Mrs. Umberight was really fond of her plants and would use all of her free time to take care of them. Mrs. Gardiner being married with a successful tradesman in this business had been another reason why they had remained close in spite of Mrs. Umberight leaving school earlier to marry a wealthy knight of the Realm. Even if Mr. Gardiner’s business was more about outdoors than indoors species, he always knew what was new and how to grow them. The result was a greenhouse overflowing with small trees and flowers. It was apparent that part of the ballroom ornament had been taken there but, still, the perfume was almost overwhelming. That first impressed Darcy and Elizabeth. They had got to the room without encountering anyone, he, leading the way and she, close behind, as fast as they could without being too obvious.
The room was dimly lit as only a few candles were spread inside. Their eyes were accustomed to the brightness of the ball-room and, maybe because of his rapid pace, Darcy missed the path and his foot encountered brutally a big earthenware jar while his hand found its way to the palm tree it contained. Lizzy couldn’t but stumble on him and she only managed to maintain her position upright by encircling his torso in an embrace, a completely unwilling but nonetheless forceful one, while her face went to crash into some of his upper vertebrae. Darcy couldn’t decide of which part of his body he was the most painfully aware. His ball shoes were, of course, not of the thickest leather. His toes, usually quite glad of the fact as, even if they were not used to dance, they carried the man’s pacing from beginning to end in those kinds of social events, regretted it deeply at that moment - at least, those of his right foot. As for his neck, well, considering the hurt he felt at the moment, he really wondered if his companion had not been knocked out by the shock. He breathed heavily, straightened slowly and, feeling the lady’s grip tighten somehow, tried to voice his concern.
“Miss Bennet, are you all right?”
He only heard a moan as an answer. She had, of course, been caught completely unaware by his sudden stop. If her arms had softened the collision between their bodies, they had not done anything for her head, and it had really thumped powerfully against his spine. On feeling her support moving, she instinctively held more strongly to it and kept trying to regain a clear mind.
“Miss Bennet, Miss Bennet…” His calls remained low, as he didn’t want anyone to catch them in such a compromising position. His insistence, though, didn’t seem to break through her haze, and, in their current position, he couldn’t do much more. He tried to shift swiftly and, eventually, managed to turn around and face her. He felt very awkward. He was still closely enfolded in her arms and his pain was quickly fading away as he became more aware of their nearness. His hands were suddenly quite a burden. What was he supposed to do with them? His instincts were yelling that he should return her embrace but his head knew that, first, it would not be a very clever move of his, as he was almost sure just holding her would not be enough, and second, she would probably not be holding him, should she be her normal self. But the question was still opened: where could he put his hands? As she was trying to move her head, the logical conclusion dawned on him and, uncomfortably yet tenderly, he cupped her face and moved it slightly away from his chest.
“Miss Bennet…” Now that he could see her lashes fluttering in a yet unsuccessful try to go back to full consciousness, his concern became greater. Indeed, she had been knocked out!
“Elizabeth…” His voice had lowered even more; his tone was even more caring. His right hand put back a lock of her hair, which had come lose and he couldn’t refrain himself from slightly brushing with his lips the place on her forehead where it had rested, the place where the impact had probably been, as he could distinct a darker shade coming on that spot.
This last action seemed to finally awaken her. Her eyes opened and remained steadily so and their plunging unbelievingly into his stopped him short in any other attempt he might have thought about. She stumbled back, her arms freeing his body as if they had been burnt by it. She still hadn’t mouthed a word and he could see her mind going back to working as she touched the painful spot above her nose … the spot he had kissed.
