Men would not live long in society if they were not the mutual dupes of each other. - Françoise VI de la Rochefoucault
Early spring 1811:
'What a lovely evening, do you not agree, Mr Darcy?' Caroline Bingley inquired, looking up at him through darkened eyelashes, heavy with the charcoal she had used, while next to her, her older sister pushed her décolletage just a little bit further into his line of vision.
In Fitzwilliam Darcy's opinion, the evening was tolerable at best and even that just barely. The ballroom was a crush of people drenched in heavy perfume and dressed to impress while their faces were nothing but pretty masks, awkwardly painted and expressionless. Empty smiles and hollow chuckles, affected laughter and false joviality were all around him. It was a farce, a well-practised piece on the stage that called itself London society. It was also a cattle-market, where young women were paraded around like horsemeat to be given away to the highest bidder. Darcy was generally considered a very eligible bachelor, though if he were honest, he had little inclination marrying any of the young ladies he had seen so far in the eight years since he himself had entered the salons, dining parlours and ballrooms of town.
'What do you think of Miss Haversham?' the younger of the two sisters carried on, even though he had not deigned reply to her first question.
Following the lady's gaze, he spied a girl of at most sixteen with an expression that spoke of the pressure she was put under, presumably by her parents. Intimidated summed it up best. Her mother, judging by the striking similarity of the two women, stood next to her, obviously giving her even more instructions while glancing rather pointedly in his direction. Naturally, considering his wealth and connexions. On top of that he was not bad looking either, though in the habit of frowning a good deal and making him appear rather forbidding. Darcy was used to the scheming matchmakers who called themselves quite harmlessly “mother” or “mama” and they had to be kept at bay, after all.
'She is tolerable, I suppose, but not handsome enough to tempt me, Miss Caroline.'
Both Miss Bingleys gave a tinkling laugh and the elder cried out with undisguised glee: 'Oh, Mr Darcy, you are too cruel! But I have to say I do agree. She certainly is quite plain and she is so very artless and without any style and stance; besides, her father is said to have been in trade until very recently when he came into an inheritance from an uncle or so, I cannot remember the particulars. Not that it matters. One never knows with these upstarts, does one, now?'
It was a little surprising to Darcy that his two companions were want to ignore the fact, that their brother's and with that their own fortune had been acquired as much by trade as that of the Havershams if not more so, for they had not had a wealthy relative who had left them his fortune. No, their means were all down to their late father's hard work and wise investments that had now made his children independent. Not that it would have mattered to him in the slightest anyway. Darcy preferred to judge a man by his character and not by his profession (or lack thereof) and from what he had heard, the old Mr Bingley had been as upright a man as any: educated, friendly, and wise. His son had long since become one of Darcy's closest and most trusted friends. Besides, after an evening spent with either of the two Miss Bingleys always close by, artlessness did not sound bad at all. His best friend's sisters were anything but artless. Yes, they thought they hid their designs well and thought that they could fool anyone into believing them sincere and knowledgeable, yet, their education extended no further than what was necessary to build a glittery façade behind which was nothing but vacuous complacency and idle vanity. If Miss Haversham was tolerable, the Miss Bingleys were not. If he was not tempted by the young and frightened looking girl with her delicate features, he was even less so by the painted and gaudily dressed women by his side and yet, as long as they were close by, it kept the others in check. In short, it was a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils; a matter of better the devil you know than the devil you don’t, that he bore with their company. That, and he did it for their brother's sake.
'You are very dull this evening, Mr Darcy. Is something the matter?'
As far as he could discern, he behaved just as he did at any other ball he had the duty to attend. When he had last gone to a ball for pleasure, Darcy was not quite sure. It must have been years since.
'I thank you for your concern, but let me assure you, I am perfectly fine, Miss Caroline.'
Or at least he would be if she deigned to stop trying to rouse his attentions. Shifting a little to the left, he remedied the fact that the young lady had come almost indecently close to him. With a small sigh, hardly suppressed but skilfully disguised as a chuckle, Darcy glanced towards the dancefloor where the two ladies’ brother was presently dancing his second set with a pretty young lady with golden blond hair, a rosy complexion and a fine figure that any man would find worth looking at. But throughout the evening her eyes had stayed as vacant as those of any other woman present, the smile merely dabbed onto her face for decoration, not from enjoyment. After eight years, Darcy himself did not bother to smile any longer. A smile in the ballrooms across town meant nothing; unless one happened to be Charles Bingley. It was presumably this that had endeared Darcy to his friend in the first place. An open soul, cheerful and friendly without pretence and devoid of falsehood. No traits that either of his sisters had inherited.
