It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a broken heart, must be in want of sportive diversion.
It had been above three months since Darcy, having declared to her his most ardent affection and love, had suffered the reproofs of Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Even now, his remembrance of her words caused him inexpressible pain despite his feeling reasonable enough to allow their justice.
“You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner. You could not have made me the offer of your hand in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it.”
How those words had tortured him.
In his great disappointment and frustration, he had first determined to busy himself in attending to various business matters which had long required his attention. Now, he found himself travelling in the North Country with a party including his sister, Georgiana, his friend Bingley, and Bingley’s sisters.
During their travels, Darcy had prevailed upon the good will of Mr. W——– of Pontefract to further instruct him in the sportive art of squash racquets, a pastime in which he had long excelled. He had likewise succeeded, to the great joy of his beloved sister, in securing the services of Miss D——, a lady similarly proficient in that art, to provide her with sportive instruction. Now, as the other ladies of the party expressed their desire to return to Pemberley, he greatly wished to participate in further sportive diversion and healthful recreation as he struggled with his feelings of rejection.
On the morning before his party’s intended departure, Darcy’s spirits were lifted by the receipt of a letter from his steward, Mr. M——, begging his immediate presence to attend an urgent matter relating to his estate. He at once reasoned that his early return would also provide him with the opportunity of engaging in a game of squash racquets with his steward, a player of not insubstantial experience and skill. However, he determined not to educate his travelling companions as to his intentions of seeking further sportive diversion and, following breakfast, begged his leave of them and set forth on his journey.
His ride being uneventful and the weather clement, Darcy’s thoughts turned towards his arrival at Pemberley. Notwithstanding the urgency of his journey, he anticipated with pleasure the time he would be able to spend in gentleman-like competition with Mr. M—— in the squash racquets hall adjacent to the stables. Yet, even so, he reflected with regret that his sister knew no other young ladies in the area with whom she could prevail upon to play with her on her return, Miss Bingley and her sister being disinclined during their visits to partake in what they judged to be an un-ladylike manner of recreation. Neither could he, as a loving brother, find any suitable sportive companions for his sister although, as he drew closer to his destination, the person of Miss Elizabeth Bennet once more intruded upon his thoughts.
On this occasion, however, he did not hear Miss Bennet’s words but was perceptive only of her dark eyes, her lightness of movement and her healthful manner. Did she not love running? Did she not find joy in country dancing? Was she not determined to journey everywhere on foot if circumstances would allow it? At once he remembered her dancing at the ball at Netherfield, and, yes, the occasion of her walking from Longbourn to Netherfield to attend her sister! Now, as he drew near to his destination, Darcy made a firm resolve to explore every avenue which might be available to him to win the affection of the woman with whom, he now confessed to himself, he was still in love.
On his arrival at Pemberley, he rode through the woods, crossed the bridge and made directly for the stables where, as fortune would have it, he was greeted by his steward. Anticipating his master’s desire to enjoy some time in the squash racquets hall before attending to any matters of business, Mr. M—— had prevailed upon Darcy’s valet to bring his master’s racquet and rubber-soled squash shoes to the court in advance of the latter’s arrival. Darcy declared himself pleased with his steward’s initiative before removing his riding jacket, waistcoat and boots, putting on his shoes and taking his racquet before joining his steward on court.
The encounter proved to both players at once demanding and challenging, Darcy triumphing over his steward by the narrowest of margins in just under the hour. Having complimented each other on their endeavour, the two competitors agreed to meet in an hour to discuss the issue which had caused Darcy’s early return. Darcy then put on his riding boots and began to walk along the road leading to the house where he could refresh himself and change into fresh clothing following his sportive exertions.
Carrying his clothes and racquet, he had reached the lawn when he became aware of the presence of the gardener whose expression of surprise, on beholding his master, must immediately have told it. He then spied at some yards distant, a party of two ladies and a gentleman, whom he took to be visitors, the latter of whom he overheard to be conjecturing as to the date of the house. But it was only as he approached further towards his destination that he at once found himself standing within but a few short yards of…Miss Elizabeth Bennet!
He advanced towards the party and spoke to her.
As she saw him, she had instinctively turned away; but stopping on his approach, received his compliments with, had he but know it, an embarrassment impossible to overcome.
Her companions stood a little aloof while he was talking to her whilst she, astonished and abashed, scarcely dared lift her eyes to his face, and seemingly knew not what answer she returned to his civil enquiries about her family.
The few minutes in which they continued together were some of the most uncomfortable of his life. Nor did she seem much more at ease; when he spoke, his own accent had none of its usual sedateness; and he repeated his enquiries as to the time of her having left Longbourn, and of her stay in Derbyshire, so often, and in so hurried a way, as plainly spoke the distraction of his thoughts.
At length, every idea seemed to fail him; and, after standing a few moments without saying a word, he suddenly recollected himself and took leave.
As he strode towards the house, Darcy at once became aware of the mode of his dress, the dampness of his attire and the disarrangement of his hair, directly come as he was from his exertions in the squash racquets hall. Yet, as he entered the hallway, any consequent embarrassment he had begun to experience surrendered itself to the intensity of his desire to return to the presence of Miss Bennet; and this, in its own turn, gave urgency to his thoughts as to how he could realise such a happy situation before she and her friends might end their visit to Pemberley.
No sooner had he begun to cross the hall towards the staircase, however, than the appearance of his housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, gave him cause to believe that he would soon be able to re-join Miss Bennet’s party. Mrs. Reynolds’ astonishment at seeing her master was quickly replaced by a willingness to assist him in fulfilling his earnest wish to know in which direction their visitors were going, and in having his valet attend him with all urgency. Expressing his profound gratitude for her assistance, Darcy then made to ascend to his dressing room with all speed.
Now, as he set aside his racquet and busied himself in preparing to follow Miss Bennet and her friends, Darcy at once vowed to himself that he would again begin to hope.
Extracts from Chapters XXXIV and LXIII of “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen, published in 1813.
For further reading on women’s sport in the early 19th Century, see “Healthful Sports for Young Ladies” by Mademoiselle St. Sernin, published in 1822.