Scene 6 Lady Cat’s solution
“He said what?” Lady Catherine fluttered her fan furiously. She sprang to her feet and paced the length of her sitting room, an angry hen on a mission.
“It sounds entirely like him, does it not?” Colonel Fitzwilliam’s brows lifted high on his forehead. The corner of his lips lifted in a subtle, wry smile.
Elizabeth pressed her lips hard to contain a smirk. Did the colonel’s contagious good humor no long sway his aunt? Although irritation still rippled beneath Elizabeth’s smile, she could not resist his cheer.
Lady Catherine rolled her eyes and huffed. She made another circuit around the room, fan churning even faster. “The gall! The nerve of him! I cannot believe it!” She dropped down on the settee close to Elizabeth. “Please, let me apologize to you, my dear. I am so sorry he should have been such so churlish to you.”
“Really, madam, you are making this into too much.” Elizabeth folded her hands tightly in her lap. “There is no need to take offense on my account.”
“No, forgive me, but I must disagree with you. From what you describe, it will not be long before he tries to tell me how to run this household, and I will certainly not stand for that.” Lady Catherine pushed off the settee and strutted to the widow. There she stopped and leaned against the frame. She stared out at the small herd of sheep led past by a young shepherd. “If there is one thing I know, it is how to manage a household. Alas, my late husband had other ideas, and Rosings Park bore the sting of his mismanagement.” She straightened her back and turned back toward them.
Elizabeth glanced at Colonel Fitzwilliam.
He shook his head fractionally and closed his eyes.
She blinked at him and looked back at Lady Catherine.
Tight little lines drew up along the sides of Lady Catherine’s eyes, but she blinked them away quickly.
An empty ache opened in Elizabeth’s chest. She swallowed back the tightness in her throat. “My stepmother was an excellent manager, and I am trying to follow in her stead now. But I often wish for her advice. This is not the first time we will be setting up a new household and hiring servants. We have often moved and done that. However, we have never had an establishment quite so large before. I would most welcome your insight in this process, madam.”
“Given from what I have heard from your Mrs. Hill, who is a treasure, I might add.” Lady Catherine dropped into a chair next to Colonel Fitzwilliam “You are quite accomplished for one so young.”
Elizabeth’s cheeks grew hot. “Mrs. Hill is very kind. She has been with us since before my own mother died.”
“It seems Mrs. Reynolds and Mrs. Hill have quite hit it off,” Colonel Fitzwilliam chuckled and leaned back in his chair, stretching his long legs. “I found them in the kitchen early this morning cackling like a pair of old hens. She actually plied me with shortbread to get me out of the kitchen. She has not done that since Darcy and I were George and David’s age.” He licked his lips. “It was quite remarkable, really. I do not think I have ever heard our housekeeper so chatty.”
“Of course, you have not. Who does she have to ‘chat’ with? Surely you do not see her engaging the lower servants in such conversation?” Lady Catherine snapped her fan shut. “Mrs. Reynolds has served Pemberly for nearly twenty five years now, and she is a model housekeeper in all respects.”
Colonel Fitzwilliam leaned back further in his chair, hands raised in an attitude of surrender. “I was merely observing that she must esteem the Bennets’ Mrs. Hill very much to be found in such a familiar situation.”
“Certainly she does!” Lady Catherine slapped her fan into her palm. It crackled, an odd sound that reminded Elizabeth of a hen ruffling its wings. “I approve of Mrs. Hill.”
Elizabeth watched Colonel Fitzwilliam out of the corner of her eye.
He struggled to control his smirk. Clearly he had never given up the game of baiting his aunt. He enjoyed it too well.
She seemed to know her role too. This was not their first round of this game, nor would it be their last. Lady Catherine’s cheeks crinkled just a bit at the corners of her mouth.
Elizabeth contained her smile to her eyes. Despite Mr. Darcy’s cold officiousness, this family was held together by warmth and affection, not unlike her own. Papa could appear unfeeling to those who did not know him better. Was it possible Mr. Darcy did as well?
“That is high praise indeed. I know there are few among the staff of whom you truly approve .” Colonel Fitzwilliam laced his fingers behind his head and spread his elbows wide.
