Authors: Elizabeth Aston
“Perhaps you had better go and rescue him,” said Drummond.
Stanhope strode over to where Sir Henry was standing, and was amused to notice that his brother-in-law seemed slightly disconcerted by his arrival. “I am asking for the carriage to be brought round,” said Stanhope. “We must take our leave.”
Sir Henry gave a slight cough, and then said, rather to Stanhope's surprise, “I have been talking to Miss Verney. I know her father, the Comte de Verney. He is one of the Ã©migrÃ© families and I have known him for many years.”
Stanhope and Miss Verney shook hands, Stanhope favouring her with the briefest of glances. His tone was brusque as he said to Sir Henry that they had better find Lady Martindale.
Sir Henry took his leave of Miss Verney, with what Stanhope considered an exaggerated degree of respect to a girl who was no more than a governess, however much she might
be the daughter of an old friend. And that, he told himself, was a story which he did not all together believe.
The carriage was brought round, and Stanhope said a civil if chilly good-bye to Louisa. He sprang up into the driving seat, took the reins from the groom, and with a flourish of his long whip set the horses in motion.
The next day was Sunday, and Phoebe and Louisa decided to go to church. There was a chapel at Pemberley, of course, but the family generally attended divine service at the church in the nearby village of Pemberley. They walked to the church, since if they took the path through the grounds of Pemberley, it was no more than twenty minutes to the village besides being a charming walk through the parkland on a bright spring morning.
“How pretty it is,” Phoebe exclaimed as they reached the crest of the hill and looked down at the village.
It was a picturesque scene, with the neat houses along the main street, the cottages on the outskirts, the pretty gardens, and the church, many centuries old, with its square tower. Apart from the church and the vicarage, Pemberley boasted several very respectable houses, a butcher, a baker, and a general store, run by the obliging Mrs. Hyslop, where one could buy a dress length, gloves, various items of ironmongery, and anything else ranging from a mousetrap to cheesecloth.
Smoke from various chimneys drifted upwards, as there was not even a hint of a breeze, and Phoebe and Louisa stood
and took in the beauty of the scene. This reflective moment was abruptly shattered by the sound of the church bell ringing out, and closer to hand, by Phoebe's suddenly succumbing to a fit of sneezing.
Louisa wondered for a moment if Phoebe had caught a cold, but Phoebe, whose eyes were watering, shook her head. “No, I am not ill, I assure you. It is something that happens at this time of year, I believe it is the grass that irritates one's nose in some way. I will be better directly. We must hurry, however, or we shall be late.”
They reached the church as the last strokes of the calling bell were dying away, and hurried inside to take their places. The Darcy family pew was, of course, at the front of the church. The verger, a small man with a round head and frizzy hair on either side of his bald pate, opened the pew door for them, and, with much bowing and scraping, held it open while they went in. In London, some churches had adopted a more modern seating where everyone was visible to his or her neighbours, but in this county the old ways prevailed and each family was enclosed within the high walls of the panelled pews. Once inside the boxed pew, Louisa and Phoebe were hidden from sight, and Phoebe was thankful for it as she subsided on the velvet upholstered seat and buried her nose in her handkerchief.
Phoebe knew the vicar of Pemberley, but to her surprise, the clergyman who took the service was not Mr. Pontius. This was a man she had never seen before. “Who can he be? He preaches a very dull and prosy sermon,” Phoebe whispered to Louisa after he had ascended the pulpit, surveyed the congregation with a suspicious and withering eye, and began to preach.
Phoebe listened to his sermon with rising indignation.
“The wretched man has been droning on for more than half an hour, and to no purpose. Hackneyed language and hellfire, it is too bad!”
“Shh, people will hear you. He is the kind of person who likes the sound of his own voice,” said Louisa.
“He is an Evangelical, I am sure of it,” said Phoebe. “I can't think why he is here, what has become of Mr. Pontius?”
At last the sermon came to an end, the priest uttered the words of dismissal and his blessing, and the little choir of boys fidgeting in their white surplices trooped down the aisle. Phoebe, coming out of the pew, found herself next to Mrs. Hyslop, resplendent in a purple gown, who greeted her with the friendliness of a woman who had known her since she was a child.
“He's Mr. Bagot,” the knowledgeable Mrs. Hyslop informed her, “come over from Lambton on account of Mr. Pontius being called away to the bedside of a sick relative. Three quarters of an hour he preached this morning,” she added. “T'aint right, it might do for those Lambton folk, who have nothing but cotton wool between their ears, and so don't know the difference, but give me Mr. Pontius any Sunday!”
