~ Ogden Nash
"Papa?" came the timid voice from behind the door. "Papa?"
Fitzwilliam Darcy looked up from his ledger at the sound of his daughter's sweet voice. Although the utterance was shy and uncertain, Darcy startled. He was not accustomed to hearing her voice coming from that direction, for she hardly ever disturbed him while he was busy. He dropped his pen onto the desk and hurried to the door, and upon opening it saw her petite little frame, and her face gazing up at him with anxiety in her round eyes.
"Come here, Hannah. What is the matter my little love?"
Darcy knelt down and the little girl ran into his arms. "Papa, I cannot find Polly Beagle! I have looked everywhere for her."
"Where did you last see her?" he inquired with the gentleness he was known to possess with her.
"On my bed. I know I did!"
The girl clung to her father and shook her head in evidence of her desperation, even though Darcy soothingly patted her little back to console her. Poor Hannah had never looked so distraught. She was a pleasant little girl, who at the tender age of six, cared for others more so than most children of similar age. She was small, much smaller than her twin brother, and she had always been that way. Her skin was the cast of cream, and she had large dark eyes and long lashes set prettily within her cherubic face. She had a lovely smile, and on the times in which she pouted, Darcy thought her to look exactly like her mother. Her long dark hair curled this way and that, and was always drawn back loosely behind her with a colored bow, in comfortable confinement.
Hannah's aim was to please, but somehow that virtue was lost upon her brothers. In a way she was the unfortunate child to be stranded in the middle. Her brother Andrew had been born first, and he was the Darcy family heir. That alone elevated him in the eyes of everyone they met, and he was allowed to accompany their father into Lambton on occasion, and at times to go with him to the village on business with Pemberley's tenants. Everyone called him 'Master Andrew Darcy' in acknowledgement of his stature, even though he was but six years old.
Andrew was not so much a spoiled child, but he did have an air about him befitting his fortunate situation, which in many ways resembled his father's proud deportment. It did not help Hannah's circumstance that Andrew had grown taller than she, and there were many times in which 'Master Darcy' decided to exert his authority over his younger siblings, which made them quite vexed.
Hannah's younger brother Christian was apt to be into mischief. Although people paid him attention because he was the baby, even at four year of age; they also spent much of their time seeing him out of trouble. He was happy, and laughed quite a lot and it seemed as if wherever you went, Christian was always lurking behind you. Hannah was disposed to think him bothersome, for many times she herself had prevented him from his misbehavior, simply to save the peace in the family; of which he showed very little gratitude.
"I shall help you to look for Polly Beagle if you wish it," Darcy said. "I am sure your little dog has just been misplaced."
"She would not be misplaced if she were a real dog, Papa," Hannah said with insistence. "If she were real, instead of just stuffed with rags, she could follow me about."
"Hannah, we have two very good dogs already," Darcy replied abruptly. "Why do you not play with them as your brothers do?"
"They play much too rough, Papa. Girls do not play with dogs called Hannibal and Brutus! The last time Christian tried to take them on their leashes, they pulled him all the way through the house on his stomach, until Mrs. Reynolds caught them at the front door." Hannah widened her eyes at the remembrance of her little brother being dragged about, while he hung on for dear life.
Darcy tilted a brow, for the girl had a point. "Come then, perhaps your Mama has seen Polly Beagle." Darcy took Hannah by the hand and they walked down the hallway, through the house, and up the stairs. "Where is your mother?"
"She is in the attic with Mrs. Reynolds. It is time to bring down the Christmas things, Papa!" Hannah stopped and tugged at Darcy's coat sleeve. "Perhaps if I wish for it, Father Christmas will bring me a real dog!"
"Would you not like a new doll instead, dearest?" Darcy grimaced at the thought of introducing another pet into the house.
Hannah shook her head. She thought dolls to be fine enough, but she had never had one in which she had formed any serious attachment to, at least not like she was fond of Polly Beagle. "Do you think Father Christmas will bring me one--do you? A little one?" she asked her father anxiously.
"I do not know, Hannah," Darcy concealed an exasperated sigh, wondering how he was to talk her out of it. "Elizabeth!" he bellowed, finding himself in need of some assistance.
"Yes, dear?" Elizabeth called out. "In the attic, dear."
Darcy poked his head through the door to see Mrs. Reynolds and his wife, hip deep in Christmas ribbons and linens. "Have either of you seen Polly Beagle?" he inquired with a widening of his eyes and a sly nod down towards Hannah. "It appears as if she has gone astray."
"Oh dear," Elizabeth said in condolence and held her daughter in a motherly embrace. "I am sure Polly Beagle will be found soon."
Hannah whimpered, and nodded her head, having to accept her mother's assurances that her beloved friend would surface. Mrs. Reynolds offered to look for the rag animal, and the kindly servant took Hannah by the hand and back down the stairs.
Elizabeth looked to her husband, who did not look at all easy, as he rubbed the back of his neck and stared at all the Christmas trappings. "Hannah thinks Father Christmas will bring her a real dog," Darcy informed his wife. "Elizabeth, we cannot have another dog in this house. We shall be overrun with pets."
"Not even a small one, Fitzwilliam? All the pets in this house belong to you, not the children," she ventured with a shrewd grin. "Hannah gets lonely, dear. She does not have an ally like Andrew and Christian have in each other, and when the boys argue, Hannah is most times caught in the middle." Elizabeth sat down on a trunk, "Besides, one day Andrew will go off to school, and then so shall Christian."
Darcy grumbled, for he knew when the women in the house were forming a connivance. "I thought we agreed that Hannah would go to school as well?"
"Yes," Elizabeth bit down on her lip at the thought of an empty house. "I did not go off to school, Fitzwilliam."
Darcy could see the distress on his wife's face, and he knelt down beside her, wrapping his arm around her waist. "One day..." he began compassionately, "...much to my great affliction, Hannah will be an eligible young woman--a rather wealthy, eligible young woman. Would you have her remain innocent to all the tricks of the Wickhams in the world?"
"No, dear," Elizabeth sadly replied. "Perhaps we do coddle the children too much."
"They are not so spoiled," Darcy proclaimed in indignation, for he thought his children to have very few defects.
"Fitzwilliam, they lack for nothing, and they have every advantage in life."
Darcy stood up and began to pace, "So did you and I, when we were children. What was good for us is good for them."
"Yes, but perhaps we owe it to them as parents to teach them modesty? Every child should have a little humility," Elizabeth declared with a strengthening of her posture, "as should every man."
Darcy said nothing, but looked his wife straight in the eye and gave a nod, "Your point is well taken--but do not rule out the benefits Hannah would receive with a formal education."
"I cannot," Elizabeth admitted, as her eyes became glassy. "I am selfish, and I shall miss my children when they have gone off to school."
Poor Darcy's eyes widened, and he responded, somewhat in jest, "I can remember a time when my company was enough for your entertainment, Mrs. Darcy."
"Fitzwilliam," she chastised him lovingly. "It still is, and always will be--you know what I mean." Elizabeth stood up, turning her back towards her husband. "It has been almost five years. I wonder at there being any more little Darcys to come along."
"I thought we had been talking about puppies?" Darcy grinned, however his wife did not join in his merrymaking. Seeing his wife's unhappiness when she turned to face him, he finally relented, "I know you want another baby, Elizabeth. But I do think this is more than one beleaguered husband and father can conjure up for Christmas." He concluded secretly under his breath, "Being as I am starting to accumulate quite a list."
"Perhaps there is something the matter with me?" Elizabeth sighed to herself.
