Rivals & Rascals
October 11, 1812
People gasped in wonder as they stepped into the ballroom. The walls and ceiling had been draped in yellow silk and the light from thousands of candles bathed the room in a twinkling veil of golden light. The overall effect was so opulent that any host but Mr. Bingley would have been subjected to criticism for his pretensions. As it was, Mr. Bingley, flanked by his two sisters, greeted each of his guests with such an abundance of hospitality that even the most jaded among them were charmed by the surroundings. Not even the supercilious airs of Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst could spoil the festive mood.
Standing slightly behind Mr. Bingley was Mr. Darcy and his pretty young sister. That gentleman smiled at each guest with such warmth as to dispel forever the impression among the good people of Hertfordshire that he felt himself to be above his company. Many a woman of all ages felt her pulse quicken and her insides quiver when Fitzwilliam Darcy bowed gracefully over her hand. One young lady, in fact, was so overcome by the force of Mr. Darcy’s elegant attentions that she had to immediately withdraw to the retiring room with the assistance of her mother.
Adding greatly to the excitement of the evening was the news that a number of unmarried gentlemen would be in attendance at the ball. Most of the single young ladies in the area had arrived early so that they could position themselves advantageously before either any unmarried gentlemen or the Bennets arrived. It was universally felt that since three of the Bennet girls had recently made such advantageous matches that it was only fair that the other young ladies in the neighborhood had first crack at any eligible gentlemen that ventured into Hertfordshire.
To the delight of the young ladies, four friends of Mr. Bingley arrived quite early in the evening. All of these gentlemen were pleasing in both looks and manners, and they soon found themselves surrounded by members of the young female sex. The young ladies’ mothers, however, kept one eye on the entrance to the ballroom because they felt that the best in the way of eligible gentlemen were yet to come.
They were proved correct when, just as the clock struck ten, a footman announced the arrival of Mr. John Crandall and Mr. Richard Fitzwilliam. Although most of the young ladies felt that neither of these gentlemen were quite as good looking as Mr. Bingley’s four friends, something in the manner of these two men’s dress, form and bearing informed the young ladies’ mothers that these gentlemen were superior to the others. The more industrious mothers soon discovered that Mr. Crandall had a large fortune and an old estate, and Mr. Fitzwilliam was of noble birth and possessed a generous income. These mothers quickly motioned to their daughters and in no time at all Mr. Bingley’s four young friends found themselves quite deserted.
So busy in fact were the mothers and their daughters in plotting how to catch the eye of Mr. Crandall and Mr. Fitzwilliam, that none of them observed the awkward meeting between the latter gentleman and Mr. Darcy. The two cousins stood toe to toe for a full minute, both with a stony faced expression, before either one spoke. Darcy was the first to break the silence.
“Fitzwilliam. You look well.”
“And you.” Fitzwilliam searched Darcy’s face and was relieved to see there was no sign of scarring from the vicious punches that had marked the last time that they had seen each other.
There was another awkward pause, and then Fitzwilliam mumbled. “I wish you joy.”
“Thank you, and I wish you the same.” Then the two gentlemen wordlessly clapped each other on the back. With these spare words and the one manly gesture, the two cousins expressed to the best of their ability all the complexity of emotions that they felt towards each other.
With one last intense look at Darcy, Fitzwilliam moved on to Georgiana. He had no idea how much she knew of the recent events of the past. She had tears in her eyes when she greeted him, and he did not know whether they were due to compassion for him or anxiety over the upcoming wedding. He pressed her hand.
“Do not weep on the eve of Darcy’s wedding, Georgie. He looks very happy and so should you be.” He spoke in a low voice in her ear.
Georgiana did not say it to her cousin, but she was exquisitely happy, both for her brother and herself, regarding his upcoming marriage. Her tears were due to the fact that her cousin could not join them in their joy. Although neither Darcy nor Elizabeth had said anything to her on the subject, she knew from observing his behavior in Derbyshire that her cousin had been determined to win Elizabeth for himself.
She tried to steer the conversation away from the subject of happiness. “It is wonderful that you have come. I hope to have a chance to dance with you. You are the best dancer that I know, and I am not comfortable dancing with strangers.”
“Of course, Georgie, it would be my honor. Are you certain, however, that Darcy will allow you to dance in a ball as large as this? It is not considered proper seeing as you are not yet out.”
“Oh, I may dance all I wish. My brother has become quite relaxed about such things. It is all due to the influence of Elizabeth. She has a remarkable effect on him.”
