Elizabeth Bennett glanced at her Aunt Gardiner who was looking worriedly at the clock on the wall. They had been in the boutique far longer than they had anticipated. There had been so many beautiful items—from cashmere shawls and ivory fans to silk gowns and fine wool pelisses—that they had quite forgotten the time as they admired the things put on display in front of them. Elizabeth’s home town of Meryton in the Hertfordshire countryside had only a small milliner’s and fabric shop, which hardly gave a glimpse into the latest fashions. So it had been a rare treat to explore the range of shopping that London had to offer. And Madame Lemaine’s was reputed to be the best.
The best and the most expensive too, Elizabeth thought wryly. Indeed, she and her sister, Jane had only a meagre allowance of £50 a year, which could barely stretch to a few of the luxurious items in this shop. But it was still lovely to admire and dream. As it was, they had already made a number of small purchases—having been tempted far beyond their budget—and were even now awaiting the final alterations to an elegant cornflower-blue gown that was meant for Jane.
“I am very sorry, Aunt, that we should be late on my account,” said Jane, her face contrite.
“Oh, my dear, I should not worry if it were simply for ourselves. It is only because I have promised Mrs Needham that we would be at the Clarendon Hotel at four o’clock for Afternoon Tea and I should hate to break my word.”
“It should not be much longer,” said Elizabeth hopefully, watching the seamstress’s needle flash across the fabric. She turned to glance idly at the table next to them, where several other dresses were awaiting alterations, and noticed a gown of the most beautiful shell-pink, trimmed with delicate white lace and tiny seed pearls that shimmered on the bodice. “Oh, look, Jane—is that not the handsomest gown you have ever seen?”
“Indeed,” Jane agreed, reaching out to caress the fabric reverently. Her fingers came across a tag between the soft folds and she read the inscription. “Oh, it is addressed to Georgiana Darcy, Lizzy… Do you think that could be Mr Darcy’s sister?”
Mrs Gardiner nodded. “It is possible that there is another lady who bears the same name, but I think it highly unlikely. Madame Lemaine’s shop is patronised by the wealthiest and most influential in society—and I imagine that the Darcys are her regular customers. That gown is certainly one of the most luxurious I have ever seen.”
“Mr Darcy must dote on his sister, to purchase such a gown for her,” said Jane with a smile.
Elizabeth did not say anything. She could never think of Darcy without a prickle of irritation. She recalled their last meeting at the Netherfield ball. Why had he asked her to dance, only to remain stiff and silent throughout most of it? And when she had challenged him about his behaviour towards poor Mr Wickham, he had responded with haughty indifference. Oh, just thinking of it made her temper rise! She had never met another man who vexed her so.
To be sure, Mr Darcy was extremely attractive and Elizabeth had to grudgingly admit that she had not met a man his equal in physical perfection. There were none as tall and handsome, with such a fine figure and such a commanding presence. Something about him had drawn her to him—as it had drawn the gaze of every other woman in the room—when she first met him.
Elizabeth sighed inwardly. If she was honest with herself, she had to admit that part of the reason for her hostility was because she had been slighted by Mr Darcy when they first met. Her pride had been wounded. She still bristled when she recalled his dismissive comment:
“She is tolerable but not handsome enough to tempt me.”
The arrogance of such a comment had immediately set her feelings against him. However, she had been surprised to find on subsequent meetings that he seemed to pay her particular attention—that often she would glance up to find Darcy’s eyes upon her. She had been puzzled by his behaviour. She knew he did not admire her so why did he look at her? No doubt he watches me only to find more flaws in me to criticise, Elizabeth thought, her mouth tightening with annoyance.
She was brought out of her thoughts by the proprietor of the store, Madame Lemaine, coming across to speak to them. The elegant French woman was obviously wearing one of her own creations and Elizabeth eyed her silk crepe gown with admiration.
