Author's Note: So I travelled to Englad last year with two friends and we went on the Jane Austen tour in Bath, which was fun and informative. One of the interesting things the tour guide explained to us was that during the Regency era people would blacken their teeth to make others think they were wealthier than they actually were, apparently because sugar was very expensive. I haven't been able to verify that on my own, but I admittedly did very little research on the subject. In any case, I found it fascinating and started writing this story on the flight back from England. In full disclosure, a couple of my friends contributed to this one; we had a lot of fun writing it! Bonus points for anyone who recognizes the repurposed movie line.
"Blast," cried John Thorpe as he felt his carriage falter under him with a wretched splintering sound. "Blast it all." One rear corner went crashing down, the horses veered aside, and he had scarcely time to jump off the driver's seat when the carriage turned on its side, careening across the lane.
"What am I to do now, damn it," he said aloud to no one. A wheel was broken, it appeared irrevocably. His trunks were on the ground. He stacked them and sat upon them to think out what course of action would be best and curse himself for traveling without a groom. There was not a person or dwelling in sight. He could not abandon his carriage and belongings to the pilfering of the local villagers, tenant farmers, and sheep herders; nor could he very well haul his trunks on to Bath on horseback. His only recourse was to wait for someone to come by with whom he could send a message of his distress. Patience was not a talent possessed by John Thorpe.
After almost an hour of kicking around the rocks to be found on the side of the road and cursing the lack of traffic when it seemed in every other journey the roads were invariably clogged with carriages in his way, he finally perceived a conveyance on the horizon. It was a private coach of first quality.
The carriage was obliged to stop, its driver obviously perturbed. As Thorpe walked over to it, its owner stepped out to see what was causing the delay, toothpick case in hand. He was a very fashionable young gentleman and as soon as he could perceive Thorpe, called out to him, "Pray, good sir, would you mind very much removing your carriage from the road way?"
Thorpe looked at him in amazement, then looked back at his carriage and turned again to the gentleman. "Can't you see, my good fellow, that it cannot be moved? Don't you think if I could move the blasted thing I would have done?" he asked indignantly.
"How is anyone to get by? Your carriage is blocking the road entirely."
"Yes, so it is. That I can perceive quite as well as you, but as you can see there is nothing to be done for it at present. I must get word to the town to have a team of men sent out to remove it and at no small cost I'd wager. Such men are always ready to take advantage of anyone who has fallen in with disaster. But there's nothing to be done for it."
“Have you sent your groom for help? If not, I recommend that you do so at once, sir.”
“My groom is indisposed with a sprained ankle, and so I have been traveling to Bath quite alone.”
“More's the pity,” was all the fashionable gentleman had to say in response.
At this point in the conversation, Mr. Thorpe judged it best to introduce himself. Thus, stepping forward he said, "John Thorpe, sir, I don't think we've met before."
The young man took his time opening his toothpick case and removing a carefully crafted bone toothpick. As he commenced the picking of his teeth, he replied, "No indeed, Mr. Thorpe, I am Robert Ferrars and very much want to get to Bath."
"Well then you'll have to take one of the other roads in. There is a turn off that you passed about a half mile back that will take you 'round -- only a mile or two out of your way."
"A mile or two? More like five, I'd wager," he said, and then turned as if to give direction to his driver.
Thorpe interrupted him, "You will be so good, Mr. Ferrars, as to carry a message of my distress and my location to the next posting inn."
By this time a lady was emerging from the carriage behind Mr. Ferrars, who had heard the last part of the conversation and responded, "No indeed, we will do no such thing." Thorpe looked at the woman a little bewildered, which was her intent. She smiled as she continued, "We will carry you on to Bath ourselves and you can stop and give word to anyone you like along the way." Then she directed the gentleman to have the driver and footman load Mr. Thorpe's trunks onto their carriage and hitch his horses on with their own, commenting that the additional horses would make up any speed to be lost by having to go five miles out of the way.
Mr. Thorpe bowed deeply to the lady but addressed himself to Mr. Ferrars saying, "I would be very grateful for your kindness."
