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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Note: Some stories include direct quotes from Austen's works, and there is the occasional nod to one or other of the adaptations.

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Saturday, August 17, 2013

All Six Senses (and All Four Syllables):
A Netherfield Short


(2013)
Pride and Prejudice
Darcy comes to his senses at the Netherfield Ball.


My story begins with the following quote from the eighteenth chapter of Pride and Prejudice, which leads directly to the point of divergence (or perhaps I should say bifurcation?):

“And I do not think it of light importance that he should have attentive and conciliatory manners towards everybody, especially towards those to whom he owes his preferment. I cannot acquit him of that duty; nor could I think well of the man who should omit an occasion of testifying his respect towards anybody connected with the family.” And with a bow to Mr. Darcy, he concluded his speech, which had been spoken so loud as to be heard by half the room.
~*~

As Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, Master of Pemberley, gazed with contempt upon the down-turned head of Mr. Collins, lately of Hunsford in Kent and heir presumptive to Longbourn Estate in Hertfordshire, a plan unfolded in his mind in a rather orderly, complete, and sudden manner that he had experienced only a handful of times in his memory. In each previous instance Darcy had acted in accordance with this unexpected burst of insight and had benefited beyond what he had believed probable or even possible. Obstacles that had seemed insurmountable were at once understood to be challenging but manageable; the pressures of duty gave way to the greater pull of destiny.

Feeling giddy with relief knowing that his course was now set, his face settled into the stern, cold expression so familiar to his Hertfordshire acquaintances, and he opened his mouth voluntarily to speak to a man whose conversation he had found an excruciating punishment only an hour ago.

Darcy rejoiced that this sixth sense, as he called it, was in evidence tonight, for he certainly had need of it: Elizabeth Bennet, a country miss with negligible fortune, connections, and stature in the world, had—perhaps unconsciously, he now realised—overwhelmed his other five senses and held each one in her complete thrall.
~*~

It was the sight of her, at least in the beginning. He kept looking, even though his initial perusal of her features had promised little. He looked to find fault and then to study each flaw in detail. Somewhere in the studying the flaws softened, faded, or fell away altogether. Familiarity with them had bred anything but contempt.

Now, more often than not his examination commenced with her eyes, proceeded methodically through a predetermined set of characteristics, and concluded, as it had begun, with her face. Even when he glanced away quickly, the image of her lips lingered far too long for his comfort.

~*~

In all his looking, he learned to listen to her as well: her light, quick step as she crossed the room; her conversations with friends, her tone often hovering on the brink of laughter; her sometimes pithy and sometimes obscure replies to the meddlesome questioning of her neighbours; her clear, crisp “Mr. Darcy” when she greeted him or took her leave, a sound he dreamt of hearing in a dozen different places under a dozen different circumstances.

One evening she sang, and the music enveloped him. Slowly his eyes drifted almost shut as he imagined approaching her, stopping her performance abruptly with a kiss, rewarding her surprise with another and then another. In his mind they were at Pemberley, where he could pretend they were the only two people in the world, not at Lucas Lodge where her family and neighbours could see, where such behaviour would be foolhardy—an act of madness—and would doom him to a life with inferior, insupportable connections.

The cessation of her voice and the generous applause of her audience roused him, and he put his ill-conceived notions aside. Still, he was unable to stop himself from picking out her words among the babble of the rest, no less melodious for being spoken rather than sung.

If only she knew what she did to him.

