With each day that passed, I began to long more and more for the day that would see Jane feeling well enough to go home and take her sister with her. I was nervous during these days, trying to figure out what I was going to say to Mr. Darcy, to Elizabeth, in order to make myself look better and Eliza worse. I had to dress in a fashionable but not pretentious manner. I had to be a step ahead of all of them, and this meant thinking about what I should say. For instance, Louisa and I could not help but notice that the gown Elizabeth wore one morning was remarkably like one she had worn during our visit to Longbourn. I thought that I should mention this to Mr. Darcy, but Louisa pointed out that it would only bring his attention again to her figure. Dear Louisa, such a wonderful sister. Always making sure I did not do the wrong thing.
After dinner one evening, we retired to the drawing room. Although Mr. Hurst wanted to play cards, Mr. Darcy had mentioned to me that he was uninterested in playing cards that evening, so we did not play. Mr. Hurst took his place on the sofa and fell asleep. Charles and Elizabeth talked quietly, with Louisa occasionally adding some thoughts. Mr. Darcy took up a book, and I just knew it was the one Elizabeth had been reading the other evening. So I took up the companion volume to his, and tried to read it, but it was some dull thing and I could not read much past the first few pages. Not that I wanted to, really. I merely used my book as an excuse to pay attention to his reading. I thought he would be happy to notice that I was taking his advice and reading extensively, but he did not seem to notice, to my frustration.
I finally got fed up with the book, set it down, and wondered what I should do. Charles, at that moment, mentioned to Elizabeth, "I am so looking forward to the ball I shall give here at Netherfield."
"Charles, are you really serious in meditating a dance at Netherfield? I would advise you, before you determine on it, to consult the wishes of the present party." Mr. Darcy, of course, did not like dancing, and I thought he would appreciate my endeavor on his behalf. It was of no importance that I shared his opinion. "I am much mistaken if there are not some among us to whom a ball would be rather a punishment than a pleasure."
Charles looked over at Mr. Darcy, knowing full well to whom I was referring. "If you mean Darcy, he may go to bed, if he chooses, before it begins--but as for the ball, it is quite a settled thing; and as soon as Nicholls has made white soup enough, I shall send round my cards."
"I should like balls infinitely better," I replied, "if they were carried on in a different manner, but there is something insufferably tedious in the usual process of such a meeting. It would surely be much more rational if conversation instead of dancing were the order of the day." There, Mr. Darcy, what do you think of that? I know how much you prefer conversation to dancing--in the right company, that is.
"Much more rational, my dear Caroline, I dare say, but it would not be near so much like a ball."
Drat. He had a point. I did not make a reply, but I did get an idea. I was very nicely dressed in a new dress from London, but one that was not ostentatious. My figure was quite elegant, and I walked so well as to set it off to my advantage. But try as I might, Mr. Darcy would not glance away from his book. I was beginning to get desperate when I noticed Elizabeth sitting silently on a sofa. I decided that I would get her to walk with me--not only to get Mr. Darcy's attention (because it was beginning to seem as though anything she did, he noticed), but also so he could see my figure and compare it to hers, which, sad to say, was quite lacking.
"Miss Eliza Bennet, let me persuade you to follow my example and take a turn about the room. It's so refreshing."
Elizabeth appeared somewhat surprised at my request, but she rose and allowed me to link my arm in hers. A few seconds later, I saw Mr. Darcy looking at us.
Well, at least that worked.
"Mr. Darcy, would you care to join us?" I asked, presuming that he would not.
"I thank you, but no. I can imagine only two reasons why the two of you would be walking about the room, and I would interfere with both."
"What could he mean?" I asked, hoping that I did not sound false.
"I think we would do better not to inquire," Elizabeth replied.
"Nonsense. We insist on knowing your meaning, sir!" I smiled at him.
"You either choose this method passing the evening because you are in each other's confidence, and have secret affairs to discuss, or because you are conscious that your figures appear to the greatest advantage in walking; if the first, I should be completely in your way, and if the second, I can admire you much better as I sit by the fire."
As long as you admire me, my dear Mr. Darcy, you may sit where you wish.
"Oh! Shocking!" I cried out in false shock and real amusement. I turned to Elizabeth. "I never heard anything so abominable. How shall we punish him for such a speech?"
"Nothing so easy. Tease him. Laugh at him," the imprudent miss replied. "Intimate as you are, you must know how it is to be done."
I dearly wish that were so.
"But upon my honour I do not. I do assure you that my intimacy has not yet taught me that." Try as I might, I could not resist mentioning my admiration for the man. "Tease calmness of temper and presence of mind? No, no--I feel he may defy us there. And as to laughter, we will not expose ourselves, if you please, by attempting to laugh without a subject. Mr. Darcy may hug himself."
"Mr. Darcy not to be laughed at!" cried Elizabeth, clearly amused. "That is an uncommon advantage, and uncommon I hope it will continue, for it would be a great loss to me to have many such acquaintances. I dearly love to laugh."
"Miss Bingley," Mr. Darcy said, "has given me credit for more than can be. The wisest and the best of men--nay the wisest and best of their actions--may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke."
Wonderful! His first true indication of his disapproval of her personality--the key to any successful romance. He doesn't like the fact that she makes sport of almost everything.
"Certainly," replied Elizabeth, "there are such people, but I hope I am not one of them. I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies, do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can. But these, I suppose, are precisely what you are without."
That was what I said, Miss Bennet. Did you not hear me?
"Perhaps that is not possible for anyone. But it has been the study of my life to avoid those weaknesses which often expose a strong understanding to ridicule."
"Such as vanity, perhaps, and pride?"
Mr. Darcy, do you see what she's doing? I wanted to ask. She's calling you vain and proud, and she sounds as though those are the things she ridicules!
"Vanity is a weakness indeed. But pride--where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation."
Elizabeth tried to prevent Mr. Darcy and myself from seeing her smile, but she did not succeed.
"Your examination of Mr. Darcy is over, I presume," I said, "and pray what is the result?" Since I knew she probably did not have a good opinion of Mr. Darcy (heaven only knew why), I wanted him to hear her say it.
"I am perfectly convinced by it that Mr. Darcy has no defect. He owns it to himself without disguise."
Now just what did that mean?
"I have faults enough, but they are not, I hope, of understanding. My temper I dare not vouch for. It would perhaps be called resentful. My good opinion, once lost, is lost forever."
"That is a failing indeed," Elizabeth said. "But I cannot laugh at it. You are safe from me."
"There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil--a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome."
"And your defect is a propensity to hate everybody."
"And yours is willfully to misunderstand them."
There seemed to be more to this conversation than I thought, so I decided to end it. "How about some music, hmm?" I smiled and hurried to the piano, which I promptly began to play.
The conversation fell silent.
The following morning, Elizabeth wrote to her mother, asking for a carriage to be sent for them. The mother, I heard, replied that she could not spare the carriage and they would have to stay for at least two more days. I was not about to let this happen, and apparently, Eliza Bennet was not interested in staying any longer than she had to. Thank goodness.
Jane asked my brother if they could borrow his carriage to take them to Longbourn, and although Charles was anxious that Jane might be going home too early, he agreed to let them have it after Jane had assured them she was much better. However, out of concern for Jane, for she really did not appear to be much better, I insisted that they stay one more evening. They accepted, and by the end of that evening, I wish I could have cut out my tongue, for even though I liked Jane, it was not enough to make up for my dislike of her sister.
The following morning, a Sunday, following the morning services, the carriage took the Bennet sisters home. We were having luncheon and I could not help but notice when Mr. Darcy rose from his seat to look out the window at the departing carriage.
"It is a wonderful thing to have one's house to one's self," I said cheerfully. "I daresay, however, that Mr. Darcy is already missing Miss Eliza Bennet's pert opinions and fine eyes."
"Quite the opposite, I assure you."
I smiled. I was right--he was realizing that although she might be pretty, she did not have a personality to match. Louisa and I exchanged triumphant looks, certain that Elizabeth Bennet was no longer a threat.
