It must be his puppy eyes, which begged me to help him over the affairs of his leased estate. It was the same puppy eyes that convinced me to accept his friendship in Cambridge. Richard, my cousin, often laughed at my affinity towards all things pitiful. I would never call Bingley pitiful, for he was an amiable man in fine clothes. With a fortune of five thousand a year and enough money to purchase an estate, a fraction of the size of Pemberley, Bingley's station in life created the feeling of envy in the chests of many other young gentlemen. And he was considered an excellent catch among the ladies, even though his wealth came from trade.
One thing annoyed me most about Bingley was his casual attitude of making friends. The house party of five which were to consist of his immediate family now turned into a dozen! And where did he find all these odd house guests? From shallow women to self-important men, did Bingley want to flood his new neighbourhood with the bad lots from town?
I listened to the conversation in the carriage with tight lips and a frown. I hope the country folks in Hertfordshire would not associate Bingley's acquaintances with me. I upheld a higher standard than them! After all, I was not called the Thunder Magistrate of the North for nothing.
To make matter worse, Bingley agreed to attend the blasted Assembly on our behalf. When was the last time I had attended an assembly or danced at one? I had no idea at all. Perhaps five or six years ago, before Father had died and when I had been younger than Bingley now.
I did not feel at ease with strangers, except to interrogate them. I had even less interest in dancing with any ladies, except to question their virtues. The ladies from London exasperated me. When I said the sky was orange and the air foul, when they were clearly neither, women whom I danced with always agreed readily. I knew that finding someone to challenge me was like asking for a sparkling lake in the middle of a desert.
I was determined to spend my days taking care of Georgiana, the servants, the tenants, and my Great Danes. And of course, resolving the injustice when I was called upon. Marriage and heir were both not for a loner like me.
I wished I had stuck to my resolve and stayed at Netherfield. But the shifty eyes of Miss Bingley made me shudder. As my perpetual supporter and pursuer, she was ready to plead fatigue and stay with me, if I decided not to attend the Assembly.
After careful consideration of the two evils, I joined the party for the Assembly. That was true, I considered and pondered things time after time. I frowned on impulsiveness and rashness. They were two great weaknesses I tried to avoid in my whole life.
Back to the issues at hand, the jolting of the carriage brought me back to the present situation.
I looked at the ladies sitting opposite me and shivered. Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley were dressed very fashionably, too fashionably I would say. Especially for Miss Bingley.
She was near my hight and yet she had a tall turban on her head. The concoction was so colourful that it made her look like a tree with a blooming crown. The hem of her dress was so full that it caused us, the gentlemen, on the opposite side of the carriage, without much leg room.
I should have brought my own barouche. One thing I hated most was to have my legs folded up. Luckily it was only a few minutes drive to Meryton Assembly. Mrs. Hurst dressed slightly less elaborate, less colourful and occupied less space. But her attention to me was equally unwelcome. I turned my eyes out of the window. From the bright moonlight shining on the country lane, I could see the two carriages in front of us, carrying the other eight guests. The second carriage, the one right in front of us, was exceptionally slow, like its axle was about to break. The wheels were smeared with white mud. Bingley should speak to his friends. Their servants needed to be told to do a better job.
If I were the driver of our carriage, I would have pulled our one outside and took over the second carriage. Sometimes I did not understand myself. I frowned upon rashness and yet I hoped to be free of society's constraint.
Finally, the carriages came to a halt. I eagerly jumped out of it and left Bingley to hand out his sisters. I glanced at the other two carriages, all of Bingley's guests had arrived safely. I raised my head to scan the building in front of me. The assembly room looked quite small, perhaps three-quarters of the size of the one in Lambton. It was fully lit up, with plenty of noise and music, which brought on a frown on my forehead.
There would be a lot of strangers, fawning mothers, and witless women. The food and wine would be substandard. I hope it would be warm enough. Today was an icy October day.
“Do you think we will be quite safe here ?” Miss Bingley whispered to my ear.