~*~

During those few days she stayed at Netherfield it was scent that taunted him. Every time she passed by, sat near, or stood up to him with challenge in her eyes, her body mere inches from his, he detected that simple floral essence. Whether its origin was rose, lavender, gardenia, or some other bloom, he knew not and cared not; the scent was Elizabeth and would always be Elizabeth to him, no matter what other plant or person wore it. He had to step back from her on more than one occasion, afraid he would be intoxicated by this one aspect of her presence and move closer than was prudent, close enough to lay claim to her as he so often had in his imaginings.
~*~

Tonight, he nearly lost his composure at their first touch in the dance. He had escorted her to the floor and looked upon her lovely face without allowing the smallest part of his real admiration to show, he was certain, but once the strains of the music began and their movement followed, anticipation consumed him. At last—those few seconds had seemed an aeon—he reached, and she answered. Their hands thus clasped provided in that moment, if only for a moment, the one thing that had been lacking. To touch her was exquisite; the desire to pull her into his arms was so natural that he breathed heavily with the exertion of keeping his fancy under regulation.
~*~

And now the taste he had acquired for Elizabeth Bennet ruled him. His hunger, far from sated by the sight and sound of her, rumbled through him. His thirst, unquenched by her scent or touch, impelled him to desperate measures even as his mind screamed he must be beyond all reason, that she was naught but a mirage. Really, her family were in every way unsuitable! Had not the mother, younger sister, father, and cousin confirmed that by their comportment this very evening? Yet, with the single exception of having championed his enemy during their set together (and this was a heavy exception indeed!), it was always someone else, not Elizabeth, who did the unappetizing thing. From the look on her face—he was continually looking at her face—she suffered as miserably as he could do. The burgeoning conviction that she needed him as much as he needed her awakened an even greater yearning in him than before.

He determined he would have his fill of her somehow—Elizabeth, sweet, delectable Elizabeth, always in his thoughts, ever on the tip of his tongue.

~*~

His opportunity came at the conclusion of one of the most ridiculous speeches he had ever heard in his life, and being the nephew of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, he had heard more than a few. Now that his sixth sense had shown him the way forward, Darcy wasted no time. As the young lady that succeeded Miss Mary Bennet at the pianoforte worked her way through an unimpressive but blessedly brief performance, Darcy had an effectual but even briefer chat with Mr. Collins. After some slight, wordily expressed hesitation and a helpless glance at Elizabeth, the parson went scrambling to the side of his hostess. Mr. Collins remained at his post and entered into conversation with Miss Bingley, persisting until that lady, clearly exasperated, rose and joined him in the set that was then forming.

Darcy looked about and quickly spotted Elizabeth, who had removed herself from her cousin’s proximity. He stopped to collect two glasses of wine before following her as she slipped further behind the crowd. Ignoring her protests, he escorted her beyond the view of the ballroom floor and ensured they were quite alone before handing her one of the glasses.

She accepted it with thanks, though she did not drink. Rather, she questioned him. “Why have you brought me here, sir?”

“Did you not want respite from your cousin’s attentions? From what he told me, I believe he intended to attach himself to you for the remainder of the ball.”

She said nothing, lifting the glass to her lips instead.

Recalling something Sir William had mentioned during the dancing as well as several comments made by Mrs. Bennet at supper, Darcy asked Elizabeth, “Do you think Miss Bennet requires rescuing from my friend? Bingley has kept her to himself much of the evening.”

“Rescuing? I doubt Jane would consider it so! She has no need to be relieved of his company. She certainly would not wish it.”

“Then she has some…affection for Bingley?”

“Why do you think she looks so happy?” She angrily turned her face from him. “I have never seen her this happy with a gentleman before.”

“I had not noticed any symptom of peculiar regard. She appears just as pleased when she speaks to others as when she is with him.”

“There are such things as modesty, decorum, not presuming upon a gentleman’s behaviour, not inviting gossip, and the like.”

He had to admit she had a point.

“Speaking of peculiar regard,” she said, “I was shocked to see Mr. Collins approach Miss Bingley for a dance and even more shocked to see her accept.”

“Were you?”

She looked at him with obvious amusement. “I had thought that lady’s interests lay in another direction. One would think she hoped for a similar request from one of her own party.”

“I believe that made Mr. Collins’s success all the more certain.”

“What do you mean? Oh—that she had to accept him if she expected to stand up later with you. How cruel, sir! Or perhaps she wanted more than was due her? Have you not danced with her once tonight already?”

“No. I only danced with you.”

