The day after the Assembly, there was no stopping Elizabeth from airing her ill opinion of Mr. Darcy. The conversation between Darcy and his friend (that Bella had witnessed from across the room) was unfortunately overheard by her next elder sister—and repeated by Elizabeth.
Whatever the primary contents, Darcy apparently snubbed Elizabeth (to whom Bella had introduced in the first half hour of the Assembly) saying he was “in an ill humour to pay a compliment to a young lady, herself slighted by other men.” Then, quite inexplicably Mr. Darcy had reportedly added, “What would a man do with two Bennets?”
Bella took it as a compliment (though a strange one), but Elizabeth did not. Lydia offered a sympathetic ear, but Mama told Elizabeth (upon the fourth rendition over breakfast) to “hold her tongue” if she wished to visit with the Lucases.
Elizabeth held her tongue, at least for a half hour longer. Elizabeth held her tongue until the carriage arrived, when she entered it with her eldest and younger sisters (that is, Jane and Lydia) and their mother. Bella and Kitty had elected to stay behind.
Papa did not socialize after balls. He claimed it brought him out in hives and had already withdrawn to his study.
In later hours, Bella reasoned that Elizabeth must have held her tongue at least until the Lucases because the carriage certainly arrived with all its occupants.
Breathing out in relief, Bella took Kitty’s hand and asked, “Byron or…?” she let her voice hang.
“Byron surely,” Kitty begged, and they took off running toward the house, to the place where Bella had secreted the favoured volume just off the pantry, before skipping out the back kitchen doorway with bonnets and gloves in hand.
“Do you think him very much in love with you?” Kitty wondered after they had walked a good half hour in no particular direction, the Byron for once forgotten in favour of conversation.
“Mr. Bingley?” Bella chided, grinning. “Nay. He is all politeness.”
Laughing, Kitty twisted her gloves in her hand, but played Bella’s game. “No, silly. Mr. Darcy.”
“One cannot fall in love in an evening,” Bella decided sagely.
Kitty pondered this statement with all the seriousness it deserved. She then took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, and with measured words declared: “You have been in each other’s presence three times. The first, when he met you in this very countryside. The second,” (here she smiled, and Bella’s own lips twitched upward) “when Miss Bingley asked you to tea. The third, when he squired you about the Assembly last night, the Assembly—” She cut Bella off with a look “—that you only attended because he desired to dance with you.” Her blue eyes shone in triumph.
Bella bit her lip and felt the familiar flush upon her neck. “I did not dance with him.”
“No,” Kitty agreed, “but I think you wanted to, otherwise you would not have attended.”
And wasn’t that the truth of it all?
If Elizabeth had declared Mr. Darcy the most disagreeable man in Hertfordshire to Miss Charlotte Lucas, no one believed her after having seen him so attentive to her younger sister. Miss Isabelle Mary, after all, was just as popular as Miss Elizabeth in the county, and certainly equally as beautiful.
Besides, Mr. Darcy eagerly accepted an invitation to cards at Mrs. Philips’ just the next week when the militia was quartered at Meryton, and no one could doubt his devotion to her then.
Bella was playing at a game of whist with Jane when Mr. Darcy entered the room. She had had a note from Caroline, apologizing that she and her brother would not be present. There was more to it, she was certain, but as the note included an invitation to tea the next day. She was certain would know it then.
Mama was in effusions. Elizabeth sneered that she was glad she did not have to go. Jane smiled vapidly out a window. Lydia begged Bella to be married before Christmas so she might be out by the Summer if Jane were to also catch a husband.
“I shall do my best.”
Mr. Darcy stood stiffly by the door but was attentive to the hostess who, after a moment, motioned him toward Bella’s table.
“Miss Isabelle Mary,” he greeted, bowing to her, and taking up a place behind her so he could see her cards. “You look particularly lovely this evening.”
She blushed at the compliment—though she privately blamed the fire—and glanced up at him and away from her hand. Bella was wearing a deep orange this evening that went particularly well with her chestnut hair and brown eyes. It was a bold color, but one she felt she could pull off, and she had taken especial care with her toilette that evening. “Thank you,” she murmured, looking back down at her cards. She was going to lose this round.
