Christmas is a magical time of year – but what can be more magical than a Regency Christmas? The Yule log burning in a huge fireplace decorated with ivy, bay and holly. The vast dinner table with exquisite arrangements illuminated by glittering candles. The old games of snapdragon and bullet-pudding that Jane Austen’s family used to play. And as for Christmas at Pemberley, what a sight must it be, what a happy gathering!
It’s the first one that the newly married Darcys spent together.
The Gardiners are there of course, with all their children, and their happy laughter fills the halls, driving Miss Bingley to distraction.
But everybody else has the best of times, so come and join them, have a seat on the sofa and a glass of spiced wine, sit back and watch them having fun!
Lady Mellor looked up from her conversation with Miss Bingley.
“How delightful it is to see the youngsters so well entertained!” she exclaimed with a soft glance towards her offspring and her companion knew she simply had to offer a thin smile.
Entertainment of that nature had plagued most of her evenings for a fortnight and Miss Bingley privately determined she already had her fill of it! Where were the days of proper conversation, of well-bred and dignified diversions, of genteel company – with no tradespeople and their obnoxious brats in sight! They were playing blind man’s buff in the gallery the other morning, of all the revolting pastimes, and the ensuing din could rouse the dead! And no less now! The room was filled with their shrill, grating voices! Good gracious! One could scarce hear oneself think!
Mrs. Hurst’s knowing glance and the roll of her eyes her only consolation, Miss Bingley turned to Lady Mellor and endeavoured to conceal her disgust. However misguided her ladyship was and obviously blinded by maternal affection to the ills of such unsavoury amusements, she was after all the only person worth conversing with.
Mrs. Bennet was holding court at the other end of the room – heavens be praised, for with the greatest determination Miss Bingley could not bear with her appalling comments and still keep a civil tongue in her head! The tradesman’s wife sat with Georgiana and Mrs. Westcotte, no doubt taking them in with her airs of gentility. The tradesman, who had joined them two days earlier, was taking pains to amuse his host, Lord Mellor and Miss Bingley’s own imprudent brother with whatever story he saw fit to tell and as to the lady of the manor, she was busily encouraging the gaggle of unruly children in their noisy pastime, supported of course by her younger sister. Miss Bingley fought the urge to shake her head.
What had Pemberley come to?
“And do you often travel to town, Ma’am?” she asked, only to find, to her intense vexation, that she had once more lost Lady Mellor’s attention, in view of some further development in the corner by the window.
“Cousin Elizabeth, can we have a game of bullet-pudding now? Can we? Can we, please?” asked the impudent little thing who was in the habit of pestering Darcy a dozen times a day and Miss Bingley inwardly shuddered at the prospect of yet another revolting amusement, as the lady of the house enthusiastically welcomed the suggestion.
“What game is that, pray?” Lady Mellor’s youngest piped up, understandably inexperienced in what passed for entertainment in Cheapside and the wilds of Hertfordshire.
To Miss Bingley’s further disgust, ‘dear Mrs. Darcy’ hastened to enlighten her.
“We have a large dish, with a ‘pudding’ of flour piled high upon it, and a bullet placed on top. Then you take turns in cutting the ‘pudding’– ”
“Until the bullet drops!” the youngest Cheapside brat interrupted, without being checked for it – little wonder none of them had any manners!
“And then whoever made it drop must seek it in the flour– ”
“Not with their hands, though– ”
“But their mouths,” the lady of the house concluded, and Miss Bingley well-nigh gasped.
Oh, aye. Just as she thought. This held great promise of being the most appalling pastime anyone could think of, and she could only hope that Darcy enjoyed having his drawing room caked in flour! It was, after all, no more than he deserved!
“Shall we try? Come, shall we?” the Gardiner brat pestered, and quite predictably, a large pewter dish filled with flour was duly brought.
“I think I shall watch for now,” one of the Miss Westcottes haltingly announced, as well as Lady Mellor’s eldest, but her sisters and brother piped up:
“Can we play, Mamma? You do not mind the flour, do you?”
Miss Bingley’s eyes narrowed as the lady gave permission with a complacent smile and vowed that if she was ever plagued with having children of her own, they would not suffer from criminal maternal indulgence. How did Lady Mellor not shudder at the prospect of their faces and attire covered in flour was utterly beyond her, Miss Bingley decided and, with horrified fascination, she resigned herself to see the game commence.
