JA quotes and intro

"I should infinitely prefer a book." -- Chapter 39, Pride and Prejudice
"...I wish my collection were larger for your benefit and my own credit..." -- Chapter 8, Pride and Prejudice
"I shall be glad to have the library to myself as soon as may be." -- Chapter 20, Pride and Prejudice

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

An Engaging Wish


(2009)
"March Madness"
On the day of the Netherfield Ball, Mrs. Bennet makes a wish regarding her daughters' futures.


Mrs. Bennet’s nerves had finally triumphed. Why else had she donned her pelisse and wandered out of doors and into the garden nearly three hours before she typically rose from her bed for the day? At least those were Mr. Bennet’s thoughts when he spied her from his window.

In truth, Mrs. Bennet had been teased out of her slumber by the sunlight peeking through her own window and had risen, with sleep still clouding her eyes, to be jolted fully awake by the sight of a rainbow arcing over Longbourn’s grounds. Struck with the curious notion to follow where it led, she rang for her maid, quite shocking the poor woman, and fussed so little (shocking the maid even more) that she was ready to leave the house within half an hour.

At the edge of the garden, where the land sloped downward and provided a broad view of Netherfield Park, she could see something glistening at the point where the rainbow disappeared from sight. She knew there was no pot of gold there, merely a trick of light in Netherfield’s southern fields; yet she felt the hairs on her neck stand up. She looked down at her feet. Her shoes were wet with dew and half obscured by clover. Closing her eyes, she bent to pick one of the little blooms. When she looked in her hand, she gasped.

Not since she was a little girl and had wished to live in the big house at Longbourn had she seen one of the little “four-flowers,” as she had secretly called them. Old Mrs. Long had been fond of her as a child and had taken her along one day to call on Mrs. Bennet. The then-mistress of Longbourn had been kind to her, answering her incessant queries with patience and smiles. Young Miss Gardiner fell in love with the house and its inhabitants that day and decided there could be no grander place in all of Hertfordshire. Netherfield Park, with its imposing buildings and neglected grounds, did not compare. Here were warmth and elegance; here were welcome and condescension. That same day, she had picked a four-leaf clover and had somehow known she would return to Longbourn to stay.

Now, it was her daughters’ turn. They needed to find welcoming homes of their own. Even Lydia was approaching marriageable age. Mrs. Bennet did not consider sixteen too young, and Lydia would be sixteen the following summer. Jane was two and twenty already. Yes, they were all of them in need of husbands.

Mrs. Bennet closed her eyes once more, twirled the “four-flower” between her fingers, and made a wish. Had she opened her eyes more quickly, she might have seen a swirl of colour very much like the one she had witnessed outside the assembly hall on the night she had danced her first dance with Mr. Bennet.

As she returned home, she also missed the brief conversation between a tiny leprechaun and his equally diminutive companion.

“That is twice she has plucked the lucky shamrock from your hat.”

“What of it?”

“It is not fair that she should have two wishes when some people have none.”

“That is no concern of mine. I shall grant her wish, and you will help me.”

The sprite sulked but decided not to protest further.

~*~


Mrs. Bennet’s unusual serenity during her daughters’ preparations for the Netherfield Ball unnerved them all. Only Mary received any special attention, and all of it useful; she was advised on her gown, her hair, and her dancing to good effect. On most days her mother hardly ever paid her any mind, so Mrs. Bennet’s particular notice and approving look as they all waited for the carriage to be brought round infused Mary with confidence.

~*~


“How beautiful they all are,” Bingley declared upon the entrance of the young ladies from Longbourn. “Do not you agree, Darcy?”

Mr. Darcy remained silent, his eyes darting around the figures of Miss Bennet and Miss Lydia in search of their shorter sister.

Bingley did not notice the whirl of colour encircling the feet of a certain Bennet girl, but he soon felt its effects. After greeting Caroline and Louisa, his elegant Jane did something he had never seen her do before: she (seemingly) tripped over her own feet. Not even his sisters could have accused her of acting by design, for her mortification was obvious to any observer. What was not so obvious—and what Charles Bingley noticed, to his great delight—was her surprise, pleasant surprise, when her hands met his chest in her attempt to steady herself. Nor did he miss her gasp and the longing in her eyes when his hands slipped to her waist to assist her in that attempt. Despite his natural modesty, Charles Bingley knew for a certainty that he had seen the look of love upon Jane Bennet’s face, and that it was all for him.

