Kitty experiences Boxing Day charity with the Gardiners.
Excerpt from Twelfth Night at Longbourn
Aunt and the children already circled the table. Margaret labored over a picture book whilst Alice carefully sewed something—a doll’s dress perhaps? The boys marched tin soldiers across the plains of France—or the corner of the table. She was not sure which.
“Good morning, dear. Did you sleep well?”
“I did, thank you.” Kitty sat beside her aunt.
“I am pleased you are well-rested, for you will need it today. Our Boxing Day is quite eventful.”
“We are to go to the foundling hospital today.” Alice set down her sewing and sat up very straight. “I am finishing my last doll dress for them”
“You uncle supports several charities. The foundling hospital is his particular favorite.”
“We always go on Boxing Day and play with the children.” Silas added.
“Mama sews all year and brings boxes of clothes for them. She made ever so many shirts and frocks—”
Margaret ran around the table and peeked over Kitty’s shoulder. “And we helped with aprons and caps!”
“I had no idea.”
“I am not nearly as talented with a needle as you, but I do like to keep my hands busy.” Aunt rose. “First, we must give the servants their boxes, then a quick meal before the foundling hospital. The tradesmen will come in the afternoon. We must be back in time, so let us move along.”
The children scurried to put away their things and helped their mother retrieve the servants’ boxes that were duly presented to the grateful staff. By the time they finished their breakfast, the loaded coach waited ready for them. Jammed with boxes and bags, the family barely squeezed inside. Uncle and Silas sat in the box outside. Thomas wanted to join them, but Aunt insisted he was not yet old enough, so he sulked in Kitty’s lap the entire way.
To her surprise, the foundling hospital was a neat, almost pretty building with a large green behind. A large group of children played there, all neatly, if simply, dressed. The family tumbled out of the carriage and up the short flight of steps. A smartly dressed man, surely the governor, opened the door before uncle could knock.
“Mr. Gardiner, Mrs. Gardiner! How lovely to see you.” He had a headmaster’s voice and a gentleman’s belly. “May I offer you a spot of tea and perhaps biscuits for the children and your guest?”
Aunt smiled. “If you do not mind, our children would very much like to join yours in the yard.”
“They will be most welcome.”
Aunt nodded, and the children dashed out in search of playmates.
The governor ushered them down a long polished corridor. Happy voices, carried on sunbeams, filtered from the green.
“I think you will be pleased at the progress of our educational programs. I personally implemented many of the suggestions you made.”
A nursery maid hurried past, an infant in her arms. She paused and showed Kitty the swaddled baby. A tiny fringe of hair peeked below the cap and dark eyelashes framed wide blue eyes. The edge of the baby’s mouth turned up at Kitty.
“New arrival, poor mite. Her mother left her only two days ago. A pretty little thing, ain’t she?”
“Yes, she is.”
How sad, never to know parents or family. Yet, the babe would be sheltered and fed and prepared to go into service, perhaps work in a shop or her uncle’s warehouse, maybe even apprentice with a midwife. Sad though it was, how much better than the alternatives?
The nurse continued on her way. What were her troubles compared to this babe who depended on the charity of others simply to survive?
“Other benefactors of our establishment are in the parlor having tea. May I introduce them?”
“Certainly,” Uncle nodded at Aunt. “I am always pleased to meet like-minded individuals.”
The governor swung the heavy wooden door open.
“Mr. Gardiner?” Mr. Bingley jumped to his feet.
Louisa set her teacup on the table and rose.
What were they doing here?
The governor’s bushy eyebrows climbed almost to his hair line. “You are already acquainted?”
“Indeed we are. I had no idea we shared a mutual interest in your fine establishment,” Uncle said.
“It never occurred to me to mention.” Mr. Bingley bowed from his shoulders, his gaze on Kitty.
“How lovely to see you.” Louisa hurried to Kitty and kissed her cheek.
“What a perfect surprise.” Kitty sat beside Louisa.
There was no one she wanted to encounter more—or less—at this moment. Had she only been able to gather her wits about her and prepare something sensible to say. Too late now, she could not think over her heart’s pounding tattoo.
“The Bingley family has supported us nearly as long as you.”
“Indeed?” Uncle chuckled. “I wonder we have not encountered you here before.”
