COLONEL FITZWILLIAM’S MANNERS were very much admired at the Parsonage, and the ladies all felt that he must add considerably to the pleasures of their engagements at Rosings. It was some days, however, before they received any invitation thither-for while there were visitors in the house, they could not be necessary; and it was not till Easter-day, almost a week after the Colonel’s arrival, that they were honoured by such an attention, and then they were merely asked on leaving church to come there in the evening.
The invitation was accepted of course, and at a proper hour they joined the party in Lady Catherine’s drawing-room. Her ladyship received them civilly, but it was plain that their company was by no means so acceptable as when she could get nobody else.
Colonel Fitzwilliam seemed really glad to see them; anything was a welcome relief to him at Rosings; and Mrs. Collins’s pretty friend had moreover caught his fancy very much. He now seated himself by her, and talked so agreeably of the engagements at Manchester, of the marvel of new mechanical weapons, of his favourite methods of slaying the sorry stricken, that Elizabeth had never been half so well entertained in that room before; and they conversed with so much spirit and flow, as to draw the attention of Lady Catherine herself, as well as of Mr. Darcy. His eyes had been repeatedly turned towards them with a look of curiosity; and that her ladyship, after a while, shared the feeling, was more openly acknowledged, for she did not scruple to call out:
“What is that you are saying, Fitzwilliam? What is it you are talking of? What are you telling Miss Bennet? Let me hear what it is.”
“We are speaking of the deadly arts, madam,” said he, when no longer able to avoid a reply.
“Of the deadly arts! Then pray speak aloud. It is of all subjects my delight. I must have my share in the conversation if you are speaking of the deadly arts. There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of them than myself, or a better natural ability. Had Anne’s health allowed her to apply, I am confident that she would have become as great a slayer of zombies as I. How does Georgiana get on with her training, Darcy?”
Mr. Darcy spoke with affectionate praise of his sister’s proficiency with blade, fist, and Brown Bess.
“I am very glad to hear such a good account of her,” said Lady Catherine; “and pray tell her from me, that she cannot expect to excel if she does not practise a good deal.”
“I assure you, madam,” he replied, “that she does not need such advice. She practises very constantly.”
“So much the better. It cannot be done too much; and when I next write to her, I shall charge her not to neglect it on any account. I often tell young ladies that no excellence in the deadly arts is to be acquired without constant practice. I have told Miss Bennet several times, that she will never be half my equal unless she practises more; and though Mrs. Collins has no dojo, she is very welcome, as I have often told her, to come to Rosings every day, and spar with my ninjas, provided she promises to kill no more of them. She would be in nobody’s way, you know, in that part of the house.”
Mr. Darcy looked a little ashamed of his aunt’s ill-breeding, and made no answer.
When coffee was over, Colonel Fitzwilliam reminded Elizabeth of having promised to give them a demonstration of her considerable finger strength; and she set about fastening a modesty string around her ankles. Lady Catherine and the others observed as Elizabeth placed her hands upon the floor and lifted her feet heavenward-her dress kept in place by the modesty string. Holding herself thus, she then lifted one of her palms off the floor, so that all of her weight rested on but one hand. Mr. Darcy presently stationed himself so as to command a full view of the fair performer’s countenance. Elizabeth saw what he was doing, and at the first convenient pause, wore an arch smile, and said:
“You mean to frighten me, Mr. Darcy, by coming in all this state to see me? I will not be alarmed. There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.” To emphasise this point, she lifted her palm so that only one fingertip remained connected to the floor.
“I shall not say you are mistaken,” he replied, “because you could not really believe me to entertain any design of alarming you; and I have had the pleasure of your acquaintance long enough to know that you find great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions which in fact are not your own.”
Elizabeth laughed heartily at this picture of herself, and said to Colonel Fitzwilliam, “Your cousin will give you a very pretty notion of me, and teach you not to believe a word I say. I am particularly unlucky in meeting with a person so able to expose my real character, in a part of the world where I had hoped to pass myself off with some degree of credit. Indeed, Mr. Darcy, it is very ungenerous in you to mention all that you knew to my disadvantage in Hertfordshire-for it is provoking me to retaliate, and such things may come out as will shock your relations to hear.”
“I am not afraid of you,” said he, smilingly.
“Pray let me hear what you have to accuse him of,” cried Colonel Fitzwilliam. “I should like to know how he behaves among strangers.”
“You shall hear then-but prepare yourself for something very dreadful.” Elizabeth pushed off of the floor with her fingertip, landed gently on her feet, and unfastened her modesty string. “The first time of my ever seeing him in Hertfordshire, you must know, was at a ball-and at this ball, what do you think he did? He danced only four dances, though gentlemen were scarce; and, to my certain knowledge, more than one young lady was sitting down in want of a partner. Mr. Darcy, you cannot deny the fact.”
“I had not at that time the honour of knowing any lady in the assembly beyond my own party.”
“True; and nobody can ever be introduced in a ball-room. Well, Colonel Fitzwilliam, what shall I demonstrate next? My fingers wait your orders.”
“Perhaps,” said Darcy, “I should have judged better, had I sought an introduction; but I am ill-qualified to recommend myself to strangers.”
“Shall we ask your cousin the reason of this?” said Elizabeth, still addressing Colonel Fitzwilliam. “Shall we ask him why a man of sense and education, and who has been sculpted into a killer of the highest order, is ill qualified to recommend himself to strangers?”
“I can answer your question,” said Fitzwilliam, “without applying to him. It is because he will not give himself the trouble.”
“I certainly have not the talent which some people possess,” said Darcy, “of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.”
“My fingers,” said Elizabeth, “do not possess the strength your aunt’s do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same deadly results. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault-because I will not take the trouble of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable.”
Darcy smiled and said, “You are perfectly right. You have employed your time much better.”
Here they were interrupted by Lady Catherine, who called out to know what they were talking of. Elizabeth immediately fastened her modesty string and began walking about the room on her fingertips. Lady Catherine, after observing for a few minutes, said to Darcy:
“Miss Bennet would make a fine showing of Leopard’s Claw if she practised more, and could have the advantage of a Japanese master. She has a very good notion of fingering.”
“That she does,” said Darcy, in a manner such as to make Elizabeth’s face quite red.
Elizabeth looked at Darcy to see how cordially he attended to Miss de Bourgh; but neither at that moment nor at any other could she discern any symptom of love; and from the whole of his behaviour to her she derived this comfort for Miss Bingley, that he might have been just as likely to marry her, had she been his relation.
Lady Catherine continued her remarks on Elizabeth’s performance, mixing with them many instructions on execution. Elizabeth received them with all the forbearance of civility, and, at the request of the gentlemen, remained on her fingertips till her ladyship’s carriage was ready to take them all home.