The Netherfield ball–how romantic! But perhaps not for everyone, especially Charlotte Lucas…
November 26, 1811–The Netherfield Ball
The night of the Netherfield Ball, Mama pulled Charlotte aside. “Your gown looks very well indeed.”
“I am glad you are pleased, Mama.”
“It is a shame we must give up hopes of Mr. Bingley, but his preference for Jane Bennet is very clear. Mr. Collins however—”
“Is quite set upon Eliza.”
“Whilst that may be true, he certainly seems to enjoy keeping company with you. Remember the Phillip’s party? You did very well together. What is more—and perhaps most significant—Eliza has no preference for him herself. That should free your conscience and permit you to take full advantage of any opportunity that arises.”
“You make this sound like a military campaign.”
“My dear, a ballroom is a battlefield of sorts, and I do not wish you going out unprepared. Take every opportunity you might have to dance and converse especially with those who might impact your future.”
That was the surest way to end the conversation.
All the maneuvering and the sense of scheming. Her shoulders twitched. A ball should be a pleasant occasion, not one that tested loyalties.
Mama was right, though. Eliza made it clear she had no warm sentiments toward Mr. Collins. How could she not? The great boon he offered her family, the honor he offered her. Somehow, all her romantic notions blinded her to the harsh realities around her. But then again perhaps reality was not so hard when one was pretty, witty and popular.
Since Papa was not required as Master of Ceremonies, Mama insisted they not arrive so early to be the first ones there. A small crowd had already gathered in the retiring rooms when they arrived.
Charlotte barely found a place to sit and don her dancing slippers. She edged and shouldered her way through the press, past the greeting line of Bingleys, and into the ballroom where she could finally take a breath, albeit a small one.
The entire upper society of Meryton must be making their appearance here tonight and a very fine appearance it was. The best dressed among them were the Netherfield part, but as they were fresh from London, one hardly expected anything else. But not a few were clothed well enough to meet even the ‘superior sister’s’ satisfaction.
“So you finished the new trims on your gown after all.” Eliza sidled past two officers and slipped into a tiny open space beside Charlotte.
“Are they to your liking?” Charlotte held her skirt out.
“Very much so. I could not envision it when you described it to me, but it looks very well indeed.”
“Your approbation is always very welcome.”
Eliza chuckled. “Listen to you, so very formal, almost as though we had not been friends all our lives.”
“Quite befitting the event, I think.”
“Perhaps so. I might send Kitty and Lydia to observe the example of your deportment. They are in very high spirits tonight. Lydia has already made connection with some of her favorite officers, Lt. Denny and Lt. Carter.”
“I thought her like the rest of Meryton, quite disposed toward Mr. Wickham.”
“She is, but he is not in attendance. It seems he was called to town on business and has not yet returned.” Eliza’s shoulder’s sagged a little.
“That is a shame, for there will be many young women vastly disappointed for his absence.”
“I do not imagine his business would have called him away just now, if he had not wished to avoid a certain gentleman here.”
“You mean Mr. Darcy?” Charlotte looked over her shoulder.
Mr. Darcy stood in his usual place at the edge of the room, so tall he was easy to find among the rest of the guests.
“I do indeed. I am not certain I can forgive him for destroying the happiness of so many here tonight.”
“You cannot mean that. I know you are disposed to dislike him, but you cannot assign him so much blame.”
“I can and I do, but let us not continue to speak of something entirely disagreeable, when something only somewhat disagreeable might do. Mr. Collins continues to enjoy his stay with us at Longbourn.”
“I am pleased you are at last enjoying his visit.”
“I said he is enjoying it—as to the rest of us… I suppose Mama is as well.” Eliza’s gaze drifted across the room, finally resting on Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins near one of the fireplaces.
“So you …”
“I have not yet been driven to distraction having the happy ability to derive great amusement in the ridiculous. My father has a point to be made when he says ‘For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?’”
“You cannot truly believe that.”
