A Charity Auction

To my esteemed confidant, Mrs. Charlotte Collins,

            My dear Charlotte, as you remember from my previous correspondence, my sister Jane and Bingley have been prevailing on Mr. Darcy and I to visit them in London ever since our weddings last year. With all the pleasant rumors being spread by my lovely aunt, Lady Catherine, Darcy and I have rather secluded ourselves from society, preferring our own company at our home in Pemberley. However, I have quite missed my sister’s company and counsel, and, with their first child’s arrival eminent, Darcy and I have finally acceded to their wishes so that we may be of assistance to the soon-to-be parents.

            Do not believe for a second that I regret defying Lady Catherine and marrying Darcy, but I must admit that becoming “Mrs. Darcy” and navigating the new social circle that comes from that distinction intimidates me a great deal. Dear Darcy needs very little encouragement in avoiding social events, and so I had hoped for this venture to London to be a quiet, happy visit among family. However, those hopes have been quite dashed. As you remember, it is very difficult for Bingley to make acquaintances, and while perusing for new head gear, he reached for the same hat as one Frank Churchill. Apparently, mutual standards in haberdashery led to lengthy conversation which ended in Bingley inviting the Churchills to tea.

            I have to say, the Churchills are a remarkable pairing. Mr. Churchill talked at length of their dramatic period of engagement, with the occasional correction from his wife; a tale that nearly rivaled my own romance with Mr. Darcy. Mr. Churchill has impeccable charm and manners as well as a nearly unquenchably energetic spirit, although I receive the distinct impression of a boy trapped in a man’s body. He has the appearance of kindness and sincerity, but his charm reminds me overmuch of my sister Lydia’s husband, a resemblance that I am afraid will always discourage me from becoming intimate friends with him. What truly amazes me is the exaggerated difference between him and Mrs. Jane Churchill. Mrs. Churchill resembles my sister Jane in natural grace and calm demeanor, but the main difference I see between them is a quiet passion in Mrs. Churchill for the improvement of our society.

From the humble comments I managed to wrestle from her, ever since their marriage three years ago, she has made it her mission in life to spread her good fortune to orphans like herself, spending much of her time touring the country in an effort to improve schools and orphanages throughout. While Mr. Churchill does not share her passion, it is quite obvious that he is extremely passionate about her and aids her efforts wherever he can. You would think them quite the odd match, Charlotte, but they balance each other quite beautifully; her calmness keeps him in check and his joy makes her laugh. In a strange way, seeing them gives me a little understanding of how others might see Mr. Darcy and I, although with roles slightly reversed.

Unfortunately, their acquaintance was not the only thing gained from the tea. The Churchills invited both ourselves and the Bingleys to a charity auction in support of one of Mrs. Churchill’s schools, hosted by their close friend, one Mrs. Emma Knightley. I was most appalled when Darcy accepted the invitation, and when I demanded an explanation from him after their departure, he said that we had shirked our social duty for too long and at the very least it was a worthy cause, but if I was truly against attendance, he would send a notice to the Churchills in the morning. Unable to invent a reasonable counter, I acquiesced, so tonight I will make my first foray into London society. To say my current state is apprehensive is perhaps a small understatement, but I am determined to prove Lady Catherine wrong and my dear Darcy right. I shall finish my letter to you in the morning when I can relay to you the particulars of the event.

* * *

Well, dear Charlotte, it is now the morning after the glorious debut of Mrs. Elizabeth Darcy within London society, and, with her usual flourish of skill and tact, she has firmly secured her position as a social pariah and may now return to her lovely home to live out her days in peaceful solitude with her loving but disappointed husband. Oh dear, I am sorry, my friend, for my overly dramatic tone; I suppose I am still coming to terms with the events of the night. Perhaps an attempt to relay them to you in a voice as objective as possible will help bring understanding to myself.

I have to admit, the event was one of the most glamorous sights I have ever seen, done in perfect taste. Among all this refinement, I immediately thought about how my mother would be fawning over every little thing; it made me shudder horribly and I could not hold on to Darcy’s arm tight enough. As we entered, all the guests of the auction were personally greeted by Mr. and Mrs. Knightley. You probably will not believe me, Charlotte, but looking at Mr. Knightly was not dissimilar to looking at my Darcy ten years in the future; the handsome features, perfect manners, and the natural kindness in the eyes. Mr. Knightley, however, has had the time and experience to become much more outgoing than dear Darcy. He really could not have been a more gracious host.

Then there was Mrs. Knightley. If Venus had become human form among us, I believe Mrs. Knightly would still manage to be the centerpiece of the evening. I would like to stipulate here that both the beauty and taste of the evening were all due to her meticulous managing; it seemed as if throughout the night she was everywhere at once, either giving smile to a guest or making an adjustment to a small detail. But when her cheerful, chestnut eyes scanned over me as we exchanged greetings, they were searching for what was wonting; her greeting somewhat cold. My worst fears were realized; Lady Catherine’s rumors had arrived before me.