Darcy made an effort to console his downcast wife, and took another stab at levity as well, "As you surely know, I am not beyond making a brave attempt at the prospect of your happiness."
Darcy's saucy comment did manage to draw a meager laugh from Elizabeth, and she laid a hand on his cheek and gave him a kiss. "What will be, will be--I suppose." Her smile broadened, unable to resist the pleasure of teasing him, "Now, what about that puppy?"
Darcy returned to his study, although all efforts to find Polly Beagle had failed miserably, and little Hannah continued to sulk. He had a difficult time concentrating on any work, for not only was he loathe to see his daughter unhappy, but he could also hear the trudging of countless servants, bringing down the endless quantity of Christmas trappings used to decorate a house the size of Pemberley. It was a full time job for a week simply to gather the greenery which Elizabeth insisted be hung about the house.
It was the custom that Elizabeth orchestrate the holiday decorating four days before Christmas. As Darcy could hear, the march of the Yuletide brigade had already begun. He managed to write a letter or two before supper, despite the merry fervor above him, then went to join his family in the dining room.
"I was hoping, Fitzwilliam, that tomorrow you and the children would go out and gather the mistletoe," Elizabeth said as they were all seated, and had begun to eat.
Darcy looked up from his meal in a bother. He had forgotten about the ritual which Elizabeth dragged him on each year, of scouring the Pemberley grounds, looking for parasitic flora made popular by ancient druids.
"I also thought this year we would bring a tree into the house."
Hannah and Andrew looked at their mother in astonishment. Even Christian halted his progress with his meal to wonder what his mother had meant by 'a tree'.
"A tree?" Darcy was the only one who had the means to ask.
"Yes," she insisted. "A Christmas tree. I saw a picture of one in the London Journal some years ago. Queen Charlotte had kept one at the palace each Christmas. The German people have been decorating them for years."
"But we are not German, Mama," Andrew dared to speak his mind.
"No, but I thought it would be pleasing to see what it was like," she smiled in delight at all the bewildered faces surrounding her.
Darcy sat back in his chair, casting a suspicious eye. "What sort of a tree?"
"A small fir or spruce would be lovely, I think."
The children remained very quiet, looking back and forth at their parents, much as if they were spectators at a game of shuttlecock; as their father asked the questions and their mother provided the answers. "Very well," Darcy conceded so far. "Say we go out and we find this ill-fated spruce, cut it down and drag it into the house. Then what do we do with it?"
"We set it up atop a small table, decorate it with colored papers and ribbons, and attach small little tapers to the ends of the branches. Underneath there will be small favors and gifts for everyone. On Christmas eve after supper we will light the tapers and open the little packages."
The children's eyes brightened at their mother's disclosure of there being gifts under this tree, not to mention setting it aflame. They hurriedly turned their elated faces towards their father in hopes that he would agree to such a curiosity.
Darcy did not budge, an indifferent look upon his face, "The whole house will go up in flames!" Christian giggled at his father's unenlightened proclamation. Darcy looked over at his youngest son, and pointed at the boy's plate. "Christian, eat your supper."
"We shall not leave the tapers lit for long dear," Elizabeth continued. "And we will be careful to place them away from any other branches or papers. It will be quite lovely, you will see--and you and the children will have a grand time choosing the tree out in the forest."
"Are you not to come with us?" Darcy asked, his brows still knitted together in perplexity, for Elizabeth rarely missed a family outing.
"No," she shook her head. "I have many things I need to do while you are gone."
The children glanced back at their father, for it was his turn in the match. Darcy took a last look at their hopeful faces. "If I did not know better, I would say your mother was wishing to be rid of us for a time." His eyes drifted back to Elizabeth, but she had humbly gone on with eating her meal. "Very well then," he acceded. "Tomorrow after breakfast we shall go on this merry quest, and we shall find this tree."
Darcy was thankful for the long winter nights, as they afforded him the best sleep he had all year. He was snug underneath the covers, with the warmth of his wife next to him, and the knowledge that his children were safely tucked in their beds. No one expected him to get out of bed too early, for there really was very little he had to do, and it was simply too cold to even consider it, until the fires had been stoked throughout the house.
Hannah had been upset at not finding Polly Beagle. She told her parents she would not be able to sleep without her beloved friend, and much to their misfortune she was still awake when they went to check on her before retiring for the night, themselves. Elizabeth sat with her daughter, until the little girl finally closed her eyes in reluctant exhaustion.
"Where do you suppose that toy dog could have gone to?" Elizabeth inquired of Darcy, once they had finally gone to bed.
"It has simply been misplaced, love," he answered. "The other two are constantly losing their things."
"That is the point, dear. Hannah is so much more careful with her things than the boys are." As Elizabeth drifted off to sleep it occurred to her that Hannah's brothers had not said one word about the mysterious disappearance of Polly Beagle.
That morning, Darcy rolled over in bed and burrowed down further into his pillow with a contented moan. The chime on the mantle clock struck six, in gentle reassurance to Darcy that all was well, and that he still had plenty of time to slumber before anyone would be tempted to wake him.
"Papa!" a voice rattled within his head. Darcy snored out at the intrusion, but with a twitch of his nose and an inarticulate mutter, he settled back into a sound sleep. "Pa...pa!" the voice shivered.
"What?" Darcy managed to mumble, though still half-asleep.
"Papa, when is...Father Christmas...to come?"
Darcy tried his best to appear as the attentive parent, even while his eyes were shut. "On Christmas eve," he murmured. "Christian, go back to bed."
"How many...more...days?" the boy insisted on knowing, through his chattering.
Darcy grumbled, finally disturbed from his winter's nap, "Christian, come in this bed before your feet freeze to the floor." Darcy reached out from beneath the covers, and the youngster grasped his father's arm, scrambling up into the bed and settling down in the warmth between his parents.
"How many more days, Papa?" he whispered when he finally thawed out.
"Three--now go to sleep."
Happily, the boy appeared to be satisfied with the answer to his question. Although Darcy did not often allow the children to sleep in his bed, the thought of getting out from beneath the warm covers and putting Christian back into his own bed on such a frosty morning seemed very ill-favored.
Peace was restored to Darcy's mind and body, and he drifted back to sleep. "How many hours, Papa?"
"Christian!" Darcy bellowed at the boy, who had pressed his nose against his father's to make his further inquiries.
Elizabeth awoke and interrupted the squabble between father and son. "Christian, dearest, what are you doing out of your bed so early in the morning?"
"Bothering Papa," he answered succinctly.
Darcy groaned in discontent. He simply could not help himself, as he proceeded to tell his son what every father has laid open since the advent of the legend of St. Nicholas and Christmas stockings, "Have I never told you that Father Christmas leaves coal in the stockings of naughty little boys?"
Christian's eyes grew wide and his face screwed up in alarm, "I have not been so naughty! I did not hide Polly Beagle--Andrew did!" The moment the confession was made Christian placed his small hand over his mouth, realizing he had tattled on his brother's prankish doings, and his own involvement in the plot.
Christian's eyes now reflected the disapprobation he saw on his father's face. Darcy clenched his teeth and pointed in the direction of the door.
"Christian," Darcy blurted out. "Go into your brother's bed chamber, this moment, and tell him that Father Christmas knows all about Polly Beagle." Darcy pressed his nose against his son's to whisper, "Tell him that if he does not return your sister's dog immediately, the only thing he will find in his stocking on Christmas morning will be coal."