Thankfully he was presently relieved of the presence of the older of them by a young and heavy built man with a pasty face asking her for the next two dances and as it was, she was not yet engaged. Since she had declined two dances already, it left Louisa Bingley no choice but to accept the man's hand for the next set unless she wanted to forgo all dancing for the remainder of the evening and though she was, in general, a more languorous and complaisant creature than her younger sister, she was nonetheless intent to marry within the next twelve-month, come what may. In short, she had to dance. Caroline Bingley, on the other hand, had deftly declined the third man in a row already and as the consequence of which, Darcy had to suffer her presence for yet another indeterminable period of time unless he managed to come up with an excuse to leave the ball there and then. But with both her brother and her sister dancing, it would be impolite, to say the least, to leave her to her own devices.
So it was fortunate that this was the second set Bingley had danced with his latest infatuation and even more so that the dance was about to end, the other couples already gathering to join or replace the current dancers. In a few moments, he would be free to leave and leave he would; unless Bingley had already engaged himself for yet another dance, of course. One could never know, for Charles Bingley, unlike himself, was an avid dancer.
However, as it was, for the first time this evening, Dame Fortune smiled down on him. Not five minutes later his friend took his place beside his sister. Fitzwilliam Darcy was free to leave early as he did at most balls. He had made an appearance to keep up appearances and that would have to suffice. At least for today.
Ah, a glass of port, a few pages in a book, and the evening would not be completely wasted after all.
It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society. - Krishnamurti
His next engagement was two days later and fortunately, it was only for a dinner at the Brandons', people with at least some degree of sophistication and taste. The one downside was, however, that they had three unmarried daughters of marriageable age and no sons. Their dowries were said to be an impressive fifteen-thousand pounds each and yet, there was little else to recommend them. They were like all the other girls Darcy had met over the years: rather shallow, with no opinion of their own and their accomplishments, though manifold were nothing out of the common way. The eldest played the pianoforte, her sister the harp and the third the harp-lute. All of them sang, drew and excelled in watercolours as much as the next girl not suffering from colour-blindness. They diligently embroidered cushions, arranged flowers and netted purses – at least when they were not out to take tea in one of the many fashionable tea rooms before going for yet another appointment at one or another modiste.
Yes, to say that eight years of society had made him somewhat cynical was nothing but an accurate observation. Fitzwilliam Darcy had to admit as much himself. How his friend Bingley could find so much enthusiasm to attend pretty much every single ball or dinner was beyond him, but then again, with a pretty face, obliging manners and a becoming dress his friend was a lost man. For Charles Bingley, the task of finding a wife amongst the young ladies of the “Ton” had not yet lost its charm.
While his valet tied his cravat Darcy wondered if perhaps he was not too fastidious in his demands for a wife. He was seven and twenty, a man in his prime, master of a vast estate, proprietor of an impressive townhouse situated in one of the most fashionable streets of Mayfair, and with an income of ten thousand a year. He was in want of a wife and still, not one woman had ever managed to catch his attention for any length of time and that time was usually the duration of a dance, a set at most.
Slipping into his greatcoat and taking his hat, Darcy climbed into his waiting carriage that would bring him no further than two streets from his own abode. Yet, London, with its quirk for uncomfortable drizzle lived up to its reputation. The rain had set in a couple of days ago and never since stopped, and though Darcy much preferred to walk, it would not do if he arrived at his host's house all wet and rumpled. He would have to postpone his walk until after dinner. It was but a small sacrifice and at any rate, a walk after a rich dinner was the best way to prevent indigestion, was it not?
'Ah, good evening, Mr Darcy,' he was greeted by his host five minutes later. 'It is so very kind of you to accept our invitation to such a humble party as ours this evening.'
Well, definitions of “humble” seemed to differ, for Darcy would not have called a dinner for more than twenty people much of a humble affair. Though granted, compared to some functions he had attended, it probably was. It was a matter of context he supposed.
'Mr Brandon,' he bowed in return, handing his hat, coat, gloves and cane to the butler who had opened the door. 'The pleasure is all mine.'
'You are too good, Sir.'
'Not at all. It is always a joy to be able to spend an evening with such good friends and in such good company.'
That technically was not an untruth, it was a joy to spend an evening in good company with witty conversation in a relaxed atmosphere, just that society had so little of either. The talk would stay shallow, to relax would be impossible and as for the company being good, that could only be said because such company as this was in fact, not bad. But there was a distinction between good company and not merely bad company as far as Darcy was concerned. Not two months into the Season and he already wished himself back at Pemberley. Why did this time of year have to be so very tedious?
