Herewith, the extended post-epilogue vignette mentioned on Laughing With Lizzy. Bewarned, you might want to finish the book before you read this! *spoilers abound!*
Ah, ‘twas nearly Christmas, the holiday Peter Fitzwilliam loved above all. Let those who were pious enjoy their Easters, with the grass lamb and cream pies and mulling over of sin turned joy. Let others celebrate their wheat crops with Michaelmas; the Earl of Matlock appreciated the applesauce but had always disliked stubbly goose. He thought himself a sensitive man, and old goose meat repulsed him.
No, it was Christmas, when children glowed with excitement and rum puddings were served and smiles abounded, and fruits—in cakes and puddings, and draped over mantles and portraits—celebrated the true richness of the season.
He was head of the Fitzwilliam family and thus enjoyed playing host during the season. Dear Martha would indulge him in all things festive, and he would make the toasts, hide small gifts for the children, and lead the hunt and the song. It was as it had always been, until this year, when his batty sister had requested—nay demanded—the family gather at Rosings. “It is no longer her home!” he grumbled to his wife. “She lives in the dower house!”
But her daughter, the sure-minded (and frequently painted, sculpted and impregnated) Anne de Bourgh Dumfries, had penned a note requesting their indulgence. She assured her uncle of the attendance of the Darcys, who had hovered about town this past month, after paying—to his mind—an ill-timed visit to Hertfordshire.
Elizabeth Bennet Darcy was a fine woman, a good wife, and a mother of peculiar indulgences—truly, clouds and trompe l’oeil on the nursery ceilings?!—but her father’s so-called apoplexy was ridiculously indulged. The Earl liked the man, within reason, for his book sense and sardonic wit, but thought he lacked discipline in tending his estate and family. Once again assuming his burden as head of an ever-expanding band of needful relations, the Earl determined a box of fruit delivered to Longbourn would be a fine gift. After all, fruit restoreth the soul and aided the digestion. And from his orchards and greenhouses? The best fruit in England—everybody’s favourite—always wholesome. He would add that house to his gifting list. Fruit boxes for everyone.
The soldiers in the —shire encampment were not equal in their mastery of sword, pistol or rifle. They were uniform neither in girth nor wit, nor were they equal in their devotion to their profession. But all were loyal to and well-versed in particulars about their renowned commanding officer.
The list was not extensive nor defining to his character, but when cards were dull and alcohol was absent, or when games of “the perfect woman,” had grown too familiar, the men had been known to share these observations (though very quietly, as the man himself was known for his large ears and powerful hearing).
General Richard Fitzwilliam, they could affirm, was an excellent shot and wielded his sword with care and finesse. His temper could be fearsome. No matter the conditions of their accommodations or the weather, his mustache never varied from its full, impressive bushiness. He always stared doubtfully at his bowl when served mutton stew and never took a second helping. He liked dogs but never spared his wrath on spiders. Men who stared too long at clouds or stars in the sky were at risk of his disdainful scowl, yet he himself was rather observant of hollow trees. He received far too many letters from young relatives who clearly misused inkpots and needed their pens mended.
And, of course, he was a breast man. His carefully cultivated admiration of the female form had proved instructional to many of the young greenhorns who had yet to dip their wicks; after a few months around their commander, a few had been known to stroke their chins and mutter platitudes about areolas and dusky succulents whilst eyeing the slatterns outside their encampment.
Young Corporal Slagwick was in command of all these facts when he sorted that day’s post. The Christmas holiday was but a few days away, and more letters than was common were arriving to cheer up the men separated from their families. Once again, the general had received a hand-delivered packet of missives, and Slagwick hurried to deliver those letters first. His commanding officer was departing for a short holiday with his family, and it seemed wise to ensure he had the latest news from his fervent correspondents. As much as General Fitzwilliam liked to boast of his young relatives’ accomplishments, he was fiercely protective of their letters. Slagwick had been sworn—nay ordered—to secrecy when he saw the scrawled letters spelling out “General Uncle Dickie” on some of the letters. Thus, when he saw Slagwick approach, the commander barked a laugh. “Ha, the little monkeys burst with anticipation for my visit.”
