Mrs. Hill rushed up the path from Meryton to Longbourn, anxious to bring Cook the ducks and spices required for the elaborate dinner Mrs. Bennet had planned for Mr. Bingley that afternoon. If only Mrs. Phillips had not detained her, begging that she pass the message to her sister that Miss Bennet’s engagement had indeed hushed the gossip surrounding the elopement of Miss Lydia – er – Mrs. Wickham. Honestly! Has the woman not sense enough not to speak of such matters to the housekeeper? Even one who has been with the family four and twenty years. But Mrs. Phillips and Mrs. Bennet both readily relied on the assistance of the servants to bring them news.
Mrs. Hill’s thoughts were thus occupied when she noticed the approach of two young people. Assuming they to be Miss Bennet and her Mr. Bingley, she took a deep breath and adopted a smile to greet them; but within a few steps, the couple halted, and she realized it was not Mr. Bingley but his friend Mr. Darcy – and in close conversation with Miss Elizabeth!
Her polite smile faded as she stopped walking. They had not yet noticed her, quite seriously engaged and – Good gracious! – Mr. Darcy had taken Miss Elizabeth’s hands in his! A genuine grin now spread across Mrs. Hill’s face as she quietly slipped off the path into the sparsely wooded grove.
Mrs. Hill scurried towards Lucas Lodge then back on the path to Longbourn and entered the Bennet house through the kitchen where the cook and a housemaid were at work on the meal preparations.
“Thank heavens, Mrs. Hill!” cried Cook. “You are finally come. I hope you have my mace. It seems we are to have another guest at table today.”
“Mr. Darcy?” Mrs. Hill responded with a sly smile.
“Aye, which means we must have mutton and veal.” Cook stopped chopping the onion before her. “How d’you know?”
“I’ve just seen him on the path to Meryton – and with Miss Elizabeth.”
“Was not Miss Bennet and her beau with ‘em?”
Mrs. Hill shook her head. “I expect we shall be hearing of another engagement soon enough.”
“D’ya mean it?” asked the maid. “Miss Elizabeth and that tall, handsome Mr. Darcy?”
“Aye, Katie, the very one – master of that grand estate, Pemberley!”
“But he is such a proud, unpleasant kind of man. Not nearly so pleasant as Mr. Wickham or Mr. Bingley. Oh! But he is very rich. Isn’t he, Mrs. Hill?”
“Mind your work there, Katie,” said Cook. “I suppose now he will be a daily visitor just as Mr. Bingley. The mistress says he has three French cooks!” She rammed the knife blade through an onion. “No rest for the weary, all I can say. We’ll need plenty o’butter for the vegetables, Katie. And you got my pepper, Mrs. Hill, and my cloves?”
“Yes, yes, it’s all there along with your ducks. Quite a heavy parcel, walking from Meryton,” said Mrs. Hill. “I have found Mr. Darcy quite agreeable, if a bit shy. And, Katie, you watch yourself around that Mr. Wickham.”
“Does this mean Mr. Collins won’t turn us out of Longbourn?”
“No, Katie. The estate is just as entailed as ever, and that odious man is still to inherit, but with two such wealthy sons, my mistress is sure to keep her own household when the master passes and not have need to live at Netherfield, and she will require servants. We will be secure.”
“Or mayhap I could be a maid at Netherfield – or Pemberley!”
“I’d not want to be goin’ to Pemberley, I’s you,” said Cook. “Derbyshire is far north, away from everyone you know.”
“You’s not be goin’ to Pemberley anyway, now would you,” said Katie, “seeing as Mr. Darcy has three French cooks already.”
Cook pulled back on the knife. “You mind your tongue there, Katie, or I might be of a mind to cut it out.”
Their attention was soon captured by the sound of the front door closing and voices in the drawing room, and they were arrested in silence.
“Is that Miss Elizabeth come back?” Katie finally asked in a whisper.
They listened a moment before Mrs. Hill went out to the dining-parlour and called to the footman.