Christian's eyes opened wider, and his mouth formed into a circle of astonishment. Surely his father must know what Father Christmas was apt to do. "And..." Darcy continued, "...get yourself into your own bed!"
Upon his father's revelation, Christian flew out of his parents bed with a thud, then scampered out of the room as fast as his little legs would carry him. Darcy sat up and listened to the sound of Christian's feet scurrying down the hallway and into his brother's bed chamber. Within a few moments he heard the sound of two pairs of feet scampering about, then a few doors slamming.
It was not much longer when Hannah's voice was heard to exclaim, "Polly Beagle!"
Darcy was heard to exclaim to his wife, satisfied with the results, "And to all a good night."
Elizabeth reached out for him, "Come back to bed and keep me warm, Father Christmas."
Mrs. White herded the children downstairs and out the back doors of the house, where Darcy and the groundskeeper, Mr. Beal, were waiting with a wagon. Elizabeth was there to see her family off on their quest, and she had to laugh when she saw her children so bundled up with clothes and scarves that they could barely lower their arms to their sides. As the children's nanny, Mrs. White had always been extremely protective of them, and at times it seemed as if she got a little carried away.
"Are you in there, boy?" Darcy asked the bundle resembling Christian.
"Ahem," Mrs. White drew her employer's attention, "You can never be too careful of cold and drafts, sir. We do not need sniffling children for Christmas!"
"No indeed, Mrs. White," Darcy replied in a disbelieving whisper and a roll of his eyes towards his wife, behind the nanny's back. As the children got into the wagon, Darcy leaned over to Elizabeth, "Are you sure you will not come with us? How shall we know which tree to bring back?"
"You are very capable, my dear. Choose one in which you all agree upon, and I shall like it just as much."
Elizabeth gave him a kiss, then waved goodbye to her children as they left the grounds in search of her Christmas tree. When they were out of sight, she sighed in what appeared to be relief, then took a note from inside her sleeve and handed it to a footman. "See that this gets to Mr. Graves, in Lambton. Straight away, please."
Very little time later Mr. Graves, the physician, arrived promptly at Pemberley. He had always been very attentive to the Darcys, and showed them great compassion and concern, whenever there had been need of his services.
Elizabeth greeted him with enthusiasm, "Mr. Graves, how kind of you to come on such short notice."
"It was no trouble, Mrs. Darcy," he smiled, then took a scrupulous look at her. "Shall you tell me what bothers you?"
Mr. Beal turned to Darcy, "There sir," he pointed up into a bare oak tree. "A nice clump of mistletoe."
Darcy jumped down from the wagon, helping his children down as well. They trudged single file through the snow over to the broad old oak. Some of the snow had drifted in spots, and Darcy told the children to follow in his footsteps, for it had been known that children could virtually disappear into a deep bank of snow, and end up needing someone to pull them out. Mr. Beal propped up a ladder against the tree, "Would you like me to fetch it, sir?"
"No Mr. Beal, allow me," Darcy replied with the hint of a musing grin. He shook the ladder to make sure it was steady as he surveyed the tree. Mistletoe had a curious habit of attaching itself where it seemed the most difficult to reach. Darcy thought that to be its natural defense against enemies, although it did not seem to deter ferocious wives from insisting on it being harvested by their obedient husbands.
Darcy climbed up into the tree, then slid along the branch, towards his quarry. He rather wished he were home sitting in his library reading a good book, than hanging precariously in an old oak tree, much like an unbalanced varmint.
"Put that basket underneath me and stand back!" he called out to the gallery below.
The children were amused to see their father perched up in the tree. They giggled as he dropped the twisted branches of the mistletoe into the basket, running over to inspect its contents.
"We need more Papa!," Hannah called up to him. "That way no one shall go without a kiss!" she twittered.
"I am not going to kiss anyone!" insisted Christian as he looked in the basket at the nerveless pale green leaves and the white berries.
"You have to if you see someone standing under the mistletoe," Hannah patiently instructed him. "Those are the rules."
"Who says so?" the boy inquired with an indignant air.
Andrew grumbled at his brother, "Father Christmas says so, silly."
"Even so, I am not kissing anyone, except for Mama!" he persisted.
"You are a stubborn tot, Christian!" Andrew exclaimed, preferring his own sense of maturity to that of his mollycoddled brother. He brushed past Christian in a hurry as the last of the mistletoe was dropped into the basket.
In Andrew's haste he did not notice that he had knocked his brother backwards into the deep snow. Christian rolled around, quite unable to bend his little arms and legs enough to pry himself up off the ground. He yelped out for help, and Hannah scrambled over to him, pulling him out of his snowy confinement.
Darcy's attention left the clump of mistletoe at the sound of the cries of one of his children. He caught sight of them below, just in an instant to see Christian running like a maddened bull at the target who was his brother. He butted into Andrew, knocking him down on the ground, and the boys rolled about, kicking and screaming at each other, Christian sobbing uncontrollably.
Hannah had been caught in the middle, and she yelled at the top of her sweet voice, "Stop it! Stop it! Papa will see you!" Her warnings did them no good, for no sooner had she gotten out the words, when she had been knocked down into the thick of it.
Darcy scrambled from the tree branch and back down the ladder. He ran over to the battle and pulled children apart, eventually getting a firm grasp onto the coats of Andrew and Christian.
"What is this all about?" he spoke out in frustration with the scene.
"He knocked me over!" Christian sobbed and sputtered.
"I did not!" Andrew gasped. "You knocked into me, you blockhead!"
"Stop it," Darcy growled.
Christian shrieked harder, "You did so, you bully!"
Darcy threatened again, "Stop it!"
"Fine! I am not to play with you anymore!" Andrew yelled, reaching out to take another swing at his little brother.
Darcy could not believe his ears, nor his eyes for that matter. It was as if his sons did not hear a word he was saying. With a great bellow, and the echo which followed, he shouted into the air, "Both of you, mind yourselves this instant!"
No one dared move, as the sound of Darcy's voice resonated through the countryside. Peace on earth was quickly becoming more of a trial than it was worth. Another such tussle and Darcy's good will towards men would turn ill, indeed.
Darcy held onto his sons, sitting them down in the wagon, at opposite ends. The boys remained there, while their father went back to fetch Hannah. He picked her up out of the snow and she held onto his neck and shrugged, "What about the tree, Papa?"
"Are you certain, sir?" Elizabeth's anxious eyes searched the good physician's face.
Mr. Graves nodded, "I think the consensus between the two of us is that it is fairly positive."
Elizabeth gasped and brought her hands to her face, "I do not know what to say?" She took in a deep breath, the glow on her face a permanent fixture at such news. "You will not breath a word of this to anyone?" she implored the physician.
"Not at all. It shall be your secret for a time, Mrs. Darcy." Mr. Graves grasped his bag and Elizabeth accompanied him outside to his curricle. "A happy Christmas to you Mrs. Darcy, and take good care of yourself."
"Happy Christmas!" she sang out. "And remember..."
"No need to worry, my dear. A happy Christmas to your husband!"
No mere mortal shall ever know how happy Darcy was to finally be home. Christmas tree hunting was far more laborious than he could ever have imagined possible. Each time that he had found a likely specimen to cut down, one of the children pointed out a flaw. There were not enough branches, there were too many branches, there was a gap on one side, the branches pointed down instead of up, the needles fell off too quickly. Perhaps Germany had better forests for choosing a Christmas tree, but in England the pickings seemed slim.
