Suspense and Sensibility
Or, First Impressions Revisited
By Carrie Bebris
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2005 Carrie Bebris
All rights reserved.
"If any young men come for Mary or Kitty, send them in, for I am quite at leisure."
— Mr. Bennet to Elizabeth, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 59
Elizabeth Bennet Darcy tried very hard to concentrate on the letter in her hand, but the intrusion of her own thoughts conspired with the fine prospect outside her window to distract her.
When the post arrived, she had withdrawn to her favorite sitting room at Pemberley. Such had become her morning custom in her few months as mistress of the house. The room, she understood, had also been a favorite of her husband's mother, and Elizabeth suspected the late Mrs. Darcy had shared her opinion that it offered a view of the river and valley superior to any other in the house. Today, though patches of snow stubbornly resisted the caress of the late winter sun, the smell of damp earth nevertheless carried the promise of spring.
Fitzwilliam Darcy's ancestral house bore the imprint of so many generations that Elizabeth had not yet found her place here. Home was anywhere her husband was, and Darcy had done much to ease her way, but the greatness of his estate required her adjustment. She did not want to depart Pemberley before she truly felt settled. But family duty beckoned, and they were obliged to answer.
She left the window, returned to her desk, and read once more the cross-written, blotted lines. As she contemplated her response, Darcy entered. His tailcoat, leather breeches, and top boots indicated his intent to go riding.
"Good morning, again." Darcy kissed her cheek. "I came to invite you for an airing."
She set aside the letter with a heavy sigh.
A frown creased his forehead. "Perhaps instead I should enquire what I have done to merit such a reception? I realize riding was never your favorite pastime, but I do not recall your ever greeting the suggestion with despondency before."
"It is not your invitation that dismays me." Under her husband's influence, she'd developed greater interest in riding, though in truth, it was the company more than the activity that appealed to her. She looked up into his face and smiled wistfully. "I am afraid, sir, that you have committed crimes of a more grievous nature."
"Indeed?" He set down his hat and leaned against the edge of her desk. "Name the offenses."
"Like a nursery-tale knave, you have carried me off to your secluded castle and kept me to yourself for nigh on three months, with no thought of returning me to the companionship of my family."
"Are you not enjoying our privacy at Pemberley?"
"I did not say I was the one harboring objections."
After the turbulent events that had marked the first few weeks of their marriage, Elizabeth and Darcy had both relished their retreat to Derbyshire. As Darcy's seventeen-year-old sister, Georgiana, was the only other resident of Pemberley, they'd enjoyed a quiet transition to married life. Now that March had begun, however, their idyllic sequestered state seemed destined to end as society made its claims upon them. "Do you think my equestrian skills can bear the intense scrutiny of a trot through Hyde Park?" she asked.
"Where London society rides to be seen?"
He tactfully avoided further response to her query, but his silence formed reply enough. She arched her brows, merrily daring him to put his thoughts into words.
He cleared his throat. "Perhaps it is best that we have no plans to visit town any time soon."
She laughed. "You know that you need not spare my vanity. I harbor no illusions about the quality of my horsemanship — my goal on any outing is simply to sit a mount without embarrassing myself." She gestured toward the letter. "Unfortunately, our rides may indeed take place on Rotten Row in the near future. I have received another note from my mother this morning. She reminds me again what a wonderful thing it would be for us to sponsor a London season for Kitty."
"Have not Jane and Bingley already committed themselves to that noble cause?"
"Mama now fears that, given Jane's delicate state of health, the excitement of escorting our sister to balls and concerts might overtax her."
"But the Bingleys do not anticipate their new arrival until September."
"Surely you cannot seriously expect my mother to defer the pleasure of fretting over Jane's condition? She has but six months remaining in which to describe her anxiety to all her acquaintance."
"Ah, yes — I had forgotten about her nerves."
"My father would envy you, for I am sure he is continually reminded of them." Elizabeth suspected her father spent a good deal of time in his library of late to minimize the reports of her mother's daily visits to Jane. Mr. Bennet cared about his eldest daughter, of course, but didn't require updates as detailed or as frequent as those Mrs. Bennet was inspired to provide. Simply show him a healthy grandchild and safe new mother at the end of it all, and he would be satisfied. "Perhaps we ought to take pity on him and invite him to London along with Kitty."
"You have agreed to this scheme regarding Kitty, then? When did you intend to tell me?"
"I have agreed to nothing yet. You know I would much rather remain here at Pemberley with you than leap into the social whirl of town —"
"But Kitty has been out for three years now, and Hertfordshire holds few prospects for her," he finished. "A London season would improve her chances of meeting an acceptable young man."
