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In Praise of Her Conceited Independence

Chapter Text

The days leading up to the ball were dismal. It rained so continuously that they were prevented from walking to Meryton, and even the shoe-roses for the ball had to be got by proxy.

Elizabeth, tense already with the prospect of the upcoming ball and the expected interactions with Mr. Wickham, felt that her nerves, for the first time in her life, rivaled her mother’s. She had trouble sleeping for imagining in her mind all the ways in which her plan could go wrong.

Her dread and yet anticipation of having the ordeal over with were not conducive to making the time pass quicker, and neither was being confined to the house with four restless sisters and a talkative Mr. Collins.

It was only the memory of how often Elizabeth was vexed when her mother exhibited such behavior, that prevented her from taking out her nerves and frustrations on the other members of the household.

Once, she found herself on the verge of chastising Kitty for coughing, and thereafter resolved to spend the remaining time until the ball holed up in her room with a book in order to avoid the danger of making herself quite disagreeable to her family.

The arrival of Tuesday was a relief to them all, and the fact that the rain had abated just in time for the ball seemed like a good omen. Elizabeth’s pleasure was completed when, after breakfast, a very fine carriage stopped outside of the house, and her friend emerged from it.

“Georgiana!” cried Elizabeth, and rushed to hug the dear girl. Georgiana was no less enthusiastic in her greeting, and as they embraced, Elizabeth espied Mr. Darcy emerging from the carriage after her, staring at them with a benevolent smile on his face.

Elizabeth escorted brother and sister inside, and introduced Georgiana to the curious stares of her mother and sisters. She was greeted warmly and in a friendly manner by all, but Elizabeth could see the attention was causing her shy friend some strain.

When Mr. Collins entered the melee and began speaking pompously of Miss Darcy’s venerable aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Georgiana was positively taken aback, and Elizabeth felt obliged to rescue her, citing a bonnet she had upstairs which she thought would look quite fetching on Georgiana.

Once alone in Elizabeth’s room, they spoke with all the warmth and intimacy of their previous acquaintance. Georgiana expressed her pleasure in seeing Elizabeth again, as well as her anticipation of spending some time in her presence. She did not plan on attending the ball, though, as the thought of meeting so many new strangers was too intimidating for her. Elizabeth was relieved to hear it, knowing that Wickham’s presence at the ball had been assured by her own hand.

They spoke briefly of Wickham’s arrival in Meryton, and Elizabeth expressed with much warmth her confidence in Georgiana, and her pride at her courage, in not allowing herself to be driven away by the scoundrel. To this she added assurances that both herself and Mr. Darcy would do all in their power to ensure that a meeting between Wickham and Georgiana would not take place.

This sort of talk was exactly what Georgiana had been wishing to hear, and she took much comfort in Elizabeth’s encouragement. Presently, though, it was felt that it would be rude to remain sequestered upstairs any longer, and they rejoined the company.

It felt like far too soon when the hour became late and Georgiana was obliged to leave and Elizabeth to begin preparing for the evening. She promised, however, to come and call on Netherfield the next morning, and tell her friend all about the events of the ball.

Having spent most of the visit speaking with Georgiana, aware as she was of her friend’s shy nature and attentive to her discomfort, Elizabeth did not find the time to speak with Mr. Darcy. Thus, she had not had the opportunity to warn him that she would dance the opening set with Mr. Wickham. She did not even know if she wished to warn him; she was not sure if he would approve of her plan or think her foolish. It was better, perhaps, that he remain in the dark.

Still, Elizabeth could not help but nervously wonder what he would think when he saw her dancing and flirting with Mr. Wickham.

She was thankful when they arrived at the ball and she did not see Mr. Darcy immediately upon entering. Putting him out of her mind as best she could, Elizabeth accompanied her younger sisters inside, knowing they would inevitably end up in the area containing the densest concentration of officers, and therefore where she was most likely to find her target.

Once Elizabeth laid her eyes on Mr. Wickham and ascertained that he had seen her, she abandoned her sisters in favor of the refreshments table, where she was joined soon after by the gentleman.

“Would you like a drink, Mr. Wickham?” she asked, gesturing at the table. “I was just soothing my thirst with some punch but am finding it to be quite sweet. Perhaps you would like some of the wine, though? I have heard very good things about this one, though I think it too strong for my tastes.”

Mr. Wickham accepted the generous glass she poured for him, and gallantly complimented her on her looks that evening. Elizabeth was incapable of blushing on command, but expressed verbally her pleasure and thanks for the compliment.

They stood there, making pleasant conversation, and Elizabeth felt herself relax. Villain that he was, Mr. Wickham acted like any pleasant and well-mannered gentleman, something she ought to have expected but did not. It was therefore not too difficult to fall into her usual teasing patterns of speech and treat Mr. Wickham like any charming man of her acquaintance.

