The Adventures of Cassandra--Section II
Chapter 6 B
Posted on Friday, 3 July 1998
The two families were well-engaged in conversation when Rachel startled them with a light cry which was immediately followed by the appearance of the gentleman who had excited the shriek, the colonel himself. "Hello, Mr. Beaumaris! Darcy, why didn't you tell me these lovely ladies were arrived!" He held out his hand to them all with a charming affability, and was rewarded with smiles all around, and an especially broad grin from Miss DuBarry.
"Indeed, sir, we thought you were too occupied at present with the other lovely ladies you were conversing with when we entered to be bothered by ourselves," responded Arabella coyly. Colonel Fitzwilliam recollected himself, said, "But Darcy, have you not introduced your guests? You're being a bit slow on the out-and-out tonight!"
"Indeed, Fitzwilliam," said Darcy imperturbably, with a velvet baritone that far surpassed any deep throated utterances of Colin Firth, as it had the infinitely superior attraction of reminding Cassie of Sir Larry himself, "I was on the verge of requesting the honour of introducing Mrs. Beaumaris to my friends. If you will allow me, madam?" She nodded, and upon the approach of one of the ladies and one of the gentlemen they had noticed earlier, Mr. Darcy calmly introduced the family of Beaumaris to Mr. Charles Bingley and his sister Miss Bingley.
Bingley was as expected, all cheerfulness and good will, and Cassandra found him approximately to look the part of the man she had pictured, fair-haired, boyishly attractive, and just the tiniest bit foppish---all in all, a very good impression, even if she hadn't been predisposed to like him. But his sister...all Cassandra's gay spirits wilted momentarily at the recognition of Caroline Bingley. Hateful woman! As she came to stand beside Darcy, even the stance of her skinny, bony figure indicated her possessiveness, and the smile on her face was one of thinly veiled superciliousness as she remarked, "Some more of your charming country friends, Mr. Darcy?"
Darcy's countenance registered brief but acute impatience, and he cast Mr. Beaumaris half a look, as if to say, Do you see why I delayed the introduction? "Indeed, Caroline, you are correct---the Beaumaris are long established at Ballyshear, Mr. Beaumaris, if you will recall, is the famed Nonpareil of some years past---his wife the former Miss Tallant."
At the mention of Ballyshear, the smirk on Caroline's lips vanished into something much more like absolute mortification. It was a sight so unexpected on her hard features that Cassandra was again forced to stifle a laugh. Her amusement increased when Miss Bingley instantly responded, a gracious smile spreading across her face, "Of course! How forgetful I am---do forgive me, dear Mrs. Beaumaris, I trust you and your family are in good spirits and excellent health?"
Arabella had been observing the change of manner in her counterpart, and she was not impressed. "We are all quite well, I thank you," she replied coolly, "But then the fresh air of the country is so much more apt to do one good than the stifling, ill-humoured environment of the city." But then, emitting what purported to be a gasp of embarrassment, she added, "But you have just come from London, have you not, Miss Bingley?"
Cassandra nearly gaped. Arabella was mocking Caroline! How rich! How perfect! Her delight sparkled in her eyes, and she cast a quick glance at the girl beside her and saw that Georgianna was positively convulsing from the urge to dissolve into laughter. Darcy's lips contorted in one instant of surprise but he returned to stone immediately after; Mr. Beaumaris, who held his wife's arm, suddenly gripped it in a vise, and the colour steadfastly rose in Caroline's cheeks until she resembled a sanguine prune. "Why---yes," she stammered, "My brother and I have only just arrived to stay with the Darcys and the colonel. Charles, is not Mr. Darcy's hospitality overwhelming, to have so many guests at once stay at Pemberley?"
"Madam, I deserve not so much praise," replied Darcy blandly. "It is relatively little trouble to house the three of you, and I imagine you will readily agree Pemberley will handle the addition with no great expense."
Cassandra met his eyes with laughter in her own. 'Relatively little' was his way of expressing how great a burden it actually was to be in the same house with Caroline! "I don't know, Mr. Darcy," she interceded with a calm smile directed at the gentleman, "It seems fair to say your abilities as a host deserve as much recognition as your guests deserve for their merit in pleasing you." The undertone was not lost on him, and he returned her smile---at last! she was beginning to think she should have to pry his mouth open with a crowbar in order to exact anything other than the same grave countenance from him---with a soft upturning of his lips.
"Your talent for flattery serves you well, Miss Beaumaris," he responded. "You force me to offer my hand for the first set of dances, so that I may listen to all your charming discourses on my merits as a host." He spoke with decorum, but his eyes were truly full of interest, and his expression bordered on intrigue as he looked at her.
Her answer did not decrease his air of wonder, for, as she looked into his deep-set eyes, took a breath, and began to respond in the affirmative, it occurred to her---
She had not the least idea how to dance.
Her face paled, and her brain raced wildly through her knowledge of dances to see if any redeeming experience in how to perform a reel could be had in the recesses of her memory. None presented itself: her private school had offered dancing lessons, but it was shamefully lacking in the instruction of nineteenth century ballroom crazes! Should she stand up before them, she could not possibly know where to turn, how to go down the line, which partner to change hands with, what distance to keep between Fwood and herself---the epithet resurfaced and only increased her discomfort. What on earth could she do? Everyone expected her to open the first set with Darcy---it was practically a mandate! Alack the day---what to do, what to do, what to do?
She gathered her wits and released her breath in the stammer, "I...you must excuse me, sir, I have not the slightest inclination of dancing tonight. Please do not think that I spoke as I did in order to beg for a partner."
Her refusal shocked everyone within hearing distance, but it was Darcy's place to respond, a look of astonishment appearing briefly in his features, "You do not care for the pasttime, then?"
Instantly hope showed itself. Darcy disliked dancing. "Indeed, sir, I had so much of the sport in Paris that I quickly learned to find it tiresome. I find that one has so much more agreeable a time sitting on the side and watching the line than attempting to go down it oneself, while at the same time trying to become more acquainted with one's partner and hold a decent conversation all at once. Do not you find it rather troubling yourself?"
During this speech, her mother and father had exchanged glances of considerable astonishment. Since when had Cassandra ever expressed a disinclination to dance? Caroline and Charles shared looks of extreme surprise, and Miss Bingley's instantly dissolved into one of severe displeasure. If her family could feign ignorance of Miss Beaumaris' snub, she did not have that obligation. To think of anyone being so impertinent, so uncouth, as to refuse Mr. Darcy anything! Cassandra knew perfectly the thoughts her rival harboured, and she added an instant later, speaking to Darcy, with a glance at Miss Bingley, "But then, sir, you undoubtedly find yourself with such captivating partners that it is impossible for you not to find the event delightful."
Darcy, the only person present with whom her refusal had not injured her, conveyed his understanding with his eyes, as he firmly replied, "Not at all---truthfully, and Bingley may vouch for my sincerity, I find it to be an ordeal which I would ten times rather avoid then have the pleasure---however gratifying my partner might be---of standing up for twenty minutes doing nothing more lively than cavorting around in circles." Here he left off, aware that his intimate manner of speaking was perhaps too much so for his present company. The age-old acquaintance of the families was proof against any hint of impropriety, however, and, reassured, he continued, "In short, I thank you, for you have provided me with an excellent opportunity to swear off dancing for the remainder of the evening, and I entreat you to allow me to share the first set with you on the sidelines."