“Excusez-moi, madame,” she addressed Mrs Gardiner. “I could not help overhearing your conversation just now. If you and the mademoiselles need to leave first, that is no problem. I can arrange for my delivery boy to conduct the parcels to your residence later this afternoon when they are ready.”
“Really?” said Mrs Gardiner in delight. “That is extremely kind of you, Madame Lemaine!”
“Think nothing of it,” said Madame Lemaine. “It is a service I frequently provide for my customers. As you can imagine, many of them come to London on shopping excursions and are keen to spend their time more wisely than waiting in a store. This way, they are free to go on and visit other shops, whilst my seamstresses finish the necessary work.”
Mrs Gardiner inclined her head. “It is a most ideal solution. We shall take you up on your kind offer, Madame. Come, Jane and Lizzy—if we leave now, we should still be able to arrive punctually.”
They hurried from the shop and found a hackney cab to take them to the Clarendon Hotel. Elizabeth looked around with interest as they entered the elegant institution. Clarendon’s was well known for its French chef, who was a former servant of King Louis XVIII—indeed, it was often said that the Clarendon’s was the only place where a genuine French meal could be had.
They found Mrs Needham waiting for them in the beautiful little tea room off the main lobby and sat down together with her. A tea service in fine bone china was served, together with dainty little cakes, thin bread and butter, hot buttered scones and crumpets, cucumber sandwiches, French biscuits, and a bowl of ripe, red strawberries accompanied by a jug of rich cream. Elizabeth had to agree, after sampling the delicious treats, that the hotel’s culinary reputation was well deserved.
“And have you heard the news?” Mrs Needham asked them excitedly. “Mary King’s grandfather has passed away and left her a fortune of ten thousand pounds. She is a veritable heiress now!”
“Indeed?” said Mrs Gardiner. “How fortunate for her. I do not know the girl well, but Jane, you and Lizzy must have made her acquaintance, for her uncle lives not far from Meryton.”
“Yes, we have met Miss King a few times, though we do not know her very well yet,” said Jane. “I believe that she only entered society recently, for she is still just sixteen and, until now, has been living very quietly under her uncle’s guardianship.”
“Well, now that she is an heiress, life certainly will not be quiet anymore,” said Elizabeth with a chuckle. “Perhaps her uncle might even allow her to come to London and make her debut.”
Finally, the enjoyable tête-à-tête came to an end and they returned to the Gardiners’ modest residence in Gracechurch Street. Elizabeth was delighted to see, upon their return, that the packages from the shop had already been delivered. Together with Jane, she collected all the parcels and bore them to the bedroom they shared.
“You must try on your new gown this instant, Jane,” she said enthusiastically, taking hold of the largest parcel which was addressed to her sister. “I should like to see how it looks on you, now that the alterations have been made. I believe it will be the most elegant gown you have ever owned.”
Jane came and stood by her, watching eagerly as Elizabeth ripped open the packet. However, as she pulled back the brown paper, Elizabeth paused in confusion. The folds of cloth revealed were not a soft cornflower-blue but a pale shell-pink.
“Oh—that is not my gown!” cried Jane.
“Indeed, it is not,” Elizabeth agreed. “This looks like the gown for Georgiana Darcy. Do you think there has been a mistake?” She turned the parcel over to look at the outside again. Clearly written in bold, black writing was Jane’s name and their aunt’s address. Elizabeth frowned. “It is definitely addressed to you.”
She turned the packet over again and carefully lifted out the soft bundle. Her eyes caught the sight of a piece of paper tucked amongst the folds. She extracted this slowly. It was a copy of the receipt and as she unfolded it and saw Darcy’s sister’s name, her suspicions were confirmed.
“I imagine that in the rush to get things packed and delivered, there must have been a mistake and the contents of the parcels were swapped. I wonder if Miss Darcy has received your gown?”
“Oh dear,” said Jane. “What a muddle. What are we to do?”
