Excerpt of Longbourn by Jo Baker
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'Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable.'
They were lucky to get him. That was what Mr B. said, as he folded his newspaper and set it aside. What with the War in Spain, and the press of so many able fellows into the Navy; there was, simply put, a dearth of men.
A dearth of men? Lydia repeated the phrase, anxiously searching her sisters' faces: was this indeed the case? Was England running out of men?
Her father raised his eyes to heaven; Sarah, meanwhile, made big astonished eyes at Mrs Hill: a new servant joining the household! A manservant! Why hadn't she mentioned it before? Mrs Hill, clutching the coffee pot to her bosom, made big eyes back, and shook her head: shhh! I don't know, and don't you dare ask! So Sarah just gave half a nod, clamped her lips shut, and returned her attention to the table, proffering the platter of cold ham: all would come clear in good time, but it did not do to ask. It did not do to speak at all, unless directly addressed. It was best to be deaf as a stone to these conversations, and seem as incapable of forming an opinion on them.
Miss Mary lifted the serving fork and skewered a slice of ham. 'Papa doesn't mean your beaux, Lydia do you, Papa?'
Mr B., leaning out of the way so that Mrs Hill could pour his coffee, said that indeed he did not mean her beaux: Lydia's beaux always seemed to be in more than plentiful supply. But of working men there was a genuine shortage, which is why he had settled with this lad so promptly this with an apologetic glance to Mrs Hill, as she moved around him and went to fill his wife's cup though the quarter day of Michaelmas was not quite yet upon them, it being the more usual occasion for the hiring and dismissal of servants.
'You don't object to this hasty act, I take it, Mrs Hill?'
'Indeed I am very pleased to hear of it, sir, if he be a decent sort of fellow.'
'He is, Mrs Hill; I can assure you of that.'
'Who is he, Papa? Is he from one of the cottages? Do we know the family?'
Mr B. raised his cup before replying. 'He is a fine upstanding young man, of good family. I had an excellent character of him.'
'I, for one, am very glad that we will have a nice young man to drive us about,' said Lydia, 'for when Mr Hill is perched up there on the carriage box it always looks like we have trained a monkey, shaved him here and there and put him in a hat.'
Mrs Hill stepped away from the table, and set the coffee pot down on the buffet.
'Lydia!' Jane and Elizabeth spoke at once.
'What? He does, you know he does. Just like a spider-monkey, like the one Mrs Long's sister brought with her from London.'
Mrs Hill looked down at a willow-pattern dish, empty, though crusted round with egg. The three tiny people still crossed their tiny bridge, and the tiny boat crawled like an earwig across the china sea, and all was calm there, and unchanging, and perfect. She breathed. Miss Lydia meant no harm, she never did. And however heedlessly she expressed herself, she was right: this change was certainly to be welcomed. Mr Hill had become, quite suddenly, old. Last winter had been a worrying time: the long drives, the late nights while the ladies danced or played at cards; he had got deeply cold, and had shivered for hours by the fire on his return, his breath rattling in his chest. The coming winter's balls and parties might have done for him entirely. A nice young man to drive the carriage, and to take up the slack about the house; it could only be to the good.
Mrs Bennet had heard tell, she was now telling her husband and daughters delightedly, of how in the best households they had nothing but manservants waiting on the family and guests, on account of every- one knowing that they cost more in the way of wages, and that there was a high tax to pay on them, because all the fit strong fellows were wanted for the fields and for the war. When it was known that the Bennets now had a smart young man about the place, waiting at table, opening the doors, it would be a thing of great note and marvel in the neighbourhood.
Excerpted from Longbourn by Jo Baker. Copyright © 2013 by Jo Baker. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.