A recent A Happy Assembly playground theme was “ballroom missteps”. Although flummoxed and uninspired at first, as others posted their short stories and quickies, I felt a little plot bunny begin nibbling my less than nimble toes. While doing research in an annotated edition of Pride & Prejudice, the right “what-if” took hold. It seemed that when Darcy asked Elizabeth to dance a reel at Netherfield, he gave up early in the game when she expressed her distrust of his invitation. What would have moved Darcy to ask in the first place? Guilt, perhaps? So what would happen had he not taken no for an answer?
Given that we are in the autumn season, when Darcy and the Bingleys were in Hertforshire, let’s celebrate the season with…
The Reel Netherfield
by Linda Beutler
A guilty conscience is a perilous thing, especially in the breast of a gentleman who holds his behaviour to a high account. If said gentleman discovers he has insulted a lady, only to find, upon more studied perusal, that she has fine eyes—charmingly brightened by physical exertion—well, what can the gentleman do but plot some method of apology? Fitzwilliam Darcy was one such gentleman.
He did not wish to admit Miss Elizabeth Bennet could have overheard his peevish remarks made to his Hertfordshire host, Charles Bingley. The assembly they were attending was over-heated, the music grating, and the company beneath what Darcy preferred. If he was honest, and he liked to think he was, calm reflection would have revealed the denizens of the market town of Meryton were no different than the common folk of Kympton or Lambton, the villages nearest his home estate in Derbyshire. The salient difference—the material point, as Darcy liked to say—was that for twenty miles in every direction of Pemberley, he knew everyone and they knew him. In Hertfordshire, where he was acquainted only with the Bingley family, it was easy to imagine the society savage, when they were merely unknown.
Yet there he stood, perspiring and thinking only to subdue his fear of being criticised behind a mask of hauteur, when Bingley offered to effect an introduction with Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Darcy barely spared her a glance before deeming her merely tolerable, and assumed aloud she had been slighted by other men, else she would not have been seated awaiting a partner. That there were not enough men present to make up couples with the many willing ladies was a not inconsequential detail he chose to overlook. He loathed prevarication of any sort, but was not above being childishly obtuse.
Moments later, musical laughter was aimed in his direction, and seeing it burble forth from the lady he had scorned, he assumed she was restating his untoward comments to the friend with whom she was standing. She had heard. Damn it, Darcy! You have opened yourself to ridicule… His back stiffened, and quite oddly, upon observing the gentle swell of Elizabeth Bennet’s hips in her simple gown, another part not usually given to stiffening in public places, was awakening. I am absurd! He wanted to dislike her, but her light and pleasing figure, generous in all the places a woman should be generous, and trim for the rest, prohibited disdain.
The lady found several more opportunities to laugh at him, including, when she did dance, during a rather energetic display of her abilities with Charles Bingley. They seemed to be having a rollicking good time of it, but for one moment the lady said something causing Bingley to go all over sheepish, and glance at Darcy accusingly. Darcy apprehended she admitted hearing his unkindness, his selfish disdain for her feelings, to Bingley. But the moment soon passed. The lady spoke conspiratorially, Bingley laughed, and they went skipping down the line with brows unclouded.
Very soon Darcy had the chance to observe Miss Elizabeth again. At an evening party at Lucas Lodge, she was more intriguing than at the assembly. That she was given to eloquent and animated conversation proved magnetic. Darcy found himself following her around the room, hoping to hear her next bon mot.
Everyone noticed his attention to her, most particularly the eldest daughter of the house, Miss Charlotte Lucas, the very lady who had laughed with Elizabeth at his imprudent remarks. Sir William Lucas was not a man given to deep thinking, and when the young people began dancing, applied to Darcy for his approval. Sir William did not know what to make of Darcy’s response, “Every savage can dance.”
Forthwith, as Elizabeth passed by them, Sir William took up her hand and offered it to Darcy, bidding him behave as a savage with “Miss Eliza”. Her countenance hid nothing from Darcy. She was mortified, turned pale, and glanced down. Behind her, her youngest sister was giggling raucously and capering wildly. Some rational portion of Darcy’s mind believed Elizabeth intended to censor her sister when Sir Lucas intercepted her. However, it was not his rational mind that reacted to Sir William’s suggestion. Assuming a benign expression, Darcy asked her to dance. His was a primal need to be forgiven by a pair of fine eyes. She denied him absolution.
Later that night, Darcy cursed himself for giving Elizabeth the opportunity to look him in the eye with a refusal clearly meant to repay his insults. She was explicit. They were not to think she approached the dancers because she wanted to dance. Her face was stony, offering nothing but rebuke. Darcy would not have reckoned she could deaden her lively eyes as she had. Any other lady in the world would have accepted his offer—his conceit assured him—but Elizabeth Bennet turned away to enter into a conversation with her father, immediately regaining the lustre in her countenance. Darcy could only stare, and be stared at.
