Caroline Bingley had long known the name of Darcy, and she had always hoped to increase her family’s intimacy with it. In fact, she was prepared, as soon as it could be arranged, to take it as her own. Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy was the head of the very wealthy and well-connected family and was her brother’s most esteemed friend. She thought, therefore, of the joy it would bring her brother if she could be the means of uniting the companions in brotherhood, of the many benefits such an exalted connection would bring for her own dear sister, of the future generations of her family and all that they would reap from their association with the prestigious house of Darcy. Of all these considerations, she took pride in none so much as she did in her own charity, for having considered everyone’s interest but her own.
“I know not how I shall survive two fortnights without you, Louisa,” she remarked to her sister as she packed her trunk.
“This may be the most important four weeks of my life.”
Caroline had been introduced to Mr. Darcy by her brother at a ball earlier that year. He had not asked her to dance, but she had convinced him to sit down to a game of cards with her, and she felt she had outdone herself in conversation with him—particularly since he was somewhat taciturn with her at first. He had even gone so far as to express a hope of meeting again, which was more than she had heard him do for any other lady that evening. When she received from her brother the news that they were all invited to spend Christmas at Pemberley, Mr. Darcy’s Derbyshire estate, she attributed it to her personal charms and was very well pleased with her success.
Had Caroline known the true cause for the invitation, her pride and her hopes would have been quite dashed. The Bingleys had been invited with the pointed purpose of being introduced to Mr. Darcy’s younger sister, Georgiana. Caroline always spent the London season at her brother’s house in town and Mr. Darcy hoped that she might take an interest in Georgiana, that their acquaintance might ease his sister’s transition to London and her coming out in society, both of which were to follow in the spring.
Caroline’s sister, Louisa, was not able to accept Mr. Darcy’s invitation as she was to spend the season with the family of Mr. Hurst, the man whom she had lately engaged herself to marry.
“If Mr. Darcy’s affections were inspired on the strength of a single meeting,” Louisa said, “then it would be best to imitate, as closely as possible, the conditions of that first encounter.”
Caroline nodded her agreement with this wise counsel.
“To your first dinner at Pemberley,” she continued, “you must wear the very gown you wore that night. This shall inspire in him a recollection of his obviously favourable first impression.”
“But is not it a risk to wear the same gown twice in a row in the same company?” asked Caroline.
Her sister replied with confidence, “And so it must stand out in Mr. Darcy’s mind for its anomaly and work to impress upon him even more deeply the significance of your first encounter. What is more, you must wear the same fragrance, as scent is known to act upon the mind and heart more potently than any other of the senses.”
“An excellent point,” remarked Caroline. She agreed to everything suggested by her sister, but most importantly, she determined to be everything charming and clever.
After several days and three nights of fair weather and tolerable inns, Caroline and her brother, Mr. Bingley, arrived at Pemberley at dusk.
“We are dreadfully late in arriving, Caroline,” said Mr. Bingley as the carriage entered the gate. “We ought to have left Allestree much earlier. It is, indeed, a duty to offer charity wherever possible, but I cannot understand why it was necessary to visit the alms houses in person. Surely a gift of some money would have sufficed. Christian duty or no, you risk inconveniencing our hosts.”
“Oh Charles,” Caroline sighed. “You are not accustomed to acts of charity as I am. It is the presence of the giver that is the true gift. The money is of assistance, certainly, but to receive it from the hands of the giver—to see the face of generosity—is a gift of hope and good will that far exceeds the value of the coins themselves. Surely you can see that this is worth delaying our arrival for.”
In truth, it was the delay that had been Caroline’s object. She always intended to arrive as the sun was setting, in order that her complexion might profit by the glow of evening light. She believed that there was never too much concern to be spent in making an impression. She wished her sister had been present to make a third as they alighted from the carriage, for a grouping of three is always more pleasing to the eye than two. She was cheered by the late but happy thought that the figure of the footman would suffice to complete the picture.
All her careful planning was thwarted, however, by the efficient courtesy of their host. Mr. Darcy was more eager to greet and welcome his friend than he was observant of the image so prettily constructed by Caroline.
Elegantly posed, profile turned to the setting sun, she watched him descend the stairs. From her brother, she had long known him to be clever, well-bred, and self-assured. When she was at long last introduced to him, she had been very pleased to discover how tall and how handsome he was. As he approached them at the threshold of his own home, she thought the grace and warmth of his demeanour added much to his already considerable assets.
Caroline held her pose as Mr. Darcy embraced her brother with both hands.
“Welcome, welcome,” said Mr. Darcy. “I am so glad you have finally arrived. I had looked for you some hours ago, but that is no matter.”
