In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen leaves us to wonder what happened in Hertfordshire over Christmastide whilst the militia was stationed in Meryton. Take a behind-the-scenes peek with me at what might have happened.
December 30, 1811
The Gardiner’s departed with Jane early the following morning. The departure of so much good sense and level-headedness immediately made itself felt upon Elizabeth. Papa must have felt it to. He ensconced himself in his study the whole of the day, only emerging when their departure for the Kings’ for a dinner party was imminent.
Mama swept downstairs and into the vestibule, dressed in her best dinner gown and cape, all the while declaring it quite shocking that they should so openly celebrate Mary King’s inheritance. Papa insisted they were but returning the invitations that had been exchanged earlier in the holiday season. That it happened to coincide with their daughter’s good fortune was entirely coincidental.
“You may think that all you like, Mr. Bennet, but I shall not be moved. They mean to remind us all that their daughter is an heiress. I am quite certain they intend to make sure all the attention is upon her. That will only hurt our own girls you know. How will you like to see their hearts broken when none of the officers pay them any more mind.” She dabbed her cheeks with her creased handkerchief.
“I think it very unlikely that any hearts shall be broken, Mrs. Bennet. If they are, then it was a matter of foolishness that they were so attached in the first place. All will be better off for the exercise. Now, to the carriage, unless you would rather stay home and discuss the point further.”
“Oh, Mr. Bennet!” Mama tossed her head and brushed past him on the way out the front door.
He clutched his forehead and ushered his daughters out the door.
Lizzy slid into the seat facing Mama. Mary had already established herself near the window. Sitting in the middle was not nearly so trying as sitting knee to knee with Mama.
“You look quite well, tonight, Lizzy, but I fear it will do no good. I do not know what has caused such bad luck to befall us, but I fear we are in the thick of it now.” Mama reached over to adjust the ribbons on Kitty’s skirt.
“Then perhaps, you shall not grumble when we prepare for New Year’s Eve.” Papa looked just a little too smug. How long had he been waiting to say just that?
“I do not see how that has anything to do with—”
“If we have indeed been plagued with bad luck—and I am by no means agreeing we have—then what better way to usher out the bad luck than by properly observing tradition? A fortuitous first footer in on New Year’s is just the thing we need to turn our fortunes back to good.”
Mama huffed and fluffed her feathers, settling into the squabs like broody hen. “If you insist, I suppose it will do no harm.”
“I am most glad to hear you say so. I expect then, you will not feel the need to comment—” He meant complain. “—so vociferously at the necessary efforts.”
She huffed again.
“Please, Papa, let us hire another girl to help with the cleaning. You insist on ever so much work to be done.” Lydia slumped against the carriage side and threw her head back.
“The effort builds character. If you fear you will be too spent for the exertion, then return home immediately. Surely this dinner will require too much of you. Perhaps it would be in the interest of good luck for all of us to return home and send the Kings our regrets.”
Mama would have sprung to her feet had they not been confined in the carriage. As it was she knocked her knees painfully into Elizabeth’s.
“Do not be ridiculous, Mr. Bennet. We can by no means turn around now. How humiliating! How much talk would there be! Surely the Kings would be offended and that might take months to resolve. Lydia you will be quite well to do whatever your father requires tomorrow, all you girls shall.” Her glower added ‘is that understood?’
“Yes, Mama.” Lydia pouted.
Kitty mirrored the expression.
Mary opened her mouth to speak but the pressure of Elizabeth’s shoulder against hers seemed sufficient to quell the urge.
Cold silence reined within. Elizabeth pulled her pelisse a little tighter around her neck. The carriage lurched in a deep rut in the road and nearly pitched her into Mama’s lap.
“And you, Lizzy, you must be on your best and brightest behavior tonight. It would not do to have you lose Mr. Wickham’s attentions—”
“Oh, no, Mama, do not say that! It is not fair that she keeps him to herself. She must let us have our time with him as well,” Kitty muttered into the side glass.
“Indeed, she is right. You must tell her to share him with the rest of us.” Lydia stamped and nearly came down on Mary’s foot.
