Mr. Darcy has left the company of Charles Bingley and contemplates the approach of Twelfth Night in his London town house.
An excerpt from Darcy and Elizabeth: Christmas 1811
January 5, 1812.
The afternoon sunlight tumbled through the windows, laying a neatly ordered path of light through his study, illuminating everything the way he best liked. Even the well-arranged room could not soothe his soul. Darcy paced across the front of his desk, eyes never leaving the taunting bit of stationary. Lady Matlock’s elegant hand tormented him with an invitation to her Twelfth Night ball.
The day the dreadful missive arrived, he sent his promise to attend. The act had been automatic, a reflex of politeness, bred into him by a long line of proper, well-mannered Darcy’s. Had he but taken a few moments to consider his actions, he might not be in his current dilemma.
He dreaded balls, this one in particular—loathed it with a fire reserved for all things pretentious and social. He did not perform well to strangers and this ball would be naught but an extended performance to many strangers. He might as well be a circus animal—a wise pig or a counting horse—put through his paces for the peeresses and heiresses by ring master Lady Matlock.
The port decanter caught a glint of sunlight and tipped its hat at him from across the room. What an excellent notion.
The housekeeper’s knock stopped him mid-step.
Botheration. He squeezed his eyes shut. It was too early in the day to seek solace from port in any case. “Come.”
She peeked in and dropped a small curtsey. “Col. Fitzwilliam to see you, sir. Are you home to him?” At least she recognized he did not appreciate the interruption.
Fitzwilliam? “Show him in.”
How could Fitzwilliam have known how little he wanted company at preset? His timing was remarkable that way. Darcy tugged his coat straight and hurried into a chair near the fire. No point in giving Fitzwilliam the satisfaction of seeing evidence of his discomfiture.
“Good afternoon, Darcy.” Fitzwilliam sauntered in, relaxed and informal, as though this were his own home. How did he do it? Fitzwilliam seemed at home where ever he went.
“Good afternoon.” Darcy rose and offered a small bow. Still probably too formal for the occasion, but it was the most comfortable greeting he knew. “To what do I own the pleasure of your company?”
Fitzwilliam extended his hand and would not withdraw it until Darcy shook it. Yes, their relationship did permit such familiar gestures, but was it necessary to exercise them at every encounter?
“Do try to relax, Darcy. We are family after all.” Fitzwilliam sunk into his favorite chair and balanced one foot upon the other.
Had he any idea of his appalling posture? What a dreadful picture he painted of one of His Majesty’s officers.
“You may thank my mother for the call.”
Darcy clutched his temples. “Dare I ask her purposes?”
“Probably not, but I will tell you all the same.” Fitzwilliam laced his hands behind his head and sniggered. “She instructs me to ensure your attendance at her ball.”
“I already sent—”
“I know—I saw the response myself—she showed it to me to scold my penmanship. Excellent hand you have, by the bye, most elegant.”
“And that is not enough for her?”
“You know how fastidious she is, and she knows how you would rather break your own leg than attend.”
“You think I would manufacture a fall down the stairs to avoid the ball?”
“Not I.” Fitzwilliam touched his chest and shook his head.
“But my mother is an entirely different matter.” He punctuated the pronouncement with his characteristic, wry half-smile.
Darcy stared at the ceiling and muttered under his breath.
“Truly, I do not understand your aversion to—”
“Donning a costume—worse yet, one not of my own choosing?” Darcy stalked to Fitzwilliam and towered over him.
“Must you always make the worse of everything? I will have you know, Mother selected your character very carefully. Brooded over it for days, lest it keep you from attending. I am instructed to inform you that there will be no random draw out of a hat for you. Father has strict directions as to the sleight of hand necessary to insure you receive her choice for you.”
Such thoughtfulness. He had done Lady Matlock a great disservice expecting so little from her. Assuming the best from people, even his own people, was clearly not his strong suit.
“I can see you are surprised.”
“Aunt Matlock is indeed most gracious.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Whilst I appreciate the consideration, it does little to change the material fact that I am expected to perform!”
“She assures me that your character will require no performance on your part, merely act like yourself and you will be ‘in character’ as it were. She has probably crafted Christopher Curmudgeon in your honor.” Fitzwilliam swallowed back a laugh.
