The Bennets have just visited Netherfield and Lydia has named the day of the ball. Now it is up to Caroline to plan a ball.
Nov 14, 1811
The garish Bennet women finally trundled out of Netherfield’s parlor. Not a moment too soon. Caroline pressed her eyes with thumb and forefinger. They had already overstayed their allotted quarter hour by that much again.
How much trouble had that wrought? What disaster might ensue if they stayed any longer? Pray they not choose to call again.
Had it not been enough to play hostess to two of the Bennet women, the two least offensive to be sure, but still—this latest affront was too much to be borne.
“Charles, a word if you please.” Caroline beckoned him to follow, nodded to Mr. Darcy and strode from the parlor.
She led him to the morning room and shut the door firmly behind them. One, two three, four. She must control her temper. A proper lady did not give voice to the vitriol that bubbled within. That did not mean she would not struggle in the effort. Perhaps if she kept her back to him, hands firmly knotted together that would help.
“Caroline? Caro, are you well? Is there something wrong?” Heavy, booted footfalls approached.
She drew a deep breath and turned very slowly to face him. An open palm stopped his advance. “Is there something wrong? Is that all you can say?”
Charles pinched the bridge of his nose. ‘What is not to your liking now?”
“You do not know? Oh, Charles.” She stalked away. Was he truly that uninformed or did he just take some perverse pleasure in vexing her just because he could?
He pulled a chair from under the table and sat down, bracing elbows on knees. “Pray, just tell me, what have I done?”
He was right, her voice had become more of a shriek. She must master that. It would not do to have the rest of the household hear her use such an unladylike tone.
“Did you not tell me you wished to host a ball once we settled in?” He picked at the tablecloth, refusing to meet her gaze.
“Yes I did.”
“Then pray tell me what is the problem?”
“Problems, brother, problems.” She paced along the windows. If he did not know, how was she to begin?
“Just tell me, do not keep me here like a child to be scolded or I shall leave directly.”
She whirled and took two steps toward him. “Why did you allow that little Bennet chit to choose the date of the ball?”
“Is that all?” He shook his head and rolled his eyes.
“How can you say such a thing?”
“It is only a date. Is not one as good as the next?”
“I am mistress of your house, Charles, you should have given me the task.” She folded her arms across her chest and pulled herself up to her full height.
“Why does it matter? Are you truly so small minded you would begrudge—”
“Did you take note of the date she selected?”
“What date is it now?”
“Do you not see the problem?”
He pressed his temples. “Just tell me. I have no desire to play guessing games with you.”
“How long have I to plan and execute this ball?”
“I still do not see the fuss. You have an entire fortnight to accomplish what you need to do.”
She pulled out a chair and placed it facing his. Five, six, seven, eight. She sat down across from him, knees nearly touching his. Nine, ten.
“When should we send invitations out?” She forced her lips to curve up. It helped moderate her tone.
“I do not know.” He twitched his hands between them. “When ample white soup has been made?”
She covered half her face with her hand, pressing her fingertips into her forehead. “Let me start at another point. What exactly do you think needs to be done to carry off this event we are committed to?”
“Hire a few musicians, invite the neighbors…”
At least he had the good sense to stop talking before he made a complete fool of himself.
“Consider, just for a moment the invitations. To begin with, a proper ball invitation is sent a month, and better six weeks in advance, after having been professionally printed by a copper plate. How long do you think it takes to get invitations printed for an event?”
His eyes widened and jaw dropped. “I…I…I…”
“The best I can hope for now is that the printer will have some sort of general invitations available that require the specific details to be handwritten in. And if those are available, do you have any idea how long it will take to see them all written?”
“I…I can assist…”
“With your handwriting? You must be joking. Bad enough they should not be printed. If you wrote them, who knows what day our guests would arrive!”
“I am sorry…”
“If I leave to consult with the printer this very moment, I would count myself very fortunate to have the task finished by tomorrow evening. So, at very best, the invitations cannot go out less than ten days before the event. Ten days! Can you imagine what the neighbors will say?”
“I had no idea.”
“Clearly. Have you any idea of what else must be done—no—do not bother to answer. I already know you do not.”
He sprang to his feet and took her place pacing in the sunbeam. “What is to be done? Shall I call upon the Bennets and explain?”
“Certainly not. The very notion. I have no doubt Miss Lydia will have told the entire population of Hertfordshire by now. To revoke the invitation or even change the date would be a stain upon our reputation.”
“Surely you exaggerate.”
“Indeed I do not. This ball will be the singular social event of the year. Our standing in this dreary patch of country will be made or broken by the ball. I will not have you ruin it before we have even begun.”
“Then what would you have me do?”
“Open your wallet, close your mouth, ask no questions, and stay out of my way. I have a ball to arrange.”
Charles stared at her and gulped.
“And thank me when it is all over and I have made you and the Netherfield Ball the talk of the county.”