When the dance began, Elizabeth was pleased to find that he was a good dance partner- graceful, and light on his feet. It made her enjoyment of the dance easier to feign. She laughed at his jokes, made witty observations that made him laugh in turn, and tried very hard not to look around to see if Mr. Darcy was there.

After the dance, Elizabeth claimed to be parched, and Mr. Wickham accompanied her back to the refreshments table, where she cajoled him into having another glass of wine, claiming she did not wish to be drinking alone.

He accepted with ease, and stood by the wall next to the table, leaning against it casually as he spoke to her. At that moment, Elizabeth finally espied Mr. Darcy. He was a few feet away from Wickham, and making his way towards them, a grim expression on his face.

She met his eyes, and desperately made a small shaking movement with her head, hoping he would understand the hint and stay his approach. He paused hesitantly, just as Mr. Wickham glanced back to see what she was staring at.

Elizabeth feared that Mr. Wickham would now attempt to leave, having indicated before that he would not wish to attend the ball if Mr. Darcy were there. Drink, however, had obviously made him bold, because rather than leaving he turned around and gave Darcy a look that, though Elizabeth couldn’t see, caused Mr. Darcy’s countenance to become positively angry. Despite that, Mr. Darcy adhered to the desperate shakes of Elizabeth’s head and the aborting motion of her hand she made, taking advantage of Mr. Wickham’s turned back, and he moved in a different direction, leaving them alone.

“Oh, how unfortunate that Mr. Darcy has returned from London!” Elizabeth cried, once Wickham turned back to her, looking smug. “I do wish that awful man would leave!”

“He will not approach while I am here,” Wickham replied reassuringly. “See how he has turned away? He obviously fears that I will expose him for what he is.”

Elizabeth could not help but notice that though Mr. Darcy had moved away, he was still in the room, slightly behind and to the right of Wickham, and keeping them in his line of sight. She took a moment to gather her nerves before smiling at Wickham. “That reminds me, I have heard from Lydia that in that terrible fight with the men he sent after you, the one that lost you your eye, you managed to fight them all off single-handed. You must tell me all about it!”

"Would it not be too much for your delicate nerves, Miss Elizabeth? I warn you; it is not a pretty tale.”

“Then I shall have to have a glass of wine to bolster my courage, for I am determined to hear it. Here, have one yourself, I see your glass is empty.”

“Very well then,” he replied. And he proceeded to tell her the most fantastical tale of bravery and daring that Elizabeth had ever heard. Apparently, the number of men who had attacked him had now graduated up to five, and Elizabeth was pleased to see his gestures become wilder and his speech more slurred the emptier his glass became.

“Oh my,” Elizabeth exclaimed, once the story concluded dramatically with the thugs running away, as Wickham slowly sank to the ground, the world darkening around him as he succumbed to his injuries and fainted. “I do wonder if Georgiana Darcy knows of her brother’s heinous actions. Given what a sweet, gentle girl she is, I doubt she would allow such a thing to happen if she knew.”

“You know Miss Darcy?” Wickham asked, sounding slightly surprised but mostly indifferent.

“Oh yes, we met during the last summer. It is a rather interesting story- how we met. I was walking along the beach in Ramsgate, where I had been holidaying.”

Wickham’s eyes, which had been lingering lazily on her décolletage, snapped up at the mention of Ramsgate. Elizabeth pretended not to notice.

“And I came across dear Georgiana being assaulted by a brute, who was trying to compromise her. It was rather too isolated a spot to call for help, so I took an old wooden plank that had washed up on the shore, and I hit the scoundrel with it in the face. I was later given to understand that there had been a nail in the plank.”

The next moment, she couldn’t breathe, as Wickham’s strong hands wrapped around her throat. “YOU BITCH!” he howled, shaking her, “YOU STABBED ME IN THE EYE!”

His hate-filled eyes stared into hers, and the smell of spirits on his breath burned her nose.

Then there was the sound of flesh hitting flesh, and Elizabeth could breathe again. Mr. Darcy had been her savior, and his punch had been strong enough to send Wickham flying to the floor. In another moment, he was on Wickham, restraining the man’s arms behind his back, his knee pressing into Wickham’s spine.

“Let me go!” Wickham shrieked. “Let me go, I’ll kill her! She’s the reason I don’t have an eye! That-” and he proceeded to call Elizabeth some very shocking words.

“Oh my!” Sir William Lucas had arrived on the scene, and was listening with astonishment to Wickham’s accusations against Elizabeth as well as his death threats towards her and Mr. Darcy. “I see Mr. Darcy was quite right. Madness... Paranoia...” he shook his head sadly. “Come, gentlemen!” he gestured towards some of the officers who had gathered around along with the rest of the guests to observe the scene. “Relieve Mr. Darcy of his burden and see to it that Mr. Wickham is locked up for tonight. He is obviously a danger to both himself and others.”

