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In Praise of Her Conceited Independence

Chapter Text

The prospect of attending the ball at Meryton, the village by which Bingley's new residence stood, held little appeal for Darcy. Still, it would be rude and unsociable not to attend, and he had no better plans for the evening. Stepping into the assembly hall with Bingley, his two sisters, and his brother Hurst, Darcy prepared himself for an uncomfortable evening of awkward small-talk with strangers, and the unavoidable sense that he was being gossiped about behind his back.

His relief was great then, as well as his surprise, when he spotted almost immediately a familiar face among the attendants.

"Miss Bennet," he said, bowing to the lady politely. "What an unexpected pleasure."

"Mr. Darcy!" she cried, her puzzlement giving way to recognition after a moment. "Georgiana had said something in her last letter, of you visiting with a friend in Hertfordshire, but I hardly expected to run into you here, in Meryton."

"You know Georgiana?" Miss Bingley exclaimed, intruding on the conversation at the same time that a handsome older woman who had been standing behind Miss Bennet cried: "Lizzy! You know this gentleman?"

Miss Bennet turned laughing dark eyes from one woman to the other. "I befriended Georgiana, Mr. Darcy's sister, during my visit to Ramsgate this past summer. My acquaintance with Mr. Darcy is more brief, Mama. However, I am pleased to see you again, Sir."

He would have liked to talk to her more, but the combined scrutiny of Miss Bingley and Mrs. Bennet made him uncomfortable, so after introductions were made and short pleasantries were exchanged, he wandered off to talk to Bingley.

Darcy disliked conversing with strangers and would have happily spent the evening in Bingley's company, but unfortunately, Bingley wished to dance. When left to his own devices, Darcy naturally gravitated towards whichever member of his party was nearest or towards Miss Elizabeth, whom he knew at least a little and admired quite a lot.

It occurred to him, upon observing her, that the previous occasions he had met with her had been quite atypical and had not given him a good understanding of her character. Without the severity of the events that had brought them into each other's acquaintance casting a cloud, she was a different being. He had thought of her before as kindhearted and caring but serious. He now saw that in her natural state she was a happy person, with high spirits and a teasing manner.

Seeing Miss Elizabeth laugh gaily at something her friend said, struck Darcy with the notion that it would be quite pleasant to share a dance with her, despite how seldom he enjoyed such an activity. He therefore approached her before the next dance began, and, after a moment's hesitation (he hardly knew the reason for the sudden nervousness that beset him) he asked for the honour of her hand during the next dance. Miss Elizabeth quickly agreed, and they shared a pleasant cotillion.

Their conversation had begun with talk of Georgiana, but soon moved on to other subjects, and they were both so absorbed in their discussion that at the culmination of the dance they sat against the wall and continued to talk. They were interrupted, unfortunately, rather soon, by a Mrs. Long. She had approached Miss Elizabeth with the obvious hope of being introduced to the interesting new stranger in their midst, and upon having her health inquired after politely, launched into a long recital of all the illnesses and aches that were currently plaguing the members of her household.

In such a situation, Darcy would usually give curt, laconic answers in order to hint to his conversational partner that he was uninterested in the conversation without being so rude as to say it outright. Miss Elizabeth, however, was kinder than him. She smiled her merry smile at Mrs. Long, asked her questions, made noises of interest at her answers, and not once did she sigh impatiently.

Darcy tried to follow her example, and asked Mrs. Long an utterly insipid question regarding her opinion on what the weather would be like tomorrow and how it would affect her housekeeper's cold. This subject was, unbelievably, of considerable interest to Mrs. Long, and as she began to detail her complex analysis of the topic, Miss Elizabeth caught his eye and gave him a sympathetic little grin.

At that moment, Darcy no longer felt as if his conversation with Miss Elizabeth had been interrupted. Rather, they had continued their conversation silently, as Mrs. Long rambled obliviously on.