How did she come to stand so near me without me noticing it? I shivered, scrunched my nose at the strong smell from her body. She smelled like rotten grass. Or was it a hamster? I was not entirely sure, only that it was not natural, nor sweet. I heard her discussing the latest scent she procured from a French modiste that cost a fortune but was highly sought after. I wondered at the ladies' senseless expenditure. I stepped away from her, nodded my head curtly and then walked into the Assembly following Bingley.
Tonight's strategy was to avoid Miss Bingley and any women at all costs. I hoped Charles and Henry did not dance too much, or I would not be left with any sensible person to talk to for hours.
Sir William Lucas, the local dignitary, came to greet us. He brought along his daughter, Miss Lucas. Charles introduced all 11 of us. I could see people nearby hushed and gossiped, assessing each one of us like we were a herd of sheep in a market.
Bingley went off to dance with Miss Lucas, out of courtesy for she was quite plain, and I could see his eyes straying across the room from time to time, to look for a better prospect. As soon as I heard people talking about my 10,000 a year, I stalked off to a corner of the wall and observed the people.
Some of them dressed reasonably well. The town must be doing quite all right, due to its proximity to London. There were some pleasant looking young women. If they did not gaze at me so often and whispered in hushed voices, I would have tried to stand near them and listen to their conversation. But many of them stared at me curiously. I had no interest to put myself forward to these impolite people and talk to them. I did not ask for being introduced to many people either.
After a while, their interest turned to talk about Frank Churchill, Bingley, and his sister. After all, they were elegantly dressed and only less wealthy than me.
I walked around the room for about half an hour, observing the follies of the people, until Bingley came to ask me to dance with a sister of the prettiest girl in the room. He had been dancing and chatting with Miss Bennet just then.
I was annoyed by Bingley's words. Why would I want his second best when I could have any woman in London, let alone Hertfordshire. I brushed him off with some strict set down about the sister.
But the blasted the lady seemed to have heard my harsh words. I was worried she would burst out crying, drawing attention to us and forcing me to apologise. But she walked past, right under my nose, went to stand beside Miss Lucas and chatted to her eagerly, laughing and darting her eyes my way all the while. What was so funny for being considered not handsome enough to dance with?
I took a closer look at the young woman. She was dressed in a simple pale yellow muslin gown that accentuated her curve.
I was always a bosom man, and her bosom looked perfect in size. But that could have been the illusion of the candles or the distance she was away from me. I would leave the verdict till later until I could hold her to assess. That was entirely not possible to happen. However, my nose still sensed her scent. It was lavender, fresh and natural, ten times more stimulating than Miss Bingley's new fragrance from Paris.
My eyes stayed with the lady while my thoughts drifted to more pleasant things.
Suddenly a loud scream startled me.
Oh, what a sight!
Miss Bingley who stood by the fireplace had a monster long snake wrapped around her right leg. The snake was about 10 feet long. Judging by the beautiful green pattern, it was an exotic spice, not native to England.
Several women fainted, adding more chaos to the situation. Many men backed away.
“Please stop screaming, Miss Bingley.” The young woman with the perfect bosom said. What was her name again? And why was she not afraid of the snake? She spoke with such a soothing tone that Miss Bingley finally stopped screaming.
I moved near the pair. “Yes be calm,” I told Miss Bingley. “If you calm down the snake will not constrict you.”
Miss Bingley should be commended, for surprisingly she did not faint. She nodded her head fervently.
“Should we pry the snake from Caroline's leg?” Charles said gingerly, standing about 20 yards from us.
“I don't think so.” Both Miss Elizabeth and I spoke in unison. I finally remembered her name and wondered at her knowledge about snakes. Her eyes still focussed on Miss Bingley. She continued, “Miss Bingley, this seems to be an anaconda. It is not a poisonous snake. It will not harm you unless you agitate it. If you relax your body, it will not constrict you. I have already asked Charlotte to send someone to fetch Farmer Gabriel. He is the man most knowledgeable about snakes in Meryton.”
