Chapter 5

            The assembly was a grand affair in the village of Meryton. The four and twenty families who made up the community surrounding the village were represented, though one family had very little to do with their neighbors.

            Jane Bennet accompanied her aunt and uncle as they entered the room, arriving early, before the party from Netherfield Park arrived.  Seeing her friend, Charlotte Lucas made her way across the room to welcome Jane.

            “I see Lizzy decided against attending.” Charlotte commented.

            “Of course. I would think you a fool if you believed for a moment that my sister would come tonight.” Jane smiled sadly. “Lizzy believes that socializing with the people who treat the rest of our family so poorly is bringing shame to our loved ones.”

            “Well, I am pleased to see you here with us. You know that you are welcome, especially if you come to Lucas Lodge. It has been quite some time since you last visited our home.” Charlotte smiled to her friend.

            “I am grateful for your kindness. Your family has been supportive, no matter what the rest of our neighbors think.  For that, I cannot say enough good about the Lucas family.” Jane looked around, noticing some of the others from the community looking at her and speaking behind their fans. This was not the first time, she had grown up with people thinking ill of their family.  Only Sir William and Lady Lucas, and the Millers who owned the general store in Meryton, had accepted the Bennet family. “What has your father told you of our new neighbor?”

            “Jane Bennet, you know I am not partial to gossip.”

            “Charlotte, do I need to ask my aunt for what she knows? With her penchant for embellishing stories, the young man would be the prince regent himself.” Jane teased.

            “No, not the prince. Perhaps a duke or even an earl. Most likely worth twenty thousand pounds per annum. He is undoubtedly arranged to marry some troll of a lady who will make him miserable and so he has come to our charming corner of England in search for the most beautiful and kindest young lady with whom to fall in love. They will marry by special license as to thwart his family’s designs for his future. Obviously, your charms and beauty are known throughout the lands, so he has come here, looking for you.”

            Jane was laughing at her friend’s words. “When will you come to Longbourn again? Lizzy is preparing to work in the stillroom this coming week. You should come and spend a day with us before then, as you know she will be busy for days once she begins.”

            “I will attempt to come the day after morrow. Mother asked me to come, as my brothers have collected honey this week.  Your father sent word to Papa that he has a bottle of port newly arrived from your uncle, which leads me to believe he will accompany me to Longbourn.”

            “Then I will inform my father and Maggie when I return home. We will look forward to the visit.”

            The sound of people entering the room caused the two young ladies to turn their attention towards the entrance door. There stood three men and two ladies, all dressed finely, the ladies in the latest fashions of London.

            “Which one is the young man who has leased Netherfield?” Jane inquired of her friend. Jane knew that Sir William was the magistrate for their community, thus he made a point of visiting anyone who was new to the area.

            “The young man who is greeting my father. The ladies are his sisters, and the gentleman behind the smaller lady is her husband. Mr and Mrs Hurst. Miss Bingley is to act as her brother’s hostess.”

            “Who is the taller man standing behind the rest? He is too tall to hide his presence, yet he stands a distance from the rest of the party.”

            “That would be Mr Darcy of Pemberley, in Derbyshire. They say he is worth more than all of the Bingleys combined.” Charlotte whispered to her friend. “Mr Bingley is said to be worth five thousand per annum.”

            “Mr Darcy is worth more than five thousand?”

            “More than Mr Bingley, his sisters and their dowries, and even Mr Hurst. Oh, Papa is bringing them this direction. Stay by my side, please.” Charlotte was nervous. At seven and twenty, and unmarried, most in polite society considered her to be on the shelf. Sir William and Lady Lucas were desperate to find a suitable husband for their eldest daughter, though no one had made an offer for her.

            Sir William motioned the newcomers to where his daughter was standing with Jane Bennet. When the group came before the two ladies, the knight introduced his daughter and her friend to Bingley’s party.

            “Mr Bingley, Miss Bingley, Mr and Mrs Hurst, and Mr Darcy, allow me to introduce you to my eldest daughter, Miss Charlotte Lucas, and her friend, Miss Jane Bennet. Ladies, this is Mr Charles Bingley, Miss Caroline Bingley, Mr Gilbert and Mrs Louisa Hurst, and Mr Darcy.”

            Bows and curtsies were performed with perfection. Bingley’s eyes were immediately drawn to Jane Bennet, her beauty garnering her the man’s attention.

