It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a wife, must be in want of a good fortune. However, this story is about a man, or rather two men, who are not in possession of a wife, but do own some rather large wardrobes and tall hats.
News had already travelled down the proverbial grapevine of the arrival of one of these young men. He had been spotted on horseback in his tall hat, and the neighbourhood had sprung into action: Mothers had bought new dresses for their daughters, enrolled them in dance lessons, and ushered them out to take random walks through the town and fields in the hope of bumping into the said young man; some of the more desperate mothers had even put up ads in their front windows. Fathers, on the other hand, had been tasked with defence — honing their skills with pistol and sword in case of challenges by the fathers of other would-be brides.
Mr Bayonet, despite his name, had no interest in honing any skills other than his book-keeping ones. He had lost track of a penny somewhere in his accounting, and was determined to find it no matter how long it took. Mr Bayonet was not one to spend a penny and not know about it — even if it was not him that did the spending. For, you see, he was married and had five children, all of them daughters.
“My dear Mr Bayonet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Nettlefield Park is let at last?”
Mr Bayonet did not look up from the huge ledger on his lap. “No, Mrs Bayonet. However did you discover it? Have your two youngest been engaged in covert operations in the area again?”
“Oh sir, you are all silliness! Lady Locust has just been here. She has received an update from her social networking group. She came here to gloat at having discovered the information before me, no doubt. Anyway, she told me all about it: a man from north of the Watford Gap has arrived — and with a tall hat, Mr Bayonet!”
“A tall hat, you say?” Mr Bayonet mused.
“Yes! Do you not want to know who has taken it?”
Mr Bayonet looked up from his ledger. “Someone has taken his hat?”
“No, no!” cried Mrs Bayonet impatiently. “Do you not want to know about the man who has taken Nettlefield?”
“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”
This was irritation enough.
“Why, my dear, you must know; Lady Locust says that Nettlefield is taken by a young man of large features from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a four-by-four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it, that he agreed to take possession before Michael Murs.”
“Yes dear, the old man who had his eye on the place for the purpose of renting it out as flats. This newcomer has outbid him!”
“What is his name?”
“Is he married or single?”
“Oh! Single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large features and a tall hat! What a fine thing for our girls!”
“How so? How can it affect them?”
“My dear Mr Bayonet,” replied his wife, stamping her foot, “sometimes your sight does not go past your accounts! You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them.”
“Is that his design in settling here?”
“Design! Nonsense, how can you talk so! But it is very likely that he may fall in love with one of them, and therefore you must visit him.”
“I see no occasion for that. His large features may scare me. You and the girls may go, or you may send them by themselves, which perhaps will be still better, for as you have the finest bonnet of any of them, Mr Blingley may like your fashion the best of the party.”
“My dear, you flatter me. I certainly have my fair share of fine bonnets, but when a woman has five grown-up daughters, she ought to give over thinking of what covers her own hair.”
“In such cases, a woman has not often much hair to think of.”
Mrs Bayonet raised her eyebrows momentarily, but then thought better of what she might say, and continued along her train of thought. “But consider your daughters. Only think what an establishment it would be for one of them. We must wait on him before the Locusts arrive.”
“Why? Does he have crops, and do you think we can aid him in their preservation?”
Mrs Bayonet shook her head, tugging at her hair. “Mr Bayonet, I meant Sir William and Lady Locust. She is sure to want Charlotte, her eldest, to secure this young man.”
“I dare say Mr Blingley will be very glad to see you all; and I will send a few lines by you to assure him of my hearty consent to his marrying the girl with the bonnet that takes his fancy; though I must throw in a good word for my little Lizzy.”
“I desire you will do no such thing. Lizzy is not a bit better than the others; and I am sure she is not half so unaccomplished as Jane, nor half so fashion-conscious as Lydia, not to mention that she is a little short. But you are always giving her the preference.”
“They have none of them much to recommend them,” replied he. “They are all silly and ignorant like other girls; but Lizzy is much more prodigious than her sisters.”
This was certainly a truth. Lizzy did all the laundry, made all the meals, had composed several sonnets and seventeen pieces of music, written three novels, and was now working on an idea for a bumper collection of parlour games. Indeed, the housekeeper had little to do in their home but answer the door — and in that she was often beaten by Lydia, who simply had to be the first to know who had come calling.
Mrs Bayonet pulled a clump of her hair out in frustration. “Mr Bayonet, how can you abuse your own children in such a way? You take delight in vexing me. You have no compassion for my poor hair.”
“You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your hair. Each strand is like an old friend. I have found them in the bath, in the bed and in my meals these last twenty years at least.”
“Ah, you do not know what I suffer.”
“But I hope you will get over it, not go entirely bald, and live to see many young men with tall hats come into the neighbourhood.”
“It will be no use to us, if twenty such should come, since you will not visit them.”
“Depend upon it, my dear, that when there are twenty, I will visit them all, large featured or not, and probably look into investing some money with the local hat repairer.”
Mr Bayonet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic wit, devilish humour, striking poses, sleight of hand, and sudden mood swings, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character or, to be fair, for him to understand why he had married her. But he liked to keep her on her toes, and found much amusement in doing so. Her mind was less difficult to comprehend. She was a woman of mean understanding, little hair, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself to be suffering a panic attack. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting, news and an extraordinarily large collection of bonnets.