Fitzwilliam’s expression tensed momentarily at these words and then relaxed.
Georgie looked aghast and grasped her cousin’s hand. “Oh, I am so sorry, I did not mean to speak of her.”
Fitzwilliam realized then that Georgiana was aware of at least some of his history with Elizabeth and that her tears had been for him. His voice was rather gruff when he spoke.
“Do not fret, Georgie. I am well. Now, you must greet your other guests.”
With that, Fitzwilliam kissed Georgiana and hastened away. His pride was wounded to think that he was the object of his young cousin’s pity.
He was soon introduced to a number of young ladies and their mothers, and their rapt attentions assuaged his pride to some degree. He expertly engaged in charming banter with the elder as well as the younger of these ladies. Although Mr. Crandall was rumored to be the richer of the two, Mr. Fitzwilliam’s conversation was so delightful and his manners so easy yet so genteel that he was deemed by most to be the better catch. In fact, more than a few of the young ladies had revised her earlier opinion of him and now were convinced that Mr. Fitzwilliam was by far the handsomest available gentleman at the ball.
Fitzwilliam was conversing with the prettiest of the young ladies about the pleasures of a country ball when the footman announced the names of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. Conversation ceased and all eyes turned to the new arrivals just in time to see Misses Jane and Elizabeth Bennet join their parents and then approach their hosts.
From within his circle of admiring young ladies, Fitzwilliam watched silently while Darcy greeted his bride to be. Both Darcy and Elizabeth were circumspect in their greeting of each other, but their mutual adoration was clear in every small gesture and glance they exchanged. Fitzwilliam’s observation of the betrothed couple was more educational than it was painful. It was clear that Elizabeth loved Darcy in a way that she had never loved him. He also realized, after observing Darcy’s impassioned looks at Elizabeth, that his own feelings for her were quite lukewarm in comparison. ‘She has brought him to his knees,’ he thought, relieved to discover that she no longer had the same effect on him, if she ever had. Elizabeth was as lovely as ever, but his love for her was proving to have a short wick.
His reveries were interrupted by a shrill conversation between a young lady standing on his right and her mother.
“Oh look, there is Kitty Bennet! She is certainly not in her best looks tonight.”
“Yes, that green gown does not suit her at all, and she has grown so thin. Mary Bennet on the other hand looks almost pretty tonight. She has actually taken some trouble with her appearance for once.”
“Wait until she opens her mouth, however, her preaching will scare any interested gentlemen away. She is as dull as they come, poor soul.”
Fitzwilliam turned to the two gossiping ladies and bowed slightly. “Please excuse me, but I must go pay my respects to Miss Mary Bennet. She is such a delightful conversationalist.”
Leaving the two women openmouthed in his wake, Fitzwilliam started to move in Mary Bennet’s direction. She noticed him approaching and their eyes caught and held. The intensity of the expression in Mary’s eyes him feel slightly lightheaded. Before he could tear his eyes away from Mary’s, Shelby rushed over to his side.
“Fitz! It is deuced good to see you. Good Lord, you are looking like a clergyman already! I have never seen you look so solemn. Let us get a drink and catch up a bit.”
Fitzwilliam smiled fondly at his friend, although his thoughts were still occupied by the smoldering look that Miss Mary had just given him.
“Yes, we have much to talk about, Shel, but first I must pay my regards to someone.”
“Ah, yes, you have to do the proper and all.” Shelby looked around. “I do not see any of your relatives about. I imagine they were not too happy about the wedding. Especially, Lady C, I expect that she has got her nose quite out of joint over the whole business. I doubt she would have minded as much if you had been the bridegroom.” Shelby then leaned over and whispered in his friend’s ear. “Lydia and I guessed, Fitz, that it was Elizabeth that you were engaged to, but have no fear; your secret is safe with us.”
Shelby straightened up and gestured to a young lady in a pink gown shrieking with laughter in the middle of the ballroom. “There is my Lydia; she is dying to meet you. We were just talking to your old friend Cutler; he has an aunt who lives in Bath you know, and he told Lydia that you and he used to…”
Fitzwilliam cut his friend off. “I would like to ask you a favor, Shelby.”
“Of course, Fitz, you know that you can count on me. Do you need me to help you make a getaway?” Shelby looked in pointedly in the direction of Elizabeth Bennet who was now standing at the side of her fiancee.
“Escape will not be necessary, I hope. All I require is a simple introduction to a young lady.”
