By the end of her second week in London, Elizabeth had rallied herself into better spirits. Though little about her situation had changed, Elizabeth simply could not abide the despondent feelings that had overwhelmed her since receiving Jane’s disingenuous letter. She was thankful that the subsequent days brought ample sources of distraction and amusement.
The day following their chance meeting in Green Park, Mr. Bingley called after church. Thankfully, his sister did not accompany him. Knowing how much it meant to her aunt, Elizabeth had felt obliged to make a greater attempt than she might otherwise have done, and the result was that she had come to enjoy Mr. Bingley’s lively company exceedingly. Though her good cheer was the consequence of dedicated effort, Mr. Bingley’s was natural and rather contagious. With her aunt’s supervision and support, Elizabeth had felt content and comfortable by the end of his visit, so much so that she was able to assure her aunt in complete sincerity that she liked him very well indeed.
It was a convenient improvement, to be sure. Having no wish to journey into Kent, and unable to convince her aunt of her belief in Jane’s insincerity and selfish motives, Elizabeth had simply taken the easiest course and used Mr. Bingley as a reason to remain in London. She had not felt entirely right in engaging in such a ruse, for she had no wish to trifle with the affections of a respectable man, yet as she came to know him, her interest had become more genuine, much to her relief.
That Mrs. Gardiner had so eagerly accepted Elizabeth’s paltry excuse had been a disappointment, no less than her aunt’s determination to interpret Jane’s overtures in such a forgiving light. Elizabeth could not shake the conviction that she had long been deceived in Jane’s true character, and that her sister was in fact more concerned with maintaining an appearance of goodness, without actually practicing it. Yet who would believe her? Her aunt certainly would not, which made Elizabeth hesitant to approach to her uncle about it. Even her dearest friend Charlotte had taken Jane’s part when she had learned of their dispute. There was even a small, secret part of her own heart that whispered, perhaps Jane was right.
And so, Elizabeth had resolved to keep an open mind regarding Mr. Bingley, despite the newness of the acquaintance, his vicious sister, and all the other reasons for doubt that nagged at the back of her mind. Aside from being the best of dismal options, Mr. Bingley truly did have some very good qualities.
Elizabeth had taken extra care in dressing and arranging her hair for their excursion to the opera that evening, for she had reason to believe that Mr. Bingley would also be there, though not of their party. It was, in fact, Lady Rebecca Fitzwilliam who had mentioned as much when she had called in Gracechurch Street the day before. The Bingleys were to accompany her and her brother to the opera that very same night, and Lady Rebecca hoped to secure the company of her charming new friend. Both Elizabeth and her aunt were struck by the affability of Lady Rebecca in coming all that way to personally deliver the invitation, and Elizabeth eagerly assured her new friend that she would be happy to accept on any other night that the Gardiners were not already engaged elsewhere. In her usual sardonic manner, Lady Rebecca accepted the gracious refusal with wit and no little eccentricity, reminding Elizabeth as she departed that they were to be the best of friends, for there was no escaping her acquaintance now.
Mrs. Gardiner’s satisfaction with Elizabeth’s new friendship was almost as great as her pleasure in Bingley’s marked attentions. She was not a mercenary woman, but neither was she insensible to the advantages of such connections. That Elizabeth was respected and valued was her good enough for her, but that Elizabeth had charmed a wealthy man and befriended the daughter of an earl were hardly facts to be overlooked. Fortunately for Elizabeth’s equanimity, her aunt and uncle were sensible and genteel, capable of restraining their expressions of delight. Elizabeth shuddered to imagine how differently her mother would react, feeling a renewed sense of gratitude towards her aunt and uncle for providing her the temporary reprieve.
The theatre was bustling with activity as the Gardiners arrived. Though not her first time attending an opera with her aunt and uncle, this was the first time Elizabeth had reason to look around for acquaintances as they made their entrance. The Fitzwilliams and the Bingleys would be about somewhere, and Lady Rebecca had expressed a wish to meet Mr. Gardiner, as he had been absent during her call at Gracechurch Street. Elizabeth was still not quite sure what to make of this new friendship. She was certain that a desire to vex Miss Bingley had been Lady Rebecca’s initial motive in befriending her, but her continued interest was harder to account for, and puzzled Elizabeth as much as it pleased her.