Darcy had finally talked the children into a tidy fir, and he and Mr. Beal sawed it down and heaved it into the back of the wagon. By the time they had gotten home, Darcy never wanted to see another fir or spruce again, and he continued to be annoyed with the poor conduct of his children on the outing.
"Fitzwilliam!" Elizabeth exclaimed, seeing her husband sitting quietly in the drawing room chair. "Mrs. Reynolds said you had returned. Where is the tree, dear?"
"Mr. Beal is fixing a stand to prop it up with," he sighed, completely bewildered.
"Did you have a very good time?" she smiled warmly, and knelt down on a cushion next to his chair.
Darcy could not help the look of acerbic wonderment which overtook his features, "Do our children very often fuss and fight, Elizabeth? I had no idea the boys could be friends one minute and at each others throats the next."
"It is not uncommon for boys to be rough with each other, dear. They get over it quite easily though."
A small roar emanated from the hallway. Darcy removed his hand away from his aching temple long enough to shout, "Walk! Do not run in the house!"
Elizabeth managed an uncomfortable smile. She thought perhaps now was not a good time to tell him of her news.
"Has it occurred to you that no one walks in this house anymore?" Darcy said, as if he were talking to a blithe spirit. "No one walks...they only run, here, there, and everywhere...except when it is bedtime, then they walk...slowly."
Darcy sighed, and settled back into his chair. "And another thing," he sat forward again and continued to speak to the same patch of nothing. "When did everyone lose their hearing? Depend upon it, I would get a better response from this chair if I were to give it an instruction."
He closed his eyes and once again sat back in irritated unease. "I have been trying to remember when it was exactly that I lost command...but for the life of me I simply cannot place it."
When Darcy looked at his wife, a smile came to his face. How lovely she looked to him, the happiness of the Christmas season aglow on her face. "Did you manage to do everything on your list while we were gone?" he grinned, wondering what she had been up to.
"You might say that," she stated, matter-of-factly.
"What did Mr. Graves want?"
Elizabeth's eyes widened at Darcy's unexpected question. "He came to wish us a Happy Christmas. How did you know he was here, dearest?" she sputtered the question nervously.
"I asked one of the servants if there were any visitors," Darcy replied easily. Elizabeth settled back down on the cushion with a sigh, and patted his hand with her own. He moved his hand and placed it on her smooth cheek, "I shall bring in your tree."
Darcy fetched the tree, and placed it in the drawing room where the family and guests would gather on Christmas eve. A small table had been brought out and Darcy set the tree onto it, then stood back amongst his wife and children to inspect it.< P>Elizabeth tilted her head to the side, "It is leaning a bit to the left."
Darcy squinted and on further inspection went over and shoved the tree back into position on the peg and stand that Mr. Beal had fashioned. "How is that?"
"It is not leaning anymore, but I think if you turn it this way just a wee bit, that will be its good side." Darcy gave the tree a slight twist then set it back down. "Just a bit more, dear. It has very skimpy branches on that side." Darcy gave it another turn. "Perhaps a little more, dear. That is it...perfect!"
"No mama, look! It has no branches on the bottom then," Hannah pointed out.< P>Darcy obediently turned the tree, bit by bit, as the family scrutinized it, then seemed to find some fault with every aspect. After twenty minutes of this nonsense, he vented his enduring frustrations.
"Enough! I have turned this tree around at least thrice already!" He beat a path over to where everyone else stood and took a look for himself. He waved his hand in front of him, "Just..." he sputtered, "...just fill in those places with more ribbons and papers!" He rolled his head this way and that, trying to loosen the tension that had built up in the back of his neck. "I think I should like some peace and quiet in my study for a time. Do call me for supper." With those instructions he left Elizabeth and the children standing in front of their tree, thinking at that angle, it was not such a bad tree at all.
By now the whole house was completely decorated. Boughs of greenery hung from every mantle and every doorway, with their red and gold ribbons entwined throughout. Everywhere one went they could smell the perfume of pine and spice. The mistletoe had been made into nosegays with ribbons streaming down, and they had been hung in each of the rooms. Even the tree was decorated with the ribbons and wax tapers, much like the picture that Elizabeth had kept from the London Journal.
The servants began preparing for the supper to be had on Christmas eve, and for the Christmas dinner the next day. Traditionally it had been the fare at Pemberley to serve roast beef and pudding. Elizabeth had always had roast goose with forcemeat stuffing when a girl growing up at Longbourn. Neither Darcy nor Elizabeth found themselves willing to forego their family traditions, so Christmas eve was reserved for the beef, Christmas day for the goose.
Elizabeth and Mrs. Reynolds had wrapped small tokens for all the guests and placed them under the tree. There were papers with written verses and riddles on them, which were sealed and tucked within the branches of the tree with the name of each person written on the outside. There were bowls of fruit everywhere one looked, and every time Elizabeth turned around, she caught Christian with a mouthful of plum or apple.
Elizabeth had allowed the children to hang their stockings on their bedposts a few days early. They had been so excited about doing so, that they would not let her rest until she gave her consent. A few presents for each child were wrapped and hidden until Christmas morning, for not only did Father Christmas leave tokens in their stockings, but there would be something downstairs by the drawing room hearth as well.
Mrs. White had taken the children into Lambton a few weeks prior. They each took some of their pocket money, and together they selected a gift for their mother and father, which met with Mrs. White's approval. That afternoon, Elizabeth found the house to be precariously quiet, as Mrs. White entertained the children with wrapping their parents gifts.
Elizabeth took advantage of the solitude and went to her room to rest in her chair, and sip a cup of hot tea. She was beginning to feel weary, but it was the very best sort of fatigue. She would have plenty of time throughout the remainder of the winter to rest. She had baskets of food to take into the village in the morning. Hannah was to go with her this year to give the gifts to Pemberley's tenants. They would also stop by the vicar's house and present him with his Christmas gratuity.
Guests were to arrive tomorrow at Pemberley as well, for tomorrow was Christmas eve. The Gardiners would come with their children as they had done every year since Darcy and Elizabeth had married. Elizabeth's sister Jane, and Charles Bingley would come with their children, as well. Elizabeth could not think of anyone else she would rather be with, so content she was with her family and friends. So content she was in the pleasures of Christmas, especially this Christmas.
When Elizabeth realized it was late and Darcy would be wanting supper, she tidied her hair, changed her gown, and went downstairs to gather her family. As she walked the hallway, she could not keep herself from humming the carols she loved at this time of year. There was happiness in her soul, and it seemed as if her feet barely touched the ground as she walked. There were many secrets to be kept at Christmas, which gave the season its wondrous anticipation. Elizabeth had many things to conceal this Christmas, until the proper time.
At every opportunity that day, Hannah inquired about the possibility of Father Christmas bringing her a real dog. Elizabeth noticed that Darcy did his best to avoid the subject entirely. Darcy was not one to easily change his mind, and she knew his mind had been set against Hannah having a dog of her own.
Each time Elizabeth broached the subject when she and Darcy were alone, he quickly changed it, and went off on his merry way. Knowing what she did, Elizabeth did her best to discourage Hannah. She did not want to see her daughter's unhappy face, when she would realize that Father Christmas did not honor her wishes.
"Do you think he will bring me a puppy, Mama? That is what I truly would like to have. A puppy of my very own to love and cuddle."
"Hannah, puppies grow into dogs, dear. They do not stay small and cuddly forever."
"I know, Mama," Hannah conceded. "I still would like to have one."
Elizabeth brushed her daughter's hair and helped her into her nightdress. "Dogs take constant attention. They are not like Polly Beagle. You cannot place them on your bed and expect them to stay there until you are ready to play with them again."