He felt a cold shiver of danger ripple down his spine that could not be warmed by Bingley’s fine port. What did warm him was the notion of dancing with Miss Elizabeth Bennet.
In only a few days time, Darcy found himself living under the same roof as Miss Elizabeth Bennet. She had walked three miles in dirty weather to tend an ill sister. Without being always conscious of it, Darcy was pleased by their every encounter. Her manners were gracious and cheerful. Her wit was impertinent but informed. Her devotion to her sister’s care was tender. Yet towards him, she consistently attributed judgmental motives and an assumption that even here amongst friends, he thought himself above his company.
His bewitchment worsened. If she was in a room, it took every effort to not gaze at her. He veiled his admiration behind a grim visage; his thoughts were more agreeably engaged. He longed to join in her laughter. She continued to laugh at him, but she did not laugh with him.
Darcy knew he was failing to improve in her regard, and put it down to a lack of apology for his initial blunder. He owed her a dance.
Bingley assured the Bennet family, when they called, that a ball would be forthcoming. Darcy did not like the idea of waiting until such an event was scheduled. There must be a way to garner her clemency sooner. Their verbal sparing could not go on unchecked. He knew it was motivated on her side by a distrust that challenged her to cross him, although her polite method of address disarmed reproof.
Bingley’s sisters were accomplished at the pianoforte, and the eldest, Mrs. Louisa Hurst, had a fine voice. Elizabeth Bennet’s singing conveyed more emotion—whether for comedic or tragic effects—she was the superior performer. After a particularly trying conversation, when even Bingley entered a few well-placed barbs into the proceedings at Darcy’s expense, the exchange became much like a dispute. Bingley fled the room. Darcy requested music of the ladies to sooth his savaged breast.
He hoped to hear Elizabeth Bennet play and sing, but she was outflanked by Caroline Bingley, who played whilst Mrs. Hurst sang. Elizabeth made a desultory perusal of the music on the instrument, and Darcy stared at her, only looking away when she looked up at him with a slight frown.
When Caroline began a spritely Scotch air, Darcy could hardly believe his luck. Here was danceable music! He approached Miss Elizabeth, but again she would not have him—assigning him nefarious motives for asking her to stand up with him. She dared him to despise her. She was unknowingly—quite artlessly—drawing him in. He was powerless to save himself.
“Indeed, I do not dare,” Darcy said, admitting more than he cared to. He did not move away; his hand was still extended. “Please, Miss Elizabeth. I am certain I owe you a dance.” He looked into her eyes with great meaning.
She stepped around the pianoforte as if she might accept him, yet did not take his hand. “But how are we to dance a reel for two, sir? There is no pattern allowing for anything less than two more couples.”
Darcy advanced a half-smile into her eyes. “We shall have to chart our own course, Miss Elizabeth.”
She started to open her mouth, perhaps with a rejection, but her eyes met and held his, and he saw the defiance in them change. She appeared confused.
Darcy leapt at the sudden advantage presented by her hesitancy. She did not say no again. Silence was not acquiescence, this Darcy knew, but it was also not a final refusal. “Come.”
He took her hand, and she did not resist. Delicate. “We must start with an address, I think,” Darcy began. He stood opposite her and bowed. She curtsied. She did not meet his gaze. Winsome. “Let us bring our hands together.” She held her hands out. Graceful. “Step to your left, next to me.” They lifted their arms, her hand in his moving near enough by his lips he could have, with little effort, kissed it. He breathed in her scent. Flowers. “Let us repeat this to the other side.” She stepped back, their hands still joined, and they lifted their arms again as she stepped to his other side. Darcy glanced down to her, and caught a trace of merriment. Lovely. “Now, if you will allow, let me swing you.” He was opposite her again, still keeping both hands in his, and at her nod, they swung in a circle, returning to their places.
“Ought we to have some clapping, sir, as most reels do?” Her trepidation seemed to have fallen away. She was in the moment with him, or so he hoped.
Clever. “An excellent suggestion, madam.” He smiled, dropping her hands and placing his up in front of his chest for her to slap. Then she held up her hands, and he slapped them. By mutual unspoken signal, they then clapped their own hands together four times. Vigourous. “Shall I swing you again?”
She nodded and held out her hands willingly. Delightful. “And those shall be our steps? I fear, Miss Elizabeth, that I shall forget a more complicated sequence,” he said as he swung her around. This time she pulled against his hands, making their actions more exhilarating.
She smiled, “So we shall repeat?”
He was still holding her hands; she stepped to his right and towards him to begin again. They repeated their sequence. Enchanting. Each time she stood close to either side of him, she looked into his eyes with undisguised gaiety. She began to laugh with genuine joy. Exoneration. Darcy chuckled.