“Miz Hill, the mistress is asking after you,” he said when he entered the kitchen.
“Who is just come in, Harold?”
“’t’s just Miss Bennet with Mr. Bingley.” Then looking around at the six eyes gaping at him, he said, “What’s all this? Why such a fuss?”
“Mrs. Hill thinks the gentleman from Derbyshire is gonna offer for Miss Elizabeth.”
“Hush now, Katie,” said Mrs. Hill.
“Do you, now?” Harold pulled out a cheroot. “S’pose then I won’t be turned out when the master is kingdom come.”
“Harold! You mustn’t speak so! And don’t you even think of smoking that in the house!”
“Right, Miz Hill. D’you s’pose that’s why that gran’ duchess called here for Miss Elizabeth?”
The three women gasped in unison.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” said Mrs. Hill. “Aye. Why else would her ladyship come? That seems the only probable motive for her calling.”
“I’d not mind working in Mr. Darcy’s household.”
“You’d go to Derbyshire, Harold?” asked Katie.
“Pfft. A gentleman such as he is sure to have a house in Town. That’s where I’ll be. Miz Hill, don’t be forgettin’ you’re wanted upstairs.”
Mrs. Hill took the small bundle labeled British East India Company and sighed. “I better go on, then, before the mistress has a fit of nerves.”
Mrs. Hill walked up the back stairs to the family wing and scratched at the door to Mrs. Bennet’s apartment.
“Hill, Hill, is that you? Come.”
Mrs. Hill entered to find Sarah attending to Mrs. Bennet’s hair. “Yes, ma’am.”
“My dear Hill, where have you been? Bless me, you know I cannot manage without you.”
“I’ve been to Meryton, ma’am. I brung the tea.”
“Do put it in the caddy,” Mrs. Bennet said and handed her the key. “I cannot be bothered. Good gracious, if that disagreeable Mr. Darcy must always be coming here with our dear Bingley! No compassion for my poor nerves. What can he mean by being so tiresome as to disturb us with his constant company? But, however, he is very welcome if he likes, as he is a friend of Mr. Bingley.”
With such a speech as this, Mrs. Hill could depend on her mistress having no intelligence on the understanding between a man of ten thousand a year and her second eldest daughter. “I met Mrs. Phillips at the butcher, ma’am, and she sent a message to you. She says all of Meryton has pronounced the Bennets to be the luckiest family in the world.” And soon to be thought luckier still!
“Aye, and why would they not, with two daughters well married? I am sure not a soul in all of Meryton would not want to be at Janes’s wedding.” Mrs. Bennet chose to entertain herself in this manner for some time while Mrs. Hill and Sarah assisted with her toilette.
As Sarah made to leave to help Miss Bennet, Mrs. Hill pulled her aside. “Now, Sarah, as soon as you are done with all the ladies, you make haste and hurry down to the kitchen. You understand?”
The young maid nodded and then left Mrs. Hill alone to listen to her mistress’s repetitions of delights.
“Mr. Bingley is the handsomest young man that ever was seen. And with five or six thousand a year! Last year when he first came into Hertfordshire, as soon as I saw him I thought how likely it would be that they should come together. My dear Jane could not be so beautiful for nothing….”
Having heard this speech not less than incessantly for nigh ten days, Mrs. Hill knew when to offer the appropriate response without paying strict attention, allowing her thoughts to return to their previous meditations until such time as she could return to the kitchen.
“They’re come back,” said Harold when she arrived.
“Did you see Miss Elizabeth?” Katie asked her.
“I’ve been with Mrs. Bennet all this time. Has Sarah been down?” When they responded in the negative, she continued. “I asked her to come as soon as she has finished with the ladies’ hair. She might have news then.”
The sound of silver clanking coming from the butler’s pantry then drew their notice, and Mrs. Hill called out to him. “Mr. Sloan, might I ask you into the kitchen a moment?”
The butler came to stand in the entryway to the kitchen. “Yes, Mrs. Hill?”