“I have no interest in him. She may well have my share of his favors.” Mary glared at Lydia.
“Why do we not allow the poor man to choose as he will? Unless, of course, he has come to you Mrs. Bennet asking for your assistance in managing his social engagements.” Papa peered over his glasses at her, eyebrows raised.
Mama’s remark, which would no doubt have been tart and sharp, was cut off by their arrival at the Kings’.
The driver opened the carriage door and Mama led her sisters out.
“I hope, Lizzy, your mother’s ill-humor has not endangered your enjoyment of the evening.” Papa straightened his hat.
“No, sir. I am determined to have my share in the fun and frivolity of it.”
“That is my girl. Do not worry about your sisters. I have no doubt that such silly girls shall rarely be in want of attention.”
Elizabeth swallowed hard. “Of that I am quite sure, sir.”
Of course, that attention might not be gracious in its estimation of them, or the family they came from. Pray let there be no opportunity for Mary to play or Lydia to dance tonight.
The liveried butler led them up to the drawing room where Mrs. King pulled herself away from Mama to greet them. She looked a little relieved for the excuse to withdraw. Mama could be a little overwhelming at times.
“Mr. Bennet, Miss Elizabeth, we are so happy you could join us tonight.” Mrs. King curtsied.
“Your invitation was most propitious. All our company has left us. My wife has found herself quite at loose ends with nothing to distract her.” Papa bowed.
Poor Mrs. King, she looked so confused. She never had been well equipped to deal with Papa’s sense of humor.
“I am only sorry that my sister Jane has already gone away to London and is not able to join us.”
“Her company will surely be missed. Ah, you will forgive me, the officers have arrived.” She slipped away.
“Officers? I had thought your mother exaggerating when she bemoaned their attentions going to Miss King. I thought surely the Kings would not have found their company desirable, apart from that of Colonel Forster, of course.”
“Why ever would you think that? They are the most sought after guests this season, at least since the Bingleys have departed.” Elizabeth glanced over her shoulder at the milling crowd.
“Not everyone finds the company of the militia desirable. Not all commanders keep their officers in check as Colonel Forster does. Pray excuse me. Mr. King is in need of rescue from too much enthusiastic conversation. Why do you not go and join your friends?” He nodded sharply and wandered toward the far side of the room.
Elizabeth shrugged. The sooner the men could have the dining room to themselves, with cigars and port, the happier Papa would be.
Mr. Wickham strode away from Mrs. King and scanned the room.
At least she would not want for agreeable company. She moved toward him.
“Good evening, Mr. Wickham.”
“Miss Elizabeth, how very charming to see you this evening. How lonely your house must be with all your recent company gone away.” He smiled broadly, but his gaze still darted about the parlor.
Who was he searching for?
“The house seems very quiet now. We will have to count on the company of our friends to see us through these dark days.”
“I cannot imagine how a house filled with so many pretty young ladies could even encounter dark days. I am entirely certain that Denny and Sanderson shall rise to the occasion quite willingly.” He looked over his shoulder. “I think they may have already undertaken the endeavor.”
Denny and Sanderson stood in a little knot, with Lydia and Kitty, Maria Lucas and several others, surrounding Mary King. Her white gown made her look more pale, even a touch sickly. Ginger girls with freckles were not complimented in white muslin.
“What think you of Miss King?” Wickham took a half step toward that group.
“She is a good sort of girl, I think. I have hardly heard a cross word from her in all the time I have known her. She is well liked among us.”
“But you find her dull?”
“I said no such thing.” Elizabeth pressed a hand to her chest.
“But the praise you offered her was of the sort that implied exactly that.” His eyebrows flashed up.
“You wound me sir. I would by no means offer such censure.” Her cheeks heated. Pray no one was looking, or worse, listening in their direction.
“Of course not, you are far too polite. But to praise in so mild terms—what else might I assume?” His right eye twitched in barely a wink.
“That I mean what I say sir, nothing more and surely nothing less.” She cocked her head and raised her brows.
