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Through a Different Lens
Copyright Riana Everly, 2019
Ill Qualified to Recommend Himself
It was an evening much like many others over the past few weeks. The small party were gathered in the salon after an uncomfortable dinner, to amuse, delight, and take advice from the doyenne of the house. The meal had seemed endless, with one overly fine dish superseding another, testimony more to the expense of a fine French chef than to the consideration due to the palates of the assembled guests. Likewise, the conversation, more a series of interrogatory demands by the lady of the house than an exchange of light and pleasant thoughts to lend enjoyment to the meal. Now, the last of the dishes cleared away and the company retired to the salon, Elizabeth sat perched upon the uncomfortable sofa, seeking something amusing to say that would astound those gathered around. Beside her sat her dear friend Charlotte, whom she was visiting, and nearby, Charlotte’s husband, Mr. Collins, who held the living at Hunsford, adjacent to the grand manor house of Rosings. Also in the room were the mistress of the house herself, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, domineering and fierce of temperament, her sickly daughter Anne, who seemed more intimidated than truly ill, Anne’s companion Mrs. Jenkins, and Charlotte’s timid sister Maria, who spoke hardly a word.
In all of these particulars, the scene had been repeated many times since Elizabeth first arrived at Hunsford for a prolonged visit with her friend; recently, however, two more members had joined their party, one adding to its pleasure, the other to its awkwardness.
The increased pleasure was due entirely to the newly formed acquaintance with Lady Catherine’s nephew, Colonel Fitzwilliam, on a short leave from the army to visit his aunt and cousin and help tend to affairs of her estate. The colonel and Elizabeth had quickly formed a comfortable and easy friendship, for the gentleman was intelligent, quick-witted, and extremely good company. Elizabeth had taken an immediate liking to him and was pleased when he sought her companionship, either in the salon or whilst walking through the park.
His friend, however, was far less of a source of pleasure. Silent, stiff and brooding, the colonel’s constant shadow was none other than Mr. Darcy, whom Elizabeth had come to know and rather dislike several months ago at her home in Hertfordshire, near the village of Meryton.
They had first met at the close of the previous summer. Everybody in town had gathered at a public assembly and ball, there to meet Mr. Bingley, the young—and single—gentleman who had taken Netherfield Park, a grand estate in the neighbourhood, sadly unoccupied for the longest time. The crowd was eagerly and impatiently waiting to see both the man himself and the rumoured gathering of his attendants, ladies and gentlemen aplenty from town, the exact number of each varying according to the teller. At long last, and to the relief of the anxiously curious townsfolk, Mr. Bingley arrived with only two other men and two women. The first set of dances had just come to an end, and in the moment of silence when the musicians set down their instruments to draw breath, and when the dancers had made their final bows to each other before leaving the floor, the doors to the assembly hall had swung open to reveal the anticipated party.
The sudden cessation of ambient sound immediately became a hush, and then, just as quickly, the noise resumed its previous levels as people began to comment on the newcomers. “How fine they are,” “What elegant attire,” “How handsome he is,” were the words that filled the air. “Five thousand?” “Which is the new tenant?” “Who are the others?”
Within a short time, the questions resolved into answers, which did little to curtail the gossip. Mr. Bingley was the young man of medium height and a most cheerful disposition, dressed in the dove grey coat. The shorter man in green was his brother-in-law, Mr. Hurst, and the taller, in dark blue and black, was his good friend, Mr. Darcy. The ladies were his sisters, Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst. Mr. Bingley was uniformly pronounced most well-disposed, especially when his income was disclosed at somewhere near five thousand a year; his friend, Mr. Darcy, was judged even more handsome, as much for his features as for his reported income of ten thousand!