The lady's orders were carried out, with the additional work of having to turn the carriage around. Once they were all settled in the coach, Mr. Thorpe saw that there was yet another lady with Mr. Ferrars. The one he had seen outside was Mrs. Robert Ferrars and the other was her sister, Miss Steele, who gave him a welcoming glance from behind her fan and began almost the moment he sat down to say, "What good luck for you, Mr. Thorpe that we were coming by today just at this time and able to offer you our assistance."
"I would not count today as one of good luck, Miss Steele. I would not have needed your assistance in the first place if I had not had the bad luck of losing a carriage wheel."
While he was talking, Thorpe attempted to dislodge the road dust from his eyes. Miss Steele interpreted the gesture as a flirtatious wink and was encouraged. "We will be entering Bath in style, will not we?" she queried generally. "What, with four carriage horses! Do you think the carriage will be recognized? Do you think anyone will notice?" No one answered her. She looked at John Thorpe again and continued, "I vastly enjoy Bath, Mr. Thorpe. Have you been there before? Have you come to take the waters? I hope you aren't gouty. But if you are I dare say you'll be cured in Bath."
"Of course I've been to Bath before and of course I am not gouty, Miss. What, do I appear as some decrepit old curmudgeon to you?"
"No, indeed, you do not. You look very gentlemanly. It's not often one meets with such a well looking gentleman, especially on the side of the road! What an unexpected surprise it was to us. Lucy was just telling me when Robert got out to speak to you, 'Nancy,' said she, 'is that a gentleman on the side of the road? And a well looking one at that. Now there's a sight one does not often see.' Didn't you say that Lucy?"
"My dear sister, I am sure Mr. Thorpe does not want to hear about our conversation."
Turning back to Thorpe, Miss Steele went on. "At first I thought you must be a highway man. 'What other reason would any man have to sit on the side of the road than to lie in wait to rob unsuspecting travelers?' said I. But indeed, when I looked out the carriage window and saw you, I knew it could not be so. 'Surely,' said I, 'a highway man could not be so well looking.' Didn't I say so, Lucy?" Since Lucy didn’t respond, Miss Steele went on, “I do think it is rather uncommon to find handsome gentlemen on the side of the road. The last thing I would have expected when I got in the carriage today was to meet any smart beaux.”
Mrs. Ferrars now intervened by ignoring her sister and addressing her guest, "So, Mr. Thorpe, were you going to Bath or leaving it?"
"I was on my way into Bath, Ma'am, when the wheel gave way beneath me with only another half hour to go."
"A half hour?" cried Mr. Ferrars, "My good sir, you were yet a full twelve miles from Bath,” he said, digging into a molar with his toothpick.
"And what is twelve miles of good road, sir? You see how fast my horses are pulling your carriage."
"They do have the assistance of my horses in the endeavor, Mr. Thorpe."
“Dammit, Ferrars, my horses are the fastest in the country,” Thorpe interjected.
Mr. Ferrars rolled his eyes and looked out the window. His wife continued to converse with their guest until they arrived stylishly in Bath. Newspapermen, muffin men, and milkmen dashed out of their way as the four horses rumbled down the long coarse streets of Bath. They deposited Mr. Thorpe at his mother’s house. As he departed the carriage, Miss Steele leaned out the window and wiggled her fingers at him, saying, “Toodle-oo, Mr. Thorpe! We’ll see you in the Pump Room!” The Ferrarses continued on to their lodgings.
Mr. Ferrars heaved a sigh the moment Mr. Thorpe was gone. “I am so glad to be rid of that fool,” he exclaimed.
“We’ll see,” said Mrs. Ferrars, and let the subject drop for the time being.
At home, once Miss Steele had removed to her bedroom and Mr. and Mrs. Ferrars were alone in their boudoir, she broached the subject of Mr. Thorpe again. “When you return the horses, my dear, you must check on him to see how it goes with his carriage. Offer further assistance if he needs it.”
“Why should I care for Mr. Thorpe’s carriage? The man is an absolute boor! What has he to do with me?”
“Do not be foolish, Robert! Do you not see?” asked his wife. “We shall get rid of Nancy very easily with this Mr. Thorpe! They seem to have been designed for one another.”
