The story of how Mrs Gardiner went from indebted schoolgirl to matron aunt.
Mrs Gardiner looked around her. Everything was so different, but it all still felt so familiar. There was the village green, with its enormous oak tree. And the main street with all its shops. True, many of the shops she had known had closed, or changed owners, but it felt exactly the same. The same as it had been when she was a schoolgirl.
This was the first time Mrs Mary Gardiner was visiting her childhood home since before her marriage ten years previously. She had married, fully expecting to be able to visit her mother often. But her brother had married in London, and then she spent the next seven years either pregnant or nursing little ones. During that time, her mother had passed away. Mrs Gardiner had been wanting to visit Lambton for quite some time, but only now that her youngest was three was she willing to leave her children. So Mr and Mrs Gardiner and their niece Elizabeth Bennet were in Lambton.
They had just arrived the day before, and Mrs Gardiner was eager to see whom of her school friends were still living in Lambton. She knew of a few whom had married businessmen like her, and were living in London. But many of her friends had married local boys, and she was eager to see them again.
So it was with this intention that they set off down High Street, heading for the teashop.
Mrs Gardiner was very impressed. The teashop she remembered had been decorated in dark, dull shades. Only the old ladies had visited it with any kind of regularity. The young women her preferred to visit each other's homes, or to sit on the benches on the green and watch the birds, or the babies, but usually the boys.
Now the shop was bright and cheerful, with many tables along the large windows. It was at one such table that they sat. They ordered tea and pastries, and sat back to watch the goings-on outside the window.
Before their tea had arrived, a woman with three children clinging to her skirts, one on her hip, and another on the hip of a harassed-looking maid, rushed up to them.
'Mrs Gardiner, I believe it is!'
'Mrs Smith?' Mrs Gardiner looked at the woman before her, wondering if this could possibly be her school friend.
'Yes, yes it is. So wonderful to see you. I must rush, but will you come to dinner tonight? You do know where it is?'
Once the invitation had been accepted, and assurances had been given that they would arrive at the correct home, Mrs Smith bustled out in the same manner she had come in.
This required some explanation. 'Mrs Smith was a friend of mine at school. I believe she married Thomas Smith, a young man from the neighbourhood. She lived just down the lane from me, and we would walk to school together every day.' Seeing the puzzled look on Elizabeth's face, she elaborated. 'Lady Anne Darcy of Pemberly established a school for girls. When she married Mr Darcy senior, she was shocked at the lack of education in the upper class girls of the area. She was determined to raise the intellectual level of us girls. In fact, she hired two governesses for the ten girls of the area, and we had one of them staying in our home. Lady Anne used to provide us with books and other material. When she died shortly after giving birth to her daughter, we were all devastated. I took over the school for a little while before I was married.'
This was entirely new information to Elizabeth. She had assumed Mr Darcy's parents were as proud as he was. Perhaps he wasn't so bad, a bit charitable, with a mother like that. She was very interested in the school, and wished there were one like it in Meryton. She decided that, if she were luck enough to marry a wealthy man, she would start a similar initiative in her area. Little did she know that there would be no need for her to start one...
The Gardiners and Elizabeth arrived punctually for dinner. Surprisingly enough, Mrs Smith was also ready. The children had eaten, and the eldest two were being given a chance to socialise a little, before also being sent up to bed. The second daughter, Sarah, was intrigued by Elizabeth, and before long they were in their own world. The men were similarly occupied with the oldest, John, leaving the two old friends to chat.
'Where are you staying?' inquired Mrs Smith.
'At the Lambton Inn. It is much improved since I saw it last.'
'Yes, and they are planning further renovations for the winter. But come; ask me about the town, and the people. You must want to know more interesting things than about the Inn.'
'What has happened to our school?'
