What follows is a short story I wrote for a high school class called "19th Century English Literature", and is a chilling example of what can happen to a person when he reads too much Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. I hope you enjoy ...
The young Lord Gerald Dartington strode into the Great Hall wearing a broad grin. His eyes swept over the typical Ball scene, young men and women taking place in the real dances, the delicate manoeuvring that took place prior to the commencement of the actual Ball. Names were written on dance cards, strategic pleasantries were exchanged, mothers scanned the room for bachelors eligible to wed their daughters.
“Dartington! So good to see you!” a loud exuberant voice cried. “What have you been up to these past weeks?” Gerald’s grin widened as he recognised his old friend Percy, the second son of an Earl.
“A spot of shooting at a friend’s country estate to the north. And quite enjoyable it was.”
“Marvellous! Now, come with me, I simply must introduce you to Baroness Aldervast.”
Gerald responded with all enthusiasm while groaning inwardly. Yet another Baroness, followed by yet another Lady, followed by another Duchess. All of whom he simply must meet. He had to endure this rigmarole at every outing he attended. He was by no means ignorant of his position; Lord Dartington was without doubt the most agreeable match for any single young woman in the room. He possessed an enormous fortune and an impeccable family name, not to mention a finely shaped body and a face of no slight attractiveness. To the knowledge of all his acquaintances, Dartington was also an excellent wit, and the very picture of a polite gentleman.
What they were totally unaware of was the inner annoyance that grew steadily stronger with every Lady and every Duchess. While Gerald executed each perfect bow and navigated each conversation flawlessly, he wanted more than anything to inform his company that they were deadly dull and to leave as fast as his legs could carry him. Every time he was approached by another guest, he thought to himself This time, Gerry. this time you are going to do away with all this inane rot, turn on your heel and leave. And every time, he found himself falling into the same pattern of perfectly polite meaningless chit chat. It was nothing more than a formula, a ritual. He had no idea how the break the cycle; he was trapped. Doomed forever to meet vacuous young women and be hunted down by their mothers.
“Good evening Lord Dartington,” said a simpering nineteen year old heiress to a fortune.
“Good evening Lord Dartington,” crooned a twenty-one year old woman in one of the most respectable families in Britain.
* * *
Gerald collapsed onto his bed after a horrible night spent dancing and mingling with the interminably shallow English upper class. Not a single one of those glamorous, sparkling gems of society had anything worthwhile to say. Not one! He wanted to sit down and talk about real things, about people, about society, about truth. He wanted to find out about Science and the great things being achieved. He wanted a conversation that was deeper, more powerful. He drifted into sleep dreaming about being dragged off to meet Baroness Aldervast in chains.
He gloomily proceeded to another Ball a week later, having spent six days paying the required attention to cards and calls, two of his least favourite activities. His distaste for them was second only to his distaste for Balls. Nevertheless, the dashing grin was seated firmly on his face and the eloquent words tumbled themselves from his lips.
“Good evening Lord Dartington,” said a woman in her middle twenties. Her mother hovered nearby making the introductions. Gerald bowed gracefully and bade her good evening. He was about to make an excuse and retreat, but he caught a glimpse of someone standing just behind the girl and her matriarch. A lady of some beauty, perhaps a younger sister? She caught his eye for an instant, and smiled slightly. Dartington felt an inexplicable sense of having accidentally revealed something to her, as if he’d dropped his hand of cards. The oldest daughter interpreted the delay as a sign of further interest, so she engaged him in a conversation that would take far longer to escape from. Gerald cursed himself for his error.
“Have you found the weather to your liking of late, milord?” enquired the hopeful woman.
“Quite so. I – “ began Gerald. He was cut off by a dry tone that sliced through the stale crust of conversation.
“Lord Dartington doesn’t care one bit about the weather, and neither do I.” It was the mysterious lady from behind the two matrimony hunters.
“Catherine! Be silent!” exclaimed the horrified mother. “Milord, you shall have to excuse my younger daughter, she has no sense of propriety, you see,” she babbled obsequiously. Gerald was momentarily stunned, something that had never happened before. His perfect repertoire of socially acceptable comments contained no reply to this situation.
“Indeed. Er, that is, I believe that, ah, I am meant to meet someone at this time and I should not keep them waiting. It has been a pleasure,” he managed while continuously flicking glances at the daughter who had made such an outrageous comment. Every time he looked at her, she was smiling at him with that same intense searching expression on her face. He bowed and fled.