Cassie nearly swooned. "Of course, Mr. Darcy," she responded charmingly, "But I hope you will not deprive the ladies here of the honour of watching you stand up with someone whose grace does you credit. Surely you and Miss Bingley make fine partners?"
Caroline shot her a look which couldn't have been more pointed if she had rammed an icicle down Cassandra's throat. "I assure you, Mr. Darcy has never before been known to dislike dancing with myself or any other worthy young lady---" the 'worthy' being uttered with a bit too much vehemence---"but of course a man's tastes change with his environment."
Cassandra was too enraged to venture a comeback, and a fortunate thing it was that Bingley here inserted, his cheerful voice saving them all from instant discomfort, "Oh, Darcy always takes his pleasure in doing his duty, rather than in participating in anything for his own enjoyment. He'd sooner dance for the sake of propriety than sit out even if he felt unwell."
"Or refuse to dance for the sake of propriety," Caroline countered coldly. Before the gentleman could refute her statement she calmly took his arm and inquired whether he would make her known to the couple who had just entered? thereby forcing him to make his bow to the company and depart. Cassandra watched him stride away in vexation, elation, and a thousand other 'ions' that made her oblivious to the comment which was next directed at her, by Mr. Crawford. She found herself so unable to answer his parries at that particular moment that she failed altogether and turned abruptly away, looking for anywhere where she might go to collect her thoughts. Arabella, to her surprise and infinite gratitude, was immediately beside her.
"Shall we not go somewhere where we may freshen up, dearest?" she inquired innocently, but Cassandra, seeing the brilliant flash of her deep blue eyes, observed that there was method in her mother's madness of wanting to 'freshen up' barely fifteen minutes after they had arrived. Mrs. Beaumaris led Cassandra to an empty corner---for a room of such immense length and square structure it had altogether a good many corners, for people seem to be emerging from them in every direction---and sat her down on a long, high divan. "Cassandra Elizabeth Beaumaris!" she whispered fiercely as soon as she was able to speak privately. "Do you mean to tell me that you actually meant to refuse Mr. Darcy your hand at a dance being given in your honour?"
Cassie paled. "Indeed, I---I had not quite expected to be asked in such a manner," she faltered. "I thought it only right that I refuse him since he seem inclined to dislike the sport anyway, and was only favouring me with the request out of politeness."
"Ridiculous," scoffed Arabella. "You know everything Darcy does is out of politeness, just as Bingley said---you may not be so eager to refuse him when you discover how unlikely it is that he will ask you again."
"Why should it matter all that much?" cried Cassie, alarmed at Arabella's displeasure. "It's obvious he at leasts thinks well of me."
"Yes, but Cassie, you had absolutely no reason to refuse him just now unless you wanted to affront him."
"What? Affront Mr. Darcy?" Cassie asked in real horror at the thought; but then, a moment later, "I should think such a thing impossible according to Miss Bingley."
She could not have chosen a more suitable subject with which to distract her mother from the topic of her own dubious behaviour. "Oh! That horrid, horrid woman!" exclaimed Arabella, all her features clouding over with disdain. "Have you ever in your life seen any lady so---so rude, so proud, so haughty? Had she stayed in my presence any longer I daresay I'd've tweaked her nose." Cassandra laughed aloud. "Well, you undoubtedly saw how she clung to Darcy. And how she greeted us as though we were plebians simply because we happened to reside in the country---if she knew who Robert Beaumaris was---she would not have dared to insult the Nonpareil!"
Cassie saw that her mother was on the verge of becoming quite angry, so to redirect her thoughts she ventured, "Well, one thing at least we may hold over her head---Mr. Darcy all but said he did not enjoy dancing with her, and he would much rather sit on the side with me."
Arabella cast her daughter a glance of affection. "And do you really think, my love, that Mr. Darcy means to pay you such attention?"
"Why not?" smiled Cassandra. "After all, I am rich. I am a Beaumaris. I am passably alluring, thanks to your lovely necklace---" Arabella smiled as Cassie touched the stunning red stone around her throat--- "and I have an advantage over every woman in this room."
"Really. And what, pray tell, is that?"
Cassandra began to reply, thought better of it, and put her finger to her lips. "I," she said with an enigmatic smile, "am like nothing Mr. Darcy has ever known." And, leaving her mother to wonder what on earth had come over her dear, sweet Cassandra, Miss Beaumaris went to make the rounds of all the guests of the finest occasion Derbyshire had ever known.
Chapter 6 C
Posted on Tuesday, 7 July 1998
The moment Caroline had Darcy out of earshot her tirade, mixed as always with flattery, began. "Mr. Darcy, I must say that I had thought your tolerance beyond that of any man I knew; but tonight you have outdone yourself!"
"I do not know what you mean."
"Do you not?" asked Miss Bingley with a contemptuous lifting of her eyebrows in the general direction of the area they had just left. "Don't pretend not to be affronted by that girl. The audacity! Refuse to dance with her host simply because she did not feel an inclination! I expected you to bow and depart instantly, and leave her and her odious family to themselves, but to see how you bore it so admirably---you have my fullest congratulations. I could never have been so gracious in the face of such horrid lack of breeding."
"No, indeed; I expect you could not."
Some silence followed this terse statement; they stopped to greet a few newly-arrived guests, and Caroline had the immense dissatisfaction of noting that the latest arrivals, a Mrs. Constanza Waitcliff and her daughters, Gabriella and Kristen, were nothing more than ladies of Lambton, who claimed a long-standing relationship of Darcy's father with their own. They were hardly fit to be seen in respectable company, she reasoned, since it was obvious they had no livery of their own and had come in a neighbour's chaise. Darcy greeted them with a charming coolness which made the young ladies draw in their breath and convinced Miss Bingley that he had absolutely no idea how to ward off young would-be mistresses of Pemberley. She really must speak to him more about the danger of spending too much time in the company of these unscrupulous fortune hunters---the way he put up with their grovelling one would think he actually made no distinction between the most eligible ladies of London---the most distinguished being herself---and the impertinent nothings of the country!
She glanced again at Cassandra Beaumaris, who was conversing with Miss Darcy and Mr. Crawford, but who looked up just then to meet the cold eyes of her assailant and grin saucily at the latter's rigid insecurity. The most unprincipled, calculating of all, she thought venomously. Obviously Miss Beaumaris had more intelligence than most, for her trick of refusing to dance with Darcy had apparently made him more interested in her than he ever could have been otherwise. Yet Caroline could not hold her in contempt, and this was a thought which frightened her. Her parentage was as good as Darcy's, far better than Caroline's own---and her face, though Miss Bingley could never call it attractive, seemed to have a freshness, and her eyes a brightness that made Caroline uncomfortable. Miss Beaumaris was rich, lovely, young, and sophisticated---Caroline could not even ridicule her provincial manner, for she had been given a Paris education.
Darcy could almost see the uncharitable wheels turning in Miss Bingley's head as he spoke with Mrs. Waitcliff and her daughters, and he extended the conversation as long as possible solely out of the wish to avoid the one which must follow, for undoubtedly Caroline would have seized in the interim upon some new impertinence of Miss Beaumaris to elucidate and discuss for her own gratification. He was correct. "Mr. Darcy, are all of Derbyshire's inhabitants so charming? I declare I've never seen any party in my life so full of quaint gentility."
