Posted on 2015-10-08
Darcy sighed. He looked down at the face so familiar, the face he'd known as long as any other throughout his life.
She was pale and still, the deep lines and creases that had always been there seemed faded now, as were many of the memories he had of her from his days as a boy running about Pemberley.
She had always been there. His mother had left. His father had followed. Babies who never lived long enough to be his playmates, his cousin Anne, a distant uncle and a sickly grandmother all had passed on. But he had not said a final farewell to anyone for whom he cared so deeply in many years now, and the halls of Pemberley had not been silent for well over a decade. It put him in a reflective state of mind.
He felt his wife's hand slip into his as she laid her head on his shoulder.
"She looks peaceful," she said softly. "Still."
"Mrs Reynolds?" he replied. "Still?"
"It took death to cease her endless caretaking, her love for Pemberley and for this family."
Darcy allowed himself a small smile. "She could be still. I can see her seated behind her desk, or standing in my doorway, awaiting my nod."
"She was unchanging in my eyes, these fourteen years I have been at Pemberley." Elizabeth frowned. "Only in these past weeks have I seen her age and her burdens show."
Darcy grimaced. He too had noticed the changes in Pemberley's longtime housekeeper. Thinking on it made him tense.
Elizabeth felt his arm stiffen and continued. "She was so kind and patient with the children. James and Andrew begged many a favour and many a biscuit from her."
"Yet Anna has your charm, sweetheart," Darcy said warmly. "She might have won more biscuits and sweets than her brothers."
Elizabeth looked up at her husband. "Was Mrs Reynolds' much the same with you, my love? I recall her describing you fondly as such a dear little boy. She had known you since you were four years old. Despite never hearing a cross word from you, did she not see any misbehaviour in your youthful days?"
Her words earned a soft laugh from her husband. "Do you believe I spent my childhood as our children have? With dirty noses and torn cuffs and worms in my pockets?"
"Oh yes. I do hope so," she said, laughing. "Mayhap fewer worms."
"And fewer missing hats and bonnets." Darcy pulled his wife closer for a lingering kiss before leading her through a hidden stairway, up to a small but favoured sitting room, filled with the golden light of the setting sun. She walked past the matching chairs and, tucking in her slippered feet, curled up in the deep sofa. He smiled at such girlish anticipation and sat beside her.
"Some tales are not those our children, most especially Cecilia and Peter, should hear. It will not surprise you to learn that much of my childhood was spent with books and ponies. Remember that I had two boys, both older, both mischievous, but only one good-hearted, leading my rare adventures. Many escapades were silly, many were exhilarating, and nearly all were frowned upon by elders."
Elizabeth nodded at his tacit reference to the men she recognized, the boys she never knew. Her subsequent smile showed both sympathy and interest. She leaned toward Darcy and kissed his cheek.
"No daring stories of adventure, not on this day. Tell me a tale of Mrs. Reynolds' kindnesses to the muddy young master of Pemberley."
And so he began.
"Mrs Rennels, I would like some pies, please."
The woman shifted the tray in her hands and looked down at the serious young gentleman. His brow was furrowed, and his hands clasped behind his back. The perfect image, in miniature, of the master of Pemberley.
"Master Fitzwilliam, tea will be served in just one hour. There will be cakes and biscuits for you then."
"No!" cried the five-year-old boy. "I wish to make the pies. Mr Luden let me pick some of the berries and I wish to put them in the pies and eat them." He stared up at her earnestly, his mouth open. He was missing both his front teeth now, an apt explanation for his less than perfect enunciation. "Please," he added earnestly.
Mrs Reynolds smiled gently. "Where is your governess?"
"Miss Nancy went to help with the baby." Fitzwilliam looked thoughtful. His hands, no longer behind his back, formed small fists at his side. "Is the baby with Mama? I have not seen her or my father today. I only hear crying."
"Your brother required attention."
"Must he cry?"
"It is how babies tell us what they need, Master Fitzwilliam."
"Nicholas needs too much. He never stops crying." He stared down at his feet. "He needs my mama all of the time, and then she cries."
Mrs Reynolds set the tray on a table and knelt in front of the boy. His eyes were bright with unshed tears. He wiped angrily at them.
"I could help too."
"Yes, you could, sir," she said in a kind voice. "And Mr and Mrs Darcy will require your presence, perhaps tomorrow. Would you like to help instead in the kitchen? Those berries you picked will indeed need to be baked into pies and tarts. Shall we find Cook?"
