Unpleasant Scenes Might Arise.
""I found," said he, "as the time drew near that I had better not meet
Mr Darcy; that to be in the same room, the same party with him for so
many hours together, might be more than I could bear, and that scenes
might arise unpleasant to more than myself.""
Pride & Prejudice; Chapter XXI.
"Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife."
Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard.
Until Elizabeth had entered the Ballroom of Netherfield Hall, it had never occurred to her to doubt Mr Wickham's presence. Even now, as this notion came to her mind, as the sudden thought of his being purposely omitted for Mr Darcy's pleasure in Mr Bingley's open invitation to the officers, came to her, it was discarded almost immediately.
Mr Wickham in the company of Denny, made his way to her and the sisters she was standing with, bowed, and solemnly asked for the honour of her fair hand, for the first two dances of the evening. His manners were still the same as when she had met him last, and Elizabeth felt the disappointment of having to decline him deeply. With regret she announced herself already pledged to Mr Collins.
"Then," he began, in a fresh attempt, "dare I ask you for the two next? Or are you engaged for those as well?"
"No," replied she. "I am not engaged."
"Good." He bowed again, and surrendered to the whims of her sister Lydia, who along with Kitty, dragged him and Denny off, leaving Elizabeth free to cast her eye around the room in search of other guests. She soon managed to fix her gaze upon Charlotte, whom she had not seen for a week, and made her way over to her. Miss Lucas was glad to see her, and they made themselves inseparable from each other until the hired orchestra began to play the music for the first dance.
This brought a return of her previous brief distress, for they were dances of mortification. Mr Collins, awkward and solemn, apologising instead of attending, and often moving wrong without being aware of it, gave her all the shame and misery which a disagreeable partner for a couple of dances can give.
What made this distress even worse, was a sight which she happened to catch upon conducting a turn, and never managed to avoid from that moment. Mr Darcy was observing her again. At times, she fancied him having difficulty in restraining his humour, whenever Mr Collins made an error, but mostly his countenance remained solemn and severe.
As she and her cousin made their way down and up the lines of the dancers, so did he, in the space between them and the chattering groups of remaining guests. When the torture was over, he was in perfect view of her, standing behind Mr Collins against the wall, his expression inscrutable.
Elizabeth parted from her reverend cousin in ecstasy, happily coming to take Mr Wickham's hand, as he met her from across the room. She began their first dance in the same emotion, until it was tempered by her catching sight of Mr Darcy, who was observing her and her partner with a stony stare.
Every turn she made, his eyes seemed determined to meet hers, as he conveyed all the anger that he felt at the sight of her dancing with his enemy. Elizabeth soon felt an annoyance of her own. She could not see why he should be angry, she was not his to command. It was an insufferable arrogance.
By the end of the dance, it was obvious to her that she was not the only one to notice his angry observation. Mr Wickham parted from her with his usual civility, then made his way directly over to his former childhood friend. Elizabeth, her curiosity about the possible outcome of a meeting roused, followed at a discreet distance.
The two gentlemen made a place for themselves by the wall beside the large ornate fireplace, their expressions something akin to those of ones facing a battle. A minute or so was passed in silence, as each seemed to weigh up their opponent, deciding on which verbal form of attack was best.
Mr Wickham began the onslaught of conversation. "I suspect you are surprised to see me here, Darcy."
On the contrary," he replied, refusing to give him that satisfaction, "I expected nothing less of your audacity."
Wickham remained unaffected by that, merely laughing before continuing with, "By the by, how is dear Georgiana?"
Darcy's expression darkened slightly, but otherwise the words appeared to have no impact upon his countenance. "You have no right to speak of her in such terms, let alone refer to her by her first name."
"I wonder," his companion said next, "if she has, as I do, fond memories of our time in Ramsgate last summer."
Darcy made no reply to this. Instead, catching him by surprise, he suddenly shoved Wickham against the wall, holding him there with his hand upon his neck. Elizabeth gasped, stared, coloured, doubted and then was silent. She glanced around the ballroom to see if this scene had caught anyone else's attention.
Their host seemed to catch sight of it, stare at the event for a moment, and then returned to his dancing companion, who, being her sister, also could not avoid witnessing the sight. For everyone else however, the confrontation went entirely unnoticed.
Wickham too seemed unperturbed by the position he was in. Calmly he replied to his attacker, "You would not dare. You know how it easy it would be for me to expose and ruin both you, Darcy, and your precious Georgiana right now? No one here would believe you, thanks to your typical manners from the moment you arrived here."
He paused to adjust his head slightly, for Darcy had tightened the pressure, then continued. "You know, Georgiana was really sweet to me during the summer in Ramsgate. So sweet and pliant in her nature. I congratulate you, Darcy. She will make a most willing bride to any rake in Society."
Darcy reluctantly let go of him, letting Wickham gather his breath and composure before continuing the verbal part of the conversation. "Wickham, don't make me angry," he warned in a deadly tone.
Wickham merely smiled, and replied in a slightly lowered tone, "I have already chosen my next conquest, and she has the one thing your sister lacked: spirit. You made the decision for me. You forget how well I know you," he remarked, "I saw your love for her in your face while we were dancing.
"I must say I'm surprised, Darcy. I thought Lady Catherine had more influence over your opinions than to let you fall in love with a girl worth only fifty pounds. She will be so easy to persuade, you know. I don't even have to go as far as asking her to marry me. And then you will have two ruined girls on your conscience: Georgiana, and Miss Elizabeth Bennet."
Even as the lady in question gasped in shock, Darcy's expression became suddenly composed. "Tomorrow at dawn," he announced in the same tone, "the field between the Netherfield and the Longbourn Estates, and swords."
He then walked away, leaving both his old friend and the woman he loved in the deepest and most profound shock at all which had just passed before them.