Best ignore that remark all together. Darcy stalked across the room, following the faint track worn into the carpet. “I do appreciate her efforts, but still, I am denied my choice of partners for the evening. I must spend my time with whomever she draws from that ridiculous bag of hers.”
“As to that—she wishes me to assure you that if you but indicate a preference to her, she will contrive to ensure your have the partner you desire.”
Darcy stopped and the window and pressed his forehead against the cool glass. There in lay the problem.
The partner he desired was not in London and even if she were, her name would be completely unknown to any lofty personages. He pinched the bridge of his nose.
Rot and nonsense! He must regulate his thoughts, not allow them to wander to her. She was most unsuitable in every way—fortune, breeding, connections, even her manners were barely adequate. And her family—truly appalling nearly every one of them! That was what he must focus on…not her fine eyes and informed, if pert, opinions. Not the exhilaration he found in conversation with her or the compelling way she challenged him to consider his own opinions. He ran a finger along the inside of his cravat.
“I…I do not wish to be forced to spend the entire evening with any one young lady. People—including her family will get ideas, conveniently forgetting it was an act of chance alone that led to being with her the first place.” He threw his hands in the air.
“What about my sister? Letty is engaged, but her betrothed is on the continent right now. She has no need to use the opportunity to seek out an eligible man, so will miss nothing by being your companion. Not to mention, Lord Blake is known for his jealous streak. You he will not perceive as a rival for Letty’s attentions.”
“But she has accepted his offer—”
Fitzwilliam shrugged. “I know. You need not convince me of the unseemliness of his attitude. Speak to Blake yourself. All I can say is that you would be doing Letty a favor as much as yourself.”
“I suppose that would be acceptable.” But only barely. Letty was not unintelligent, but her interests extended only so far as the Ton. He would be forced to listen to her prattle on all evening about the latest on-dit. At least she would not be coy or flirtatious—and she would not expect him to call upon her the day after the ball.
“So then I may assure mother you will come tonight?”
“I can tolerate an evening in your sister’s company, but I will not—”
“Play any games, except a dignified rubber of whist. Yes, yes, be assured, we all know that. I did not expect this would be the year we would see your face deep in a bullet pudding, or silently gesticulating a clue in charades.”
Darcy shuddered. How did any find such pastimes amusing?
“You are fortunate Letty prefers cards to other games. Though you may have to lower yourself and compromise to play commerce with her. She is notoriously bad at whist.”
He had forgotten that. Darcy grunted. “I can accept that.”
“Very well then, I shall bring my mother the news she most desires to hear.” Fitzwilliam rose. “I do not understand why she works so hard to see you come or why you say you will attend an event that you so clearly dread.”
“Aunt Matlock wishes to see me married and will take any opportunity to present me on the marriage mart, even if it is with your sister on my arm. I have no doubt she still hopes I might dance with some other young ladies and give her the credit of bringing me together with the partner of my future life.” Darcy pressed his eyes with thumb and forefinger. What would she think, seeing him dance with the young lady he truly wished to partner?
Fitzwilliam sniggered. “Why do you put yourself through this when you could so easily decline?”
“It would be improper, impolite and ill-received to decline her invitation.”
“As you will.” Fitzwilliam tipped his head and left.
January 7, 1812. The day following Lord and Lady Matlock’s Twelfth Night Ball
Darcy blinked rheumy eyes, head throbbing, stomach protesting like a rioting mob in the streets. A mob would have been easier to quell. He pressed his belly and smacked his lips. Drinking so much had been a poor choice, even if it has been in the privacy of his study, after the ball. His study—he glanced about—he had slept in his study!
He squeezed and groaned. He had intended to return to his chambers, but the port had called to him, one glass after another, until his best intentions faded away into an alcohol muddled haze. Port after several generous glasses of Aunt Matlock’s famed punch was a very bad idea indeed.
The housekeeper pounded on the door. Why did she feel the need to do that, today especially? A polite tap was all that had ever been needed to garner his attention. He would have to speak to her about that…later.
The door squealed like a dying animal as she opened it. “Sir.”
“What?” He clutched his temples and bit back the harsh words dancing on his tongue.
