Longbourn, September 1795
Henry Bennet saw bright eyes and chestnut curls just under the cabinet in the corner of his laboratory. He almost laughed. So my little terror escaped everyone. Once again. I will pretend not to notice. In a few more minutes, he began laying out small trays for his new experiment. He no longer needed to pretend that he did not see Elizabeth. He was so wrapped up in his work that he had forgotten all about her. He counted aloud in Greek as he laid out the trays. Once they were all set, he counted again, this time in Latin. He left to retrieve a reagent from his basement stores.
Henry returned to find Elizabeth up on a stool, pointing her pudgy little finger as she counted the trays. "Hello my little Lizzy. Are you counting in Greek?"
"Is that what it is? I like it. I like the other one too." Again pointing with her finger, she began, "Unus, duo, tres, quater"
"Quattuor" said Henry gently.
"Quattuor" she repeated. "Unus, duo, tres, quattuor!" she said proudly pointing to the fourth tray.
Henry swept her off the stool, into the air and then settled the giggling child on his hip. "And my dear little terror, that one is called Latin. How did you learn to count in Greek and Latin?"
Elizabeth put her thumb in her mouth. It was her automatic reaction to being nervous. She may have been fully conversational since age 18 months and she may have been used to her father treating her as a little adult, but in her life with mother, she was always in some kind of trouble. She now looked every bit a worried three year old. She looked up at her father with imploring eyes. "Am I in deep problems?"
"Never with me, little terror. Although I am quite sure that Fanny will screech about this or that. I have told you to pay her no mind, respectfully of course. Now, where did you learn?"
"I was hiding." She looked down at the floor.
Henry put a finger under her chin and gently raised her head. "Just now?"
Elizabeth nodded seriously.
Henry stared at his little daughter. This one is very bright. Let us see what she can do.
"Then, my dear, shall we have tea?" Henry pulled the bell cord. The footman appeared almost instantly. "Miss Elizabeth and I will have tea in my garden. And please find Riddle. Tell him Miss Elizabeth requires a tutor."
The footman did not let his shock show on his face as he hurried away to order tea and then find Mr. Riddle. Heavens. A tutor for a three year old girl? The master is mad. Can't stand the sight of a woman. Talking to himself in all those tongues. No letting no one clean his laboratories. Wearin them clothes from who knows where. At least he pays well and on time. He ain't cruel. Maybe ain't so bad. Wait til old Riddle hears this.
October 7, 1811
Dread was her dominant emotion as the carriage rumbled through Meryton. Another three months with her mother and her sisters. Papa never came anymore. Sighing, Elizabeth squared her shoulders. She would have plenty of work to distract her and, no matter what, it would be good to see Jane and Charlotte again.
Fanny Bennet watched with a scowl as the carriage arrived. That girl was back. She saw the footman hand Elizabeth down and saw the carriage set in motion again, heading off to Henry's house behind Longbourn . "Henry's house!" Bad enough HE had a separate house. Miss High and Mighty had her own rooms there. Her own rooms, maid, carriage, servants. That was too much to be borne.
As Elizabeth stood in the carriageway, looking up at Longbourn, Fanny eyed her second daughter. She had matured. She looked elegant, almost pretty. Still, she was nothing to Jane or Lydia. Fanny's eyes slowly perused the girl, from the top of her bonnet to the tips of her traveling boots. "Expensive. What kind of allowance does Henry give her? That money is wasted. My other girls would never wear something so unadorned. And those colors. They look almost like half mourning clothes. She probably chose them herself. No sense or taste. And where is it she goes all these months? Who are these 'distant relations'?
Sighing, Fanny squared her shoulders. She had determined to be civil, even friendly, to the girl this time. Fanny was tired of not knowing where Henry was. Tired of worrying about the hedgerows. She was sure there was some money somewhere here. Perhaps the relations were rich. If so, maybe Elizabeth could throw her sisters into the paths of rich men, even if she never seemed to have a suitor herself. "That girl knows a good deal more than I." Fanny was determined. She would find out the truth.
Longbourn's front door flew open. Elizabeth's face broke into a broad smile as Jane hurried forward to embrace her.
"Oh, Lizzy. I am so happy to see you."
Anything more she might have said was cut off as the other girls came tumbling out to hug her. To Elizabeth's surprise, her mother appeared and kissed her on both cheeks.
"Welcome home, my dear girl."
"Lizzy, your pelisse is very fine."
"But the colors! You would think someone died."
"What presents have you brought?"
"Did you bring the new Mrs. Radcliffe?"
"Have you any beaus?"
"You will never guess our news. Netherfield Park is let at last."
