Excerpt and Outtake from Twelfth Night at Longbourn
A soft rap on the door demanded her attention.
“Miss Bennet?” Hill poked her head in. “The mumpers are coming up the lane.”
“St. Thomas Day already?” Kitty dropped her tambour and hook and hurried to the window. A small group of old women wearing faded, patched gowns and ragged shawls tottered toward the house. “Why do they come so early?”
Hill peeked over Kitty’s shoulder and shrugged. “They must start early if they are to call upon all the better houses of the neighborhood. They cannot walk nearly so fast as they used to.”
Kitty returned to her chair and picked up her work.
“Please, Miss. I do not think the mistress is ready for company now, but I am sure she would want Longbourn to greet them properly.”
But it was Mama’s job, not hers! Kitty barely contained her huff. Hill always scolded when she huffed. “Yes, yes, of course. I will be down presently.”
Hill dipped in a stiff curtsey and disappeared.
Would that Hill would stay away and keep her temper to herself. At least she had not yet begun to rail. Small blessing, still—Kitty smoothed her crisp lawn skirt and drew a deep breath. Would Mama ever stop being indisposed all the time?
When Jane and Lizzy were at home, they stepped into Mama’s role at times like this. Now that she was the only sister at Longbourn, all the disagreeable duties fell to her. As usual, Lydia managed to leave her with all the unpleasantries whilst she escaped to have fun.
Coarse voices filtered from the kitchen. Bother, they were already inside! If she did not hurry, Hill would come after her again, ringing her a fine peal all the way. Why did all old women sound so raspy and nasal and horrible? She quickened her pace.
Kitty opened the kitchen door and nearly crashed into Mrs. Black. The toothless widow hunched over her cane, her balance so unsteady any breeze might topple her. She swayed dangerously.
“Excuse me!” Kitty grabbed the old woman’s elbow.
“Not to worry, Missy Bennet. If you would, just give a body a bit of a hand.” She leaned hard into Kitty’s grasp and wavered several more times and came to rest. She tapped her staff on the floor three times. “There now, all be well.”
Behind Mrs. Black, three more old women filled the kitchen with canes, dingy mobcaps, hunched backs and the odor of liniments brewed for oldsters’ aches and pains. Each woman held a two–handled pot, newly scrubbed for the occasion.
The wheat! No! She screwed her eyes shut. She forgot to tell Cook—
“Tea is set in the morning room,” Hill whispered. “Cook will fill their pots whilst you serve tea.”
Kitty’s eyes flew open and she threw her head back, sighing. Dear Hill! “Good morning. We…we are…very glad you have called.” Could they hear her over her heart’s drumming?
Why did Mama leave her all alone to do this? At least these old women seemed satisfied enough with her company—unlike the rest of Meryton. Of course, they could scarcely afford to be ungracious.
“Good morning, Miss Bennet.”
Enough wool gathering! She twitched her head and sent the rambling thoughts away. “Would you join us for tea?”
Their clacking walking sticks and shuffling steps nettled her nerves like sand in her shoes.
The cream and roses paper-hanging in the morning room reflected the morning light. Sun beams glittered off the tea service set at the hostess’s place. Plates of dainty sandwiches and biscuits, scones and dishes of homemade jams lined the center of the table, as fine a spread as Mama would use to entertain guests of quality.
“You are all so very, very good,” Miss Yates intoned in a glass scratching voice. How was a woman, thin and frail as a wisp of muslin with gnarled tree-limb joints, in possession of a voice so grating?
“Longbourn is most kind to the likes of us, you know, when me and Miss Yates don’t even live on Longbourn proper. So few concern themselves with the spinsters and widows these days…” Mrs. Black lifted a biscuit. Her trembling fingers scattered crumbs along the fine table cloth.
Spinsters and widows…Kitty nearly dropped the tea cup. Was that to be her fate? Who would marry her now when hardly anyone would even look at her? Perhaps an old widower would take her to manage his children and house. Such a man would never love her. She clutched the tea cup so tightly her hand shook like Mrs. Black’s. No one would ever love her.