"You do not approve of my guests."
"On the contrary, sir, it is most amusing to watch the ladies fall over themselves for the chance to earn your favour."
"Rather they should have the advantage of earning mine than yours---else our balls here at Pemberley would be scant occasions, to say the least."
"Come now, Mr. Darcy, I do not disparage your taste, your own natural benevolence. But undoubtedly you find it more of a chore than a pleasure to submit to the constant and petty prattle of women who aspire to nothing better than your fortune."
Darcy cast her a speaking look, and replied coldly that she had read his thoughts perfectly. Satisfied that she held his confidence, and that he was exceedingly grateful for her presence among such insipidity, she began. "Tell me, sir, have the women of the Beaumaris family always expressed such outspoken views?"
"I have always held Mrs. Beaumaris to be a well-spoken, intelligent woman."
"They have lived in the country long?"
"Upon his marriage to Miss Tallant the Nonpareil bought the land upon which he erected Ballyshear, and they took over the residence some time afterwards, when the building was complete. I was eight years old, I believe."
"Miss Tallant. Certainly not a recognizable family name, as I'm aware."
"Mrs. Beaumaris is, I believe, of a very respectable parentage." The manner in which he spoke this was calculated to be a deterrent to any further questions, and was just the thing to invoke Caroline to a barrage of them.
"Indeed? So respectable that her family does not take a house in town? That her brothers and sisters are unheard of, that her mother and father are---who knows what? Come, Darcy, I will learn what does not want telling---Arabella Beaumaris is no gentlewoman."
"Not of fortune, granted. But she has had the good fortune to marry a gentleman of the highest standing and that must give her stature which does her own merit credit."
"You mean to say that she is a conniving, manipulative woman with just skill enough to trap a man of quality into an unequal marriage, and so little real character that she can only display her abilities here in the country. Doubtless she would be a disgrace to him in the city."
"I mean to imply nothing of the sort. I have known the Beaumaris all my life, and I can vouch both for the husband's being a gentleman of strong will and integrity, who would never be trapped into any kind of arrangement similar to what you imagine, and for Mrs. Beaumaris' being a lady of understanding and excellent breeding. She may not have had a fortune equal to his, perhaps, but I believe it was once understood that she was an heiress of considerable wealth, and upon marrying him her income was so engulfed by the size of his own, people began to speculate that she had been penniless. I assure you," he added coldly, "a closer acquaintance with them will teach you that she did not marry him for his money."
The look upon Miss Bingley's face did not convey her complete agreement. To her, it was apparent, Arabella's character was an open book---and that of her daughter's, even more easily read. "I hope for your sake, Mr. Darcy, that you are correct. I should hate to find a mendacious tendency in both mother and daughter."
"Cassandra Beaumaris is well-situated. Certainly, her qualities improve with age; she will not have to employ unscrupulous means to achieve a good marriage."
"Speak you so highly of her, after such a short acquaintance! Pray tell, when am I to wish you joy?"
"You mistake me, Miss Bingley. I speak only in fact what can be generally acknowledged. I have not the slightest desire of feeding her vanity by pretending to pay her attentions I do not feel." He prevented her saying more by continuing firmly, "If you will excuse me, I see my sister needs me." He left her, in rather an ill-humour, and she had only the vague satisfaction of having him declare no present interest in Cassandra Beaumaris, while speaking of her in such terms as could certainly bring about a change of opinion, if left to his own judgment.
Rachel DuBarry had Colonel Fitzwilliam all to herself in another corner, quite an accomplishment indeed, as he had been most unmercilessly swamped by the ladies since the moment of the party's inception. He was not altogether handsome, although Cassandra, mistaking him initially for his cousin, had been disposed to think him preeminently attractive; but there was a something about his air and the gracious smiles he presented to all present, far removed indeed from the faint upturnings of the lips with which, at very distant intervals, Darcy favoured his guests, which added to his appearance and more than made up for what was lacking thereof. Cassandra, upon comparing them, had been inclined to think a great deal similar in the personalities of the Colonel and Mr. Henry Crawford, and expected them to be very agreeably disposed towards one another. But they did not gratify her expectations: the two gentlemen met with cordiality, but spoke only briefly before pairing off with their respective, or at least immediate, interests, the colonel with the vivacious Miss DuBarry, Mr. Crawford with Miss Darcy.
"Your cousin seems to find our visitor tres aimable," remarked Miss DuBarry, studying the figure of Georgianna bending near the animated Henry Crawford.
"He seems a good sort of fellow. But I wonder at her being so...open."
"Oh! You men are always alarmed when a woman begins to come into her own. Oh, Colonel, you should be happy for her! She has always been such a shy thing, so timid. I could never understand it."
The Colonel, looking down at her in amusement, replied, "I can imagine that."
Rachel pouted at him in mock indignation, and responded, "Ah! Mechant! You think me very...oh, what is the word---"
"Flighty!" Colonel Fitzwilliam laughed out loud. "Admit it! You think that I care for only balls and flirting and being a silly young girl."
"I should never admit to thinking anything of the sort," was his reply.
"You think I am a very naive girl, to pretend to know so much about everything and everybody."
"You mean you were pretending?" he laughed.
"Oh! You are the most odious man---I shan't speak another word to you!"
"Ah, my deepest regrets, madame. It was such a brief pleasure." And he bowed and began to move away from her to another corner of the room.
"Where are you going?" she instantly demanded. "How dare you? Come back here, you have not been excused!" He turned back to her and met her flushed face, which was even as she spoke attempting to keep back a broad smile, with such a gaze of good humour that she could not help herself, and grinned up at him.
"But I thought I was to be in your ill graces for the remainder of the night."
"It is impossible for anyone to be angry with you, sir, you are too charming!"
"Charming, eh? Miss DuBarry, I warn you not to go too far with your compliments, or I shall run the risk of believing you, and then I shall become vain and all my charm shall leave me."
"Oh! Have no fear. If you wish someone to flatter you, you can go talk to Mme. Bingley."
"I think she is too busy paying her respects to my cousin to have any compliments left over for anyone else in the room."
"Oh, you think her unpleasant aussi? I am very glad of it, for I should not wish to offend you or Mssr. Darcy---Mssr. Bingley, I think, is a very good sort of man. But don't you think my cousin may hold a bit more interest for yours than Miss Bingley offers? He seemed to stare at her so when she met him!"
"Probably a natural response to the fact that she couldn't keep her eyes off of him," the Colonel responded dryly. "Miss Beaumaris is a beautiful lady, but I don't think her brand of charm sits well with Darcy."
"Sits well? You mean...he does not really mean to pay her any attention?"
"I...I can't say that he will or won't. He used to be so reserved himself he'd only look twice at any woman who was as aloof as he was. But lately he's seemed a bit more willing to change, to be himself among company. And she is rich, from an excellent family--Darcy worships her father."
"My uncle?" Rachel laughed. "I cannot see anyone worshiping my uncle.
"Why, I know Darcy looks up to him very much, and has always done so. He will be inclined to show his daughter some attention if only on Mr. Beaumaris' part."