"And it is taken by a man of large fortune."
"He is very handsome and wears a blue coat."
"He promised to come to the assembly next week."
"And to bring twelve ladies and seven gentlemen."
Laughter bubbled up from Elizabeth. "Too many ladies."
"Come." said Jane, linking her arm with Elizabeth's. "Come inside. You must be tired."
The next days passed in a not altogether unpleasant frenzy. Elizabeth continued to be surprised by how civil Fanny was. If not for the cool, assessing looks that were cast her way, when Fanny thought herself unseen, Elizabeth might have begun to soften toward the woman who had given birth to her.
Mrs. Bennet had indeed been watching Elizabeth, but her intentions toward that girl would have to wait for now. The all important assembly would soon be here and the girls would meet Mr. Bingley. She was sure he would fall in love with Jane or Lydia.
Lizzy's presents of fabric and lace had caused an immediate trip to the dressmakers. New gowns for her sisters were to be made in time for the assembly. Elizabeth had been shocked to learn that this also included a new gown for Lydia. The girl was only a couple of months past fifteen. Last year, she had been silly, ignorant, idle and vain. Now, alarmingly, she seemed devoted to flirting and displaying her womanly wiles. She certainly had them. Lydia had developed an even more curvaceous figure than Jane's. Her bodices were cut much too low. A recipe for disaster with this spoiled, willful child. She should be in the schoolroom. What was her mother thinking? Elizabeth thought fleetingly of writing to her father, but knew it would do no good.
It was fortunate for Elizabeth's mind that she had had so much to do. She had begun with a early morning ride over the estate's high grounds. Using four different vantage points, she had been able to put together a general impression of the condition of the estate.
Elizabeth sighed as her eyes ran, again, over the broad expanse of fields. She could see a good portion of the estate's lands from this hillside. The harvest looked complete, but little soil had been turned for the winter. She also did not like the number of fields that had clearly lain fallow. Little more than half had been planted. She was more than sure that this was not due to clever implementation of the new crop rotation methods.
Anger began to bubble inside her. So much empty land would make for a harsh winter for Longbourn's tenants. Elizabeth had been trying to care for the tenants since she was twelve years old. She remembered...
Little five year old Bobby Miller had come racing across a field to greet her. His running had a odd, lopsided quality to it. He had gleefully shown her his bent lower leg and shared his story of falling off the ladder inside the mill. Lizzy held hands with him and walked him home. Mrs. Miller had told her, sadly, that Bobby's broken leg had come just before last year's harvest. There had been no funds left to pay the apothecary. Her husband, in his terror of causing more pain to his son, had not properly set the leg. Even at twelve, Lizzy knew the future of a maimed tenant. Thank goodness he was the miller's son. It might be hard, but he could still learn his trade and earn a living. His place would also make up for his deformity and in spite of it, he could look forward to a wife.
Looking back, Elizabeth knew it was a turning point. She had not rested until she was sure that all the tenants would have care when they needed it. She had first, innocently, gone to her mother. Lizzy had grown up on estates. She knew the mistress had the direct responsibility to watch out for the tenants' welfare. While she already had little respect for Fanny, it did not occur to her that Fanny knew nothing of being mistress to an estate.
She knocked gently on the door of her mother's rooms. Mrs. Hill let her in. Her mother was reclining on the chaise, being fanned by Molly and mumbling about her nerves.
"Mama, may I speak to you?"
"Yes. Yes. Come here child, where I can see you."
"Good Heavens! Look at you. You are covered in dirt again. Will you never behave like a lady? Your father should leave you here, where you can learn some manners. Who will ever marry a little hoyden like you? If only you were pretty like Jane, you might have a chance. Now, where have you been this time? "
Swallowing her hurt, Lizzy told her mother that she had seen the Millers. Poor little Bobby's leg was crooked because they could not afford the apothecary.
"Yes, yes. I remember. The mother came here. What was I to do with it? That clumsy little thing fell off a ladder. What did she want? Did she want me to pay? She should have been more careful with her money. She probably drinks. All those people do. And do you know, I almost believe she thought I would go with her to see him. Can you imagine? Me going to the house of tenant? It took days to calm my nerves. Hill had to call for Mr. Nolan several times. Thank heavens for his calming draughts. Do not tell me you have been to their house? Child! You will be the death of me. Why you could catch any disease! No lady would associate with the likes of those people. Hill! Hill! Bring my salts. I feel faint. "
A stunned Elizabeth had backed out of the room as her mother was lost in another fit of nerves. Her youthful mind tried to grapple with all she had just learned. Fanny had sent for the apothecary. Several times. But for herself. For her imagined nerves. All the while, a little four year old boy was in agony and his little bones were healing. Healing into a crooked leg.
