Click here to read Read Part One. Part Three, the ending, of this P&P 200 vignette/short story will be posted 12/11.
…Mindful of the potence, a central pole with braced horizontal beams where ladders could be hung to access the nesting boxes, she gingerly made her way to the center. About to climb the ladder, the unmistakable sound of person breathing heavily checked her.
Heart leaping to her throat, Elizabeth spun and pressed her back against the wall. “Who’s there?”
No answer other than the noises from the birds, then a faint sound of someone trying to muffle their own breathing but failing.
Holding her own breath, her eyes straining to peer into the shadow, Elizabeth inched sideways toward the door.
The door opened. Diggory Feild’s voice sounded too loud in the dark. “Come on out, Tetty. It’s only the young mistress, newly married and as obstinate as you.”
A dark, clump of a shadow unfolded upright from a low corner. “Ma’am, are there any men out there, besides him, that is?”
Elizabeth released a breath slowly and willed her heart to settle down to her chest. She shook her head then realized Tetty, whoever she was, may not see her clearly. “No. Is he harming you?”
“No, Ma’am,” Tetty said. “But I’m not coming out until there are other men out there.”
Despite her words, Tetty didn’t sound frightened, which reassured Elizabeth. “May I enquire why you are hiding in here?”
Mr. Feild said, “Has it occurred to both of you daft women that if I’d a fancy, I could shut this door, lock it, and trap you both in?”
Tetty’s shadow scrambled to the door. With what she hoped was a more dignify pace, Elizabeth followed. Once outside, she blinked until her eyes adjusted to the brightness, then turned to examine the other woman.
Wearing a dress that looked as if it hadn’t been washed since the last Michaelmas, Tetty appeared to be the same age as Elizabeth herself, though nature had been more generous with her feminine attributes. She, at least, had shoes on her feet and a cap on her head, even if both were tattered and mud-colored. Most curiously, above her right elbow, she wore a horse halter as an arm bracelet.
Elizabeth glanced around. There was no horse within sight.
“Now you’ve done it, Tetty.” Mr. Feild settled himself down on a large rock. “You pricked the mistress’s curiosity, and she doesn’t seem like the type to leave things well enough alone.”
Tetty bobbed a curtsy. “Didn’t mean to scare you in there, Ma’am. Would you happen to know when’s the next market day at Bakewell?”
“I’m afraid I don’t.” Elizabeth wondered at the couple’s odd behavior. “I’m Mrs. Darcy, may I help you, uh…Tetty, is it?”
“If it pleases you. That’s what he calls me now, Ma’am,” Tetty tipped her head toward Mr. Feild, who was now picking the dry mud off his feet with a twig. “He didn’t like calling me by my Christian name, Elizabeth.”
“I’d figured if ‘Tetty’ was good enough for Dr. Johnson’s Elizabeth, it’s good enough for my missus,” Mr. Feild paused in his mud scraping and cast Tetty a sardonic glance, “however temporary.”
Surprised this shoeless servant was educated enough to know about Dr. Samuel Johnson, Elizabeth stared at him for a moment before she turned toward the woman. Was this young woman truly married to the old man? Had Elizabeth stumbled into a marital spat of this odd, mismatched couple? “Are you Mrs. Feild?”
Tetty nodded. “Only until the next market day, Ma’am, if he’ll be reasonable.”
“If I weren’t a reasonable man, I’d still have my hat, my coat and my shoes.” Her husband switched to scraping his other foot. “You’ve caused me trouble with the new Mistress. She’s thinking of having the master dismiss me, very likely, all because I tried to stop her from going into your hiding place.”
“I wouldn’t have had to hide if you’d taken me to the Bakewell fair as you promised,” Tetty countered.
He shrugged. “I had to promise you something, else the cart driver giving us a ride would have gladly unloaded us into the ditch, the way you wouldn’t stop bawling.”
“I was supposed to go home with the baker,” Tetty wailed.
“Instead of giving you that fancy name Elizabeth, your parents would have been better to give you some sense to recognize when a man’s—” he broke off, rose, and stalked off a short distance away, again muddying his feet.
His young wife promptly burst into tears. “What will become of me!”
Elizabeth approached her. Though the old husband was out of hearing distance, she kept her voice quiet, “I promise you nothing bad will happen to you.”
Tetty continued crying for a few moments longer before she raised a tear-stained face and shook her head. “Thank you, Ma’am. But you can’t do nothing. If he won’t sell me as he promised at the Bakewell fair, I’m stuck with him.”
“What?” Elizabeth shook her head, hoping she had not heard correctly. “You want him to sell you?”
Tetty wiped her face with a dirty sleeve. “You’d want to be sold if you were married to him, wouldn’t you?”
“But, but…” Elizabeth had to admit, the other woman had a point. She eyed the halter on Tetty’s arm. She’d heard of the deplorable practice of wife selling at an auction during some market fairs indulged by the lower order, but she’d never known anyone who’d been a party to such evil deed in Hertfordshire. “How long have you been married to him?”
“Since day before yesterday,” Tetty answered. “After he bought me at the Buxton’s fair, he told me there’s plenty of kind gentlemen who’d be appreciative of a young wife to help with the baking at Bakewell. But as soon as we arrived here, I found he’d lied.”
Rage filled Elizabeth. She left Tetty and charged toward the old man, now scraping the mud off one foot against the trunk of a tree.
Part Three, the ending, will be posted Tuesday, 12/11, only 48 hours or so away.
Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, anyone? Unfortunately, it wasn’t all fiction. Wife selling occurred before, during, and after Jane Austen’s time. I’ll touch upon the history briefly when I post Part Three, the ending, on Tuesday, 12/11
Any guesses as to what the Mistress of Pemberley is about to do to the old man? What would YOU do?