You know, I'm not pleased with this fragment notion. Let us abandon it and try again. Here's chapter one complete.
Fitzwilliam Darcy found a quiet corner of the overcrowded assembly hall and breathed an almost silent sigh of relief. From the safety of this retreat he could watch with some degree of composure as his friend, Charles Bingley, smilingly endured the crush of new neighbors from which Darcy had just escaped. Bingley, always deemed universally charming, had somehow managed to maneuver his rather plain dance partner into introducing him to the blonde beauty whom Darcy found to be, unquestionably, the handsomest lady in the room.
Darcy tried to summon a smile in response to his friend's easy sociability but was far too unhinged to succeed in the maneuver. From the moment the Netherfield party made their entrance he could not help but be acutely aware of the familiar buzz that filled the attentive room as Meryton assessed the newcomers. Though he strove to be oblivious as rumor of his income spread through the crowd, the astute observer could clearly perceive the tinge of discomfiture that disfigured his handsome face. No deep observation was required on his part to immediately discern who amongst the strangers surrounding him was privy to the gossip and who remained in ignorance: their overly attentive demeanors told all. He cursed inside. Nothing put him more out of countenance than fawning sycophants and he was displeased to observe that this neighborhood, in which he had unaccountably found himself, had an ample supply. Almost always, except in very elite circles, Darcy felt isolated by his wealth. And when he was amongst his financial equals he felt equally isolated by his values and intelligence as, unfortunately, fortunes were frequently inherited by those of less than stellar abilities. Darcy suffered nearly perpetual discomfort in society but on the evening in question, amongst those he did not know, geniality was proving a particular trial.
Between the songs of the set Bingley sought out his visibly disconcerted friend in the kindhearted, if misguided, hope of admonishing him into ease. “Come Darcy,” he said jovially, “I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance.”
“I certainly shall not,” Darcy replied emphatically. “You know how I detest it unless I'm particularly acquainted with my partner. At an assembly such as this, it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged and there is not another woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with.” He suppressed a shudder at the notion.
“I would not be so fastidious as you are for a kingdom!” Bingley cried in amusement, both at the irony of his statement, for never was he near as fastidious as Darcy, and at his friend's predictably taciturn behavior. “Upon my honor I never saw so many pleasant girls in my life as I have this evening and there are several of them you see uncommonly pretty.”
“You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room,” Darcy declared with a glance in her direction. Inwardly he acknowledged that she was nearly the only woman he could remember noticing at all, so preoccupied was he with his own awkward predicament.
“Oh she is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld! But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you.”
“Which do you mean?” and turning around, Darcy saw a dark haired woman, of shorter stature than her sister, just perceptively tapping her foot in time to the music as she watched the dancers. She did not possess the impressive beauty of her sister, yet his quick mind was struck by the cheerful liveliness of her appearance. This lady did not pine over sitting out the set, sulking like so many women he had observed. No indeed – rather than languishing she displayed an easy pleasure in her surroundings and a generous goodwill towards those enjoying the dance. Darcy wished he could be so content, so able to relish his chosen role of spectator. He knew it to be the safest place for him. Were he to seek an introduction at this juncture it would, undoubtedly, incite unwelcome attention and gossip while forcing him to indulge in idle conversation with a young lady whose companionship surely must be intolerable. Why should he subject himself to such atrocities? A dance was entirely unthinkable. He moved to turn back round in order to give Bingley a decidedly negative response to his proposal when the lady's eyes locked on his and he realized, with a great deal of horrified mortification, that she had obviously overheard Bingley's idiotic suggestion!
She gave him a knowing look – he could almost read her thoughts: “Well sir? Would you deem my company insupportable?” There was no denying the challenge implied in the raised brow: she was clearly calling him out. Was retreat possible for a man such as he? To not step forward now would be ungentlemanly, an insult to what he must admit to be an intriguing young lady – unthinkable! If there was anything certain to overcome Darcy's timidity it was the need to always uphold the dictates of etiquette. Why else would he have come to this unfortunate assembly in the first place? He was a Darcy of Pemberley after all, descendant of some of the oldest families in England, nephew to the Earl of _________. He had the honor of his name to uphold; it didn't matter if it meant attending an assembly with his host or preventing the infliction of an insult upon a lady, he would fulfill his duty.
