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December 31, 1811.
Mr. Bingley and his party have left Netherfield. Jane has gone to London with the Gardiners.
“Hurry along now, hurry along.” Papa ushered Kitty and Lydia ahead of him as he trudged down the stairs and into the parlor, exactly the same as he had done last year and the year before and the one before that.
Elizabeth turned aside and bit the inside of her cheek. Mama would scold if she sniggered aloud. Proper young ladies do not laugh in company.
Still, Jane would have shared a private laugh with her when they finally tucked into bed had she not already left with the Gardiners for London. Gone only a day and already she was sorely missed.
“You have had the maid remove all the ashes?” Papa pulled chairs toward the center of the room, into a rough circle.
Mama flipped her skirts and settled into a seat. “Yes, yes and Hill has given all the kitchen scraps away as well. I dare say your pointers are very happy tonight.”
“Capital, capital.” Papa nudged a final chair into place.
He asked the same questions every year. There was something quite comforting in his predictability.
“Truly Mr. Bennet, I do not understand why you insist upon this—”
“Do not say foolishness, Mrs. Bennet,” he raised a warning finger.
She arranged the fringe on her shawl. “It is naught but superstition and nonsense.”
“I endure your endless talk of lace and frippery. One evening of the year, it is not too much to ask of you—”
Mama harrumphed. “When you put it in those terms—”
“It is very nearly midnight.” Kitty cried, clapping softly.
They all turned toward the venerable longcase clock in the corner, its hands nearly overlapping below the ‘12’.
Papa rose and hurried to the front door. The clock struck the first chime of midnight and he opened the door. “Welcome to eighteen twelve. Now to usher out eighteen eleven.” He tromped through the hall to the back door. It creaked in protest and thumped against the wall like it always did when fully opened.
A sharp breeze whistled through the front door. Elizabeth rubbed her hands up and down her upper arms. Somehow, it always seemed to be windy on New Year’s Eve.
“Do hurry along Mr. Bennet or we shall catch our deaths.” Mama drew her shall more tightly around her shoulders.
Papa waved her down as he passed through the parlor.
“Halloo there—is a first footer wanted here?”
Surely that could not be…Elizabeth rose, but Lydia and Kitty preceded her to the front door.
“Mr. Wickham!” Lydia squealed and shouldered Kitty out of her way.
How did he know Papa’s custom? Surely Lydia must have suggested it! Did she know no propriety?
“Come in, come in.” Papa ushered Mr. Wickham in and shut the door.
“A tall, dark and handsome man is the best first footer.” Lydia clung to Mr. Wickham’s right arm.
“But only if water will run under his foot.” Kitty clutched his left.
They half escorted, half dragged him to the parlor.
He glanced at Elizabeth, who remained several steps behind them. It was difficult to determine whether he simply tolerated her sister’s attention with good humor, or he actually enjoyed them. In either case, he was jolly company.
“Sit down, Mr. Wickham and let us see your feet.” Lydia shoved a chair at him.
“You will find them very acceptable, Miss Lydia,” he stammered.
Kitty pulled his arm and he stumbled into the seat.
“I believe we can take one of His Majesty’s officers at his word regarding the shape of his feet.” Papa folded his arms over his chest.
“Besides, I believe it equally significant that he does not arrive empty-handed.” Elizabeth cocked her head and quirked her brow.
Mama glared and Mary rolled her eyes. But Mary had an excuse. She had hoped for Mr. Collins’ attentions when Elizabeth had declined them. Since he turned them to Charlotte, Mary had been taciturn and broody.
Mama leaned toward her. “Do not be so rude. Mr. Wickham is welcome regardless—”
“No, Lizzy is right. It is a bad omen indeed for a first footer to arrive empty handed.” Papa wagged his finger at Mr. Wickham.
“Never fear, my gracious hosts! I have come well prepared for the evening.” He reached into the market bag slung over his shoulder. “Let me see now, here is a coin.” He handed it to Mama with a bow.
She giggled as she took it.
“And a bit of whiskey.” He passed a flask to Papa. “Sweets for two sweet young ladies." He handed Lydia a piece of shortbread and Kitty a small black bun.
He must have visited Papa’s favorite baker in town. That was the only place one could acquire a black bun in Meryton.
Elizabeth ran her knuckles along her lips. What could such diligence mean?
“And Miss Mary,” he handed her a small paper packet, “for you, salt, replete with symbolism you best appreciate.”