"Yes, Mrs Rennels."
She stood and held out her hand. The boy looked at it, then up at the dark-haired lady.
He sniffed, slid his hand into hers and tugged her to walk toward the kitchen.
"Mrs Rennels? Does Mr Rennels work here at Pemberley?"
They continued walking in the near silent corridor.
"My cousin Anne says a Missus always has a Mister, except for her mother because she is a lady and likes that to be her title. And my mother is a Missus and has my father. So where is your Mister?"
Mrs Reynolds coughed quietly. "Master Fitzwilliam, my Mr Reynolds lives not with me but with our maker. He passed into God's hands when you were a babe."
"Oh." Fitzwilliam gazed at the carpet. "Did he wish to go live with God?"
"We all do, someday."
"Was he a soldier?"
"No, dear. He was a clerk in Lambton. He caught a chill and died."
"And you had no babies?"
When she did not respond, the boy remembered his manners. "I know about the gooseberry bushes and the storks," he assured her. "That is how
Nicholas came to us. Cousin Richard told me. His brother knows everything," he whispered.
"Mr Reynolds and I were not blessed by the stork, Master Fitzwilliam."
"Oh. So you came to take care of us here at Pemberley?"
"So I did."
"And so she did," Elizabeth said, a soft sigh in her voice. Her husband rarely mentioned either of the babies born and, soon after, buried at Pemberley. "How I wish I could have seen you as such a brave, inquisitive little boy."
Her husband laughed quietly. "Oh you have, my dear. Our little Anna behaves as I envision you during your youthful days of mischievous wonderment, and Andrew is much as I was. He is happier, though, surrounded by this unruly, rag-tag brood of ours."
"Brood?" She wrinkled her nose and feigned insult. "Five wonderful children, Fitzwilliam. Just enough to count on one hand."
He idled in the doorway, watching the pen move across the page of the thick ledger.
"When will Mother and Father return? I do not like it when they are away and I must be in charge of Pemberley."
"Your aunt will arrive tomorrow with your cousin Anne."
"I like that even less," he murmured. Fitzwilliam turned his head each way, and discovering the corridor empty, he said in a low voice, "Mrs Reynolds, my aunt wishes me to marry my cousin."
The housekeeper looked up from her ledger. "Your cousin Anne or your cousin Richard?"
He stared at her for a moment before breaking into laughter. Regaining himself, he assumed a haughty posture. "Cousin Anne, of course. She is a girl. An unpleasant sort of girl who likes to hide cakes in her pockets and dress my cat in her ugly doll's clothes."
"You are but nine years old, master Fitzwilliam. You will not be marrying anyone for many years."
He nodded. "Many, many years, I hope. I must talk to my father. Aunt Catherine says she and my mother have decided it, but Papa does not care for my aunt, and thinks my cousin to be awkward company. He would not like such a marriage."
Her eyes rested on the solemn boy. "He would not. He cares for you and for Pemberley."
He stood a little straighter, and she returned to her ledger.
"Mrs Reynolds?" Fitzwilliam raised his arm, wrapped tightly in canvas and snug in a sling. "I thank you for your kindness and attention. The doctor was very skilled, was he not?"
"Mr Brown cares deeply for his patients, most especially those who are strong enough and brave enough to rescue a lamb from a steep slope."
"Silly thing was frightened. And it was on my property and I am in charge of Pemberley while my father is away."
The boy stepped back and examined the papers spread on Mrs Reynold's small desk. "I should be going. I should speak with my father's steward..."
"... and finish my lessons."
"Yes dear," the woman said.
He looked at her sharply.
She smiled. "You are a dear, Master Fitzwilliam. You are a good and brave young man."
He returned her smile shyly.
"Your mother would like to know you practised your music as well."
The boy's shoulders sagged briefly, but then he straightened. "Yes ma'am. But when I finish, I will build hiding places for my cat and dog. Anne is not too clever at finding things."
"My poor sweet husband. You should count yourself fortunate for having had Anne to help you hone your talent for disappearing into walls and hiding your feelings. God rest her soul."
Darcy stared out the window, deep in thought. "She lacked imagination and never found my hiding places, but the dogs did seek her out. Their dignity suffered greatly for it, being stuffed and squeezed into bonnets and skirts, but she rewarded them with whatever table scraps she had secreted in her pocket."
Elizabeth groaned. "Rather like your youngest son."