“Has Mr. Darcy requested a private audience with Mr. Bennet?”
“Mrs. Hill, surely you do not propose that I gossip about my master, and here in the kitchen?”
“Aye, that is precisely what I am asking you to do. This affects us all.”
“And, pray, how are you entitled to any knowledge of Mr. Bennet’s affairs?”
“I think Mr. Darcy intends to ask his consent to marry Miss Elizabeth.”
“Indeed?” Mr. Sloan’s eyebrows lifted at this. “The gentlemen are in my master’s library, but Mr. Bingley is within as well.”
“Is the door closed?”
“It was open, last I knew.”
“Then go on, bring us a report,” she said, urging him with a flap of her hands.
The butler opened his lips to protest but, perhaps anticipating an argument, sighed and withdrew. The others were fixed in wretched suspense, which was rewarded by his prompt return.
“My overhearings succeeded in nothing but lowering my own opinion of myself. They speak of nothing of consequence, merely speculating on the Tsar’s response and if it might realign the coalition against Napoleon.” His audience’s disappointment was quite evident. “And how did you come upon this intelligence, Mrs. Hill, that another wedding is imminent?”
“I saw them walking together on my return from Meryton.”
“That by no means equates to matrimony. Mr. Bingley had proposed they all go out when he and Mr. Darcy arrived, and Miss Catherine went as well.”
“They may have all gone out together, but they did not return together, now. Did they? When I come upon them, they were quite alone, and they had stopped their walking. Mr. Darcy stood close to Miss Elizabeth and held her hands.”
“And from this you make such inferences?”
“And that there duchess came to wait on Miss Elizabeth,” offered Harold.
“He means Lady de Bourgh,” said Mrs. Hill. “Have you not heard nor seen anything yourself?”
Mr. Sloan’s countenance turned more solemn, as if considering his next words carefully. “Mr. Darcy, I think, has long admired Miss Elizabeth, as he looks on her a great deal; but his last visit before going away, when I brought in the tea things after dinner, I noticed Miss Elizabeth to be out of spirits, and her eyes never left him as he walked to the other side of the room.”
“Lovers’ quarrel,” said Harold.
“Harold, you appear quite at your leisure. I believe the sideboard is in need of polishing.”
“Yes, Mr. Sloan,” he said while walking past.
“This may all come to nothing. Now, if we are done with this nasty business, I will go lay the table.”
“You must contrive to have Miss Elizabeth sit beside Mr. Darcy at table,” said Mrs. Hill.
“How might you propose I do that?”
“Oh, you will think of something.”
Mr. Sloane quit the room but not before rolling his eyes and shaking his head. Mrs. Hill scarcely had time to talk over these new developments with Katie and Cook before Sarah arrived.
“You wanted to see me, Miz Hill?”
“Yes, Sarah. Were you just with Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth?” She answered in the affirmative. “Well? Did they say anything?”
“I don’ take your meanin’. Say anything of what?”
“Miss Elizabeth’s walk with Mr. Darcy.”
Sarah hesitated, clearly uncomfortable under the scrutiny of the other women awaiting her reply. “When Miss Elizabeth came in, Miss Bennet asked where she’d been walkin’ to for so long.”
“And what did she say?”
“She said they wandered about until she was lost.”
“Psst,” said Cook. “Lost in his eyes, more likely. She could find her way across half of Hertfordshire on a moonless night.”
“She said nothin’ of Mr. Darcy?” asked Katie.
“None at all. Why would she?”
They then related all they knew and their conjectures as to the meaning of it.
“Mr. Durst was in the paddock when the duchess were here,” said Sarah, “and he was right there on that side of the lawn when she spoke with Miss Elizabeth.”
“Do we still have some plum cake left from breakfast? Katie, go fetch Mr. Durst. Say we have plum cake for him. Go on, make haste!”
Katie returned shortly with Mr. Durst, but Cook stopped him in the doorway.
