Posted on Saturday, 3 July 2004, at 6:37 p.m.
"Sarah, come in please, and close the door."
I was nervous as I walked into the master's library. He so rarely had any conversation with the maids, preferring to leave our instructions up to the mistress and the young misses.
"Yes, sir," I said, bobbing at him quickly.
"Come, child," he said with a kind smile. "I'll not bite, you know."
"Yes, sir," I said again, remembering then that he occasionally used to sneak me sweets when I was girl and my mother wasn't looking.
"So, Sarah, we've much afoot these days, have we not?"
"Yes, sir." I smiled then, letting him see that I was pleased for both the young misses who were soon to wed. We servants had been arguing amongst ourselves for days as to which of their young men was the handsomest. "The mistress is letting me accompany her to Town for the shopping, sir." I had never been to London and was near overcome with excitement at the thought of the trip.
He wagged a finger at me teasingly. "I warn you my girl, there's to be no talk of lace and ribbons in this room. I shan't permit the first word of it, do you understand?"
I giggled. I couldn't help it. "No sir. Not a word."
"Good girl." He smiled again. "So you're pleased to go to Town, then. Shall you not miss your mother?"
"Of course, sir, but it's only for a week."
"Yes. A week." He looked thoughtful.
"Have I done something wrong, sir?"
"Oh, goodness no, child. It's just that I've a choice I must lay in your hands. Another sort of master might just tell you how the thing's to be done, but I'm not that sort of master. Never have been, you know."
My face must have shown how very confused I was.
"But never mind all that," he went on. "The situation is this: It is customary, as you know, to send a maidservant off with the new bride, but I have four daughters at home and only yourself to attend them. Since two of those daughters are leaving, it stands to reason that in future, some of them shall have to do without you. I will tell you, Sarah, that my first choice would be to send you with my Lizzy. I'm sure her husband has servants enough, but she is going the farthest from home and it would please me to think of her taking a bit of Longbourn with her. And you and Lizzy have always gotten on, have you not?"
"Oh, yes sir," I said, though my head was spinning. "Miss Elizabeth has always been very good to me. Of course, so has Miss Jane." I didn't mention the younger girls, who were good enough girls but could be somewhat trying.
"Yes, Miss Jane. As eldest daughter, I recognize that the honour should be hers. And she will be at Netherfield, which would mean that you would remain near your family. If you were to accompany Miss Elizabeth, you would see your family but rarely. I find I cannot demand that separation of you if you're not willing, so the choice shall be yours, Sarah. If you would like to remain here at Longbourn, you may do so. If you would like to accompany one of the new brides, you may have your choice of them, knowing as you do what each choice would entail. I give you leave to think about it for a day or so and then return to me with your decision."
"Yes, sir," I said, my head reeling. I curtseyed quickly and left his library. I doubt he even saw me; he had already turned back to his book.
"Sarah!" the mistress cried, upon seeing me in the hallway. "Whatever are you doing down here? Jane's hair wants doing, and Lizzy's dress needs pressing. I'm sure the young gentlemen will be here soon, and it will not do to keep them waiting. Get on about your business, child!"
"Yes, madam," I said, hurrying to the stairs. I was used to Mrs Bennet and knew the young misses well enough to know that they wouldn't be upset with me. Sure enough, Miss Jane had nearly finished arranging her own hair, and I only needed to add a few small curls. Miss Elizabeth was still in her nightdress, 'tis true, but she seemed content with the book she was reading and not at all disturbed by the wait.
"Good morning, Sarah," she said, smiling at me as I came in and putting her book to one side. "Mama has been looking everywhere for you. Can I assume that the Lucas's gardener paid us an early morning visit?"
I blushed; Miss Elizabeth had noticed me watching Jacob one day and had teased me about him ever since, even though I'm sure Jacob has never looked twice at me. I'm not the sort of girl that handsome young men spend much time looking at. "No, Miss. The master wished to speak to me."
"Papa! Whatever could he want?"
I looked at the floor. "He wanted to speak with me about going with either you or Miss Jane when you are married."
"Really!" she exclaimed. "I hadn't even considered it. I didn't think he'd be willing to part with you - and I know your mother won't be best pleased at the thought. You know it's she who really manages us all, of course."
I couldn't help smiling. There was some truth in that, to be sure.
"Well," she demanded. "What was decided?"
"Nothing, Miss. He said it was to be my decision."
"Well, that sounds like Papa." She looked thoughtful for a moment and then spoke slowly, "Pemberley is quite in the North, you know. I suppose you wouldn't care to be so far from home."
"Yes," I said, but something in her voice made me ask, hesitantly, "but should you wish me to go with you, Miss Elizabeth?"
"Oh, Sarah!" she said. "I should wish it above all things. But truly, I would understand if you wanted to be at Netherfield with Jane. Not only would you be near home, but you'd have the dearest mistress in the world."
This was true, of course. Miss Jane was the sweetest of all the sisters and the most unfailingly kind. And yet, Miss Elizabeth had never been unkind to me, and I liked her teasing ways. I believed that I could be happy with either of them.
I thought for a moment of their gentlemen. Mr Darcy frightened me a bit, to own the truth, but I thought him quite the most handsome man I'd ever seen, and he was richer than Mr Bingley, which counts for something among servants. I'd always wondered what it would be like to serve in one of the grand houses, but had thought I'd never get the chance to find out. And though I'd miss my mother, I was curious to see what the world was like beyond Meryton.
"Do you think..." I began, and then I lost my nerve.
Miss Elizabeth would have none of it. "Go on," she commanded.
"I'm just afraid I mightn't be...grand enough for the likes of Pemberley."
Miss Elizabeth smiled. "I fear the same thing, Sarah, I assure you. We're grand enough for one another, however, and I confess I would find some comfort in that. I might be terrorized by all the rest of my servants, but at least with my own maid I could be at ease."
"You could never be terrorized by anyone, Miss," I said stoutly. "And you're grand enough for any house in England."
She shook her head - a little sadly, I thought. "I fear your loyalty, though endearing, makes you blind to my limitations, Sarah. I'm not at all confident that I'll make Pemberley a good mistress, but I'm determined to do my best, for Mr Darcy's sake. He seems to feel I can do it."
"Of course you can, Miss."
"So what do you think, Sarah? It will be an adventure."
An adventure. I'd never had anything like an adventure, and I knew suddenly that if I remained at Longbourn, or even moved to Netherfield with Miss Jane, that I never should. This might be my one chance to see something outside my own neighborhood.
"I think...I should like to see Pemberley," I told her, and in spite of my nervousness at making such a momentous decision, I smiled to see the look of delight that spread over her face. And if that weren't enough, she jumped up and hugged me and then took both my hands and danced us around the room. Miss Elizabeth might soon be the mistress of Pemberley, but she could also still be as silly as a girl. We both laughed out loud, and the noise we made brought Miss Jane and the mistress to our door.
"Goodness gracious!" the mistress exclaimed. "Lizzy, whatever is the matter with you? Why are you still in your nightdress and dancing about with Sarah when Mr Darcy shall be here at any moment? If he could see you now he would take his fastest horse back to Derbyshire and you would die an old maid. And it would serve you right, too, for what man wants a foolish wife?"
