This scene of the Bennet girls calling on the Bingley sisters for tea didn’t make the final cut into Fallen. I wrote it to demonstrate how the relationship between Darcy and the Bingleys is ‘the-same-but-not-quite-the-same’ as we’re used to seeing in Pride and Prejudice. Their ‘closed ranks’ superiority is heightened, whilst at the same time, the tension between them all is more pronounced, and it is this which intrigues the observant Elizabeth Bennet from the start as she attempts to put her finger on what is going on behind the scenes at Netherfield Park.
“Move over, Mary, you are taking up half the seat.” This demand was accompanied by a determined shove as Lydia shouldered her sister into the corner of the carriage.
“I am taking up no more room than you!”
“For heaven’s sake, put your book down.” Mrs Bennet gave Mary no time to object—only snatched the offending article from her grip, snapped it closed and thrust it back towards her. “There is not enough room for you to sit with your elbows sticking out every which way.”
Lydia sent Mary a look of triumph; Elizabeth sent Lydia one of disapproval that was returned with a loud sigh and theatrical eyeroll. She turned away to look out of the window, wishing she had insisted upon walking, for so many Bennet women in such a confined space was making even the short drive to Netherfield arduous.
Several coos arose when the house came into view. Elizabeth had glimpsed it many times over the last few years, but as neither her mother nor any of her sisters shared her love for walking, this was their first sight of it since the Connellys gave up the place. Nobody had been inside since then, and Elizabeth could not help but be impressed by what she saw as they were shown through to the saloon, for she had forgotten quite how grand the house was. Her interest in the proportions of the rooms was not equal to her curiosity about the people occupying them, however, and while Mrs Bennet craned her neck to admire the gilt cornices, Elizabeth watched closely to see how they were received by the ladies of the house.
With dismay bordering on alarm was how, if she did not mistake the fleeting look Miss Bingley sent her sister, Mrs Hurst, and the disdainful twitch that pulled at her top lip until it stretched into a tight smile. “How good of you to call, Mrs Bennet,” she lady said. “And so soon after we saw you at the assembly.”
Mrs Bennet—from whom Jane had inherited her propensity to always see the good in people, and Elizabeth her propensity to always assume people would see the good in her—smiled unquestioningly. “That is precisely as we thought, Miss Bingley, for though we were enchanted to make your acquaintance on Saturday, there is never much opportunity to talk at a dance,”—Elizabeth dipped her head to hide a smile, fancying her mother had never suffered any such impediment—“and we wished to make certain you knew how welcome you are to the neighbourhood.” As though to ensure they never left it, Mrs Bennet anchored herself, without being invited to, on the nearest sofa. Her youngest three daughters followed suit, dropping onto various pieces of furniture around the room until only Jane and Elizabeth remained standing.
Miss Bingley’s chest swelled with indignation.
“Are you finding the country to your liking?” Elizabeth enquired to distract her from her pique.
“We are not yet much acquainted with the area, so it is difficult to say. Will you not sit down, Miss Elizabeth? Miss Bennet? You may as well now.”
Elizabeth inclined her head and lowered herself into the nearest seat, as did Jane and then Mrs Hurst. Miss Bingley remained standing.
With seamless grace and a little assistance from Elizabeth, Jane turned the indelicate beginning into a genteel discussion of Hertfordshire’s merits. Mrs Bennet only occasionally contributed; Mary, Kitty and Lydia not at all; thus, the conversation had begun to show real promise of becoming agreeable to all when the door burst open and Mr Bingley strode into the room, looking for all the world as though he had thought it was on fire and he was the man to put it out.
“Ah! Caroline! I heard we had guests, and…well, I…I thought you might need me to…that is, I was worried you would, ah…Good day, Miss Bennet. And Mrs Bennet. And Miss…Good day to you all.”
Elizabeth could not be happier for Jane, whose presence had almost certainly induced this hasty and tongue-tied arrival. Why Mr Darcy had thought it necessary to come was less clear. He walked into the room more sedately than his friend, glowering at everybody present, less as though he meant to extinguish a blaze and more as though to determine who started it. She was still delighting in his supercilious nonsense when his sweeping gaze reached her, and she took some pleasure in his obvious surprise at having been observed in his scrutiny of the room. She made no attempt to disguise the fact that she was diverted and instead raised an eyebrow by the smallest increment—I know what you are about, sir!—then turned to join the conversation that had sprung up amongst the others.
