Posted on: 2012-02-02
"Mrs Darcy, would it be too much to ask to trouble you with a concern of mine? I fear some of the books in the library have been sporadically removed and then replaced."
When Elizabeth learnt from Mrs Reynolds all the particulars regarding the disappearing books, she took it upon herself to solve the mystery. Maybe it was out of sheer boredom from being shut away in Pemberley as a result of poor weather whilst her husband was kept in Town, or maybe it was the idea of a grand adventure; in any case, she quickly assured the housekeeper that she would find out what she could, and all but begged the other woman not to worry so she could carry on the efficient running of the household.
Her first port of call, for obvious reasons, was the library. Once there, she set herself the task of perusing the shelves at a slow, leisurely pace so she could easily spot any anomalies. It did not take her long to find fault with the normally faultless organisation of the Pemberley library: several volumes of fiction had been haphazardly replaced onto the shelves with no regards to the orderly fashion its surrounding books had been organised into, as though the culprit had done so in haste.
With that new knowledge in mind, she quickly concluded that it could not have been the work of anyone in the Darcy family, for they were a family very fond of the literary arts. In fact, they were so in love with it that not two weeks after the newlywed's return to the grand Derbyshire house, Mr and Mrs Darcy decreed that every evening, unless called away by significantly more important business, the family would retreat to the library after dinner and they would all read aloud extracts of whatever book had taken their fancy.
Fondly, the mistress of the house looked over to the far end of the room, where two sofas were arranged around a small round table before a magnificent fireplace. From where she stood, she could just about make out the outlines of three volumes resting on the table, where they had been left the night before.
Oh, how she longed for Fitzwilliam to return! Then the third book would be picked up once more and its contents divulged to willing listeners.
A rustle startled Elizabeth from her reveries.
"Lizzy, what are you doing? You've been staring at the fireplace for an awfully long time."
"I was just thinking how I should very much like to have your brother with us again. I miss hearing him read to us."
Georgiana smiled, her gaze also turning fondly to the place her sister in law was staring at.
"Mrs Reynolds told me about a mysterious case where our books have been disappearing then reappearing. I thought I would like to see what she was talking about." She pointed to the display before her, and Miss Darcy gasped in surprise.
"But we take care to return books we take out to where they were taken from!"
"Exactly - so I knew it could not have been any of us. But that leaves us with the most puzzling question: who could it possibly be?"
The siblings stood and pondered for a while, but no answers came to them.
Just then, a floorboard creaked at the end of the row, and both ladies looked up from their musings just in time to see the shadow of a small creature dart behind the shelf. Not caring if she broke all rules of propriety or not, Elizabeth ran down the row, and as she reached the end, she saw that same person disappear through the library entrance.
"I would recognise her anywhere," exclaimed Georgiana as she caught up. "She is the little sister of my maid. She is such a dear little girl."
Elizabeth rang the bell for the housekeeper, who bustled into the library very soon after being called, whereupon the ladies relayed their discovery to a flustered Mrs Reynolds and asked that the girl be brought to them. The housekeeper acquiesced, reassuring her mistress that she would bring the girl in question as quickly as possible.
No sooner had the ladies removed to the family's private parlour, and Georgiana picked up her unfinished embroidery, did Mrs Reynolds return with a tiny, scruffy looking girl, half hidden behind the housekeeper's skirt. Vaguely, in the back of Elizabeth's mind, she marvelled at lady's efficiency, and was more than once thankful of the elder's help.
The little girl was peering around the housekeeper's skirt, fearing that she would be scolded by her sister's employer, and oh! What would become of her then? She did so admire the work her sister did, assisting the pretty ladies before her dress and generally helping around great house. And Pemberley was truly a sight to behold! She didn't want to leave!
A little distressed, she did not quite register the firm grip Mrs Reynolds placed on her shoulder, steering her out from her hiding place. When she did become aware of her situation, however, she quickly averted her eyes to the floor so that she would not see the angry expression on the mistress' face. As a result, she was extremely surprised when she heard a rustle of fabric and suddenly, she was looking up at Mrs Darcy, a gentle but firm finger under her chin holding her face in place. And in place of the angry expression she had been sure the powerful woman would wear, Mrs Darcy was smiling kindly down at her.