“That is entirely impossible. Who among us is so plain spoken that they would speak so directly? Shall we join them that I may see for myself this woman whom you condemn with faint praise?” He gestured toward the group of young people.
Perhaps it would be best to join them. Staying close to Lydia and Kitty might better keep them in check.
The group fell into peals of laughter.
“Such stories, Lt. Denny! I do not think you should be telling such things in polite company.” Miss King tittered behind her fan.
“Oh, but what would the fun in that be?” Lydia leaned her shoulder into Denny’s almost as though to remind him she were there.
“A fine question to be sure, Miss Lydia.” Wickham intruded half a step into the group.
They shuffled back to accommodate him.
“What amusement might be had that offers no offense to anyone? It is no fine thing to amuse with vulgarities, it has been argued. It requires a superior character to entertain even the most delicate of ears. Only the finest among us might rise to that challenge.” Wickham bowed with a flourish.
“I quite agree, sir.” Miss King edged a little closer to Wickham.
“So then, I issue a challenge to you, my fellow officers and other gentlemen. Let us entertain the good ladies here tonight with an overwhelming show of taste and good breeding.”
Nods and approving grunts of those around him issued from the gentlemen, although a few looked less pleased than Wickham over the arrangement. Maria Lucas clapped softly, encouraging the ladies to do likewise.
“Let us add just a small bit of sport to this. Miss King, would you be so good as to judge tonight whom you find the most pleasing. A bit of competition has always been known to bring out the best in gentlemen.”
“And what should the prize to the winner be?” Alexander Goulding called from the back of the group.
“A prize, yes a prize…” Wickham paced two steps forward and back, stroking his chin.
“You cannot have a contest without some prize or forfeit.” Lydia batted her eyes.
“Indeed you are correct, Miss Lydia. Since the evening is in your honor Miss King, I say the prize should come from you. Would you favor us, with, let us say, two dances? The winner should have the honor of partnering with you for those?”
Miss King giggled. “I should be quite honored. But who shall play for us?” She cast a quick glance toward Mary, her lip barely curled in a sneer.
Not Mary! Pray, not her!
Wickham turned to Elizabeth and bowed. “Miss Bennet, would you be so good as to favor us with your playing at the conclusion of our challenge?”
“I … ah … certainly, I would be pleased to oblige, but I do not know that my talent is sufficient to the task.”
Miss King brightened visibly. “Not at all, you play delightfully. You must play Lord Byron’s Maggot for us. I declare it is quite my favorite dance.”
Of course that would be her request. What better opportunity to showcase her flirting and her triumph over the other girls than with that particular dance?
“May we prevail upon you for that particular dance?” Something about the way Wickham looked at her made it impossible to refuse him.
Mrs. King broke into the group. “Ladies, shall we to dinner now?”
Wickham offered Miss King his arm and followed Mrs. King. The other officers and young men did likewise until Elizabeth was left alone watching the others depart for the dining room.
That there should be gentlemen unequal to the number of ladies in the room was not at all unusual. But to be the one left without an escort was a far rarer, and more uncomfortable occurrence. She had anticipated Mr. Wickham would escort her, but it was Mary King’s night tonight.
Still though …
Best not dwell too much upon it and delay the start of dinner. She followed the rest to the dining room.
The young people clustered together near the center of the table and provided quite merry, though improper, conversation. Mr. Wickham did not limit his talk to Mary King on his left or Miss Goulding on his right, but addressed all who were easily within hearing. As he was easily the most diverting man at the table, no one could complain for the general amusement offered them all.
How ironic that such a breech in propriety would make the young gentlemen’s attempts at propriety so very entertaining.
Across the table, Denny could be quite clever when he chose to exert himself. Sanderson’s wit proved somewhat wanting, but he too improved himself with the effort to ape Wickham. Alexander Goulding said little, but he clearly made himself a student of the exercise. His quick eyes followed the banter likely cataloguing it for future use. Wickham seemed to notice and flourish under all the attention, rising to the occasion, providing an exemplar of how to well-please his company.