Shelby beamed. “That is just the thing to turn you around. There are quite a few pretty young gels here, too. I ain’t going to be much help, however, because I don’t know any young ladies here, except for my wife’s sisters.”
“That will do perfectly. I would like, in fact, an introduction to Miss Mary Bennet.”
Shelby looked confused. “But I thought you have met her already, she gave me a note from you.”
“A formal introduction, and do not let on about the note.”
“Right; I will have to introduce you to her sister Kitty, and my mother-in-law at the same time as they are standing together.” He lowered his voice. “Better not show too much interest in Kitty or you might find yourself shackled to her. The good Mrs. B is determined to find a husband for Kitty, now that Lydia and I are fixed, and she don’t do things by halves.”
“What about Mary? I thought that she was the next oldest after Elizabeth. Is her mother not trying to marry her off as well?”
“Mary? Good God, even Mrs. B knows that there is not much hope of anyone marrying her. Nothing terribly wrong with the girl, but she is a preachy thing, prim as they come, and likes to scold her sisters. She and Lydia don’t get along at all.”
Fitzwilliam looked over at Mary who now had her back turned to him. Even the sight of the back of her stirred something in him. He tried his best to keep his reaction from showing on his face.
Shelby put his arm on Fitz’s elbow and steered him towards the Bennets. He introduced him to first Mrs. Bennet and then to Mary and Kitty.
Mrs. Bennet looked at Fitzwilliam with keen interest. “You are Mr. Darcy’s cousin, are you not?”
“And you have met my daughter Elizabeth, I believe? “ Mrs. Bennet asked with a coy smile.
“Yes, Ma’am, I have had the pleasure of her acquaintance, and I am looking forward to be better acquainted with your entire family. I am hoping that your daughter, Miss Mary, will dance the first set with me.”
Mrs. Bennet’s eyes widened. “Oh, Mary does not dance, but my daughter Kitty loves it more than anything. She will make you a fine partner. Kitty, Kitty, come here; Mr. Fitzwilliam would like to dance the first set with you.”
“I beg pardon, Ma’am, I would be delighted to dance with Miss Kitty later in the evening, but for the first set my heart is fixed on having Miss Mary as my partner.”
Seeing that Mrs. Bennet was too astonished to respond, he turned to face Mary and bowed.
“Miss Mary, may I have the pleasure of this dance?”
Mary hesitated for a moment, and quickly glanced to the area of the room where the band was tuning up and couples were started to take their places for the dance. She then glanced at her mother who was staring at her with an awed expression on her face.
Mary put her hand on Fitzwilliam’s proffered arm. “Yes, of course, sir, I would be honored.”
They took up their places opposite each other in the line that was forming. Fitzwilliam was trying to think of something lighthearted to say to Mary, but nothing came to mind. They stood and stared at each other in silence until the opening chords of the dance were played, and he and Mary stepped towards each other in time with the music. A thrill of anticipation struck Fitzwilliam as he and Mary faced each other, palms up, and when their gloved hands touched briefly, he shivered unaccountably. “What is happening to me,’ he thought.
He soon moved down the line, according to the rules of the dance, and to his surprise, he found himself across from Elizabeth. Judging by the deep flush, which spread over her face as Fitzwilliam looked at her, Elizabeth was highly uncomfortable to be facing him.
As he approached her, he said softly, “Miss Elizabeth, I wish you and my cousin great happiness.”
Elizabeth searched his face for a moment and saw that his well wishes were genuine.
“Thank you, your well wishes mean more to me than anyone’s.” Tears glistened in his eyes, as she spoke. Fitzwilliam, strangely touched by the encounter, mused that he had never before, to his knowledge, brought any woman to tears and now he had caused two ladies to be in that state within the space of less than half an hour.
“God bless you,” Elizabeth whispered as they parted from each other to proceed down the line.
Fitzwilliam soon found himself back in front of Mary. She was looking as grave as ever.
“You must not look so solemn while we dance. It is a lighthearted pastime, you should be laughing, or at least smiling,” he chided her with a small smile.
“It is you who are fault, sir,” she said as their palms lightly touched again. “You promised to teach me to flirt and laugh while dancing; I believe you said it was your particular specialty.”
“Ah yes,” he replied, but before he could think of an appropriately flirtatious remark, they temporarily switched partners again and he found himself in front of Miss Caroline Bingley.
That lady greeted him with a smirk that was positively malevolent. “I must confess, I am surprised to see you upon this felicitous occasion, Colonel. Oh, I do apologize; I had forgotten that you are no longer to permitted to bear that form of address. It seems you have lost out in all respects.”