They completed their reel-for-two once again before their accompanist noticed what they were about. There was still the coda to perform, a near repetition of the entire song. Rather than call attention to the consternation Miss Bingley felt by stopping mid-song, she narrowed her eyes and played rapidly to the end.
Darcy and Elizabeth had no choice but to hasten their steps, increasing their hilarity with each swing and clap. They were gasping when the music stilled with a final banging chord.
I want her, Darcy admitted to himself abruptly. I must have her.
He stood with eyes fixed where a gentleman’s ought not be found gaping, as Elizabeth panted for breath. A careful observer would have seen his slight nod as he watched the rise and fall of her chest and its environs. He realised what he was about and counted himself fortunate Miss Elizabeth was glaring at Miss Bingley.
Feeling a tightening of his trousers in a crucial location, Darcy spoke curtly. “Thank you for helping me with the reel. You are an excellent partner. Now, if you will excuse me, Miss Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth turned to him with a smile. She was ready to jest with him at the trial Miss Bingley had set them, but saw only his back as he dashed from the room.
“What have you said to offend Mr. Darcy?” Caroline Bingley asked with heavy impatience.
Elizabeth shook her head, bemused. “I hardly know, Miss Bingley. It could have been anything. I have no notion at all of when I am amusing or when I give offense.”
Caroline’s tight smile quelled an unkind remark. Her disdain would have burst forth but for the knowledge that Miss Eliza’s presence, tending Miss Bennet, saved Caroline from any sickroom duties other than sitting in the furthest away chair and making highly diverting comments—if she did say it herself—about the fashions in a catalogue.
Darcy stood with a heaving chest inside the billiards room door. This would not do. He must get himself under better regulation.
“What the devil is chasing you, man?” Bingley asked, entering the room.
Darcy turned and blurted, “A woman, but she does not know it.”
Bingley looked this way and that exaggeratedly, before winking. “If you, of all men, run from a woman, then I fear she has already caught you. Elizabeth Bennet?”
Darcy rolled his eyes. “How did you know?”
“Your well-controlled demeanor may serve you at cards, Darcy, but not in the presence of a lady who has captured your interest.”
“Have I been so obvious? Do you believe she has expectations of me?”
“Although I see what you are about, I doubt she does. I believe Miss Elizabeth thinks you dislike her, and I know she dislikes you.”
“How can you say so? We have just been having an exceedingly congenial time of it… dancing.”
“Dancing?!” Bingley’s eyebrows climbed his forehead. ”You danced? Just now? With her? But I know for a certainty she told her mother she would never dance with you.”
“She what?” This explains why she resisted, why she appeared so annoyed.
“Miss Bennet relayed her sister’s sentiments to me, at the Lucases’.”
“Damn it,” Darcy muttered. “Damn and blast. She dislikes me?”
“So I have been told. She overheard you, you know. And when your comments were repeated amongst the family, she vowed to never dance with you.”
Darcy shook his head in astonishment at his self-inflicted folly. “I would not let her refuse just now, whilst your sister was playing. We made up a reel. It seemed perhaps she enjoyed herself enough to forgive me.”
“Then what the hell are you doing in here?” Bingley began to laugh.
“I… uh… I had to recover myself. I became rather…” Darcy looked into Bingley’s eyes, chagrined. “…Aroused by the exercise.”
A surreptitious glance at the fall of his friend’s breeches revealed Darcy’s lapse had in some measure corrected itself. “Darcy, you must return to her.” Bingley turned his friend by the shoulder and they made for the drawing room. “Do not go on being stupid. And tomorrow morning, you will ride to Mr. Bennet at Longbourn, yes?”
Before entering the drawing room, Darcy paused. “I am not sure.”
Bingley and Darcy watched Elizabeth’s countenance for any clue to her heart. She was standing at the mantel. Her eyes flared in Darcy’s direction. She blushed. She looked down. She looked back into his face, quizzical, but quickly nodded down before closing her lips over her teeth to suppress a smile. But she was Elizabeth Bennet, and no emotions so strong as she was experiencing—sensations entirely without precedent—could be hidden. It was not her nature. She returned her gaze to the man who was now, astonishingly, an object of intriguing interest. Darcy was broadly smiling when their eyes met. A sharp inhale of breath lifted her bosom, and she openly mirrored his warm expression.
Bingley whispered, “Good God, man…you are not sure?”
“Miss Elizabeth, let us demonstrate for Bingley the Reel Netherfield, shall we? Miss Bingley, would you oblige us by playing the song you rendered before? Only…perhaps a little more slowly, please.”
Elizabeth came forward, arms out, beaming, and as he approached her, Darcy spoke quickly over his shoulder to his friend. “I am sure.”