“I suppose we shall have to inform Madame Lemaine about the mix-up and ask her to return this gown to its rightful owner,” Elizabeth said. “Otherwise, we shall have to inform the Darcys ourselves. I imagine that they are at staying at their townhouse. I do not know if we could write to Miss Darcy directly as we have not been introduced; perhaps it would require our uncle to write to Mr Darcy.” Elizabeth made a face. “I should dislike having to contact that gentleman.”
Jane looked at her in mild surprise. “Lizzy, why do you dislike Mr Darcy so? I own, he can be a bit taciturn at times, but I imagine that it is simply his manner and no indication of his character.”
“You are too good, Jane,” said Elizabeth, shaking her head. “But I have long decided that Mr Darcy is the most disagreeable man I have ever had the misfortune to meet and I should be very glad to have nothing else to do with him. In any case, even if we were to contact him, I doubt he would lower himself to any connections with people on this side of town.” She gave a mocking smile. “I would imagine that Mr Darcy has instructed his butler to refuse all correspondence from Cheapside and would disapprove of his footmen sullying their feet by coming here to retrieve the parcel.”
Jane shook her head. “I think you are being unjust to Mr Darcy, Lizzy. But very well—perhaps the best course of action would be to contact Madame Lemaine and ask her to organise an exchange.” Jane sighed. “Oh dear… It will mean asking our aunt and uncle to send one of their servants back to Madame Lemaine’s shop with a message about the mix-up and I should not like to trouble them. They have been excessively kind already to provide so much transport and chaperonage for us while we are in town.”
“I agree,” said Elizabeth. “But it cannot be helped. We shall have to trespass on their kindness a little further. Perhaps we could broach the topic at the dinner table tonight.”
In actual fact, Elizabeth was wrong about Darcy’s reaction. Indeed, he was surprised by his own reaction when he learned from his sister that the package delivered to her had contained the wrong gown. When she told him it had come with another parcel, which was addressed to Miss Elizabeth Bennet, he had been uncomfortably aware of how his pulse had jumped at the sound of that name.
Darcy had been attempting unsuccessfully to put the beautiful, spirited Elizabeth from his mind ever since leaving Hertfordshire. After all, there was no question of him offering for her. The difference in their backgrounds and family positions should have precluded the possibility entirely, not to mention the complete want of propriety in so many members of her family.
Still… Darcy had been unable to put Elizabeth completely from his mind. Thoughts of her had persisted in tormenting him: fragments of conversations they had had at the Netherfield ball… the feel of her hand in his as they danced… the sparkle of laughter in those fine eyes when she had found something amusing… Somehow, no other woman had captivated him like this before.
He glanced down at the package that his sister had placed in front of him. And now here was an opportunity for him to see her again.
“Fancy Madame Lemaine making a mistake like that!” said Georgiana as she stood next to him. “What shall we do, Fitzwilliam? Should we return to Madame’s shop with the wrong packages and ask her to deliver them to these young ladies? And I wonder if they might have my gown? Oh, I did so want to wear it for the soirée!”
Darcy knew what they should do, but suddenly it was as if his body had been separated from his mind, and his heart was directing his actions. He opened his mouth and was surprised at the words which came out:
“I am acquainted with these young ladies—I met them during my stay with Bingley in Hertfordshire. I believe this is the address for their uncle’s residence in Cheapside; they must be in town and staying with their relatives in Gracechurch Street.” He nodded at Georgiana. “You may leave it with me. I shall send a servant there now with a note enquiring about the packages—and also your gown.”
Georgiana gave him a puzzled look and Darcy thought she would ask him why he did not simply send the servant with the packages themselves. But luckily she did not voice the question. Though Georgiana had a lively disposition and could even be slightly defiant at times, she was also more than ten years his junior and well used to obeying him.
Indeed, most women of his acquaintance hardly ever questioned him—they simpered and fawned over him and could not please him enough. It was not until he met Elizabeth that Darcy realised how much he detested all that submissive adulation. Elizabeth was the first woman to challenge him and she had bewitched him with her playful impertinence and fiery intelligence. He glanced down at the package again and smiled to himself. Suddenly, he could not wait to see her again.
