It Happened One Christmas (I know, terrible title, let me know if you think of a better one)
It took very little to excite Kitty’s and Lydia’s sensibilities, and as they sat down to breakfast on Christmas Eve, they did so with the prospect of dancing with handsome men in red coats, of escaping Longbourn for a few hours, and of a sleigh ride. It was too much to expect any decorum. They could barely sit still, and their feverish anticipation of it all was only bound to increase as the day went on.
Elizabeth shuddered to think of how it would be; endless giggling over nothing, shouting and running about, in and out of bedrooms with arms full of skirts, stealing ribbons, gloves and jewellery as they went. For her two younger sisters, the process of getting dressed to attend Colonel Forster’s party was likely to last longer the party itself. They talked over one another at the table, argued over which of the officers was most handsome, and made fun of Mary when she declared such pleasures were puerile and that they would do better to remain at home and “strengthen their intellects by reading”.
Mr Darcy had taken up a newspaper as soon as he had finished eating, his face hidden had been hidden by it for some time. Elizabeth thought—in fact she had prayed—that he had not been paying much attention to Kitty’s and Lydia’s nonsense, but now he lowered the pages to look in Mary’s direction. “I see you and I share a similar turn of mind, Miss Mary. Perhaps we ought to form an alliance this evening to protect ourselves from the evils of too much merriment. If we must dance, and I fear it will be demanded of us, perhaps we might stand up together, and discuss something valuable and sensible while we go through our steps? Will you do me the honour of the first dance?”
The table fell silent and all eyes turned to Mary, who blushed furiously, but nodded her acceptance. She thanked him in a voice so small and high-pitched it was in danger of shattering the water glasses, then excused herself and almost ran from the room.
All was still for a few moments, though Elizabeth detected a slight shaking in her father’s shoulders, as if he were trying to hold in a laugh.
“So, are you going to dance with all of us, Mr Darcy?” Lydia asked. “Or stand about stupidly like you did when we first met you?”
Both Elizabeth and Jane opened their mouths to admonish her, but Mr Bennet was quicker, and surprisingly efficient and effective in his dressing down—so much so that Lydia spent the rest of the meal with her head cowed over her plate.
Mr Darcy seemed thoughtful as finished the last of his coffee, and declined another cup, telling them he intended to walk to the turnpike to asses the state of the roads.
After he had left the room, Mrs Bennet whispered furiously at Mr Bennet, telling him she thought Mr Darcy might be in love with Mary. In reply, their father rolled his eyes and looked as if he could not decide who was more ridiculous, his wife, or he for having married her.
Elizabeth passed Mr Darcy in the hall, just as he was preparing to go out. “I suppose you go to the turnpike to see whether it would be prudent to travel yet. I cannot blame you for wanting to flee.”
He shook his head. “I require the exercise—and six ladies readying themselves for an evening party! I know enough of such things to realise I would be an annoyance and in everyone’s way if I were to remain.”
“’Tis true, it takes a great deal of preparation and fuss for some of us Bennets to make ourselves tolerable enough to appear in company.”
He put a hand to his chest and bowed. “A hit Madam, well deserved.”
“I am a little unfair.” She smiled and he looked at her for a long moment, with an odd expression in his eyes that she could not quite fathom. “My apologies, Mr Darcy.
“No, do not apologise, you must allow me to make some reparation for that ill-judged, hasty remark. Else I fear I may never be allowed to forget it. Let me say that in your case, Miss Bennet, no preparations are necessary.” He reddened, went to say something else, but then seemed to change his mind. “Your smiles give you an unfair advantage in our wager. If I did not know Wickham so well, I might be more worried about losing.”
She coloured herself, recognising his awkwardness. He was not used to giving complements, they did not come lightly or easily to him, as they did other gentlemen. It took a moment for her recover. “You are not backing out of our agreement are you, Mr Darcy?”
“Not at all, madam.” He stuck out his hand. “We did not shake on it before, let us do so now.” She put her hand into his without thinking. Neither of them were wearing gloves, his were still hanging out of his coat pocket. The contact was not fleeting and he clasped her fingers for longer than was polite or necessary. The feelings his touch generated did not shock her, of course she should feel hot and overcome. Something oddly familiar, yet thoroughly exciting, coursed through her veins, but then he was a handsome man, the sensations were natural, though she had never experienced them before
Oddly, she was both relieved and disappointed when he let go, bowed his head, and walked quickly to the door.