But there was nothing he could do about it, as little as he liked to admit it even to himself, he did need a wife, if only to produce an heir and unless he would give in to his aunt's demands and marry his cousin, he would have to find one amongst the women in town. As much as he loved his relatives, wedding his cousin was not an option for him. Anne de Bourgh, he was sorry to say, was one of the dullest creatures he had ever met and he was glad to say, that she had just as little inclination in marrying him as he had in marrying her.
The parlour was already crammed with people engaged in conversation, and bracing himself to talk about the weather for the next half hour, Darcy duly joined them.
'It is a pity that it has been raining for so long now, is it not?' a Mr Dawson approached him without so much as a greeting unless the slightest inclination of the head counted as such.
They had been introduced only the other week, but already he distrusted the man. There was something sly and unbecoming about the man who strongly reminded him of his old childhood friend, George Wickham. But now there was a man he would rather not think about. Though one thing he had to give Wickham, he was a good conversationalist, he would have loved a gathering like this and would have excelled in charming everybody with his easy ways and pleasant countenance. That he was a dissolute and conniving man mattered little as long as one made good conversation.
'Yes, very tedious, I have to agree. One does not quite know what to do all day long being ensconced in the house all of the time,' Darcy answered, though in fact the weather had bothered him little.
There had been matters of business to attend to and when that had been taken care of and after a little exercise, he had made himself comfortable in his library to read, a pastime he had little time for in summer when his estate took much of this attention.
'Indeed, indeed. A ride in the park has been made near impossible, has it not? Not that one would meet many people. All one would achieve with such foolishness is being soaked through and getting one's clothes dirty to a point where one is not fit to be seen.'
Darcy had actually enjoyed the near solitary rides through Hyde Park and down Rotten Row. But true enough, he had hardly seen a soul, save for a couple of grooms exercising their masters' horses and he had looked rather grubby by the time he had returned home. The loose soil of the bridle path had turned to mud and riding at a faster pace than a simple trot did result in specks of dirt upon one's boots, breeches and even sleeves.
'On the other hand, this weather makes these sort of gatherings all the more welcoming,' he replied instead, and even while he did so, his companion had spotted yet another acquaintance and was already in the process of turning around, leaving Darcy to his own devices once again.
'You look lost, cousin,' a voice piped up behind him, making him involuntarily smile.
'Fitzwilliam! I did not expect to see you here.'
'Nor I you. Have you decided to be sociable at last? Or is duty calling you to battle?'
'Decidedly the latter,' Fitzwilliam Darcy said with some wryness.
'I thought as much. You know, you should relax more often. A wife should do the trick. - And yes, it is my father's opinion I am repeating there,' the young colonel grinned.
Richard Fitzwilliam was the younger son of an earl, the son of Darcy's maternal uncle and since his own dear father had died four years ago, joint guardian to his younger sister Georgiana, presently at school near Bath.
'And that was just what I thought. How is the Earl? How is your mother?'
There was no need to inquire after his other cousin, Fitzwilliam's older brother or his wife for Darcy had met them that very morning in passing, and though it had been a brief encounter, it had been very clear that both the young Lord Everston and his wife were both healthy and happy – and perfectly unconcerned by the weather.
'Oh, they are well, though the Countess has suffered from a “severe cold” of late.'
Or in short, his aunt had no wish to go into society for whatever reason, presumably because for once she had been on the receiving end of gossip. It happened to the best of families on occasion. One little faux-pas in dress could lead to amusement for a couple of days until it was another lady's turn to show a lack of taste and be laughed at by those she had derided just the previous day.
'I hope she will recover soon,' Darcy remarked, though knowing full well that with that he did nothing more than participate in a farce.
'I think she will, Darcy. By the by, I have heard you are courting the younger Miss Bingley? When am I to congratulate you?'
'Miss Ca.. Ca...- Caroline?'
It had been a while since Darcy had been so flummoxed by a remark that he literally stammered. But where did that rumour, perfectly false, of course, suddenly come from? He and courting Caroline Bingley? Most certainly not!
'Yes, I heard it at White's this morning and I have to say, it took me somewhat by surprise. I never had much of an idea you cared for that woman.'
'I do not. Or at least in no other way than that she is the sister of a friend of mine.'
'And yet, I heard that you basically spent a whole evening with her by your side. Darcy, do be careful, I know you are eager to keep the ladies at bay but to resort to using another young lady as deterrent has its dangers,' his cousin continued with some seriousness. 'You know how quickly people talk, and with you being seven and twenty and unmarried still...'