            “Miss Lucas, might I request the honor of the next set of dances?” Bingley found it difficult to turn his eyes from Jane as he spoke to Charlotte. “Miss Bennet, would you be available to dance the following set?”

            Both the ladies nodded in agreement, and, as the musicians were preparing for the first set of the night, Bingley escorted Charlotte to the floor.

            Darcy moved closer to Jane.  “Did I hear correctly, your name is Miss Bennet?”

            Jane nodded her head. “It is, sir.”

            “Are you related to a Miss Elizabeth Bennet?”

            Her eyes grew round with surprise. “She is my sister.”

            Darcy’s eyes glanced around the room, looking for the dark haired beauty he had met earlier that day. “Is Miss Elizabeth here?”

            “I am sorry to inform you that she is not. My sister does not attend dances.” Jane looked away from the gentleman, not wishing to discuss her family’s situation to a stranger after just meeting him.

            “Is the rest of your family here? Your father or mother?”

            “I am here with my aunt and uncle. My family does not attend functions.”

            A frown grew on Darcy’s expression. He could not imagine why the one daughter was in attendance without the rest of her relations. “I pray your family is well, Miss Bennet.”

            “Y…yes…they are well. My father does not approve of assemblies and dinner parties. He and my stepmother, along with my siblings, do not attend. My aunt is my late mother’s sister, and she is married to the solicitor in Meryton. They have always been kind enough to include me in such gatherings as this.”

            Something was not making sense to Darcy, but he decided to allow the subject to drop. “If you are willing, we could join the dancers for this set.”

            Jane looked about for her aunt. Not seeing Mrs Phillips, and knowing if she refused Mr Darcy’s request, she would be unable to dance with any other men, including Mr Bingley, Jane acquiesced.

            The second set of the night saw Mr Bingley collecting Jane for the dance, while Darcy moved to the back of the room, hidden in the shadows. He could not understand what he had been told by Miss Bennet. Miss Elizabeth appeared to be of an age that she would be considered out in society. As he watched the dancers, Darcy overheard a pair of women commenting on those dancing.

            “It is beyond me why Mrs Phillips brings her niece to the assemblies. No one here will marry into the family. It would be better if they sent her to London to stay with their relations there.”

            “My Robert had once spoken of his admiration for Miss Bennet, but I told him no such marriage would be allowed. No son of mine will find himself mixed up with that family.”

            “Nor mine. I have spoken with Lady Lucas about her friendship with that family. Tis a disgrace to good people and the Lucas family should stay away from them or be dragged down with them.”

            “The whole lot should move away from here. No one wishes for such neighbors. I have heard that they have to send to London for their supplies.”

            “No, they have some things sent by Mrs Phillips’ brother, and Mr Miller delivers orders to them.”

            “I should speak with Lucy Miller and insist her husband change his opinion on doing business with the likes of them. If he will not, I will see to it that we go elsewhere for our shopping. It would be inconvenient, but we are not so far from Hatfield. The shops there could use our business.”

            “Perhaps we should gather several ladies to confront the Millers. When they realize there are many of us who would take our business elsewhere, I am certain the Millers will see reason.”

            “You speak with Mrs Long. I will discuss the situation with Mrs Paddington. Her son is one of the young men drooling over Miss Bennet.”

            The women moved to speak with other ladies, leaving a confused Darcy watching the people in the room. He had deciphered that the women were speaking of the Bennet family, but what was the reason for the neighbors being so ill treated. What could the family have done to cause such animosity?

            Knowing that the women were planning harm to the Bennet family, Darcy felt it important to speak with someone on the matter. But who would he speak to about the women? Who could be trusted?

            The answer was before his eyes, as Sir William discovered Darcy. “Well, here you are Mr Darcy. I thought we might have lost you.”

            “Forgive me, Sir William. I am afraid I do not possess my friend’s easy nature amongst those with whom I am not familiar.” Darcy admitted. “If you would not mind, I would ask you for some information.”

            “Of course. What do you wish to know?”

            “Who are the Bennets and why do people dislike them?”

Chapter 6

            Sir William Lucas was not expecting the question posed to him by Darcy. The normally jovial man became somber. “Perhaps we should step outside for some fresh air.”

