Christmas Dinner at Longbourn with the officers and the Gardiners proves interesting.
December 25, 1811
Later that night, Elizabeth paced the very clean drawing room, waiting for their guests to arrive. Fresh evergreen and holly filled the room with the season’s fragrances, tied with cheery red bows. It should have been a very pleasing scene, but the tension in the room threatened to suffocate her.
“Why do you not take a seat, Lizzy?” Aunt Gardiner asked.
“I should surely run mad if I did.”
It was quite possible that she might do so even if she wore a track in the carpets.
“It seems like they are so long in arriving tonight. I cannot wait for the officers to get here.” Lydia peered out the window, wrapping the curtain around her shoulders.
“They are such agreeable company, so gallant and always in search of a spot of fun.” Kitty bounced in her seat.”
“Do sit still. It is unbecoming to twitch about like a hound waiting to be fed.” Mary folded her hands in her lap and adjusted her posture to something entirely stiff and proper. “And unwind yourself from the curtains before you tear them off the wall entirely.”
“You not need not be so disagreeable. It is not as if you are anticipating anyone special to arrive.” Lydia sniffed and rolled her eyes.
“Lydia!” Aunt Gardiner slapped the sofa cushion beside her.
“Well, it is true. None of the officers like her, for she is so very dull.”
Mary’s checks cheeks colored, and her lips pressed tight into something not quite a frown, but nearly.
“Your opinions are not helpful, nor are they kind.”
“But they are true,” Lydia whispered.
“Lydia!” Jane’s eyes bulged the way they usually did when someone said something distasteful.
Lydia huffed and tossed her head.
The front door creaked and voices drifted upstairs.
“Oh, oh, someone is here! I think I recognize Sanderson’s voice.” Kitty clapped softly.
Lydia and Kitty pinched their cheeks and checked their bodices. Mary moved to the pianoforte.
“Would you favor us with a light welcoming piece?” Aunt Gardiner asked, but it was more of a directive than a question.
At least Mary did not seem too disgruntled by it. If anything, she looked pleased to have her accomplishments recognized.
Mama swept in with several officers in her wake.
“Sister, may I introduce Lt.’s Wickham, Denny and Sanderson.”
Aunt Gardiner rose and curtsied. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, I am sure.”
“Thank you for admitting us to your acquaintance, madam.” Wickham bowed, his eyes shining.
He always seemed to know the right thing to say.
Lydia and Kitty drew Denny and Sanderson away as Hill ushered Aunt and Uncle Philips in. Jane excused herself to attend them.
Aunt Gardiner cocked her head and lifted her eyebrow at Elizabeth. “My niece tells me you are from Derbyshire, sir.”
“Indeed, I am madam. Are you familiar with the county?”
“I spent my girlhood there, in the area of Lambton.”
Wickham’s eyes brightened and his face softened with a smile so compelling even a French officer would have been drawn in. “I lived on an estate very near there, Pemberley, if you know it.”
“I do indeed. One of the loveliest places I have ever seen. We were by no means in such a way to keep company with the family there, but we heard much of their good name whilst we lived there.” Aunt Gardiner’s eyes always shone when she spoke of her girlhood home.
“I was privileged to live on Pemberley, my father was steward there.”
“Then you were well-favored indeed. Have you been there recently?”
“Very little since the death of old Mr. Darcy. While old Darcy was a very good and kind man, and very well disposed toward myself, I am afraid his son did not inherit his father’s noble traits.” He glanced at Elizabeth, such suffering in his eyes, her own misted.
She nodded for him to continue. Surely Aunt Gardiner would be interested to hear his account in all its fullness.
“I have no desire to burden you with such tales as would dampen your spirits on this very fine occasion. Let us talk of acquaintance we may share in common. Did you know the old apothecary there, Mr. Burris, I believe his name was.”
“He was a great favorite of my father.”
“Of mine, as well.” Though Wickham had been little there since five years before, it was yet in his power to give her fresher intelligence of her former friends than she had been in the way of procuring.
It did not take too long for their recollection of shared society to turn to a discussion of old Mr. Darcy’s character, whom both liberally praised. The conversation then moved on to the current Mr. Darcy and his treatment of Wickham.
“I grant you, that I recall the younger Mr. Darcy spoken of as a very proud, ill-natured boy, but the charges you lay at his feet are quite alarming sir. I am surprised you have not been able to bring some kind of influence to bear against him.”