“You are not bringing dirt all into my kitchen. Take off your shoes before you come in here.”
Disinclined to do so, he said, “I don’ need to come in. Jus’ give me the cake and I’ll eat it out here.”
Mrs. Hill rushed to his side. “Now, now, don’t be daft. Just knock the mud off your boots. That’ll do well enough. Then come sit down.”
He did as told, and Cook set the plum cake before him, but not in good humour, and the four women sat down around him.
“Now, Mr. Durst,” began Mrs. Hill, “do you recall a few days ago when that chaise and four with the fine livery brought Lady de Bourgh.”
“Well, ‘course I recollect it. Was but three days ago. I’m not some cod’s head.” He looked up then and froze upon facing the expectant stares, his fork suspended in mid-air. “Right. What’s all this about?”
“Were you there when Miss Elizabeth was with her ladyship?”
“I was goin’ about my duties, but I happen by there a few times.”
“What was her reason for coming? Did she have anything particular to say to Miss Elizabeth?”
His cheeks then overspread with the deepest blush, and he dropped his gaze down to his plate. “I don’ think it’d be right for me to talk of it.”
“You had better,” said Cook, “or that will be the last piece of cake you’ll ever have from me!”
He seemed to struggle to push past his discomposure before speaking. “Her ladyship was in high dudgeon. She accuse Miss Elizabeth of trying to lure Mr. Darcy and draw him in to marrying her.”
“I knew it! They are engaged!” declared Mrs. Hill.
“Now, jus’ a minute. Her ladyship said that she being his closest relation, she would never allow it, and a marriage could never take place because he’s engaged to her daughter.” This pronouncement elicited a mixture of disappointed gasps and groans.
“So he did not offer for her.”
Mr. Durst shook his head. “Her ladyship asked if she were engaged to her nephew, and Miss Elizabeth said no. Then her ladyship demanded a promise that she’d not accept if he asked.”
“Hateful, hateful woman!”
“Then she stormed off and well-nigh jumped into her carriage before it bolted off.”
The women were all discouraged and sorry. They were then forced to return to their duties without having gained any satisfactory information. Mrs. Hill relinquished any remaining hope when, during dinner, Harold came into the kitchen for the next remove and told her that Miss Elizabeth seemed quite agitated being seated beside Mr. Darcy and hadn’t said a word, although the gentleman himself appeared quite at ease. Then Mrs. Hill was left to regret her part in this arrangement, which caused Miss Elizabeth such embarrassment. Nothing more was said on the subject for the remainder of the afternoon.
That night, after seeing to Mrs. Bennet’s needs and listening to her relate all the particulars of Mr. Bingley’s visit, Mrs. Hill stepped out into the hall and, closing the door behind her, turned to find Sarah with her ear nearly pressed against Miss Bennet’s door.
“Sarah,” Mrs. Hill cried out in a harsh whisper, but Sarah waved for her to come near. They both leaned in to hear the muffled voices through the door.
“You are joking, Lizzy. This cannot be! Engaged to Mr. Darcy! No, no, you shall not deceive me. I know it to be impossible.”
“This is a wretched beginning indeed! My sole dependence was on you; and I am sure nobody else will believe me, if you do not. Yet, indeed, I am in earnest. I speak nothing but the truth. He still loves me, and we are engaged.”
At this, Sarah and Mrs. Hill gaped at each other with eyes as wide as their grins.
“Oh, Lizzy! It cannot be. I know how much you dislike him.”
“You know nothing of the matter. That is all to be forgot. Perhaps I did not always love him so well as I do now. But in such cases as these, a good memory is unpardonable. This is the last time I shall ever remember it myself.”
Mrs. Hill and Sarah quietly stepped back from the door and embraced.
“Mrs. Bennet must yet know nothing of it, or she would be in raptures! So you mustn’t say a word to anyone in the family,” said Mrs. Hill, to which Sarah readily agreed.
They then hurried away to the kitchen, eager to relate news which would give such pleasure to so many.