Mr. Bagot was waiting by the church door. “Ready,” said Mrs. Hyslop, “to pounce on the gentry.” He introduced himself with obsequious becks and nods to Louisa and Phoebe, who dropped a slight curtsy each and made to move on, but he was as loquacious out of the pulpit as he was in it, and it took them a little while to escape, his compliments to Mr. Darcy ringing in their ears.
“Phoebe, if you dare laugh,” began Louisa, but Phoebe, in a muffled voice, said it wasn't laughter, but the sneezing come back again, with renewed vigour.
Mrs. Hyslop wagged a finger at Phoebe. “Spring fever,”
she said. “I remember you always suffered from that when you were here as a girl, Miss Phoebe. Take my advice and ask Mr. Osler to give you some of his new mixture. Mrs. Wellesley gave it to that scullery maid of hers who always had a dripping nose, and it cleared it up wonderfully.”
Louisa, who liked Mrs. Hyslop, thanked her for her advice, but Phoebe merely looked annoyed. “Who, pray, is Mr. Osler?”
“He is the new doctor. Mr. Wilson retired a little while ago, and Mr. Osler is his replacement.”
“Dripping nose, scullery maid, indeed,” said Phoebe, still holding her handkerchief to her streaming nose. “For heaven's sake, Louisa, let us be away from here, before Mr. Bagot offers to drive us back to Pemberley in his gig.”
“Perhaps the mention of the scullery maid was unfortunate, but you do have a dripping nose,” said Louisa.
“It will stop in a minute,” said Phoebe. “It comes and goes without any warning, I dare say that by the time we are back at Pemberley I will have no more sneezes.”
Phoebe's predictions proved false. By the time she reached Pemberley, her eyes were red and watering again. Miniver took one look and hurried back down to the servants' hall, muttering as she went: “Consult Mr. Osler? A country doctor? Who suggested that? When I can brew up a remedy myself, which will do her better than any doctor's potions.”
Whatever was in the rather unpleasant drink forced upon Phoebe by Miniver, it seemed to work, and by the time she retired for the night, Phoebe's sneezes had gone. She woke after a refreshing night's sleep with a clear nose and head, and the rasping voice of Mr. Bagot sounding in her ears.
“I had such a disturbing dream,” she told Louisa as they sat in the conservatory after breakfast, enjoying the warmth of the sun as it came through the glass overhead. “That dreadful man, Mr. Bagot, was preaching, and uttering all kinds of nonsense; I wasn't sure whether to laugh or be alarmed when I opened my eyes, but I was extremely glad to find myself in my bed, and not in the Darcy pew!”
A footman appeared with letters. Louisa opened one from her mother and ran her eyes down the closely written words, while Phoebe stared down at the direction on her letter.
Louisa folded the two pages covered and crossed in her mother's fine hand, and put them away to read later. “Why do you not open your letter?” she asked Phoebe.
“I do not recognise the hand, I wonder who it is from.”
“You can find that out in an instant by simply opening it.”
Phoebe did so. “Ah, it is from Mr. Darcy's secretary in London, Mr. Tetbury, who is a most estimable man, the model of efficiency and agreeable with it.” She ran her eyes down the page of neat copperplate. “He sends me a list of those to be invited to the ball at Pemberley, and a second list of the members of the family and other guests who will stay at the house at the time of the ball.” She read on. Mr. Darcy had, Mr. Tetbury believed, asked Miss Hawkins to ascertain if there were others in the neighbourhood not on the list who should be invited. He enquired whether Phoebe would wish to have the invitations engraved in London and sent to Derbyshire, or whether she would have them printed locally.
“This means,” said Phoebe, “that we shall need to drive to Lambton. We can have the invitations printed there, and also, Miniver wants me to buy some ribbons to make new rosettes for one of my gowns. Pull the bell, Louisa, and I will order the carriage.”
Louisa rose to do as she was asked, and then left the room, saying that if they were going to Lambton, she must change into another gown.
“Oh, do not be too nice, it is of no account what one wears in Lambton,” said Phoebe, who had no intention of changing from the dress she was wearing, which was a favourite muslin, so old that the pattern had faded. Miniver had been trying to pass it on to one of the maids for a good while, but Phoebe had always thwarted her attempts to be rid of it.
But Miniver, when Phoebe told her to fetch her a pelisse, was having none of it. “What, go to Lambton in a dress that's hardly fit for going out into the garden, and that only if no one is about?”
“It is only the country. No one pays any attention to what one wears in the country.”
Miniver knew that a direct argument with Phoebe would get her nowhere. So she resorted to cunning. “Did you not tell that your godmother, Mrs. Wellesley, is come to live at Lambton? I am sure you wish to call upon her. And besides, if people see you in that dreadful old gown, they will imagine that your father has lost all his money, that you are nothing but a poor Darcy relation.”
