While in London, Darcy attends a Christmastide pantomime with the Bingley sisters.
Dec 30, 1811
Darcy laid his newspaper aside. Miss Bingley should not have worried, her little dinner party hardly garnered any notice at all. A few brief words of Sir Andrew’s and Lady Elizabeth’s attendance and little more. Would she be gratified at the mention of her event, or offended that it garnered no more notice that a few brief sentences? It was difficult to predict.
No doubt he would find out soon.
The mantle clock chimed. Had he been traveling with his parents, they would have left by now. Mother always determined to arrive early when they went to Drury Lane. The crush of people seemed less that way. She knew he found crowds very unsettling.
Some things had changed very little, even decades later. Years of practice made it no easier for him. He could wear a mask of civility longer now, but that was all.
Mother had always been comfortable in a crowd, much like Bingley…or Miss Elizabeth.
She seemed to know what to say and what to do to make people around her at ease. How did she do that?
The clock chimed the passing of another quarter hour. Procrastination would not make things any easier. He called for his carriage to be brought around.
The ride to the theater passed quickly, too quickly. He scanned the crowd for Hurst and Bingley’s sisters. Several ladies turned toward him with inquiring glances. They followed his gaze into the crowd, as if trying to discern who he sought. He winced and pinched the bridge of his nose.
No, not her!
The woman in the outlandish purple hat with far too many feathers contributed to the society pages. The hat was new, but the abundance of feathers was the shrew’s trademark, appearing in far too many of Darcy’s nightmares. No doubt his innocent outing to the panto would be the subject of her pen, probably even tonight.
A white plume bobbed in the crowd and approached. Beneath it, Miss Bingley, with the Hursts tagging behind, approached.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Darcy.” She and her feather dipped in a small curtsey. “How kind of you to join us.”
“I appreciate Bingley’s invitation.”
He did not like to lie, but sometimes it was unavoidable.
“Shall we find our box before any more children arrive?” Hurst cast about the milling crowd, his upper lip pulled back. “Dashed inconvenient thing that these performances draw so many children who should be in the nursery.”
Children who often behaved better than their parents once the performance whipped spirits into a frenzy. Young ones rarely incited a riot.
“At least we shall have none in our box.” Miss Bingley tapped her fan on her palm.
“You do not like children?” Darcy asked.
“What is to like or not like? They are necessary. That is why nurses and governesses and boarding schools are employed.” Miss Bingley shared a knowing glance with her sister.
“Hear, hear,” Hurst waved his hand, ducked his chin and waded into the crowd.
Darcy ushered the ladies to follow Hurst and stepped behind to bring up the rear.
It should not bother him that Miss Bingley did not like children. A woman of her rank had little need to. She was entirely correct. Nurses and governesses and tutors could relieve her of all need to interact with any offspring.
His mother had not felt that way about her children, though. How many times had she stolen away into the nursery for the opportunity to read to him from his favorite book?
The nurse used to assure her there was no need for the mistress to trouble herself. Still, Mother would not be gainsaid. Sometimes, Father would join her. He would fold himself in a tiny nursery chair to sit with them as she read.
Some of the servants thought the arrangement peculiar, but Mrs. Reynolds would not permit that sort of talk below stairs. He had once overheard her scolding a maid who dared criticize his parents for paying far too much attention to the goings on in the nursery.
What man did such a thing?
The kind of man Darcy wanted to be.
But that would require a wife. And more importantly, one who wanted to do more than merely birth her children.
Miss Elizabeth drew children to her. Walking on the streets of Meryton, nursery maids brought their charges to her. Miss Elizabeth would drop to a knee to address them eye to eye.
He had never been close enough to hear what they said to her or how she replied. But their laughter and looks of delight said enough. She was not the kind of woman to become a disinterested mother.
“What say you, Mr. Darcy?” Miss Bingley settled herself into the seat beside her sister.
What was she talking about?
“For heaven’s sake, Miss Bingley, do not bother the man so. I have no doubt he does not care about the state of Mrs. What’s-her-name’s daughter’s hat.” Hurst flipped the tails of his coat out of the way and sat behind his wife. He gestured to the chair beside him.
