Dinnerparty With the Earl and Countess of Matlock
It was the last week before the wedding, and the two eldest Bennet sisters were in Town, busy preparing the last details for their wedding-clothes. This was at least the official excuse, but their main reason for leaving Longbourn was to be able to spend some time with their fiancées without the irritating silliness of their mother and younger sisters, as well as from Mrs. Philips and the Lucases. Charlotte and Mr. Collins had arrived at Lucas Lodge two weeks before the marriage to escape the vexation of Lady Catherine, who was harsh in her condemnation of the upcoming marriage between her beloved nephew and the upstart impertinent girl without connections or fortune who had duped her nephew and now was to pollute the shades of Pemberley. Mrs. Bennet was forced to remain at Longbourn, her sprained ankle still troubled her and she had to put her trust in Mrs. Gardiner, who was more then happy to be at service to her nieces. Mr. Bingley and especially Mr. Darcy were happy to be able to spend some private time with Jane and Elizabeth, without the rivalry attention of all the friends of the Bennet family. They also wanted to introduce them to their own friends and relatives in town, and Darcy wanted to show Elizabeth his town-house. He used to spend quite some time in London, visiting theatres and concerts, and also in business. Probably he would spend more time in Derbyshire now, as a married man, but he planned still to stay in town in periods. He really looked forward to introducing his beloved Elizabeth to his aunt and uncle, the Earl and Countess of Matlock, the parents of Colonel Fitzwilliam and his older brother, the heir of Matlock. He also wanted Georgiana to have an opportunity to come together with Elizabeth again, to get to know her better. His hope was that Elizabeth would influence Georgiana in a positive way and add some of her liveliness to the shy nature of his dear sister.
The whole party had been invited to dinner at the Earl of Matlock's house. Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, Elizabeth and Jane were to arrive together quite early. Mr. Darcy was eager to let Lizzy meet the Countess in privacy before the dinner. Although she always had been his favourite aunt and had nothing in common with his other aunt, except strong opinions and high rank in society, he knew that she could be intimidating to those who were not accustomed to society. But in this aspect he had nothing to fear regarding his dear Lizzy. The Countess herself had lively spirits and loved to converse with people she found well-informed and interesting. He only feared that Lady Catherine's words had made a greater impression then they ought to, and hoped that his cousin Fitzwilliam had praised Elizabeth to the extent she deserved. He arrived early himself, together with Georgiana, and had a gratifying conversation with his aunt and uncle, although they questioned him exceedingly about the lady, how they had met, whether she was a fortune-hunter as Lady Catherine implied, and about her connections.
"So, my boy, I heard from Edward that you met the young lady almost one year and a half ago, in Hertfordshire. How come you haven't come to an agreement earlier? Are there any objections to the lady? Or her family?" the Earl asked.
"Yes, there are objections to her connections, I'm afraid, as I am sure Lady Catherine has informed you of. But there definitely are no objections to the lady herself, or her elder sister, who is to marry my dear friend Mr. Bingley. Both Miss Bennets are very well behaved, and very accomplished young ladies," Darcy replied.
"But in what way are there objections to their connections? Edward told us that their father is a gentleman, and has an estate of some consequence and that they to his knowledge are the principal family in their village," the Earl continued. "Do you mean that there are other objections? Such as immoral or bad behaviour?"
The Countess listened in silence. She could see her nephew showing some discomfort to these last implications, guessing that this was closer to the truth. She was perfectly aware that her nephew needed no help from his future wife regarding wealth or connections, since he had plenty of that himself, as her son Edward so eloquently had pointed out when they discussed the matter on the day they broke the news to him. She was still amused over the reaction that news produced, and how loyal to Darcy her son had been, in trying to answer all her impertinent questions regarding Miss Bennet, and the courtship between her and Mr. Darcy. She found it exceedingly amusing how Edward had been guarding his tongue, trying not to expose his cousin in any way, or betraying any confidence. His last comment, that Miss Bennet made Darcy smile was absolutely charming. She was very curious to see what kind of woman it was who had finally caught the esteem and heart of her dear nephew, since she could clearly see that he was totally possessed with the lady. But she wasn't satisfied with what she heard, listening to the questions and answers between her husband and nephew. He hadn't yet answered why they hadn't come to an agreement before, since he so apparently had had this interest since last autumn, or at least since April, when he and Edward had visited Catherine. The objections against her family weren't the reason, and the lady herself ought to be flattered by the interest from such a fine and wealthy gentleman as Mr. Darcy, as she well knew that almost all other unmarried - or married for that matter! - ladies would be. And he was extremely good-looking as well. Although he was her nephew, and of the same age, or even younger then her youngest son, she had to admit to herself - but to herself alone, this was a matter far too embarrassing to discuss in public! - that she found him exceedingly attractive; tall, handsome, well-informed, polite, even humorous in smaller family-gatherings, and with a velvet voice that made her dream about being thirty years younger, unmarried and as attractive and courted as when she was Miss Rebecca Longworth, the grand-daughter of an earl as she was, and very pretty before the rheumatism had affected her limbs. She was still handsome, but she found it almost pathetic at times, when she found herself almost aroused by the sheer presence of her nephew. Not that she didn't love her husband, he was still very handsome, perhaps not in he same way as he had been as a young Colonel and heir of the estate of Matlock, when he had started courting her. And she still found him very attractive, and loved all her family dearly. But she definitely found pleasure day-dreaming from time to time about her nephew. And she had seen the effect he had on women at the assemblies were every woman tried to make him notice her. No, there was something else, something he was hiding to them. Could there be some dreadful family-scandal? Or - strange thought - could it be the lady who didn't value Mr. Darcy??! She knew him to be sometimes a bit proud and reserved, but sure any sensible lady must see that he had other qualities, not to mention his wealth? This was extremely vexing! Why couldn't her husband see that he didn't get the real answers to his questions? She had to ask him herself!