How did she know? His mind was a blur of confusion and shock. How could she have known? How dare she say such a thing? Yet she was absolutely right, I don’t give a damn about the weather. Gerald was grinning despite himself. I don’t care about the weather. It was all he could do to stop himself from laughing out loud. For some reason he was ecstatically happy, for the first time ever. Catherine. And her family’s name was ... Storborough. Catherine Storborough. She is different somehow. And no doubt enduring the tirade of her lifetime for ruining the Storborough’s only chance to secure the great prize Dartington.
For the remainder of the night, all the people who were introduced to Gerald went away wondering why he was in an uncommonly good mood, and why he seemed to smile twice as much every time the weather was mentioned. The Storboroughs avoided him religiously following their recent 'humiliation'. He thought he caught a glance, through the crowd, of the mother berating Catherine. She stood there in silence with a little smile and one raised eyebrow. Gerald suddenly felt like he could watch that particular small smile all day and not get the slightest bit bored. In fact, he believed he could watch that smile all day and find it a highly enjoyable experience. However, he danced the night away and did not approach Catherine; it would have been too improper.
* * *
The next major ball was eight days later. For eight days Gerald had been thinking happily about a certain small smile. It looked, he decided, as though the owner of the smile understood a joke that everyone else was still grappling with. He strode into the ballroom with his usual false grin, but his eyes scanned the room with a purpose – to locate Catherine Storborough. He walked further into the room and prepared to be inundated with ladies waiting to make his acquaintance.
“Hello Dartington,” said a dry voice quietly. Gerald’s eyes opened wide as he realised this too was the voice of someone enjoying a joke too sophisticated for the rest of its audience. Without looking at the source of the voice, he said
“Good evening, Miss Catherine,” in a tone measured to give the listener no impression of any implicit messages. Then he turned around to look at her. She was clearly loving every minute of this meeting.
“Better and better. I apologise for my behaviour at the Therefords' Ball, sir.” She curtsied carefully, but there was a tone of mocking underneath it all and a veiled question; she was probing again. What would his reaction be?
“Not necessary at all. I ... I don’t care about the weather in the slightest. But it is something one talks about –“
“To keep up appearances.”
“You know Dartington, when I first heard of you, I saw in my mind an arrogant, idiot child with a lot of money he will have squandered in short order,” she went on in an ordinary conversational tone. She was insulting one of her betters as if it were exchanging a quick greeting on the street! Gerald’s head was spinning. “But I’m overjoyed to say that when I met your eye I found something entirely different. You are a man with a mind of your own, something rare among the rich and famous of our fair country. And I am determined that this fine intellect will not go to waste at thousands more empty social events. Your potential is nothing short of amazing, Dartington. Don’t let it slip away from you.” Gerald was completely lost for words. “Now sir, I must get back to standing behind my sister while my mother uses her as bait for silly young men. I fear she has quite despaired of catching you on that particular hook.” She smiled that wonderful infectious smile at him and walked away.
Gerald stood still for a few moments trying to collect his scattered thoughts. What manner of person was this, who instantly saw into parts of him he had successfully concealed from the world for years? He spent the next few minutes socialising in a kind of automatic state while his brain wove itself into tangles. He’d never felt anything like this. At last, someone who didn’t really care what all these boring, mindless people thought about them.
Why does it matter so much to me? Most of these people I won’t remember beyond five minutes of leaving their presence. He immediately felt a strange lightness, as if everything was logical and clear and stable. He finally understood the joke Catherine had been smiling about all this time.
The dancing was just about to start, and he was involved in another meaningless chat with a pretty lady and her predatory mother.
“I trust you have found the weather pleasant, milord?” the girl asked.
Dartington paused, then looked the lady full in the face and said, “to be perfectly honest, I don’t care about the weather one little bit,” with a huge grin spanning his fine features. He turned around and walked purposefully over to the Storboroughs. He bowed abruptly to the oldest daughter and her mother, and said in a firm voice “Catherine, I should very much like to stand up with you for the first dance.”
The other two were rendered speechless by shock, but he wasn’t looking at them any more. Catherine walked between them and took Gerald’s arm. She said quietly to him as they strolled onto the dance floor “Well done, Dartington. Well done.” The music started, and they moved through the steps, never taking their eyes off each other and smiling through the next dance, and the next. Lord Dartington danced every dance of the night with Catherine Storborough, and never looked at anything but her. People talked about it for months, but they never understood the joke that these two were sharing.