The Meryton Assembly

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Excerpt from Pulse and Prejudice 

Suffering is permanent, obscure and dark,and shares the nature of infinity.

The Borderers, William Wordsworth, 1795

The Meryton assembly did not fail to live down to all of Darcy’s expectations. Even his chilled bones suffered the closeness of the room, rank with the musk of too many bodies dancing to the strains of an unequivocally untalented quintet. Rarely had he witnessed such vulgar manners nor, although it pained him to aver to Miss Bingley, unfashionable attire at a social affair.

When he had arrived at the assembly with Charles and Caroline Bingley and the Hursts, the entire assembly turned and gaped at them. Certainly, any newcomers would draw attention, and Bingley’s sisters were bedizened in the latest London styles; but Darcy knew he and Bingley were being assessed for their value as eligible bachelors. He detested it. In such a setting, his fortune and his noble, handsome features were a hindrance as he sought to remain in the background as an observer. He heard the whispers weighing him not by stone but in pounds. Staring out the window, he felt more affinity with the creatures scurrying in the darkness than the animals in this room. Never comfortable amongst strangers, the last several years, since his change, had only served to increase the uninviting nature of his manners. Hands clasped behind his back, he sulked around the perimeter of the room, exuding an air of disdain until Meryton society ceased calculating his worth and pronounced him arrogant and rude. That would do.

Bingley, likewise, did not disappoint Darcy’s predictions, seeking out the acquaintance of all the principals present, dancing every dance, and almost immediately finding the prettiest girl at the assembly – Jane, the eldest of the five Bennet daughters – and charming her with his attentions. Although Darcy enjoyed seeing his friend so happily engaged, he gritted his teeth as he bore the merriment of the gathering, which in general seemed designed to taunt him.

Darcy felt something like regret, however, that Miss Bennet’s sister might have overheard his unkind words to Bingley. Always hoping to play matchmaker, Bingley had demanded that Darcy dance, suggesting Miss Elizabeth Bennet as a partner.

Glancing at the young lady seated nearby and catching her eye, Darcy declared, “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.” Darcy had intended his words only to discourage Bingley, but he observed the subject of his remark turned slightly at his address and arched her eyebrow in amusement, the semblance of a smile flickering on her lips. Regardless, he decided – ignoring the discomfort that turned his gaze towards her more than once – as she should not have been eavesdropping on his private conversation, he had violated no rules of propriety. Yet when he saw her laughing amongst her friends shortly after, he thought it might have been at his expense.

Once their party had returned to Netherfield and they gathered in the saloon to dissect the assembly, Bingley effused with delight regarding the evening whilst Darcy found himself in the uncomfortable position of having to agree with Bingley’s sisters.

“’Twas a tedious passing of an evening in decidedly unrefined company,” pronounced Miss Bingley.

Bingley shrugged off their complaints and spoke with the very ductility of temper that had endeared him to Darcy from the start of their acquaintance. “I, for one, cannot recall a more enjoyable evening. I am only disappointed it ended so early.”

“Charles, pray, you could not truly have meant it when you talked of inviting all of those people here for a ball.”

Bingley smiled at his sister. “Indeed, I have every intention of doing just that.”

Darcy grimaced at the very idea, and the ladies began to groan; but Bingley raised his hand and his voice over his sisters’ protests. “Before this evening, I had never met with pleasanter people or prettier girls. Everyone was most kind and attentive – no formality, no stiffness – and I quite soon felt acquainted with all the room.”

“Mr. Darcy,” said Miss Bingley, forcing his attention. “What say you to this evening’s assembly?”

Darcy, quite formal and stiff in his reply, directed his remarks to Bingley. “I witnessed a collection of people in whom there was little beauty and no fashion, for none of whom do I feel the smallest interest, and from none did I receive either attention or pleasure.”

“Little beauty!” cried Bingley. “What of Miss Bennet? I could not conceive of an angel more beautiful!”

Darcy tilted his head in acknowledgment. “Yes, Miss Bennet is quite pretty; but she smiles too much.”

Bingley scoffed at that and, crossing his arms across his chest, adopted a petulant expression; and Mrs. Hurst placed a reassuring hand on his arm. “Charles, Jane is a sweet girl. I would not object to knowing more of her.”