“Our sister did not prefer to visit, so I am afraid we did not call as often as Louisa and I would have liked.”
“But now we are able to come.” Louisa beamed at Kitty. “I am pleased by everything here.”
“They do an excellent job with the children.” Uncle pulled a chair close.
“Not all such establishments are this clean or well-fitted or the children treated with such kindness.” Aunt sat down.
“Thank you, madam.” The governor rubbed his hands together. “Once you have finished your tea, would you like a tour or perhaps some of the children to perform—”
“Oh, no! No performances today.” Mr. Bingley lifted open hands. “They will come to dread being visited. I certainly do not wish to be known as the bearer of such discomfort.”
“You make it sound as though your own school days were arduous,” Uncle said.
“Charles preferred the sociability of the school room to the rigor of academics.” Louisa inclined her head toward her brother.
“You make it sound as though I were a failure as a student!”
“Not at all. I merely spoke of your enjoyment, not your proficiency.”
“I earned excellent marks in school.”
“Including the ones from the headmaster’s cane for your love of tomfoolery.”
Mr. Bingley closed his eyes and shook his head. Deep pink crept up his jaw.
“Teaching masters can be so droll,” Kitty said. “I do not recall one with any sense of humor at all.” Not that she and her sisters had experience with that many.
“So, I expect you shall be most sympathetic with your own brood of unruly children when they only have a mind for fun and frolic.” Aunt turned to Uncle and smirked.
Mr. Bingley fingered his cravat. “I should like to tour the rest of your facility.”
The governor rose. “Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner?”
“If you do not mind, may I have a few words with the head of boys and girls? We are aware of a few placements for some of the older children.”
“Most excellent. I shall send them in immediately.”
“I should like to tour with you if, I may.” Kitty rose.
“Go right ahead. I am sure you will finish before we do.” Aunt wore her maddening, knowing smile. What prompted it now?
The governor led them down the corridor. He stopped a maid, spoke a few words, and sent her on her way.
He took them through the spacious dining room lined with plain tables and benches, then on to the kitchen. The food was simple, but plentiful enough so none went hungry. Upstairs, large rooms with many beds housed children by age and sex. As it was downstairs, everything was simple, clean and filled with sunshine and fresh air.
“While it is true, not every one of our children has made good, we see few of ours hanged.”
“A good thing, I suppose, though I would have never considered it in those terms,” Louisa murmured.
“Naturally, madam. You deal with a far better sort of people than do we. We take children from quite dire circumstances. Not all hospitals will. Come—”
He beckoned them to the window and pointed to a tall, dark haired girl with other children gathered close. “Her father hung for thievery and her mother, forgive me, a doxie, died of the pox. She brought the girl here just before she died. The little girl in her arms was left when her mum was sentenced to hang. The boy with the crooked leg, his family died in a fire, and his relatives could not afford to keep him. Nearly all come from criminals and moral degenerates.”
“They look very sweet to me,” Kitty said.
The governor peered down his nose with a glower that could wither the grass on the green. “Looks are deceiving, Miss. For all that your nieces and nephews may resemble our children, they are very different. They come from better stock. They will grow to be fine and upstanding members of society. Our hopes for these children must be tempered by the firm realization of what kind we are dealing with.”
“What are your expectations for their kind?” Mr. Bingley asked.
“They can be instructed away from their instincts for wrongdoing to embrace honesty and hard work and so provide for themselves upon leaving here. I admit I was skeptical at the possibility. I am regularly uplifted with reports of our charges well-settled in gainful employ. Let me show you the school room.”
Mr. Bingley followed half a pace behind. “You think it nearly impossible, or at least highly unlikely, one might rise above the circumstances of his birth?”
“I only know what I see, sir. Do you not think it is far more likely for a person to sink and reveal the basest elements of their nature than for one to rise? Consider, it only takes one sibling to ruin the reputation of a family. It is widely agreed, the egregious behavior of one proves the underlying character of the family. Does it not? Surely you have seen it as often as I.”
Louisa bit her lip and wrung her hands.
“I have heard that said,” Mr. Bingley said in a voice more like Mr. Darcy’s than his own.
