Part I - Setting the Stage

 

No one involved had set out with the intention of creating a scandal. None of us began with the aim of ending with reddened faces, bruised bodies, or blemished reputations.

 

The rain, I suppose, was to blame. Ennui at Netherfield that Saturday reached a more dire level than that of a dull Sunday at my London home when I had nothing at all to do.

 

None of this would have happened, though, had I remained steady to my purpose, which was to speak scarcely ten words to anyone throughout the whole of that dismal day. In particular, I cautiously intended to avoid talking to her at all for fear I might blurt something utterly rash, something unable to be retracted. My participation in the tomfoolery would have been unheard of had she not shown such enthusiasm, such fervour for the scheme.

 

Elizabeth Bennet, not the rain, was to blame.

 

That is unjust. Culpability for the inanity must be assigned more rightfully to the one, true culprit—Bingley, the dunderhead, and his ‘marvellous’ discovery and Machiavellian trickery. What on earth possessed him, other than an uncustomary restlessness, to rummage about in the manor’s dusty attics that morning?

 

With Babs—one of his two terriers—trotting at his heels, Bingley had burst into the library where I sat ignoring the fascinating rosebud across from me in all her spellbinding splendour. Like lush spring, the nymph was clad in a provocative yet simple gown of delicate yellow trimmed with an apple-green ribbon. Not that I was paying any attention to her or that distracting frock, mind you. I was, after all, first and foremost a gentleman. Totally immune was I to her body’s every shift, every sigh, every— Criminy! I was—and still am, apparently—unable to concentrate on the matter at hand in Elizabeth’s wondrous presence.

 

The course of events would have played out quite differently if only Bingley had not ventured into uncharted territory, or I had been resilient and resisted her charms, or my friend had left the accursed thing up in the garret where it belonged.

 

“Darcy! You will never believe the marvel I found in the— Oh! Begging your pardon, Miss Elizabeth, I did not notice you there.” Bingley gave us an odd look, as if our being alone together in the library might indicate some sort of aberration or deviation on our part. “As I was saying, you will never believe what I found in Netherfield’s sky-parlour!”

 

“That you, perhaps, truly do have attics to let?”

 

“Hah! No, old man. My knowledge box is hardly unhinged.” Eyes huge, face smudged, and hair mussed, Bingley resembled an owl in an ivy bush, and I wondered what he had been doing up there under the eaves. “Come along to the sitting room, both of you, where you may praise me for finding a remedy for this lassitude that has all of you in its god-awful grip. Come—make haste! My sisters, no doubt, are ransacking my treasure as we speak.”

 

Elizabeth had already risen and headed for the door. Bingley, bouncing on the balls of his feet, beckoned me to follow her…as if I would not willingly follow the siren to the ends of the earth…which, at least at that point, I certainly would not do. Unbefitting was she for a gentleman of my station.

 

So, like innocent little lambs or sheep to the slaughter, we followed my muttonhead of a friend down the passage to the sitting room where we found Miss Bingley and the Hursts not rifling through their brother’s objet trouvé but watching in a desultory fashion while an equally apathetic maid swiped at it with the rag Babs kept trying to grab. A footman was summoned and the terrier evicted.

 

Bingley, still fairly vibrating with excitement, waved away the maid and strutted around the object in what might be described as a prance. Those ridiculous, high, springy steps were put to an immediate end when I quietly edged up to the likeable clodpole and, with a hiss of helpful disapproval, warned him to stop making a cake of himself.

 

You might wonder why all this to-do, all this commotion and fuss, was made over—as it turned out—an innocuous, dusty, old trunk. Even its moth-eaten contents were, after Bingley’s exuberance and after the lid was opened, a bit of a let-down to most of us. He, however, remained wildly enthusiastic about the possibilities therein. Down on his knees, he muttered to himself while gleefully digging through the musty articles—rather like I imagine his youngest sister might do in her dressing room, looking for a gown, when invited to the same ball I was to attend. Not that I ever spent any amount of time imagining what Miss Bingley might do in her chambers. Ugh.

