'I am sure our daughters should be vastly grateful to you, for letting us appear to such advantage, Mr Bennet. You are so considerate. What, pray, is the young fellow's name?
'His given name is James,' Mr Bennet said. 'The surname is a very common one. He is called Smith.'
It was Mrs Hill who had spoken, barely above her breath, but the words were said. Jane lifted her cup and sipped; Elizabeth raised her eyebrows but stared at her plate; Mrs B. glanced round at her house- keeper. Sarah watched a flush rise up Mrs Hill's throat; it was all so new and strange that even Mrs Hill had forgot herself for a moment. And then Mr B. swallowed, and cleared his throat, breaking the silence.
'As I said, a common enough name. I was obliged to act with some celerity in order to secure him, which is why you were not sooner informed, Mrs Hill; I would much rather have consulted you in advance.'
Cheeks pink, the housekeeper bowed her head in acknowledgement.
'Since the servants' attics are occupied by your good self, your husband and the housemaids, I have told him he might sleep above the stables. Other than that, I will leave the practical and domestic details to you. He knows he is to defer to you in all things.'
'Thank you, sir,' she murmured.
'Well.' Mr B. shook out his paper, and retreated behind it. 'There we are, then. I am glad that it is all settled.'
'Yes,' said Mrs B. 'Are you not always saying, Hill, how you need another pair of hands about the place? This will lighten your load, will it not? This will lighten all your loads.'
Their mistress took in Sarah with a wave of her plump hand, and then, with a flap towards the outer reaches of the house, indicated the rest of the domestic servants: Mr Hill who was hunkered in the kitchen, riddling the fire, and Polly who was, at that moment, thumping down the back stairs with a pile of wet Turkish towels and a scowl.
'You should be very grateful to Mr Bennet for his thoughtfulness, I am sure.'
'Thank you, sir,' said Sarah.
The words, though softly spoken, made Mrs Hill glance across at her; the two of them caught eyes a moment.
'Thank you, sir,' said Mrs Hill.
Mrs Bennet dabbed a further spoonful of jam on her remaining piece of buttered muffin, popped it in her mouth, and chewed it twice; she spoke around her mouthful: 'That'll be all, Hill.'
Mr B. looked up from his paper at his wife, and then at his housekeeper.
'Yes, thank you very much, Mrs Hill,' he said. 'That will be all for now.'
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.
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