"Darcy! Stop playing games with us! The question is why you and Miss Bennet haven't married before? Your answers are as dissatisfying as Edward's were!," the Countess exclaimed. She could see Darcy flush momentarily. Ah, she thought, I touched a tender spot there. "Pray, tell me, is it the lady who had some objections against your connections or maybe even yourself?" To her amusement she could see another quick flush at her nephews cheeks. It was very becoming she thought, and she couldn't help continuing her pert questioning, although she could see that she pained Mr. Darcy, but just a little. She knew he wouldn't really mind, they had always been on the best of terms, and besides, she could see that he was anxious to tell them the absolute truth, as always, and that he was very eager that they would not think ill of his beloved.
"Well," she said, "what is your answer to that?"
He looked at her silently, then smiled gently and affectionately. Both his aunt and uncle waited patiently, while he carefully selected his words.
"Yes, you are perfectly right, Aunt. The lady had some very strong objections. Not against my connections, I assure you," he said hastily, not wanting them to think that his Elizabeth had any objections against the Fitzwilliam family, "but objections against myself. She found me quite lacking in every other aspect but my connections, I am afraid. Well, I don't think she was so very pleased with Lady Catherine, though. But who is? She can be a bit trying at times." He knew his aunt and uncle agreed with him perfectly in that question.
His aunt and uncle listened in compassionate silence. They understood that this was a delicate matter and that they couldn't rush him. They knew but too well that he was a proud man, who would not with ease expose his defects of temper. Without exposing all the embarrassing details, he told them the whole wretched affair about the first proposal, how he had insulted Miss Bennet by telling her that she was beneath him, and also a little about how he had parted her elder sister from Mr. Bingley because he thought he was a better judge in these matters than the objects themselves. He told them that his affection for Miss Bennet had even increased when he had realised that she was right, and that he was properly humbled by her reproofs and had become a better person after Miss Bennet had shown him his vanity. At that moment Edward entered the room and was startled by the serenity and silence in the room. He was just about to turn around and leave the room, when his dear cousin Mr. Darcy addressed him:
"No, don't leave, Fitzwilliam. You know all about the matter we are discussing. Your dear parents are questioning me why I haven't married Miss Bennet before. And I understand that you haven't betrayed the confidence. I have informed them about the whole affair."
Colonel Fitzwilliam smiled affectionately at his cousin. "Of course I haven't uttered a syllable. I wouldn't dare! And besides; what could I say? Only knowing that you were desperately in love, and the lady in possession of your ardent desire hated you and wouldn't have anything more to do with you. What did you expect me to say to my parents, when they told me that you and the charming lady were engaged? The last thing I heard you say in this matter, not four weeks ago, was that again, she was lost to you forever. That when you were on the verge of finally making her appreciate you, something came in her way that thrusted her away again. I found you in such misery, and shortly after that my parents told me that you were to marry Miss Bennet! I am just trying to say there were so many changes all the time. First, all the praise I heard of Miss Bennet for the whole of last winter, then finely meeting the bewitching lady myself in Kent, almost falling in love myself," - here his parents exchanged a worried look; Edward in love!?, with Darcy's fiancée?! They could hardly wait to meet the lady! She really must be something special! - "had it not been for your obvious affection. Then, the torments I have heard about these eight months, and then the news that the two of you are to wed! Not that I have any objections, she is the perfect match for you, I only hope you will deserve her. She is by far the most accomplished and lovely young lady I have ever met. And with such temperament and a well-informed mind to match your own. She is, I think, the only lady I have ever met who has been able to confront you, and Lady Catherine as well, and in such a charming way, without affronting anyone. Then hearing that she had been to Pemberley in August," - his parents exchanged another surprised look - "not from you first, but from Georgiana, who was quite taken by her, speaking of nothing but her charms and accomplishments."
Darcy smiled, a very content smile, in a way neither his aunt or uncle could remember they had ever seen on his face before. He looked utterly happy.
The Earl didn't know what to say or think. He was exceedingly puzzled, since he had heard so many different accounts about the lady. Miss Caroline Bingley had come to see them on several occasions these last days, seeking their help to talk Darcy out of this very imprudent marriage. He had had two letters from his sister Catherine concerning the same business. She didn't have words for how distasteful she found Miss Bennet; she called her an adventuress. On the other hand he had heard Georgiana's praise, she had called upon them twice this last week and spoke of nothing but her happiness in getting Miss Bennet as her sister, praising her lively manners, and repeatedly discussing how well Miss Bennet and her brother seemed to be suited for each other. And now his son's and of course Mr. Darcy's praise! He was very eager to meet Miss Bennet himself, and felt confident that his dear lady was in the same suspense as himself.
The Countess dismissed the gentlemen, claiming exhaustion after all this information, needing to rest before all her other guests arrived.