“I brought you something to help your ill-ease, some coffee, and a bite to eat if you wish it.”
He flicked his hand toward a small table. Was it possible to make more noise setting a tray down? It would be a miracle if she did not crack every piece of porcelain on the tray with all the rattling and clattering.
She shuffled out and slammed the door. The woman had never been so ungainly before—why now? He would have sharp words for her when—
His stomach roiled and he reached for the glass, full of a slightly opaque liquid, sparkling in the too bright afternoon—afternoon?—light. He shaded his eyes against the glare. How could it become afternoon so quickly?
Gah! With any good fortune, the dink would work better than it tasted—that would not be difficult. Would it have been too difficult to provide him with something less foul than his temper?
What a fool he had been, trusting Aunt Matlock’s judgment in choosing a character to suit his temperament. So clever of her to assign him and Letty the bard’s Benedict and Beatrice, so, in her words ‘their debates and disagreeable remarks would be entirely in character.’
He gulped down another mouthful of the housekeeper’s foul tonic.
At least the costumes had been tolerable enough, an officer’s coat for him and a wreath of flowers for her. Acceptable enough.
The evening began to unravel after his second cup of punch, happily provided by Letty herself. She had been pleased enough with her part, disagreeing with him at every turn and doing nearly all the talking for both the entire evening. She knew the bards work too well and precisely how to draw him in. He had politely remarked upon the weather—the weather!—only to receive her response:
“I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick: nobody marks you.”
“What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?” The words slipped out before he could control them, and the game, for Letty was on.
“Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick? Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come in her presence.”
Heat rose along his jaw—or perhaps it was the punch. How dare she insult his deportment! It was not to be born. “Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted: and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart; for, truly, I love none.”
Why had he permitted himself those words? Letty took far too much delight in them.
The look she had given him as she said, “A dear happiness to women: they would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humor for that: I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.”
Her betrothed would be pleased with that public declaration. “God keep your ladyship still in that mind! So some gentleman or other shall ‘scape a predestinate scratched face.”
“Scratching could not make it worse, an ’twere such a face as yours were.”
That was uncalled for. He gulped the remainder of his punch. In retrospect, perhaps not the wisest choice. “Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher.”
“A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.” She laughed, a shrill, ear splitting sound on the best of days which had clearly not improved with drink.
“I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and so good a continuer. But keep your way, i’ God’s name; I have done.”
Oh she had not liked that, given the face the made at him. “You always end with a jade’s trick: I know you of old.”
Had she but a modicum of restraint, it might have been bearable. She shrieked and carried on as though those words were meant personally, not written for the public’s entertainment. He scrubbed his face with his hands. Great heavens, even the Bennet family had checked themselves better! Was it possible that family demonstrated greater decorum than his own?
That was not possible. What would Lydia Bennet have done with the character of Beatrice? He shuddered. No, that thought must have been the result of far too much port.
He leaned back in his chair and threw his arm over his eyes. Even with Letty’s outrageous behavior, his plan for the ball had largely been a success, at least until this moment. He had not thought about Elizabeth Bennet during the entire evening. Not when the young Miss Blake, wearing the gown that would have better suited Miss Elizabeth sauntered past. Not when the musicians played the same music they had danced to at Netherfield. Not when he caught a glimpse of the library on the way to the card room and the same book Miss Elizabeth read while she stayed at Netherfield caught his gaze. Not when Letty attempted to involve him in conversation with her shallow chatter and gossip that bored him senseless instead of endeavoring to engage him in sensible discourse. None of those moments made him consider Miss Elizabeth at all.
It was only now in the solitude of his study that thoughts of that maddening woman invaded his consciousness, refusing to give way in the face of his stalwart defenses.
Why was it no young lady, regardless of fortune, connections, or beauty, seemed to measure up to the standard set by the impertinent Hertfordshire miss? There had to be something for this untoward distraction—something other than a stay in Bedlam.
Perhaps if he could escape the company of ladies all together. There was a thought…his club, fencing, boxing, horseracing. Sequestering himself away from the fairer sex—he had not tried that yet. He pressed his eyes. Beginning immediately…no tomorrow, he would withdraw to the company of men and at last escape the distraction of one Miss Elizabeth Bennet.
Read more about Twelfth Night here.
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