My sisters, my brothers and I are anxious for your visit. My father says that in order for me to improve my fencing thrusts, you will exhibit all the wrong positions and stances. I am in need of such help to ward off Cousin Rollo. As eldest cousin, he fancies himself my superior and master of all knowledge. Oftimes, I must confide, I do not like him. Two days past at Darcy House, he bloodied my nose while we tossed pillows, and insisted he would cure me by tying Henry’s frog to my neck. I hope you prefer the company of the Darcys to the Dumfries and will join us at Pemberley. We miss it so.
Richard snorted. You are your father’s son, dear boy. Wrong positions and stances! Bloody bad sense of humour, Darcy. Has Elizabeth not taught you manners?
My dear Uncle Cousin,
I miss you. Make haste and travel safely to us at Rosings. Sweets and new limericks would make me most happy.
Your most favourite little cousin-niece,
Patience Catherine Dumfries
Cousin or uncle? Most favourite or most persuasive? The Great Debate continues. Richard picked up the final missive. The handwriting was especially impressive with curlie-wurlie lettering, and he noted, an etching of a butterfly. Lardo was an interesting child.
My sisters, my parents and I have at last departed from Grandmother de Bourgh’s London house. We were so tired of mindfulness, for paying heed to nerves and fine porcelains and proper stocking wear. Grandmother is kind and puts rum chocolates in my pocket, but I missed dear Rosings. I despise wearing shoes and stockings and waistcoats and Papa’s paintings are ever so much more lively here than those we see in town. Grandmother does not like nipples or bottoms to be displayed in her homes.
Two days before we left London, we went to our most favourite sweet shop and then saw a German pantomime about tigers and a wise white bird. Of course, only Patience, with her gifted tongue and ear for language could fully understand the story. Florentia laughed but Theodosia, ever the baby, fell asleep. The Darcys did not attend so my sisters and I shall have to perform the show for them. Not for James, as he is so dull he should be locked in the cupboard to read his books and play with his silly swords. Do you think my cousin Amelia was as sad as I was, not spending the day with me? She is so very clever and has a good laugh in her. Must they leave for Pemberley before Twelfth Night?
“Good god, need I warn Darcy about the romantic entanglement taking shape in my young cousin’s heart?” Richard shook his head. And poor James. I must show him how to fight off his sister’s unwanted suitors. All of a sudden, this holiday was rimmed with portents of future family debacles.
At breakfast, I heard Papa ask Mama to wager on how soon you will darken Uncle Darcy’s doorway and drink his port. Mama laughed her laugh, and pinched his bottom in that way she has. Do all parents nap in the afternoon as mine do?
Richard shuddered. Too many images, too many memories of the past decade suddenly stirred and his happy anticipation dulled. Who took the short end of that wager? I hope they have not found my brandy. Dash it, I hope Aunt Catherine has not had them drained!
My sisters, all of them but most particularly Florentia, request you bring us special gifts of violent delight and new music with which to bedevil our Collins cousins. Theodosia asks for stories about the bug bear. We expect to see you at tea tomorrow, when we will unburden you of your many bags and stories.
Your loyal and most special cousin,
Rollo Caravaggio Dumfries
P.S. Was this letter amusing? I am endeavoring to compose letters of wit and grace.
“Lardo, my boy. We are past due for a conversation.” Richard chuckled. “Your father will make you colourful sketches when it is time for your manhood talk, but I will use plain words to dissuade you from youthful entanglements that can only end before they begin.
“And by god, paint no more butterflies on letters to a man in the military.”
Darcy leaned back into the wall, arms crossed, brow furrowed.
“I dread this, you know. Michaelmas was lovely, and the harvest ball the best of recent years. Must we truly stay two nights in Kent?”
Elizabeth, her attention focused on their youngest child’s reddened gums and unhappy disposition, glanced up at her husband. Her impatience warred with amusement as she gazed at his expression.
“Such a sad face, Fitzwilliam. You and your sons look remarkably similar when unhappy.”
“If you wish me to tuck in my lower lip, I will argue your point. I prefer to put it to far better use.” Darcy pushed off the wall and joined his wife on the settee. He looked fondly at the teary-eyed bundle in her arms. “Will he sleep tonight? Our other children were more skilled at their nightly duties.”