She was even eager to see Mr. Bingley, who had grown in her estimation, and more eager to be seen by him, for she knew she was in very fine looks that evening. She was wearing the last of her new dresses that he had not yet seen her in, a shimmering jonquil silk with ivory and cerulean embroidery across the bodice and along the rather daring neckline. A matching yellow ribbon wound through her dark chestnut curls, which were elegantly arranged with pearl pins her aunt had gifted her. Elizabeth was quite determined that her confidence would fail her no longer, for she was quite ready to be fallen in love with.
She scanned the room eagerly as she followed behind her aunt and uncle, who were focused on meeting up with the rest of their own party. They soon caught sight of Sir Bertrand Banfield, who had the advantage of height and waved them over when he noticed their entrance. “Aha, here they are, my dear,” he exclaimed with a gleeful clap of his hands, and gave his wife a wink. “Lady Helen was beginning to despair of your arrival – I was quite on the verge of hoisting her up on my shoulders so that she could have a look around herself.”
Lady Helen blushed and laughed, giving her husband a teasing swat on the arm with her fan as she greeted the Gardiners and Elizabeth.
“In that case, we shall have to be more evasive during the intermission,” Elizabeth said, offering Lady Helen a roguish wink.
“Oh, Heaven help me! I must keep you away from Bertie, I am sure, for with you both teasing me at once I shall scarcely be able to speak two words of sense together,” Lady Helen chided, her face even pinker than before.
“You shall do nothing of the kind, dearest,” her husband said drily, and bent down to kiss her hand. “For I enjoy seeing you flustered.”
Elizabeth looked away in sudden embarrassment as Sir Bertrand shamelessly flirted with his wife. Mrs. Gardiner caught her niece’s eye and leaned in towards her, whispering, “Absolutely enchanting, are they not?”
She gave her aunt a wry smile, recalling how she had once described the Banfields thus. “Indeed, you shall find me quite dedicated to my original opinion on the matter.”
They all soon made their way to the Banfields’ private box, which afforded them a wonderful view of the stage. By happy coincidence, it was situated next to the Audleys’ box, and as Elizabeth took her seat furthest to the right, she caught sight of Emily Carmichael entering the neighboring box on Mr. Sutton’s arm. Mrs. Carmichael lagged behind her with the Audleys.
“Ha! Lizzy!” Emily detached herself from Mr. Sutton, who trailed behind her as she made her way to the edge of the box to greet her friend. “You look so lovely tonight, Lizzy!”
Miss Sutton had entered the Audley’s box just then, with a possessive hold on Henry Audley’s arm. Hearing Emily’s comment, Miss Sutton made a supercilious face before nodding in Elizabeth’s direction.
Suppressing the urge to laugh, Elizabeth schooled her own countenance into something like civility as she returned the gesture. She recalled having said something, she knew not what, of great impertinence to Miss Sutton at the Twelfth Night ball, but felt little doubt that lady had deserved it. Clearly Miss Sutton had not forgiven the offence. Turning her attention back to Emily, Elizabeth replied, “If I am lovely, then you are perfection itself, my friend. It is fortunate you are in a different box than I, for if you were in the same as me, I am sure I should have to toss you out of it. I could hardly sit next to you for two whole hours while you are looking so very pretty.”
“You shall find that I have no such reservations, Miss Carmichael,” Mr. Sutton rejoined, seemingly ready to conclude their conversation and have Emily’s attention all to himself. “Perhaps we should sit a little this way, so you will be able to see better.”
“Oh yes, I think you are right. If we sit on this side, I daresay I shall just talk to Lizzy the whole time, and you shall all think me very rude!”
Elizabeth smiled kindly at them, impressed by the gentleman’s subtle efforts to curb her friend’s enthusiasm. “You are very wise indeed, Mr. Sutton. It looks as if it is about to begin – we shall all speak later.”
Mr. Sutton gave a small bow and escorted Emily to the other side of the Audley’s box. As Elizabeth took her seat, her attention was suddenly claimed by Lady Helen, who took the seat between Elizabeth and her aunt in an effort to get to become better acquainted. “Fear not, Miss Bennet, I’ve no intention of talking through the opera,” she whispered conspiratorially. “But, I hear you share my penchant for people-watching. Perhaps by and by you might find something more shocking than that blue feathered turban just across the way there, and then it shall be my turn again to best your discovery.”
