“Lizzy, have you ever seen such a ball?” Charlotte Lucas asked her friend.
“Indeed, it is quite grand,” Elizabeth replied. She craned her neck, trying to locate Mr. Wickham. She did not see him; unfortunately, she locked eyes with the unpleasant Mr. Darcy instead.
“Oh, no, Charlotte,” she whispered. “He is making his way towards us.”
Elizabeth had already had her fill of men that she was not in the slightest interested in. Mr. Collins had made quite an event of partnering with her for the first two dances of the evening. Much like his personality, his nimbleness in no way resembled his physical features. Her feet were quite sore from his many missteps. She was relieved that she had danced the maximum number of dances with Mr. Collins that was proper; to invite her to dance again would practically be a proposal of marriage. She hoped that even Mr. Collins was not so foolish.
Elizabeth set thoughts of Mr. Collins aside. It was clear that Mr. Darcy was aiming towards Charlotte and her, and she would need all of her wits about her if she was to manage a conversation with him.
“Good evening, ladies,” Mr. Darcy said with a bow.
Elizabeth and Charlotte curtsied in response.
“I wonder, Miss Elizabeth, if I might have the honor of the next dance.”
Elizabeth’s head felt thick. Why would Mr. Darcy want to dance with someone as ‘barely tolerable’ as she? She stared at him blankly for a moment, willing some witty response to occur to her—something to let him know that she was not in the slightest interested in a dance with him. Unfortunately, no such response came to mind. She answered in the only way that she could, without causing a social furor: “You may.”
She cast a glance over her shoulder at Charlotte as Mr. Darcy led her to the dance floor. Charlotte gave her a small smile and raised her eyebrows. And then Elizabeth was in the midst of the dance with the horrid Mr. Darcy.
She quickly realized that remaining silent would only intensify an otherwise awkward situation, and that her best chance of escaping unscathed was to make light conversation. Whether Mr. Darcy would hold up his end of the conversation, she had not the slightest idea.
“How do you find Hertfordshire, Mr. Darcy?” she asked as they met in the middle of the dance floor. Each continued in the opposite direction before reversing the steps, so she had to wait a moment for his response.
“It is noisy in a much different way than in town,” he replied. “There are fewer voices, but those that there are seem to ring much more stridently in the country than they do in the city.”
“Ah, so you find us strident?” she responded. “Is that another way of saying coarse?”
“Certainly I would never use the word coarse,” Mr. Darcy said. “It is true that the country seems to be a bit behind the city in fashions and entertainments, but that is not intended as a criticism.”
“Do you not?” she asked. “It seems that you have found fault with much of what you have seen so far, and what is finding fault but criticism?”
“Is this the impression you have formed of me?” he asked, frowning.
“Sir, you have given me little reason to have any other impression,” Elizabeth said, returning his frown.
The two continued the dance, both of them angry at the other for reasons that they could not put words to. It was therefore a relief to them to hear the dance ending.
“I apologize for having detained you in such a distasteful pastime,” Darcy said, with a stiff bow.
“I never said it was distasteful!” cried Elizabeth in response. “It seems clear that you have no intention but to provoke me! I am embarrassed, sir, that I allowed myself to be tricked into dancing with you!”
She turned and stomped off the dance floor. Darcy stared after her for a moment, shocked. If anyone had been provoked during their dance, it was certainly not she! However, he was more upset with himself than he was with Elizabeth. Even while she was in the midst of being unreasonable, all he could think of was how fine she looked with color in her cheeks. And she had stared at him so intently as they spoke, as if, for the duration of their dance, nothing existed except the two of them. How he longed for her to look at him like that again, only fueled by passion rather than anger. He could not make himself forget her even as she made clear that she wanted nothing more to do with him.
Darcy, you have stumbled into quite a mess this time, he thought as he made his way off the dance floor and towards the quiet of a nearby garden.
Elizabeth was indeed in fine form. How dare Darcy treat her in such a way! She had made every effort to be polite to him, but he mocked her at every turn. What is more, he had delayed her search for the man whom she hoped to find. Much to her consternation, she felt tears of anger rising in her eyes and she slipped into a nearby sitting room to compose herself. There were several people milling about, so she found an out-of-the-way spot to sit.
She dropped to a settee and wiped at her eyes. She was most upset at the fact that she had been reduced to tears by someone of such little consequence as Mr. Darcy. Why could she not show him the same disdain that he had for her? She shook her head and dropped it into her hands, willing herself to stop crying.
“There is nothing more upsetting than seeing a lovely girl crying.”
Her eyes flew open and she found the man that she had been searching for standing in front of her. Mr. Wickham gave her a small smile and pressed a handkerchief in her hand.
“May I sit?” he asked.
Elizabeth nodded in response.
“What has upset you so much during an evening of merriment, Miss Bennet?” he asked softly.
“It is quite the most foolish thing,” she said, still working to keep her sobs under control. “Mr. Darcy asked me to dance, and then was most unpleasant the entire time.”
Wickham was on his feet, anger flashing in his eyes. “How dare he treat you in such a way?” he asked.
“I daresay Mr. Darcy believes it to be his right to treat me any way that he pleases,” said Elizabeth, dabbing her eyes.
“Not while you have me as your champion,” replied Wickham. “I shall demand satisfaction for such a slight!”
“No, no, you must not!” said Elizabeth, jumping up. “It is a small thing, I assure you, and there is no need for my honor to be defended.”
“Are you certain?” Wickham asked, looking down at her. “I will fight for you, Miss Bennet. I cannot imagine any more worthy cause.”
“I am flattered that you think me so worthy,” Elizabeth said, and felt her cheeks flush.