"Our youngest son, dear wife. From the tales your father and sisters have shared, I believe that particular trait was handed down by you." His voice was lighter, pleased to find some cheerful thoughts on a dreary day. There had been so many unhappy days during those long, quiet years at Pemberley.
He heard footsteps approaching and quickly wiped his face on his sleeve. He turned his face toward the window and leaned into the heavy curtains.
"Master Fitzwilliam? Your family is gathering in the drawing room. Your aunt and uncle are departing soon."
He nodded. "My cousins too." He cleared his throat, choked with tears.
"It will be so quiet, I think. As before."
Suddenly he sighed and his eyes filled again. He pushed his face into the curtains.
Mrs Reynolds stepped forward and placed a hand gently on his shoulder.
"Master Fitzwilliam, have I ever told you of when I first met your mother? Of the kindness she showed a rather silly girl?"
He sniffed and turned his head toward her. "You were never a silly girl, Mrs Reynolds."
"Oh but I was, Master. After Mr Reynolds died of the fever, I was alone and without family in Lambton. My neighbours told me to seek employment here at Pemberley, but I was frightened."
"Of Pemberley?" he stared at her, shocked.
She tilted her head, a rueful smile on her pale face. "Oh yes. It was such a great, enormous house. The pride of Derbyshire, as you know."
The boy nodded, his grief forgotten, for now.
"I was driven to Pemberley by Mr Jones. I knew the family to be at home. The mistress had been seen in Lambton just a day earlier, buying toy soldiers for her little boy."
The boy's face lit up. "They are in my chambers," he said quietly. "Still."
"And the tanner had polished a new saddle for the young master."
Fitzwilliam smiled. "For Gulliver, when he was just a pony."
"So I knew the Darcys to be kind masters, and loving parents. Yet I was fearful."
He nodded solemnly. "A silly girl?"
"Very." Mrs Reynolds dared to brush a thread off the boy's coat and straighten his cravat.
"As I walked to the servant's entrance, two dogs ran up and frightened me. Your mother appeared quickly from the gardens and called to them. After determining I was unharmed, she greeted me and asked me my business. I managed to answer her without too much stuttering."
"I was quite in awe. Your mother was so beautiful, and there she was! In front of me. She consoled me on Mr Reynolds's passing and assured me there was a place for me at Pemberley."
"She was kind," he said wistfully, "even to strange and silly ladies."
"Strange and silly ladies, wearing muddy boots and badly tied bonnets." She looked off in the distance, lost in thought. "I broke a vase my second month here. My sleeve brushed it, and it fell to the floor and shattered. Water, flowers and glass were everywhere."
"Were you in trouble?"
Mrs Reynolds smiled. "Your mother laughed and thanked me for ridding her of what she called `the ugliest piece of pottery my sister could gift to me.'"
The boy laughed softly. "Oh Mama."
"As I said, your mother was kind. I was fortunate as well that the old housekeeper had known my father and mother, and she took me under her wing."
"Mrs Pipken? I remember her. She was jolly."
"She was, indeed. She passed not half a year after I came to Pemberley, but it is because of her encouragement and your mother's kindness that I became its housekeeper."
The boy shook his head and, for the first time, truly looked at the woman over whom he nearly towered. "I am glad you are here, Mrs Reynolds. I hope you will not leave us."
She gave him a pleased, indulgent smile. "I hope to never leave Pemberley, or the service of the Darcy family, sir."
A shout was heard down the long corridor.
"I must go see to my family. Thank you, Mrs Reynolds."
When she spoke, Elizabeth's voice was a little unsteady. Her eyes glistened, and her grip on Darcy's hand tightened, holding fast and giving him the strength that memory had sapped.
"What a lovely thing for her to do. You were surrounded by grieving relatives, all mired in their own sadness or schemes, and she made sure you knew of your mother's love."
Darcy's head remained bowed. He took a deep breath and sighed. "She did. Richard's mother did as well, but she was grieving, and doing what she could to fend off Aunt Catherine's machinations."
Elizabeth's hand touched his cheek and turned him to face her. "We have families to whom we are born, or that we marry into, and we make others with those we can trust. Mrs. Reynolds loved you."
"Fitzwilliam! Come to my study!"
The boy grimaced. His father so rarely showed his anger, and he never revealed it in such a public manner. To bellow at his son, to allow the household to know he had earned his father's disapprobation, was unthinkable. It was awful. He had done nothing, nothing but see the damage that horrible boy had wreaked again. One day it was a vase, the next an angry farmer whose sheep had been frightened by his furious galloping across the fields. What had happened now? What had George done now? Why was his name the one being bellowed in the halls of Pemberley?