A few days later, while Louisa and I were sitting in the East drawing room, I saw Mr. Darcy and Charles riding in uncommonly fast. They had been going to Longbourn to see how Jane was feeling, and I had asked them to send her my regards. As they stopped at the stables, something unusual happened. Mr. Darcy, who normally spoke for a few moments with the groom, merely flicked the reins in his direction and stormed into the house. Charles looked a little flustered, and I knew right away that something was wrong.
Instantly, my mind raced, thinking that it had to be Jane. Was she even more ill than she had been here? Was she dying? I felt pain pierce my heart, and more guilt than I had felt before. It was all my fault. In some way, I had driven Jane home because I did not like Elizabeth, and now she was even more ill.
"What do you suppose is the matter?" Louisa asked.
"I do not know. I shall see if Charles would tell us," I said. I scurried out into the hall, heading for the door Charles was coming in. "Charles!"
He smiled when he saw me, but his smile was not cheerful, as it always was. "Hello, Caroline."
"Would you and Mr. Darcy care for tea with Louisa and I? We were just in the east drawing room."
"I don't think Darcy will be so inclined, but I would not mind something to drink after that ride."
Charles followed me back to the east drawing room, where he took a glass of tea and promptly set it down on a table without taking a drink.
"What is the matter?" Louisa asked.
"Nothing," Charles replied bluntly.
There is definitely something wrong, brother. You are never one to speak in such a manner.
"Charles, we saw you and Mr. Darcy return rather unexpectedly, and in such a fashion. I must ask you--is it Jane? Is she still unwell? Is she..." I did not want to ask if she were dying.
"It is not Jane. In fact, we saw her and her sisters in town." Charles' eyes brightened. "She is doing much better, and I was glad to see some colour in her cheeks. She looked so lovely this morning..."
I frowned. I had not thought that Charles was becoming serious about Jane until then. "Then what was the problem?"
"Oh...well, it was a gentleman we saw in town. I suppose I must warn you now never to invite him here, for he and Darcy are bitter enemies."
As if I would willingly invite anyone from this place here, save Jane. Charles, really!
"Who is this gentleman?" Louisa asked.
"His name is George Wickham."
"Wickham, eh? Where have I heard that name before?" I began pacing the room, trying to think of who he was.
"I believe he intends to join the militia stationed here at Meryton. Oh, Lord, this is going to be a muddle, for I intended to invite all of the officers to the ball."
I had to smile. For who else would dance with those flibbertigibbets, the youngest Bennet sisters?
"Why are he and Darcy enemies?" I asked.
Charles did not answer.
"Surely it is not that great a secret," I said. "Did Wickham poach in Mr. Darcy's forest? Or did he perhaps best him continually at the university? Did they have a duel over a young lady's virtue?"
"Caroline, that is enough!" Charles snapped. "Whatever the reasons for Darcy's dislike of Wickham, they are his reasons and he does not wish to make them public. If he wishes you to know, he shall tell you himself. However, I can tell you that it was more than just a boyhood contest, and that Wickham used Darcy abominably."
"Forgive me for intruding on a sensitive subject, dear brother. I had not realized..." Thank God I did not make this blunder in front of Mr. Darcy! Lord, the agony of such an idea!
"I suppose you cannot help but be curious, Caroline." Charles sighed. "The man must have a sixth sense which tells him where to make the most trouble. I only hope he does not poison Jane's mind."
"Why would you worry about that?" Louisa asked.
"Because we met him in the company of the Bennet sisters, although I believe that they had only met the gentleman himself. That reminds me, I need to add another name to the guest list for the ball."
What? "But I thought you said--"
"Not Wickham, Caroline. For heaven's sake, think. I meant that there has been an addition to the Bennet family in the past few days."
"There has?" Louisa smirked. "Who?"
"Their cousin, Mr. Collins. He's the fellow who is inheriting the estate after Mr. Bennet's death. There's an interesting bit of news, Caroline. According to Darcy, Mr. Collins has recently become the clergyman for his aunt, Lady Catherine."
"Well, better him than I, in my opinion. I do not think I could abide that woman as a constant presence in my life."
"Which is why it was just as well that you did not marry Darcy," Charles said, "for he has a fondness for his aunt."
"Does he? It always struck me that he did not care for her at all."
"A mild fondness, then." Charles looked at his teacup and suddenly stood up. "If you will forgive me, Caroline, Louisa, I believe I shall retire to my library."
"Charles...what do you think will happen if this Wickham character appears at the ball?" I asked.
"I have no idea, Caroline. But I would think that Darcy would excuse himself for the evening rather than make a scene and embarrass me."
Is it bad enough that the ball is taking place at all? Now Mr. Darcy may not be present during the event! Horror!
Charles left the room.
"Do you know who Wickham is?" I asked Louisa.
"Wasn't his father the steward at Pemberley? There was a miniature of the son somewhere, if I recall correctly."
"That's it! I knew I had heard of him before! But for the life of me, I cannot recall what Darcy said about him."
"It couldn't have been anything good, if the two are bitter enemies," Louisa said. "Do you truly think Mr. Wickham will have the nerve to appear at the ball, knowing Mr. Darcy is here?"
"I hope not--for Mr. Darcy's sake."
The night of the ball finally arrived, and I was ready to scream, because I had nothing fit to wear. Everything I had bought in London would not do for this evening, for this was going to be the night in which Mr. Darcy realized he was in love with me. He had to be. The past several days, after his run-in with Mr. Wickham, he had been, I liked to think, partial to me. He had taken an interest in my gowns, in what I was reading. He gave me a small compliment on my piano playing, which I then insisted could be nothing to his sister's.
Louisa walked into my room and exclaimed, "Caroline, the ball begins in almost half an hour and you are still undressed? What is the matter with you?"
I looked at my maid, not wanting to talk in her presence. Lord knew, we gave them enough to gossip about as it was. I was not about to give them more. I said, "I have nothing to wear," and left it at that. A moment later, my maid bobbed her head and walked out of the room.
"Caroline, you spent enough money on gowns while we were in London for several Seasons. Surely you have something that will do for Hertfordshire," she mumbled. "That lovely orange gown looked absolutely perfect--"
"Louisa, I wore that to the first ball we attended. You don't think I want to be like Eliza Bennet and appear in the same gown twice, do you? Mr. Darcy would wonder what was wrong with me."
"Then how about this one?" Louisa pulled out another lovely gown, one that under normal circumstances, I would have thought just fine. But not tonight.
"No, no. Too ordinary." I began pacing the room.
"Then this!" Louisa found one that again, was lovely. "I cannot be certain, but I think Mr. Darcy has a vest made with this same material. If you were to wear it, he would comment about how you have the same taste in fabric, which might lead to discussions about other things you have in common."
I stopped walking. "Louisa, you are brilliant. What did I ever do to deserve such a sister?"
Louisa smiled, but did not say anything. "Where is that maid of yours? Patty? Patty!" Louisa went to find the errant maid and I sat down in front of my mirror.
This is it. If Mr. Darcy does nothing tonight, then he shall probably never love me. Please, God, I don't need a declaration of undying love and passion. In fact, I could probably live without the passion. But all I need is a sign, a signal, something to indicate that this man loves me, that I'm not doing this all in vain...please, God...
"You needed me, miss?" the maid bobbed her head as she walked into the room again.
I turned to her. "Yes. I have chosen that gown to wear this evening."
"Very good, miss."
Patty continued her primping and preparing, and I tried to keep myself calm. Finally, when she was finished, I took another glance at myself in the mirror. Lovely. Absolutely lovely.
It must work. It shall.
I took a deep breath, got up, and walked out of my chamber and down the stairs.
The servants were scurrying every which way in final-minute preparations. Charles was walking about with his cravat slightly askew, his manservant a step behind, trying to get him to stop for a second so he could fix the thing. Mr. Hurst was sitting in the dining room, filching little bits of food. Louisa was giving final instructions to the maids, and taking a good look at everything to make sure all was in place.
