Rivals & Rascals
by Maggie (Zevin)
August 6, 1812
When dinner was over, the entire party moved into the blue salon. Miss Bennet ended up on a settee next to her aunt. Miss Bingley, eager to show Mr. Darcy that she be could quite magnanimous when it came to mingling with people of the lower classes, sat down next to Mrs. Gardiner. Miss Darcy sat on an adjacent settee where Colonel Fitzwilliam and Mr. Bingley quickly joined her.
Miss Darcy and the colonel soon entreated Miss Bennet to play the piano. Miss Bennet blushed slightly but obligingly stood up. "Will you do me the honor of turning the pages for me, Miss Darcy?"
Before Miss Darcy could respond, however, the colonel sprang up. "It would give me great pleasure to assist you. If you recall from our time in Rosings, Miss Bennet, I am rather proficient at turning pages."
Miss Bennet could do nothing but acquiesce and Colonel Fitzwilliam soon found himself sitting next to her at the pianoforte. He proved to be rather slow at turning pages owing, perhaps, to his tendency to gaze with great admiration at Miss Bennet's swelling chest as she sang throatily to the assembled company. Despite the colonel's shortcomings as an assistant, Miss Bennet sang quite beautifully. Everyone remarked on it, even Miss Bingley.
"Why, Miss Eliza, I do declare your singing and playing has improved immensely since you performed for us at Netherfield. Would you not agree, Mr. Darcy?"
Everyone turned towards Mr. Darcy, who looked at Miss Bennet and then looked away. He had not been able to keep his eyes from Elizabeth during her performance, but he had felt uncomfortable while she played due his cousin's proximity to Miss Bennet on the piano bench. Not only had this sight aroused Darcy's jealousy, but it had reminded him of their visit to Kent last spring which had culminated in his disastrous proposal at Hunsford. He wondered if Miss Bennet was reminded of that dreadful event, as well.
Darcy realized with a start that everyone was still looking at him and expecting him to respond to Miss Bingley. "I have never heard anything wanting in Miss Bennet's performance, but her singing this evening was magnificent."
Miss Bennet cast her eyes down modestly and stood up from the piano bench. "Oh no. I play tolerably well, but I am far from proficient." Miss Bennet approached Miss Darcy and smiled warmly. "It is your turn, Miss Darcy. Please do play for us. I entreat you."
Miss Darcy turned pale and seemed for a moment to shrink against the settee. Miss Bennet touched her arm lightly. "Please, Miss Darcy, I have so been looking forward to hearing you play. I was hoping, in particular, that you would play that sonata of Mozart that we discussed yesterday. I will sit next to you and turn the pages, if you like." Miss Bennet glanced at the colonel and said laughingly, "I promise I will be more attentive at turning the pages than my erstwhile attendant." The colonel laughed delightedly at this teasing remark.
With Elizabeth's kind encouragement, Miss Darcy stood up and made her way, arm in arm with Elizabeth, to the pianoforte. She played the Mozart sonata that Elizabeth had requested. Her performance was greeted with delighted applause.
Elizabeth looked at Georgiana and squeezed her hand. "Oh, your playing is truly wonderful. You have that combination of proficiency and feeling that few performers have. I would give much to be able to play like that. Please, Miss Darcy, do play once more."
Miss Darcy, who had never before played more than one piece of music in company soon launched into another piece - a stormy, passionate piece that moved Mr. Bingley almost to tears. Everyone applauded and nodded in appreciation.
As Miss Darcy and Miss Bennet arose from the piano, Mrs. Gardiner turned to Miss Bingley and said, "That was an exceptionally lovely piece, was it not? I found it quite haunting." Miss Bingley nodded rather coolly. "I am glad to get a chance to speak with you, Miss Bingley," continued Mrs. Gardiner. "It has been months since I have seen you. Not since you and your sister visited my niece, Jane, at my home in London this past spring."
