Posted on 2015-04-06
"There, sir... if you will remain steady in that attitude... Ah. Good. Good."
Mr. Peake marked the cloth spread over his customer's arm and then summoned an assistant. "Here, Ralph. This sleeve is the last piece and I have drawn the line for the seam. You may begin stitching Mr. Bingley's coat. Take care to follow the measurements exactly, for he desires the most fashionable cut and size."
As Bingley slipped himself into in his own coat again, he asked eagerly, "Is it true you have made garments for Beau Brummel and the Prince Regent?"
The tailor smiled enigmatically and touched his chin with a finger, but did not speak. He had not actually served the two gentlemen mentioned though other tailors in this same street had and - who could foresee? - some day he might too. In the meantime propinquity was not at all harmful to his business or his reputation.
Charles Bingley and his friend Fitzwilliam Darcy had come to town for a few days to deal with concerns -- involving attorneys and bankers and the like -- regarding their approaching marriages to the two eldest Bennet sisters. When Bingley by chance met a pair of his more modish friends one morning in Bond Street and they had teased him about his attire -- calling his coat loose, not at all becoming, and shabby -- he took note of their finely designed wear and the way their figures appeared to advantage in it.
It was for this reason that Bingley had come to Mr. Peake to have a new blue coat made in the fashion of the day. He left the shop in high spirits, having engaged to return after several hours in order to try on the garment, and anticipated Jane Bennet's admiration when she saw him in it.
By the time Bingley returned, the coat had been made up. He thought it the handsomest he had ever seen and said so.
"It is merely basted together at present, sir, but once you have had it on we can see if alterations are needed before the permanent stitching is done."
There followed a long series of delicate maneouvres as Mr. Peake and Ralph dressed Bingley in his new coat. Once finally arrived in place, it was pronounced perfect except for a small adjustment judged necessary at one shoulder. Thus decided, the movements were executed in reverse and the coat sent away with Ralph for completion.
"It seems a devilish difficult thing to put on and take off," Bingley remarked. "A fellow could tie himself in a knot trying."
A deep shade of hauteur overspread Mr. Peake's features. "My gentlemen do not dress themselves, sir. My gentlemen have servants for that."
Bingley hastened to reassure the man, who appeared vastly affronted. "I do beg your pardon! I meant no criticism of your very fine work... very fine indeed... finest I have owned, I am sure... and of course I have a man to help... he..." He stopped there, wondering for the first time what Parteger would think of his new purchase. He hoped he would approve. It was such a bother to one's nerves being at odds with one's valet.
Bingley and Mr. Peake parted amicably and with a promise the coat would be delivered in good time the next day, for Bingley and Darcy planned to depart to Hertfordshire soon after noon.
They reached Netherfield, the house Bingley had hired the year before, with barely enough time to settle, bathe, and change in order to go to Longbourn, the Bennets' home. Mrs. Bennet was marking their return after four days' absence from the neighborhood with a large celebration. Four and twenty souls would sit down to a dinner of no fewer than two full courses and another dozen had been invited to drink tea after.
Bingley had been happy when Parteger, on seeing it, had praised the new coat, mentioning its color, fine cloth, and excellent workmanship. However, when it came to the wearing of it, there were unforeseen problems. Neither had experience or skill in dressing in such a coat.
It was done, though, after many minutes, with a few cries of distress from Bingley and more than a few imprecations muttered by Parteger. As a reward he allowed Parteger to be more adventuresome than usual with the knot of his cravat. His valet had earned it and, truthfully, the new coat deserved it too.
Bingley examined himself from various angles in the large looking-glass in his dressing room. Never had a coat fit him so well. His shoulders had never appeared broader or his chest manlier or his torso more tapered to his waist.
He imagined Jane's gaze on seeing him after their extended separation. No doubt there would be love for him shining there, probably admiration at seeing him so fashionably clad, and then ... perhaps ... lust? ... He did look very very good in this coat!
He appeared taller too, maybe because its configuration made anything except perfect posture impossible. There would be no slouching for him that night.
Reluctantly he took himself away from this delightful vision and hurried down the stairs to the hall where an impatient Fitzwilliam Darcy waited, for the carriage had been ordered for five o'clock and it was well past that now.
"At last! What have you been doing, Bingley? We shall be very late! Oh..." Bingley was now near enough to be seen and Darcy was clearly impressed.
"Smart, Bingley. Very smart."
Bingley sought his reflection in one of the mirrors in the hall and was of a mind to agree. "Thank you. But the thing is, Darcy... I was just now thinking... Well, the thing is that highly fashionable coats like this... well, they cannot be put on or removed without another's careful help. If, say, Jane and I were walking in the shrubbery tonight and if she were to take a chill because of being in evening dress and her shoulders quite bare... Well, I mean I would not be able to remove my coat in one elegant move and gallantly place it around her. You know... like the heroes in novels often do."