"And all you could come up with when I last asked you, was that 'she makes him smile'!!" the Countess said to her son. They all laughed heartily, and the gentlemen left the room while the Countess placed herself in her chair in front of the fire.. "Indeed," she thought, "this will be very interesting, very interesting upon my honour. But I dare say; it wont be easy for Miss Bennet to impose on me after all this praise. She must be something extraordinary if she is to impress me after all I have heard of her.
While the gentlemen had their conversation with the Countess in the drawing-room, the object of their discussion had arrived at the house, together with her sister Jane and the Gardiners. She looked forward to the evening; meeting Darcy's aunt and uncle, and the dear Colonel, who she had found so amiable when they met last spring. But she also dreaded the meeting, not that she didn't think Darcy had done everything to put them all in the most positive favour to her, but that they would find her and her relatives beneath themselves. After all; they were the Earl and Countess of Matlock, and were used to moving in the highest society. But on the other hand, so was Mr. Darcy, and he didn't think ill of her, at least not any more! And their son, the dear Colonel, didn't think ill of her, quite the contrary she thought, and if he was at all like his parents, they were probably very pleasant people as well.
Thinking about the Colonel…. She had met him the other night, at Darcy's town-home, for the first time after his and Darcy's hasty departure from Kent last spring. At that time, she fancied herself interested in the Colonel, and even fancied him interested in her. If only he had had the financial possibilities to interest himself in a woman without fortune or inheritance…. Meeting him again, now as his cousins fiancée, at first felt a bit awkward, but his pleasing manners made her at ease almost at once. And to see his sincere happiness about their engagement, expressing his best wishes for their life together, filled her heart with joy. But she couldn't help thinking what could have happened if he had not been the second son, but the first… She wondered if he would have addressed her then, and if he still had an interest in her? Not that it mattered any more, she was perfectly content with how things had developed.
Her only real concern was that she felt too much, not knowing at times how to hold back her emotions. She was well-bred and knew how abominable it was when people couldn't control themselves in society. Especially knowing how proud and sometimes reserved Mr. Darcy was, and thinking about his former objections against her family and how they behaved. But when she came to think of it; at times he seemed to have trouble controlling himself as well. She could feel his passion and ardent desire in his looks and touch. Looking back at their strange courtship, dating it even from their first meeting at the Meryton assembly, she realised there had always been something thrilling with his glances at her, not to mention when he touched her; at the Netherfield Ball, helping her into the carriage at Pemberley, at the Inn at Lambton… He had always disturbed her balance, and she used to think it was only because she found him so proud and above himself, but she could now admit to herself that he had caught her interest in a very different way long before she realised it herself. She simply found him extremely attractive. This was a totally new experience to her when she first acknowledged the emotion. She had been slightly interested in a couple of men before, but these emotions were new to her. She completely understood now what Mr. Darcy had meant at Hunsford when he expressed his ardent desire…. Until lately she had no experience in the art of desire in this meaning of the word.
She now remembered a very awkward conversation between her mother, Jane and herself the night before their departure for London, a couple of days ago. Her mother had asked Jane and Lizzy to come to her room, since there was something very special she wanted to discuss with them. Alone. She was very explicit about that, they were not to be disturbed, not by Kitty or Mary, and certainly not by Mr. Bennet. Not that he used to come to her room anymore, he spent most of his time in the library or his own quarters. Jane and Lizzy were a bit puzzled by her request, they were not used to this kind of private conversation with their mother; she usually said all she had to say in public, and never thought there were things the younger daughters couldn't hear. But being such well-behaved daughters as they were, they obeyed her wish without arguments, and followed her to her room, exchanging surprised looks between themselves. In Mrs. Bennet's room she asked them to be seated, since she had some important communications to them. They seated themselves and waited. They could easily notice that Mrs. Bennet wasn't comfortable with the situation.
After a long pause she finally started talking:
"Dearest girls, you are now on the verge to become married women. And as married women you will have some new obligations." Jane and Lizzy looked at each other, laughter in the corners of their eyes. What did their mother know about obligations? She who only cared for herself?
"And I am not talking about all the obligations in society, keeping a house and giving dinner-parties." She stopped and looked extremely embarrassed. She did not know how to continue. Maybe this wasn't a good idea, maybe she should have said nothing, letting things be as they were and letting the girls find out for themselves?
After an other long, awkward pause, she continued:
"I am talking about obligations towards your husbands." She was silent again, her cheeks burning, she couldn't face her daughters' looks. She did notice though that Jane had lowered her face, and that she had a faint blush on her cheeks. At least she seemed to understand! But that impertinent Lizzy! Why couldn't she lower her gaze?! She just looked extremely diverted, as always when there was an awkward situation. Most vexing! She would have to have a discussion about this with Mr. Bennet again! But he never listened to her when she complained about Lizzy, he always favoured her. But it wasn't their problem much longer, soon enough it was Mr. Darcy's problem! Maybe she should stop now, since Jane seemed to understand the situation. But did she really understand? No, she could not understand the full extent of her obligations, she had always been quite naiv and wasn't accustomed to the things of the world. Mrs. Bennet decided to make another attempt to elicit the minds of her daughters.
"Men are very different from us. They have other interests than we." This was no news to either Lizzy nor Jane, but what was she aiming at? Outdoor sports? Politics? Economy? Jane and Lizzy exchanged a puzzled look. Surely, she could not be talking about......…. sex? Not that they knew anything about the matter, but they did know a little about birds and bees…. But surely, their mother could not be talking about this?! But it did make perfect sense now! Her embarrassed looks, why they had to be alone..... Both Lizzy and Jane felt terribly embarrassed. What on earth could she possibly say more in this matter?! Both sisters wanted the conversation to end right there, and Lizzy tried to interrupt their mother:
"Mother!" Lizzy exclaimed, "I forgot to mention before that we are to go to Lucas Lodge tomorrow morning before we leave for Town." Jane looked at her with overwhelming gratitude. She was so embarrassed she could not utter a word.