Fitzwilliam smiled stiffly at her. “I compliment you, Madam, on being an excellent hostess. You have truly outdone yourself tonight.”
He was relieved to be facing Mary again for the second dance of the set.
“So, instruct me, sir. How does one go about the art of flirting while dancing?”
“The best way to go about it is to tell your partner something amusing in a light tone of voice. Then you will both laugh together, and your partner will compliment you on your wit.”
Mary thought for a moment. “I did recently overhear something that you might find amusing, but it is also rather scandalous. Too scandalous to repeat, in fact, I cannot tell it.”
Fitzwilliam drew up close to her and whispered in her ear. “You cannot not, or you will not?”
“I cannot, not while dancing, I will forget the steps, and trod on someone.”
“Perhaps,” she said with a mysterious little smile and glided away down the line.
After that, Fitzwilliam had difficulty concentrating on the steps; so preoccupied was he with curiosity over Mary’s scandalous tale and with the memory of her rare smile.
When at long last the set was done. Fitzwilliam placed Mary’s hand on his arm. “Come let us seek out refreshments and you must tell me your scandalous story. I cannot wait a moment more to hear it.”
He commandeered a glass of punch for both of them, and then steered Mary into a relatively deserted corner of the ballroom.
Mary sipped her punch slowly, until Fitzwilliam cleared his throat impatiently.
“It involves Mr. Bingley’s sisters and Mr. Hurst.”
Fitzwilliam’s eyes widened. “Does your tale involve the circumstances surrounding the marriage of the Hursts?”
Fitzwilliam smiled hugely, “By Jove, I have been dying to hear this tale. Please go on.”
“It is not very gracious to speak of it now while we are enjoying Miss Bingley’s hospitality.”
“It is Mr. Bingley’s hospitality we are enjoying, and he was intending to tell me the tale this past summer until we were interrupted by a rainstorm. I must insist that you tell me the tale at once or I will think you a terrible tease.”
“Very well then.” Mary said. She took one more sip of punch and then put it aside and folded her hands primly. “I heard that before his marriage, Mr. Hurst was widely known as the ‘eight thousand a year man.’ Mr. Bingley’s sisters were aware of this and determined that Louisa Bingley should marry him. They pursued him very boldly, and when he showed no interest, they planned that during a house party Miss Louisa would slip into his bedroom. She did so and Miss Caroline arranged for a friend of his parents to discover them thus. In order to avoid a great scandal, his mother forced Mr. Hurst to marry Miss Louisa.”
Fitzwilliam grinned. “How very scandalous.” Then, he frowned slightly. “Eight thousand a year? I am surprised, I had thought that Hurst had a very modest income.”
“Yes, that is the odd thing. His title ‘eight thousand a year man’ did not refer to his income at all, which is quite modest as you say. It referred to his obsession with oysters. I heard that one year he ate so many oysters during a four month period that he and his friends calculated that if oysters were in season year round, he would eat eight thousand a year. That is where his nickname came from. When Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley discovered their error, they were extremely vexed. They both have vowed, in fact, never to eat oysters again. I understand that Mr. Bingley’s cook is quite put out because she likes to serve oyster stew on occasion as it is one of Mr. Bingley’s favorite dishes and Miss Bingley will not permit it. I myself think it is quite unfair of Miss Bingley to deprive her brother of oyster stew just because she made a mistake in her calculations. What do you think, Mr. Fitzwilliam, is it not most ungenerous of her?”
Fitzwilliam stared at Mary for a moment, and then leaned his head back and laughed uproariously. He laughed so long and so loudly, in fact, that most of the people in the ballroom turned and stared in his direction, and then stared even harder when they realized that standing next to the dashing Mr. Fitzwilliam, and laughing right along with him, was Miss Mary Bennet.
When Mr. Fitzwilliam’s laughter finally died down and he was wiping tears of mirth out of his eyes, Mary gave him a reproving look.
“Mr. Fitzwilliam, you are being quite remiss.”
He looked at her with one eyebrow raised. “How so?”
“Since I have told you something amusing and we have both laughed together, you are now obligated to compliment my wit.”
Fitzwilliam took Mary’s gloved hand and kissed it gallantly. “My dear Miss Mary, your wit is so finely constructed as to put that of all other young ladies to shame.”
Mary was so pleased by this compliment that she gave her companion a dazzling smile; he felt positively weak in the knees.
