Friday, November 3, 2017

A Tempting Christmas Nibble: Chapter One of Pemberley Park - The Twelve Days of Christmas

Here's a brief summary: Lizzy and Darcy have been happily married for a year, and family and friends are gathering at Pemberley for the Twelve Days of Christmas, including the notorious brother and sister from Austen's Mansfield Park, Henry and Mary Crawford. Every day of the twelve brings new surprises, some shocking, some wonderful. Romantic liaisons and family drama make for a roller coaster of a holiday season in this Regency Jane Austen variation.
The First Day of Christmas - December 25th
Lizzy and her husband, Fitzwilliam Darcy, walked together upon the lane which led from the parish chapel to Pemberley. They held hands, but had not said more than a few words since leaving the church. The sky was too dizzyingly blue, the light too dazzling on this Christmas morning to leave one with anything of particular relevance to remark upon. All Lizzy could do was to soak in the chilly, bright day, and admire the twisted bare tops of the trees, interspersed with the deep green of the firs that dotted the landscape, the rolling, tawny hills, the distant forests, and the shimmering lake situated in a small valley before the house. The view of Pemberley, one of the grandest mansions in England, did not detract from the nature which surrounded it, but only managed to enhance it. She sighed with delight, and Fitzwilliam brought her gloved hand to his lips and kissed it, smiling as he looked into her eyes. Those eyes of his! The darkness of them sometimes seemed fathomless. She could live forever in his gaze. 
They were walking several steps in front of Mr. Bennet, Lizzy’s father, her little sister, Kitty, and Mr. Darcy’s sister, Georgiana, who all seemed to be as awed and silenced by the beauty of the day as Lizzy, as did the handful of servants from the household who had gone too, and followed along behind.
The quiet and the beauty of the day led Lizzy to reflect. It had been the best year of her life. No, to say it was the best year was understating it considerably. This first year as Mrs. Darcy, living at Pemberley with her dearest love and his darling sister had been the kind of existence Lizzy did even know could be had in this world. To be loved, completely and utterly, one might even say worshipped, by a man who was good and handsome, kind and passionate, to lie in his arms at night, and to see him smiling at her across the breakfast table in the morning was like a wonderful dream from which, sometimes, Lizzy feared she might awaken.
Just after their wedding last Christmas-tide, they had gone on a honeymoon to Tuscany, Rome, and Venice, which had occupied the first two months of their married life, and a glorious two months it had been. After they had settled in at Pemberley, another several weeks had been taken up with her and her husband going through the mansion room by room to decide what, if any, changes the new mistress might have in mind for furnishings, upholstery, and the like. Lizzy had been abashed at the thought of changing anything in the noble manse, for Mr. Darcy had kept it up to date, while maintaining the essence of what the ancestors who had gone before him had contributed. It was more Lizzy humoring him than the other way around, opting for a new sofa here, a different painting hung there, just so he would feel like she was putting her touch on her new home. But really, why interfere with perfection?
During this time, she had exchanged letters with her father, more than once inviting him, Kitty, and Mrs. Bennet to come, but he had always declined, much to her secret relief. He had said that the newlyweds needed time to themselves before being intruded upon by family. She had appreciated his sensitivity immensely, and told him she would comply with his wishes.
At the end of the first four months of Lizzy and Fitzwilliam’s marriage, Jane, her eldest sister, and her husband Charles Bingley, who had married at the same time, in a double ceremony in fact, had settled in Derbyshire themselves, some thirty miles away Once their presence was established, there was then a month of the Darcy family visiting the Bingleys at their lovely manor house, and after that, another month of Jane and Charles visiting Pemberley. Jane was already quite pregnant at that point, and three months ago, the darling child had been born. The Darcys had gone to see the baby then, and now anticipated Jane, Charles, and little Jonathan arriving within the week well ahead of the Twelfth Night festivities.
Yes, in celebration of their first year together, Mr. Darcy and Lizzy had decided to throw a party for Twelfth Night, come the eve of Epiphany, January fifth. They had invited their extended family and closest friends to join them. The only damper on the enjoyment of having Lizzy’s family there was her mother, who always seemed to have some criticism of the servants, or some unwanted advice. This morning, Mrs. Bennet had feigned a headache to avoid going to church, but once Lizzy and the rest arrived back at Pemberley, they found Mrs. Bennet in the breakfast room, sipping her coffee and partaking of the delights the cook had provided.
“Good morning, Mama,” Lizzy said to her as she entered the room with the rest of the party, having divested themselves of their outwear in the vestibule. “Is your headache better?”
“Oh, much,” Mrs. Bennet replied. “Though it was quite horrid earlier. How was church?”