“No they were not, they would settle for their nurses. Alexander is less amenable to arms that are not mine.”
“Well then yes,” her husband replied smugly, “he is a child most like me.”
Elizabeth put her hand on his thigh. “We have been in Hertfordshire and London for a month now. It is but two days in Kent, and then we can begin our long journey home.” She leaned her head against his shoulder. “It will go quickly; we have been blessed with mild weather.”
He sighed. “True, yet this is our first Christmas away from Pemberley.”
“It shall be the last. I have instructed my mother that apoplexies, or as this was, a hint of apoplexy, are not to be had again so close to Christmas.”
“Despite our fears, your father is hale and well and eager to regain his seat in Pemberley’s library.”
“As am I, Fitzwilliam. My seat, my bed, my home….” She relished the heated look her pouting husband swept over her.
“But first to Rosings,” he sighed.
“Oh do cheer up. The children will enjoy their cousins, and Richard has hidden flasks and bottles on the grounds, yes?”
“You have reminded James and Henry about the proper direction of eyeballs and that pointing is ungentleman-like behaviour?”
“You have reminded Richard about the proper direction of eyeballs and that pointing is ungentleman-like behaviour?”
“Then all is as it should be. Our children cannot wear blinders and be sheltered from the onslaught of nipples and expressions of marital joy decking Rosings’ halls.”
“Nor can we protect them from what may already stir in them,” Darcy said glumly. “Their Fitzwilliam blood.”
“Hush” she cried. “They are equal bits of Darcy and Bennet and Gardiner as well, and I dare say that it is a good thing to see one family’s eccentricities overpower those of another. None of our children, those that can speak, anyway, talk incessantly of fruit nor do any appear frail of mind or body.”
“We are fortunate,” he replied gravely. “Thus far.”
Elizabeth, smirking, gave a dramatic sigh. “Mayhap we should keep our perfect family small and add no more babies? Five be enough?”
He looked at his wife, considering her proposal.
She stood and walked to the cradle, placing Alexander inside and arranging the blankets around his sleeping form. “If we determine the risk is too great, we must stop those practises that might create another child.”
Darcy started and practically jumped to his feet. “How impertinent you are! That is advice best given to Bingley and your sister!”
Elizabeth bit her lip. Hardly twelve years married and Jane was confined with her eighth child. Or, from the manner in which she carried it, perhaps numbers eight and nine. She and Darcy had thus far produced five, and that handful was enough…for the present. Already she suspected another arrival in the new year.
Jane’s letters told of a perfect life with perfect children and a perfect husband, her confinements light and easy. Letters from her mother told a different tale; it would appear that after losing her favourite daughter to maritime adventures off Africa, she had lost her other favourite to unceasing babymaking and blanket knitting and food mashing. Seeing Netherfield through her mother’s eyes made Elizabeth Bennet Darcy better understand Caroline Bingley Ludlow’s childless joy in her parrot.
The touch of her husband’s hand on hers recollected Elizabeth from her musings. “We are incapable of creating any child short of perfection,” Darcy said, tenderly stroking his young son’s hair. “Even this one, he cries only because he craves his mother. As do I. Often and always.”
“It goes unsaid.”
“I want and desire you.”
Elizabeth’s lips curled into a mischievous smile. Her eyes sparkled, and Darcy was aflame. Nearly twelve years together, and he knew her signals. He knew her sighs, her smiles, her scent. His senses and sensibilities were in harmony with hers. She knew all of him as well, and she knew he needed soothing. Her fingers traced the edge of his waistcoat. She felt more than heard his sharp intake of breath.
“Wonderful man, now that Alexander is in his bed, please take me to mine.”
“Ours.” His nose nuzzled hers.
“See, my Darcy? Always up for a healthy debate.”
