Dinner At Pemberley
Darcy sat at the end of the divan, quietly contemplating the scene before him. Across the room at the pianoforte, sat the two women in the world who were most dear to him - his sister Georgiana and Elizabeth Bennet, the woman he dared hope would someday be his wife. Despite their acquaintance of just two days, the two young ladies appeared well on the way to becoming fast friends. They were deep in conversation, and occasionally glanced in his direction. Darcy's heart leaped every time Elizabeth looked his way; for the first time he could remember, she appeared to be gazing at him in approbation. He had to admit that there was once a time when her teasing disapproval had tantalized him in a different way; unfortunately, he had interpreted her behavior as an invitation for his proposal of marriage which followed. How wrong he had been on that score! That disastrous evening had been torturing him for over three months now. He remembered the cutting language of the speech which - fool that he was! - he thought would convince her to be his bride. That a gentleman could pronounce such hurtful words to any lady, let alone the woman he loved, was unthinkable. Yet he had done just that, behaving in a manner, as Elizabeth so devastatingly told him, unbefitting a gentleman. He understandably thought he would never see her again. The letter he presented to her on the following morning defending himself against her charges - some justified, some not - had been worded in a fashion which he now believed could only have alienated her further. He could only hope that she believed the portion of his letter pertaining to the treachery of George Wickham, a treachery which had nearly led to Georgiana's ruination.
Yet just three days ago, a serendipitous combination of circumstances had intervened. A chance meeting here at his own home, Pemberley - the one place in the world where he never thought he would see her, the one place in the world where he longed for her presence the most. Awkward though it was, he had forced himself to converse with her in as easy a fashion as possible. He had been gratified by her response to his attentions to herself and her aunt and uncle. He wanted her to observe the changes he had endeavored to make in response to her criticisms of his previous behavior.
And, interestingly, these changes were pleasing not only to her, but to himself as well. These past three months of self-reproach and self-examination had been most painful, but in the end, Darcy had undergone a catharsis from which he had emerged a better man, one who was, he hoped, more deserving of the love of one so fine as Elizabeth Bennet. He wondered what she was conversing about so earnestly with his sister - were they indeed talking of him, as they now looked his way once again?
Indeed, Georgiana and Elizabeth were conversing about the man who was most on their minds this evening, but for very different reasons. Georgiana had watched with wretched concern these past months as her brother's mood progressed from anger, to bitterness, to an all-encompassing sadness which pierced her own soft heart. She had lost both her parents at too early an age, and her brother Fitzwilliam had been her anchor. He had never been open about his own feelings, but he was the kindest and most tender of brothers; indeed he was almost a father to her. After much probing on her part, he had finally admitted to her the reason for his despair. Georgiana knew her brother's character ranked him among the best of men, but she also understood that the haughty demeanor he sometimes presented to the world at large misrepresented the fine man he truly was.
She could easily understand how her brother had fallen in love with Elizabeth Bennet. Her beauty, her grace, but most of all, her amusing, playful manner - all these traits had helped the painfully shy Georgiana warm up to her from almost the first moments of their acquaintance. That had been yesterday, when Georgiana had accompanied her brother and his friend Charles Bingley to the inn at Lambton, where Elizabeth had accommodations with her aunt and uncle Gardiner for the duration of their stay in Derbyshire. She had rejoiced when her brother told her of his unexpected meeting with Miss Bennet, and was glad to be of any small assistance she could in helping him secure her affections. At the inn, at her brother's behest, she had extended the invitation for tonight's dinner, and had seen her brother positively glow at its acceptance. Miss Bennet had agreed to play the pianoforte after dinner.
Not so happy about that acceptance were two others also present this evening, namely Bingley's two sisters, Caroline and Louisa. Georgiana could never understand how her brother could tolerate their company with such frequency. Their mean-spiritedness and acerbic wit were most offensive to Georgiana's gentle nature. Their frequent glances toward Elizabeth and Georgiana, coupled with whispered comments, obviously about Miss Bennet, only aggravated Georgiana's dislike further.
