NOVEL HOPPING IN HERTFORDSHIRE
There is a universal truth which Mrs Bennet lives by which goes something like this: A single man of good fortune is the rightful property of the mother of five daughters who will gladly oblige him with the wife he so patently must desire. She had been visiting her neighbour, Mrs Long, and had found that just such a gentleman had rented Netherfield Park. She rushed home to urge Mr Bennet to pay him a visit, but Mr Bennet felt he had better things to do.
"If he wants to marry one of our daughters, why doesnít he just drop over and pick one out. I donít see why I should have to visit him. Itís not me heís wanting to marry, after all."
"Oh Mr Bennet! You are such a tease! You know itís just not done that way. He doesnít yet even know our daughters exist."
"Then I will gladly write him a note informing him of their existence and put a good word in for my Lizzie. Wait, on second thought maybe I wonít. He might turn out to be a twit and I donít want Lizzie stuck with a twit."
"Oh Mr Bennet! How you do go on about Lizzie. Jane is prettier, and Lydia more good-humoured."
"The word is actually flirtatious."
"Oh, never mind! Will you not visit him? You are driving me to distraction!"
"Why donít you just take them up, and tell him to choose?"
"Mr Bennet! Have compassion on my nerves!"
"I have the utmost respect for your nerves. They have come to your aid many times and can truly be depended upon."
"You donít know how I suffer!"
"I could well say the same. However I feel you shall survive this bout and see many more rich young gentleman move into the neighbourhood."
"What good would it do if twenty were to move in if you wonít get out of your precious study and visit them?"
"I promise you my dear that when there are twenty, I shall visit them all."
The next evening, Mrs Bennet was visited by her sister, Mrs Phillips, with some truly amazing news. She rushed into Mr Bennetís study without even knocking and excitedly announced, "Mr Bennet, Mr Bennet!! You will not believe our good fortune. Every house of any note in the neighbourhood has been let! At last count there were twenty eligible young gentlemen newly moved into our neighbourhood. The carriers have been up and down the streets all day moving them in. Here is a list my sister has compiled so that you can visit them all tomorrow. Oh, be still my heart! I shall indeed go distracted. Oh where are my salts!"
She raced out of the room, fanning herself, in search of her salts.
Mr Bennet sat down at his desk and stared at the list dumbfounded. Tomorrow was going to be a long day. He started to read:
Ashworth: Captain Frederick Wentworth and his friend Captain Benwick. ĎNaval men, used to travelling, would not mind the distance.í
Purvis Lodge: Edward Ferrars. ĎMust be gullible, did not check the atticsí
The Great House at Stoke: Mr Henry Crawford and the two Mr Bertrams, Tom and Edmund. ĎNot planning on entertaining with that drawing room.í
Haye Park: Mr George Knightly. ĎMust be a persuasive man if he managed to get the Gouldings to quit the place.í
Woodston Lodge: Mr Henry Tilney and his brother Captain Tilney. ĎNever heard of the place.í
Delaford Manor: Colonel Brandon and Colonel Fitzwilliam. ĎDidnít know there were so many houses in the neighbourhood. I guess Iíve been cooped up in my study too long.í
Lyme Hall: Mr W Elliot, Mr Frank Churchill. ĎThere must have been a building spurt.í
Meryton Rectory: Mr Elton. ĎAh, a new man of the cloth!í
Stanton Park: Lord Osborne, Mr Howard. ĎA peer? Am I to just blithely call on a peer?í
Trafalgar House: Mr Sidney Parker. ĎWhoís this fellow. We must really be scraping the bottom of the barrel here.í
The Red Lion: Mr George Wickham, Mr Willoughby, Mr John Thorpe. ĎDoes staying at an Inn really count?í
He stormed out of his study and into the drawing room where all five of his daughters were assisting his wife with smelling salts, burnt feathers, lavender water, mustard pilasters, and Lizzieís last ditch offering, laudanum.
"Three of them are only staying at the inn, and that makes them transients, not residents!"
All his daughters looked at him beseechingly. This outburst of their usually docile father was not helping them in the least.
"Oh fie! They are only awaiting accommodations. There are two more houses just now being erected. And if you count Mr Bingley there are twenty-one gentlemen. You canít back out now!"
Mrs Bennetís voice raised to full pitch. She was waving her arms around. When she opened her mouth to say more, Lizzie took the opportunity to pour the laudanum down her throat. She was out in three seconds.
"Lizzie, I always did say you were the most intelligent of my daughters."
"But what shall we do with mama, papa?" wailed Kitty.
"Get Hill to bring some blankets. We will let her sleep here and take turns sitting with her through the night," said Lizzie.
"I see you girls have the situation under control," said Mr Bennet. "I have to return to my study. There is a small matter I must attend to before I turn in. I shall need to get all the sleep I can for I fear I shall be unreasonably busy tomorrow. I only hope the coachman knows where theses places are, for I surely donít. Have a pleasant night."
He hurried back to his study, not realising that he had left the list behind. Lydia and Kitty pounced on it.
"Ooooh look, so many officers!!!"
"This shall be fun!"
Mr Bennet sat at his desk and pulled forward a piece of writing paper. He dipped a quill into the inkstand and began to write:
My Dear Mr Collins,
I appreciate your offer of reconciliation, however now is not a good time to visit. I take it from your letter that you have intentions to marry one of my daughters. Think again. There is such an influx of young eligible gentlemen in the neighbourhood at present that I fear your suit would be hopeless. I suggest a trip to Bath. I understand that there is a young heiress by name of Augusta Hawkins with 10,000 pounds who is in need of a husband of taste, position and discrimination. I believe you would fit the bill. Be sure to tell her of the entail and my poor health, and do not hold back in your raptures about my estate. Use as much hyperbole as you see fit. Moreover it is a must to mention Lady Catherine. She will be your ace in the hole. Miss Hawkins will not be able to resist your suit. Oh yes, when she talks of the Sucklings, agree with her every word, although in retrospect, I doubt that I needed to tell you that.
My best wishes for your future happiness.
There is no need to respond,
Lizzie finally managed to wrestle the list away from her drooling sisters. She read it slowly as she went to her fatherís study to return it to him. Something was wrong here. Something was very, very wrong.
Mr Bennet dragged himself through his front door at 7:00 the next evening calling for tea, as hot and strong as possible. He threw himself on the settle without even removing his greatcoat. He grabbed the proffered cup and drained it in one go.
"They just donít make teacups large enough," he said as he handed it to Jane for a refill. "Silly sissy things. They should serve tea in tankards."
"Oh papa, how was your day?" asked Jane in soothing accents.
"I have been out of the house for twelve hours! I have been served nothing but sherry and cucumber sandwiches. Are there a few roast chickens or a haunch of beef anywhere on the premises?"
"I will check with cook," said Jane, rushing from the room.
"Donít ever go out visiting if you are to rely on Thomas coachman to know the way. I was never up more steep lanes or down more winding trails, and usually all for naught. He got muddled between Woodtson and Woolston and I found myself at a sheep farm. We went first to Ashworth as it was the furthest, and I swear I could smell the sea. I was sure we had come to the coast of Essex, it was that distant. As it was, it was just a load of driftwood that one of the captains was employed in carving."
"Poor father," said Jane who had returned as hurriedly as possible so as to miss nothing. "Cook is preparing a cold collation and it will be ready in no time."
Lydia and Kitty were squirming with anxiety. "Tell us about the gentlemen! Especially the captains and colonels!!"
"I do not want to talk about the gentlemen. There were far too many of them. Just be happy that I was fool enough to visit them all. Somebody help me out of these boots."
Mrs Bennet rushed into the room. "Dear Mr Bennet, you are too good to us!" she exclaimed.
"Tell me something I donít know!"
"Oh, you are so droll! Well, which of the gentlemen shall suit our five daughters?"
"For starters, you can forget about the ones staying at the Inn, though Iím sure Lydia would like them well enough. I do not really think they came into town with matrimony on their minds, unless of course there is a sizeable fortune attached. As for the rest, one seems as good as the other. They are a fine collection of dolts, twits and dullards."
"I am sure they are all charming and handsome," cried Mrs Bennet. "How soon should we expect them to call?"
"I would like to say never, but I am afraid that at least one of them will feel it his duty."
Lizzie had just finished extricating her fatherís feet from his boots. He leaned over and gave her a kiss on the forehead. "Thank you, my dear, Iím sure that was not a pleasant task."
"No, and I hope I shall not have the occasion to do it again," she said as she popped a cushion under her fatherís swollen feet and tossed the offending boots into a corner. "Were all the gentlemen really so very uninteresting?"
"I am afraid so, although it has all become such a big blur that I find I am quite unable to distinguish between them. There was one that smiled too much, I do remember that. I hope he does not court one of you. I donít know that I could stomach all that cheerful geniality."
Jane looked up. "He sounds very pleasant."
"I do have some other information that you may not be so well pleased to hear," continued Mr Bennet, addressing his wife.
"Then by all means tell me at once before I faint!" cried Mrs Bennet. "You know how I hate being on tenterhooks."
"You certainly manage to get on them rapidly and frequently," Mr Bennet observed. "You must learn to be more appreciative of the sensation."
"Very well, I shall desist in teasing you. Not all the gentlemen are alone. That is to say there are young ladies of marriageable age that they have brought along with them."
Mrs Bennet grabbed hold of Mary for support. Jane and Lizzie quickly ran to Maryís aid and they soon had Mrs Bennet draped on the nearest couch, her hartshorn at the ready. "They are not all . . . betrothed?!!"
"Oh no, they have brought sisters and cousins and the like, but they are sure to be competition for our girls."
"How many, how many?" Mrs Bennet gasped. "We only need five of the gentlemen. Surely there are more than enough to go Ďround."
"But ours are not the only original residents."
"Oh, you canít count Charlotte and Maria Lucas, or any of those other insipid girls." Said Mrs Bennet, reviving. "No-one of any sense will look at them with our girls around."
"I am not sure how much collective sense has moved in," said Mr Bennet, between mouthfuls of cold roast beef. "I am in such a daze that I canít remember who is who, and Iím so worn out Iím snoring as I chew. I believe I will have to bid you all goodnight."
Amid pleas to stay and tell all, Mr Bennet lifted his weary self from the settee and trudged off to his nice cosy bed. Mrs Bennet, Kitty, and Lydia were quite put out that they had managed to pry so little information out of the man.
The next morning Lydia, Kitty, and Mrs Bennet were off to Meryton to discover all they could about these most interesting gentlemen. Mr Bennet slept late and spent a quiet morning in his study. Mary took a stack of volumes of improving lectures from the library and looked through them for useful quotes. Jane and Lizzie attended to numerous household matters that their mother could not be bothered with and then repaired to the parlour for tea. Mr Bennet and Mary soon joined them and they were all having a peaceful and relaxing time when a loud bustle was heard in the hall, and the other three members of the family burst in on their serenity.
"It is much worse than we had supposed!" said Lydia without preamble.
"Ever so many more people have come into the neighbourhood! Young single women! How dare they!" cried Mrs Bennet. "This is our girlís territory!"
Kitty and Lydia nodded in agreement. Mr Bennet tried to hide behind a newspaper. Mary grabbed a volume and very quickly flipped through it to try to find a reproving reproach for her sisters. Lizzie and Jane just looked at each other and sighed.
"The list, the list!" shouted Lydia.
Kitty pulled a crumpled piece of paper from her reticule and began to read.
"The two navy captains are on their own. What are these stars beside their names?"
"I put stars by all the men in uniform!" said Lydia
"But there are three young ladies visiting the old squire. Miss Louisa Musgrove, and two Miss Elliots, Elizabeth and Anne. Distant relatives so I was told."
"That they had stayed distant!" interjected Mrs Bennet.
"And then the Bertram brothers have two sisters and a cousin staying with them."
"My goodness thatís six already!"
"Then there is that family at the Grange. The old gentleman apparently came on the recommendation of his doctor, Mr Perry. Something to do with the fine quality of the gruel in these parts."
"How many young ladies there?"
"Letís see: Miss Emma Woodhouse, Miss Harriet Smith, Miss Jane Fairfax, Miss Bates, and Mrs Bates, although I believe both the Batesí to be quite old, so we have no need to count them."
"Then I make it nine."
"At Burton Cottage we have a Mrs Dashwood and her two daughters, Elinor and Marianne."
"Marianne, that sounds a little too pretty and romantic for my liking."
"Mr Tilney has his sister, Eleanor staying with him and his brother."
"Canít all the girls have different names?"
"Apparently not. There are three Watson sisters staying in Meryton, Elizabeth, Margaret, and . . . Emma."
"Enough, enough!" cried Mrs Bennet.
"There are more yet. Letís see, Miss Charlotte Heywood, Miss Catherine Moreland, and a widowed lady, Mrs Clay."
"Donít forget, Mr Henry Crawfordís sister is here as well."
"Oh yes, and that Mr Thorpeís sister, Isabella."
"Is that all of them?"
"I certainly hope so! I make it twenty."
"It canít be!" cried Mrs Bennet falling to a faint again.
Lydia studied the list. "Mother you are right! Oh is she fainted completely away? Well that is for the best for I have just realised that of course we have forgotten one. Mr Bingleyís sister, Caroline. And that makes twenty-one!" she wailed.
"What is it that has brought this influx of gentry?" questioned Mr Bennet to nobody in particular. "Is it the air? The water? I hardly think everyone has come for the gruel."
"Let me see the list!" Lizzie reached over and grabbed it from her sister. "Are you certain this is correct? Was not Mr Bingley to have another guest?"
"Not at all. I pride myself at my list making and this list is completely complete," said Lydia as she snatched the list back. "Kitty do you remember when we saw Mr Wickham and Mr Willoughby in high street? Have you ever seen such perfect specimens?"
"I am sure they both noticed us too," said Kitty.
"Ooohhh, Iíll say! Letís give them each five stars!"
Mr Bennet lay back in his armchair, twenty- one gentlemen and twenty-one ladies newly come to the neighbourhood! He wondered whether it was serendipity or the forces of chaos at work. Well, there was nothing to do but sit back and watch.
The next two weeks were incredibly busy for everyone in Meryton. The Assembly had to be held on the full moon, but the old hall was just not big enough to fit so many couples. Squeezes may have been fashionable in London, with young ladies fainting left and right, but in the country the gentry still wanted to be able to have room to comfortably make up a set. Thus walls had to be knocked out. Two private parlours and the card room were completely eliminated to enlarge the ballroom, and a tent was borrowed from the Militia and set up in the gardens to serve as a card room.
Mr Bennet was besieged by visitors. Every morning the girls were sent out into the shrubbery so that they would not be seen by the gentlemen callers. Mrs Bennet wanted to stun everyone with their beauty when they were presented to them at the assembly. Lydia and Kitty were very put out by this treatment, and kept peering from between the hedges to get a glimpse of all the visitors.
On one such morning, the three gentlemen from the inn came to call. Mr Bennet was not impressed by any of them and made short work of the visit. As they came down the front steps, Willoughby noticed that the bushes were wiggling and giggling.
"I say, Wickham old boy," he said with a mischievous grin, "what have we here?"
"We had best investigate!" said Wickham slyly, and they left John Thorpe staring around himself confusedly, wondering what had become of his companions. It always seemed to be happening.
Lydia was so excited that she fell through the hedge and landed at Willoughbyís feet. She looked up and beheld a wonder of male perfection, exquisitely dressed in gleaming Hessians, tight breeches, a form fitting topcoat, elaborate neck-cloth, high shirt points, and an array of gold fobs and chains upon his elegant waistcoat. His companion wasnít too bad either. She batted her eyelashes at him and stared up alluringly.
He knelt beside her and said in mock concern, "Is she alive or dead? Oh, alive I trust, so much beauty cannot be wasted on death." Then he looked up at Wickham and added, "An angel has dropped from heaven."
"Do you suppose there is another one?" he asked hopefully looking at the hedge, and Kitty fell through right on queue.
"I believe I have twisted my ankle," said Lydia in her most sultry voice.
"I have some experience in these matters," said Willoughby, taking her foot upon his lap and stroking it. "It seems a perfect ankle to me," he said, looking deeply into her eyes.
"Then perhaps it is the other one," said Lydia, giggling and offering her other foot for stroking.
Kitty wished she had Lydiaís style. She looked up at Wickham, who, though not quite as dashing as Willoughby, was still a very attractive man.
"I too may have suffered some injury," she said in a plaintive tone.
"I am at your service, maíam," said Wickham immediately dropping on his knees beside her. He gently felt both her ankles and announced them quite fine. Then the two gentlemen helped the girls to their feet, and the girls found that their ankles had indeed been speedily mended.
"It is just as well that you are both uninjured," said Willoughby, "for I have a splendid idea. How would you goddesses like to meet us on a stroll, perhaps on the way to Oakham Mount? An accidental meeting, of course."
"Oh, la! We were about to walk that way to be sure!" said Lydia. "In about half an hour. But not too very far up the trail," she added hopefully, for she really was not much of a walker.
"Oh no. Just at the point where it begins to become secluded," said Wickham. " The sun is so hot, I would like nothing better than sit in some shade."
"Oh yes, shade," said Kitty. "There is nothing I like more than some shade!" She tried fluttering her eyelashes as she had seen Lydia do and was mortified when Lydia asked her quite loudly if she had something in her eye.
"Maybe one of your other sisters could join us too," suggested Willoughby. "You see, we have this companion who we just canít seem to rid ourselves of."
Lydia looked over at Mr Thorpe. He was short and stout and sloppily dressed. She thought rapidly. She would never invite Lizzie or Jane, even if they would want to come, who needed the competition? Men always stopped looking at her and Kitty when they were around. And Mary would just cramp their style, and most assuredly tell their mama. "We will invite Maria Lucas to come with us!" she announced.
The two gentlemen hid their disappointment very well and took leave of the girls with a few expressive winks and flirtatious sallies. When they were out of sight, Lydia and Kitty began jumping up and down and squealing at their good fortune, and then ran indoors and demurely announced that they were going for a walk.
"A very good idea indeed!" cried Mrs Bennet. "Why donít all you girls head out?"
"Oh, we shall not want our sisters," said Lydia hurriedly. "We are taking Maria Lucas. We will have private girl things to discuss."
"I shall certainly not want to listen to your silly giggling!" said Mary. "You would do well to stay home and read. I have found an excellent passage in Fordyceís sermons which would be of great benefit to you."
"Quick, Kitty, your bonnet! We must make haste," cried Lydia and they quit the room before Mary could produce the tome.
Jane and Lizzie looked after them suspiciously, but they had a deal of needlework to do if they were to have all the new gowns trimmed in time for the assembly. Lurking in the shrubbery all morning did not help them to get on with their work.
Their father came into the parlour and threw himself on the settee with a sigh.
"I take it you were not that well pleased with your visitors today?" asked Lizzie, with some sympathy.
"A plague on all the gentlemen! Had I just visited that Bingley fellow right off this may never have befallen me. May this be a lesson to me not to tempt the fates!"
"Were they so very awful today?" asked Jane in a tone that seemed to imply that they must have had some redeeming qualities.
"Two rakes and a groom! Well he wasnít precisely a groom, but he was dressed for the stables. And the rakes! A fine pair of gentlemen to be sure. I defy anybody to produce finer. If you girls had but 10,000 pounds apiece, they would be on their knees to you tomorrow! As it is your poverty has saved you from the three of them!"
"Well your improvidence appears to be beneficial indeed!" said Lizzie dryly.
"I knew my indolence would pay off!" he retorted smugly.
In the days that followed, Kitty and Lydia went for many more walks, returning home all flushed and excited. Their mother remarked at how beneficial to their health and bloom these walks were becoming.
"Why, by the time of the assembly you two girls will surpass your older sisters in looks!" she announced with some glee. "You will be sure to have your choice of all the fine new gentlemen!"
Lydia and Kitty just looked at each other and giggled. They were indeed enjoying themselves, and couldnít wait to meet the rest of the gentlemen. If they were anything like these two (the third did not count at all, they just left him with Maria Lucas who now knew more about horses than she had ever wanted to know, and all of the information erroneous) the assembly would prove to be a very memorable event!
The day of the assembly finally arrived. The plasterers had finished, the paint was dry, the draperies were hung, and all the potted palms were in place. At the last minute, Hill had been sent to town to procure shoe roses. Lizzie was looking in the mirror, putting the final touches to her simple coiffure. She wondered what the evening would bring. It is true that marriage was not the uppermost thing in her mind, but she couldnít help but contemplate whether that illusive Mr Perfect who she was holding out for would miraculously happen to be one of the twenty-one. Deep inside she felt the tenuous twistings of doubt.
Even with all the renovations to the ballroom, the assembly turned out to be a squeeze. Not only had all the new inhabitants of the environs shown up, with the exception of Mr Woodhouse and his trusty companion, Mrs Bates, but everybody who was anybody, and even a few who werenít, had come to catch a glimpse of all the fascinating strangers in their finery. Sir William Lucas, as the master of ceremonies, was in a panic. It was his duty to make the introductions. He was of a very sociable nature, and during the preceding two weeks he had made the acquaintance of every new man and woman in the place, which was about twice as much visiting as Mr Bennet had performed, but to make all the various combinations of introductions necessary for the assembly to be a success was a more than daunting task. It would take him more than the whole evening to do it in the conventional manner. He threw up his hands in despair. His daughter, Charlotte, ran up and whispered in his ear, and handed him a page of sheet music that she had borrowed from one of the musicians. He rolled it into a cone, held it up to his mouth, and coughed perfunctorily.
"Testing, one two . . . May I have your attention please," he bellowed. The entire company quieted and stared in the direction of the unusually loud announcement. "It is my duty, as a knight of the realm, and the first citizen of Meryton to welcome everyone to our assembly and to perform all introductions. Due to most unusual circumstances, I find it necessary to perform a mass introduction. Therefore, all you most handsome, distinguished, and eligible gentlemen allow me to present all these beautiful and charming ladies as most desirable dance partners. I look forward with delight to watch your performances on the dance floor. Let the festivities begin."
As soon as he finished talking, and returned the music sheet to the second violin, the music started up and there was a general stampede as all the gentlemen tried to be the first to request a dance from the most beautiful women in the room. There was a long queue in front of Jane, and Marianne had a troupe of admirers descending upon her. Elizabeth found herself being addressed by a very gentlemanlike young man with a warm open countenance. She immediately accepted, not knowing what else to do as she had no real idea which gentleman she preferred over the other. Her father had said they were all very much the same, and though she really thought this was not the case, she had as yet nothing to distinguish them by. She was soon swept up into the set without being sure even of the name of her partner. When the dance brought them together she asked him his name.
"My name is Tilney, and in such cases as this I believe we must have some conversation. Starting with our respective names is a good beginning, might I have the pleasure of yours?"
"I am, Miss Elizabeth Bennet," said Lizzie, beginning to enjoy herself.
"I should have guessed for tales of your beauty have preceded you."
"The talk of the town, madam," he said with a smile. "And now, I see you do not want to continue to talk of yourself, what say you to books or music?"
"Oh, I canít talk of such things while I am dancing."
"Of course not! Then it must be politics," said Mr Tilney agreeably.
"You are a very strange gentleman," answered Lizzie, highly amused.
"I see you are observant. Would you like to do a character study of me?"
