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 31, 1811
New Year’s Eve, Papa wasted no time in arranging for his very specific wishes to be fulfilled. Ashes, rags, scraps and all things perishable had to be removed from the house. The principle rooms required a thorough cleaning.
Hill, Cook and Molly all hated this day in equal measures. Mama probably hated it most of all. The volume of work to be done required that she and all her daughters join in the efforts, something she assiduously tried to avoid.
Usually Jane and Elizabeth would work together and reminisce over the events of the past year. Jane had such an excellent memory, particularly for those things pleasant and agreeable. Elizabeth’s contributions tended toward the ridiculous. Together, they made short work of the chores at hand.
This year, Elizabeth had no such relief. Whilst Mary proved an efficient and hardworking partner, her conversation was limited to observations on the moral value of hard work and the suggestions of Mrs. Rundell’s book in how best to accomplish it. Elizabeth favored her with the appropriate utterances of attention, but turned her own focus inward as she spread damp, used tea leaves along the floor and swept the parlor.
She had never anticipated a first footer’s arrival as she did this night’s. Would Mr. Wickham act on her suggestion? Did he even recognize it for what it was? She could not come out and ask, that would be improper and violate the spirit of Papa’s traditions. If only she could, though.
Even if he came, would he give her any indication of what had happened the previous night, why he was so distant?
Elizabeth got Mary’s attention and they retrieved the carpet from the outside line where Mrs. Reynolds and Molly had been beating it. It took several tries to get it exactly in the place where Mama preferred it, but at last the carpet was back in place. They would soon be finished with the parlor.
On the other hand, why should this bother her so? It was not as if she fancied herself in love with him, violently or otherwise. He was an agreeable gentlemen, granted the most agreeable of her acquaintance, but nothing more. Yet, she did like him, very well, as did Mama and Papa.
Oh bother! All this wondering and worrying sounded far more like Lydia than herself. How very vexing!
She flipped out her dust cloth and sneezed. How very considerate of Papa to ensure she could occupy her mind the rest of the afternoon with cleaning the drawing room.
“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 did not laugh in company, particularly when Mama was irritable.
Still, Jane would have shared a private laugh with her when they finally tucked into bed. But she was gone to London. 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.
Candlelight filled the dark corners of the room, turning the summer garden feel of the room into something more reminiscent of an autumn bonfire. Warm and cozy and friendly. Mama would have preferred it more formal and elegant, even for the parlor.
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 comforting in his predictability even if Mama disliked it.
“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.”
Not unlike puddings and charms.
“Shall I remind you how you recently complained of bad luck? Moreover, I endure your endless talk of lace and frippery. One evening of the year, it is not too much to ask of you—”
Mama folded her arms over her chest and harrumphed. “When you put it in those terms—”
“It is very nearly midnight,” Kitty pointed at the clock, bouncing slightly in her seat.
They all turned toward the venerable longcase clock in the corner, its hands nearly overlapped 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 the year of Our Lord 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 from the front door. Elizabeth rubbed her hands up and down her upper arms. Somehow, New Year’s Eve always managed to be windy, at least at midnight if no other time.
“Do hurry along Mr. Bennet or we shall catch our deaths.” Mama knotted her shawl more tightly.
Papa waved her down as he passed through the parlor with his particular, heavy-footed gait.
“Halloo there—is a first footer wanted here?”
Surely that could not be … Elizabeth rose, her heart racing, but Lydia and Kitty preceded her to the front door.
“Mr. Wickham!” Lydia squealed and shouldered Kitty out of her way.
Was it only coincidence or had he correctly divided her invitation? Her chest ached and she bit her lip waiting for sight of him.
“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. His eyes twinkled with good humor. Did he wish rescue from Kitty and Lydia, or was he enjoying their attentions? She had always been certain of the former before, but now—she was not so certain.
“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 a seat.
“I believe we can take one of His Majesty’s officers at his word regarding the shape of his feet.” Papa tapped his foot.
“Besides, I believe it is equally significant that he does not arrive empty-handed.” Elizabeth cocked her head and quirked her brow.
