Charles Bingley scaled the steps to Longbourn Manor with an enthusiasm he didn't feel and regarded the house with something like trepidation. In his hand he held two small pieces of paper which had been worn by being constantly put into and removed from his pocket. One contained the direction to Longbourn, the other was a letter from Mr. Edgeworth of Claycombe Park in Durham. His person could only be called rough. He caught a glimpse of himself reflected in one of the windows and hardly recognized himself. His hat was a dreadful thing that drooped on one side. He wore a rough linen shirt that scratched his skin, a leather waistcoat, dark and poorly cut trousers, and a coat of such poor quality he had shuddered to put it on.
At least his wretched appearance matched his state of mind.
With a shake of his head he pulled himself from his reflection and his reflections and rung the bell. The door was answered by a middle-aged woman in a very plain cap and neat dress.
"Mis--er, Charles Bingley, ma'am, here to see Mister Ridgeway."
"To what purpose?"
He cleared his throat. "Employment, ma'am."
"Do you have a letter?"
"Come with me."
He was led through the front foyer. His first impressions of the house's interior matched his impressions of its exterior. It was a respectable establishment, neither ostentations nor shabby. There were hints of luxury in the furnishings and the textiles, but nothing to suggest very great wealth. Bingley dated the house from the early part of the century, perhaps from just before the ascension of George I.
He was led to a small office in the back of the house and presented to Mr. Ridgeway, the steward of Longbourn. Bingley remembered to take off his hat as he stepped inside and said, "I've come to inquire about a position. I was told at the inn that something might be available here."
Mr. Ridgeway peered at him over a pair of spectacles. "Do you have any letters?"
"I do, sir," Bingley said and handed him Edgeworth's still sealed letter.
Mr. Ridgeway looked it over carefully. "Mr. Edgeworth was very complementary."
"Yes, sir." He ought to have been. This was all his fault. Him and Ashbourne. He wasn't certain which of them he hated more at that moment.
"You are a long way from Durham. May I ask why you've chosen to come here."
"I have family in London, sir."
"Why not seek employment in London then?"
"Because I have family in London, sir," Bingley said with a smile.
Mr. Ridgeway chuckled. "Quite right." He drummed his fingers on his desk. "I gather from this letter that you are used to a grand sort of household. Longbourn I'm afraid is not so grand. The house keeps few menservants, and you'll find no livery here." He cocked his head and looked Bingley over. "You're young, well looking. Five foot ten, are you?"
"Five foot eleven in my stocking feet," Bingley said, uncomfortable with being so blatantly sized up like a side of beef.
Mr. Ridgeway laughed again. "Well, you won't find yourself paid a premium for that here." He drummed his fingers on the desk again, considering. "How do you feel about indoor work? Have you any experience with it?"
"The missus, she likes to keep one indoor manservant around. John left us last month to get married and hasn't been replaced. The master objects to the cost, but I know he'll agree if the mistress takes a fancy to you. It is not the work you were told of, but do you have any objections to it?"
"No sir," Bingley said, afraid to say anything different, though he would have preferred to keep out of doors despite the coming winter. It seemed less humiliating somehow.
His next object it seemed was to be briefly introduced to the mistress of the house. Mrs. Bennet was a woman of about four or five and forty. Her face still held the traces of the beauty she must have possessed in her youth, and her figure was good. She looked him over briefly, declared him a "well looking young man, far more stately than the manservant the Lucases had lately employed" and was done with him. And that, it seemed, was that. Never having been engaged in the office of hiring a servant--excepting of course his own vallet--Bingley was rather surprised to find the process as quick as it was.
Mr. Ridgeway had a maid show him to his room. The maid, Matty, was a young girl who looked about fifteen, small and light. Between the moment of Mr. Ridgeway leaving them and their arrival at the door of his room, Matty did not cease talking.
"There's five girls, plus the missus and the master. Mr. Bennet is a good sort, won't trouble you much, but don't be expecting you can cheat him. He knows what goes on, for all that it looks he don't. The missus yells at all hours of the day and night, but mostly for Hill, that's Mrs. Hill to you and me. If the missus is having a bad day, Mrs. Hill is having a bad day, and you and me is having a bad day. You ever worked in a house with six ladies? No, don't suppose you have, or you never would have come to Longbourn. Miss Bennet is a nice sort, and won't ever get you in trouble. I scorched one of her gowns once, broke down crying, sure as I was going to lose my place, but she just sighed and told me nevermind. She must never have told her mama, or I wouldn't never be here anymore. Miss Elizabeth is not so nice, or I don't think she would have hid the gown from her mama in any case, but she don't expect too much. Miss Mary is always in her books and mostly never asks for anything. You must needs to watch out for the youngest two. They always have something or other to be fetched or carried or ironed or washed and they go complaining to their mama if it isn't done just right. The missus is looking to get all the girls married off. Miss Bennet is the prettiest of them all, and I wonder she ain't married yet. If I were half so pretty as her, and with a dowry of a whole thousand pounds (though I understand for folk of her quality that's not so much), I'd have been married years ago. I'm nineteen now, and hoping to be married soon. I've saved eighty two pounds and nine shillings for my dowry on account of I've been working since I was twelve, and mother don't expect me to pay her all of my wages. Miss Elizabeth has a fair chance of catching a man, she's pretty enough, but nothing to her sister, I think, but she's too forward, or I heard John, that's the man we had afore you, say that men don't like a woman so forward as that, and some of the things she says, he's take a wife in hand for saying. Miss Mary is a plain little thing, and never interested in doing anything about it. And the younger two, well, they're just as wild about the men as can be, but Mr. Bennet says they're silly girls, and I heard him wonder that any man would want such a silly wife, though if you want my opinion, he took a very silly wife for himself."
Here they reached a very small, cramped, and cold basement bedroom, which it seemed he was expected to be grateful for as, being the only man servant lodged in the manor house, he did not have to share it with anyone. With effort, Bingley made the appropriate noises of gratitude which seemed to assuage Matty who, she told him, was forced to share with two others up in the attic. A brief question about how many were employed in the house set her off again.
"Well, Mr. Ridgeway is the steward, of course, you met him already. Mrs. Hill is the housekeeper. There's two of us housemaids, Me and Tilly. Rose and Sarah are the junior kitchen maids, and Foster is the cook. Mary is the scullery maid, on account of she's only thirteen and the missus says she don't know how to do anything but scrub pots, but sometimes I shows her the upstairs work. It'd be good for her, if she could get a place upstairs. Mrs. Hill is always cross, and she likes to order us girls about. Don't you take no mind if she don't like you, she never did like John none, on account of his being a man, and she don't think it's good to have a man in a house with so many ladies, but the missus likes to keep a man about, on account of it looks good, and reminds everyone of how high and mighty the Bennets are."
Bingley managed to break in here and ask if the Bennets were well known in the neighborhood.
"Oh, bless me, yes. Longbourn is worth a clear 2,000 a year if it's worth a shilling. There's not many near Meryton who can match that. The Lucases aren't worth half so much, for all that they put on great airs on account of their father being Sir William. The estate won't go to the girls, though, on account of there being an entail, which the missus is always going on about, and how horrible it is for the girls. Oh, but listen to be rattle on and on. Mrs. Hill will scold me something terrible if I don't get back to my work. You settle in, and then you'd best go up to see the master, supposin' he might want to meet you, now that he's going to be paying your wages and all," Matty said, all without seeming to take a breath, and was gone before he could respond, leaving Bingley alone in his small, rather uncomfortable room to contemplate his new position and try to make sense of all Matty had said.