"What man indeed, Mama," Miss Elizabeth said, sounding very serious. I think Miss Jane tried to look reproachful, but she wound up giggling instead.
"Jane dearest," Miss Elizabeth said, going to her sister. "I have a confession to make. Papa spoke to Sarah this morning and gave her the choice of going with one or the other of us when we were married, and instead of keeping my own counsel and letting her make her decision on her own, I've been teasing her and tempting her to go with me. I admit that I would very much like to have Sarah with me as I go so far from home, and she has agreed. It was wrong of me, however, not to include you in the discussion. Can you forgive me?"
"Oh, Lizzy! Of course Sarah should go with you if she's willing. I will be remaining in my own neighborhood and, aside from being parted from you, shall have every happiness within reach. I could never begrudge you Sarah's help and companionship." Miss Jane turned to me. "Sarah, you know, I hope, that nothing could make me happier than to have you in my household, but since you cannot be in two places at once, I am delighted that you will go with my sister. Take good care of her for us, please."
"Yes, Miss Jane." I was touched, I admit, at having the two women in the family I most admired express such kindness toward me, but I knew that they were the easy ones. There were two others who would be much less pleased, and one of them didn't hesitate to express her views immediately.
"Well!" the mistress exclaimed. "So Mr Bennet has spent the morning giving our servants away, has he? I suppose the thing is done now, but I shall have something to say to him about it, I assure you. Whatever is Hill to say? And what are we to do for a maid? 'Tis all well and good for you, Lizzy, but it's not as if Mr Darcy couldn't hire you any maid in England. We shall be stuck with some girl from the village who doesn't know two pence about being a lady's maid. And after having trained Sarah ourselves from a girl, and you know I'm so particular... But never you mind, Lizzy; you always were one to get your own way about everything without the least compassion for my nerves, and I suppose this shall be no different. Though I should think that you'd care more for Hill's feelings than to take her girl so far away. But you'll hear no more from me on the matter."
We all knew that whenever Mrs Bennet promised to say no more about something that a great deal more was likely to be said, but there was no help for it. I had made my decision, and now it was left for me to face both the mistress and my own mother.
When the mistress had gone away, I saw Miss Jane and Miss Elizabeth exchange a look and a sigh.
"You'd best get dressed, Lizzy," was all Miss Jane said. "The gentlemen will no doubt be here soon."
"No doubt," Miss Elizabeth repeated. "Sarah, I can see to my own hair this morning. If you'll just press my dress, I give you leave to go speak to your mother about our arrangement, particularly since Mama is not likely to keep quiet about it. I'd like to introduce you to Mr Darcy when he comes today, and if he approves, we'll consider the thing quite settled."
"As if Mr Darcy would deny you anything you want," Miss Jane teased, as I took up Miss Elizabeth's frock and set out her clean petticoats.
Miss Elizabeth laughed. "You're right, Jane. If he had his way I'd be the most spoiled young woman in all of England. However, I shall begin as I mean to go on and will consult with him on this."
"I'm sure you're quite right to do so, Lizzy. The more I see of you and Mr Darcy the more I think you are suited in every particular."
"Thank you, dear Jane. The rest of our relations seem either outraged or baffled by the match, so it is comforting to know that you and Bingley and one or two others actually think well of us together."
"Oh, Lizzy! Our entire family is delighted. Surely Mama has not left you in doubt on that score."
"No. She's certainly delighted, but I'm sure she just thinks I've caught myself a rich husband. She neither knows nor cares how I actually feel about the man I'm marrying."
"She would not wish you unhappy, Lizzy."
"Well, perhaps not. It matters not, anyway, since there's not the least chance of my being so. Thank you, Sarah," she said to me as I helped her into her chemise and petticoats. She turned back to her sister and laughed. "You know perfectly well that Mama is all astonishment that a man like Mr Darcy would even have me."
Miss Jane smiled. "And I think the good fortune is mostly on his side. Oh, Lizzy, I shall miss you!"
"And I you," Miss Elizabeth answered. The sisters embraced one another, and I took up Miss Elizabeth's gown to press it, thinking of all that changes that were to come.
My mother reacted to my news first with tears and then with admonishments and finally with a confusing combination of both. I was her very dearest girl and would be all but lost to her at Pemberley. I was to write regularly. I was to take more care with my own appearance and not fall into slothful ways. I was to be faithful to Miss Elizabeth in every particular. I was never to forget that I was my mother's daughter.
I hid above stairs most of the morning, but several times I heard my mother and the mistress crying onto one another's shoulders about how their girls would soon be gone, and no one left to care for them in their old age. I believe the mistress was actually pleased to have a fellow sufferer, and I know my mother was glad to have some part in all the excitement. I determined never to become anything like my mother and to make haste to seek a new situation if Miss Elizabeth ever became like hers.
It was just after dinner that Miss Elizabeth sought me out for my introduction to Mr Darcy. I had only ever seen him from the upstairs window, from whence he had seemed quite dashing, but up close he was all that was imposing. He was tall, dark, and unsmiling, even stern, and I found myself drawing back from him and glancing away as he looked me over. I've always been small and plain, but I don't think I've ever felt smaller or plainer than I did at that moment.
"This is Sarah Hill," Miss Elizabeth said. "Sarah, this is Mr Darcy."
I couldn't bring myself to speak to such a man, but I curtseyed to him politely.
"Hello, Sarah," he said. "I understand you're to be going with us."
"Well, at least you don't make much noise," he said dryly. He looked at Miss Elizabeth. "You're determined to have her, then."
"I do wish it, Mr Darcy."
"Then it's done." He turned away from me, dismissing me without another word, and I scurried away from them in an agony of failure. It was clear that he thought me not at all good enough to wait on his wife, and he was willing to tolerate me only to indulge Miss Elizabeth's whim.
I determined to tell Miss Elizabeth that I'd changed my mind, that I was frightened to travel so far from home, but as I helped her prepare for bed, the truth tumbled out and I confessed to her that I did not think Mr Darcy had liked me, didn't think he wanted me amongst his servants.
Miss Elizabeth smiled and took my hand. "I consulted with Mr Darcy out of respect for him, but I do not truly think my maid is any of his concern. You have only to please me, Sarah, and you already do that. We shall find our own way in Mr Darcy's world, and we will probably both make mistakes along the way. We'll help one another, Sarah - I promise."
"Yes, Miss Elizabeth."
"He frightened you a little, didn't he?" she asked kindly.
"A little," I admitted. "He's so..." I wasn't sure how to finish without offending her, but she seemed to know what I meant.
"Yes he is," she laughed. "But beneath that rather forbidding exterior, he is the best of men. He could never be unkind to someone I cared about. You'll be used to his way soon enough and will laugh to think you ever found him fearsome."
Privately, I doubted it, but I would not go back on my word to Miss Elizabeth. If I had to return to Longbourn in failure, I knew at least that there were those there who would be willing to take me in.
My resolve was sorely tested when, on our trip to London, I saw Mr Darcy again. Mrs Jenkins, the housekeeper at Mr Darcy's townhouse, had given me a tour of the rooms that would belong to Miss Elizabeth, and despite all Miss Elizabeth's encouragement, I felt wholly unsuited to my surroundings. It would take me a week to tell my mother all that I'd seen - and this was just the house in Town! The mistress of such a house should have a proper French maid, not a plain country girl like myself, and while Mrs Jenkins was too kind to say it, I could tell she thought so too. I would probably be sent back to Longbourn before the first week was out.