Mr. Chamberlayne and another member of the regiment whom Elizabeth did not know, knelt by Wickham and gripped him each by an arm, easily resisting his struggles. Mr. Darcy stood up and, ignoring the gawking and exclaiming crowd, turned to Elizabeth.

“Miss Elizabeth, I hope you are unharmed.” he said solemnly, his gaze earnest.

Suddenly, Elizabeth felt her knees go weak, as the fright with the situation caught up to her. She looked around for a chair, but before she could find one, she found herself scooped up by Mr. Darcy with one of his arms behind her back, and the other supporting her at the knees.

“Miss Elizabeth has had quite a shock.” he announced to the party guests who were all staring at the spectacle with barely disguised interest. “She should be allowed to rest and recover her spirits in a quiet room upstairs, away from the noise of the ball.”

He began walking with her, carrying her towards the staircase that she knew led to the upstairs bedrooms. To Elizabeth’s relief, the crowd began to disperse, and conversation picked up again, though at a louder pitch than before.

“Mr. Darcy,” she whispered to him, “I assure you this is quite unnecessary. I had a bit of a fright and felt the need to sit down, but I was hardly about to swoon, and am quite capable of walking on my own.”

He merely smiled at her, and held her closer to his body.

Elizabeth felt a thrill of hope go through her, and quite forgot to subdue it by reminding herself of the disparities in their wealth, connexions, and circumstances.

The sound of her mother’s shrieks in another room reached Elizabeth’s ears, and she felt Mr. Darcy increase his pace. He was as desperate as she was to reach the safety of the upstairs before they would be forced to confront her mother. They had finally reached the staircase when they were stopped by her father.

“Wait just a minute, Sir.” He said firmly, halting Mr. Darcy in his tracks. “If you think I shall allow you to carry my daughter, unchaperoned, up to one of the quiet and darkened bedrooms upstairs to ‘allow her to rest’, there is a rude awakening ahead of you. I’ve seen the way you look at her.”

Elizabeth was charmed to see Mr. Darcy blush.

“Sir, we will not be alone. My sister is residing upstairs at the moment. She is young and shy, and elected not to enjoy the party, but she is very fond of your daughter, and I am sure would be eager to see her and offer whatever comfort she can.”

“I will accompany you,” Mr. Bennet said firmly.

“It is late, and my sister is probably already prepared for bed.” Mr. Darcy replied. “She may not be fit to be seen by company. Perhaps Miss Bennet could accompany us, to avoid any appearance of impropriety?”

This seemed to placate Elizabeth’s father, and he gestured Jane over. Jane had been heading their way even before, and now ran to Elizabeth’s side.

“Lizzy, what is wrong? Mama was just shouting- something about Mr. Wickham trying to kill you. She was too overset by her nerves to make much sense. Are you well?”

“I shall be quite well just as soon as I can have some peace and privacy.” Elizabeth replied firmly, feeling as if a dozen eyes were watching her. Mr. Darcy took the hint, and proceeded up the stairs with alacrity, accompanied by Jane.

He led them to one of the rooms down the hallway, and had Jane knock, as his arms were occupied. Georgiana opened the door, and exclaimed in shock at the sight of her. Much was made over Elizabeth by Jane and Georgiana as she was placed gently on a settee by Mr. Darcy.

“Miss Elizabeth, I am going to fetch you a glass of wine and will be right back. I shall leave it to you to explain the events of the evening to our sisters.” And with a bow, he abandoned her.

Vexing man! Leaving her alone to maneuver Jane’s concern, Georgiana’s feelings, and the truth without revealing too much in the presence of Jane, who did not know of Georgiana’s past experience with Wickham.

She managed to improvise an explanation regarding a soldier (she was careful not to mention his name) getting too drunk, trying to attack her, and being stopped by Mr. Darcy.

“My mind is too muddled now,” she told them both apologetically, “to give you a more detailed account of the events that occurred. I beg you to excuse me.”

She was made to promise Jane that she would explain what had happened in more detail once her nerves had settled, and assured Georgiana that she would call on her the next day to tell her the whole story if her own brother did not perform the office first.

Just then, Mr. Darcy returned with a glass of wine. Georgiana and Jane moved out of the way for him, and began talking quietly amongst themselves, sending Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy the occasional glance.

“Are you quite recovered, Miss Elizabeth?” he asked her solicitously.