Mr. Darcy was nowhere to be found.
"Charles?" I pulled him aside, earning his servant's thanks as he corrected the cravat. "Has Mr. Darcy changed his mind and decided not to join us after all?"
"He's in the upstairs music room, waiting," Charles replied, looking stifled at the ministrations of the servant.
"Well...he's just waiting." The servant finished and walked away. "Why should you care, Caroline?"
"Because he is a guest in this house, Charles. Being the mistress of the house, in a manner of speaking, it is my duty to make sure all guests are comfortable."
"Caroline, I am beginning to suspect that you have not given up on the idea of marrying Mr. Darcy."
"Yes, I have. I know full well that he's supposed to marry Anne de Bourgh."
"You might know that, but that does not mean you have accepted it."
"I accept it. Truly, I do."
Charles looked a little dubiously at me.
"You need not worry about me. Just worry about this ball." I headed upstairs to the music room.
When I walked in the door, I thought Charles had been mistaken, for I saw no one there. Then I saw him at the window, looking down at the driveway. The carriages had not started arriving yet, and I would have to greet all guests who arrived when they did. If I were a brazen woman, I would have told him then and there how I felt. But I was a lady, and ladies did not do such things.
"Mr. Darcy?" I said quietly.
He turned to look at me. "Miss Bingley."
Such formality. I wish you would call me Caroline, or better yet, my darling Caroline. But that's going too far for any man, much less you.
"Shall you be joining us downstairs?"
"I...am not decided on that quite yet. It depends on..."
On that Mr. Wickham's presence. If the man actually shows up, I might kill him on sight.
"It is such a lovely night, don't you think?"
"Yes, it is."
"Such a pity it must be wasted on such a thing as a ball."
"Some people might think this perfect weather for a ball, I believe."
"You are not such a person."
"I am not quite sure at this point, Miss Bingley." He sighed. "You look lovely. If I did not know you better, I would say you were looking forward to this ball."
"I would be, if..."
"Nothing. Just thinking."
"Well, if I should decide to join the ball, I would hope that you would save me a dance or two."
I smiled. "Of course. I cannot think of anyone I would rather dance with."
I saw something flash in his eyes, quick and fleeting. Was it pleasure? Love? Anything?
Was this my sign?
Before either of us could speak, I heard the familiar sound of carriage wheels on the road.
"You should go and greet your guests," he said with a small smile.
"Yes...of course. If you would excuse me."
He nodded, and turned back to the window. I stood there, looking at him for a moment, before I left, uncertain about what might happen that night.
And so they came--in an endless stream of loud chatter, sometimes garish dress, rude manners, and excited state. I received them all with a gracious smile, and a cheerful manner (if somewhat disdainful--I had to admit that, but I couldn't help myself). The officers arrived in full splendor, the Bennet family not far behind. Louisa and I exchanged a chuckle at that spectacle.
When the officers arrived, I glanced at Charles to get his reactions. None of the officers seemed to make him nervous, so I presumed that the dreaded Mr. Wickham had not been among them, and therefore Mr. Darcy would be coming down from the music room to join the ball.
And I would get my dance, and who knew what else?
That was enough to be even more cheerful, and less disdainful.
When the majority of the guests had arrived, Charles excused himself to escort Jane and Elizabeth into the ballroom. I wanted to run upstairs and ask Mr. Darcy to join us right then and there, but decided against it. That would certainly seem too forward, but I was impatient and excited. Which was why it was a good thing that I saw him just a few minutes later. Before I could speak to him, Louisa pulled my arm and whispered, "Have you taken a look at that cousin of the Bennets', Mr. Collins?"
I had not, so I searched the crowd for him. Louisa pointed out a frumpish young man who seemed like an annoying insect, buzzing around the Bennet family...and, so it appeared, most particularly around Eliza Bennet.
"Do you suppose there is anything between Eliza and this Mr. Collins?" I asked her.
"I do not know, but I will say that much as I dislike Elizabeth, I credit her with more sense." Louisa and I laughed.
Elizabeth walked away from her parents and went over to speak to Charlotte Lucas. Before the two had a chance to say much, the musicians began to strike up a lively tune, and Mr. Collins had followed Elizabeth over. Apparently, she had agreed to dance with the man; however, she did not seem to be pleased with the prospect.
And soon after the dance began, I could see why. The man may have been an enthusiastic dancer, but he could not recall correct turns, moves, or much else, for that matter. Elizabeth turned red at her partner's antics and looked as though she would rather be doing anything than dancing at that moment. For a brief moment, I almost felt sorry for her.
Then I saw her glaring at someone, and when I turned to see who it was, she was looking at none other than Mr. Darcy.
Why did she do that?
"Louisa, did you see that look Eliza Bennet gave Mr. Darcy?" I asked.
"I did, and it confused me. What do you suppose could be the cause?"
"I don't know."
The dance ended, and Elizabeth returned to speak with Miss Lucas. A handsome officer who happened to know Mr. Darcy's cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam requested to dance with me. I could not help but agree, because the gentleman probably knew Mr. Wickham, and therefore might be able to tell me about him.
"Mr. Wickham?" he said. "Oh, yes. An amiable fellow."
"Did he have urgent business which prevented his presence here?"
"He mentioned something about business, but I truly believe he left in order to avoid...well, I should not say anything because he is a guest here."
"Is Mr. Wickham a particular favorite with anyone?" I was hoping that would not sound wrong.
"The Bennet sisters are fond of him, I believe. Miss Lydia, though, likes all the officers, as does her sister, Miss Catherine."
"Does he like any one of them in particular?"
"I have seen him a bit with Miss Elizabeth."
Ah! I see. So Eliza Bennet is a favorite of George Wickham, which is why she is upset with Mr. Darcy. And how shall this affect your admiration of her, Mr. Darcy?
We spoke of other, inconsequential things until the dance ended. I looked over at Mr. Darcy, who was merely standing and watching...Eliza Bennet?
But you said you were tired of her presence!
Mr. Darcy turned away from Elizabeth and walked toward me. "Miss Bingley, I recall asking you if you would save me a dance. I am hoping you have not promised this one to anyone."
"I have not," I replied, smiling.
Now, hopefully, you will dance this one and all the rest you dance with me and me alone.
Once again, I tried to find something interesting to talk about, and could not. Mr. Darcy was such an excellent dancer, so I complimented him on his dancing. He thanked me. I asked him if he had had a letter from Georgiana, and he said he had not. I asked him if he would be returning to London soon, and he said he believed he might.
And that was it.
The dance ended, and Mr. Darcy escorted me back to Louisa.
"I am so backwards!" I whispered in despair. "Why can I never find anything to talk about with this man when we are dancing together? It is the most intimate thing, and I never know what to say!"
"Perhaps it is because neither of you likes dancing. You are more comfortable in a drawing room than on a dancing floor," Louisa said. "Do not worry yourself about it, Caroline. You looked absolutely divine out there. Everyone was commenting on it."
I nodded. "He might ask me again. I hope he does, I really do."
"He certainly would not ask anyone else, except myself. And I do not count."
But as we were speaking, Mr. Darcy did the unthinkable. He went up the Elizabeth Bennet and asked her to dance. Elizabeth apparently agreed, for he bowed and walked away.
"Did you see what he did?" I gasped. "He--he...Louisa!"
"Caroline! Caroline, do not fall to pieces in the middle of this ball! Not here, of all places!"
"But he asked her to dance!" I said in a low, agonized voice. "He, who so rarely asks anyone...why?"
"I am not sure," Louisa said. "But it cannot be helped, and it is too late to change his mind. You must endure...and you shall."
And so I did. I went into the dining room, where many of the older ladies and gentlemen were sitting, including Mrs. Bennet. That was not a help, so I went back into the ballroom to see that Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth were having a somewhat calm conversation. They did not appear as though it was intimate or personal. It was nothing.