Instead of calming Miss Bingley, Miss Elizabeth's reassurance seemed to send the victim into a frenzy.
Miss Bingley hurled out harsh words at her brother. “It is all your fault, Charles! This is my newest gown. It cost me a fortune to procure it! I bought it especially to ensnare Mr. Darcy. This is my last chance. Or else I have to compromise him one night. I am not young anymore.”
The improper words tumbled out of her mouth non-stop. She raised her arm and pointed fingers at her brother who was some distance away. Her crazed state caused the snake to react, and it started to round its way further up her leg.
“Ah...Ah!” She cried out in pain.
“It bites me! It bites me!” She burst out in tears. “I'm going to die! I'm going to die! I don't want to die! I haven't secured Mr. Darcy yet. I want to be Mistress of Pem...ber...ley!” The name of my estate was spilt out slowly. Finally, all the strength left her, and she fainted.
If not for the quick thinking of Miss Elizabeth, who courageously stepped forward and hold Miss Bingley's left arm and supported her waist, Miss Bingley would have dropped onto the floor in a heap, allowing the anaconda to wrap itself over her entire body.
I jumped immediately forward to hold Miss Bingley's right arm and together, we managed to lower the victim to a chair nearby. Then I held Miss Elizabeth's elbow and guided her to step slightly away from Miss Bingley and the snake.
Miss Elizabeth nodded.
“Is she dead?” Bingley's voice hitched. There were more crying, sobbing and screams in the Assembly. The place turned into a bedlam, but at least none of the people were brave enough to come closer to us.
“No, Mr. Bingley,” Miss Elizabeth said. “Anaconda is not poisonous. Its bites will not kill your sister. She has just fainted.”
“And it looks like it is relaxing its hold of Miss Bingley's leg, now that Miss Bingley has fainted and does not agitate the snake,” I commented.
At this point, two men came rushing towards us, one with a cage and the other with a long stick.
“Stay away, sirs and madams.” This must be Farmer Gabriel; and judging by the face of the young man, his son.
“Oh what a beauty!” Farmer Gabriel commented, definitely about the snake, not Miss Bingley, because his eyes did not leave the creature for a second.
I pulled Miss Elizabeth further away from the snake catchers, unconsciously pressing her close to my chest. Although she looked like she was not afraid of monster snakes, I had a strong instinct to protect her from harm's way.
“Farmer Gabriel spread the smell of hamster or rabbit on his stick. You know, snakes like to eat them.” Miss Elizabeth turned her face to explain to me. Her ruby lips were incredibly close to mine. Her eyes still trained on the action near Miss Bingley. I was sure she had no idea how close we were together and how very aroused I was by her sweet scent and alluring shape. I darted my eyes around the room, observing that many men were fascinated by Farmer Gabriel's action, except one of the Netherfield's party. Why was John walking away from the scene?
“He is going to lure the snake away,” I commented, close to Miss Elizabeth's ears.
“Yes,” she nodded her head.
“YES!” She cried out the word again, loud and in triumph, as Farmer Gabriel successfully lured the giant snake into the large cage his son was holding and closed it. And she turned around to hug me.
Her youthful jubilation affected me, and I returned her embrace, giving her a tight squeeze. Her form was amazing, and her bosom was absolutely perfect! Pressed against my hard torso, I felt I could melt into her sweet flesh for days. Swallowing hard, I tried to think of something to suppress the instant arousal, for fear of disgracing myself.
My eyes turned to the heap on the chair.
Miss Bingley's colourful turban hang loose and lopsided. Her gown had a tear, perhaps damaged by Farmer Gabriel's sharp long stick. Part of the hem was pushed up by the anaconda, making her torn stocking display for every man's eyes to see. I was relieved that Miss Bingley was not hurt but the crazy words she spurted out before she fainted left me utterly disgusted.
“Charles,” I signalled to Bingley. He understood me and immediately jumped to action, shielding his sister from others' view.
My word seemed to startle Miss Elizabeth as well.