Lady Catherine shook her head and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Ignore him, Miss Elizabeth. He has no idea of what a trial it is to keep a household staffed or what it means to train them.”
“And all those years—” He leaned forward, elbows on knees.
“—in the army drilling and training soldiers do not count. You cannot compare a soldier to a domestic servant. As much as you try to say that it is, it is not.” Her lips turned up in a satisfied smile, and she settled herself back into the soft cushion of the chair. “And you are about to learn with your brother officer and cousin just how different it is.”
“Now that is utterly uncalled for!” He sat up straight. His boots thudded on the carpet.
Elizabeth snickered into her hand.
“Come now, there is no need for you to get up your hackles. Settle back down there now.” She waved her folded fan in his direction.
He leaned back into his seat with a wrinkled frown.
“Now, your help is entirely necessary if my plan is going to have a chance.” Lady Catherine leaned forward, head cocked. She winked at Elizabeth, a conspiratorial glimmer in her eye.
“You have a plan, madam?” He laced his fingers in front of his chest. His chin came to rest atop his knuckles.
“I do, indeed, and if Miss Bennet is agreeable, it can be enacted even tomorrow afternoon, or the morning after, if you believe it can wait that long.”
“I am most anxious to hear what you are considering.” Elizabeth held the corner of her lower lip in her teeth. “I trust…I mean that is to say…I do not wish…”
Lady Catherine stretched to touch Elizabeth’s hand. “I have no desire to dishonor your father nor my nephew. Such tactics reap only bitterness.”
“Thank you, madam.” Elizabeth blinked back the moisture in her eyes. “I know Papa will want to begin staffing the estate as soon as possible, so—”
“We must begin immediately.” Lady Catherine beckoned them close. “It is of upmost importance that neither of them suspect…”
Half an hour later, Elizabeth left her conference with Lady Catherine on an errand to find Mrs. Hill and Mrs. Reynolds. Their assistance would be crucial. Both women were entirely ready to assist, fully realizing the importance of convincing a demanding master of what was indeed possible and what was out of the question even for the most well train staff.
Later that evening, the boys were invited to join the adults at the table for supper. Miss Wexley and Miss Mallory were given an evening respite and enjoyed a quite supper in their rooms.
Downstairs, dinner was a noisy, lively affair. The boys finished one another’s sentences, describing their adventures along the streams and in Pemberley’s tree house. Their morning had been spent watching for fish in the streams and identifying to best places for fishing later in the week. Francis, of course, had fallen into the stream, requiring George to assist him in getting out. David and Philip kept clear of that particular mischief and reveled in relating the governesses’ scolding.
Elizabeth gave up trying not to laugh at her brothers’ antics. She did not want to encourage them, for there was no malice in them, just the energy of childhood. Jane did not laugh, but she smiled her beatific smile that few gentlemen could ignore.
Elizabeth watched carefully. Colonel Fitzwilliam succumbed to Jane’s charms almost immediately, his eyes remaining fixed on the elder Bennet sister for the rest of the evening. Mr. Darcy, however, seemed unmoved. No, “unmoved” was not the right word for it. His eyes did light up when his gaze passed over Jane, but he did not fix on her the way his cousin did. Oddly enough, several times, she found his gaze on her.
No man gazed at her but to find fault. Her cheeks blazed hot, and she fixed her eyes on her plate. What fault did Mr. Darcy find with her? Her ready opinions on far too many topics? Or was it her willingness to sit on the floor and play soldiers with the boys? Regardless, he would not have to look far to find whatever fault he looked for. There were plenty enough for him to find.
She placed another bite of mutton in her mouth and focused on her plate as she chewed. Perhaps if she did not look his direction, her cheeks would finally cool. But the boys finished their tales and conversation lulled. She felt Mr. Darcy’s eyes on her again.
To her great relief, Colonel Fitzwilliam filled the lull by regaling them with tales of the tree house’s first generation of occupants. Elizabeth fought to keep her eyes on Colonel Fitzwilliam but could not help stealing brief glances at Mr. Darcy, who squirmed and looked uncomfortable through most of the conversation.