"I did not know, Bingley, you were such a follower of the heroic arts. I honour you for it. And how often has Miss Bennet been the object of such attentions -- this elegant swift removal and sharing of coats?"
"Very well, Darcy. Yes. I am aware you are making a joke of me, for you and I know that even a less fashionable coat is not removed without some amount of time and trouble. However, I am quite certain this coat is beyond the ability of one alone to manage. And it would surely ruin the moment if I had to ask Jane for her help."
"The solution is an easy one. A cloak, Bingley. A cloak. Easily removed in a breath of time. Simple, elegant, a natural object for a sweeping gesture, and - this is important - expansive enough to be shared by two. Take a cloak, Bingley."
With that, Darcy finished fastening the clasp of his cloak, turned, and walked out to the waiting carriage.
Bingley had thus far been so diverted by his super-excellent looks that he had not noticed the less excellent way he felt. They were now in the carriage bound for Longbourn and he had worn the coat for more than half an hour. His arms ached a little, so he held them out - as far as he was able - and shook his hands in the air for relief.
"Why are you waving your hands about like a bird flapping its wings?"
"Oh. Sorry. I was merely dispelling a bit of numbness, due, I suppose, to sitting here inactive in the carriage."
Darcy smiled at this and said, "No doubt. Besides, I have heard that in order to be truly fashionable one must often sacrifice comfort for style." He smiled again and ignored Bingley's glare.
They had just passed through Meryton and were about a mile from Longbourn when Bingley was tempted into waggling his hands again.
"Try to be less fidgety, Bingley, and do not worry."
"Be honest, Darcy. Does this coat truly suit me?"
"The sight of your splendour will stun even Mrs. Bennet into silence."
"That would be something! Do you really think it will?"
Bingley had dined many times at Longbourn. He could not think of one that he had not enjoyed. Jane's presence alone would ensure that, but Mrs. Bennet's selections were always varied and beautifully presented and she kept an excellent cook.
Tonight was misery. He and his coat, designed for each other he had thought, had lost that agreeable symmetry with which they had begun the night together. Jane had admired it - and him in it - as much as he had hoped and was open in her expression of it. For that he was happy. However, either he had expanded or his coat had contracted - perhaps both - for all he felt now was tight unyielding constraint, rendering him incapable of all but the minutest movement of shoulder, arm, or torso.
He had to forego eating, making the excuse that he was simply not hungry at all... could not force down a bite of anything... all to avoid the embarrassment of arms unable to reach over the table or manage a knife or fork. It was a further tragedy in that he had had nothing to eat all day except a hurried bit of toast at breakfast in London.
After the ladies were gone, the table cleared, and decanters of port and glasses placed, Mr. Bennet cheerfully said, "Let us have no formality here, gentlemen. You may move about freely."
Though Bingley could not accuse the man of purposely making sport of him, there could be no words more fitted to his earnest desire and less fitted to his ability to achieve it.
The separation from the ladies was blessedly brief. Bingley hoped he would be more at ease in the drawing room. At least Jane would be there to take his thoughts away from his feelings of painful immobility.
Jane was at a table serving tea. He stood near the mantel where she could see him and admire him whenever she looked up. He was soon uncomfortable... wished he could have eaten at dinner... quite ill... empty stomach... felt so constricted... could bear it no longer... chest would not move to take in air... arms felt weighted by chains... shoulders squeezed by iron bands... walls were closing in around him... glimpse of Darcy and Elizabeth in the hall... footman bringing Darcy's cloak... He frantically tried to grabble at the buttons on his coat. He could not reach them and was stumbling with a low groan towards a window when the world turned black and silent.
After a time -- he knew not how long -- he felt himself being jostled, tumbled, and pulled about. Something tugged at his arms and he heard voices arguing, catching bits of words: 'his arms', 'no, this way', and 'salts'. He suspected he must have died and Satan's minions were battling over him as they dragged him to Hell. He felt rather sad about that, for he had tried to lead a righteous life.
But, no! Suddenly Hell was gone and Heaven was his. He experienced an enormous sense of relief and release. Light returned to the world along with his sight, which fell on Mr. Bennet and Sir William Lucas holding his blue coat between them. Other hands helped him rise and guided him to a window, which someone had opened.
He stood at the window, taking great welcome gulps of air, moving his shoulders, and enjoying the luxury of bending and stretching his arms. There was a full moon in a clear night and torches were lit along the sweep and the drive. He could easily see two figures walking towards the prettyish kind of a little wilderness on one side of the lawn. One of the figures - the taller one - reached up and removed a cloak with an elegant flourish and placed it around the shoulders of the other.
Within the room, not very far behind him, he heard his future father-in-law say to his future mother-in-law, "Well, my dear, if Mr. Bingley should die, it would be a comfort to know that it was in pursuit of your daughter, and at your own dinner party."
"Oh! I am not at all afraid of his dying. People do not die of little stifling coats."The End