A flash of purple in the next box over twisted his guts. Did Hurst recognize her, too? Not sitting next to Miss Bingley was a very good idea. He settled himself on the velvet covered chair.
The theater filled and soon the curtain parted. The crowd hushed, ready to be transported by the magic of the players.
He leaned forward, studying the stage. Mother had a remarkable eye for detail. She would whisper in his ear about this bit or that. It had been a game they played, who could discover the most about the details of the stage before the first player came out.
Miss Bingley preferred noticing the details of the other ladies who attended.
Masked characters entered the stage, Cinderella and her father. The masks and costumes were excellent and different to what he had seen before. Definitely distinct from a Drury Lane production.
Miss Bingley pressed her shoulder to her sister’s and whispered something. “There, in the second rate seats, the fourth row,” she gestured with her chin. “Do you see?”
Were they paying any attention to the production at all?
“I believe I do. In the pink dress? Sitting between the children?”
“Yes, yes. Do you think …”
Darcy shifted, leaning on his elbow. Who were they looking at? He peered into the crowd, following their directions.
“Why yes, I think you are right. Oh, Caroline, what are we to do?”
How could they recognize someone by the back of her head, and why ever would it be so significant? Stuff and nonsense!
Darcy leaned back and returned his attention to the pantomime. Harlequin waved the slapstick and the Fairy Queen appeared to change the characters and the setting.
The corner of his lips rose just a mite. As a boy, this was his favorite part of the entire show. There was something innately appealing about such change being so easy and effortless, even if it was just a stage illusion.
Masks and outer robes fell away, set pieces turned and tipped and transformed. The world of the harlequinade appeared.
“Here we are again!” Clown cried from the stage and vaulted from one set piece to another.
The children in the audience, especially the youngest ones, jumped to their feel squealing and pointing. The young woman sitting in the fourth row below them turned to speak to the little girls beside her.
What was she doing in London?
When had she come and how long was she to be here? More important, was her sister with her?
Darcy leaned as far forward as he could and peered into the crowd for any sign of Miss Elizabeth.
Not that he had any intention of speaking to her, no that would surely appear in the society pages. No, any public meeting with her would be impossible. But it would be pleasing to see her, to simply know she was in town.
“She said she had an uncle in Cheapside.”
Did Mrs. Hurst realize she sounded just like a hissing cat?
Perhaps she was merely capturing the spirit of the merry chase scene below them.
“No doubt she is staying with them. I can only guess her intentions are toward continuing her pursuit.”
Cheapside? That was not very far. He could perhaps contrive to walk in that direction … regularly. No matter if she were in the city, Miss Elizabeth would arrange to take a morning walk, somehow. She was a creature of habit.
But she would not go out alone, a maid, or perhaps her sister, or even the children would accompany her. She might walk out with the nursery maid, or she even take the task from the maid altogether and entertain the children entirely on her own. Perhaps she would walk with them all the way to the tower green. The little boys would no doubt enjoy the opportunity to stretch their legs there in a good run.
Mother had sometimes taken him there when they stayed in town. How invigorating it had been to stretch his legs then with a good solid run. The confinement indoors had been one of the things he least liked about their visits to town.
The tower green was the kind of place where one might accidentally encounter any number of persons. One might even have a brief conversation, an entirely unremarkable conversation.
What might one say in such an encounter?
A contented murmur rippled through the crowd. Pantaloon placed Columbine’s hand in Harlequin’s. Cheers rose, all was now as it should be.
Darcy stood with Hurst and applauded, still searching the crowd for signs of Miss Elizabeth.
After a rousing chorus, to which the audience sang far too many repetitions, the players disappeared back behind stage. The crowd trickled out of the theater.
Miss Bingley pled a dislike of the crush, and insisted they remain in their box until much of the theater cleared. Mrs Hurst agreed, so there was little to be done but wait for their leisure.
Perhaps, though, it would be best for him to be seen leaving alone. That could go far in clearing up misunderstandings about the company he kept today. He rose.
“Pray, Mr. Darcy, do not leave us yet.” Miss Bingley looked up at him, batting her eyes.
He knew that look far, far too well. Bingley was definitely wrong about his sister’s intentions.