Elizabeth started and stared at him, wide-eyed.

Darcy quickly steadied her glass, preventing the liquid from making an unwelcome addition to her gown’s embellishments.

Elizabeth stepped back from him and looked up into his face. “I ask again, Mr. Darcy: why have you brought me here?”

“You need not fear,” he assured her, checking his glove for wine stains and satisfying himself there were none. “I am no Wickham; you are safe with me.”

“What has Mr. Wickham to do with this? And why would I fear such an amiable, gentleman-like man? I rather think you are to be feared. After all, you refused to give him the living he was promised.”

Darcy was glad Elizabeth had mentioned Wickham to him once already; this renewed defence of the cur could not fluster him now. “You meant that he refused to consider accepting the living reserved for him and requested money in exchange, money he received—and spent—years ago, along with the legacy of one thousand pounds my father left him. That was what you meant, was it not?”

“I had not heard—”

“Or did you mean that he, mired in debt and desperate for relief as he often is, conveniently forgot he had signed away all claim to assistance in the church and attempted to harass me into granting him the living once it became vacant?”

“But…that cannot be! That is not what he said!”

“I can imagine what he said. I imagine he has been maligning my name ever since to anyone who will listen.”

Elizabeth did not comment.

“He certainly was abusive enough in his language towards me at the time, and after the events of the summer, he may be even freer with his insults and complaints. That would not surprise me at all. Although if he hopes to impress the ladies, he will not hint at those events, which is fortunate.” Darcy paced and thought until he glanced up and saw the bemused expression on Elizabeth’s face. “I know I must tell you of it, and I shall tell you all, but some other time, not tonight.”

“Mr. Darcy, is this not some gross falsehood?”

He gave her a look, and she instantly appeared chagrined.

“You are serious? But he said…. Are you certain, quite certain, there has been no mistake? I can scarcely believe this—I sound amazingly like Jane, for she is the one always seeking to clear each party of blame—but I cannot help thinking there must be some misunderstanding in this case.”

“One might misunderstand a person one has been acquainted with only a few weeks—seeing no true attachment where such exists, for example?—but I have known George Wickham since he was four years old. I have watched him successfully hide his vicious propensities from others. I have discharged many of his debts and seen the damage his…charm…has done to young ladies who, at their peril, trusted in that gentleman-like fa├žade. There can be no mistake there.”

“Mr. Darcy, I…”

“If you doubt my word, I have documents to support it and more than one witness I can call on to corroborate my account.” He waited some moments for her reply.

“I truly do not know what to say.” She smoothed her gown with trembling fingers. “All this gloomy talk makes me forget we are at a ball,” she said, attempting to smile but failing. “Ought we not to be discussing something light and frivolous?”

“As I recall, you raised the topic of your new acquaintance while we danced.”

“I did, and you have amply repaid me for my imprudence.”

“That was not my intention.”

“What was your intention? I cannot imagine you led me here simply to argue with me.”

“Not at all.”

He removed her glass from her hand and put both drinks down, stepping closer as he did so. They had no need of wine tonight; stimulant, balm, inspiration, excuse—Elizabeth served as each in turn for him, and he began to suspect he might have a similar effect on her.

It was time for him to overwhelm her senses a bit. He lifted her hand to kiss it.

“You said you were no Wickham, sir.”

“I am not!” He lowered her hand again and laced his fingers through hers.

“Then your actions—”

“Are commensurate with my intentions.”

“Which are…?”

“Honourable ones, of course.”

“Why, you are behaving like…like a…”

“A lover?”

“Do not tell me you now find me tempting!”

“Tempting? I find you irresistible. Fascinating.”

She closed her eyes. “Impossible!”

“Yes, impossible too.”

“What?” Her eyes opened wide, and a low, bubbling sound broke forth from her—a chuckle that would have been a giggle had the pitch been high enough.

“What amuses you?”

“Mr. Bingley was right.”

“How so?”

“You certainly do like ‘words of four syllables’—impossible, fascinating, honourable, commensurate, and…there was another. Let me think. Oh—corroborate.”

