The Countess has returned to Regency London to set a number of critical processes in motion that will assist Bennets further down the timeline. Here we see Miss Laura Jenkinson (the twenty-five year old sister-in-law of Rosings’ Mrs. Jenkinson) in repose with Lydia Bennet Wickham who has been brought to London at the behest of the Countess.
This excerpt of a work in progress is © 2017 by Don Jacobson. All rights reserved. No reproduction—either digital or print—is permitted without the expressed written consent of the author. Created in the United States of America.
Miss Jenkinson had trained herself to tune out the bulk of Lydia’s torrent of words that passed for her contribution to the conversation. She was not ignoring that which Lydia said, rather scanning the sentences and paragraphs for their essential meaning, and then cataloging items of interest. She had learned this method from her father who wished to process parishioner’s petitions revealed in the confidence of his study. A periodic nod gave permission for the other party to continue.
The two were still finishing the cold collation backed up with a luscious squash soup that Cook had presented to fortify them against the meeting to come. As Lydia chattered on about some of her newest gowns that had just been delivered, Laura cast her mind back over the past days.
T’is remarkable what unlimited funds can accomplish. Was it not but two days short of a fortnight ago that a messenger waited on me in the sitting room of this very house? He held a parchment scroll—young Mr. Hunters is always one for archaic styling—succinctly asking me to wait upon him in an hour, but to take those sixty minutes to pack for fast traveling to the North.
I should be thankful that my blood and my wardrobe have remained suitably composed from my years in Northumbria! Packing and dressing for warmth is second nature.
Within three quarters of an hour, Miss J was settling back into the squabs of Oakham House’s well-sprung coach. Her small traveling trunk was secured under a fitted tarpaulin on the rear rack.
Upon arriving at the Lincoln’s Inn offices of the firm, she was swiftly escorted into the austere presence of her employer who was settled like a spider in the center of her web directing an increasingly busy bustle of clerks and messengers.
Hunters stood while the young lady settled herself in the chair facing his expansive worktable. He bent above one note after another, affixing his signature and passing it off to be sealed and directed to its destination.
Then he addressed her, “We have been tasked by one of our clients with a mission of a somewhat clandestine nature. I am managing the activities here in Town, although they will not be required for well over a week.
“You, my dear Miss Jenkinson, are being dispatched to oversee the more immediate aspect of our project, and, I must say, this is a scheme for which you are uniquely suited.
“Briefly, although my clerks are copying out a dossier to with which you will be able to familiarize yourself as you travel north, you are setting out for Nottinghamshire to escort a soldier’s wife back to the city. The young lady and her situation is known to the firm. Suffice to say that, while Wilson and Hunters have many clients, this young lady is related to our most important one.
“She is currently residing in Newcastle. Her husband is on detached duty and she is, thus, alone.
“Our client has determined that is an unbearable set of circumstances for one who is as vivacious as Mrs. Wickham; to have to endure the frozen reaches of the North on her own during this festive season. Yes, Mrs. Wickham is her name. She is still but five-and-ten, a few months shy of her next anniversary.
“Our client, a distinguished aristocratic lady of a particular age, desires the company of Mrs. Wickham at the Twelfth Night Ball which she is hosting on January Third.
“The travel logistics—both north- and south-bound—are being coordinated as we speak—hence the chaos you passed through as you entered our offices. Space at inns along the way must be reserved. Carriages, maids, and outriders must be engaged for the return trip. Express messengers running in relay will take over thirty-six hours of nonstop riding to deliver the invitation and letter summoning Mrs. Wickham to Oakham House.
“Even with the rider leaving in the next several minutes, the earliest we can expect the messages to arrive in Newcastle will be late on the twenty-first. Allowing Mrs. Wickham a half-day—hopefully less—to make whatever arrangements she must, means that she will be no closer than Nottinghamshire by sunset on Christmas Eve. There you should be, as well, to meet her and return with her to Town.”
He then slid a sealed letter across the desk to rest in front of her.
“This note of introduction is to a distant cousin of mine, a spinster, Miss Catherine Judith Fountayne, the Mistress of Papplewick Hall in that county. She served as hostess to her bachelor uncle until his death in the Year Zero. His Will afforded her a life tenancy in recognition of her service.
“I hazard that she will enjoy some company during the holiday. She has oft lamented to me that she has few friends who will condescend to visit. At her age, she would prefer not to travel, especially on the questionable roads leading toward Scotland, so a visit to her nephew in High Melton in Yorkshire is completely out-of-the-question.
“However, you are young and adventurous. A few days of winter travel will not rattle your bones unnaturally. Assuming a reasonable pace along the Great Northern Road, I would estimate that you would arrive at Papplewick by the Twenty-third. That would allow you to settle in and be prepared to greet Mrs. Wickham when she arrives there on either that day or Christmas Eve.
