Here is the beginning of my next story.
“Welcome gentlemen, how might I be of service?” The young clerk asked as potential customers entered the shop.
“I was at Lord Matlock’s home yesterday and had some delicious tea. Lady Matlock informed me that she had purchased the blend from here, having enjoying a cup in your tea room.” One of the gentlemen replied.
“Ah, Lady Matlock has been delighted with several blends we recently blended. Would it be the oolong or the black that you enjoyed?”
“I believe she said that it was black, with some peppermint and some other items added.” The gentleman stated.
“Allow me to check my records.” The clerk stated, pulling a wooden box from under the counter. “Yes, Lady Matlock enjoyed the China black with peppermint, lemongrass, and basil. We have some brewing at the moment, if you wish to sample. It will be ready in a moment.”
The second gentleman had walked towards the dining room connected to the shop. From the doorway, he was able to partake of the heavenly scent of freshly baked goods. “Darcy, I believe I have the time to take some refreshments, if you care to join me.”
“I believe you are always in the mood for refreshments, Bingley. How do you stay so skinny, with all that you eat?” Darcy inquired.
The light haired man turned towards his darker friend. “My mother always said that I have a hollow leg. I am always hungry, what can I say?”
“One day you will end up as round as your brother in law. I swear, Hurst is as large around as he is tall.”
“Louisa is not pleased with her husband. He used to be an active man, until he had to spend time with our sister, Caroline. Caroline believes that Louisa and I are to be kissing her feet. She has turned Louisa’s marriage into a nightmare.”
“Well, let us order something to eat and sample some of the tea. We can speak as we are at the table.” Darcy motioned to the clerk. “Forgive me, sir, I would like a cup of the tea we were discussing. And I will have one of those delicious looking buns.” He stated as he pointed towards display of baked goods.
“I will have the same, though I would add two of those biscuits.” Bingley pointed.
The clerk went about his business, preparing the order for the two men. The men continued speaking of Bingley’s difficulties with his unmarried sister. Caroline Bingley was a difficult lady, having been spoiled when she was a child. Their family’s wealth was derived from trade, a fact that Caroline wished to make disappear. Her desire to become a part of the highest circles of society was appalling. She thought herself deserving of the best of everything, yet her behavior repulsed many who had met her.
Caroline Bingley also believed she would be the perfect candidate for Darcy’s wife. She was the only one who felt such, as Darcy made his friend aware that the chances of a match between him and Caroline were impossible. He would prefer to walk naked through Hyde Park in daylight than be trapped in a marriage to the revolting woman.
Unfortunately, Caroline had that effect on almost everyone she met. And Charles Bingley was ready to be done with his sister, as he wished to find a spouse for himself. He could not imagine any lady wishing to enter into a marriage with him, knowing they would have to share a home with his sister.
The men spoke of the coming events with which they had to contend. Darcy had a younger sister, much younger than he, for whom he was responsible. “Georgiana wishes to put off her coming out again. She says she is not ready for such, as she is frightened of being in large crowds of people. My poor sister declared that she would die on the spot if she were to forced to enter a ballroom filled with people.”
“Perhaps she will do better, once she has had a chance with her new companion. When will you do the interviews?”
“My cousin, Richard, is supposed to join us next week, and we will begin sorting through the candidates. I wish to find someone a bit closer to Georgiana’s own age, though I feel the need for the wisdom which comes with age. It is difficult.”
Bingley nodded his head in agreement. “At least you have a sweet natured sister. I lost track of the number of governesses and companions Caroline has gone through over the years. And she is fast approaching the point of being on the shelf, which will make her unbearable. If we have to set up her own establishment, anyone who is hired as her companion will require nerves of iron.”
The clerk had placed the ordered items on the table for the men to enjoy. He then spoke to the man named Darcy.
“Forgive me, Sir, but I could not help but over hear your conversation. You are looking for a companion for your sister?”
Darcy nodded his head. The clerk continued. “My elder sister is looking for a position. She is a gentlewoman, our father owned an estate in Hertfordshire. She is intelligent, sweet natured, rarely has a bad word for anyone.”
“And what is your sister’s name? Where does she live?”
“At the moment, she lives with our relations here in Town. The past year has been difficult, after the epidemic made its way through our home county and Town. Her name is Miss Jane Bennet.”
Darcy looked the young man over. He was impressed with him, as it was clear that the clerk could not be more than nineteen. Nineteen, and apparently the head of his family. After losing his mother when Georgiana was born, followed by their father’s death when Georgiana was twelve, Darcy could understand the weight of the world crashing upon young shoulders. He had only been four and twenty when he inherited his father’s estate and his sister.
“And why are you and your sister in need of employment? Did you not inherit your father’s estate?”