From the look on her face, he guessed she was unwilling to delve further into their previous topic of conversation to prove her point. Her embarrassment gave her aspect a rare vulnerability, an endearing softness. “Mr. Darcy, I had no idea you could be so—”

“Punctilious?” he suggested, hoping to tease her back into good humour.

She rolled her eyes.

“Perspicacious?” Darcy continued, delighted when Elizabeth could no longer contain her mirth. “Amicable?”

“Well…”

“Addle-pated?”

She smothered a grin and shook her head.

“Sympathetic? Captivating?”

“Sir! You surprise me with your—”

“My intrepidity? Alas, that will not do. I fear it has one syllable too many.”

“Undoubtedly,” she concurred, complete with girlish giggle.

“Well then, my intensity? Audacity?” He released her fingers and placed his hand on her waist. “Flirtatiousness?”

“Yes, yes, and—”

He heard a quiet gasp as he caressed her hair.

“Yes,” she finished at a whisper, her breaths quick and shallow.

“Coincidentally, matrimony is also a four-syllable word.”

This time her gasp was not quiet, and her hand flew up to cover her mouth.

“Some of my family will not approve.” He felt it only fair to warn her. He had a few vociferous relations who would be difficult in the beginning.

“I dare say some of mine will not either,” she mumbled behind her hand.

Surprised, he looked down into her eyes, and the laughter he saw there sparkling its way past the shock and confusion made him wonder if she might have a sixth sense of her own. Perhaps she, too, had seen—in an instant, in a flash of comprehension—what they could be to each other.

He took one more step forward and stood pressed against her in the gentlest of embraces. She might see, hear, scent, feel as much of him as she dared now. He inhaled deeply and exulted when she did not shrink back.

“Elizabeth,” he asked, leaning close to her ear, “am I allowed one more word, or have I reached my limit?”

“Only one more, I beg of you! You have me on the point of fainting as it is.”

“You? On the point of fainting?”

“What else,” she asked, speaking into the fabric of his waistcoat and setting his heart racing, “should I call this light-headed, weak-kneed sensation I am feeling?”

“Oh, there is a word for it.”

“And will you tell me what it is?”

“No. You are a clever girl. You can figure that out for yourself.”

“Then your final four syllables are not meant to elucidate.”

“Are you trying to outdo me?”

She laughed.

“Now that I consider it, my last word may indeed make some things clearer, but that was not my purpose in selecting it.”

“Mr. Darcy, I do not think I can bear the suspense much longer.”

“Then let me end it now.” He held her even closer. “Osculation,” he murmured, his breath warming her cheek. Then he turned her head the tiniest bit and gave her a thorough demonstration of his choice.

Ah, she tasted like no mirage ever had, he was certain.

The End

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Excursion to Whitwell, Part 4

Marianne awoke to bright sunlight. She had not believed that she would sleep at all and was on the point of berating herself for such a lack of sensibility when she decided that Willoughby’s guilt militated against doing so. He was the one who deserved to spend a sleepless night, not she.

Nevertheless, she was far from rested and far from happy.

Sick of being alone with her misery and ready to avail herself of what solace could be found in the company of her family, she sought them out with determined steps, only faltering when a man’s voice reached her ears.

“I am for London almost this moment. I must see her,” he insisted, “before I go.”

She knew the voice as well as she knew her own. Part of her wished to fly back up the stairs and shut herself in her room. Part of her could not resist seeing his face again, searching it in hopes of finding something like remorse.

“Elinor?” she called, and Elinor was at her side at once, steadying her, lest she swoon. She had not felt at first how light-headed she had become.

“Marianne,” Willoughby and Elinor said together, the former having followed the latter.

“What do you do here?” Marianne said to Willoughby, looking fully at him and feeling tears begin to form.

“Marianne,” he pleaded, “I must speak to you.”

