Posted on 2014-04-05
Authorís Note: This story was written in response to a challenge, which was to write a story based on one of the story/caption combinations that appear on the DWG main page. In this case, the picture I chose was of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley looking over at Elizabeth at the assembly ball, and the caption was (as might be expected), "Is that our chambermaid in disguise?"
It was so wretched to be forgetful. Forgetful and in danger of paying for the sins of one's youth in a most mortifying fashion unless one could devise a fantastic means of sneaking into someone else's house and stealing back something that ought never have been there in the first place, that is.
Elizabeth pulled the hood of her cloak closer around her face as she tramped across a field toward Netherfield. Why could she not have remembered the letters yesterday? Yesterday Netherfield had been uninhabited but for servants. Yesterday she had had no ball to prepare for. Yesterday the fields had been dry. Mud squished around her ankles as her foot sank into yet another puddle.
It had all begun in the summer of '03 when she was twelve years old and secretly reading The Romance of the Forest. Netherfield Park, also known as the House That Is Never Lived In For Long, had been taken for the summer by a family with one boy, Stephen. Stephen was not only an entire glorious year older than Lizzy, he was also surpassingly beautiful, with melting blue eyes, shining golden curls, and a voice which had escaped the ravages of his age. Young Lizzy had been struck dumb with love. When Stephen showed a reciprocal interest in her, a furtive correspondence was born.
They were just old enough for such letter writing to be frowned upon, which doubtless added to its charm. Encouraged alike by Stephen and Fanny Burney, Lizzy waxed lyrical in her notes, pouring out her girlish heart in the most poetical language she could devise. Each letter was carefully recopied in her best copperplate handwriting and solemnly signed Miss Elizabeth Bennet at the bottom.
Stephen had hidden her letters in his room, and one time when Mrs. Bennet had come to call on his mother, he was able to sneak Lizzy upstairs and show her where. It had all seemed impossibly and perfectly romantic and she was certain they were destined to spend their lives together... until Lizzy saw him try to kiss Jane under the old apple tree. After that she burnt the letters he sent her in very tragic fashion, and a fortnight later the family removed back to London. Elizabeth suffered a great deal during that time, much to Jane's distress, but then she awoke in one morning, laughed, shook herself, and hardly thought of it again until the previous spring, when she had encountered Stephen the Unfaithful in London, at a concert to which her aunt and uncle had been invited. Now grown to manhood, Stephan had quite lost his cherubic beauty, and appeared plump and pasty. Congratulating herself on her lucky escape, Lizzy hoped he would not remember her, but he did, and teased her most heartily (and unkindly, she thought) about the letters of hopeless young passion she had sent him.
"Well, I hope that you burnt them," she had said coldly.
"Burnt them?" he repeated. "Not at all. I left them behind at Netherfield, in my old room. You remember where. They're probably there still, if someone has not found them."
No one had found them, to the best of her knowledge, and she instantly resolved to find some means of retrieving them as soon as she returned to Hertfordshire. But several weeks passed before she left London, and by that time she had quite forgotten about the letters--right up until this morning, while the rain beat the panes and the sisters sat around discussing the new tenants of Netherfield. "I hope they mean to stay a long time," said Lydia.
"And why should they not stay?" demanded Mrs. Bennet, sailing through the room in search of cambric. "They'll find the rooms as comfortable as any house anywhere, I dare say, and the society as good."
As soon as the words the rooms as comfortable sounded through her mind, Elizabeth remembered. And so, here she was, tramping through the mud.
She had hoped to reach Netherfield before Mr. Bingley returned with his party from London, but her first sight of the house showed carriages drawn up in front, and a major disembarkation taking place. From one carriage, many small towers of luggage were being carried inside by richly liveried footmen, so many that she thought the report of a dozen ladies must have been true--but in the end, only two climbed down. She also could make out what appeared to be three male figures of varying heights and girths, moving up and down the steps. Eventually they all went inside, all except for the servants who continued to tote the mountainous luggage indoors.
Elizabeth stayed within the trees as she worked her way around to the servant's entrance. She was known to several of the servants here, but she did not know how much that would help her now that the family had arrived. In addition, a large number of servants had been sent down from town, and to them she would only be an intrusive--and particularly odd--stranger.
Located at the back of the manor house was a cobbled yard. On one side was the door that led to the kitchens and the servants' hall, and on the other side were the stables. All the stable hands were busy bringing in the horses, and she ran across unobserved. Fervently she hoped that the servants inside would be similarly occupied; perhaps they had even assembled in the hall to welcome their new mistress.