"Precisely. And it sounds as if Jane has her hands full enough dealing with my mother. Besides, you know how disposed Jane and Bingley are to always think the best of everyone. When it comes to assessing potential suitors, you and I would prove more discerning chaperones for Kitty."
"True." Darcy's face clouded.
She knew he thought of Bingley's sister Caroline, whose own recent courtship could have profited from greater vigilance. She attempted to divert his musings. "Georgiana would benefit, as well."
"You wish to marry off my sister along with yours this season?"
"Only if she herself wishes it." Georgiana, unlike Kitty, possessed an inheritance sizable enough to grant her comfortable independence should she choose never to wed. "I meant that she might enjoy Kitty's companionship since they are so close in age."
He leaned over to drop a light kiss on her forehead. "Write to your sister. Shall we invite Mary, too, while we are about it? Complete our whole family's husband-hunting at once?"
"I shall ask her, but I doubt she will accept." Elizabeth's other unmarried sister, critical of the frivolity of society's elite ton, had already expressed disdain for the whole enterprise.
"Besides," she added, dipping her pen, "if all five of us sisters married within a twelvemonth of each other, my mother's joy would be too great for anyone to bear."
His person and air were equal to what her fancy had ever drawn for the hero of a favorite story.
— Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 9
"Will there be any eligible barons there, do you think?" Kitty, the comb in her hand all but forgotten, gazed expectantly at Elizabeth in the dressing table mirror. "Or an earl? No — a duke! I would so love to meet a duke tonight! Might one be there?"
"I daresay there might. But mind, you shall not speak to any gentleman to whom you have not been properly introduced."
"Of course, Lizzy, of course. But Mr. Darcy knows everybody, doesn't he? Surely he must know a duke or two."
In truth, Elizabeth was not at all certain who would be present tonight or how many people Darcy might know. They were engaged to attend a party at the home of some new acquaintances, Sir John and Lady Middleton. "Mr. Darcy does not know everybody. Why, he met Sir John only this week, and they have been members of the same club for years."
"Oh, where is the maid? We'll be late if she doesn't dress my hair soon!"
"She is still ironing your gown." Elizabeth pitied her lady's maid, so intense was Kitty's excitement this first week of her first London season. Her sister hadn't been demanding in an imperious sort of way, so much as desperately afraid of missing something if she paused a moment to catch her breath. But the servant had borne Kitty's flurry with patience and good humor. "If you had not changed your mind so many times about what to wear, we would not be in danger of arriving late."
Three dresses, donned and discarded, lay on the bed. Pink had given way to white, then lavender, before blue was determined the most flattering. Kitty regarded the rejects dubiously. "Perhaps the lavender after all —"
A gentle knock on the door interrupted them. Georgiana entered, fetchingly attired in a dark green tunic over a white gown trimmed with gold ribbons. Kitty gasped.
"Oh, dear! My blue gown has gold ribbons!"
"I shall change," Georgiana offered.
"No, no — you are already dressed." Kitty bit her lower lip and considered once more the pile of cast-off silk and lawn. "I will wear the pink instead."
"The pink is most becoming," Georgiana said. "I think it is my favorite of yours."
The suggestion carried: Pink was now the gown of choice. Darcy's even-tempered sister had a soothing effect on Kitty, for which Elizabeth was grateful. Perhaps Georgiana's presence would also spare the maid the trial of every hair ornament in Kitty's jewelry box before they could depart.
Elizabeth left the younger girls and withdrew to enjoy a few moments' peace in anticipation of the evening ahead. At her own dressing table, she tested her headdress to ensure it was secure, then slipped on her gloves and went in search of Darcy. She found him in the hall, hat in hand and wearing his greatcoat. He glanced at the tall case clock, whose hands indicated that the Middletons' soiree had already begun.
"Is your sister ready?" he enquired.
"Not yet. She was having a gown crisis, but I think disaster has been averted."
A look of concern crossed his countenance. "Your mother provided her with numerous new gowns for the season. What misfortune befell them?"
"The unknown preferences of a duke."
Concern gave way to confusion. "Which duke?"
"Any duke. She has high hopes of meeting an unattached peer tonight and turning his head. All chance of her future happiness, therefore, now rests entirely on several yards of pink silk and lace trim."
"I pray they are up to the charge." He looked again at the clock, then cast an impatient glance toward the staircase. "She shall not meet anyone if we never leave our own townhouse."
"The soirée will last for hours, and I am certain we will not be the only guests to arrive late. Most of the ton does not share your strict definition of punctuality."
"They might form a more tolerable group if they did."
"But then who would take note of them? One cannot make a grand entrance to an empty room."
"Precisely why I prefer to arrive in a timely manner, before an affair becomes crowded."