"I very much enjoy performing character studies, sir," said Lizzie "But perhaps you will try to trick me into false conclusions. One must not set too much in store by first impressions."
"I see you have found me out," said Henry Tilney in mock despair.
The next time the figure of the dance brought them together, he broached another subject.
"It is indeed a pity that you are wearing silk," said Mr Tilney.
"You do not approve of my gown?" asked Lizzie, quite taken aback.
"I approve of your gown immensely. The ivory silk is unparalleled. The Spanish lace trimming is exquisite. But alas, it is not of muslin."
"And pray tell me," said Lizzie, smiling again, "what would the advantage of muslin be?"
"Only that I am quite an expert on muslins, and am singularly renowned for my interesting comments on the subject. You have effectively denied me of a method of showing off my excellent knowledge."
"Oh, I would not want to deny you the pleasure for all the world," said Lizzie. "Please, sir, enlighten me!"
"But donít you see, I am unable to while you are in silk. Perhaps you would like me to tell you the number of cocoons the silk worm has to spin to produce enough silk for the gown you are wearing?"
"Sir, I am all anticipation," said Lizzie laughing up at him.
"I see you are laughing at me. Next you will tell me that I am strange again." Mr Tilneyís smile belied his words. The dance took them apart, and the next time they were together, Lizzie took it upon herself to start the conversation.
"What think you of this gathering?"
"Well, I know you would like me to say something witty, but I am afraid that words fail me," said Henry Tilney, shaking his head. "It is all so nice. The music is nice, the people are nice, the draperies are nice, and my partner is nice. I think I am very nicely situated at the moment. Would you not agree?"
"I think I am not as capable of so many social niceties as you are sir," said Lizzie with a saucy look.
The dance was ending, and as Mr Tilney led Lizzie off the floor he said, "I hope I have given you much to write about in your journal tonight."
"And which journal would that be, sir?" asked Lizzie, cocking her head at him.
"Why do you not keep a journal as all young ladies do?"
"No sir, I do not."
"Then I must admit that I am relieved. I do not think I would have shown up well in it at all." He bowed over her hand and left her at the edge of the floor.
She looked after him with some amusement. He had been a most enjoyable companion, but was he perfect? She was not given time to consider the question for long because she was soon approached by another gentleman. He was not handsome, and he approached her with some awkwardness, but he had a kind face and she accepted him at once.
"I am afraid the introductions were very poor," she said in a friendly manner. "I am, Miss Elizabeth Bennet."
"M-My, um, pleasure. I am, um, Mr, er Edward F-Ferrars."
Lizzie could see that she was to have no scintillating conversation this dance. Now, she didnít mind if a gentleman were reserved, but shyness she just could not cope with, not when considering a long-term relationship.
As she danced she had much more time to view the assembly. Her partner barely spoke, letís face it, he barely made eye contact. She noticed a very elegantly attired gentleman who always stuck to the edge of the crowd, invariably leaning against the wall as if it needed propping up. He was a fine looking young man indeed, but he had an air of coldness, a carelessness of his company that bordered on awkwardness, and an expression of disdain upon his handsome aristocratic features. He seemed to stare intensely at the dancers, sometimes raising his quizzing glass to his eye, and seemed to be preoccupied with a timid looking girl in a delicate white gown. Every so often he would converse with her partner, and that was the only person Lizzie ever saw him speaking to.
Lizzie was affronted by his attitude of superiority, and by the time her very boring dance partner returned her to her seat, she was seething with disgust at the unknown gentlemanís rude behaviour. If he came only to stare and sneer, why did he bother coming at all? She was sure everyone would be as incensed as she by his behaviour. Charlotte came to sit beside her and she immediately broached the subject with her.
"Do you have any idea who that most unpleasant gentleman is?" asked Lizzie in a loud whisper.
"Do you mean that stout fellow with the ill-fitting jacket and sandy whiskers?" asked Charlotte, looking at Mr Thorpe who was downing a glass of claret.
"No, not him. Heís not even worth mentioning. I mean that very proud gentleman who stares so."
Charlotte turned her head and took a good look. "You do not find him handsome? He is very rich."
"What has that to do with it? He would be handsome if he were not quite so supercilious. He is forever curling his lip and looking down his nose. I have never seen anyone more haughty."
"Well that is Lord Osborne, and everyone is quite delighted with him. I have heard it remarked all about the room that his very presence has made this assembly a huge success."
"I should not have thought it. I should have thought all of Meryton to be disgusted by his disagreeable behaviour by now!"
"Your own mother is delighted to distraction."
"None of this makes a particle of sense!" cried Lizzie in complete confusion. People turned and stared, but she did not care.
"I think your hand is about to be requested again," said Charlotte.
Lizzie turned and saw a very good-looking young man with an air of ease and fashion approaching her.
"Miss Elizabeth Bennet, will you do me the honour of this dance?" There was a warm smile on his lively countenance.
Lizzie accepted, and as he lead her to the dance floor said, "You have the advantage of me, for I do not know your name at all."
"I am Mr Sidney Parker, you may not have heard of me, very few people have."
"I have heard of very few people, Mr Parker, so it really is not too surprising."
"Well, in most places one only has to mention Mr Knightly, or Captain Wentworth, or any number of other names, and there are Ďoohsí and Ďahhsí and great sighs among the gathered company, but mention Mr Sidney Parker, and everyone gets very quizzical looks on their faces, and the question, ĎWho?í is often canvassed, not that I can blame any of them, of course."
This was all said with a smile and a twinkle of the eye. Lizzie decided that Mr Parker was not to be taken too seriously.
"I understand that you are a great studier of character," he went on to say.
"I do enjoy studying the foibles of my fellow man, but I did not think it was general knowledge," said Lizzie, slightly taken aback.
"I make a point of finding out the most interesting facts as I can," said Mr Parker. "Just to know that you are a great walker and enjoy reading, but not to the dereliction of other pursuits, is not quite enough to satisfy my curiosity. I own, I was pleased to find that you are a studier of character, for I would like you to study my own!"
Lizzie found that this captivating young man was almost as entertaining as her first partner. "And what would you like to discover about yourself, sir. I already find you to be charming and very good company. You are quite different than most of the young gentlemen that I generally meet."
"Quite. I do agree. But you see, when it comes to my character there is so little to go on. What is known of me is only what my elder brother has to say, and I donít know how reliable his word is. He tells everybody that I am a saucy, idle fellow, who lives too much in the world. He accuses me of making jest of himself and my sisters all the time."
Lizzie pondered this statement for some time and then, when the figures of the dance permitted conversation again said, "And do you, sir? Make jest of your brother and sisters?"
"How could I possibly avoid to? If only you knew them. My sisters are such hypochondriacs, and always physicing themselves. It is most diverting. One day the only cure is leeches, the next assesí milk. And my brother is besotted with his seaside town, which he values above all others, and can speak of nothing else. It is so hard to stop myself that I donít bother to even try."
"Then I would find your brother correct in saying that you are saucy!" said Lizzie pertly. "And are you also idle and too much in the world?"
Mr Parker hung his head and looked sheepish. "Well, I have an independence and so have no need of employment. And I do so love to jaunt about. Do you not like to?"
"Sadly I have rarely had the opportunity to leave these environs," said Lizzie enviously.
"Then I say take a trip! Go and visit the lakes! Life is so much more fun when you are always on the go."
A trip to the lakes, mused Lizzie. That sounds like a good idea. The rest of the dance, Mr Parker entertained her with light conversation and then he took his leave. She was sorry to see him go, and looked after him wondering if such a flighty light-hearted person could indeed be Mr Perfect.
She turned around to find herself being accosted by the stout sloppy fellow that she had noticed before. He had a brash air and seemed very taken with himself, and she felt a sense of satisfaction in refusing him.
"I am sorry, sir, but I am quite done in and must rest a spell."
He went off in a huff, with a look that seemed to imply, ĎItís your loss lady,í and then promptly told Maria Lucas that she had promised this dance to him, leading her to the floor to the astonishment of a young man who was about to claim her.
Lizzie made her way to the refreshment table for a glass of lemonade. A young lady of about her own age turned to her and said, "You must be Miss Elizabeth Bennet! I am Emma Woodhouse, and I have been longing to meet you. Is there somewhere we can sit and talk quietly?"
Lizzie led her to some chairs in an alcove that were partially obscured by a potted palm.
"We should have some privacy here," she said. "Though quiet I donít think I can promise you."
"This is splendid. You are just as I expected; I know that we will get along famously. Can you answer me just one question before we begin?"
"Do you play?"
Lizzie was surprised by the question. It seemed so mundane; she had been expecting more after such a beginning. "Well, I do play, but I must admit I play exceedingly ill. I do not practice enough to be proficient."
"That is just as I had hoped! Will you be my best friend? If you had been an accomplished player, I should not have asked you. I most jealously despise accomplished ladies. Their wonders are forever thrown in my face! You do not draw well either, I hope!"
"Oh, not at all!" laughed Lizzie.
"Better and better. I am in need of a new best friend. My other one is good, but she will not do for what I have in mind. This is to be a project of immense proportions, and I need someone with their wits about them. You appear to have your wits about you."
Lizzie only nodded. She was afraid to say anything and destroy her new best friendís illusions. She felt her wits had definitely gone begging.
"You are not in love, are you? Or about to fall in love, or interested in any of these charming gentlemen? I am not, and I hope you are not either, then you can help me in a most unbiased manner. Of course if you are, it may still work out all right. You can help me help everybody else and in turn I will help you help yourself."
Lizzie was totally confused but completely intrigued, and she sat in awe as Emma outlined what she had in mind.
"I must tell you, that I have an innate ability and a great predilection for matchmaking," said Emma. "It is most diverting and I am gratified that I can help so many people find true happiness. I set it all up between Miss Taylor and Mr Weston, and a happier union you would be hard pressed to find!"
Lizzie nodded encouragingly. She had no clue who Miss Taylor and Mr Weston were, but if Emma had brought them happiness, she was all for it.
"It did not work quite as well with Mr Elton and my dear friend Harriet, though. I was completely taken in about Mr Eltonís character. He actually had the audacity to propose to me! Me, Emma Woodhouse, the most important person in Highbury! What an utter fool. He is not worthy of Harriet for she is dear and sweet and beautiful, even if she is someoneís natural daughter. We will not bother finding a wife for him; let that be his problem."
"Who do you propose we do find a match for?" asked Lizzie.
"Why everyone else of course! My dear Miss Bennet, may I call you Elizabeth? I feel if we are to be involved in this project we cannot keep ĎMissingí each other. You may call me Emma."
"And you may call me Lizzie! Now what have you in mind? I am a good judge of character, and I am excellent at first impressions, so I think I will be a great help."
"And I dearly love to manage peopleís lives! I suggest we discover as much as we can about the gentlemen by dancing with as many as we can. Letís divide them up between us. It is no good asking Harriet for help, for she is bound to fall in love with each in turn, and Jane Fairfax will be of no help either, for she is so reserved she would keep all the information to herself."
"Well I have danced with Mr Tilney, Mr Ferrars, and Mr Parker, and I have refused Mr Thorpe, so that is four already!"
"And I have danced with Thomas Bertram, and his brother Edmund, and Mr Knightly, so that is only two more, for Mr Knightly doesnít count at all."
"Mr Knightly is not to marry. We cannot deny my poor nephew Henry his right to Donwell."
Lizzie was completely at a loss to understand what Emma was talking about, but then she had a thought. "You say you shall not marry, Emma, and that Mr Knightly shall not marry either. Could it be that you want to reserve him for yourself?"
"Lizzie! How could you think such a thing? Donít you realise that when I was a baby and he sixteen, he held me in his arms? We have grown up together. He is like a brother to me, or rather, like a father, always admonishing me for something he is displeased about. The very thought of it is appalling. It would be practically incestuous!"
Lizzie bit her lip. "Well that counts him out for you, but what of the other ladies? He might make that very elegant lady over there a good husband."
"Which do you mean? Her? Oh, never! That is Jane Fairfax; she would never do for him. No, Lizzie, I am firmly convinced that he should not marry. There are more than enough men to contend with that we have no need of him."
Lizzie was inclined to agree. This whole matchmaking scheme was to be a daunting task. "Let us proceed, we have six accounted for and two that are ineligible, so that leaves . . . thirteen. That is six dance partners for me and seven for you, for I have done more than you already."
"Well, let us see, I will dance with Frank Churchill, Henry Crawford, Mr Willoughby, Mr Wickham, Mr Elliot, and Captain Tilney," said Emma with a smile. She thought she had made very good choices. "Oh yes, and Colonel Fitzwilliam!"
Lizzie looked about the room. Who was left? Emma had chosen all the most dashing men as far as she could tell, although, there were still two military men who looked romantically moody, and another who looked downright depressed. "I will have to take the two Captains and the other Colonel, plus that proud disagreeable looking Lord, his friend Mr Howard and one other . . . where can he be?" She suddenly spied Jane dancing rather possessively with a smiling young man. "Oh yes, and the smiler that father warned us of, Mr Bingley. Are you sure you donít want to trade?"
"Oh no, I think I will be quite content with my choices," said Emma, her cheeks flushed with anticipation, "After all, I have already danced with the dullest ones. I deserve this!"
"That will do for the men, then, but how are we to discern the ladiesí characters?"
"Oh! I will invite them over for tea tomorrow. We will understand them all in a trice!"
Lizzie had to acknowledge that one could discover everything about a lady by inviting her to tea, so it should work for twenty.
"How will we go about ensuring that the gentlemen in question will indeed ask us to dance?" asked Lizzie. "We canít very well go up to them ourselves and ask for the honour of their company."
"Lizzie! I am surprised at you. You must know how to draw a gentlemanís interest," said Emma in horror.
"Well, I do not want to use mean feminine arts," said Lizzie staunchly. "And I certainly do not want to behave like my younger sisters."
Emma glanced over at Lydia and Kitty who were lifting their skirts to show their ankles and fluttering their eyelashes. Oh how obvious! "Certainly not! We shall simply stand near our prey and act like we are completely uninterested. It will work like a charm!"
Lizzie wasnít quite sure of the efficacy of this plan of action, but as she had never tested the method she decided it was worth a try. At the very worst she would dance with no one, but she might overhear private conversations that would help her in her character analyses.
"We have been away too long," said Emma. "We donít want the gentlemen to have forgotten our very existence. It is time . . ."
Just then a very stern gentleman came around the potted palms and grabbed Emma by the shoulder. He looked very displeased.
"So this is where you are hiding!" he hissed.
"Oh Mr Knightly!" said Emma brightly. "I would like you to meet my dear new friend Lizzie, Miss Elizabeth Bennet."
His whole demeanour changed. He turned to Lizzie with an empathic smile and said, "My dear Miss Bennet, I am so pleased to meet you. I would stay and chat, but I must return Emma to her other friends. I know you will excuse us."
Lizzie curtsied and smiled. "Delighted Mr Knightly. I was just about to return to the dance floor myself, so you neednít feel that you are doing me any disservice."
As Lizzie walked away she noticed Mr Knightlyís face change once again, and the angry lines return. "You have left Harriet Smith and Jane Fairfax alone for far too long! And poor Miss Bates. How could you Emma? That was badly done. Vary badly done indeed!"
Lizzie could well understand why Emma had no desires to marry that gentleman!
Lizzie looked about. She saw the Smiler and her sister, Jane, over at the refreshment table, so she made her way over to stand beside them and turned her back, pretending a great interest in the gold velvet draperies. No one had told her that if the gentleman was already entertaining a lady he was besotted with, the hard to get treatment would not work. Jane and Mr Bingley were completely oblivious to her existence. Charlotte walked up to Lizzie and whispered in her ear.
"I think you should talk to Jane."
Lizzie looked at Jane, who was gazing, entranced, into the Smilerís face. "She seems to be happily occupied."
"She is making a complete fool of herself, wearing her heart on her sleeve like that! If you show a man too blatantly that you are attracted to him, he will think that you are a hussy! She has danced with no one else all night. It is most shameful and improper. How will she ever get a husband like that?"
"It appears to me that it is working just fine," said Elizabeth, noting the rapt look on Mr Bingleyís face.
Just then, Jane looked over and noticed them talking about her. She excused herself from her partner and joined the two girls. Mr Bingley smiled fondly after her, a rather sickly look of extreme bliss on his face.
"Are you two talking about me?" she asked severely, well at least as severely as a Jane madly in love could ask.
"Charlotte thinks you are being too forward," said Lizzie. "She says you have danced with no other partner."
"Have I?" asked Jane innocently. "I am sure I do not know. They all look the same to me. Well instead, I will dance with this gentleman over here, he appears to wish to dance with me," and she went back to Mr Bingley who swept her onto the dance floor yet again.
Charlotte sputtered. Lizzie laughed. There was one gentleman that she would have no need to dance with, she reflected.
"Excuse me, Charlotte, but I have a mission to accomplish. I have three very moody military men to ambush."
Charlotte looked at her strangely. Everyone was acting so oddly, first Jane throwing discretion to the wind, and now Lizzie chasing officers. Next thing, she would see Kitty and Lydia sitting with the dowagers, tatting doilies. She turned around and when she saw Lydia running giddily through the crowd with two officers in tow, and Kitty trying to catch up, she new that all was still right with the world.
Lizzie went to stand demurely beside the group of officers who were staring dejectedly into their drinks. Either they were disgusted with being served lemonade, or they were crossed in love. From their expressions it was hard to tell the difference. She decided to try a new tactic, and dropped her hanky. All three gentlemen stooped to retrieve it at the same time, and two of them bumped heads. The third managed to wrench it from the othersí grasp while they were still in a concussed state, and presented it to Lizzie.
"It appears you have mislaid this fine piece of linen," he said in a deep rich voice.
Lizzie looked up into his dark eyes. She could see flickerings of pain within them. This man had suffered some deep and long heartache.
"Thank you, sir," she said in a soft voice. "You are most kind."
"Would you do me the honour of this dance?" he asked, gazing at her intensely.
"It would be my pleasure . . ."
"I beg your pardon. Captain Wentworth at your service, madam. You, no doubt, are the lovely Miss Elizabeth Bennet."
Lizzie nodded in assent and they took the floor.
At first they danced in silence, and then the captain gave Lizzie a piercing stare, and asked her meaningfully, "Are you much acquainted with nuts?"
Lizzie was at a loss for words. Whatever could his meaning be? "I must know what you mean by such a question, sir."
"Well, if you were a hazelnut, would you be happy and whole and firm, or would you have been trodden under foot?"
"Oh! At first I thought you were making disparaging comments about my family. I am surely a shiny, firm nut, and yet I would not really call myself a nut."
"Then you are firm in your resolution?"
"And if you loved, you would not let others persuade you to give up your love, just because they believed the match imprudent?" He looked at her most earnestly.
"If I believed myself right, I should stand firm, no matter the odds!" announced Lizzie.
Captain Wentworth let out a sigh. All the pain he felt was evident in his face. "If only all women had such strength of character as you!"
Lizzie looked up into his stricken eyes. She must say something to give this man hope. "All situations are not the same. Some may deny love out of youth or duty. When their actions appear weak, they may be stronger still. To give up a love so cherished is not an easy thing to do. And they may still love, even though they know they have destroyed their only chance for happiness. Women love even when existence or all hope is gone."
Captain Wentworth looked at Lizzie, momentarily stunned. He had never even contemplated the situation from that angle before. "I am half agony, half hope," he announced in a tremulous voice.
At that moment, John Thorpe came walking along with an almost empty wineglass in his hand. Lydia, twirling out of control, crashed into him in a fit of giggles. The glass flew from his hand and smashed upon the floor right at Captain Wentworthís feet. A look of even deeper pain than she had previously seen overspread his visage.
"Captain, are you all right?"
"Iím afraid I will have to sit the rest of this one out," he said through his teeth. "I seem to have pierced my sole." He raised his foot, and sure enough, there was a jagged shard of glass embedded deep into his shoe.
Lizzie helped him from the dance floor, and then went in search of the Assemblyís first aid attendants, whom she found outside the backdoor tossing dice and swilling ale. She collared one and dragged the bloke in to attend to the captain. He looked up at her gratefully, tears streaming down his face.
"Too good, too excellent creature!"
"It was the least I could do," said Lizzie. "I shall come by later to see how you are getting on. Donít think me unfeeling, but I have a deal of dancing to do before the night is out."
She wandered down the dance floor, only to come face to face with the other naval captain. Well, not really face to face because he was staring dismally at his shoes. Lizzie decided this time she would have to take matters into her own hands and led the miserable man out onto the dance floor. When they got there he looked around in confusion.
"You did not introduce yourself when you so gallantly asked me to dance," said Lizzie archly.
He coloured and apologised in a strained voice and told he that his name was Benwick. Then he lapsed into a brooding silence. Lizzie attempted all types of conversations, the weather, travel, music, and finally got a response when she mentioned poetry. He quoted lines which imaged a broken heart, and impassioned descriptions of hopeless agony, in tones of the profoundest melancholy. This guy was a real downer.
"Itís better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all," said Lizzie brightly.
He looked at her through eyes brimming with tears. "My love is dead. You do not know how I suffer."
ĎI stuck my foot in it!í Lizzie decided that she had to get this man off the dance floor. He needed grief counselling badly. She found him a seat and patted him on the head and then snuck away when he wasnít looking. If she stayed with him any longer she would be crying her eyes out, and then her face would be all red and blotchy, and who would want to dance with her? She made a mental note to find someone with vast stores of empathy and send her his way.
Before she could find anyone to fit the bill, the dour Colonel came up and asked for the next two. She readily assented. He was quite handsome, in a manic sort of way, even though he did sport a flannel waistcoat. And his voice was beautifully resonant. Talk about piercing souls! In the short interim before the next dance she looked about for a suitable companion for the wretched captain, and as a last resort chose a very loquacious older woman.
"Well, yes my dear child. I should be happy to talk with him, that is if he is happy to talk to me, but if, as you say, he is not happy at all, and actually quite unhappy, I can see that it shall make no difference if I donít manage to make him happy, but I shall do my best, I am very good natured, but I am sure to say some silly thing, I hope he doesnít mind silly things for I may even say two or three, but I shall not hesitate in reading him Janeís last letter, though she is here and could tell everything herself, still she is so reserved, and I find her letters such a blessing, such a sweet girl and so accomplished, which gentleman did you say, oh yes, he is quite unmistakable to be sure, I will . . ."
The colonel dragged Lizzie to the floor and the endless flow of conversation did not stop but just changed in its object as the woman sat down beside Captain Benwick and attended to him.
Lizzie found the colonel an improvement on her last companion. Though sombre, he was very conversant and they spoke of art, music, and literature. His direct gaze was a little overwhelming, but after a while Lizzie found that it was drifting from her to a young girl across the room. Lizzie did not resent this, as she had no real interest in the man, and if he was interested in a young lady, it might help her and Emma in pairing up all the couples.
"I hope you donít think me impertinent," ventured Lizzie, "but I canít help but notice that you keep looking at a particular young lady."
Lizzie was surprised to see a blush on the gentlemanís cheeks.
"I admire her very much. She reminds me of someone I once knew."
Lizzie hoped there would be more information forthcoming. They were separated by the dance, and when it was possible to converse again she resumed the subject.
"She is quite a pretty young lady." She was pretty, thought Lizzie, but not overly so. What was it about her that was so appealing to this serious man?