As he absently rubbed the back of his neck, he shivered, suddenly aware of the heat lost as she had freed him. His mind couldn’t really believe what had just happened: his feeling of completeness while she was holding him, his suffering on seeing her suffer, his anguish caused by her state, his strong sense of possessiveness, his even more powerful wish to protect her, his astonishing inability to refrain himself from kissing her and his even more surprising inability to feel anything but pleasure at having accomplished such a gesture, and, last, his deep joy when she had eventually emerged from her daze. Those seemed completely unlike him: he had lost his self-control, he had experienced tenfold his usual feelings. It was just a small collision between two very healthy persons, but one of those persons had been her. It was a completely unacceptable behaviour of a gentleman such as him towards a lady, but the lady had been her…
So that’s being in love? That turmoil, that loss of all common sense? To think that Mrs. Bennet’s daughter can make me feel that way! … Good G-d! I don’t even care whose daughter she is! Should she be Wickham’s sister, I would love her all the same!
Lizzy was indeed recovering slowly, but, once the blackout had passed, her head seemed to go back to spin when she understood what had happened and how they had both behaved. The closeness of his body had been a very comforting support while she was going back to real consciousness. But as soon as she had been really aware of it, she had felt all the impropriety of her gesture and automatically released him. What was most disturbing her was his behaviour. She couldn’t recall clearly what had happened for a while but she knew for sure that his look had been more than compassionate when she had stared into his eyes, that she could still feel the heat of his hands around her face, that she beheld at that very moment a man torn between powerful and opposite feelings. Those were too much information to order coherently on that instant but enough to create a real turmoil in her mind, which was already quite busy, with the quarrel she still planned to have with him on her sister’s behalf, and the blur she had just emerged from. She chose the easiest way and, to his non-so-unobvious relief, suggested, in a voice still not very steady but determined enough, that they dealt with their business.
“Mr. Darcy, I’m afraid our missing might be noticed if we stay too long and I really think we have matters to address. Shall we?”
The moon had managed to break through the clouds and gave to the feeble light a warmer glow. As their eyes had got used to the level of darkness, they went farther in the greenhouse without any other incident and settled at the back of it, near a small ornament table with benches around.
“Miss Bennet, shall we sit down? I’m sure my foot would be vastly relieved!”
Elizabeth was very glad of this proposal and did as suggested. Ending her recovery seated had seemed appealing but she hadn’t wanted to take the lead, as, had he not copied her, he would have towered far too high above her. His way of suggesting it, though, astonished her. She was not her father’s favourite for nothing: irony and self-derision were some of her daily companions. But she didn’t know Mr. Darcy knew them also! And considering the easiness with which he had voiced the words, it was not his first attempt. Well, decidedly, this man is determined to puzzle me.
Both of them stopped short, awkwardly looking at the other. The gentleman resumed first.
“Miss Bennet, I just want to … apologise for the … incident … I hope you were not seriously hurt.” He didn’t know exactly what he was apologising for, as he didn’t know which parts she recalled clearly. But try as he might, he still couldn’t feel any shame for kissing her; he couldn’t understand why, but he didn’t. This lack of self-reproach made his sense of propriety uneasy and he knew he would be bothered by his conscience once the whirlwind she created in his mind by her sole presence would have receded.
“Do not make yourself uneasy. ‘Tis true I was not quite myself at first but I’m fine, now. Please, forgive me also … if I … well …” Lizzy couldn’t find neutral words to describe her embrace. It had been at first so comforting in her physical distress; then comfort had decreased to give way to a physical agreeable awareness, more and more so. The memory of this last sensation, one she had almost never felt and certainly never with any other human being, was still troubling her. No, he shall not confuse my thoughts once again! He’s doing a fine job of it, every time I try to raise a delicate issue, but I will not let him do it this time.