It was while I was thus planning my failure that Mrs Jenkins mentioned that the master wanted to see me before I left. I nodded and followed her, gripping my hands tight in front of me so that he wouldn't see them shaking. She led me to his study, knocked, and then propelled me into the room when he called absently for us to come in.
"Yes, Mrs Jenkins?" He didn't look up from the letter he was writing.
"You wished to see Miss Bennet's maid, sir?"
"Oh...yes. Thank you." He looked up then and waited as she left. I kept my eyes on the tips of my boots, sure that he could hear my heart pounding from across the room.
"It's, er...Sarah, isn't it?"
"Yes, sir." I murmured.
"Speak up, please." His voice was neither angry nor irritable. He sounded more bored with me than anything, but still his words struck fear into my heart. I'd been found wanting already, just as I knew I would be.
"Yes, sir." I repeated, forcing myself to be slightly louder. "Sarah Hill."
"Well, Sarah Hill, there are things we should understand about each other. Without meaning to cast aspersions on Longbourn or any of its inhabitants, I am quite certain that their ways are not mine. You undertake to wait on the future Mrs Darcy, and I wish to make it clear to you what that entails. I care nothing for how you manage the details of your position - those are between you and Miss Bennet, and if she is satisfied, then so shall I be. How you trim her bonnets or press her gowns will never be of the slightest interest to me. But if you are to be allowed a regular presence within the sanctity of my wife's rooms, I shall demand your absolute confidence. No item of our personal dealings with one another should ever be heard to make its way below stairs. Not one syllable of our conversation shall ever pass your lips, no matter how unimportant it might seem. I will require of you the same discretion I require of my valet, for I refuse to be constantly on my guard within the personal rooms of my home. Failure to respect our privacy will result in your immediate discharge from our service. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, sir," I managed, though truly I thought I might faint dead away on his fine carpet. I was certain that there had never been a more terrifying man than Mr Darcy, and I couldn't imagine how Miss Elizabeth could ever be happy with him.
"Have you any questions for me?"
"Very well then. Off with you." His look softened for a moment into something a little less forbidding. "Mrs Jenkins should have some tea for you in the kitchens."
She married him on a cold day in early November, and it was barely dawn when I kissed my mother and bid farewell to the inhabitants of Longbourn before being sent ahead with her things to the house in Town. I spent her wedding day alone in her new rooms, unpacking her trunks and caressing the fine fabrics of the many items of her trousseau. Her parents had been generous, and her new gowns would not disgrace either of us. I felt, as I moved around her rooms, a new sense of resolve. People might at first wonder at her keeping a country maid from Hertfordshire, but they would soon see that my mistress - for such Miss Elizabeth now was - lacked for nothing it was in my power to provide. She would always appear to her very best advantage. I would see to it.
She arrived to a late supper and I heard the commotion but did not go down to meet her. I moved nervously about her rooms, making sure that each and every item was perfect, and when I thought the time for her to come upstairs drew near, I had her tub filled with steaming water.
She was beaming when she came through the door, and she hugged me when she saw me waiting for her.
"I knew it!" she exclaimed. "I knew just how it would be. I'm so pleased to see a familiar face right now, Sarah. I shall never remember the names of all these servants. Promise me that you'll help me."
"Of course, Miss Elizabeth..." I smiled at my mistake, one that I would continue to make for years. "I mean Mrs Darcy."
"Mrs Darcy!" she exclaimed. "Can you believe it? I'm actually Mrs Darcy! And Jane is Mrs Bingley - and oh, Sarah! - she was quite the most beautiful bride that ever was. I do wish you could have seen her."
"I'm certain she was not the only beautiful bride," I teased, turning her in my hands so that I could unfasten her gown.
"Oh, I'll never be anything to Jane, but my husband seemed to like me well enough." She laughed as she stepped out of her gown. "I hope, by the way, that the fact that you're undressing me means that a bath is drawn. Travel always leaves one feeling so grimy. I wasn't the least bit hungry, but I do long for a bath."
"Yes, madam. The bath water should be perfect now."
The bath was perfect, but she did not seem inclined to linger, nor did she want me to wash her hair. "He said he'd come in an hour," she confided shyly as I wrapped her in a warm towel. "I must be ready when he does."
She smiled and hummed as she personally selected her night dress, and she could hardly sit still as I brushed her hair. I supposed she was nervous, but it was no kind of nervousness I'd ever seen. I didn't comment - just chased her head to and fro until I had it arranged to my satisfaction. "There," I said, when I was finished.
"How do I look?" she asked, turning away from the mirror to look at me. I was sure that no bride had ever looked more beautiful and said so, with all my heart. I might be nothing to look at myself, but no one could ever say that my mistress was anything but lovely. I was certain that even Miss Jane's beauty was not the equal of her sister's that night. Miss Elizabeth was dressed in gleaming white satin, and I had left her hair long, tying it back with a white ribbon and arranging it in dark clouds over her shoulders. Her cheeks were pink and her eyes were shining in the candlelight. I reached out to re-position a single curl and sighed at the picture she made.
"I'm...excited, Sarah," she said softly. "I suppose I should feel nervous, but I can't find it in me. He is...so dear to me, and I know he cannot be anything but gentle and kind." She reached out her hand to me. "Thank you for coming with me, Sarah. I should not feel half so brave if you weren't here."
"But you're not afraid of anything, Miss Elizabeth!" I said, really believing it.
She laughed. "I'm afraid of a great many things, but I'm not at all afraid of my husband, and for tonight at least, that is enough." She rose from her dressing table and her fingers went to the ribbons on her beautiful nightdress, fiddling with them a bit and threatening to disarrange my careful work. I itched to swat her hands. "You should probably leave me now, Sarah. Thank you for your help tonight. It would have been very uncomfortable with a stranger."
"Yes, Miss Elizabeth...I mean Mrs Darcy. Er...in the morning...should I wait until I'm called?"
"Oh...yes," she said, a light blush staining her cheeks. "I hadn't thought...but yes. How glad I am to have you to be sensible for me, Sarah. I'm afraid those kinds of details are quite beyond me at the moment."
I curtseyed to her and gave her what I hoped was an encouraging smile. I knew she wasn't afraid, but I was quite sure that if a man like my new master was coming to me for a similar business, I should die of fright. He was quite terrifying enough for me in his study; I couldn't bring myself to contemplate him in the bedchamber. I hurried away, lest he come in early and find me there, and I wasn't called back into my mistress's rooms until the sun was quite high the next morning.
She was still abed when I arrived, staring out the window as she twirled a curl around one finger.
"Good morning Mrs Darcy," I said softly, so as not to startle her.
"Good morning, Sarah," she said, smiling at me. "I'm quite the lady of leisure you see. Are you shocked to find me abed at this hour?"
"Of course not, madam." I saw that the nightdress she was wearing was a different one from the night before, and suddenly I couldn't quite meet her eyes.
