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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Saturday, June 12, 2010

A Taste for the Country


(2007)
Pride and Prejudice    
"Drabble Muse Writer's Challenge"
Inspired by Taste, a drabble by Mary Ellen
Mr Hurst's hearty appetite helps to accelerate his friends' courtships.


On Thursday, the twenty-first of November, four days after bidding farewell to a much-recovered Miss Bennet and her much-relieved sister, the Netherfield party sallied forth to enjoy the ladies' society once more, this time at Longbourn. Three days prior, Bingley had received a dinner invitation from Mrs. Bennet in gratitude for his kindness and hospitality during her eldest daughter's illness. This invitation, of course, he had immediately accepted. Louisa and Caroline saw in it nothing but the design of throwing their brother and Jane together again, and no one could dispute their supposition. It had been all too clear that Mrs. Bennet would have made no objection had Jane remained at Netherfield another week complete, and in perfect health.

That morning, rain had poured so heavily and so steadily over the landscape that even Caroline had been reluctant to send a servant to Longbourn with their regrets, assuming the Bennets would not expect them to risk a rider's health for the sake of politeness. But by early afternoon, Caroline had begun to express remorse over her careful guarding of the welfare of Netherfield's servants, for the sun had made such a dramatic reappearance that the main roads were dry well before the dinner hour.

"Can we not claim that the near ways are flooded and beg off?"

"You can see as well as I that it is not so." Bingley's smile was as pronounced as his sister's frown.

"Charles is right, Caroline." Louisa sighed. "Unfortunately, there is nothing to prevent our going."

"There are clouds over Longbourn. Can you not see them? There - right over that hill."

"Caroline, Longbourn is in the other direction. Besides, even if Mrs. Bennet had not invited us to dinner, I would have called to invite them all to the ball. Miss Bennet was in very good looks when Darcy and I met her in Meryton; she certainly will be well enough to dance two sets with me on Tuesday."

"Hurst, what do you say?" Caroline turned from the window, looking thoroughly disgusted at the direction the conversation was taking. "I cannot imagine you are fond of the Bennets’ society."

Hurst was certain that when he had dined with the officers the previous week, one of Colonel Forster's men had mentioned something about Mrs. Bennet keeping a good table. "We must eat somewhere. Why not at Longbourn?"

Louisa rolled her eyes, while Caroline cried, "You are no help at all!"

Hurst observed the one person who had remained silent throughout the exchange. Despite having voiced no opinion on the matter, Darcy's eyes betrayed some interest. There was nothing novel in that, he thought; once again, the men were united in favour of some perfectly harmless entertainment, and the women were determined against it.

~*~


During a rare pause in discourse between Mrs. Bennet and her two youngest daughters, Hurst heard the voices of Darcy and Miss Eliza escalate just after the latter spoke the name of George Wickham. Soon the two were embroiled in what appeared to be their unique brand of argumentative teasing, except Darcy was not smiling, and Miss Eliza looked quite put out. Hurst recalled the scowl that had been on Darcy's face two days ago when he had talked of encountering Mr. Wickham in Meryton. He wondered whether he himself might have heard something of the man; a few of his friends in town had described their dealings with someone of similar description, though he believed they had called him by another name: Witherspoon? Whitby? Whatever the case, this Wickham, according to Darcy, was nothing more than an upstart who had blasted his own prospects, someone unworthy of a gentleman's notice.

He shook his head at Darcy and Miss Eliza, bemused by their inability to find mutually agreeable subjects to discuss. Their noisy disagreement and Mr. Collins's efforts to intervene soon drew stares, and the warring parties recollected themselves, settling into an uneasy truce. Conversation around the table returned to a steady hum, accompanied by the clinking of silver, china and glass.

Hurst returned his full attention to his meal, savouring every bite. That officer's information had been gross understatement. This was, beyond doubt, the best dinner he had enjoyed in months. He closed his eyes and revelled in the physical sensation of swallowing a satisfying morsel. He took another bite and caught himself before he moaned aloud.

