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 up to 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 is a very quaint little place, and I am sure Lady Catherine is well acquainted with the most trustworthy shopkeepers.”
Elizabeth laughed. “She is quite the 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 Phillip too. We are stronger that you believe. If you do not stop hovering so, you will drive our quiet little brother to 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 too.”
“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 took the kippers and dished several 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.” Richard 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 out.” 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 a young lady 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.
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?”
“Capitol 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.
Richard 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.