mind before it was time to form up for the next dance. He felt almost solemn and glanced at Miss Bennet but her eyes were turned away. He knew not, that she was amazed at the dignity of being allowed to stand opposite to Mr. Darcy, that she knew this amazement to be shared by many other guests, and that she did not wish for him to become aware of it. His conceit, in her opinion , certainly needed no support from her.
The musicians introduced Mr. Beveridge's Maggot and the music filled the rooms. Darcy bowed with elegance and when at last Elizabeth moved towards him, her eyes looked straight into his as their hands met for the initial figure. Her touch was electrifying and it took a lot of his concentration to proceed with the steps and move in the predetermined turnabouts. He could sense the perfumed warmth of her body, as she passed him during their dance, and it added to the severe attack on his composure.
She made an observation and he managed to answer her and was then silent again. She reproached him on this, telling him that he ought to make some kind of remark on the size of the room or the number of couples. He smiled and assured her that whatever she wished him to say should be said. Later they got into some verbal combat, as he gathered that she considered them both to be unsocial, taciturn and unwilling to speak if they could not amaze the whole room. He argued that this was not a good description of her and that he could not say whether it was near his own character, but that she undoubtedly found it accurate.
She answered: 'I must not decide on my own performance'.
His answer after some reflection was inward : 'No, you can leave that to me, Miss Bennet, I would tell you, I enjoy your performance; as a matter of fact I find it to be utterly enchanting. You are fresh air to me.' He experienced another breathtaking moment as a richness of dark ringlets swept dancing past his eyes and an impulse to pull her close to him and bury his face in her hair, had to be firmly subdued as he struggled to become his own man again. His inner lecture went: 'What is this.. I feel..so ... a lack of ...sense. I'll admit she is attractive, but that is no reason for me to feel so awkward...I'm no schoolboy... Hope to God she did not notice... anything.' He endeavoured to look all ease and formed a question on the frequency of her walks to Meryton.
He felt relieved as she answered him, thinking that he now had a conversation going. That hope was dashed when Elizabeth could not resist to mention a new acquaintance, hinting on the meeting with Mr. Wickham. Darcy was annoyed, it was intolerable to have this man reappearing in one's life again and again! It was not to be endured. He made a constrained remark, questioning Wickham's ability to retain his friends once he had so easily got them. Elizabeth replied that he would probably suffer from the loss of Mr. Darcy's friendship all his life. Darcy did not answer and wanted very much to change the subject.
Shortly afterwards Sir William Lucas complimented them on their dancing and he went on with an allusion to 'a certain desirable event'. Saying this he looked at Jane and Bingley. Darcy followed the direction of his gaze and watched the couple with a grave expression. 'So it has come to this already! It is a matter of gossip then. Bingley does not understand his own interest. I'll have to give him some advice on this business. And I am sure she is only accepting his attention to please her mother. That calculating vulgar woman. Bingley is pleasant of course and it is clear that Miss Bennet is enjoying his company. But she does not appear to be at all seriously involved. It'll be just another love affair of his after a few weeks . He does look rather committed, so there is no time to lose. I'll deal with this tomorrow. '
When Sir William left him to 'his fair partner', he recovered himself and proposed a discussion on books. But though he was smiling and even gallant, Elizabeth was thinking of George Wickham and declined the subject. She could not refrain from asking Darcy if he had ever allowed himself to be blinded by prejudice. 'I hope not' said Darcy rather surprised at this and other questions. 'May I ask to what these questions tend?' She had an earnest look and admitted that she was trying to understand his character. In flattered amazement he asked if she was making any progress, but her expression was worried and slightly embarrassed, when she confessed having such different accounts on his person as to puzzle her exceedingly.
Darcy , sobering down, could imagine where some less favourable reports might originate and advised her not to sketch his character at the present moment. Elizabeth objected that she might not get another opportunity to do so. Suddenly realizing that they were not likely to meet much in the future, he felt lost, and his confused feelings made him answer quite coldly: 'I would by no means suspend any pleasure of yours'.
The dance was coming to an end and they parted. She did not appear to be in high spirits and he was displeased at first, but watching her now and then across the room, he was soon more favourably inclined and directed all his anger towards another.