"To my eyes she is the embodiment of beauty. Her youth and vitality. Her freshness, her sparkle, her innocent candour. All these things are dear to my own heart. She is bright and lively and full of the joy of life. Notice how she smiles, how her eyes light up, the soft curl of her hair haloing her face."
Lizzie had to admit that the colonel had it bad. "Why do you not dance with her?"
"I? She would not want to dance with a staid old fellow such as I. I would only bore her. No, I am destined only to enjoy her from afar when eventually some dashing young blade who doesnít deserve her in the least will romantically sweep her off her feet."
Lizzie had a feeling that there were romantic depths within this man that had not as yet been spelunked. As her dance with Colonel Brandon ended she had a firm resolve to help bring him and the young lady together. She made some enquiries and discovered that the young ladyís name was Louisa Musgrove. Emma will be pleased to hear that I have made some progress, she thought.
Speaking of Emma, Lizzie couldnít help but feel a little chagrined by her selfish behaviour. She had just spent three dances with rather depressing individuals who were obsessed with women other than herself. Every time she had looked over to where Emma was on the floor, she was twirling around with a strikingly handsome gentleman who seemed to have no eyes for anyone else. Emma had had the joy of gazing up into appreciative blue eyes, hazel eyes, and green eyes, while she had been pierced by dark brown eyes, evaded by watery grey eyes, and eventually overlooked by brooding black eyes.
Lizzie sighed. Two more to go, and neither of them looked very enticing. Her feet were aching and her head was reeling. She needed a short rest and then she would make an attempt at the last two. Lizzie made her way to the French doors that led out to the terrace. What she really needed was some fresh air. As she walked past, she noticed that the woman was still speaking with Captain Benwick. She wondered if she had even paused for a breath.
"You are a sailor, so you know what it is like to cross a body of water, and as I have told you the Dixons live in Ireland, and my dear Jane, bless her soul, was invited to go, but did not wish to cross the Irish Sea, she had had a fearful mishap in a rowboat, you understand, and was only barely saved by Mr Dixon himself, if you remember his wife was Janeís special friend, though not with Janeís looks or accomplishments, of course, but, what was I saying, oh yes, Jane does so fear the water now that a . . ."
Lizzie found a cool dark spot on the terrace where she could sit and ponder all that she was doing. She believed that she was a reasonably sensible and intelligent young lady, but was this project she had entered into with Emma either reasonable or sensible, let alone intelligent? And yet, did an assembly make any sense in any form? What was its purpose? To throw marriageable people of the opposite sex together in a situation where they could size each other up, and chose mates. Although nobody would actually come out and say that. So was what she and Emma were doing any more calculating than all the mothers on the sidelines? As she pondered these eternal questions, she heard her two youngest sisters come out and lean upon the balustrade. She shrank further into the shadows, so as not to be seen.
"Lord, I am so fagged!" announced Lydia, fanning herself profusely.
"Not one dance without a partner," sighed Kitty, "but still, I feel quite miffed with you-know-who. I am not content only to dance with the same silly officers."
Lizzie was wondering who you-know-who was. She didnít even know that Kitty had a you-know-who in her life. Just then, two gentlemen came out onto the terrace. Lydia noticed them as soon as Lizzie did, or probably sooner, because Lydia had a built in sensor when it comes to gentlemen.
"There they are, Kitty," she hissed. "Make like you donít care a fig for them!" And with that she giggled loudly to Kitty. "Oh la, are we not having a famous time?"
"Hello girls," said Wickham smoothly as he sidled up beside Kitty in a most familiar way. "Have you been waiting long?"
Lizzie felt all the awkwardness of her situation. She couldnít make her presence known now, and anyway, she had long since discovered that one can learn plenty by listening in on the conversations of others, so she settled in for the duration and tried to make herself as comfortable as possible on the cold stone bench.
"Waiting for what, pray tell?" said Lydia with some asperity.
"You lovely ladies must have known we were only waiting for the opportunity to join you out here," said Willoughby, taking her hand and staring lovingly into her eyes.
"Oh, so that is why you danced with all those other young ladies," said Lydia sweetly, "just to pass the time."
"You two were always engaged," said Wickham smoothly.
"And since when is it not possible to put your name down on a dance card?" asked Kitty pettishly.
"I see that we are not good enough for you in company," said Lydia, "but suddenly, alone here in the dark we have become desirable again."
"You were never more desirable," said Willoughby, raising her hand to his lips and giving it a lingering kiss. "I love the spark in your eyes when you are incensed!"
Lydia took her hand out of his and gave him a resounding slap on his cheek. Kitty looked on in horror. She had been on the point of forgiving Wickham.
"How do you like the spark of my hand when it is incensed?" cried Lydia. "Kitty and I are not common trollops! We may bestow our favours freely to those who are worthy of them, but we are not cheap, and we do not take to being used. We are in this as much for the pleasure we get as the pleasure we give, and it gives us no pleasure to be made fools of by you, no matter how handsome or charming you may be!"
Lizzie listened in astonishment. It was safe to say that she was not the only one who was astonished. Lydia herself was rather astonished by her outburst. Kitty was utterly flabbergasted. Willoughby and Wickham, quickly reassessing the situation, started backing away and talking about longstanding appointments that they had to keep.
"Not so fast," cried Lydia. "We are not done with you two yet." Then on a signal to Kitty that she somehow mysteriously understood, the two girls lunged at the gentlemen and neatly flipped them over the balustrade.
"I believe there were some jagged rocks down there," said Lydia, giggling at their cries of pain.
"If Iím not mistaken," said Kitty, wiping a tear from her eye, "Mr Wickham has had this coming for a long time."
Lydia and Kitty straightened their gowns and tidied their hair. "I think it is safe to return to the dancing now," said Lydia.
"You mean we are to just leave them there?" said Kitty. "But they were so very suave and debonair. They have spoiled me for other men."
Lydia looked at her intently. "I certainly hope not! Did you see all the appetising merchandise in there?"
Kitty allowed Lydia to lead her back to the dance, but she threw a yearning look or two back as she left, hoping to hear a call begging for forgiveness. The only thing she heard was some very colourful language which made her believe that maybe Lydia was right after all.
Lizzie was not sure which sensation prevailed, the shock at her sisterís wanton conduct, or her pride at Lydia for standing up for herself and demanding respect. She was pleased to have been enlightened as regards the character of the two gentlemen in question, and could not wait to compare notes with Emma to see if she had managed at all to penetrate their charming faÁade. She doubted that she had.
Lizzie decided it was best to return to the assembly room before the gentlemen managed to scramble back over the balustrade. She could hear them arguing over who should give whom a leg up as she quickly exited the terrace.
A new set was starting up as she entered the room, and she heard someone behind her say, "There, that one. Dance with her," and she was approached by an agreeable looking gentleman a little above thirty, who asked her very politely for the next dance. As he was one of the last two remaining gentlemen on her list she readily accepted.
They took the floor, and he introduced himself as Mr Howard, a fact that she already knew because she had made a point of finding out who all the gentlemen were that she had committed herself to dance with. After they had gone down the set a few times and she had assessed him to be quietly cheerful, she decided to interrogate him about what was really on her mind.
"Mr Howard," she said. "I canít fail but notice that that very disagreeable looking gentleman at your elbow is continually staring at me and conversing with you as we dance."
Mr Howard looked a little guilty. "I was hoping he would have slipped your notice."
"You must admit, he is being rather obvious. Do you think I am short-sighted?"
"Not in the least. In fact your eyes are very fine, if you would allow me to say so."
"Flattery will not sway me," said Lizzie. "I will stay the course. I must add that before you invited me so politely to dance, I distinctly overheard someone to remark, ĎDance with her,í and I am disposed to believe that it was your uncivil friend who made the request."
"Do not think that I did not want to dance with you myself," he said in a plaintive voice. "I did, very much so."
Lizzie could not see any reason why this statement would not be true, most gentlemen did want to dance with her, after all, so she accepted it at face value. "But what does he mean by asking you to dance with me, and then hovering around, staring and commenting?"
"Lord Osborne never dances. But if he sees an attractive woman, then he will ask me or some other friend to dance for him."
Lizzie thought this decidedly odd, but it would serve her purposes as much as his. It was actually quite a relief to know that she wouldnít have to stand up with the haughty man.
"And if he wanted to know more of me would he have you converse with me, and visit me?"
"You understand the matter perfectly!" said Mr Howard in some relief.
"And if he decided to court me, he would have you pay me attentions and bring me flowers?" asked Lizzie, warming to the subject.
"Well, that is possible, I suppose. It has never come down to that."
"And if he fell in love with me, he would have you propose, and marry me, and he would expect to walk down the aisle at your elbow, and discuss with you all the while how the marriage was going," Lizzie said triumphantly.
Mr Howard coloured and stammered and could not think of what to say. At this point Lord Osborne questioned him quite heavily about the conversation.
"Lord Osborne says he had never thought the matter quite that far along before, but that what you suggest would in all likelihood work admirably for him. He wonders whether you would like me to call for tea tomorrow."
Lizzie shuddered. As nice as Mr Howard appeared, there was something decidedly strange about the whole arrangement. "Iíll tell you what," she said quite sweetly. "I think I will try your friendís method. Why donít you have tea with my friend Charlotte instead, and we can see how it progresses from there."
"And how old is your friend?" asked Mr Howard.
Lizzie thought this question rather impertinent, but she answered it all the same. "She is a few years my senior, but not quite yet on the shelf."
Mr Howard looked wistful. "How close to the shelf?" he asked hopefully.
Lizzie immediately felt some compassion for the man. It must be very difficult for him always having to undertake his friendís flirtations with very young ladies, (she remembered how she had seen the Lord eyeing the youngest girls there, it was surprising that he had even asked Mr Howard to dance with a dotard like herself) when he was actually attracted to older females, much older, it appeared, as she caught him eyeing Miss Bates, who was still conversing energetically with the forlorn captain.
Lizzie took herself off in search of Charlotte as soon as the dance had ended. She hoped she had not done her friend a disservice, but she hadnít been able to help herself making the suggestion. The whole situation was just so preposterous. When she explained it all to Charlotte, she was surprised to find out that Charlotte had been eyeing Mr Howard all evening, but he had never approached her, being busy dancing with the dťbutantes.
"I had been wondering how to get him to notice me," she told Lizzie. "You know that I am a practical and unromantic person, but when I first beheld him, my heart started to do flips."
"Do you not mind that he caters so to his rich friend?"
"Not at all, Lizzie. It could be a lot worse. He could crawl on his belly raving about Lord Osborneís beneficence and riches. He could be boring on and on about windows, staircases and chimney-pieces, and shelves in closets. If all he does is cater, I should think myself well off. Besides he is so handsome, and his hair is so . . . dry."
"I will give you a hint, then, that might help you win him. He likes older women. The older the better apparently."
"I shall tell him Iím thirty-five, and powder my hair," said Charlotte. "Iím not above using the feminine arts to lure him!"
Lizzie felt quite a bit better about her impetuous decision. If she had helped Charlotte on the path to happiness, so much the better. Now all she had to do was find Emma and compare notes. She felt she had made some great progress. She had four men lined up with matches, and another three that could be eliminated all together. She had completed all her obligatory dances as well, and now if she danced, she would only have to do so for her own pleasure. Her eyes travelled the dance floor, looking for Emma, but also looking for that illusive Mr Perfect that she just could not seem to find.
Lizzie finally spied Emma on the far side of the ballroom, and she began to wend her way through the thronging masses that surrounded the dance floor. At one point the crowd was so thick she was stopped in her tracks for a full five minutes. While she was waiting for the jam to clear, she again had the opportunity to overhear a conversation, and as this one concerned herself, she strained her ears so as not to miss a word of it.
"Churchill, why are you not dancing? Why are you standing about in this stupid manner?"
"Well Crawford, I am looking for someone that it would not be a punishment for me to stand up with. Someone a little more agile than my last partner. She was forever stomping on my toes."
"You are so fastidious! See, my shoes are scraped and I care not! But then, I must admit that I also rely on the local barber, and it is common knowledge that you rushed off to London in the wee hours this morning to have a cut and manicure."
"Also a pedicure."
"Well, that makes all the difference in the world. You will have to take me sometime. But, back to the matter at hand; there are many young ladies in this room who are excellent dancers, and beautiful, I must add."
"You are dancing with a rather wild and boisterous young lady who keeps bumping into everybody."
"Yes, but she has a sister standing right over there who is more than tolerable, if you know what I mean."
"Which do you mean?" he turned around and gave Lizzie an appraising look. "She is certainly much more than tolerable. She appears extremely handsome and tempting to me. Just thinking of dancing with her has restored my good mood."
"Yes, and only think of the consequence it will give you to dance with her. I have it on good authority from my friend Thorpe that she has been cruelly slighting other men."
At that moment Lydia, who was becoming very impatient, grabbed hold of Mr Crawfordís arm and dragged him back to the dance floor.
"Why are you wasting your time with him and not enjoying my smiles?" she demanded.
"Why indeed!" said Mr Crawford as he spun her around and laughed at her squeals of pleasure.
Lizzie stood very still with a soft smile playing upon her face. The conversation she had heard struck a chord within her. It seemed very close to something that she had been expecting. She pretended surprise when she was tapped on the shoulder, and as she turned confidently to face the gentleman, her heart rose high in her chest and her breath was taken away. She found herself gazing into the most sincere pair of green eyes she had ever beheld.
"Am I asking too much, or would you do me the honour of dancing with me?" he asked in a softly resonant voice.
He gave a shy smile that turned her to putty. It was a blessing that she was such an innately good dancer for she was so swept away by his charm that she had no thought for the dancing. Was this finally the man? Was he perfection himself?
After they had been dancing for some minutes, she became aware that though he was carrying on a scintillating conversation with her, his attention seemed to be wandering. This brought her down to earth with a crash that caused her to falter in her steps. He looked at her suddenly, and for an instant there was annoyance in his glance, but it smoothly changed to a look of adoring concern.
"I am sorry, that was my fault entirely," he said with heartfelt earnestness.
"I canít help but think that something has distracted you," said Lizzie a little petulantly. She was surprised at herself because petulance was something she never fell prey to.
"Do you see that young lady over there?" Mr Churchill said in a rather conspiratorial tone.
Lizzie looked in the direction indicated and saw a young woman with silky blonde curls and an alabaster complexion. How was she to compete with someone like that, she asked herself with a sinking heart?
"I was caught by how deathly pale she looked," continued Mr Churchill in the same tone, only a little more intimately. "The shock of the sight threw me off. I prefer a healthy vibrant look, a rosy blush." He looked deep within her eyes again and started to talk of poetry.
Lizzie was lulled once more into a sense of complacency, and she smiled dreamily into his eyes, thinking that all they needed to make them truly ideal were little amber flecks. And his curls, those gorgeous honey brown curls, she couldnít help but feel that rich chestnut was more appealing. When she left off examining his hair, she noticed that his eyes had strayed from her face once more. She turned and followed their direction, and noticed that he was staring at the blonde yet again.
"She seems to have caught your fancy," said Lizzie with some asperity.
"Have you ever seen such an unusual way of dressing oneís hair?" he asked in a look of innocent astonishment. "I must apologise for being distracted, but it really is quite strange. I do not understand how someone could come to a ball looking such a fright. I have a good mind to go and ask her after our dance is finished. What say you? Do you think I could bring colour into that parchment skin?"
Lizzie was suddenly struck by the frivolous nature of this gentleman. It was really most disconcerting; why was it that real life could never match oneís daydreams?
When the dance finished, he gave her a look of undying love such as was calculated to melt the heart of any impressionable young lady, bowed low over her hand, and then sprinted away in the direction of the lovely blonde. She stood and watched as he asked the goddess to dance with the same bashful artlessness that he had used on her. So much for first impressions. The affected shyness and the insincerity were now glaringly obvious to Lizzie. Her Mr Perfect still remained elusive, or was that illusive? Lizzie fervently hoped not.
"I see you were dancing with Mr Frank Churchill," said Emma in her ear. "Donít set your hopes on him. I think he is desperately in love with me. But of course I will have to disappoint him. Iím thinking of lining him up with my young friend Harriet, or maybe even Jane Fairfax."
"Jane Fairfax?" asked Lizzie, wondering if that was the name of the stunning blonde.
"I was just joking, Lizzie. The very idea is quite ridiculous! If you only knew her Ė what a cold fish!"
"Is she the lady he is dancing with at present?" asked Lizzie.
"No! That is Miss Marianne Dashwood. I have as yet to meet her, so I cannot say if she will do for him or not. I want to be very careful who he marries for he is Mrs Westonís husbandís son, and it is their dearest wish that he marry me. I was almost tempted to oblige them, but I think I prefer flirting with him, and anyway as I have already informed you, I have no intention of marrying anybody. It is much more diverting arranging other peopleís marriages. "
"He appears to be quite taken with her, and she with him," said Lizzie.
Emma looked at the couple, and then dismissed them. "I see no evidence of particular regard," she stated. "She just might do for another gentleman I was dancing with. He is the younger son of an Earl, and quite charming, except for the fact that he complains a little too much. I get the impression he is badly in need of a woman."
"She is quite beautiful. What does he have to recommend him? You have said that though charming he complains a lot. Is he attractive?"
"That is the strange thing about him. As I danced with him, I appraised his countenance from different angles. In person and address he is truly a gentleman. At first glance I did not find him handsome at all, and yet once or twice he appeared truly devastating. One would have to see him in his regimentals to be sure."
"There is indeed something about a red coat," Lizzie sighed, thinking of her silly sisters.
"And you say he is a younger son. Does Miss Dashwood have any fortune?"
"I have no idea. Should that really be a consideration?"
Lizzie looked at her new friend with a dawning realisation. She was beginning to believe that Emma didnít have the first clue about matchmaking after all. Fortune must have something to do with it, surely.
Just as Lizzie was going to ask Emma about her other partners, Sir William Lucas took centre stage in front of the orchestra again, and stealing the second violinís sheet music, he rolled them into a cone and bellowed another announcement.
"This is the last dance Ladies and Gentlemen! I thank you all for coming out and making this assembly such an overwhelming success, and bid you all chose your partners and take the floor."
He handed the sheets back to the disgruntled violinist, and then went over to sit down and calculate the logistics of getting so many people out of one exit without any fatalities, and before the cocks started crowing. He pulled out a huge handkerchief and mopped his brow. Never had they had such a long assembly. Next time he would remember not to buy discount dance cards sight unseen. These ones had had full five times as many lines as usual.
Lizzie fingered her invitation as the carriage bowled along the narrow lanes to The Grange. Lydia and Kitty were dangling out the windows, and Mary was sitting sedately across from her, meditating on some moral philosophies, no doubt. (She actually was meditating on the effect a pair of lusty eyes had in the face of a corpulent gentleman, but who could have foretold that?) How Emma had managed to print up and deliver so many invitations in such a short space of time, Lizzie hadnít a clue, but it was only two days since the assembly, and already all the women were congregating for tea at Miss Woodhouseís behest.
Lizzie thought back to the assembly and all that had taken place there. When they had called the last dance, she remembered her promise to Captain Wentworth that she would come back and check up on him. ĎA promise is a promise,í she thought, Ďand anyway there is no one who I particularly want to dance with.í She soon found him nursing his poor foot in the alcove with the potted palms. He was in the company of the charming man she had first danced with.
"Miss Bennet," cried Henry Tilney, "Would you care to dance?"
"Sir, do not think I came this way in order to beg for a partner. I have not the least intention of dancing. I have come to condole with the captain who is unable to partake of the pleasure of dancing."
"Well, I have been entertaining the sad fellow! We have been discussing the attributes we require in a wife."
"Indeed?" said Lizzie, surprised that gentlemen discussed the same topic as ladies at these gatherings. She thought they would be talking of hounds or horses or naval battles.
"It is commonly known that we have come into town in search of wives. Isnít that part of the infamous universal truth?" said Henry Tilney with a most delightful smile on his face, and a roguish twinkle in his eyes.
"Tilney," said Captain Wentworth, suddenly bestirring himself, "I think I ought to resent you calling me a sad fellow, but somehow I donít have it in me."
"Just a shell of the man he once was," whispered Henry Tilney in Lizzieís ear. "We must do our best to mend his heartbreak and find him a wife."
There was no end to the wonders of the world. Not only did this man have extensive knowledge of muslins, but he dabbled in matchmaking too! What other female activities did he indulge in?
"For my part," he continued in a louder voice meant for Wentworth as well, "I would delight in a wife who is open, candid, artless, guileless, with affections strong but simple, forming no pretensions, and knowing no disguise."
That is no tall order, thought Lizzie, and certainly counts me out. My affections are not simple at all, rather quite complex and confusing; as for guileless, no one can ever put anything over on me. "You do not desire someone with a quick intellect, a lively wit, and pert opinions?"
"I fear she would be too much like myself! Let us ask the captain if he should require those attributes."
"I? I am quite ready to make a foolish match."
Lizzie bristled. "Do you mean to say that marrying a lady with a quick intellect, a lively wit, and pert opinions would be foolish?"
Captain Wentworth stared at her blankly. What was her problem? "All I am saying is that I have been used ill, deserted, and disappointed. I was once warmly attached to a young lady who showed such a feebleness of character that it was unendurable! She gave me over to oblige others! The worst thing is, that though she has treated me so ill, and acted so weakly, I have never yet seen a woman to equal her!"
Henry Tilney patted him on the back. "Sounds like she wasnít worth you ruining your life over her. There are plenty of personable young ladies here. My sister, for example, has a strong mind and a sweetness of manner that is most appealing. Besides, she is most incredibly attractive and is always impeccably dressed."
"Oh, anybody between fifteen and thirty may have me for the asking! A little beauty, a few smiles, some compliments to the navy and I am a lost man!"
"You are willing to put up with something a little inferior?" asked Lizzie in a shocked tone. She hoped she would never find herself crossed in love, ready to accept the first man to ask her. He may turn out to be John Thorpe. Her stomach heaved at the very idea.
"If I am going to be a fool, then let me. I have thought about it long and hard. Most men make fools of themselves with much less consideration."
"I think I had better find my sister without delay," said Henry Tilney. "Someone must save you from yourself, and I would not mind you for a brother in law at all once we rid you of these most foolish tendencies of yours." So saying, he rushed off in search of his sister.
"What a good brother!" remarked Lizzie.
"You should meet my friend Harville. Now there is what I call a true friend and good brother. His sister, you know, was supposed to marry my friend Benwick, but she died recently. Poor Fanny, she would not have forgot him as fast as he has forgotten her. He has spent all night in deepest conversation with one woman alone. He is a man truly smitten."
Lizzie looked over to Benwick. Miss Bates was still talking his ear off. "In truth, I donít think he is attending to her at all."
"You do not know Benwick as I do. It was his inattentiveness that Fanny loved so much. Harville was fond of remarking that they were made for each other. Ah, Harville! There never was such a friend. You should meet him. What say we organise an outing to Lyme?"
"Isnít that rather far?"
"I make it no less than two days journey. The beauties of Lyme are surely worth that!"
Lizzie rather doubted that there was anything in Lyme to make an outing of that scope worthwhile, and decided to voice her opinion. "What is there in Lyme that cannot be found in Brighton or Sanditon? If we were to go to the seaside, surely Ramsgate would be the most logical choice, being the closest. After all, what is a sea resort but some sand and a Cobb? There must be a Cobb at any such resort."
She noticed that all the colour had drained from the good captainís face. He leaned over with folded arms, his face concealed, as if overpowered by various feelings of his soul. "Do not mention the Cobb! I shudder at the very idea. The unevenness of the steps, the hardness of the pavement! Oh, is there no one to help me?" he cried in anguish.
Lizzie looked on in horror. This man was in need of therapy, and quickly. She wondered whether Henry Tilney was such a good brother after all. What was he setting his sister up for?
The jarring of the carriage as it stopped brought Lizzie back to the present. Lydia and Kitty tumbled out, whispering and giggling, and winking at the footmen who were there to receive them. Mary pursed her lips and got up. Her eyes held a strange glow of desire that Lizzie could not quite equate with the carriage ride, or the coming tea party. Lizzie herself was impatient to speak with Emma alone again. One thing she was most eager to discover was why had Emma danced the last dance of the assembly with Mr Knightly, of all people?
Emma came running up to Lizzie as she and her sisters were announced.
"I had about given you up!"
"Lydia and Kitty wanted to make an impression, and as there was no time for new gowns, opted to be fashionably late," said Lizzie with a cheeky grin.
"Well, everybody is here now, I should think. Letís just check. Weíll both count and see how many are here."
This took a while as Kitty and Lydia kept crossing the room to change seats causing Emma and Lizzie to start over.
"I make it Twenty-eight, is that correct?"
"I make it twenty-eight also. Let me see, there are twenty-one newly moved in, myself and my sisters, thatís twenty-six, and Charlotte and Maria make twenty-eight. It appears everyone is here."
"But wait, Mrs Bates is sitting by the fire. She does not count in the twenty-one, I presume, because you are referring to eligible females."
"So who could be missing?" asked Lizzie, somewhat perplexed.
Emma scoured the crowd with her sharp eyes. If there was one thing she was good at, it was being aware of matchmaking prospects, and one of them was unaccountably missing. No one was going to slip through her fingers!
"I have it!" cried Emma. "It is your sister Jane."
"My goodness, wherever can she be? I was sure she was around somewhere. She is always so particular about not hurting a hostessís feelings."
"Did she not come with you?"
"Now that you mention it, I recall being quite uncrushed in the chaise. She must be doing some chore for mama. She is so angelic, she often gives up her pleasures to do othersí bidding."
Emma blanched at the very thought. "When was the last time you saw her?"
"I remember her dancing at the ball . . . but surely she came home with us."
"You havenít seen your sister in two days?"
"No, but that means nothing at all. I have been inordinately sleepy since the assembly, always going to bed before her, and rising late," said Lizzie sheepishly, not liking to admit her unusual laziness to her new friend.
"How can you be so complacent?" asked Emma. "There must be more to the story than this, and I mean to find out." She did not like one of her prospective victims getting away from her, nor did she like being kept in the dark about anything. "Well, it will have to wait for now. I must see to refreshments for my guests."
Emma rang the bell, and two serving girls appeared.
"Alicia, will you pass around the cucumber sandwiches? Rita, I would like you to serve the tea," said Emma with regal authority. Alicia flashed Rita a smug grin. The teapot was much heavier than trays of feather-light sandwiches.
Lizzie took a sandwich and some tea and then found herself a spot where she could view everybody.
"You are very comfortably situated, Miss Eliza," said a peevish voice at her elbow.
"Were you moving this way to take this seat?" asked Lizzie, apologetically.
"It is of no importance," answered Caroline in a superior tone. "If it is your choice, it will not do for me. I am sure there is a better situation to be had," and she moved off.
Lizzie looked after her, wondering at the reason for such incivility. The maid passing around the trays of cucumber sandwiches kept glancing at the door in a manner which seemed to suggest to Lizzie that she expected someone to come through it at any moment. Over the hubbub of general conversation, Lizzie could hear a strange tapping sound coming from the direction of the tea table.
Emma came and sat beside Lizzie. "If we are to discover anything about these young ladies, we must circulate," she said.
"My plan was to just quietly observe," said Lizzie placidly. "I have already formed an immovable opinion of one of them."
"Which do you mean?"
"The one in orange. She finds herself very much above her company."
"Hmm, I think I have a man for her," said Emma speculatively. "Now, circulate, circulate!"
Lizzie got up resignedly. Emma did have a tendency to bossiness! Well, she would circulate, but not the way Emma wanted her too. Instead of entering into conversations, she would go about garnering information the best way she knew how; by eavesdropping.
She wandered over to the other side of the room and feigned interest in the blue damask draperies, with her ear open to the nearest conversation.
Marianne turned to her sister and said in an under-voice (a very carrying under-voice), "Do you see the lady beside me? What a vile colour for a gown. Bright orange. It has no romance, no soul. Oh! What type of company are we thrust amongst, Elinor?"
Caroline heard every word and turned to Marianne, her countenance forbidding. "It is not orange! I do not like orange! I never wear orange! The colour of my gown is Apricot Eclat, and it is all the rage in the finest society in Paris."
Marianne looked at her with disdain. "It is so bright it hurts the eyes. I would sooner believe that it has the Parisians in a rage."
"It is much more stylish and becoming than that turbid colour you are wearing."
"Turbid? This is called Eau de Nil. It is the very shade of fields of ripened barley silvering in the sun."
"You obviously donít understand the French language," said Caroline condescendingly. "It means river water. Ugh! Very dirty and unromantic."
"I am a great lover of the French language," said Marianne dramatically, "and indeed all the romance languages. Picture Cleopatra on her sumptuous barge, floating down the Nile, draped in the finest muslins and adorned with lapis lazuli. The river is silted by the floods as it flows from the great cataracts. That is what this colour says to me." Marianne turned her back on Caroline. There was no sense conversing with her.
"Sister," said Elinor. "You cannot expect everyone to have the same tastes as you. You must be more gentle in your expressions."
"I will express myself as I wish," said Marianne.
"Well I never!" exclaimed Caroline, and she left in the proverbial huff in search of someone to commiserate with. Her sister was in Scarborough with her husband, and Charles was unaccountably missing. The only person the least bit interested in commiserating with her at Netherfield was the groom, and she suspected it wasnít commiseration that he had on his mind. Her eyes fell on a lady whose very bearing screamed quality and she flounced over to sit by her side.
"Donít you find the company insipid?" Caroline asked in her most hoity-toity manner.
The lady turned and stared down her nose. "I donít believe we have been introduced," she said coldly.
"Yes indeed, such a shabby affair. I am Caroline Bingley."
"You are? And is that supposed to mean something to me?"
"Well, it is my name," said Caroline a bit taken aback.
"So I should imagine," sneered the lady. "But who are you? Who is your family? What is your place in society? Are you a scion of a noble family? Your garish outfit positively reeks of trade."
"My father was in trade," Caroline admitted with great reluctance, "But my sister has married into the family of the London Hursts, quite people of fashion, you know. And my brother, who is shortly to purchase his own estate, is extremely close friends with the Fitzwilliam Darcy, of Pemberley, nephew of Lady Catherine de Bourgh and of the Earl of . . ."
The lady looked over at her with a trace more interest. "I have, of course, heard of the Darcys of Pemberley."
"I am on the point of becoming engaged to Mr Darcy," said Caroline with an encouraging smile.
"Really? I had heard he was engaged to his cousin Anne so that they could combine the two great fortunes."
"Oh! He has no thought of marrying her."
"Well, in that case, and as the company is really not select, I will condescend to accept the introduction. I am Elizabeth Elliot of Kellynch Hall, daughter of Sir Walter Elliot, Baronet. My close relative, Lady Darymple is a Viscountess. A Viscountess!"
Caroline was duly impressed. She was in company of the niece of a Viscountess! She had not been so near heaven since she had last been in Mr Darcyís company.
"I will share a secret with you," said Elizabeth Elliot, leaning closer to Caroline. "I am on the point of being engaged also. To Mr William Elliot, my fatherís heir. I am to be Lady Elizabeth at some not to far off date."
Lizzie had been studying the Dresden figurines on the mantle, and had overheard the whole of this delightful conversation. There was much food for thought. Caroline Bingley did not need to be matched to anyone, nor did Elizabeth Elliot, if both were to believed. It appeared Mr Elliot was out of the running as well. She pondered the Mr Darcy who Caroline had mentioned as her future fiancť. What kind of man could he be, to be betrothed to a snobbish shrew like Caroline? Proud and disagreeable no doubt. Well she was welcome to him. So why, then, did Lizzie feel that particular sinking feeling deep inside? Lizzie felt a headache coming on. The persistent tap tapping that continued to emanate from beneath the tea table did nothing to ease the dull throb in her temple.
Emma pulled Lizzie aside and asked her how the investigation was going.
"Well, I have decided the character of at least two more ladies," said Lizzie as she held a cucumber sandwich, the closest thing she could find to a cold compress, to her throbbing forehead.
"I think this whole process is taking too long," said Emma. "We donít want my tea party to stretch on endlessly like the assembly. I have devised a new plan."
Lizzie looked at Emma with mounting apprehension. "A new plan?"
"Yes," said Emma, and she told Lizzie what she wanted her to do.
Lizzie looked sceptical, but she complied. She went to stand in the centre of the room, and tapped her teacup with her spoon. The room immediately became silent. Even the rapping from beneath the tea table ceased.
"Ladies!" said Lizzie in a theatrical accent, "I am ordered by Miss Woodhouse, who presides, to say that she desires to know all your thoughts on matrimony."
"Is Miss Woodhouse sure she wants to know all that we think on the subject?" asked Miss Charlotte Heywood.
"Oh, no, no!" cried Emma, laughing as carelessly as she could, "Upon no account in the world, that would take forever." She whispered in Lizzieís ear.
Lizzie shrugged and continued, "Miss Woodhouse waives the right of knowing all that you think. Instead she would like either a succinct account of your marital aspirations, a few helpful hints on snaring a spouse, or some dull account of your own heartbreaking experiences."
"Ah! It is to be a sort of Ladies Support Group like are all the rage in London at present!" announced Mary Crawford to no-one in particular. "I have done this before. We sit in a circle, and everyone speaks in turn!"
"Or is it a sťance?" queried Miss Bates. "I dearly hope it is not a sťance, for I shall be apprehensive of meeting the spirit of someone who has passed on. The other evening I spent much of my time with a gentleman whose fiancťe recently left this world and all in it. I do hope she does not come and admonish me for stealing her loverís heart. Though I am not sure that I did in effect steal his heart, but he was most attentive all evening and never got up once or interrupted while I was talking. Oh dear! I fear I am being very dull. Although I am not talking of heartbreak, I must have already outdone my quota of dullness, I always . . ."
"Miss Bates," said Emma, "as dullness was limited only to some, I must concur that you have indeed exceeded your limit, which is hardly surprising in your case."
"Oh dear! Miss Woodhouse is right, you know. I see what she means. I have been rambling on and boring the whole company . . ."
"Next!" cried Emma.
"I am quite at a loss as to what to say," said Charlotte Heywood. "Could you perhaps go first, to give us an example of the type of announcement expected?"
All the ladies in the room nodded at this suggestion.
"Very well," said Emma. "Though I love dearly to match-make, I have no thought to marriage myself. I live to serve others and my competence has living proof in the happy marriage between Miss Taylor and Mr Weston, for which I am solely responsible. However, anyone who thinks I might be induced to make a match between them and Mr Knightly, is sorely mistaken."
"I am still not quite sure how to go on," said Charlotte Heywood, a tad confused.
"I will try," said Lizzie. "It is well known that I enjoy observing people and making out their characters, and I have undertaken to help Emma with my expertise in this field of endeavour. I fully intend to marry eventually, but I will only be induced to by the deepest and most ardent love. I will never marry solely for money, especially to a greasy toad of a man, just to secure my familyís future on the event of my father dying and leaving us all destitute. I am holding out for Mr Perfect. I have yet to meet him, but I will know he is the one the instant I see him, for I am very good at first impressions."
"Oh, now I see Ė I think," said Charlotte Heywood. "I, also, will only marry for love. I think it important to use common sense in attempting to understand a gentleman and his intentions, for I have discovered it is quite impossible to take them at their word." She sat down and blushed while the ladies all politely clapped.
"This is going to be so diverting!" said Lydia. "I think officers are just the gentlemen to pursue. I mean to pick one out and run off with him to London. It doesnít signify if we donít get married right away, for some disagreeable gentleman is sure to come around and force him to marry me, and pay all his creditors," she sighed at the very thought of such a gallant spouse. "I shall regret not getting wedding clothes from the best milliners in London, but I shall be ever so satisfied to be married before any of my prudish sisters!"
Kitty looked at Lydia and started to cry. "You said all that I wanted to say! Now there is nothing left for me to say! And when you have run off, I will not be able to, for papa will not allow me to talk to officers ever again, and I will only be allowed to stand up with my sisters at balls for ten years! You are selfish and horrid and I hate you!" and she ran off to hide in the corner of the room behind the draperies.
Caroline was next, and she looked quite put out to have to follow such a vulgar outburst. But what more could one expect from those uncouth Bennet girls? "I, of course, need no help in this department, as I am on the point of imminent engagement to the most handsome and eligible bachelor in the whole of England. I am able, however, to offer some very helpful advice, which I donít mind making available now that I have as good as caught my man. Firstly, always wear bright colours to attract attention, secondly, always deride any woman he may be attracted to, to make yourself look better than her, thirdly, flatter him and his family intensely, fourthly, follow him about wherever he goes so he can see how surely you belong with him, fifthly, agree with whatever he says, no matter what you really think. There will be plenty of time to set him straight on that score once you are married. Sixthly . . ."
"I think they have the picture, my dear," said Elizabeth Elliot. "I am also about to be engaged, and in my opinion, the most important quality that a woman can possess is her station in life. It is essential to puff it up at all times. A method I use is to always have someone of a slightly lower station at my beck and call." She smiled sweetly at Caroline. "You must always show everyone how superior you are to them, so the gentleman can see at a glance how much he would gain socially in a connection to you." She looked around condescendingly at the gathered company, as if to show just how it was done.
"Men," said Isabella Thorpe, "should be ignored. You must be sure to always keep them in your sights while doing so, and make it obvious that you are ignoring them. Never let them know that you are interested in them, but always pique their interest in you. Treat them mercilessly! And donít forget manner of dress. A good way to attract notice is to dress the same as your closest friend, both of you with coquelicot ribbons on your bonnets, only yours must be much prettier. Do not worry too much about the first man you entrap, but secure him fast, you will be more alluring once engaged, and then you can keep trading up, leaving behind a string of broken hearts, until you finally have the man of fortune that you really want!"
Lizzie looked at Emma in some consternation; was this the direction she wanted the discussion to go? But Emma was sitting with a close smile on her face and a faraway look in her eyes. If Lizzie had known Emma better, she would have realised it was a dangerous sign.
The next speaker stood and introduced herself as Emma Watson. "I do not think one should be out to entrap a man. I would rather live in poverty than marry a man I did not love. I think we should each stick to our own sphere when looking for a husband. I want nothing to do with any rich gentleman who is trying to win me with his possessions."
"Sister," said Elizabeth Watson, "it is better to marry anyone than to remain a spinster. Whatís love got to do with it? I am so far on the shelf, I would marry the first man to ask me, even if he were the baker! I was once about to marry a young man named Purvis, but my sister Margaret told him some lies about my relationship to a certain Tom Musgrave, a very charming fellow, and Mr Purvis gave me up. Who needs a heart if a heart can be broken? I only want to have the security of a husband and a home and nothing more!"
"I resent all that you say!" cried Margaret Watson. "You have always been jealous of me. If Purvis did not propose to you it was your own doing and not mine! As for Tom Musgrave, I know that you have a secret passion for him, but he will never be yours. I love him and he will ask me to marry him when he finally comes to his senses and realises that he canít live without me. There is no other man in the world for me!"
"How lucky you are to have a gentleman who cares for you," said Maria Lucas shyly.
"He doesnít care a fig for her," said Elizabeth Watson. "She has been suffering this delusion for years."
"You will see!" cried Margaret petulantly. "When I have been gone from town for six months, he will have noticed my absence and missed me so much that he will be falling over himself to propose to me when I return!"
Elizabeth Watson snorted, and Margaret turned her back on her sister in disdain.
Maria Lucas bravely continued to speak. "If a gentleman so much as looks at me, I blush and stammer, and I would fall in love with any gentleman who would give me the time of day." She turned bright pink and hung her head. Elizabeth Watson patted her on the back comfortingly.
"Very nicely said, my dear."
"Well, I for one think this whole affair silly and an abominable waste of time," said Marianne. "One does not arrange love, it steals into oneís heart with a line of poetry, a heartfelt look. The instant two peopleís minds meet, they are trapped in the tangling web of love. Rather than sit in a drawing room discussing finances and strategies, we should be running free on the windswept moors in a fine rain and light mist, with our hair loose, tumbled by the wind. A false footing or trip upon a tussock could send you rolling down the hill to land at the feet of an unknown gentleman out for a stroll on the lonely moors to soothe his brooding soul. Your first sight of him would be his gleaming Hessian boots, and as your eyes traverse up his form you would see well fitted breeches, a top coat with numerous capes, an elegantly tied cravat, disordered locks, and the deepest darkest eyes that had ever drawn you under their spell. Money, position; such considerations are irrelevant."
"There is some truth in what you say," said Louisa Musgrove. "Falling can be quite providential! Be sure to fall so that the gentleman just misses catching you and has to take your lifeless form up from the pavement in his arms. The trick is to not really hit your head hard. Also ensure that more than one gentleman is present, so that if the first should lose interest, the second could take up your cause and nurse you back to health. Poetry can be helpful in this endeavour also."
Marianne looked at Louisa as if she had just uttered a blasphemy, and whispered to her sister, "She has just taken everything I said and made it crass and contemptible. How can you abide such unfeeling company?"
Mrs Clay then spoke up, saying, "That seems quite a dangerous way to go about it, and could have long term deleterious effects. I prefer hanging around the upper classes paying untold flatteries and entering into intrigues. If you donít capture your first object, you just might be able to snag your backup, if you play your cards with enough cunning."
"I do not understand all this need for cunning and tripping," said Catherine Moreland. "It is easy enough to fall in love with a gentleman by just dancing at an assembly. What you must watch out for, however, is strange figures in the shadows that may seize you and bundle you into a chaise, your eyes blindfolded. You could be thrown into a dark dank room in the tower of a lonely castle, never to be seen again, dreaming of the gentleman you danced with coming to rescue you on a white stallion, but all the while the walls are dripping blood and wailing pierces the darkness."
"There is no need for melodrama," said Elinor Dashwood. "One must be discreet in love, and keep oneís innermost feelings hidden deep inside. There is always the danger of falling hopelessly in love with someone who is secretly engaged to another, and though he has ceased to love her canít in all honour break the engagement." She held back a sigh and sat straight and tall as if unaffected by her disclosure.
"But sometimes it is efficacious to form a secret engagement," said Jane Fairfax quietly. "At times there are very good reasons, especially when you are poor and he depends on the goodwill of his relatives for his fortune. There is a danger, though, of the teasing and deceit driving you to become a governess."
"Entering engagements can be quite enticing," said Anne Elliot in a determined voice. "But sometimes one must break them even if truly in love, and then find oneself treated with disdain eight years later as the unforgiving gentleman makes love to other ladies right under oneís very nose." She bravely faced everybody as a lone tear coursed down her pale cheek.
"Men are such pigs!" cried Julia Bertram. "Never give your heart to a smooth talking gentleman for he will just tease you mercilessly and throw you over for your engaged sister."
Isabella Thorpe gave everyone a triumphant look. "What did I tell you! Being engaged is such an attraction!"
"But if that sister is more alluring," said Maria Bertram, striving not to let Isabella Thorpe worm her way in for another turn, "and is engaged to a dead bore, how can you blame him? The worst thing is to become engaged to a dead bore and then the next month meet the most charming rascal you have ever beheld."
"It is worse yet to have that charming rascal try to win you because you are good and pure, and then have everyone badgering you to accept his proposals, even the man you love." Fanny Price turned her head away and held her handkerchief to her face.
"Just as parents can force you to marry against your will, they can force you to break off promising alliances," said Eleanor Tilney, "even when money should be no object. Is it fair to be forced to meet your brotherís friend clandestinely during his visits to your home just because his fortune is not grand? To be forced to communicate by secret notes disguised as laundry lists? Your only hope is that one day he should inherit enough wealth to please your domineering parent."
"But some of us find ourselves in the position to be forced to encourage a gentleman out of practicality, whether he is attractive in any way or not, so as not to end a burden to our brothers," said Charlotte Lucas. "At eight and twenty, I would even be induced to accept an obsequious parson, if I could convince one to offer for me."
"A parson! Donít talk of parsons!" cried Mary Crawford. "I have a warning to all young ladies not to ever fall in love with younger sons. If you do you shall find they intend to become parsons and also have passions for their seemingly innocent young cousins."
"A parson would be ideal," said Mary Bennet, "so prosaic, so serious. You would not be tempted by the lascivious passions of lust that flow through the veins of lesser men. Men who are uncouth, and bet on horses and are prone to swearing and are so devastatingly tempting that even reading Fordyceís sermons for four hours straight cannot expel them from your very soul." When Mary stopped her rant her chest was heaving, her breathing irregular, and there was a look of lust glowing in her eyes.
Harriet looked around in consternation. Everyone but her had spoken, and that was going to be some act to follow.
"Oh Emma, what should I say? Please guide me in this. What type of man would I like to marry? I can be so easily swayed by a good letter or a scrap of sticking plaster. Oh, please, I should be happy to marry whoever you think I ought!"
As Emma ran to Harrietís side to reassure her that the perfect man would be found, Lizzie looked around at the chaos that had once been a decorous tea party. None of the sisters were getting along. Lydia was teasing Mary to try to find out just who was leading her thoughts astray, while Kitty still hid behind the draperies. Elizabeth and Margaret Watson were arguing over Tom Musgrave who Lizzie was quite sure was not worth the effort. Julia and Maria Bertram were hurling insults while Fanny Price was attempting to calm them both, and Elinor was attempting to prevent Marianne from entering into open hostilities with three or four other young ladies, who Marianne was accusing of having no soul.
Some people did appear to be forming new friendships, though. Isabella Thorpe was enthusiastically telling her new best friend, Caroline Bingley, that coquelicot ribbons would look stunning with that particular shade of apricot eclat, and that they should walk about Meryton together the next day in hopes of ignoring as many handsome gentlemen as possible. Caroline was assuring her new friend that she would join her although, of course, she would only end up dashing all the young menís hopes because after all she was as good as engaged already. Isabella smiled ever so sweetly at this, but thought to herself, ĎDoes she really expect me to believe that she is about to complete such a coup-de-grace? Not only is she waspishly uppity, but she is practically planar and looks perfectly preposterous in that garish orange gown.í
Over at the tea table, the two serving girls, Alicia and Rita, were scribbling furiously on the napkins and muttering to themselves about all the good material they were collecting. Lizzieís head began to throb again just as the staccato tapping started to emanate from the nether regions of the aforesaid tea table.
The next day Emma arrived very early at Longbourn with Harriet in tow.
"I have brought Harriet along, though I donít think sheíll be of much help. Maybe she can sit and trim bonnets with your younger sisters."
"Oh, yes Miss Bennet. Could I? I should like that above all things," said Harriet with innocent enthusiasm.
"Kitty and Lydia should be pleased of your company," said Lizzie. "But where are your other friends, Emma? Jane Fairfax and the Bateses?"
"Mrs Bates is sitting with my father, of course. I left them enjoying a nice little boiled egg together. Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax were in the parlour discussing Janeís wish to become a governess, at least Miss Bates was rambling on endlessly about it and Jane was typically being a saint and pretending to listen to all the drivel. We slipped out without their noticing. One can get a little too much of their company, if you know what I mean."
"I understand regarding Miss Bates," said Lizzie with a smile. "But Jane Fairfax appears to be a very elegant and collected lady. Surely there is nothing wrong with her?"
"Oh, no! She is just too perfect for words! How she annoys me!" said Emma. "She is always thrown up to me as an example of feminine perfection by a certain person."
"And what will Mr Knightly say when he discovers you have abandoned her for the day?" asked Lizzie quite astutely.
Harriet giggled. "I know exactly what he will say, ooh but I ought not say it."
"Badly done! Very badly done indeed Emma! Thatís what he will say," said Emma somewhat crossly. "And I really donít care, for I will have gone a day without being exposed to Jane Fairfaxís perfections."
Lizzie decided it was time to change the subject. She was sure that Emma was capable of saying much more in that regard. She ushered Harriet into the parlour to join her sisters, who immediately started arguing as to whose bonnet Harriet would trim first. She then led Emma to the small morning room that looked out over the shrubbery, so that they could have some privacy for their important discussion. There was a nice little table over by the window, and soon it was strewn with rolls of parchment that had been protruding from Emmaís overstuffed reticule.
Emma unrolled them in an attempt to get them to lay flat. They were covered with names and charts and graphs and diagrams. As Lizzie studied them they only made her more confused. Emma pulled one from the mess and said, "This one is my plan for getting Miss Maria Bertram together with Mr Edward Ferrars on an outing to Oakham Mount. I have laid out the positions of every person at a picnic we shall arrange. We may even be able to bring Miss Marianne Dashwood and Mr John Thorpe together on the same occasion, if we use this strategy." She pointed to some squiggles and arrows and dotted lines that littered the page. Lizzie was dumbfounded.
"Miss Maria Bertram and Mr Edward Ferrars? Are you quite sure? She has already complained of a boring fiancťe, so I am sure we need not bother with her, and if we were to match her with someone, donít you think that a gentleman like Mr Henry Crawford would be more her style?"
"Miss Bertram is the eldest daughter of a very fine family. Mr Ferrars is an eldest son and his mother is very rich. It is an admirable match," said Emma adamantly.
"I disagree entirely!" said Lizzie. "And your other suggestion is even more preposterous. Miss Marianne Dashwood, with her overtly romantic soul, and Mr John Thorpe, the most uncouth man I have ever met?"
"To tell you the truth, there is something about Miss Dashwood that I cannot like, and so I decided to give her to John Thorpe who disgusts me more than anybody else. I suppose if you donít like it, we can change it. She pulled a stub of a pencil out from her reticule and proceeded to cross out the names on the sheet. How about Mr Elton for Miss Dashwood? I was not going to find him a match, but there seems to be a shortage of gentlemen. I have never been in a village with so very few indigenous males!"
"What do you have against the poor girl? Mr Elton would not do at all. She needs a very romantic lover, like Mr Willoughby, or better yet, a dark and brooding one with a mysterious past, like Colonel Brandon."
"And you say my ideas are bad!" exclaimed Emma. "That is entirely ridiculous. I think we shall match her with Mr Edmund Bertram. Think what a good match that will be for her! He is a younger son, but his father is a Baronet, and she is only the impoverished daughter of some gentleman or other."
"Mr Bertram does have an eye for a beautiful lady, but he is so dreadfully boring. I think he would be better off with a little mouse like his young cousin," said Lizzie. "But let us go on. Show me some of your other plans."
"Here is my blueprint for the next assembly," said Emma, proudly drawing over the biggest sheet. "We should be able to engineer many of our matches here. Look, I have Mr Henry Tilney with Julia Bertram, Captain Tilney and Elinor Dashwood, and Eleanor Tilney with Mr Willoughby, thus disposing of all the Tilneyís matrimonial hopes in one fell swoop. How is that for a masterful plan?"
Lizzie blenched. Where did Emma come up with these outrageous ideas? Hadnít she been paying any attention to any of the information that Lizzie had provided? Didnít she listen to anybody at the tea party? Lizzie attempted to be as diplomatic as possible in her reply. "These are most interesting matches," she said carefully, "but I think they are open to improvement. Henry Tilney, for example, might prefer an innocent girl with a good imagination, like Catherine Moreland; the captain is probably only interested in flirtation and might like someone else who is also so inclined, like Isabella Thorpe; and as for Eleanor Tilney, she appears to be a very sensible and intelligent young lady, not one who would be taken in by a rake like Mr Willoughby. I would suggest . . ."
"Yes you would suggest," said Emma with some asperity. "You seem to like to shoot down all my ideas! What makes your ideas so much better? Your great powers of observation? You have probably never been mislead by your assessment of a personís character in your life! Oh no! You understand everyone so perfectly!"
"I do have some faculty for observation, it is true," Lizzie shot back. "But I am by no means perfect, and I do not mean to disparage you. It is just that I am astounded at some of your pairings, that is all. Could we not discuss this rationally without getting all up in the boughs about it? I am not trying to impose my ideas, I am only making suggestions."
"Well," said Emma, only slightly mollified, "if you insist, I will show you the rest, but I am getting a little tired of your negativity."
Lizzie kept her mouth firmly shut. If she were to answer back, it was sure to be the end of their tenuous relationship. For the rest of the exposť she just bit her tongue and rolled her eyes, and even resorted to holding her breath a few times. But her mind could not be so controlled. As Emma extrapolated on all the match ups and all the scenarios to get these unsuited people together, Lizzieís mind kept up a running commentary. Caroline Bingley and Captain Wentworth? What did the poor wounded man ever do to deserve that fate? Elizabeth Elliot and Sidney Parker? Why would Elizabeth Elliot look at anyone less of a personage than Lord Osborne? Unless of course she wanted to marry her cousin and become the next Lady Elliot upon her fatherís death. She had sensible Charlotte Lucas matched up with that cad, Mr Wickham, heartbroken Anne Elliot matched to Mr Henry Crawford, who Lizzie assessed to be an inveterate heart breaker, and Colonel Fitzwilliam with, of all people, the nobody widowed daughter of a two-bit attorney, Mrs Clay. Mr Bingley she had matched with Isabella Thorpe for some obscure reason. It was obvious that there was only one lady that Mr Bingley would even look at, and speaking of Jane, where was she? Lizzie had yet to see her today.
Not only that, Emma had matched Louisa Musgrove, Charlotte Heywood, and Elizabeth Watson all with the same gentleman. Colonel Brandon. A very useful gentleman to be sure, but werenít there laws against that sort of thing? She had given Emma Watson to Tom Bertram; Miss Watson who sought to remain in her own lowly sphere to marry the future Sir Thomas? It was nonsensical. Mr Howard was matched with Maria Lucas, Harriet Smith was matched with Mr Elliot, and none of her sisters were provided with matches at all. And then there was Mr Knightly. But no, Emma refused to match him with anybody, even though Jane Fairfax was available. Frank Churchill was offered as a match to herself, and when she respectfully declined, Emma arbitrarily paired him up with Margaret Watson.
By the end of the session, Lizzie was so confused she could not even tell if anyone had been left out. All she knew was that in the next few weeks there were to be numerous al fresco parties, excursions to local landmarks, and impromptu balls. It was with relief that she finally bid Emma and Harriet good day, and was able to retire to the library for some well-earned solitude. Lydia and Kitty were prancing around the rest of the house showing off their newly trimmed bonnets, all the work done by Harriet, to anybody who they could induce to look.
The parish church appeared to have undergone major renovations. The nave of the church seemed to stretch endlessly. The Parson was standing before the altar in his best vestments, reciting a well-known service. A long procession of couples made their way up the aisle as the organ played, and then spread out along the communion rail. All the women wore white. There was a profusion of pearl buttons, fine embroidery, lace and gauze. Lizzie held a delicate bouquet of miniature white rosebuds in her hands. She was aware of a figure beside her in an elegant grey suit. She glanced over at him and noticed that he was twiddling with a ring on the little finger of his exquisitely formed hands. She looked up from his shapely thighs and noticed how well his shoulders fit his immaculately tailored jacket. She just had to see his face. Trembling with anticipation, she raised her gaze ever higher, and her book slipped from her lap and landed on the floor with an echoing bang. She started up from her chair and looked around the library in utter confusion, filled with a deep sense of loss. She hadnít even been able to see his face. But she had been so close . . . so close.
The next two days Lizzie had to endure a barrage of new ideas from Emma, and finally they worked out a plan of attack that both of them could live with. Lizzie doubted that any of it would work anyway, so she saw no sense in further argument - better to agree and get on with it. The best she could do was insert a few of her own choices into the combinations of guests for the assorted outings and gatherings, so that the intended couples would have more appropriate company to fall back upon.
The third day Lizzie went down to breakfast filled with apprehension about the first of their little schemes that was scheduled for that very afternoon. She knew that it would not take much for her headache to return and looked outside at the clear blue skies, willing black clouds to form, but the weather was capriciously supporting Emmaís wishes rather than her own. To Oakham Mount they would go and she was helpless to prevent it. At that moment the door to the breakfast parlour opened and Jane walked in, enwrapped in a radiant glow. Lizzie reflected that early morning exercise was indeed advantageous.
"Hello Lizzie," sighed Jane, her face overspread with joy.
"Good morning Jane," said Lizzie. "You appear to have had a pleasant walk."
"Arenít you going to ask me where Iíve been?" asked Jane bemusedly as she sank down into a chair.
"I imagine you have been for a walk in the garden, and by all appearances you have enjoyed it very much," said Lizzie with a smile.
"I have been gone for five days Lizzie!" said Jane. "Didnít anyone notice?"
Lizzie stared at her sister in amazement, not so much for the fact that she had been away for five days, but for the fact that Emmaís insinuations had been correct. She had been the only one to notice Janeís disappearance; no one in her own family had even thought twice about it. If Emma had been right about Jane, she could be right about other things. It was a frightening thought and Lizzie quickly banished it from her mind.
"After such a long walk you must be exhausted!" cried Lizzie in concern.
"Lizzie, look at me," said Jane, blushing rosily. "Do I look like someone who has been out walking for five days, or do I look like someone who has just been granted her heartís desire?"
"You do appear quite pleased with yourself," said Lizzie. "Now what is your heartís desire?" Lizzie sat and contemplated her sister, running over in her mind all the confidences they had shared throughout the years. Jane was obviously bursting with happiness, and something even more precious Ė fulfilment. "You have gone and secretly got yourself a puppy!"
"Oh that is so true! And what an adorable puppy he is too!" said Jane with a mischievous grin.
"Where is he then?" asked Lizzie, looking around to see if she had missed noticing a little puppy gambolling about her sisterís ankles.
"He is waiting in the carriage until I break the news to mama and papa," said Jane. "Oh, Lizzie I am so happy! You have no idea how wonderful he is! I had never imagined it could be this good. Lizzie, I do hope one day you will find such happiness for yourself. Everyone should be as happy as I! Excuse me, I must run and tell our parents!" Jane went over to Lizzie and embraced her lovingly and then ran out of the room.
Lizzie looked thoughtfully after her sister. That must be some cute puppy to make her go into such transports. She had always known of her sisterís secret longing for a puppy of her own, but she had never quite realised the depth of her desire. Lizzie got up from her breakfast and went out to the carriage to see the little dog for herself. A light equipage stood in the sweep just outside the main entrance. Lizzie wondered just who had loaned her sister this elegant carriage, and just where she had to go to find the puppy. Perhaps she had found it necessary to go all the way to Yorkshire. Lizzie opened the carriage door and was shocked to find it quite empty Ė except for the presence of a handsome young gentleman.
"Where is the puppy?" asked Lizzie in some confusion.
"I beg your pardon?" asked the young man.
Lizzie stared at him and finally recognition hit her. "You are the gentleman that Jane was dancing with at the assembly! Mr Bingley, is it?"
"Yes indeed," said Mr Bingley. "And you must be Elizabeth. I am very pleased to meet you!" He grasped her hand and shook it heartily, an incredibly silly grin upon his face. "You must find this most awkward, but I assure you I acted with the best of intentions."
"What has become of the puppy?" asked Lizzie, wondering if she had indeed woken up this morning or if this was merely an episode of some surreal dream she was having. "Is he hiding under the seats?"
"Have you lost a puppy?" asked Mr Bingley, attempting to understand his new sisterís obsession with the little animals. "I can help you find it."
"Oh, please do!" cried Lizzie. "Jane is so happy to finally have her heartís desire. I wouldnít want her new puppy to be lost its first day home."
Mr Bingley stepped out of the carriage. "Did your parents procure it for her while she was away? I admit, I was concerned they might be upset with her for going off like that, without a word, but if they bought her a puppy, they canít have been too angry."
"Whatever are you saying, sir?" Lizzie asked, looking him full in the face. He gazed back at her with an eager smile and he was practically bouncing on the balls of his feet. She had seen that same look of satisfaction in her own sisterís eyes just a few minutes earlier. "Did you not take her to buy a . . . Oh my goodness! I have been most foolish, but Jane did mislead me. You are the puppy!" Lizzie threw her arms around the bemused man and gave him a big hug. "You two have just returned from the border!"
"Did Jane not tell you?" asked Bingley, his colour rising. "We were married two days ago."
"And I thought she had gone and got a puppy!" said Lizzie, shaking with uncontrollable laughter. "Oh, you should see your face! You must think me quite insane!"
"Oh, no! I must assure you I do not," said Bingley quite unconvincingly. Jane was a lovely girl. A veritable angel. But he was beginning to wonder about the rest of her family. Not that he regretted their impetuous dash for the border. No indeed, he would never change that, no matter that her beloved younger sister appeared to be somewhat unhinged. Bingley knew what would have transpired if they had not sent caution and propriety flying to the winds. His sisters would have put a stop to the whole affair, and Darcy too. He and Jane would have been thrown into such a turmoil of angst, that who knows if either of them would have ever recovered. It was much better this way; his bothersome sisters and autocratic friend would have no recourse but to accept his marriage now.
Eloping with Jane was one of the smartest moves he had ever made. He was certain that he could deal with a sister who thought he was a puppy, anyway, they need not live in Netherfield long. He was beginning to think that the further away they settled from the Bennet family the better, as he saw the rest of the clan bearing down on him. Mrs Bennet was running towards him, arms outstretched, screeching in rapture. Mr Bennet followed close behind with a sardonic look on his puckish face. The other sisters ambled up behind, giggling and tittering. Bingley knew that he was in for it and silently wondered if he would have preferred their wrath to this showing of unalloyed joy. Suddenly he found himself crushed to Mrs Bennetís ample bosom, choking in scent and lace.
"Oh what a surprise! You are the slyest things! Oh you dear boy! Five thousand a year! I cannot credit it! I knew Jane was not so beautiful for nothing! What is your favourite food? I shall have cook prepare it immediately. And you must come and shoot all our pheasants! I insist! Every last one! Mrs Bingley! How wonderful that sounds! If only I had known, I could have sent Jane all her wedding clothes! I have had them ready these three years! We must have a wedding breakfast tomorrow and invite the neighbourhood! Mr Bingley, you are very welcome at our house! Do you have any rich friends for my other daughters? Oh! I shall go distracted! My Jane married! And you are such a handsome gentleman! I remarked on that to Lizzie when I first laid eyes on you at the assembly, did I not Lizzie? I knew from the start Jane and you were meant for each other! Come in, come in! You must sit in the parlour! Hill, Hill! The best claret now! Oh! Where is Hill?"
Bingley was seemingly in a sea of Bennets, the surge of the tide carrying him into their best parlour, where he ended up on a settee with Jane at his side staring up at him apologetically. The warm glow of her smile encouraged him and he grinned happily around the gathered company. They were his family now and he had best get used to it. Mrs Bennet rambled on and on, unabated. Mary sat with her hands in her lap, glancing demurely at him every now and then. Kitty and Lydia kept saying things like "Gretna green, ooh!" "Such a long carriage ride, unsupervised, aahh! What were they up to all alone?" and "I wanted to be married first! It just isnít fair!" Lizzie almost looked normal now, her uncontrollable laughter stemmed, and her concern for lost puppies forgotten. Mr Bennet sat back with a look of glee on his face. Bingley accepted a glass of claret from Hill, and took a much needed sip that nearly emptied it.
The wedding breakfast, to say the least, was a complete fiasco. With such a great number of guests, people were seated not only in the dining room and breakfast parlour, but also in the drawing room, morning room, and small back parlour where Lizzie liked to get away from the general turmoil of Bennet family life and quietly do her stitchery. About half way through the repast, the kitchen ran out of braised kidney and started sending up fried liver, which was regarded with much disfavour. Mrs Bennet, who up until then had been glorying in the joys of being the proud mother of the bride, suddenly had a severe case of flutterings and flitterings. After an interminable interlude of hysterical wailing, she fainted dead away into the waiting arms of her husband, to be revived moments later by burnt feathers waved under her nose by Lizzie herself. Not only was Mrs Bennet roused, but the smell of burnt feathers had completely eradicated the earlier smell of liver and onions.
As soon as she had the opportunity, Emma waylaid Lizzie and almost dragged her into the library, the only room besides Mr Bennetís study that was not overflowing with guests feeding upon devilled eggs and kippered herring.
"I am most seriously displeased," cried Emma. "How could your family do this to me?"
Lizzie looked at Emma strangely. She was having that eerie feeling of dťjŗ vu again, only it was that kind of dťjŗ vu one gets when something that is supposed to happen in the future is happening in the present, and the wrong sort of person is saying the wrong sort of things.
"We are all suffering as much as you, Emma dear," said Lizzie in a conciliatory tone.
"What? I had supposed you were all happy as clams!" she said in some surprise.
"Clams? Thatís all we need. The combined smells of braised kidney, fried liver, burnt feathers, devilled eggs, and kippered herrings are bad enough without having to bring clams into the mix!"
"Whatever are you on about?" asked Emma, dumbfounded.
"Why the revolting smells of course, and with this incessant rain beating down it is not even possible to open a window."
"I was not referring to the stench which has robbed me of my appetite," said Emma. "I was referring to the audacity of your family to employ subterfuge in stealing one of my most eligible bachelors from my list. I will now have to make drastic changes to my plans. Do you understand the dilemma I am in? Where am I going to find another gentleman who is agreeable enough to put up with a woman like Isabella Thorpe? I could give her to Edward Ferrars, but then what would I do with Maria Bertram?"
"In my opinion," said Lizzie, "both Maria Bertram and Isabella Thorpe should be left to their own devices. And Jane is positively radiant. She and Mr Bingley truly love each other and deserve the happiness that they have found."
After a half-hour of intense discussion Lizzie had finally placated Emma and Isabella Thorpe was now destined to be matched with Edmund Bertram, and it was Marianne Dashwoodís fate to be coupled with John Thorpe. It was either him or Mr Elton, and Emma was quite adamant in her refusal to help Mr Elton with his marital hopes. Lizzie didnít really care about the match-ups, the whole project made no sense to her anymore; she was just happy to have Emma accept the fact that Jane was not about to get her marriage annulled just so she didnít have to change her plans. Besides, from the satisfied look on Bingleyís face the other day, she had a feeling that annulment was an impossibility.
Happy was the hour that the last of the guests said their adieus. Lizzie invoked a silent prayer that all these people would have moved out of the neighbourhood by the time she should ever get married. She also decided that a continental breakfast would be more the thing, and besides you couldnít go wrong with the smell of fresh baked croissants.
In the weeks and months that followed there were numerous outings, soirees and cotillion balls. It is not the purpose of this work to describe in detail every one of these social events. Suffice to say that there were always more guests than advisable, and an inordinate amount of young ladies tripping on hillsides or throwing themselves from staircases. Christmas came and Christmas went. Pussy willows furred out on the hedges, apple blossoms bloomed, and yet everyone still continued with the rounds of invitations. Nobody went off to London, nobody visited Kent; it was all very perplexing, but as spring lengthened into summer, Lizzie noticed that the singing of the birds and the fragrance of the flowers had started to make inroads on certain couplesí hearts. And it did not surprise her in the least that the amorous glances she observed bore no relationship to the carefully plotted names on all the various charts and graphs of Emmaís devising.
One of the young ladies who had become very prone to throwing herself from staircases was Caroline Bingley. It seems she had begun to despair the arrival of her so-called fiancťe to be, so she had decided to cast for one of the available fish in the sea. She chose the ever-dashing Captain Wentworth who was really making a cake of himself over most of the younger, livelier girls. She threw herself from the steps of the ruined abbey, the sweeping staircase of Netherfield, the church stoop, even from the balustrade of the Grecian folly in the gardens at Lucas Lodge. Her last attempt was on a country walk. She balanced herself on the top of a stile and cried out, "Catch me my captain!" before throwing herself into his arms. Unfortunately the sunís rays glancing off her russet silk gown blinded him momentarily, and instead of ending romantically in Wentworthís capable arms, she landed in a lifeless heap at the feet of Edward Ferrars.
"Oh! Miss . . . do get up . . . oh dear . . . Iím afraid she . . . oh no . . . a disaster . . . she does not respond . . . can someone not help me?"
Capable Anne Elliot quickly rushed to his aid, casting an irritated glance at the naval hero who was looking on in total ineptitude, and instructed Mr Ferrars to carry Caroline to the nearest farmhouse where she was put to bed. She then sent him off to fetch the apothecary post haste. When he returned and the apothecary said Caroline could not be moved, Anne Elliot swiftly pulled a book of sonnets from her reticule, handed them to a bewildered Mr Ferrars, and ordered him to sit watch over Miss Bingley until what time she should awake. Edward Ferrars took her at her word, and was two weeks in that chair. Long enough to have memorised all the poems in the book; he had accomplished this by reading them out loud, and later Marianne Dashwood was heard to say that Miss Bingley should have woken much sooner if he had desisted. He did have a very lack-lustre reading style.
While all this excitement was taking place other romances were flourishing. After an openly intimate flirtation with Miss Isabella Thorpe, Mr John Willoughby ran off in the middle of the night with none other than Miss Maria Bertram. One could hardly blame him as she had a tidy little fortune and Miss Thorpe had nothing to recommend her but her looks.
Isabella Thorpe was not to be outdone, however. The very next day she began making eyes at Edmund Bertram, and by the end of a week he was in her pocket. By the end of two weeks she had traded up to Tom Bertram, and had a proposal wangled out of him in short order. In this way she had trumped her former flame, for she was now to be his sister, and eventually, Lady Bertram. One supposes that when all was said and done they would end up as close as brother and sister could be.
In early June, Lizzie was surprised one morning by a tearful Emma. Lizzie took one look at her and whisked her out to the garden where they could have some privacy. They sat together on a garden bench and Lizzie held Emma in her arms as the poor girl sobbed her eyes out. ĎShe is taking this matchmaking stuff a tad too seriously,í thought Lizzie in dismay.
