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, 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