Perhaps some small sound had escaped his throat, for Mrs. Bennet turned to him exactly at that moment and offered him more ragout. He looked down in utter surprise; how had his dish emptied without his knowing? He responded with an affirmative and a compliment which he could only hope had been intelligible, intent as he had been upon his meal. His words must have been adequate, for Mrs. Bennet appeared well pleased.

When the men joined the ladies in the sitting room, Darcy led the way, and before long he and Miss Eliza were almost as far apart as the room could divide them. Mr. Collins followed and began running back and forth between the two, hovering over his cousin and showing deference to "the nephew of Lady Catherine de Bourgh." Bingley found a seat by Miss Bennet, who happened to look up at him and smile. The younger girls chatted amongst themselves, whilst Mr. Bennet sat with Louisa, Caroline, and Miss Mary, talking of heaven only knew what.

After a brief turn about the room, Hurst looked to his left and spied an empty chair in close proximity to Mrs. Bennet. That lady appeared content, as well she should have been, considering the success of dinner. He took the opportunity to express his approbation once more. "I must have that receipt for my own cook, Mrs. Bennet. I have rarely enjoyed a meal so delicious. There is nothing I like better than a good ragout, and yours was excellent."

"Oh! You do honour me, sir! But this evening's dinner was nothing out of the common way for us at Longbourn."

He would have suspected her of exaggeration, but she looked quite sincere. Perhaps she simply had superior taste in food. "Then your household is a fortunate one, madam." He was even more baffled by Miss Eliza's preference for plain dishes, when such delights were to be had in her own home every day. A case of familiarity breeding contempt? He could not fathom it.

"I thank you. We are fortunate. However, good dinners aside," she said, glancing at Mr. Collins, "I shall feel much more at ease when my girls are well married and settled in their own households."

It seemed women were always thinking of marriage, though he knew men sometimes devoted a great deal of thought to it as well. He admitted as much to his hostess. "My wife's late father often expressed similar sentiments, so Mrs. Hurst has told me."

"I am certain Mr. Bingley would have been proud had he lived to witness your marriage."

Hurst raised an eyebrow but acknowledged the compliment with a nod. From what he had heard, his father-in-law might have preferred to see his eldest daughter wed to a far richer man. Thankfully, young Bingley cared little for such things and had made no objection.

"Mr. Hurst!" Louisa interrupted. "We must go. Caroline has come down with the headache."

"May I offer you a powder for your sister? Would she like to rest in another room?"

"No, thank you, Mrs. Bennet. I am sure it is due to this dreadful weather." They had heard thunder in the distance for the last quarter hour. "She will recover most quickly at home in her own rooms."

"I am sure you are right." The matron smiled. "There is nothing like being in one’s own home, amongst familiar things, to make one feel like oneself again. You must go before it rains. We would not want anyone else to become ill." She glanced at Miss Bennet, then at Bingley. "Though you would be most welcome to stay the night!" she added, but not to any effect.

The party hurried out amidst the repeated thanks and good wishes of their hostess and Mr. Collins. Darcy and Bingley lingered in the entryway with the eldest Bennet daughters, whilst Hurst escorted his wife and sister to the carriage. Once inside, Caroline, looking as if she had never had a headache at all, busied herself with peering through the window that faced away from the house.

Louisa, unconcerned with her sister’s behaviour, wasted no time addressing her husband. "What on earth did you find to talk of with Mrs. Bennet, of all people?"

"The dinner, of course. It was very good. Exceptional, really."

"It was nothing we could not have enjoyed at the Grantleys' or the Harrisons'."

"Admit it, the meal was superb!"

Louisa pouted. "Very well, I found nothing amiss with Mrs. Bennet's table." She fiddled with her bracelets. "I thought she was saying something about my brother when I approached you."

"I do not recall speaking to her of Bingley."

"I distinctly heard her say Mr. Bingley would have been proud."

"Oh; it was your father, not your brother, of whom we spoke."

"How came you to talk of my father?"

"Is this important? Conversation about conversation has never appealed to me very much."

"Mr. Hurst!"

"She happened to mention her desire of seeing her daughters well settled."

"She happened to mention it? The woman talks of nothing else! What has that to do with my father?"

"I have it on good authority that there was a time when my wife's parents talked of little else."