            The two men went out near the carriages that were waiting for their passengers to return home. Once they were away from other people, Sir William began speaking.

            “It is difficult to tell you the sad history of one of our community.  This is the first time I have discussed the matter with someone who is a new acquaintance, but it would be best for you to hear the truth from myself, rather than all the nonsense spread by gossips.  In truth, I am one of the few people who still considers Mr Thomas Bennet as a friend. Those of our neighbors who have turned their backs on the family are cruel, but my friend did what he felt appropriate for his family.”

            “I overheard some ladies speaking ill of Miss Bennet, discussing plans to speak to a Mr Miller about taking their business elsewhere if he were to sell to the Bennets.”

            “That news does not surprise me at all. To attack someone as beautiful as Miss Jane Bennet, someone who never finds fault in others, let alone cause anyone harm, it is a disgrace.”

            “Why would the ladies condemn Miss Bennet?”

            “Jane and her sister, Miss Elizabeth, are from Mr Bennet’s first wife, Mrs Fanny Bennet, nee Gardiner. Their mother passed just after giving birth to Miss Elizabeth.”

            “Their mother is deceased? Why would that be grounds for others to condemn the young ladies?”

            Sir William walked with his hands clasped behind his back.  “My friend was devastated after the loss of his wife. His aunt had returned from Antigua, and invited Bennet and his daughters to visit her, to remove them from Longbourn for a while. It was while he was visiting his aunt’s home that Bennet met Margaret. She was the niece of his aunt, from her husband’s side of the family. Margaret was born on Antiqua. Bennet fell in love with Margaret, and they married. They have been blessed with four children of their own, plus Jane and Lizzy.”

            “Why would people behave so over the man remarrying? It happens all the time, especially when there are children involved.” Darcy was still confused.

            Looking around to ensure their privacy, Sir William continued. “It is due to people believing Bennet should not have married Margaret. You see, the lady is what the Spanish call mulatto. Her father was the brother of Mrs O’Brien’s husband. Margaret’s mother’s people were brought to Antigua as a slave from Africa. Margaret, or as we refer to her, Maggie, is light of skin compared to her mother and her brother, but it is still clear that she is not white. Her family was freed by the O’Brien family, they refused to have slaves working their estate on Antigua. People here in England frown on such matches being made. Thomas Bennet had fallen in love with Maggie, and she loves him equally. They have a lovely family who are bright and caring, who see to the care of their tenants and their servants. You will never hear a cross word said about the Bennets from those on their estate.”

            “So, the reason Miss Elizabeth is not here with her elder sister is because of the criticism?”

            “Partially. She is strong willed and truly loyal. If someone does anything to harm her family, they will garner her wrath. Lizzy has never known Maggie as anything other than her mother, as she was only a day old when Fanny Bennet died. Jane was approaching her second birthday, though she cannot remember her mother other than what she has been told, yet she has always referred to Maggie as her stepmother, showing respect for her mother.  Bennet left the decision to Jane and Elizabeth with regards to how they refer to his second wife.”

            Darcy could understand the biased behavior of people, he had seen it before at Pemberley. His father had granted one of their tenant farms to the Coopers, a family who came from the Caribbean, the father having served Darcy’s uncle who had been a captain on a ship that sailed between the islands and England. Mr Joseph Cooper had saved the life of Darcy’s uncle, Gerald Darcy’s brother, Andrew. The younger brother was grateful to Mr Cooper and he pleaded with Gerald to find somewhere for Joseph, his wife, and their three children, so they would have a secured place to live and would never go hungry.

            But Darcy had seen the torment that the family was forced to endure. The family had lived and worked at Pemberley for more than twenty years, yet there were still people in the nearby villages who refused to be civil to the Coopers. Darcy’s heart was torn when he witnessed the way people treated the family, the cruelty and heartless behavior to which the family had to endure.

            “Please know that I do not hold with the beliefs of those who condemn someone for the color of their skin. We have a family who has been a part of Pemberley since I was a child, who came from the islands. They are hard workers, always willing to assist others, and some of the kindest people I have ever known. You will find that I abhor such behavior and will not tolerate it being done. My gratitude for your speaking with me, as I know it is a sensitive matter, and you have only just met me.”

            “As I said, I would rather you heard from me, rather than all the gossips. If their tongues are wagging tonight, Jane being here tonight is all they need to keep the rumors flowing for the next fortnight at least.”