Before too long, the room was ringing with loud squeals coming from white-faced little monsters, perversely encouraged by that woman, who did not appear in the least perturbed by the fact that her dress and hair were specked with flour and – good heavens! – so were Georgiana’s, for she had come to watch and, shockingly, had chosen to stay.
To her distress, Miss Bingley feared that her scowl must have been noticed, for none other than Mr. Darcy came to inquire into her own and Lady Mellor’s comfort and ask if they were well-entertained.
In other times, she would have known how to answer! And would have been vastly cheered by his strictures upon such indecorous company! On the other hand, in other times they would not be there at all. They were, these days, because she was there, by Darcy’s own choice Pemberley’s mistress! Bah! The besotted fool deserved whatever mortification he was now subject to!
“I am indeed, I thank you,” Miss Bingley finally answered his inquiry, echoing Lady Mellor’s words, but with distinctly different sentiments. “I am vastly entertained. What a… singular game this is, Mr. Darcy! Is it a Pemberley tradition? For I can see that dear Georgiana takes uncommon pleasure in it!”
The words escaped her before she could control them and for a horrible moment Miss Bingley thought she might have gone too far. But the ever-decorous Mr. Darcy did not appear ruffled by the appalling spectacle, nor did he take offence at her double-edged comment. Instead, he seemed… content, as he quietly offered:
“Aye, Madam, I daresay she does.”
But then another cloud of flour spread around the table, greeted with fresh bursts of laughter, and Miss Bingley had the exquisite satisfaction to see him wince.
“Will you not join the merry crowd, Sir?” she smiled sweetly, quite proud to note there was no treacherous hint of gloating in her voice.
His reply was prompt, as was the offer of his arm – and her eyes shot to it with a hint of panic.
“Most gladly. Shall we? Lady Mellor, would you kindly excuse us? Your interest in children’s amusements does you credit, Miss Bingley, and I am looking forward to seeing you introduce your brother’s little ones to such delights. I daresay you shall be quite the doting aunt!”
Miss Bingley drew back slightly but, with a great deal of effort, her bright smile remained frozen in place.
“I thank you, but I would rather watch from here. As to my brother’s children, they will scarce need me, surely, when their other aunts can instruct them a great deal better. You cannot possibly imagine me wishing to compete with them!”
“Indeed, Ma’am, I cannot,” Darcy replied smoothly and bowed, leaving her to follow his progress towards his wife with narrowed eyes, before Miss Bingley remembered to school her features into yet another mask of feigned good humour that painfully tugged at the muscles in her face as she grimly determined that Christmas at Pemberley was fast becoming nothing but a penance!
Even Miss Bingley was prevailed upon to sit at the instrument and as for Georgiana, although far too timorous to contemplate performing by herself, she was happy enough to add her beautiful voice to the cheerful choir of others, and later to accompany her sister in a duet they had assiduously practised together throughout November.
Mrs. Bingley could not play but, to everyone’s surprise, it was soon revealed that her husband could, and many smiles came to reward his efforts, as the old lines familiar to most were joined to a merry tune:
Lo, now is come our joyfulest feast!
Let every man be jolly,
Each room with ivy leaves is drest,
And every post with holly,
Though some churls at our mirth repine,
Round your foreheads garlands twine;
Drown sorrow in a cup of wine,
And let us all be merry.
Now all our neighbours’ chimneys smoke,
And Christmas blocks are burning;
Their ovens they with baked meats choke,
And all their spits are turning.
Without the door let sorrow lie,
And if, for cold, it hap to die,
We’ll bury it in a Christmas pie,
And evermore be merry.
His sisters exchanged telling glances, the unnecessary exhibition woefully lacking in gentility, to their way of thinking, until Lord Norham and his brother unwittingly endorsed Mr. Bingley’s choice by adding their voices to his. And some time later, when Miss Mary Bennet sat at the instrument to play, though not to sing, Mrs. Hurst and her sister were quick to give thanks for their fortuitous escape – until it became apparent that she had in effect been persuaded to provide accompaniment for an impromptu dance. A children’s dance, moreover, as though it was not bad enough!
With thin smiles, they excused themselves and returned to the drawing room to finally speak freely, with no one for company but Mr. Hurst’s noisy slumber, while the others chose to play the fools in the long gallery, their host included. Bouts of merry laughter and girlish giggles reached them, mingled with over-boisterous tunes and the ladies shrugged in exasperation, while in the long gallery, from old portraits adorned with holly and green ivy, the dark eyes of the past looked down indulgently upon the present’s antics.
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Happy Holidays to you all, and I hope you’ll like what you see!