Henry Bennet and Charlotte Lucas had been inseparable companions as children, and at twenty-five and twenty-seven respectively, were as near friends as two young, unmarried people could be. If she had ever expected anything more from him, she never gave any hint of it. Even the indefatigable Lucases had more or less given up hope, though Lady Lucas still dropped hints she considered subtle.
In fact, though Charlotte would have gladly married him had he asked, her affection for him was purely sororal. She was probably the only girl within five miles of Meryton who could meet his laughing dark eyes without flushing, losing the ability to speak, or insulting the whole room.
That changed when Mr Bingley, the new tenant of Netherfield, arrived at an assembly in Meryton. He brought with him no less than three young ladies who were perfectly indifferent to Henry Bennet. Two of these were Mr Bingley's sisters, one married, one single, and both far too convinced of their own importance to notice the heir of a minor country squire.
The third, a Miss Darcy, seemed to be Miss Bingley's particular friend. She initially drew the attention of the room by her tall, womanly figure, lovely features, aristocratic appearance, and the rumour that she was heiress to a vast fortune.
"Ten thousand pounds a year," Mrs Bennet and Lady Lucas whispered to one another in reverential tones, and prodded their sons in her direction. However, Miss Darcy danced only with Mr Hurst and Mr Bingley before declining all offers - and then, nothing could save her from having a most forbidding countenance, and being wholly unworthy of their offspring. She was the proudest, most disagreeable girl in the world, and everybody hoped she would never come there again.
Mrs Bennet, however, harboured a greater resentment than most, for Miss Darcy had particularly slighted her son.
Henry Bennet had been much in demand the whole evening. He attributed it more to the scarcity of gentlemen than his own charms, but regardless of the cause, he was exhausted. During a pause in the dancing, he collapsed into a chair, ignoring the hubbub around him.
"- Bennet," said Mr Bingley. Henry's eyes flew open. It seemed that Miss Darcy's perambulations had brought her, and then Mr Bingley, into his general vicinity. "But she has a handsome brother, sitting down just behind you. I daresay he is very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you; I am sure he would be only too glad to ask for your hand in the dance."
Henry considered her profile and decided this probably would have been true, two hours before. Apparently Bingley had been far too absorbed with his own partners to observe that his guest had already rejected a half-dozen offers.
"Who do you mean?" Miss Darcy glanced behind her for a moment, meeting his eyes without a trace of demureness. Then she turned back to her companion and said coldly, "He is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to dance with anyone. I have already said so to several young men."
"Oh! forgive me," he said, flushing - either at her incivility, or his error. "I did not notice."
Miss Darcy permitted herself an icy smile. "I had apprehended as much. So you had better return to your partner, and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me."
He hesitated, then bowed and followed her advice. Miss Darcy wandered in a different direction, and Henry, surprised and amused, was left with no very cordial feelings towards her. He was too well-bred to speak of a lady to other young men, but he told the story with great spirit amongst his own family.
"Only tolerable, eh?" said Mr Bennet, as Henry set up the chessboard.
"Apparently so, sir. Miss Bingley, however, condescended to dance with me, so my vanity is not altogether destroyed."
"Is the lady much like her brother?"
"Not in disposition," said Henry. "There is a very great resemblance in person; if not, I would think him an orphan her parents discovered on the doorstep. I assure you, I more than felt the compliment of her hand."
Mr Bennet laughed. "Well, she appears to be have better taste than her friend."
"Yes." Henry suppressed a frown. "Unfortunately, she has even less wit. I do not know if I have ever heard anyone use so many words to say so little. Miss Darcy's ideas are repulsive, but she certainly succeeded in communicating them."
The rest of the evening he spent talking with Jane, whose caution in speaking of Mr Bingley gave way when they were alone. As Henry could hardly participate in her raptures, he nodded at the appropriate moments and limited himself to a few satirical asides. However, he could not agree when her approbation extended to the man's sisters.
"Their manners are not equal to his," said he.
She hesitated, looking distressed. "Certainly not, at first," she allowed, "but they are very pleasing women when you converse with them."
"I conversed with Miss Bingley for half an hour," said Henry, unconvinced, and restrained himself from adding, and I would be quite happy to never do so again. "However, she may improve on further acquaintance."
In fact, Mrs Hurst and Miss Bingley could be excellent company, when they were in good spirits, and considered the effort worthwhile. They were handsome as well, with polished manners and twenty thousand pounds apiece. They preferred to remember that their father had come from a genteel Yorkshire family, and to forget that he had been the youngest of six sons, and inherited his fortune from a godfather in trade. It was still the greatest regret of their lives that they could not drop casual references to "our brother Bingley's estate" into conversation.
Their father's trust had ensured that they were educated at a distinguished private seminary in town, where they had first become acquainted with Miss Darcy.
The young Miss Darcy did not deign to associate with anyone beyond a coterie of her own connections, bound together by ties so incomprehensibly convoluted that no outsider could hope to decipher them. Even the Bingley sisters, ambitious and often impudent with it, had not quite aspired to acceptance by the likes of Diana Howard and Catherine Darcy.
Nevertheless, the relationship, such as it was, stood Miss Bingley in good stead. Several years later, she found that her brother had been introduced to Miss Darcy - and the lady not only condescended to remember Miss Bingley's existence, but seemed delighted to discover the connection.
Miss Bingley, of course, was perfectly amenable to furthering their acquaintance; and after a year and a half, had more than enough confidence in their intimacy to invite her to stay at Netherfield.
The friendship between the two girls was, nevertheless, a very peculiar one. When it came down to it, Miss Bingley knew only that her friend disliked dancing and playing the pianoforte, but sang very well; that she had inherited a vast fortune under certain conditions, and spent more of it on her library than her jewels; and that one of Miss Darcy's grandfathers had been a great statesman, the other an earl.
Miss Darcy's more extensive understanding of Miss Bingley was due not to greater interest, but simply greater abilities. Miss Bingley was not deficient by any means - but Miss Darcy was clever. Even had she wished to, she could not have failed to see what her friend was.
However, Miss Bingley's follies amused her; moreover, the easiness, openness, and ductility of Mr Bingley's temper had endeared him to her from the first. Miss Darcy did not love him. However, she was very fond of him, had long taken all the interest in him that his own sisters could feel, and indeed hoped to become one of them in a few years' time. Inveterate meddler that she was, Miss Darcy considered Miss Bingley's company a small price to pay for the privilege of managing her brother.
For his part, Mr Bingley had a very high regard for Miss Darcy's abilities and judgment; whatever he might have initially thought, he now considered her as another, elder sister, and rather a more congenial one than those Nature had chosen to bestow upon him.
When they returned home, he said heartily:
"I have never met with pleasanter people, or prettier girls, in my life! Everybody was most kind and attentive to me, there was no formality - no stiffness - "
His sisters stared at him. Mr Hurst only looked indifferent.
"No," Miss Darcy said, "there certainly was not."
"I soon felt acquainted with the whole room," he persisted, "and I cannot conceive of an angel more beautiful than the eldest Miss Bennet."
Miss Bingley's mouth twitched. "What of Miss Grey? Or Lady Diana Howard? Or Miss D -"
"I," said Miss Darcy coolly, "saw a crowd of people without fashion or beauty, from whom I received no attention or pleasure, and in whom I felt not the slightest interest. Miss Bennet is handsome, but she smiles too much. I do not believe her expression changed the whole night."
"I am sure it did not," Miss Bingley said, "but nevertheless, she is a sweet girl."
Mrs Hurst added, "I quite like and admire her. We would not object to knowing more of her, at least - would we, Caroline?"
"Not at all."
Mr Bingley smiled.