While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night
December 23, 1811
Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner arrived at Longbourn as dusk was falling. Their four children spilt out of the carriage in alternate states of exhausted and energetic. Giving each other an indulgent smile, they followed behind their children and the maid they had brought.
“Edward, Margaret, you are most welcome.” Mrs. Bennet greeted them cheerfully but without her typical exuberance.
A confused look passed between them, but they bustled into the drawing room as their children went upstairs to the nursery. Mr. Bennet greeted them and explained his daughters would soon be in from walking in the garden. Then most surprising of all, their sister asked after them and calmly listened to news from London rather than complain about whatever crisis she unjustly faced. In fact, watching her, one would think she had never been perturbed in her life.
The sound of laughter drew their notice, and their two youngest nieces filed in. Lydia had grown much since they last saw her. Instead of seeming as though she bounced from place to place, she walked calmly and welcomed them before sitting. Requests of presents, which usually served as a greeting, never fell from her lips. Kitty came next, looking worriedly at Lydia; she barely spared her aunt and uncle a glance.
Mary, Elizabeth, and Jane came through the door almost on top of one another. Smiles lit their faces, and to Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, they glowed brighter than an angel’s halo.
“Hello, my dears,” Mrs. Gardiner said warmly.
“Oh, Aunt Gardiner!” Lizzy exclaimed and rushed over for a hug. “Wait until you see our surprise.”
“A surprise?” Mr. Gardiner said as he was kissed on the cheek by Jane.
“Yes, the very best.” Jane beamed and hugged her aunt.
“And quite unexpected,” Mary said with an unusual amount of levity.
Elizabeth dashed to the door and poked her head out. “We’re ready,” she laughed.
Rushing out of the way, she stood to the side with her sisters. In walked a young lady, introduced as Miss Darcy, followed by three handsome gentlemen. Each stood behind a niece, and the ladies turned their heads up to grin at the men.
Mrs. Gardiner watched in fascination. That the men loved her nieces, and it was returned, was easy for her to see. But who were they? How did her nieces know them, and when had this developed?
“Aunt and Uncle,” Lizzy said with a saucy grin, “may we introduce our betrotheds?”
“My congratulations!” Mrs. Gardiner exclaimed, but she needed to catch her breath and allow her mind to calm before speaking again. “You all have been very sly. In none of your letters did any of you mention anything of this sort.”
“That’s not true,” Lizzy laughed. “Surely Mama told you about Mr. Bingley and her hopes for Jane.”
“I will count myself as Mrs. Bennet’s favourite son, then.” The blond man with a jovial smile, who stood behind Jane, bounded over to them.
Mrs. Gardiner had not put any credit in her sister-in-law’s words. Countless times since Jane’s come out she had believed a husband was in the making.
“Yes, I recall now.” Mrs. Gardiner smiled at the man. “I am pleased to meet you.”
“And I you!” he said before resuming his position next to Jane.
The tall man behind Elizabeth whispered in her ear, causing her to rapidly nod and hide a smile. “May I present Mr. Darcy of Pemberley in Derbyshire?”
“Darcy of Pemberley!” Mrs. Gardiner could not contain her surprise and joy. She stood and met the gentleman halfway. He elegantly bowed to her. “I lived in Lambton about ten years ago and passed the chief of my childhood there. I knew your father by reputation.”
“Indeed?” Mr. Darcy smiled. “What an honour to meet someone who knew my father.”
“I was very sorry to hear of his passing a few years ago,” she said kindly.
Mr. Darcy nodded, and his lips lifted slightly. “Thank you. I think he was the very best of men and hope one day I may fill his shoes.”
“I take exception to that, Fitzwilliam,” Lizzy said as she came forward and placed a hand on his arm. “For you are the very best of men. You must already exceed your father’s talents.”
Her betrothed blushed slightly. “Allow me to introduce my cousin on my mother’s side, Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam.”
The gentleman behind Mary stepped forward. He was not as handsome as Bingley or Darcy but had watched their interaction with merriment in his eyes.
“You seem to think my relation to you is the best way to recommend me,” he laughed and elbowed his cousin.
“Pardon my mistake,” Darcy said.
His lips twitched slightly, and Mrs. Gardiner could see that he only needed a little liveliness from his wife to be perfectly amiable. She looked forward to seeing Elizabeth loosen his stiff formality.
“And how would you introduce yourself?” Mrs. Gardiner asked the colonel.
“Hmm,” he said and stroked his jaw. “How about Defender of the Kingdom, Slayer of Old Boney’s Finest, Trainer of Puppy Whelps in Breeches, His Majesty’s Last Great Hope, and Her Majesty’s Best Seated Dragoon Guard?’”
They all laughed, and when Mrs. Gardiner caught her breath, she said, “It is a bit of a mouthful.”
“Then I will settle for the incomparable Mary Bennet’s betrothed.” He reached for Mary’s hand and kissed it.
Mary blushed furiously, but Mrs. Gardiner could not contain her smile.
“This is why we all love him,” Lizzy said. “He is so good to our Mary.”
“What?” Lizzy asked as they made their way to seats around the room.
“I do not think he liked you saying you love his cousin, my dear,” Mr. Gardiner observed with a laugh. “Mr. Darcy, if you can stand to be separated from my niece, I would like to ask you about fishing in the Derbyshire district. My wife and I planned to journey there this summer.”
“Indeed. A topic which delights me. While leaving Miss Elizabeth’s side is no extreme hardship for me, and I daresay a recourse from sure vexation on her side, perhaps she would accompany me in the conversation to hear more of her future home?”
During his speech, Elizabeth’s expression vacillated between humour, annoyance, and laughter mixed with joy. Bravo, Mr. Darcy, Mrs. Gardiner thought. Elizabeth needed a man who would keep her on her toes. As much as she enjoyed teasing and displaying her wit, she needed a man who would match her.
“What glad tidings you all have brought us!” Mrs. Gardiner exclaimed. “Now, I should like to hear all about it, beginning with Mary.”
She began to make her way to her niece, but Mrs. Bennet interrupted her. “There will be time for such talk later. Dinner is to be served now; I saw Mrs. Hill motioning to me.”
Mrs. Gardiner bided her time, knowing that her sister-in-law had never been able to keep a secret. During the meal, while she was increasingly impressed with each of her nieces’ beaus, she wondered at the stark differences she observed in Lydia and Mrs. Bennet. Jane, Lizzy, and Mary behaved as she guessed they might when in love, assisted by the fact that a loving couple would be energised by the presence of another. In her estimation, Kitty was the only one acting as she usually did.
After eating, the ladies separated from the gentlemen. Mrs. Bennet had sent Miss Darcy, Lydia, and Kitty to check on the children in the nursery, allowing them privacy with the engaged girls.
“What strangeness has befallen this house?” Mrs. Gardiner asked, getting to the point immediately. “Sister, you and Lydia are subdued. I can understand the reason you three are happy, but how did you become engaged so quickly?”
After a moment of silent communication between them, Lizzy began spinning a fantastical tale. It was only when Mary presented her journal with the extra pages that Mrs. Gardiner could believe the story.
“And so all but Kitty have come to their senses?” she asked.
“Yes, and we are at a loss to understand what might serve as her epiphany,” Mrs. Bennet said. “I confess that I did not know my girls as well as I should.”
“That is perhaps understandable,” Mrs. Gardiner said and squeezed her sister-in-law’s hand. “I had always thought Kitty felt very insecure.”
Her three nieces exchanged looks between them. Yes, insecurity was quite the family failing, and each had suffered so privately that they had not considered whether anyone else felt like them.
“I think she needs reassurance that she is accepted and loved. She does not need to prove herself.”
“What would she need to prove herself for?” Jane asked.
“In families as large as yours, it is common for each child to become known for one quality. Jane is described as the beautiful one. Lizzy is witty, and Mary is studious. Lydia is lively. What claim does Kitty have? I understand it all too well.”
“I had never thought of it in such a way,” Lizzy said.
“Nor I,” Mary and Jane echoed at the same time.
“The poor dear!” Mrs. Bennet sniffed.
“Now, what is being done about this Mr. Wickham?” Mrs. Gardiner redirected the conversation.
“Papa and Mr. Bingley spoke with the colonel of his regiment yesterday,” Jane said. “Well, in our yesterday. We hoped we might wake to Christmas Eve, but it is the twenty-third once more.”
“Allow me to speak with your uncle. I feel we should be able to contribute in some way.”
Mrs. Gardiner left the drawing room and knocked on the dining room door, asking for her husband.
“Edward, they have told me the most incredible story!” She twisted her hands, uncertain he would believe her.
“I suppose it is very like the one I heard about repeating days and alternate realities?”
“Yes! Do you believe them?”
“What else could explain the madness we have witnessed?”
“My thoughts exactly,” Mrs. Gardiner said with a smile. “But what about this Wickham? Perhaps if we can assist them in some way regarding him, we might help the calendar turn? I do not care to be stuck in a time loop simply because we journeyed to Meryton.”
“No, I would not either,” Mr. Gardiner agreed. “What can I do?”
“Purchase his Meryton debts. Together, you and Darcy can present him with the option of prison or Australia.”
“I do not know that Darcy will allow me to do such a thing. Do you recall that Lizzy wrote of his arrogance and pride?”
“Tosh.” Mrs. Gardiner waved her hand. “Lizzy has changed her view of him. I see obstinacy is his real fault. However, if Darcy is the only one to hold his feet to the fire, then Wickham’s hatred will grow. He will forever haunt Darcy’s family. Will he have the energy to hate two men with such fervour?”
“There is merit in that,” Mr. Gardiner said.
“Of course, there is. You married a brilliant woman.”
“That I did,” he laughed. “Well, let us tell Darcy.” He shuffled her into the dining room.
When they had finished telling Mr. Darcy their suggestion, they awaited his response. They had expected him to argue. He would be justified in hating Wickham forever and wanting to mete out justice personally.
“A few weeks ago, I would have arrogantly dismissed your offer,” he confessed. “However, I have come to see the benefit of allowing others to help me and the high cost of my loathing him. I have vowed to cease hating the man. Your offer brings me peace like nothing else has. Thank you.”
As Darcy rose to shake hands with Mr. Gardiner, Mrs. Gardiner heard a loud ringing sound and grasped her husband’s arm for support.