Mrs. Bennet looked startled; what was Lizzy talking about? She was in the middle of communicating the secrets of married life, and she started to talk about the Lucases?! Now that she had started, she wouldn't accept any interruptions. "What are you talking about? I don't care about what you are doing in the morning, I am trying to prepare you and your sister for the trying things you are about to endure in your future life. Not that it is only trying, sometimes it can be almost enchanting…..," If she had watched her flushing daughters she might have stopped by now, but once she had got over the worst of her own embarrassment, she continued:
"What I meant to say is, that men seem to find other pleasures in these things, and that it is one of the duties as a married woman to accept these differences in disposition. But in time, they seem to get less interested in these activities, and more interested in other things. And I advise you to have separate bedchambers, one of the advantages with that is that you can always lock the door. Or claim a headache. Or some indisposition. There are many excuses. But at times one must accept that it is a duty, as I said. Well, girls, that was what I had to say, you may go now."
Jane and Lizzy hurried out of the room, not knowing what to say to their mother when leaving. But she seemed to be fully occupied with her own thoughts. Outside her room, Jane looked at Lizzy, her face all red: "Well, Lizzy, what do you say to that? I have never been so embarrassed in all my life! Thank God, Kitty or Mary wasn't with us!"
"For once even I am speechless. I don't know what to say. Let's go out into the garden and calm ourselves," Lizzy replied. They never mentioned this incident again, it was too embarrassing.
Even thinking about it now, in the house of the Earl of Matlock, it made Lizzy blush. But not only because of the embarrassment it had produced, but because she realised she actually looked forward to become a married woman, with all these obligations…..
With her mind occupied with these reflections, she hadn't noticed that the door to the sitting-room had been opened, and that the gentlemen had entered the room. She became aware of Mr. Darcy's presence by the warmth in her body, and she turned around to face him. As always, she was amazed by his appearance. She smiled adoringly as she watched Darcy come across the room, managed to get out of the spell, advanced a couple of steps and met him in the middle of the room.
Darcy and Lizzy only had eyes for each-other. It was as if the others didn't exist, as if they were alone in the room. Darcy wanted to take her in his arms, but, as Darcy reminded himself, they were standing in the sitting-room of his uncle's house and all the persons in the room were watching them. So, he just took her hand in his and raised it to his lips, their eyes locked while he said: "Dearest, loveliest Elizabeth!"
Then he turned, still holding Elizabeth's hand and addressed his uncle: "Uncle, may I introduce my fiancée; Miss Elizabeth Bennet."
The Earl of Matlock found himself looking into the most beautiful eyes he had ever seen, maybe except for his dear wife's. There was an openness about them and, somewhere there in the back, a touch of laughter. "Bewitching," the Earl thought when he reached out his hand and welcomed Miss Bennet to the family.
After the initial greetings and small-talk, the Earl handed Elizabeth over to his son, saying: "Miss Bennet, since I know my wife has planned that you and I are to be seated next to each other at the dinner, as you and Mr. Darcy are the guests of honour this evening, I don't want to bore you any more with my conversation, for the moment. Edward, take good care of Miss Bennet, and make sure you do not let your emotions run away with you!"
Lizzy looked at Colonel Fitzwilliam in surprise, her eyes wide open, her brows raised. "What was the Earl implying? Did the Colonel have some sort of emotions he had difficulties repressing? How very interesting indeed! After all, her own guesses concerning the Colonel's interests in her person seemed to be true. Did Darcy know about this?," she wondered, with one diverted look at the somewhat flustered Colonel, and the next look at Mr. Darcy, who was conversing Jane and Georgiana. He noticed her gaze, turned his head, and they exchanged an affectionate smile.
While continuing the conversation with his sister and his sister to be, he kept an eye on his cousin and Elizabeth. He had noticed long ago, in fact at their first visiting-call at the Hunsford Parsonage, that cousin Edward and Elizabeth seemed to get along so exceedingly well. Not that he didn't want them to get along well, but what was it that Edward was saying when they talked to his aunt and uncle? 'Almost falling in love himself…' So that was what it was all about? Cousin Edward and his Elizabeth?! No, this was ridiculous! He knew perfectly well that Elizabeth was his, and his alone. How could he let such a thought of jealousy enter his head, even for a short while? It was just because he was so in love with her, and so frustrated about not being allowed to show her how much he loved her. And all those months he had tried to convince himself he didn't care about her anymore, or cared if she was to marry someone else…. He could feel another wave of jealousy sweep across him; imagine, Wickham had tried to impose on his Lizzy!!
But there were just four more days to go now, and four nights. Yes, four nights, its was only four more lonely nights, then they would never be apart again, never!! He sent yet another look at his future wife, and again, she sensed his presence and turned her face in his direction. Not being able to let go of his gaze, she excused herself to her companion and walked straight to him, while he at the same time excused himself to Georgiana and Jane, without noticing their diverted faces. He, who used to be such an attentive brother, now ignored his sister and did not even listen to her shy tries to converse with ease with Miss Jane Bennet. But she did not mind; she was so happy for him. She had seen his torments this summer and autumn and had worried about him. She had tried to ask him about it, but he would not tell her what it was. But, never mind that now, her happiness was complete, since her brother was to be the happiest of men! And she was really delighted herself, to get a sister, since she had been a lonely child, loosing her mother at the age if five, and her father at the age of eleven. She loved her brother, but she had always longed for a sister.