Hannah smiled at her mother, her eyes gleaming for what she knew Father Christmas would surely bring her. She knew that compared to her brothers, she had been very good.
The children retired early that evening, for Elizabeth had told them they would be allowed to stay up late on Christmas eve, but that they must rest this night. They were tired from their day out in the forest, so sleep came easily to them. Darcy found himself exhausted as well, and Elizabeth had no objections to an early night and a long rest.
"Elizabeth Darcy," her husband proclaimed as he crawled into bed. "I do believe you have had a smile fixed on your face this whole day." Darcy moved his arm underneath her and she leaned against him, listening to his refined and soothing voice. "I have always esteemed your enthusiasm at Christmas, my love. Your good spirits bring joy to this household and estate...and to me as well." He gave her a tender kiss of appreciation, and pulled her into more of an embrace.
Elizabeth was tempted to betray her secret, for it was times such as these that her husband made it hard for her to conceal anything from him. He was a good man, and a good husband and father, but she so wanted to see his face when he discovered her gift waiting for him on the Christmas tree that she kept silent.
"Tomorrow I must make a trip to Derby," Darcy disclosed.
"Fitzwilliam, tomorrow is Christmas eve," she sat up to look at him. "What must you do there? Can it not wait?"
"I shall be back in plenty of time...especially for supper," he grinned, much in the manner of a capricious child, thinking of the roast beef and pudding, and every kind of sweet that he could imagine. "You shall have a whole house full of guests to entertain you and the children."
"Will you not tell me what you do in Derby?" she questioned with a grin of her own.
He pulled her back into an embrace, "It is a secret."
"Checking your list, Father Christmas?" He closed his eyes under the pretense of falling asleep, but the smile on his face could not be concealed. Elizabeth settled back down into his arms, closed her own eyes, and yawned, "Oh, Mr. Darcy...I wonder what on that list may come to pass?"
Elizabeth and Hannah left for the village early the next morning. Their carriage was filled with baskets of food for the tenants, and treats for their children. Elizabeth had always gone personally to wish the tenants well, and they had been as kind to her as she had been to them. Hannah had begged her mother to take her this year, and Elizabeth saw no harm in her daughter learning at an early age, the spirit of what it meant to give.
The village children were excessively curious about the young Darcy girl whom they had rarely ever seen, and as Elizabeth visited briefly with their families, the youngsters came up to Hannah, to look at her fine clothes and marvel at her beautiful long hair. She smiled at each one of them and handed them each a bag of penny candy from the Lambton shops, and other sweets which she had helped Mrs. Beal to package.
When they had seen most of the families, and the footmen had delivered all of the packages around to each tenant, Elizabeth and Hannah went to call on the vicar. He and his family greeted the Darcy ladies with great enthusiasm, for the Darcys were their most prominent patrons. The vicar's young son smiled at Hannah, and upon seeing him grinning and impart a sly wink, she lowered her eyes in shy unease. She was unaccustomed to being in the company of strangers, not that she did not like being out amongst people. It was just that she thought people looked at her peculiarly, and at times behaved quite odd in her presence.
With all their visiting done, Elizabeth and Hannah returned home to await the arrival of their guests. Darcy had gone on to Derby that morning, and he had assured Elizabeth he would return before nightfall. He still would not tell her what was so important in Derby that he had to travel there on Christmas eve, but she was inclined not to question him further, for over the years she had come to know she could trust his judgement, and knew that she could not sway his mind once it had been made.
The Bingleys were the first to arrive from Cheshire. Their daughters were very happy to see their cousins, and Hannah delighted in the novelty of having other girls in the house for a change. Little Alice Bingley followed her cousin Christian around the house, for he was by far and away her favorite cousin. Christian liked her well enough, but she always seemed to want to catch him under the mistletoe and bestow a kiss on him. The distraction of doing his utmost to avoid her doting attentions served to keep him out of trouble, so much so that Elizabeth entertained the idea of keeping the mistletoe up all year, and inviting little Alice to visit very often.
The Gardiners arrived not long after the Bingleys, and Elizabeth could not believe how much her cousins had grown. She remembered the first Christmas she had spent as mistress of Pemberley, and how the Gardiner children had stayed with her and Darcy. They had been so little then, much like her own children at present, and now they were young women and men.
"Elizabeth, my dear!" Mrs. Gardiner greeted her niece. "Happy Christmas!" Elizabeth hugged her favorite aunt and uncle. It was always a joy to see their kind and generous faces, and to have the comfort of their love and guidance. Mrs. Gardiner looked about then inquired, "Where is your husband, Lizzy?"
"He has gone to Derby...on a rather mysterious errand," Elizabeth explained to her aunt in a hush. "He promised to be home before dark."
Much of the afternoon was spent in happy conversation. All the news which was to be had of their relations was divulged between the women, and Mr. Gardiner and Charles Bingley managed to keep the children from reducing the house to rubble.
Dusk was beginning to fall, yet Darcy had not returned. Elizabeth had gone to dress, and as she stood in her bed chamber she heard the door open, then shut again. She looked up, expecting to see her husband, but instead there was Christian, dressed in his finest.
"Mama," he said with a questioning air, "Do I have to marry Alice?"
Elizabeth's eyes danced, "Marry Alice?"
"She wants to marry me." Elizabeth could barely keep from laughing at the children and their innocent play. Christian folded his arms across his chest, willfully, "I will ask Papa!"
"Oh dear," Elizabeth reached for the boy. "Christian, I should think your Papa would wish you to marry whomever you loved." Elizabeth knelt down and pulled the boy close to her, smiling as she spoke, "But, I would not ask him about it for perhaps another twenty years or so."
This appeared acceptable, if not a relief, to Christian. "Do I have to let her kiss me under the mistletoe?"
"Yes, dearest. It is tradition." Elizabeth whispered in her son's ear, "Perhaps if you let her kiss you, she will stop chasing you through the house."
"Alright," he whispered back in resolve. "But I will not like it."
By the time they had all dressed for Christmas eve supper, Elizabeth was quite worried that something fearful had happened to her husband. She stood in the gallery windows, looking out towards the drive, hoping to glimpse the lights of a carriage approaching. She could not keep her heart from beating turbulently, as she anxiously peered out into the darkness, ignoring her duties as hostess to her guests.
Mrs. Gardiner sent the children downstairs with her husband and the Bingleys. She came up from behind Elizabeth, able to see her niece's reflection in the glass panes of the window.
"Elizabeth, you must not upset yourself." She placed her hands on Elizabeth's taut shoulders and leaned her cheek against her niece's, in comfort. "Distress is not the best for you...or for this baby."
Elizabeth turned around quickly and searched her aunt's countenance, "How did you know?"
Mrs. Gardiner smiled, "These things are known between women, my dear. We are very discerning when it comes to the little things."
Elizabeth laughed, temporarily absent minded of most of her cares, "I have not yet told Fitzwilliam. I am to surprise him with the news this night. What a shock it shall be to him, I think!"
"I shall not say a word, my dear. Just give me a sign, and I shall do my best to make sure you have ample opportunity to be alone."
Elizabeth gave her aunt a loving smile, then turned back around to look out of the windows. "I am very glad this child will come in the summer. Woes be the little child born in the winter," she sighed.
There was a chill by the windows, and Mrs. Gardiner pulled off her shawl and placed it around Elizabeth's shoulders. She then wrapped her arms around Elizabeth in a comforting embrace.
