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Monday, June 14, 2010

Playing High


(2009)
Pride and Prejudice
"May is for Merriment - Part Deux"
Lizzy sets out to prove to Charlotte that simpering, flirting, and keeping her opinions to herself will not win the respect of a respectable man.


An Assembly Room in Meryton, Hertfordshire

Elizabeth smiled as Mr. Bingley escorted Jane from the dance. What a handsome, charming man he was! Charlotte had danced the previous set with him, and from what Elizabeth had observed, her friend relished the honour of being the first partner chosen by their new neighbour from among the many ladies present.

Mr. Bingley certainly satisfied the conditions of Elizabeth’s bet with Charlotte. By all appearances, he was eminently respectable. Simpering would be no trial if he were the object of it, but such paltry arts would hardly be necessary; the man seemed pleased with all he saw! If by chance she displeased him, he would be too kind to mention it. Mr. Bingley’s happy manners lessened her unease over fulfilling her obligation, but his obvious pleasure in Jane’s company gave her great hopes for winning the wager all the same: Elizabeth was unlikely to divert his attention from Jane, no matter how she tried! Not that she would wish to. Mr. Bingley would never see her, or treat her, as more than a common, indifferent acquaintance while her elder sister was near.

The two friends had agreed not to exchange any money over the resolution of their argument. Instead, the winner would assign a task to the loser, preferably something with great potential for embarrassment. Certain of victory, Elizabeth was busily contemplating a suitable punishment for Charlotte when the latter hurried over and whispered, “I have determined which of the unsuspecting gentlemen is to receive your attentions this evening.”

“You have?”

Charlotte told her.

Elizabeth’s shock was great. “Mr. Darcy?” she echoed. At least Charlotte had not chosen Mr. Hurst, but really! “You cannot mean it! Surely Mr. Bingley is more gentlemanly than his taciturn friend, who speaks to no one outside his own party.”

“Eliza…”

“Charlotte,” she laughed, “I do not think I like your idea of respectability. You must allow that if one chooses to attend a ball, it is far more respectable to dance and be amiable than to scowl and look down one’s nose at everyone.”

“Mr. Darcy is my choice and therefore yours. Unless you wish to forfeit?”

“Never!”

“Then get about the business. Perhaps you can entice him to dance with you. He has already danced with Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst, and he stands alone. You have a few moments before the music begins. Go, go! Simper and smile! You are wasting your time here with me.”

“I will go. But now I consider it, you may have arranged your own defeat, my dear friend. I will be surprised if Mr. Darcy even deigns to acknowledge my existence. From this vantage point, his defences against womanly wiles appear impenetrable. If I were the daughter of an earl, I might have a chance, but as it is…”

“We shall see. But we shall see nothing until you make a beginning.”

“I am going, Charlotte! Do not shove! It is so unladylike.” They both giggled, which exactly suited Elizabeth’s purpose. Mr. Darcy appeared to be the sort to flee at the approach of a giggling country girl.

Mr. Darcy did not flee. Elizabeth stood near him and assumed an air of what she believed was a mixture of awe and stupidity. She knew she must look completely silly, but her efforts mattered not at all. Mr. Darcy did not even turn in her direction.

“Lovely night for a dance.”

No response.

“It is wonderful that Netherfield Park is let at last.”

Not so much as a blink or a twitch of the hands could she detect; the man stood as still as stone.

She tried giggling a little more loudly than before and winced as she realised how like Lydia she sounded. She was rewarded with movement this time at least, merely the hint of a down-turned mouth. The gentleman steadfastly refused to look at her.

This is not even fair, she thought, convinced Charlotte would have done better for herself had she picked Mr. Bingley, despite his interest in Jane.

Such an easy victory soon began to bore her. Ignoring the occasional stares and raised eyebrows of her acquaintances, she sauntered across the room to Charlotte, making certain to look back over her shoulder in a flirty fashion and accentuate the swaying of her hips.

“Do you concede defeat?” Elizabeth asked her friend, who seemed near to bursting with amusement at her display.

“It is early yet.”

“Charlotte, there is no point to this exercise. The man cannot be bothered to speak or even offer a polite nod. My ‘charms’ are nothing to him. Just call me Medusa, for I fear I have turned the poor fellow to stone.”