That did not help either.
The dance finally ended, and Mr. Darcy escorted Elizabeth off of the floor. I spoke to Jane briefly--long enough to discover that Elizabeth did have an interest in Mr. Wickham. Jane was very curious about Mr. Wickham, but I could not answer any of her questions. I told her to speak to Charles. Everyone retreated to the dining room, where dinner was being served. I stopped Elizabeth Bennet at the punch bowl.
"So, Miss Eliza, I hear you are quite delighted with George Wickham! Your sister has been talking to me about him, and asking me a thousand questions; and I find that the young man forgot to tell you, among his other communications, that he was the son of old Wickham, the late Mr. Darcy's steward." I smiled, a condescending smile I hoped. "Let me recommend you, however, as a friend, not to give implicit confidence to all his assertions; for as to Mr. Darcy's using him ill, it is completely false. Mr. Wickham used Mr. Darcy in an infamous manner." I could not keep the tone of my voice from being condescending, either. "I pity you, Miss Eliza, for this discovery of your favourite's guilt; but really, considering his descent, one could not expect much better."
"His guilt and descent appear by your account to be the same," Elizabeth said angrily, "for I have heard you accuse him of nothing worse than being the son of Mr. Darcy's steward, and he informed me of that himself."
"I beg your pardon," I said, sneering. "Excuse my interference. It was kindly meant."
Well, no, it wasn't. But I couldn't very well say that, could I?
The dinner continued. Charles spent almost all of his time near Jane, and I frowned.
"Louisa, have you noticed that Charles only danced with Jane this evening?" I asked.
"Yes, I did. But I did not want to say anything to you, for you have had enough to worry about this evening."
"I thank you, sister. But we must start concentrating on this problem before it is too late."
"In the morning, Caroline. We shall speak then."
Charles stood up and said, "I think some music is in order. Caroline, would you indulge us--"
Before Charles could finish asking me to play a song or two, Mary Bennet rushed forward to the piano and pulled out some music.
"Miss Mary Bennet," Charles said, without much enthusiasm as he took his place next to Jane again.
Miss Mary, I must admit, was a fairly tolerable player, but she could not sing. Unfortunately, she began singing in that high, wobbly voice that showed no talent at all. Louisa and I began giggling, a sound covered up by the dreadful singing and the guests' conversation.
When the song finally ended (I think it was imagination, but I could swear that I heard dogs howling in response), I nudged Louisa to stifle her laughter. I figured that the girl would walk away when there was very little applause to her performance, but she began another song.
Mr. Bennet, who had thus far struck me as a fairly nice gentleman who had the misfortune of choosing a foolish wife, walked over to the piano. Miss Mary stopped playing.
In the silence following, he said, "That will do extremely well, child. You have delighted us long enough. Let the other young ladies have time to exhibit."
Miss Mary turned an ugly shade of red, gathered her music, and hurried away from the piano. I felt a little sorry for her, but extremely grateful for his interference--even if it was impolite.
The Bennets' cousin stood up and began some rambling speech about how he liked music and would sing if he could. The more he spoke, the more I realized that he was the perfect compliment to Lady Catherine. What a toadying ignoramus! Louisa finally arose and said, "I believe I shall play a small tune." She walked to the piano and began to play with great precision. I was proud of her.
Mrs. Bennet began speaking with her mouth full to Lady Lucas, "Mr. Collins has certainly taken an interest in Lizzy. I should be very well pleased when he marries her soon. And Jane, to be settled here with Mr. Bingley! I could not be happier! And this, you know, will throw the girls into the paths of other rich men!"
A few seconds later, loud giggling could be heard and a gentleman's voice calling, "Lydia! Give that back!"
Lydia Bennet practically ran through the dining room, carrying a sword belonging to one of the officers. Two officers and her sister Kitty followed behind. Finally, Lydia collapsed onto a chair, crying, "Lord, Denny, fetch me a glass of wine. I can scarce draw breath I'm so fagged!"
I started giggling discreetly, and glanced over at Mr. Darcy. He looked as though he was seeing the Bennet family for the first time, and he was not approving of what he saw. He saw me looking at me and simply shook his head.
Louisa finished playing with a triumphant glance over at me. She had been looking at Mr. Darcy as well, and I knew that she was considering this a victory as much as I was.
And that should bring his infatuation with Elizabeth to an end.
Who would have guessed that I would have the Bennet family to thank? They had successfully exposed themselves to Mr. Darcy's full disgust, and there could be no way that he would ever align himself with such a family now.
I was safe. I had my sign.
Charles left Netherfield on business the morning following the ball. I had figured that Mr. Darcy would have left with him, but he did not. Louisa and Mr. Hurst were still sleeping when I entered the breakfast room that morning. Mr. Darcy was having his breakfast.
"Good morning, Miss Bingley," he said without looking up.
"Good morning, Mr. Darcy." I sat down. "Did you enjoy the ball?"
"It had its share of amusements--and I did learn a few things I did not know before."
"Let us not converse on that. It is of no consequence. Miss Bingley, I was hoping to speak to you this morning on a matter of some importance."
Oh, Lord! He's going to propose to me here and now! Oh, how do I look? Surely I look lovely, but does he think so? Oh, this is to be the happiest day of my life! Thank you, God!
"Yes, Mr. Darcy?"
"It concerns your brother."
My heart dropped like lead. Charles?
"Have you noticed...or observed...that he has developed a...tendre for Miss Jane Bennet?"
I was too stunned to respond to his question for a moment. Having allowed my hopes to build up so, I could not think of much else outside of he is not asking me to marry him. Why did he waste his opportunity?
"Oh...so sorry. I was just trying to think, and as a matter of fact, Louisa and I were just speaking last evening about that. We had noticed a certain partiality on his part, certainly. However, we had not believed him to be serious about her. We have all seen Charles in love before."
"All too often, but this is...different. Say what you wish about the other young ladies Charles has cared for, Miss Bennet is something special. Charles has noticed this, and I believe he shall soon be proposing marriage to her." Mr. Darcy took a sip of his coffee. "That is what most of the people in this neighbourhood are expecting him to do."
"It is certainly what her mother expects," I said.
Mr. Darcy grimaced slightly at the reminder of Mrs. Bennet. "Yes," he said. "One cannot remain insensible about her expectations on the subject."
"You have brought this up for a reason, Mr. Darcy," I said.
"I have. Forgive me if I presume too much, but I believe that neither you nor your sister would wish for Charles to marry Jane."
"Well..." I did not want to seem rude or snobbish. "Jane is a sweet girl. Louisa and I like her very much, but we both are aware she has a lack of good connections and fortune. And we both agree that she is not a good match for Charles."
"Precisely. I feel the same way. I had not realised how involved he had become with her until last night. I saw that he only danced with her, and someone mentioned to me that their marriage was a foregone conclusion."
Did your fine-eyed Eliza say that?
"And of course, we all saw what kind of family she comes from. Such an unfortunate family."
"Yes," I agreed readily. And don't you forget that if you start to think about Elizabeth. "Louisa and I wondered if there might be something we could do to..."
"Are you suggesting that we keep Bingley and Miss Bennet apart intentionally?" Mr. Darcy almost sounded shocked, and I could have screamed at myself for doing something so foolish.
"No, of course not. But I thought we might be able to emphasize to Charles how inappropriate a match with her would be."
"That would not work with your brother. Charles would be even more determined to marry her."
That, unfortunately, was true.
"Let me ask you, for I was not certain. Did you see that she cared for him as he does for her?"
I could not quite understand where he was going with this. "I do not presume to guess the state of another's affections."
"You are a good friend to her, Miss Bingley. Has she mentioned any partiality toward him to you?"
"Then do you think it might be too presumptuous to believe that she is not in love with him?"
"I think that perhaps that is what we should mention to Charles, when he returns."
An idea appeared in my mind. "What if we did not wait for him to return?"
"What are you speaking of?"