~*~


Mr. Darcy was trying to identify the specific alteration in Mary Bennet’s appearance when her elder sister walked by him. He realised he must have missed Miss Elizabeth’s greeting; she might even believe he had deliberately cut her. That would never do. He followed Elizabeth round the ballroom, frustrated at her success in evading him just as he would come upon her. The crowd swelled and thinned between them several times before she stopped and he caught up with her at last.

“What can you mean by pursuing me, Mr. Darcy?”

What could he mean by it, indeed, he wondered, despairing over the impossibility of any alliance between them. “I came to say good evening, Miss Bennet.”

“You seemed less eager when I said the same to you earlier.”

“I was distracted by…” He stopped, thinking it unwise, perhaps, to admit to having admired the improvement in her sister.

“Is that all, sir?”

Hardly all, he thought. “Would you honour me with—”

“Please, Mr. Darcy.” Elizabeth’s voice betrayed her anxiety but also her exasperation. “If you are about to ask me to dance, I must wonder at your confidence that I will find you handsome enough to tempt me.”

What? She could not have… She had. She had heard him in all his wretched incivility so many days ago. Elizabeth turned away, but Darcy could not, and he was rewarded with a strange sight—a sort of colourful glow about her that only bewitched him more, though he was unsure he could trust his eyes completely. All of a sudden, he was struck with how very tempting she was, and to his surprise and hers (she turned round again with amazement clear on her face at the sound of it) he laughed. Laughed! She stared and stared. “Dance with me, Miss Elizabeth Bennet.” He delighted in having shocked her into silence. He had deserved every saucy speech she had uttered, but now he would have his say. “You are undoubtedly handsome enough to tempt me in spite of your discouragement.”

Not very fluently, Elizabeth informed him that she had been obliged to promise the first set to Mr. Collins; therefore, they settled on the second. Darcy, who only moments before had been regretting the impossibility of a future with her, was now deliberating on whether to solicit another pair of dances from her immediately or to delay his request until after procuring her some punch.

~*~


Mr. Collins soon arrived to claim his dances from his cousin Elizabeth. Her presence gave as much pleasure to him as his gave discomfort to her and to Mr. Darcy, who watched them from the side of the room and cringed at every misstep the parson made. Collins was no proficient at dancing, though he did not know it, and with each wrong turn he managed to convince more and more observers of that fact without enlightening himself. His companions grew so accustomed to his mistakes that by the second dance they had become complicit in the preservation of his ignorance, having begun to compensate through improvisation in their own movements. This strategy worked well until the very end of the first set when, oddly, Mr. Collins spun in the proper direction—albeit too quickly—and collided with the back of his other cousin, Miss Kitty.

Those who witnessed the bright flash of red and orange that preceded the collision called it a vulgar display for lack of anything else to call such an anomaly. Poor Kitty fell forward onto her partner, Mr. Denny, knocking him out of the line and onto his back. Confusion reigned for several seconds, to be cleared by Lydia’s giggling and loud exclamation:

“La, Kitty! You have spilled out of your dress! What a good joke!”

Miss Lydia’s announcement was not news to Mr. Denny. His eyes, hands, and other parts were well aware of what Miss Kitty’s dress no longer contained. He had set himself at once to explore the matter with the utmost diligence and would have continued those explorations at length had he not spied Mr. Bennet approaching at a speed not often witnessed in men of middle age.

Denny’s strangled “Your father is coming!” awakened Kitty to the danger, and quickly untangling their lower limbs in preparation to stand, they stirred into action of a different sort. Kitty removed her hands from Denny’s hair. Denny, having already removed his hands and torn his eyes away from what had not stayed in Miss Kitty’s stays, produced a handkerchief to stretch advantageously across the front of her gown as she struggled to set it to rights.

“Papa!”

“Not a word, Kitty!”

“Mr. Bennet!”