"But don't tell that to Cassandra, s'il-vout plait! She would be madder than a---qu'est-ce-que c'est---a wet hen!---if she thought she was being flattered because of her money or her family."
And the Colonel archly assured her that Cassandra would never know.
Chapter 6 D
Posted on Tuesday, 7 July 1998
The moment she departed from her mother, Cassandra met a sweet-faced girl in a light blue gown, with soft fair curls and a slim, lithe figure, of about the same age as she, who addressed her intimately with "Dear Cassandra! I've been dying to speak to you again, it's been so long since you got back, and I've heard not a word! You simply have to tell me all about France!"
Cassandra looked at the speaker, smiled very helplessly, and said, "Why…it's so good to see you again!" The young lady took her hand and kissed her on the cheek. This is my Charlotte substitute, Cassie thought. If only she knew her name! If only she knew what to tell her, how to answer all her questions about Paris! She knew she should have gone with the French Club instead of opting to stay home and watch Wimbledon! But wait, she had said she wouldn't go because Will and she had been partnered in the buddy system by lottery, and she'd rather be anywhere than forced to spend a week with Will Dowland in the City of Love…Oh, curse the luck. Before her wit completely left her she continued, "But don't bore me with talk of Paris! I want to hear all about Derbyshire! Tell me about Lambton, and all the news. I'm starved for an old fashioned round of country gossip!"
The young lady gave her a conspiratorial smile, and replied, "Of course. I'm sure you're longing to know what's being said of you and our host."
"What?" Cassie blushed. This was perfect! "I'm sure I don't know what you mean!"
The young lady laughed. "Why, my mother is already speculating as to when he'll have the pleasure of walking you down the aisle. It would be the greatest alliance in the county, you know-one of the greatest, I daresay, in all the kingdom!"
Cassie had not expected this. "What are you saying, that he's after me for my money? Ridiculous, he has ten thousand pounds a year!"
"He does? Good God, how did you find that out?"
"Why, I---I…thought it was common knowledge about Mr. Darcy's fortune," Cassie blanched. Great, now this girl would think she was a money-grabber.
"Well, I ne'er heard tell of it being that large," said the other. "But I suppose it must be, given the fact that Pemberley is so immense. Half that amount must go to its upkeep! No, Cassandra, I don't envy you the chore you shall have as mistress of this place!" Cassie was blushing again, this time from confusion. So soon she was to be declared triumphant? No, it…she hardly knew Darcy--but wait, of course she knew him, she had known him all her life…oh, confound this infernal situation! Suppose he did not fall in love with her, suppose she could not keep him at Pemberley when fall came and Bingley went off to Netherfield? Suppose…oh, no! What if she managed to keep him here and he married her, but then Bingley married Jane Bennet! Then Darcy would go to Netherfield and he'd meet Lizzy after all, and…what if he fell in love with Elizabeth? Then he'd be miserable because he'd marry someone else, and Lizzy would hate Cassandra for having spoiled her chance at happiness…oh, Lord, this was turning into an Emma Tennant novel!
Her vexation nearly found its way into her countenance, but fortunately she was distracted by the approach of a tall, pleasant woman in a huge billowing purple gown. "Alice! You can't keep Miss Beaumaris jabbering away all night! I want you to meet Mr. Henry Crawford, if it please you, Miss--" with a hurried nod to Cassie. "He's such a charming young man, I think you and he will get along very nicely."
"Isn't he your guest, Cassandra?"
"He is my brother's." Cassandra was so relieved to have a name to put with the face--and Alice was a lovely name---that she neglected to be affronted at Alice's mother's way of dragging her daughter away.
"Oh! Austen brought him from Oxford, did he? I should say Mr. Beaumaris was a bit too quiet for the taste of Mr. Crawford."
That reminded Cassie. "Where is my brother? Have you seen him?"
"I saw him headed toward the billiard room with a glass of punch and a somber expression," Alice answered. "Really. He's come back more melancholy than he went away, if such a thing's possible."
"But…he has not always been like this!"
"No, I'd never say so. Just for the last year, or so." Alice was prevented from saying more by her mother's imprudent tug on her arm. "Will you excuse me, Miss Beaumaris?" she ended reluctantly. Cassie gave her an amused smile of understanding and nodded. She liked Alice. Alice who? Could she hope to find out? Oh, well, if she stayed here long enough…
Austen. Strange---he'd vanished right after greeting Georgianna; he'd hardly bowed to his host before he hid. She wondered if it would be impolite to leave the room and search for him. Well, it couldn't be any more impolitic than his behaviour. And certainly it would be good for her to find him and bring him back to the party. She cast a glance over to where Darcy stood, elegant, tall, impeccable. He had just managed to rid himself of Caroline Bingley and made his way to intercept Georgianna's animated conversation with Crawford. His sister did not express reluctance, but Cassie thought she saw slight frustration flicker across Crawford's countenance, and a moment later he bowed and made his way towards Alice and her mother. He knew he was being kept under tight watch where Miss Darcy was concerned, Cassandra speculated, and had decided to pitch his tents elsewhere. Well, surely he might have his pick of all the women there tonight--except of course, for the Beaumaris ladies. No, she was already pre-engaged. Unofficially, anyway. Darcy felt her eyes upon him; he looked up, briefly, and she was thrilled when his lips turned upwards in that tiny, imperceptible hint of a smile. She returned it with a demure nod of her head, and turned away to search for her brother. Hopefully she would not be long---she was anxious for the dancing to begin, so she could sit down with her host, as promised.
Chapter 6 E
Posted on Thursday, 9 July 1998
Cassie found Austen in the Billiard room; and how she ever located the billiard room was beyond her, for upon shutting the doors to the ballroom she found herself staring back down a hallway of interminable length, with doors on every side. Most were open, and she tentatively peered in here and there, until at last the sharp, unmistakable crack of the cue against the rack caught her ear, and upon looking within the room, she saw him.
Her brother was not quite her idea of handsome, but she had to admit that in his elegant velvet grey suit, tailored and cut to enhance his slim figure, his appearance was striking, indeed. He looked up; the expression of studious concentration vanished, replaced by a moment of surprise and pleasure. His smile changed his countenance completely, much like his father's. Cassandra returned it impulsively. He loved her dearly, and in his, "Cassandra! What brings you here?" there was an undeniable affection that warmed her heart.
"Me? Silly, I'm come to find you. don't you know it's rude to depart from the party the moment you walk in the door?"
Austen managed a sheepish half-grin and returned his attention to the pool table. She entered and positioned herself on the opposite end of the table. He had broken the rack expertly, but the eight ball had positioned itself precariously close to the corner pocket. Cassie raised her eyebrow as he aimed for it and sent it expertly careening away towards the center of the table, where it hit the ten, which rolled squarely into the side. He laughed. "A shot like that doesn't happen every day---you must be my good luck charm, Cassie."
She smiled. "Why did you leave, Austen? Don't tell me you've grown tired of company? Mr. Crawford is your guest, but you're not being very host-like by leaving him to himself."
Austen emitted something very like a snort. "He was doing perfectly well when I left him," he retorted ruefully.
Cassie was stunned. "You don't like him?"
Her incredulity brought a twinge of guilt to his features as he realized how harshly he had spoken. "He's one of my dearest friends, Cass---he's agreeable and funny and clever---what's not to like?"