Once he had gone, she ran upstairs to immediately choose a gown, then ran down again with it in her arms to see about getting it pressed. She bothered the busy upstairs maid to discuss how they might later style her hair, and went to ask Jane if she might borrow a particular pair of earrings. Then she called for a bath. It was only when she was sunk deep into the iron tub that she realised she had spent the last two hours in much the same fashion as Lydia and Kitty, minus, thankfully, some very silly giggling.
It was dark when the sleigh arrived to collect them. Mr Darcy went out first, a lantern in his hand, to inspect it closely. He frowned a great deal, but at last declared it safe, and when it had been loaded with hot bricks from the fire and many rugs, they were all allowed to climb into it. He did not appear to trust the driver, however, and made the man move over on the front bench.
Taking up the ribbons himself, he gave them an elegant flick, clicked his tongue, and the horses moved forwards. They all gave a gasp of delight as they were driven out of the park and into the surrounding lanes, towards Meryton. Elizabeth turned her face up towards the sky. The moon was bright and the stars shone down upon them, guiding their way. She listened to the scraping noise made by the sleigh’s runners as they moved over the ice and knew she would always remember the moment, even when she were grey and old; perfect wintry night skies and that particular sound would forever remind her of this night.
Sadly, the beauty of it all was soon eclipsed by Lydia’s whining.
“We are going very slow, Mr Darcy. All the officers will be already engaged for the first dance by the time we arrive.”
“Shush Lydia,” Mrs Bennet said. “I am sure he is being careful for Mary’s sake. I am certain he would not want any harm to come to her.”
Colonel Forster’s party could not be described as a ball, as such, but everybody had arrived inclined to dance. The Bennets burst upon the scene just as the musicians were about to begin. They all went in hurriedly, to be greeted by their friends and neighbours, who exclaimed with pleasure as if they had not seen them for months or years, rather than mere days.
The efforts they had expended in simply getting there made everyone determined to enjoy themselves. The room was not big and they were rather tightly packed into it, but it was prettily decorated with bunches of holly, and garlands made from ferns and berries.
Mr Wickham, upon seeing Elizabeth, immediately came forward and asked her for the first dance. She readily acquiesced, and when they took their place in the set, she could not help but look down the rows of couples for Mr Darcy, who was stood opposite Mary. Their eyes met, and she gave him a smile she hoped was a smug as they one he had worn the day before. He only nodded at her in return.
Her triumph, however, was short-lived. They had not been dancing more than five minutes before Wickham asked her to point out Mary King to him. He laughed when she did, and pretended no interest, but neither did he seem to care for anything else Elizabeth had to say. His eyes frequently wandered in Miss King’s direction.
“What do you think, Mr Wickham? Is she ‘an awful freckly thing’ as Lydia has described her?” Elizabeth asked.
“Your sister is too harsh, whereas I, as a gentleman, am not. I am certain the young lady has many attractive qualities.”
“Oh yes,” Elizabeth replied. “Ten thousand of them.” She tried to smile, as if it were a joke, but she was disappointed in him, and her tone was harsher than she intended.
He was taken aback but only laughed, before returning to his usual ways with her. They flirted and joked, yet Elizabeth did not do so with any honesty. Instead, it became a game, one that must be played out until they reached the end of their half hour together. Elizabeth was relieved when he did not linger with her at the end of the dance.
Wickham joined the throng of officers who were vying to stand up with Mary King, and as charming as he was, as handsome as he was, Elizabeth strong suspected he would prove victorious. As she stood by her mother, she saw him work his way stealthily to the lady’s side, then hold out his hand. He made his request with a wolfish smile and was readily accepted.
Mr Darcy, likewise, had a new partner, and was leading Jane across the room to dance. After which, he asked Kitty, and then Lydia. Elizabeth was dancing herself, and most likely annoyed her partner by almost never looking his way. Yet, how could she when the horrifying spectacle of Lydia and Mr Darcy dancing was so near? So mismatched were they, such opposites in every respect, that they were uncomfortable to watch. Even so, she could not stop staring at them.