“Would that were possible, madam, I would probably be the better for it. In truth, though, I still hold his father in far too high a regard to be able to take action against his son. The thought of bringing old Mr. Darcy pain is far too disturbing to brook.”
“But surely you must consider how his own son’s behavior would distress him. He might have been very pleased to see its improvement. I know that to be the case if it were one of my own children charged with such heartlessness.”
“You might be very right, but surely you can see I am not the one suited by station or inclination to bring correction to such a man. So I shall continue on as I have been, grateful to such friends as I still have around me. I am truly blessed to have some very staunch supporters.”
“I imagine so.” Aunt’s eyebrow raised into an elegant arch. “You demonstrate very great forbearance, quite the model of a gentleman.”
There was something in Aunt’s tone, the faintest bit sharp. Elizabeth tried to catch her eye, but she looked over Elizabeth’s shoulder.
Elizabeth glanced back. Jane and Aunt Philips approached.
“How are your enjoying your visit, sister? Is not the company tonight delightful?” Aunt Philips extended her hands toward Aunt Gardiner, but glowered at Elizabeth.
Aunt Gardiner took Aunt Philips’s hands and kissed her cheeks. “Indeed it is. But we always appreciate the hospitality at Longbourn, I should hardly expect anything else.”
“Mr. Wickham, it is especially nice to see you and the other officers here tonight as well. We have missed your company of late.”
“I regret any discomfiture I might have caused, but I am honored my absence might have been noticed.” Wickham bowed from his shoulders.
“Of course, it was, of course it was. I am very pleased to see you, Miss Lizzy, are not above keeping such very plain company with us tonight.” Aunt Phillips’s lip curled just the way Mama’s did when she was angry.
Elizabeth had been seeing a great deal of that expression lately.
“Whatever do you mean?” Aunt Gardiner’s honeyed tone had been known to placate tired children and churlish adults alike. “Elizabeth is always a sparkling companion.”
“In company she deigns to keep, of course she is. It is just possible her opinion of herself has grown a mite higher than it should.”
Elizabeth’s face grew cold, but her cheeks burned.
Mama burst into the room. “Shall we all to dinner?”
“Might I escort you, Miss Elizabeth?” Mr. Wickham offered his arm.
Elizabeth muttered something, curtsied to her aunts and took Mr. Wickham’s arm.
“Thank you.” The words barely slipped past her tight throat. “Pray excuse my Aunt’s indelicate choice of conversation.”
“What indelicate choice, Miss Elizabeth? You do not think her conversation reflected in any way upon you, do you? I have found when people resort to dialogue, which some may consider disagreeable, it is most often attributable to indigestion.”
Elizabeth snickered under her breath.
“Perhaps it would be wise to suggest she have a few words with her cook. A change in diet might be the very thing to relieve her discomfort and improve her general disposition. See there, how her husband is red in the face and his hand is pressed so obviously to his belly? I would venture to say he may be suffering from indigestion, too, and it is his cook and no one else to blame.”
It would seem Mr. Wickham did not, or chose not to, see Mama at Uncle Philips’s side, speaking with great animation and casting sidelong glances toward Elizabeth.
“I shall suggest that to her.” The words came easier now. She forced her lips up into something resembling a smile.
“Ah, that is a far better expression for you, Miss Elizabeth. Unhappiness does not suit you at all.”
“It appears it be difficult to be unhappy in your presence sir. Do you make it your business to drive away such specters wherever they might appear?”
“I certainly do. What better occupation in life than to bring happiness where ever I wander?”
How very true, and how very different than Mr. Darcy. To maintain such a disposition despite the very great unfairness and trials he had faced. Mr. Wickham was truly too kind.
For all Mama’s fussing and fluttering, she did set one of the finest tables in the county. Candlelight glittered off mirrors and crystal, filling every corner of the dining room with sparkling warmth. The table and sideboards groaned under the weight of the dishes heaped with fragrant offerings. The huge goose lay near Papa’s place, waiting for him to carve it. Elizabeth’s mouth watered. Nothing tasted like a Christmas goose.
Wickham held the chair for her and sat beside her, politely ignoring Lydia’s cross look. What did she have to be cross about though? With Denny on one side and Sanderson on the other, it was not as if she would be in want of company and conversation herself.
Mama sat up very straight and rang a little silver bell. The door swung open and Hill appeared, holding a platter of roasted boar’s head high. Her arms quivered under the massive offering.