"Mr. Darcy, Charles believed he would only be gone for a few days. What if we were to leave Netherfield this afternoon to join him in London? If all of us left and found him in London, we would be able to convince him that Jane does not love him without her being around to persuade him otherwise." I smiled. "And did you not mention that your sister was in London? I know you have not seen her in months. Would you not like to see her again?"
"I confess that I would. Miss Bingley, I believe that you have come up with a wise solution."
I beamed at his praise.
"We shall prepare to depart from Netherfield tomorrow morning, rather than today. You should probably write to Miss Bennet, informing her of our departure so she does not have to hear it from another source. It is only polite."
"You are quite right, Mr. Darcy," I said. "I shall begin writing immediately. Would you please be so kind as to tell the servants to prepare to pack our trunks?"
I excused myself and practically ran to my room. I could not help but be thrilled that Mr. Darcy and I did agree about Jane and Charles. Who knew what else we agreed on?
But it was a sad thing for me to have to write Jane and tell her we were leaving, and at the same time dash her hopes for a relationship with my brother. How could I put it delicately but definitively?
My dear friend Jane,
By the time you receive this message, the entire family and Mr. Darcy will have left for London, and we shall probably not be returning to Netherfield. I do not pretend to regret anything I shall leave in Hertfordshire, except for your society, my dearest friend; but we will hope, at some future period, to enjoy many returns of that delightful intercourse we have known, and in the meanwhile may lessen the pain of separation by a very frequent and most unreserved correspondence. I depend on you for that.
When my brother left us yesterday, he imagined that the business which took him to London might be concluded in three or four days; but as we are certain it cannot be so, and at the same time convinced that when Charles gets to town he will be in no hurry to leave it again, we have determined on following him thither, that he may not be obliged to spend his vacant hours in a comfortless hotel. Many of my acquaintances are already there for the winter; I wish I could hear that you, my dearest friend, had any intention of making one in the crowd--but of that I despair. I sincerely hope your Christmas in Hertfordshire may abound in the gaieties which that season generally brings, and that your beaux will be so numerous as to prevent your feeling the loss of the three of whom we shall deprive you.
Mr. Darcy is impatient to see his sister; and, to confess the truth, we are scarcely less eager to meet her again. I really do not think Georgiana Darcy has her equal for beauty, elegance, and accomplishments; and the affection she inspires in Louisa and myself is heightened into something still more interesting from the hope we dare to entertain of her being hereafter our sister. I do not know whether I have ever before mentioned to you my feelings on this subject; but I will not leave the country without confiding them, and I trust you will not esteem them unreasonable. My brother admires her greatly already; he will have frequent opportunity now of seeing her on the most intimate footing; her relations all wish the connection as much as his own; and a sister's partiality is not misleading me, I think, when I call Charles most capable of engaging any woman's heart. With all these circumstances to favour an attachment, and nothing to prevent it, am I wrong, my dearest Jane, in indulging the hope of an event which will secure the happiness of so many?
Until we see each other again, God grant you good health and happiness.
I reread the letter for the fourth time, making sure that it sounded right. Did it have the right balance of friendly disappointment at parting? Or was it too obvious? Did it make her realise that Charles did not love her? Or did it sound like I was pushing him at Georgiana? (I was not, of course, but he would meet her often in London.) I finally decided that it sounded fine, and just before we left Netherfield for good, I asked one of the servants to send it to Jane.
"I shall miss this place," I said with a wistful sigh. "Oh, not the people. But Netherfield is a nice place, even if it is not to be compared to Pemberley."
No one answered me.
The trip to London continued.
Ah, London, I thought with a satisfied smile as we entered the city. The skies might always be gray, the streets may be filthy and full of beggars and drunks, but there is no other place like it!
"I have arranged for everyone to stay at my townhouse," Mr. Darcy said. "Charles had let your home here in London."
"He intended to buy something in a more fashionable part of town," I said quietly. "He just did not have the chance because he found Netherfield first."
"At any rate, you are all welcome to stay with me. Charles should already be there, since I told him he could stay."
We stopped in front of one of the grandest townhouses in London. Of course it had to belong to Mr. Darcy, and I could not help but look at everything. Of all this, I might someday be mistress, I thought.
"I presume that you like it," Mr. Darcy said.
"Yes. It is most grand. Whoever designed it should have been commended," I replied. "Do you not think so, Louisa?"
"Most definitely," Louisa added. "Well, shall we go in or stand in the street gawking at it all day?"
Mr. Darcy humoured her with a rare smile and escorted us into the house.
"Sir!" the butler appeared surprised. "We did not know you would be arriving!"
"It was an unexpected decision for myself and my companions, Smythe. Is Mr. Bingley here?"
"Yes, he is. He was just preparing to leave for Hertfordshire, sir."
"Then we are just in time," I said. "A little while longer and he would have been gone."
"Darcy! Caroline, Louisa! What are all of you doing here?" Charles was walking down the stairs to greet us. "Why did you not stay at Netherfield? Has something happened?"
"No, everything is as it was when you left," Mr. Darcy said. "We just decided that a trip to London would be the best thing. Charles, we needed to speak to you on an urgent matter, and it could not wait until you returned to Netherfield."
"What is it?" Charles looked confused.
"I think we should speak with more candour in the library," Mr. Darcy said. "We can certainly have privacy."
"Then you lead the way."
Mr. Darcy showed us all into the library, where we were offered something to drink. Charles took a glass of brandy and sat in a chair, but Mr. Darcy, Louisa and myself remained standing.
"Charles, at the ball you gave the other evening, your sisters and I could not but notice that you have...that you quite possibly are interested in marrying Miss Jane Bennet."
"I confess that I have an interest in the lady. Is that what you came to speak to me about? If so, then you should not have bothered. We could have spoken about it in Hertfordshire."
Not when she was three miles away and very alluring, we could not.
"It is more than that. Your sisters and I have reason to believe that she does not return your affections."
"Nonsense. I know that Miss Bennet cares for me. We have spoken at some length about many things, and we get along agreeably."
"Yes, but you have been in love before. In the past, has the lady been as uninterested in you as Miss Bennet?" Mr. Darcy asked.
"Charles, we cannot help but notice that Jane has not spoken a word about her affections for you to Louisa or myself. We are good friends of hers, and your sisters, but she has not asked for information about you. She has shown a complete lack of curiosity about you." And your fortune, but that is something in her favor.
"If she has not asked you, perhaps that is because she has asked me. We have talked about such things."
"Yet she has not openly shown her affections," Mr. Darcy said. "I fear that her heart is not one to be as easily touched as yours. In fact, it might be difficult for her to love altogether."
"You...you do not think she cares for me at all?" Charles began to sound uncertain.
"We are not saying that, Charles. For all we know, we could be mistaken," Louisa said. "She might have an affection for you...a sister's for a brother, maybe. Surely not more than that."
"Not more," I agreed.
"Bingley, I know you care for her a great deal. I just do not want you throwing your life away on a young woman who may never love you as you love her," Mr. Darcy said quietly.
So you wish to marry for love yourself, Mr. Darcy? Well, if you ever decide that you love me, I can assure you my feelings shall be equal to your own.
"I know that you did not approve of the possibility because of her lack of fortune and connections, but I never suspected that you believed her indifferent to me." The expression on Charles' face started to make me feel guilty. He looked like a little boy who had just lost a favorite pet.
"As Mr. Darcy said, we only noticed this at the ball," I said. "Think about this, Charles. The Bennet family is desperate. Surely you heard the mother's remark at the ball. She was hoping that when Jane married you, she would be able to marry off her other daughters as well. She had plans for you long before she ever even saw you."
"That has happened quite often, Caroline."
"But also consider this. Suppose she persuaded Jane to...well, to intentionally raise your interest even though Jane did not care for you at all. I think that might have been what happened." I said.
"If you suspected that, Caroline, then why did you befriend her?" Charles lashed out, angry. "You constantly told me that she was a sweet girl, nice and friendly, and it was so unfortunate that she had low connections. You stressed that every time you spoke of her!"