“Excuse me!” She said, blushing furiously as she dropped her hands from my neck. Her captivating eyes showed a mixture of confusion and passion. I released her immediately. She moved to Miss Bingley's side and pulled down the victim's hem.
Miraculously Miss Lucas came forward with a wrap to cover Miss Bingley up. As Farmer Gabriel took the snake out of the Assembly, some form of normality seemed to return to the hall. The music started again, and many went back to eating, drinking, and dancing.
“Out to the anteroom!” Mrs. Hurst barked out the words at her brother.
Bingley followed the order, picking Miss Bingley up, with Miss Elizabeth on the other side, and moved the victim to the anteroom. I followed behind, and so did a few people.
Once the door in the anteroom was closed, Mrs. Hurst spit out the words: “I want this Farmer Gabriel arrested for releasing the snake to harm Caroline!” She was standing a few yards away from her fainted sister, with arms folded and face angry. She looked on to Miss Lucas, Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth using cold water on a handkerchief to try to bring Miss Bingley to her senses.
“What?” Miss Elizabeth cried out, stopping her work and turning to look at Mrs. Hurst. “The anaconda cannot be released by Farmer Gabriel!” Miss Elizabeth defended the absent snake catcher.
“How can you be sure?” Mrs. Hurst argued. “He came so quickly and instantly knows how to get the snake away from Caroline. He must be the one who released it to the Assembly.”
“I asked Charlotte to send for him. He lives very close to here.”
“Yes, our manservant said Farmer Gabriel was asleep already.” Miss Lucas confirmed. “He could not have done it.”
“He lives nearby, he has the opportunity to do it. He could have put the snake in the assembly earlier and then went home to pretend to sleep.”
“What would Farmer Gabriel gain in doing so?” Miss Elizabeth challenged. Good thinking. I agreed. The honest looking farmer did not have the motive.
Mrs. Fanny Dashwood helped her friend Mrs. Hurst to answer. “He knows that there will be a lot of notable people here tonight from London. He wants to get his name out to society, so he has more jobs in catching snakes.”
Miss Elizabeth laughed out loud. “That is the most absurd argument I have ever heard. Farmer Gabriel loves his farm and his life here. He cares not a thing about London and its society. He does not catch snakes, as a job.”
I nodded my head, totally agreed that Mrs. Dashwood's view was as far-fetched as the tale of Miss Bingley being constricted by a snake at a local assembly.
“You seem to know a lot about snake too!” Miss Bingley cried out. She just woke up and must have seen my admiration of Miss Elizabeth's sense and courage. So she pointed her finger at Miss Elizabeth. “It must be you, Miss Eliza! You organised the whole thing to humiliate us. I heard people said that you are a local beauty. You must be worried that we, the elegant ladies from London, will make you pale in comparison.”
Miss Elizabeth continued to laugh and shook her head. “I allow you to be in shock, Miss Bingley, and will not take offence at your charges. Charlotte, perhaps we should fetch your father to resolve the matter, if Mrs. Hurst really wants to press charges against Farmer Gabriel. Sir William is our magistrate.”
“No, Mr. Darcy should be the one deciding!” Miss Bingley said. “Sir William will be on your side, Miss Eliza. I want this shameful woman to be charged too. Mr. Darcy is the most famous magistrate in England, the Thunder Magistrate of the North. He will make sure justice is done for me.” Her fawning praise gave me shudder. “And I want her lock up, in a cell!” Miss Bingley pointed at Miss Eliza again.
“Caroline,” Charles said timidly, as he looked on Miss Bennet who had tears in her eyes on hearing her sister being accused. “I am sure it is all an accident...”
“Shut up, Charles!” Miss Bingley turned onto her brother angrily.
I shook my head at the display of the Bingleys. How did they come to be my friends? Two unreasonable women who did not know who they should be grateful for and one weak man still afraid of his older sisters.
I came forward. “Miss Lucas, it is true that I am a magistrate from the north. Can you ask your father and Mr. John Dashwood to come in here? I think I know who is the one who brings the snake to the Assembly.”
