To prepare for the arrival of the Darcys, Mrs. Reynolds mobilized the staff with all the efficiency of a military commander. Mr. Darcy would reach Pemberley tomorrow with Mr. Bingley and his family for a stay of at least a fortnight. Although Mrs. Reynolds was not looking forward to trying to please the ever temperamental Miss Bingley, as always, she would put forth her best effort. This was, after all, Pemberley, and there were certain standards to be maintained. It was part of her job to attempt the impossible and try to make each guest’s stay a pleasant one.
This morning, Mrs. Reynolds, along with her assistant, Margie, was in the process of checking the linens, when Watkins, Pemberley’s ancient and dignified butler, appeared at the door looking anxious. “Mrs. Reynolds, a group of three travelers has applied for a tour of the house. I know you are occupied today with preparations for the master’s return. I was tempted to turn them away, but thought I should consult with you first before doing so.”
Mrs. Reynolds hesitated, considering the long list of tasks ahead of her. As it was a point of pride for her to never turn visitors away, she would somehow have to make time for them. “No, Mr. Watkins, I will take them around,” she said.
Mrs. Reynolds sighed and handed the record book to Margie. “I shall attend to them immediately. Margie, please carry on here, and also…well, you know what to do,” she said with a reassuring smile to her assistant.
Upon reaching the visitor’s room, Mrs. Reynolds found a well-dressed couple, who had the look of people who lived in town. They introduced themselves as Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner. The wide-eyed young lady with dark hair was their niece, Miss Elizabeth Bennet. At first, Mrs. Reynolds thought she might give them the abbreviated tour to save time. In all likelihood they would not be aware she was skipping certain rooms in order to move the group along more quickly. Later, reflecting back, she was glad she had taken time for the full tour.
“Oh, yes, but we expect him tomorrow with a large party of friends,” Mrs. Reynolds replied. At that, she heard the young lady take a quick, nervous breath.
After the tour, Mrs. Reynolds was just resuming her preparations for the arrival of Mr. Darcy’s guests, when Margie came at a run to let her know Mr. Darcy had arrived home early and was in a somewhat agitated state. Hearing a commotion in the hallway outside, she arose and was startled to find herself face-to-face with the master himself.
“Mr. Darcy!” Her surprise was not only at seeing him there in her office but also at the condition of his person. He was dusty and disheveled, his face red from exertion, and he was out of breath as if he had run all the way from the stables.
Waving off her apology he said quickly, “Yes, I rode ahead to meet with Mr. Jones on some estate business.” He hesitated a moment taking time to wipe some sweat from his brow with his handkerchief.
Mrs. Reynolds waited patiently. She knew him well enough to be certain he had something else to say. “Mrs. Reynolds, I believe you gave a tour of the house to three people who are now viewing the grounds.”
“Yes, sir, I did. The Gardiners and Miss Bennet.” Sensing something was not right, she added, “I did not think my taking the time would be a problem, as our preparations for your arrival are nearly complete.”
Sensing her concern he assured her, “No, no, I was not chastising you at all. In fact, I am well pleased you were able to show them the house. How do you think they liked it?”
Mrs. Reynolds furrowed her brow as she examined his face. This was an unusual question. Mr. Darcy rarely took an interest in people who came to tour the house. In fact, he always avoided them assiduously.
“What did she…what did they have to say? About Pemberley? Did they like it?” he asked looking at her with something more than his usual intensity.
“They seemed very well pleased with the house, but how could they not be?”
“Good. Good,” he said nodding his head. “Tell me more about their visit.”
Mrs. Reynolds began by recounting the time they had arrived and the rooms they had toured. “I believe they are from London, at least the Gardiners are from town. I was not certain about Miss Bennet.”
“Did Miss Bennet mention she and I are acquainted?” he asked hesitantly.
His dark eyes widened. “How did that come about?”
“I believe it was as we were looking at the miniatures on the mantelpiece. Mrs. Gardiner asked Miss Bennet how she liked the one of George Wickham. I told them he was the son of your father’s steward.”
“Did Miss Bennet make any comment about Mr. Wickham?”
“No, not a word. When I said he had gone into the army and turned out quite wild, she did not disagree.”
“Please continue, Mrs. Reynolds.”
“Then I pointed out the miniature of you. I think it was Mrs. Gardiner who said she had heard much about you. She said you had a handsome face and then turned to Miss Bennet to inquire if she thought it was a good likeness of you. That was when I realized Miss Bennet was acquainted with you.”
“And?” he said impatiently.
