Merry Christmas Eve! Originally, I had hoped to finish posting tomorrow but we still have several chapters to go. I was happy to have some time to write this today. My son woke up with a very sore throat and has strep (again). He’s not feeling too badly though and hopefully will be feeling even better tomorrow. I’m not sure if I’ll have a chapter to post tomorrow. If not, Merry Christmas!
The Holly and the Ivy
Elizabeth hummed a tune as she carried a basket through the woods. She had to escape her mother and Longbourn under the guise of needing more holly and ivy for decorations. Her aunt and uncle had arrived to spend Christmas with the family, and Mrs. Bennet had not ceased her abuse of Elizabeth.
“As if it were a crime to decline an unwanted marriage proposal,” she muttered under her breath.
In the distance, she heard a rustle and cast her eyes about to see a deer bolting from a thicket of holly. Elizabeth smiled as she paused and snipped some ivy that climbed up a tree. Recalling childhood exploits with Jane, she fashioned a ringlet and wore it as a crown. Of course, they were children then, and now life was far more complicated. To keep from melancholy thoughts, she resumed her cheerful humming.
“Blast!” she heard a masculine voice swear as she came closer to the holly thicket.
“Good day,” she called so as to not alarm whomever the gentleman was.
“Miss Elizabeth?” a familiar, and disliked, face matched the voice as Mr. Darcy straightened and appeared over the hedge.
Her anger was disarmed when she saw a handkerchief wrapped around one hand. “Having a battle, are we?”
Mr. Darcy’s eyes widened for a moment. “Oh, this?” He held up his wounded hand. “My sister declared more holly was required for Netherfield but did not desire to trouble the servants.”
Elizabeth could hardly believe her ears. Mr. Darcy would humble himself so much to attempt to gather holly, and ill-prepared at that, just for his sister? “Allow me,” she said and donned her pruning gloves then handled the shears with expert technique.
“Mr. Bingley would praise you for another accomplishment,” he said as he held his basket while she filled it.
He winced as though the words sounded as though he was aware of how awkward his words were. Yet another thing Elizabeth could not credit the man before him.
“I think you have me at a disadvantage, Mr. Darcy,” she said. “I am all astonishment to find you in a wood in Hertfordshire for we had heard Mr. Bingley never meant to return to Netherfield this year. But I will not inquire as to why you seem less surprised to see me.”
To Elizabeth’s continued astonishment, Darcy chuckled, drawing her eye. “Your wit is refreshing, Miss Elizabeth.”
He shifted the basket to another hand and tugged on his sleeve as though uncomfortable under her gaze. She rather liked discomposing him as he had done to her so many times.
“I am sorry if you were given inaccurate information. I do not believe my friend ever made his mind up definitely about his return.”
Inwardly, Elizabeth sighed. Yet another awkward turn of phrase from Mr. Darcy. Did he mean to insult his friend? For it sounded as though he disliked that quality in Mr. Bingley and yet, if he did not value it, then why be friends? She recalled Mr. Wickham’s words that Darcy could please where he wished but as of this moment, Elizabeth wondered that Darcy would ever exert himself so much as to play false to society.
“Next time you go holly picking, you should come armed,” she suggested, changing the conversation.
“Yes…well, I find myself often unprepared for battle in Hertfordshire.”
Was it her imagine or did he sound sterner than usual? “Surely you have holly in Derbyshire, Mr. Darcy,” she said.
“Yes, but I had forgotten how much Georgiana enjoys decorating for Christmas, and our arrival at Netherfield was unexpected. The staff is a bit on its ear.”
“So decorating falls to you,” she quipped. A smile formed on her lips as she wondered what Miss Bingley would have to say if she could see Mr. Darcy as decorator and gardener.
“Well, I have never understood the attraction of holly or ivy for Christmas.” He flicked a flower. “A good hot house could provide the whitest lilies.”
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “I’m sure the appeal began long before greenhouses became vogue for the upper ten thousand. Besides,” she added as she viciously snipped more holly, “you miss the poetic purpose.”
“Well, do educate me, madam. I await your shocking opinions on poetry and Christmas ornaments.”
Expecting to see a look of censure or amusement in his eyes, Elizabeth was shocked to see something that hovered between wonder and fondness. She immediately busied herself at the bush again.
“Clearly the white flower represents Mary the Virgin. The red berry symbolizes Christ’s blood spilled for sinners. The thorns are like the crown He wore at the crucifixion. The toxic properties reference His death.”
“Indeed, I agree with the religious symbolism, but when you spoke of poetry, I had expected something else. You really do not believe poetry is the food of love then,” he said sounding a trifle disappointed.
She ceased her cutting and looked at him in confusion. “You would compare holly with love?” she asked.
“It often begins in innocence, even out of pure motives like this flower.”
Again, he flicked one and Elizabeth’s eyes darted to the graceful movement. “But then there are thorns,” she rationalized.
“Does it not wound?” Darcy’s voice grew softer.
“Surely not everyone is wounded in love,” she suggested.
“Just as not everyone is wounded reaching for holly. Some come prepared,” he pointed to her gloved hands. “A man in love’s heart will bleed for his beloved, though.”
Elizabeth’s cheeks flushed although she knew not why. It was shocking to hear such intimate words spoken by a man she had always thought of as cold and unfeeling. And yet, there was another time she heard him speak in such a way. When he praised her and Miss Bingley’s figures as they walked before a fire at Netherfield. Elizabeth noted she did not need a fire at the moment to feel warm.
“And love can grow sour and poison just as holly does?” she asked feeling the need to say something.
Darcy shook his head, and a curl fell across his brow. Elizabeth’s hand tingled in a desire to brush it back for him. “Many animals eat it without harm,” he said.
“Ah, but I thought love elevated one to a heavenly plane,” she suggested. Was it her imagination or had Mr. Darcy come closer?
“Lovers rely on primal instinct like beasts. A man in love loses his sense of intelligence and logic.”
When had his eyes become so blue and intense? Why did she not look away? Every inch of Elizabeth felt afire as she asked her next question. “And the red berry?” She held her breath awaiting his answer.
Darcy held her gaze as her heart beat rapidly in her chest. She had tilted her head back to look at him better. “A lover’s kiss.”
His voice was husky and immediately her eyes dropped to his mouth. When she returned them to him, she saw that he watched her intently, as though asking an unsaid question.
A nearby rustle disturbed the moment, and the both turned to see another deer running off. Elizabeth immediately blushed and looked at her hands.
Darcy cleared his throat. “The song you were singing earlier, it was the same one you performed at Sir William Lucas’ was it not?”
Elizabeth nearly dropped her shears at the abrupt change of topic. Although grateful, she answered guardedly, expecting his criticism. “Yes.”
“It suits you,” he said and then touched the ivy crown she had forgotten she wore. “We are in an ash grove,” he gestured to a nearby tree.
Indeed, she had taken the ivy from an ash tree, but she was astounded he recalled the song she sang weeks ago, all the while she had been convinced he was finding fault with her performance. To cover her embarrassment at her childish display, she jested. “I hope that particular song does not suit me as it ends rather sadly. Besides, I have no beau that would mourn my death.”
Darcy frowned and looked beyond her at the horizon. “Another line of the song is relevant. Twilight is fading. Allow me to escort you home.”
Surprised at the light quickly fading, she had little choice but to take his arm. A minute or two down the path and they came upon his mount tied off. As she refused to ride, he then led it by the reins. Although small talk with Mr. Darcy was always strained, they managed to talk about his sister without any disputes.
“Do come inside and refresh yourself,” Elizabeth said as they approached Longbourn. She had missed dinner, and she guessed he had as well. “My aunt and uncle are here from London, and we had guests for dinner. Tea and coffee should be out by now.”
“Thank you,” he said as he handed the reins to a stable hand.
From the side of her eye, Elizabeth thought he seemed suddenly more formal and rigid than he had in the woods. She should hardly expect any different. He never made it any secret how much he disliked her family. Adding the presence of relatives from trade who resided near Cheapside would be an insult his pride could hardly contain. “Your secret will be safe with me,” she said coldly.
“My secret?” He sounded alarmed.
“I will not tell Miss Bingley, should I ever meet her again, that you were in the company of a tradesman from London and your steward’s son.”
Immediately, he rounded on her. “Mr. Wickham is inside?”
“Yes, he has become quite a friend to our family in recent weeks with the absence of others.”
How had she forgotten her anger with Darcy about his treatment of Wickham? A flicker of memory in Jane’s voice flashed through her mind. “Do not pretend your fascination with Mr. Wickham is about anything other than your displeasure about Mr. Darcy,” Jane said with a frown. Of course, Jane had never said that. She never said anything unpleasant.
Darcy turned white and seemed to force himself to speak civilly. “I see you did not heed my warning about Mr. Wickham’s inability to keep friends,” He said with a growl.
Elizabeth gaped and then spoke in a harsh whisper lest she scream, “He has remained a more constant friend than you or Mr. Bingley have!”
Darcy looked as though her words lashed him. When he spoke, the scathing coldness caused a shiver to crawl up her spine. “You have said quite enough, madam. I perfectly comprehend your feelings, and have now only to be ashamed of what my own have been.”
He paused and brought a tightly clenched gloved hand, the same wrapped in a handkerchief from earlier in the evening, to his mouth. Taking a deep breath, he released the hand and expelled the air in one motion. Straightening his shoulders, he stiffly bent for a bow. “Forgive me for having taken up so much of your time, and accept my best wishes for your health and happiness.”
He hastily turned from her side, and Elizabeth’s notice was drawn to the sound of the front door opening.
“There you are, Elizabeth,” Mrs. Gardiner said. “I wondered what kept you so long. It is nearly seven and quite dark.”
“I am sorry,” Elizabeth said and held up her basket of holly and ivy as an explanation.
“Who is that gentleman leaving? Why did he not come inside? And did I hear you speak of Mr. Wickham?”
Elizabeth sighed. “Oh, Aunt. I think I am too exhausted for those questions.” She attempted to move past the other woman and enter the house, but her aunt forestalled her.
“I had wanted to speak to you about Mr. Wickham. He told me about how he was denied a very prosperous living. I was sorry to hear it, I knew the gentleman in question’s father by character perfectly. But you must see how imprudent a match with him would be.”
Mrs. Gardiner’s whispered so they would not be overheard and Elizabeth knew the woman offered the words truly out of consideration for Elizabeth’s happiness. Still, after everything that had happened that evening, she could not help but speak with a tone of imprudence, especially as she would have sworn they already had this conversation.
“All I see–” The chiming of the clock in the hall interrupted her speech. By the time it struck seven, Elizabeth gripped her aunt for support.