Netherfield ~ the 27th of November 1811
Miss Caroline Bingley was the last of the Netherfield party to come down and join the others in the drawing-room that morning. Her appearance was not nearly so flawless as it might have been had this been just an ordinary day. It was not an ordinary day. It was the morning after the ball, and it seemed as though only a few hours had passed since the festivities had drawn to a close. Much to her chagrin, that horrid Longbourn party was the last of all the company to depart. By a maneuver of Mrs. Bennet, they had to wait for their carriage a quarter of an hour after everybody else was gone.
That said, Caroline had exercised enough care to be seen in company. Thankfully, they would have the house to themselves, for she could have no reason to expect callers that particular day. Of course, Mr. Darcy would be there, and she would never allow him to see her at her worst.
Having expected her brother, Charles Bingley, to be away, her attention was immediately drawn by his presence in front of the cozy lit fire. “I thought you would be halfway to London by now.”
Her older sister, Mrs. Louisa Hurst, spoke before Charles had time to open his mouth. “It seems our brother has changed his mind and decided to put off his business affairs in town. I am surprised to see you up and about at this hour, Sister. You could not have gotten more than four hours of sleep, and I know how much you cherish your beauty rest.”
Caroline sighed heavily. “Oh! Those Bennets. I thought they would never leave. But they did leave, and if what I learned from my maid upon awakening this morning is true, it will be a long time before we have to suffer their company again.”
“What have you heard?” Bingley exclaimed with energy, settling himself in a nearby chair.
“Why, Charles, I was of the opinion you deplored gossip.”
“As I most certainly do, but as you mentioned the Bennets, you must comprehend the reason my interest is piqued.”
“Very well, but prepare yourself to be shocked, for I understand that one of the Bennet daughters is soon to be engaged!”
“Caroline,” cried her sister, “do not dare keep us in suspense! Which of the five of them is the lucky lady?”
“That indeed is the question. I only know that their ridiculous cousin was overheard talking to himself. He was likely rehearsing what he planned to say when offering his hand to one of the Bennet sisters. I know not which one, but one can only assume it is Jane. Given a choice between the five of them, any man would be a fool to choose otherwise.”
Bingley bolted from his chair. “Jane!” he cried. “Surely you are mistaken. It cannot be Miss Bennet. I refuse to believe it.”
“Pray, calm yourself, Brother. I did not say it was her, I only suppose it is her. And what if it is Jane? What can that mean to you?”
“How can you even ask such a question? Have my own intentions toward her been so unclear?”
“For heaven sakes, Charles,” the older sister cried. “Are you not always falling in love with every pretty woman you meet?”
“It is different with Miss Bennet. You know it is, Louisa!”
Caroline scoffed. “Regardless of what your intentions may or may not have been, what does it signify? You can have no reason to suspect that she suffers any meaningful affection for you, regardless of how much she smiles at you.” Here, Caroline looked at Bingley’s friend, who had remained a silent observer to it all. “Is that not your opinion as well, Mr. Darcy? I saw the way you regarded my brother and Miss Bennet for most of the evening—with circumspect and doubt.”
“I will not deny that I saw no evidence that Miss Bennet’s feelings were on a par with Bingley’s.”
Taken aback upon hearing his closest friend speak this way, Bingley said, “Darcy, what are you saying? I would expect such disparagement from my sisters who no doubt have their own opinions of whom I ought to marry. I rather expected differently from you.”
“I had no idea you were contemplating marriage, Charles,” Darcy replied in his own defense.
“You once said the Bennet ladies would never marry gentlemen of consequence, Mr. Darcy. It seems you were quite mistaken,” said Caroline. “Who is more consequential for someone whose circumstances are such as the Bennets than the heir of the estate, even if it is Mr. Collins?” she added, her voice a mixture of gleefulness and mischief.
“And if you will recall, Caroline, I said the Bennets might have uncles enough to fill all of Cheapside, and it would make no difference to me.”
Caroline’s reference to his earliest observation of the Bennets struck a disturbing chord in Darcy. For the first time since their immediate intercourse began, a sense of panic overcame him.
He remembered seeing the Bennet cousin, Mr. Collins, behaving rather peculiar throughout the course of the evening before. He had comported himself much like a lost puppy dog—rarely straying from Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s side.
By now, his friend Bingley had started pacing the floor, yanking at his hair. Darcy had to resist doing the same and thereby drawing much-unwanted attention away from the former unto himself.
Bingley’s motives, Darcy understood, even if he did not necessarily agree with him, but Darcy could hardly account for his own. Regardless of what Darcy supposed were one-sided feelings on Bingley’s part, his friend certainly had the right to be disheartened if the object of his affection had agreed to marry another. But what must be his own excuse be for feeling anything akin to dejection if the Bennet daughter, in question, turned out to be Miss Elizabeth?
Were Darcy to judge by the manner of the young lady’s behavior toward him at the ball, she likely despised him. All his attempts to earn her good opinion, of late, had been entirely in vain. Asking her to dance the evening before had not been easy for him. Seeing in all her neighbors’ eyes that same look he often espied when they looked at his friend Bingley and Miss Bennet had not been easy either, for being the object of rumor and innuendo was his abhorrence. Yet, there he had purposely stood opposite her on the dance floor, the only young lady apart from Bingley’s sisters to have been seen partnering with him since his arrival in Hertfordshire so many weeks ago. And what had he done but alienate her even further by debating her regarding her budding acquaintance with the man who would be his worst enemy?
Why would the possibility of Miss Elizabeth Bennet being engaged to her cousin matter to him?
Because she deserves to be happy, Darcy silently conceded to himself. If the look on her face when forced to endure her cousin’s company is any indication, I am persuaded that fool is the last man in the world who is worthy of her.
“Where are you going, Charles?” Caroline exclaimed with energy, thereby pulling Darcy from his reverie.
“I will not stand idly by and wait to hear what is unfolding three miles away at Longbourn Village. I am determined to go there directly. May I count on you to accompany me, Darcy?”
Despite the ardent protests of the Bingley sisters, the two young men were gone directly.
§ Chapter 2 Preview: Discover, along with Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley, which Bennet daughter is Mr. Collins’s choice.