Louisa did not confirm or deny it. "I suppose Mrs. Bennet considers herself well settled. Now that I think on it, she has done rather well for a woman of her station. I wonder how she came to be Mistress of Longbourn. Mr. Bennet obviously married beneath him. Surely he could have found someone with better connections."

"I imagine Mrs. Bennet was quite a beauty in her day. She has handsome features even now. Perhaps she came with a little money as well, enough for Mr. Bennet to overlook her connections in trade."

Louisa gasped, and Caroline spun around and glared at him, but he did not care. He knew who he was. He had little fortune of his own, but he had connections to nobility on both sides of his family. It was not his fault that he had not been the firstborn son, or that he had three sisters who had required dowries. His mother had left to him her house in town and a small bequest besides, and he was grateful to have them, for he knew many second sons who had little but their names to recommend them.

He looked towards the house. He could understand Bingley's reluctance to leave, but he had thought Darcy would have been the first one out behind Caroline. Finally, Darcy and Bingley tore themselves away from the ladies and entered the carriage. A moment later, they were off.

Darcy's countenance looked fierce; apparently his farewells to a certain young Miss had been no friendlier than their dinner conversation. "Darcy," Hurst ventured, "must you argue with Miss Eliza every time you speak to her?"

"I am surprised you noticed, Hurst. I had thought your attention completely consumed with the main course."

Hurst was taken aback; it was not Darcy's habit to make him the subject of open ridicule, Caroline and Bingley being the usual targets for that kind of sport. But to be fair, the man had been provoked.

Then Bingley smiled and added, "I thought I had heard a moan from your end of the table. Was that really you and not my imagination after all?"

Hurst grunted and bore the ensuing chuckles and teasing remarks as best he could. Had the ride been longer, he would have escaped it all by allowing the rocking of the carriage and the fullness of his stomach to lull him to sleep.

~*~


Later that evening, when the whole party had gathered in the drawing room, Hurst sat listening to Caroline play yet another selection on the pianoforte. As his sister-in-law's talent was more than tolerable, this was no sacrifice. The rain had begun in earnest after they had returned to Netherfield, but being full and warm and comfortable, Hurst did not mind it. His satisfaction with the events of the day gave him leisure to speculate on the dissatisfaction of others, and though he hated to ruin the near-perfect evening with distasteful discourse, he wished to have his curiosity satisfied on one point. "Darcy," he hissed, "Why did you let that business about George Wickham spoil your dinner?" Miss Eliza may have had little appreciation for the pleasures of Longbourn's table, but he had expected Darcy to be more discerning. Moreover, all that arguing could not have been good for the digestion.

Darcy started and turned, glowering at him and saying nothing.

"He is the same man you met on Tuesday, is he not, the one from your part of the country always getting into some sort of scrape?"

"Yes, the very one, unfortunately. His father was my father's steward. He was my own father's godson, little as he deserved the honour."

"Did you discover how he has insinuated himself into the good graces of a respectable gentleman's daughter from Hertfordshire?"

"She was there when I met him in Meryton, and she spoke to him again at her aunt’s home last evening. He has joined Colonel Forster's regiment."

"And you thought he might have sought you out for some vengeful purpose. Is not that what you implied the other day? So Mr. Wickham has a legitimate reason to be here."

"Beyond his birth, very little about George Wickham is legitimate."

Caroline had a habit of choosing long, intricate pieces to play whenever Darcy was her audience. Hurst was grateful she had not deviated from her usual course, as he knew she would have been less than pleased had she been able to discern the subject of their conversation. He leaned towards Darcy again. "You don't think she is in any danger, do you?"

"What do you mean?"

Hurst felt slightly annoyed. There was no need for Darcy to be thick about it. Or to be prudish; there was no gaggle of ladies about, only Louisa - a married woman, mind - and Caroline, both too engrossed in the music to overhear them. "You know what I mean. You have a sister. I have three of my own, and I would not have liked to see any of them fall prey to a rogue. You told us the man had vicious propensities, that he was not to be trusted around the fair sex." He doubted Mr. Bennet would thank Darcy for keeping Wickham's reputation intact at the expense of his daughter's. "Miss Eliza apparently has heard Wickham's tales. Why not let her hear yours? She is a clever girl." He could state that unequivocally, despite her unsophisticated palate. "Give her the facts and let her make up her own mind."