Upon re-joining her friends, Elizabeth took a deep breath and straightened the sash on her dress. He would come now, she thought, if he was really to dance with them all. It was surely her turn to be asked, and Mr Darcy did take a step her way, but before he was even halfway across the room, a Lucas son, home from Cambridge for Christmas, tapped her on the shoulder and requested the honour. She could hardly refuse and let herself be led away, only to look over her shoulder and see Mr Darcy approach Charlotte. Would he never sit down? Could he not stand on the side and look them all over critically as he was once wont to do?
Why did she feel so aggrieved, so full of rage? Was it jealousy she felt? How silly to be envious of Charlotte, who had already made her somewhat dubious choice of mate. Yet, the set ought to have been hers—it was her turn to dance with Mr Darcy.
How many dances were left? Not many, she feared. They had taken a casual supper already, and this gathering could not last much longer. The guests would have to consider travelling home in the inclement weather. Some of the older ladies would take an early leave, and their sons, daughters and husbands would go with them.
Added to the problem of the snow, some of the officers were growing rowdy. Colonel Forster had recently ordered one of his men—who had looked quite green in the face—to bed, and if they continued to drink, they would soon become unfit for the company of ladies; all those with reputations to consider would withdraw and leave them to their own kind of revelry.
Elizabeth’s despair grew greater when Mr Darcy decided upon Mary King for his next partner. Her mother, stood next to her, was equally disappointed. “Oh, he has only danced with our Mary once, and now he chooses Miss King. I begin to doubt his admiration.”
“I begin to doubt everything, even myself,” Elizabeth replied, before being approached by a moustachioed officer. She gave her hand to him with a sigh.
As she had predicted, for some of gathered families, the end of the next set was the end of the night. The Lucases went, along with a few others, giving their Merry Christmases and wishes for a safe journey home.
The officers were keen to keep the dancing alive, however. One of them climbed upon the shoulders of another and was given a great cheer when he hung a small sprig of mistletoe from a beam. Elizabeth knew what was to follow. This was the country, not a formal gathering in Town. There would be a reel or a jig, something fast, and at the end of it, as the couples took their final steps down the line, the lady would bestow a kiss on the cheek of her partner. A harmless, Christmas ritual in Meryton, probably not the done thing at Matlock or Pemberley. Yet when Mr Darcy came near, she could not breathe for wondering what he would say, or do.
All he did, however, was to tug at his cuffs and stare at the scene before him. Partners were being selected—more carefully than ever before, as gentlemen sought out their favourites.
“You may want to look away, Mr Darcy. I have no doubt you will heartily disapprove of what is to follow.”
“I suppose the entertainment being what it is, you will win our wager. Your faithful Mr Wickham will no doubt be along in a moment to ask you dance.”
The moment he had finished speaking, Mr Wickham did step in their direction. Elizabeth’s heart stopped briefly. Then he smiled tightly, almost apologetically at her, before approaching, with sickeningly false humility, and a pretence at shyness, Mary King.
“Congratulations, Mr Darcy. You win” She said, leaving him to go over to a chair in the corner. She sank into it with an air of defeat.
“I have won nothing.”
She looked up to see he had followed her. He glanced around the room before crouching down beside her chair. “You are much better rid of him. I pity the poor lady he does marry. His tale—of the living he was supposed to have—what he always neglects to omit is that after my father died, he declared he never wanted to take orders. Instead, he asked for financial recompense. I gave him a large sum of money, which he has now most likely squandered.” His voice dropped to a mere whisper. “One day, when we are alone, I will tell you of another wrong he did me, which I have had to keep secret, for the sake of someone who is very dear to me.”
“I am thoroughly ashamed of my own lack of judgement. How could I be fooled so easily?”
Mr Darcy sighed. “My father was a great, and truly wise man. Yet to his last breath, he adored that scoundrel. I myself was friends with Wickham for many a year before I saw just how despicable he can be. Do not blame yourself, and do not hide in a corner. This is no place for you, come along.”
She did not give him her hand, he took it from her lap, and she followed him silently to the dance, which had already begun. He pulled her into the throng of whirring couples. Normally, an excellent dancer, she was so surprised by the quickness of his step that she stumbled. He was forced to put his hand on her waist briefly, to steady her.
“You must try and keep up with me, Miss Elizabeth.”
She laughed. “I thought you did not like to dance, Mr Darcy?”
“I do not, generally. Though any chore is made easier and more enjoyable when there is the promise of a reward at the end of it.”