Robert twirled his signet ring on his pinkie. “Do you really think he would take her?”
She replied, “With our encouragement, he certainly will.” Robert looked doubtful. “Remember, my skills in this area are proven.”
He sighed. “So they are, my dear. So they are.”
Meanwhile, in her room, Nancy pulled a small jar of a black substance out of her travel bag and smiled into the looking glass. She began to apply it generously onto her teeth, till she was quite satisfied with her looks.
The next day in the Pump Room, she had an opportunity to put her plan into practice. Upon entering and signing the book, she looked feverishly for Thorpe’s name. “There it is!” she gasped to Lucy, who stood next to her. “Let us take a turn about the room and see if we may spot him,” Lucy replied. “He must be here somewhere.” The two of them were conscious that their figures appeared to greatest advantage while walking.
Mr. Thorpe, meanwhile, was on the other side of the room speaking with a Mrs. Palmer who was regaling him with the history of the Ferrarses.
“So the family is rich?” he asked.
“Oh, yes,” Mrs. Palmer replied. “Very rich. Mr. Ferrars has had very good luck. He was the second son you know, but he managed to steal his brother's fiancee and is now very rich.”
John Thorpe had already been satisfied of Mr. Ferrars being a wealthy man, but now he began to think of Miss Steele with more interest. If Mr. Ferrars had been made rich by his marriage, then surely Mr. Thorpe could do likewise. Presently, he turned and saw the very lady who had been occupying his thoughts batting her eyes at him from the other side of the room. “Will you excuse me, madam,” he bowed to Mrs. Palmer and taking a fortifying breath to prepare himself for a fateful conversation, he approached Miss Nancy Steele with his best smile. “What a pleasure to see you again, my dear Miss Steele,” he said.
She smiled at him and he cringed a little to see her blackened teeth. Nevertheless, he asked, “Would you care to take a turn about the room?” offering his arm.
“Oh, most certainly, Mr. Thorpe! I trust you were able to recover your carriage yesterday?”
In reply, he told her a long, winded story about all the trials and tribulations and expense he had to go through in recovering his carriage which the authoress believes the reader must be as disinclined to read as she is to set it down here.
“Well, once you have mended your equipage, Mr. Thorpe,” said Miss Steele in response, I do hope you will be so kind as to give me a ride. I do love a ride in an open carriage.”
“Why, my dear Miss Steele, you took the thought right out of my head! I can think of nothing I would enjoy better,” he said, affecting a smile, which was returned by her beclouded grin.
A positive engagement was made for the earliest possible day after his carriage was repaired, Nancy assuring him her sister and brother-in-law would accompany them in a separate carriage.
Thorpe returned home, and on finding his sister, Isabella, alone in the drawing room, ventured to confide in her.
“Well,” asked she, “did you see anyone of interest in the Pump Room?”
“I saw the Ferrarses again.”
“Oh, the family who kindly drove you into Bath.”
“Yes, and Mrs. Palmer told me a great deal about them. Mr. Ferrars' apparently gained all his wealth through marriage.”
“That is intelligence of great import, indeed! Your time in the pump room was well spent.”
“I must conclude that Miss Steele would have the same fortune as her sister.”
“Surely, that must be the case. Is she pretty?”
“She is not pretty. She would be tolerable, I suppose, if not for her hideous teeth. They are black as a parson's hat!”
“Oh she must be rich indeed!”
“Yes, but what has it to do with her teeth?”
“Sweets that cause one's teeth to rot, are very expensive, John.”
“That is very true, my dear sister,” he said with a smile; then furrowing his brow, he added the following astute observation, “Perhaps that explains her brother-in-law's apparent obsession with taking such meticulous care of his teeth.”
“Perhaps,” replied Isabella absently, “and if his teeth are well looking, that only confirms that he acquired his wealth later in life, probably on his marriage.”
“Oh there is no doubt as to that. Mrs. Palmer was quite explicit on that point and she is very well acquainted with the family. And it follows that Miss Steele's very ill-looking teeth must mean she has been accustomed to wealth all her life.”
