She was the talk of the assembly. The mysterious newcomer provided the crowd with such opportunity for speculations that even Mr. Bingley and the twenty ladies he was supposed to bring ceased to be a subject of interest or disappointment to those in attendance.
The lady, who had made such an impression, had not been seen in that area of Hertfordshire ever before. She was beautiful, elegant and had a dignified, aristocratic air about her. She was reported to be in her middle or perhaps late thirties—when one is as lovely as she, it is difficult to tell—but her eyes were so lively that she seemed much younger than some of the twenty-year-old girls in the room. Every gentleman was captivated and some were already infatuated by her, but it was soon understood that the lady in question was very happily married and that her husband was away on business. So, the mysterious beauty continued to be the object of admiration in the room, but ceased to be the object of matrimonial designs.
Elizabeth Bennet was intrigued by all the rumors that surrounded the stranger and felt the need to know her better. Her friend, Charlotte, did not provide her with sufficient information, and so she was grateful to Sir William Lucas for volunteering to introduce them.
“My lady,” he said making a bow, “allow me to introduce you to Miss Elizabeth Bennet, our little neighborhood’s famous, dark beauty. Miss Elizabeth, this is… Lady Lory…” He paused, unsatisfied that he had not yet learned the lady’s last name so that he could make a proper introduction, just as he had learned at Saint James.
“I am delighted to meet you, your Ladyship.” Elizabeth curtseyed.
“The pleasure is mine, I assure you. I have heard so much about you that I was quite impatient to finally know you,” Lady Lory said with an amused look.
“You have heard of me? Sir William has been quite talkative, then.”
“Yes, perhaps he has,” Lady Lory laughed. “So, are you determined to steal the hearts of the newcomers, Miss Elizabeth?”
“Oh, no, no. Rumor has it that Mr. Bingley is going to bring many fine ladies from Town. How could a country girl compete against the sophistication of the ton? Whom would you expect to win the men’s hearts?”
“Well, of course, it depends on the man, my dear. A simple man would seek out the prettiest, a clever man would try to find the wittiest, a practical, poor man would look for the richest and a simpleton, for the best connected.”
Lady Lory watched Elizabeth’s expression changing from one of stupefaction to one of utter amusement. “I know, I know,” the lady said, “I am too forthright for my own good. In any case, Mr. Bingley is bringing no one except his two sisters, his brother-in-law and his very close friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy.”
“Fitzwilliam!” Elizabeth exclaimed. “What an unusual name that is!”
“Oh yes, very unusual. It is his mother’s family name. She was the daughter of an Earl and very proud of it, as you can guess.”
“The elder Mr. Darcy has no title, then?”
“Sadly, he has passed away, and no, he did not. He was quite rich, though. Their estate in Derbyshire is magnificent, and I believe Mr. Darcy’s income is ten thousand pounds a year. He is eight-and-twenty. A good catch, my dear, and very handsome, too.”
Elizabeth’s brow furrowed. “He has all the assets a practical girl would ask for in her husband, however, the fact that he is not already married suggests that he must have either some great failing or a great distaste for women and matrimony.”
“Oh, he does have his flaws, my dear, I assure you.” Lady Lory smiled mischievously and continued, “Even though he is a most intelligent man, well read and well traveled, very compassionate, just and affectionate, well, despite all that, he has some great faults, indeed.”
“Your ladyship seems to be very closely acquainted with Mr. Darcy.”
“No, indeed,” Lady Lory said, “but I am very closely acquainted with a woman who has known him all his life and is privy to all his thoughts and feelings.”
“No, but something close to that. In any case, it is a sad thing that he is so intimidating.”
“Intimidating?” Elizabeth’s features conveyed that she was not a woman easily intimidated.
“Oh yes,” the other woman replied earnestly. “He does not let people approach him. He is not easily impressed, and even when he is, he does not show it. He is too proud to share his thoughts with anyone. A real challenge, that man. I do not know any woman brave enough to try.”
“But surely, all the ladies in Town…”
“They only want him for his fortune and his name. He detests that, though he is proud of both. Too proud, I might add. He has this silly notion that he is superior to everyone.”
Elizabeth grimaced. “Superior?”
“Ah, my dear, men are that way. They believe in many stupid things until they meet the right woman who puts them in their place and teaches them a few lessons.”
“Do you speak from experience, Lady Lory?”
“Indeed I do, Miss Elizabeth. In any case, I feel pity for Mr. Darcy, because it will be very hard to find a woman equal to that challenge.”
Just as Elizabeth was about to answer, the Netherfield party entered the assembly, and Lady Lory pointed out Mr. Darcy to her young companion. Elizabeth Bennet, at that moment, felt many things, but pity for the gentleman was not one of them.