Speech was thus rendered impossible, looking at him was rendered impossible. It was all she could do to put her feet where they ought to go. The room grew hotter, the dance grew faster. Everything else fell away; the loud colourful room, the other couples turning as furiously as they, the noise of a dozen shoes on the floorboards, the laughter. All she could think of was that they were coming to the end. They were moving down the set, the mistletoe looming ever nearer. There was applause and louder laugher as the first kiss was bestowed, and then another, and then another. Of course, she would do the same. She would kiss his cheek. It was Christmas after all.
When they were finally under that little sprig of greenery, she stood on the tips of her toes to reach him, expecting him to offer his cheek. Instead he quickly caught her face between his hands and kissed her, properly, fully on the mouth. His lips felt firm, and tasted sweet, and that was all she was conscious of before he let her go, and then mortification took hold of her instead. The laughter that followed their encounter was louder than ever, the applause even stronger. Knowing it would be worse to make a fuss, that she would do better to laugh, and for her neighbours to think she did not mind, she smiled and shrugged.
He muttered a hushed apology as they walked away, their dance complete, yet she did not think he looked entirely sorry, and she was at a loss as to what to say or do. She wished a hole in the floor might appear and swallow her whole.
She was grateful when Jane appeared by her side and pulled her into the hall for some air, and fortunately they were alone.
“You look as if you might feint, Lizzy,”.
“How dare he?”
Jane only smiled and took out her fan, waving it in Elizabeth’s face. “He is in love with you. A man in love ought to be forgiven some impetuousness.”
“No, you are wrong.” Elizabeth shook her head. “I know not his reasons, he is all arrogance and conceit. He thinks he may do whatever he…” She wanted to protest more, but her shoulders sagged. “Everyone will be talking of it for weeks.”
“Come now, everyone has had too much wine for it to matter much. There is hardly anyone left here that we know.”
“Even so, I am sure they will get to hear of it. Oh, it is so embarrassing.”
“A little, perhaps. Though now, you will be the girl Mr Darcy kissed, rather than the girl Mr Wickham threw over for Mary King.”
“I shall never live it down.”
Jane took Elizabeth’s face between her hands, much as Mr Darcy had just done, and forced her to meet her eyes. “It matters not. Will you listen to me? Where has your cleverness gone? He is in love with you, and you with him, and may I say, I mightily approve of your choice.”
“I should like to go home,” was all she could say.
In her absence, it seemed Mr Darcy had decided that was exactly where they were bound; her mother and other sisters burst into the hall seconds later, laden with coats and hats, and they were all soon back in the sleigh for the return journey to Longbourn. Mr Darcy drove them again, his face buried deep in the collar of his coat. He said not a word as he handed all the ladies out. Elizabeth, torn as she was between anger and confusion, jumped down without assistance and dashed inside. She immediately declared herself ready for bed, going upstairs before Mr Darcy had even come in.
Yet, she did not go to bed. She took a seat by her window and pulled the heavy curtains back so she might see the stars again. Some people believed they could predict the future, but the more Elizabeth looked up at them, the less she knew.
After a while, she heard Mr Darcy’s deep baritone in the hall below. He had such a distinctive voice and she had come to know it above all others. He was speaking to her father, she thought, and then she heard two sets of heavy steps move towards his library, followed by the peculiar squeak the hinges on that particular door always made when it was opened. Then she heard it being firmly shut.
Bleary eyed, and with a thick head from too little sleep, Elizabeth came warily down the stairs the next morning, only to be met by the sight of Mr Darcy’s trunks in the hall. He was there too, not dressed to go yet, but something told her he was leaving. She was so surprised she forgot to be angry at him.
“It is Christmas morning,” she said. “You are not going?”
“As you see.”
“You cannot travel today.”
“The turnpike, when I went yesterday, was just about passable. I confess I worry for my sister who is at Matlock without me. My family there are not the warmest of companions. She will not have been as fortunate as I; to have been so graciously received by you all, after the way I previously behaved… well, I have been much humbled. I have said as much to your mother this morning, and your father last night.”
“You cannot make your servants go so far, tomorrow should be their day of rest.”
He smiled. “You are good to think of them, but know that I am a generous master, and they will be well compensated. May I speak to you elsewhere, before I leave?”