“Very well Bingley. If your partner would be so kind, I would be happy to make the acquaintance of her sister.”
Elizabeth Bennet was, to put it rather mildly, surprised when approached by the intriguing and handsome Mr. Darcy. Rumor had it he was among the wealthiest gentlemen in the land and was, to all appearances, extremely displeased with his provincial company and unlikely to oblige anyone with his attention. She had indeed overheard his conversation with Mr. Bingley and smilingly seethed at the man's dismissive manners. She prepared herself for what she perceived as the inevitable blow of rejection by lifting her chin, directing her gaze, and embracing a satirical perspective on the reticent gentleman. If nothing else, experience told her that such impertinence would readily drive off even willing partners, not draw them to her side. For a moment their eyes met but she failed to catch Mr. Darcy's response to his friend. Assuming it was not in her favor, she returned her regard to the dance. But here was an uncanny circumstance! For suddenly there he was, presented to her with all due ceremony by her sister Jane, “My dear Elizabeth, may I present Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. Mr. Darcy, this is my sister, Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”
“Miss Elizabeth,” he began smoothly, if quietly, “it is a pleasure.”
“The pleasure is mine Mr. Darcy.” She curtsied prettily.
“Are you available for the next set? I would be honored if you would grant me your hand.”
“Certainly sir. I am indeed available.”
Darcy released the breath he had been holding, unobserved of course. The worst was over: the introduction made. He bowed and retreated from further conversation, waiting nervously for the dance to commence and praying it would not prove too tedious a trial to bear.
Elizabeth pulled Jane aside. “Did Mr. Darcy request this introduction or has his fine friend coerced him into it?” she eagerly inquired.
“Of course not Lizzy! Mr. Bingley assures me Mr. Darcy is everything amiable, only it seems he is a bit timid in a crowd.”
“Why should such a man as he be ill-qualified to recommend himself to strangers?”
Jane gazed at her sister, imploring her to be kind to Mr. Bingley's friend.
“Very well,” Elizabeth responded to the silent request. “He is decidedly handsome. I shall not be such a simpleton as to allow myself to appear unpleasant to a man of such consequence.”
The ladies would have enjoyed laughing at this characteristic retort of Elizabeth's had not the next set begun to form and their partners presented themselves. Mr. Darcy braced himself against the curious stares of onlookers as he led Miss Elizabeth to the floor, but he could not ignore the hum of speculation as Meryton stood in wonder at the withdrawn stranger's singling out of the second daughter of Longbourn. He focused on this lady as the dance commenced, hoping to block out both his discomfort and the gossiping company.
In this endeavor Darcy found himself surprisingly successful. In Elizabeth's eyes he recognized a calm acceptance of his attentions, not the flirtatious idiocy with which he was so often confronted on the dance floor. She smiled becomingly in response to his gaze but seemed, having completed the basic preliminaries, not inclined towards conversation. Despite his instincts, Darcy actually forgot himself a bit and relished the rare pleasure of enjoying a dance: be assured – a most unusual occurrence.
Elizabeth noticed her companion's discomfort as they took to the floor and began to feel some pity for him, struggling as he was to conceal his vexation with the poorly concealed murmurs of her neighbors. Certainly this was not a man made smug by his position – rarely had she encountered anyone so ill at ease. Remembering her promise to make herself agreeable, she thought to initiate conversation but could not escape her own thoughts long enough to proceed. As he silently but expertly led her through the dance, she regretted the part she played in unwittingly provoking him into an uncomfortable situation. If only she had been less proud in her response to the overheard conversation – she was, after all, an eavesdropper, though be it an unwilling one, and thus deserved to hear something unflattering to herself. Yet it seemed that instead of being appropriately knocked down by her transgression, she was instead the subject of all her neighbors envy! The least she could do in return for such felicitous entertainment was not to torture the man with idle conversation. And so she never attempted it; they danced in a mutual and agreeable hush.