“I quite agree, Louisa,” said Caroline in a soothing accent, and her brother’s features softened. “Miss Bennet was by far the prettiest and sweetest girl there this evening.” Then she added with a glint in her eye, “Although I am given to understand Miss Mary Bennet is the most accomplished girl in the neighbourhood, I own that I prefer to know only her eldest sister.”

At Miss Bingley’s sneer, Darcy could not but wonder which of those two Bennet sisters had the greater fortune in Jane being thus distinguished.

In the days following the assembly, the three gentlemen of Netherfield passed many a morning at sport, finding the game fowl to be plentiful. The timing also absolved them of any responsibilities towards courtesy to the succession of Meryton females who came to wait on Bingley’s sisters. Darcy disguised his relief at avoiding such society by maintaining his typical countenance of insouciance. Conversely, Bingley hesitated before taking up his scattergun each day, and he glowered in disappointment when they returned from the covies one morning and discovered the Bennets had called in their absence and were just then taking their leave.

Invitations to dine with the neighbours soon followed. Darcy excused himself from the first, owing to urgent correspondence to which he must attend; and for the next, estate business importuned his presence in Town. Alas, when the Bingleys and Hursts determined to fulfill their societal obligation, all matters of business gave Darcy a reprieve but no excuse. He would attend dinner on sufferance.

The Lucases, the Gouldings, and the Bennets arrived punctually and excited the saloon to a modest din with alacrity. Darcy dispensed his terse bows and the requisite courtesies promptly then found with mild vexation and greater mollification that the party by no means required his attention, allowing him once again to prowl the room unimpeded. Miss Bingley’s fawning had been postponed for the evening as she fulfilled her role as hostess with charm and benevolence to rival Covent Garden. The Hursts stood in audience of Sir and Lady Lucas and their raptures on St. James’s Court. Bingley directed all of his smiles to Miss Bennet, whose demeanour and regal mien were in complete contrast to the crass and toadying manners of her mother. Darcy cringed at the squeals and giggles of the two youngest Bennet girls, visiting with the younger Lucas daughter; but he more particularly observed Miss Elizabeth Bennet, in tête-à-tête with Miss Charlotte Lucas. His eyes grazed over her to find grounds for his derision at the Meryton assembly; and with a self-satisfied smirk, he contented himself that his earlier assessment had been sound. Nothing about her features could be considered pretty – her face rather plain, and her figure lacks symmetry.

Darcy continued this exercise in self-approbation by studying her through dinner, giving more consideration to her than to the artifice of moving his food about his plate. Just as he had decided on the merit of his slight and it should not be regretted even if it had been overheard, she smiled at her neighbour; and her face turned effulgent, as if radiating a light from within and nearly bursting with life. He found that face to be rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes. Upon observing the liveliness of her countenance, Darcy turned away abruptly and tried to suppress the uncomfortable sensation rising within him – a hunger that the meal before him would not sate.

The evening could not end and the visitors could not be away soon enough for Fitzwilliam Darcy. Once the last guest had been handed into the last carriage, he anxiously awaited an opportunity to take his leave; but Miss Bingley would not allow him to escape until their guests had been thoroughly maligned. The primary target of her vilification being Miss Eliza Bennet, Darcy feared his attention to her had not gone unnoticed. He thus ensured his companions understood that he found nothing about any of the Bennets, including the second eldest daughter, to recommend them. When further prompted by Miss Bingley to comment on Miss Eliza Bennet’s reputation as a great beauty, he replied with rancour, “I would sooner call her mother a wit.”

To this, both ladies responded with great peals of laughter; and Darcy took advantage of their distraction to excuse himself. He hurried to his rooms, untying his cravat even as he charged up the stairs. Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst, taken aback at his quick exit, exchanged open-eyed glances; but Bingley had become accustomed to the occasional eccentricities of his friend.

In his chamber, Darcy continued to undress and called to his valet to bring him some refreshment. Rivens appeared with a pewter chalice and handed it to his master.

“What do we have today, Rivens?”

“Mutton, sir.”

“Ah, very good.” Darcy drained the contents then, handing the cup to Rivens, said, “I think I shall have another.”

Rivens raised a brow but said, “Very well, sir,” and withdrew to refill the cup.