Of the newly arrived members of the community, however, only Mr. Bingley retained the good regard of his new neighbours beyond the first quarter hour of their presence. The rest of the party was quickly deemed rather too good for Meryton’s poor society. Mr. and Mrs. Hurst talked only amongst themselves and their own party, and Miss Bingley, who was to keep house for her brother, deigned to greet the natives with a stifled curtsey and an upturned nose, only to subtly deride their manners, their country ways, and their unfashionable dress. As for Mr. Darcy himself, he spoke scarcely a word all night and would dance only once, with Miss Bingley. The longest speech anyone heard him make the entire evening was overheard by none other than Elizabeth herself when Mr. Bingley importuned his friend to request of the lady a dance.
“Come, Darcy,” said he, “I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance.” Mr. Bingley seemed only too eager to return to the dance floor, where he had been promised a second set by Elizabeth’s older sister, Jane. The young man’s eyes kept flickering over to where the young lady was standing, and she in turn smiled demurely at him. But his friend would have none of it.
“I certainly shall not,” Mr. Darcy replied in a stiff voice, flat and devoid of emotion. “You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner.” At this he broke off for a moment to look around at the crush in the hall, and almost in alarm at what he saw, stepped back slightly. “At such an assembly as this, it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged, and there is not another woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with.”
“I would not be so fastidious as you are,” cried Bingley, “for a kingdom! Upon my honour I never met with so many pleasant girls in my life, as I have this evening; and there are several of them, you see, uncommonly pretty.”
“You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room,” said Mr. Darcy, following his friend’s gaze towards the eldest Miss Bennet. Jane Bennet was widely acknowledged to be an unusually splendid beauty, and one would be hard pressed indeed to find a man who would deny this.
“Oh! she is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld! But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you.”
“Which do you mean?” and turning round, he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said, “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me.”
This unfortunate encounter had set the precedent upon which all others would be based. Mr. Darcy’s cold demeanour made him no friends, and his haughty stance and unrelenting terseness only served to further convince the members of the local society that the man was proud beyond his considerable means and not worth the effort of friendship. It was for Mr. Bingley’s sake, and his alone, that Mr. Darcy’s presence was accepted at all by the denizens of the area, whether at tea or cards in the evening, or at the shops in the village.
Nor had Mr. Darcy improved upon closer acquaintance, Elizabeth recollected. For some three days, they had resided in the same house. Elizabeth’s sister Jane had become ill whilst visiting Mr. Bingley’s sisters at Netherfield, and Elizabeth had come to nurse her back to health. This, naturally, threw her into the path of the proud gentleman again and again, but always he drew back when in her presence. His eyes would narrow and his back would stiffen, and he would stare at her mercilessly, while never deigning to meet her eyes when she gazed back. He had always had little to say to her that did not carry the weight of disapproval, so evident in his cold tone of voice, and she had less still to say to him that did not sparkle with contrariness. She considered that they both took their amusement in disliking each other prodigiously, and thus she was pleased when he took his leave from the area after Mr. Bingley’s ball late last November. She had not expected to see him again at Rosings.
However, Mr. Darcy, too, was nephew to Lady Catherine, and with his cousin the colonel, would be staying for some weeks to help the lady with matters of business pertaining to the estate. Elizabeth would have to do what she must to suffer his presence, for there was no escaping it.
And so, with the formidable Mr. Darcy staring accusingly at her from across the room, she cast about for something witty to add to the stilted conversation in the room. Lady Catherine, however, acted most uncharacteristically this particular evening and made a pronouncement that brought a smile to many faces, and relief to Elizabeth’s. “We must have music,” the grand lady intoned in her imperious manner. “Miss Bennet, you play a little. Whilst you will never have the talent that I might have possessed, I do hope you have taken it upon yourself to practice in Mrs. Jenkins’ rooms, as I suggested you ought. You shall play for us, and we shall have music, no matter how unskilled you may be.”
Not judging herself up to the task of replying graciously to this command, Elizabeth swallowed her retort, then stood and curtseyed with all the grace she could manage, then strolled to the pianoforte that sat in a small alcove at the far side of the large salon. To her surprise, Mr. Darcy silently followed her, and to her pleasure, Colonel Fitzwilliam offered to turn pages as she played.