He need not say more.
'I did, Fitzwilliam, and it was no pleasure, I assure you. However, there is little I can do to avoid her. She is, after all, Bingley's sister and as it stands, I have been invited by him to join their party on the morrow to go and see an exhibition. What I have most certainly not done, is encourage her in any way.'
'I would not have thought you had, but perhaps you should distance yourself from that family for a while to show there is nothing to the gossip.'
He would do just that. Tomorrow he would go to the museum with his friends and then... - well, what then? He could actually do with a little break. A little rest from the treadmill of sheer endless social obligations. But where should he go? If he went to the continent it would be a change of scene, but not necessarily of society. He would have to think about it, but for now, there was little to do than to follow the call for dinner and march into the dining room.
Two full courses of fairly decent food, dull conversation and awkward smiles from across the table where the eldest Miss Brandon had been placed by obvious design. Nothing out of the ordinary. The leaving of the ladies while the gentlemen stayed behind for cigars and port was the highlight of the meal.
'I heard you have an estate in Derbyshire?' a man unbeknownst to him approached Darcy.
Oh, but he did know him, at least by sight. It had been the pasty-faced man who had asked Louisa Bingley for a set just before Darcy himself had left the last ball.
'I have indeed, Mr?'
'I am so sorry, Mr Darcy, I have only just arrived, after attending a dinner at Lord Fairbank's house, you know? Very noble family. Anyway, my name, Sir, is Walter Hurst. How do you do?' the man simply introduced himself, reaching out a sluggish hand that went perfectly d'accord with the man's drawling tone of voice.
'How do you do, Sir.'
Already he had no opinion of the man, but since they were now introduced, he could scarcely avoid speaking to him.
'Then I take it you know how to deal with gardeners, Mr Darcy? Miss Bingley, I believe, mentioned that you had extensive grounds and the most beautiful gardens she has ever seen.'
'Gardeners?' Darcy once again more stammered than actually asked from sheer perplexity.
Oddly enough, the one time Bingley and his sisters had visited him at Pemberley for a week before carrying on to Scarborough both ladies had determined that the park had looked far too natural and could do with a bit of artifice here and there and practically everywhere. What were gardens without a hermitage or a folly? Without a Grecian temple or an impressive fountain? And the lake... - No, better not think about Pemberley at this moment.
'Yes. You see, I have only recently purchased a house in town and the gardens, quite small, of course, do need a lot of tending to be of any lady's liking. But the man who has seen to the grounds seems unable to think of anything but lawns and hedges.'
'If that is the case, I recommend you consult Mr Rapton or Mr Dawlish. The latter is perhaps less renown, but I have to admit that I myself much prefer his style.'
And not only that, Darcy doubted that Humphrey Rapton would concern himself with any garden smaller than ten acres unless his client happened to be an Earl at the very least.
'Do you, indeed? I have never heard of the man. But perhaps, you could have a look?'
'I am afraid not as I am currently engaged in preparations for a journey I intend to take and which I have planned for a while now.'
What had possessed him to say that was beyond him, but all of a sudden, what had been nothing but a vague idea, had manifested itself out of thin air. Yes, he would go travelling... - no actually, he would leave society for a couple of weeks and Mr Hurst, of all people, had just given him an idea.
'Oh, a Grand Tour?' the man, unaware of his involuntary helpfulness, asked familiarly.
Well, not quite, but to voice what his real intentions were would raise more than an eyebrow, no it presumably would cause a scandal and possibly have him end his days in Bedlam.
The rest of the evening, Darcy spent deep in thought, and as was his habit, excused himself as soon as was possible without giving too much offence. Not that he was too fazed by it if he did, but as with everything, it was a matter of not overdoing things. The walk home was a relief. To breathe the fresh air, humid and cold this early in the year and despite the denseness, it always possessed in town, was more than welcome after the increasing stickiness of the over-crowded salon and the noise from the entertainment that had been provided by the ladies as soon as the gentlemen had joined them. He liked music, but where conversation and singing competed with one another it was bound to quickly turn into an ante-chamber of hell.
I think we are becoming the best informed society that has ever died of ignorance. – Reuben Blades
The idea that had come to him the night before sounded all the more tempting as he strolled through the latest exhibition of one of the many private museums in London, once again with his friend's sisters on either arm, while Bingley himself attended the very lady that had captured his heart three nights ago. Knowing his friend, he would soon enough come to his senses. Charles Bingley was by no means fickle, but easy to impress nonetheless. Although Miss Catrell was pretty enough, as soon as she opened her mouth, the picture of near perfection was somewhat disturbed. Si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses1... - A prime example.