All told, dinner proved exceedingly agreeable. But one tiny question nagged, worrying at her good spirits like a horsefly in summer. Why had Mr. Wickham chosen this evening to demonstrate such exceedingly good manners?
At the end of the sweet course, Mrs. King stood and escorted the ladies to the drawing room. Mary was asked to favor them on the pianoforte. No doubt she would enjoy the opportunity to display. But, at least this way Mary might make a spectacle of herself to only half as large an audience.
The other young ladies gathered at the far end of the room, leaving Mrs. King and her peers the seats nearer the fire.
Miss Goulding leaned forward and glanced back at the matrons. “I cannot believe how entertaining the gentlemen are tonight. Are these the same ones we have kept company with so many times before?”
“It is an impressive transformation, is it not?” Miss King tittered again.
Would that she would stop that stupid, insipid expression.
“What a good leader Mr. Wickham is,” Lydia said. “See how he has improved them all. I should think he will become a captain soon.”
That was not how militia rank worked. Elizabeth bit her lip. Correcting Lydia in public never went well.
“I think I shall thank him for the improvement he has wrought in our society.” Miss Goulding declared.
“Oh yes, I think we all must do so. How shall we best express our appreciation?” Miss King’s questions should have been mild enough, but there was something vaguely bitter in her tone.
Elizabeth rose and left the others to decide best on how to thank Mr. Wickham. She wandered to a bookshelf and picked up a book left open, a bit of poetry, bemoaning the foolishness of youth and love.
“You would not prefer reading to cards, would you, Miss Elizabeth?” Alexander Goulding said, peeking over her shoulder.
She jumped and shut the book. “Oh, I did not hear you come in.”
“Would you care to join us at cards? There is a table for commerce forming now.” He gestured toward the center of the room.
Wickham sat, shuffling cards, Mary King to his left and Lydia to his right. He chatted contentedly with both.
Lydia certainly could not complain that Elizabeth was taking an unfair share of Mr. Wickham’s attention tonight.
“Thank you for the invitation. I should like to join you.” She followed him to the table.
The play was lively, with great good humor shared throughout, but not once did Mr. Wickham look at her.
When they game ended, the players left to help themselves to trays of newly arrived refreshments. Wickham lingered behind a moment to arrange the cards and tokens.
“Are you enjoying this evening, sir?” Elizabeth asked.
“Indeed I am. What is there not to enjoy with such good company and so many amusements at hand?”
“This time of year the amusements are many are they not? My father has already set his mind on preparing the house for a New Year’s first footer.”
“Indeed that is a most agreeable custom. I believe not so many participate in it so far south.”
“I think that is true, but he sees to it that the tradition is maintained.”
“That is interesting to know. Pray excuse me. Our hostess is demanding my company. I am loath to disappoint her.” He dipped his head and sauntered off to Miss King.
He was right. He did owe her particular courtesy, particularly if he was to win his bet.
Surely a dance with Miss King could not be so valuable. His standing among the other gentlemen, though, that he could not afford to lose.
Of course, it must be so.
But somehow, the notion became harder to believe when Elizabeth took to the piano to play the promised dances for the evening. Mr. Wickham looked so very pleased to take Miss King’s hand to lead her in the dance. Far more pleased than merely retaining standing among the other gentlemen should give him.
Soon after, the carriages were summoned and Lydia squeezed in between Elizabeth and Mary.
“I say that was a fun evening, with all the gentlemen trying so hard to be agreeable and pleasing. See what happens when you stop holding Mr. Wickham’s attentions all to yourself. The whole party was made so happy.” Lydia batted her eyes and smiled so smugly.
Elizabeth pressed her lips tight to contain the tart remark that hovered on the tip of her tongue. Several glasses of wine had left Mama quiet and restful. There was little point in disrupting the bit of peace that offered. Besides, it seemed petty and jealous to be so unsettled by one evening without Wickham’s devoted attentions. Surely he still liked her very well. What possible reason was there for her to have fallen in his regard.
Wondering what Darcy is up to at this point? Check out Darcy & Elizabeth: Christmas 1811
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