"Christian was born in the winter," Elizabeth continued. "I kept him in the bed next to me most of the time, to keep the cold from creeping over him. It was quite a task for the servants to keep the hearth in the nursery stoked around the clock, but they never complained of it once. When I needed a respite, Fitzwilliam was always there to cradle him and keep him warm, so I would not fret." Elizabeth stopped as she saw a light, then continued on again when she discovered the light to be the torch of a groundskeeper.
"They say that year had been the coldest in over a hundred. So many precious children did not survive it." She turned to her aunt, a composition of anxiety and adoration written on her face, brought about by the thought of her husband. "I am very fortunate to have such a wonderful life...such a man to love and care for me, and our babies."
"There," Mrs. Gardiner said with a nod of her head towards the windows. "There is a carriage approaching."
Elizabeth took off at an expeditious pace, but Mrs. Gardiner caught her arm and held her tight as they descended the staircase together. The children had seen the carriage lights also, and were waiting in the hallway for their father, to begin the celebration. When they saw Darcy come out of the carriage and run up the steps, they rushed to him and he gathered them all into his arms and laughed, amid their delighted hugs and kisses, and urgent instructions to hurry.
"It shall not take me long...then we shall eat and play every game we can think of," he said to satisfy their enthusiasm.
When he stood up, he caught his wife's eye and gave a repentant grin. "Forgive me, my love. The spoke of a wheel on the carriage was faulty, and you cannot imagine how difficult it is to have it repaired on Christmas eve."
Mrs. Gardiner crept away with the children, leaving Elizabeth alone with Darcy. "If you change your clothes, we are ready for supper," Elizabeth said calmly as they began to walk towards the staircase. Darcy stopped abruptly, slipping his arm around his wife's waist and kissing her playfully under a strategically placed bouquet of mistletoe.
His joy was acute at their merry reunion, even though their separation had consisted of only a few hours. His amusement of catching her off her guard under the mistletoe served to fuel his happy spirits. Elizabeth reached her arms around Darcy's neck, "You cannot know how happy I am that you are home, Fitzwilliam."
They were all a merry group at the supper table. Every good thing was placed in front of them, and they all ate until they could eat no more. They did save room for the spectacle of the pudding, which was brought from the kitchen all aflame. The children were amazed at it, but no one possessed greater pleasure in it more than Darcy. It reminded him of his parents and of Christmases long ago when he was young and caught up in the spirit of wonder.
Christmas had been a fine time when Elizabeth had come to Pemberley, but never had it been so happy as it was now that he had his own children to delight. Even though he was one of the proudest men ever to be seen, there was something within Darcy which resembled a child, on such occasions.
After supper the children drew lots for Charades and they giggled and squealed as Uncle Bingley orchestrated their thespian talents, and Darcy took his best guesses. Uncle Gardiner amused them with Blind Man's Bluff, and always managed to catch Christian, who was far more daring and far less attentive to being caught, as he laughed and scurried about on his little legs. When the children had grown tired of such play, Darcy read them stories of Christmases past, which managed to send shivers through them, as he uttered passages of dark snowy nights.
Mrs. Reynolds finally lit the tapers on the Christmas tree, and everyone marveled at its beauty and applauded Elizabeth's contribution. Darcy tilted his head to one side as he looked at the tree, thinking that it still did not look at all straight, but he was disposed to say nothing about it. Elizabeth passed out the favors from the tree, and everyone read their verses and riddles aloud, and the little tokens under the tree seemed to satisfy the children's anxiety for Father Christmas to appear.
She left one favor on the tree, hidden far in the back and out of sight of everyone else. This was a rather special token, for it had 'Mr. Darcy' written on the outside, and contained the revelation of Elizabeth's secret.
Before the children went off to bed, tea and cakes were served. The little ones were allowed to sit on the cushions in the drawing room to drink their tea, tempered with lots of cream, and eat a small cake. Elizabeth, Jane, and Mrs. Gardiner told their daughters of the old custom of girls placing their shoes, one on each side of their beds, on Christmas eve. A sprig of Rosemary tucked in one shoe, and a sprig of Thyme in the other. If a girl slept on her back, she would dream of the man she was to one day marry.
"Did you dream of him, Mama?" Hannah whispered to her mother.
Elizabeth nodded her head, her eyes reflecting the spirit of such a girlish trick. She whispered back to her daughter, "I would always dream of a very tall man, with the darkest of hair and the most earnest of manners...and he would reach out his hand to take mine as we danced."
Hannah looked up at her mother in awe of such a premonition, "Papa!" she whispered excitedly, and Elizabeth gave her daughter a loving embrace. Hannah's eyes eagerly searched the room for her father, and she smiled purposefully when she caught sight of him. He was so handsome, especially when he was contented, and Hannah thought him the finest father anyone could have. With the illusions of a young girl who revered her Papa, she hoped she would be fortunate enough to marry someone just like him when she grew up.
Within a short time the children grew quite tired. Christian fell fast asleep on one of the cushions, exhausted from being pursued about the house all day by little Alice. Darcy picked him up and carried him upstairs to his bed.
"Papa," the child sleepily mumbled as Elizabeth slipped his night shirt over his head. "When will Father Christmas come?"
"As soon as you go to sleep," Darcy whispered as he kissed boy's cheek, and placed his limp body down in the bed.
When every child had been tucked in their bed, the women joined their husbands in the drawing room. Darcy had brought out the good spirits and handed a glass to everyone. He gave Elizabeth a glass, and after a rather lengthy toast on the part of the amiable Charles Bingley, she took a very tiny sip and then placed her glass back on the tray.
"Darcy," Bingley chuckled. "How about a game or two of billiards? I am feeling extremely fortunate this night."
"You are a glutton for punishment, Bingley, but I shall delight in taking every crown in your pocket, and then some." Darcy finished his drink and grinned at his friend.
Mr. Gardiner rubbed his hands together, happy to partake of a little of the action when Darcy was through with Bingley. Elizabeth interrupted their fraternal order by grasping her husband's arm.
"Fitzwilliam, I thought perhaps we could be alone for a time," she whispered to him so the others could not overhear her plea.
"Yes, I shall come up when we are finished, my love," he whispered his replied with a playful grin. "Then you may do what you will with me."
There were times when Elizabeth knew her husband and his friends to become so preoccupied in their games, that the women would give up on seeing them until the wee hours of the night. Elizabeth could tell by Darcy's jolly countenance that her hopes of having him to herself this night was not to be.
Elizabeth had difficulty in denying him the pleasure of some sport. He and the other men had been so good with the children this night, entertaining them with such amusements. She smiled at Darcy and nodded her head in silent assurance that his wont for such diversions would not be met with offense.
He smiled at her in concordant recognition, then turned to his friends, teasing them, "No doubt I can acquire enough pocket change to fill a few stockings for Father Christmas!"
Elizabeth walked the great hallway with her aunt and sister, and saw Jane to her room. Mrs. Gardiner turned to Elizabeth, "There are times when husbands are very much like children, are they not?"
Elizabeth smiled at her aunt's inference, "Yes, but we love them even so." She stopped to sigh, "I suppose my secret shall have to wait a little longer."
Elizabeth had been dozing for some time when Darcy did come to bed that night. He quietly shed his clothes and climbed into bed, wrapping his arms around her body and nuzzling her neck. She giggled at his verve and turned around to face him.
"I remain undefeated," he boasted of his victories at billiards, then as if magically bewitched, found himself caught up in Elizabeth's dreamy appearance. "You are all loveliness and beauty, on Christmas eve and every eve that follows it."
