The Netherfield ball–how romantic! But perhaps not for everyone, especially Charlotte Lucas…
November 26, 1811–The Netherfield Ball
“My dear Charlotte,” Eliza slipped out from behind a tall officer. “I am afraid I must tell you that you were very wrong.”
“I am surprised you should say that, for your dancing together was most elegant indeed.”
“Do not say such things! I would most prefer not to think of this again. At least I have no reason to expect Mr. Darcy—”
“Mr. Darcy?” Mr. Collins burst from the crowd and stood a little too close. “How singular that you should be speaking of him. I have found out, by a singular accident, that there is now in the room a near relation of my patroness. I happened to overhear the gentleman himself mentioning to the young lady who does the honors of this house the names of his cousin Miss de Bourgh, and of her mother Lady Catherine. How wonderfully these sorts of things occur! It is none other than the Mr. Darcy of whom you were just speaking. Who would have thought of my meeting with—perhaps—a nephew of Lady Catherine de Bourgh in this assembly! I am most thankful that the discovery is made in time for me to pay my respects to him, which I am now going to do, and trust he will excuse my not having done it before. My total ignorance of the connection must plead my apology.”
How his eyes lit at the possibility of a connection to his revered patroness, here so far from home.
Eliza gasped. “You are not going to introduce yourself to Mr. Darcy?”
“Indeed I am. It will be in my power to assure him that her ladyship was quite well yesterday se’nnight.”
How singular he should be looking for a service to offer, even on a night like this one.
“Please sir, I am quite certain Mr. Darcy would consider you addressing him without introduction as an impertinent freedom, rather than a compliment to his aunt.”
“Acquainted as I am with the Rosings family I am all but acquainted with him. There is no impertinent informality in such a circumstance.”
“There is not the least necessity for any notice on either side. If it were, it must belong to Mr. Darcy, the superior in consequence, to begin the acquaintance. That he has not must imply his wish for privacy.”
“My dear Miss Elizabeth, I have the highest opinion in the world of your excellent judgment in all matters within the scope of your understanding, but permit me to say that there must be a wide difference between the established forms of ceremony amongst the laity, and those which regulate the clergy. Forgive me leave to observe that I consider the clerical office as equal in point of dignity with the highest rank in the kingdom—provided that a proper humility of behavior is at the same time maintained. You must therefore allow me to follow the dictates of my conscience on this occasion, which leads me to perform what I look on as a point of duty. Pardon me for neglecting to profit by your advice, which on every other subject shall be my constant guide, though in the case before us I consider myself more fitted by education and habitual study to decide on what is right than a young lady like yourself.” He bowed low and left.
Eliza stammered and sputtered as he disappeared. But what did she expect? Of course that is what he would do.
Telling someone what not to do rarely dissuaded anyone, especially a determined man. If only Eliza would be willing for a less obvious victory. Had it been her, Charlotte would have asked Mr. Collins to seek out someone, perhaps her father, Sir William, who might be able to introduce her to the man related to his revered patroness. Mr. Collins always jumped at the opportunity to serve, and what would appeal more that an opportunity to oblige so many at once?
Instead, Eliza watched with shock and horror evident in her every expression as Mr. Collins exposed himself to Mr. Darcy. Mr. Darcy eyed him with unrestrained wonder, and at the end of it he only made him a slight bow, and moved another way. Mr. Collins then returned to Elizabeth.
“I have no reason, I assure you,” said he, “to be dissatisfied with my reception. Mr. Darcy seemed much pleased with the attention. He answered me with the utmost civility, and even paid me the compliment of saying that he was as well convinced of Lady Catherine’s discernment as to be certain she could never bestow a favor unworthily. It was really a very handsome thought. Upon the whole, I am much pleased with him.”
Eliza was rarely at a loss for words. It was not a pleasing sight.
“It appears that the dining room is open. Perhaps we should avail ourselves of supper.” Charlotte gestured toward the dining room.
“Yes, that is a very good idea. I see Jane, excuse me.” Eliza faded into the stream of guests moving toward the dining room.
Mr. Collins’ face fell as Eliza turned away from him. Was he so attached to her or the idea of her? It was difficult to discern. Perhaps he did not know himself as he stood, staring a bit lost, at the crowd.
“Dinner, Mr. Collins? Are you of a mind to take supper?”