“From the need to explain simultaneously to both Jane and Georgiana what had happened without distressing Georgiana or revealing her personal history to Jane? It shall be a while before I recover from the betrayal of being left to fend for myself on that front. As for my ordeal downstairs, I assure you that I was recovered within five seconds of it ending.”

Mr. Darcy apologized very solemnly for his betrayal, but the corners of his mouth twitched.

“Shall you also apologize for carrying me up the stairs like an invalid, making it seem as if I were far more distressed than I actually was? It was very badly done, Mr. Darcy. Now I shall be expected to lie up here in the dark for the rest of the night, instead of participating in the ball.”

“I do not believe any such thing is necessary,” he protested. “The good people downstairs all know of your strong constitution well enough to believe that a short rest and a glass of wine were all that were required for you to recover your spirits. No one will be surprised to see you back downstairs and participating in the celebration within one half hour.”

“I suppose you are right,” Elizabeth replied, mollified.

He smiled. “I promise you that I would not have taken such a step had I thought it would in any way jeopardize my chances of dancing with you this evening.”

“Dancing?” She asked redundantly, surprised at the turn the conversation had taken.

“In your delight over reuniting with Georgiana yesterday, you quite allowed her to monopolize your attentions; I did not have the opportunity to ask, but I hope you will dance with me this evening. Are there any vacancies in your dance card?”

Her cousin Collins had mentioned his intention of soliciting a dance from her at some time during the evening, but as no particular one had been specified, she felt comfortable with assuring Mr. Darcy that her card was vacant.

“None of the remaining dances have been claimed. My attentions to Wickham this evening discouraged all other men from asking for a dance. I was completely focused on my plan.”

“And you performed admirably,” Mr. Darcy said with some warmth. “I had no notion of what you were about until the matter came to a head. I thought that you were merely attempting to keep Wickham close by so that you would be assured he was nowhere near Georgiana. It was only when he began shouting that I realized I had not given your ability to plan enough credit. You went about it quite cleverly, but I wish that you had not placed yourself in harm’s way in order to accomplish your goal.”

“I assure you that I had no expectation of being attacked by Mr. Wickham. I merely hoped that if I revealed my role in his injury while he was in an uninhibited state, he might speak of it unguardedly to enough people to support your claims of paranoid delusions. I had not anticipated the entire affair turning out as successfully as it did.”

“While I am gratified to hear that you do not make a habit of deliberately putting yourself in danger, I believe our definitions of success differ. I cannot define anything as a success that culminated in you being physically assaulted. And all for the sake of such a scoundrel!

“Not for his sake,” Elizabeth corrected. “But for the sake of all the future victims he would have no doubt accumulated. You may rest assured, though, Mr. Darcy, that I intend to spend the rest of the evening in far more wholesome company.”

 “Am I to understand from this that I may have a dance with the cunning strategist and defeater or villains? Or am I, perhaps, being presumptuous in assuming my company could be considered wholesome?”

Elizabeth laughed. “In comparison to Mr. Wickham your company is very wholesome, in addition to quite a few other pleasant adjectives.”

“That is hardly high praise, Miss Elizabeth; the same could doubtless be said of a rotted turnip or a coughed-up hairball.”

“Well, I value your company over that of a rotted turnip,” she conceded playfully, “but you will not succeed in fishing any more compliments from me than that. The dance, however, I will gladly grant you.”

 


 

The rest of the evening passed in a blur for Elizabeth. She vaguely noted the loud murmuring of the crowd as she descended from the stairs with her sister and her mother’s loud exclamations, first shocked and distressed with worry, and then delighted and triumphant when she began to dance with Mr. Darcy. She noticed the frequent stares sent her way by those around her, but could not bring herself to keep her mind on them for more than a second.

Mr. Darcy spent their dance by turns admiring her cleverness and scolding her for putting herself in such close proximity to Wickham. There was such fondness in his looks, though, that Elizabeth was not capable of taking his admonishments to heart.

By the time the evening ended, Mrs. Bennet was crowing loudly over the prospect of soon having three daughters engaged to be married, and Elizabeth had begun to suspect herself that she may not be entirely wrong.

A conversation with Jane that night revealed that her mother was not alone in her thoughts. Jane, too, thought that Mr. Darcy had serious intentions towards her person, and she was not the only one to believe so. Apparently, while Elizabeth had been having her conversation with Mr. Darcy in Georgiana’s room, Georgiana and Jane had been having their own conversation, consisting mainly of speculation, based on their most recent observations, of an upcoming happy event.

Elizabeth reciprocated by giving Jane all manner of encouragement regarding Mr. Bingley’s feelings towards her, but secretly wished the topic to return to Mr. Darcy, so she could hear more of Jane’s opinion regarding how likely Mr. Darcy was to pursue her.

She went to sleep that night with her head full of Mr. Darcy, and her heart even fuller.