"Could I ask a favour of you?" Not knowing what to say, the little girl nodded. "Will you answer any and all questions that I ask you truthfully?" Again, a nod answered her request. "Good, then I shall begin my interrogation: what is your name?"
The little girl was unable to hold back her gasp of surprise: of all the questions she expected the great lady to ask, it had not been this. But she had promised to tell the truth, so shakily, she answered, "My name is Beth, ma'am. My mama named me Elizabeth, but because I couldn't say it when I was younger, I have always called myself and been called Beth."
The mistress continued to smile down at her, and now that Beth could see her eyes more clearly, she saw good humour sparkle in the lady's eyes. Was the great lady laughing at her?
"Very well, then I shall also call you Beth. How old are you?"
"I'm eight, ma'am. I'll be nine in two weeks' time."
"Just now, Miss Darcy and I saw you run from the library. As you know, the library is not a place you would ordinarily be allowed into because it contains many important things belonging to the master of the house. Only those who have been placed in the master's confidence may enter the room freely. Could you tell me what you were doing in there?"
Beth looked down at the floor, fixing her gaze on the pretty blue satin of the mistress' dress. She felt so embarrassed! She had not meant to be caught lurking around the library but the room was filled with so many books and she longed to take one or two down to read. Internally, she berated herself for her curiosity and fidgety fingers.
When the little girl did not immediately reply, Elizabeth leaned her head slightly to one side so she could read her expression. A little blush had coloured her small cheeks and she was worrying her lower lip until it was a little pinker than natural. In truth, she had already an inkling of why the little girl had been inside the library, but she wanted Beth to feel that she could be honest with her superiors. In her opinion, it was the most effective method of creating a team of trustworthy household staff.
At last, Beth raised her head again to look at Mrs Darcy and said, "I'm very fond of books, ma'am; my mama bought stories and she or my sister would read them to me at night. Mama sent me here to stay with my sister because my brother is very ill. I accidently found the library and I couldn't help myself, ma'am! I'm truly very sorry, ma'am; I didn't mean to take the books! I will put all of them back, ma'am, I will!"
Elizabeth felt her smile widen, a little amused by the little girl's distress. "Thank you for telling the truth, Beth. If you could replace the books you currently have in your possession, I shall be very much obliged. However, because you have worried Mrs Reynolds, and consequently me and Miss Darcy also, I shall have to punish you most severely."
"Oh, ma'am, please don't send me away! Little Johnny is ever so ill and mama is so busy-"
Schooling her expression so that the little girl quivered in fright, Elizabeth pronounced, "For your disobedience of the rules of Pemberley, I have decided to punish you by banning you from doing any reading for a month."
Even Georgiana blinked in surprise at the verdict.
Elizabeth hurried on before anyone could interrupt her: "You will be kept under the sharp eye of Mrs Reynolds for the duration of that period. During that time, she will report to me if you are caught breaking the terms of the punishment. You will help Mrs Reynolds, and whoever she sees fit to place you in the care of, with the housework that will be done around the house.
"However, after the month is out, and if you have been on your best behaviour, I will appeal to Mr Darcy to allow you to borrow a book from the library to read. That is, of course, dependent upon your being on your very best behaviour."
Beth thought she would burst into tears. "Oh, thank you, ma'am, for your kindness."
Elizabeth's cold expression melted and she leant forward to fold the little girl into her arms. "Reading is something that should be shared with everyone, and I am very glad your mother and sister have taught you to do so. It is a wonderful pastime, is it not?" The little girl could only nod, unable to find the right words to simultaneously thank the mistress and praise her, for she had burst into a noisy fit of tears when the great lady embraced her. "Now, Mrs Reynolds will take you back to the kitchen, and you must give all the books that you currently have in your possession to her. Then, you will serve your punishment. But," and she could not help but wink at the little girl conspiratorially, "if all goes well, you may be allowed to borrow a book from the library next month."
When Mrs Reynolds had ushered the little girl out of the room, Elizabeth joined Georgiana in embroidering. The first few minutes were spent working in silence, but the former quickly felt the agitation the latter's manner.
Finally, Elizabeth sighed and set aside her work to focus on the younger girl. "Just ask me whatever is on your mind, Georgie."