When Darcy and Lizzy met in the middle of the room, again he lifted her hand, took it to his lips, almost unable to let go of her. Mrs. Gardiner looked at her niece and smiled, it warmed her heart to see the two of them together. Imagine how Lizzy had tried to convince her that she found the owner of Pemberley so repulsive! When she was already in love. Or at least almost in love when they had that chance meeting in August. She remembered the look on Mr. Darcy's face that evening at Pemberley, his feelings painted on his face while watching Lizzy play and sing. He had done absolutely nothing to hide his emotions that night. It was a small wonder Miss Bingley hadn't seen that they were in love with each other, but she must have been blinded by her own hopes.
At that moment the lady herself, and her brother, Mr. Bingley entered the room. Mr. Darcy didn't leave Lizzy's side, only made a slight inclinations with his head to Miss Caroline Bingley and greeted Mr. Bingley with a smile. The Bingley's approached Jane and Georgiana and Darcy took this opportunity to whisper to Lizzy: "Come with me, I want you to meet my aunt, before all the others arrive."
Silently they left the room together, came out in the hallway and there, in a shadowy corner he took her in his arms unable even to speak, just searching for her lips with fervent desire. Surprised by his sudden embrace she wasn't at guard to her own emotions, and met his burning lips with her own, their passion igniting a fire that threatened to let go of all their precautions. Mr. Darcy moved his hands from Lizzy's arms up to her neck, feeling her bare skin under his fingers. It made his mind absolutely blank, he wanted her so much. He could hardly resist the temptation to let his fingers slip down under the soft fabric at the back of her dress. He could feel her press her body against his and he could understand that she felt the same as he. Only four more days….. All this time their lips never parted, and their mutual passion made them forget where they were. Suddenly they heard a discreet cough at the other end of the hallway and reluctantly let go of each other. Their hearts beating almost audibly, their eyes moist, their hands trembling, they moved away half a step from each-other, and noticed the interested and diverted look in the eyes of the housemaid that passed them on her way to the servants' quarters. This wouldn't do! They took another step away from each-other, straitened their clothes and Darcy offered his arm as they went to the door to the library where Darcy knew they would find his aunt.
Now all the other guests had arrived, and the Countess left Mr. Darcy and Miss Bennet to themselves. First of all she went to her husband, to make him introduce herself to those of the guests she had not met before. He took her to Mr. Bingley, to introduce her to the eldest Miss Bennet. The Countess found her very pretty and with a temper to mach Mr. Bingley's perfectly, and with the same easy, unaffected manners. But there certainly was a contrast to the air of Miss Elizabeth Bennet's, her disposition seemed much more lively and playful, also quite far away from Mr. Darcy's.... "But this was very rational, actually; Mr. Bingley needed a wife that could match his personality; a good companion, while Mr. Darcy needed a wife that would improve his personality and add a little liveliness to his temper, a woman who would not be in awe of him, but could match his pride. She also needed to be passionate," the Countess meditated dreamy.
Next, she was introduced to the Gardiners, who she found to be people of fashion, with good manners and taste. "I wonder why everyone repeatedly talks about Miss Bennet's 'low connections'?", she thought, "all of her relatives seem to be perfectly proper people, maybe not people of fortune, but decent people. And if not everyone would have talked about them as not being people of fortune, I doubt I would ever have noticed…"
There were also several other guests; friends and acquaintances, and she moved around to the different parties to welcome them all.
Lastly she turned to greet her eldest son, who had arrived as the final guest, together with his wife. "He could also need a wife that could take him out of some of his conceit," the Countess contemplated. She could never understand how her first son had turned out to be such a snob, and her second son such a nice person. It must have something to do with his aunt, he resembled Catherine, she was sad to think. "But his wife, such a goose! She is not a bit better! I only hope they will behave correctly towards Miss Bennet."
Lizzy and Mr. Darcy also went on an introduction round. Mr. Darcy introduced her proudly to those he was aquatinted to, not leaving her side for one moment. He was convinced she could not feel comfortable in this setting, aware of all judging looks and all the gossip and discussion that had proceeded this evening. Lizzy gave his arm a grateful squeeze at more than one occasion on their tour through the room.
Finally they joined Fitzwilliam again, who was in conversation with his brother. When Edward made the introduction, his utter happiness was pouring out of his countenance: "Brother, may I have the honour to introduce our cousin to be! I am only envious I am not able to introduce her as your sister to be," he said with a wry smile to Darcy, "but here she is, the future Mrs. Darcy; Miss Elizabeth Bennet!" Lizzy, smiling affectionately towards Fitzwilliam, turned to face the heir of Matlock. To her complete surprise she realized that this was a person who was not at all happy to have to call such a woman as herself his cousin. "Well, you can't win them all," she meditated silently as she followed Mr. Darcy into the dining-room after their short and awkward conversation with the cousins.