Mama glared, and Mary donned an attitude of boredom, still as taciturn and broody as she had been through most of their efforts cleaning. Was she still upset over Mr. Collins? Did she still have to be so sensitive, even over the attentions of young men she did not especially like?
Mama leaned toward Elizabeth. “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 who winked.
“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. It was just a penny, but that was enough.
She giggled as she took it.
“And a bit of whiskey.” He passed a flask to Papa. “Sweets for two 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.
What a charmingly useful gift.
She forced a smile and took the coal. He avoided her gaze as she took it from his hand.
“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.” Papa gestured toward the hall door.
“Mr. Wickham does not need to see the house is clean.” Mama sniffed.
“And I am sure he would much rather a toast than 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 extended a hand toward Kitty and Lydia, turning his shoulder toward Elizabeth. “Perhaps you will do me the favor of escorting me through the house.”
They immediately took his arms, giggling. Lydia snuck a smug glance at Elizabeth. Their footsteps echoed on the clean floors as they disappeared down the corridor.
Papa lifted his eyebrows and cocked his head at Elizabeth.
She shrugged and turned away, pulling her shawl a little more tightly around her shoulders. No, she was not going to trail after them, fighting with Kitty and Lydia for a place with the first footer. She shivered. When would he close the doors and put a stop to the cold breezes tearing through the house?
Giggles and loud whispers announced their return.
“Have you found the house to your discerning standards?” Papa asked.
“Cleaner than even my grandmother could desire.”
“Shall we all to the parlor where I have poured a toast.” 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 with a wink. “Ofcourse you are right, and very gracious of you to make it so.”
They followed Papa back to the parlor, Wickham close to his side. On his heels, Kitty and Lydia jostled to be in his shadow.
No sooner did they step into the parlor that Papa pressed a glass into her hand. “Add the coal to the fire, Lizzy dear, and we shall have a toast.”
“Hurry up, 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.”
The fire popped and flickered and felt so very cold.
“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 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 Mama’s, and she flushed deep crimson.
Lydia and Kitty jostled for the 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.
He stepped back, and for the first time in their acquaintance, looked bewildered.
She cocked her head and raised an eyebrow.
He looked away.
“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.
Gracious! Mary King’s father celebrated as Papa did.
She sank into a faded velvet armchair and pinched the bridge of her nose.
Papa has been right, he had done the job quite credibly. Hopefully Papa would not gloat.
January 6, 1812
Aunt Phillips hosted a Twelfth Night party, but had chosen to do so without consulting the Kings, who hosted a dinner and party of their own at the same time. It seemed little coincidence that all of the officers declined Aunt Phillips’s invitation in favor of the Kings’. Though little different from last year’s company, the gathering felt drab and colorless. Lydia and Kitty felt the officers’ loss keenly and loudly, especially after a few cups of punch. Finally, Papa intervened and suggested it was time that everyone returned home.
That had never happened before, and hopefully would never happen again.
Elizabeth trudged upstairs, if she could abscond to her room quickly enough, she might not be called upon to help Kitty and Lydia prepare for bed. Elizabeth’s cheeks still burned for all they had said!
She wandered around her moonlit room. Sleep was not going to come soon. If only Jane were here to talk all this over with. But even if she had been, Jane would have been far too distressed for words right now.
Elizabeth lit several candles and pulled out her portable writing desk.
My dear Aunt Gardiner,
I hope this letter finds you well and warm this new year. Papa has had his first footer here to assure our future in the coming year. While I am not nearly so assured as he of our fortunes in the coming months, I do have news which I believe shall make for an agreeable start to the new year for you. Concerning Mr. Wickham …
Elizabeth paused and tapped her pen against her lips. Aunt Gardiner might be pleased for this, but Mama’s ill humor and ill health had returned. With Charlotte’s impending wedding there was little hope for improvement any time soon. Was it too soon to hope eighteen twelve would conclude on a more agreeable note than it had begun?
Wondering what Darcy is up to at this point? Check out Darcy & Elizabeth: Christmas 1811
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