There truly was nothing Richard enjoyed more than to be the last arrival at a family party. The adults would be settled, with a drink or two coursing through and calming their blood. The children would have spent their energies greeting one another, their ranks thinned by absence of the nappers, the tantrum throwers, and the easily distracted, who had been put to bed, exiled to the nursery, or wandered off. If only Darcy’s five children and Anne’s four, Robert and Harriet’s three boys, and the assorted Dumfries, Collins, and Hadley children could be so easily divided into squads and sent off to do duties. Georgiana’s young son, the cheerfully curly-haired Richard Hadley, rivaled the Bingley children—were there three dozen of those dull moppets now?—in angelic appearance, but it was only his namesake and godson who could guilelessly wear a halo. Of the undisciplined and rather stupid Bingley horde, he knew better. How shocking, that a happy moppet and a glowing angel would not begat perfectly well-behaved rug monkeys but both his dull brother and his staid mooncalf of a cousin had wives who could produce such amusing and brilliant children? Richard tapped his head. I must speak to Rollo about his infatuation before Darcy catches on. There will be hell to pay if Dumfries-tainted Fitzwilliam blood stains the vaunted Darcy lineage.
Strolling downstairs in a freshly brushed coat to an unusually quiet house, Richard’s throat and soul were parched for liquid spirits. Peregrine had slightly bettered Aunt Catherine’s wine cellars, but he was partial to fruity cordials and sweet wines and cognacs. Brandy and whiskey were the responsibility of visitors to Rosings. Richard had warmed but a little to his cousin’s husband; in his mind, the painter remained a questionable man of horrible tastes and his disdain for manly beverages was unforgiveable.
In search of his safest hiding place, he walked into Rosings’ smallest sitting room. There he chanced upon Darcy with two of his children perched on his lap as he read to them from Aesop’s Fables. Richard noted the expressions on the youngsters, a mere three and five years of age, were as stupefied as his upon learning the sad fate of the dog who, confused by his own reflection in the water, lost his lambchop when he opened his jaw to steal the other pup’s meat.
“Papa,” cried Henry. “The poor thing went to bed hungry.”
“Because he was greedy,” Darcy said firmly but gently.
“No, he was stupid.” The five-year-old’s lip quivered.
“He was a dog, son. Acting on instinct and without thought.”
Emma burst into tears.
Richard leapt into action. “I say, Darcy. Why does Elizabeth ever leave you alone with her children?”
The tears evaporated. “Uncle Dickie!” Henry launched himself from his father’s lap to Richard’s leg. The bad leg. The one that had endured horse kicks, a poorly aimed sword, a dog bite, and a log burn. God, he hated France and its Frenchmen. The women, though…so skilled, so blessed by glorious assets, and so generously talented in sharing them.
He winced through his smile and leaned over to pick up the lad. Emma remained, wide-eyed, on her father’s lap.
Darcy greeted him with a grimace. “Hello Dickie. Prompt as ever, I see. Tell me again how you made general if you cannot tell time?”
“Remind me how you keep churning out moppets if you cannot—.”
“Children,” Darcy cried. “I have a special message for you to deliver to Mama.” He bent over and kissed Emma’s cheek before setting her on the floor. “Petal,” he said gently, his fingers straightening her ribbon, “please go with Sally and give that kiss to Mama. I believe she is with your Aunt Georgiana in the music room.”
His daughter hugged him. “Yes, Papa.”
Henry frowned. “But Uncle Dickie is here. I want to see his swords and wounds.”
Richard patted his head. “No gaping gashes this time, my boy. But I do have a tale to tell of an angry bore.”
Henry’s mouth dropped open. “Oh my! A wild boar?”
Emma gasped and ran over, seizing and pulling her brother’s dangling foot. “With sharp teeth and hot hungry breath?”
“The very kind,” Richard said, winking at Darcy. His cousin rolled his eyes before nodding at the young woman who had appeared in the doorway.
Richard tossed Henry in the air before settling the boy on his feet. “Off with you, soldier. Upon the orders of your father and his superior officer!”
“Go now with Sally, children. Please give Mama my message, Emma.”
With a wave and a whirl, the Darcy children skipped out of the room. Their father leaned back in his chair and watched them adoringly before turning angrily toward his cousin. “How lovely you are, arriving here simply to frighten my children. Please describe this ‘angry boar.’ Is it one I might recognize?”
“All too well, I fear. Aunt Catherine and her hot hungry breath has Father in a tizzy. He despises this place and losing his holiday hosting perch has him greatly unsettled.”
