A Slip and a Trip
This little Mis-step takes place at the dance at Lucas Lodge, at which Elizabeth declines Darcy’s offer of a dance. Though in canon, Jane and Bingley aren’t mentioned as even being present, they must surely have been there.
“Oh, dear,” Jane said under her breath, seeing how Lydia and Kitty loudly and boisterously began commanding the officers to dance as Mary played. “Lizzy…” she glanced at her sister, who frowned slightly.
“There is nothing we can do, Jane, dearest; this is not Longbourn, and Papa is not here to rein them in. Not that he would,” Elizabeth ended a little bitterly. Across the room, she could see Mr Darcy’s expression of contempt as he watched her youngest sister’s unseemly display.
Jane touched slender fingers to her brow, trying to smooth the frown that she could feel forming. In her mirror that morning, she had noticed the very slightest of lines beside her eyes; a sure sign that she was no longer eighteen. Lizzy had more than once muttered about their family’s impropriety driving away any eligible suitors; certainly despite everyone’s praise of Jane’s beauty, there had never been a serious suitor for her. She could not believe that Mr Bingley was seriously enamoured of her either: though he was everything charming and it would be easy, oh so easy, to fall in love with him, he was the same age as she. And while at twenty-three she was firmly on the shelf, he was doubtless not even looking for a wife yet. Most young men did not marry until thirty at the least, and then they would choose from the freshest debutantes, not some lady who had been out these eight years and yet not even attracted a serious suitor!
Banish that thought, Jane, she told herself sternly. Put on your smile and take comfort that at least you may be of use to your family. You are eminently suited to become governess to someone’s children, or companion to a lady, and therefore may earn your keep. Jane had determined that at Christmas-time, when her Gardiner relations came to stay, she would seek her aunt’s aid in finding a suitable situation.
“Miss Bennet,” Jane blinked from her reverie to find Mr Bingley before her, holding out his hand, “will you favour me with a dance?”
“Oh,” inclined to accept at once, Jane glanced at her sisters. “I – I am not at all sure that it is an appropriate venue for dancing,” she murmured, blushing.
“Miss Bennet,” Bingley leant forward and said quietly, just for her ears, “you are always the very model of propriety. If you are seen to dance with me here, it will give a little more distinction to the proceedings.” He had heard the quietly-spoken words between the two oldest Bennet sisters a moment before, and his heart was touched by Jane’s anxiety, and her attempt to conceal it.
“In that case,” Jane wavered for a moment, and then decided that firstly, he was right, and secondly, she very much wanted the chance to dance with this charming, eligible, handsome young man. Even if her mother was very wrong and he would never love an old maid like her. “I should very much like to dance with you, Mr Bingley.” She put her gloved hand in his.
They had not had the opportunity to dance together since the Meryton Assembly, and she had forgotten how graceful he was, how he was by far the best dancer she had ever met. He made her giggle behind her fingers with some light quip about how his friend Darcy looked as though he had a poker down the back of his coat. Jane could not help but smile at Mr Bingley, knowing even as she did so that he was cracking off, layer by layer, the protective armour she had fought so hard to place around her heart.
The dance was ending when it happened. Lydia, running towards the piano to demand Mary play an even more lively tune, tripped and bumped into Jane. Tall, well-grown and not a little plump, Lydia off-balance was a force the more delicate Jane could not possibly withstand. She slipped on the polished floor and went flying. Lydia righted herself easily. Jane ended up half on the floor, half caught in the arms of Mr Bingley, who had dropped to one knee and broken her fall in a lightning-quick reaction.
“Oh,” Jane looked up into Mr Bingley’s eyes from a far closer range than she had ever expected to. “I am so very sorry!”
“I’m not,” he said, low and husky, his voice too low for anyone else’s ears but her own, and then his eyes dropped to her lips. Standing, he brought her to her feet with no apparent effort, his arms yet around her until she found her balance. They stood still, staring into each others’ eyes. Neither of them noticed the hush that had fallen around them until Sir William Lucas broke it with a jovial exclamation.
“I say, badly done, Miss Lydia! Miss Bennet, are you well? A very good catch, Mr Bingley, I am sure you were on the cricket team at Cambridge!”
“No,” Bingley said, “I wasn’t. That was, however, the finest catch I could ever hope to make.” His arms dropped from around Jane, but slowly, and she found herself swaying towards him, regretful of their loss. Strong hands at once clasped her elbows to steady her. “Miss Bennet, you had best sit down. Let me escort you to a seat.”
Jane’s voice seemed to have deserted her, and she still could not look away from those blue, blue eyes. She nodded jerkily, and found herself being led to a seat in a surprisingly deserted alcove. Even more surprisingly, Bingley went to one knee in front of her and took her hands in his once she was seated.