Elizabeth watched Jane study Mr. Darcy. The elder Miss Bennet had never been able to sit by when another was uncomfortable in her company. Soon she was sharing her impressions of Naples, the port where her fondest memories resided, and Mr. Darcy ceased his fidgeting.
Colonel Fitzwilliam plied Jane with questions and encouraged her to share more of her tales. Even Francis and Philip, who had heard them many times, were entranced by her uncanny ability to mimic the accents from those distant shores. George and David had never heard such a thing and were utterly enthralled by her. Elizabeth averted her eyes from Colonel Fitzwilliam’s too obvious appreciation for her sister’s story telling abilities. It seemed Jane had another conquest and did not even realize it.
But that was the way of it. Jane had admirers all over the kingdom and was unaware of most of them. Admiral Bennet proved a formidable obstacle to would-be suitors, and that was probably a good thing. Perhaps Colonel Fitzwilliam would be more acceptable to both Jane and her father.
After dinner they all adjourned to the drawing room. Elizabeth saw the weariness in Jane’s eyes, so she feigned a headache that required Jane’s attentions for relief and excused them both for the evening.
They boys were all sent to bed shortly thereafter, with Lady Catherine following. The three gentlemen, however, finding themselves in such convivial company, drank brandy, swapped stories and played cards nearly until dawn.
Scene 7 Lady C sets them up
Two mornings later, Elizabeth stood with Jane and a maid in the dressing room they shared. Midmorning sun streamed through the window, glimmering off Jane’s golden locks. Elizabeth looked over her shoulder and dismissed the maid with a smile.
“Are you well enough for a trip into town today?” Elizabeth tucked a final pin into place and laid a hand on Jane’s shoulder.
“You worry too much, Lizzy. I am quite well.” Jane patted her hand and pushed back from the dressing table. She rose and shook out her skirt. “I would quite like to get out today. Lambton seems a quaint little place, and I am sure Lady Catherine is well acquainted with the most trustworthy shopkeepers.”
Elizabeth laughed. “She is a force to be reckoned with. She is all that is gracious and ladylike, but I cannot imagine the shopkeeper who would attempt to be less than entirely honest with her accounts.”
Jane smiled, her eyes twinkling. “Indeed. I am so glad for her welcome, though she makes me miss Lady Ellen all the more.” She blinked rapidly.
“I know.” Elizabeth looked at the carpet. Richly woven in a dainty floral pattern, it was the kind of piece Lady Ellen would have selected for a guestroom. Elizabeth swallowed hard. “Are you certain you are strong enough—”
“Enough, Lizzy. You must stop fussing over me—and Philip too. We are stronger than you believe. If you do not stop hovering so, you will drive our quiet little brother to do something to prove you wrong.”
Lizzy covered her eyes with her hand and grimaced. “I am sure Francis and now George will have a ready supply of ideas for him.”
“Exactly.” Jane took Lizzy’s hand. “So, now, stop fretting over us. I know you worry, but truly, we are well.”
Lizzy drew a breath. Jane never wanted her to worry, but Lizzy did not miss the way Jane tried to conceal her exhaustion or withdrew from company to nap in the afternoons. Yet arguing would do no good. It never did. In her own gentle way, Jane was without a doubt the most stubborn person she knew—herself excepted, of course. “I think Lady Catherine is waiting for us in the morning room. We should join her.”
Jane smiled and led the way downstairs. Breakfast was spread out on the table in the morning room. Warm smells of baked goods and coffee wafted along the sunbeams to welcome them in.
Lady Catherine, her nephews and Admiral Bennet were already engaged in a lively debate over kippers and toast. Her fan fluttered in time with her agitation.
Lizzy suppressed her impertinent grin and instead greeted Lady Catherine and the gentlemen. She took a chair beside her hostess, and Jane sat on the other side.
“Are you looking forward to our trip into Lambton today?” Lady Catherine asked, passing a dish of kippers toward Jane.
“Yes, very much so.” Jane dished several kippers onto her plate.
“It is very good of you to show them around town,” Admiral Bennet dipped his head.
“Do not think so much of it.” Fitzwilliam chuckled, ducking Darcy’s dark glare. “Our dear aunt is happy for any excuse to visit the confectioner. She supplies George and David with far more sweets that their father or governess would otherwise allow.”