Hill had shrugged his shoulders. Petrie had ignored her letter. Mr. Nolan had sympathized with the ideal, but had told her that if he gave care for free to one person, soon all would not pay. He tried to do what he could, but his family had to eat.
She had written to Cousin Will and Aunt Amelia. Will had consulted his steward. Aunt Amelia had written from her own experience. To Lizzy's comfort, both her dear relations said pretty much the same thing. Longbourn should pay the apothecary directly, to ensure he came when needed, but the tenants must have ultimate responsibility for the bills. This not only let the proud tenants keep their self respect, but it also guaranteed they would not take advantage of the estate. The clever part in all this was to make the repayment of the apothecary's bills something that the tenants could afford. Will's steward had suggested a little regular work on the home farm until the debt was paid off. Aunt Amelia suggested for a miller, it could be some quantity of grain. For other tenants, perhaps dried apples, jams or fresh vegetables for Longbourn's kitchens. Something doable and affordable over time. If the tenant had many hardships, she made it a practice to deliver enough extras in her baskets to more than make up for anything provided as payment.
Armed with a plan, Lizzy had made Hill, Petrie and Nolan fall in line. Over the years, the tenants had grown comfortable with sending for Nolan when they needed him.
Her mind coming back to the present, she shuddered. It had come to her, over time, that a big part of the problem here was that no one cared about Longbourn. To her father, it was merely where he stored her mother and her sisters. To Petrie, it was only a nuisance. It was to go to Collins after Henry died, so no long term investment was wise. He only wanted to keep it functioning enough to pay most of Fanny's bills. Hill was a kind man, but an indifferent caretaker.
No one held the welfare of Longbourn as a priority. Certainly, no one had had the best interests of tenants at heart. Well, Elizabeth did.
This small harvest would cause severe problems. First she would have to review the books with Hill. Then visit the tenants. Then make a plan.
Still, she smiled to herself, none of this meant that she could not enjoy a few moments of this crisp, autumn morning. She pulled off her bonnet and pulled loose her hair. She tied her bonnet and hair pins inside her scarf and tied the whole bundle to her saddle. Then, she shook her hair out and had a brief word with her horse. Leaning close to his neck, she gave him a nudge. Off they took. Flying over the countryside, laughing, the wind blowing her hair, Lizzy felt alive.
From afar, Fitzwilliam Darcy had been watching the elegant creature for some time. She had sat, regal and erect, astride a magnificent steed, surveying the land as if she owned it. He had been prepared to turn away when he saw her untying her bonnet. Spellbound, he watched the rich hair flow free and saw her race off across the land. Magnificent.
Elizabeth smiled at the anticipated soft knock on her door. She and Jane had so little private time that they decided Jane would spend the night in Elizabeth's rooms.
After the girls were ready for bed and after tomorrow's assembly had been thoroughly discussed, Jane took Lizzy's hand and looked seriously at her.
"Dearest Lizzy, are your ready now to talk? What happened with Cousin Will that you could not tell me in your letters?"
"Oh, Jane. It was awful and it was so soon after Uncle William's funeral. Jane, Will proposed."
Jane's face widened in surprise. "He is in love with you! Are you to be married then?"
"No. No. I had to refuse him. I love him so very dearly, but as my brother. I could never be wife to him."
"Poor Will. How he must have felt it."
"Oh, yes. He appeared devastated. I wanted to hug him to me and tell him everything would be alright. It is what I have done since we were children. Given what he had just asked, I certainly could not embrace him. My dearest heart, my best friend was so miserable. It was all my fault and I could not comfort him."
Jane reached out and gave Lizzy's hand a calming squeeze. "Poor Lizzy. Is this why you went to Bedfordshire?"
"Indeed. At first, I tried to lighten the situation by teasing him. He responded in kind, but I could see the hurt in his eyes. Nothing I did would help. I only brought more pain. I wrote to Aunt Amelia to see if I could join her. When she wrote back, I told him that she had summoned me." Elizabeth paused and looked down at her hands. "I am sure he knew I was lying."
Jane pulled Elizabeth into an embrace.
"Oh, Jane. What have I done? His heart is broken. He is mourning a father he feared more than loved. Responsibility for the whole Dukedom is now on his shoulders, all those dependents. And I, I left him alone. I abandoned him."
"Shhh. Lizzy, you did the only thing you could. You did not make him in love with you. You could not stay when it gave him more pain. Wait, you will see. He will realize he confused brotherly love with romantic love. Then you will be able to comfort and love him. Truly, dear. All will be well."