“Mr. Denny, I presume? I am being supremely generous in addressing you as ‘Mister’ in light of these events. I hope you appreciate the fact.”

“I do.”

“Remember those words. You will need them again in the very near future.”

And thus the first engagement of the evening was accomplished.

~*~


Luckily, Mr. Bingley had whisked Jane to the terrace as the commotion began and thus had not witnessed the scandal taking place in his ballroom.

It was chilly on the terrace, so one almost-embrace (in the name of protecting his dance partner from the cold air) led to an actual one, which led to another, and still another, until Bingley had run out of excuses and Jane out of the power to resist him, if she had possessed any such power in the first place.

~*~


In the ballroom, the second set was now underway. Mr. Collins, a bit unsteady on his feet and still disoriented from his cousinly clash, removed himself to a quieter part of the house with the kind assistance of Miss Charlotte Lucas.

~*~


Mr. Goulding, as a rule, enjoyed a ball.

He enjoyed a puzzle even more.

His attention had been caught by a sparkling blue-green light, just visible in the corner of his eye. When he turned in its direction, he stopped, bluish light forgotten, and stared his puzzle in the face.

Mary’s unexpected resemblance to her elder sister Elizabeth first struck him. Then he noticed the change in the style of her hair, the unusual addition of jewellery to her dress, and the pretty colours of her gown and ribbons, combining to make Miss Mary a pretty picture in her own right. He stepped nearer, grinning as he watched her start and then blush.

“Miss Mary, you are not dancing.”

“Neither are you, Mr. Goulding. But we both know I rarely dance, while your lack of participation in the activity is far more likely to be noticed by our neighbours.”

“Something caught my eye just as I had decided to secure a partner.”

“And what was that?” Mary asked.

“You.”

“Me? However could that be?”

“If you will come with me, I will endeavour to find out.”

“Come with you where? How long will it take? I wish to perform as soon as ever Mr. Bingley opens the instrument.”

“If that is all that concerns you, let us go now while the others are dancing.”

Mary looked up at him in confusion but followed nonetheless. He found an empty room and bade her sit next to him. With deft fingers he began to examine her hair, her necklace, and the various bits of ribbon and lace on her dress until Mary appeared to forget all about her desire to oblige the company with an air. In fact, within a very few minutes, Mr. Goulding had got Mary to sing just for him—when her lips were free to do so, that is—and unlike in times past, her voice was not weak and her manner not the least bit affected.

~*~


The sound arrested Jane’s attention for two reasons. First, she knew that voice. Second, its tone bore alarming similarities to that which she had heard herself utter on the terrace only moments before. Hating the necessity but unable to dismiss her sense of duty, and with no idea of whom she would find sequestered with Mary, she burst into the room from whence the utterance had emanated. The two other occupants, while completely and properly dressed, were behaving as though they wished they were not. Mary’s hair had fallen over her face and half-obscured the face of her lover, but Jane soon recognised their neighbour.

“Mr. Goulding!” Jane whispered as surprise supplanted horror. Aaron Goulding had never before paid Mary any attention in his life other than to tease her as a child.

“Miss…Mary?” Bingley had come up behind Jane and stood with his mouth agape.

“I apologise for my sister’s behaviour, Mr. Bingley. I know not what has got into her.”

“Will you apologise for the gentleman’s behaviour as well? It appears whatever it is has equally got into him.” He scratched his head and smiled. “Into us, too, for that matter.”

“Did they hear us at all?” Jane touched Mary’s shoulder, and the latter shrieked and turned round.

“Jane! Mr. Bingley! Oh, my.”

“Miss Bennet, Mr. Bingley.” Mr. Goulding was on his feet in a moment, helping Mary to hers.

“What have you to say for yourself, sir?” Jane knew not how fierce she appeared as protector of her sister.

“I should like to say it to Miss Mary first, if you do not mind.”

“That sounds reasonable,” said Mr. Bingley. “We will give you two minutes.” He led Jane out of the room and the two stood guard at the door.

“But please, no more of that…singing, Mary,” Jane called back to her sister. It had sounded rather melodic, so she felt the euphemism was appropriate.