Holding her breath, she opened the door and peered around it. Inside was a passageway, with the servant's hall to one side and the kitchens to the other. A staircase leading upwards was directly ahead. Dimly she heard voices from the kitchen, but no one was in sight. She slipped inside.
During her whole walk here, her mind had been occupied with the need to get inside Netherfield. Now that she was actually here, muddy and windblown in the passage, she did not quite know what to do. It was too late to beg help from the housekeeper, and if she waited, those cursed letters might be discovered, with her name, bold as brass, writ on the bottom of them, and then her reputation would certainly be ruined. She must act now.
Concealment was her greatest concern. Elizabeth was eyeing the stairs, wondering how quickly she could ascend them, and if they might take her all the way the second floor, when her eyes fell on a row of hooks by the door. Over one of them hung a capacious apron, of the sort used by chamber maids when cleaning out fireplaces. In the twinkling of an eye she had it on, casting her cloak into a handy coal bin. Wonder of wonders, in the pocket of this garment she found stuffed a crumpled mob cap. It had a large streak of black across the crown--doubtless the reason its owner had discarded it--but Elizabeth donned it with great intrepidity, pulling its ruffled edge low over her bright curls. She need only pass for a servant from a distance, she told herself--not that she meant to be seen at all, but if she was, surely no maid would receive more than a cursory notice.
Gathering the courage that threatened to fail her, she took a step towards the stairs--and realized that her boots were heavy with mud. There was a boot scraper by the door; she went back to it and did her best to clean them, lifting her skirts awkwardly. The mud was clingy and wet, and it was taking far too long. She must find Stephen's old room before it was inhabited, and for that she might have only a few minutes. Into the coal bin went the boots, and she crept up the steps soft-footed in her stockings.
She had hoped to take the stairs all the way to the floor where the family's private apartments were located, but instead it ended--much to her dismay--after only one flight, and she found herself stepping out into a small sort of a notch off the main front hall. A door in front of her led into some unknown room. The hall was full of activity and people, and she pressed herself against the wall, thinking hard. Stephen had taken her up a back stairway, she was certain of it, but as she thought about it she realized those stairs had been on the opposite side of this wing of the house. Her choices, therefore, were to find her way through several rooms, or to go up the main staircase, which was simply impossible right now, with footmen running up and down and the wealthy, well-dressed guests lingering to talk.
Taking a deep breath, she opened the door before her, and found herself in the dining room. It was, mercifully, quite empty, the long table set with silver candelabras that gleamed in the dim light. She walked its length and cautiously peered through the door on the other side. It appeared to be a drawing room, and it was occupied. From here she could see a bit of broad shoulder in a blue coat, and a man's black head.
"--charming, really, Charles," said a woman's voice in refined accents. "It is nothing of Pemberley, of course, but no place--"
Elizabeth ducked back, shutting the door silently. She looked around for another door; sure there would be another door? There was another door, more than half way down the wall. She started toward it, when the door she had just left began to open, that woman's carrying voice piercing the silence.
There was no time to get through either door, not time for anything--except, of course, to hide under the table.
It was only that any chambermaid appearing in the dining parlor would certainly be questioned, and she couldn't afford that type of notice. This is what Elizabeth told herself as she sat, clasping her knees, watching the lacy-edged petticoats and mirror-polished Hessians stroll past.
"--not that we shall care to invite many of the locals to dine, I am sure--"
"On the contrary, Caroline! I mean to invite as many of my new neighbors as I can fit around--"
"--keep Charles from casting himself headlong into utterly unsuitable society, Mr. Darcy."
"I always do, Mrs. Hurst."
The group exited out the third door, which she must suppose led back to the hall. Letting out a long breath, she scrambled out, ran to the second door, and from there across the drawing room. The drawing room, alas, had no other door but that which led once more into the central hall, but at least now she was at the opposite end of that hall, closer to her goal. She had only to cross left and down the front gallery, around a corner, and the steps would be to her right, if she recalled.
Head down, walking as quickly as she could without drawing notice, Elizabeth began her journey across the polished tile mosaic. It would have been easier if her stocking-clad feet did not slip so much.