"Because I believe she is a sweet girl at heart," I replied calmly. "She cannot help having such a mother, and of course, it is her duty to obey her. And do not forget that there was a great advantage to herself if she did marry you."
Mr. Darcy frowned, and I was afraid that I had gone too far.
Charles hung his head. Tears welled up in my eyes at the hurt I was causing him, knowing that it was necessary, but still... "Charles, I am so sorry for having to say these things to you," I said. "I love you so dearly, and I just don't want to see you get hurt."
"I know you do, sister."
"We all just want the best for you," Mr. Darcy said. "But perhaps it is best if we left him alone for a while."
"Yes, of course," I said. "Come, Louisa. We need to unpack."
We were led out of the library by a servant and headed to the second floor. "Do you feel as bad as I do?" I asked.
"Yes," Louisa said. "But it had to be done. We both know it. We would never have been able to hold up our heads if Charles had married into that family."
"We need to work on a way to relieve his suffering. Georgiana Darcy is in town. Did you know that?"
"I had not heard." Louisa smiled. "But I believe that she would make a very good cure indeed for Charles' unhappiness."
And now that we have that resolved, I can get back to the problem of my matrimonial state.
I realized that by coming to London, I had made my task more difficult. Unlike Hertfordshire, beauties abounded in London, especially pretty young girls having their debuts who might make Mr. Darcy look away from a lady of older years (even if I was only twenty-two). The fashions were grand--I would have to have a new wardrobe made, of course. Nothing I had bought for Hertfordshire would do for London during the Season.
Yet I had more hope now that I was in town than I had had during most of my stay in Hertfordshire. For there was no Elizabeth Bennet in London, and given her family's finances and background, there probably never would be. And she was the only young lady I could honestly say had roused any interest in Mr. Darcy--outside of myself, of course. And I knew he was interested in me because he complimented my appearance and we had agreed on this dreadful business with Jane and Charles.
So things were truly looking better for me.
We settled into London with startling ease, except for Charles. There were days when I would think he would be enjoying himself at the theatre or out in the park, riding, but I would notice unguarded moments when he looked unusually melancholic. It was very unlike Charles to behave in such a manner, and I could only conclude that he was missing Jane more than I thought he would. He had certainly never acted this way about other young women. With Charles, they were usually forgotten soon after they were out of his sight. But, granted, Jane was a little different from the other girls, and I could not blame him for missing her.
As for Jane, she wrote often. I only wrote her once, to tell her that Charles was determined not to return to Netherfield and that he was certainly becoming attached to Georgiana Darcy. If it were not entirely true, that could not be helped. Jane had to let go of my brother, and I had to be the one to dash any hopes she still might harbor about his returning.
Louisa and I were alone in a large, airy drawing room one day when I asked her, "Do you suppose he truly loved Jane?"
Louisa looked up from her needlework. "What makes you think that?"
"It is just so unlike him to be so sad. We have been away from Netherfield for over a month, been to several balls and twice to the theatre. He has met with any number of lovely, eligible young ladies of good background and fortune. Although he is polite to all of them, he...he does not have the enthusiasm he had for ladies before we went to Netherfield. The only one he has shown particular kindness to is Georgiana, and his manner towards her is the same as it is towards you and I."
"It is impossible to fall in love on just a two months' acquaintance," Louisa said.
"That is not necessarily so, Louisa. I fell in love with Mr. Darcy the moment I met him."
"No, no. You were infatuated with him at first, but it was not until you knew him better that you fell in love with him."
"Nonsense. I know the state of my own heart, and I tell you, I loved him instantly. Who could not?"
"Eliza Bennet." Louisa chuckled. "She was a most unusual girl, though."
"Louisa, pray do not mention her name to me. It was bad enough when we were in Hertfordshire, but now that we are no longer there, I do not want to think about her."
"Mr. Darcy certainly seems to have forgotten about her. Unless I am mistaken, he appears to have been paying you more attention than usual."
"I feel that is only because I have been spending time with his sister. If it were not for that, he would ignore me entirely."
"I am not sure that is true, Caroline." Louisa turned her attention back to her needlepoint.
A few minutes later, a servant entered the room with a letter. "Miss Bingley, this is for you."
"Thank you." I took the letter from the tray and glanced at the front as the servant left. "It is from Jane."
Louisa inhaled suddenly. I felt myself becoming tense, as I did every time I saw a letter from Jane, for she always asked the same questions, ones I did not really have answers for. Or rather, ones I did not want to answer in such a way as to hurt her feelings.
"What does she say?" Louisa asked as I opened the letter.
I began reading. "Oh, Lord," I said. "She is in London."
"How on earth did she come to be in London?"
"It says here that her aunt and uncle, the ones who live in Gracechurch Street, invited her to spend the winter with them, and she accepted. She says--here, sister. 'I am hoping that we should now be able to continue our friendship in person, and that I shall have the pleasure of seeing you very soon.' She then lists the address where she is staying, and asks us to visit at our earliest convenience."
"It is that mother of hers who has encouraged this," Louisa said. "She knows we are here, and she sent Jane to see Charles. Does the woman have no shame?"
"You know the answer to that as well as I."
"Suppose we run into her at some party! Suppose Charles sees her?"
"That shall not happen, for who do we know that would know a couple from Gracechurch Street? Much less invite them to a party. No, that is not a problem. The problem is that, if we call, Jane will call here. That is what I am concerned about. Charles might very well see her here."
"This is going to make the winter very difficult."
"I know, but it can be done. It must be done."
"You are right, sister."
We were about to continue the conversation when the sound of loud male voices in the hall reached us.
"Where is my cousin? I arrived all the way from Somerset and he is not here!" The voice was very familiar, and I almost groaned.
Oh, Lord. Not him. Anyone but him. But of course, it was him, Sir James Hampton, a cousin of Mr. Darcy from his father's side of the family. I had also met him at the garden party where I met Mr. Darcy, but although he was wealthy and even had a lofty "sir" preceding his name, I could not stand the man. He was arrogant, proud, and utterly obnoxious.
"Mr. Darcy is currently away on business with Mr. Bingley," the butler replied. "They should be returning later this afternoon."
"Bingley? I do not suppose those sisters of Bingley's are around, are they? No, surely not. They are probably out somewhere shopping."
"Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley are in the drawing room."
"Thank you, my good man. Come, Fitzwilliam."
"Hampton, you do not intend to barge into the drawing room unannounced, do you? The ladies might be discussing something private," a third male voice said, one a recognized as being another of Mr. Darcy's cousins, Colonel Fitzwilliam.
"Perhaps you are right. Smythe, if you would do us the honour of announcing us to the ladies."
"This should prove amusing," Louisa said. "I have yet to see Mr. Darcy in the company of both Colonel Fitzwilliam and Sir James."
"Amusing? Only you would think so, Louisa. Do you not recall what Sir James said the last time we met? He called me an empty-headed shrew!"
"Oh, he did not. He merely said that he was disappointed that..."
Before Louisa could finish, the door opened.
"Colonel Fitzwilliam and Sir James," Smythe announced. Louisa and I rose to greet them.
The two gentlemen entered. Colonel Fitzwilliam was all politeness, with a smile on his face that had undoubtedly won many a young lady's heart. As for myself, I could not be insensible to the fact that he was not the heir to his father's estate, and had little fortune of his own. But there were young ladies who would overlook that fact in order to be married to the son of an earl.
As for Sir James, the expression of his face was not lost on me. It was inherently bored. He bore a slight resemblance to Mr. Darcy, but slight was the important phrase. Mr. Darcy was reserved and polite. Sir James, on the other hand, believed he was free to speak his mind when he felt and found amusement in things that were far from amusing. In that respect, he reminded me a little too much of Elizabeth Bennet.
"Ladies," Colonel Fitzwilliam said with an elegant bow. Sir James bowed as well, but there was something almost mocking in his manner. "It is good to see you again. It has been far too long, has it not?"