He jumped back as she swept out of the room.
Nov 16, 1811
Caroline dipped in a curtsey. Graceful, but hardly gracious. And the little chit did not even know the difference. Good thing she was pretty enough for a little country town or with manners like that, Lydia Bennet would surely have no hope of any kind of future.
She pinched her temples. The ill-mannered audacity of it all! Asking when the invitations would be sent! And Charles was no help. ‘When Nicholls has made enough white soup’—what kind of an answer was that?
Had she not disabused him of that particular joke earlier?
Thank heavens he had agreed to walk the entire gaggle of Bennet sisters home, and she was rid of the whole lot of them at once.
Perhaps now she might get on with her business. There was no time to be lost in frivolous chattering and gadding about. She pulled her housekeeping journal from her reticule. At least she had an ally in her efforts.
Nicholls had proven herself a treasure. Not only was she able to suggest where qualified additional help might be hired—at least two scullery maids, two kitchen maids, and additional man to help polish the silver and attend the men’s retiring room, and a pair of maids for everything else—Nicholls also crafted a very suitable menu for the evening—all sixty-three dishes of it. What was more, she identified the best local resources for everything the ball required. And the list of requirements was long.
To think Charles initially balked at the salary the housekeeper demanded. To be sure he was willing to pay handsomely for his valet when he could honestly make do with a far less expensive man, but one never, ever skimped on a housekeeper.
And this one was worth her weight in sugar, beeswax candles and the ice she knew remained in the ice house. Without her help and better, her experience, the event would be entirely impossible. Nicholls was, without a doubt, to date the best housekeeper they had ever enjoyed.
She even kept the guest list from the ball thrown by Netherfield’s last tenants. To be sure it was two years old, but it was a place to start. That foresight saved Caroline at least two hours’ time in her efforts, two hours she desperately needed.
It would take at least that long to engage the musicians Nicholls recommended and the artist to chalk the floors. Caroline flipped to the back of her book. Thank heavens, the sketch she had made of tall ships and starry skies remained tucked in place. Done by a proper artist, it would be the perfect complement to a candlelit ballroom. Not to mention it would help cover those scratches and stains on the floorboards that no one had bothered to notice until she checked under the carpeting. Ah well, Nicholls could not be perfect, could she?
Oh the chandler! Botheration, she nearly forgot. That shop was on the way to the musician’s. She really ought to stop there first. Best insure sufficient six hour candles were available. It was entirely possible she might have to enlist the services of a second chandler in this sleepy little village. Who could predict what kind of stock would be available here? Surely it would be unusual for them to fill very large orders. Balls like this one could not happen more than once a season, if that often.
If only she had time to go to London—
She pinched the bridge of her nose. That conversation had not gone well. Charles had been so agreeable until that point. Why would he balk at a perfectly reasonable suggestion?
Capitulating had been mortifying, but permitting him to cancel the ball would have been far worse. Their reputation might never recover were that to happen.
At least Mr. Darcy had calmed Charles when the wine seller’s bill arrived. What did he expect her to make punch and negus from? What would a ball be without iced punch served to cool the dancers between each set?
Dear Mr. Darcy had agreed with her and convinced Charles to give her her head with everything else. What would this ball be without him to convince Charles of the desperate need to make this the event of the season?
Why it would be little different than that dreadful assembly attended by every shopkeeper and apprentice in the country where one could not always tell them from the gentlemen. To think whom she had agreed to dance with that night! Poor clerks should not be permitted to wear excellent suits and pass themselves off as more genteel than their occupation renders them.
And Charles thought it such a fine joke, even going so far as to suggest she might wish to invite him so that she might dance with him again.
Perish the thought. The Netherfield ball would be everything a proper, private, ball should be. Excellent company, excellent music, excellent victuals. All the height of fashion and refinement.
Well, perhaps not all the guests. The Bennets and the utterly garish Sir William Lucas and family had to be invited after all.
Nonetheless, this would be her opportunity to show Hertfordshire—and Mr. Darcy—what a proper mistress could do for Netherfield Park.
She paused and drew a deep breath. That was a far more agreeable thought to dwell upon. Mr. Darcy, with his fine figure, his excellent manners and extensive grounds. If she could impress him, show him she had all the qualities necessary for the mistress of a grand estate, perhaps then he would pursue her more seriously.
Clearly that was his intent. The conversations they shared, the snide remarks he offered for her enjoyment along, he must considering her. Surely concern for her fitness to manage his home had been the reason he hesitated. As cakey as Charles could be, Mr. Darcy must need concrete assurances that she would reflect well upon him in society.
And he would have it. The Netherfield ball would be every bit as grand as if it were held in London. She would prove herself a credit to her brother…and to any man who would make her mistress of his estate.
Yes, that would make all this inconvenience and bother entirely and completely worthwhile.
She tucked her journal back into her basket and turned into the chandler’s shop. About three hundred candles would do very nicely.