Cassie wanted to go to him and put her arm about his shoulder, but he seemed still unapproachable. Another day in his presence---had he only just arrived that morning? Instead, she went to the rack and grabbed another cue stick from the wall. She did not notice his open mouth as she calmly stepped in front of him and slammed the cue into the nine, which sailed into the far corner pocket at a deliciously difficult angle. "You know, you're just as agreeable and funny and clever, and twice as handsome---why do you seem jealous?" He was still staring at the pocket with the nine ball, and did not answer for a long moment. "Austen?"
"How did you learn to do that?"
"What?" she answered, and then, realizing what must be the impropriety of a lady playing pool, she nearly dropped her stick and clapped her hand over her mouth. "I---I---Paris," she mustered weakly. "You learn everything in Paris!"
"My aunt allowed you to play billiards with gentlemen?"
"No!" Cassandra answered quickly. As she continued to speak, her mind led her to one irresistable lie after another. "How dare you insinuate that our aunt would do anything so improper! I didn't play with the gentlemen---I played with her."
"What? With Aunt Patrice?"
"She taught me how to play," continued his sister in growing glee. "We'd go down to the billiard room late at night, after the others had gone to bed, and we'd play round after round! Aunt Patrice would always have a bottle of claret and coffee cake. No lady would play without refreshment, she'd say. She always beat me, though after a while I got the better at it, and she accused me of letting her win. It was great fun." And she smiled charmingly at her brother, who gaped in consternation for a long moment, before bursting into laughter. He laughed long and heartily, and she joined him, relieved to have smoothed over her ill conduct. "But Austen, surely you don't intend to stay in here all night?"
"I shall be out soon enough," he replied, impassively slamming a ball into the far corner. "Really, Cassandra, you don't need to worry about me."
"But you're unhappy," she replied softly. She wasworried about him. He was sad, and he was her brother! She'd get to the bottom of this, or she wasn't worthy to be the supplanted heroine of an Austen novel! "Is there anything---nothing has happened while you were away?"
"Then are you---you don't feel well?"
He scoffed. "Cassie, you're no detective."
"Then something is wrong!" she pounced on the clue. "Are you in love?"
He started and cast her a quick, agitated glance before focusing his attention once more on the table and answering calmly, "Are you serious? You must not know your brother, then."
This threw her off. She certainly didn't know him well enough to understand what he meant. "I know what I see," she retorted uncertainly. "Are you going to tell me, or shall I guess?" She laughed playfully and ignored the look he sent her. "Let's see. Some lovely little debutante you met at Almack's, I imagine?"
"Cassandra, you know I'd never set foot in that place," he responded gruffly.
"Then a daughter of someone from White's? No? Perhaps dear Austen has a crush on a beautiful actress?"
"Or could it be someone here in Derbyshire? Perhaps the lovely Georgianna Dar---"
"Cassandra Beaumaris---" he interrupted her fiercely, his eyes flashing in an unexpected show of spirit. He did not continue, but clenched his fist and silently took his shot. She knew not to press him anymore, but she wondered a great deal.
A momentary tension settled upon them; as nonchalantly as possible she bent to take her turn. The angle was a very difficult one, and she was required to bend across the table at a most unladylike angle. Her brother was brooding too privately to notice, and so she concentrated on aiming for the side pocket, her figure sprawled over the edge. She had just pulled her arm back to make the shot when Mr. Darcy walked in. "Mr. Beaumaris, have you seen your---" he began, but left off as he recognized Cassandra. She nearly dropped the cue stick again, and it hit the table with an unattractive 'thump;' the shot went completely amiss, and she almost lost her balance. Her eyes flew to his in instant mortification---he was staring at her, not quite in horror, but with an expression of incredulity so marked that a cold panic assailed her.
"Mr.---Mr. Darcy," she gasped, instantly jumping off his billiard table and coming to attention like one of the Von Trapp children. He couldn't have more resembled the Captain at that moment; he was so frankly taken aback she half expected him to ask her if she had been this much trouble at the Abby... But, it could not be helped; she might as well make the best of it. "I was---just teaching my brother to play billiards," she smiled hopefully.
Austen nearly choked. "Forgive my sister, sir, she hasn't been serious since she came back from Paris."
"Indeed," Cassie answered coolly, "Mr. Darcy, you must not believe my brother, who is so sober himself he can never comprehend any sort of levity." The two Beaumaris glared at one another.
Mr. Darcy had been observing her wordlessly, and now chose to completely ignore all reference to billiards. Indeed, he looked as though he would much rather leave the room and ignore the entire scene, but instead he calmly remarked, "I am glad to find you here, Miss Beaumaris. I wanted to inform you that the dancers were about to form the first sets, and ask whether you would care to join me."
"Oh, of course," she responded too eagerly. "Er...sitting down, you mean?"
"Oh, certainly," he nodded distractedly, casting a final, uncertain glance at the pool table.
Cassandra followed his gaze, gulped, and said brightly, "You have an excellent pool table, Mr. Darcy. My aunt's house in Paris had a fine room. I played there often during my sojourn. I shall have to entreat you to compete with me sometime or other."
Mr. Darcy looked as though he had just swallowed a fish, but he managed to respond with perfect equanimity as he offered her his arm, "Miss Beaumaris, it would be my very great pleasure."
Part 6 F
Posted on Sunday, 12 July 1998
Mr. Darcy escorted Miss Beaumaris back to the ballroom. Her brother followed them, his morose countenance lightened somewhat by his amusement at the conversation passing between his sister and her host.
"How long were you in Paris, Miss Beaumaris?"
This, Cassandra was forced to concede, would have been an excellent beginning to any casual conversation, had she but known the answer to his question. Fortunately, she prided herself on having so far done an admirable job of answering on her feet, and was by no means put off by her ignorance. "Why, sir," she replied with a mischievous smile, "Do you mean to tell me that you do not recollect yourself? How sad to think that neighbours as close as our two families should still be so distant."
"Perhaps, then," he responded with a faint smile, "since you lament my own faulty memory, you would be so good as to inform me how many years hence I removed from Pemberley." He spoke gravely, but his eyes sparkled in--could it be amusement?
Cassandra's surprise was unsurpassed. Was he mocking her, or merely responding to her own playful manner? She was grateful, at least, that so far she read nothing of contempt in his demeanour. She struggled for a moment to think of a sufficiently witty reply, and he took her silence to indicate that her memory was as faulty as his own.
"There," he replied calmly. "I will not upbraid you for being unable to recollect the exact times of my departure and arrival. And I hope you will favour me with the same understanding. I was seven years at Eton and then three more at Cambridge. You, I believe, were but two years in Paris, or thereabouts."
She did not know how to confirm or negate his reply, and felt it better to merely bow her head in acknowledgment and let him take the gesture as he may. He continued, casting her a perceptive glance, "I've just recently returned from London myself, you know. How strange that the timing should fall that we are both come back to Derbyshire after such a long absence."
She laughed. "Indeed, sir, no doubt the whole neighborhood has been so anxious for our reappearance, that the event of our return has occasioned more speculation than either of us deserve."
He inclined his head in a most becoming modesty, and replied politely that while he no doubt was unworthy of inspiring such attention he would not scruple to say that her homecoming merited the interest it had garnered.
A shiver ran through her, and she cast half a glance up at his handsome face, only to find his eyes averted and an expression of complete indifference in his features. She concealed a sigh; he had not meant to compliment her, but had only been speaking what propriety mandated. She must accustom herself to such gallantry, and all levels of communication which men and women incorporated in such circumstances. Having never before been surrounded by so much open and expected chivalry it was hardly fair to expect her to know what was merely politeness and what was indicative of a real interest. If he had been so impassive in Hertfordshire, no wonder Lizzy had had no clue of his true attachment! But---she caught herself. It would not do to assume too much. She had only just made his acquaintance, and she couldn't expect that he would dream of revealing to her sentiments he did not feel, which would undoubtedly take some time to establish in his bosom. She nearly smiled at her preoccupation with his affections. Really, she was as bad as Miss Bingley, the way she hung upon each word---as if anything he said could be taken of proof of his regard! She resolved instantly to let him set the pace and the level of their intimacy---but of course a few hints as to her amiability would not, she was sure, be remiss.
"Mr. Darcy..." a pause ensued. What possible topic could she embark upon? How to find a way of learning more about him? That was---beyond what she already knew? She could not very well begin, 'Mr. Darcy, I believe you to be the most wonderful man I have ever known, and I think that what you would have done for Elizabeth Bennet had you not met me first, is the most romantic thing any man could ever do for the woman he loves, and were I in her position, I assure you I would never refuse your affections...' Egads! "I am so very eager to renew the acquaintance with your sister," she ventured at last. He smiled readily and voiced his agreement that her friendship had been long missed by Miss Darcy. "If I understand correctly she has not been long in the country herself?"
"No, she had an establishment formed for her in London for some months last spring," said Darcy, and then, immediately, such a guarded stoniness swept over his countenance that Cassandra, recollecting its cause, nearly gasped. Oh, another second, and perhaps she might have mentioned Weymouth!
"She---enjoyed her time there very much, I assume," she managed to continue, realizing that her voice was unsteady. "Did she make her debut?"
"Oh, no," he replied stiffly, "she was far too young. She stayed only---until the summer, and then she returned to Pemberley." He recollected something, stopped abruptly, and, turning to the young man behind him, said, "My sister informed me that you had the goodness to call on her while she was in town, sir. May I take the opportunity to thank you?"
Austen turned quite crimson, but replied evenly that he had had only pleasure in the meeting, and that no thanks were necessary. Cassandra observed him shrewdly, and would not let him withdraw as they approached the ballroom. "Austen, will not you engage Miss Darcy for the first set?" she hinted gently. Her brother started in something very like alarm, and appeared relieved when his host responded that he believed Mr. Henry Crawford had been so fortunate as to procure his sister's hand for the first two dances.
She tried not to sound reproving but failed. "There---you have missed your opportunity to flatter Mr. Darcy," she said blithely, her eyes nonetheless sending Austen a pointed look of reproach. "The honour has gone all to your guest. Mr. Crawford knows how to win the esteem of a gentleman, by paying his sister the respect due to her. You may still dance with Miss Darcy, however, and make amends."
Austen stammered quite awkwardly that it appeared neither of the Beaumaris were much sport for dancing tonight, and apologizing curtly to Mr. Darcy, he fled once more.
She was mortified by their combined behaviour. Never could two guests of honour had more fully offended their host and hostess if they had contrived beforehand to do so! She was relieved when Darcy's countenance reflected only mild surprise, and upon entering the ballroom and observing that the couples were about to form the lines, he spoke only to inquire gently if she would choose a seat near the dance. She nodded silently, glancing briefly around for a sign of Austen, searching for him in vain. Since neither of the two Beaumaris children were lending their dubious graces to the dance floor, Miss Darcy took the head of the set with Mr. Crawford, a distinction that obviously terrified her. He, however, was all grace and ease, and his smiles did much to alleviate her self-consciousness. Cassie noted the pair with interest, wondering if Darcy had done likewise. If he observed Crawford's attentions he did not comment, but she knew he was watching his sister very closely, following her conduct as hostess with nervousness and pride. Mr. Beaumaris and Arabella followed them in the set; he was the personification of elegance, she of grace. Behind them she espied Miss Bingley, sitting down beside Alice's mother, whom she instantly pitied, with an expression of venomous contempt; apparently she had adopted the noble but very boring position that if she was not to dance with Mr. Darcy, she would dance with no one, a decision which no doubt caused no one discomfort save herself.
Rachel and Colonel Fitzwilliam, standing beside her mother and father, were equally charming to look at, and Miss DuBarry's sparkling laughter floated across the room and made her cousin smile more than once. The others followed; Alice, of whose last name she was still ignorant, was happily conversing with Mr. Bingley, while the two Miss Waitcliff, Kristen and Gabriella, cut admirable figures as they stood up with two handsome gentlemen, one who looked surprisingly like Jeremy Northam, the other, shockingly like Ralph Fiennes. There was a gentleman near the back whose height and appearance gave Cassie a start, as resembling Will Dowland---but she instantly recovered, recalled with pleasure how utterly far away he must be---surely almost to Austria if not there already---and resolved to have done with all thoughts of him for the remainder of the evening.
The atmosphere of the room was all shock and conjecture upon discovering that neither their host nor Miss Beaumaris were to dance. Though she looked all eagerness as she sat down next to the far wall near the musicians, she could never reveal that her animation was due to the fact of her never having before seen a country reel performed, in public or private. She was rather amused at first to note that not all the dancers danced with the perfection she was used to viewing in her myriads of cinematic masterpieces, and she thought that even Mr. Collins might survive a round of this dance, a lively number which consisted of a great deal of alternating and changing partners. She attempted to concentrate on the steps, so that she might quickly catch on and hope to imitate better in her attempts at performing it; but the line changed so much, and the directions switched so frequently, that Cassandra, who had even in grade school never been able to remember the box step, found herself completely at a loss, and was relieved when she found herself addressed by Mr. Darcy.
"How did you like Paris, Miss Beaumaris? Were you sufficiently pleased to leave it and return to the country?"
"Of course, sir. One can only think the delights of their native air, drab as it might be in comparison to the splendour of the city, infinitely more charming than any other place on earth."
"And do you say the same for all of England, or just Derbyshire?"
"What? 'This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, this other Eden, demi-paradise---this happy breed of men, this little world, this precious stone set in the silver sea---this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England...'" She trailed off. "Sir, what's not to like?"
"A clever response. You read much, then?"
"I adore Shakespeare."
"Your taste is admirable."
"And you?" she asked him eagerly. "Are you fond of novels?"
"I confess I have read little along that line, although Tom Jones was a great hero of mine in my youth."
She giggled. "You could not be more like," she said innocently. He cast her a quick, startled glance, and began to make a reply which she was certain would have been a note of serious evidence to the contrary. Of course, he had yet to learn to laugh at himself! She thought, however, that he betrayed slight amusement, and longed to have him respond in kind, but his reserve won out at the last instant, and he closed his lips and contented himself with a faint smile. "Or perhaps," she continued, veering away from the dubious morality of Fielding's hero, "You fancied yourself more like a gallant Prince Hal or a Romeo?"