If she could but make it the space of one and half points on the star-burst pattern--
"You there! Girl!" This was Mrs. Nicholls voice, and it sent a surge of panic through Lizzy. She was acquainted with Mrs. Nicholls. On the other side of the room she could hear the voices of the Bingley party as they began to ascend the steps toward the lobby. Glancing cautiously over her shoulder she saw the good woman, starting toward her with a determined frown on her face. She eyed the gallery entryway, wondering what her chances of success would be if she was to bolt for it.
Just at this moment, a voice--Mr. Bingley's?--rang out. "Mrs. Nicholls!"
With a last gimlet glare, Mrs. Nicholls turned to her new master's call, and Elizabeth made good her escape, sliding half the way.
After such a close call Elizabeth seriously considered abandoning her quest, but she had that certain sort of stubbornness that dislikes balking at a challenge. Besides, she had almost attained her goal now. The back stairs were where she remembered them, and she followed them unmolested up to the second floor. Several doors stood open here, with footmen and chambermaids coming and going, but their employers had yet to penetrate this far. Elizabeth could only breathe a sigh of relief over such a determined inspection of the house.
Which room had been Stephen's, again? It was so long ago now that she was here with him. Hiding in the shadowy stairwell, she closed her eyes and tried to recall it all--climbing these stairs after him, her hand in his, coming into this very hall. They had passed one... two... three! They had entered the third room on the left, she was almost certain.
Time was disappearing for Elizabeth and, knowing this, she grew very bold, and taking her reputation in her hands, walked straight down the corridor and into the room as if she had every right in the world to go in there. As soon as she saw that no one was within, though, she shut and locked the door. It was a risk, she knew, especially as several items of luggage on the floor told her that it would soon be occupied, but nothing could be worse than having someone walk into the room to see her pilfering its contents. Everything now depended on speed.
When Stephen had brought her here those years past, he had showed her a secret compartment by one of the windows. It was not, after all, so cleverly concealed (which was what was worrying Elizabeth now), and it no longer impressed her that a curious boy should have found it out, but still it took her a minute or so of running her hands over the ornamented frieze before she located it again. There, beneath a cherub's wing, was the trigger, and then she could pull that portion of the frieze out from the wall completely. The cherub's wing was rather lopsided, actually, and if you looked at it from the right angle the release trigger was quite visible, but she only noted these things in passing. The carved figures moved slowly from their accustomed home, slower than she remembered, and then, at last, the cavity beneath them was exposed.
Elizabeth thrust her hand in eagerly, and gasped. It was empty. She felt all around, bent over and peered in, but there could be no second opinion. The space was as bare as could be--her letters were gone.
Gone! Her mind whirled, seizing on possibilities. The most obvious was that Stephen the Unfaithful had lied to her, out of spite or an ill-placed sense of mischief. The other was that her letters had in fact been found in the meantime, by some person who was too kind or too ignorant to expose her. Netherfield had, in fact, been taken by two other tenants since Stephen's family left it, but only for a short time, and neither gentleman had entertained much in that time. She had not thought anyone would have used the bedchamber.
Her reverie was cut short when the door handle rattled. A voice, surprised and angry, sounded outside. Once again she had trapped herself, now with nothing to show for it. There was nothing for it but to unlock the door and hide again.
Accordingly, Elizabeth turned the key, and darted for the drapes.
The folds of heavy brocade enveloped her in their embrace. She could make out little from there but muffled voices on the other side of the door. The door's opening was indicated by a faint creak, and a sudden increase in volume.
"What in the name of--! I tell you, it was locked."
"Obviously you were mistaken."
"But I tried it three times."
"Perhaps it was only stuck, then. In any case, it is open now."
"It don't make no sense. One moment this door was wide open, the next it was shut and locked, and now it opens as smooth as butter. What do you make of it, Mr. Vincy?"
"Nothing--nor do I wish to. Now if you will excuse me--ah, John?"
"As you say. I have much work to do. Good day."
The door seemed to shut, but she could still sense someone moving about in the room. This must be one of the gentlemen's valets, she supposed. It was hot in her hiding place--deucedly hot, she might say, if she wasn't a lady. Sweat was starting to wend its way down her neck, and between her shoulder blades. Oh, would she ever get out of here? And where were her letters?
Then there was the familiar creek of the door and--
"Ah, there you are, Vincy." A new voice, very male, very aristocratic.
"Mr. Darcy! I do beg your pardon but I was about to go in search of your letter case, which I am afraid appears to have been erroneously delivered to another's chambers."
"Yes, very well. Go ahead." A pause. "Oh, Vincy?"
His voice was a little lowered now and she had to strain to hear. "Perhaps you might check with Miss Bingley's maid first."