            “If there is anything I can do to be of service to the Bennets, you need only ask. This morning I took a ride before breaking my fast, and I met…”

            “Met Miss Elizabeth either on one of the paths on her father’s estate or sitting at the top of Oakham Mount, reading a book.” Sir William commented with a chuckle.

            “Miss Elizabeth is known for her habits?”

            “Indeed. Our Lizzy is one of the most intelligent young ladies I have ever met in my life. Her father gave her the same sort of education that he has given his sons, but her thirst for knowledge has been far superior to all his other children. She is close friends with my daughter, Charlotte.”

            “I found her to be refreshing. The young lady is not like anyone I have met before.”

            Sir William placed his hand on Darcy’s shoulder, smiling at the gentleman. “Elizabeth Bennet is a diamond in the rough. You would be hard pressed to find another like her. Well, what say you to returning to the battlefield known as the assembly?”

            With a chuckle, Darcy nodded his head and the men returned inside. Darcy returned to the back of the room, after obtaining a glass of punch. In the shadows, the gentleman from Derbyshire sipped from his cup as he watched his friend dancing a second set with Miss Jane Bennet.

            Knowing Bingley’s sisters, he decided it would be best to speak with his friend in the morning, so he was not blindsided when Caroline and Louisa discovered the truth. The Bingley sisters would behave worse than the citizens of the area surrounding Meryton. They were used to the foolish behavior of the ton, doing what they could to ruin others so to gain attention for themselves. Charles was the opposite of his sisters. When Darcy was first introduced to his friend’s sisters, he was shocked. The thought crossed his mind that Bingley must have been adopted, as he had none of the qualities of his sisters.

            If Bingley was caught unknowing, he would be timid about speaking against his sisters. That was the last thing Darcy wished for his friend.

            In the carriage ride back to Netherfield that night, Darcy stared out the window, ignoring everything the sisters were saying about the lack of sophistication and how out of fashion all the ladies were in their gowns. Once they had arrived at Netherfield, Darcy went straight to his rooms after bidding his host good evening.

            Darcy had just arrived at the top of the stairs when he heard Miss Bingley commenting about Miss Bennet. “I do not know what the truth of the Bennet family is, but there is something strange about her.”

            “Caroline, Miss Bennet is an angel. She is lovely, sweet natured, and a delight to be around. I wish to know more about her, as I find her perfect.”

            “Charles, you always fall in love, then a week goes by and you find another lady with which to fall in love. Do not forget that you are a wealthy man who would be the perfect catch for some country nobody. Allow Louisa and I to spend some time with her, so we can determine more information about Miss Bennet. You must take into consideration all there is to know, her family’s wealth, their connections, and any secrets they may be hiding. We will invite her to take tea with us and learn what we can.”

            “You will not interrogate Miss Bennet. She is too sweet and gentle hearted. I will not allow you to treat her in such a manner.”

            Darcy knew where the conversation was heading and decided he could not wait until the following day to speak with his friend. “Bingley, shall we play a round of billiards?”

            Seeing his friend’s attempt to rescue him from Caroline, Bingley quickly agreed.

            Once the men were in the game room, with the door closed, Darcy poured two glasses of port. He handed one glass to his friend, taking the other with him as Darcy rounded the billiards table, preparing for a game.

            “I wish there were someone else I could have had join us to act as my hostess. Caroline will be the death of me, if I listen to her, I will end up in a loveless marriage to some debutant of the ton.”

            “What of your aunt? Would she be willing to act as your hostess if your sisters were to return to London?” Darcy inquired.

            Bingley gave his friend a curious look. “I have not even thought to ask Aunt Rose. Perhaps I could send her a letter tomorrow. If she agrees, I can tell my sisters to return to town. You would be much happier with Caroline away.”

            “You will have no quarrel from me on that issue, though I doubt Miss Bingley will leave, as long as I am still here. Perhaps I could say that I was planning to return to Pemberley, make it appear as if I was leaving to fool them.”

            “Caroline would only complain that she would rather follow you to Pemberley. No, it is time that I need to stand up to my sisters. They have had such control over my life, and it is time for it to stop.” Bingley puffed up his chest as he tried to make himself feel stronger than he felt.

            “Well, before we decide, I believe you should be made aware of information I learned from Sir William tonight.”