"Nearly a year," Louisa replied. "Not since we met together at Rosings."
"And even longer since we met, is that not right, Miss Bingley?" Sir James smiled.
Not nearly long enough, sir. "I believe so."
Everyone was seated, and I asked Smythe to have tea sent to us. "How has your health been, Colonel?" I asked.
"Very well, I thank you. And how have you been, Miss Bingley? Has your family been well?"
"Did your brother ever find an estate worth having?" Sir James asked.
"He did." I turned back to Colonel Fitzwilliam. "We have had the...good fortune of finding an estate near where the ---shire militia were camped for the winter."
"So you were in Hertfordshire!" Colonel Fitzwilliam smiled. "A lovely part of the country, if I do say so. What estate was there?"
"Netherfield. A nice place, but I have seen better."
"Undoubtedly...some place in Derbyshire, Miss Bingley?" Sir James had a wicked gleam in his eye, which was a constant reminder of why I could not tolerate the man.
I had made the grand mistake of speaking of my affections for Mr. Darcy in a place where I could be overhead by someone. A gentleman would not have listened to a private conversation, but then, Sir James was no gentleman. He listened and had been teasing me about Mr. Darcy ever since. Luckily, however, he had neglected to mention my sentiments to Mr. Darcy. I cannot imagine why, but for whatever reason, I was grateful.
Not telling Mr. Darcy, however, did not mean he refrained from constant teasing of me when said gentleman was not present.
"In Somerset, sir. Your mother's home was quite lovely," I said coolly.
Sir James sat back in his chair.
"Are Darcy and your brother expected back soon?" Colonel Fitzwilliam asked.
"We believe so," I said. "It was a matter of minor business."
"How is Charles, anyway? I have not seen him for quite a while, either," Colonel Fitzwilliam asked, clearly sensing the tension between Sir James and myself.
"He is fine," I said.
"Still falling in love with half the young ladies of England?" Sir James asked.
If only he would. "He has, as he always does. I believe his particular interest is currently in Miss Darcy."
"Georgiana? How has Darcy reacted to that?" Sir James asked.
"I believe he supports the idea of an marriage between Charles and Georgiana," Louisa said.
It was certainly better than the alternative.
Colonel Fitzwilliam's discomfort grew strangely worse at the mention of Georgiana. "I do not think Georgiana is ready to be married," he said. "And I honestly believe that Darcy would agree with me."
"She's sixteen, Fitzwilliam. My mother was married at that age, yours maybe a year later. Times have not changed that much."
"Your mother, Maria Darcy, had a mother to teach her the essentials. She was prepared for marriage when she married Sir Edward Hampton. Georgiana has only had her brother and myself, and I fear that we are both lacking when it comes to teaching young ladies everything they need to know about a woman's role in marriage." The Colonel was frowning now.
"That you are, my friend! That you are." Sir James laughed. "Miss Bingley, I seem to recall hearing of a family of young ladies who live in Hertfordshire...the Miss Bennets. I had the pleasure of meeting their uncle, Edward Gardiner, several months ago. He was a friendly gentleman, and we talked for a good long while about family. He mentioned that he had several nieces living in the same area where my cousin was staying. Did you have an opportunity to meet the family?"
Louisa and I looked at each other for a moment. I was uncertain of how to answer, but drat the man, he knew the Bennets and would be sure to mention them to Charles.
It was Louisa who broke the silence surrounding our discussion. "Yes, we had the pleasure," she finally said.
Sir James smiled. "And from your voice, Mrs. Hurst, I suspect that you found them lacking in some way."
"Not at all," I was quick to say. "We thought the eldest to be everything she was said to be--sweet, lovely, rather accomplished."
"The eldest? Are not all five sisters out in society?"
"Yes," Louisa said, "a most deplorable thing, I believe. The youngest is only fifteen, and..."
"Shall we have some music?" I quickly asked, to stop her from exposing our true feelings towards the younger Bennets.
Louisa was about to step to the pianoforte when Colonel Fitzwilliam, having a keener sense of hearing than anyone else, heard Charles and Mr. Darcy arriving, thus putting an end to the conversation.
Yet I had not escaped from it altogether. Later, before dinner, I had the misfortune of being alone in the same room with Sir James, who had a few more questions about the Bennets.
"So, Miss Bingley, why the sudden idea of your sister playing the pianoforte?" he asked. "She was about to enlighten me on the younger Bennet sisters."
"It was nothing," I said. "I merely did not want Louisa to seem...spiteful."
"And why would she seem so? Are the Bennet sisters really as beautiful as they are famed to be?"
"Not at all--just the eldest. Although your cousin has a fine opinion of the second sister." I almost groaned aloud at what I had just said, for a knowing look crossed Sir James' face.
"So that's the way it is still, Miss Bingley? I would have thought you had given up your obsession with Darcy long ago."
"I was merely making an observation, sir, not expressing my own hopes."
"Yet you are still infatuated with my cousin, are you not?"
"I am glad, if you are telling the truth."
"Sir, a gentleman would never doubt a lady's word."
"But I thought we agreed long ago that I was no gentleman, at least not according to your definition. I do not think I would like being a gentleman in your eyes, anyway. For one thing, you would never let a gentleman have any fun at all."
"That is not true. I would never limit what a gentleman could do. That would not be my place."
"But you would, Miss Bingley. I know you well, and you are the type who can be so domineering that the only kind of man who you could want would be someone you could control. You need a husband like your sister's."
I could feel my face getting red--with anger. There was no way I would ever marry a man like that!
"What would I do with a milksop like him?" I snapped, even though I knew it was unladylike and this was Mr. Darcy's cousin. "He's rude and boorish--a lot like you, but unlike him, you are at least able to present an acceptable facade."
"A facade? I am offended, Miss Bingley. You mean my courtly manners are seen through? I thought I was less obvious."
"Easily seen through by those who know you."
"Well, Darcy's no better, you know. At least I tend to like people and society, whereas he can stand at a ball like a stone, wrapped up in his pride, and ignore everyone."
I should have seen his trap. "How dare you say such a thing about your cousin, who is more of a gentleman than you could ever hope to be! He does not "wrap" himself up in his pride and ignore the world. Unlike you, who--"
And there was that look again. He had caught me, rotten man, and there would be no escaping his teasing this time.
"And therein lies the truth of it," Sir James said.
"Is it wrong for me to admire a man?"
"No, no more than it is for me to admire a woman."
"I pity the woman you end up admiring enough to marry, Sir James. She shall obviously have a great deal of suffering to endure."
"Undoubtedly," the shameful man said cheerfully. "But Miss Bingley, as I told you before, I sincerely doubt my cousin ever considers marrying you. You are too...obvious in your motives. Which makes me wonder about this second Bennet sister you mentioned. I take it she is not as enamored of my cousin as he is of her."
"I did not say he was--"
"Admiration, from Fitzwilliam Darcy? When has he ever admired any woman, save his mother and sister? And he's related to them. He does not even have admiration for that aunt of his, or her daughter, whom he is supposed to marry. No, I think from the look of your face that he admired that young woman a good deal, and part of it was undoubtedly because she is not drooling over his money and prestige...and let us not forget, that lovely estate of Pemberley."
"I do not drool."
"You would if you thought you could get away with it."
"How dare you?"
"With you, my dear Miss Bingley, I dare a great deal, and more than I should, no doubt. I confess that to most people's standards, the way I am with you is less than gentlemanly."
"And you do not care."
"No. I enjoy it too much. And confess, Miss Bingley, do you not enjoy sparring with someone who cares not what you say? I shall never tell."
"Oh, surely not. You merely hint and suggest and tease whenever you have the chance. There is no point in reasoning with you. I admire Mr. Darcy, and that is an end to it."
"Ah, but that face of yours always betrays you, Miss Bingley. You cannot keep hope or despair out of its fair countenance, and when I said just now that Darcy would never marry you, you looked very unhappy."
