Jane’s Chance Encounter
The carriage comes to a stop along the busy road, and I can see crowds of people through the window. I lift the curtain as I gaze at the front entrance of the Royal Menagerie. Young parties and families blend together to enter as one.
The attendant lowers the steps to the carriage, snapping me out of my reverie. Uncle Gardiner exits first to assist Aunt Gardiner and then me. The children, all four of them, leave last and wiggle with excitement to see the animals. I smile at Mary, the oldest, who tries to stifle her eagerness by twisting her hands together. I remember doing similar actions at her age, trying to act as a proper lady. Uncle ushers us forward with little Philip’s hand in his, leaving Aunt and I to herd the other three forward.
The swell of people pushes against us, and I consistently touch the shoulder of Catherine, who is only eight, to make sure she continues to stay within reach. We huddle close together as we wait our turn to pay admission in the lengthy line. Examining the surrounding groups fills me with pleasure as I get to admire the other young ladies’ choice of fashion and catch snippets of their cheery conversations. One group of young ladies is all wearing dresses of different colors. A pair of young men are laughing a few paces in front of us. In these moments, I miss Lizzy and her witty observations. I am afraid my company is quite dry in comparison, but aunt is sweet enough to host me for several weeks, regardless.
I cannot help but let my mind wander as the line continues to crawl along. This happens more often than I like these past several weeks. One of my reasons for moving to London is to be closer to Mr. Bingley. Admittedly, Mama is more in favor of me coming than I am. I wish to meet Mr. Bingley again, but with the way his sisters respond to my visits, I doubt that will happen. He knows I reside in Cheapside and has yet to send a card around or trouble to escort Caroline when she deigns to come for tea. The only conclusion that I can draw is that he no longer wishes to pursue me. Perhaps he never did, and I need to let that dream go.
Philip jostles me from behind. His own way of reminding me it’s our turn to proceed to the ticket seller.
“Pardon me, Philip.” I say as I walk forward.
Uncle Gardiner pays our fee, and we all slip inside the foyer. The smell of animal musk permeates the air, tickling my nose immediately. The growls and chittering of the beasts echo throughout the hallway as we meander toward the closest exhibits. Luckily, there is ample space inside, and groups can disperse, allowing our family to move more liberally about.
The nearest cage display holds a small lion. The children coo at the sight, and quiet Edward bursts out, “Why, that looks nothing like our tom cat at home!”
Aunt Gardiner covers her mouth with a hand as Uncle Gardiner chuckles at his son. He pushes him along to the next creature.
“No, my boy, I do not think they share a resemblance at all. Remember, our tom only catches mice, but in Africa, lions must hunt larger prey.”
My lip catches between my teeth as I keep myself from giggling at my cousin’s silliness. One enjoyment of being in town is spending time with my cousins. They are delightful with their exuberance, and melancholy is difficult to foster with their energy in the house. Our tour of the menagerie continues without a hitch, and it is when we are near the exotic bird’s section my aunt decides to take a slight break for the children to rest. We all sit ourselves on some benches while uncle locates a nearby man selling bags of roasted nuts. He returns with the treat, and we all dine on the fitting morsels.
I bring a nut to my lips but pause when I glimpse a familiar figure. Mr. Darcy is up the corridor with a young woman and another gentleman. My heart races as I search the nearby faces to see if he’s there with his friend, the friend who moments ago I did not care if I ever set eyes on again. A small sigh of relief escapes my mouth, and I sag when I notice the other man is not Mr. Bingley.
While Mr. Darcy and I are mutual acquaintances, we are not as close as I am to Caroline or Mrs. Hurst. In fact, I do not believe he will pause to greet us as he and his friends gather closer to where I sit. I resist the urge to lower my head to hide my face, but I also do not stare at them. Instead, my vision focuses on the peacocks across the way, their beautiful plumes on display. For a brief span of time, I forget Mr. Darcy is close until a throat clears. I turn towards the sound, and he’s there, standing a short distance from our spot on the benches. He appears uncomfortable, but then his face returns to his usual look of indifference. He bows before greeting me.
“Miss Bennet, what a surprise to see you here. I hope you and your family are well?”