“Ah, oh yes, thank you Miss Lucas.” He craned his neck, probably trying to find Eliza.
“It might be easier for you to find her in the dining room. May I assist you?”
“That is very good of you. I am obliged.”
She led him into the dining room. “There she is, sitting near her mother and mine.”
“It does not seem there are any more seats in that part of the room.”
“There are several seats in the opposite corner though. I am not Eliza, but if my company would not be too unwelcome, we might sit there.”
He bit his lip and continued to scan the crowded room.
“I believe all your cousins are similarly occupied, and you can do no further duty toward them for now.”
“I…I believe you are correct Miss Lucas. Thank you for your hospitality. Where were those seats again?”
“Come, I will show you.” Charlotte led him to the corner farthest from any Bennet.
Mama caught her gaze for just a moment and offered a long, slow blink, complimented with a subtle nod.
They took their seats. Mr. Collins required a bit of coaching, but he soon served her from the nearby dishes and partook himself. Thankfully, his table manners were not wanting. That would have been difficult to discreetly influence.
“Mrs. Bennet seems quite assured of my cousin Jane being settled at Netherfield with Mr. Bingley. The connection appears to give her great pleasure.”
“I think most of Meryton is aware of her opinions now,” Charlotte whispered.
“I imagine my own connections to the esteemed Lady Catherine de Bourgh should also be very pleasing to her.” Mr. Collins turned his gaze to his plate.
How many times had his contributions been overlooked in the past? Next to Mr. Bingley, he must feel much as she did beside Eliza.
When supper was over someone began the talk of encouraging the ladies to perform. Before Mr. Bingley offered an invitation, Mary Bennet hurried to the pianoforte.
Mary’s powers were by no means fitted for such a display. Her voice was weak, and her manner affected. Eliza was in agonies shared by the Bingley sisters who made signs of derision at each other.
At the end of Mary’s second song with Eliza’s encouragement, Mr. Bennet rose. “That will do extremely well, child. You have delighted us long enough. Let the other young ladies have time to exhibit.”
Charlotte swallowed hard and glanced at Mr. Collin.
“If I, were so fortunate as to be able to sing, I should have great pleasure, I am sure, in obliging the company with an air; for I consider music as a very innocent diversion, and perfectly compatible with the profession of a clergyman. I do not mean however to assert that we can be justified in devoting too much of our time to music, for there are certainly other things to be attended to.”
He waxed on and on, almost as though once he started speaking he found it impossible to stop despite being uncertain about what to say and unhappy with what he was saying. He kept looking to Eliza and Mr. Darcy as he spoke. With each wince and grimace he prattled on and on. It was not until Mrs. Bennet smiled at him and half-whispered to Mama that he was a remarkably clever, good kind of young man that he found the wherewithal to stop.
Oh, this was so maddening. Eliza’s family seemed determined to embarrass her and instead of stepping up to help matters, she only made them worse. Whatever gave her the notion that Mr. Bennet would extricate Mary from her position of exposure without making things worse? Simply exerting herself to play a duet with Mary would have relieved everyone’s suffering.
And Mr. Collins! Eliza all but caused this latest debacle. If only she would pay him some attention he would be as devoted, and loyal and eager to please her as any woman could wish for.
As they left from dinner, Mr. Collins hurried to Eliza’s side, a puppy dogging after a disinterested master.
Maria bounded up to her, two officers trailing behind her. “Charlotte, you must dance with Lt. Saunderson. He needs a partner for the next set.”
“I…I…would be please if you would stand up with me, Miss Lucas.” Saunderson could not have been older than Maria, more boy than man.
But dancing with a boy was better than watching Eliza disregard Mr. Collins, so she proceeding to the dancefloor. Lt. Saunderson proved an agreeable partner, with a sense of humor that made up for his occasional clumsiness. After their set, he escorted her off the floor. Maria and Lt. Denny swooped in to help him find his next partner.
Eliza caught her gaze and beckoned her come.
Charlotte forced a smile and approached her and Mr. Collins who had moved little since she last saw them.
“You can see, sir, that my friend finds dancing very agreeable. I am quite certain she would enjoy dancing the next set,” Eliza said.
Was the entire room bent on assigning her partners this evening?