It took more than two minutes, but soon Jane, Bingley, Mary, and Goulding returned to the ballroom to dance the third set and to discuss the impending interviews with Mr. Bennet.

~*~


Lydia Bennet, although the youngest of the Longbourn ladies, was by no means the least observant, especially when it came to eligible young men and anything else that could inspire sisterly jealousy. “Just look at them,” she complained to Captain Carter, with whom she was dancing. “First, Kitty catches Mr. Denny, and now,” she said, pointing, “Lizzy is dancing with Mr. Darcy—and laughing! I thought she hated him.” Her eyes widened. “And she has got him laughing, too!”

The dance separated them for a moment. When they came back together, Lydia said, “See, that is just what I mean. There—there is Mary with Aaron Goulding. What a lark! What is more, she seems happy about it.”

Captain Carter agreed that she did.

“Of course, if Jane has got herself engaged to Mr. Bingley tonight, I would not be surprised, but it is most unfair that my sisters should have all the fun and leave me out of it.”

“Is not dancing fun, Miss Lydia?” He certainly thought so. He found himself charmed by her youthful enthusiasm, despite her silly notions.

“Of course it is! I never said it was not.” She pouted. “I cannot believe Kitty will marry before me.”

“You are the youngest. It is to be expected.”

“That does not make it fair.”

The captain stifled his laugh, but not well enough.

“You do not agree with me?”

“Lydia, my dear, you are what, seventeen?”

“I am not sixteen.”

“Really?” He raised his eyebrow. “Then you are quite young. Marriage is a serious business. Why rush into it?”

She did not answer, because she was giggling.

“What has amused you?”

“You called me ‘Lydia, my dear.’” She giggled again. “Am I your dear?”

“We were talking of marriage.”

She smiled broadly at him. “One of my favourite subjects!”

“Lydia, love,” he said, prompting more giggles and making himself wonder what was causing endearments to flow from his lips unchecked, “do be serious. Why do you wish to marry so soon?” He would not mind marrying Lydia himself if she were at least sixteen. He had grown quite fond of her in the short time he had known her.

“You know I have no brothers, and horrid Mr. Collins—yes, that awful cousin of Papa’s who knocked Kitty to the floor after the first set—will inherit Longbourn when Papa dies. He will toss us all out into the hedgerows if he does not marry one of us instead. I do not know which would be worse.”

Now this was something Captain Carter understood only too well, for his own mother had been forced from her home upon the death of her father. His expression softened in sympathy. “No one should have to suffer such a fate.”

“That is just what I think! But what is a girl to do about it?”

Captain Carter gave the matter a great deal of thought. Before the end of their dances, he had formed a plan, and he determined to seek out Mr. Bennet that very night to discuss it.

~*~


The hostess of Netherfield wore her fury well, never allowing it to mar her outward expression beyond the occasional sneer.

The objects of her anger had laughed and smiled throughout the second set and were now behaving similarly during the third. Was Mr. Darcy out of his senses, to be flirting with the girl? She had never seen anything in Eliza Bennet—well, not after she had discovered Mr. Darcy’s admiration of her fine eyes. The pair danced on, heedless of the mysterious, colourful ring which encircled their feet whenever they came together. Did no one else see it? When they separated, the colours moved in other directions, and when they reunited, the ring formed again.

Caroline, too blind in her anger to question the validity of what she saw, watched until she detected a pattern. The rainbow, for lack of a better word, travelled from one Miss Bennet to another and back again. It must be the culprit in Mr. Darcy’s foolishness; surely it had bewitched him. Even plain Mary Bennet proved an elegant and lively dancer when the ribbon swirled about her ankles. Perhaps Kitty Bennet had trapped her betrothed by way of these arts, and Mr. Collins had only appeared to be at fault.

When Caroline saw the multi-coloured blur wending its way between the couples once more on a path to Charles and Jane, she resolved to act. She stamped down hard at precisely the right moment, flawlessly incorporating the manoeuvre into her dance steps and scattering sparkles at her feet. She heard a squeak and anxiously glanced about her, but no one else seemed to note anything amiss. She sighed and smiled and unwittingly made her present companion a little in love with her by doing so. She was a handsome, fashionable woman, after all.