“Miss Bennet,” Mr. Darcy greeted formally as he addressed Jane, “Miss Lucas.” He was then introduced to “Miss King.”
Bella lost the round.
Conversation was pleasant if uninteresting, until she realized that a certain officer—for the militia was recently quartered in Meryton—could not take his eyes off her. No, that was not correct. He could not take his eyes off of Darcy and, by extension, Bella.
“Miss King,” she started, laying down a card, “have you met any of the officers?”
Mr. Darcy stiffened beside her, barely, but enough to allow Bella the certainty that she had not imagined that particular officer’s singular notice of them.
Jane and Bella won the hand—barely—and it was when Mr. Darcy went to fetch her coffee that she was introduced to the man that had been staring at her so boldly. He was none other than a Mr. Wickham and he had recently enlisted in the militia, having a sad, sad history (that he failed to elaborate upon).
“I see that you are well acquainted with Mr. Darcy, ma’am,” he opened, now that he had the attention of both her and Jane.
“You have eyes,” she agreed, wondering what he was about.
“I have never seen him so attentive to a lady,” he wondered aloud.
At this, Mr. Darcy entered the conversation, holding two coffees. “I’ve never known you to keep a lady’s good opinion longer than a fortnight, Wickham. She either has the good sense to cut you, or you attempt—and fail—to elope with her.” His voice was acerbic, and when Bella turned to him his green eyes were harder than she had ever seen them.
The entire party was stunned into silence. The entire surrounding area tittered into discomforted quiet.
Mr. Darcy’s hard, glinted gaze held Wickham’s, unrelenting.
“Or has something changed? Have you found a woman worth more than a farthing who still speaks to you?”
Wickham opened his mouth, as if to retort, but Mr. Darcy cut him off.
“This is a respectable house, with a respectable mistress. I own your debts in Derbyshire, I will not extend you the same kindness on behalf of my father’s memory here in Hertfordshire. I suggest you leave while you still retain our hostess’s good opinion.” His voice was cool, casual, and by now Darcy didn’t even bother to look at the other man.
There was a pause as everyone held their collective breath and then—just like that—Wickham left without a word, knocking shoulders with Darcy on the way out. He did not even have the good manners to make his regrets to Aunt Philips, the said hostess.
Then, just as suddenly as Wickham’s departure, everyone was speaking at once and Darcy had gently taken Bella’s elbow and led her to a quieter corner, their coffees discarded somewhere on a table, long forgotten.
“Forgive me,” he murmured. “That was unforgivably rude of me—and in your aunt’s house.” Mr. Darcy looked uncomfortable but unapologetic, which was a strange combination.
She looked at him, truly looked at him, at his curling dark hair, at his firm shoulders, his strong jaw. Bella had thought him to be handsome at the moment of their meeting, but there was something in the way that he stood—righteous despite the fear he had caused Bella embarrassment—that she found undeniably attractive.
Taking a deep breath, she murmured, “Is it true?”
He looked at her, stunned.
“Is it true?” she repeated. “Is he a reprobate, unfit for good society?”
Darcy nodded. It was small but definite; proud yet firm. “I could not have him impose upon you. I have seen him do so to other young ladies—”
The hinted declaration warmed Bella and she turned the force of her full gaze at him, not hiding behind the stands of her hair that had come loose from the knot of hair at the base of her neck. His green eyes looked back at her firmly and honestly.
She nodded. “I believe you.”
It was as simple as that.
He offered her his arm, and she proudly took it.
Sir William Lucas was now calling for dancing even though it was a card party, as he was wont to do.
“Miss Isabelle Mary,” Mr. Darcy asked quietly, her hand still in his arm. “Would you do me the honor of a game of hearts? Surely you might find us two more players.”
She smiled at him and squeezed his arm gently. “I always found it ironic. In life, the game of hearts is played with only two…” This bold innuendo was unusual for Bella, but she had never before felt an interest in a man, nor a need to reassure him that his regard was return.
His step never faltered, but somehow he drew her closer to him as they joined a table where Miss Lucas was sitting with an officer—a Captain Denny. “I have much the same philosophy,” Darcy agreed—and then the game of cards began.