To commemorate our second anniversary, we invite you, our loyal readers and friends, to join us this month at Austen Variations. We have grand plans! For February, we intend to share the endearing (or otherwise) moments of Jane Austen’s beloved characters as they celebrate their own anniversaries.
Anna carefully stirred the stew over the fire, sweat running over her temples as she tried to avoid burning her fingers on the edge of the black pot again. She hoped that the brown mess would be edible tonight…she didn’t have much experience cooking and she wondered if she had remembered to put in everything her mother told her to. Somehow, it didn’t look the same as that of her mother, a capable woman who fed her large family and at least two boarders twice a day with hearty, filling food.
Perhaps Anna should have spent more time at her mother’s side before hiring herself out to the Wickhams. But then, she had been hired as a nursemaid to care for Mrs. Wickham’s two children, a boy of 15 months and a baby girl of five months. Since she had taken this position she had realized that “nursemaid” meant “nursery maid, laundry girl, and cook.” She had hoped that working for such a handsome officer as Ensign Wickham would put her in the way of meeting other soldiers at the camp, but she never had time to leave the house, except to buy the food at the market.
Mrs. Wickham spent most of her time sleeping in until noon and then dragging herself into her clothes to go out to the shops, although she did not have enough money to keep her little boy in decent clothes, let alone buy fripperies.
Anna looked again at the stew. Perhaps it would be good today. She wondered if she should put another potato in it to soak up some of the liquid and make it go further. She had not seen Mrs. Wickham since one of the clock, so she did not know if she and the Ensign were to be home for supper or not.
Before she could think further about this, the baby started crying and she put down the spoon to go take her out of her crib. Her grizzling had also awakened little Edward who began whining about being hungry. The rest of the afternoon she spent running between the two children to entertain them and prevent them from swallowing the pin cushion Mrs. Wickham had left on the arm of the chair, or reaching into the pot of stew and burning themselves.
It was not long after six of the clock that Ensign and Mrs. Wickham came in. They were both unsteady and watery of eye, and the missus had a tear in the hem of her gown. Anna helped the missus out of her scarf, an unneeded flourish to her dress in the heat of early fall, and the two plopped down on the settee, their legs sprawled before them. Little Edward ran to his father to show him the wooden soldier he had been playing with and was told to go play quietly. “Settle down, Eddie, my boy! Mama and Papa are tired.”
Anna ventured a comment. “Do you need some supper, sir, ma’am?”
Wickham answered her with a loose-lipped smile. “No, indeed, Anna, me darlin’! Mrs. Wickham and I have dined. Today is the anniversary of our marriage and we celebrated at the Fox and Hound. It’s been two years since our wedding, eh, Lydia?” He nudged her with an elbow and his wife opened her eyes. “Yes, my dear Wickham! It is indeed our anniversary! Two whole years!”
Little Kitty began crying again at the over-loud voices of her parents in the small room. Mrs. Wickham wandered over to the nursery crib and tried to pick up her daughter.
“Come to Mama, Kitty! I hope your aunt Kitty will be able to come see you soon! What a pretty baby you are!” She jostled the baby up and down to make her stop crying. “Why is she crying, Anna? Do you just let her cry all day? Do something!” Anna took the baby and tried to give her some milk in a cup, but she was having none of it. Then she patted her on the back to see if she needed to burp, but her gentle pats just seemed to make the baby scrunch up her face and shriek even louder. It was not long before Edward was screaming, too, and Anna could barely hear her mistress as she complained about the noise.
Within a few minutes, Ensign Wickham jumped up off the settee and whirled to face his wife. “Lydia, can you not quiet those brats down? Don’t just sit there!” He paced the short length of the room, becoming more and more agitated as the shrieking continued. Mrs. Wickham, in the meantime, had retired to her room but she stepped out again, her gown half off, to join the shrieking. “You do something! They are your children. I spend all day here taking care of these brats while you are out enjoying yourself with your friends!”
Anna could see that there was a storm blowing up between her master and mistress and she quietly picked up little Kitty and Edward and took them into the nursery. She tried to stop her ears as she cleaned them up and got them ready for bed, hoping that her master would not slap her mistress, as he often did during their frequent battles. Maybe they had both had enough to drink that they would tire quickly and fall asleep. It would be nice if their anniversary would not end in blows.
As soon as little Kitty had settled down, ignoring the yelling still going on in the other bedroom, Anna crawled into the other bed with Edward and put her arms around him. She hummed a lullaby into his ear and soon they both fell asleep as the fight in the other room dwindled into snores. Anna smiled as she drifted into sleep.