An Assembly Such as This
To my father and mother,
Eugene and Elaine Stanley,
who gave me the freedom
At Such an Assembly as This
Fitzwilliam George Alexander Darcy rose from his seat in the Bingley carriage and reluctantly descended to earth before the assembly hall above the only inn to which the small market town of Meryton could lay claim. A window from the hall above opened, allowing the lively but poorly executed music of a country dance to invade the serenity of the night air. Grimacing, he looked down at the hat in his hands and then, with a sigh, positioned it at precisely the correct angle on his head. How, exactly, did you allow Bingley to maneuver you into this ill-conceived foray into country society? he berated himself. But before he could begin a review of the events that had deposited him there, a hound perched on a nearby carriage sent up a mournful howl.
“Precisely,” Darcy commiserated aloud as he turned to the rest of his party. Immediately, he saw that his friend’s sisters held the same expectation for an enjoyable evening as himself. The expression that passed between them as they shook out their skirts was at once equal parts elegant disdain and long-suffering. His gaze then traveled to his young friend, whose face, in contrast, was alive with excitement and curiosity. Not for the first time Darcy wondered how Charles Bingley and his sisters could possibly be related. The Bingley women were properly reserved, but Charles was invariably and indiscriminately gregarious. Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley were elegant in their dress and manners. Charles was…Well, he was now quietly fashionable in his dress — Darcy had at least taken him in hand in that regard — but he still retained an unfortunate propensity to treat anyone merely introduced to him as an intimate friend. The Bingley sisters were not easily impressed and radiated a studied boredom in regard to all but the most exclusive of entertainments; their brother took pleasure in everything.
It was just this exuberance of character that had made Charles the object of several cruel jokes among the more sophisticated young gentlemen in Town and had been the means of bringing him to Darcy’s notice. Unwillingly privy to the planning of one such humiliation conducted during a game of cards at his club, he had heard enough to disgust him and form the resolve to seek out the unfortunate youth and warn him away from those he had thought his friends. To Darcy’s surprise, what had started as Christian duty became a satisfying friendship. Charles had come far since his first visit to Town, but there were still moments, like the present, when Darcy despaired of ever cultivating in him a proper reserve.
“Shall we go in, then?” asked Charles, appearing at his side. “The music sounds delightful, and I expect the ladies shall be equally so.” He turned and extended an arm to his unmarried sister. “Come, Caroline, let us meet our new neighbors.”
Darcy took up a position in the rear as the Bingley party moved into the small hall and ascended the stairs to the assembly room floor. Having disposed of their hats and the ladies’ wraps, Bingley; his brother-in-law, Mr. Hurst; and Darcy ushered the ladies to the entrance, where they paused to assess the features of the room and its rustic occupants. At that unfortunate moment the music came to a halt, and the dancers made their final turn in the pattern, causing most of the room to face the door. For a few breathless heartbeats, Town and Country took stock of each other and rushed to a dizzying variety of conclusions.
Darcy nudged Bingley forward into the room as the dancers quit the floor in search of refreshment and gossip. He could feel the eyes of the entire room upon him and wondered that he had ever doubted the rudeness of country manners. It was as bad as he had feared. The room was abuzz with speculation as he and the rest of Bingley’s party were exclaimed over and weighed to the last guinea. He could almost hear the clink of coins as they counted his fortune. In the space of a few moments, the man to whom Darcy guessed he might lay the blame for their invitation to the evening’s entertainment came hurrying toward them. Bowing a degree more than was necessary, he took Bingley’s hand in a vigorous clasp.
“Welcome, welcome, Mr. Bingley, and all your fine party, too, I am quite sure,” exclaimed Sir William Lucas as he encompassed them all in a great smile. “We are so very honored that you have come to our small assembly. Of course we are all anxious to make the acquaintance of your estimable guests…” Sir William’s voice trailed off as he turned an expectant countenance upon Darcy and then Bingley’s sisters.