As her eyes alighted on the headwear in question, Elizabeth realized it adorned the person of Miss Caroline Bingley, who, dressed as showily as ever, accompanied her brother in the Fitzwilliams’ box directly opposite them. With a soft giggle, Elizabeth responded, “Would it shock you to learn where she procured such a remarkable item? I am unfortunately acquainted with the lady, and can easily inquire.”
Lady Helen raised her opera glasses to her eyes for a closer look. “Good Lord but she’s with Bingley! Is that one of his vile sisters? Oh, hello, look at the other handsome gentleman with them….”
They were promptly shushed by the other three members of their party, though Mrs. Gardiner winked at Elizabeth, clearly pleased by Lady Helen’s familiarity with her. Unable to resist the temptation, Elizabeth winked back before peering through her own opera glasses. There was a large party in the Fitzwilliam’s box – Mr. Bingley and his sister, Lady Rebecca and the Viscount (likely not the gentleman to which Lady Helen referred), and a portly older man she presumed to be their father. There was a younger woman at his side, and another gentleman, shorter than the Viscount but similarly featured, and then… there. Handsome indeed! Elizabeth indulged in drinking in his appearance for a long moment. He was tall, muscular and flawlessly attired, with dark, wavy locks and a magnificent jawline. Finally, Elizabeth lowered her opera glasses as though she had committed some sort of sin just by enjoying the sight of him. “Oh, my.” Lady Helen nudged her elbow with a cheeky smile and waggle of her eyebrows.
There was something almost familiar about the man, though Elizabeth could hardly account for it. Surely she would have recalled meeting such an attractive gentleman. Of course, the Twelfth Night ball was still a bit murky in her memory, but no – Lady Helen would surely have known him if he had been at her own event. Curious.
As much as Elizabeth wished for another look, she was determined not to be caught staring. Silently chastising herself for behaving no better than Kitty or Lydia, she devoted her focus to the opera, determined to wait until the intermission to see if any of that party would come speak to them. She passed much of the first half in rapt attention, and really began to enjoy it very much indeed. The arias were incredibly moving, and for a while she was content to allow the powerful emotion of the music to wash over her; it was a restorative balm she had not realized she needed.
Lady Helen broke her concentration some time later, with a gentle nudge and subtle gesture in the direction of the Fitzwilliams’ box. He was staring. At her. Elizabeth’s heart pounded a little faster, and she felt her color heighten as she held the handsome stranger’s gaze and, emboldened by the obvious interest in his expression, she folded her hands in front of her and dipped her head as though giving a curtsy, a playful smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. The gentleman scowled and abruptly turned away, though her gesture caught the attention of her acquaintance among that party.
Mr. Bingley’s face lit up as he recognized Elizabeth, apparently believing her to be flirting with himself, and Elizabeth was relieved that he seemed unaware of her faux pas. He gave her an indecorously enthusiastic wave, earning a rebuke from his sister, who glared first at him and then at Elizabeth before fanning herself in indignation. Behind them, the Fitzwilliam siblings wore matching mischievous grins; Lady Rebecca winked boldly at her. Her mortification complete, Elizabeth smiled plaintively at her friends before attempting, with little success, to direct her attention back to the opera.
At last came the entr’acte, and the Banfields and Gardiners rose to join the throng of people congregating and taking refreshments before the start of the second act. Elizabeth only had time to wave cheerfully at Emily and her mother, who were much engrossed with the Audleys, before Lady Helen took Elizabeth’s arm and steered her toward the grand white marble staircase. “Here comes your Mr. Bingley, Miss Lizzy,” she observed. “I do hope he will introduce us to all his friends, they seem a very merry party!”
As Mr. Bingley approached, Elizabeth observed that only Lady Rebecca and Viscount Hartley accompanied him. She was not surprised that Miss Bingley wished to avoid her, and likely the handsome gentleman did, too, for he had seemed heartily displeased by her notice. As to the others, she could only suppose they were Fitzwilliam relations who thought themselves above such company as her own party, and she could hardly fault them for it, much as it wounded her vanity.