"Don't let it distress you, dearest Lizzy," Darcy whispered in her ear. "He doesn't approve of anyone outside his nearest family; we do not get on at all, we never have." Lizzy gave him one of those bewitching smiles that made his mouth dry and his visual field narrow, his eyes could only register her, and her alone in the whole room. Even his auditory sense seemed affected; all the voices and sounds of the room seemed distant, and he had only ears for his beloved. "Oh, Lizzy! Don't do that! I can hardly refrain from kissing you - again! - you must not tempt me!" he said breathlessly, but managed a faint smile at the end of his playful reproach. Lizzy smiled again, this time her eyes filled with laughter, her eyebrows raised in a mischievous way. He only took a firmer grip around her elbow as they again approached their host and hostess.
At the dinner, Lizzy was seated next to the Earl, as guest of honour. She was at her normal unaffected ease now, after her private conversation with the Countess. If she was the one Darcy had warned her slightly about, then she had nothing more to fear this evening. She had found her very easy to converse with, and she was also convinced that the lady liked her. But surely she must have been prepossessed to like her; she knew Darcy had done his best to clear the way for her, and she supposed it did help a bit that Lady Catherine was so absolutely against the marriage, since she knew, by Darcy's information, that the Countess and Lady Catherine almost always were at the furthest extremities from each other when there was an argument. In many matters they shared the same principles, but when it came to a discussion, it seemed to amuse the Countess to challenge Lady Catherine by disagreeing. Nevertheless did Lizzy find the Countess very agreeable and thought they would get on very well.
The Earl was still very curious regarding Darcy's fiancée, he had noticed the very pleased expression on the Countess' face when she came from the library with Miss Bennet. He did value her opinion, but in this case he suspected that his wife might have been determined to like Miss Bennet, since Lady Catherine disliked her. But on the other hand; Catherine also had liked Miss Bennet, at first….. She had even, in her letters, given him information concerning the nice friend of her parson's wife, who had visited Rosings last spring. She had found her pretty and even enchanting, inviting her frequently to dinner for the sheer pleasure of her conversation. But after the first rumour regarding Darcy's engagement, her letter was full with contempt, everything about Miss Bennet was wrong; she had low connections, she was even the cousin of the parson, Mr. Collins, she was ever so impertinent and conceited, her conversation was arrogant and she had absolutely nothing to recommend herself with. He had never shown these letters to his wife, since he knew how little interest his wife had in any of Lady Catherine's communications, and now he was glad he had kept the letters to himself. It made his wife less prejudiced than necessary. But on the other hand, knowing his lady's propensity to disapprove of anything Lady Catherine claimed, it only would have influenced her into first disliking Miss Bennet, by believing that she was an adventuress, and now thinking that she had been proven right…. This was a bit confusing, the Earl had to admit, but never mind that now, they could see by themselves that Darcy was very much in love, and knowing that his heart wasn't easily touched, and also knowing that he had met Miss Bennet in so many different settings, over such a long period of time, he could not have been fooled by a fortune hunter. And this last information that she had refused to marry him at first because she found him lacking in manners, increased the Earl's opinion of the lady. He thought anyone would be prepared to put up with quite a lot to be Mistress of Pemberley… But not this lady, not until she had made Darcy realize he had to earn her respect!
As the other guest of honour, Mr. Darcy was seated next to the Countess. He had always been her favourite, and she knew how much he meant to her son Edward. They had been at school together, and always been close. Now seeing his happiness delighted her heart. After her private conversation with Miss Bennet earlier this evening, she fully understood her nephew's and her son's enticement with the lady. She had such lively manners, such a catching smile and seemed so natural and without empty phrases. She was easy to like, but the Countess could very easily understand that some ladies could find her provoking. With her wit and vivacity, she was used to being listened to, and rarely had to prove her value. She watched her husband being charmed by Miss Bennet, saw him laughing merrily to her esprit. She also noticed Miss Bingley observing Miss Bennet, jealousy written all over her face. "Poor girl," she thought. "She really hasn't much to recommend her with, does she?"
The Countess tried to interest Darcy in a conversation, but he seemed to loose track of his thoughts all the time. His interest was at some other quarters. This would not do; she must evoke his attention!
"Darcy! Have you told Miss Bennet about your stay in Italy after Cambridge? And your lady-friend in Florence?"
This certainly had it's desired effect. She had his full attention at once. "What did she know about Anna?" he thought with the greatest alarm. Signorina Anna Bondanella was governess in the family where Fitzwilliam and Darcy had spent a short stay the summer before they went to Padua. They were to spend some time in Florence, to study art and meet the Italian side of the family. The family was the third cousins to the Fitzwilliam family, and had a palace in Florence, close to the cathedral. The governess was a distant relative they had taken care of after a small scandal, were she was said to have been involved with Giovanni Giacomo Casanova. The signorina and Darcy had been mutually attracted to each other, and had had a summer romance. She had taught him some of the mysteries of life and he kept this as a delicate memory in the most closed chamber of his heart. "But did his aunt know anything about that?! Surely, Fitzwilliam could not have said anything? He who hadn't even said anything about Miss Bennet to his parents? But he was older now, more careful with what he said, not living at home any more."
The Countess looked into his eyes with laughter glittering out of her heart. "Dearest Fitzwilliam, I know nothing about any lady-friend in Florence, I only guessed. I knew about the governess who had been involved with that voluptuary, but I didn't know if you actually met her. But I can see now that you did. But do not worry; this is our little secret."
"But really, Aunt, you do not believe those idle reports, do you?" he said, looking at her with real concern in his eyes. Then, suddenly, there was a wry smile at the corner of his mouth, and she could see his dimples, just before he continued: "Not that I have not suspected that you had some knowledge about this, I have sensed your gaze."