Georgiana worked for a few minutes more, but eventually, she succumbed to her curiosity. She too put aside her work and looking at her sister-in-law, she asked, "Why?"
Elizabeth laughed. "My dear Georgie, you shall have to be more elaborate than that if I am to answer the question you seek. If your question is 'why did I punish her thus', then my answer is simply this: she is an avid reader. There is nothing more punishing to an avid reader than withholding the source of their entertainment. In a similar vein, would you not be most vexed if I told you that you could not play the pianoforte for a month?" At Georgiana's nod of affirmation, she continued, "So you now understand my punishment."
"Upon reflection, it does seem the most appropriate punishment. However, I am more curious as to why you treated her the way you did. I am not questioning your judgement on how to handle a situation such as this, but even you must admit it is most unconventional, Lizzy."
"In truth, I am not entirely sure why I reacted the way I did, but when I saw her peer around Mrs Reynolds' skirt, I knew instantly why she had been spiriting away our books. She is but a little girl, and I wish to be able to guide her so that she will have the best in life without overstepping her boundaries. Pemberley is now my home, so everyone who is sheltered beneath its roof is now, by extension, my family. Is it not a mother's duty to ensure her children are well brought up?
"Additionally, I want to create a team of household staff in whom I can trust and, conversely, who can trust in me. Is it not said that trust is something that is earned? I would very much like to earn the trust of my household staff. As their superior, I must appear to them as firm and sure in my decisions, but I do not wish to rule over them, I would much rather work with them to create the ideal home that Pemberley deserves to be.
"I hope that in my actions regarding Beth, I have appeared to my staff as firm but forgiving. Is that not the best way to earn an employee's trust?"
"And what a wise wife I have in you, Elizabeth, my dear."
Both ladies in the room rose in surprise at the familiar voice that spoke to them from the doorway: Fitzwilliam Darcy had returned from his business in town.
Quickly striding over the threshold of the room to join the two most beloved ladies of his life, he first pulled Georgiana into a tight embrace, which she readily returned, lifting her to twirl her around, before turning to his wife. He was greeted with a wide, welcoming grin, and he gathered her up in his arms, kissing her most soundly, almost fervently, on the mouth.
"It has been too long, my dear," he whispered reverently, his cheeks pressed against hers, his breath ghosting over the shell of her ear. "I am never going to town without either, or if I must, both of you ever again."
She gently kissed him on the cheek, her arms holding him to her as he clung to her, and inelegantly, they collapsed onto the sofa previously occupied by the ladies. Georgiana quickly relocated to the chair across from them, eager for news from town.
"Before I relay anything interesting, I must first tell you how proud I am of you, Elizabeth. I met Mrs Reynolds on my way here, and she told me of your dealings with a mischievous sprite. I must say your way of handling the situation was very effective, if a little unconventional."
"That was what Georgie and I were just discussing before you arrived. Speaking of which, why did you not send an express ahead of you so we could prepare?"
Mr Darcy apologised for not doing so, claiming that he saw no need to since it would have arrived only a few hours ahead of him, and that he had wanted to surprise them with an early return. He then went on to impart all the news that he had learnt from various sources: that Anne was being courted by a titled gentleman from Kent; that Jane had given birth to a healthy boy whom the Bingleys named, rather uncreatively, Charles; that the Lady Patronesses of Almack's, namely the Countess of Sefton and the Countess of Jersey, had been frequently calling on Lady Eleanor at Matlock House and pestering her with regards to Georgiana's entrance to society. The subject of the last shuddered at the thought but said nothing; after all, it had been decided between the three Darcys that she would not be coming until her eighteenth birthday, giving her an entire year to mentally prepare for the "shark infested waters of the ton," as Elizabeth had called it.
(Whilst the general time frame had been established with Georgiana, Elizabeth and Mr Darcy felt that it would be best for Lady Eleanor to organise the coming out ball - something that the matron, upon being informed, greatly looked forward to.)
After dinner that evening, Mrs Reynolds informed Elizabeth that the books Beth had borrowed were returned to the library, and that the little girl in question was working with her sister, learning to be a lady's maid. Georgiana delighted at the prospect, and promised to look after and help her become the best lady's maid there ever was.