Everyone seated themselves at the table and began to select from among the tempting dishes that awaited them to fortify themselves until the big Christmas dinner later in the day.
“Very nice. I am sorry you missed it,” Lizzy replied.
 “Your cheeks are flushed, Lizzy. Are you feeling well? Maybe you have caught my ailment.”
“No, Mother, they are simply flushed from my walking in the cool air,” Lizzy replied. “You know me; when have I ever been ill?”
“It’s true, Mr. Darcy,” Mrs. Bennet said, leaning over confidentially toward her son-in-law as he took his seat. “She is as healthy as a horse; always has been.”
Lizzy did not much appreciate the comparison. Fitzwilliam winked at her as a servant poured his tea.
“Hmm,” Mrs. Bennet went on. “Maybe you’re expecting, Lizzy? Could it be? Many ladies in that condition are often flushed.”
Now Lizzy’s face flamed in earnest. “Mother,” she whispered. “That is not a topic for breakfast conversation, please.”
Darcy looked at her and lifted his eyebrows. Lizzy knew he had been hoping for such an eventuality. Lizzy gently shook her head at him and smiled. He smiled back, perhaps a bit forlornly, and applied himself to his tea.
“Well, my goodness,” Mrs. Bennet continued, “your sister Jane already has one, and Mary is expecting in a month. She is your younger sister and already ahead of you! Charlotte Lucas, excuse me, Charlotte Collins,” she said with a certain amount of disgust, “has already been once blessed, something I never hear the end of from Lady Lucas. ‘Tis just you and poor Lydia that are still without issue.”
Lizzy glanced across the table at her husband, whose brows knit together at the mention of Lydia’s name. It was a subject that was never broached in their household.
“Mrs. Bennet, that is quite enough,” said Mr. Bennet with finality. Lizzy gazed at her father thankfully. 
“But,” the woman began again.
He held his hand up, then turned to Mr. Darcy, “Fitzwilliam…”
Lizzy knew that her father took pleasure in calling his son-in-law by his first name. Mr. Darcy had insisted upon it. In the two weeks her father had been at Pemberley, the two of them had become fast friends, and spent much time out riding about the grounds, hunting wild fowl.
Mr. Darcy looked at him with interest, pleased, Lizzy was sure, to be spared any further comments from her mother.
“Do we hunt today?” Mr. Bennet inquired of his host.
“If you desire it, sir,” Mr. Darcy replied. “My gamekeeper spotted a brace of partridges in the eastern forest.”
“Hah! Maybe we’ll find one in a pear tree! It is the first day of Christmas after all.” He laughed heartily at his joke.
Lizzy smiled at him. To her husband, she said, “My love, do not forget that after breakfast, we are to finish delivering the gifts to the tenants that we did not get to yesterday.”
“Of course,” Mr. Darcy replied to her. He then turned to her father. “Mr. Bennet, I am not sure we will have time for both, as it gets dark so early. Will you forgive me? Perhaps you would like to go on our rounds with us instead.”
“Yes! Yes!” he cried. “That would be great fun.”
“Oh, may I go?!” Kitty inquired.
She and Georgiana had not accompanied Lizzy and Darcy the day before because it had been too cold, but today was milder.
“Certainly,” said Mr. Darcy, laughing. “We are already dressed for the cool weather.”
Georgiana and Kitty smiled at each other. They had grown quite friendly in the time that Kitty had been there.
“Well, I hope you will all have a lovely time,” said Mrs. Bennet, sounding like she didn’t mean it at all. “I will just stay here and make the best of it.”
Lizzy sighed. Would she have to stay home and keep her mother company? She so longed to go out again into the wintry world.
Just then Mrs. Reynolds, the housekeeper, entered the breakfast room. “Excuse me sir,” she said quietly to Mr. Darcy, “I find myself needing advice as to how best to fit up the rooms for Colonel and Mrs. Fitzwilliam arriving tomorrow. She being so greatly with child, I want to make sure she has every comfort at hand. I am sorry to interrupt you at your meal, but I thought I would get it done this morning, now that we are back from church. While you are all out, I will have some time to attend to it.” Was that a wink she sent Lizzy’s way?
“Oh, I will be happy to advise you!” Mrs. Bennet cried out. “Mary is my child and I am sure I know best what she will like and what she will need.”
Lizzy flinched at her mother’s rudeness.
“Of course,” Mrs. Reynolds cried. “I would not have it otherwise.”
“Well, then,” Lizzy said. “It is all settled. Mama, you will advise Mrs. Reynolds as to the setting up of Mary’s rooms while we are out. I so much appreciate your helping her.”
Mr. Darcy and Lizzy smiled at each other. Mrs. Reynolds not only knew everything that was happening in the house at all times, but also how to attend to every guest’s needs, and anticipated those of her master and mistress before they even knew themselves what they were.
“Well, what is a mother-in-law for if not to help keep her daughter’s household straight?” Mrs. Bennet said with importance, and Lizzy inwardly laughed at the thought that Mrs. Bennet could make even the tiniest improvement in the perfection with which Mrs. Reynolds ran Pemberley, and had for years, dating back to the time that Mr. Darcy’s parents had raised their family there.
The rest of the group still at the table soon dispersed to ready themselves for another outing. As Lizzy made her way through Pemberley and up to her rooms, she inhaled the sweet and spicy scent of the pine boughs with which the servants had decorated banisters and doorways. She wished Pemberley could always be adorned so. Bringing the out-of-doors inside made the already gorgeous mansion even more special.
 Soon the group gathered in front of the house and arranged themselves in the wagon. Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bennet helped Kitty and Georgiana onto the bench seat in the back, which was covered with cushions for their comfort, and tucked the many warm blankets that had been provided around them. Then Mr. Darcy helped his wife to get settled on the front seat, with Mr. Bennet next to her on one side, after which he climbed into the driver’s seat, and took up the reins. The back of the wagon had already been packed with hams, turkeys, Christmas puddings, fruitcakes, bushels of wheat flour, trinkets for the children, bottles of spiced wine, barrels of ale, and bags of imported oranges, all to be dispersed among the tenant farmers who resided upon Mr. Darcy’s land. It was a special treat to ride in the rustic wagon, as opposed to a carriage, with two strong farm horses pulling the load. The outing had an air of adventure about it. The cook had supplied the party with a flagon of hot cider to help keep them warm, and soon they were off, riding along the lane through the crisp winter air. The sky was still blue and clear, the mild winter sun adding to their cheer. They sang Christmas songs as they went, led by Georgiana, whose main focus in life was music. Lizzy admired the strong baritone voice of her husband, and the warm tenor of her father, to which she added her clear alto. Georgiana and Kitty both sang in high sweet soprano tones, and together, their ensemble was complete.
One by one they stopped at the charming farmhouses, smoke from yule logs rising high out of the chimneys. At each house, the gifts were heartily received, and Lizzy could see how gratified the people were that the master of the estate was delivering them himself. As Mr. Darcy stopped in front each house, the farmer came running out, his wife and children watching and grinning from the door, and Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bennet hopped down from their seats, handing the farmer the huge parcels of food and treats. The farmer, in turn, passed them to the older children who would run them into the house. Lizzy laughed with delight to see everyone so happy and excited.
When they finally arrived home, it was after three o’clock and the party was famished. Today they were to partake of an afternoon feast, as was the tradition on Christmas. Mrs. Reynolds met them at the door to tell them it was ready, and they were to proceed to the dining hall, a twinkle of mischief in her eyes. They all bustled through the house together, but stopped short when they spotted a handsome young gentleman standing in the door of the dining room awaiting them, just under a sprig of mistletoe.
“Frederick!” Georgiana cried out, running to meet her fiancĂ©.
He held out his hands to her, and she placed hers in them modestly.
“I think I am owed more than a squeeze of the hands,” Frederick said glancing up at the mistletoe.
Georgiana blushed and looked back at her brother, who nodded, smiling. Georgiana placed a chaste kiss on her fiancĂ©’s cheek, while everyone laughed.
“Nice to see you, my boy,” said Mr. Darcy, going forward to shake his hand. “I see you managed to get away from your family festivities.”
“Not much in the way of festivities,” Frederick, whose family lived in a very fine manor house ten miles from Pemberley, replied. “Mother and Father were snoozing by the fire, and my brothers and sisters were playing childish games.” He shook his head with good humor.
He was the eldest of a fairly large family of children, and would soon come into a great deal of money, inheriting a no less modest home of his own when he turned twenty-one, the only thing he and Georgiana were waiting for in order to be wed.
“I told them,” Frederick went on, “I had been invited to Pemberley for the twelve days of Christmas, and they did not object.”
“Good,” Lizzy declared. “We are so happy you could accept our invitation. We could not celebrate without you.”
Georgiana smiled at Lizzy and her brother, then went on to introduce Kitty. The group took their seats at the table, joined by Mrs. Bennet. Mrs. Reynolds had decorated the table festively, and all the traditional dishes of the season were there: meat pies, roast venison and a roasted goose, buttery mashed squash, roasted turnips and Brussel sprouts, breads and buns, and so much more; and, awaiting their delight on the sideboard, the Christmas pudding.