“Enough of that.” Lady Catherine waved her fan at him. “I was going to invite you to escort us, but I do not think we need such impertinent company.”
“I am crushed. I would be most happy to—”
“No, no, I am quite decided. If you are to return to my good graces, you must do me a favor whilst I am away.” She snapped her fan closed.
Lizzy bit her lip hard and held her breath.
“What might that favor be? You know I would do anything for you, dear Aunt.” Fitzwilliam’s eyes twinkled as he schooled his features into a mask of contrition. He placed his hand over his heart.
“Nothing difficult. We need a new maid. Mrs. Reynolds arranged for several candidates to call today to discuss her fitness for the position. Since I will be with the Miss Bennets in town, you can decide if she will be invited to join our household staff.” Lady Catherine folded her hands and laid them on the table, her fan tucked neatly beneath them.
“That is all? What a small price to pay for return to your favor!” Fitzwilliam threw his head back and chuckled. “And just to prove I intend to make a good job of it, Darcy and the good Admiral can help me. Surely with all of us on the task, you can have no doubt—”
Lady Catherine flicked her hand and looked at Lizzy. “Enough. Let me see the job well done, and then I will smile on you, but not before.” She winked.
“I think it is a fine idea.” Admiral Bennet leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers before his chest.
“Indeed, Papa?” Jane asked, a finely arched eyebrow lifted on her forehead. “I have never known you to desire any involvement in the household staffing.”
“Then it is time to change that.” He nodded sharply. “I will welcome the opportunity. “
“Excellent. Then I can be certain that my impulsive nephew shall not hire a girl just for a pretty face.” Lady Catherine rose.
“Aunt,” Darcy snapped and frowned, “you know very well I do not allow such thing. I take the protection of my staff as a matter of personal honor.” He tugged the lapels of his coat.
“Of course, you do. I was not suggesting otherwise.” She shook her head and smiled. “You are the best of masters, without a doubt, and all your staff agree. That is why there is never a dearth of applicants for positions here.” She stepped away from the table and looked over her shoulder. “Come along, ladies, we have much to accomplish today.”
Jane and Lizzy rose and edged around the table to their father’s sides. Simultaneously, they kissed his cheeks. “Good bye, Papa.”
He smiled and waved them off.
Scene 8 Interview the maid
Several hours later, Mrs. Reynolds announced the candidate’s arrival. The gentlemen gathered in Darcy’s study for the interview.
A whisper of a girl in apron and mobcap stood before them, wringing her hands, and eyes on the carpet.
“Sir, Miss Clay to apply for a position in the house.” Mrs. Reynolds curtsied and signaled the young woman to follow suit.
Miss Clay dropped awkwardly, her face pale.
Fitzwilliam closed his eyes and shook his head. Poor girl had no idea the master of the house would see her himself.
Darcy nodded and dismissed Mrs. Reynolds.
“I brung a character, sir.” Miss Clay fumbled in her pocket and produced a letter. She held out the creased paper with trembling hands.
Darcy waved her forward until he could reach across the desk and take the letter from her. He broke the seal and scanned the page, nodding as he read. “Very good. Your previous mistress speaks highly of you.” He laid the paper aside and looked at her.
She looked back at him, blinking and tongue-tied.
Awkward silence descended until even Admiral Bennet pulled at his collar awkwardly.
Fitzwilliam schooled his features into a neutral mien and leaned forward, elbows on knees. “Well, why do you not show us the fitness of your work?”
“Capital idea!” Bennet sprang to his feet. “Let us upstairs and you can demonstrate…ah…how you can make up a bed.”
The girl blinked rapidly, clenching her apron in her fist. “Yes, sir, very good, sir.” She attempted another awkward curtsey.
“An excellent place to start.” Darcy pushed up from his desk.
He led them all upstairs to an empty guest room. They walked in and stared at the immaculate, sunlit room. The pale yellow wallpaper gleamed with warmth. Every pillow and bric-a-brac was in place, no dust in sight. Bennet looked at Darcy and swallowed hard.
Fitzwilliam stifled a laugh and strode to the bed. He grabbed the linens and yanked them back and off the bed. He tossed the counterpane on the floor on the far side of the bed, a heavy wool blanket over the foot and tore the sheets out from under the mattress. “There, now, you have a bed to make.” He brushed his hands together and stepped aside, hand extended to the confused girl.