While Elizabeth ruminated on the ways of the world and her aunt chatted with Lady Helen, the gentlemen walked ahead and intercepted Mr. Bingley and his friends. Lady Helen halted in her progress through the room and fanned herself elegantly. “Perhaps we would do better to hang back for a moment and let the gentlemen speak,” she whispered. “It would not do to seem too eager.”
“No indeed,” Mrs. Gardiner agreed. “With Mr. Bingley there is Lady Rebecca Fitzwilliam, a new friend of Lizzy’s, and I daresay that is her brother, the Viscount.”
Lady Helen looked at Elizabeth with some surprise. “Well done, Miss Bennet. Many a young lady would be all too eager to boast of such acquaintance – it speaks highly to your character that you have not.”
Mrs. Gardiner’s kindly countenance glowed with pride. “My Lizzy is certainly far from the ordinary – I suspect that is why Lady Rebecca has taken a liking to her. She called on us yesterday, and was very civil. I think she is perfectly suited to be a friend to Lizzy, though of course my niece Emily Carmichael is a lovely girl, too.”
While her aunt continued speaking to Lady Helen about her as if she was not even present, Elizabeth could only reflect that at least she was doing so at a reasonable more discreet volume than her mother was wont to do. Though she knew it was wrong of her to think so unkindly, she smirked a little to herself and allowed her attention to wander back to Mr. Bingley, who appeared to be introducing the Fitzwilliams to her uncle and Sir Bertrand. Her uncle gave a courteous bow, modest compared Sir Bertrand’s rather flamboyant brand of decorum. Catching her eye, Lady Rebecca made some manner of smiling excuse to the gentlemen before curtsying and making her way to Elizabeth, her brother trailing close behind.
As Mr. Bingley still seemed engaged in a rather animated discussion with her uncle and Sir Bertrand, Elizabeth was left to make the introductions, still somewhat in awe of her new friends.
“It is lovely to see you again, Mrs. Gardiner,” Lady Rebecca said with a genuine smile. “Lady Helen, I am very pleased to make your acquaintance at last. I have heard many tales of your legendary entertainments, most recently from Mr. Bingley, and I find myself quite longing for an invitation some time.”
Lady Helen smiled graciously. “Of course you shall be invited. It would be my honor.”
Viscount Hartley grinned waggishly. “I, for one, shall certainly look forward to the occasion, for it pains me greatly to rely solely on Bingley’s account of things, though he is certainly thorough in expounding upon some delights.”
Lady Helen faltered for a moment, unsure of how to respond to such a statement. “Yes, well – I believe my husband is expounding upon something rather less than fascinating – matters of business, I daresay. How odious. I do begin to wonder if we ought to go rescue Mr. Bingley.”
Mrs. Gardiner fanned herself, glancing idly in that direction. “Better let them have done with it. I should much rather find a glass of wine, what think you all?”
Lady Helen heartily agreed, and the two ladies turned their attention to obtaining refreshments. Elizabeth caught Mr. Bingley’s eye and he smiled brightly, clearly eager to join her. She began to wonder if her uncle had perversely distracted the young man for the amusement of seeing him squirm a bit.
Just then, Viscount Hartley took advantage of her aunt’s distraction to lean in close to Elizabeth, and teasingly whispered, “I daresay my friend will be wildly jealous at seeing me address you thus, Miss Bennet, but I felt obliged to do what I can to discomfit him a little, since he seemed rather oblivious to your apparent interest in another of our party.”
Though his comment was made in good humor, Elizabeth was utterly mortified, and felt herself blushing a deep shade of pink. Lady Rebecca, sensing her friend’s embarrassment, hissed at her brother, “Richard, really!”
The Viscount appeared chagrined, smiling ruefully at Elizabeth as he addressed his sister, “Truly, Rebecca, I am quite put out. I had hoped that once cousin Darcy married, I would get my fair share of attention from the ladies, and it breaks my heart to see that it is not so. Handsome devil, I cannot see how Bingley regards him so very well.”
Though Rebecca rolled her eyes and gave a great huff of exaggerated indignation, Elizabeth schooled her countenance and offered the Viscount what she hoped was a serene smile. He kindly meant to put her on her guard – the attractive gentleman was a married man, hence his dismay at her flirtatious gesture. Moreover, he was an intimate friend of Mr. Bingley, making her momentary interest in him even more inappropriate. It was clever and generous of the Viscount to disguise his admonishment so playfully, and Elizabeth felt all the gentility of his effort. “I certainly understand your sentiments, sir,” Elizabeth replied with a slight nod.