When Jane and Elizabeth sat down to dinner that evening with their aunt and uncle, Mrs Gardiner asked her husband if he would be making his customary trip to his warehouses the next morning.
“No, my dear, for I shall have a visitor tomorrow morning. Mr Darcy means to call upon us.”
“Mr Darcy!” said Elizabeth in surprise, clattering her fork against her dish. “Coming here?”
Her uncle glanced at her. “Yes. I believe that he is in possession of some packages which should have been delivered to you and Jane. His note asks if he might call and bring the packages, and in the process, retrieve the one that was meant for his sister.”
“But why should Mr Darcy come and do that himself?” wondered Elizabeth. “Surely he could simply send a servant?”
Mr Gardiner shrugged. “One does not wonder at the whims of great men. Perhaps he is bored and fancies a trip to Cheapside,” he said with a humorous look.
Elizabeth shook her head. “It does not make sense…”
Mrs Gardiner looked speculatively at her nieces. It certainly did not make sense for Mr Darcy to come on the errand himself—unless he was keen to have the opportunity of meeting one of her nieces. She had not missed the fact that though Elizabeth often spoke of him in dismissive terms, her niece became very animated whenever she did speak of that gentleman. There seemed to be a great strength of feeling there, although whether that feeling was all animosity as Elizabeth claimed, it was hard to tell. In any case, Mrs Gardner decided that it would not hurt for the ladies to remain home the next morning and take the opportunity of meeting the visitor.
Accordingly, the next morning, the ladies sat in the pretty parlour overlooking the street. Jane was working on a piece of embroidery and Mrs Gardner was writing a letter, whilst Elizabeth was attempting to read a novel. However, she was vexed to find that her mind kept straying from the page. Indeed, it strayed in the most unusual direction—towards a tall, arrogant gentleman with piercing dark eyes and haughty manners. She found that she was listening constantly for the sound of a carriage drawing up outside the house and berated herself for her preoccupation. Surely she was not anticipating the arrival of Mr Darcy?
At last, the sound that Elizabeth had been listening for came from outside. Mrs Gardiner got up and walked over to look out the windows, whilst Elizabeth forced herself not to follow her aunt’s example.
“Ah… it is Mr Darcy,” said Mrs Gardiner. She turned and made swiftly for the hallway. “I shall go and ask if he would like to come and take tea with us in the parlour instead of seeing your uncle in his study. After all, it is only polite to offer him refreshment after the trouble he has taken to come here.”
Elizabeth looked at her aunt in surprise, but before she had time to reflect further, Mr Darcy was at the parlour door. She rose hurriedly and curtsied as the tall gentleman was escorted into the room by her aunt and uncle.
“Miss Bennet. Miss Elizabeth Bennett.” Darcy swept them an elegant bow, then seated himself on one of the settees.
“Mr Darcy, we are honoured to welcome you to our humble abode,” said Mrs Gardiner.
“The honour is mine,” said Darcy quickly. “I apologise for the intrusion, but I felt that it was imperative to deliver these parcels as quickly as possible. My sister impressed upon me the urgency with which young ladies need to receive their latest purchases,” he said with a slight smile as he indicated the two brown parcels he had brought with him.
Elizabeth stared at him in astonishment. She had never heard him speak with such civility nor conduct himself in such an unassuming manner.
Jane reached out to take the packages from Mr Darcy and pulled back the brown paper to check the contents. “Oh, yes… it is my gown… and this is the shawl that you purchased, Lizzy.” She turned and picked up another parcel on the side table, passing it over to Darcy. “And I believe this is your sister’s gown, Mr Darcy.”
Darcy gave the contents of the package a cursory glance. “Yes, I believe it is so. Georgiana will be pleased to have it ready for the soirée we are hosting tomorrow night at Darcy House.”
“I am sure she will look delightful in it,” said Jane with a smile.