"Oh, silly Sarah!" she exclaimed, drawing her knees up to her chest and hugging them as she gave me a knowing look. "Don't you dare act awkward with me! I'm the same girl I was yesterday. Just a bit happier is all. And I'm afraid I may be in danger of becoming tedious on the subject of my darling Mr Darcy. If I begin to try your nerves, you must come right out and say so. Only please don't take on like Mama does about her nerves. I don't think I could bear that."
I giggled. She was still the same Miss Elizabeth.
I was still frightened of Mr Darcy - what little I saw of him - but I soon understood why he had admonished me so fiercely on the subject of their privacy. The servants were, quite simply, wild for any scrap of information about the new mistress and his relations with her. I know not if I might have ever been inclined to ingratiate myself to the other servants by talking of my mistress's business. I hope not. But any possibility of such a thing had been done completely away by Mr Darcy's warning to me. The other servants learned quickly that I kept my own counsel, and if it made me few friends, it did eventually earn the grudging respect of many and the absolute faith of the master and mistress.
So no word passed my lips, but one day I overheard the housemaid assigned to their rooms giggling with one of the other maids about the fact that in the fortnight they'd been married, she'd never had to make the master's bed.
I shrank back from them, appalled on behalf of my mistress. It sickened me to hear that which I knew was so new and precious to her bandied about by an ignorant maid. I knew I should tell Mrs Darcy what I'd overheard, but I couldn't bear that she should be troubled by it. She was so completely happy in those first days of her marriage - and busy, too, with many callers to greet each day - and I didn't want to be the one who dampened that happiness, even if I was only the messenger.
I thought the matter over and decided that I would just begin making the mistress's bed before the housemaid ever entered the rooms in the morning. Anything that constituted care of Mrs Darcy fell within my area of responsibility, after all, and I'd often made beds at Longbourn.
My new plan would have worked, too, had not Mr Darcy come into his wife's chamber later that week and caught me at my self-assigned task.
"Sarah," he said sharply. "Come away from there."
"Yes, sir." I left the bed as it was and went to stand before my master. I looked at his cravat, unable to meet his fierce gaze.
"Why are you doing housemaid's work?"
"Come, girl. I know you're capable of understanding me. In fact, I imagine that you're rather cleverer than most servants. My wife thinks well of you, and she doesn't suffer fools if she can help it."
"No, sir," I agreed, and this time I managed to raise my eyes to his face.
"So?" he demanded.
"The housemaid, sir..."
"It came to me that she was speaking below stairs of...things..." I mustered my courage. "Of certain arrangements that were no one's business but yours and Mrs Darcy's. Er, concerning which beds she made each morning, sir."
He seemed neither shocked nor disturbed but looked at me thoughtfully for a moment. "So you decided to take the job upon yourself."
"I commend your loyalty, Sarah, but next time you should come to me - or to Mrs Darcy, if you prefer - and allow us to dismiss the maid rather than taking extra work on yourself."
"I didn't mind, sir."
"No, I daresay you didn't, but in future you will report the offense. Is that understood?"
"Yes, sir," I answered miserably, once again looking at the floor.
"Now, Sarah," he said gently, "Whom should you trust in your mistress's rooms?"
My eyes widened in amazement. Mr Darcy was asking my opinion!
"Mary, sir," I said, after a moment's thought. I didn't know the servants well yet, but Mary had struck me favorably. "She seems an uncommonly sweet girl and a hard worker."
"Mary." He frowned. "I'm not sure I know..."
"Mary Persons, sir. Mrs Darcy will know who she is." And of course she did. For all her talk of never remembering the servants names, Mrs Darcy had learned them quickly and always would know them better than the master did.
"Very well. I shall arrange for Mary Persons to begin cleaning these rooms tomorrow, and I shall count on you to keep an eye on her."
"Yes, sir," I said, feeling for the first time as though I might one day earn his approval.
After that day, I was a little less afraid of the master.
One afternoon a week or so later, Mrs Darcy surprised me by entering her dressing room in the middle of the day, whilst I was pressing one of her gowns. I noticed her pinched, drawn face immediately and knew from experience what it meant. She'd always taken it the worst of all the Bennet girls and spent at least one day of each month abed.
"Yes, Sarah," she said wearily, as I hurried over to her. "'Tis that time again. I must lie down before I fall. Could you bring me a cool flannel, please?"
"Of course, Miss Elizabeth," I said. "May I help with your boots first?" I knelt down without waiting for permission and began unlacing her fine new boots.
"Whatever would I do without you, Sarah?" she sighed.
"Do you wish to change into a nightdress?" I asked. "Your stays..."
"Are an added misery," she admitted. "But what if I'm needed? We've received so many callers..."
"You cannot greet callers like this," I said, suddenly feeling quite protective. "Allow me to send a message to Mrs. Jenkins saying that you are indisposed."
"Yes," she agreed. "Yes, you must. I cannot be seen like this, certainly. Very well. Let me be as comfortable as may be."
I was pleased that she was going to be sensible and hurried to unbutton her gown and unfasten her stays before she could change her mind and decide that her duties as Mrs Darcy were more important than her health. I soon had her abed with a cool flannel on her head, and after pausing long enough to put a stone in the coals to heat, I found a footman and sent him with a message that Mrs Darcy was indisposed and would keep to her bed for the rest of the day.
She was sleeping when he burst into her dressing room and found me quietly mending a tear in one of her petticoats.
"Mrs Darcy!" he exclaimed. "I heard she was taken ill."
"Yes, sir," I said. "Mrs Darcy keeps her bed."
"Dear God! What is the matter with her? I must have the doctor."
"I'm sure Mrs Darcy would not think a doctor necessary, sir."
"Not necessary! I know my wife - if she is sufficiently ill to take to her bed, then something is very wrong indeed. I must see her!"
"Sir..." I was in an agony. I couldn't imagine anything more embarrassing than trying to explain my mistress's condition to a man who still made me so dreadfully nervous, but at the same time, I didn't want her to have to explain it, nor did I want her disturbed.
"What?" he snapped, impatient with me.
"My mistress's condition is not...unusual for her. She usually keeps her bed for one day each month. I'm sure she'll be much improved tomorrow, sir."
"Oh." He ran a hand through his hair and then dropped into a chair. "You must think me a perfect fool."
"Should I...go see her?"
"She is sleeping now, sir. Would you like me to tell her you wish to see her when she awakens?"
"If she desires my presence, have me sent for immediately. If not..." He looked briefly out the window. "If not, tell her I understand and...blast! Tell her I love her and am anxious to see her as soon as may be." He looked at me then and his mouth quirked in a small smile. "There. Now do you think me a perfect fool?"
I smiled back at him. "Not at all, sir."
"You are wrong then, for when it comes to your mistress, I am quite foolish indeed. Take care of her, Sarah."
They went out but rarely in that first month of marriage, but just before we removed to Pemberley for Christmas, they attended their first ball together as man and wife. I was getting her ready for the evening when I suddenly caught sight of him standing in the doorway of her dressing room, watching us quietly. I gave a little squeak of surprise and then tried to hide it by clearing my throat. It was the first time I ever heard the master laugh.
"Dearest, I don't think Sarah appreciates my interrupting her efforts."
"Not at all, sir," I stammered. "You're not interrupting." But my hands shook slightly as I fastened the clasp of her necklace.
"Certainly you are," my mistress teased. "And tormenting poor Sarah besides. Be off with you, Will, so that I can make a proper entrance once my transformation is complete."