“What is this?” Papa’s bristly voice announced his arrival. His wrinkled green coat hinted that he had fallen asleep fully dressed, again.
“We come a’thomasing, Mr. Bennet, sir.” Mrs. Black crooked her neck to peer up at him. Her eerie toothless grin drove another pang deep into Kitty’s gut.
“And we be offering blessings and good will upon you and all your family.” Miss Yates rose shakily.
The other women followed suit. One reached into her dirty, striped market bag and produced a small lace-trimmed sachet. From the scent, it contained lavender and something else Kitty did not recognize. Chamomile perhaps?
“For the mistress, sir.”
Papa turned it over in his hands.
“I sewed, she dried the flowers. Miss Yates there did the fancy work and Mrs. Black made up the lace.”
“Thank you. Mrs. Bennet will be very pleased.” Papa peered over the rims of his glasses at Mrs. Black. “You make bobbin lace?”
“I do a bit, sir. I done much more in my younger days.” She bobbed her head so hard she might fall over.
He nodded and slipped the sachet in his pocket. “Hill, send a tray to my bookroom. I will have a word with Mrs. Black before she leaves.” He bowed from his shoulders. “Good day.”
Kitty pressed her lips hard. Why did he not stay? Would it have been so very difficult?
The women turned expectant eyes on her.
Oh, dear—they must have some conversation, but what? What was it Mama did? Questions! She asked questions. Mama said that was the surest way to have conversation and set guests at ease.
So, Kitty asked after their children, their health, their homes and the weather. Perhaps too many, too quickly, but her queries filled the silence until tea was finished. She led them back to the kitchen where they received gifts of cooked wheat in their pots and small baskets of smoked meat and pickled vegetables. Crying more choruses of thanks, the mumpers left.
The kitchen door clattered shut. At long last they were gone and would not return until next St. Thomas’ Day. She dashed upstairs and threw herself against her door. If only her strength alone might bar the fearsome thoughts from entering.
So meager a fortification stood little chance, and they filtered in, tightening their ribbon tendrils about her chest and throat. She would be as those mumpers—old and alone. She would have to rely on the charity of her neighbors when no one else cared for her.
And it was Lydia’s fault.
She flung herself headlong onto her bed. The pillow muffled her wrenching sobs. Such was the mumpers’ blessing.
Miss Yates asked her to make a bit of lace weeks ago. For a gift for Longbourn’s mistress, she said. The Bennet girls had been right good to them that year, it were only proper to present the family a small token.
Mrs. Black rolled her eyes and rubbed the back of her neck. It had been years since she had got her lace pillow and pins out. That reminder of better days were just too painful to look at. Often enough she wondered, what were the point of holding on to them any longer. Selling ‘em made more sense. Lord knew they need the blunt. But she just couldn’t bring herself to do it.
Years had taken their toll; sickness and hardship left her a bitter old woman she barely recognized, an empty husk of younger herself. She almost refused to a’thomasing when Miss Yates came to her door this morning. What were the point? Things only went from bad to worse for the like of her and getting throwed out of Longbourn sounded like a right foolish way to spend the morning. But Miss Yates was a stubborn woman, so stubborn Mrs. Black had to give way and join the mumpers on their journey into the crisp morning air.
The housekeeper and the daughter of the house welcomed them warm enough and gave them a lovely tea fit for quality guests. The generous blessing of wheat and food stuffs were certainly more than she hoped for. She was as grateful as she was surprised. But the Master himself asked to speak with her now. Certainly he would demand those gifts back since she were not a Longbourn tenant.
Mrs. Black followed Hill, cane thumping softly on the faded carpet of the hall. Longbourn weren’t so fine a place as Netherfield to be sure. But then, that Bascombe fellow who owned Netherfield were no Mr. Bennet.