And even more so when Miss Bingley informed him that she had recently had a report on Mr. Wickham and Miss Eliza Bennet. They had been noticed to enjoy each others company. Darcy had no wish to let Miss Bingley know to what extent her tidings affected him and just muttered something about confined country manners and uninteresting small town gossip. He was, however, displeased to know that Wickham was performing his tricks in the neighbourhood. But how was it to be prevented? Painful exposure would be involved and probably without reason. The man was bound to be more careful now. It was highly unlikely that he was persisting in his immoral conduct. Darcy wished to forget him completely.
As the evening progressed, Darcy felt that it was almost as if he was provided with the necessary tools to break some spell he had been under. It was undeniable that the younger members of the Bennet family were sorely lacking in sense and that their manners suggested no carefully exercised education. Their behaviour was such as to be looked upon with contempt and disapproval.
It was easy to perceive from where the bad example was emanating, since Mrs. Bennet was frequently betraying a total want of modesty as well as propriety. Her relatives were of little consequence in the world; a brother in Cheapside doing God knew what, and a sister married to the lawyer in Meryton! But these circumstances alone could have been overlooked. Had it only been this lack of connections, the insignificance of their relations...Well, that could not be so great an evil to Bingley as it...might be to others. Had she only been a sensible woman with decent manners and some judgment...The Bennet family must however be regarded as a most unhappy connection.
Darcy admitted to a certain degree of compassion for the two eldest daughters. Their manners were pleasing and they were perfectly well behaved, apparently sensible and tolerably well informed, thus being remarkably different from the other daughters. But this could not improve their possibilities much, as every decent man of some intelligence would be discouraged at the prospect of such relatives.
Then their silly cousin, without a proper introduction, imposed himself upon Darcy, to inform him that his noble patroness, Lady Catherine De Bourgh was in good health. Mr. Collins' manners had exactly the ingratiating tone to fill Darcy with disgust, though he kept an air of distant civility, while listening to the production of a long rigmarole about the countless virtues of his aunt. At the first opportunity he made a slight bow and moved another way.
When they sat down to supper Mrs. Bennet rambled on about 'the sensible Mr. Collins who had taken quite a fancy for Lizzy.' Darcy, who was sitting near enough to hear it, was disgusted : (Horrible. No wonder the poor girl was blushing.) She went on to reveal that 'he had favoured Jane at first...but Bingley was there before him' (I do not believe my ears...why it is almost indecent). She then rejoiced on this happy match and how it would 'throw her younger daughters into the path of other rich men' (I've know such undignified speculations to exist...but never in my life did I expect to hear them spoken out aloud. Total want of propriety!) His earlier resolve to save Bingley from such low connections was strengthened by the minute. He noticed that Elizabeth Bennet, cheeks blushing , was endeavouring in vane to persuade her mother to describe her felicity in a less audible whisper. (Most awkward predicament for a young woman.)
Miss Mary Bennet had in a somewhat forward manner placed herself at the pianoforte in order to entertain the company by playing and - unfortunately - by singing. For though her playing did not reveal any true feeling, it was to be vastly preferred to her vocal efforts, which were not at all fit for anything but family diversion. And alas she did not possess the necessary self-criticism, and made an attempt to let her first song be followed by another. She was then, in a much to obvious way, tactlessly cut short by Mr. Bennet, who told her to let the other young girls exhibit! (No real sense of propriety to be found in this man either).
Darcy saw Lydia Bennet fooling around with an officers sword. The younger girls behaviour was rather improper. Their unguarded manner was now more understandable. They seemed to have been left without guidance and a correcting hand, hence those deficiencies in their conduct. Darcy glanced at Elizabeth Bennet and saw that her face had an expression of humiliation. She... and her sister were indeed to be pitied.
But it could not be helped. Bingley must be brought to reason, and as he was going to London in the morning, it would be for the best if they were all to leave Netherfield. Bingley intended to be back in a few days, but Darcy was confident that he could convince his friend to change his plans. If the certain evils of his choice were pointed out...And when I assure him of Miss Bennet's indifference...He usually depends on my judgment. I honestly believe that our stay in Hertfordshire must come to an end.
© 1997 Copyright held by the author.