“Forgive me, but it is difficult to speak of the matter. Just before the epidemic, there had been a fire. The damage was severe, damaging most of the tenant homes and causing the main house to be uninhabitable. The damage was too extensive, and financially, we could not remain there. As we prepared to move to Town, and sell the estate to pay our bills, most of our family was stricken with cholera. It took our parents, two sisters, aunts and uncles. All that is left of our family is two of my sisters, an aunt, and three young cousins. My earnings here do not cover all our expenses, so my elder sister stated she would look for employment. Our younger sister aids our aunt with the children, as our aunt was left delicate from the epidemic.”
Bingley was taken by the conversation. “How old are you? You appear to be quite young.”
“I will be twenty on my birthday, in two months.”
“And your name?” Darcy inquired.
“My name is Elijah, Elijah Bennet.”
“Here is my card. Ask your sister to come to my address tomorrow afternoon, at two. We will see if your sister is a good fit for my sister.”
The men finished their refreshments, and purchased tea to take with them. After they left, the clerk stepped in the back room for a moment. Hearing a voice coming from the upstairs apartment, the clerk quickly moved up the stair case.
“What is going on up here?”
Katherine Bennet, known to her family as Kitty, was seated on the floor, holding a young boy in her arms. “Edward fell and skinned his knee. Forgive me, Lizzy, I tried to keep him quiet.”
Elizabeth Bennet sat down on the floor beside her sister and cousin. “Edward, what were you doing? How did you hurt yourself?”
“I was trying to catch Martha, as she took my apple. I tripped over the rug.” The young boy of eight tried to wipe the tears from his eyes.
“Martha, bring your brother his apple. Do you realize how wrong you were for taking it from him?”
Martha Gardiner was only six, but she knew how to behave properly. Her head hung low as she acknowledged her elder cousin. Elizabeth spoke again. “Now, apologize to your brother, and give him his apple.”
Once the children were calmed, Elizabeth took a seat in one of the chairs in the small parlor. Kitty kissed her cousin on the head, and told him to take his apple with him as he went to the corner of the room to eat his treasure.
“I have an appointment tomorrow for Jane. A position as a companion to a young girl, who is not yet out in society. From what I heard from her brother and his friend, the girl is shy and in need of guidance.”
“Jane is such a kind and caring lady, she would be able to comfort any young lady.” Kitty stated. “How is the shop today? Has there been much business?”
“Some. Enough that we will be able to purchase Aunt’s medicine and the supplies we will need for the week. Thanks to Lady Matlock, we have a new customer. Mr Darcy is his name, and it is his sister who is in need of a companion.”
“How are you today? I know you despise pretending to be a young man.”
“When everything happened, I had no choice. I wish for the day when I do not need to wrap my chest to cover my bosom. As much as I dislike my hair cut short and wearing Uncle’s clothing, there is something liberating about men’s trousers.”
“I find you looking completely different when you wear Papa’s spectacles. If I did not already know you, I would have a difficult time recognizing you as my sister.” Kitty reached over and took hold of Elizabeth’s hand. “We are all proud of you, Lizzy. The sacrifices you have made for all of us, we cannot begin to thank you for saving us.”
“Hush, there is no need for such talk. Someone had to work, and this allowed us to keep Uncle’s shop and the rooms up here. If we had lost this place, I do not know what we would have done.”
The bell on the door of the shop announced a customer. Elizabeth placed her father’s spectacles on her face and made her way down the stairs. As she assisted the new customer, Elizabeth said a silent prayer, begging God for her sister to obtain the position with Mr Darcy’s sister. If they could keep the shop and residence above, they would be able to improve their situation.
# # #
The previous year had taken a toll on Elizabeth Bennet and her family. At one point, she had been the care free second born daughter of Thomas and Frances Bennet, at her father’s estate of Longbourn. Between the damage from the fire and the cholera epidemic, she had lost both of her parents, the next sister, Mary, and the youngest sister, Lydia.
Thomas Bennet’s death was due to his weakened heart being unable to withstand the strain after the fire. Mrs Bennet and two of her daughters succumbed to cholera, as did her sister and brother in law, who lived in the market town of Meryton. Only a few households had survived the epidemic unscathed, the rest had lost at least one member of their family. Elizabeth and Jane had been ill, though not as severely. When they were able to make the journey to London, they were to discover that the city was not safe from the illness. Mr Gardiner, Mrs Bennet’s brother, had died, taking one of his children with him.
Mrs Helen Gardiner was left with a weakened heart from her battle with illness. She would require assistance to tend her remaining young children, as she could not care for them on her own.