"What more could be done?" he asked, his eyes sweeping over her form. "You are a vision of loveliness already. If you were any more beautiful I shouldn't take you to the ball at all."
"And why not, sir?" she demanded.
"Because at the ball I will have to share you, and the more I look on you the less inclined I am to do that. I do not care for the idea of other men standing up with you, Elizabeth." He did not sound as if he was teasing anymore.
She turned to him and arched one dark brow. "Does that mean you find me tolerable enough to tempt you this evening, my love?"
He gave her a look that made my knees feel weak, and his voice, when he spoke, was as soft and rich as the fabric of her gown. "It is neither the time nor the place, my dear, to show you just how tempting I find you, but rest assured that I will do so at first opportunity." He bent down then and brushed her neck with his lips, and I was close enough to see her arms break out in gooseflesh at the light touch.
She reached out and touched his lips gently with two fingers. "I shall look forward to it, Fitzwilliam."
He leaned towards her again, and then caught himself and glanced at me, his mouth curved in a smile. "Elizabeth," he said softly. "I think we've shocked your maid."
"Indeed we have, sir. And if she leaves me because of it, I shall not forgive you quickly."
"Then I must beg her forgiveness and endeavor to behave like a gentleman." He nodded at me and then gestured in the direction of his wife. "I shall leave you to your masterpiece, Sarah."
"Yes, sir," I said, wondering if my blush would ever fade.
The master never did learn to love balls or dancing as my mistress did, but I soon knew that he enjoyed few things more than the sight of his wife in a ball gown. It was a rare ball that didn't find him in her dressing room beforehand, watching as I readied my mistress for the evening. Soon, he no longer startled me when he arrived or made me blush with his flirtation. It was nothing to do with me, after all. I tried to be invisible at those times, but I know he was aware of my presence because he never touched her beyond a single gentle kiss or caress, like the soft whisper of the wind in the trees at Pemberley before a mighty storm.
"Oooh, that man!" she exclaimed. "That insufferable, selfish, infuriating man!"
We had recently removed to Pemberley, and Mrs Darcy strode around her new, more luxurious rooms with such fierce energy that I feared for the fittings. "How could I do it, Sarah? How could I marry such a man? My wishes mean nothing to him! He is everything that is obstinate; there is no reasoning with him. Is he not the most headstrong creature that ever was?"
"Very nearly, madam."
She whirled on me, her face like a thundercloud. "Are you being impertinent, Sarah?"
In truth I was, but I wasn't foolish enough to admit it just then. "No, Mrs Darcy. Not at all."
"Good. Because truly, I couldn't abide that right now. It's painful enough knowing that I'm to spend the rest of my life with the most difficult man imaginable. Good regulation, indeed. He knows not the meaning of the words!"
Just then, the door to her rooms was opened with such violence that it slammed against the opposite wall. I jumped, and she whirled to face him, her eyes flashing fire. "You were not invited in, sir."
"Leave us, Sarah," he said, his voice dreadful to hear.
I made haste to obey and then paused at my mistress's next words.
"How dare you dismiss my maid? You assume too much, Mr Darcy."
"I am the master of this estate, and as long as I remain so, every creature within its borders is mine to command. Do you take my meaning, Mrs Darcy?"
I heard her gasp, but one look from him was enough to make me flee the room. I heard the door slam behind me and ducked into an alcove to press my hand to my heart and attempt to school my breathing.
I do not think I slept at all that night.
He was still in her bed when I went in to attend her the following morning, and she laughed softly as she saw me begin to back quickly out of the chamber.
"'Tis all right, Sarah," she said, reaching over to tangle her fingers in his unruly curls. "He'll soon be on his way and I'll send for you."
"You are mistaken, my dear," he growled into his pillow. "I intend to remain here for some time yet. Sarah, your mistress will not require you this morning."
"Yes, sir," I said. I left the room as quickly as I had the night before, and almost as bewildered, but this time I was smiling.
"We both said things we didn't mean," she told me later that day.
"He really is the dearest man."
I smiled. "He loves you very much, Miss Elizabeth."
"He does, doesn't he? I don't deserve him, Sarah. Truly I don't. He deserves some sweet, tractable creature like dear Jane who would respect him the way he should be respected rather than teasing and tormenting him and asserting her will at every turn."
"I think...I think he would find that very dull."
She smiled at that and then gave me a triumphant look. "I knew it! You were being impertinent with me this afternoon."
I laughed. "Perhaps a little."
"You were right, of course. I am the most headstrong, obstinate creature that ever was, and next time you must be far more assertive and simply tell me when I'm being a fool."
"It would be a disgrace to be sent back to Longbourn, Mrs Darcy," I said mildly.
She giggled. "Now you're being a fool. I couldn't possibly part with you. I'd be at sixes and sevens by nightfall." She became more serious then. "I am sorry, Sarah, for the way I spoke to you and for making you a witness to my abominable temper. It will not happen again, I assure you. Can you forgive me?"
"Certainly, Mrs Darcy."
She meant well, of course, but she did not keep her word. They loved and quarreled with equal passion, though not, fortunately, with the same degree of frequency. The love always predominated, but given their dispositions, it was inevitable that the quarrels would come, especially in the early years of their marriage. I was a witness to other unpleasant scenes between them and occasionally bore the brunt of her temper. While it always made me uneasy, it never again cost me a whole night of sleep. I learned, as they did, that their love for one another would see them across the difficult patches. As the years went on and they learned to manage one another better and regulate their own tempers, those difficult patches became fewer and fewer until finally, I believe, they ceased to be encountered altogether.
That first winter at Pemberley was a time of great happiness for my mistress. She loved her husband as well as she should, and she developed a sisterly intimacy with Miss Georgiana Darcy that went some distance toward solacing the pain occasioned by her distance from Miss Jane, now Mrs Bingley. Miss Georgiana remained with her brother and her brother's wife until her own happy marriage some four years later, and by that time, she and my mistress had become lifelong friends.
Though Mrs Darcy was happy, however, it does not necessarily follow that the first months at Pemberley were without trial. In truth, she'd little preparation for the demands that would be placed on her as the wife of Mr Darcy of Pemberley, and she felt her inexperience keenly at first. I could not see her as anything but perfect, nor do I think her husband could, but even the smallest misstep was vexing to her. A forgotten name, a slothful servant, an unreturned call - these were things she lamented and chastised herself for in the privacy of her rooms.
She would never have wished it, but her own anxiety increased my own, and I was frantic that nothing I did or didn't do should ever cause her a moment's regret. I obsessed over details that I'm sure now were invisible to anyone except myself. I remember one night she returned to her rooms after entertaining a party of her husband's acquaintances, and I noticed only as I was undressing her that there was a loose thread on the back of her gown. I remember flushing hot with mortification, my ears ringing with it as I cast the gown aside and helped her into her nightdress, and I never saw her in that gown again that something of the same feeling of failure didn't wash over me anew. I tormented myself over it in bed that night and for several nights afterward, wondering again and again if anyone had noticed, if anyone had thought at all less of my mistress because of my carelessness.