There was one other party of note besides us: a new business partner of Mr. Knightley, a Colonel Brandon, accompanied by his wife Maryanne and the Ferrars, Mrs. Brandon’s sister and brother-in-law. The only family in my experience that is as content, graceful, and respectable is the Gardiners, which is, as you know, possibly the highest praise I can give. My first impression proved quite true, as during introductions they showed themselves to be extremely polite and pleasant, especially Mrs. Ferrars. Noticing my sister’s condition, Mrs. Ferrars and Jane excitedly fell into that drearily constant conversation of children and parenthood. I could tell my Darcy was starting to search for a dark corner to hide in, so I gave his elbow a squeeze and asked Colonel Brandon for his opinion on all things equestrian (a reliable starting subject for all distinguished gentlemen), successfully spurring the two overly austere men into finding some common ground to discuss. Mr. Ferrars is in fact a vicar like your husband, but, and please do not take offense, I do not believe there is a man in our country more different from Mr. Collins. He is a very quiet, gentle man; it was obvious he had very little to contribute to Darcy and Brandon’s discussion, but he was perfectly happy to listen and learn. As Bingley went off with Mr. Churchill to discuss the latest trends in surcoats and Mrs. Churchill was listening intently to Jane and Mrs. Ferrars, I was left alone with Mrs. Brandon, who was far more interested in inspecting the artwork around us than conversing, which thankfully allowed me a moment to collect my thoughts.

Before the auction began, Darcy took me aside briefly to ask if I was enjoying myself. I said I was, apart from Mrs. Knightley’s reception. I whispered that I had the distinct feeling that everything about her was a little too perfect. He gave me that smile, the private smile that is mine and mine alone, and said she rather reminded him of me. As he walked away, I thought if she was like me, she would be completely ruled by her first impression of me, Lady Catherine’s hearsay. That’s when a dreadful, horrible plan started forming in my brain; if I could not sway her to my favor, at the very least I could get some entertainment out of the night.

Soon after, there was a quick tour given by Mrs. Knightley of the works up for auction. While describing the history of one particularly beautiful landscape, Mrs. Knightley made the mistake of describing it as a sublime. I had half a mind to correct her when, out of nowhere, who should interrupt her but the petite Mrs. Brandon, asserting that it was picturesque and giving a brief but impassioned defense of the superiority of the picturesque. I suppose I inherited far more of my father’s mischievous nature than I should have, for I honestly cannot decide which reaction was most enjoyable: Mrs. Knightley’s reddened cheeks and icy stare, Elinor Ferrars’s embarrassed but unsurprised expression, Mr. Knightley’s unsuccessful attempt to hide a smile, or Mrs. Brandon’s complete obliviousness to the reactions she had ignited. I also began to realize I had found a kindred spirit in Mrs. Brandon, and after the auction we spent all of dinner discussing our favorite art, music, and poetry.

Also during dinner, I started putting my hideous plan in motion. Using the wrong fork, misquoting a poem, laughing too loudly at one of Mr. Churchill’s more inappropriate jokes: a multitude of minuscule mishaps to give Mrs. Knightly all the evidence of my unworthiness she could possibly want.

As we made our way to the sitting room after dinner, I found Mrs. Brandon lost in a striking Madonna and Child from renaissance Italy. When she noticed my presence, she commented that she infinitely preferred landscapes, as they were so much easier to escape within; paintings of people were far too tangible for comfort. She must have seen the question in my eyes, because, as we found a quiet corner to ourselves, she went on to tell me that several years ago she had had a miscarriage, and if not for the care of her family she would have been lost as well. With her poor health and her husband’s age, she knew that the sensible thing was to go without children, to give all her love to her two precious nieces. She confided that she often felt like on of those old portraits, something beautiful but frail, something her Colonel could only protect and admire from afar. No sooner had she said it, her dashing protector apparated next to her, took her hand and quietly but warmly assured her she was all he needed.

After the three of us passed around the Colonel’s handkerchief, Mrs. Brandon started to talk of the future. The Colonel had already started the process of their nieces’ inheritance, that there would be absolutely no room for error when they were both gone, and that their nieces would never fear for their security as she and her sister had. Because I had endured a similar situation due the oversights by my father, my interest was very much aroused, and we talked at great length of our different experiences.

When Mrs. Brandon began to tire, they decided to take their leave, but not before an exchange of address for further correspondence and promises of future visits by both parties were wholeheartedly exchanged. Admittedly, Mrs. Brandon’s story had aroused my own fears about providing healthy Darcy heirs, or, worse still, becoming as apathetic as my father or as hectic as my mother. In an effort to escape these depressing thoughts, I placed all my focus on the whist game being played by Jane, Mrs. Churchill, and Mr. and Mrs. Ferrars. Despite being paired with my sister, whose highly estimable skills at whist you know too well, Mrs. Farrars was quietly winning the game by leaps and bounds. Though the quintessential image of modesty, kindness, and sobriety, even after all the hardships Mrs. Brandon had recollected, it was obvious Elinor Ferrars was an expert player at any game in which she was thrown, and I found that even though I had only known her a short while, I could harbor nothing but admiration for her.