Not awaiting any answer from him, she went on after a short pause. “Sir, I’m sorry to say it but I cannot bear any longer all your insinuations about my family’s lack of manner.” Raising her hand, she stopped him from replying. “Would you please hear me through, sir? … ‘Tis true that my mother's family is in trade but my father is a gentleman and my sisters and I are a gentleman’s daughter. ‘Tis also true that some unhappy entail makes our future not as bright as my last assertion may lead to believe. Last, and I’d like you to know that some of us are shamefully aware of the fact, there is, very regularly, some want of propriety betrayed among ourselves …”
The memories of the circumstances during the Netherfield ball, so acute and so relevant, forcefully came back and she paused in her speech. Her eyes had steadfastly held his during her beginning, as challenging him to deny this was his opinion of her family. But the shame she was speaking about made her downcast her look. Unfortunately for him, on rallying her spirits, she observed the change that had happened in his eyes. Although, since his little piece of self-derision, he had reverted to his usual stern demeanour, she had soon detected some guarded admiration - for some unfathomable reason of his - and that had only increased her acknowledged shame. What she found in them after resuming her former proud stance was an icy condescension, which incensed her once again.
“But there is one of us who is a gentle-lady at heart, both by birth and by manners. There is one of us who is wealthy, if only by her qualities. There is one of us who has never had to blush of her behaviour. In short, there is one of us who really deserves to be happy. And this one is Jane. I understood long ago that you’re not happy with my sister and Mr. Bingley as a couple…”
Elizabeth’s tone showed her ever-increasing rage against Mr. Darcy. He had been silent for too long. Even for his feelings for her or maybe because of them, he couldn’t let her go on. “Miss Bennet, please forgive my interruption but you must see that, in this case, my feelings are not what matters.”
“Then, why did you convince Mr. Bingley that he shouldn’t pay his attentions to Jane?”
“I believe I owed this explanation only to Bingley and your sister… But… Well… I thought your sister didn’t return his attention.”
Lizzy had already read this acknowledged reason in Charles’s letter but she still didn't believe it.
"And would you please tell me how you came to this conclusion?”
‘I merely observed her, particularly during the ball at Netherfield!”
“But how could you fairly make a judgement when you only observed to despise…" she once again raised her tone, "… when you only watched Hertfordshire through vanity and haughtiness?”
Mr. Darcy was hurtfully shocked to hear her say those words, her, to whom he had been nothing if not particularly attentive, her, to whom he had even opened somehow his heart. He matched in coldness her heightened voice.
“Vanity, spite and contempt! I remember telling you I was not a vain man, proud certainly but not vain. I won't insult you neither by pretending I honestly think you consider me spiteful. As for the haughtiness… It’s probably more some kind of condescension. After all, ‘tis true that there is a difference between our situations in life…”
He really seemed to say exactly the more provocative words. “You are a gentleman, we’re a gentleman’s daughters, so far we’re equal!”
“If you had given me leave to finish my answer, I would have told you that it appears my judgement was ill-founded and I was wrong. I have already apologised to my friend for my undue interference and I shall do it to your sister as soon as I may.” After a short pause where she was surprisingly silent, he finished, less angrily. “I’ll just add that, as praise-worthy as I've always found your loyalty to your sister, I also find that you’ve just out-done yourself and that those facts I’ve just related to you are nothing that concerns you.”
Cut short in her last tirade and astonished by his words, she remained silent.
In the ball-room, Mr. Bingley and Jane went on, parting and reuniting, following the pattern of the dance. Each time their bodies went close, each time their hands were joining, Jane could feel the same rush in her blood. But, as uncomfortable as it had been at the beginning, she now felt impatient for its happening and relished in it.
After his fit of anxiety over his proposing, Charles had maintained a happy and attentive attitude. He was as aware of his longing for physical contact between them but he knew a way to alleviate it and he hoped to be able to experience it soon. He took care of keeping his breath equal. In no way I'm going to blow it! I mustn't scare her with too much anxiety nor eagerness. I must succeed!
At the end of the song, as he was leading her on the side, he asked: "Miss Bennet, I thank you for this delightful dance. The room is already so hot! Do you wish for a bowl of punch or would you rather come to the winter garden where the air must be cooler?"
So attuned was she becoming to his mind that she clearly understood the option he favoured. As clearly, she understood that going to another room with him so early in the ball probably meant being alone with him for a while. She had been denied this possibility for a very long time and was eager for it. The old Jane still made her somewhat frightful of what may happen but she was too excited to decline. She shyly nodded her consent and, as there was movement in the room, they could move away from it much more discreetly than Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth.