Grudgingly, Phoebe consented to put on a carriage dress of dark red terry velvet, with a matching bonnet, in which, with her dark colouring, she looked very well indeed. “I thought I had left this dress in London. It is one of my new ones, made to do the season, I do not know how it came to be here.”
Miniver did not think this an appropriate time to tell Phoebe that, despite her expressed wishes, she had arranged for nearly all Phoebe's new clothes to be packed up and sent to Pemberley. Most of these clothes were hanging in the press in one of the other bedrooms, where Phoebe would not discover what Miniver had done.
Louisa, charmingly dressed in a dove grey gown, joined Phoebe at the top of the steps just as a groom brought the curricle up to the front door. Thomas was waiting to help them into the carriage, but Phoebe, once she had seen Louisa settled in her place, did not join her inside the open carriage, but instead climbed into the driver's seat and gathered the reins into her hands. Ignoring Louisa's dismayed protests, Phoebe commanded the groom to let go of the horses' heads, and as he jumped up behind, set off down the drive at a spanking pace.
Louisa need not have worried. Phoebe had been taught to drive by her father, and in the last year or so had become a most accomplished whip. And indeed the drive into Lambton was achieved without any mishaps, other than Phoebe having
to keep a tight hold on the reins at a crossroads when a goose flapped out from underneath a hedge, startling the horses. However, they were a well-trained pair, and by the time they reached the market town, Louisa's fears had quite subsided.
The groom took the curricle off to the inn, and Phoebe and Louisa walked down the main street of the town. First, Phoebe had business to transact at the printers. The works were situated in a small alley leading off the main street. Mr. Bondwell, the printer, bustled forward to take Phoebe's order, and after some ten minutes' discussion of typefaces and the style of invitations, she thanked him and said that the cards were to be sent up to Pemberley as soon as they were ready.
“And now, of course,” said Phoebe as the door closed behind Mr. Bondwell's bows, “everyone in Lambton will know that there is to be a summer ball at Pemberley.”
“Do you think they will be very much interested?” said Louisa, stepping to one side to avoid a puddle.
“The family does not visit much in Lambton, and so the inhabitants will not expect invitations,” said Phoebe. “However, among the tradespeople and so on, there is always a good deal of interest at what is going on in the great houses within reach of the town. They will hope for some good orders.”
They came to the general store, a much bigger shop than Mrs. Hyslop's in Pemberley, and an assistant hurried forward to attend to them. A stock of ribbons was brought out and Phoebe produced the sample of material which Miniver wanted to match. Phoebe would have chosen the first ribbon the assistant suggested, but Louisa would have none of that. “This ribbon will be much prettier with that colour,” she said, selecting another one and holding it against the scrap of muslin.
“I liked the original trimming well enough,” said Phoebe.
“And this first ribbon is much closer to the ones which Miniver is replacing.”
“And I dare say the reason Miniver wishes to re-trim the gown is that the original ribbons do not go so very well with this colour; she has excellent taste.”
Phoebe allowed herself to be persuaded. “Indeed, I really cannot be very much concerned as to the precise colour of the ribbon or a trim. It is all the same to me.”
“You are very lucky to have a maid with an eye and a sense of style, in that case. Otherwise you would go out looking a positive dowd.”
“New clothes make me feel uneasy, I admit,” said Phoebe. “I am never perfectly happy in them until they are practically worn out. You may laugh at me,” she went on, “just as my mother and sisters do, however I think there are more important things in life than dresses.”
“When you're a pretty young woman of twenty, clothes are of great importance. Time enough when you are in your dotage to leave off caring how you look.”
Phoebe wasn't listening. She was walking now down a narrow street which ran parallel to the main one. “I asked for directions to Mrs. Wellesley's house from Mrs. Makepeace,” she said. “There is a lane that runs from behind the vicarage, and we should find the gates to her house further along.”
Louisa was curious. “So, if you have not visited her before, she is but recently come into the neighbourhood.”
“She moved here this past winter. It is a coincidence, she has not chosen to reside in Derbyshire because of any family connections. But her friend, Lady Maria Jesper, recently inherited this house and so they have both come to live here.”
It was a leafy lane, with the trees arched overhead just coming into their first spring greenery. However, they had to
watch where they walked, since the road was muddy in places. “Perhaps we should have driven here,” said Phoebe. “I had not realised it was so far from the centre of the town.”
As they turned a slight bend in the lane, they saw a pair of gates ahead of them. “This must be the house,” said Phoebe as they came up to the gates and looked through. “It is just as it was described to me.”
The Red House was a very pretty property, dating from the middle of the last century. They pushed open the gates and walked up the sweep towards the house. To one side was a large kitchen garden, and to the other a very pleasant kind of shrubbery. “They are both garden lovers,” Phoebe told Louisa. “I expect they are very pleased to have a house like this with such a good garden.”