It did not escape Darcy that, though he could relish a silent dance, his partner might take offense at his total lack of conversation. As the first song ended he gathered himself to the task of making a rather mundane comment on the performance of the dance. Miss Elizabeth responded only vaguely, as befit the statement, finding that even with her rather extensive communication skills she was at a loss for a retort to such insipidly polite conversation. Mr. Darcy winced. He could only imagine how turgid he must appear to this attractive young woman, she who had been kind enough not to overwhelm him with just such humdrum chatter as he had been blubbering. Struggling for a smile, he strove to redeem himself, “It is your turn to say something Miss Elizabeth. I talked of the dance, now you ought to remark on the number of couples.”
Completely surprised that the quiet man could suddenly prove witty, Elizabeth smiled back and said with an arch look, “What do you think of books?”
“Delightful,“ he replied, suddenly feeling more composed, “much better than the usual ballroom conversations. Shall we pursue Richardson? He is a favorite of mine. But perhaps Shakespeare is more appropriate to the occasion?”
Elizabeth, though noting with approval her partner's literary taste, could not resist making a mischievous retort. “As you like, sir,” she challenged, “though acknowledging that 'brevity is the soul of wit,' perhaps I should execute mine by continuing to hold my tongue.”
Perish the thought! It became him to concede, “If the Bard himself can be harnessed towards such an unfortunate end, Miss Elizabeth, we really must abandon the topic of books altogether.” Elizabeth – it was a name he had always favored and enjoyed using it. How fortunate that she was a younger sister! They must not continue in silence now. “Having already covered the dance, what is there left we can discuss but the weather? Perhaps our health?” Darcy almost laughed at his own jest, so much was he enjoying the novelty of playing interrogator as, typically, his statements were intended to block conversation, not encourage it. But he was soon to discover that novelty is very short lived, if not regretted, as the dancer's roles reversed with Elizabeth's mischievous response: “Do you talk by rule then, when dancing?”
“Obviously not!” he emphatically thought. But who could not be astonishingly intrigued by the humorous glint in what he now recognized as a set of extraordinarily fine, dark eyes? Quite unthinkingly and totally unlike himself, he admitted, “As our dance has amply demonstrated, most certainly not!” They both laughingly accepted the evident truth of this statement.
“Did I just make a joke at my own expense?” Darcy wondered in amazement. Even more striking was that he found himself unconcerned by the self-inflicted jab, so comfortable was he with this lady he had only just met. Befuddling really, when so many women he had known for years continued to make him uncomfortable – Bingley's sister Caroline amongst them. He found his partner's next comment, calculated in kindness to sooth any blow to his dignity, terribly gratifying, “Sometimes a silent dance, well executed of course, can prove far more satisfying than one marked by the strain of broken small talk.”
“Indeed. Perhaps that is why society was wise enough not to be too stringent in its regulation of this area. Now that we have canvassed the topics allowed us we may happily forgo all further pleasantries, should we so choose.” Though they grinned at each other in amusement, neither wished to pursue such a course. They parted in the dance.
Elizabeth was greatly enjoying herself. Not only did she appreciate the blessing of a graceful dance partner but also the gratification of vanity in receiving such flattering attention from the most distinguished quarter she had ever encountered. But her happiness was threatened when, just as she regained her partner, she observed over his shoulder her mother, from the far side of the crowded room, determinedly striding towards the dance floor with their neighbor, Lady Lucas, in tow. The ladies positioned themselves near the dancers and proceeded to whisper furiously to one another – little doubt did Elizabeth have as to the nature of this conversation. For as long as she could remember, her mother had spoken of none but two topics: her nerves and the disposal of daughters. That the eyes of Mr. Darcy, a single man of immensely large fortune, should fall upon herself was certainly propelling both topics to new heights of interest for Mrs. Bennet.