She stood rooted to the ground, her forehead creased, lip caught between her teeth. She blinked at him.
“Get to it, lass. Do not stand about there all stupid like.” Bennet clapped his hands sharply.
She jumped and scampered to the disheveled linens. For several minutes she struggled with the linens and heavy mattress.
She started, turned sharply and became tangled in the bed curtains.
“Bah!” Bennet stomped to the bed. “Are you so inept as to be unable to make a bed! Here have a look.” He shouldered her out of the way.
She stepped back, mouth agape.
Bennet took control of the situation. He patiently explained, step by painstaking step, until the bed was skillfully made.
“I see, sir,” she squeaked, hands clasped under her chin.
“Now, you do it.” Bennet tore the sheets aside and returned the bed to its disheveled state.
Tears gathered in the girls eyes, but she drew a deep breath and set to the task. Bennet stopped and corrected her several times, but at last, the bed was made passably well.
Bennet glanced at Darcy who frowned and shook his head.
“What about a fire? Surely you can impress us with that.” Fitzwilliam leaned his shoulder against the wall and crossed on ankle over the other.
“Right, sir.” Miss Clay wiped her hands on her apron and approached the fireplace like it was a vicious animal. She knelt beside the coal bucket. “Where be the kindling sir?” Her voice was little more than a strained whisper.
“The box there on the other side.” Darcy pointed. “The family rooms do not have a kindling box. I expect the fires to those rooms to be kindled only once, on the first day of November. I wish them perpetuated thereafter.”
She stared at him wide-eyed.
“How would you accomplish the task?” Darcy folded his arms and frowned.
“Ah…” she wiped dirty hands on her apron leaving a trail of smudges. “Ask Mrs. Reynolds?”
Fitzwilliam laughed loudly. Bennet snickered into his hand.
“A reasonable answer. Say she told you to replenish the fires three times a day, how would you do it?” Darcy kept his eyes away from the other gentlemen.
She reached for the poker. “I…I would first take the poker to quicken the blaze, break up large coals dontcha know. Then I change around the pieces—”
“No, no, no!” Bennet waved his hands and stomped his foot.
Miss Clay jumped and whipped around to stare at Bennet.
He stalked to the fireplace and grabbed the poker out of the girl’s hands. “You use the poker to clear away the ash and nothing more! You do not use it to wake a slumbering coal! Foolish girl! Watch.”
Miss Clay scooted back to allow the admiral room. He reached for the tinderbox and walked her stepwise through the process of starting the coals and replenishing a fire. “Do you think you can do this?”
“Yes, sir,” she peeped, eyes firmly on the ground.
Bennet pushed himself up from the floor and brushed off his hands. “Well, then, I have no further questions. Have you?” He looked at Darcy.
Darcy shook his head. “No, I have seen enough.”
Fitzwilliam held his breath, though a snort escaped.
Darcy glared at Fitzwilliam and gestured them toward the door. Mrs. Reynolds met them at the bottom of the stairs. He shook his head at the housekeeper and turned toward his study. Bennet followed.
When they were out of site, Fitzwilliam pulled a coin out of his pocket and pressed it into the girl’s palm. He winked and followed the men into the study.
Darcy stood at the far side of the room, pouring glasses. Bennet sprawled in a chair near the fireplace, arm thrown over his eyes. Darcy brought glasses to them.
“Are they all like that?” Bennet asked and took a deep draw off his glass.
Fitzwilliam lifted his glass slightly and raised an eyebrow. “That is what Mrs. Reynolds tells me.”
Bennet groaned and chuffed a deep breath. “I suppose, sir,” he turned toward to Darcy, “I must ask to impose upon your hospitality for longer than I expected.”
“Think nothing of it.” Darcy dropped down into his chair. “You and your family are welcome for the duration. I am certain my aunt will be delighted to have the Miss Bennets’ company.” He sipped his glass. “Perhaps we should leave the household staff to the ladies. I am certain, however, I can assist you, if you like, in finding a steward.”
“A sensible plan indeed,” Bennet said.