After a time, Tilney's light-hearted manner revived. "Well, Bennett, perhaps you're right. Perhaps I do not give women enough credit. They're not all barques of frailty, I suppose."
"Quite right," Lizzie responded as she tucked into the fine country stew the landlord set before them. "While women tend to be raised without a thought for their brains, there are many who work to develop innate abilities to the best of their circumstances."
Tilney laughed and brandished his spoon at his friend. "You seem to have an inordinate interest in some clever lass. Fess up, Bennet! Your colouring up gives you away."
Lizzie had indeed blushed at the remark, fearing that Tilney might get too close to the truth of her disguise. "Not at all, Tilney. I was merely thinking of a, er, distant cousin of mine, I knew well in childhood. She corresponded in three languages, kept a collection of unusual insects catalogued and labeled carefully, and was seldom to be found without a book of some kind near to hand."
"Ha!" Tilney said as if he were about to declare checkmate. "And tell me, is she not in fact an old maid, ignored by all men, as dry and dreary as a gnarled wych-elm."
"Not at all! She has long been considered a rather handsome woman."
"But not married, surely," Tilney said with finality, taking a healthy bite of bread as if to seal the fate of this unknown woman.
"Not yet, although," Lizzie swallowed, afraid to reveal the secret so long contained, "Although she is engaged to -- a rather prestigious person in another country." The secret confessed but still obscured left Lizzie with a pleasant feeling of both revelation and smug secrecy.
However, Tilney greeted this disclosure with a crow of laughter. "Of course! Some foreigner who's never laid eyes on her -- it’s the only possibility. No Englishman will settle for such a homely bookworm."
Lizzie tried not to show how nettled she had become, although Tilney's dismissive words struck very close to her heart. It was true the King of Naples had never laid eyes upon her, although she believed the pencil sketch she had sent to him -- although from her most flattering angle -- was a reasonably accurate depiction of her modest appearance. Lizzie knew she was not a beauty like Alice or her mother, but there was certain nothing hideous about her looks, either.
But Tilney could not know that George was really Lizzie, and a young man like George should not be quite so eager to support the vanity of a mere cousin. Be a man, Lizzie scolded herself -- bluster, brag and lie as we imagine them to do when they are out of our sight.
"'Pon rep, Tilney, I suppose you're right. You're the experienced one after all with the civilized side of womankind. I do well enough with the rougher sort. Tell me, how would you inveigle your way into the eyes of some young lass being such a notoriously picksome sort -- say, those two country girls over there?"
"Oh, a conversation like that will require fortification," Tilney drawled. Gesturing to the landlord, he called for wine, which made Lizzie worry a bit. Lord Mangrove did not approve of wine being wasted on young people without an educated palate, as he always said, so her experiences with the stuff were limited.
Nonetheless, she determined to press on. "Go on then, Tilney. I'm curious to know how you work your way around a tempting armful."
Tilney grinned. "Well, the two before us hardly qualify, but I'll tell you the secret to getting on with the petticoats without trotting too hard." He thrust a tumbler of wine at Lizzie with a laugh.
Oh dear, Lizzie thought and gulped a mouthful down.