Elizabeth was aware of Darcy’s eyes upon her and given that she was the only person who had not yet spoken, she felt obliged to make a comment. “Is Miss Darcy enjoying her stay in London?” she asked.
“Yes, though I believe she found it a trifle lonely at first. She was used to her circle of friends back at my estate in Derbyshire. But luckily our neighbour, Mrs St John, has had a young relative come to stay with her from the countryside and, in the past few weeks, my sister and Miss St John have become firm friends. Miss St John is a few years older than Georgiana, but they are very alike in temperament. They have been delightful companions for each other and it has helped to make Georgiana’s time in town far more enjoyable.”
“That is good to hear,” said Elizabeth. “And it is certainly true that having a good friend can make a trying experience far easier to endure—as I am sure you will agree, Mr Darcy, given your recent stay in the countryside,” she added with a teasing smile.
Darcy looked amused. “I assure you, Miss Bennet, I did not find my stay in Hertfordshire as unpleasant as you seem to imply. However, I fully admit that it was greatly enhanced by the pleasure of Bingley’s company.”
As he mentioned his friend, Darcy glanced at Jane, and Elizabeth wondered if he realised how disappointed her sister had been when they learned that Bingley had quit Netherfield so suddenly after the ball. Instead of the marriage proposal that everyone had been expecting, Jane had been left feeling abandoned, bewildered, and unsure of Bingley’s intentions.
Jane coloured uncomfortably and looked away, as if aware of their thoughts. Elizabeth wondered if Bingley realised they were in town. She knew that Jane had written to Caroline Bingley, but had not had a reply from the lady as yet. She longed to ask Darcy about his friend, but she did not want to upset Jane. Instead, she let the subject drop and sat back as her uncle engaged Darcy in conversation.
Elizabeth was surprised again to observe Darcy responding in kind and completely without hauteur or disdain. He chatted amicably with her uncle, talking of fishing, hunting, and travel—things in which they shared a mutual interest and enjoyment. She was pleased to note that with every expression and every sentence he uttered, her uncle showed his intelligence, his taste, and his good manners. It was immensely gratifying to know that Darcy would at last see she had some relations for whom there was no need to blush.
At length, Darcy stood up to take his leave. As he was bending over her hand, he looked into her eyes and said, “It has been a pleasure to meet you again, Miss Bennet.”
Elizabeth knew not how to answer this. She did not feel that she could reply in kind—and yet she was surprised to discover that she had enjoyed his visit far more than she had expected.
Darcy smiled slightly. “Will you allow me, or do I ask too much, to introduce my sister to your acquaintance during your stay in London?”
Elizabeth stared at him in astonishment. His wish of introducing his sister to her was a compliment of the highest kind. In spite of her professed antagonism towards him, she was pleased and flattered. “Thank you, I should like that very much,” she said.
Darcy’s smile deepened and she felt her heart give a little jolt as she saw the warmth in his eyes. He turned towards her aunt and uncle. “Perhaps I might take this opportunity to invite you all to the soirée at Darcy House tomorrow night? It is merely a small affair with a few close friends—amongst them, some who claim an acquaintance with you: Mr Bingley and his sisters—but it should be an entertaining evening.”
Mrs Gardiner threw a quick glance at her nieces and said smoothly, “That is most kind, Mr Darcy. I think I speak for my nieces when I say we should be glad to accept.”
Elizabeth found herself strangely excited by the prospect of their engagement at Darcy House, and she saw that she was not the only one. A study of Jane’s preoccupied air told her that her sister was also thinking of the invitation and the prospect of seeing Bingley again. It was not until they were in their shared bedchamber that evening, however, that Elizabeth found the chance to ask Jane about her feelings.
“I know I appeared discomfited for a moment in the parlour this morning,” said Jane. “But ‘twas merely a momentary sensation. I do assure you, I am not greatly perturbed by the prospect of seeing Mr Bingley again. He shall certainly remain as one of the most amiable gentleman of my acquaintance—but given his quick departure from Netherfield and his continued absence, I believe that I may have misinterpreted his intentions towards me during his stay in Hertfordshire. I am resolved not to make the same mistake again.”
