Tabitha Goes in Search of a Tipple: A Mistaken Vignette

This bonus scene was originally posted at My Love for Austen as part of the Mistaken blog tour, but I’m sharing it here as well for fans of Mistaken and Tabitha Sinclair to enjoy.

butler

Saturday, 11 July 1812: Hertfordshire

Peabody spilled the liquor he was in the midst of pouring when the door to his pantry swung wide open without so much as a knock or a cough by way of announcement. He pushed himself to his feet, mouth open to deliver the sternest of admonishments but was stunned into silence when Colonel Fitzwilliam’s ancient grandmother stepped through the aperture.

Mrs. Sinclair had been at Netherfield but a few days; that she might lose her way in its halls was not beyond the realms of possibility. That she had found her way below stairs, past the kitchens, through the servants’ hall, and into his private pantry was harder to account for.

“There you are, Teabody,” she said, looking everywhere around his room but at him. “I am looking for the gin.”

She had clearly lost her wits as well as her way.

“It is Peabody, Mrs. Sinclair, and this is the basement. I am afraid you cannot be down here.”

She snapped her gaze to his and glared at him as though he were the addle-pate. “That is clearly wrong, for here I am.”

“Pardon me, I meant you ought not to be.”

“Do not presume to tell me what I ought and ought not to do, Peabrain. If I had lived my life doing what I ought to, I would have died of boredom a long time ago—or thirst. Indeed, I ought to be dead by now, but here I am, still alive—and still without anything decent to drink!”

Peabody pursed his lips and came out from behind his desk to hold the door open for her. “Allow me to escort you back above stairs, ma’am. There is gin in the drawing room.”

“Not any more.”

He stood straight and clasped his hands behind his back. “Then there is no gin left in the house, ma’am. That was the last of it.”

She looked thoroughly baffled by this, as though she had mistaken the house for a dram shop and could not fathom why it should not be better stocked. She peered around him to the abandoned bottle and glass on his desk. “What are you drinking?”

“Port.” He sensed no advantage in equivocating to one so determined to sniff out a drink.

“Whose?”

“Mine,” he lied, only saved from blushing by dint of his being blessed with the inability to do so.

“Balderdash.” She shooed him out of the way and tottered past him to arrange herself somewhat precariously on the wooden bench against the wall.

Peabody raised an eyebrow.

“Well, come along then, share it out,” she said. “If it is good enough for you to pilfer, it is certainly good enough for me to gargle.”

Peabody sighed just loudly enough to be certain she heard him as he poured another glass of port and handed it to her.

She took it, sipped it, looked about the room, sipped some more, then fixed her gaze on him and frowned. “Sit down, Peaman. I cannot abide it when people loom.”

“I was waiting to accompany you back above stairs, ma’am.”

“I am not ready to go back. The house is awash with fools.”

That almost succeeded in making Peabody smirk. It could not be denied there was a veritable deluge of folly in the saloon this afternoon, for Mrs. Bennet had called with all her daughters. “I am sorry to hear that, ma’am.”

She eyed him dubiously. “I imagine you are as sorry to hear that as I am to have drunk the house dry of gin—which I had to do, for I dared not touch the wine. I think it must be off.”

“The wine in my cellar is not off,” he replied stiffly.

“No? It must be the tea, then. Something has rendered everybody in the house stupid.”

“Mrs. Bennet always adds a certain quality to proceedings.”

“I do not doubt it. The woman is as mad as a box of frogs, but she at least is consistent. ’Tis all the others puzzling me.”

She wished him to enquire whom she meant, of course—and of course, he refused to oblige her. It did not put her off.

“Mr. Bingley is moping around like a wet rag. I have been used to think the sort of attributes Miss Bennet has on offer would please a young man, but he seems wholly uninterested, staring forlornly out of windows, and constantly sighing like a depressed bellows. What is wrong with the man?”

Peabody smiled despite himself at her truthful description of the master. “I understand he has much on his mind, ma’am.”

“No, he does not. He is rich. The only things demanding his attention are how he ought to spend his money, and how he ought to please his sweetheart.” She pointed at the port on Peabody’s desk. “You appear to be doing one of those for him, so he has no excuse for failing so completely at the other.”

“Indeed. But then, some women are difficult to please.”

Much to his surprise, she cackled gleefully at this and raised her glass in a merry salute. “Quite so, Treebody. But I heard that Mr. Darcy described this woman as pleased with everything. I heard that he said she smiles too much, but she never smiles at all, that I have seen. What has happened to make her so dull?”

“I am not in Miss Bennet’s confidence, ma’am.”

“And neither did I suppose you were. Do not pretend ignorance with me. I am not as senile as I am decrepit-looking. I know you see and hear things in your position. So tell me, what is it that has Miss Bennet giving Mr. Bingley the evil eye? Have they argued?”

“I am not paid to know such things.”

“I doubt very much you are paid enough not to know them.”

Peabody was not particularly loyal by nature, but his position at Netherfield was a singularly comfortable one, and he was not about to give it up to satisfy the whims of this stewed and gossipy old bat. He moved to his desk and topped up his glass, then met and held her eye. “The job has its perquisites.” He sipped his drink. “Enough to ensure that I do not cast aspersions about my employers or their guests.”

“I am not asking you to cast aspersions! I am quite content to do that myself. I only want you to answer a few discreet questions. Heavens, I really thought you had a little more nous about you, Fleabody.”

Quite apart from how little Peabody liked Mrs. Sinclair calling his understanding into question, he did not think she would go away until she was satisfied. “I do not believe they have argued, ma’am,” he capitulated. “Mr. Bingley is mortally averse to disputes of any sort.”

She nodded curtly. “So, something else has annoyed Miss Bennet—mayhap her sister, for I have seen her glower at Lizzy sometimes when she is with Mr. Darcy. That must be it. She is jealous that Lizzy has won the esteem of a richer, handsomer, cleverer man than she!”

“Miss Elizabeth has the esteem of a number of gentlemen, as I understand it, ma’am.”

“That is true.” She slurped her port thoughtfully. “There was that nincompoop Mr. Greyson. And her cousin. Well, that explains it—Miss Bennet is jealous that she has fewer admirers than her younger, more impudent sister. It is a fair complaint. I should be furious if Lizzy had done it to me. Fortunately, we are several generations removed and unrelated, which leaves me at liberty not to hold it against her.” She took another gulp of port. Peabody did likewise, resigned to listening to the aged crone’s blathering.

“Is this why Mr. Bingley is so miserable?” she asked him. “Because the woman upon whom he has decided has given over smiling for sulking?”

Peabody did not think Miss Bennet could justly be described as the woman upon whom Mr. Bingley had decided. “Some men make decisions,” he said cryptically. “Some have decisions thrust upon them.”

Mrs. Sinclair turned up her nose. “Wishy-washy sort, is he? That is always horribly disappointing. Still, if he has not the wherewithal to direct his own destiny, then I daresay he deserves whatever fate throws him. How has he survived this long without disaster?”

“He places great sway in his sisters’ advice, I believe. And Mr. Darcy’s, though I did hear they had a misunderstanding of some sort recently and that gentleman has refused to give him any further direction.”

“Well, that is no great loss. Mr. Darcy could not direct a man to the gate at the end of the drive at the present moment. He is a lovesick fool. He sees nothing and hears no one but his ladylove. He is as oblivious to Mr. Bingley’s moping as he is to his tea going cold on the table next to him.”

“A man such as Mr. Darcy may choose to see and hear whomever and whatever he pleases.”

“True. But that will not exempt him from the consequences of his oblivion. He ought to pay more attention to what Mr Bingley is doing.”

“May I enquire as to your meaning, ma’am?” he asked warily.

“Keep up, Fleabag. They will be brothers. If Mr. Bingley is as useless as you say, Mr. Darcy will needs must keep him in check.”

“I see.” He took another draught of port, rolling it around his mouth before adding, “His sisters try, I think.”

“Oh yes, his sisters. They are a strange, spiky pair of creatures, are they not? Miss Bingley in particular seems displeased with everything here. I wonder that she condescended to come.”

“It was done under duress, I assure you,” Peabody said, warming to the topic as the port warmed his gullet. “Her sister summoned her to help advise the master in his marital prospects.”

Mrs. Sinclair pulled a face. “Is she not the one in need of advice, being the only sibling not allied to somebody?”

“I believe she wished to secure Mr. Darcy’s affections.”

Mrs. Sinclair’s mouth twisted with disdain. “Yes, well, I want eternal youth and gin on tap. We cannot all have what we wish.” She abruptly upended her glass to swallow the last of her port, put her empty glass down on his desk and levered herself to her feet with her cane. “This has been most diverting, Peabody, but I shall leave now. I would not want to get anybody’s hopes up that I have passed away peacefully during my afternoon nap.”

“You are not going to ask me about Miss Elizabeth?”

She paused to look askance at him. “Why would I?”

“You have asked me about all the others.”

“Precisely. I cannot take issue with Lizzy as well. People will begin to think I am disagreeable.”

Peabody had not formulated a response to that before there came a knock at the door, and one of the chambermaids entered the room.

“Beggin’ your pardon, Mr. Peabody, sir,” she said, curtseying even as she backed out of the door. “I didn’t know you ’ad company.” She was gone before he could enquire what she wanted.

“Who was that?” asked Mrs. Sinclair with an impish grin and a disturbing glint in her eye. “She looked the picture of Liz—”

“You would be surprised how many around these parts do, ma’am,” Peabody interrupted.

“Is that so?”

He inclined his head and gestured for her to leave his pantry. “But you will have to ask Longbourn’s staff for more information on that.”

“I might,” she said with a sniff. “Or I might not. It depends.”

“On what?”

“On whether or not they have any gin.”

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