“Oh, do be serious, Eliza.”

“Go and see for yourself! I am not certain he still breathes. I swear I did not see his eyelids flicker above three times. I thought he frowned once, but that may have been my imagination.”

Charlotte said nothing, but her look indicated the matter was far from settled.

Elizabeth’s foot tapped in anticipation of the next dance. “Just admit your error, and release me to enjoy the remainder of the evening.”

“I stand by my opinion. Mr. Darcy will succumb sooner or later. Try harder next time.”

“But it is so dull to stand there talking to the wall behind him, or his fine pair of shoes, or his earlobe, or—if I am very lucky—his expertly tied cravat! You would have me devote the entire night to this… this useless endeavour?”

“I will not stop you from having fun, Eliza. Dance as much as you like—or as much as you can, considering the scarcity of gentlemen. Talk with your friends. Flirt with other men. You will, however, approach Mr. Darcy several times—”

“Several times? Charlotte, have pity!”

“Oh, very well—twice more, and you will do your very best to attract him in the usual way of females. If the clock strikes midnight and he has resisted all three of your attempts, then and only then will I concede.”

“Fair enough.”

Their conversation was interrupted when the music began and Elizabeth’s partner came to claim her.

Elizabeth watched Mr. Darcy as she danced. His behaviour never altered: he walked to and fro, occasionally stopping to speak to one of his own party but otherwise remaining silent. At the conclusion of the set, she doggedly stalked her prey and behaved with all the affectation and coquetry a man might expect from an elegant female in search of a husband, taking care not to say anything too sensible. It was with great difficulty that she reined in her wit.

By the time the music reclaimed her attention, she had achieved no more success than before. She caught Charlotte’s eye as she went down the dance, tilted her head in Darcy’s direction, and shrugged. Charlotte smiled ruefully but showed no signs of surrender.

Mr. Darcy had given up his restless wandering at last and sat down for the fourth set. Mrs. Long, chatty Mrs. Long, sat to his right. To Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy appeared just as insufferably dismissive of that lady as he had been of her. She could not make out that he spoke a single word. That conviction was strengthened by her unfortunate neighbour’s rising from her seat after half an hour with a look of pure disgust, and with all the added drama lent her by the concluding notes of the dance, to rush to the side of Mrs. Bennet, ostensibly to complain of her ill treatment at the hands of Mr. Darcy.

Elizabeth realised Mrs. Long’s desertion had provided the perfect opportunity for her third and final attack. She thanked her partner, was waylaid briefly by Maria Lucas, and arrived at Mr. Darcy’s side just in time to see Jane whisked off by the winsome Mr. Bingley to dance the fifth set. She sighed, wishing again for a more grateful object even at the risk of losing the bet. She found her task equally onerous and ridiculous, but Charlotte had insisted on three tries before either of them could be declared the winner.

Relief came in the form of Mr. Darcy’s getting up directly and walking away upon hearing her sigh. Had he mistaken it for romantic interest? Elizabeth could not help but laugh at the thought, and she noticed he could not help but hear and turn to glare at her. She laughed more loudly still, only calming when Charlotte joined her.

“You will be the victor, Eliza. That is obvious.”

“That is what I have said all along! Shall I make you flirt with Mr. Hurst in retaliation?”

“Do not be too hard on me, I beg you! I hope you fix on a more palatable choice in the next hour or so. For now, let us amuse ourselves by watching those fortunate enough to secure partners for this set. At midnight I will officially congratulate you.”

They both sat smiling, occasionally sharing an observation as the dancers moved past them, but more often sharing a laugh at the outcome of their experiment.

Their laughter turned to something else upon overhearing an exchange between Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy. The former had come from the dance to encourage his friend to join it, even singling out Elizabeth as a potential partner. He was instantly rebuffed.

“Oho, Bingley!” Mr. Darcy stepped back, crossing his arms. “No, no, NO! I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men, especially that young lady!” His voice carried across to Elizabeth and Charlotte and beyond to Miss Goulding, Miss King, and not a few others, from the looks on their faces. “She is just the sort I cannot abide, simpering and smirking and making love to a man to whom she has not even been properly introduced!”