“Are you well, Ja – er, Miss Bennet? You took a nasty stumble.”
“It was nothing,” Jane croaked, finding her throat was dust-dry.
“I rather think – it may become something. I caught you in somewhat of an awkward position. May I call upon your father tomorrow?”
“I don’t understand what you mean,” Jane shook her head, looking at him blankly. “But thank you for not letting me fall.”
“I would never let you fall,” Bingley shook his head emphatically, and then looking at her befuddled expression, said tenderly, “Dear Miss Bennet, you are so good. You really don’t understand, do you? Even though I only stopped your fall, it was a very compromising position.”
Her eyes widened as she finally took his meaning, and for the minutest fraction of a second, the expression of wistful longing that crossed her face gave Bingley to hope that she really might feel about him as he did about her.
“I could not possibly hold you to that, Mr Bingley, not when you were only being gentlemanly. Let us think no more of it, and I shall assure anyone who asked that you did me a great kindness, is all.”
“No,” Bingley said succinctly, “I am afraid that shall not be sufficient for me.”
She only gazed back at him with those wide, depthless eyes, and he glanced over his shoulder. Sir William Lucas stood in front of the alcove, speaking with Darcy and Miss Elizabeth. The three of them were facing away and quite effectively blocked the rest of the room. Bingley looked back at Jane and lifted one of her gloved hands to his lips, pressing a kiss upon the back of it.
“I cannot but look upon this evening’s happenings as being any other than most fortuitous, Miss Bennet. From the very moment of our acquaintance I have admired you above all others, and I had not been in your company above five minutes before I knew that you were the only woman on this earth I should ever wish to marry. I know how far I am beneath you; but I must beg that you will do me the very great honour of accepting my hand in marriage?”
“Beneath you!” Jane gasped, settling upon the one part of the sentence she felt able to deal with, “oh no, Mr Bingley!”
“Miss Bennet, you are a gentleman’s daughter: I regret to say, for all the Bingley wealth, I am not a gentleman’s son. Having you for a wife could only raise my status, not to mention my very great happiness. Please say that you will?”
He was gazing at her so earnestly, Jane could not help but smile. And then he said, “Dearest Jane – this many not have been the place or the moment I would have chosen. But please believe me when I say that my sentiments would have been no different. Marry me. Make me the proudest and happiest man alive, I beg of you.”
“Oh, yes,” Jane finally found her voice. “Yes, Mr Bingley, I should be most greatly honoured to be your wife.”
Elizabeth was whispering prayers of thanks that her mother was not in the room, having retired for a few moments just before the end of that ill-fated first dance. The whispers and wide eyes around her made her very sure that once Mrs Bennet re-entered the room, very little time would be lost before she had the pertinent information. Seeking to mitigate any damage before it might occur, Elizabeth made her way hastily towards where Mr Bingley was leading Jane. Arriving there, she was stopped by Sir William Lucas, who put his hand on her arm.
“Give the young man a few minutes to say his piece, Miss Elizabeth,” he said cheerfully. Glancing into the alcove – to which Elizabeth was quite sure Sir William had guided Mr Bingley – she espied Mr Bingley on one knee before her sister. Smiling, she turned her back and exchanged a merry glance with Sir William, before spotting Mr Darcy bearing down on them with a look on his face that did not bode well for Mr Bingley and Jane continuing interrupted.
“Mr Darcy,” Sir William said jovially, and Elizabeth could have kissed the old knight, “What a charming amusement for young people this is! My dear Miss Eliza, why are you not dancing? Mr Darcy, with such beauty before you, you cannot refuse to dance, I am sure!”
Anything for Jane, Elizabeth thought, and as Mr Darcy looked surprised, she thought he might insult her yet again by making some excuse not to dance with her. She lifted her hand and offered him a dazzling smile. “I should love to, Mr Darcy.”
He took her hand in his and bowed over it. What he might have said then was forever lost by a cry of triumph from Mr Bingley behind them. “Miss Bennet, you have made me the happiest man alive!”
The three of them turned and looked. Mr Bingley was kissing Jane’s hand, and she bore a smile of pure rapture. Looking up, she saw her sister.
“Oh, Lizzy, I am so happy! Why cannot everyone be as happy as I?”
“Until I have your goodness, I shall never have your happiness,” Elizabeth said, smiling back at her sister.
“Darcy! Darcy, will you not congratulate me? Miss Bennet has agreed to be my wife!” Bingley released Jane, stood and reached to shake Darcy’s hand.
It was only at that moment that Darcy and Elizabeth realised they were still holding hands. They both, in the same instant, looked down at that clasp, looked at each other, stared, coloured, and were silent.