Sighing heavily, Fitzwilliam set aside the book he had been reading and lifted himself from his chair.
Suddenly a flash went by the half-opened library door. He moved quickly to it and pulled the door open. Mrs Reynolds was rushing down the corridor toward his father's study. He watched her stop, knock and enter. The door closed.
Fitzwilliam walked slowly down the corridor. Was he to be in there with them? Had Mrs Reynolds found another emergency to be dealt with?
He heard a noise behind him. George stood there, watching him, watching the door.
"Is my father calling me because of some new misdeed of yours, George?"
"Only you would call kissing the scullery maid a misdeed, Darcy. You are close to seventeen years. Have you even tupped a girl, let alone kissed one?"
Fitzwilliam's eyes grew round. "How dare you! What have you done?"
George laughed. "I occupy myself doing those things that make a man while you busy yourself reading the dusty stories of poets. Truly, Darcy. You know everything useless and nothing useful."
"And yet I am the useful one here," Fitzwilliam growled, his eyes flashing. "On my family's estate, to the people who work for my family."
George glowered. "And you wonder why I leave my mark on the girls who earn nothing but a coin and a cold bed from the Darcys."
Fitzwilliam hurled himself at the older, heavier boy. A chair was knocked to the ground as they wrestled.
"Wickham, take your hands off the master's son."
The boys stilled at the sound of the familiar voice. They ceased their movement and rolled away from each other. Fitzwilliam quickly stood, and met the eyes of a stern Mrs Reynolds.
"George, straighten your cravat and make haste. Mr Darcy would like to see you in his study. Immediately."
The young man stood, his face drained of colour. "Why is that, Mrs Reynolds?"
The housekeeper, her eyes cold, stared at Wickham. "I believe it has to do with Sally."
George shuddered. "I did nothing...."
"And you did nothing to the green vase in the blue sitting room? And had no hand in removing the rocks from Mr Sterling's dam?"
"Go. Now. You have been summoned."
He turned away and slowly made his way down the corridor.
Fitzwilliam shook his head. "Does my father still wish to see me?"
Mrs Reynolds gave him a sad smile. "I hope you will not be angered by my interference. Although we ask the staff not to gossip, Mr Wickham's activities do not go unnoticed nor unremarked upon. Sally was overgenerous in sharing news of her kisses from Wickham."
"Oh." He had thought her a prettier than average housemaid. Not that he noticed such things, but she did have pretty eyes.
"Your father has been informed of that incident."
"Thank you, Mrs Reynolds."
"It was my duty, sir."
"My father will forgive him. George makes him laugh, so he likes him."
His grave words were acknowledged with a small nod.
They fell into step together. "Why does George do it, behave so badly, without care for the consequence?"
Mrs Reynolds tucked a stray grey hair into her bonnet and replied in a voice tinged with irritation. "Small victories. I believe he needs to feel himself your superior, sir. He takes delight in breaking things and creating problems for others."
Darcy nodded his agreement. "I wish he would just go away, forever. I would not miss him."
He was hoarse, the light was dim, and he had come to the end of his childhood tales. Darcy looked down at the small hand that held his own, and gently stroked his thumb over the ring that had bound them together in the eyes of God.
"When I was two and twenty, Mrs Reynolds came to say her goodbyes to my father. She told me I would be a fine master, and that my father had believed it as well, and stated it often to her."
Elizabeth squeezed his hand and raised it to her lips. "He saw your worth. She was kind to tell you so at such a time."
Darcy nodded and raised his eyes to his wife's face. "She was helpful during those first months, especially mindful of Georgiana's need for companionship. As she had with me, she would take my sister to the kitchens to play with Cook's things, and have the gardeners show her the spring blooms."
"She loved children but never had her own," Elizabeth mused. "How fortunate she was so easy for our children to admire."
The pair fell silent for a moment, thoughts of their children brightening the shadows around them.
Darcy took a deep breath. "When I was eight and twenty, Mrs Reynolds provided me my most treasured conversation." He kissed Elizabeth's fingers and looked at her, smiling. "She told me how well I had chosen a new mistress for Pemberley, that she was certain my parents would be pleased with you."
His wife blushed, both at his words and at his unveiled admiration. Darcy leaned closer and whispered in her ear.
"Mrs. Reynolds was always kind. She was always here. And she was always right."The End