Mrs. Reynolds thought back over the conversation. It was very unusual for him to interrogate her like this about visitors. Clearly, for some reason the opinion of this young lady was very important to him. “I asked her if she did, in fact, know you, and she said she was a little acquainted with you.”
At this, Darcy gave a deep exhale as if he thought it might now be safe for him to breathe again.
“And then since she knew you, I asked if she thought you were a handsome gentleman,” Mrs. Reynolds added with a smile.
At this, Darcy’s eyes grew wide and he made a noise that resembled a stifled groan. “Mrs. Reynolds, I hope this is not something you regularly ask our visitors?”
Now it was Mrs. Reynolds turn to redden. “No, sir. I thought that since she knew you…” she trailed off. “I was simply making pleasant conversation. After all, they were very nice people.”
Darcy sighed. “Yes, I am certain they were. Please tell me exactly what Miss Bennet said.”
Mrs. Reynolds wrinkled her forehead. “Said about what, sir.”
Darcy grimaced. He hesitated and then said very slowly, “What did Miss Bennet say of me?”
Mrs. Reynolds noticed that he was uncomfortably shifting his weight from one foot to the other. It was something he had done as a boy when he was called to account for his actions. Clearly, the mention of Miss Bennet was having the affect of disquieting Mr. Darcy.
“Oh, Miss Bennet agreed that you are,” she answered softly. “Handsome, that is, sir.”
“Is there anything else they said about the house or…” Darcy hesitated putting a fist to his mouth as he cleared his throat. “Or about me?”
“I showed them the portrait of Miss Darcy, the one taken when she was just eight, and they inquired about her.”
“What did you say about Georgiana?”
“When they asked me if she was as handsome as her brother, I told them she was the handsomest young lady that ever was and all about how she loves her music, playing all day sometimes. I showed them the new pianoforte you bought for her. I hope that was not wrong of me. Oh, it is so lovely. I know Miss Darcy will be thrilled when she sees it tomorrow.”
Mrs. Reynolds blushed as she recalled the way she had praised Mr. Darcy for his kindness and good-temper, as well as his generosity to the people who depended upon him on the estate. Mr. Darcy was a modest man, and if he knew just how freely she had spoken about him, he might be upset.
“I believe you are not revealing all to me, Mrs. Reynolds. Did something else happen during their visit that you are reluctant to share? You may speak freely. I am not unhappy with you.”
Now it was Mrs. Reynolds turn to shift uncomfortably. “Mr. Gardiner inquired if you were much at Pemberley during the year, and I told them you spend nearly half the year here, although we always wish it were more. Then Mr. Gardiner suggested that if you were to marry perhaps we might see more of you.”
Darcy raised an eyebrow.
“I agreed that was indeed possible, but I also said we had no idea when you would marry.”
“Hmm…” he rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
“I think I might also have said I did not know who might be good enough for you,” she confessed reluctantly.
“Miss Bennet said I was very fortunate to have such a master, and I told her if I were to go through the world, I could not meet a better.”
Suddenly, Mrs. Reynolds found herself enveloped in a hug. “I thank you for your kind words, Mrs. Reynolds. You are too generous in your praise.”
“I only speak as I see, Mr. Darcy. You are a good man, a very good man. Everyone who knows you says so.”
Darcy mumbled something that sounded a bit like, “Not everyone.”
Suddenly, Darcy seemed to remember he had been in a hurry. “I believe I would like to show our guests around myself, but I must change my traveling clothes first. The road was very dusty. Who is taking them on the grounds tour?” he asked.
“I believe it is Mr. Eldridge, sir.”
“Very good. Would you please send someone to speak with him? I would like him to go slowly – very slowly – so I may catch up with their group.” Examining his dirty and rumpled shirt, he added, “Would you please send someone up to help me change. My valet is following later today with the baggage. And of course, I shall require some water although you do not need to take time to heat it.”
Then before she could respond, he disappeared.
After following his instructions, Mrs. Reynolds took a moment to consider what had just transpired. Something was different about Mr. Darcy. What did this young woman mean to him? How had they met?
Although Mrs. Reynolds prided herself on not interfering in the Darcy’s private business, her curiosity to understand the situation was just too much to resist. Unable to concentrate on the pile of papers on her desk, she kept returning to thoughts of the young polite young lady with the expressive brown eyes. Finally, she gave up and went to stand at the window overlooking gardens at the back of the house. After a few minutes, she saw Mr. Darcy exit the house and stride off in the direction the visitors had taken, straightening his cravat as he hurried along. Turning back to her desk, she smiled. It did not escape her notice that Mr. Darcy was dressed in what she knew to be one of his favorite coats.