"Oh, Lizzie! The last thing I had ever expected has happened, and now, what am I to do?" Emma looked at her with the most woeful expression she had ever seen on a tear-stained face.
Lizzie was tempted to say, ĎAlter your expectations,í but she decided that would be deemed a trifle harsh, given the circumstances, so she just hummed consolingly. This was encouragement enough for Emma to continue.
"Mr Knightly has just made the most ghastly revelation! I was out in the garden and he came up to me, a look of strong emotion upon his face. ĎI have some news to tell that will rather surprise you,í he said. ĎHave you?í I responded quietly, Ďof what nature?í ĎOf a happy nature. I am to wed Miss Anne Elliot; I have just this morning proposed and she has accepted me. I felt you must hear it from me first. I am worried that the closeness of our own relationship may have given rise to expectations of me that I am now unable to fulfil. Time, my dearest Emma, will heal the wound. I shall always have for you the feelings of warmest friendship, and shall forever look on you as a sister.í You can imagine how this made me feel, Lizzie, but I schooled my features and replied, ĎYou are very kind, but you are mistaken. I must set you to right; I am not in want of that sort of compassion. I have nothing to regret but that you had not told me where your feelings lay sooner. I would have considerably altered my charts had I known you had any interest in marriage.í I then tried to run away, but he forestalled me. ĎEmma, you are not matchmaking again are you?í he asked in his more usual reprimanding sort of way. ĎThat is very badly done! I forbid it, do you hear me?í And then, I know not why, I shouted some nonsense at him which I most sincerely regret."
Emma finally paused for breath and Lizzie was able to interject a comment. "You did not congratulate him on his engagement? It is no wonder that you feel so distraught!"
"That is not what has me so upset!" cried Emma. "I donít care if he is happy or not with that pale mouse of a woman! She is so meek and mild that I find her nauseating!"
Lizzie thought about Anne Elliot and did not think this a fair description at all. At first she had appeared timid and pale, but she had shown great good sense and strength of character on many occasions, particularly the Caroline incident, and lately Lizzie had noticed that Anneís bloom had returned. The increased attentions of Mr Knightly probably had a lot to do with it. Lizzie had even noticed the dallying naval captain giving her considering glances.
"Lizzie, are you not attending? What upset me was that when he ordered me to give up match making, which I will never do, you mark my words, I said some very foolish things that I did not mean at all, and now he thinks that I was in love with him all along! The very idea is preposterous! What can he be thinking! I, in love with him? Absurd!" And Emma broke down in tears all over again.
Lizzie did not consider the matter absurd at all, and she spent the better part of the day consoling Emma, who kept moaning, ĎDonwell was supposed to be for little Harry,í over and over again until at last she fell asleep in Lizzieís patient embrace. It took quite a few weeks for Emmaís spirits to return to normal, but when they did she applied herself to her matchmaking with increased reckless abandon. Lizzie noticed that the new charts and graphs now had Emmaís own name included and the various combinations were changing on a daily basis. As Lizzie did not know how much more of this she could endure, it was well that her favourite aunt and uncle wrote and invited her on a trip to the Lake District. She accepted with alacrity, remembering well the advice she had received on this score from that charming Sydney Parker when she had danced with him at that illustrious assembly in the fall, where all this matchmaking nonsense had begun.
When the time of her departure was imminent, Lizzie received a letter from her dear relatives putting the trip off for another two weeks. She was in the garden reading this most disturbing missive when she was surprised by the sound of a carriage. As she was expecting no visitors, she went to investigate, and found Caroline Bingley being ushered from a curricle by Mr Edward Ferrars.
"I just had to stop by and tell all my good fiends at Longbourn my wonderful news," said Caroline effusively.
ĎIs this really Caroline Bingley?í was Lizzieís first thought. She was dressed in pale blue muslin, calling the Bennets her friends, and she was smiling at Lizzie in a most friendly and unassuming manner. That knock on the head had really worked wonders.
"I am just now returning to Netherfield after my sojourn at the farm. It was the most rewarding experience of my life, Miss Elizabeth! Do you know that I actually had a cow? The most darling little Guernsey that you ever did see!" She turned to Edward and glowingly said, "Oh! We must have one at the parsonage! Do say yes, dearest!"
"Yes, dearest," said Edward, adoration evident in his every glance.
"Miss Elizabeth!" cried Caroline, reluctantly returning her gaze to Lizzie. "We are to be married! I am so very, very happy. We are to live in a snug little parsonage Ė it is all I have ever dreamed of!"
ĎSince when?í thought Lizzie as she gave the couple her warmest congratulations. She was thoughtful as she watched them enter the house to regale the rest of the family with their good fortune. Did her memory serve her correctly, or had she not heard a rumour that Mr Ferrars was secretly engaged these past four years? Some poor young lady somewhere in England would very soon be crying over a dear Jane letter. And speaking of letters, Lizzie remembered she had not finished perusing hers. She opened it again and reviewed its contents. The trip with the Gardiners would be shorter now, and the lakes were no longer their destination. They were to go to Derbyshire.
Their route to Derbyshire took them through Oxford, Blenheim, Warwick, Kenilworth, and Birmingham; remarkable places all, and Elizabeth was duly impressed. They eventually arrived at the small town of Lambton, from whence Mrs Gardiner hailed, and took rooms at the inn for a few days in order to visit numerous old family friends. That evening they discussed the possibility of visiting a stately home not five miles distant. The very name of the place sent shivers up Lizzieís spine, though she knew not why.
Pemberley. Whatís in a name? A house by any other name did not affect her thus. The mention of Chatsworth sparked interest, but brought on no visceral feelings. Would the house still strike a chord if it were called Fairview or Ravenhurst? She needed to visit it to see if the sensation was caused by the name or the house, or something else entirely, such as the oncoming of a virulent disease.
"We must ascertain whether or not the family is in residence," said Mrs Gardiner. "I would not like to impose in any way."
"Are you acquainted at all with the family?" asked Lizzie breathlessly.
"Oh no! I know the Darcys by sight only. I was never in their circle. They are a very proud and wealthy lot."
There it was again. The feeling coursed through her afresh with such strength that she wondered if it indeed was influenza. Darcy. The name left her light-headed, but not so light-headed that she completely lost her wits. She had heard the name before, accompanied with a sinking feeling. Where had that been? Who had mentioned it? She was at a loss to recall. The memory had a tangerine hue, but she couldnít quite place it. She shook herself. Tangerine hue? Had her mind gone begging, giving colour to memories? She was brought out of her thoughts by her aunt gently shaking her.
"Lizzie! Are you quite well? You appear to be in some sort of trance," said Mrs Gardiner with a worried look upon her face.
"We have been running the poor lass too hard, dragging her through all the fine homes in the countryside," said her uncle. "Perhaps it would be best to give this one a miss."
"Oh, no, no, no!" said Lizzie in consternation. "I am perfectly well and have a great desire to see . . . Pemberley." Her throat burned, her lips tingled, but she had got the name out.
"Well, then, if you are quite sure," said her uncle, studying her intently, "we can visit tomorrow. I have made inquiries and the family is not expected for a day or two."
Lizzie gave a big smile of assent and then rushed off to bed hoping against hope that she would not wake up ill.
The next day they drove out, Lizzieís spirits in high flutter all the way. They turned in at the lodge and trundled through a large park, ascending to the top of a considerable eminence where Pemberley House could be seen on the opposite side of the valley. Lizzie drew short, rapid breaths. It was not just the name. The house exacted even a stronger reaction from her. Was it the size of the handsome stone building that did it, or the situation on rising ground with a ridge of high woody hills behind that set her pulses racing? She had never seen a place where a structure such as this had blended so tastefully with the natural beauty of its surroundings. It was as if it had not been built but had grown from the very earth of the estate, just as the trees and lake had formed.
They continued on to the house, entered, and were met in the hall by the housekeeper who performed the tours. Lizzie looked about herself, wondering at her ability to be where she was and keep rational thought in her head at the same time. It was almost overwhelming.
They entered a dining parlour where a maid was dusting the fittings of the well-proportioned room. She bobbed a curtsey at them and made to leave.
"Resume your work, Cindy," said the housekeeper. "We have no wish to disturb you."
"Yes Mrs Reynolds, maíam," she whispered nervously, casting an interested glance at Lizzie.
Lizzie felt envy rise up inside her. That this maid should have the luck to live here! What would she give to be able to dust these rooms herself, nay to be mistress of this place? To be familiarly acquainted with these lofty, tastefully appointed rooms, instead of viewing them as a stranger! But no. What fantasy was this? The house belonged to a proud and wealthy family Ė how could she ever entertain such an idea. They were far and away above her.
Suddenly, over a mantle, her eye was drawn to one of several miniatures. To see a familiar face in this place was surprising, to say the least, but for it to be the face of Mr Wickham, a man she held in contempt, was jarring. What possible connection could a man who appeared to be as profligate and base as he have with this elegant establishment?
"You are taken with those miniatures, I see," said Mrs Reynolds as she noticed Lizzieís interest.
Lizzie blushed. "I believe I am acquainted with this . . . gentleman," said Lizzie, indication the picture of Wickham.
"Thatís no gentleman!" said Mrs Reynolds, looking at Lizzie askance. "He is the son of the late masterís steward and he has turned out very wild." Her glance was accusatory. Her smile had faded. She almost appeared hostile.
"Oh! He is no friend of mine," said Lizzie hurriedly. "He has just come to live in my town and what you have said has only confirmed my opinion of him."
Mrs Reynolds regained her composure and smiled at Lizzie once more. "We only keep the portrait because this was the late masterís favourite room, and his son requested it to be preserved just as his father had left it. Here is one of my current master, and very like him, though it was done eight years ago."
Lizzie looked at the picture, spell-bound. If there was such thing as perfection in a man, then this was it. The thought crossed her mind that it was small enough to fit into her reticule, and she looked around to see if she was being watched. Another maid was dusting the wainscoting close by, her eyes never leaving Lizzie. Needless to say she was doing a very poor job of dusting.
"Is he not a handsome man?" asked Mrs Reynolds.
Lizzie nodded. She could not trust herself to speak. With her heart in her throat as it was, her voice would be sure to come out as the veriest squeak.
"And not only is he handsome, he is the best master one could ever wish for. I have never heard a cross word from him, and I have known him since he was a child of four."
Mr Gardiner was amused by such lavish praise of her master, and pursued the subject further. ""There are few people of whom so much can be said. You are lucky to have such a master."
"Yes, sir. You are too right. In all the world there is not a one better. He was always the sweetest-natured, most-generous hearted boy, and he has grown to be just as good-natured; he is affable to the poor, the best landlord, and the best master. There is not one of his tenants or servants that will not give him a good name. Just ask Alyson here." Mrs Reynolds motioned to the maid who was studiously dusting.
Alyson blushed deeply and smiled at Mr Gardiner. "There are some that call him proud, but I am sure I never saw anything of it. Why, he presented a gift upon the birth of each of my five children. I feel blessed to be working in this household with Mr Darcy as my master."
"And so you are," retorted Mrs Reynolds. "And if you do not want to be dismissed, I suggest you stop lolly-gagging. You have been dusting that same ledge the whole time we have been in this room!"
Alyson bustled away, looking extremely mortified. Lizzie felt a twinge of compassion for the girl, but then remembered that it was her staring that had prevented the nabbing of the miniature, and all her compassion evaporated.
Mrs Reynolds led them to the portrait gallery, and presented a large, full-size portrait of her master. Lizzie was arrested, and as the others continued on to gaze at all the other family portraits and hear the history of the various Darcys, Lizzie just basked in the presence of the present one. He was perfect. That was all she could think. From the tips of his well-formed feet to the crisp dark curls on the top of his head. And his face! It had her mesmerised. There was such a tender smile playing over it; a smile she would give anything to have directed at herself. But what impressed her the most were his eyes. They were a clear green, and on closer inspection she detected amber flecks in their depths. And what depths! They seemed to swallow her up.
Lizzie was hard pressed to drag herself from the portrait, but her uncle and aunt called her attention, beckoning her to follow them down the stairs.
"Stop making a cake of yourself in front of that portrait," said her aunt. "He is tolerable, yes, but not handsome enough to incite such rapture, surely."
"Oh, I beg to differ, dear aunt," sighed Lizzie.
"Well, we have seen everything that is open for viewing of the house. The rest is all private compartments. We are to join the gardener now to take a small tour of the grounds."
Lizzie looked forlornly back at the portrait, and thought longingly of the private compartments. Upon the stairs, her uncle stopped to ask Mrs Reynolds the history of a crest that was emblazoned upon the wall, and Lizzie was able to gaze out from a window on the landing. She had the view of a pond, partially surrounded by willows. The day was hot, and from this distance the water looked inviting. Lizzie had a vision of Mr Darcy upon his horse, travel-stained and weary, sliding from his saddle, removing his riding jacket, neck-cloth, vest, and boots, and plunging head first into the cool, refreshing depths, then emerging, water dripping from his loose curls, his shirt transparent in its wetness . . . she shook herself reprovingly. Outside were the same pond, the same willows, the same rolling hills, but alas, no rider crested the hills or emerged from the trees. Nothing broke the serenity of the surface of the pond but a family of ducks, paddling from sun to shade.
They continued down the stairs and said their goodbyes to Mrs Reynolds. The gardener took them on a short walk along a trout stream. As much as Lizzie willed it, the master of the house did not come out from the stables to nearly bump into her; did not meet them on their walk and invite her uncle for some fishing; did not gallop after their retreating carriage and beg to be introduced to the young lady who had caught his eye from afar. She still felt the tingling throughout her body at any thought or mention of the house, the grounds, or most especially the vision of perfection she had discovered in the portrait gallery, but the man himself remained illusive and she began to doubt that she would ever encounter him, now that she finally knew for certain that he was the only one for her.
Lizzie returned to Longbourn weary and dispirited. Mr Sidney Parker had said, at that long distant assembly, that a trip would make life so much more fun, but it had not. All it had done was cause her to desire what was not within her reach. To aspire to the unattainable. It had shown her a glimpse of perfection itself, and then it had let all Lizzieís hopes and dreams fizzle out like a dud firework. A glimpse was all that she had been allowed. Lizzie took to her bed for three days with a cold compress on her forehead, but on the fourth day, when the maid had entered her room with a mustard pilaster, she decided that enough was enough. It was time to bite the bullet and face the real world. Not twenty minutes later she wished she had stayed in bed, mustard pilaster or not.
It took Lizzie sixteen minutes to dress, one to navigate from her bedchamber to the breakfast room, another to serve herself broiled kidneys from the sideboard, and two more before her mother came screeching into the room with the latest gossip, fresh from a not so comfortable cose in the kitchen with Cook. She had initially gone to complain about the toughness of the kidneys, but once Cook imparted her juicy titbit of news, all thought of kidneys went right out the window.
"All the new gentlemen in the neighbourhood are now engaged to be married, if not already married," she croaked, gasping for breath. She had just gone from the kitchen to the breakfast room in 9.84 seconds, covering the 100 metres of tile, stair, and carpet in what surely must be record time. She choked down three glasses of Ratafia and continued, wailing, "and none of my daughters, save Jane, was able to capture one of them! We are undone! Wherever will we find such a marriageable windfall again?" She collapsed in paroxysms of racking sobs.
It was not that Elizabeth regretted any one of the gentlemen, it was just that they had all managed to find true love while she Ė she was helplessly and hopelessly in love with a painting. After Mrs Bennet had been liberally doused with hartshorn, she began to enumerate all the various matches that she knew of. During her recital she had to be continually revived with her salts.
"Of course our sweet Jane was the first to marry, giving me such hopes for the rest of you girls, and then you know about Caroline Bingley and Edward Ferrars. Somehow Mr Willoughby managed to slip through Lydiaís fingers and marry Maria Bertram."
"Was he ever in her fingers?" asked Lizzie in an under-voice.
"What was that? Donít interrupt!" cried Mrs Bennet, reaching for her salts.
"Next it was that hussy, Isabella Thorpe who snatched up the future Sir Thomas Bertram. I donít know if I can forgive you for that, Lizzie."
"What did I have to do with it?" cried Lizzie in astonishment.
"You could have made a play for him! Think of what a feather in my cap it would have been to say my daughter Lizzie was the future Lady Bertram. But what did you do? You went on a trip and enjoyed yourself instead!"
"Mama! I will never set my cap at a gentleman just to satisfy your need for prestige. How many times do I have to tell you? I will only marry for the deepest love!"
"You are such a disappointment to me. I thank the Lord for Kitty and Lydia. They will not fail me! You have got me completely side-tracked! Where were we? Oh yes, of course, that gentlemanly Mr Knightly. You do remember he is engaged to the drab spinsterish daughter of a baronet? What was her name?"
"How could I forget?" Lizzie still had nightmares in which Emma never stopped weeping. "Her name is Anne Elliot, and she strikes me as an intelligent, sensible girl."
Mrs Bennet took a deep breath and opened her mouth to continue her favourite subject, bashing Lizzie for not having snaffled a husband yet, when a visitor was suddenly announced.
Coincidentally, it turned out to be Emma, and Lizzie jumped up to greet her. The last time she had seen her she had been in despair, and Lizzie hoped this new spate of engagements had not further upset her. Could it be that at least one of her matchmaking schemes had worked? Though it seemed hardly likely, as Lizzie looked back on all those unfortunate pairings, she hoped fervently that her friend had not completely failed. How would she be able to support Emmaís misery if she had? Lizzie did not feel up to it, being herself so very desolated.
Unaccountably, Emma was glowing. She took Lizzieís hand and laughingly greeted her. "How was your trip my dear friend? I have indeed missed you. So much has happened while you were gone that I canít begin to tell you, but I shall have to, shall I not? You remember our little scheme?"
How could I forget? Lizzie thought. She suddenly had an incredulous feeling that Emmaís matchmaking had worked out after all, for what else would have pleased her friend so? She blenched at the idea of so many unequal marriages, and the inevitable scarred psyches of the future progeny. She gave Emma a blank nod, which was all the encouragement her friend needed to go on.
"When you left, I wondered if I would be able to manage all the scheduled events without assistance, but at my first al fresco cello recital, I was approached by Mr Sidney Parker." Here she sighed, as if in memory of the eventful moment. "Would you countenance it? He knew all along what we had been up to and offered to assist me in your stead. At first I was a trifle taken aback, but he was so charming and witty, and proved himself to be a keen observer. He encouraged me to show him all my charts and graphs, studied them acutely, and then made the most stunningly insightful observation. I never would have guessed why nothing was working out for us, but he discovered the reason almost immediately."
Did he discover that it was all completely ludicrous? That wouldnít have taken powers of the highest acumen to realise! "Whatever had we got wrong?" asked Lizzie in a tone she had picked up from her father years ago.
"The entire problem was that I had been left out of the equation. However had we missed such a simple thing?"
Because you insisted upon being left out! "I havenít a clue. How dreadfully unobservant of us. Iím sure that changed everything," said Lizzie. Her tone was even dryer than before, if that was indeed possible.
Emma gave Lizzie a quizzical glance. The girl was indeed out of sorts but she would try and discover why later. For now she would let nothing dampen her spirits. "Not only did he insert me into the puzzle, but he eliminated you!"
"What?" Lizzie was taken completely by surprise. Was she really destined to become an old maid, then? A momentís thought reminded her that the one perfect person for her was not on any of Emmaís charts anyway, so she could not complain about not being included.
"After that he readjusted all the predictions for me. We spent countless hours together erasing and drawing new lines, going for walks to clear our heads, exchanging life histories, and generally reorganising every idea I had previously held upon the matter. Since then all our excursions and fetes have been completely successful. You could almost refer to this last month as the ĎSummer of Loveí! When I saw who I was eventually matched with I was a little surprised at first and suspected some sort of subterfuge, but we carefully followed every line, and I was convinced that there was no other possible outcome!"
Lizzie was quite sure by this time who Emma had ended up being pared with, but she had to ask the question. "Why did you suspect subterfuge? Did you think the gentleman was trifling with your affections?"
"Oh Lizzie!" Emma beamed. "You have completely misunderstood me. I suspected myself of subterfuge. I thought that, like the spider to the fly, I had tangled him in my web! He is just so affable, so entertaining, so divinely handsome! He goes along with all my little whims, and he never once has become angered with me. We even laughed together when we discovered whom we had matched Jane Fairfax with! Another person would have been so vexed with me for that match up. But no! Sidney, I mean, Mr Parker, just laughed with me and said, ĎWho would have guessed! She appears so sedate and refined. She really must be a deep one!í And then, the moment that we re-traced those lines that led us to each other, connecting our names for all eternity, our hands touched, and he took my hand in his. My fingers felt like they were on fire! I looked up into his eyes and knew that I had not trapped him, or, if indeed I had, he was not going to the slaughter unwillingly. His gaze was filled with such tender emotion, and he raised my hand to his lips saying, ĎWithout you, these charts and graphs, even life itself, is devoid of meaning. You have sprung up from chaos to centre my being.í Is that not the most romantic thing you have ever heard?"
Lizzie could not deny that it was terribly romantic. She dabbed her eyes with her hanky; the tears welling not only due to the tender moment Emma had described, but her own feelings of envy and regret that just such a thing had not happened to herself. Mrs Bennet, who had been surprisingly quiet throughout this disclosure, gave way to her sensibilities, her shoulders heaving with gentle sobbing.
"And then, dear Lizzie, he asked me for my hand, and I gave it to him. We went directly to my father who at first would not hear of it, but my dear Sid . . . Mr Parker, set him so much at his ease. He told my father that as he was a man of fortune who had no property, he would be more than happy to come and live with us in Hartfield. He explained how his sisters were very knowledgeable about all issues of health and had instructed him from an early age as to the value of a very small boiled egg, and the wonderfully restorative qualities of gruel. He assured my father that he would never let me go out of doors without my shawl, and that there was no other physician we would ever consult than dear Mr Perry. In short order my father granted us permission to marry and now I am the happiest woman alive! And to think it may never have happened if you hadnít gone on your trip!"
Lizzie congratulated her friend and sighed. Mrs Bennet was a little more ebullient in her responses. She had regained her normal discomposure, and now, clutching her smelling salts to her nose, she leaned towards Emma and exclaimed, "I cannot stand the suspense any longer. You have told a wonderfully sweet tale of your engagement, but now you must satiate my curiosity. Who is the gentleman that you have matched Jane Fairfax with?" She waited for her response, panting in expectation.
Emma paused and took a sip of her tea. Mrs Bennet was near hyperventilating by the time she responded.
"What do you know of Jane Fairfax, Mrs Bennet?" asked Emma.
Mrs Bennet wondered how anyone could show such restraint with a piece of news. This girl was almost as aggravating as her own husband. "She is a reserved sort of girl with a high opinion of herself, no parents, no portion, and before this engagement her only prospects were to be a governess. An upstart if I ever saw one, and taking a husband away from one of my much more deserving girls!" Mrs Bennet was not one for beating around the bush.
"You have captured her quite accurately; your daughter must have inherited her abilities from you! Some would call her pretty and accomplished, but those are merely superficialities and you have very astutely seen through them." Emma paused for a breath, and then decided to take pity on Mrs Bennet who looked about to emit a high pitched shriek of frustration like a kettle about to boil. "She has become engaged to Colonel Tilney!"