She took it, a little light returning to her eyes.
He turned to Elizabeth. “I fear all I have left for you is this.” He held up a lump of coal.
“Lead him through the house and demonstrate the excellent work of your mother’s staff. Then we may warm his welcome by putting the coal on the fire.”
“Mr. Wickham does not need to see the house is clean.” Mama sniffed.
“And I am sure he would much rather a toast than to put coal on the fire.” Lydia donned a well-practiced pout.
“At the right time, my girl.” Papa twitched his head toward the door. “There is an order to these things that must not be forsaken.
“Indeed.” Mr. Wickham offered his arm and Elizabeth slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow. They headed for the kitchen.
What had motivated him to choose her to accompany him? “You are very good to be so attentive to my father’s traditions.”
“It is a pleasure to offer service in whatever way I can.” He bowed from his shoulders. “A man in my situation has so very few true joys in life I must indulge in the ones available to me whenever possible.”
“Surely you exaggerate, sir.”
“Perhaps I do, but can you blame me for taking every opportunity to call upon a family of so many fair sisters.”
But was there one he wished to call upon more than the others? “That is a reason I can much more readily believe.”
“No one can doubt your powers of perception,” He paused and stared deep into her eyes.
Oh! His gazed reached in and plucked the strings of her heart. Surely he could not mean—
“Have you found the house to your discerning standards?” Papa asked, suddenly behind them.
“Cleaner than even my grandmother could desire.”
How was it, Mr. Wickham seemed able to respond to any unexpected remark with such aplomb? His wit was even quicker than hers and there were few about whom she could say such a thing.
“I have poured a toast in the parlor then.” Papa pressed the dull steel flask into Wickham’s hand. “Your gift is most appreciated, but my ladies are not accustomed to the rigors of whiskey. You and I may so indulge, but wine is far more to their sensibilities.”
Wickham tucked the flask into his coat. “Of course you are right, and very gracious of you to make it so.”
They followed Papa back to the parlor. On the way, Wickham placed his hand over hers in his arm and pressed it. Though he did not look at her, the corner of his lips lifted just a mite.
Why was he paying such attentions to her? What did they mean?
No sooner did they step into the parlor that Papa pressed a glass into her hand. “Add the coal to the fire and we shall have a toast.”
“Hurry, Lizzy, must you always take so long at everything?” Lydia edged her out of the way and looped her arm in Wickham’s.
Elizabeth tossed the coal into the fire. “And so we shall have warmth in the coming year.”
“To Longbourn and all who dwell within.” Wickham raised his glass. “May the welcomes continue to be warm, the table full and filled with flavor and prosperity.”
They all sipped their glasses.
“If I may have the privilege, sir?” Wickham placed his glass on the mantle.
“It is your right.” Papa gestured at Mama.
She offered her hand. Wickham took it and brought it to his lips as she tittered.
Lydia edged closer, but he turned toward Mary and extended his hand.
Her cheeks flushed and she muttered sounds that resembled protests, but she extended her hand toward him.
He kissed it with the same ceremony he had her mother’s and she flushed deep crimson.
Lydia and Kitty jostled for position nearest him and presented their cheeks.
Wickham smiled, eyes twinkling, and placed a kiss on each of their cheeks. As one they sighed and pressed a hand to their cheeks.
Such silly girls. Perhaps Papa had not exaggerated when he called them the silliest girls in all England.
Elizabeth fought not to roll her eyes. She turned aside and into Mr. Wickham’s shoulder.
“Would you deny me my kiss?’ he whispered, far closer than he should have been.
“Of…of course not.” She raised her hand, but he leaned in very close.
How warm were his lips on her burning cheek. It was very pleasant indeed to be kissed by such a handsome man. Even more pleasant, the lingering of his gaze on her face and he slowly retreated.
“Will you stay a little longer, sir, or do you care to usher out last year’s troubles and sorrows with you?” Papa gestured toward the back of the house.
“I would not overstay my welcome. Lead the way, sir. Ladies.” Mr. Wickham bowed and followed Papa out.
The backdoor swung shut and Elizabeth sank into a chair. No doubt he would be off in search of another house in want of a first footer. Preferably one with pretty young ladies to kiss. It had been presumptuous to think he could be partial to her. But it was a pleasant thought for the moment that it lasted.
What would it be like to be the object of attention of a desirable young man? Surely it would be quite agreeable. But would she ever know that for herself?
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