Our Lady of Longbourn
Author's Note: The events described in this story are entirely fictional. The author has had to take small liberties with certain historical realities, specifically those concerning King George III and his periods of cognizance and the movements of the Channel Fleet.
St. James Palace, 1809
Queen Charlotte fought the desire to roll her eyes as the pompous man, the mayor of a little town named Meryton, droned on with his interminable speech. Granted, the medicines and herbs that he delivered had been a tremendous boon to the fleet which had been quarantined and out of operation at a crucial time the previous year.
Somehow I cannot see this man inspiring everyone in the community to gather four wagonloads of herbal remedies. Something doesn't make sense about all of this. Still, the man didn't seem intelligent or self-serving enough to take all of the credit for himself. His wife, on the other hand…
The Queen glanced surreptitiously over at her poor husband. At the moment he was portraying an appropriately regal monarch. It was difficult to conjecture where his mind was in reality. George has been the most intelligent and upright monarch this country has ever seen! Why has this madness turned him into the laughing stock of nobility? This audience is almost over, then we can adjourn and those vultures who call themselves doctors can descend.
She flinched as her husband spoke, but was relieved at how sensible he sounded, "We have decided to reward your incomparable service to the Fleet, the Crown, and the country with a knighthood. Kneel, Mr. Lucas." The crowd flinched as George III took up the heavy sword and stepped forward. Without mishap he lightly touched each shoulder of the kneeling man and said, "I dub thee, Sir William Lucas, Knight of the Realm. Take with you this honor and the sincere thanks of the King."
After the crowd disbursed and George was escorted to his rooms, Queen Charlotte quickly scanned the room and made a small gesture. A disembodied voice spoke from near the throne. The man deliberately kept his face averted so as not to alert others to the conversation. "What think you of Sir William Lucas, Reginald?"
"I do not believe that we have the entire story, Your Majesty. He led the wagon train, assuredly. But I don't believe that he organized the gathering of the remedies. He looked decidedly guilty, but seemed to be deferring to his wife on the matter."
"I want you to look into the matter. But it isn't a priority. First you need to complete your assignment concerning the Duke of Carlisle. Fit this other in when you can."
"As you instruct, Your Majesty. It shall be done."
"Our time is limited, Reginald. My son is drinking friends with that fool Baron. That man would be as poor a duke as the past three. We need a good, industrious, and honorable man or it would be better to dissolve the title. Find someone who has a legitimate claim before the Duke passes."
Chapter One - The Little Master
In the year of our Lord, 1791
Thomas Bennet fell in love the moment that the screaming little bundle was placed in his arms and it met his eyes with almost luminescent dark brown eyes. Only a minute out of her mother's womb, she already had curly brown hair and decidedly impish features… but it was those eyes that told the story.
"That one is an old soul," the midwife declared with an appreciative nod.
Thomas smiled at his little daughter, "I'm honored to meet you, Miss Elizabeth Bennet."
Seemingly far away, Fanny Bennet was bemoaning the fact that her second child was also a girl, "… at least she could have been beautiful, like my little Jane! All that work, nine months and then hours of labor! It should have been a boy! Oh, what's to become of us now…"
Mr. Bennet rolled his eyes and focused on his child.
Little Lizzy's tiny fist found her father's pointer finger and latched on tightly, regarded him with intelligence… and then she smiled.
In the year of our Lord, 1797
Six year old Lizzy Bennet let go of her father's hand to run forward and greet one of the tenant families. In a flash she was over a fence, jumping into the mud to meet with the farmer herding his cows. Jane, still holding on to her father's hand and lugging a basket, tried to scold, "Lizzy, be a Lady!" But Lizzy's hem was already covered in mud as she engaged in serious conversation with the farmer. Thomas just chuckled. At the end of their weekly tenant visits Jane would always return spotless while Elizabeth would be scolded severely for looking like a little street urchin.
Yet the tenants loved both little girls dearly.
In the year of our Lord, 1800
"You take that back, Dugan!" Lizzy demanded, her little fists clenched threateningly. Beside her Jane tried to calm the waters while little Mary watched the scene with wide-eyed concern.