As Mrs Bennet was rendered speechless, Lizzie grabbed the opportunity to say, "I had thought, from something she let slip, that she was secretly engaged."
"And so she was. And to another scapegrace. For all her reserve and refinement the girl has quite a liking for rakes. The story I heard, and let me tell you I did not hear this from her aunt who is incapable of anything but singing Janeís praises from morning to night, was that when Colonel Tilney found out about the secret engagement he wagered all his friends that he could get her to fall in love with him and throw over her other beau in two weeks flat. The only problem for him was that she is very deceptive. Her wiles won out the day and within two weeks he was proposing to her on bended knee, a completely bemused man with no idea what had hit him!"
"But what about her earlier fiancť?" asked Mrs Bennet. "Is he now available? Would he perhaps like to meet Lydia?"
"He has already come about and offered for someone else."
"Ah! The course of true love runs deep!" Mr Bennet had just entered the room and found much to amuse him in the conversation. "May I ask how the young manís father reacted to the news that he had offered for a penniless girl without even the credit of ancient family lines to recommend her?"
Emma laughed. "You understand the situation well, sir. The general was not amused. He was ready to disinherit his son and put Northanger Abbey in the second sonís name, when he received further shock!"
"Let me guess. The second son is not about to make an advantageous match either."
"Mr Bennet! You are awake on every suit! The very next day, before General Tilney could see his lawyers, his son Henry claimed an audience with him and informed him that he had asked for the hand of Charlotte Heywood. A mere nobody. The daughter of a gentleman farmer. From all reports you had never seen a man more incensed. He was ready to settle all on his daughter unless his sons would reconsider. I understand there was quite a kafuffle!"
"The young swains were ready to give up all for love, no doubt," smirked Mr Bennet.
"I think they were ready to have their father committed. The colonel was afraid he would lose his lady love if he was without his fortune but I gather Henry told his father that life without the one he loved was worthless and he would take gladly take a penniless existence and spend the rest of his life with his Charlotte."
"I always thought Charlotte Heywood such a nice girl," said Mrs Bennet. "How could she serve us such a trick?"
"How did she serve us a trick?" asked Lizzie. "By becoming engaged to a gentleman who had no interest in any one of your daughters? Yes she is a nice girl; Iím sure that is what caught Mr Tilneyís fancy in the first place. He is such a nice man himself. I am happy for them both and only hope that they donít now find themselves in too straightened of circumstances."
"You need not worry on that head," Emma responded. "He has a very pretty living so there was no chance of them being left penniless, and Charlotte Heywood is such a sensible, simple girl that she does not need much to make her happy. The Colonel, on the other hand, has only his army wages to fall back on, and his style of living already demands more than that, wife or no."
"What was the outcome?" asked Mrs Bennet, all agog, her hartshorn to her nose. "Is the daughter to get all? Will Jane Fairfax, the scheming minx, cry off from her engagement? Would the general think our girls acceptable for his son? The Bennet name is very well respected you know."
ĎMaybe here in Meryton,í thought Emma, Ďbut the society here is so very limited. Before we all came you only dined with four and twenty families.í To Mrs Bennet she replied, "Colonel Tilney was not forced to break his engagement, nor did Jane Fairfax, and I see eye to eye with you on your estimation of her, cry off. No, something very untoward came up that changed the entire complexion of the matter."
"I think I can guess," said Mr Bennet, tiring of the sport, "but I will leave you to astound your audience. My library awaits. Enjoy your gossip ladies."
"Oh, how can you leave at a time like this?" cried Mrs Bennet, her every nerve ending screaming for the satisfaction that Emmaís information would bring.
Lizzie smiled at her father and wished that she could join him, but Emma was her guest and she could not leave her alone with her mother. That would be unkind, although it did appear that Emma was quite capable of handling herself. Lizzie sat back and tried to summon up some interest in the subject at hand. To tell the truth it wasnít as difficult as she would have liked to believe. What was it that would have reconciled the general to such nonadvantageous marriages?
"Do, do tell us!" cried Mrs Bennet, her hands clenched so tightly that she almost broke the stem of her glass and crushed her bottle of hartshorn. She motioned for Lizzie to top up the Ratafia, all the while not taking her protuberant eyes off her guest.
"Why it is very simple. Eleanor Tilney accepted the hand of a very favourable suitor and so mollified her father that he left his sonís inheritances untouched." Emma smiled blandly at Mrs Bennet and watched her squirm with carefully hidden pleasure. She was enjoying tormenting the poor lady immensely.
"Who, who, who?" Mrs Bennet could barely get the three syllables out.
"I am so pleased for her," said Lizzie. "I found her a lovely and intelligent woman."
Mrs Bennet shot Lizzie a quelling glance. "There is no time for that now, Lizzie. Congratulations can come later, when we meet them face to face and need to be insincere. Now I need to know just which of the gentlemen this heartless wench has stolen from my clutches."
"She is to marry Captain Wentworth, who has made quite a large fortune from his naval battles. A kingís ransom, so they say!" Emma sat back and watched Mrs Bennet count all the money that had not been won by the favour of one of her own daughters. The look of loss and regret on her face was priceless.
"Oh Kitty!" she moaned. "And all you could do was chase the red coats. I said to look to the blue as well, but you did not heed me." Kitty, of course was not in the room, but this did not prevent her mother from such remonstrances.
Lizzie pondered all that Emma had told them. Captain Wentworth, the man so bitterly hurt by love, had found a woman capable of filling the gap in his soul. A woman who was truly worthy of him, firm and capable, her shell intact, hardened by the winter storms. And she, Eleanor Tilney, was to be saved from her loneliness in the ancient halls of the abbey. Resurrected by love. Freed to enjoy a life of chance and adventure.
The three men who had tempted Lizzie the most, Captain Wentworth, Henry Tilney, and Sidney Parker, were all now spoken for, to be fulfilled in love, while she, she was still wandering around with half a heart, half a soul, waiting for the man who would complete her. She had to shake herself out of her despondency and admit that although all three were handsome and charming in their own way, they were none of them her perfect fit. And she could not have met their wants. She was too vivacious for the first, he was the one to bring the spark to the union; too astute for the second, he needed a mind he could open and fill; and too sensible for the third, he needed someone whose wild fantasies he could shape and control to their mutual satisfaction. It would not do to regret these men, but to wish them well and attempt to get on with her life the best she could. She sighed. Jane was married and sure to have offspring. If she could never marry herself then at least she could have the joy of becoming a most favourite aunt. Lizzie was roused from her reverie by her mother, once again urging Emma for more particulars.
"Situated as you are, Miss Woodhouse, and by your own admission the very person who had a hand in arranging all these unions," here Mrs Bennet sniffed disparagingly, "Iím sure that you will be able to inform me of all the other engagements that have been so newly forged. What of the rest of the handsome gentlemen? To whom have they lost their minds . . . er, hearts?"
"To whom indeed, Mrs Bennet. Well let me tell you. I am at your complete disposal today until five oíclock when my dear Sid . . . Mr Parker will retrieve me in his curricle. Of whose fortune shall I tell you first?"
"Tell me about those three very plain sisters," said Mrs Bennet. "Have they managed to snare offers?"
"Which do you mean?" asked Emma.
"Oh, what was their name? Penniless girls from a parsonage. Something quite common, Wilson? Walton? Lizzie, you must know."
"Oh yes," said Emma smugly. "The Watson girls are all engaged."
Mrs Bennetís eyes became more protuberant. "What! All three? When two of them are nearly in their dotage?"
"I would hardly call nine and twenty dotage, mama," said Lizzie, but her mother ignored her.
"What is wrong with my girls? Only one married and all, even Mary, more attractive than the Watson women! Where have I gone wrong? Am I to be stuck with them forever to remind me for the rest of my days that I could not find husbands for them?" She collapsed into a fit of tears and would not calm down until she had her glass of Ratafia refilled.
"Mrs Bennet," said Emma consolingly. "It is not as if any of them got such great prizes. Iím certain your daughters will do much better for themselves eventually."
"Donít hold back. Tell me who they captured."
"Well, the youngest is rather a sweet thing, so she did the best of the lot, although the gentleman is a bit of a dolt. Emma Watson is engaged to Edmund Bertram."
"But he is the second son of a Baronet! Iíd say thatís a prize. I would have been happy for Lizzie to marry him."
"Mother!" cried Lizzie. "You have just finished chastising me for not attracting his brother. Was I to set my cap at both of them?"
"It doesnít pay to be so exacting Lizzie dear," said her mother with some asperity. "If you put a little more effort into the matter you would be engaged by now. I cannot take all of the blame!"
"And what about the other two sisters?" asked Lizzie of Emma in an effort to shut her mother up.
"Do you recall Margaret Watson telling us all how she was deeply in love with a gentleman who would realise just how much he loved her during her absence and be falling over himself to propose to her upon her return? Well the very same man, Mr Tom Musgrave, arrived in Meryton the other week."
"And he proposed to her?" asked Lizzie doubtfully. She remembered the sister, Elizabeth, saying that he didnít care a fig for Margaret.
"No, that is the best part. He proposed to Elizabeth who he had been in love with all along."
"Why had he never proposed to her before?" asked Mrs Bennet, her interest piqued. "She has been on the shelf these past seven years."
"Apparently he knew she loved him but wanted to make his fortune through an advantageous marriage. It was only when she was gone from him that he finally realised he could not live without her, and gave up all his schemes."
"Humph!" said Mrs Bennet. "As you say, certainly no prize!"
"How could Elizabeth have accepted him, knowing this?" cried Lizzie. "Has she no pride?"
"Well," said Emma reasonably, "she is in love with him, she doesnít want to remain an old maid, and she certainly relished spiting Margaret!"
"And how did Margaret react? Was the poor dear heartbroken?" asked Mrs Bennet with glee.
Mary walked into the room at this point, placidly sitting down at the table and making no interruption.
"Margaretís reaction was to run out and compromise the first gentleman that came her way in order that he be forced to marry her! They were discovered kissing in the chancel by the outraged rector and he insisted on performing the ceremony as soon as a special licence could be procured." Emma sat back and took a sip of tea, never taking her eyes off Mrs Bennetís amazed face.
After some moments Mrs Bennet found her voice. "The girl has my deepest admiration," she said in awe. "What a clever scheme! Why had I never thought of that for Lydia or Kitty?"
"Mother!" cried Lizzie in consternation. "Such actions would put our family to shame and ruin the chances for the rest of us to make good marriages! Donít even consider it; Lydia is too likely to make the attempt."
"Is no one interested in whom she caught with such flagrant methods?" All eyes turned to Emma and when she was sure she had their undivided attention she resumed. "It was Mr Thorpe!"
"That corpulent man who dressed like a groom?" asked Lizzie in disgust, remembering how he had asked her to dance at the assembly. "The prizes are indeed getting worse. I am actually surprised that he was anywhere near a chancel, or a nave, or even a church altogether."
"There was a time when I was rather attracted to him," said Mary in a matter of fact voice. Now it was her turn to have the attention of the room as three pairs of astonished eyes swivelled to gaze upon her. Unblushingly she continued. "My thoughts became quite passionate. I thought I was falling in love or on a direct route to hell with no desire to exit until I finally realised what was truly happening to me. I had been reading too much Fordyceís and suddenly a revolution overtook my senses stirring up my repressed prurient interest. I immediately read The Mysteries of Udolpho all in one sitting and cured myself entirely. It was the best thing that ever happened to me!"
"What?" asked Mrs Bennet in a hollow voice.
"It was indeed mama," answered Mary, "for you see, once I had got that all out of my system I was able to see much more clearly, and when true love did come along, I was able to recognise it as such!"
"What?" Mrs Bennet reiterated, but in a very different sort of voice. "Does this mean?" She was too excited to continue and it was up to Mary to reassure her.
"Yes, he is with father right now asking for permission to wed me," said Mary with a happy glow.
"Who?" asked Mrs Bennet.
"Yes who?" asked Emma, thinking of all her charts and graphs and knowing for certain that Maryís name had not even been on there. Who could it be? All the gentlemen were spoken for. If Mary had caused one of them to break an engagement it could cause a chain reaction of devastating proportions. Emma thought of her dear Sidney and a chill crept through her heart. She could not lose him now due to the machinations of a girl like Mary. ""Who?" she asked again with increasing trepidation.
Mary smiled sweetly at the three expectant faces. It felt so good just to hold them in her hand like that, an unusual position for her as she was generally overlooked and overshadowed by all the other women of her acquaintance. Finally she decided to put them out of their misery, after all she had found true love; she could afford to be magnanimous.
"I am engaged to Mr William Price."
There was a collective sigh of relief from Lizzie and Emma. Her mother just stared at her and asked yet again, "Who?"
"Mr William Price, mama. He is here visiting his sister Fanny while he is on leave. He is a lieutenant in the navy, under the command of Captain Wentworth himself, so he is sure to win a fortune on his next campaign."
"A man in uniform!" Mrs Bennet sighed. "Oh Mary! I always knew you could not be so sensible for nothing!"
Lydia came running into the room, full of outrage. "Papa has refused to allow me to go to Brighton!"
"Papa has been refusing you all summer. I see nothing unusual in that!" said Mary as she discreetly left the room in search of her true love whose interview with her father must have been completed, unless of course, Lydia had interrupted it, which Mary wouldnít have put past her.
"Mama, please. Can you not convince him? The summer is almost over, and I miss the officers so!" Lydia looked at her mother appealingly.
"You must know, my love, that when your father takes on one of his distempered freaks there is nothing to be done to sway him."
"But how am I to survive? No officers, and not the whiff of sea air to revive me!" Lydia threw herself on a chair and gave the assembled company such an anguished look that, against her better judgement, Emma took pity on her.
"How would you like to accompany me to Sanditon? We are leaving on the morrow to visit Si . . . Mr Parkerís family who are all situated there at present."
"Are there officers?" Lydia asked, brightening considerably.
"I am unsure if there are officers, but there is plenty of sea air. Sidn . . . Mr Parker says that according to his elder brother it is the best sea air in all of Britain," said Emma cheerfully.
"I donít care a fig for the air," cried Lydia ungraciously, "but I would give anything to go anywhere at this point. It is so boring here; none of the gentlemen even look at me save Maria Lucasís brothers and they are all wet about the ears!"
Lydia ran out to inform her father of the invitation, just as Kitty rushed into the room. "My dear friend Catherine Moreland has invited me to come home with her for a visit! Oh may I please mama?"
"How very generous of her my love. Where does she live? Are there any rich gentlemen in her neighbourhood?" asked Mrs Bennet with some renewal of hope in the marital chances of her younger daughters.
"She lives in a countrified little parsonage with a scad of little brothers and sisters and hopefully not a gentleman in sight! I have had my fill of men. They lead you on and then throw you over. If I see another red coat, Iím sure I will scream!" cried Kitty.
"Kitty! How can you speak so?" asked Mrs Bennet, aghast. "I feel my palpitations coming on. Oh Lizzie! My salts!"
"They are in your hand, mama," said Lizzie. "Go speak to your father, Kitty. Tell him all that you have told us and Iím certain he will allow you to go."
"I wonder why Catherine Moreland is going home and with a guest? You do know that she has become engaged," said Emma, "and it is rather surprising who to, as she is such a naÔve thing with such a flighty imagination."
"Who to?" asked Mrs Bennet regaining her composure. "Surely not one of those disreputable officers that snubbed my Kitty so."
"He is an officer, but hardly disreputable," said Emma. "On our outing to the ruined Abbey hereabouts, Miss Moreland was come upon unexpectedly by gypsies and, after a harrowing run in which they chased after her, she fell into a swoon at this particular gentlemanís feet. It turned out that the gypsies were children and thought that she wanted to play a game of tag with them, but that is neither here nor there. The outcome was that when she opened her eyes, she beheld the worried colonel looking down upon her anxiously, and she clutched herself to him desperately calling him her hero. Apparently no officer can resist a damsel who worships him as her saviour, even the most charming and sensible of them. He proposed to her at that moment, and I donít believe he has regretted it since."
Mrs Bennet cast about trying to recall the colonels that were in town there was more than one, but one was already taken. "Which was it? Colonel Brandon or Colonel Fitzwilliam?"
"It was Colonel Fitzwilliam. Colonel Brandon was caught in a much different way." Emma paused, hoping to get a reaction out of Mrs Bennet. It was all that she could have hoped.
"Colonel Fitzwilliam! But he is the youngest son of an earl. He needs to marry an heiress so that he can live in the style to which he is accustomed. What is all this foolish nonsense about falling in love with penniless girls from parsonages?"
"You should meet his aunt, Lady Catherine," laughed Emma. "You two would get along famously. She said just what you did and then some when she rushed here from Kent to try to convince him to change his mind. She was somewhat mollified when she discovered that the girl was considered the daughter they never had by her rich friends the Allens and stands to inherit a considerable sum upon their death."
Mrs Bennet absorbed all that information voraciously, and then, not to be side-tracked, asked about the illustrious Colonel Brandon.
"Ah, yes," sighed Emma. "Colonel Brandon. For a man so serious and set in his ways he harbours a very romantic soul. Who would have thought it? After all, the man wears flannel waistcoats."
At that moment a deprecatory cough was heard and Mrs Bennet turned to see Hill hovering at her shoulder.
"I beg your pardon Madame, but it is well time for nuncheon and you have not yet quitted the breakfast parlour. Have you indeed finished breakfast? May we remove the covers?"
"Well that is famous!" cried Mrs Bennet. "We have been quite caught up in our goss . . . discourse, Hill, and have not noticed the passage of time. We will remove to the parlour at once and you may announce nuncheon as soon as may be. Miss Woodhouse, you will join us wonít you?"
Emma accepted the invitation and Mrs Bennet hustled them into the parlour as quickly as possible. When they were all seated she turned to Emma expectantly. "Do go on! You were saying about Colonel Brandon . . ."
"The good colonel spied a young lady across a crowded floor, and was instantly reminded of his own lost love. She was young and lively and vibrant and he became mesmerised. He asked her to dance and told her of the likeness. Well, as the young lady informed me, she had hitherto seen nothing in him to please her but his description of the other woman exposed the passion in his soul. There is nothing more appealing to a certain segment of the female population than a man totally enamoured with someone from his past. She was bound and determined to make him forget the memory and lose himself to her charms."
"The calculating little vixen!" cried Mrs Bennet. "Why do my daughters have none of these skills?"
Lizzie gave her mother a quelling look but her mother pretended not to notice.
"She is actually a sweet and simple girl; a little shallow but with a good heart. In time I fear the colonel will wish she had better mental powers, but perhaps he will remain content to gaze on her beauty as she plays the harp." Emma sighed again. Who would have thought she was such a sucker for romance?
"And who, pray, is this minx?"
"I think it must be Louisa Musgrove," said Lizzie. "I noticed that Colonel Brandon was much struck with her at the assembly. And speaking of people who seemed to hit it off that day, what of Captain Benwick and Miss Bates? Did they become engaged too?"
Mrs Bennet shrieked with laughter. "The old maid and the morose captain! Lizzie that is absurd! You are a chucklehead! Who would marry that gabster? She must be forty if sheís a day!"
"Dear Miss Bates," laughed Emma. "No one ever thought she would finally get a man Ė but there you have it! To be sure she is a little older than the gentleman, but if he does not mind I donít see that we can complain."
"But she has stolen him from a deserving young lady! Even Lizzie could have married him," said Mr Bennet with some asperity. "When a woman has been on the shelf for aeons she has no right to fall off!"
"Mother," said Lizzie grimly. "Will you please refrain from remarking that I could have married every one of the gentlemen we are discussing. I would have refused the lot of them as you well know."
Mrs Bennet was about to hurl a rather spiteful rejoinder so it was just as well that nuncheon was announced at that moment. Kitty and Lydia were in high spirits because they had been given permission for their trips and Mary was happily introducing her handsome young lieutenant to everybody. After the general hubbub had died down, Mrs Bennet demanded to hear about the rest of the engagements. Emma was quite willing to indulge her, but Mr Bennet put his foot down.
"There will be no talk of gentlemen or ladies, engagements or marriages, wedding gowns, bouquets, or lace. No lace! For once can we sit and eat and hold rational conversation? That is all I ask."
"Rational conversation at the dining table?" cried Mrs Bennet. "Whatever next?"
"Silence, I should think," said Mr Bennet with a wink to Lizzie.
He may not have got rational conversation, after all Mrs Bennet, Kitty, and Lydia were present, and silence was out of the question, but at least the only engagement, marriage, wedding dress and lace under discussion was that of his own daughter Mary, and Mr Bennet was willing to put up with that. After the meal he retired to his study once more, Mary and William went out into the garden, Kitty and Lydia went to their rooms to begin packing, and the other three returned to the parlour to assuage Mrs Bennetís curiosity with more talk of betrothals.
"Let us continue with the military," said Mrs Bennet with a faraway look in her eye. She was imagining the weddings in full dress uniform. "Isnít there another young officer? A very dashing and charming fellow?"
"You must mean Mr Wickham," said Lizzie. "I have it on good report that he is very wild, certainly not a man you would have wanted one of your daughters riveted to, mama, so please do not bemoan his loss."
"Mr Wickham!" said Emma. "Thereís a fellow that can cut a wheedle. He and his friend Willoughby were quite a pair, although I donít think he quite matched up to his mentor."
"And how did he fare in the marriage mart?" asked Mrs Bennet. "I neednít say that he could have done better than he did and married one of my girls as Lizzie has expressly forbid it." She gave Lizzie a very smug look.
Emma was about to answer the question when there was another disruption. The door opened and Harriet Smith was announced. After she had politely greeted everyone she rushed up to Emma and looked at her imploringly.
"Oh Miss Woodhouse! I am desperately in need of advice. I have been invited to the home of my new friend, Charlotte Heywood, but Iím not quite sure if I should go. What would you do in my situation Miss Woodhouse?" She took a deep breath and continued on before Emma had time to formulate an answer. "On the one hand Miss Heywood is a very good sort of girl. She is the daughter of a gentleman farmer and not at all like you, Miss Woodhouse, but she still is unexceptional as a friend for me, is she not? On the other hand I am your guest so it would be very uncivil of me to accept another invitation. But you are going to Sanditon and I should not want to be a bother to you by tagging along and both Miss Fairfax and Miss Bates are engaged as well, but when it comes down to it, so is Miss Heywood so you can see what sort of hobble I am in. What do you advise Miss Woodhouse?"
"Only you can make that sort of decision, Harriet. You are the one who must say to yourself, ĎI will accept Miss Heywoodís kind invitation.í I would not deign to influence you in any way."
"So then I should . . ." Harriet left her sentence unfinished hoping that someone would finish it for her.
"Hang it all girl," cried Mrs Bennet in frustration. "She said to accept the invitation! Now can we get back to our discussion?"
"Oh, thank you Miss Woodhouse," effused Harriet, "that is exactly what I wanted to hear. I shall accept the invitation. It is all settled."
"Now sit down girl. Miss Woodhouse was just in the middle of a very important pronouncement." Mrs Bennet fixed her gaze on Emma, compelling her to continue.