Darcy touched Elizabeth's cheek with the most tender of caresses. She seemed to have the impression that he suddenly considered her as fragile as glass. She wanted him to hold her, for when he did she knew everything was assured. It had been a long few days with such secrets to keep, and she was beginning to feel guilty for keeping her news hidden from him.
"You have been the very best wife, Elizabeth," he whispered. "It is always this time of year, that I ponder what a simpleton I was, when we first met."
"I thought you many things, Mr. Darcy...but simpleton was not one of them."
"Then I am relieved," he grinned. "How I love you."
"Fitzwilliam..." she made a move to tell him everything, but for some reason, when she looked into his eyes she could not say it, but simply whispered to him that she loved him also.
"Is everything arranged for Christmas morning?" he murmured quietly in her ear, then stopped to place a kiss there.
"Yes," she said under her breath, then she closed her eyes and lost her senses in her husband's familiar and loving touch.
Christian awoke, blinked his eyes, and looked towards the foot of his bed at the lumpy offering which Father Christmas had brought. He scrambled towards the abundantly filled stocking and lifted it off the bedpost, securing it in his arms. Taking a look around the room, unsure as to what to do next, he had an idea and he made haste to his parent's bed chamber.
"Mama! Papa!" the boy squealed, engaged in a full run. "He was here! He was here!"
Darcy's eyes popped open at the sound of the youngster's elated voice. "What time is it?" he mumbled, then rolled out of the bed and groped for something warm to wear, as the cold hit him like a brick. He hoisted Christian onto the bed, loaded stocking and all, then lit a candle and looked at the mantle clock. "For heaven's sake, it is only six o'clock!" he exasperated. "No wonder it feels as if I just went to bed...I think I did."
Elizabeth sat up, doing her best to be attentive to her young son and his joy, all the while feeling a little afflicted as was natural for a woman in her condition. She tried her best not to think of her own predicament, and helped Christian to look inside the stocking at his treasures while Darcy stoked the fire in the hearth to warm the room.
It was not long until Andrew and Hannah had the same idea as their brother. Soon the Darcys found their bed occupied not only by themselves, but also with three children, three empty stockings, and an abundance of coins, oranges, candy, and small toys spread about.
Christian made his father count the pocket money Father Christmas had left for him, several times. He and Andrew played with small tin horses painted with Dragoon adornment, and Hannah showed her mother a tiny china doll she had found in her own stocking, which she thought to resemble her aunt Georgiana.
Darcy leaned over to his wife, "Happy Christmas, my love."
"Happy Christmas to you," she attempted a smile, but crawled to the edge of the bed to sit up, as the motion of the children bouncing in her bed seemed to be more than she was prepared to handle. "Come, come," Elizabeth managed to say to the preoccupied children. "You must have breakfast then get dressed for mattins."
The simple suggestion of breakfast made Elizabeth appear quite green. She stood up and without a word made haste to her dressing chamber. The children were too involved with their treasures to notice anything different about their mother's behavior, except for Hannah.
"Is something the matter with Mama?" she asked her father.
A very curious look came to Darcy's face. He glanced at Elizabeth's dressing chamber door, then turned back to answer his daughter. He kissed her tenderly on the forehead, and replied in the simplest of terms, "No."
After breakfast, the entire assemblage of families piled into the carriages, then trudged through the snow and the cold for the mattins church service. It was not easy to sit and listen to a lengthy sermon, while trying to restrain anxious children, who thought of nothing more than Christmas presents to be opened and Christmas dinner yet to be eaten.
When they arrived back at Pemberley, Darcy reached into the carriages, plucking out each child and setting them on the ground. He simply could not help himself, and he reached down into the snow, then boldly lobbed a snowball in Christian's direction. The snowball splattered against the boy, and he turned around in agitation expecting to see Andrew grinning at him. He could not believe his eyes when he discovered that it was his father who had thrown it, and he stood quite fixed, wondering what he was to do.
Darcy took one look at the boy's face and grinned broadly. He picked up another handful of snow and pitched it at Christian, hitting him with it in the chest. The boy's eyes looked like saucers, and he gaped at his father in astonishment.
"Come on," Darcy coaxed him with a nod of permission.
Christian reached down and formed a ball of snow in his mittens. He threw it as hard as he could, but Darcy had by then run down onto the lawn in front of the house.
Before their eyes, the adults witnessed a scene they would not soon forget. Children, from the youngest to the eldest, girls and boys, scurried about the lawn everywhere, forming snow trails, snowballs, and sides. Darcy was in the middle getting pelted from every direction, and laughing wickedly at the ruckus. He threw snowballs as fast as he could form them, and managed to take out two or three children at a time with his perfected aim.
It was not long until Elizabeth was in the midst of the mayhem, forming her own implements of war and pelting Darcy, along side the children. Darcy was losing his dauntless effort, and held up his hands in defeat, while trying to catch his breath. He flopped down into the snow and children came out of nowhere, pouncing on him to collect their victory.< P>Elizabeth finally rescued him out of the snow, his cheeks flushed with the exercise and chill of the cold. In his merriment Darcy raised Elizabeth off her feet and spun her around, as she laughed and screamed in the joy of it all. When he realized what he had done, Darcy carefully placed her back down amid the screeching, jumping children.
"Are you quite all right?" he intensely asked in a hush.
It took her a moment to answer him, startled that he should ask such an odd question. "Yes, of course."
"Very well," he leaned over and kissed her cheek tenderly, brushing some snow away from her curls with his fingertips. He took her by the hand and led her out of the snow, with the children following hard upon their heels.
After Christmas dinner, the children could wait no longer, and everyone retired to the drawing room to open gifts. The parents watched as paper wrappings, bows and strings were tossed everywhere, and the children virtually disappeared under the festive rubble.
The boys laughed in delight seeing their tiny tin army, lining it up along the floor, and knocking it over. Even Darcy was down with them, forming little brigades for battle. There were dolls and tea sets, puzzles and toy ships, spread across the floor amongst the crinkled wrapping papers. Andrew handed the presents to his parents, from he and his brother and sister. Elizabeth was delighted with a pretty silk scarf, and Darcy sat back in his chair to peruse his new book.
Darcy glanced up from his gift to survey the bedlam in his drawing room. Amid countless children and papers, sat Hannah, her hands folded in her lap. She surveyed the room, then lowered her eyes in apparent disappointment.
"Hannah," her father called and she went to sit on his lap. "What is the matter, my little love?"
She looked at him with the saddest eyes he thought he would ever see, "Father Christmas must not have heard me when I asked him for a dog, Papa. "
Darcy sighed, and ran his palm across her cheek. "We do not always get everything that we want," he told her lovingly. She leaned her head against his chest and her sorrow nearly broke his heart. Darcy glanced over at his wife, who did not appear much happier than his daughter, and he reached out and put a hand to Elizabeth's chin.
"Miss Hannah," Mrs. Reynolds called out over the mayhem, "This came for you." She held a covered basket in her hand and placed it on the floor in front of Darcy and his daughter.
"What is it, Papa?" Hannah asked in her small voice.
Darcy shook his head, feigning innocence, and shrugged, "Go and see."
Hannah sat down on the floor, and timidly lifted the lid off of the basket. She cautiously looked inside, not believing her eyes as she did. Tiny little squawks were heard, then she pulled out a black ball of fur and brought it to her heart.
"A real dog!" she exclaimed clutching the puppy and looking to her father.
Darcy smiled and nodded, "A little dog...a little black Terrier."