Darcy nodded, his voice calmer. “Yet he has chosen to come here.”
“Choice is an odd word, cousin.” Richard’s eyes scanned the room, taking in its cosy warmth and decided lack of family portraiture. No wonder Darcy has taken refuge here; it is safe for children and those of refined sensibilities. “My mother has chosen to be at Rosings. My brother and his family are here, as am I. Thus, choice is no longer my father’s.”
“Hmm. So, why are we here?”
Richard stared at the contented philosopher of Pemberley. Wonderful, he is all about the thinking and I just wish to start the drinking. Now where is that damn bottle of port?
Darcy steepled his fingers and stared at the wall. The familiar tapestries provided him some comfort; in a house full of the celebration of Anne and her allurements, her husband had left this one room untouched. His curiosity demanded he pursue the meaning behind the omission but he feared alerting the artist to his oversight. Richard was of no use; he clearly was in a drinking state of mind. Darcy sighed and responded to his own inquiry.
“Elizabeth thought me quite rude for wondering if my aunt’s head has again sprouted lumps. Yet I had not heard her so violent in her demands since, well, before I married. Before,” he waved his hand, “all of this.”
“Ha, lumps! Good man. What did your investigation find?” Richard reached behind a small armoire. No port hidden there but an inferior bottle of sherry and two drinking glasses were secreted behind a bust of a rather ugly man. He seized the glassware.
Darcy, a well-worn expression of deep thinking upon his face, watched his cousin’s stealthy efforts and stifled a snort. “I see nothing odd, but her hair, newly whitened with that feathered finery, is difficult to comprehend. Was Aunt Catherine always so poufy? And her hair so…” his hands flew in the air…“so tall? So…French?”
“Hmm…I blame Peregrine,” Richard said, cursing the French while searching for a bottle of their country’s finest brandy. “Of course, I blame him for everything.”
“The poor harvest, cheap horseflesh, and your bowed legs?”
Richard bristled and began running his hands behind the draperies.
“Your lack of love and your terrible mustache?” The grave thinking face cracked a smile.
“Neither credit nor blame for this masterpiece goes anywhere but to me. And my man Stewart.” Richard stroked his mustache. Think, dammit. Where is the bloody bottle?
Darcy cleared his throat and straightened in his chair. “Truly, it is quite enormous. The ladies may shy away but it frightens the babies, you realize?”
“No more than they frighten me,” his cousin replied. “They are adorable yet sticky and wet and oftimes they smell of damp shits.”
Darcy began to object but recent memory overtook him and he shrugged.
Suddenly Richard stepped forward, reached into a deep vase, and pulled out his prize. Thank god. “I’ve no blinders to save me the sights, but we are well-stocked for the duration.”
“Wonderful,” Darcy replied. He watched his cousin pop the cork and pour two generous servings. He accepted one with more eagerness than he wished to betray. “Your late arrival has not prevented me from unpleasant displays. Although I can admire the attempts to cover some of Peregrine’s paintings, draping them with garlands and berries has been little more than an incentive for mischief.”
Richard’s left eyebrow rose. “Do tell. And please, do drink.” He sank into the chair across from Darcy and propped his feet on the table.
“Rollo cajoled my eldest son to aid him in placing berries on the portraits and busts of Anne.” Darcy paused and lowered his voice. “In the center of her areolas. Then Robert’s boys opened Florentia’s parakeet cage and the birds have been flapping about and pecking at them.”
Richard slapped his good knee and roared with laughter. “Anne’s nipples! Bedecked with berries! And your James as accomplice? Good god.” His face red, he wiped mirthful tears from his eyes. “Oh do tell me you were gentle on your young poet.”
Darcy shifted in his seat. The whole incident would have been comical if Rollo’s antics and his own son’s gullibility did not remind him of his own youthful follies with that Damnable Wickham. “Yes, well, of course. Elizabeth chanced upon it first and handled the situation with great delicacy.”
Richard nodded knowingly. “Then she laughed.”
“Well, of course. My god.” Darcy finally chuckled. “Rollo, however, was not so fortunate in his punishment. I believe the messy ruckus, which includes one dead birdie, another lost, and one highly stressed and stomach-sick creature, has proven that even Peregrine can lose patience with his little cherub.”