“Come, Darcy, I must have you dance…” Mr. Bingley began, but stopped immediately as he saw Lady Lory approaching them. It would not do to expose the mysterious and charming lady sir William had introduced to them only a few minutes before to yet another argument regarding his friend’s attitude at balls. Instead, he smiled brightly and addressed Lady Lory in his easy way.
“Your ladyship does not dance?”
“No, I am not inclined to dancing. Not tonight, that is.”
“Then you do not abhor the activity in general, as my friend here?”
“Not in the least, Mr. Bingley,” Lady Lory smiled. “Dancing is one of the first refinements of polished societies, isn’t it, Mr. Darcy?”
“Indeed, madam. It has also the advantage of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world,” the gentleman said in a smug tone.
“That is correct. Every savage can dance.” Lady Lory cast a very satisfied look at Mr. Darcy’s expression of utter bewilderment. In fact, he looked as if he were about to choke. “And dance quite delightfully, too. I am afraid, however, that they are not at hand tonight, and many young women are in need of a partner.”
“You are quite right,” Bingley said, “and I am afraid I have been monopolizing Miss Bennet,” he added guiltily. “I must ask her sisters, as well. Miss Elizabeth…”
“Oh, do not worry about Miss Elizabeth,” Lady Lory said. “I can assure you she would never accept an offer made to her out of obligation or, God forbid, out of pity. She is too proud for that.”
“Proud?” Mr. Darcy could hardly hide a smirk. “What reason has she to be proud?”
Lady Lory cast an angry look at Darcy and whispered to herself, “Damn, this man really deserved Hunsford, but anyway…”
To him, she said, “Miss Elizabeth has a rare intellect, taste and wit. She is the most interesting partner in conversation I have ever had. She is well read and her character exudes genuine warmth, not the artificial effusion nor the insufferable arrogance we so often meet these days. Do you not think that she just…well… sparkles? Not to mention that she has the finest eyes I have ever seen.”
Bingley looked astonished, and Lady Lory gave him a pat on the back. “Yes, Mr. Bingley, her sister is an angel, and you are quite free to fall in love with her and ask for her hand in marriage, even tomorrow, if you so wish. Oh, and please trust your instincts. Miss Bennet is a person capable of deep feeling, even when she gives every appearance of composure.”
“Excuse me, your Ladyship, are you related to Mrs. Bennet?” Darcy asked, something close to disgust marking his face.
“Oh, no, thank God,” Lady Lory laughed good-humoredly. “I was not recommending Mrs. Bennet, sir. I was recommending her daughters. You cannot judge a whole family by one person. After all, you are related to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, sir, am I right?”
“What has that to do with…” Darcy began, but a meaningful hold-your-tongue,-sir glance from Lady Lory, and he was silenced.
“In any case, there is not much point in this conversation because whether I praise Miss Elizabeth or not, her heart is so unattainable that the best you are likely to ever receive from her is her company for two dances.”
Darcy looked astonished, but quickly hid it under a mask of polite amusement. “You do not believe I have much to recommend me, do you, Lady Lory?”
She tried her best to check herself from laughing and said as earnestly as she could, “I do not really know you, do I? It would be unfair for me to judge you on such a brief acquaintance. However, you seem determined to not approach the lady in question at all. Without talking to you, Miss Elizabeth can only deduce that you are handsome, rich, and, if I may say so, a bit too proud. I can assure you sir, that her heart is quite safe from you.”
“Well, errr… That is a relief, I suppose,” Darcy said, not looking particularly convinced.
“That is precisely why I mentioned it,” Lady Lory smiled sweetly. “Now, if you will excuse me, I must return to my lovely company.”
“Your Ladyship…” Mr. Darcy called, after the woman had made a few steps towards Elizabeth. She turned back to look at him questioningly. “It is true that I do not possess the talent of recommending myself to strangers and that I dislike being the target of fortune-hunters, however, I do not wish to be impolite. I do believe you when you speak of Miss Elizabeth’s merits. And… I would like to know her better. I believe she could make a good companion…for conversation,” he added hastily.
“Then you are very welcome to join me, Mr. Darcy. I shall introduce you to the lady.” Lady Lory smiled and tried her best not to look too satisfied.
“Oh, that was a mortifying moment! I was so determined to be a proper lady. I had tried so hard to persuade my uncle and aunt take me with them to the theatre, despite my young age, and there I was, crying uncontrollably when Desdemona took her last breath. My sobs could not stop. Every acquaintance of my uncle at the theatre saw my outburst. In the end, someone insisted that I meet the actress and see how alive and healthy she was, in order to console me. As you may imagine, even today, my uncle prefers to take me to comedies.”