“Undoubtedly,” said Isabella with a smile. “You could not find a surer sign of affluence.”
“Then you will approve of the engagement I made to drive out with her as soon as my gig is restored to me.”
“Indeed, and I would approve heartily of an engagement of a different sort entirely! But pray I hope you do not contemplate waiting until your carriage is repaired to see her again.”
“There is the concert tomorrow ...”
“Yes, the concert! I am sure they will be there. Let us go to the pump room at once and see what we can find out.”
Her brother readily obliged her. They were able to meet with Mrs. Palmer in the pump room and to hear exactly what they expected to hear – that the Ferrarses and Miss Steele would certainly be at the concert the following evening.
The Thorpes met the Ferrarses at the concert. Everyone was introduced and all were duly pleased with one another. Mrs. Ferrars was particularly well pleased to see that Mr. Thorpe had such a fashionable and sensible sister; Mr. Ferrars was equally well pleased to see that he had such a pretty sister.
Mr. Thorpe and Miss Steele were inseparable for the next fortnight. They went for carriage rides in which they terrified pedestrians as he drove his horses at top speeds down the cobbled streets, they danced at assemblies in which he offended all the other ladies by singling her out most particularly, they promenaded together along the crescent, they drank mineral water together in the pump room, and they even stole furtive glances at one another in church. Miss Steele prattled on about pretty baubles and smart beaux, and Mr. Thorpe bragged endlessly about his horses and well-hung carriage. And it was all carried out with the ardent encouragement of Robert and Lucy Ferrars as well as Isabella Thorpe.
One day after a drive, Mr. Thorpe took Miss Steele to Molland’s and offered to buy her whatever she liked, but she turned her nose up and said, “No, thank you. I don’t really like sweets.” He was a little puzzled, but he surmised that she must have a toothache. He shrugged and gave it no further thought.
Not long after, they met again at a ball in the Upper Rooms and he accompanied her home, with the encouragement of his sister, for the express purpose of making his proposals. He appeared agitated and self-occupied as they stood in the parlor while Mr. and Mrs. Ferrars were in another room quarreling with the housekeeper. He was sure of his course of action, but a little nervous nonetheless. The teeth were a constant source of perturbation.
“Miss Steele,” he began cautiously, “I must confess something. I am monstrous glad that I have not been tricked into marriage before meeting you. You see, I had something of a close shave not long ago. But I escaped heart-whole, and now I am free to pay my addresses to whomever I choose.” He instantly regretted this little speech in consequence of the smile it produced from his companion.
“Oh, Mr. Thorpe!” she said coquettishly, closing the distance between them. “I am so glad to hear you say that.” She peered in the mirror as she took off her feathered turban and adjusted her hair. Then she had a thought. As she rested her hand on her décolletage, she nodded suggestively in the direction of the stairway. “Would you like to come up to my own room for a moment? I have something that I would show you.”
“I would love to see it! Confound it, can’t you show it to me down here?” he asked.
She laughed brayishly. “Oh, no. We would be much better off upstairs. Robert and Lucy may enter the room at any moment.”
“Is it not something they would wish to see as well?”
“I think not,” she replied, grasping his hand and urging him toward the stairs.
How they entertained themselves for the rest of the evening can be easily guessed at.
Meanwhile, Mr. and Mrs. Ferrars returned to the parlor after having given the housekeeper a thorough dressing down, hoping that an engagement had been formed in their absence. Upon seeing the parlor empty, they were struck with disappointment in their assumption that Mr. Thorpe had already gone away and that Nancy had retired to her room. They walked upstairs a little discouraged, and heard a commotion coming from Nancy’s bedroom. Fearing the worst, they burst through the door.
“What the devil is going on in here?” Mr. Ferrars exclaimed.
Mr. Thorpe, taken by surprise, exclaimed, “It just popped out!”
Lucy, not stunned at all, crossed her arms. “Well, I guess they are engaged,” she said triumphantly.
Mr. Thorpe was monstrously disappointed to discover, as he inevitably must, that his wife was as poor as he was; and he took little consolation in seeing that she actually had really good teeth.