“Miss Fountayne will receive an express so that you will not be unexpected,” Hunters concluded.
Laura had paused to collect her thoughts, and then asked, “I have no doubt that your research is beyond adequate, Mr. Hunters. If I may, though, what is the story behind this sudden desire by our client to have Mrs. Wickham visit?”
Hunters sucked air through his teeth before elliptically replying, “All I can say, Miss Jenkinson, is that our client has a familial interest in Mrs. Wickham’s happiness and welfare. Beyond that I must remain silent.”
Without any additional information forthcoming from the elderly lawyer, Miss J softly suggested that her carriage should make a brief detour to one of London’s better milliners. She intended to purchase two pairs of kid gloves, one for each lady. She would occupy her time on the road with embroidering each one’s initials in the cuffs, thus personalizing her simple Christmas gift to her ward and their hostess.
Hunters smiled at her, offering silent recognition of his wisdom in making her part of the Wilson and Hunters’ family.
The trip north to Nottinghamshire was uneventful as were the two days spent at Papplewick Hall awaiting Mrs. Wickham’s arrival. Laura could quickly see the family resemblance between Miss Fountayne and Mr. Hunters where it had settled in the unique cast of their eyes. The lady also favored rosa floribunda, several examples of which were arranged in small vases throughout the public areas of the beautiful estate.
Lydia’s entry into Papplewick could justifiably been called a blast of fresh air if not a blizzard. Miss Fountayne must have been born with a bountiful wealth of patience for she smiled genially, if with increasing tightness, at every “La, what a lark…” uttered by the adolescent. Another woman in possession of the income of an estate of more than 1,700 acres would have dispatched the noisome child back to the nursery even if it had not been dusted or heated for generations! Miss Jenkinson did her best to control Mrs. Wickham’s antics while blushing in constant embarrassment on behalf of Mr. Hunters and their unnamed client.
Thankfully, as far as Miss J was concerned, Boxing Day dawned crisp and clear, perfect for an early departure. She hustled Lydia into the coach, settling her, well-wrapped in laprobes, with heated bricks under her feet, before bidding the lady of the manor a fond, if bashful, adieu.
On the fourth day south of Papplewick, in spite of certain persons’ distaste at traveling on the Sabbath, the Oakham equipage rattled across the cobbles of the great city.
The entry of Mr. Hoskins, Oakham’s butler, bearing a silver salver upon which rested a missive, snapped her back to the present—silent now as even Lydia ceased her prattle. She noted the familiar seal—that of Mr. Hunters—impressed into the wax. Flicking it back with one well-filed nail, she quickly perused the brief note, easily translating Hunters’ cramped and efficient script.
Please be so kind as to consider the enclosed clipping from Friday last’s TIMES. I imagine it would be of interest to Mrs. Wickham—or at least I would hope it would be. Her family’s estate, Longbourn, is located in Meryton. They are safe and secure from the calamity. However, use your discretion about discussing it with her. Under no circumstances can she be allowed to visit Hertfordshire. Our client insists upon this. Our client also suggests that Mrs. Wickham may well be unconcerned considering the allure Town holds for her.
Yours & Etc.
The leader was graphic and frightening…even in this era of martial disasters and triumphs.
Giant Blaze Levels Market Town
***Scores Perish in Inferno***
***Govt Mobilizes Relief Effort***
***Mimram Mills Rebuilding***
The article detailed the fire that roared through Meryton beginning in the pre-dawn hours of the Twenty-Second before finally burning itself out on the Twenty-Fourth. The paper offered an unusually balanced account, splitting coverage between the rising death toll amongst the mill workers—unusual in that the paper’s circulation tended to be deepest in the breakfast rooms of the ton who cared little about those who wove the superfine which stylishly draped across their unbowed shoulders—and the costly destruction to Watson’s Mills, a prime source of cloth for army and naval uniforms, and wealth for those liberal enough to invest capital in manufacturing rather than in more land or less visible vices.
My, my…the smoke plume must have been visible here in Town, only four-and-twenty miles off.
At Lydia’s continued silence, Laura reached a decision. She slid the article across the cloth with a single sentence, “Longbourn is safe.”
The younger woman cocked her head to one side at the mention of her ancestral home and accepted the cutting. After a quick perusal, she shrugged her shoulders and smiled back at Laura.
Her single comment confirmed Hunters’ cryptic remark when she flippantly said, “Oh, Lawd, Papa would never allow Longbourn to burn…it would put him out of sorts if he had to decide whether to save Mama and the girls or his books.
“Now am I dressed properly for this meeting about which you are so insistent? Or, do I have time to change into one of my new gowns?”