“There you are, Mr. Darcy,” Lady Lory said, very amused by the evident admiration on the man’s face during the whole of Elizabeth’s narration. “You see, you are not the only one who has unpleasant experiences in public places.” Elizabeth and Darcy both laughed at this.
“I wish my unpleasant experiences were caused by such genuine feeling,” he offered gallantly. “I would hardly call your story mortifying.”
“You would, sir, if your sisters and father called you Desdemona for the next five years.”
Darcy laughed again and noticed that Bingley had cast him a totally bewildered look. Darcy did not really care. If he had found a woman who could make him feel so at ease in a room full of strangers, he did not intend to censor himself in order not to shock his friend. Instead, he focused on happier thoughts, meditating on the pleasure that a pair of fine eyes on the face of a beautiful woman could bestow. So it was that he did not observe Mrs. Bennet looking in their direction with a positively greedy look. Lady Lory, however, did notice and excused herself from their party immediately.
“Ten thousand a year!” Mrs. Bennet exclaimed when Lady Lory joined her.
“Very true, madam,” she replied, “and he seems to be favoring your daughter, too.”
“Oh, my Lizzy! I do not know why Mr. Darcy has singled her out, but I am very, very proud of her!”
“Yes, who would not be? I only wish there were fewer obstacles in their way to happiness.”
“Obstacles? What obstacles?” Mrs. Bennet threw her a spiteful look.
“Well, you do know that Mr. Darcy is very particular…”
“He has every right to be! He earns ten thousand a year!” Mrs. Bennet cried indignantly.
“Well, yes, but he does not appreciate gossip about him and his fortune. Moreover, I have heard him describing the ideal family as an ‘outspoken wife, and a mute mother-in-law.’”
Mrs. Bennet nodded. “Lady Lory, if you will excuse me, I have developed a headache. I think I will spend the rest of the evening…staring out of the window.”
“What a coincidence! That happens to be one of Mr. Darcy’s favorite activities!”
The evening was drawing to a close, and Lady Lory understood that she had better leave Darcy and Elizabeth alone. They looked love-struck enough for her to feel at ease. However, she knew there was one more thing to do before she left.
“I hear the Militia will come to Meryton this autumn,” she said cheerfully. “You will have to suffer competition, Mr. Darcy, for who can resist a man in regimentals?”
Mr. Darcy stared at her with something akin to trepidation, but Elizabeth, still looking at him affectionately, said quite firmly, “Your Ladyship is quite wrong. There are women who prefer other things in men than deeds in the army—and green to red,” she added playfully, earning a devastating smile from Darcy.
“I admire your wisdom, Miss Elizabeth. At least, you will not fall victim to the machinations of certain men. I am afraid that I know one of the gentlemen who will be coming, and I have to admit that he will not be a welcome addition to the neighborhood. I was just telling Mrs. Phillips about him, very confidentially, of course.”
Elizabeth looked very worried and Darcy slightly puzzled. “His name is George Wickham,” Lady Lory announced, watching the rage spreading over Darcy’s face, casting a heavy shadow over his handsome features. Elizabeth looked alarmed, but hesitated to ask the reason for this sudden change of mood. Darcy finally raised his eyes to meet Elizabeth’s and found some peace in their affectionate, worried look.
“Please, do not feel uneasy on my account, Miss Bennet,” he said, smiling at last. Darcy’s tone was full of emotion, and Lady Lory felt quite de trop at that moment. Darcy recovered some of his previous cheerfulness, however, and continued, “It is a long story that I wish to share with you, as soon as possible, but not tonight. Tonight, I wish you would indulge my heart’s fondest desire, Elizabeth, and dance this last dance with me.”
Lady Lory thought she would swoon, just like Elizabeth.
There was a flurry of activity as the various parties called for their carriages and prepared to return home. In no hurry, Lady Lory sat and watched the people around her, until someone grabbed her by the arm. She looked up to meet Caroline Bingley’s completely red face.
“What was all this about?” she shouted at her. “What did you do to Darcy? What spell did you cast on him? How did you do it?” It was evident from her tone that Miss Bingley had spent the evening watching—and drinking.
Lady Lory shrugged her shoulders. “I just dislike angst,” she told Caroline and disentangled herself from her grasp. Before disappearing into a hallway, she turned back and added, “I only removed the angst, you know.”
Lady Lory made only one step into the hallway and halted. There stood Mr. Darcy and Miss Elizabeth Bennet in a very passionate embrace. Elizabeth’s hands were at the nape of his neck, his tightly around her waist. His lips were next to her earlobe, whispering, caressing, kissing, who could tell? Their eyes were closed and completely luminous smiles graced their faces.
“Oh yes,” Lady Lory whispered to herself. “Must add mush, too.”
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