“Forgive me, but I definitely must go.”
He probably should not have come in the first place.
“Wait, I beg of you. There is a matter of very great import which we must discuss.”
He took half a step back. “I have no idea to what you refer.”
“Did you not see what we did, there in the audience below us? Jane Bennet.”
“I observed a young woman who looked much like Miss Bennet.”
“She did not look like Miss Bennet, she was Jane Bennet. I have no doubt whatsoever. Have you already forgotten why we insisted Charles keep to London and eschew his country house?”
In truth, for a moment, he had.
“I fear this is a most serious situation, very serious indeed. You were so integral to convincing Charles to remain in town. I beg your assistance again. We must ensure that he does not become reacquainted with Miss Bennet here in town. I am entirely certain he will not agree to yet another change of venue.”
Darcy returned to his seat. “I understand your concern, but I hardly think it likely they should meet by some chance encounter. As I understood, her aunt and uncle are not often in company, and he is in trade. How many opportunities do you have to rub shoulders with tradesmen? No, I think it quite unlikely indeed. You have no reason for concern.”
“You underestimate Charles’ attachment to Miss Bennet. I have no doubt that should he learn of her being in the city, he will make every attempt to renew his acquaintance.”
Was Bingley so very attached? It had not seemed so. But if he was, did that change anything about the situation?
“He well knows the danger such connections might pose to your family’s standing. Surely he could not wish for Mrs. Bennet as a mother-in-law.”
A shudder snaked down Darcy’s spine. That would truly be an awful fate. That possibility alone should be enough to render any Bennet woman entirely undesirable. And yet …
The Darcy name and connections were recognized, well able to withstand a ridiculous connection or two. Not at all like the fragility of the Bingley line, so newly established amongst good society.
Miss Bingley fanned her face with her handkerchief. “One would think he had the sense to realize, but I am not entirely sure. We must agree to keep this news amongst ourselves. Charles must not suspect that she might be anywhere nearby.”
“I abhor disguise—”
“I understand that, sir, and I hold your character in the greatest of respect. Consider what is at stake, though. Moreover, there is no deception being practiced here. We are merely choosing not to speak, not speaking falsehoods.” A thin smile crept over her face and she blinked a little faster.
The line between the two was very, very fine, perhaps too fine to truly distinguish between. Deception, active or passive, was deception, and as such was an affront to the Darcy character.
So then what was he to do? Should he go out of his way to mention that he had seen Miss Bennet?
No, that would not do either.
“So long as he does not specifically ask if I have encountered Miss Bennet at the theater, I will hold my peace.”
It was an uncomfortable compromise, but it was tolerable.
“I admire your principles, Mr. Darcy. I cannot imagine asking more of you. You are a good friend to my brother. We appreciate the way you are guiding him into society.” She batted her eyes again.
“If that is all, then, pray excuse me. Good day.” He bowed.
Her features drooped just a mite. “Good day, sir.”
He turned and strode out as quickly as he could without breaking into a run. The sooner he left Miss Bingley’s presence, and the longer he stayed out of it, the better it would be.
The long staircase was relatively empty. A definite blessing, given his frame of mind. Having to pick through a crowd might have left him running entirely mad.
Outside, he gulped the cooler, crisp air, exactly the balm he needed for Miss Bingley’s attentions. Now, to find the coach.
Good man! His coachman had the coach waiting exactly where it should be, and he climbed in. Purple hat and feathers had observed his hasty exit from the theater and followed him at a discreet distance. She kept looking over her shoulder, as though she expected to find Miss Bingley trailing after him, or even more dramatic, left somewhere, crying bitter tears in the wake of his rejection.
What a truly vile creature!
Even the possibility of seeing or meeting with Miss Elizabeth hardly outweighed the risk of being subject to that harpy. He needed to return to Pemberley soon, before the surveillance of the gossips drove him barmy.
But to do so without seeing Miss Elizabeth? That was hardly more acceptable.
He had several more social engagements demanding his presence. Leaving before those would cause more problems than it would solve. Surely he could find out whether Miss Elizabeth was in town during that time.
He would; and then he would leave and be done with the intrigues of the ton.