The General sank more deeply into his chair and loosened his waistcoat buttons. “Where is the little dandy, anyway? Fixing his beauty mark?”
“May God bless us, and may we find beauty in all we see.” Peregrine’s voice rang out, capturing the attention of the dozen or so adults gathered in Rosings’ drawing room. The children all were abed; most were sleeping while others presumably read or practised puppetry and oration.
Elizabeth glanced around the room. Charlotte and Doctor Dumfries were in fine spirits; it pleased her that Amelia enjoyed the company of her dear friend’s eldest daughter. She was equally delighted that the young Sarah Dumfries had a keen eye and low tolerance for the antics of Amelia’s male cousins. Too many of them seemed eager to please or tease Amelia Darcy; Edward Fitzwilliam was, thankfully, bookish and horse-mad like James, and mostly ignored girls, but Rollo Dumfries and John Collins found Amelia far more fascinating a creature than seemed necessary. Or normal. She was not quite nine years of age but her happy glow and quick wit drew others to her. It brought out a peculiar protectiveness in her father, most especially when Rollo made certain his cousins admired Rosings’ newly planted shrubbery. Poor Darcy glowered at the boy, wearing that unfamiliar grave look she had consigned to Richard’s tall tales and Bingley’s myth-making.
It was an expression, she realized with some great surprise, that she had often seen gracing the countenance of Lady Catherine. Elizabeth glanced down the length of the room, to where the older woman sat talking to Lady Matlock. Her husband’s long-widowed and endlessly puzzling aunt had a certain glow about her, a glow of good health, lump-free as she had been these many years, and her small face…Are her cheeks rouged? She peered closely. Oh yes…there was powder on those lined cheeks. And her hair, it was a crown of winter white.
“A confection of spun sugar.” Elizabeth turned slowly to her left and found Georgiana leaning close, her wineglass concealing her lips as she whispered her awe. “Soft, shiny snowdrifts of hair.”
Elizabeth smiled at her sister, whose cheeks boasted a natural happy radiance as she neared her second confinement. “Yes,” she agreed quietly. “Aunt Catherine is—.”
“…In fine form tonight.” Darcy stared at his aunt, a quizzical look on his face. “She appears to be—.”
“…An aging French tart.” Richard coughed and glanced sourly around the room. From the moment of his arrival, his aunt had given him the dirty eye, squinting at his uniform and using her eyeglass to examine his visage. She had, as always, judged him as the lesser of her nephews. It irked him, this mantle of dimness she hung about his epaulet-bedecked shoulders. Not even young Lardo’s admiration of his most illustrious cousin or his helpful advice to Peregrine on tenants and horseflesh could raise her opinion of him. Not that it mattered; his mother, his female cousins, and a healthy number of courtesans and widows adored him. And god, how he adored them. He ached for a woman. It had been a sennight, dammit! The Darcys blithely exuded some honeyed fog, happily caught in remembrance and anticipation of lusty grapplings; it was so thick a cloud he could slice it with a sabre. Though at least their happy state was not disgustingly lewd as was Anne’s and Peregrine’s foul stew of carnality. Elizabeth and Darcy simply hummed with happiness, as though every night was a Thursday night.
As for himself, he needed a whore and he needed a war. Perhaps a drink would help.
He pulled a flask from behind the heavy gold frame that boasted the Dumfries’ most recent family portrait. The beauty-marked man could wield a brush, he allowed, and create some outrageously provocative family scenes. Lardo and his sisters were pink cherubs, nestled among nuzzling lambs, at the feet of their parents. All were clad in Roman togas. This land, this realm, this England. He snorted and felt Darcy’s elbow in his side.
“My aunt may be sourish at times, but she is no French tart,” Darcy growled.
Elizabeth slipped her arm into his, and smiled her approval. “She appears happy and healthy.” Leaning closer to her husband, she whispered in his ear. “Stratocumulus, I believe.”
Clouds for brains and dreaming of mattresses, those two, Richard thought. “Fluffy,” he muttered.
“Tis the fruit boxes,” intoned Lord Matlock. “The plums and gooseberries were especially fine this year.”