“What can you be talking of? How can you determine such a thing from a single glance? I see no flirtatious behaviour at all. She sits there quietly with her friend, who seems a very pleasant young woman, by the way.”

“I know of what I speak, Bingley. You are fortunate to have avoided her notice.”

Mr. Bingley did not look convinced at all. “I believe I will request her hand for the next. She cannot be as bad as you claim.”

“She is as tenacious and as forward as your sister,” Mr. Darcy said, but Mr. Bingley had returned to the dance and did not hear him. Elizabeth, however, heard this hollow confirmation of her triumph and bristled at being compared to the only other lady who had wasted a portion of the evening trying to impress Mr. Darcy.

Mr. Bingley’s defence softened but did not remove the sting of his friend’s censure. Soon Elizabeth’s eyes stung as well. She felt Charlotte’s hand on her arm.

“I concede your point this instant, Eliza.” Charlotte said in a shaky voice. “Forgive me.”

Elizabeth smiled thinly and forced back her tears. “You are not to blame.”

“Had I known Mr. Darcy would react in such a way, I never would have forced the matter. He is a proud man, however. Justifiably so. I suppose it was to be expected.”

“I suppose I could forgive even his pride, justifiable or not, if he had not so cruelly mortified mine.

“Was it not mortifying,” intoned the deep voice, much quieter now, “to be subjected to the blatant, persistent, and, dare I say, clearly unwelcome flirting of a strange woman?”

“Excuse me, sir.” Elizabeth had not realised he stood so close. “I thought you had no interest in speaking with me. I do not know whether to feel honoured or insulted.” She turned away but refused to abandon her position. It was not for her to be driven away by Mr. Darcy. If he wished to avoid seeing her, he must go. She looked at her friend. “Remind me never to engage in a wager of any kind with you again, Charlotte.”

Charlotte chuckled. “I assure you, Eliza, my betting days are over. I shall take you at your word. I had your opinion and now I have Mr. Darcy’s as well: men of sense do not want silly wives.”

“Clearly not.” Elizabeth smiled despite herself. “Though I cannot vouch for the sense of any man, any stranger, willing to insult a lady without knowing the particulars of the circumstance.”

“Inform me of these particulars, then.”

“What do you mean—” Elizabeth began, flinching at the sound of his voice. Her sentence was cut short as Mr. Darcy almost dragged her into the line with the others and then took his place opposite her. “I do not recall being asked to dance.”

“You clearly are a woman of some sense, despite your displays to the contrary. Why were you behaving—presumably—out of character, and what is this about a bet? I am not accustomed to being the object of a joke, and I demand an explanation.”

You might imagine, dear reader, how civilly Miss Elizabeth Bennet replied to such an uncivil demand. As her anger had not caused her to change in essentials, her carefully chosen words hit their mark without affronting the hearer. Mr. Darcy listened and acknowledged and even found a modicum of humour in the situation. He also noticed the fineness of her eyes as they upbraided him and the lightness of her figure as she danced. These and several other observations he found altogether less mortifying and more pleasing than he had expected, considering his previous distaste for her company.

Elizabeth’s amazement had been equal to her neighbours’ upon finding herself partnered with Mr. Darcy not only for the remainder of the fifth set, but also for the sixth (Darcy had not given Bingley the chance to request that privilege, claiming a need for further clarification from Miss Elizabeth on some aspect of the bet). She was rational enough to accept the implied—and very public—apology, especially as her partner appeared less grave and more animated as the evening progressed. In fact, his gallantry in response to her rebuke intrigued her, and she began to enjoy his company, something she had previously considered impossible.

Charlotte, narrowly observing the couple, was tempted to take back her earlier words and claim equal victory with Elizabeth after all. She had been the one to select Mr. Darcy for her friend, and the gentleman had eventually succumbed, albeit because of Elizabeth’s own brand of charm rather than the standard fare one was offered in the marriage market. Whether justifiably or not, her heart swelled with pride at having been instrumental in her friend’s successful evening; and while the mere idea of making eyes at Mr. Hurst caused her to shudder, she refused to let it worry her. She had a feeling Eliza would have far pleasanter things on her mind after tonight than exacting a penalty for the loss of a silly little bet.

~The End~

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