The room wavered. Kitty clutched the wall, tea and biscuits sour in her belly. Even the governor agreed! Lydia left her irretrievably ruined.
Mr. Bingley certainly deserved better than her. He did not even look at her now.
She must give up her foolish fantasy and see him only as an indifferent acquaintance. She swallowed hard and hurried to catch up.
The governor could not resist finding a few of the older children to demonstrate recitations. Though Mr. Bingley squirmed though the entire process, he thanked the boys and girls heartily. He intervened before the governor found any more unwilling victims with the suggestion Kitty had been away from the Gardiners for too long.
He no longer wished to be in her company! At least he was polite enough not to say it outright.
Her eyes stung, and she blinked fiercely. “Yes, perhaps I should return to them.”
Mr. Bingley glanced back at her, but she refused to make eye contact.
“As you will.” The governor led them back to the parlor.
A boy, gangly and freckled, in pants too short and shirtsleeves too long, stood before Aunt, Uncle and one of the hospital staff.
“Thank you very much, sir!” The boy bowed. “I shall be ready to go first thing in the morning.” Clearly he was trying not to grin, but the effort nearly overcame him. He dashed from the room with a peculiar limping gait. His awkward steps shouted with joy.
“Are you certain, Sir?” We have two other boys—”
“Who demonstrate neither the facility for numbers nor the memory for detail that young man just exhibited,” Uncle said.
“Very good, sir. The staff member stood and shook Uncle’s hand. “I am relieved to have young Martin placed out. Several others have been unwilling to take him on.”
“He will do very well apprenticed in my warehouse.”
“And Clara shall make an excellent nursery maid for Mrs. Allen,” Aunt said.
“We cannot thank you enough—”
Uncle held up his hand. “Enough, they must still prove their own merit.”
“With benefactors like you, they can hardly fail.”
“What did you think of your tour?” Aunt asked.
“Capital.” Mr. Bingley’s voice had not entirely regained its usual easy tone. “Oh, before it entirely slips my mind—”
“Which things are so apt to do.” Louisa prodded him with her elbow.
“Indeed!” Mr. Bingley laughed. “We would be most pleased if you might be able to join us tomorrow night for dinner. We will leave for Derbyshire soon, and I do not want to leave without returning your generous invitation.”
“How kind of you. I fear we already have obligations for tomorrow, but Kitty will be free to join you. You might consider the duty fulfilled through her.” Aunt cocked her head and raised an eyebrow at Kitty.
Kitty started. “Oh, I cannot!” Not after giving him up only minutes ago. This was too cruel. “That is to say—”
Why did he have to look at her with pleading hound-puppy eyes?
Louisa grabbed her hand. “He is right. After all, you are to ride to Pemberley with us soon. You may as well become accustomed to our company before you are trapped three days in a carriage with us.”
“Not to mention, it will be a good opportunity to review our travel plans with you and ensure they are to your liking.” Mr. Bingley nodded.
“You will relieve your friends from the stress of an unrequited social obligation,” Uncle said. “If my sister taught you nothing else, surely she impressed upon you—”
Kitty lifted her hands. “Very well, I shall go.”
“Excellent!” Mr. Bingley tugged his lapels straight.
“We do need to be going home.” Aunt peeked out the window. “I expect the tradesmen and our warehouse workers will be coming by soon. It would not do to be absent for their visits.”
“Of course, we will not keep you.” Mr. Bingley bowed. “Until tomorrow then”
“Yes, tomorrow.” Kitty curtsied and followed her aunt and uncle out. What had she just agreed to?
As soon as they arrived at the house, Aunt marshaled Alice and Kitty to arrange all the boxes in the housekeeper’s office, off the kitchen. They barely finished as the first of a steady stream of callers arrived. They greeted each at the back of the house with a mug of wassail, a plate of bread and cheese, and a box prepared especially for them.
Mama did the same thing at Longbourn each year. Hopefully, she felt strong enough to hand out the boxes today. It always gave her such joy. Perhaps it might help her recover.
So, too, must Kitty recover from her disappointments. The first step would be accomplished once she could meet Mr. Bingley as an indifferent acquaintance. She would begin tomorrow.
Read about Boxing Day here.
Read about Pantomimes that opened on Boxing Day here.
Read about Christmastide Charity here.
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