Poor Dugan, although half a head taller than the little curly-haired pixie, quickly backed down, "I'm sorry, Lizzy… it's just what the menfolk were sayin'… the other menfolk, but not me or my Pa, honest!"
Lizzy glared down the boy for a few moments longer. Then she 'har-rummphed', wheeled around, and began stomping home. After a bewildered moment, Jane and Mary followed.
Aunt and Uncle Gardiner came to visit that same day. All of the girls loved Uncle Gardiner's young wife, but Jane and Elizabeth most of all. She had a quiet dignity that surrounded her, so different from their own scolding, complaining mother. Often when she came she would find moments alone with each of the girls. Tonight she took over Mrs. Hill's child bathing duties. Fanny Bennet couldn't be bothered with this task, considering it beneath a gentle-lady's dignity. But she didn't intervene when Madeline Gardiner stepped in. After all, she was only in trade.
While Madeline was scrubbing Elizabeth's back, she allowed her eight, soon to be nine year-old niece to discuss her day. "The nerve of Dugan, to say that Papa is a ne-gli-gent landowner! I almost punched him right in the eye!"
"Elizabeth! Is that the way that a Lady behaves?" Aunt Gardiner scolded disapprovingly.
Lizzy blanched. A soft rebuke from Auntie Gardiner carried much more weight with her than a thousand shrieking accusations from her own mother. "But Auntie…"
"You and I promised each other that we'd always be honest, right? And part of that is to always keep your eyes open for the truth." Madeline didn't want to undermine Lizzie's parents, but she had noticed that the young girl tended to demonize her mother and put her father up on a pedestal. In judging most others, Lizzie was usually remarkably intuitive. Yet she still had blind spots where her own family was concerned.
Lizzy twisted her lips in consideration. She loved the way that her aunt and uncle always spoke to her like an adult. She never felt small, insignificant, or belittled with them, "So then, are you implying that Papa is neg… negligent?"
"I have a suggestion. Tomorrow, why don't we take a walk over to talk with Mr. Matthews, the Steward at Netherfield Park? He's an old friend of your Uncle's. I imagine that he would be willing to show you around and talk about everything involved in managing a large estate."
Mr. Matthews was a friendly and distinguished looking man in his forties. He had served Lady Adelle and her deceased husband as the Steward of Netherfield Park for fifteen years. Under his management the estate was the finest in the area. He was also an Oxford classmate of Edward Gardiner.
When Madeline Gardiner and little Elizabeth rolled into the service yard of the estate, he was ready for them, a grin on his face. "Hello, Madeline. So good to see you again. And you, Miss Lizzy. I understand that you will be following me around today. Did you wear good boots?"
Lizzy grinned and lifted her day dress just enough to reveal her boots. Then she curtsied, "Hello Mr. Matthews. Thank you for allowing me to learn from you today."
"It will be my honor, Little Miss." Mr. Matthews knew a lot about little Miss Lizzy. Her exploits were the gossip of the neighborhood. She out-climbed, out-swam, and outran the boys her own age and some even older. The neighborhood women shook their heads, but nobody who knew the effervescent little spitfire could think too poorly of her. She was simply too likable and genuine.
For the next five days Lizzie Bennet shadowed the Steward of Netherfield Park as he went about his duties. He had been somewhat amused and skeptical at first, but the little nine year-old asked thoughtful questions, helped wherever she could, and even made two helpful suggestions. Lady Adele, having heard about Lizzy's quest for knowledge, insisted on taking tea with her each afternoon. Before her time was up a genuine friendship developed between the elderly dowager countess and the little spitfire. The same was true of her relationship with Mr. Matthews.
Despite the positive aspects of the week, there was a decided negative: Lizzy could not deny that her beloved Papa was not doing a good job as the Master of Longbourn. There were fences that needed repair, roofs that required patching, stone walls that were crumbling. There were fields with drainage problems and chimneys that needed to be cleaned to prevent house fires. In comparison to what see had witnessed at Netherfield, Longbourn was sorely in need of attention.
As clever as she was, she could not see a simple solution. The Gardiners' visit had ended and they had returned home. She wrote her findings, as well as a nine year-old, very intelligent girl could, but that would take time and the cost of posts was prohibitive. Oddly enough, it was her two youngest sisters who offered the answer. One afternoon, while sitting and reading, Lydia followed Kitty into the parlor, haranguing her older sister for something she wanted and Kitty had. Kitty was protesting, saying, "No, Lydia. You never paid me back for the dolly. 'Trade' means you give me something and I give you something. You promised that you would give me your cherry tarts for a week, but you didn't! You broke the deal!"
"What is happening here?!" Mama's shrill voice demanded, "Have you no respect for my nerves?!"
"Mama, I want the bonnet! I want it! Make Kitty give it to me!" Lydia whined with a pitch that even bit into Lizzy's nerves.
"Mama, Lydia is supposed to give me back my Dolly! If she does, then I'll…"
"Oh! Just give her the bonnet! It'll look better on her anyway!"
"But Mama! It's mine! That's not fair!"
Lydia snatched the bonnet from Kitty's hand in her moment of distraction and ran off, Kitty crying behind her. Mama stomped up the stairs yelling, "Hill! Hill! Fetch my salts! Where is that woman?"
Elizabeth shook her head sadly at the oft-repeated scene. She would console Kitty later as well as she could. Trade… to give something for something… what if people traded work?
The next day Lizzy put on her second best dress and went for a walk. She spoke with Farmer Fletcher, who had built a fence last year and stacked the extra material inside his barn and a chimney that needed cleaning. She spoke with Tom the blacksmith, who has long wire brushes for cleaning out his large bellows, and a leaking roof. She spoke with Mr. Cooper, who had two strong sons and not enough food in the house. Finally, she spoke with Mr. Hervey, who used to build houses but was now trying to farm… only something kept killing his chickens.
By the end of the week, Tom's apprentice had used the blacksmith's brushes to clean out the chimney. He started doing others as well for extra money. Farmer Fletcher agreed to give Mr. Hervey his extra fence boards so that he could build a proper security fence for his chickens. Mr. Hervey climbed on Tom the blacksmith's roof and made the repairs. The Cooper boys sat out for two nights at Mr. Hervey's place before they caught two ferrets slinking into the chicken coop. They also rebuilt the stone wall on Longbourn's home farm to keep the cows out of other farmers' fields. In return Mr. Hervey made sure that they always had eggs and Mrs. Hill managed to send food from Longbourn's larders to the Coopers as well.
Mr. Bennet watched his Lizzy's machinations with glee. He knew that she was trying to find ways to work around his negligence, and he felt slightly guilty, but not enough. Still, he made more effort and he looked for ways to aid his daughter's efforts. The drainage issue was a significant one. Lizzy spoke with Mr. Matthews. She read Papa's books. Finally, she had to speak to Papa.
"Papa, Mr. Landon's south field won't grow crops right because of the flooding. Our lower field is the same way. I know that you use it for pasture, but it isn't good for the cows to stand on wet ground all of the time. The book says that they will get hoof rot."
Thomas Bennet enjoyed his daughter's serious expression as she discussed these issues, "And what do you suggest?"
"The Coopers are real hard workers. If we could hire them to dig a ditch that followed a line through our field and Landon's field, the water could pour into Tolley's stream. I did everything else by trade, but you have to pay the Cooper boys for this work. Will you Papa, please?"
Bennet could not say no to those big brown eyes. He went with Lizzy to the Coopers and hired them that day.
After that, Lizzy sought out Dugan Miller and apologized for calling him a liar.
By the time that Elizabeth Bennet turned eleven, tenants started going to her with their problems instead of her father. She always found a solution, even if it involved begging her Papa to take action or pay for the work. Thomas found the whole thing quite entertaining.
The people of the area didn't find Thomas Bennet amusing at all… but they began calling little Lizzy Bennet the "Little Master."