Mr Gardiner had been a businessman for most of his life. Not long before his death, he had sold his warehouse and home in Cheapside, purchasing the building they currently lived in. Mr Gardiner knew his wife had wished for him to open a tea shop. So he had imported a large supply of different teas and herbal blends to sell. Unfortunately, the supplies arrived a fortnight after Mr Gardiner was dead. At first, Elizabeth attempted to run the shop as herself. No man would do business with a girl of nineteen, and she was treated as if she was of no importance.
As they were packing some of her uncle’s clothes away, Elizabeth noticed that other than height, she was not far from her uncle’s size. That was when she came up with the plan. If men would not do business with her as a girl, she was hopeful they would do so if they believed her to be a young man. So she cut her long chocolate brown curls short, had her sister assist in wrapping cloth strips around her bosom, and began wearing her uncle’s clothing. The very same people who would not do business with Elizabeth Bennet had no difficulties in doing so with Elijah Bennet. When anyone asked after Elizabeth, they were told that she took a position in the north, as a governess. The only people aware of who she truly was were her family. As Elijah, she spoke with a deeper voice, wore her father’s reading spectacles, and did her best to act as a young man would.
The most difficult part of the pretense was explaining to her cousins, who were all under the age of ten, why they must refer to her as Elijah rather than Lizzy or Elizabeth. Her sisters and aunt had enough trouble remembering, how could young children remember?
Since Elijah took over the shop, business had begun to pick up. Being located in a fashionable section of Town also aided the business.
When Kitty was not tending the children or assisting their aunt, she spent hours in the kitchen of the living quarters. It was her baked goods that complimented the teas and coffees that were sold in the shop. If people had tasty treats to indulge in, they would likely remain and spend more. As with Darcy and Bingley, both men enjoyed the refreshments, therefore, they purchased items to take home with them.
Elizabeth hoped and prayed that Jane could secure the companion position with Darcy’s sister. It would alleviate some of their worries, and allow them to save some coins. Eventually, Elizabeth would like to expand the business, and even hire some servants to assist.
~~ ** ~~
The day was done and Jane had returned home from her search for employment. “It was tiresome, leaving my name and information with people who will never contact me. I am pleased I listened to Aunt, and had the cards made up with my name and address. With the cards, I do not have to worry about writing everything out and having to carry writing supplies with me.”
“Jane, I have secured an interview with a gentleman who is seeking a companion for his younger sister. She is not out yet, and from what I learned, she is very shy and easily intimidated. You would be perfect for the position.”
“You would be better, Lizzy. You have spent many more hours studying under Papa. I am limited.”
“You were trained at Mamma’s knee, and are more adapt at becoming the Mistress of some wealthy man’s home. Those are the skills a young lady of society need.”
Jane felt a pang of guilt. “I wish I had learned more. I feel… inadequate.”
“You could always dress in men’s clothes and work with me in the tea shop.” Elizabeth teased. “Though I am not sure we could disguise your beauty, so no one would ever believe you are a man.”
“Lizzy, you are just as beautiful. You just do not give yourself credit. I am surprised you are able to hide your…your…”
Jane chuckled. “Indeed, your bosom and your hips. You have the most ladylike figure of us.”
“Well, so far, no one realized the truth. We need to keep the shop running, and and that means having a man in charge.” Elizabeth sighed. She hated the deception, but there was no other alternative.
~~ ** ~~
Jane Bennet returned home to the apartments above the tea shop. She could not contain her smile.
“Oh, Lizzy, I am so grateful to you. Miss Darcy is such a sweet girl. And so shy. I doubt she said more than a dozen words in all the time I was there. You should see their townhouse. It is the most beautiful home I have ever seen.”
Did they hire you?” Kitty asked.
“They did. I begin tomorrow. Mr Darcy has made an appointment for me with Miss Darcy’s modiste, to have some new gowns made. He stated that the new gowns were due to our attending gatherings of the upper circles of society.”
“Oh, my. So those will be deducted from your salary.” Elizabeth began adding sums in her head.
“No, Lizzy. The Darcys wished to purchase the gowns for me. Mr Darcy realizes that we are struggling, and he stated that he wished to pay for the gowns, as he pays for the uniforms of his servants. The gowns will be my uniforms.”
“This is far kinder than we could have hoped. And the duties, will you have time for yourself?”
Jane nodded her head. “Mr Darcy said that I could have one afternoon during the week, and Sundays for myself. And Lizzy, the salary is more than I could have imagined.”
When Elizabeth heard the amount, she nearly swooned. She was certain there had been a mistake.
“And how soon do you begin?”
“Tomorrow. I will have my own, private, chambers near Miss Darcy’s rooms. They took me on a tour of the house, and showed me the rooms I will be using. Lizzy, Miss Darcy’s apartment is larger than this entire upper floor. It is incredibly large.”
Elizabeth smiled. At least one of them would live in luxury.
~~~~~~~ ** ~~~~~~~