Lizzy, as usual, marveled at the skill of the cook, and Mrs. Reynolds’ ability to make a feast like this come together with the utmost elegance. And while all the usual servants stood in attendance at the table, Lizzy knew their own feast would come after, downstairs in the kitchen, when they would be excused from their duties for the rest of the day.
“What a delightful table!” Mrs. Bennet cried. “I daresay it is even better than my own.”
Lizzy knew it was far superior to her mother’s modest attempts at refinement. After all, there was hardly a table in the realm, short of that of the nobility, that could hold a candle to Pemberley’s.
“Although,” Mrs. Bennet went on, “I would have prepared an orange sauce for the goose, instead of the fig, and I would have made sure there was a fish pie along with the pork, pheasant, and mutton pies. There is nothing I adore like a fish pie.”
“We will make sure to supply you with one in the coming days,” Mr. Darcy replied calmly, though her mother’s behavior fairly boiled Lizzy’s blood. Was there no end to her rudeness?
“Mother,” Lizzy said to change the subject. “Did you hear from your brother, Mr. Gardiner? Will he and my aunt be able to come as we had hoped?”
“Oh dear,” said Mrs. Bennet. “I am afraid not. The children all have their traditional Christmas grippe. Oh, if only my brother’s wife were a more attentive mother!”
There was no finer mother that existed, in Lizzy’s opinion, than her Aunt Gardiner, and she only hoped that if, nay, when, she had her own children, she would be half as effective. Aunt Gardiner’s four children were well-loved, well-behaved, and already, at their young ages, well educated.
“Now, if only you would produce a grandchild for me, Lizzy…”
But Mr. Bennet cut her off. “Well, what a pity the Gardiners won’t be here for they are certainly great favorites of mine. Who else is to join our delightful party during the coming days, Lizzy?”
Lizzy took a deep breath. “Well, of course Jane, Charles, and baby Jonathan; Mary and Richard, and Mr. and Mrs. Collins, that is all.”
“Ugh, that horrible Mr. Collins!” Mrs. Bennet began, but Kitty cut her off.
“And do not forget the Crawfords!” Kitty exclaimed. “You did send a note to Aunt Gardiner telling her to pass the invitation on like I asked you to, did you not, Lizzy? Oh, please tell me you did not forget?”
“No, no, I did not forget,” Lizzy said, though, in reality, she had forgotten that she had invited them through her Aunt Gardiner, and now realized she had forgotten to tell her husband about it too.
“Oh, good,” Kitty sighed. “You will love them, I know it!”
“Who is this, Lizzy?” Mr. Darcy asked brows raised.
 “Their names are Henry and Mary Crawford,” Kitty interjected. “They are brother and sister. They are so elegant and so very diverting. I met them in London when I was there visiting Aunt and Uncle Gardiner this fall. When I mentioned that my sister was the mistress of Pemberley, they said they had heard of it and had been dying to see it. I said I was sure you wouldn’t mind if they joined us for our yuletide celebrations. When we arrived two weeks ago, I asked Lizzy if she might invite them.”
Lizzy looked at her husband, alarmed. He did not like to entertain people he did not know. However, he merely replied, “Any friends of yours, Kitty, are friends of ours. You say they are good people?”
“The finest. And they come from a very good family. Oh, there is no one more stylish and clever than Miss Crawford; and Mr. Crawford, well, Mr. Crawford is…charming,” she finished with another sigh.
Lizzy and Mr. Darcy looked at each other, eyebrows raised. So Kitty had finally met a young man she might consider a beau. At the age of nearly nineteen, it was time for her to be around some good society outside of her immediate family.
“We shall welcome them then,” said Mr. Darcy. “When are they to arrive?”
“Do you know, Lizzy?” Kitty asked.
“I recall that I told Aunt Gardiner to tell them they should arrive between the twenty-sixth and the first, so we should expect them any day,” said Lizzy. “I will be sure to have their rooms readied,” she added.
“They sound wonderful!” cried Mrs. Bennet. “Kitty, what a delightful addition they will be to our party!”
Lizzy saw her father roll his eyes. She only hoped this brother and sister were as amiable as Kitty said they were. And yet, if they were friends of her Aunt and Uncle Gardiners, they must be suitable.
Suddenly, Markles, the butler, entered the room. “Colonel and Mrs. Fitzwilliam have arrived,” he announced, and behind them came Mary, proceeded by the fullness of her state, and supported under one arm by her husband. Everyone jumped up to greet them as extra places were arranged at the table by the scurrying servants, and the Christmas dinner descended into a cacophony of exclamations, queries, and laughter. 

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