Where were Bascombe when her son were so sick in his lungs he nearly died—or when the whole family came down with the fever. Nowhere, that’s where. It were the Lucases and the Bennets who came to help their neighbors and a right good thing they did too. With no money for an apothecary, it were those smelly brews Lady Lucas and Miss Mary made up that set them all to rights.
Them Bennets were good folk. There were no good reasons for her to be so cow-hearted, being called to see Mr. Bennet. Little good knowing that did.
Her hand shook harder than usual no matter how hard she gripped her cane. Fool thing acting like it were a’fearing.
The heavy door swung open in front of her.
“Mrs. Black, as you requested, sir.” Hill curtsied and left.
“Yes, yes, come in and shut the door behind you.” Mr. Bennet sat behind a great wooden desk, covered with books and papers. Stacks of books littered the floor.
He were not a tidy fellow. Mrs. Black forced her grin back. So unordered a man did not intimidate her. He were just like her son, but without a wife strong enough to manage him good and proper. She stepped in as briskly as her cane and old bones allowed.
She wobbled to a halt just in front of the desk. The lavender sachet for the Mistress lay on the desk blotter before him. He worked the edge between his fingers.
“You called for me, sir.”
He nodded and grunted.
“Seems to me you oughts tell me what for. Guessing will be of no use to either of us.”
He lifted his eyes. “Yes, I suppose, so.”
A man who married off four daughters in a single year should not have so many creases in his face. Perhaps the talk of Mrs. Bennet’s aliments were true after all.
“I understand you and your family have had a most difficult time this year.”
Her shoulders twitched up. “There be those time in any life for certain. I just be thankful I ain’t put none of them to bed with a mattock and spade.”
He nodded. “The weather will turn cold soon. The children are not big enough to chop wood.”
He were right and Bertie were not yet strong enough to be about it neither. But he would try—and probably put hisself in the ground doing it.
“I will send Billy Thompson this week. He is a bit of a scamp, but he can chop and help you prepare for the turn of the season. I expect you will be able to manage him well enough.”
“Raised four sons, ya know. He can’t be more handful than thems were.” She clutched her cane more tightly and wobbled slightly. “Thank you very kindly, sir.”
He nodded. “You still make lace?”
“Haven’t had so much time for it lately, what with the family sick and the like.”
“Would this allow you more time for a special project?” He pushed several coins toward her.
“Oh my!” She twisted her free hand in her skirt. To whip off thems coins, much as she needed them, would show herself not but a greedy guts.
“If you agree, I will give you the other half when you deliver your work.”
He probably wanted something she could not do. Nothing so good could come so easy, even on St. Thomas’ Day.
“Can you do this?” He slid a piece of paper out from the bottom of an untidy heap and pointed to the image of a lace fichu from a ladies’ magazine.
She picked it up and held it at arm’s length, turning it this way and that. Her heart beat faster. That pattern were not so complicated—
“But I want you to make the flowers roses instead of whatever those are here.” He flicked his finger on several spots of the image.
Roses! That were all her wanted? Just roses? “I made many a lace rose, sir.”
“So you can do this?”
“I can. But it will not be ready for Twelfth Night, if that be what you had in mind.” That truth could cost her blessing but she never had been good for a humbug.
“I had no expectation it would. I would like it for the spring, to celebrate the anniversary of our wedding.”
“That I can do.”
“Very good then. Take the coins and the picture and go on to work.”
“Thank you kindly, Mr. Bennet.”
The coins rattled in her hand. Was it possible? She could pay rent on Christmas now. “Thank you most kindly.” She turned toward the door.
“And do send your girls around, twice a week I should think. With four of our girls gone now, I hear cook complaining of too much food going to waste.”
“Yes…yes I will sir.” Oh, oh could it be? They would be warm and dry and fed this winter?
She hobbled away, tears streaming down her cheers and falling on her grey dress in dark silent splotches. She’s heard Mr. Bennet’s name was Thomas…no wonder he’d be so good, Meryton’s own St. Thomas.
Read more about mumpers and Christmastide charity here.
Read about St. Thomas Day here
If you enjoyed this post you might also enjoy: