Baa, Baa, White Sheep
“Must it be mutton again, Caroline?” A bored Louisa Hurst whined from across the parlor, playing with the chain of her necklace as she spoke. “We are eating the creatures so often that Netherfield’s flocks surely will be diminished before the year ends.”
Miss Caroline Bingley raised her nose to her sister in response, her eyes shifting to where Elizabeth sat before resettling on her sibling.
“I believe it was soon after our introduction four years past when Mr. Darcy stated his preference for roasted lamb with mint jelly.” Caroline’s eyes sparkled, though Elizabeth had no idea whether it was the meal or the man generating this response. “The mark of good breeding is to provide well for your guests. Mr. Darcy is a guest in my home. Therefore, his preferences should be attended to most diligently.”
Elizabeth wanted to laugh, though she refrained. Over the three days she had been staying at the Bingley estate, tending her eldest sister in her illness, she had observed Miss Bingley’s constant attention towards the gentleman. If he had accepted every cup of tea or spirits Netherfield’s hostess had offered him, the poor man would float. Elizabeth was surprised Miss Bingley had yet to offer to breathe for him, though she may have done so when Elizabeth was out of the room. Even upon this seventy-two-hour observation, it was evident he wanted nothing more than to be left alone by his friend’s sister. Mr. Darcy did not attempt to hide his abhorrence of her pandering.
So, mutton it would be for the evening meal—again.
“Besides, Louisa, the constant bleating and bawling of the sheep these past two weeks surely means the litters are being restocked.” With a roll of her eyes, Caroline Bingley, the self-appointed authority on local animal husbandry dismissed the subject.
“They are herds, Caroline.” Mrs. Hurst offered.
Litter? When had a flock become such? Goodness, Elizabeth was going to have to remember this to share with her father. Like herself, he enjoyed a touch of humor at the expense of those whose self-inflated opinions were opposed to reason and good sense.
Three hours later, when the main course was being brought to the table, Miss Bingley happily returned to the subject.
“Mr. Darcy, I am certain you will enjoy this roasted rack of lamb. I had Cook use the same seasonings you seemed to prefer the last time the dish was served at our table.”
“Caroline,” her brother-in-law, Mr. Hurst, interrupted her spirited presentation. “that was Tuesday and this is Thursday. Can we not have a simple ragout? There is nothing finer when prepared with a hearty red wine sauce. It may be too rich for some men’s stomachs, but not mine.” He looked at Mr. Darcy’s flat abdomen as he patted his rotund waistline.
“No, Gilbert.” Miss Bingley shook her head carefully so the little curls in front of her ears did not bounce distractedly. (Elizabeth was distracted.)
Charles Bingley, effervescent in personality with a constant smile and, like the eldest of Elizabeth’s sisters, Miss Jane Bennet, a naturally born peacemaker, entered the conversation.
“Daily we are adding new lambs to the flocks of Netherfield Park, Gilbert. I believe it fitting we fill our table from the production of the farms.”
“Oh, Charles. How droll.” Caroline leaned closer to Mr. Darcy, who she had seated to her right. With confidence, she declared. “We would never put such a fluffy little creature on our table. Only when they are grown and homely looking do we sacrifice an animal for our meal.”
Elizabeth grabbed her napkin and put it to her mouth, though she could not keep her eyes from tearing up. Mr. Darcy coughed and even Mr. Bingley looked flummoxed. Rack of lamb? Lamb? Fluffy little creatures? Of course, Elizabeth knew, from being raised on a farm that they were months old before being…well, she really did not like thinking of it, but, lamb was lamb, no matter how it was served.
Regaining her composure, she looked up to find Mr. Darcy’s eyes on her. He surreptitiously wiped the tears from the corner of his own eyes. What was the man about, having a sense of humor?
“Mr. Darcy, I do have a question I am certainly only you can answer.” Miss Bingley delicately touched his left arm as if she could not get his attention in any other manner. Her eyes blinked rapidly, a flutter so fast that one eye seemed to get out of rhythm, furling her brow.
Elizabeth realized from the tickle at the back of her own throat that mirth was threatening to bubble over. She pressed her mouth harder with the napkin, pushing the soft flesh inside her lips into her teeth, desperately attempting to tamp her laughter down.
“Yes, Miss Bingley?” The man’s rich tones drifted around the dining room.
“I was wondering what a ‘shep’ is?”
“A ‘shep’?” Mr. Bingley asked as everyone at the table stilled to hear her reply.
“Charles, I was inquiring of Mr. Darcy. He has sheep, you know.” Her sharp eyes speared her younger brother with the skill of an Amazon warrior.
Turning back to her seating partner, she repeated her question.
“Perhaps,” Mr. Darcy intoned though his eyes glinted with mischief. “If you were to use the word in a sentence, the meaning might become more clear to you.”
Elizabeth was impressed at his suggestion. She would have done the same had she been petitioned for her opinion. However, she had not been so leaned forward to not miss a word.
“Certainly, sir.” Putting her index finger to her chin, Miss Bingley rolled her eyes to the heavens, as if seeking divine assistance to put her thoughts into order. “The ‘shep’herd tended the sheep. Since the animals are a herd, what would the ‘shep’ be?”
Brilliant! Elizabeth could not stop the slight shaking of her shoulders and knew she would have to leave the room before she embarrassed herself in company. Before she removed herself, though, she had to ask, her voice almost breaking. “Yes, Mr. Darcy, I too yearn to know the definition of a ‘shep’.”
This time it was his eyes that speared hers. She could take no more. Looking down at the dotted-Swiss fabric of her skirt, she proclaimed. “Oh, dear. There is a spot on my dress. Pray excuse me.”
Before anyone could reply, she stepped away from the table and walked with a smooth gait out of the room. Once out of sight, she sprinted to her bed chamber where she grabbed a small pillow, buried her face in it, and howled until she finally fell back onto the bed, wiping tears of pure glee from her eyes. ‘Shep’! Wait until she told her father!
By the next day, Elizabeth sought the solace of the walkways surrounding the estate. Jane’s health was improving and Elizabeth longed for the familiar noise and routine of her family’s estate, Longbourn.
The constant muted bleating of the ewes and newborn lambs in Netherfield Park’s holding pens floated on the breeze to the garden path on the east side of the home, adding volume to the pastoral scene. Chilled air danced around the sun’s rays so Elizabeth pulled her spencer tighter as she walked. She loved being out of doors and adored lambing season, though she knew the long hours the shepherd staff would spend as they welcomed each fuzzy four-legged boy or girl to the farm.
She chuckled to herself, wondering if Mr. Darcy had been able to help the town lady understand country vernacular.
Turning left, she wandered down the shrub lined walkway until she heard the shrill tones of Miss Caroline Bingley conversing with the deeper baritone of Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth stopped in her tracks. She had no desire to be in company with either of them. For the four days she had been at the Bingley’s home, the repeated taunts from Miss Bingley had become harder and harder to bear with equanimity. Mr. Darcy’s continuously staring at her to find fault unnerved her, making her want to childishly stick her tongue out at him. His pleasant actions at dinner the night before had to have been an anomaly.
Spinning back to the direction she had come from she stopped again. The new sound added to the cacophony of ovine voices was the plaintive cry of an animal in distress. Within seconds, other ewes picked up the bawl and repeated it in synchronicity, demanding immediate attention from Mr. Morris, the estate’s steward.
Having assisted with difficult lamb births many times at Longbourn, Elizabeth quickly moved around the paths towards the pens. Once she cleared the hedgerows, she spied Mr. Darcy running at full speed towards the noise with Miss Bingley trailing behind. The sight stunned Elizabeth to the point that she stopped. Whatever would Caroline Bingley be doing near the sheep pens?
The Romney Marsh breed originated in Kent, but were well suited to the grassy fields of Hertfordshire. They were typically very docile with good mothering skills and were valued for their high fleece production of long, white wool. Like Longbourn, lambing occurred in the late spring and late autumn with sheering six to nine months later. Each new lamb increased the farm’s economic income so each birth was watched and tended for the best outcomes. Anything that endangered the newborn also threatened its mother, which threatened the estate.
Mr. Darcy threw his greatcoat over the wooden fence surrounding the animals and, bracing one arm on the top rail, vaulted over to the inside of the pen. Quickly stripping off his frock coat and jerking his cravat from around his throat, he started rolling up his sleeves as he approached the soon-to-be mother.
Elizabeth was fascinated. Stepping closer, she identified the problem. Two hooves were extended from the birth canal far enough that the nose should have been visible as well. It was not. Unless the lamb was pushed back inside where it could be turned so its head lifted into position, the lamb and possibly the mother would die.
The flock at Netherfield was not large, yet every available set of hands were already working with a new mother so Mr. Darcy took the plunge.
Miss Bingley, unmindful of the circumstances, opened the gate and entered the pen, standing next to the man she longed to impress.
“Might I help you, sir?” She stepped even closer.
Mr. Darcy gazed up, his face covered in amazement, his arm elbow deep in the birth canal, his left hand tightly gripping the lower leg of the miserable ewe. He did not reply, though he did lift his brow, before he turned his attention back to the task at hand.
Grunting with the effort, he quickly guided the legs and head back into position. Standing quickly and stepping back, he moved both hands to the newborn, gently helping it along. Once the head cleared, things moved quickly, far too quickly for Miss Caroline Bingley.
Birth, whether human or animal, is a messy business. Murky red fluid shot from the womb, covering Mr. Darcy’s hessians and Miss Bingley’s day dress.
Elizabeth saw the events unfold as if in slow motion. Miss Bingley jumped back, landing on the droppings from an animal who had earlier paused to…well, her shoes would be ruined. When her feet slid out from underneath her, her dress was ruined as well.
There she sat, in all her fiery, combustible glory—her face redder than her hair, her eyes opened wide and her mouth screaming with all her might. Elizabeth saw her dilemma. Miss Bingley could not use her hands to push herself from the ground or her gloves would be destined for the fire as well. Nor could any of the men help her as all of them were covered with birthing debris, including Mr. Darcy.
There was nothing for it, Elizabeth stepped into the pen, grabbing Mr. Darcy’s cravat on her way. Lifting her skirts and carefully watching where she put her feet, she moved as close as possible to the man. She knew that if she tried to pull Miss Bingley to her feet, her own ability to remain upright would be at risk. He would have to help. Handing Mr. Darcy the cloth, she watched as he wiped his hands, reached down, and assisted Caroline Bingley to stand.
Immediately, Miss Bingley leaned into him—her hero. He stepped back, for her garments were in far worse shape than his, releasing her hand. Surprisingly, he offered his arm, not to the distressed woman, but to Elizabeth.
Hesitantly, she accepted, Miss Bingley, muttering words Elizabeth had no desire to hear, followed behind.
When the main course was served at dinner that night, Caroline Bingley was missing and so was the lamb. Fish was the featured entree.
By the next day, when the two Bennet sisters readied for their return to Longbourn, Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy were the only residents of the estate to show them off.
“I am sorry Miss Bingley is unwell.” Jane Bennet, in all her sweetness, offered her host. “Pray, extend our goodbyes.”
Charles Bingley bowed, in awe of the woman before him.
Mr. Darcy bowed to Elizabeth. “Miss Elizabeth.”
She turned to enter the carriage. Curiosity made her stop.
“Sir, I wondered how you answered Miss Bingley at dinner after I left when she inquired what a ‘shep’ was?” Elizabeth knew it was impertinent. Had she been able to control her laughter, she could have stayed and witnessed his response herself.
He chuckled and extended his hand to assist her into the coach.
“Do you want to know baa-dly, Miss Elizabeth?”
They could not seem to help it. Laughter boiled from them both.
Elizabeth looked at him closer. Perhaps he was not such a baa-d man after all.