"If I did not know you better, I would think you spent great amounts of time staring at my face," I snapped. "And I cannot think of why."
"Can you not?" Sir James had suddenly come to stand far too close to me. I backed away.
"I suppose you think it...ducky?"
"What do I think is...oh, your face. No, not really. I think it is interesting, but certainly not..."
"Caroline? Sir James?" Louisa's voice carried into the room just before she entered it. She informed us that Mr. Darcy and Charles had been wanting to speak to us, and thus our rather unsettling conversation ended. And it left me very confused indeed.
Life once again settled into a pattern soon after the disruption caused by Sir James. He and Colonel Fitzwilliam had their own lodgings in London, but they spent most of their time with us at the townhouse. Louisa and I spent most of our time preparing to throw a ball, supposedly in their honour. If I had had my way, we would have been having an engagement party for Mr. Darcy and myself, but that was not the case. He became more distant to me in the days that followed his cousins' arrival, and I just knew that that dreadful Sir James had told him that he knew of the Bennet sisters.
In order to avoid Sir James, we would spend a good deal of time shopping, which, I must confess, is one of my favourite activities. Louisa also insisted on almost-daily trips shopping because she was afraid that my morale was slipping since Sir James' arrival. The longer he stayed in London to make a nuisance of himself to me, the more frustrated I became. Louisa and I could not speak of my plans for Mr. Darcy, so the carriage that took us shopping became the perfect place to speak, and occasionally, whispers in shops sufficed. After all, there was no Sir James in London's beautiful dress and milliner shops.
On this particular day, the carriage took us to our favourite dressmaker, Mrs. Heathgow, who was always pleased to see us. I cannot describe the feeling I always got when I shopped. It was as though I was being set free, where I controlled something in my life. Charles always mumbled about my spending too much money, but I always felt my purchases worth the expense. Plus, I must admit, I absolutely love being catered to, and there is no one who does that quite as well as Mrs. Heathgow. Besides, she has some of the most beautiful material. I always love looking at the satins and silks, muslins and velvets, and deciding which I shall choose to wear, even though I have a deep preference for maroons and oranges, with somber browns for more formal occasions. Schoolroom white has never been good for my complexion, and I had vowed never to wear it except for on my wedding day. After all, it would never do to wear any other color then.
"Ah, Miss Bingley! Mrs. Hurst! It has been too long since you last visited my shop!" the proprietress called cheerfully.
Actually, it had been a mere week, but I suppose that that was quite a while in her eyes. "It is good to see you, Mrs. Heathgow," I said with gentle condescension--just the right amount for a dressmaker. "Have you anything new to show us?"
She smiled. "I set aside some of the most beautiful orange satin you will ever see, Miss Bingley. And I have just discovered that fashions may be changing soon, so you might need to change your entire wardrobe."
"Fashions? Changing again? Oh, dear," I said, pretending to be in a quandary. "Charles was just saying to me the other day that I really should not spend as much on clothes, no matter what fashion decreed."
"I am sure he meant no harm by it, sister," Louisa said. "After all, Charles loves fashion almost as much as you and I do."
"Quite right," I agreed, smiling. "Just the same, perhaps we should wait to get that lovely orange satin..."
"Oh, no," Mrs. Heathgow said. "Do you not have a special occasion coming up that requires a special gown? I know how you pride yourself on having the most beautiful gown at the ball."
I smiled. "It just so happens that I do have an occasion that requires a special dress. And I do believe that orange satin is called for. What do you think, Louisa?"
"I think you should, Caroline, dear." Louisa glanced around at the other wares of the shop as I began to seek a style that would flatter my figure and beauty and earn for myself Mr. Darcy's notice...at last.
It began to seem to myself that every ball, every soiree, every evening at the theatre seemed to be a never-ending struggle to gain that man's notice. There were days when I wondered if he was truly worth it. I mean, what was the point of trying to win the love of a man who clearly did not love me and, after several months of trying, barely noticed my existence? It was enough to make a girl cry, or at least go and buy some of that scandalous rouge and...well, it was scandalous, trying to change one's appearance. Only women who were not received in good society did such things, I believed. My mother would turn in her grave if I did it!
Yet even as I wondered at the sense of my own plan, I carried on. After all, he was worth it. Think of it. Ten thousand a year and large estate in Derbyshire...and it could all be mine.
"Sister dear," I said as Mrs. Heathgow went to find some pictures of various styles she wanted to show us, "I have been thinking Pemberley."
"You have," Louisa said. "Good. I had begun to think that you were thinking of giving up on Mr. Darcy."
"Oh, never! How could I do that?" Who else would I marry, if not him? Sir James? That last thought made me chuckle. "No. I was just thinking of that drab drawing room in the west wing. You have heard, have you not, that Mr. Darcy is planning to give Georgiana a new piano for her birthday coming up?"
"I was hoping it would be a gift from the both of us, but since he is probably not going to propose soon..."
"You were thinking of Pemberley?"
"Oh, right. Sorry. But I was thinking of where he would be able to put it. Perhaps next to the window?"
"That would be a good place," Louisa said. "But you called that room drab, but I always thought it rather elegant."
"Elegant? Yes, I suppose it is. But it needs something more, something...modern. That's right. It needs to be more modern. I was thinking of perhaps something in an...orange, for I would so like for that to be my room."
"Now, Caroline, if Mr. Darcy intends to put his sister's pianoforte in that room, he must be thinking that that is her room, and she should have the option of decorating it as she pleases."
"Yes, but she will someday get married and leave and I shall have the house to myself."
"You almost make it sound as though you are jealous of Georgiana."
"Oh, no! Do not mistake me, sister. I care for Georgiana as much as I care for you. After all, I am determined to have her for a sister whether she marries my brother or I hers, although both would be preferred. I am just thinking that when she marries, I shall redecorate."
"In orange? Will one room all in one color not tire you of the color?"
"If it does, then I shall just redecorate again. After all, Mr. Darcy shall always be able to afford it. Just think of the wardrobe I could have if I married him. There would never be any complaints about how much I spend."
"And let us not forget those family jewels," Louisa whispered with a smile. "They say that Mrs. Darcy's rubies are absolutely priceless, and extremely beautiful."
"I take that to be a sign of good luck," I said. "After all, the most famous set of jewels in his collection happen to be one of my favorite colors. And jewels would look so beautiful with my complexion...unlike some others' we could mention."
"Caroline, it is your own rule that we forget about her. Do refrain from mentioning her."
"Right." Just as Mrs. Heathgow was walking in the room, I saw a familiar face stop in the corner of the window. My heart caught in my throat, and for a moment, I thought maybe I was just seeing things. But no, the young woman turned to speak to an older woman, and I knew that she was real.
It was Jane Bennet.
"Sister," I hissed. "Did you see her? It was Jane!"
"I did," Louisa replied, her voice just as nervous as my own. "We must leave at once."
"But if we do, they shall see us and that shall never do. Then we shall be forced to call upon them."
"Perhaps they are just passing by."
"I do not have that kind of luck," I said. However, I did on that day. Jane and the other woman--I was presuming her to be a relative, the one who lived in Gracechurch Street--walked further down the road.
"That was too close," Louisa said. "Just hurry and pick a style for your dress so we can return home."
Despite the efforts we took to avoid Jane, which was in part why we were out nearly every morning, she finally caught us at home one day. As Smythe opened the door for her, I could not help but notice that she was not looking well at all. She was still beautiful, but now there was a sadness in her eyes that I could not help but feel guilty about. It was my fault that she was unhappy...but it was not to be helped. Yet my guilt made the visit very uncomfortable, since we had to tell her that which was not true, if we were to keep her away from Charles.
Fortunately, Sir James had not arrived and Charles was at his attorney's, so it was safe...for the moment.
"I had worried that you had not received my letter," Jane said, smiling. "Did you not know that I was in town?"
Louisa and glanced at each other, and thus the torturous visit had begun.
Continued in Part 3