“We do not know the reason that he left Netherfield so swiftly,” Elizabeth pointed out. “There may have been a perfectly legitimate reason why he was unable to return to the country. And you will admit that he could not send you a letter to explain himself, due to the dictates of society which prevents a gentleman from writing to a lady.”
“Yes,” said Jane quietly. “But he must have known that I was in town this past week, for I wrote to Miss Bingley as soon as we arrived. Surely she would have passed the news on to him? Therefore, I must conclude that they are aware of me being in London, but have no desire to renew the acquaintance.”
“His sister, perhaps,” said Elizabeth. “But not Mr Bingley, I am sure. No one who has seen you together can doubt the strength of his affections.”
“Oh, Lizzy!” Jane sighed. “Would that you are right! But I shall not allow myself to hope—that way leads to heartache and disappointment. I shall simply think of him as nothing more than an amiable young man whose company I enjoy. I look forward to a pleasant evening at Darcy House and Mr Bingley will be no more than yet another of the guests that we are to meet there.”
Elizabeth wanted to argue but decided that perhaps it was best to leave things as they were. She too did not want to raise false hopes for Jane. She knew that her sister’s spirits had been very low since Bingley had left Netherfield. Even coming to town had not done much to lift her spirits. That morning had been the first time she had seen some colour in Jane’s cheeks and she did not doubt that it was due to agitation at the thought of seeing Bingley again.
As for herself, Elizabeth felt a lively curiosity for Darcy House and its inhabitants. Naturally, her anticipation was for meeting the sister and not the brother, she assured herself. Indeed, the prospect of spending an evening in Darcy’s company filled her with dread and not pleasure! Nevertheless, her thoughts returned continually to the prospect and she found that she was looking forward to the soirée with much impatience.
The next evening, Elizabeth looked out of the window excitedly as the carriage circled Grosvenor Square and pulled up in front of the elegant facade of Darcy House. With its six-pane sash windows and fluted pilasters in perfect symmetry with the pedimented portico, it was one of the most majestic residences in the square. They alighted from the carriage and mounted the steps to enter the impressive foyer with its high ceiling and checked marble floors. The butler took their wraps and coats, then led them towards the drawing room, from which the sounds of conversation and laughter could be heard. Everyone stopped talking and looked up as they entered, then Bingley sprang to his feet.
“Miss Bennet!” He hurried forwards, his blue eyes bright with excitement, and caught hold of Jane’s hands. “When Darcy told me that you were in town, I was absolutely delighted! It has been a very long time since I have had the pleasure of seeing you—indeed, we have not met since the twenty-sixth of November, when we were dancing together at the Netherfield ball.”
Jane blushed and gave him a shy smile. “I had not thought to find your memory so exact, Mr Bingley,” she said.
“But of course it is exact!” he said, still holding her hands. “I cannot recollect a happier time than the few months I spent in Hertfordshire with your company… er… that is to say…” he stammered, reddening as he realised what he had uttered. He dropped his hands and looked away.
Darcy had approached them by now with his sister, as host and hostess, to welcome the new guests. Elizabeth looked at Georgiana with interest. Like her brother, she was tall, but unlike him, she had yet to enter fully into adulthood. Her figure was not yet that of a grown woman and her manner brought to mind an eager schoolgirl delighted to be let out of the classroom at last. Indeed, she reminded Elizabeth a little of herself at the same age. Georgiana was perhaps slightly more reserved, though this was probably more due to the austere presence of her brother at her side. Elizabeth reflected wryly that if she had grown up with an elder brother like Darcy as guardian—instead of her indulgent parents—she was likely to be a very different person! When Georgiana darted a quick look upwards and caught her eye, Elizabeth gave her a warm smile and was gratified to see the other girl return it instantly.