“Anyone who does not is a fool,” said Wickham softly, looking into her eyes.
Elizabeth was overwhelmed by the entire situation. Especially after the disastrous dance with Mr. Darcy, Mr. Wickham seemed to be the consummate gentleman. He was charming, kind, entertaining—and, she would have to admit if pressed, quite handsome as well. If things continued along the same path, she could foresee herself becoming quite fond of Mr. Wickham.
She was hoping that he would ask her to dance—ought she not have one enjoyable partner for the evening?—but before such a thing could occur, Mr. Collins walked into the room.
“Cousin Elizabeth! There you are!” he cried. “I have been searching for you. I saw that you were dancing with Mr. Darcy, and by the time I had introduced myself to the gentleman, you had disappeared!”
“You introduced yourself to Mr. Darcy?” Elizabeth said, somewhat faintly.
“Indeed I did! I told him that his aunt was in quite good health. It seemed that he was quite busy in his current conversation, however, as he did not have the time to converse with me. But what a fine gentleman he is! I would expect nothing less from a nephew of Lady Catherine.”
Elizabeth resisted the urge to rub her temples in consternation. She knew that Mr. Darcy would have been quite offended for Mr. Collins to speak with him without a formal introduction. Elizabeth was making every effort to elevate her family above Mr. Darcy’s opinion of them, and Mr. Collins was uncouth enough to introduce himself!
“I have been searching for you, dear cousin, because I was hoping that you would honor me with another dance.”
Elizabeth looked at him for a moment, unsure of what to say. It was clear that the man was somewhat unmannered, based on his interaction with Mr. Darcy; perhaps he did not know of the impropriety of asking her to dance again? But she could not run the risk that Mr. Collins was making an intentional offer to her—an offer that she had no intention of agreeing to.
“I am sorry, Mr. Collins, but I seem to have turned my ankle during my last dance,” she said.
“Oh, how awful!” said Mr. Collins. “And you have waited so long to tell me about it! Come, I must take you to your mother. She will know what to do.”
Elizabeth’s options were to dance with Mr. Collins or to spend the remainder of the ball sitting with her mother. The choice was difficult, but an evening spent listening to her mother chatter would be over far more quickly than a lifetime with Mr. Collins.
“Allow me to help you,” offered Mr. Wickham, rising to take her arm.
“Oh, no, no, good sir, no reason for you to bother yourself,” Mr. Collins said with a sharp glance. “I am more than capable of getting my cousin to her mother.” To Elizabeth, he added, “Can you walk? Shall I carry you?”
“No!” she said, shuddering at the idea of Mr. Collins carrying her through the ball. “It is too sore to dance, but certainly I can walk.”
“Well, come then,” said Mr. Collins, pulling her by the arm.
She allowed herself to be led away because she had not the slightest idea what else to do; as she left the room, she cast a glance over her shoulder at Mr. Wickham. He smiled and bowed towards her, and then he was out of sight.
“Lizzy, what have you done?” demanded her mother as Mr. Collins directed her across the floor. “Why are you limping?”
“Cousin Elizabeth had the misfortune of hurting her ankle during her last dance,” said Mr. Collins, looking graver than was necessary. “I do not wish to see her hurt herself further, so I brought her directly to you, madam.”
“And a good thing you did, Mr. Collins!” replied Mrs. Bennet. “You are ever so solicitous.”
“I do not want my dear cousin injured,” said Mr. Collins. “Shall I stay with you and keep you company, cousin?”
“That is not at all necessary, Mr. Collins. I would not want to be the cause of your missing the remainder of the ball. Go and enjoy yourself.”
“As you command, my lady,” Mr. Collins said, and performed one of those bows that he believed to be courtly, but which were actually rather ostentatiously foolish. He cast several looks over his shoulder as he walked away, trying to maintain meaningful eye contact with Elizabeth. She was relieved when she could finally no longer see him.
“Well, Miss Lizzy, it seems that you have made quite the impression on Mr. Collins!” said her mother. “I should have expected him to be drawn to Lydia; they should make such a handsome couple. But I am certain that Lydia will find an officer, and it is clear that Mr. Collins prefers you. We shall have two weddings to plan!”
Elizabeth noticed Mr. Darcy standing nearby where she and her mother sat. By the look on his face, it was clear that he had overheard her mother talking about engagements that had not yet happened. Elizabeth flushed a deep red at the thought of her mother embarrassing herself in front of Mr. Darcy.
Darcy’s eyes then moved to Elizabeth’s, and his countenance changed. The disdain on his face melted away, and he just stared at her for a moment. Then he abruptly turned and walked away.
“Mama, please do not talk of such things,” she said. “No offers have been made.”
“Well, they will soon be,” said her mother, chastened not in the slightest.
“Even if that was true, I have no intention of marrying Mr. Collins.”
“No intention!” her mother screeched, loudly enough that several people turned around to stare.
“Do not call attention to us,” Elizabeth begged.
Mrs. Bennet seemed to suddenly notice how many eyes were on them, and, while she enjoyed sharing gossip, she was not especially fond of being the subject of it. “We will speak of this very soon,” she said softly.
To Elizabeth, it sounded very much like a threat.
Elizabeth could tell that her mother was nearly bursting on the carriage ride back to Longbourn. However, Mr. Collins rode with them, so Mrs. Bennet did not have the chance to chastise her daughter in a way she felt was appropriate. Elizabeth managed to make it into the house ahead of her mother and hastened to change into her night dress. By the time Mrs. Bennet finally located Elizabeth, it was to find her apparently deep in sleep. Elizabeth feigned sleep and heard her mother’s irritated sigh. Then the door to the bedroom was closed and Elizabeth knew that she had avoided the conversation until the morning.