“I can and I must. How else can one endure a guest who follows one around like the oddest little gosling following a mother goose? Truly he is at my elbow at every turn. I cannot sneeze lest he offer me a handkerchief.”
“Is that not a pleasing solicitude?”
No one had ever paid Charlotte such attentions.
“All things in their measure, I suppose. But this is too much.” Eliza shuddered starting at her shoulders, all the way down to her toes. “In all seriousness, yesterday he clung like my shadow all day, even watching whilst I sewed. He noted the evenness of my stitches and how his grand patroness favored such industry in young ladies. I have begun to believe, the woman herself has no accomplishments apart from critiquing the accomplishments of others!”
Charlotte giggled. “I suppose it is the privilege of the very wealthy to pay others to be accomplished and avoid the trouble themselves.”
“If he tells me once more how acceptable I would be to Lady Catherine, I shall—Mr. Collins! Is not Netherfield the perfect image of elegance tonight?” Eliza blushed.
Mr. Collins wove his way through a knot of guests to stand beside Eliza. His round cheeks flushed with the effort of crossing the crowded room. “Cousin Elizabeth, the musicians are gathering. I am here to collect you for the first set.”
Hopefully Mr. Collins did not recognize the creases in her brow as the profound expression of dread that Charlotte knew them to be.
Mr. Long, John’s best friend appeared just behind Mr. Collins. “Have you a partner for the first dance, Miss Lucas.”
“Will you do me the honor then of dancing with me?”
“Thank you, yes.”
They followed Eliza and Mr. Collins to the chalked dance floor. The room was large enough for two lines of dancers, though some care would be required to avoid interfering with each other should they be required to cast down the outside of the set. Hopefully the dances would be carefully chosen and avoid grand moves like a pousette—that could create some difficulty for less accomplished dancers.
The musicians played a few opening chords and Miss Bingley called the dance. Charlotte winced. Perhaps her intention was to point out the weaker dancers among them.
Such a maneuver might be acceptable in London, but here in the limited society of Meryton, everyone knew who were they accomplished dancers. The differences did not need to be emphasized so publicly.
Mr. Long was a pleasing partner and just flirtatious enough to be fun, but not so much as to make anyone wonder at his true intentions. Poor Eliza, her partner proved far less agreeable to her.
Mr. Collins was one of those fellows who struggled hearing the count of the music. Add to that his propensity to confuse right and left, and he made for a mediocre partner at best. Eliza did not help matters with her petulant little huffs and cross looks. Did she not see how they flustered Mr. Collins and made him lose his place in the dance? Simply knowing his partner’s displeasure seemed to shake all other concerns from his mind.
Charlotte held her breath. The next step required Mr. Collins to dance behind the line and back up the center. She grimaced as he nearly collided with the lady from the line next to them. He stepped on Miss Goulding’s hem and she stumbled to the stomach clenching sound of fabric tearing.
Eliza rolled her eyes and sighed. No doubt she would pay an apologetic call to Miss Goulding tomorrow. Foolish girl! Why did she not recognize all Mr. Collins needed were a few gentle cues to remind him of the steps and a few smiles of encouragement to keep him in acceptable rhythm? He had proved a tolerable partner when she had danced with him at the Philips’.
Just because Eliza was quick and clever did not mean the rest of them who were less witty and nimble were insufferable dolts. Did she have any idea the pride she condemned in Mr. Darcy was as much her failing as it was his?
The set ended and their partners lend them off the floor to opposite ends of the room. Footmen appeared with trays of iced punch. Mr. Long brought her a glass and they chatted amiably. He was a pleasant young man, but his companionship bitter sweet. He was nearly seven years her junior and in search of a greater dowry than she possessed. It was difficult to enjoy his company knowing she was there simply to pass the time until Mary King was free.
Another set formed with Jane and Eliza near the top. Partnerless, Charlotte wandered the fringes of the rooms, shifting om one conversation to the next with an ease learned by watching Papa in a crowd.