Lady Rebecca sighed. “Poor Darcy!”
Darcy, Elizabeth furrowed her brow at hearing the name repeated. It was vaguely familiar, just as his face had seemed.
“Miss Elizabeth!” Elizabeth turned to find Mr. Bingley finally approaching with Mr. Gardiner and Sir Bertrand, just as the Mrs. Gardiner and Lady Helen rejoined the conversation. “How are you ladies enjoying the performance this evening?” Mr. Bingley’s eyes never left Elizabeth’s as he took his place at her side, giving some semblance of a bow to the others.
Elizabeth flushed with pleasure as she watched him take in her appearance. It was clear he liked her very much. Is he in love with me? Is this what it is like to fall in love? She returned Mr. Bingley’s amorous gaze, trying to sort out what she was feeling, what she wanted to feel, and what she wanted from the man before her. Oblivious to her companions and the silence that had fallen over them, Elizabeth returned Mr. Bingley’s smile, until at last they both began to laugh.
Mrs. Gardiner softly cleared her throat. “I believe we are enjoying it very well, indeed,” she replied to Mr. Bingley’s unanswered question.
Elizabeth looked back at her aunt. “Oh, yes. I like it very much. The music is simply breathtaking.”
“Yes, yes indeed,” Mr. Bingley replied, still grinning at Elizabeth. “Caroline says it is far more refined than seeing a play - but I own much prefer plays. Saves me the trouble of reading them. Not that I should like to read music, either. That is – I cannot imagine how all you accomplished young ladies manage it.”
Lady Rebecca had pursed her lips to keep from laughing, and met Elizabeth’s eye with a playful wink. “And are you possessed of such accomplishments, Miss Elizabeth? I will own I comprehend a great deal in my idea of an accomplished woman.”
Elizabeth smirked saucily at her friend. “I do play and sing a little, but very ill, I assure you. Of reading plays I have had better success, for I am fond of reading everything my father’s library has to offer. Dare I ask if I have satisfied your requirements?”
“’Tis indeed an accomplishment to improve one’s mind through extensive reading,” Lady Rebecca observed with a tone of great mirth. “However, I find the greater accomplishment to be that of endeavoring to exert one’s influence over those who do not have a taste for such things.” Here she gave Mr. Bingley an arch look, and he responded with a jovial laugh.
Mr. Gardiner joined in the laughter, and clapped his young friend on the shoulder. “Come round for dinner some time, if ever you should like to be influenced, young man. I daresay my Lizzy shall make short work of it.”
Elizabeth turned away in sudden embarrassment at her uncle’s straightforwardness. She looked to her aunt for assistance, but Mrs. Gardiner merely gave her hand a gentle squeeze and smiled cheerfully at her. Before she knew it, Mr. Bingley had accepted her uncle’s invitation and settled on Saturday next. Her uncle seemed hesitant to presume too much in inviting the Fitzwilliams, but Mr. Bingley adroitly suggested that he should give a dinner for them all the week after that. Not to be outdone, nor to miss out on an opportunity for mischief, Lady Rebecca announced that she would be happy to hostess at her brother’s house in Belgrave Square, and would send round her invitations.
The conversation continued in such a manner until it was time to return to their box for the second act, and Elizabeth was equal parts relieved and disappointed when the time came to separate from Mr. Bingley and his friends. Was love supposed to be such a discomfiting mixture of embarrassment and delight?
Despite his intention of avoiding society, particularly that of his family, while in London, Darcy found himself nonetheless ensconced in the spacious Fitzwilliam box at the opera. He was in no humor to be in company, though he loved them all dearly; their exuberance was more than usually overwhelming.
Robert, the youngest Fitzwilliam sibling, had recently returned to London, having received his ordination, and was on the lookout for a suitable position. The earl was blithely besotted with his new young bride, Lady Margaret, whom he had married as soon as the mourning period for his eldest son had passed. Rebecca was in fine form as ever, rolling her eyes at the step-mother three years her junior, as well as the lovesick puppy that Bingley had become of late.