As it happened, though, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner were also on the same way. Neither had seen their niece or her companion re-entering the room and even Mr. Gardiner was now keen on finding them. "Really, what can they be doing? Surely Lizzy must be ill! But why didn't he come back to inform us?”
"I only hope you are right, Edward. After all, we barely know the man. What if he …"
"Madeline!” Mr. Gardiner didn’t want his wife to become upset when he really had a high opinion of the young gentleman. He was more tolerant towards some of the passion of the youth, at least when some agreement existed. But this was obviously not the case here and he would have bet her niece's reputation was not at risk.
"Mr. Darcy appeared to me as nothing if not highly honourable and I'm sure there’s nothing of the sort going on. I can't speak for his mindset regarding Lizzy but I can say that she has such a low opinion of the man that there is nothing to fear on that topic. But look who's just gone out of the room!"
Unwillingly, Mrs. Gardiner's smile flourished on her lips. "Well, you cannot say the same for those two! Edward, we must follow them, 'tis not proper!"
“And interrupt a proposal of marriage? That's truly what you want to do?"
"So soon? But they only met a week ago!
“Yes, but they had so much behind them! I'm quite inclined to allow them a few minutes of privacy." With a somewhat crooked smile, he added: “What do you say?"
“Fine, fine, have it your way!" She conceded with a smile, as she had never been able to resist him when he put on his roguish mask. "But I won't yield for Lizzy. Jane and Mr. Bingley went to the right, let us go around the supper-room.”
In another part of the ball-room, a very flushed Miss Bingley was led to her sister by a Lord Dushbarn, one of her friends’ brother, who had been compelled to stand up with her for the first set after a lost wage. The gentleman, neither very handsome nor very disadvantaged by nature had purposely missed some steps so that she wouldn’t imagine he could be a to-search partner for dances to come. The evening had really not started well and she understood immediately that it would not go on better as her sister informed her than neither their brother nor his friend were to be seen.
“Oh my G-d! Louisa! What can it mean?”
Louisa appeared shocked by her sister’s lapse. “Caroline, remember who you are!”
Miss Bingley had barely heard her sister’s scolding as she was looking in the crowd. “But Louisa, I cannot see the Bennets neither!”
Her sister had spotted Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner exiting the room but she decided to keep that knowledge to herself. “Caroline, could you please understand that Charles is going to marry Miss Bennet?”
“No I can’t. He could do so much better!”
“No he couldn’t. Our father was a tradesman, she is a gentleman’s daughter.” As Caroline seemed to be on verge of starting one of her usual speech, Louisa turned towards her husband. “Mr. Hurst, would you please take me to the refreshments table?”
Miss Bingley remained alone, trying to fathom what she could still do.
While exiting, Charles had offered Jane his arm. He boldly put his hand on hers and, as he could perceive no sign of opposition, he went as far as softly stroking the back of her hand with his thumb. Her blood quickened immediately. She didn't dare looking up at him for fear of betraying herself. She almost put her hand on his but eventually flinched. One of the reasons was that, although still present, his strokes were not intentional any longer. He seemed preoccupied and she was puzzled.
As they entered the greenhouse, their attention was diverted by some voice. Obviously, there were people inside and the conversation between them was not a peaceful one. They went further in the room, closer to the noise.
Jane couldn’t prevent an: ”Oh!”
They looked at each other, silently agreeing.
Mr. Bingley whispered: “’Tis them, isn't it?"
"I’m sure it’s her, anyway!"
“And I'm sure it's him!"
Around a corner, the sight of a standing Elizabeth defiantly stating that she and her sisters were equal to a towering Mr. Darcy and the gentleman claiming that he had already apologised to his friend and that she ought to mind her own business greeted them.
Mr. Bingley was the first to recover his power of speech and, using the silence that followed his friend’s last reply, he expressed his disappointment: "Darcy ! What are you doing here, alone with Miss Elizabeth? I thought more highly of you, Sir!"