By no means the central topic of conversation, Mr. Collins bore mention more than once. Opinion seemed divided on him. Some finding him absurd, others regarded him quite unobjectionable. Most saw his appointment to Hunsford’s vicarage as evidence of his worthiness and good character. Perhaps. it was only in his own family that found him so disagreeable.
The second set ended and Lt. Denny walked Eliza directly to Charlotte.
“What a capital way to spend an evening. I know the colonel and Mrs. Forester mean to host a ball themselves, but no doubt it will not nearly so grand an affair.” Lt. Denny bowed, his color high from the dance.
“Every event has its own character. I am quite certain the Forester’s ball will be entirely delightful.” Charlotte said.
“I am sure you are right, madam. Pray excuse me.” He bowed and disappeared into the milling crowd.
“Lt. Denny is a good dancer. You looked very well together.”
“Not nearly as well as Jane and Mr. Bingley. Make no mistake, his eyes and his head are full of her.” Eliza searched the crowd, presumably for her sister.
“Then I am very glad for her.”
“I am, too. She is so good. She deserves to be happy.”
A footman strode up, offering cups of Negus from a silver tray. They each took one.
Charlotte sipped the hot sweetened port. “Miss Bingley has spared no expense.”
“Mama will be talking of this for weeks. Perhaps even months.”
“Your sisters too, I imagine. Lydia and Kitty seem to be enjoying themselves.”
“They have been so looking forward to this.”
Was Eliza truly blind to the embarrassing way they were carrying on, or was she too uncomfortable to mention it?
“Miss Bennet?” Mr. Darcy stood before them, as stiff and uncomfortable looking as man could appear in company.
“Mr. Darcy?” Eliza started and stared at him.
“Will you dance the next with me?”
Eliza cast about the room like a fox searching for a way past the hounds. “I…that…I have no partner for that set.”
“Very well.” He nodded, a little light in his eyes. With a bow, he disappeared back into the crowd.
If Eliza’s distress had not been so real, it would have been greatly amusing. An offer to dance from the most eligible man in the room generally did not result in such dismay.
“I dare say you will find him very agreeable,” Charlotte said.
“Heaven forbid! That would be the greatest misfortune of all! To find a man agreeable who one is determined to hate! Do not wish me such an evil.”
“Truly, listen to yourself. You scolded me for my practical outlook. I shall return the favor and suggest that you, not to be a simpleton, and allow your fancy for Wickham to make you appear unpleasant in the eyes of a man of ten times his consequence.”
Eliza might have replied, by Mr. Darcy returned to bring her to the set.
They took their place, in the dance. Was Eliza aware of the looks cast their way by the neighboring couples? Their surprise at his partner was as great as her own.
The music began, Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot. How fine they looked together, moving together with elegance and grace. Eliza would be vastly unhappy to know they were by far the smartest couple on the floor. They spoke little, but somehow it seemed entirely right that they should not. Their precisely matched movements spoke all that anyone needed.
Mr. Collins and Mary presented such a painful contrast. Mary danced little and was the worst sort of partner for a man like Mr. Collins. It showed, to the grave discomfort of everyone in their near vicinity. Both turned the wrong way round and lost their place in the dance. If only Mary had the sense to realize her limitations and arranged for them to take the second couple’s place instead of the first. Those simple steps would have been far more manageable for both partners and would have saved them much embarrassment.
Was it truly so difficult to be a considerate partner? It did require so much? A little forethought and a few quiet requests and so many would be so much more comfortable. Truly no one deserved to endure the stumbling, awkward spectacle Mary and Mr. Collins presented on the dance floor. If only she had been dancing with him instead, and Mary with a more accomplished partner. Everyone would have been so much better off.
At last the horrible set ended, and the dancers retreated. Mr. Collins escorted Mary off the dance floor and found glasses of punch. How would it look if she were to seek out Mr. Collins? His face bore little evidence of his ordeal but something in the way he held his shoulders suggested he was not wholly insensible.
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