None of the single young ladies or their mothers missed the sight of Mary Bennet laughing shamelessly with Mr. Fitzwilliam, nor did they fail to observe him kissing her hand. They were so miffed at the sight that they immediately pronounced that Mr. Fitzwilliam was sadly wanting in both looks and manners, and they vowed to focus their favors on Mr. Crandall. So suddenly besieged was that gentlemen by female attentions that he soon disappeared into Mr. Bingley’s library and was not seen again for the rest of the evening.**************************
October 12, 1812
The wedding service was overlong. Fitzwilliam had difficulty staying awake, partly owing to the fact that he had been unable to sleep the night before due to fantasizing about having Mary Bennet in his bed. In his imaginings, she was divested of all clothing but despite her immodest state, she was wearing a severe, pedantic look. He had found the image surprisingly seductive. ‘Could I be falling in love again?’ he had mused, and then the thought had struck him that he might be falling in love, true love, for the first time in his life. This notion kept him awake for the remainder of the night, tossing and turning in his bed.
John Crandall, who was sitting beside Fitzwilliam, leaned over and spoke in a low voice. “That will be you up there soon, I expect.”
Fitzwilliam started and looked at his friend in his astonishment. Was the turn of his thoughts so obvious then?
“I beg your pardon?”
“As you will be a vicar soon, you will be responsible for performing marriage ceremonies. You may even officiate at my own some day, if I should ever be as lucky as Darcy. I am sure you will not be so dull as the creature officiating today. I have never heard a service so dry and tedious before. Darcy does not seem to mind, however. He looks positively aglow with happiness.”
Fitzwilliam nodded. There was no denying Darcy and Elizabeth both looked exceptionally happy. 'As they should be,’ he thought, surprising himself with his lack of rancor.
Fortunately, the long service finally drew to an end and most of the guests spilled out of the church while the two wedded couples signed the register.
The new Mr. and Mrs. Bingley exited the church ahead of the Darcys, and a cheer went up as they walked down the church stairs. Mr. Darcy and his bride soon followed them. Another cheer went up, and Elizabeth squeezed Mr. Darcy’s arm and laughed. He smiled down at her lovely face. Just then, the church bells started pealing, and both of the married couples made a dash to the open carriages that awaited them in front of the church. They climbed into their respective carriages while the onlookers pelted them with petals.
Darcy and Elizabeth were waving to well wishers from the high seat of the carriage, when Darcy murmured, “Look up, my love.”
Elizabeth looked up and gasped in wonder. There, above them in the sky, was a large red hot air balloon; two young men waved to them from the basket and Darcy raised his hand in salute. Instantaneously, the two men started tossing handfuls of small bright coins down to the crowd below.
A cry went up from the wedding guests, and everyone raised their heads to the sky in wonder. Several of the younger guests started jumping up to catch coins as they fell from above.
One large coin landed on the top of Mrs. Bennet’s bonnet; she was so enraptured, however, that she did not even notice. “Oh Mr. Bennet!” she cried, “A hot air balloon! I think a ride in one would set me up forever!”
“Do you, my dear?” replied her husband. “I will have to have a word with Mr. Darcy a the wedding breakfast about it. I have no doubt that he will be only too happy to oblige you.”*****
The wedding breakfast was a huge success. To Mrs. Bennet’s delight, Mr. Darcy’s cousin spent most of it by Mary’s side. The only time, in fact, that he ventured far from Mary was when he approached Caroline Bingley near the coffee urn. Fearing that Mary might have competition for Mr. Fitzwilliam’s affections, Mrs. Bennet hovered nearby while the two conversed. She was surprised to discover that Mr. Fitzwilliam had sought out Miss Bingley to discuss oysters. To Mrs. Bennet’s relief, Miss Bingley seemed to have an extreme distaste of oysters because she stalked off with an outraged look on her face soon after Mr. Fitzwilliam raised the subject.
The chief subject at breakfast was the hot air balloon and how wondrous it was. No one had ever seen anything quite like it. Everyone agreed that it was a magical sight.
“Mr. Darcy,” remarked Mrs. Phillips loudly, “was it you who made the arrangements for the air balloon? I declare I cannot imagine anything more thrilling in my life!”
“I can,” he replied, gazing at his lovely bride. It was not long thereafter that Mr. and Mrs. Darcy hastily departed their wedding breakfast. Some people speculated that they had slipped out to take a ride in the hot air balloon. Although these speculations were not wholly accurate, they were not far from the truth.
(I have not forgotten about the Epilogue--)
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