 

Flinging articles of clothing left and right out of the trunk, Bingley cried, “What a discovery! Look here!—women’s old-fashioned gowns and, ahem, undergarments. Men’s frilled shirts, knee-length coats, long waistcoats, knee breeches. Coats and cloaks. Hose, lace caps, cocked hat, and—Aha!—a white wig, and… Oh. Old books. Why are they mixed in with heirloom clothing?” Picking up several and riffling through leather-bound, yellowed pages, releasing clouds of dust and miasmas of mildew, he cried, “Ah! A serendipitous find, after all.” Putting aside the stack of books, he rummaged about again, sneezing before standing and shaking out an article of blue velvet. Draping the cloak around himself and slinging it artfully back over one shoulder, he struck a pose. “We are, then, all set!”

...continued in the novella

Play with Fire

The Age of Nescience

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I was ten, my father told me I was precocious.

 

Glowing with pride, I beamed at him.

 

Ten years later, another gentleman told me, “Where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation.”

 

Turning away, I hid a knowing smirk.

 

What becomes of pride, though, when real superiority exists purely in one’s own narrow mind?

 

Only now, after throwing a retrospective glance over my adolescence, do I comprehend how prideful and energetically wilful was my youthful conduct, how flawed was my biased discernment…and such it had been from the innocent age of ten to the equally nescient age of twenty.

 

 

Coming Out - 1806

 

In honour of a former merchant’s elevated status, a soirée was hosted in Meryton by my aunt and uncle Philips. On that moonlit evening, I was permitted to attend in company with my parents and older sister.

 

Those of higher circles might have argued I, at fifteen, was not of an age to be introduced into society; but it was the country, and children often accompanied their elders to social events. Upon any objection to the scheme, my mother defended the propriety of her decision by claiming a certain right, as sister of the hostess, to bring whomever she pleased to the gathering.

 

Neither Mama nor I was satisfied with the results when I donned my first half-dress gown and had my ringleted hair dressed rather than left loose. She lamented my looks were nothing to Jane’s, and I experienced a mixture of excitement and mortification at being on display in such an adult fashion…especially since boys I had romped with in childhood might be in attendance as eligible men.

 

In the habit of running, I was saddened to relinquish spirited antics and submit to more ladylike behaviour. How suddenly we are expected to emerge from girlhood to womanhood, from maiden to wife. The thought of being viewed as marriageable was as uncomfortable as the hairpins poking into my scalp and the lightly boned stays thrusting my bosom unnaturally upwards.

 

“Elizabeth Margaret Bennet! You are not leaving the house looking like that!”

 

“But… Mama!”

 

Tut-tutting, she removed the fichu I had tucked into my bodice and flailed the triangle of muslin in my face. “What were you thinking, child?”

 

“Of modesty. You went against my wishes and had the bodice lowered. I cannot face our neighbours with so much of my…with so much of me exposed. New meaning might be given to my coming out.

 

“Oh, pish! ’Tis the latest evening fashion. Every elegant lady wears that cut, and no daughter of mine will be seen as a dowd. Compared to Jane, you must flaunt whatever meagre, redeeming features you own.”

 

Despite my mother’s hopes upon launching a second daughter into the society of adults, my coming out was not an overwhelming success. Although I had been well liked as a precocious youngster, my new status was paid scant attention by the local populace. The guest of honour, Sir William Lucas—my friend Charlotte’s father—did pay me a number of “Capital, capital!” compliments; and, after imbibing too much port wine, Uncle Philips proclaimed my altered looks charming.

 

Home from university, a friend bowed over my hand and, in doing so, his eyes came to rest on my bodice. Eyebrows hitched, he smirked, saying little before turning to speak with my drunken uncle. It took willpower to still my hand from cuffing the back of his stupid head. Being genteel will require tremendous effort, I fear. Discomfited over my erstwhile playmate noticing the changes in my figure, I was—as if of a contrary nature—annoyed he found me unworthy of further attention. Well, I would not marry you anyway, William Goulding, even were you the last man on earth.

...continued in Elizabeth: Obstinate, Headstrong Girl

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 all excerpts       J. Marie Croft