After some time, I saw Mrs. Knightly had a rare moment of inactivity and set the final part of my plan in motion. I approached her and asked, as the whist table was full, if she would be interested in a game of chess. You see, dear Charlotte, Mr. Churchill had mentioned that one of her latest obsessions was chess, with which, as you well know, I spent countless evenings with my father practicing, as I was the only one in the family with both the temper and ability to be his opponent. She politely asked if I had much experience with the game. I replied that we managed to find time between donning stockings and pawning the family silver. Well, I did not say that, but I very much desired to. I forced myself to modestly comment that I had a small amount of experience and would be most gratified by a demonstration of her talents. She smiled and heartily agreed to the match.

My pretense of unworthiness having found its mark, she was completed surprised and increasingly frustrated by the skill I soon presented. During the early part of the game, we exchanged some small chatter between moves, which I quickly recognized as delicately-worded inquiries of my family. My better nature prevailed, probably as the result of my focus on the game, and I managed to give her honest if slightly guarded answers. We became so intent on our match we hardly noticed, as Darcy informed me later, that nearly every eye in the room was on us.

As we reached the climax of the game, I took the last of her bishops, which I had noticed were her favorites pieces. Becoming increasingly recklessly, she put her queen exactly where I intended, placing my king in check. As she did, she very casually asked if it had indeed been my sister involved in that horrid scandal; how it is always unfortunate when a family loses control of one of its members. I quickly looked at Darcy. I knew he would say: it is her event; you are newest member of this group but you have proven your skill; the time has come to let her win. In my usual wisdom, I decided to ignore him. I took her queen with my knight, placing her king in checkmate, smugly replying, “My family is certainly not perfect, but at least my father took the time to properly teach me chess.”

I think I expected a wrathful storm, perhaps that was what I was trying to provoke, but all I saw in her eyes a hidden tear. And that’s when I recalled Mr. Churchill had also mentioned that her father had recently passed away. As the gravity of what I had said began to fall on me, Mrs. Knightley put on her best smile and proclaimed that it was late and time to start packing up. As we said our goodbyes, I could hardly meet anyone’s eyes.

Oh, my dear Charlotte, I knew of my considerable talent in chess, but it pales in comparison to my skill of putting my foot in my mouth. I just wanted to prove I belonged and have unequivocally proved the opposite. Before we leave London, I shall make sure to write apologies to both the Knightleys and the Churchills.

Odd…we seem to have visitor at the door. I shall return in a moment.

* * *

You will never believe the identity of our surprise caller. None other than Emma Knightley! After we exchanged somewhat awkward pleasantries, Jane excused herself, giving me a very penetrating look as she departed. After a silence that felt like an eternity, almost in unison we both apologized, paused in surprise, and then could do nothing else but both laugh at how ridiculous we had been! I gestured that she had the floor first. She explained how she did indeed have some mutual acquaintances with Lady Catherine, but what had really turned her against me was her own past; she went into detail about how she had thought herself above the natural order, had meddled with relationships she should not have, and nearly ruined the lives of nearly everyone she held dearest. She had also had more than one encounter with women who had married only for the money or social standing and had become convinced that I was the same.

She also explained that with her father’s recent passing, her home in Highbury had felt incredibly desolate. Mr. Knightly suggested that the best thing to do was move close to their family in London and redirect the energy that had gone into the care for her father into helping Mrs. Churchill with her many worthy projects. It had, in fact, been her first event in London, and she had been frantic for everything to be perfect. But reviewing the evening afterwards, she could not help but notice my intelligence with the game, my tenderness to Mrs. Brandon, and most importantly, the smiles exchanged between Mr. Darcy and I. She regained some of her old composure, saying, “I’ve always had a sixth sense for smiles. They never, ever lie.”

I accepted her apology, and extended my own for my appallingly competitive behavior, which she in turn sincerely accepted. As she prepared to depart, she paused, and told me how she and Mrs. Churchill had grown up together but did not become friends until the chaotic events of their engagements; that she had lost friendship with someone of equal mind simply because she had overly relied on her first impression, and, holding out her hand, that she would be an even bigger fool to repeat the mistake.

Taking her hand, I told her how I nearly lost my Darcy is the same manner, and that most assuredly first impressions would not make a fool of me again either. Pulling me into hug, she beamed the first real smile I had seen on her face in our short knowledge of each other.

So, my dear Charlotte, I think I am starting to find my place as Mrs. Darcy. It seems that despite the best efforts of Lady Catherine (and ourselves), Darcy and I have made several excellent friends here in London. On that front, Mrs. Brandon mentioned her sister had a similar experience with her husband’s mother; I will be sure to seek her advice on the subject. Otherwise, I look forward as always to any news of you, the triplets, or even our silly Mr. Collins. I shall send my next letter post haste at the appearance of my niece or nephew to be.

Your friend, always

Mrs. Elizabeth Darcy