“She will pay for that,” Mr. Green vowed, none too pleased to find his hat had suffered from Miss Bingley’s impertinence. “She may not be a Bennet, but perhaps as Jane’s future sister something might be done.”

The sprite smirked.

The two little creatures ran back to where Miss Bingley stood and tugged at her slippers until the lady was quite unable to stand upright without assistance. They pushed and pulled her, forcing her closer to her partner and farther from the festivities. Satisfied, they let her go.

~*~


“My dear Miss Bingley, although I can hardly object to your…er…spontaneity, I feel I must mention that we are not meant to be dancing a waltz at present.”

“No!”

“Let me escort you to a seat.”

They continued their waltz, barely noticed by the others, round the fringes of the room and out to the hall.

“I thought we were going to sit,” Caroline protested.

“We can do that in the parlour as easily as in the ballroom, and much more comfortably, but you will have to direct me. I should not like to twirl you into your brother’s study or the broom closet. So unromantic.”

Caroline smiled despite herself. She had got used to the movements of the waltz, and although her feet were again under her own power she continued dancing until they entered the silver parlour.

When he sat too close for propriety, she did not mind somehow. Yet she felt restless. “I should not be here.”

“You do realise it is pointless, do you not?”

“What is?”

“Being angry at your friend for admiring another.”

“Whatever are you talking of?” Had she been that obvious? How mortifying!

“He cannot help it, just as I cannot help admiring you.”

“I have no intention of becoming a permanent part of this neighbourhood,” she warned him. “I assume you belong to one of the four and twenty families Mrs. Bennet visits?”

“Mrs. Bennet, the Mistress of Longbourn? I have heard of her, but she does not visit my sister. We live too far away for casual dinner invitations.”

“How, then, did you come to be invited to this ball?”

~*~


Caroline’s partner silently rejoiced in his good fortune. Mr. Bingley was a pleasant-looking man; it should not have been a surprise to find his sister so comely. A bit prickly, too, but he believed he could handle that. He remembered their waltz and smiled; yes, he could handle it very well indeed.

“I encountered Mr. Bingley on horseback one day,” he answered her, “as I was out on my property. I directed him back to Meryton, but we had a long chat before he rode off. He mentioned the ball and invited me on the spot, and on a whim I accepted.”

“That must have been the day Charles got lost and missed tea.”

“Late Thursday afternoon.”

“The same day he called on the Bennets to invite them.”

“Do you truly resent us for accepting your brother’s hospitality?”

“No,” she sighed. “It is just that I had so desired to be mistress of Pemberley, and now…”

“Is it only the loss of Pemberley that you regret? Not the man?”

“Mr. Darcy is very handsome, but if you are asking if I am in love with him, the answer is no.” She looked directly into his eyes. “I have no idea why I am telling you all this.”

“Perhaps,” he began, taking her hand. She did not resist him, but he saw her swallow as if her throat had suddenly gone dry. He hoped for his sake she was swallowing her pride and ambition, for his estate yielded nothing near ten thousand a year. “Just perhaps, Miss Bingley,”—he paused to kiss her fingertips—“I am exactly the person who needs to be told.”

~*~


Only two of the seven weddings the Bennets attended the following year did not feature brides from Longbourn: Caroline Bingley’s marriage to a Hertfordshire landowner of some means, who was nevertheless not half as rich as Darcy or even Bingley; and the marriage of Charlotte Lucas to Mr. Collins.

Mrs. Bennet had pressed and dried her lucky clover and put it in a locket, which present she made to Lydia on the occasion of her wedding. Why a little extra pin-money always seemed to find its way into Mrs. Carter’s hands exactly when she wished it the lady never sought to discover; nor did she question her sudden and lasting interest in rainbows after waking at dawn to view one not long after she had married.

And if you are wondering whether the Carters’ offspring made good matches (I did say “if”), of course they did! So did the children of the Darcys, Bingleys, Dennys, and Gouldings. Mrs. Bennet, a doting grandmother, was excessively attentive to all those things, and you can be sure Mr. Green had to replace the clover tucked in his hatband many times over the years (not that he minded) as he and his spritely companion journeyed through Hertfordshire and beyond.


~The End~

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