Whatever the rest of the company thought of her playing, she did not know, for she could not hear their comments, neither did she care. She did, however, enjoy the book of country dances she found, many of which she knew and therefore could perform with some credibility. After working through the dances, she talked quietly with the colonel who was helping her select some new pieces; Mr. Darcy stood stiffly off to the side, not venturing to add his thoughts to the conversation, although he was near enough to overhear it most clearly.
Colonel Fitzwilliam asked teasingly after his cousin whilst he had been with his friends in Hertfordshire not so long before, and Elizabeth laughed. “Your cousin, Mr. Darcy, was not the darling of our village.” She affected a mien of feigned solemnity which had the colonel chuckling as readily as her own smile returned. In her sombre tones, she explained how he had made little conversation at the assembly and would not dance, and had not endeavoured to endear himself to the community.
“What say you to that, Darcy?” the colonel smiled. He must surely know he was baiting his cousin. “Explain yourself!”
“I am,” stated the grave gentleman as he stood so awkwardly by the pianoforte, “ill qualified to recommend myself to strangers.”
Elizabeth heard these words somewhat distractedly, as she perused the selection of music being placed before her by the colonel, his friendly eyes matched by an engaging grin. Still, something in the more serious man’s demeanour caught her attention. She had never liked him, but she had always found herself fascinated by him. She sat up a little straighter and listened as Fitzwilliam Darcy continued to explain himself. He spoke, as always, formally, somewhat stiffly, as if acting the part of himself in the grand production of his life.
“I certainly have not the talent which some people possess,” said he, “of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.”
Suddenly, with these words, Elizabeth felt her world shift slightly. With every syllable that haughty man uttered, isolated facets to his perplexing character seemed to realign themselves and come into focus. She stared at him as if seeing him for the first time. He cleared his throat and stepped back an inch, standing quite still and averting his eyes from her curious gaze. A flood of recollections and half-formed ideas cascaded through her consciousness. She stared up again at the stiff and serious man half hiding in the shadows, wondering if her suppositions might be correct.
“Miss Bennet?” the genial colonel sounded concerned. “Are you well?”
Realising she had been distracted most grievously from her supposed task of selecting music, she uttered a rushed apology. “Indeed, very well, Colonel Fitzwilliam. Forgive my wandering mind, please. I have no excuse but that your cousin, Mr. Darcy, suddenly reminded me of somebody I know, and at that realisation, you might have knocked me down with a feather, it was so surprising.”
The man under discussion drew closer, edging towards the pianoforte where the two were conversing with such easy repartee. “Knocked you down with a feather?” he asked in some confusion, “How could that possibly be? While you are by no means a large woman, your weight most certainly surpasses that of a bird’s plumage, even that of an ostrich or a peacock. To knock you down would surely take something much more substantial than a mere feather!”
Exchanging an understanding smile with the colonel, Elizabeth replied evenly, “It is an expression, sir, meaning to surprise greatly. Is this, may I ask, but one example of why you feel discomfort joining others’ conversations?”
The man nodded. “Indeed it is so. I seem, always, to miss the meaning of what is being said. Not everybody is as compassionate as you, to explain the nuances I do not catch.”
“Perhaps more exposure to these undesired conversations would be of benefit,” Elizabeth tried to keep her voice friendly, more for the colonel’s sake than Darcy’s, if she were correct in her musings. “My fingers,” she intoned carefully, as she looked pointedly down at her hands, poised as they were over the ivory keys of the pianoforte, “do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women’s do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault—because I would not take the trouble of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman’s of superior execution.” Her mind was whirling at the import of her newfound hypothesis as to the real import behind the proud man’s confessions. She was hardly aware of her own words, and she needed desperately to think further on this unexpected insight. But Mr. Darcy was speaking once more.
He smiled then, a studied, careful smile, and forced his eyes to meet her own, now looking quizzically at him from beneath furrowed brows. “You are perfectly right,” he said. “You have employed your time much better. No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you, can think any thing wanting. We neither of us perform to strangers.”
