Miss Elizabeth looked quite the sight running into the house, and it was a fortunate thing that Mrs. Bennet was in Merriton that morning or she would have made a great fuss about the mud that the girl was tracking on the carpet.
Mr. Bennet, accustomed as he was to ignoring the shouts and screams and uproars that came of having five girls all under the age of ten, could not ignore a plea of so much genuine feeling, especially not coming as it did from his most favored daughter. Coming to the door, he found his second eldest daughter, dripping wet and covered in mud.
"Good heavens, Lizzy, what has happened to you?"
"He did it!"
There was no need to ask who he was since he had been a source of great vexation since his arrival in the neighborhood.
"What has young Mr. Carter done now?"
"He pushed me! He pushed me and I fell in the mud and now my gown is ruined and I am wet! And I think you should get your gun and shoot him until he is very dead!"
"Shoot him dead, eh?" Mr. Bennet accepted the basin of water that the maid had brought and knelt down in front of the girl, wiping the worst of the mud off of her face. "That seems a rather harsh penalty. May I ask, Lizzy, if this tussle was entirely unprovoked on your side?"
"He pushed you for no reason? No reason at all, just walked up and tossed my daughter in a mud hole? Perhaps I should shoot him very dead after all."
Elizabeth bit her lip. "I...pushed him first. But he did not fall in he mud, I did!"
"And so, having suffered the greater indignity of an action you started, you now wish for someone else to step in and punish him."
"I only pushed him because he put a frog on my head," Elizabeth said, appearing slightly calmer and more reflective.
"Why did he put a frog on your head?"
"I do not know. He is a very strange boy. He treats me contemptibly, and yet he follows me about. He lives to torment me."
Mr. Bennet chuckled and helped her out of her mud-covered boots so that she could walk up the stairs without making a mess. "Perhaps he likes you, Lizzy."
"That, sir, makes no sense."
"You may find that when a lad likes you, his actions frequently lose a good deal of sense."
For that she had no response, but only stared at him with a little frown on her face, as through trying to determine whether or not he was fooling with her. Mr. Bennet shooed her away to change her gown and sighed. Perhaps it was a good thing that the Carters would quit Netherfield altogether at the end of the summer. The excitement that young Mr. Carter brought to his daughter's life was likely good for her, but he thought that he could take no more of it.
It was as she had said once to Mr. Darcy, private balls were a great deal more pleasant than public ones. But, if a public ball was to be her lot for the evening, she would endure it with as much fortitude as possible. Separated from her party, she just managed to spy Miss Bingley's tall feathers above the crowd and, beginning to move toward her, she was jostled rather sharply and nearly knocked into a man. She began to apologize when he cried, "Upon my word! Elizabeth Bennet, is that you?"
Elizabeth regarded the tall man in front of her who addressed her with such familiarity and failed to place him. "Sir, I am afraid you have me at a disadvantage, for I--"
"Tomas Carter, Miss Bennet."
"Indeed? Indeed, it is you! I recognized you not at all, and I can scarce believe you recognized me."
"You have changed a great deal, but your eyes are exactly as I recall them."
She laughed. "Well, I may at least correct you on one point, for it has not been Miss Bennet for nearly five months."
"I see. And whose name do you now bear, madam?"
She was not quite certain if Mr. Darcy had been lying in wait for the perfect opportunity to introduce himself, or if his arrival was simply fortuitous, but his timing was impeccable. "Mr. Darcy, sir."
Mr. Carter straighted and a single glance at the two of them seemed sufficient to confirm it. "A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Darcy. Mrs. Darcy. I am Mr. Carter."
"Mr. Carter's family let Netherfield for a summer when I was a child."
Elizabeth laughed. "Hardly! He pushed me into a mud hole and ruined a favorite gown."
"I assure you, madam that whatever indignities you may have suffered were nothing to compare to what I suffered when my father discovered the action. He had a great deal to say on the matter of how a gentleman treats a young lady and mud holes factored into it not at all."
Mr. Darcy smiled and inclined his head slightly before addressing his wife. "My dear Mrs. Darcy, I have been sent by Miss Bingley to find you as Mr. and Mrs. Hurst have quit the ball early and she now requires your company."
"Oh, poor Carolyn. No one to speak to for these ten minutes. I must go to her directly. It was very good to see you, Mr. Carter."
"You as well, Mrs. Darcy," with a trace of wistfulness that he did not entirely manage to hide.
"I am surprised at his addressing you so familiarly," Darcy murmured when they had got far enough away.
"A childhood acquaintance can lead to a certain familiarity."
"Even one that involves mud holes?"
"And frogs. He took great delight in tormenting me." She looked at Mr. Darcy and, squeezing his arm, could not help adding, "My father was of the opinion that it was his way of showing his regard for me."
"A very peculiar way of showing regard."
"Yes. For you know nothing about deliberately vexing a woman for whom you have an affinity."
"Nothing at all, I assure you," Mr. Darcy said.