Darcy enjoyed the social outings in the following weeks far more than his usual wont. The secret to such a change was spending as much of the evening as possible with Miss Elizabeth, and when music was available, asking for a dance.

He knew that his unusual behavior had been noted by the members of his party, who were not used to the gregariousness he displayed with Miss Elizabeth. Doubtless, the people of Meryton had noticed his unusual attention as well. She was, after all, the only woman outside his party whom he had asked to dance. He also held a suspicion that Miss Elizabeth's own mother was the source of much of the gossip surrounding him.

He was, perhaps, being indiscreet, he acknowledged to himself, but what did it truly matter? There was no shame in liking a person of intelligence, kindness and courage. When his little sister was safe and Miss Elizabeth was the dear person who had kept her that way, and when speaking to her was so easy, he could not bring himself to care about the whispers and speculative glances from the people surrounding him.

At a gathering in Lucas Lodge, the home of Miss Elizabeth's best friend Charlotte, Darcy was once again forced to stand alone for a while, as Miss Elizabeth had been prevailed upon to perform on the pianoforte. It was then that he was approached by the master of the house, a Sir William Lucas, who mistakenly sought to fulfill his duty as host by providing conversation where it was supremely unwanted.

"What a charming amusement for young people this is, Mr. Darcy! There is nothing like dancing after all. I consider it as one of the first refinements of polished society."

Darcy's first inclination was to reply with a biting comeback, but the memory of Miss Elizabeth smiling at him as he listened patiently to Mrs. Long held him back. There was no reason to put down the man when he was only attempting to be kind and welcoming (even if Darcy did find his observation rather foolish).

"The amusement is not only for young people," he replied instead. "Surely, Sir, you are not too old to dance? Look, Miss Elizabeth is now finished preforming and is without a partner. You cannot, I am sure, refuse to dance, when so much beauty is before you. I have danced with her myself and can assure you that she is a most agreeable partner."

Sir William laughed, but insisted that he was too old to dance, and lacked the agility of his youth, gesturing down at his considerable girth. His proposed solution was, of course, that Mr. Darcy be the one to provide Miss Elizabeth with a partner, a suggestion Darcy had no objection to. Sir William called her over and presented her hand to Mr. Darcy amidst a flurry of compliments, and Darcy was only too happy to lead her to the floor.

"I do hope, Mr. Darcy," Miss Elizabeth said as the dance began, "that you did not feel obligated to dance with me against your inclinations, simply because Sir William entreated you to."

"To the contrary, he was aiding me with his request. I had just mentioned to him what a pleasant dance partner you were."

Miss Elizabeth laughed, but there was a gratifying amount of pleasure in her countenance at the compliment. "Dear me, I am now feeling the pressure of performing well enough to be worthy of such praise. I must weigh my every word and speak only when I have something to say that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the éclat of a proverb."

"You must do no such thing, Miss Elizabeth," he protested. "Your usual conversation- ah, but I suspect you are teasing me, and have expressed your intentions with no expectation of following through."

She laughed brightly. "You have caught me out, Mr. Darcy. You must learn, sooner or later, that not everything I say should be taken with the utmost seriousness. But, look! -I have made you smile, and thus cemented my position as a pleasant dance partner."

The conversation flowed easily from there, and when the dance ended, they both parted with a sense of reluctance.

He was approached soon after the dance by Mrs. Bennet, who was looking very happy indeed. "I saw that you were dancing with my Lizzy, just now, Mr. Darcy. She is a very good dancer, is she not?"

"She is indeed."

"She is very clever, too. I have always said that a clever wife is the greatest secret to a happy marriage. And of course, after Jane, she is my prettiest daughter."

Darcy frowned at that. From across the room, he saw Miss Elizabeth glance in his direction and then move to look at her mother, and an expression of panic cross her face. He could not help but chuckle. "Exceptionally pretty."

Mrs. Bennet beamed at the compliment. She was disposed to think kindly of any man who appreciated her daughters, even if it was the daughter she could not for the life of her understand. Especially if the man happened to have ten thousand a year and was single.