At this, as he stepped away and retreated once more into the shadows, the final piece of the puzzle began to fall into place and the picture that had been forming before her coalesced into a cohesive whole, unfocused and need of a sharpening lens, but a whole nonetheless. All at once, Elizabeth believed that just maybe, she understood Mr. Darcy.
Elizabeth strove to find something to say in response to the man, and was relieved when the officious Lady Catherine interrupted this conversation, allowing her to reflect more fully on what she had discovered this evening. She resumed her playing, only half aware of the notes before her, and uncertain as to whether she had played a single one correctly. Her mind was too busy puzzling over the import of what she may have chanced upon that evening during the strange and short conversation.
It was later, much later, when Elizabeth had a chance to reflect on her astounding discovery. Lying in her bed in the parsonage, blinking against the midnight black of the smallest hours of the morning, the young woman cast her mind to her vexatious dealings with the proud and arrogant gentleman from Derbyshire. Each and every one of her conversations with him had been seared into her memory like a brand, but as she reconsidered them in light of her new realisation, the harshness of those memories eased and transformed into… something different.
She replayed, in her mind, her first meeting with Mr. Darcy at the Meryton assembly, recalling every detail as best she could, hoping to find some suggestions in her memories that might confirm her ideas. It was his words in reference to her that reverberated most strongly through her mind: “tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me.” He had looked directly at her and offered these damning words before turning away.
Elizabeth had, at the time, been mortified and most horribly insulted, inclinations which she had hidden under her accustomed manner of derision and love for the ridiculous. But now, lying in her bed at the parsonage at Hunsford, so many months and so many realisations removed from that awful scene, she reconsidered her impressions. Before he spoke his final, cutting words, he had turned and caught her eye. But had he recoiled in displeasure, or in discomfort? Was that cold tone of voice really arrogance and superiority? Or did Mr. Darcy have more to hide than he might wish, withdrawing into himself and using an icy exterior as armour against the onslaught of the crowds?
Reflecting further, Elizabeth recalled the proud man’s look as he had entered the hall. It had been a look of disdain, a look of aloofness…. Or had it? Had that look in his eyes, the slight widening of his eyelids, the almost imperceptible tucking in of his chin, been, instead, just perhaps, one of terror?
“I may,” Elizabeth spoke aloud, her quiet voice melting into the silence of the room, “have grievously misjudged him.”
It was a long while after her confession to the bedsheets that Elizabeth finally drifted off to sleep, the implications of the evening’s events and her sudden understanding still running through her mind, and she awoke with the same notions playing upon her thoughts. She still had much to consider, and knew she would benefit from further thought on the issue, uninterrupted by her Mr. Collins’ gratuitous mewlings or the polite but nonetheless irritating demands of Charlotte’s sister, Maria. Of Mr. Collins himself, she held no great opinion. Though the man was her cousin and heir to her father’s estate, she found him fawning and obsequious—in all, a ridiculous man whose only consequence in life was that he had managed to ingratiate himself into the favours of Lady Catherine, thereby to merit her condescension. More than a few moments in his company were enough to try the stoutest of souls, and hers, this morning, was feeling not at all stout, nor tending to any great degree of forbearance. Consequently she came to the pressing and not unexpected decision that a long walk through the woods and fields that surrounded Rosings was in order.
“Shall you really walk yet again, Miss Elizabeth?” Mr. Collins asked as she laced up her boots and sought her bonnet. “You walked yesterday, and the day before that. Her ladyship does not look well upon young women who are too robust. Consider her daughter, the lovely Miss de Bourgh: she possesses such a delicate nature, which can only be becoming in a lady. Perhaps she is a touch too delicate, but her fragile nature only emphasises her noble heritage. A fine lady should not be expected to bustle about doing things for herself when she has servants to do them for her.”
Elizabeth tried not to harrumph at this statement, for the sickly Miss de Bourgh had not the constitution of a delicate flower, but rather of a wasting and dried up weed. Mr. Collins, however, was so wrapped up in his soliloquy, however that he paid little attention to Elizabeth’s expression and continued his discourse.