“Do you wish me to stay with you?” Elinor asked as she supported Marianne and walked with her to the parlour. “And you, sir,” she said over her shoulder at Willoughby, “I must request again that you kindly leave.”

“Do not worry, Elinor. He cannot harm me now.” Truly, whatever harm he could have done had already been accomplished. “I shall be quite safe here.” She blinked at the sight of Willoughby, standing there with a touch of anxiety showing on his face, but on the whole appearing as though nothing of great import had occurred. It angered her. “Quite as safe,” she added with emphasis, “as I was with Colonel Brandon yesterday.” She watched Willoughby as she spoke. “We shall not be long.”

Willoughby grimaced just as she had expected, but he said nothing. Elinor seemed not at all satisfied but reluctantly left them to themselves, as it seemed Willoughby would say nothing more while she remained with them.

Now they were alone, Marianne was not as confident in her safety. She feared she was in greater danger of falling apart rather than falling for any scheme of Willoughby’s, however.

“I suppose I have been supplanted,” Willoughby said, sulking. “Shall I congratulate you on your latest conquest?”

“Considering our last conversation, I do not imagine you have serious designs.”

“You cannot think I was toying with you! Marianne—”

“You have no right to call me that.” The very words stung, but she felt she must say them.

“You have never complained before!”

“Sir,” she said, trying to control the trembling of her voice, “I believe all claims to intimacy were forfeited the moment I learned of—and you yourself confirmed—your callous treatment of Miss Williams.”

“Marianne, you—”

“Mr. Willoughby, please!”

Miss Marianne, I will not pretend that…Uh! This is so unnatural!” He leapt up and walked to the mantel. “You know I did not come of age yesterday,” he said in a soft voice, not devoid of feeling. “Surely you do not think I have never been in the company of women.”

“I understand that men do have…that there are things that men do that might not suit the sensibilities of many women, including their future wives. Oh!” She put her hand to her mouth. “I did not mean to say it that way, as if there are expectations, as if any hopes on my part had survived—but it hardly matters now.” She swallowed and would not look at him. “It was not so much the idea that you had met someone before me.” It had very much been the idea, however, on that fateful day at Whitwell, even before she had discovered the worst of it. She had never felt jealousy like that. Who, before that moment, had denied her anything she had truly wanted? Whom had she ever wanted before she met Willoughby?

“Then why are you so cold? I told you there was nothing,” he insisted, “that she was nothing, is nothing now. And how can you take the side of that man—you, who ignored and ridiculed him by turns along with me?”

To question her loyalty when he had been the cause of the breach between them was bad enough, but to attack the man he had injured, who had put aside the notion of a duel for her sake and who had refrained from any further displays of open hostility, was entirely too much!

That man, as you call him, has his ward to think of. At least someone is thinking of Miss Williams.”

“Do you really believe that I should go running to London to entangle myself again with a girl who does not know what she is about? She is in every way inferior to you!”

To this Marianne did not know what to say. How could she enjoy being flattered at Miss Williams’s expense? She did not like it at all, and she thought less of Willoughby for it, if that were even possible.

Willoughby went on. “Have you even given any thought,” he hissed in what she supposed was meant to pass as a whisper, “to the reason she is the ward of Colonel Brandon?” He looked at her with a triumphant smile: If you do not condemn him for his indiscretion, it said as clearly as if he had spoken the words, then you cannot condemn me for mine.

“He is her ward for the usual reasons—tragedy. Of the father I know nothing, but the girl’s mother, a close relation of the colonel, has been dead these thirteen years. He did what was asked of him and has done it so well, despite this recent lapse of his ward, that a much nearer relationship than cousin has been assumed by some.”

Marianne expected Willoughby to be disappointed, but his mood seemed somehow lightened by her news. It made no sense to her. “Ha! Only a cousin! And for his devotion to his cousin, this dull man suddenly wins your approval? How can that be?”

