Early Spring, 1812
It is a truth universally acknowledged that wherever men in red coats gather, foolish young women follow.
The militia regiment had arrived in Meryton a week ago, and it was high time for them to be introduced to the community. The mayor, Sir William Lucas, well known among his neighbors for his love of good society and a good meal, liked nothing better than to make introductions. His parlor provided the ideal location for the officers to make a good impression.
Lydia bounced and chattered more than usual during the ride to Lucas Lodge, a difficult thing to accomplish with all six Bennet ladies squeezed into the coach at once. Elizabeth had offered to walk and allow them additional space.
“No, Lizzy, I do not want you seen arriving on foot. Besides, your petticoats would be six inches deep in mud by the time you arrived. I insist you ride with the rest of your sisters.” Mrs. Bennet finished with a flourish that meant the discussion was indeed over.
When the coachman finally handed her out of the carriage, Elizabeth hid her sigh of relief in a discreet, ladylike cough. Mama shepherded Kitty and Lydia ahead of her and scolded them for being so long at their dressing tables that the Carvers had arrived before them. Jane and Mary followed at a less anxious pace. Elizabeth lagged behind and shook out her skirts, more to enjoy a brief moment of silence than to repair the state of her gown.
Mr. Bennet dismounted his horse and passed the reins to the driver. “Perhaps you ought to offer to ride Bessie next time. You would escape the carriage, and your petticoats would remain clean.” He straightened his top hat and offered her his arm.
“I hardly believe Mama considers the smell of horse more fashionable than muddy skirts.” She took his elbow and leaned her head on his shoulder.
He patted her hand. “If you say so, dear.”
The modest parlor of Lucas Lodge, papered and painted in the style of years gone by, brimmed with guests. Sir William stood at the center of the room. His welcoming voice and laugh, both a fuzzy basso profundo rumble, filled the air. Young ladies surrounded him: Kitty, Lydia, his youngest daughter, Maria, and the fashionably dressed Carver sisters, Martha and Rachel.
“I dare say this will be a memorable season for Lydia.” Mr. Bennet turned to Elizabeth with a raised eyebrow. “First, the Carvers take Netherfield.” The corner of his lips rose ever so slightly. “I never thought to encounter another girl as silly as your youngest sister, and lo, not one, but two move into the neighborhood. Now the regiment camps among us. Any more excitement and she will be in danger of apoplexy.”
A wry smile crept over Elizabeth’s face. “Mama appears quite content. I daresay, Lydia shall be able to bear it as well.” Her brow quirked, and her eyes flickered toward Mama in the far corner of the room, deep in conference with Lady Lucas and Aunt Phillips.
“You should go on, have your share of introductions while I partake of Sir William’s library. He recently received a new collection that I am most anxious to examine.” He winked and walked away.
She scanned the room.
Mary stood near the pianoforte and talked with Mr. Pierce, the hawk-nosed curate whose velvet voice left young ladies sighing. Her eyes glittered, adding volume to her quiet smile. Mary pulled her hair back a bit too tight and wore her collars a bit too high for most young men to pay attention to her. Only rarely did gentlemen take the time to speak with her. Mr. Pierce’s popularity ensured others would soon interrupt, so Elizabeth sought other company.
Jane and Charlotte waved her over. She edged her way around the parlor.
“I thought I would not be able to make it across the room.” Elizabeth sidled in close to Jane and Charlotte to clear the way for a scurrying maid. “Sir William has outdone himself tonight.”
“You there, mind your step.” Mr. Carver jumped aside. The punch glasses he carried in either hand nearly spilled.
Elizabeth cringed. Mr. Carver’s nasal voice raised the hairs on the back of her neck. He moved like a portly heron, head bobbing forward and back, feet lifting a mite too high as he walked.
“Here.” He pushed a cup at Jane’s shoulder.
Jane blanched a bit and screwed her eyes shut. She blinked several times and turned to him with a paper-thin smile. “Thank you.”
“I detest clumsy servants,” he mumbled into his cup. “Gah, this is too sweet.” He smacked his lips.
“I will inform my mother, sir.” Charlotte nodded amiably, but a tiny “V” shaped crease deepened between her eyes.