It seemed Bingley had grown rather close with Darcy’s cousins, as he himself had begun to avoid them. And yet, Darcy was glad for it, for despite the difference in their circumstances, they were all of a similar disposition, though the same could not be said of Bingley’s sister. Her motives for pursuing the friendship were clear enough, despite her brother’s artless good nature.
At least Richard was showing some improvement in humor, for the Viscount had been in lower spirits even than Darcy for many months, but seemed to be returning back to his usual teasing self, with the help of his pert and irreverent sister, and the unswervingly chipper Charles Bingley. Even Caroline’s overstated fawning did not seem to bother Richard, as it always had Darcy, who found the woman positively exhausting. He had been enormously relieved when Richard’s elevation to Viscount had caused a drastic shift in Caroline’s attentions, though she was, unfortunately, still prone to the occasion flirtation.
Compared to the high spirits of his companions, Darcy felt even more ill at ease than usual. He sat to the far side of their box next to Robert, whose solemnity as a new member of the clergy rendered him vastly more tolerable than the rest of their party. Darcy spoke to no one as they all claimed their seats, knowing he must school himself into a greater measure of cordiality before he could be trusted to converse with his companions, whose invitation he had tried, with little success, to decline.
“Well, Cousin, you’ve picked a fine time to come out of hiding, eh?” Robert offered him a gentle smile. “You’ve managed to satisfy my father’s demand for your presence in a setting where you can acquit yourself quite easily of hardly speaking a word. Well done, I say.” Robert always had been the diplomat of the family, and Darcy was filled with a renewed sense of appreciation for his youngest cousin. Smiling slightly, he turned away, scanning the crowded theatre before him as he searched for something to say. And then he saw her.
At first Darcy was not entirely sure that she was indeed truly there, for she had been a near-constant presence in his thoughts since they had met. He knew not how she had made such an indelible mark upon his him. He would be reading in his library and there she was, peeking playfully up at him from behind a book. As he sat down to dinner in his lonely townhouse, she was right across from him with a teasing look. Even as Darcy lay down to bed at night, there she would be, her thick chestnut curls spilling down around her shoulders.
Darcy ran his hand through his hair, trying to keep his attention on the stage. Why did she discompose him so? He was Fitzwilliam Darcy, master of Pemberley, and she was a country nobody he had once deigned to dance with at a ball. She was the niece of a tradesman with no fortune and little but her charms to recommend her. Such as lively wit and vivacity. And incredibly fine eyes. And the figure of Venus. God, oh God. She was the lady his dearest friend admired and wished to court. And marry – he said marry.
Darcy knew he must master his thoughts before they betrayed him. And yet, he could not resist – he chanced one more glance in her direction, as if hoping she would somehow lose her allure and cease to torment him. But it was not so. No, she was magnificent, her well-fitted gown glowing gold in the dim candle light. Her eyes glistened with emotion as she watched the performance with rapt attention.
And then she turned, and her eyes locked with his. A rosy blush crept over her face, but she held his gaze, dipping into a coy little curtsey that completely shattered the remnants of his composure. A few seats over, Bingley had noticed her as well, and suddenly the pleasure he had felt at her subtle acknowledgement gave way to anger and disgust. How dare she flirt with him, and right in front of Bingley – the man was clearly besotted!
As Bingley waved eagerly at her, Darcy snuck one more glance at Miss Elizabeth, only to find he had been quite the fool. Whatever he had believed was in her gesture towards him was nothing compared to the broad, unabashed smile she offered his friend. And yet, that is as it should be. Darcy scowled and returned his attention to the performance, wishing himself anywhere else.
When the rest of his companions left the box to socialize during the intermission, Darcy declined to accompany them, knowing who Bingley would seek out. Both embarrassed that he has supposed her to be flirting with him, and jealous that she had not been, Darcy knew he had better not meet with her again. It was entirely wretched, for a multitude of reasons, and he began to wish he had never met her. What good did it do him now to know that there was such a woman in existence?
He would conquer this, he must. He would not let this peculiar, iniquitous infatuation distract him from the troubles that he had fled from, nor would he continue this miserable course of hiding from his responsibilities. Darcy’s mind was made up – he would return home at once, to Pemberley, to his wife.