But right now, she would think no more of them. Far more important to Georgiana was the need to convey to Elizabeth her brother's good qualities. No matter how much she admired Miss Bennet, she could not bear to see her brother hurt further, for she felt sure that her brother's ultimate purpose was to gain Miss Bennet's hand. Was there any way for her to gauge whether there would be any chance of his affections being returned, without betraying the bounds of propriety? Surely she must broach the subject now, before Miss Bennet began her performance at the pianoforte.
"My brother has spoken so highly of you, Miss Bennet. I am so glad to make your acquaintance at last."
"Thank you so much, Miss Darcy. My aunt and uncle and I have been much pleased by your brother's kind attentions during our stay here."
"He was delighted at your unexpected meeting, Miss Bennet. I have rarely seen him so animated as when he informed me of it."
Elizabeth looked at her quizzically.
Georgiana took a deep breath and forced herself to continue.
"Too often, his natural reserve, especially among those not of his immediate acquaintance, is mistaken for conceit. But he is the best and kindest of men, and I could not hope for a better brother. Our...situation in life often set us apart from others when we were children, and even now I myself find it difficult to converse in company."
Elizabeth smiled and thought to herself, "But you are doing quite well at present."
Georgiana blushed. She was unaccustomed to making such long speeches, but what she would have been unable to do for herself, she was quite willing to attempt for her brother's sake. She now glanced toward her brother, who was conversing with Mr. Gardiner.
"He seems to be enjoying your uncle's company very much, Miss Bennet. Indeed he has eagerly anticipated your visit all day and has kept himself quite occupied in preparing for it."
She looked plaintively at Elizabeth.
Elizabeth was greatly touched by Georgiana's words. She was such a sweet, unassuming young lady, and her transparent concern and love for her brother only advanced Elizabeth's already-improving opinion of him. She weighed her words carefully before replying.
"And we have anticipated our visit all day as well. My aunt and uncle have talked of little else but your brother's generosity and friendly nature. Your brother has been a charming and delightful host," - here she turned and smiled in his direction "and I am most grateful for his attentions. We would be most happy to see you both again during our stay here."
"My brother and I would be most glad of that, Miss Bennet."
Both young ladies smiled and glanced almost simultaneously toward Darcy.
"And now, would you do us the honor of singing for us, Miss Bennet?"
Darcy, meanwhile, was thinking back toward the earlier part of the evening, during dinner. Despite the vast array of sumptuous foods and perfect hothouse fruits, both he and Elizabeth merely picked at their dinner. Each of them was warily assessing the countenance of the other. Elizabeth was certainly less talkative than he was accustomed to, but she seemed to be enjoying his company, for which he was much gratified. Did he dare hope...but no, it was much too soon to be thinking in that direction. He had to earn her good opinion before he could even attempt to win her love.
His reverie was interrupted by the first notes on the pianoforte. Her sweet soprano wafted liltingly through the warm music room, and a hush fell over the assembled company. He made no attempt to disguise his feelings for her now, and his adoration shone clearly on his face. It was so perfect a moment for him that he wished he could preserve it forever. For just a moment, he could pretend that she was his wife, that she truly belonged here at Pemberley with him, that she would not depart at the end of the evening, that they would not each retire to their solitary beds...
All too soon, her song came to an end. She stood, and seeing her entire figure in all its perfection only made him long for her more. She was wearing the same embroidered ivory dress she had worn when she had come upon him playing billiards at Netherfield last fall. He had only bowed to her on that occasion, too aroused by her enticing appearance to make polite conversation. She had turned on her heel and left the room in haste; he realized now that her dislike of him had already taken root. Well, he would no longer dwell on the past...
Darcy looked up. Elizabeth seemed to be encouraging Georgiana to play the pianoforte. He was exceedingly gratified by her attentions to his sister; Georgiana so lacked suitable female guidance, as he almost disastrously discovered during her near-elopement with Wickham last summer.