Darcy made a sound suspiciously like a curse. As Hurst had never heard him do so before, he could not say for certain.

~*~


From the night of the dinner to the day of the ball, there was such a succession of rain as prevented the Netherfield party from setting foot out of doors once. No sport was to be had, no shopping attempted; thankfully, the ladies had brought more than enough gowns, dancing slippers and accoutrements with them from London.

During a brief break in the weather, a servant rode off to retrieve from Longbourn a certain set of instructions for Netherfield's cook. When the rain returned in full force before the poor fellow had completed his mission, Hurst felt sorry, but not too sorry. Nothing less than the prospect of a good meal could have made such a Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday endurable to him.

~*~


Hurst had never cared much for balls. He had met Louisa at one and having married her, thereby securing all possible benefit from attending such functions, he now was ready to dispense with them completely. But for his wife's insistence upon dancing, he would have been happy to stay in his room. He gravitated towards the refreshments and had a glass to his lips before long. Standing not far from him was Darcy, silent and restless. Hurst assumed he either was avoiding Caroline or was searching the room for Miss Eliza.

"Have you found what you were looking for?"

Darcy harrumphed. "Enjoying the evening, Hurst?" he asked, eyeing the glass in his hand.

"You should have some. It's quite tasty."

"No, thank you."

Caroline was near the entrance, greeting some latecomers, and thus could not have been the source of Darcy's unease. "So, have you found her?" Hurst followed Darcy's gaze to the clutch of redcoats. "Ah. Or him?"

"He does not appear to have come."

Hurst heard laughter and looked to his side, where he saw Miss Eliza and Miss Lydia with an officer - Denny, he thought. Miss Lydia laughed a little too loudly, though he granted that a ball did tend to make a lady energetic. Miss Eliza, by contrast, stood listening to something Denny said and then stared past him to scowl at Darcy.

Was she looking for Wickham, too? "So your old friend is not just a scoundrel and a seducer, but a coward as well. I fear he has disappointed his new acquaintances." He nodded to his side. "Do you believe he is afraid you will expose him for what he is?"

"Wickham is hardly my friend. But it would appear you are right about the rest."

"He has done well to stay away, then."

Darcy started to reply, but another sound, definitely not a laugh, arrested Hurst's attention. Miss Lydia and her officer had scurried off, and Miss Eliza stood there alone, staring at him in confusion. He had not realised he was being overheard, but he had not taken any precaution against it, either. He stepped forward to greet Miss Eliza but Darcy was there before him, and Hurst could see irritation and curiosity mingled in her countenance. She made her curtsey prettily, however, and spoke civilly to Darcy and likewise to Bingley, who joined them immediately thereafter. Hurst managed to get in no more than a "good evening" before she rushed off, visibly flustered, in the direction of Miss Lucas.

He had no time to indulge his curiosity. The first dance was about to begin. He swallowed the remainder of his drink and scanned the crowds for his wife.

By the third set, Hurst was tempted to remove his cravat, or at least loosen it. The room felt insufferably hot. He sought relief in refreshment and solitude, pausing from time to time to watch Darcy, who was standing up with Miss Eliza. They talked little during the first dance, but they sat out the next, spending the time in earnest conversation. At least the two did not appear to be arguing; that was something.

Despite his initial disinterest, Hurst found little reason to complain as the evening progressed. Louisa had looked well and danced well, as always. Nicholls had outdone herself with the white soup. A few gentlemen had agreed to join him in the library for a game of cards after supper. Furthermore, he remembered to take care of an important detail before excusing himself from the general company: he brazenly interrupted a flow of self-congratulation from Longbourn's mistress over Bingley's attentions to Miss Bennet in order to request a few more treasures from her cook, to the matron's squealing delight.

~*~


Bingley departed for town the following afternoon, and Louisa and Caroline shut themselves up in a room together almost immediately thereafter, whispering and giggling like schoolgirls. Hurst did not see Louisa again until just before dinner, when she joined him in his room.

"Hurst?"

"I am coming." He tugged at his cravat; his man had tied it too tightly again. Or had his neck grown thicker? No, surely it was the valet's fault.

"I want to speak with you." Louisa hurried in, all skirts and lace and feathers. His wife had not given up her tendency to overdress; even in the country, she adorned herself as if she were in London at the height of the season. "There you are! Hurst, we must prepare to leave tomorrow morning for town."

"What do you mean? Is not Bingley due to return in three days?"

"Yes, but he will remain in town with us if we ask him to."

"We had planned to stay here until the winter, if not longer. Why the hurry?"

"Do not tell me you actually like it here!"

"What is wrong with Netherfield? As long as there is good food or good sport - and I have just secured the former, thanks to Mrs. Bennet's promise to send more receipts from Longbourn's cook - I am content to remain in Hertfordshire."

"Well, I am not. Besides, Caroline is bent on going."

"To spend more money in Bond Street than she ought, I suppose."

"Do not tease. Shopping is a serious business."

"It may be for your sister, but you need not go shopping with her. She is fully grown, you do realise."

"But she has not outgrown the need for my advice. She wishes to buy several new gowns. We expect to be frequently in company with the Darcys this winter, and you know she must-"

"I know, I know. You married fashion, so she must marry fortune."

"I would never say that!"

"Perhaps not, but you think it. If she truly wants to marry, however, she had best look elsewhere. No amount of new gowns will win Darcy's attentions. The man is completely indifferent to her. Give her that advice; it will do her good."

"You do not take into consideration what a little feminine effort can accomplish. Or have you forgotten?"

"I have by no means forgotten your lovely white silk with the gold trim or how lovely you looked in it, or the pearl necklace and that confounded pendant that dangled right here..." He stretched out his hand.

"Ooh!" Louisa tittered. "Stop that!" She smiled warmly, despite her protestation.

"And drove me to distraction. Nor have I forgotten your twenty thousand pounds, by the way."

"Mr. Hurst!" The smile faded.

"Mrs. Hurst, you would do well to remember that we men have our own reasons for marrying. Darcy, lucky dog, has no need of Caroline's money, and no interest in her mindless flattery. He will require more incentive than that to tie himself to a woman for life. Now, enough of this. Let us go down to dinner. I am famished."

Louisa's expression soured, but she made no further objection.

The subject arose again over dinner, but as the ladies could get neither Hurst nor Darcy to agree to remove to London, the entire party remained at Netherfield as planned.

~*~


By the time Bingley returned on Saturday, Hurst had convinced Nicholls to try the newest recipes from Longbourn. They had turned out well, but his hunger was by no means satisfied; he wanted more. Bingley had barely got the dust from the road off him before Hurst approached with a question. "How soon can you finagle an invitation to Longbourn? Did not Mrs. Bennet invite you to a family dinner?"

"An excellent idea! I have missed our neighbours. Do you think they will mind if I impose upon their hospitality this evening?"

"We are speaking of Mrs. Bennet, Bingley." Feeling a little guilty for ridiculing the woman who had provided such bounty for his enjoyment, Hurst refrained from rolling his eyes. His restraint required some effort, as he would have wagered Mrs. Bennet had been counting the days until Bingley's return.

"I shall send a note directly, telling her to expect us. Wait - you do mean to go, don’t you?"

"Yes; yes, of course. And Darcy, too. Just the three of us. Let the ladies remain at home. No need to bother asking them. Louisa is tired, and Caroline has the headache again."

The men took Bingley's chaise to Longbourn.

~*~


"You are seated far from your friends." Mrs. Bennet settled herself down in a nearby chair.

Hurst, cosy and comfortable after enjoying yet another delectable meal, sat back farther on the sofa. "My courting days are over, Mrs. Bennet." He gestured to Bingley and Darcy, who were in deep conversation with Miss Bennet and Miss Eliza on the other side of the room. "I am an old married man now and am content to watch the young people amuse themselves."

"You are hardly old, Mr. Hurst!"

He laughed. "Perhaps not, but I shall stay where I am."

Mrs. Bennet offered him coffee, which he accepted. "Your visit was such a pleasant surprise. I had expected Mr. Bingley to call soon, but to do so on the very day of his return is quite a marked attention! We are grateful," she sniffed, "and so happy to have your company, especially now that Mr. Collins is gone."

"When did your guest depart?" He asked merely to be polite. It was not as if he missed Collins's odd blend of humility and self-conceit.

"Just this morning. He is to return in several weeks. I do not know how my nerves will bear it!" Mrs. Bennet leaned closer. "He has engaged himself to our neighbour, Charlotte Lucas. After all his attentions to Lizzy! She refused him, you know. Stubborn girl!"

"You must have been very disappointed."

"You cannot imagine how much!" Her face turned various shades of pink as she vented her consternation. "Serves her right to have to entertain Mr. Darcy tonight. She has never liked him."

"They seem to be getting along rather well at the moment."

Mrs. Bennet studied them for a few seconds and had to admit that it was so. Darcy must have felt their eyes upon him, for he looked up, frowned, and returned his attention to Miss Eliza.

Hurst smiled to himself. He knew the signs. He, too, had been a besotted bachelor once upon a time.

~*~


As winter descended upon Hertfordshire, the gentlemen of Netherfield increasingly spent their leisure in the company of the Bennets. Caroline grew proportionately more irritable by the week, until even Louisa tired of her outbursts and general incivility. When Bingley announced his betrothal to Jane, Caroline, as if sensing her opportunity waning, increased her attentions to Darcy, which only sent him running all the more eagerly to Miss Eliza's side.

Netherfield was not without its entertainments, however. Bingley continued to receive callers willing to brave the elements for a good meal, intelligent conversation, or a bit of gossip, and the silliness of some of the Bennets, who were frequent visitors, occasionally sufficed for an evening’s amusement when little was to be had from other sources.

One particularly dull afternoon was enlivened when Lady Catherine de Bourgh paid a surprise call at Netherfield, throwing everything into confusion. Hurst listened for a moment, frowned, and walked out, hoping to intercept Darcy as he returned from his ride. He met with success.

"Darcy! I had not known your aunt was expected."

"My aunt?" He craned his neck as if trying to get a glimpse of her.

"Lady Catherine de Bourgh is in the drawing room awaiting your return. She has just come from Longbourn."

"Longbourn! I was just there no more than an hour ago. What was she doing at Longbourn?"

Lady Catherine had made the purpose of her visit clear to everyone within hearing, and Hurst had heard more than enough. "Apparently she had a few words with Miss Eliza. Some of those words I hesitate to repeat to you."

Hurst was certain he had heard Darcy utter an oath. "I must go to Elizabeth, but I had better see my aunt first."

"Go! Go comfort your lady. I have some experience in dealing with difficult relations of rank. I shall ply your aunt with tea and cake until she is too stuffed to threaten anyone. The cake is from Longbourn's kitchen; I have complete confidence in its soothing abilities."

Darcy smiled his relief and gratitude before spurring his horse back across the fields from whence he had come.

~*~


Though the cake had proved a worthy complement to tea, it had not worked any miracles. Nevertheless, Darcy and Miss Eliza became engaged soon after Lady Catherine had refused her consent to the match. For a few days there were rumours of a double wedding, but as Bingley would brook no delay of his nuptials, the rest of the Netherfield party and Meryton's populace became resigned to having Mrs. Bennet crow and fuss over two spring weddings instead of one.

When Louisa again proposed a shopping excursion, Hurst did not raise a single objection. Instead, he agreed to escort her and Caroline wherever they wished to go and vowed not to complain about penny or pound spent in Bond Street.

As the carriage pulled away from the house en route to London, Hurst looked wistfully in the direction of Longbourn. It had been a sweet scheme of Bingley's to lease Netherfield, and no matter how Louisa and Caroline lamented their closer connection with some of its neighbours, Hurst could not find fault with it. Caroline in particular might have regretted that the ceremonies were not to be combined and thus over and done at once, but he was positively thrilled with the arrangements. Two weddings for Bennet daughters equalled two wedding breakfasts arranged by the mother, and with a month between them, there would be plenty of opportunities for regular dinners at Mrs. Bennet's table as well. He smiled, feeling his mouth water and his insides tingle with anticipation at the thought of Longbourn's next culinary creation. He could almost taste it.

~Fin~

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