“Of course, Uncle Peter, but your pineapples were a hothouse miracle. The children are thrilled,” Elizabeth said, earning yet another of the man’s smiles. Darcy rolled his eyes. Lord Matlock’s pleasure in Elizabeth’s company was irksome at times. He feared the man, already well into his cups, might break into song.
And he did, in a deep, rich baritone.
“Wassaile the trees, that they may beare! You many a Plum and many a Peare! For more or lesse fruits they will bring, As you do give them Wassailing.”
Elizabeth stole a glance at her husband and winked. He nearly choked on his wine. Good god, she is beautiful. Five babes have only enhanced her assets. He wanted more. More children, more Elizabeth. More her to hold. Wait, was there more to hold now? Darcy swallowed. Her lovely breasts appear larger. Dear god….
“Shut your mouth, nephew. There is fruit enough for everyone,” snapped the Earl. He looked back at his sister’s white tufted hair. “Ah, now. My sister looks a rum duchess,” he concluded, his eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Quite happy.”
His son rolled his eyes at such sentiment. “Does she gather us here to admire her resurgence from the relapse?”
Darcy smiled. His aunt had indeed experienced a close encounter with her maker. Anne had confided that a recent recurrence of the prior decade’s lumps had most happily been determined to be flea bites. Once shaved off, the thin grey hair on Lady Catherine’s head refused to grow back. She had taken great joy and exercised her considerable vanity in discovering wigs, and here she stood, bewigged and powdered in fine French fashion. She fit the role perfectly in what appeared to be a fine French farce. Darcy’s smile turned to a laugh. “Has Peregrine planned amusements after dinner, mayhap a game of snapdragon or charades?”
And with that notion, the regular nattering and smattering of the Fitzwilliam men—a group which at these times included Darcy and was now joined by Daniel Hadley and Percival Dumfries—began. Elizabeth sought out her sister, Mary, and inquired as to her health. Mary had recently been delivered of a third child, and Mr Collins had been effusive in his praise of his first daughter’s joyful grace. Unlike her two brothers, young Esther Collins never cried at the sight of her father in his black vestments and found his company, and his voice, quite appealing.
Elizabeth and Mary spoke quietly of their family; Elizabeth’s eyes rested on her husband, whose annoyance at their summons to Rosings appeared to be ebbing under the teasing banter of his cousins and uncle. Richard’s secreted supplies of port and brandy had been beneficial as well.
“And where is your husband, sister?”
Mary, plumper from her confinement and happy in her quiet life, gave Elizabeth an odd smile.
“Er…are we to have a reading or,” Elizabeth paused, dread and disappointment overtaking her anticipation of music and games, “a sermon?”
Mary shook her head. “Oh no. A celebration. I just was told of it.”
Told? Told what? Before she could inquire as to the mystery, Mr Collins entered the room with Peregrine and a rotund bald man clad in a kilt whom Elizabeth did not recognize. They strode about the room, and presently, the group was introduced to Herr Wilhelm Fux-Dumfries, the brothers’ Scots-German uncle and a former—and rather disgruntled—delegate to the Congress of Vienna.
Elizabeth nervously sought out her husband and was grateful to see Richard remained oblivious to the new arrival. Political arguments were so unpleasant and so very inevitable in this family; she sometimes sought refuge in memories of, and borrowed tactics from, Longbourn’s squabbles over lace and ribbon.
In a gruff voice, the possibly pleasant Fux-Dumfries announced, “Mrs Darcy, I am charmed, indeed.” He glanced away and patted his belly. “A drink, Collins, before we begin.”
Anne sidled up to Georgiana. “Would you play something for us, cousin? Something light and pleasing?”
Georgiana exchanged looks with her husband before allowing Anne to escort her to the pianoforte. When Anne turned away, her attention now set on the Earl, Georgiana quietly sat her goblet atop the instrument, concealing the miniature of her cousin set atop it.
“Uncle Peter, my mother has a question for you.”
“Eh?” The Earl glanced down at his niece before averting his eyes from the bounteous cleavage she presented him. This is a house of purposeful indelicacy full of sights that cannot go unseen. When does poor Rollo leave for school? “A question?”
“On the fruit, I believe.”