Hardly looking at Caroline, he bowed and offered her his arm. “Miss Bingley, welcome. Please, come in. We are all assembled.” She coyly accepted, and he led them both up the stairs into the house. Although it did not alter her intentions towards him, Caroline did think Mr. Darcy ought to have dwelt more on her person—or at least to have paid some attention to her appearance—and she wondered whether a want of appreciation for the virtues of others might not be one of his failings.
Mr. Darcy ushered his guests directly into the parlour, where the rest of the party was assembled in the large but cozy room. Immediately upon their entering, Mr. Darcy’s formidable aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh called out to them.
“Bring them here,” she demanded. “I must have the honour of first introductions, followed by Anne, and then Georgiana, and then the Colonel. I do not approve of the relaxing of formal obligations, you know, and I see no reason to deviate from them in this case.”
Lady Catherine was seated by the fire and showed no intention of rising to greet anyone, though she was not prevented by age or infirmity from doing so. Her figure was tall and straight, and though weathered by age and indignation, her features were still strong, and retained some of the beauty of her youth.
Mr. Darcy replied to her tersely. “There has never been any suggestion of doing otherwise, Aunt.” He directed the new arrivals towards Lady Catherine.
Lady Catherine’s imposing stare betrayed more consciousness of superior rank than any real superiority of mind, manners or taste. She found nothing in Caroline Bingley to inspire either alarm or praise. Her dress and her hair were suitable, but no more than suitable. She was nothing to her Ladyship’s own daughter and Lady Catherine proceeded to disregard her for the remainder of her stay, excepting of course those moments when her Ladyship’s conversation required either an audience or an object.
“Anne must be next,” she instructed, gesturing towards her daughter, who was seated beside her. Mr. Darcy forced a smile and turned to a demonstrably unimposing creature, almost hidden behind Lady Catherine, whom he introduced as his cousin, Miss Anne De Bourgh.
Anne did not get up from her seat.
“And then Georgiana, and then the Colonel,” Lady Catherine continued loudly to direct the proceedings to the obvious irritation of her host.
On the introduction of Georgiana, who was only fourteen and shy even for her age, Caroline was overjoyed. Although she had not initially factored the girl into her plans, she immediately saw the advantages of an intimate acquaintance with her. As Mr. Darcy’s ward and beloved sister, here was just the vehicle Caroline wanted to contrive her way into his heart—if she were not already firmly established there. Georgiana did not seem a difficult conquest. The elder girl mistook the purity of the younger girl’s heart for a ready and undiscerning affection, and the hesitancy in Georgiana’s manner led Caroline to believe that her opinions could be easily dictated.
She did not account for the powers of perception and discernment which Georgiana possessed. When Caroline was presented to her, Georgiana did not instantly dislike her, but was quick to note the condescending nature and forced intimacy of their first conversation. When Colonel Fitzwilliam, Mr. Darcy’s cousin, had been introduced, Caroline returned to Georgiana.
“I am so very pleased finally to make your acquaintance, Miss Darcy,” Caroline began. “I have been longing for the pleasure of it more than you know. Ever since I heard that Mr. Darcy had a sister and that I should have the privilege of spending four weeks in her gracious company, I have been most anxious to make your acquaintance. As you may be aware, I have a sister from whom I am usually inseparable and she could not join us at this time. Therefore, I shall depend upon you for companionship these two fortnights, and I very much hope I shall not make too tedious a job of it.”
Here Lady Catherine could not suppress a remark, as, in fact, she never could.
“If you had all come to Rosings for Christmas as I suggested,” she chided, “there would be plenty of young ladies in the neighbourhood to keep any of you from loneliness. Here in the North, however, you do not have the benefit of society so much as we do in the South.”
Caroline, agape at this insult against the hospitality of her host, looked about the room and noted the wide eyes and open mouths of several other guests. She turned to Mr. Darcy to see his reply, but none was forthcoming. It was long since he had heard anything his aunt said. Her conversation had something of diminishing returns. The more there was of it, the less value it had, and it was always in ample sufficiency, several times over.
Caroline, thinking to make herself agreeable with an obsequious reply, curtseyed in Lady Catherine’s direction and was opening her mouth to speak when she was spared the task by the grace of her young new acquaintance.
Taking her brother’s lead, as she did in all matters of propriety, Georgiana left her aunt to her own musings and responded instead to Caroline, with a humility that was lost on her guest.
“Miss Bingley, it is I who am grateful of your company,” said Georgiana softly. “You know, my brother is always thinking of what most pleases me, and I have never known him to be wrong in anything. Therefore, I trust your presence here will bring me the greatest possible joy. I only hope I shall acquit myself tolerably of my duties as hostess. May I begin by showing you to your room? Your journey must have fatigued you, and I have taken the liberty of having some small refreshment laid out for you there.”
Caroline tilted her head in acquiescence, and the two girls disappeared together down the corridor. The three men retired to the library, and Miss de Bourgh and her mother continued their elevated silence beside the fire.