She nodded and they walked down the hall, to a small parlour at the front of the house. They passed Jane on their way. Elizabeth had kept Jane awake much of the night, discussing everything that had passed. Her sister stifled a yawn, yet also smiled at Elizabeth in an encouraging way.
Mr Darcy opened the door for her, and shut it behind himself when they were both inside. She put a hand to her chest, felt it pounding in uncertainty. Realising, only in that moment, that he had asked to speak to her alone and that she had followed him, unthinkingly, without stopping to consider what it might mean.
“I was not very gentlemanly last night, you have every right to hate me.” He paced over to the window, stopped and turned. “Do you hate me?”
“No,” she said, hesitantly. “Though I was angry, embarrassed.”
He bowed his head. “I made a dreadful first impression on you, most likely a terrible second, and now an even more awful third. What I would wish for is the opportunity to remedy matters. There was a time when I did not care who I offended, but I have come to admire you, and through you, I have learnt a different way of seeing the world. It is a gift you have given me.” He said, his voice breaking. “I will be honest and confess I once thought you beneath me, yet now I see your worth. I understand how fortunate I would be…” He stopped to clear his throat. “Mr Wickham would express himself so much better.”
“Perhaps,” she said, “but I find I no longer care for his speeches.”
“Of that I am glad. I have spoken to your father.”
She must have coloured deeply, for he did too.
“Oh no, you mistake me. We made such a bad beginning that we barely know one another, it is too soon, and I would not have you so unsure of me. Though the look of relief you now wear has me perturbed.”
Her heart seemed to have moved into her throat. It constricted her airways and robbed her of speech. She could say nothing, but when he held out his hand, she slid hers into it. It was a glorious feeling when his fingers closed around hers.
“I shall be at Matlock for a time, then Pemberley. After which I will travel to Town and speak to Mr Bingley. Be assured, he will call upon your sister at the Gardiners, though after that I intend to leave them to their own devices.”
“But that was your forfeit, and it was I who lost the bet. You never told me what my forfeit would be, and how I should pay it.”
He smiled, the seriousness was gone from his countenance, it had been replaced by a devilish expression. “The forfeit I really wished for, you have already paid.”
In his cravat, she found a place to hide her embarrassment abd stepped closer to him. “A young lady imagines her first kiss quite differently, Mr Darcy.”
He laughed. “I see my error. Out of interest, in case I am so fortunate. May I ask how she imagines her second?”
It was too much for her, she withdrew her hand and stepped back, but favoured him with a smile. “A different forfeit, if you please.”
“Very well then,” he said, not missing a beat. “What I asked from your father was permission to write to you, while we are apart. Your forfeit to me is a letter by return, on receipt of mine. I will not be happy, Madam, if there is much delay in your correspondence. You have seen me at my worst, you know how dreadful my temper will be if I do not have at least a few lines from you by the end of January.”
He was as charming, in his own peculiar way, as a thousand Wickhams, and she suspected she shook from the force of her emotions. She was in love, and what she loved most about him was that he expected no more of her than a letter. He had come to understand her in these few strange days when he had been trapped at Longbourn. She did not want him to go, but wondered if it was selfish to ask him to stay. He went for the sake of his sister. For that she adored him all the more, but he would be missed.
“We will see one another at Easter,” he told her. “You are to go and see your friends at Hunsford. I will go to Rosings Park to visit my aunt there. There is only a lane separating the two properties.”
Elizabeth laughed. “As I have been told, many times.”
“We might walk together often. The countryside is beautiful, the company I cannot truthfully recommend, but the paths and groves, I think you would very much enjoy.”
Again, he put out his hand, and again she took it. The stars knew nothing, Elizabeth could foretell the future from his touch. This was how it would be.
He released her then and went, going around the house, quietly giving his goodbyes. When he had finally driven away, Elizabeth went back to her room, supposedly to ready herself for Church. Instead, she threw herself upon the bed and cried for a good long while, as she had not done since she was a child, till her emotions were spent. She did not rouse until she heard her mother pass by her door, exclaiming to no one but herself.
“Ten thousand a year! Now that makes for a very merry Christmas indeed.”
I hope you all enjoyed the story. Many, many thanks for all your comments, facebook shares etc. They mean a lot.
Merry Christmas and see you all in the New Year. Be good, be kind, be happy.