“Why do you want my husband here? What are you hinting at, Mr. Darcy?” said Mrs. Dashwood with a deep frown. I was sure if I were not a man of great fortune, she would have torn me to pieces for calling his husband in.
“I beg for your indulgence,” I turned to Mrs. Dashwood with a smile. When Miss Lucas have gone out of the room, I asked Miss Elizabeth. “How long have you known Farmer Gabriel?”
“All my life! Their family have been a tenant for the Longs for many generations.”
“What sort of building does Farmer Gabriel have?”
“A traditional hut made of wood...ah...I understand what you want to know. You want to see if he has any place to hide the snake?”
“Yes, anaconda is from a warm country. The last few days would be too cold for it if it does not have a warm place to stay.
“No Farmer Gabriel will not have a place to put it.”
“He must have hidden it in his house!” Mrs. Dashwood cried out.
“Why should we believe what you say? What if you are lying?” Miss Bingley spatted out.
Miss Elizabeth laughed. “If you could see Farmer Gabriel's house! It is not large enough for his children and grandchildren.” She shook her head.
“If you do not believe me, you can always ask your Thunder Magistrate to investigate this. Farmer Gabriel's house is not a mile from here.”
“That is quite fine, Miss Elizabeth,” I reassured the sensible lady. At that moment, John Dashwood came into the room together with Sir William.
“Dashwood, can you tell us why you bring this exotic snake into Hertfordshire?”
“What nonsense are you talking about, Mr. Darcy?” Mrs. Dashwood cried out. “My John would have done nothing of the sort!” Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst also agreed, while the locals in the room murmured their opinions about the unreasonable visitors.
John shifted his weight from one leg to another. “Indeed, Darcy! I would n..ever do such a thing. And where can I find this exotic snake?”
“From the port?” I stared at him with stern eyes.
?”I...I have not been to any port,” he replied shakily.
“Nonsense!” Mrs. Dashwood protest.
“Then how can you explain the sea salt on the wheels of your carriage?” I pushed further.
John's face turned bright red.
“John, when did you go to the port?” His wife cried out, on seeing his guilty expression.
“And how do you explain why your carriage travelled so slowly from Netherfield to here. It looked a lot heavier, than just four persons.”
“It is not a crime to bring an exotic snake to the countryside!” John defended.
“But it would be a crime if the snake injured Miss Bingley.”
“She is not hurt!” John protested. “As fawning and delusional as always, even after the snake bite!”
“Shut up!” His wife swatted him on the shoulder. “And where did you get this monster? And under our carriage? What if it lashed onto Harry and injured him?”
John begged his wife for forgiveness and explained. “I brought it from Dover. Captain Tilney said he will pay me handsomely for the trouble and will be coming to the assembly to pick it up.”
Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley looked at their friends' row about the snake transfer with disgust. They asked for the carriage and urged their brother and I to go with them back to Netherfield immediately. Bingley looked at his angel, Miss Bennet, with longing eyes but agreed to his sisters' demand.
I bowed to the Bingleys and guided the misses Bennet out of the room. When I asked for Miss Elizabeth's hand for a dance, she arched her eyebrows and said, “Did I not hear you finding me not handsome enough to tempt you for a dance?”
My mouth gaped open for a second and saw her leave me to rejoin her family. For the first time in my life, I was outwitted by a woman. But I was not discouraged, I followed her around and stayed near to listen to her conversation with other people.
“Why did you think the monster snake chose to wrap around Miss Bingley's leg?” Miss Elizabeth's younger sister Catherine asked.
“She looks like a tree!” Miss Lydia giggled. “The hem of her gown is bigger than the base of the oak tree in our garden.”
I ventured to join in the conversation: “It is cold, and anaconda is looking for some warmth.”
“I wonder how you know that Miss Bingley has a hot leg?” Miss Elizabeth gazed at me with a teasing smile.
What could I say? My eyes drifted to Miss Elizabeth's legs. I would like to find out how hot her legs were instead.