'Why would anyone mummify a cat?' Louisa Bingley suddenly asked, staring with incredulity and disgust at the shrivelled creature in the cabinet before them.
'Because for the Egyptians cats were holy creatures,' he answered flatly.
They had all received a neatly printed guide at the entrance that among some truths, in general, was nothing but the fantastic nonsense of an overly imaginative mind. Still, ever since Napoleon, though rightfully perceived as an arch-enemy, had tried to take over Egypt some ten years ago, interest in this ancient culture had spawned all over Europe and it was some achievement to not have read at least one extract if not a whole book that covered the topic. Miss Bingley had obviously excelled.
'How can a cat be holy?' Caroline Bingley promptly chimed in as if intent to outshine her sister in regards to her ignorance. 'It is nothing but a lowly animal.'
'For you that might very well be so, Miss Caroline, but the Egyptians have worshipped many animals as manifestations of their gods. The ibis, the crocodile, the cat, the ram as well as the bull are but few that come to mind.'
'You are so well educated, Mr Darcy...' Miss Bingley all but fawned. 'How do you know all these things?'
'But, of course,' her younger sister picked up the conversation he dearly wished to end in order to actually be able to look at the exhibits, for they were rather interesting, despite the pathetic attempt of a brevier. 'You always buy books and on so many varying topics, it always baffles me. Then again, the library at Pemberley is an impressive one.'
'It has been the work of many generations, I should think it well stocked and extensive.'
'And yet, you have added so many volumes yourself. You always seem to buy books.'
'With so many works of quality published in recent years, whether it be literature, history or science, I would be negligent if I did not. Never before has there been a time when knowledge was so abundant and new discoveries made so frequently. One would be considered careless not to make the most of it.'
'Oh, let me assure you, no-one could blame you of negligence or carelessness, Mr Darcy!' Miss Caroline cried out, ignoring his little jab even if she had realised that it had been one.
'I wonder why they depicted people so awkwardly,' Louisa Bingley sighed, pointing at a stela with elaborate hieroglyphics carved into it. 'And they are always shown from the side, never from the front, it seems.'
'If you look at medieval paintings, you will find that they are rather one dimensional as well. Styles change and differ from culture to culture. I dare say it is futile to ask why and safe to assume that in a couple of hundred years people will look at our culture wondering what we were thinking when decorating our houses with a Grecian style frieze and Roman columns.'
'But that would be obvious, surely. Because it is tasteful, of course,' the lady on his other arm threw in.
'And perhaps that is just what the Egyptians thought, that it is tasteful to depict a person from his or her side instead of from the front.'
'Now that is nonsense, Mr Darcy!'
'It might very well be, but it could also be accurate for all we know.'
'Oh, shame on you, Mr Darcy! You are teasing us.'
Teasing either of the Miss Bingley's was the last thing on his mind, getting away from them was decidedly closer to the truth.
'And, Darcy, what do you say to this marvellous exhibition?'
Bingley, sans his companion, had finally re-appeared, all smiling and bubbly as always.
'It is interesting,' was all his reply.
'And, have you gotten through it yet?'
They had not, nor, at this point had he much inclination to do so. Again his mind strayed towards the outrageous plan he had hatched the night before and thankfully Miss Bingley then yawned claiming to be in need of a refreshment, which was just as well.
'It is so very interesting, but I have to admit that I have had quite enough for one day. There is so much to see, one can be quite overwhelmed by it!'
Her sister seconded her and ten minutes later the whole party had taken a seat in the tea room across the street from the museum. The time had come to break the news to his friends.
'It might surprise you, Bingley, but I have decided to go on a tour.'
'Oh, to Egypt?' Miss Caroline asked interestedly, while her brother seemed thoroughly perplexed.
'Perhaps,' Darcy blatantly lied.
Well, he could hardly tell her that he fully intended to stay in the country, just not as one Fitzwilliam Darcy Esquire.
'So suddenly?' Bingley, at last, managed to inquire. 'When are you going to leave? I never knew you had much inclination for travelling, Darcy. Not abroad at any rate.'
'I had not, and yet, of late I have thought of how much I would miss if I did not. Books and pictures are all nice and well, but they are nothing compared to the actual experience of seeing the ancient monuments for oneself. I am quite determined. As soon as I have settled my business affairs, I will be off.'
'And for how long?'
'I do not know. Does one ever?'
Charles Bingley only shrugged, his brows knitted. His friend was not a fool, he knew that something was afoot and yet, thankfully he did not pursue the matter. Not for the time being.