Denny and Sanderson jumped to their feet, nearly knocking their chairs to the floor, and rushed to her aid. Together they made a lovely show of bringing the final dish to the table. Though Mama glared at Hill, she seemed very pleased at the officer’s efforts and settled into her comfortable role, presiding over the table.
Wickham leaned toward her. “It has been quite some time since I have enjoyed such a Christmas feast.”
“I hope then, you take every opportunity to enjoy this one.”
He served her from the platter of roast potatoes nearby. “I will certainly do just that and lock it into my memory to treasure against times which may be far less agreeable.”
“I am sure it is difficult to spend Christmastide away from one’s home and family. The militia requires a great deal from you.”
“I find that it gives back as much as it demands. It is not at all disagreeable for one in my state. The hardships do not at all compare to those I suffered the first Christmastide of my banishment from Pemberley.”
“Perhaps that is too strong a word, you are right. It does not serve to be so melodramatic.” He bowed his head. “You must forgive me, for it is the subject of some trying remembrances. Christmastide at Pemberley was a most wondrous season, filled with warmth and generosity. My family were invited to dine at Christmas dinner with the Master. A complete roast boar would be carried in by two footmen, goose, venison, and roast beef besides. I am sure it was a month’s worth of food for my little family at least, all brought to table at once.” He closed his eyes and licked his lips.
“I can imagine one might miss such extravagance.”
“Pray, do not think I intended to belittle the wonderful hospitality Longbourn offers. Not at all. It has reminded me of much happier days and I am most grateful.”
Mama’s silver bell rang again and Hill, the maid, and two girls employed for just this evening hurried in to clear the first course. Platters and used dishes disappeared along with the table cloth. The second course dishes filled the empty table and fresh china appeared before them. Amidst the staff’s efforts, Aunt Gardiner caught her eye, tipped her head toward Wickham and raised her eyebrows.
Elizabeth allowed a hint of a smile and shrugged. He was very pleasant company. What did she expect?
Mama announced the dishes, but the platter of minced pies needed no introduction.
Wickham placed a small pie on her plate, along with black butter and spiced apples. The first minced pie of Christmastide was always agreeable, but somehow it would be nothing to the ones that would later be made from the leavings of the Christmas feast.
Mama’s bell rang again, and she slipped out of the dining room. Hill circled the room, snuffing candles until only one in each corner remained.
Although Mama repeated this ritual every year, somehow the flaming pudding entering on the silver platter, held high in Mama’s arms never lost its thrill. Blue brandy flames, glinting and multiplying in the mirrors and crystal, cast dancing shadows along the wall turning the dining room, for those brief moments, into a magical fairyland.
Too soon, the flames died down. Hill and the maid scurried about relighting candles and the normal world reappeared with Mama standing over a great cannon ball of plum pudding. She broke into it and served generous slices.
“Mind the charms!” Mama’s smile looked forced, and she averted her gaze from Elizabeth.
What better way to remind Mama of Elizabeth’s transgressions than the pudding stirred up whilst she still had hopes of Mr. Collins. Pray let her not discover the ring, or better still, any charm in her pudding. Further notice from Mama could not be a good thing.
Elizabeth held her breath as the company partook in the pudding. Heavy, sweet, spicy and saturated with brandy, this was the taste of Christmas and family.
Uncle Gardiner laughed heartily. “What ho, what shall I do with this?” He held aloft a tiny thimble.
“Consider it for thrift, my dear.” Aunt Gardiner winked at him.
Thank Providence that Mary was spared that omen!
Lydia squealed. “I have the coin! I shall come into a fortune.”
Papa muttered something, but Elizabeth could not make it out. Probably best that way.
Wickham neatly pulled his slice apart with knife and fork. He dug in with his knife and lifted it to reveal a shining ring hanging on the blade.
“Now you’ve done it, Wickham!” Sanderson pointed at him, laughing.
“I would not go about showing that off, if I were you.” Denny leaned back and held up open hands. “But whatever you do, keep it well away from me.”
“So you shall be married this year, Mr. Wickham.” Mama looked far too pleased.
Had there been any way to have achieved that end intentionally, Elizabeth would have though Mama manufactured this result. But such a thing was not possible. Still, the smug way she settled into her seat and dug into her own pudding begged the question.
“You may threaten all you like.” Wickham slid the ring off the knife and held it up in the candlelight. “But I have no fear of this innocent little ring.”
Did he just wink? At her?
Heat crept over the crest of her cheeks, but Aunt Gardiner’s brows drew a little lower over her eyes and her forehead creased.