Her uncle scowled. “One rotted apple in the autumn of 1815. I missed the wassail! She cannot let go of her complaint.” He sauntered off with Anne, grumbling under his breath.
Darcy approached his wife. “I do not know the rules for this new game. Men I know disappear through doors, a man with whom I have no acquaintance enters, and Anne floats about, moving her guests into place.”
Elizabeth laughed, albeit nervously. “Be it dragons or marauders, I will protect you, my dear.”
His fingers caught hers. “My heroine.” He leaned closer, his breath tickling her ear, and whispered. “Look up, Lizzy. We are caught under mistletoe. We must follow the law of the season.”
Elizabeth blushed, turned and reached for her husband. When his lips met hers, they made a fine display of holiday spirit, kissing tenderly but earnestly, and with the promise of familiar but much-treasured gifts and endowments to be slowly unwrapped in the night ahead.
Richard sighed. Marital felicity is not to be begrudged nor envied but must often be endured.
“Dear God,” cried Lady Matlock. “What is happening?”
Startled apart, the Darcys and those standing near them whirled about to see the great doors opened and the Dumfries girls enter, one by one, carrying flowers. Behind them walked young Rollo, leading his grandmother, a crown atop her head, a veil fluttering over her face, toward the center of the room. Peter stood behind them, red-faced, his mouth open. It was an unusual sight, a speechless Lord Matlock. Darcy’s eyes met his wife’s, then darted to Richard, who was eyeballing a full decanter of wine not far from his father’s grasp. His brother Robert moved quickly to avert likely violence and carried off the glassware to a table across the room.
Elizabeth heard the music stop and turned to see Georgiana, pale and wide-eyed, at the instrument. Her husband was quickly to her side and the playing commenced, albeit slowly and lacking its usual grace. Then she noted the presence of Mr Collins—the brother she could not called William—standing with the kilted man. Fuzzy Dumfries, was it?
“Who is that hairy-kneed man?” Lady Matlock asked.
Darcy leaned around to see the object of her fascination. “Hirsute knees are the mark of a Dumfries,” he said, wincing. “Why is he staring at my aunt?”
“Peter?” his wife whispered. “What is happening here? Why is Catherine veiled? Is this as it appears—?”
“My sister is certifiable. It should have been Bedlam all those years ago.”
“A wedding? In the evening?” Elizabeth tried not to gasp, though more with laughter than shock. After more than ten years, nothing in this family surprised her.
The Earl disagreed. He was shocked and dismayed. “She wished for my blessing! This is a farce!”
“Tis true love.” Anne glided by, tucking the special license into her bosom. Her husband turned to her, his intense gaze beckoning her near. She moved into Peregrine’s embrace and they sighed happily at the unfolding scene.
“No, it is hell. My true hell.” Richard fled outside, desperate as always, to escape the honeyed fog. He looked to the sky, but it was dotted with a thousand glittering stars mocking his frustration. Have they emptied all my hoarded bottles? He headed toward the shrubbery, where he maintained a large supply.
The voice of Mr Collins, that gleeful gossip become groom to a Bennet and brother to a Darcy, rang out, hushing the room if not its occupants’ shock and horror.
“We are gathered here….”
And there, under a large mass of greenery and mistletoe and supported by her faultless grandson, Lady Catherine Beatrice Fitzwilliam de Bourgh found her true happiness in marriage to Wilhelm Thomas Fux-Dumfries. Their wedding portrait would be hung the following year, when the families had scattered to the safe havens of their own estates for the holidays, and thus none would glimpse Peregrine’s ecstatic al fresco tribute to the woman who once had deemed him a lowly man, and his unborn son, now the light of her life, a mongrel.
Bugbear, a demon which eats small children
Snapdragon: a gambol in which a bowl of brandy with raisins and almonds is set aflame, the candles put out, and guests scramble to get the raisins
The Congress of Vienna (1814-15), convened after Napoleon’s defeat, sought to restore order to a Europe disrupted by revolutionary and imperial France. The congress included representatives of Austria, Prussia, Russia, Britain, and France. After months of deliberations, the congress established an international political order that was to endure for nearly 100 years and that brought Europe a measure of peace.