"Of course, sir."
"--you think, Darcy?"
"What's that, Bingley?"
"I said, what do you think?"
"It is a pleasant house, and I can discern no...."
Their voices faded a bit, which she took to mean they had walked out into the hall again. This was her only chance, and Elizabeth took it. Taking to her hands and knees, she crawled across several feet of hard cedar planks and then a few more of luxurious carpet to crouch behind the large bed, and peered over it. There were the gentlemen, backs turned to her: the tall one with the black hair she had seen before, and a shorter, fairer one. If only they would move further away she might be able to slip past them. Blowing at a ruffle hanging into her eyes, Lizzy rubbed her sweaty hands on her apron and prepared to sprint.
It seemed, for one, shining moment, as if the very force of her will was pushing them away. One step; they turned to look up the corridor, as if someone had called them, and she could see, through their exceptionally fine stockings, the muscles of their calves tensing to take another step--she started up from her hiding place, intent on the doorway--and then, as if in slow motion, she saw the tall one begin to turn back, nod his head, and his lips form the word "later," and then he was turning, further and further...
Elizabeth flung herself at the fireplace, and arrived on her knees before the already immaculate hearth. There was no brush here, of course, no box of kindling or other equipment suitable for a chambermaid, but she seized the poker in her hand as Mr. Darcy stepped through his doorway again.
He froze, staring at her in astonishment. She just bent her head and poked with great vigor for about five seconds before putting it back and rising to her feet.
"What are you doing there?" he demanded.
She bobbed a curtsy, not looking at him. "Just tendin' the fire, sir," she answered, trying to imitate the accents of their own maid, Becky. She tried to walk past him, but he stopped her again.
"Were you always there?"
"Since I first came into the room."
He made an indecipherable sound. He was staring her quite out of a countenance now--and more than that, his accusing gaze was dropping lower, in the direction of her unshod feet. Elizabeth dropped another curtsy and this time he let her go, though still frowning at her in perplexity.
Such was her haste in leaving that she nearly collided with a woman in the corridor. This woman was obviously one of Mr. Bingley's party, being young and fashionably dressed.
"Beg your pardon, madam," Lizzy murmured, increasingly flustered, and tried to walk past, but the other was having none of it.
"What are you doing up here, girl? Your work should have been done some time ago."
Elizabeth muttered something.
"Speak up. I am your new mistress, Miss Bingley."
"What is your name?"
"Becky, madam." She silently begged forgiveness of the real Becky back at Longbourn.
For some moments Miss Bingley studied her, while she fidgeted miserably. Suddenly--
The call was so loud that she nearly jumped, and clenched her hands in her apron.
"Well, what is it?" The fair-haired man she had seen earlier appeared, smiling in good-natured inquiry.
"Charles, I do not know who you got to engage the staff here, but this chambermaid is a complete disgrace."
Elizabeth was now excruciatingly aware that not only were Mr. and Miss Bingley fixated on her, but so was Mr. Darcy from his doorway. There was nothing she could do, though, but keep her head down and try to look submissive.
"She does not look disgraceful to me, Caroline."
"That is because you never pay attention to anything. Look at her! Her gown is too fine, her apron too crumpled, her cap dirty, her skirts muddy, and as for her shoes--" Miss Bingley directed a sharp look at Elizabeth's hapless feet and gave a small shriek. "Charles! She's not wearing at any shoes at all! What can you mean by this?" she demanded of Elizabeth.
"Now, sister..." Mr. Bingley put his hand on his sister's shoulder and murmured something in her ear. Miss Bingley shook him off.
"You are dismissed at once, do you understand? You are to go downstairs and tell Mrs. Nicholls--or the cook, or the gardener for all I care--that I have turned you off without character, and then take yourself and your--" she made gestured toward her feet, "back to wherever it is you came from. I will have no such slatterns in my employ."
"Yes, madam," murmured Elizabeth, bobbed one last, lopsided curtsied, and hurried toward the safety of the stairs. As she left she heard Miss Bingley apologizing to Mr. Darcy for the spectacle, while extolling her own high standards of housekeeping.
By contrast, her journey back through the house was positively uneventful. She only had to duck into three rooms to avoid Mrs. Nicholls, crawl behind two chairs to escape the butler's notice, and turn the cold shoulder to one very forward footman who tried to start a conversation for her. By the time she made it back down into the servant's hall--and realized that the servant's staircase she had originally wished for was only a little further down the passageway--she was entirely exhausted. Seizing an opportune moment of quiet, she shed the apron and cap for her own muddied shoes, bonnet and cloak, and exited the house a gentlewoman once more.