We were both unsure of ourselves that first winter, and though she took on an entirely new life and important new duties, and I merely tried to do my old duties better, I really believe that I suffered the most, for I had not her assured way about me. It was not in her nature to torment herself for long, and she had the constant affection and support of her husband and his sister to counterbalance any little failures. I, on the other hand, was too shy, in spite of her great kindness to me, to confess my own perceived failures, and thus I went without any consolation.
I remember being often lonely that winter as well. Mrs Darcy was busy with her new life, and the other servants spurned me, assuming I thought myself above them. Like Mr Darcy's stiff and taciturn valet, I slept on the same wing as the family, which gave me but little opportunity for making friends amongst the servants. Mrs Reynolds was kind - warmer to me than Mrs Jenkins had been in Town - but herself too busy that season for much conversation. We did eventually become friendly; she liked my quiet way and the fact that my loyalty to the mistress was of a piece with what she felt for the master. It did not seem strange to her that Miss Elizabeth had chosen me over a French maid, for she saw all the advantages of keeping servants who felt true loyalty to the family. Many years later, I would grieve terribly one summer when both Mrs Reynolds and my mother died mere weeks apart. Mrs Darcy accompanied me back to Meryton to see my mother laid to rest; I remember that she held my hand for much of that long, sad journey.
It was spring when Mrs Darcy had the pleasure of seeing her favourite sister again. Mr and Mrs Bingley were expected at Pemberley with his two sisters and brother-in-law, and Mrs Darcy confided to me that her pleasure in seeing Miss Jane again was somewhat tempered by the fact that she would have to endure Mr Bingley's sisters in the same visit. She went about humming in pleasure, however, and saw to it that the house was in perfect readiness the day they were due to arrive. They came, indeed, some hours earlier than they were expected, and Mrs Reynolds sought me out in a terrific anxiety, saying, "Sarah! The party has arrived, and Mrs Darcy is nowhere to be found."
Whenever Mrs Darcy was 'nowhere to be found' it was generally advisable to look outdoors for her, so I did, quickly finding her in the cutting garden with a basket over one arm and a pair of shears in the other.
"Mrs Darcy!" I called, hiking up my skirts and running toward her.
"Whatever can be the matter, Sarah?" she said, laughing at the picture I made in my haste.
It was nothing to hers, however, when she heard my news. "Jane is come!" she cried. "Oh, Sarah! And earlier than expected. Come! I must see my sister!" She caught up my hand and together we raced back toward the house. I had not her taste for regular exercise and was fairly gasping by the time we got there.
"Jane!" my mistress called, immediately upon entering. Spotting the housekeeper, she cried out, "Mrs. Reynolds! Where is my sister?"
"I'm here, Lizzy," Mrs Bingley said, emerging from the front parlor into the great hall and greeting her sister with her sweet smile.
Mrs Darcy was far less restrained and launched herself into her sister's arms, dropping the basket of flowers onto the flagstones into the process. "Oh, dear Jane. 'Tis been far too long!"
"That it has, Lizzy," Mrs Bingley agreed, laughing through her tears. "I've missed you so!"
"Let me look at you!" my mistress said, drawing back and feasting her eyes on her sister. "More beautiful than ever. Marriage suits you, sister."
"And you, Lizzy." Mrs Bingley touched her sister's pink cheek. "You're positively glowing."
"I'm glad to hear it," the master said dryly. "I was beginning to think that no amount of felicity in either marriage could compensate for the sin of parting the two of you."
"It is my only complaint, sir," Mrs Bingley said with a smile.
"And mine," Mrs Darcy agreed. "And we are both prepared to bear it, but you and Mr. Bingley must have patience with the enthusiasm of our reunions." She turned to her brother-in-law and his sisters and brother, who were standing just behind him. "And patience with the rudeness we will occasionally exhibit at those times. I am being an appalling hostess! Mr Bingley, welcome to Pemberley. It is wonderful to see you again, sir." She offered her hand, and Mr Bingley raised it to his lips.
"It is wonderful to see you, Mrs Darcy. I hope you can forgive me for keeping your sister away for so long."
"Certainly, sir, so long as the injury is never repeated," Mrs Darcy replied, her eyes sparkling. She turned to the others and greeted them more formally. "Mr and Mrs Hurst, Miss Bingley, Mr Darcy and I are so glad you joined Jane and our brother. It is a pleasure to see you again. You're well, I hope?"
Mrs Hurst offered her hostess a polite smile. "Quite well, thank you, Mrs Darcy," and her husband echoed, "Very well, indeed."
Mrs Hurst then gave her sister a pointed look, and Miss Bingley nodded. "Forgive us for arriving early, Eliza. I can see we caught you unprepared." She gave my mistress's gown - one that she often wore in the gardens - a pointed look, and I blushed at the insult, but it seemed not to bother Mrs Darcy at all.
"Not at all, Miss Bingley. I have been so anxious for this visit that you could not have arrived at any time which would have been an inconvenience to me."
"And I, for one, thank you for not being tardy," Mr Darcy said. "I fear that Mrs Darcy would not have taken it at all well."
"Not at all," Mrs Darcy agreed emphatically, linking arms with Mrs Bingley.
"Lizzy, when you came in, I was just saying to Mr Darcy how very beautiful Pemberley is," her sister said. "I admit that nothing I've heard quite prepared me."
"I suppose good manners dictate that I should say 'thank you'," Mrs Darcy replied with a laugh, "but my sense of honesty forbids it. I can take no credit. Pemberley was so lovely when I arrived that I've done virtually nothing to alter it."
"Mrs Darcy is too modest," the master said, smiling at his wife. "Her very presence has altered Pemberley greatly, and in ways far more significant than matters of décor."
"Thank you, Mr Darcy," my mistress said, returning his smile. "I can only hope that whatever alterations you perceive are positive; I notice that you were somewhat less than explicit on that point."
"An oversight, I assure you. However, I'm disinclined to favour you with compliments when you fish for them so shamelessly."
Everyone laughed, and it was then that Mrs Bingley noticed me stooping to retrieve my mistress's scattered flowers.
"Sarah! Is that our dear Sarah?" I was so pleased when Miss Jane rushed toward me and caught up my hands in her own. "Oh, Sarah, 'tis wonderful to see you. And looking so well, too! Are you well?"
"Very well, thank you Mrs Bingley."
"Everyone at Longbourn sends their very best wishes, and your mother is beside herself to see you. You're quite missed there, you know."
"Thank you, Mrs Bingley," I said again, flushing with pleasure. "I miss them as well."
"Oh dear," my mistress said, laughing. "Don't you dare entertain any notions of taking Sarah with you when you go, Jane. I could never part with her."
I blushed even more then, and was a little relieved when the attention shifted from me to the refreshments that were being served in the parlor. I took my mistress's flowers and arranged them myself, placing them in the dining room before going upstairs to ready her gown for the evening.
"Good heavens, Sarah. 'Tis just a family dinner." Mrs Darcy gave the gown I'd prepared a critical look. "Whatever are you about?"
"I thought you would wish to look your best," I said, a trifle defensively. "I think this gown looks particularly well on you." It did, too, and the one time she'd worn it, the master had been positively shocking in the attentions he had paid her.
"It is a lovely gown," she agreed. "It just seems a bit much for dinner with family, and in my own home." She frowned for a moment, and then her eyes lit with understanding. "Ah. You were offended by Miss Bingley's comment this afternoon, were you not?"