Although Mrs. Gardiner spoke rather softly, Mr. Bingley immediately sat upright. "What is this, Caroline? You visited Miss Jane Bennet in London?" Although Miss Bingley did not answer, her response was clear from the bright spots of red that instantly appeared on her cheeks.
Mr. Bingley leaned closer towards his sister. He looked extremely agitated. He spoke loudly and with a higher pitch than usual. "Look at me, Caroline. Do you deny that you knew that Miss Jane Bennet was in London, that you paid a visit upon her, in fact? How is it possible that you never informed me of this?"
Miss Bingley looked around her for assistance, but no help was forthcoming. Mr. Darcy looked distressed and kept his eyes averted from the Bingleys. Mrs. Gardiner also looked distraught. She was inwardly berating herself for broaching the subject of Miss Bingley's visit to her home.
Miss Bingley looked directly at her brother with a haughty expression. "Charles, I will not speak of this with you now. I will say that everything that I did with respect to Miss Jane Bennet, I did with your best interests in mind. Mr. Darcy knows all about this and he was in complete agreement with my actions. I acted with his express approval in everything. Is that not so, Mr. Darcy?"
Mr. Darcy stared with shock at Miss Bingley and then his eyes quickly moved to Miss Bennet. She was standing as if frozen next to Miss Darcy by the piano. The stricken look on her face revealed to Mr. Darcy that she must have heard the conversation. She did not look up at him.
With a sinking feeling, Mr. Darcy looked at Mr. Bingley. "Charles," he said softly, "I did mislead you. I was completely in the wrong. There is much I must tell you. Please allow me to explain everything to you when we have some privacy."
Mr. Bingley nodded tersely and the subject was abruptly dropped. The conversation concerning Jane Bennet had put a pall on the evening and the lighthearted mood that had prevailed during dinner could not be restored.
Even the subject of the upcoming balloon launch had lost most of its appeal. Mrs. Hurst brought up the famous but ill-fated attempt at crossing the channel in a balloon years ago, which had resulted in the balloon exploding in midair. "I hope that you can assure us that this hot air balloon will not explode before our eyes, Mr. Darcy. My nerves could not bear such a sight," said Mrs. Hurst. Mr. Darcy could make no assurances of the sort, although he assured everyone that the science of air balloons had progressed since that infamous incident.
Soon, the Gardiners and Miss Bennet excused themselves, saying that they had had a most delightful time, but that the Gardiners had plans early the following morning. Mr. And Miss Darcy went outside to see the Gardiners and Miss Bennet off. Mr. Bingley and the colonel followed closely behind them.
Mr. Darcy held his hand out for Miss Bennet to assist her into the carriage. She placed her hand on his, but did not look directly at him. Darcy felt a momentary sense of panic as she released his arm and stepped into the carriage. He wondered if he would ever see her again. Then he recalled with relief the plans to view the balloon launch.
"I will see you, then, in two days time for the air balloon launch?" asked Darcy, leaning slightly into the carriage.
Miss Bennet looked at him. He saw her expression clearly in the lamplight. There was a hint of wariness and of sadness in her eyes that had not there doing dinner. "Yes, Mr. Darcy. I have not forgotten our engagement."
"I will send my carriage for you and your family at six a.m. Until then, I bid you good night."
"Good night, Sir. Thank you again for your hospitality." Elizabeth's voice was perfectly civil, but there was no warmth in the parting glance she gave Mr. Darcy.
Mr. Darcy stood for a long time watching the carriage depart into the gloom of the forest beyond the lighted drive of Pemberley. He did not notice when Mr. Bingley and his cousin returned indoors. Georgiana stayed by his side, but he seemed unaware of her presence until she placed her hand lightly on her arm. He looked down into his sister's face.
"It is time to come inside, Brother." She whispered. Soundlessly, he put his arm lightly around her shoulder and together they returned to their company. When they entered the salon, they found Mrs. Hurst and Colonel Fitzwilliam eating sweetmeats. Mr. Hurst was slouched in an armchair and appeared to sleeping soundly. There was no sign of Mr. or Miss Bingley.