Later, safely sheathed in a ball gown at the assembly, Elizabeth nevertheless spent much of her time avoiding looking any member of the Netherfield party in the face. Perhaps in another week, she told herself, memory of the afternoon's events would have faded sufficiently from theirs minds, but for now, an encounter was not at all to be desired.
All went well until she had to sit out a dance due to lack of sufficient partners. Jane was dancing with Mr. Bingley, who appeared to have
taken a great fancy to her. During the break between dances she came up, a happy glow over her countenance. "Dear Lizzy," she said, "how I hate to see you sitting down like this. You had much better dance."
"Oh Jane I would, for you know how I love it," she said. "At such an assembly as this it is delightful--but there is not one gentleman in the whole room right now who is willing to stand up with me, I am afraid."
"I am sure you are wrong. Why, I have never met so many pleasant gentleman in my life as I have this evening; and some of them," she added in a whisper, "are uncommonly handsome."
"You are dancing with the handsomest man in the room, I dare say," laughed Elizabeth.
"Oh! He is the finest gentleman I have ever met in my life. But one of his friends is standing over there behind you, who is very handsome, and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you."
"Which do you mean?" she asked with some dread, and turning around, found Mr. Darcy already looking at her, with an expression of growing astonishment on his countenance. She turned back hastily. "He is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me. And I am in no humor at present to give consent to men who have slighted other women!" She waved her hand. "You had best return to Mr. Bingley and enjoy his smiles; you are wasting your time with me."
Jane took her advice and returned to the floor, but at the same time Mr. Bingley walked up to his friend and Elizabeth heard the distinct accents of Mr. Darcy's deep and haughty voice ask, "Is that our chambermaid in disguise?"
That night, after all the events of the ball had been gone over with great satisfaction between Jane and Lizzy in their bedchamber, Jane laughed and said, "Mr. Bingley said the oddest thing to me, you know."
"Oh?" Elizabeth pulled her hair up and turned her head, studying her reflection.
"Yes, it was after I spoke to you that one time--about dancing, you know. Mr. Bingley asked me most particularly about you, and when I said that you were my sister he laughed very heartily, and he told me that his friend, Mr. Darcy, had thought you looked exactly like a chambermaid at Netherfield, whom his sister had to dismiss that very afternoon."
Elizabeth picked her brush back up. "That is odd, you are right. Very strange indeed!"
"Mr. Darcy even fancied you might be the chambermaid in disguise--as if such a thing could even be possible! Of course, he promised me that he would tell Mr. Darcy your true identity, and I am sure that, once he learned it, he realized how mistaken he was."
"I am sure." She sat the brush down. "It is so very late, Jane. Let us go to sleep at once!"
In the darkness, in her bed, she reflected bitterly on the day's events. It was all, she decided, Stephen's fault. Unfaithful, lying, teasing, pasty-faced Stephen! It was he who tricked her into this, into all of it. And the worst of it was that, after all of it, after walking six miles, hiding under tables and behind curtains, lying, pretending, crawling, subjecting herself to the most mortifying interviews and ruining the hem of her favourite walking dress, she still did not know what had happened to her letters! If ever she met that cad Stephen again, she swore, he would have much to answer for.
In her private parlour, Mrs. Nicholls sat sipping a bit of cherry brandy that she kept hidden for special occasions. Today had been a very successful day; very successful indeed.
After a few minutes she went to her desk and picked up the packet of papers there. She had found them herself just this morning, when inspecting the Green Room which had been assigned to Mr. Darcy. She thought she saw a bit of dust clinging to one of the cherubs on the frieze, and quite by accident had opened the secret compartment. They were obviously letters of some sort, but she had no time to inspect them then, so she simply put them into her pocket until later, when she could determine if they were something worth disturbing the master over.
Now finally at leisure, she studied first the name written in flowery script on the outside, then unfolded it. Her surprise grew as she read the letter, but when she came to the signature she began to laugh. She remembered the boy Stephen, all those summers ago, and she remembered that little Miss Lizzy had seemed quite smitten with him. These letters, now... she clucked her tongue and shook her head. Even at twelve she ought to have known better. But never fear; she, Mrs. Nicholls would never tell a soul. Neither, she decided, would the fire, as she fed them to it, one by one.The End