With great enthusiasm, Bingley made the proper introductions. Darcy’s own bow to the obsequious little man was one of the merest civility. To Darcy’s pained annoyance, instead of depressing Sir William’s deference, it had the unfortunate effect of increasing that gentleman’s regard and secured the man’s continued efforts to engage him. Finally, after the ladies and Mr. Hurst were introduced, Sir William ushered them all to the refreshment table where Miss Lucas, his eldest daughter, stood with her mother and family. There, the Bingley party was introduced to the rest of the Lucas family, and Bingley, knowing his duty when it presented itself to him, offered himself to Miss Lucas for the next dance. Sir William presented his arm to Miss Bingley, and the Hursts followed the two couples out onto the dance floor.
As the music began and the other dancers took their places, Darcy positioned himself against the wall, away from the table and the knots of neighbors and relatives that framed the room. Everywhere he turned, eyes narrowed on him in frank appraisal or fluttered in a mock of modesty. His countenance hardening, he withdrew into a stance of studied indifference, masking the cool disdain that vied with hot annoyance in his chest as he watched the ebb and flow of country society before him.
Why had he agreed to this waste of an evening? There was no beauty, conversation, or fashion to be found in the entire room save among those with whom he had arrived. Rather, he was surrounded by the common, the dull, and the trite, that class of the barely gentrified whose idea of conversation was no more than gossip — and that of the vulgar sort of which he was the current object. Darcy could not help but compare his present circumstance with the last time he had been to Tattersall’s in search of a suitable new Thoroughbred stallion for his brood mares. Then and there, he privately vowed to purchase no more horseflesh at auction.
Hoping for relief from his solitary disquiet, he looked about for Bingley as the dance came to an end, finally locating him across the room in the process of being introduced to a matron surrounded by several young women. Darcy watched in resignation as Bingley bowed to each of them during the introductions and then offered his arm to the handsomest girl, securing her for the next dance. Bingley’s ease in any society in which he found himself always amazed Darcy. How did one converse with perfect strangers across the boundaries of class or station and in such a setting? A score of cautions and strictures acquired over a lifetime loomed darkly in Darcy’s mind, adding to his discomposure and deepening further still his withdrawal from social intercourse. His eyes followed Bingley and his partner through the first patterns of the dance and then returned to the matron and her entourage. What he saw there caused him to groan, startling a passing young gentleman who, after a brief glance into Darcy’s stony visage, hurried on.
The object of Darcy’s displeasure wore the expression of a plump, old tabby that had just been presented with a bowl of rich cream. Her satisfaction and avarice were almost palpable as she kept close watch on Bingley and the girl. Her daughter? Likely, he determined, although there is little resemblance. There was no doubt in his mind as to where her thoughts were leading; he had seen that look too many times to be mistaken. Bingley must be warned against showing any particular attention in that direction. The slightest sense of partiality and the woman would be encamped upon the doorstep of Bingley’s home, Netherfield.
Darcy made his way to the refreshment table, his back stiff with displeasure at the duty to his friend that lay before him. Accepting a cup of punch from the girl behind the table, he suffered her smiles and giggles with a show of composure he was far from feeling.
At that moment, Bingley appeared next to him, secured a cup from the girl with a smile and a wink, and turned to his friend. “I say, Darcy, have you ever seen so many lovely young ladies in one place in your life? What do you think of country manners now?”
“I think of them as I have always thought, having certainly been given no cause this evening to do otherwise.”
“But, Darcy, surely you cannot have been offended by Sir William’s attentions.” Bingley smiled ruefully. “He is a good sort, a trifle officious, but —”
“Sir William’s attentions were not uppermost in my mind as I considered your question. You cannot be unaware of the vulgar gossip we are figuring in even at this moment.” Darcy’s jaw clenched in agitation as a rapid review of the room confirmed the truth of his observation.
“They probably wonder, as do I, why you have not danced as yet tonight. Come, Darcy, I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance. There are many pretty girls who would, no doubt —”