“However,” he considered, raising his eyes slightly and breathing reverently, “although being too robust may be seen as almost peasant-like in nature, when one considers the magnificence of Rosings Park, the great splendour and range of its woodlands and pathways, the beauty of its streams and glades, it is most understandable that you might wish to experience everything to the fullest before returning to Longbourn. That these grounds might have been yours to enjoy every day, we will not further discuss,” he added pointedly. He was not above forever alluding to the topic that Elizabeth had refused him only days before the parson had offered for, and been accepted by, her friend Charlotte. Heedless again of any awkwardness, or perhaps, desirous of it, he continued, “I am most blessed in my patroness for allowing me such liberal use of her most pleasant parks. Did you know that the forest itself is nearly ten miles around, with countless fields and wilderness areas as well as part of the park?”
Taking advantage of the clergyman’s need to draw breath, Elizabeth quickly replied, “Yes, indeed, Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine’s holdings are most vast and prosperous indeed; I should be only too grateful to be able to partake of the natural loveliness that awaits me. Happy is the one who walks in the path of the de Bourgh family,” she intoned seriously, awaiting the parson’s rejoinder at her irreverent biblical reference. But the allusion fell on deaf ears and she was soon, to her greatest relief, outside and alone with her thoughts and her newly conceived suspicions about Mr. Darcy.
She had so many more recollections through which to sift, so many more conversations and interactions with the frustrating man to ponder, and yet, as Elizabeth strode purposefully away from the parsonage and towards the pathway leading through the wooded area to the stream nearby, she found her thoughts tending elsewhere, everywhere but on her intended topic. After trying in vain to rein them in, she decided to let these thoughts flit where they would, in the hopes that eventually they would alight upon some further revelations as she walked, letting the sights and sounds of her path guide her musings.
The gravel pathway led out of the back garden, through a small stile, and across a pleasant meadow, now a glorious carpet of fresh spring wildflowers. Pink, mauve, pale blue, butter yellow and white, the riot of new buds reminded Elizabeth of nothing so much as the pastel hues of ladies in a ballroom. All the scene needed were some stiffly formal men and a few overly solicitous mamas hoping for a brilliant match, and it would be complete. She imagined the conversation that might ensue.
“May I have this dance?” the raspberry bush would request of the buttercup. “Of course, sir, I was hoping you would ask.”
Lizzy giggled at the silly notion and continued on her way, across the open field and into the wood that lay beyond it.
Here, the light was dappled and the air moist. Leaves had appeared on most of the trees, but they were small and fresh enough that the path was not in complete shade. Different insects buzzed through the trees here than had floated across the carpet of flowers, and every now and then a small animal—perhaps a rabbit—could be heard rustling through the brush away from the path. This section of the path was short, and within a few minutes Elizabeth emerged on the other side of the wood and took a deep breath. This was part of the park around Rosings, closer to the manor house than to the village, and if she tried, Elizabeth could see snatches of the house through the occasional gap in the foliage. And yet, right now, this space felt to her an isolated wilderness, her own kingdom, her personal realm, where she alone held sovereignty and where none might disturb her or vex her.
The path led now across a second small meadow to the stream that burbled in the distance, a picturesque landscape complete with the perfect arrangement of trees and low bushes, a stone bridge spanning the narrow rill, and even a bench on the other side. The bench, which Elizabeth could just barely see as it was mostly hidden behind a large and low shrub, already verdant with lush spring leaves, was an unpleasant reminder that she was not, in fact, monarch of these woods, and that others must from time to time visit them. But for now, she observed as she approached the spot, the bench was empty of occupants and this little kingdom was her own.
She sat on the bench, enjoying the view and the sound of the burbling stream, and withdrew from her reticule a small packet of letters. These she seldom was without, for they were from her dear aunt, whom she loved and respected most dearly. They travelled with her, although before today, she had never had occasion to reread them. Now, however, their contents seemed pertinent, and she carefully opened the earliest of them and began to read.
Through a Different Lens is available at your favourite eBook distributor for pre-order. It will be released on January 21, 2019.