“I mean no offense to your good friend, for I have seen her to be a most agreeable partner, but as to dancing, I am perfectly indifferent to it. My chief object is by delicate attentions to recommend myself to you, my dear cousin. I intend to make a point remaining close to you the whole of the evening.”
Color faded from Eliza’s face as she clenched her jaw. “Truly there is no need. I am at no loss for partners in conversation. You would by no means leave me without my share of amusement should you rejoin the dancers.”
“How could I answer such consideration and self-sacrifice by leaving your side? I am entirely content here with you.”
Eliza’s eyes bulged in a silent plea for help.
Charlotte drew a deep breath. As pleasurable as it would be, shaking Eliza now would not help matters. “Might I join you then? I am too weary to dance another set this evening.”
“Oh yes, do.” Eliza linked her arm in Charlotte’s and pulled her close, her eyes daring Mr. Collins to separate them.
“I would by no means suspend any pleasure of yours, dear cousin. Your delightful friend is a very welcome addition to your little party. Would you ladies like a class of punch?”
“Yes, yes, that would be excellent,” Eliza said.
Mr. Collins bowed, “It is my honor to serve you.”
He trundled off.
“Please, please, if you are my friend, stay with me and do not leave me to endure his ridiculousness alone,” Eliza whispered.
“I will be happy to stay with you. But you might consider, a little attention from you, a few smiles, and you will find him much more agreeable.”
“How can you say that? If I do as you recommend, who knows what that kind of encouragement might yield? No, no, I must do everything in my power to convince him of my indifference, and you must assist me. You provide him the smiles and attention, I beg you.”
What would Mama say to such a conversation?
“You need not beg. I am at your service, my friend.”
Mr. Collins returned, punch in hand, and launched into a comparison between the ballroom of Netherfield and that of Rosings part.
Another sort of man would have been rebuffed by Eliza’s indifference and might have even noticed the careful attention and encouragement Charlotte provided. But Mr. Collins exhibited a tenacity rarely seen outside a bulldog’s kennel. While everything polite and proper, he would not be deterred from the object of his affection.
The musicians played the finishing dance. It was such a merry, fun, and simple dance. Mr. Collins could have done it very well had he just had a mind to take a partner other than his beloved Eliza.
The dance closed and Papa announced the carriage had been called for, a quarter of an hour should be sufficient to see it appear. Though Eliza made clear how much she would repine Charlotte’s departure, Mr. Collins seemed indifferent.
Charlotte swallowed back the bitterness burning the back of her throat and excused herself from their company.
Papa closed the carriage door, and they began their trek home, Papa and her brothers on horseback beside them.
“So…” Mama’s voice lilted hopefully.
Charlotte closed her eyes and faced the side glass.
“But you spend so much of the evening in his company.”
“How did you tolerate him? He cannot dance and his conversation—“
“Maria, stop it. I have no need of your mean opinions,” Mama said.
“I found him an agreeable companion, and I believe he thought me agreeable as well. But, he is very decided upon Eliza. He would not dance apart from her or her sisters. He sought no company but hers.”
Mama leaned across the coach to pat her knee. “I saw your efforts my dear and I am very proud of you.”
“I am quite certain he is going to offer for her very soon. He is very determined for her. She even tried to make him dance with others tonight and he refused.”
“So that is why you did not dance with him.”
“I do not understand how Eliza can be such a fool!”
“Perhaps her foolishness will yet be to your advantage.”
“No, no, it is a hopeless affair. Nothing will dissuade him from her, and when she refuses him, he will leave—”
“He made it clear he intends to stay until Saturday…” Maria seemed to require her share in the conversation.
“Even if she refuses him tomorrow, and he stays that long, it is but another four day. What could happen in than span of time?”
“I have invited the Bennets and Mr. Collins to dinner on Friday.”
“How could you, Mama? Bad enough that I must give up all hopes of him. Shall I also be forced to watch Eliza –”
“Calm yourself, dear. It is too early for you to give up.”
“Too early? No rational creature could look at this situation and believe there is yet any hope.”
“In one of my novels—” Maria said.
“Life is not a novel and I am not romantic, much less a heroine of any kind. Please just stop. There is nothing more to be said in the matter. Mr. Collins has made his choice…and it was not me.” Charlotte let her head fall into the worn squabs.
What a fool she had been to think any man would consider her, especially one attracted to Eliza Bennet.
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