"I deserve neither such praise nor such censure," he replied easily. Thankfully his eyes were on Georgianna as she moved down the line, and he did not observe Miss Beaumaris' mouth drop to the floor. "I have not so much of the hero to merit the comparison with Henry the Fourth, nor so little sense as to be placed in the same class with an impetuous youth who died over the love of a woman who was every bit as silly as he was."
Now she did laugh. "Oh, no, of course," she agreed, and swallowed the thought, 'and you are much more handsome than Leonardo DiCaprio.' "But you do not think yourself capable of ever feeling so much for a woman?"
"Nothing which would ever tempt me to commit suicide."
"Oh, Mr. Darcy! You will surely be a disappointment to the other half of the world! You must know every woman of sensibility yearns to inspire that kind of fervent devotion in the man she loves."
"Perhaps she might imagine herself to want such a romance, but no doubt, were she to have it, she would discover that the man who would allow love to induce him to such a helpless state of passion would undoubtedly be too insufferable to be borne."
"You believe that love must be above all things reasonable and prudent to be successful?"
"I am not enough of an expert to have any opinion on the subject at all," he replied blandly. "But I believe experience teaches that passion where there is no mutual level of understanding, or intelligence, cannot be conducive to a happy marriage."
There was a slight pause, before she ventured, "Of course, a marriage without sincere, tender affection is as horrid as any without understanding."
"But understanding may yet lead to tenderness, whereas passion and ardour can never lead to understanding, but only create the appearance of it."
She was vexed. How rational, how determinedly practical, was his approach to affairs of the heart! Though she could not prove him wrong, and though she thought no less of him for his opinions, yet his lack of enthusiasm, his matter-of-fact appraisal of such an emotion, made him seem more like Colonel Brandon than the animated, passionate Darcy she knew! Where was he? "And would you say," she continued, "That along with an equal level of intelligence, an equal situation with regard to class, and similar fortunes, are vital to sustain such an attachment?"
"As for sustaining it, I have no idea," replied he, firmly. "Rather, I would say that the attachment should never be formed in any circumstance except that of equal fortune and rank."
She tried not to stare. "You would never allow for an attachment between two people---a gentleman and the daughter of a gentleman, both with good breeding, who have everything to further the marriage except equality of fortune?"
He considered. "Of course there may be exceptions. But before we continue with this discussion I must know the particulars of the situation to which you refer."
Her eyes fairly sparkled. She had been almost on the verge of horror, to hear him speak thus about his own marriage to Lizzy! "Well," she began, with the pretense of searching for a sufficient case to satisfy his inquiry, "suppose---you, for example, being a man of good circumstance and even better breeding---" he bowed his head in deference to the compliment "---were to go to a remote province, for some unexpected reason, and were introduced in a society to which you had been previously unacquainted. This society might not please you in terms of the amiability or education of most of its inhabitants, but there happened to be a lady of extraordinary wit, pleasing manners, and great beauty, who had from the first captivated your interest."
"And if the lady in question were not of a family and fortune as respectable as mine, or at least creditable in itself, I should never allow my fancy for her to proceed so far as to induce within me any of those feelings you speak of."
"But the very nature of those feelings of which I speak," she continued earnestly, "is that they transcend all objections to their formation, Mr. Darcy! Were you to fall in love with such a woman, with a lady who, in spite of all objections to her lack of fortune or the insipidity of her connections---would you not, in spite of all such obstacles, still desire to make her your wife?"
He was looking at her in perplexity. "I hope, if there were ever such a serious regard on my part as to tempt me to any marriage less worthy of my situation, that I would seriously do my part to outlast such affections as would induce me to desire the match. If, however, I could not persuade myself that my happiness could not be met elsewhere, in my own circles, I should in all probability make the offer." She breathed an unconscious sigh of relief. "May I ask as to what these questions tend?" he asked her in some uncertainty.
She gave him the first and only answer she could think of. "Merely to the depiction of your character, sir---I am trying to make it out."
Again, that flicker of a smile darted across his delicate lips. "I suppose I have changed since the last occasion we were here together."
She did not like to look too deeply into his somber brown eyes, for the intensity of the light she found there made her increasingly giddy. "Did you really allow me and Miss Darcy to get lost in the maze?" She smiled, knowing he must see her admiration, and reflecting privately how soon she might venture to get lost in the maze with her host...
"I allowed you to think you were utterly and hopelessly abandoned," he replied softly. "It was very cruel of me, for I was outside the whole time, and I knew exactly where you were."
"Yes, sir, it was very cruel!" she responded heatedly, not liking the picture of herself and Georgianna as children, crying, alone in a huge shrubbery.
"The moment I heard crying I rescued you both. Georgianna was scared, but you, Miss Beaumaris---you were far too enraged to be frightened." He was studying her interestedly, and she felt a blush creep over her cheeks at that...Look.
"How old was I?"
"You were nine, I believe," he replied, traces of gentle amusement softening his countenance. "I daresay you haven't forgiven me yet."
She did not notice how fast came her breath as she replied, her lashes fluttering quickly in her agitation, "Perhaps, Mr. Darcy, you will change my mind and persuade me to like you after all."
His eyes fleetingly traveled over her once more, in that impassive glance of appraisal he had first fixed her with; now, however, the impassivity was replaced by a hint of the agitated question that was overpowering her, the thought of what this renewal of their acquaintance held for both of them. After the slightest of pauses Darcy replied pointedly, "I feel I owe it to my character, Miss Beaumaris, to give you as favorable an impression of me as I possibly can."
She wanted to faint. Instead, she replied calmly, "I think that would be wise, considering we are so intimately connected. Not to mention that half this assembly is already making guesses as to when a certain blessed event is to take place."
He laughed involuntarily, but started in faint alarm. "But I thought you were going to saddle me with a lovely provincial acquaintance."
For the first time it occurred to her that the marriage between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth was exactly what she was attempting to prevent, and she nearly laughed outright. "Oh, no, I assure you. After hearing your views on that subject I should never dare to make a match between you and any woman of less than ten thousand pounds a year."
"I am not so mercenary, Miss Beaumaris," he smiled. "I would settle for five."
Cassandra was delighted, and laughed heartily.
In the dance Robert Beaumaris had lapsed into the silent contemplation of his own thoughts, and, though it was a very rare case when he was able to remove his eyes from his wife's figure during a public assembly, he frequently cast such speaking glances in his daughter's direction that Arabella broke through the silence at last with a sigh. "You are thinking about Cassandra and Mr. Darcy."
"I'm thinking that I shall not have a moment's peace through the remainder of this ball, for wondering what's come over my children," he replied gruffly. "Even if Austen weren't determined to hide from all in sight, I'd still be shocked at Cassie's behaviour. I know she's been acting strangely lately, but not even nerves could tempt her to pass up the chance to dance with her host tonight."
"Unless she wanted to have him all to herself," remarked his wife innocently.
"She succeeded," he retorted, his harshness concealing his fatherly worry. "Look at them! Talking as though they'd known each other their whole lives. Fitzwilliam never speaks so freely to anyone, let alone a woman he hasn't met in years---and a woman who's just showed him up in front of his guests."
"But he is, darling, and she's enjoying herself greatly. You're a little jealous."
"No," he said, more somberly. "I love her dearly, I could never be jealous of her happiness. But something doesn't sit well with me. It's not like her to be so open and flirtatious with a man she's barely seen since she was nine or ten."