"I thought her quite ungracious," I admitted.
"Miss Bingley has a singular gift for being ungracious, but I am resolved not to let her bother me. If she thinks I should have stopped to change my gown before greeting my sister, then it only shows that she knows nothing of the affection Jane and I share. I do not intend to spend my sister's visit putting on airs for Miss Bingley."
"You wish another gown then, madam?"
She seemed about to assent, but then she checked herself and gave me a saucy smile. "Oh, very well, Sarah. Dress your favorite doll in finery for one night. And bring Lady Anne's sapphires, please. If we're going to do the thing, we should do it to the utmost. It may all be lost on Miss Bingley, but Fitzwilliam will certainly appreciate it."
Already, she knew her husband well. I've no idea what impression she made on her guests that evening, but Mr Darcy stopped short at the first glimpse of her. "Good God, Elizabeth! Would you torture me?"
"It was Sarah's idea," she said teasingly, and my eyes went wide.
"I know not whether to thank her or consign her to the scullery."
"Oh, you'll thank her," she said, flirting shamelessly.
"I daresay I will...later. But for now we're expected to join our guests, and I find I suddenly have a profound disinclination for anyone's company but yours. If I manage to be at all civil, it will be no thanks to my teasing wife and her scheming maid." He gave me a frown of disapproval, but his eyes were smiling. I dropped him a rather impertinent curtsey, and he and Miss Elizabeth both laughed.
It was a happy visit, and except for that first slight, Miss Bingley was all that was civil during the time she spent at Pemberley. She seemed to accept Miss Elizabeth as the mistress of the estate and to forget whatever bitterness had been occasioned by Mr Darcy's marriage. I know now that Mrs Darcy had the right of it that first evening, and that she wore the dress to humour me and to look beautiful for her husband and for no other reason; she had no need to dress any part. She was the mistress of Pemberley, and she had not been there six months before she had remade the position in her own image. Before the year was out, there was no one in Derbyshire who could imagine any other woman at Mr Darcy's side.
I recognized my mistress's condition before she did, when I noticed that the bodice of her newest gown was slightly too tight. It was only very slightly so, but I knew how it should have fitted, and as I fastened the gown, I could feel that it was wrong. I thought to blame the modiste at first, but then recalled that her time was slightly overdue.
"Mrs Darcy," I said softly, my fingers on her fastenings. "When was the last time you kept your bed?"
I felt her go still beneath my hands. Miss Elizabeth had always been the quickest of the sisters, and she knew what I meant practically before the words left my mouth. "Oh," she breathed. She turned and looked at me, her beautiful eyes sparkling and her hair shining in the morning sun. "Do you really think so, Sarah?"
"Your new gown does not fit quite as it should," I said, as if that were evidence enough.
Her fingers went to her bodice, feeling the tug of the fabric there. "But perhaps...it still may not be. We neither of us have experience in such matters."
"I could consult with Mrs Reynolds, I suppose, and yet...I think I'd rather not at present. It will be our secret for now, Sarah, and when we are certain, I will tell Mr Darcy. I could not bear to disappoint him."
I thought of the way he watched her, the way his eyes lit up at the sight of her, and I thought it unlikely that she could disappoint him in anything, but she kept her counsel for several more weeks, and I believe that by the time she finally informed her husband he had already formed some idea of it. Mr Darcy was delighted at the prospect of an heir and, at the same time, solicitous of his wife's health, but he needn't have worried. She was never of a sickly constitution, and her condition didn't change that. She had a twinge now and then, I believe, but on the whole she carried her babes easily and bore them easily as well.
Her parents came from Longbourn several weeks before the first child was due, and I believe that this was the greatest trial of Mrs Darcy's confinement. Mrs Bennet was much in her daughter's rooms, and both of us had to get used to her ways again. She considered me quite as much her servant as I'd ever been and ordered me about tasks that should have belonged to others. For my mistress's sake, I did her mother's bidding with at least the appearance of good-will, and Mrs Darcy let me know privately that she appreciated my forbearance, particularly as most of hers was being expended on the same object.
Having Mr and Mrs Bennet at Pemberley made me realize for the first time how completely my allegiances had shifted from the Bennet family to the Darcys. Mr Bennet was as good a man as ever and inquired after me kindly, but I could see his various faults and weaknesses now; I couldn't imagine calling him master again. Mr Darcy still commanded a powerful respect, but he had ceased to terrify me and had become, in a hundred different ways, my ideal as both master and man. This may perhaps be why, aside from that early infatuation with Jacob, I never looked at another gardener or young man from the village. Let me be clear: I was not in love with the master - I could never have entertained such a thought for a moment - but he set such a standard for what a man ought to be that I knew it was pointless to hope that any man who would have me could meet it. I do not recall ever repining over this or even giving the matter much conscious thought.
Mrs Bennet, likewise, was nothing to her daughter. To be sure, I'd had some idea of that before I ever left Longbourn, but it was reinforced again and again during that first long visit. I had ceased to fear being sent home in disgrace, but I realized then that even if I were discharged - shameful thought! - I could never return to the Bennet's service, even for my dear mother's sake. I tried with indifferent success to protect Mrs Darcy from her mother's attentions and hoped that the child might come soon, that Mrs Bennet would be that much sooner back to Herfordshire. Mrs Darcy did not say so, but I believe she felt the same way.
The child came in its own time, as babies are wont to do, and I wiped my mistress's brow and watched in concern and fascination as she laboured to bring a new generation of Darcys into the world. She made it look, if not effortless, at least less of a trial than Mrs Bennet had declared it to be, and a few hours after her pains had begun, a child was in her arms - red-faced, dark-haired, and screaming the house down. My mistress laughed and cried and soothed the babe at her breast, and though I was not immediately impressed with the fruit of all her labours, I thought the picture they made together was quite the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen; I found myself wiping my own tears at the sight of them.
Miss Elizabeth smiled on me. "Go to Mr Darcy, please Sarah. Tell him he has a daughter who would be happy to make his acquaintance as soon as may be."
"Oh, Lizzy!" Mrs Bennet exclaimed. "You've a beautiful little girl, but I do so wish you could have had a boy like dear Jane. Mr Darcy will be very disappointed. Perhaps I should be the one to go to him so I can soften the news."
"Thank you, Mama, but I'm sure Sarah will do quite well, and besides, I need you here with me." My mistress rolled her eyes when her mother wasn't looking, and it was all I could do not to laugh.
I hurried to the library, knocking softly at the heavy door. He was there in an instant, and a smile spread across his face when he saw me on the threshold. He knew that I would never have left my mistress until her labours were over.
I curtseyed to him. "Mrs Darcy asks that you come to her rooms, sir, to make the acquaintance of your daughter."
"Oh, Sarah," he said, and for a moment he slumped against the doorframe and I thought perhaps he was disappointed. I should have known my master better. He was merely relieved, I think, that it was over and all was well. "Is she as beautiful as her mother?" he asked.
"Very nearly, sir," I said with a smile.
"My congratulations, sir," Mr Bennet said, coming to the doorway as well. "I suspect that you and Lizzy might actually have produced a daughter who will be marginally less silly than the average female of the species. I look forward to making the young lady's acquaintance myself. But for now, be off with you. I shall continue to enjoy your port and your books until my granddaughter is ready to make her appearance to a wider audience."