Her husband, she knew, did not care to draw attention to himself, nor to endure the tiresome company of those who did. He favored small gatherings of intimate friends over large assemblies of near-strangers, intelligent conversation over mindless gabble. His willingness, therefore, to sponsor Kitty for a full London season demonstrated affection for Elizabeth surpassing any that mere diamonds or other baubles could represent.
Tonight's event, she suspected, would be just the sort of crush Darcy dreaded. She'd heard that the Middletons' parties were always crowded affairs, the length of the guest list inspired more by the baronet's gregarious nature than a realistic understanding of how many people his rooms could comfortably accommodate. Sir John, who had eight children of his own, took great pleasure in gathering young people together and wanted to include everybody in everything. Upon meeting Darcy and learning that he and Elizabeth had two young ladies in their charge, the baronet had insisted that the four of them attend Lady Middleton's soirée.
She wondered whether Darcy realized what he had gotten himself into by accepting the invitation. "Have you any idea how many guests the Middletons expect?"
"Sir John called tonight's party a small get-together, so I anticipate a pleasant evening."
She wrestled a few moments with her conscience over whether to warn him of the probable scene ahead, but decided against spoiling his night any sooner than necessary. "Did Sir John say whether his eldest sons would be there?" The Middletons had two sons in their early twenties — John, named after his father, and William.
"They will. They have no titles, however — will Kitty still wish to meet them?"
"Kitty wants to meet every eligible young gentleman in attendance."
He regarded her warily. "Elizabeth, I trust your sister will comport herself in a dignified manner?"
"Of course she shall." She prayed.
Since the elopement of their youngest sister, Lydia, last August, Elizabeth and Jane had worked hard to curb Kitty's more foolish tendencies and check the undisciplined behavior in which she'd been allowed to indulge with Lydia. Kitty now, her sisters hoped, comprehended the difference between cream-pot love and genuine regard, and understood that genteel conduct solicited more respectable attention from gentlemen than did brazen flirtation.
"Kitty has learned from Lydia's poor judgment, and benefits from the steadier influence of our company," Elizabeth added. "Sometimes entire weeks pass without a single mention of officers or red coats."
"Yes, it seems she has moved on to dukes."
"You cannot fault her for harboring the same aspirations as every other young lady in town." A servant arrived with Elizabeth's wrap and helped her drape it over her arms.
"Georgiana anticipates the evening more soberly."
"Your sister has experienced previous London seasons, so the prospect of a society affair does not hold the novelty it does for Kitty. Yet despite her natural reserve, I believe Georgiana, too, looks forward to increasing her limited acquaintance this evening."
"Her present circle is quite large enough."
"Darcy, you have shielded Georgiana from the fashionable world since the day she came out. You cannot sequester her forever."
He turned, avoiding her gaze by inspecting his appearance in the trumeau mirror. "I do nothing of the sort."
Behind him, she raised a brow. He saw the accusation in her reflection.
"I merely restrict her exposure to men whose motives or merit I question," he clarified, setting his hat down on the table to adjust the shoulders of his coat.
"That is to say, any men at all."
He faced her and shrugged. "Am I to blame if all the gentlemen one encounters these days are rowdies who lack purpose? Or worse — rakes and rogues who engage in less than noble behavior?"
She sighed, knowing that a single conversation could not surmount Darcy's natural protective instincts toward his sister, nor his self-reproach for what he considered an inexcusable failure of watchfulness on his part. When Georgiana was but fifteen, even before she was officially out in society, she'd almost eloped with a fortune hunter — the same ne'erdo-well who had eventually seduced Lydia. That another, more sophisticated friend of theirs recently had been similarly deceived by another "gentleman" only increased his mistrust.
"Not every potential suitor is a secret scoundrel, Darcy. Honorable men yet exist."
"I should like to know where." Though he spoke lightly, she could read disillusionment in his eyes.
"I found one."
She crossed to the table, lifted his hat, and placed it on his head. As she met his gaze, she offered a playful smile. "Unless you really married me for my vast fortune?"
"Nay," he said, taking her hands in his as she lowered them.
"My superior connections?"
"Mistaken again." He held her gaze and returned her impish grin. "In fact, I believe it was you who drew in me."
"Indeed? I had no notion of my own talent for scheming. To what do I owe my success?"
"Your honeyed tongue. Who could resist being told that he was full of arrogance, conceit, and selfishness? Or that he was the last man in the world whom you could ever be prevailed upon to marry?"
"With enticements like that, you must have wondered that no one had whisked me to the altar already." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Suspense and Sensibility by Carrie Bebris. Copyright © 2005 Carrie Bebris. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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