"Mr. Darcy!" Miss Elizabeth gasped, appearing before them looking red in the face and harassed. She had obviously rushed over the second she had seen her mother in conversation with him. "You must be thirsty, Sir. Allow me to show you the refreshments table."

The refreshments table was a large table at the back of the room with a crowd of people milling about it; Darcy had no need to be shown where it was. Still, he allowed her to lead him away from the conversation with Mrs. Bennet. He could not but be amused at the embarrassed and anxious looks she was sending in his direction. As if her mother could say anything that would make him think less of Miss Elizabeth!

"Mr. Darcy," she said quietly. "I feel I must apologize if my mother has made you uncomfortable in any way."

"Please, do not apologize, Miss Elizabeth, I will not hear it."

"You may not hear it, but I see that you have not denied my mother has caused you discomfort. Your expression just now was as good as an admission. Please, allow me only to say this: My mother has allowed her worries to make her rather, well, enthusiastic at the notion of a prospective match, and is not aware of how her actions are perceived. I hope very much that her tendency towards matchmaking will not be allowed to inhibit our friendship."

"It most certainly will not," he replied firmly. "But, forgive me for asking, you mentioned your mother's worries. What concerns her?"

He had long since realized that Miss Elizabeth was not as poor as he had thought upon first meeting her. While Mr. Bennet's income was a fraction of his own, the Bennets lived quite comfortably and were one of the principal families in the Meryton area.

The lack of fashion in her manner of dress when he had first met her, and which he had attributed to a lack of income, he could now more rightly attribute to a lack of need to impress when visiting a slightly timid young friend. Miss Elizabeth had not been visiting Ramsgate with the object of seeing and being seen, but rather of enjoying the nature, and had been dressed appropriately for a casual walk down a sandy beach, and not an assembly. He had been forced to admit to himself his unarticulated assumption that all who called upon one of his superior wealth and connexions undoubtedly wished to impress him. Furthermore, he had had to acknowledge, with a mixture of ruefulness and admiration, that this assumption was certainly incorrect when it came to Miss Elizabeth.

However, given that there was no distress in her situation, Darcy could not account for the kind of worries that would fuel a desperation such as Mrs. Bennet's to see her daughters married.

"Longbourn is entailed to the male line," Miss Elizabeth explained. "And my mother has borne only daughters. She feels most strongly the precariousness of our position."

"And you do not?" he asked.

She laughed. "I am still young, and in the manner of young people everywhere, am unable to contemplate the notion that any ill might befall me." Then, more seriously: "You need not fear, Mr. Darcy, that my design in pursuing a friendship with you is mercenary."

"I never suspected it for a moment!" he protested. "You are needlessly distressing yourself, Miss Elizabeth. My family is a very small one, you see. Though there are some more distanced relations, my intimate family is comprised only of myself and my sister. It is a very different family from yours, but it the most precious thing in the world to me. Having found it so close to disaster this past summer has served to remind me of what is truly important. The role you yourself played in preventing that disaster has marked you as a true friend. Any slight embarrassment or indignation I may experience are so very negligible in the face of those things, I cannot see how they would affect our friendship. You blush- I do not wish to embarrass you, I only wish you feel no mortification at such silly matters. You must know I esteem you greatly, matchmaking relations or not."

"You are kindness itself, Sir. Very well. We shall speak no more of the matter."

Darcy's attentions to Miss Elizabeth had not escaped Miss Bingley's sharp eyes, and, unfortunately, seemed to have earned her the ire of that gentlewoman. Darcy was not oblivious to Caroline Bingley's hopes regarding his person (not to mention his estate), and the acrimony she displayed towards Miss Elizabeth did nothing to endear her to him.

Still, Miss Bingley could not quite help herself. Especially when Miss Elizabeth provided such fodder for criticism upon arriving to Netherfield with the purpose of visiting her sick sister looking quite disheveled.