“Be sure and do that. I wish to sit. Miss Bennet?” He took Jane by the elbow and guided her to a pair of chairs near the fireplace.
“At least his sisters are more agreeable.” Elizabeth huffed. Her nostrils flared ever so slightly.
“Jane finds his company pleasant.”
“She bears it well enough, I suppose, though I detect no symptoms of peculiar regard in her demeanor.” Elizabeth pulled herself up and peered down her nose to ape any one of a number of women they both knew.
“Lizzy!” Charlotte snickered behind her hand. “He will hear you.”
“Not likely. Look how he glowers at his sisters.”
“They stand far too close to those officers.” Charlotte’s lips pulled tight. “At least Lydia and Maria keep a more proper distance.”
Elizabeth rubbed the back of her neck. “I do not expect that to last very long.”
Charlotte chewed her knuckle “No, it will not.” She pointed her chin at the pianoforte.
Lydia skipped toward Mary, three lieutenants and an ensign in her wake. Kitty led a wave of young ladies behind them.
“I expect Mary will play a dance soon.” Elizabeth wrinkled her nose.
“I thought you liked to dance.”
“You know I am fond of dancing. It is having my toes trod upon I dread.” Elizabeth glanced down and wiggled her foot towards the soldiers’ boots. “Imagine the attack those hessians might wreak upon one’s slippers.”
Charlotte pressed the back of her hand to her mouth. She trembled with the effort to contain her amusement.
“Look at them, tripping over themselves to ask our sisters for a dance. Such grace does not bode well for a jig.” The corner of Elizabeth’s lips twitched.
Mary played a few chords while Rachel and Martha Carver directed the officers to roll up the carpet. Elizabeth and Charlotte dodged other guests who hurried off the hastily prepared dance floor. The couples took their places.
Only Lydia’s partner showed any sense of rhythm. At least the others laughed heartily at their own missteps. A good sense of humor was a most desirable trait in a man, and essential for a clumsy one.
Carver did not share their amusement. He sat beside Jane, a deep scowl etched on his face. She squirmed and scuffed her slippers along the floor. Her cheeks tinged pink, not the pale blush of pleasure, but the ruddy glow of discomfiture. Jane needed rescue, so Elizabeth set off on her mission.
“—I do not understand why a knight like Sir William hosts these ruffians. I could easily do without the whole lot of them,” Mr. Carver muttered into his fist.
Jane acknowledged Elizabeth with a quick nod. “Sir William is a great lover of company. To overlook—”
“Stuff and nonsense.” Carver flicked his fingers. “I will not condone their presence at Netherfield’s ball next month. The regiment is most assuredly not invited.”
“Are you not concerned with giving offense?” The color crept from Jane’s cheeks up her temples and down along her jaw.
“A man may do as he chooses in his own home. You cannot mean to say—”
“Excuse me.” Elizabeth tucked herself between their chairs to accommodate a woman of ample proportions as she struggled to get past them. “Mr. Carver, might I steal my sister away for a few moments?”
He crossed his arms and tore his eyes from his sisters to peer narrowly at Elizabeth. “Certainly.” He rose, bowed to Jane, and stalked into a knot of twittering young ladies.
“I do not envy them.” Elizabeth took his seat. “He is quite severe on the Miss Carvers. If his face becomes any redder, I fear he may do himself an injury.”
“His concern for them is not so terrible.” Jane peeked over her shoulder.
“Do you suggest other young ladies might benefit from…stricter supervision?” Elizabeth followed Jane’s gaze.
Lydia sat amongst three spellbound lieutenants who listened to her chatter. She granted them all pretty smiles and coquettish gazes. Kitty stood a few steps away with Maria. Both exerted themselves to gain the attention of an ensign whose eyes were firmly on Lydia.
“Are you not at all concerned?” Jane asked.
“Papa is not alarmed.”
“You cannot please everyone, Jane. Mr. Carver is the sort of man who will always be dissatisfied with something. Since everything displeases him, why be concerned with any of it?”
“No, he is a curmudgeon. Even Papa says so. Do not take his complaints to heart.” Elizabeth pulled Jane to her feet. “Come, Sir William wants to make introductions. It will not do to be rude to our neighbor even for Mr. Carver’s sake. If the officers are a bit boorish, still, what harm is there in the acquaintance?”
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