“You never mentioned Mrs. Wellesley to me before. Is there no Mr. Wellesley? Is she a widow?”
“Yes, she is, which is a great mercy, for her husband was a most disagreeable man. He was a naval officer, and on that account her marriage was not as bad as it might have been, since he was away at sea for many months at a time. However, he was as unpleasant to his men as he was to his wife, and supposedly died in some action or other. Everyone in the family knows the truth of the matter, that the men were on the point of mutiny, there were stories of floggings and inhumane treatment of all kinds. So, as they went into action, one or other of the men put an end to him with a bullet. It often happened, so I have heard, when a severe captain, a hard horse captain, as they call such men, causes his crew to become mutinous.”
Louisa stopped and laid a hand on Phoebe's arm. Her eyes were shocked. “Why ever did she marry him, if he was such a monster?”
Phoebe kept walking. “He was rich, well-connected, handsome, and a charming man in his wooing. But wooed and wed are two different states, and the ardent suitor turned into the violent, disagreeable husband. It is an unhappy wife who rejoices at the death of her husband, but it was certainly so in Mrs. Wellesley's case. I believe she ordered champagne, and ill-wishers claim she danced on her husband's grave.”
“What you tell me is incredible, it cannot be true!”
“That she danced on his grave? No, indeed, for he died and was buried at sea.”
They had reached the front door, which was set in the centre of the red-brick house, a symmetrical building with matching windows on either side. They were admitted by a maid. Yes, the ladies were at home, would they please follow her?
A small but well-proportioned hall led to a fine staircase. On either side of the front door were two rooms, and the maid opened the door of the one on the right, saying, “Miss Hawkins and Miss Bingley.”
Louisa fell back as a tiny figure came hurrying across the room, exclaiming and laughing, and embracing Phoebe with great warmth. She turned an animated face to Louisa. “And this is Jane's daughter? My dear, I am so pleased to meet you. I know your mother, and you are very like her. Maria, come and meet Mrs. Bingley's daughter, Jane Bennet as was. My dear, may I call you Louisa? This is Lady Maria Jesper.”
Lady Maria was a complete contrast to Mrs. Wellesley. She was a tall, handsome woman, with a face that seemed severe in repose, but was now softened by a welcoming smile. The two women offered Phoebe and Louisa chairs, tea, refreshments, but Louisa, usually content to remain in the background, asked whether they might see round the gardens. Phoebe silently ap
plauded her friend for picking up her remark as to the ladies' horticultural enthusiasm.
The gardens were enchanting. To the rear of the house was an old walled garden, full of flowers in the first colours of spring: yellow and blue and purple. The espaliered fruit trees still had blossoms on them, and the warmth of the garden, sheltered by its ancient walls, held out the promise of the summer to come. Phoebe walked without speaking, enjoying one of her rare moments of utter calm, listening with only half her mind to Louisa and her godmother discussing tulips, while Lady Maria, who had spotted an unruly weed, was head down in a nearby flowerbed.
She hadn't appreciated before how knowledgeable Louisa was about flowers and gardening. In fact, there was a lot she didn't know about Louisa, whom she had never seen as much of as she had of her Darcy cousins. And she had seldom seen her as animated as she was now, deep in discussion with Mrs. Wellesley on how to train a lilac tree. Lady Maria stood up from the bed, clapping a hand to the small of her back as she straightened herself. “I have a painful back after a fall from a horse many years ago,” she explained. “I confess I have never ridden since. You are an uncommonly good horsewoman, I remember. Did you bring your horse with you to Pemberley, or do you ride one of Mr. Darcy's?”
“I shall borrow one of my uncle's horses. And Louisa likes to ride, and will do so once the tracks and roads dry up after all the rain we have had. We both dislike being kept indoors by bad weather, and miss our daily exercise.”
They had reached the far end of the walled garden, and now they passed through a small door into an orchard, where Mrs. Wellesley began to expound as to the advantages and disadvantages of the varieties of apples and pears which grew best
in Derbyshire. Previously, she told Louisa, she and Lady Maria had lived in Devon, where the weather and conditions were very different.
“As to exercise,” Lady Maria was saying to Phoebe, “I am surprised that you are not in London at this time of year, dancing until dawn and spending your days in a round of pleasure.”
Phoebe was well aware that Lady Maria had a sharp mind and an ear for gossip, which, combined with a knack of spotting anyone's weakness, meant that one had to take care what one revealed to her; Phoebe felt wary about giving Lady Maria an opportunity to probe further into why she was not in London. By diverting her companion's attention to a small beetle that was climbing energetically up the trunk of a nearby tree, she managed to deflect her interest in a less personal direction.