"Isnít that interesting?" said Emma provocatively. "So many young ladies going on trips, and all of them unattached! First Lizzie, of course, who returned in the same single state, and now Lydia, Kitty, and Harriet. There is one other as well. Elinor Dashwood is going to visit Donwell with Anne Elliot who felt it would be best to have a sort of chaperone when visiting the home of her fiancť."
"It is to be hoped that all those girls fare better than Lizzie," said Mrs Bennet. "Now get on with it girl! Have mercy on my poor nerves!"
"Mr Willoughby, as you may recall, was playing fast and lose with one lady only to attach himself with another. His friend, Mr Wickham was employing the same tactics. He was chasing around with a fashionable lady of acceptable fortune called Mary Crawford until she discovered a juicier plum that was ripe for the plucking. After that he was seen clandestinely with a certain widow and everyone thought that she had managed to snare him Ė but of course S . . . Mr Parker and I knew better because the answer was at the end of a long and rather circuitous line on my charts. One day he threw off Mrs Clay and bolted for the border with Julia Bertram, none other than the sister of the girl his friend eloped with. It was quite a surprise to everyone because she had been dogging the footsteps of one Mr Frank Churchill, who seemed to be playing a similar game."
"Ooh!" said Mrs Bennet.
She was just about to beg for more when yet another visitor was announced. It was Mr Sindey Parker who had come to whisk away his ladylove. Mr Parker was right on time as Emma felt near to losing her voice. Arrangements were made to pick up Lydia in the morning, and profuse apologies were given to Mrs Bennet for removing her font of information. It was only the excessive charm and gallantry of the gentleman that made it possible to dislodge Emma from Longbourn without undue fuss.
The next morning, after Lydia and Kitty had been sent off on their respective journeys amid much bustle, laughter, and tears, Mrs Bennet was on the scramble to get to her sister Phillipsís house in Meryton as quickly as possible. With Emma off to Sanditon she needed another font to tap. Mary was able to winkle her way out of the visit, a fiancť is always a good excuse where her mother is concerned, but Lizzie had to gird her loins against another day of excessive gossiping.
They arrived just as Mrs Phillips was about to sally forth, but she was more than willing to put aside her shopping expedition for a chance to share all her knowledge with her sister.
"Would you countenance it?" she cried as soon as they were settled in her front parlour, "Even Charlotte Lucas has become engaged. And before our Lizzie, too."
Mrs Bennet cast Lizzie a waspish look, and then brushed the comment aside airily. "I can assure you sister that when Lizzie does finally become engaged it will be to a gentleman far superior to any that Charlotte could secure. What arts did she employ to ensnare this particular dupe?"
"I never knew she was so sly!" said Mrs Phillips as she leaned closer and relayed the rest in a loud whisper. "She discovered that the gentleman preferred older women. Preposterous really! She applied powder to her hair, filched from Sir Williamís dresser no doubt, and took to wearing spectacles. She even donned little lace caps. And then she made up to the man shamefully. Poor Mr Howard, who I hear had originally set his sights on Lady Osborne, succumbed in short order. What a shock is in store for him after they marry and he discovers she has not one grey hair!"
"I have never trusted the Lucases, sister," said Mrs Bennet. "They always put on such airs. Well, I can be generous as the next person, and although she has wronged me exceedingly, I hope Charlotte is happy."
"Charlotte has not wronged you, mama," said Lizzie. "She may become engaged to whomever she pleases, and I wish her well. She could have done a lot worse than Mr Howard. He is a sensible man, aside from his curious penchant for the aged."
"And what of Lord Osborne?" asked Mrs Bennet. "He would have been a catch! So rich, so handsome!"
"He was insufferably proud," said Lizzie. "Walking about the assembly all high in the instep, never deigning to dance with anybody. Not my type at all, so donít start into me again for not having caught him!"
"Who cares for all that when he is so rich?" shrieked Mrs Bennet. "And a peer to boot! Last time I saw him he was encouraging his friend to dance with a young nobody and then staring at her most fixedly. Donít tell me something came of that, sister!"
"Then we shall have to speak of a different couple," lamented Mrs Phillips.
"Oh, never mind. Tell me all the same."
"The young Lord fell in love with the girl as she danced. He was caught by her youth and her innocence. She was reluctant at first. I hear she had been in love with her cousin for most of her life and refused to look at another man. Lord Osborne sent his friend with all manner of presents, jewels, flowers, little fur ruffs, but they were all returned. It was a hopeless case until, one day, on the urging of his friend, Lord Osborne actually danced with her himself, talked to her with his own lips, looked into her eyes with his own eyes, and thatís all it took. It seems she had taken a disgust to his friend! Once she actually met him, it was a different story."
"Oh, how very romantic!" sighed Mrs Bennet, wiping the tears from her eyes.
"I donít think it hurt that her cousin had become engaged to another woman," added Mrs Phillips.
"Isnít it a fine day," observed Lizzie. "Shall we all not go for a walk?"
"Just sit back and make do!" cried Mrs Bennet. To her sister she said, "Lizzie canít abide hearing of all these engagements as she has been completely unable to interest a man. For the life of me I donít know what to do with the child!"
"Maybe I could introduce her to Mr Phillips new clerk," suggested Mrs Phillips. "He has got over most of his spots now and although my husband says he has precious little in his cockloft, he is by far the most promising clerk he has come by."
"I assure you, I have no need of your help Auntie," said Lizzie hurriedly. "Thank you all the same."
"It appears no one is deemed good enough by Lizzie," said Mrs Bennet with a sniff.
"She reminds me of that high and mighty Elizabeth Elliot!" said Mrs Phillips. "Always preening herself and looking down her nose at one! Well even she broke down and accepted a commoner."
"She did?" cried Lizzie and Mrs Bennet in unison, and then Lizzie hung her head. She was acting just like her mother! How much more of this could she take before she started turning into her own mother? She had never been more appalled in her life.
"A certain Mr Henry Crawford was trying his charms on her. She was resilient until she discovered that he had a fortune. Apparently her father had had to retrench, but now they can live in the style they were born to once again! And he, poor fellow, was caught in parsonís mousetrap. It was always a game with him to see if he could win the coldest of hearts, but he had made one move too many!"
"But . . . but," said Lizzie, "I remember her mentioning a previous engagement, or hope of engagement, to her fatherís heir."
"There was talk of that, but Mr Elliot became engaged to Mr Crawfordís sister, a girl with a small independence and a dislike of parsons."
"Iím confused," said Mrs Bennet. "Whatever has the dislike of parsons to do with it?"
"She was on the rebound from a love affair with a man who was set to become a parson, and she ran straight into the arms of his moral opposite! She had Mr Elliot so charmed that it wasnít until after he popped the question that he discovered her portion was much smaller than he was led to believe!"
"It sounds to me they all deserve each other!" said Lizzie. "I donít suppose you have any more of these wretched engagements to talk about. May we please go for a walk now?"
"Hush child," said Mrs Phillips. "There are, I believe, just two more."
"Only two, dear sister?" asked Mrs Bennet in disappointment. "But when we are done with them, whatever shall we talk about?"
"We can start from the beginning all over again with all that you learned from Miss Woodhouse!" cried Mrs Phillips gleefully.
Lizzie clutched her head. Would sanity ever return? Not as long as she was stuck at her Aunt Phillipsí. She stealthily made her way toward the door. As she opened it Mrs Phillips had begun her narration of Mr Eltonís romance with the redoubtable Mrs Clay. Her motherís shrieks drowned out the sound of the door closing behind her.
"You mean he once thought he was good enough to declare himself to Miss Woodhouse and then he ends up proposing to the widowed daughter of a lawyer?"
"That is what I heard sister. I tell you, Mrs Clay was very crafty, She made liberal use of Gowlands lotion and all but dissolved her freckles. She lavished such praise on the parson that he forgot about her two children and her slightly protruding tooth. It was the work of a master!"
"And who is last, dear sister?"
"Mr Frank Churchill. A very charming young gentleman who it was rumoured was besotted with Miss Woodhouse."
"I heard another rumour that he was secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax," said Mrs Bennet breathlessly.
"It was a double ruse! All the time he was spouting poetry in the park to that very romantic young woman who was always going on about wind swept trees and wearing gowns the colour of dead leaves and river water, a Marianne Dashwood. And she without a penny!"
"That is quite unfair that a penniless girl should inspire such devotion only because she is romantic," said Mrs Bennet, much aggrieved.
"You are so right, sister. I donít know how long they would have hidden it, or whether he would even have attempted a triple ruse with our own Lizzie, for she is almost the only girl left unspoken for, but fortunately his aunt died and he was free to love whom he chose. He inherited a tidy fortune too."
"Those penniless girls have all the luck!" moaned Mrs Bennet. Both ladies took enormous whiffs of their salts, and in commiseration resumed from the beginning the numeration of all the many alliances formed over the past few months. Neither of them noticed that Lizzie had gone.
She left the confines of Meryton, went down lane and over stile, until she came to the wilderness of open meadow. She ran, bonnet streaming behind her on its ribands, trying to clear her head in the bright August sun. If she ran fast enough could she outrun the little voice that kept telling her she would never find her chance at happiness?
The next few weeks did not bring Lizzie the equilibrium she so desired. As August made its way toward September she found that wherever she went she was always in the company of engaged couples. She was rarely able to have lively or scintillating conversations and she was in the deepest trepidation of becoming caught in a gossip marathon again. She stayed clear of her mother.
Letters from her vacationing sisters and friends did not do anything to alleviate the pall of hopelessness that had befallen her. In fact they only worsened it. Harriet Smith sent her a lavender scented note that announced her engagement to one of Charlotte Heywoodís brothers. It seems she had almost done the same thing when staying at a farm before. As well as sweet little Jersey cows, she had a thing for the eldest sons of gentlemen farmers. Her outpourings of happiness should have warmed Lizzieís soul, but they did not.
A week later brought a letter from her friend Elinor Dashwood. As Elinor was such a sensible, level-headed girl, and had sent her a very business-like looking missive, she thought it was safe to open it. It was not. Elinor was seemingly infected by the same bug as Harriet; the one that had previously infected her, to be specific.
Upon visiting Donwell with Anne Elliot, Elinor chanced to meet Robert Martin, the young, educated tenant farmer of Knightlyís who had the enviable ability of being a very good letter writer. Perceiving that Elinor had a little more sense that the pretty peagoose who had recently broken his heart, he immediately struck up a correspondence with her, although he lived within three miles of Donwell. Elinor was duly impressed, not only by his penmanship, but also his sentence structure and turn of phrase. She wrote back Ė equally well-crafted letters Ė and soon their romance was flourishing. To say they fell in love over good grammar would not be too far wrong, and the next time they saw each other, Robert jumped at the chance to prove that he could be equally expressive with the spoken word. A snug farmhouse, a steady husband, and a coop full of chickens was all that Elinor really desired out of life, but she had to admit that in marrying Robert Martin she was getting so very much more.
Lizzie put down the letter and pulled out her hanky. She dabbed at the tears, wondering why the happiness of her friends should bring her such sorrow. Even her sistersí letters were frightening to her. Kitty wrote of the joys of running in the meadows, climbing trees, and playing with all Catherineís younger brothers and sisters, but Lizzie was always on the lookout for mention of some handsome young gentleman who had caught her eye. Lydiaís letters, with their many exclamation marks and blotched letters were full of young gentlemen she had met at the lending library or on the promenade. Not one name stood out more than the rest. Even this fact made Lizzie suspicious. Could it be Lydia was practising deceit? After all Ė she had mentioned subscribing to the lending library which in itself was completely out of character. Or were Lydia and Kitty simply suffering from the same Bennet curse which was inflicting Lizzie?
She was to find out soon enough. Kitty returned after a fortnight, smug faced and closed mouthed. All she did was smile serenely and say she had a wonderful time, Catherineís siblings were all poppets, and she was quite content to be home again. The next day, when a gentleman unknown to Lizzie came to call on her father, Kitty sat in demure silence and resumed trimming her bonnet with unruffled calm. Lizzie knew not what to make of it.
At luncheon, Her father entered the dining room with the young man in tow, and introduced him as James Moreland. Then he dropped the bombshell. Mrs Bennet started to squeal.
"Oh dearest Kitty! You have managed it at last! And before Lizzie too! I shall go distracted!"
Lizzie gave Kitty a look and said under her breath rather accusingly, "I thought you had sworn off men!"
"I did," replied Kitty sweetly. "I was told it works every time! Mr Sidney Parker is a most intelligent man. I had never been given such good advice before."
James Moreland, to do him credit, took everything in his stride; Mr Bennetís grilling, Mrs Bennetís vapours, and Lizzieís grudging congratulations. He had just made a great escape from a heartless coquette and had found true happiness with his guileless Kitty. If her mother were a trifle over the top, so be it. Kitty smiled at him and patted the chair beside her, and he joined her readily. They spent the whole of the meal gazing adoringly into each otherís eyes. Lizzie asked to be excused early. She was afraid she was going to be sick.
A week later Lydia returned home in true Lydia fashion. She was squired by a mildly portly young man with a pale complexion who was loaded with bandboxes and discarded bits of Lydiaís clothing, shawls bonnets and the like.
"Mother, Father, you will never believe my news. Lord it is such fun to surprise you all!" cried Lydia as she entered the hall. "Just look at this ring! Is it not the prettiest you have ever seen? My dearest Arthur gave it to me!"
"What does this mean?" cried Mrs Bennet. And then to prove she was not a dullard where romance was concerned, she immediately followed it with excited crowing. "You are engaged you sweet thing! I knew you wouldnít disappoint me! Two daughters in the space of a week! How shall I manage to contain myself?"
"Contain yourself you must, my dear," said Mr Bennet. "I have as yet not spoken with this gentleman and my permission has not been given."
"Then get on with it!" cried Mrs Bennet, all in a pucker again. "Make haste, make haste! My poor nerves canít stand the suspense!"
"Oh pooh!" stated Lydia, laughing loudly. "There is nothing daddy can do for we returned from Sanditon completely unescorted! Arthur, go and join my father in his study. Donít allow him to tease you because nothing can get in the way of our love! Oh, and do put all those parcels down somewhere; it doesnít signify where!"
Arthur looked apologetically at Mrs Bennet and deposited the articles upon a settee. As they spilled over to the floor he made to organise them better but Lydia shooed him out of the room. "Isnít he a dear!" she cried, and then she pouted. "But whatís this I hear about another sister engaged? I was hoping I was the next one. Donít tell me you have finally trapped a man Lizzie."
"Oh! It is not Lizzie but Kitty who has become engaged!" said Mrs Bennet.
"I fear Lizzie will end a spinster!" giggled Lydia. "You must tell me when Mary and Kitty have set their dates because Arthur and I mean to marry before they do!"
"What a delightful plan!" squealed her mother, rubbing her hands together.
Lizzie took a breath and then questioned Lydia. "When did you meet your fiancť?" she asked. "In your letters you mentioned nothing of him."
"I tricked you well, did I not? I knew it would be such a good joke. Sanditon was really rather flat. The beach was windy and the gentlemen old quizzes, every one. Excepting my dear Arthur, of course. He is Mr Parkerís younger brother, did you know? He was living with his sisters who were physicing him so dreadfully! He was only allowed weak cocoa and dry toast before bedtime! Imagine, they would not let him partake of saddle of mutton or roast beef. A little poached chicken and peas was all they would serve him at dinner. And every morning they would force him to drink Lady Denhamís assesí milk! It was outside of enough! I told him it was time to put his foot down."
"Very right, my love" interpolated her mother. "A man should be able to enjoy his food. I would never be so stingy at my table!"
"And so I told him, mama," said Lydia. "I said if he should marry me I would see to it that we had the best of cooks, for he has a tidy independence, you know and doesnít want for anything, and he should be able to eat whatever he desires whenever he desires. I think he fell in love with me at that moment, for he kissed my hand most fervently, and inside of half an hour I had him convinced to pop the question!"
"What did his sisters think of it all?" asked Lizzie.
"We did not tell them about the food, of course. I dutifully promised to water his cocoa and not allow him port, but it was so hard to keep my countenance! I was bound to burst out laughing especially when I saw the look of shock on my dear sweet Arthurís face. He was so relieved when I told him I was pretending! Oh! I am so divinely happy! He has promised me he will purchase a red hunting jacket, as long as I do not make him go out with the hounds, so I will be able to see him in a red coat!"
"Oh, my dear!" cried Mrs Bennet. "You will be so very happy!"
As they threw themselves weeping into each otherís arms, Lizzie left the room. She considered going out for a walk to Oakham Mount, but didnít have the heart for it. She went instead to her bedchamber and fell upon her coverlet. She cried herself to sleep; a fitful sleep that was haunted by visions of a tall dark man with a stately demeanour and the greenest eyes she had ever seen. In the morning she felt and looked haggard. She washed quickly and changed from the wrinkled gown she had slept in to a morning dress of coffee-toned muslin. She placed her locket about her neck and arranged her curls upon her head. She would not show Lydia the heartache she was suffering. She would go downstairs and stare this new day in the face with a smile that belied what she felt inside. She would be strong!
She slipped along the hall to the breakfast parlour when suddenly her father opened his study door.
"Lizzie, a word if I may," he said firmly.
She quailed. What is it now? There could be no more bad news. Everyone else in the known world was spoken for. She entered with some trepidation and took a seat across from her fatherís desk. He sat and placed his hands together, staring at her contemplatively.
"You have been troubled lately." It was said with empathy, a warm light in her fatherís soft brown eyes. "I went for a walk this morning to ponder your dilemma, and I believe I have struck upon a solution."
"You are not sending me to a convent!" cried Lizzie, aghast.
"Whatever would put such an idea in your head?" asked her father. "Because you have not bothered to convince some fool to marry you as your sisters have done doesnít mean that you have to retire from life. It just means that you have more sense than they. As I was saying, I struck upon a solution. But to be more accurate I should actually say that I bumped into one. Look out the window into the garden and tell me what you think. Does it meet your specifications?"
Lizzie looked out the window and could not believe what she saw there upon a bench under the rose arbour. Was she still dreaming? She pinched herself. No, she was awake all right. "Perfect, simply perfect." She sighed.
Her father came over and stood by her side. He leaned over and kissed her forehead. "Can I pick Ďem, or can I pick Ďem?!"
"Thank you, father," Lizzie whispered. She wandered out of his den to the drawing room, through the open French doors and went into the garden to meet her destiny.
The morning was warm for early September. The sun gently tipped a blush on the petals of the roses that grew with such profusion over the arbour. Elizabeth approached the bench softly, a look of wonderment on her face. How did he come to be here, sitting in her very own garden? He appeared lost in thought. She reached out to him. Her words almost stuck in her throat, but she forced them out. They sounded in a voice so unlike her own. "Excuse me, sir."
He looked up and her breathing all but stopped. His eyes were more beautiful than those in the picture. The green was clearer, the amber flecks shimmered in their depths. His gaze was intense.
"Have you come to nurse me?" His voice was deep and mellow, and somewhat puzzled. It sent a warm glow throughout her person.
"If that is what you want of me," she answered softly, her voice almost her own again. "How are you feeling?"
"Tolerable, but you are beautiful enough to tempt me . . . what did I just say? Did that come out right or wrong?"
"It was very, very right," said Lizzie smiling warmly at him.
"Your eyes, they are . . . entrancing . . . should I know you?"
"We have never met. But I should like to know you, if I may. Why are you in need of nursing? Are you ill, or have you suffered some sort of accident?" Lizzie asked in concern as she took his hand with the intention of checking his pulse.
"I will tell you all that I recall. I was to visit my friend. His name is Bungsby, or Bongely or Binksly, or something of that nature."
"That could very well be it," he replied, closing his eyes and leaning back in the bench. His thumb absently stroked the hand holding his. No pulse had been taken. There was no need. Both had pulses in fine working order. "I took a detour on the way and stopped in at Lyme Regis. Have you ever been?"
"I have not."
His grip tightened on her hand. "I do not advise you go. It is a very dangerous place. I was walking on the cob and decided to take some steps to a lower level. The paving-stones were uneven. A gentleman coming up hurried quickly by me. He jogged me with his elbow. I found myself falling down, down. I heard voices. Hands were prodding my person in a most indecorous way. I believe that is when my purse went missing. I do not know, but I came to my senses days, weeks, maybe months later. I was in a small cottage on a deserted beach. I did not know my name, but I knew I did not belong there." His eyes flew open in panic but when he saw her face they calmed and he smiled.
"Do not try to remember if it causes you pain," said Lizzie as she trailed the fingertips of her other hand across his forehead. Checking for fever, she told herself. She ran her fingers through his hair, just to be sure.
"Iím sorry. I suddenly feared I was in that wretched place again. But I am here with you. The sun is warm and the roses fragrant." He looked deeply into her eyes and seemed to find there the strength to go on.
"When I could finally walk I left that place, but I knew not where I was going nor who I was. The name Nether . . . tried to form in my head, and I visited every Netherhill, Netherdale, Netherfell, Netherford and Netherfold that I could find. I regained my strength and earned my keep in the towns I passed through, but knew that I was meant for a different kind of life. I was dressed, though in much worn clothes, in the garb of a gentleman. I spoke with an air and distinction that none about me had. I discerned that I must be the owner of a great estate. That made my life easier from that point on."
"How so?" asked Lizzie as she felt the back of his head to ensure there was no bump.
"I had my one suit of clothes laundered and then checked into an inn. I was afforded instant credit based on my appearance alone. Finally at one hostelry I was recognised! I am Fitzwilliam Darcy!"
"I know you are, my . . . patient," finished Lizzie, blushing furiously. She had all but said, my love!
"You know me?" he asked, searching her face. "I thought you said we had never met?"
"But I have visited your grand estate of Pemberley, Mr Darcy, and seen your portrait, and I know what Nether place you were to have visited last September."
"It was last September! Now I recall. And my estate is called Pemberley! The name is dear to my heart!"
"And you were going to Netherfield to visit Mr Bingley."
"Indeed I was! How can I thank you, my . . . nurse?" Darcy blushed a little and looked into her face again. "I am afraid I do not know your name."
"I am Miss Elizabeth Bennet."
"I am most pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss . . ." he raised her hand up to his face and ever so gently kissed the back of it, " . . . Elizabeth." He sighed.
"Why do you sigh? Are you in pain?" asked Lizzie, her concern returning.
"I have never felt better. Itís just that I must now go to Netherfield to visit Bingley and I discover I donít want to leave." His thumb started stroking the back of her hand again, sending shivers up her spine.
"You canít leave for Netherfield," said Lizzie, her smile growing. "It is all closed up. Mr Bingley married my sister Jane and they have been away on the continent for their honeymoon these ten months. You shall have to stay here for you are certainly unfit for travel."
"Indeed I am," he agreed as he played with her hand. "Can you check my head for lumps again? Though it has been almost a year since the accident, one can never be sure."
"One cannot, can one?"
Darcy lay down and placed his head in her lap as she ran her fingers slowly through his hair. He still held her other hand in his and caressed it to his cheek. He looked up into her sparkling brown eyes. "You are the best nurse I have ever had." Their eyes met and said so many other things that they were as yet unable to put into words.
Mr Bennet let the curtain fall back and walked away from the window. His little Lizzie! Oh, well, it had to happen sometime. He rang the bell and when Hill appeared he ordered her to prepare the best guest chamber. It was sure to be a visit of some duration.
© 2003 Copyright held by the author.