"You forget she has been two years in Paris, Robert, and you cannot compare who she is now to what she was before."
"But I know my Cassie," he replied with conviction. "Something's afoot---and then there's Austen, and God knows what kind of trick he's playing tonight."
"Are you so distrustful of your children?"
"I feel tonight as though I didn't know them," he replied. "Can you understand, dearest?"
"Oh, my darling," Arabella replied softly, siezing the opportunity as they came together from the reel to take his hand and squeeze it reassuringly in her own, "I'm confused, and worried, and happy for Cassandra, and a little resentful. It's all part of watching your children grow up."
He digested her words in silence as they parted and moved down the line again, and then blurted quickly, as they briefly joined each other, "What about Will?"
She laughed, more at his real alarm than at the question. "You're always worried about Will," she answered when next she was able. "What could be the harm in Cassie's taking an interest in Mr. Darcy, if he reciprocates the affection? After all, he's twice as rich and just as handsome, and---"
"Will loves Cassie and Mr. Darcy doesn't."
"They just met, Robert."
"Don't attempt to wheedle me out of my displeasure, Arabella! I'll not have one of my dearest neighbours made unhappy at the expense of another. Mr. Darcy's too old and experienced for her, and Will's known her all her life. If he can put up with her as she is now, so haughty and cold and unwilling to give him half a word of kindness, he deserves her, and no gentleman of ten thousand a year will lessen Mr. Dowland's merit."
"But suppose Darcy should fall in love with her himself? Look at them. You can't tell me she's not doing everything in her power, already, to make herself agreeable to him."
"But---why? She's never liked him, hardly noticed him, even, since she was a child. Were it not for Georgianna she'd hardly be aware of his existence."
Arabella cast a critical eye over Darcy's impeccable figure, and replied candidly, "That was when she was eleven, and he was an old man of twenty-two. But now, she is seventeen, and I guarantee you that now she is very, very aware of him." This speech did nothing to alleviate her husband's ill humour. "Come, try to be cheerful. You have no reason to think ill of Darcy, and you know he has only the greatest respect for you, and for Cassandra."
"Yes," replied Mr. Beaumaris, thoughtfully, "but I wonder how much of his respect for her stems from his admiration of her wit and her charm, or from his deference to her five thousand a year."
Part 6 G
Posted on Monday, 13 July 1998
Caroline Bingley had been observing the pair across the room in growing vexation. She had known Darcy some years, and never had she seen him so readily attentive to any woman. What on earth could he see in such a brazen, uncivilized child? Her time spent in Paris had certainly not improved her manners---mere wit and a charming face was hardly enough to engross a man of his tastes. Her mind plotted in vain to find some way of representing to him all her faults, and had to be satisfied with the possibility that Miss Beaumaris would prove herself to be far more beneath him than she herself could.
Applause rippled through the room when the set ended. Cassandra, completely engrossed in her conversation with Mr. Darcy, had failed to notice the looks frequently cast in her direction from all areas of the room---from her mother and father, Miss Bingley, Rachel, and Austen, who was perched near the punch table with a dour look on his face. In the intermittent pause between sets, with the partners mingling about, exchanging, sitting down, standing up, she had time to notice that several faces were turned towards her in inquiry. What could it mean? She had no time to wonder. Instantly Rachel was before her, laughing and giddy from her conversation with the Colonel. "You will dance maintenant, Cassie?" she demanded impetuously.
"What?" Cassandra attempted to hide her alarm, but it showed plainly in her eyes. "I have already settled with Mr. Darcy that I---"
"Oh, la---you know you are just being stubborn. I must have you dance with my friend le Colonel. You must tell me how you like him."
Cassandra blushed for the colonel and for his cousin, who was eyeing her cousin with no little disapproval. "Indeed, Rachel, you know I think him very admirable. I shall be happy to---to---"
"Non! C'est impossible, you will dance. Come, come!" Rachel pulled her from her seat, and in her enthusiasm would have led Cassie to the floor herself had Mr. Darcy not risen immediately and insisted gravely that Miss Beaumaris not be made to trouble herself.
She looked into his face with such warm gratitude for rescuing her that, meeting her sparkling green eyes, Darcy felt compelled to add, giving her his arm, "She should not stand up with her host's cousin before she stands up with her host." And before the terror had time to leave her face, he had escorted her to the floor and taken his place across from her at the head of the line, just as the music began. She had no time to reply, protest, or faint, and when she tried to speak she discovered that she was far more likely to choke than be successful at producing a sound. There was no way out!! After she had been so clever and escaped from the first dance…Rachel! She marvelled at how her French cousin could have learned the steps to such country reels…Where was her dancing master when she needed him? Oh! What to do, what to do?
It was too late, she was forced to move. With her eyes wide with incalculable mortification she stepped forward with the rest of the ladies---she had seen enough movies to know that was usually the first step. What then? She looked haplessly about her and saw her mother, next in line, dancing with the Ralph Fiennes character, drop into a brief curtsey. She did likewise, but her timing was so late as to cause a few stares; Mr. Darcy was a bit taken aback, but certainly he did an admirable job of maintaining his composure. She hoped that all that practice he had had in tolerating insipidity was not a fiction, for she was certainly about to test his talent for it now! He reached out for her hand, and she took it, assuming correctly that the next move involved turning a slow, stately circle. She decided to throw caution to the wind, and, her arm outstretched with what she hoped was elegant grace, she moved clockwise with the other ladies until she was once more opposite Mr. Darcy. That was easy, she thought. But the next step threw her completely off guard, for she found Ralph Fiennes, standing to Darcy's right, moving towards her, and since she stood still he was forced to stop likewise, whereupon he collided with Arabella, who cast a curious glance at her daughter. Cassie immediately figured out what she was to do, and grasped his hand with a brief apology; but it did her no good, for she instantly had to stop again and learn the next move. She was aware that the other ladies and gentlemen were turning circles again, but she began in the wrong direction, and Ralph kindly herded her off with a firm pressure on her arm. She felt her cheeks flush crimson, and as they came back together, Darcy inquired under his breath, his voice forced, "Are you feeling quite well, Miss Beaumaris?"
"I…not at all, sir," she stammered, before finding herself moving down the line towards the back of the set, herded along by the ladies behind her, who were casting her very bemused looks. She passed by Miss Bingley and saw such a look of satisfied contempt on that woman's face that she would hardly have been surprised if she had snickered outright at Miss Beaumaris' awkwardness.
This was worse than horrible. She came around to the end of the line; because she and Darcy were first, they were now to wait an interminable amount of time while the others went ahead of them down the reel. It was excruciating, for in that moment Cassandra sensed the eyes of every onlooker in the place focused on her, and Darcy's own fixed on her hot countenance with a genuine alarm. "You look very unwell, Miss Beaumaris," he ventured, his lips pursed firmly together, no doubt to hide his vexation. "Are you sure you wish to continue?"
At that moment the only possible alternative presented itself to her, the only chance she had to end her run of disgrace; and as they began to move down the reel, hand in hand, she squeezed his alarmingly, slowed her pace, and placed her free hand over her forehead before gasping, "No, really, I'm…" and fainting away so gracefully, in such a position, as to oblige him to catch her in his arms……