'Well,' began Mrs Smith, ready to report the events of the last decade, 'After you left Miss Raden took over. The elder Mr Darcy financed and supervised it, but since her passed away, his son has been looking after it. Sarah is almost ten, so before long she will also be going to school. Have you been to see Pemberly? You should go as soon as you can.'
'Why? Does the younger Mr Darcy disprove of visitors?'
'Not at all. Only, he has been away for such a long time, and he is returning the day after tomorrow, I think. We do not want to invade his house when he is just returned, because he will not turn people out. But I do think he deserves a little privacy. I don't know why, but I think there has been a little trouble with his sister, and he is bringing her home for the summer.'
'Well then, we will go visit tomorrow. I must just tell my niece. I'm sure she will be very eager to see the beautiful grounds of Pemberly.'
And with that, the conversation turned to mutual acquaintances.
They did indeed go to Pemberly the next day, in spite of a little initial resistance from Elizabeth. But as soon as she saw Pemberly from the carriage window, she was won over. She found the house beautiful and in good taste, and the reports of the servants as to their master's temperament more satisfactory than she could have hoped for. She was very eager, as her aunt had expected, to see the grounds, and we all know what she found there...
Lambton, the following winter.
The Gardiners were in Lambton again, this time with their children. They had come with the Bingleys to spend the holidays with the Darcys. Mrs Gardiner was eager to show her fine children to her friend Mrs Smith. With that intention, they had taken the first dry day since their arrival to visit town.
The gentlemen had gone for a tour of the grounds, but Mrs Gardiner, Mrs Bingley and Mrs Darcy were taking the children on an outing. Jane ad Elizabeth were standing with the children outside the toyshop, and Mrs Gardiner was looking around, hoping to see her friend.
She was surprised at the cry from behind her, 'Mrs Gardiner!'
'Mrs Smith. I have been looking for you. How are you?'
'I am very well, thank you. I had not expected to see you back in Lambton so soon. But where are you staying? The Inn is closed for renovations, and there is nowhere else like it!'
Just then the young Gardiners came running up to their mother to petition for a new toy. As they saw she was not alone, they immediately stopped shouting and started walking. Mrs Smith was impressed. Mrs Gardiner introduced her children, and her nieces approached.
'I don't believe you know my niece. Mrs Smith, this is Mrs Bingley.'
'Pleasure to meet you' and 'How do you do' were exchanged.
'And I believe you know my other niece?
'Miss Bennet, a pleasure to see you again.'
Needless to say, the poor woman was very surprised at the children's giggles. 'Hush, that's rude. I didn't answer your question as to where we are staying. We are staying at Pemberly, with my newly married niece Mrs Darcy.'
The children were becoming restless, so the Pemberly party excused themselves, but not before Mrs Darcy invited an abashed Mrs Smith to tea.
Tea was very lively, with a collection of Gardiner and Smith children in attendance. Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley joined the ladies, since it was too much to ask that they be separated from their brides from breakfast till dinner. Looking at the Master and Mistress of the estate, Mrs Smith commented,
'They do made a wonderful couple. I knew that the new Mrs Darcy was going to take over the school in the new year, but I had no idea that it was the sweet young women I met with you. I suppose they met when you came to visit Pemberly in the summer?'
An abridged version of The Famous Tale of Lizzy and Darcy followed.
'I wonder when there will be small Darcy's again. I hope there are more that in the last generation, although if they are even half as good as their parents, they will indeed be exceptional children. Well, when you went to school under the Darcy patronage, did you think you would ever have more that distant contact with Mr Darcy? My, how things change. The last time I asked you where you were staying, I got the expected answer of 'The Lambton Inn.' But this time I asked the same question, you said Pemberly. Who ever thought that one of Lady Anne's schoolgirls would become a mother-like figure to her son?'
And that is how Mrs Gardiner went from being an ordinary Pemberly school girl living in Silverton Lane, to being an ordinary Pemberly visitor staying at the Lambton Inn, to being the ordinary Pemberly Aunt, staying at Pemberly.