"Er...yes, sir. Please make yourself at home. I shall...good God, Sarah! Why do you let me tarry here? I must see my wife!" He seemed to come to himself all of a sudden and took off with great energy in the direction of his wife's rooms. Mr Bennet chuckled and gave me a wink before returning to the library.
I saw her bear him five more children and grieved with her as two of them - two frail girls, born together and too soon - were consigned to the churchyard. That first daughter and three little boys lived, and for many years Pemberley rang with the sounds of their laughter. 'Twas a busy time for Mrs Darcy, who, in addition to coming fully into her own as mistress of Pemberley during those years, was never content to leave the raising of her children entirely in the hands of servants. Her second son, in particular, had his father's looks and something of her own spiritedness, and this one made life interesting for us all.
They were all attractive children, as they could hardly help being with two such parents, and they had many fine qualities, but to me, none of them was the equal of her, and I was mostly content to leave them to their parents and the other servants. I celebrated their accomplishments, but I was celebrating with her. I was vexed when they were naughty, but it was because they vexed her. They had her to care for them, and she had me...and her husband, of course, who was never so besotted with his children or distracted by his estate that he neglected his wife. He still, I knew, availed himself of her bed more often than his own, and neither of us bothered any more with what the housemaids had to say about it. Indeed, as they became more comfortable with one another over the years, they became more open with their affection, and it was not unusual to see him press a kiss to her cheek as they walked along with the children racing around them. Soon, most of the servants found their behaviour so commonplace as to not be worth mentioning.
Mr and Mrs Bingley and their family were also much with us during these years, having moved to an estate in a nearby county, and the Darcy children enjoyed perfect intimacy with their Bingley cousins. I find, when I cast my mind back over that time, that the prevailing memory is of not one family but two: my mistress and her most beloved sister and their husbands and children. It would be impossible for Pemberley to be full, but with so many children around, along with their nurses and governesses, it seemed to come close. Similarly, it is impossible that time actually moved faster during those years, but both my mistress and I really felt that it did.
"I cannot account for the time, Sarah. It seems but yesterday that I had her at my breast."
"Yes, madam," I agreed, as I put the finishing touches on my mistress's hair. "It does."
She reached for her necklace and handed it to me. "What think you, Sarah? Will she be happy?"
"Her cousin is a fine young man."
"Yes, yes," she said, a trifle impatiently. "With parents like Jane and Charles, how could he be otherwise? I do not dispute that, nor do I question that it is, in the eyes of the world, a good match. It's just...they've been like brother and sister these many years. Can he love her as he should?"
I smiled. "I think he's loved her all his life."
"I think so, too. But it's not the sort of love I know." She gave me a sad smile. "Fitzwilliam reminds me that not everyone loves in flames, as we do. And with their gentle dispositions, perhaps a quieter, more sedate love is right for them. I'm sure it's wrong of me to find it wanting, just because it wouldn't satisfy me."
"She is not like you, Miss Elizabeth. She has the look of you, but a different spirit entirely. I believe that she and young Mr Charles Bingley are well-suited."
"Thank you, Sarah," she said with a sigh. "You comfort me." She reached out and squeezed my hand. "Perhaps I'm just not ready to let her go. 'Tis a bittersweet day."
"It is, madam." I said softly, holding her hand between both of mine. "It is indeed."
They all left, gradually, and when they were gone to homes and lives of their own, Pemberley was quiet again. Mr and Mrs Darcy seldom went to Town anymore, preferring the peacefulness of their estate. They walked together every morning when the weather was fair, and he still came to watch whenever I readied her for the occasional evening out.
"Who is this woman looking back at me?" she sighed one evening, as I brushed her hair. The chestnut curls were heavily threaded with silver now, and she fingered them thoughtfully. "When did I grow old, Sarah?"
Before I could think of an answer, his voice came from the doorway. "You are as lovely today as you've ever been, my dearest. Never doubt it."
"Oh, Will," she laughed. "How completely foolish you are."
"Yes," he agreed with a smile. "I've been foolish over you these many years. Would you have it otherwise?"
"No, indeed," she said, and her eyes seemed to catch fire as she looked at him.
He crossed over to her and kissed his favorite spot on her neck. "Remind me later, my love, and I will show you just how beautiful I think you are."
"I shall depend upon it, Mr Darcy."
"The weather is lovely today. Will you walk this morning, Mrs Darcy?" I asked the following morning, holding out her shawl in anticipation of her answer in the affirmative.
She reached for it automatically, and then her hand dropped to her side. "I think not," she said with a small smile. "It's odd, but I find I'm rather...tired this morning."
A fortnight later, I brushed my mistress's hair carefully, leaving it long and loose over her shoulders, just as I had that first night he had come to her, so many years before. He was coming to her again this evening, and she would want to look her best for him. I tied her hair back in a satin ribbon and arranged it carefully, and then I tied the ribbons of her nightdress, knowing that this time, no nervous fingers would disarrange them.
Her beautiful eyes were closed now and no maidenly blush tinged her marble cheek, but to me, she was still breathtaking in her loveliness.
"There," I said softly, pressing one beloved hand to my lips before arranging it carefully. "Your Mr Darcy will come to you soon, Miss Elizabeth. I must be away."
I know not what he said in the quiet of her chamber, but he found me in her dressing room afterwards, fingering the rich fabrics of her gowns and breathing in the scent of her that clung to them.
"Sarah," he said.
"What...what are we to do now?"
He was not speaking of arrangements, I knew, but rather of the inconceivability of a future without her. We had both of us lived for her for so long that any other life seemed utterly without direction.
"Sarah," he said again, his voice ragged and torn. "I can't..." He fell to his knees, there amongst her gowns and her jewels and the trappings of her life as Mrs Darcy, and he began to sob, great choking sounds of grief, and I knew what Miss Elizabeth would want me to do.
I knelt beside him and touched his hair, gone white now, and let him wet my shoulder with his tears. For a few moments we were not master and servant - just two people aching and bewildered by the vast emptiness she had left behind. I could not at that moment recall that I had ever been afraid of him, had cowered in his presence and been unable to meet his eyes. He seemed smaller, frail and diminished, for she'd taken the greater part of him with her when she'd gone.
"What are we to do?" he cried again.
I do not know the answer. We have lost our centre, and I know not how either of our lives is to be ordered without her.
It will be an adventure, she said, all those years ago, and it has been one. It hasn't been my adventure, exactly. I've never dressed myself for a ball or welcomed a lover; I've never suckled a babe. But I've been a part of something grander than anything I could have ever known myself. I've seen life as it's meant to be lived; I've seen love painted on a vast canvas, one delicate stroke at a time.
I served in a grand house, dressed my mistress in the most beautiful gowns, and placed exquisite jewels around her neck. And I learned what Miss Elizabeth knew from the very beginning: that none of those things really mattered. My mistress would have been a great lady without the finery, and the master would have loved her just as well. It has been a privilege to see a love like theirs.
It has been a privilege.
A/N: I owe a debt of inspiration to Alison, author of a story called "Forces of Passion" (archived at Firthness, perhaps among other places) who included in a footnote the information that it was customary for young women of means to take along a servant from home when they married. This story, which is my first attempt at a P&P fic, grew out of that idea.