Both were startled by this sudden arrival. In the heat of their quarrel, they had been, of course, completely oblivious of their surroundings.
Mr. Darcy flushed "Bingley!"
Jane had gone to her sister. She sat on the bench and made her sit by her side.
"Lizzy, what are you doing here? I thought you were dancing! How long have you been here?"
Her sister looked up at her former adversary and silently asked him what they were to answer. He didn’t answer directly but, as he knew he completely deserved his friend's admonition and was awfully ashamed for it, he helped her by replying in her stead.
“Well, …, Miss Bennet and I had some matters to discuss and we couldn't do it in the ballroom, so we …"
"Darcy, we heard the end of your ‘discussion’. You were quarreling, not discussing."
"Lizzy, you were not quarreling about … what happened …” Unable to utter Mr. Bingley’s and hers names, she indicated themselves with her head. "You know everything is as perfect as it can be, now. There 's nothing to argue about any longer.”
Although Jane was speaking in a low voice, Lizzy knew the gentlemen had heard her. And as just as was the gentle scolding, it only reinforced her shame. "I’m sorry Jane."
Although she knew she should probably also be apologising to Mr. Darcy, she didn't voice the same words towards him. She only looked up at him and then downwards.
The gentleman suddenly seemed to understand something. "But … did you hear us from the ball-room? Is that why you came here?"
Still shocked by what he had witnessed and the following confessions, Bingley absently replied: "No, no. We came …" and realising what would have been the end of his sentence, he flushed deeply. Both his direct gaze in her eyes and his blush made Jane turn the same colour.
Darcy and Elizabeth observed them, understood the probable reason for their coming and the shade on their cheeks, which was fading, went back vigorously.
The silence was becoming more and more disturbing. Lizzy first managed to utter some lighter words.
"Shouldn't we go back? I’m sure I could do with a bowl of punch. And I'm afraid our aunt and uncle may be looking for us."
"Yes, Lizzy, you're right.”
They both stood up and looked at the gentlemen. "Shall we?"
Darcy saw that his friend was still not fully recovered. He offered his arm to Jane who took it gratefully. This helped Bingley who rallied his spirits and offered his to Lizzy.
In the corridor, they met Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner who had become really worried with their unsuccessful tour in the adjoining rooms. Seeing that the four young people were apparently in good spirits relieved them. The facts that Jane and Bingley weren’t a pair and that neither of them was radiating joy didn’t go unnoticed but as they didn’t seem upset neither, they postponed the explanation of their discreet departure from the ball-room. Lizzy and Darcy's absence would have also to find an explanation and Mr. Gardiner, completely puzzled by his niece’s countenance, a more subdued one than he had ever witnessed, resolved on seeking the gentleman's intentions.
Afterwards, the ladies danced almost every dance. As he couldn’t be too obvious, Bingley only shared the planned supper dance with Jane and watched jealously every other ones. Fortunately she would invariably come back to him – and her aunt and uncle, for the matter. And fortunately, Louisa whispered him during an exceptional long one that Jane’s smiles were never as radiant as when she was close to him. Numerous mamas understood that evening that another wealthy bachelor had left the marriage-mart!
He found in his friend a very willing brooding partner. The latter didn't dance neither, nor even with Miss Bingley who, nonetheless, did everything in her power to entice him. He didn’t dare inviting Elizabeth but although his mind would say that it was because, as a gentleman, he couldn’t pay her attentions he didn’t mean, his heart whispered that he wouldn’t bear a refusal she would clearly be able to pronounce. His evening was nonetheless better than he would have expected as Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner’s company happened to be even more interesting than he had thought, all the more as it was regularly improved by Miss Elizabeth.
When the party left the ball, the farewells were at worst civil and at best very attentive and with a parting hand-kissing.
Sow Potatoes, See What you Shall Reap, Chapter 18
Return to Austen Interlude