“Aye, there is a dance every month at the assembly rooms,” Jane was telling Mr Bingley.
“Though, you must not concern yourself that you will have to wait that long to dance again with Jane,” Mrs Bennet informed him. “There are forever impromptu little reels being danced at the sorts of parties we attend.”
Elizabeth cringed inwardly, which turned out to be an unnecessary precaution, for Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst both did so outwardly.
Mr Bingley either did not share his sisters’ disdain for ungarnished country amusements or was too gallant to show it. “How merry and uncontrived all your gatherings must be. I am impatient to experience one for myself.”
“Then I hope you will agree to dine with us on Tuesday, sir. We shall send a card, of course. I hope you will come, for if it is lively and informal that pleases you, then I think you will like Longbourn very well indeed.”
Elizabeth’s increasingly good opinion of Mr Bingley was bettered further still when he gave no indication of being put off by this and accepted on behalf of his entire party. She glanced at Mr Darcy to determine how deeply the prospect appalled him and caught sight of Miss Bingley sending a most expressive look in the same direction—one that seemed to beg him to extricate them from the engagement. Elizabeth did not think he could have missed it, for Miss Bingley was directly in his line of sight, yet rather than acknowledging her, Mr Darcy turned away to look out of the window. It was an exchange by which Elizabeth was uncharitably diverted. Jane had reported to them all a remark Miss Bingley had made that while Mr Darcy rarely spoke among strangers, he was remarkably agreeable among his intimate acquaintance. Not so very agreeable, it seems, she thought. Or so very intimate. Poor Miss Bingley!
“Have you had the opportunity for much sport since you arrived?” enquired Mrs Bennet, never one to let a conversation lapse long enough for anybody to grow complacent.
“Not as much as my brother would like,” Mr Bingley replied amiably.
“We thought you might be shooting today,” Jane said with a smile that Elizabeth fancied must signal to everybody her pleasure that he was not.
“We would have been, had we known the weather would be so clement. Alas, we went out yesterday—in the rain—and we have to constrain ourselves to one shoot a week else Darcy will kill every bird on the estate before Michaelmas.” He leant forwards and whispered theatrically, “There is such a thing as being too good an aim.”
“How good of you to be the one to make the sacrifice,” Elizabeth remarked. “I might be more inclined to enjoy the sport whenever I chose and ask my friend to curb his efficiency.”
“We could hardly expect Mr Darcy to shoot fewer birds simply because Charles does not aim as well,” Miss Bingley interjected. “We should as soon ask Mr Hurst to win fewer hands at cards because none of us play as well as he.”
“Or you to buy fewer dresses, though you do look better than I in all of them,” Mr Bingley said to her over his shoulder.
Try as she might, Elizabeth could not fully repress a laugh; it bubbled up and caught in her throat just loudly enough to draw notice. She made a more concerted effort to conceal her amusement when Jane cast her a beseeching look, though she did not truly believe she had done much damage until she noticed Mr Darcy was glowering at her again. She bit her lips together to banish her smile and resolved to be sensible for the remainder of the visit.
“Well, that went well, did it not, girls?” Mrs Bennet said as their carriage pulled away. Then her expression soured. “Though Lizzy must learn not run on at people the way she does.”
“She was only being polite, Mama,” Jane protested.
“No, no she was not!” Mrs Bennet tossed a vexed glanced at Elizabeth. “She was being clever, as she always has to be. Well I beg you would stop being clever, Miss Lizzy, until your sister is engaged. Then you may run on at everybody to your heart’s content.”
“Why, thank you, Mama. I am not sure there is any logic to your hope that my being stupid will increase Jane’s chances of falling in love, but if you are convinced it will help then you may count on my obedience.”
This answer pleased her mother not at all, but Jane laughed more easily than she usually would have, convincing Elizabeth that the visit truly had gone well, and delighting her enough that she did not object once to Mary’s elbowing her in the ribs all the way home.