Hannah took the puppy to show her mother and Elizabeth reached out to stroke it, then sniffled in happiness at the sight of Hannah's new friend, and the utter bliss on her sweet daughter's face.
"Derby?" she directed a teary-eyed question towards her husband.
"Derby," he grinned. "Hannah, do you promise me you will take care of that dog?"
"Yes, Papa! Oh, yes!"
"Mr. Beal shall show you how to instruct her, and if you are kind to her, she will be your very best friend and protector." He turned to Elizabeth and said with assurance, "Father Christmas told me that they are good dogs to their family and friends, but are wary of strangers."
Christian came over to look at the puppy and Hannah graciously allowed him to hold her after he promised to be careful. "Will the dog live with us for a long time, Papa?"
"I hope she will be with us at least until after Hannah is a young woman..." Darcy stopped in mid sentence, and pursed his lips and flared his nostrils in the way only a father can do, "...and all the young men come to call upon her."
Elizabeth shot Darcy a look, laughing at his prudence. She asked Hannah, "What are you to name her, dear?"
Hannah looked to her father and pronounced, "Mimi!"
"Mimi?" Darcy blanched at such a name. Hannah took her puppy and left the room to show Mrs. Reynolds and Mrs. Beal.
"Mimi?" Darcy said again, incredulously. He looked over at Elizabeth, who simply could not help but laugh at him. "Why can she not name the dog Hero or Ophelia...something nobly Shakespearean like that?" He shook his head in wonder, then settled back into his chair with his book. After some time he was heard again to grumble, "Mimi" with a snort of virile disapproval.
Hannah carried her treasured pet with her for most of the day. After a time, she set the dog down and the little black ball of fur squeaked and followed her around wherever she went, much to Hannah's shear joy.
Each time Christian came too close to Hannah, the puppy attached its tiny teeth to Christian's sock and held on with a ferocious growl, at least ferocious in comparison with its minute size. Hannah would have to rescue poor Christian from the dog's defensive grasp. The puppy was not much kinder to Andrew, for when young 'Master Darcy' entered the room, the little black ball of fur was heard to yap furiously at the boy's proud appearance and hop about wildly at his feet, until Hannah held her nose in the air at her brother, and told Mimi to cease.
If Darcy was not satisfied with Hannah's choice of a name for the dog, he was elated at the dog's protective deportment. Every time he saw the puppy attached to Christian, or yapping at Andrew, he chuckled in paternal satisfaction. He would reach down, and with a pat on the animal's small head, slyly confide, "There is a good pup."
The roar of merriment eventually died down, and the children went off to quietly play with their toys. A few were seen sprawled out on cushions, delirious from such a splendid day of cheer. Even Hannah and Mimi curled up on a chair to nap. Elizabeth found herself to be the only person in a state of consciousness in the drawing room, and she took a last look at her Christmas tree, and deemed it a great success.
With a gasp and a start she remembered the hidden note to Darcy that she had placed in the back, and she pushed away the branches to retrieve it before it was found by anyone else. To her complete surprise the note was gone.
Elizabeth caught up to Darcy in the hallway by the front doors of Pemberley house. He was getting into his overcoat, hat, and gloves, to take a stroll outdoors. "Come with me, Elizabeth," he encouraged her to join him. "I could use some air."
Darcy slipped his arm through Elizabeth's as they walked down the stone steps and out onto the drive. They walked the path where they had once walked together long ago, as Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy and Miss Elizabeth Bennet.
After a time, they both began to speak, then Darcy insisted that Elizabeth continue. "Fitzwilliam, I..." she stopped and turned towards him, placing her hands upon his arms, as if to keep him in her grasp before another untimely interruption occurred. "I have wanted to tell you something. Something I have known for a few days time."
She brushed away her wind blown hair with her mitten, and looked at her husband. He was patiently awaiting her disclosure, not a sign of an emotion upon his face.
"What I wanted to tell you...I wrote down on a note and placed in the Christmas tree. I was going to give it to you last night, but then you went to play billiards and..."
Darcy placed a finger over her lips to stop her. "Is this the note to which you refer?" he asked as he produced the paper from his coat pocket, which had 'Mr. Darcy' written on it in Elizabeth's hand.
"The very one," she stared at it, then turned her attentions back to him. "Then you know?" Anxiously she awaited some show of emotion. Some look of approval or disapproval, or some reaction on his part to let her understand his feelings to such news. To her amazement he continued to show no hint of any feeling.
"Know what?" he asked. "As you can see I have not opened it." He showed her the unbroken seal. "I had no wish to spoil some sort of secret."
"It is all in the note," she pointed to the paper.
It seemed to take a lifetime for Darcy to open the seal. Elizabeth searched his face as he read each word written inside. He finally nodded his head, then folded the note, placing it back into his pocket.
"Well?" she whispered.
He lifted his eyes to her person, and amidst a background of white, he beheld the only thing in the world he cherished more than anything else. "That is the very best present you have ever bestowed on me for Christmas."
"You knew it all along, Mr. Darcy," Elizabeth said through a sob of happiness. "I know you did!"
Darcy heaved a chuckle, through the mist in his own eyes, at her insistence that he was privy to her secret. "I was suspect to it. I have come to realize that a man has his will and a woman has her way. We husbands are not as thick-witted as we pretend to be."
He enveloped his wife with his arms, and held her as tightly as he dared. He behaved as he had on the other two occasions when he had been told of his impending fatherhood. He said no more words, for all that was truly necessary to be conveyed between them came in the form of an embrace, and silent, comforting kisses.
Mrs. Gardiner gazed out of the gallery windows, and she caught sight of her favorite niece and nephew standing in a drift of white. From such a distance the two appeared as one, and she knew enough to expect a disclosure to the entire household, of the joy which a Christmas day brought forth from two people so in love.
On the way back to the house, Elizabeth silently mused at Darcy, as he mulled over all the things to come. All the things that in almost five years he had forgotten, like the pride he felt knowing Elizabeth was determined to give him another child.
He thought about the eagerness and anticipation he felt to know what this child would be like, compared to the other three. He reminded himself about his anxious preoccupation with Elizabeth's well-being as she carried the child to term. He gave an extended sigh at the memory of the long hours of waiting and counting pattern squares in the carpet, on the day the baby would be born.
He even felt that small pang of jealousy, to realize Elizabeth would spend so much of her time in the year following with an infant, and not with himself, as he had again grown accustomed to having. It was an expectant father's lot in life to feel all those things, and many more, whether or not he was a father on Christmas day or at any other time of the year.
Darcy was a happy father indeed, when that day came that next summer. He peeked into the tiny bundle laying upon Elizabeth's breast, and she laughed at the bewildered pride he wore on his sleeve. She reached out a hand to his cheek, at the tears of joy he could never quite conceal from her, upon first sight of the newborn, and the comfort he took in knowing his beloved wife was well.
This time the children took a look also, and they each had their own questions about the baby. Andrew wanted to know where the baby had come from, Hannah wished to know if she could hold the little thing, and Christian wondered how long it would be before he could boss his new younger sibling around.
Darcy took another look, and wondered how soon it would be before this child would pretend not hear him when he spoke, and realized he would have to begin moving everything he valued, above his own waist level. Mostly though, he anticipated pleasing another eager little heart, upon a Christmas day. That was always one of his greatest joys, until the very last
To Nancy, for her prodding; little Maggie, for being the model; and to everyone who asked for a little more mayhem.
To you all ~ a very Happy Christmas!
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