Darcy was doing his best not to listen to the tirade, for fear of losing his temper, but Miss Bingley's words could not quite escape him. "...six inches deep in the mud; and the gown which had been let down to hide it not doing its office. And her hair! So untidy, so blowsy!"

Well, Darcy mused, it was hardly the most disheveled he had ever seen Miss Elizabeth. His mind went back to their first meeting in Georgiana's bedroom. At the time, he had been apoplectic with rage and worry and had threatened to have her arrested, but time and subsequent interactions between them had softened the memory.

"...Do you not agree, Mr. Darcy? Mr. Darcy?"

"Eh? What was that?" asked Darcy, who had been trying very hard not to think of the fact that he had once seen Miss Elizabeth in only her nightgown, and as a result had completely lost track of the conversation.

Miss Bingley pursed her lips. "I was speaking of the Bennets' relations. Jane Bennet told me that they have an uncle and aunt that live in Cheapside."

"Ah yes," replied Darcy absentmindedly. "The Gardiners. Lovely couple."

Miss Bingley huffed. "Lovely as they may be, there is reason to fear that such common company has had a bad influence on her. I cannot imagine any other woman of her circle would walk four or five or however many miles, above her ankles in dirt, and completely unaccompanied. It seems to me to show an abominable sort of conceited independence."

"She does indeed possess an unusual amount of confidence and independence," Darcy replied, thinking of her protection of his sister, and how she had taken charge and dismissed Mrs. Younge. "But in a woman of her good sense and kind nature, I cannot see how any harm would come of such traits."

Miss Bingley gritted her teeth; but made no reply.

Miss Elizabeth looked tired when she finally descended to the dining room the next evening, but not too tired to offer Mr. Bingley a fond smile for his warm solicitations after her sister's health.

Upon hearing an unfavorable reply regarding Jane Bennet's recovery, Bingley's sisters expressed much dismay and shock, and spent the necessary amount of time bemoaning poor Jane's discomfort, before dropping the subject entirely and returning to their discussion of fashion.

Bingley lingered on the topic for a while longer, but upon saying everything that could be said on the matter, and offering four or five times any service or assistance that was in his power to provide, he abandoned his monopolization of Miss Elizabeth in favor of staring contemplatively at his cards, but playing his hand quite ill indeed. Miss Elizabeth was then free to sit down on the couch and pick up a book that had been lying on it, abandoned.

Darcy wished to go up and speak to her himself, but as he had been blatantly ignoring Miss Bingley for the past quarter hour in favor of writing his letter, he felt it would be too rude to show such an obvious preference for Miss Elizabeth's company.

Caroline Bingley must have noticed him lifting his eyes from the paper for a moment and taken it as an invitation to speak, for she resumed her mission of attempting to cajole a conversation out of him.

"Pray tell, Mr. Darcy, who are you writing such a charming long letter to?"

He wished to tell her that the letter would never get to be long if she continued to interrupt him incessantly while he wrote it, but resisted the temptation, knowing it would be cruel.

"The letter is for my sister, though whether it is charming is for her to decide," he replied instead.

"Dear Georgiana, do send her my regards!" exclaimed Miss Elizabeth warmly from the couch at the exact same moment that Miss Bingley said it from over his shoulder.

The mutual look of horror on their faces upon realizing that they had said the same thing simultaneously was so humorous, that Darcy had to turn his eyes back to the letter to keep from bursting out laughing and offending them both. Once he had control over himself again, he resumed his writing.

What say you, dearest, to surprising your friend Elizabeth by coming to visit? Knowing Bingley, you can have no doubt that he would be delighted to host an additional party member, and I think Miss Elizabeth would quite like to see you again. As to your own brother missing you, I have no need to elaborate, as you doubtlessly know already just how much your presence would please me.

He shot a look at Miss Elizabeth, who was once again absorbed in his book, and smiled to himself. Georgiana would be thrilled with the invitation, he knew it.