The Countess was a bit puzzled by this. How could he have noticed that? Her cheeks were covered with a quick flush. She drew her mind back to his first information. Drooling like this over her nephew wouldn't do! "So that was why Darcy always seemed a little bit more experienced in the ways with women, than what matched my knowledge about his habits!" She knew he seldom accompanied his friends to the evening entertainments after theatres or concerts. She had never seen him in solitary company with an unattached women, except his sister. She could not even recall him saying anything appreciating about any single woman, but still he interested and attracted almost all women. And it was not only his fortune and power that was attractive, it was something else, and now she knew what; he was amorously experienced in a way that attracted women; not only concentrated in his own pleasures, but interested in the delights of the woman. If she had know that he had recently read Ovidius' classical work Ars amandi, she might have been even more interested in his accomplishments in these matters, but this new knowledge was quite enough. She already was a little bit too interested in him than was comfortable. Or maybe it was; after all, he was her husband's nephew, and only her nephew by marriage...
Darcy's alarm weakened when he heard the Countess' assurances. "After all, she didn't really know how close she had been to the truth, or did she...? And it really was almost innocent, since he had been truly attached to Signorina Bondanella, nothing at all like what he knew about certain men of his acquaintance. And it was so many years ago, really in his youth, when he was more easily led than now..." But he did not want Elizabeth to hear such rumours and decided to pay more attention to the Countess' conversation, to keep her happy, and to keep her away from more insinuations. He must become master of the conversation to avoid further prying in this matter!
For the rest of the dinner he was as attentive as anyone could ever be, the Countess was not fooled by his gallantry, but she decided to keep her impertinent remarks to herself.
After dinner, the ladies gathered in the drawing-room, while the gentlemen stayed in the dinner-room. Elizabeth joined her sister, who had been seated next to Mr. Bingley, with Edward Fitzwilliam on her other side. The sisters exchanged information from their dinner-conversations when they suddenly were startled by being addressed by Miss Bingley.
"So, Miss Eliza," Caroline Bingley said in a high and shrill voice, attending everyone's attention, "I hope you are satisfied now, having duped the Fitzwilliam family!"
Elizabeth and Jane stared at her with horror. "This could not be true, this could not be happening!" they both thought, feeling most uncomfortable. They could feel the looks from everyone in the room, could sense the silence. Miss Bingley still stared at the Bennet sisters, challenging them with her posture. At the corner of her eye, Elizabeth saw the Countess approach them.
Elizabeth felt the Countess hand on her arm. "Miss Bennet, let me handle this," the Countess said silently. She turned to Miss Bingley.
"Miss Bingley, let me remind you that you are a guest in my house, and I do not approve of that kind of talk. You are not only implying that my dear friend Miss Bennet has deceived Mr. Darcy, but that the members of my family are stupid enough to be duped by her. This is rude both to Miss Bennet and to myself. If you cannot control your own disappointment and jealousy, I at least advice you to be silent, or leave my home."
Miss Caroline Bingley realised she had lost control over the situation, but she had been desperate enough to trespass the bounds of behaviour. She now realised everyone in the room stared at her in utter contempt. Jane Bennet turned away her face, with an embarrassed look. Miss Bingley searched the room for Miss Darcy, but as their eyes met, Miss Bingley saw such emotions of pity in Miss Darcy's eyes, Miss Bingley had to lower her face. She saw that Miss Darcy walked to the Bennet sisters, her back turned to Caroline. The conversation in the room was back to normal again, but no one looked at Miss Bingley anymore, everyone ignored her. She decided to leave, and ordered her carriage. She left without saying good-bye to anyone.
When the gentlemen joined the ladies, Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley joined their fiancées and Miss Darcy. Mr. Bingley let his eyes search the room for his sister and realised she was missing.
"Jane, do you know were Caroline is? She isn't unwell I hope? She has seemed to be out of spirits lately," he said with real concern in his voice.
There was a silence, as he waited for Jane's reply. She looked away. The gentlemen looked attentively at her, but she did not know what to say. Miss Darcy looked away. The gentlemen looked at each other. "What could be the meaning of this?" Suddenly Elizabeth cleared her throat:
"Yes, Miss Bingley was unwell, and left right after dinner. A slight headache, I think. Nothing to worry about."
Mr. Bingley smiled relieved at her, but Mr. Darcy looked at her with a sceptical look in his eyes. She simply smiled at him, took his arm and led the way to the sofa, taking Georgiana by her other arm.
As the happy threesome were seated, Elizabeth found it wise to change the subject. Nothing good could come out of exposing the incident to Darcy, better let temper justice with mercy, she thought.
"So, you thought it best to listen in to my conversation with Georgiana, sir? I think so too; there is an obvious risk I might teach her to be as impertinent as myself," Lizzy said cheeky.
Mr. Darcy was not fooled by this, he suspected there had been some kind of argument or scene, but wisely joined Elizabeth's performance. After some time even Georgiana regained her composure and joined in. But she found it hard to keep up with Elizabeth's lively, sportive manner of talking to her brother, it almost frightened her at times. But she was relived to see her brother's response to Elizabeth's behaviour; he was totally enchanted, and even answered her in the same, almost uncivil way, at times.
