The day after Bennet came back to Longbourn he called on all his old acquaintances; he paid a visit to even those he doubted he would want to keep seeing. Longbourn-house was oppressive and empty, and he did not want to stay in by himself. It was curious, as he had come back expecting to be easy in the quietness of the country, but its solitude only made him nervous.
Walking through Meryton returned him to his good humour; encountering all the old follies and vices of his neighbours was more like coming home than entering Longbourn had been. There were few changes, mostly of the like of new children, in which he had no interest whatsoever; new marriages, in which his only interest was to know if the poor lads were old friends; and new deaths, luckily none of which he had to mourn very deeply.
His only real surprise happened at the Gardiners'.
"Little Jane Gardiner, you have grown!" He cursed his tongue the moment he finished speaking and saw her frown slightly, but continued, trying to elicit a smile from her. "Indeed, I think you are twice as tall as the last time I saw you."
He could barely recognize her. The last time he had seen her, she had been... what, twelve? Was it not five years ago? He had been about to part for the continent, so five years it was. The last time he had bowed for her, playful, even more courtly than he had done for her mother, and she had giggled uncontrollably. It brought a smile to his face to remember it. He wanted to repeat the experience, but he had a feeling that she would not be half so amused by it now.
Indeed, she was not giggling, and he could not reconcile that happy, thoughtless child to the graceful woman before him. Oh, she was young, there was no doubt about that, but her beauty was otherworldly and she had an air of unquestionable femininity about her. She could not but captivate; he was sure that she could not be out or she would be married already. There was a moment of silence, and he felt he should speak, but knew not what.
"Mr. Bennet," she said, lowering her eyes demurely.
"So formal now, are we?" he said, unable to restrain himself. He wondered if she remembered him; children have fleeting memories. She used to call him Bennet in imitation of her father; she used to get reprimanded for that every time he called on the Gardiners.
She smiled at him, perhaps--his rational part cautioned him--a little too directly. She held his eyes when she caught him staring, and it was undoubtedly on her behalf that he was invited to dine by her mother when he came out of her father's study some time later. He did not mind. There was no attempt at slyness in it, no use of other than the most basic of feminine wiles, and he was strangely pleased by it, even flattered. He called himself a thousand times a fool, but he stayed to dinner.
The fare was good, though simple and not at all exotic, and Mrs. Gardiner was an affable and capable hostess, even if she did tend to show off her children, and insisted on him knowing that Miss Jane had learned how to manage the house from her.
Miss Jane, in the meantime, seemed not at all offended by his faux pas; she listened to him as if his every word was sacred, and laughed at his jokes, even if, he suspected, she did not understand some of them at all. For that matter, she was not particularly witty, but in her unsophisticated background, she was like a jewel in the rough, waiting for him to carve into something perfect.
He felt almost relieved when his attention was drawn to other subjects.
"Are the conditions in France so terrible, Bennet?"
He could not avoid keeping her in his line of sight while listening to her father, and he was momentarily distracted by the picture she made leaning over the table to listen to her younger brother.
"I... yes, very terrible..."
"Tell me you are not one of those who think the Revolution was warranted!" Mr. Gardiner sounded alarmed, and his tone forced him into thinking over what he had said.
"I am sorry, of course not. I... have not been in the continent for almost a year now, and you know me, I hardly know the current situation as well as I should."
She straightened, and he followed the upward curve of her lips behind her glass, her rosy cheeks and lowered eyes making her the perfect picture of quiet amusement.
"You would do very well in keeping up! Though I do not think it could happen in British soil; the French have always been people to let themselves be ruled by their basest instincts."
He looked away from her at last, self conscious. In the silence that followed, and though a little desperate for it, he could still think of nothing to say in answer.
Mr. Gardiner harrumphed, and he had almost resigned himself into thinking of politics, when Mrs. Gardiner showed her ample skills as a hostess and distracted her husband.
Bennet felt uncomfortably warm. He took a long drink from his wine glass, and still his eyes wandered to Jane, who held his gaze for a moment before lowering hers, smiling softly all the while.
He felt like a wolf that was being lured into a trap by using a flower as bait. It was senseless. He was too old to be so easily taken in by a pretty face, but he could discern delicacy of spirit if not of mind in her beauty. She was not educated, but then, in his opinion, women's education had never produced any thing of much value anyway.
Her husband could do a better job of it, he thought, startled that the notion of taking on that work did not sound half bad, and telling himself that he should not be so infatuated.
He was a simpleton, he knew, a halfwit. He said all that to himself while riding home after diner, and much more in the days that followed. Business of the estate accumulated on his desk, and he could barely concentrate on those papers that needed to be sent out without fail. Friends' letters were left unanswered, knowing that if he wrote, he would not be able to avoid mentioning her, and refusing, absolutely refusing, to act the ninny in front of anybody, even if he was one.
He already felt exposed, obvious; a man so taken in by a girl that he acted the half-grown lad in front of everybody. A dunce, a dope. But he kept calling on her, he kept walking past her house to catch a glimpse of her, and when he asked to see her father, some weeks after that first night, he had forgotten to care about it. The only thing in his mind was the fact that he could not allow any other man posses her beauty.