Elizabeth smiled, directly at him, and began to walk towards him as Georgiana began to play. Was she going to sit next to him? His heart pounding, he straightened in his seat and smiled tentatively at her...
She was cunningly waylaid by Caroline Bingley!
Damn that Caroline Bingley! Bad enough that she was so rude as to speak aloud during Georgiana's performance, but her words to Elizabeth stunned him:
"The removal of the militia to Brighton must be a great loss to your family, Miss Eliza...I understand that certain young ladies found the society of Mr. Wickham curiously agreeable."
Instinctively, he began to get to his feet. The last thing he wanted to do was call attention to Georgiana's obvious distress at the mention of Wickham's name, but the poor child had abruptly stopped playing.
Elizabeth, however, was too quick for him. She rushed to Georgiana's side on some pretense of turning the music pages for her, but with such ease that no one suspected any other purpose. He loved her more deeply than ever, for her compassion, her discretion, her intelligence...to think, that he had ever considered her his inferior. She had been the only person he had trusted with the knowledge of his sister's situation concerning Wickham, knowing instinctively that even in her anger at him, she would never betray his confidence.
She was bent over the piano, but now she lifted her head. He caught her eye, and on his face was an expression of pure love, of gratitude, of total oneness with her soul. He was rewarded with a luminous smile which somehow began with her eyes, and slowly diffused down the rest of her face, ending with her upturned lips. No matter what happened, no matter what the outcome of this evening might be, he could sustain himself with that smile for a long, long time.
The clattering of coffee cups ended this magical interlude, but both Elizabeth and Darcy were fully cognizant of what had passed between them. Normal conversation, of course, had to be resumed, but neither of them had anything particularly original or witty to say; each was consumed with thoughts of the other.
It was after midnight when Darcy, Georgiana and Bingley escorted their guests to their carriage. "I hope to see you again, Miss Bennet," said Darcy. "May I call upon you at Lambton tomorrow afternoon?"
Elizabeth was glad he could not see her clearly in the darkness, for she feared her face would betray her eagerness at his attentions. "I should be very glad to receive you, Mr. Darcy."
Long after Bingley and Georgiana had returned to the house, Darcy stared into the night after the departing carriage. He very much wondered what Elizabeth was thinking of him, as he slowly turned and walked back into the house.
Darcy was pleased when all the others retired upstairs, for he wanted to be alone with his thoughts for a time before going to sleep. He was irresistibly drawn to the music room, and giving in to the impulse, walked down the long corridor in that direction. He stood by the mantel and gazed toward the pianoforte where he had locked glances with Elizabeth earlier.
Perhaps it was the moonlight streaming through the window playing tricks on his eyes, but he saw her clearly, there at the piano, smiling at him. He took this as a favorable omen - perhaps this meant she was here at Pemberley in her own thoughts as well.
Tomorrow he would ride to Lambton to see her. It was his duty, as a gentleman, to ask her forgiveness for his behavior to her in the past. He could never earn her love until he was sure of her forgiveness. Perhaps, then they could put the past behind them and begin anew. Now that he had been given this second chance, he would treat her as the precious treasure she was. He would woo her and court her as no woman had ever been courted before. He nodded to himself in determination.
He left the music room with a lightness of heart such as he hadn't felt in months. He was surprised to encounter Georgiana in the corridor.
"I wanted to speak to you, brother, without all the others present. I couldn't go to bed without telling you how pleased I am with Miss Bennet's acquaintance. She is everything you described, and," she said shyly, lowering her eyes, "she is very pleased to be in your company. I was glad to hear that you would be seeing her tomorrow afternoon at Lambton."
Darcy smiled and impulsively hugged his sister.
"In light of what you just told me, Georgiana, I think I will not wait until the afternoon. I shall leave instructions that my horse is to be ready at first light."
Nothing could possibly go wrong now.
© 1997 Copyright held by the author.