“Mr. Willoughby,” she said, “if I had no right to demand an explanation from you yesterday, then you have no right to demand one from me now.” She shook with anger, sorry that by so doing she was prevented from speaking as forcefully as she wished, but hardly able to help it under such provocation. “I recall very clearly the way you attempted to justify your actions and claim innocence of any wrongdoing. I remember your expression as you declared the whole situation ‘unconscionable’ and turned away from it and from me. You refused to remain and sort the matter out with Colonel Brandon, which would have been the honourable thing to do. You could not get away from him rapidly enough.”

As she paused for breath and watched Willoughby’s eyes evade hers and flit from object to object around the room, an idea struck her, and it seemed so obvious she almost laughed. “You were afraid, were you not?” If she could have smiled then, she would have. “And not just of being found out! You were terrified that the colonel would call you out right where you stood! He did say he ought to do so, I remember! So you left before he could form the words.”

She did not smile then, but she did laugh, hollow though the sound was, for she did not think the situation funny at all. “You left Eliza because you did not want to know whether she was with child and then have to make some provision for her. You did not want to face her guardian, and rightly so. You…are a coward.”

He blanched but did not contradict her.

How could she have been so wrong about him? True, he had not been tested until now. Everything had been easy for him here. He had been at leisure his whole time in the country, with no one to please but himself, and pleasing her had seemed a natural consequence of his being the man he was, an effortless certainty.

“Did you know,” she wondered aloud, her eyes growing wide as she considered the possibility, “that he was her guardian? Is that the true reason for your dislike of Colonel Brandon?”

“I…I did not know! I swear I did not!” She had succeeded in discomposing him, but she could not determine whether a lack of composure or a lack of forthrightness caused him to stumble in his speech. “She never said,” he continued, “and I never asked. Why would I have cared?” The sound of his voice tapered almost to a choked whisper.

“Marianne,” Elinor called just before entering the room. “Forgive me for interrupting, but—”

“I was just leaving, Miss Dashwood,” Willoughby said, standing. He bowed. “Please give my regards to Mrs. Dashwood and Miss Margaret.” His manner at parting seemed but a shadow of what the ladies had known it to be in happier times. Marianne felt sorry for him. There seemed to be so little left of those qualities that had appealed to her in the beginning. His charm was forced, and his customary warmth was eclipsed by his obvious desire to be away. His face appeared less handsome when marred by unreasonable discontent, or by some emotion just short of shame. For he still did not seem ashamed of what he had done, merely embarrassed and angry at having been caught.

“Are you well, Marianne?” Elinor asked when Willoughby was out of sight and hearing.

“No, but I am no worse off than I was before I saw him.”

“How I wish you had never had to endure this! There is much I would say, but I am afraid of giving you pain.”

“You can do no worse than what Willoughby himself has done, and your motives and manner must be superior to his. If you mean to remind me of your advice to proceed carefully, I assure you I feel my lack of attention to the lesson as strongly as you could desire. And yet I do not see how I could have been other than what I was!”

“No, no! Now is not the time for recrimination! All the circumspection in the world would not have brought you knowledge of that which he had determined to conceal! There would now be fewer explanations expected from our friends, perhaps, but I daresay your heartbreak would still have been as acute.”

Marianne closed her eyes, thankful to be understood and not admonished at such a moment.

Elinor clasped her hands. “You must eat,” she insisted.

“I have no appetite.”

“Just a little, then.” Her sister left the room and came back with her hands full. “Here,” she said, setting down the tray and handing Marianne something from it immediately. “As you eat, I shall read you the note Colonel Brandon left for Mama this morning. She showed it to me earlier.” Elinor glanced at her. “But perhaps you would like to read it yourself.”

The only thing that stopped Marianne from reaching for the letter was the plate Elinor had thrust into her hands. She placed it in her lap. “I told you, Elinor, my appetite is nonexistent.”

“One bite. I will not be satisfied with less.”

“One!” Marianne took her one bite, which turned into two, and then into more.

“It is as I thought, Elinor said, smiling. “Your appetite was only waiting to be coaxed out of hiding.”

“I think I will read the letter after all.”

Elinor smiled even more broadly.



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