The evening ended in an atmosphere of the utmost mutual understanding, and when the guests took their leave, thanking the Earl and Countess of Matlock for the evening, again Elizabeth was welcomed to the family;
"Miss Bennet, I can not tell you how happy I am to welcome you to the family. You will make my nephew the happiest of men, and I have reason to believe he will make you the happiest of women!" the Earl said.
"I second that," the Countess filled in, with a cheeky smile to Darcy. He gave her a smile back, a smile almost of the same sort that he usually reserved for Elizabeth. The Countess' heart fluttered, she felt almost dizzy. "Oh, why am I not thirty - or forty! - years younger, I would get into the competition then! And in a much more sophisticated way than Miss Bingley! But I am afraid I wouldn't stand a chance; he seems devoted to Miss Bennet. And I don't blame him, she really is the most accomplished lady I have ever met. And the most passionate."
Back at the Gardiners' home at Gracechurch Street in Cheapside, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner excused themselves and retired to their private quarters, after having expressed their great satisfaction with their evening. Jane and Elizabeth decided to go to bed as well; it had been a most rewarding evening, and they were exhausted. They were to get up early the next morning, to go back to Longbourn. Elizabeth had had many dreads before this evening, and now was very pleased all had passed so well, finding her future relatives so agreeable. Mr. Darcy had told her she would like his aunt and uncle, but in this matter she could not trust his word, despite knowing he always said the absolute truth, but this was a much too delicate matter to put trust in any opinion, but her own.
After slipping into their beds, they silently contemplated the evening's events. Jane's thoughts were of Caroline Bingley's endeavour to try a last desperate effort to separate Mr. Darcy from Lizzy. What a vain hope; that she would be able to intervene in a power of nature, that all misunderstandings and prejudices in the past had not been able to damage! Jane felt sorry for Caroline; that Caroline had committed a faux pas in such a way, ruining her future chances of visiting Pemberley, the future home of Lizzy. Jane's thoughts were also at Pemberley, a place she had heard so much about, and longed so much to see. She also knew that Caroline found Pemberley attractive, not only that she had entertained hopes of becoming mistress of Pemberley, but that she actually liked the place itself for its beauty. Probably she would never be invited to Pemberley again, not after all her lures and mischief.
But there was no point discussing this with Lizzy; as Caroline was to become her sister, she had better keep her thoughts to herself. Maybe time would heal the deep wounds that had been torn, and the best would be to try to forget and forgive. After all; it all came from jealousy, and since that was such an irrational emotion - at least that was what Jane was told, she had no real experience in these matters herself - there was no use trying to explain things to Lizzy.
Lizzy was unusually silent this evening, she thought. Usually it was Lizzy who talked at night. When the two of them had these rare moments of private conversation nowadays, and the previous evening in London, they had talked half night, about thousands of things, as in old times, when they were children and shared the same bedroom at Longbourn. She wanted to share this last evening in London with her beloved sister. Soon they would be separated; Lizzy would move far away, to Derbyshire, and they would not see each other for months. Jane knew her future husband would become her new best friend, but she knew she would miss Lizzy and their constant support to each other. And she would miss Lizzy's way of always making her laugh at herself, she knew she was too solemn, she wished she would have had some of Lizzy's vivacity.
"Lizzy," she said softly. "Are you awake?"
"Yes, I am, I was only thinking," Lizzy answered, brought back to reality, her thoughts far away.
"I only wanted to tell you - again! - how happy I am! I still do not think I deserve this happiness… And how wonderful it is to see you as happy. Or even happier! The two of you are made for each other; there is a glow around you when you are together! And Mr. Darcy, who was always so silent, so severe! I must admit I had lost my hopes you would ever forgive him his former resentment, and start to pay an interest in him… "
"Yes, I certainly started to pay an interest… ," Lizzy replied silently.
They both were silent for a long moment, and Jane was about to blow out the candle, since she assumed Lizzy was too tired to continue the conversation, when Lizzy suddenly cried out:
"What is it, dear! Is something the matter? You are not having second thoughts, are you? You do love him, don't you?" she asked somewhat alarmed.
"Oh, yes, I do love him. More than he loves me, I am afraid. My feelings scare me, I..."
"More than he loves you!!" Jane interrupted. "That is not possible! I do not think I have ever seen anyone more in love! The former 'guardian of emotions' whose love now is written upon his face! No, Lizzy, don't try to fool me, I know he loves you, as much as you love him, and no less."
"Yes, Jane, I know that he loves me, I did not really mean that. But I am afraid he loves a picture he has made for himself, during all those months of unanswered hopes. I, on my part, had to learn to love him, and my opinion of him has improved by knowing him better. Not only improved, it has reached such heights I do not really know what to call my emotions; he affects my mind in such a way I do not recognise myself. I, who always was the mistress of all situations, now lose all perception when he is around," Lizzy said thoughtfully.
Jane was silent, she had observed her sister, and noticed her addiction to her future husband. She seemed to think of nothing else. Not that Jane had any objections to this, but it was very different from her own sincere affection towards her fiancé. She could sense Lizzy's intense feelings, and recognised them to be very different from her own, but in harmony with Lizzy's character.
"Our married lives will be very different from one another," she said affectionately to her beloved sister, "but equally happy, I think!" They embraced, with all the sisterly affection they felt for each other, and then Jane blew out the candle.
"I can not tell Jane about my real emotions. She would be shocked. I will have to wait until I can reveal my inner desires to the object of my passion…," Lizzy meditated, before she let her imagination rock her to a sleep filled with enchanting dreams.
© 1997 Copyright held by the author.