Life does not always go the way we plan it. I did not, for example, plan to lose four major appliances over the course of a weekend. The oven and stove had been dodgy for a while, and then half of the heating elements just stopped heating one day. All the coaxing in the world couldn’t convince them to turn on. Nothing.
Then we realised the food from the fridge wasn’t cold. Cool, yes, but certainly not food-safety cold. And the little temperature light started flashing. And the technician shook his head in sad regret. “You need a new one,” he pronounced.
We lamented the loss of these two necessary appliances as we did a load of laundry, wondering what that puddle was doing in front of the washer. And why, after an hour in the dryer, everything was still soaking wet and that odd error code kept flashing. A call to the company’s help line was as encouraging as the fridge technician. “It’s old, and it’s not worth trying to fix.” Alas. Fast forward a day or two, and a sales rep at the local appliance place was very happy. Our bank account? Not so much!
As I contemplated The Great Appliance Disaster of 2023, I had to wonder how this would play out back when Jane Austen was alive.
What would it look like at Netherfield Park if all the big “appliances” conked out at once? Here’s what danced through my head.
“Hurry, Peggy, the ball is tomorrow night, and all the tablecloths have to be clean as white snow. Terrible how they were all stained from sitting so long in the cupboards. You know how the mistress becomes when matters aren’t perfect.” Mrs Flatt, the housekeeper, stormed into the kitchens at the back of the great house, her face an equal study of frustration and panic. Her position was likely on the line if Caroline Bingley’s expectations were not met, and the upcoming ball was anything but perfect.
“Yes, Missus,” the young maid dipped in an attempt at a curtsey, while hoisting a large tub on one hip. Some strands of her hair, light brown and caked with perspiration, escaped the kerchief she had tied on her head, and smudges of grime across her brow betrayed earlier attempts to sweep the errant wisps back under the cloth.
She’d been soaking the linens in soda in a small room off to the side of the main kitchen, which she now had to cross in order to empty the tub, linens and all, into the main laundry vat, all while dodging an army of cooks, assistants, temporary hired help, and assorted other people dashing through the hot space in pursuit of their own tasks.
She rebalanced the tub on her side and tried to avoid being run into by Jimmy, a young general servant, when another voice bellowed her name.
“Peggy, put that down.” It was one of the lady’s maids from Upstairs. “You’re needed to tend to Mrs. Hurst’s gown. She insists on wearing the peach silk, and it wasn’t properly cleaned from when she spilled wine on it last time. I’ve put it by the oak table in the laundry room. I need it seen to immediately so I can iron it and hang it for her use tomorrow.”
Peggy sagged. “But the linens…”
“They can wait.”
“Indeed, they cannot!” Mrs Flatt bellowed in reply. “You ought not to have left this for the very last moment. I need these tablecloths cleaned and dried…”
The argument went on, and Peggy took a deep breath before continuing on her way. No matter who won, she would need to be in the laundry room to accomplish her task. She took a step to move around the huge table in the centre of the room… No. That would not do. There were too many people there, chopping vegetables and flinging flour about to make pastry, and preparing the ingredients for pie or soup, or whatever else the guests would be eating. Rain lashed down on the windows and skylight, adding its percussive thrum to the din that already filled the busy room.
Better to go the other way, past the roaring fire. Modern kitchens, so she’d heard, had fancy new metal stoves that had places inside for baked and roasted foods and hot surfaces on top for pots and pans, but Netherfield was old. Upstairs was all fancy, to be sure, but here in the kitchens, half buried beneath the house at the back where the master and mistress never stepped, things were still done the old way. The great fire, with its spits and racks and crannies for holding an assortment of cooking utensils, was just one of the old ways. Still, Mrs Nicholls, the cook, managed to work as much magic in this old hearth as anyone, so she’d heard.
Luckily, no one was tending the cauldron of whatever was boiling now, and the path was clear. Peggy readjusted the tub and hurried as fast as she could, before someone else could call for her services.
She was just inches away from the blazing hearth when, from nowhere, something heavy ran into her back. Jimmy, blast him! She staggered, already off balance from the weight of the tub of water and linens, and she flailed about, desperate not to stumble into the flames.
“Caught you, I did!” Two strong arms grabbed her about the waist and pulled her to safety.
“Ned!” Peggy staggered against him, grateful for the rescue, and delighted at the feel of his body against hers as he held her steady. But her joy was short-lived, as she realised what else had happened. While she was reeling from the unexpected impact, the entire contents of her heavy tub had sloshed out, leaving soaking tablecloths strewn across the dirty floor, and sending the water straight into the hearth.
As she looked on in dismay, the crackling flames fizzled and guttered, leaving nothing but smoke and steam in their place.
“The fire!” Mrs Nicholls wailed. “My soup! I’ve been at that for days! And how will I bake the pies?”
“The linens!” gasped Mrs Flatt.
“What about Mrs Hursts’ dress?” demanded her lady’s maid.
Peggy just stood there in shocked horror.
“Easy, Peg, my girl. We’ll set it to rights.” Ned released his grasp about her waist—all too quickly, alas—and got right to work, picking up piles of sopping wet tablecloths, now covered with dirt and soot from the fire, and putting them back in the tub. His blond hair caught the faint light from the high rain-streaked windows, and his lips twitched into a momentary lopsided grin, directed right at her, making her heart do strange things. Peggy hurried after him to do her part, and in a moment the linens were back where they should be, although now all were as dirty as when she’d started.
“I needed to wash them regardless,” she sighed. They were only soaking to remove the stains.
Ned picked up the tub and carried it to the laundry room for her.
“Enough of that, young Ned Rawling,” Mrs Nicholls yelled after him. “It’s Peggy’s task to do the washing, not yours. I need you to rebuild that fire. And a job it will be, too, for all that it’s as wet as if it were outside in all this rain. Oh, of all the time for the fire to go out, it would be now, with the ball only tomorrow night! Whatever shall we do?”
“And whatever shall I do?” Peggy let out a hopeless sigh as she surveyed the piles of cloths that needed washing, then drying, and then ironing, before the ball. The first would take long enough. The second… oh, the rain looked like it would never let up, and the small room inside where they could dry clothes was heated by the back of the great kitchen hearth, which was now as cold and wet as the laundry. At least the small stove was still hot for the iron. Thank heaven for small mercies.
With this melancholy thought in mind, she smiled a sad goodbye to Ned as he hustled off to help Mrs Nicholls, and set about washing the newly filthy tablecloths.
Lud, this was not going well! For once in her life, Peggy was relieved only to be a laundry maid here in the big house. When Miss Bingley learned of the mess of troubles happening here Downstairs, she would be fit to be tied, and Peggy had learned early that even when pleased, Miss Bingley was not an easy mistress. Poor Mrs Flatt and Mrs Nicholls! She hoped they would not be turned out for this, and thanked her stars that Miss Bingley didn’t even know her name!
She had scrubbed and rinsed the first tubful, and was up to her elbows in scalding water for the second, when a new noise from the kitchens made its way through the doorway.
Ned was back, and with a scuttle of coal to rekindle the fire. He had brought some lads from the village with him, by the sounds of it, and Peggy heard him ordering them about to clear out and dry what they could, so the new fuel would take a flame. “Pile it there, lads, use the mop to get the sides with the puddles. Faster, Bobby, we ain’t got weeks.” She smiled at the sound of his voice, despite the circumstances, and pictured the glint in his happy brown eyes, meant just for her.
“Where’s Jack, lads? He’s wanted here as well,” he called to someone, although Peggy couldn’t see who.
It was Mrs Nicholls who answered. “I sent him off to the ice house. The mistress wants enough lemon ice for all at supper, and we won’t have time tomorrow to prepare it. ‘Twill last long enough in the cellars away from the fire… although Lord knows, we have no fire. Ned, how do things get on with that?”
For a moment, Peggy envied young Jack, the young kitchen helper, being free to run into the woods, away from the din and mess of the kitchens and workrooms, even for a few minutes. The ice house was not very far from the house, dug deep under a small hill and shaded by the thick copse of trees. It was late in the year, and there would be no new ice until the river and ponds froze in January—so they all hoped—but it would be enough to keep the mistresses’ delicacies cold and let her amaze the guests with lemon ice. Whatever that tasted like! Laundry maids were not so privileged as to dine on cold jellies and sweet ices!
Lucky Jack, indeed! Except… the lashing of the rain against the small window in the room brought her to her senses. The lad was out in this storm, and would be soaked through, as wet as her linens, when he returned, lugging who knew how many pounds of the frozen stuff on the cart he had. Perhaps she did not envy him quite that much.
And then, just when she had settled back into her task, there came another cry in the main room of the kitchens, a deep and desperate wail of absolute despair.
“The ice!” It was Jack, his voice cracking from treble to baritone and back again with each syllable. “Somebody left the door open, and it’s all gone! The rain got in, and now there’s nought but a great muddy puddle of straw. The mistress will have me hanged!”
Just as utter pandemonium broke out in the kitchens, Ned slipped through the door to the laundry room and closed it behind him.
“We have a minute or two to ourselves, Peggy, my sweet. With that, they won’t be bothering us, or remembering we are here, for a quarter of an hour at least.” He gave her a wink, and she pulled her arms out of the great vat and wrapped them around Ned instead.
Somehow, the ball proceeded as planned, and with only minor changes to the menu. Ned’s work soon had the fire going once more, hot and dry from the coals, and with his help, Peggy managed to wash and hang the linens to dry. Mrs. Nicholls’ soup was saved, as were her pies and roasts and platters of greens and delicate potato stacks. A frantic message to Longbourn was all it took to supply Netherfield with the requisite ice for Miss Bingley’s jellies and confections, and not a single guest knew the first of the near-disaster that had occurred Downstairs the day before the ball. Only poor Mrs Hurst was not completely happy, having to choose another gown to wear, her preferred one being forgotten until it was far too late to launder it.
Down below, just outside the kitchens, now quiet and calm, Ned and Peggy sat together on a bench by the large back door, cuddled together, her head resting on his broad shoulder.
“They seem pleased enough, my girl,” he spoke into the dark night air. “They’ll be feasting until dawn, but our work is done for now.”
“Hmmmm,” she sighed against him. He did feel nice to lean on.
“I’ve a question for you, and I do hope you’ll give me the answer I want. I’m no lord, nor a gentleman with a thousand a year, but I’ve a nice cottage and Mr Bennet says he’ll take me on if Mr Bingley ever leaves the area. All my cottage needs is a mistress. Would you be that? Would you think of being my wife?”
Peggy’s smile was brighter than the moon. “How could I say no? I love you, Ned!”
“And I you. Let us celebrate. You must never say a word, but wait here a moment.”
He slipped inside the house, and returned a moment later with two delicate crystal bowls filled with something pale, a little spoon protruding from each.
“I put them aside while I helped set the rest out for the company upstairs. Lemon ice!”
“Ned, you’re a wonderful man!”