I rise from my seat and give a slight curtsy.
“Thank you, sir. They are all well. I am here to visit my aunt and uncle. May I introduce you? This is Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner.”
As I gesture my hand to both Uncle and Aunt. They rise as well, and uncle gives Mr. Darcy a firm handshake.
“A pleasure, Mr. Darcy. May I also introduce my young children? These are Mary, Catherine, Edward, and Philip.”
Philip is too young to recall etiquette, so he doesn’t curtsy or bow like the other children. He stares at them from behind uncle’s leg. Mr. Darcy nods and if I’m not mistaken, his lips quirk a little after the performance. I know he is not as stoic as Lizzy says. He seems rather shy in some ways and does not show his emotions.
“Please, let me introduce my party. This is my cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam and my sister, Miss Darcy.”
My attention focuses on Miss Darcy, whom I learn much about from Caroline. This is the woman Mr. Bingley is engaged to? I examine her as uncle answers Mr. Darcy’s questions. What startles me is how young she looks. She cannot be much older than Lydia or maybe Kitty’s age. The dress style is for a young lady who hasn’t come out yet, with high necklines and pale colors. It is impossible that she is Mr. Bingley’s betrothed. A thorough review of Caroline’s letters and conversations is necessary after we return to Grace Church Street.
I turn to address Colonel Fitzwilliam, who watches me. He does not resemble Mr. Darcy at all, being shorter and huskier. His light brown hair pales in comparison to his striking cornflower blue eyes. Unlike Mr. Darcy, he’s not classically handsome, but he has a certain rugged appeal.
“Yes, Colonel Fitzwilliam?”
He leans closer to make our conversation easier to hear over the others’ talking.
“I met Miss Elizabeth Bennet in Hunsford. She would not be your relation?” The knowing expression on his face shows he already believes this, but wants to hear it from me. I wonder what he wants to be asking for such a thing.
“She is, Colonel. Elizabeth is my younger sister. I am surprised you met her there. What a pleasant coincidence.”
“Ah, well, I can confirm the rumor of the Bennet sisters’ beauty.”
He grins before bowing over my hand. The theatrics are out of place in the informal setting. He is a bit of a flirt. Just then, uncle and Mr. Darcy finish conversing, and their group takes their leave.
“Please give my regards to your family, Miss Bennet. Good day.”
With that last parting, Mr. Darcy, Colonel Fitzwilliam, and Miss Darcy move along down the hall. I watch them until they disappear behind other onlookers. Aunt turns to me in surprise at the situation.
“Well, Jane, I never thought you would know someone as important as Mr. Darcy. He seems to take a great deal of concern for your family and Lizzy. He’s not as proud as described by Lizzy, although she does become overly passionate about her making of someone’s character.”
She halts and gives me a full once over.
“Why, Jane, do you appear pale? Did you not enjoy their brief visit? Are you ill? We can return to the carriage.”
“No, Aunt, it is unnecessary for us to go back on my account. Perhaps I can stay here with Philip?”
Young Philip is drifting to sleep in uncle’s lap, his chest rising and falling. Aunt nods and moves him to my side as the rest of them move further along the row of cages. My hand rubs Philip’s hair, soothing him into a deeper slumber. Mr. Bingley’s reaction to Mr. Darcy’s encounter is unknown, assuming he learns of it. My hand clenches in self-admonishment. Despite my efforts, the habit of thinking about him is hard to break. Multiple months of thinking of Mr. Bingley will take some time to forget.
I run over the meeting again, and more intriguing than Mr. Bingley is Colonel Fitzwilliam’s actions. He is too forward to my liking, but not to the point where I am uncomfortable. In fact, I rather enjoy him taking my hand. My cheeks are pink with a flush as I recall how large his gloved palm is compared to my own. Our paths will never cross again, but I react to him like I do to Mr. Bingley. The fact I reacted that way with a stranger, implies my feelings are not exclusive to one man. My one love is not lost. Another person might be waiting for me out there in the world. I am full of warmth and hope for the future. A future where I can fall in love again. I have much to tell Lizzy in my newest letter.