Mrs. Hurst looked at the Darcys. "My sister and brother have both retired Mr. Darcy. They are quite exhausted, it seems. I, for one, am not at all tired. Shall we play cards?"
Georgiana knew that her brother cared little for cards and she was not particularly fond of playing cards herself. She felt, however, that a game of cards might distract her brother from his sudden gloomy mood. She looked over at her cousin, who seemed quite unperturbed by the events of the evening.
"I play a wicked game of piquet, Mrs. Hurst, if you care to take your chances," responded the Colonel. Mrs. Hurst assured him that she was a superior piquet player. The colonel turned to his cousin. "Darcy?" Playing cards with his cousin and Mrs. Hurst was very low on Darcy's lists of interests at the moment, but he did not have the energy to refuse.
Mrs. Hurst dealt out the cards with the frenzied energy that she usually reserved for piano playing. Darcy eyed his cards blearily while the hopes that had lifted his spirits so high earlier in the evening deflated. His cousin was quiet and appeared to be focused on his cards.
Georgiana played poorly because she was preoccupied with thoughts of the evening. "Things had been going so well," she brooded, "until the subject of Jane Bennet had arisen. The mention of Jane Bennet's visit to London had seemed to drive a wedge between the intimacy that had been growing between Elizabeth and her brother. Georgiana felt thoroughly disparaged. Unwelcome thoughts of George Wickham flew through her mind, as she placed several cards down on the table. Georgiana recalled how utterly thrilled she had felt when she thought that Wickham loved her, and how meaningless her life felt when she realized that her fortune was his only motivation for wishing to elope with her. She looked at her brother's sad expression and sighed. "Perhaps, my brother and I were not cut out for romantic love," she thought with a dull ache in her heart.
Later in the evening after everyone else had gone to bed, the colonel found himself pacing Pemberley's long corridors. There was much to occupy his thoughts. He had been highly irritated at dinner when Darcy had brought up the hot air balloon launch. He had not missed the look of joy on Miss Bennet's face as she smilingly accepted Darcy's invitation to view the launch. It appeared to him that his cousin was dangling the idea of a hot air balloon launch before Elizabeth as another man might dangle a diamond bracelet before the woman he desired. And the opportunity to observe a hot air balloon launch would appeal much more to a woman like Elizabeth than expensive jewelry, he thought. The colonel realized now, more than ever, that his cousin's immense wealth put Darcy at a huge advantage over him. The colonel was generally resigned to his role as second son, but at the present moment he bristled with the unfairness of it all.
The colonel's thoughts turned to the confrontation between Mr. Bingley and his sister concerning Jane Bennet. He did not fully understand the significance of the revelations about Miss Jane Bennet, but he suspected it was related to Darcy's statement last spring that he had rescued Bingley from an unfortunate liaison. It was clear that there was some painful history between Elizabeth Bennet and his cousin that involved her sister, Jane. The colonel had observed that Elizabeth's manner towards Darcy had definitely cooled since the topic of her sister's visit to London was raised.
He had also overheard the last words exchanged between Miss Bennet and his cousin as she was leaving. It appeared that Miss Bennet still had plans to attend the balloon launch with his cousin in two days, but Darcy had made no plans to visit Miss Bennet tomorrow. The colonel also recalled hearing the Gardiners state that they had an early appointment in the morning; they had made no mention of their niece joining them on this engagement. It was possible that Elizabeth would remain at the Inn alone tomorrow morning. Colonel Fitzwilliam abruptly stopped pacing and walked swiftly outside and to the stables.
When the colonel strode into stables, he found a teenaged boy crouching in the hay. The lad was busy combing through strands of his hair as if looking for nits. Much to the colonel's irritation the lad did not stand up when the colonel approached him.
"Step to, Lad," the colonel. The lad simply stared at the colonel with a blank look on his face. It occurred to Colonel Fitzwilliam that the boy was half-witted. He softened his voice and spoke slowly.
"Saddle up my horse tomorrow morning early. I attend to ride before seven." The lad nodded and then returned all of his attention to combing through his matted hair.
Elizabeth bid the Gardiners good night and retired to her room as soon as they returned to the Inn. She sensed that her aunt wished to speak of the evening's events, but Elizabeth felt herself unequal to conversation on any subject. She undressed quickly and lay down, but she found herself unable to sleep. Her reflections were agitated; her feelings were in great tumult. Her thoughts centered on one man. Fitzwilliam Darcy.
After reading his letter at Hunsford, Mr. Darcy had changed in her opinion from a man she despised to a man who was worthy of respect. She had acquitted him of cruelty, but her feeling that he was a man who she could never love had not changed. But her feelings in both respect had recently undergone a marked transformation. Ever since she had met him at Pemberley, Mr. Darcy had revealed tantalizing glimpses of himself. She now recognized so many good qualities in him and so many tastes and interests of his that were compatible to her own, that she could barely fathom why she once found his company so objectionable. More than that, his tenderness to his sister, his rare but infectious laughter, his sharp intelligence, and his passionate gaze had all slowly worked at her heart.
As she lay sleepless in her bed, she could not escape the truth. Fitzwilliam Darcy was, indeed a man that she could love. Unhappily, she also realized that she could not acquit him of cruelty, after all.
"For he is the cause of Jane's and of Mr. Bingley's suffering even now," she thought miserably. It was one thing for him to raise objections to a possible marriage between Mr. Bingley and Jane when he thought Jane's heart to be untouched, but, why had he done nothing to counteract his earlier discouragement of Mr. Bingley's courtship of Jane once she had apprised him of Jane's true feelings? Not only this, but it seemed that his actions regarding Mr. Bingley and Jane may be worse than he had admitted to her in his letter. For Mr. Darcy did not deny Caroline Bingley's statement tonight that all of her actions in regards to Jane had all been with Mr. Darcy's express approval. Elizabeth recollected that it was Jane's belief that Mr. Bingley was aware of presence in London and had deliberately avoided her that had caused Jane particular pain. It was Caroline Bingley that had fostered this belief, and now it appeared that Mr. Darcy may have approved of this deceit. It was bad enough that he should have deceived Mr. Bingley, but if he had played a hand in cruelly deceiving her sister as well, how could she ever forgive him?
Tormented by these wretched thoughts, Elizabeth lay awake for most of the night. She slept for less than an hour, before the relentless crowing of a cock woke her up. She lay awake in bed once more with her unhappy reflections until she heard her aunt and uncle stirring in the next room. Not wanting to reveal that there was anything amiss, Elizabeth reluctantly got out of bed and got dressed. She knew her aunt and uncle had planned to walk out early this morning to visit the gravesites of Mrs. Gardiner's parents and she wanted to greet them before they left.
Elizabeth joined the Gardiners for their early breakfast. She was relieved to see that Miss Gardiner was too preoccupied with recalling memories of her parents to notice Elizabeth's fatigue. After breakfast was finished, the Gardiners bid Elizabeth good-bye and set off for the cemetery. As soon as they left, Elizabeth collapsed on the settee in their private parlor.
"I must talk to him," she thought suddenly. "I must give him a chance to explain himself in person. I will not repeat the mistake of judging him harshly on insufficient information." She felt much better after resolving this. She was in hopes that the outing for the balloon launch would afford an opportunity to speak privately to Mr. Darcy. It was even possible that he would visit her today, she thought, remembering his intense gaze last night as he bid her good evening.
There soon came a knock on the door that made Elizabeth's heart beat loudly. She was both relieved and disappointed to find that it was only the maid delivering their mail. On discovering two letters for her from Jane, however, Elizabeth's spirits revived a bit. She clutched the letters to her chest and took them into her room to read.
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