It’s Christmas 1797. Darcy and his cousins Richard and D’Arcy Fitzwilliam have been given reluctant permission to stage a Christmas farce in hopes of cheering Lady Anne.
–An excerpt from Young Master Darcy: A Lesson in Honour.
“The doors are closed; they’re all inside!” Richard reported back from his post at the stairs. Earlier, they had raided the attic trunks for costumes, and Richard, as Lord Misrule, was tricked out in a coat from a much earlier time. Its hems almost swept the floor, but the unfashionably large brass buttons that adorned it and the voluminous pockets made it perfect for his part. An old-fashioned wig flowed almost to his waist to complete his costume, but his brother had not been satisfied.
“Where did you get those” Richard had looked suspiciously at the jars D’Arcy brought out.
“Something from school…never mind, just be still!” D’Arcy had commanded as he powdered his brother’s face white and painted red rouge circles on his cheeks, mouth, and the tip of his nose and then had finished him off with a black patch at the corner of his mouth.
D’Arcy adjusted the pillows strapped under the green cloak that proclaimed him Father Christmas, as did the “beard” fashioned from the stuff of an old mattress. Darcy joined Richard in the hall. As befitted the character of Black Peter, Father Christmas’s assistant, Darcy was dressed in a mis-match of old clothes pinned all over with colourful ribbons. His face was smudged black with cork and he sported an old red stocking, bedecked at the end with sleigh bells, as a cap.
“Are we ready?” Lord Misrule waved the thin, gilded chair leg that served as his sceptre.
“Yes, and you both look perfectly ridiculous!” laughed Father Christmas as they glided down the stairs.
A few candles in the drawing room were all the light they had allowed to the adults to make their way to the half-circle of chairs set up for them. The rest of the furniture had been moved aside and the rugs rolled up by the servants, leaving an area clear for the night’s performance. As instructed, the servants had left crude stable lanterns and a chair for them in the hall. Darcy and D’Arcy took their lanterns and their stations on either side of His Lordship’s “throne” and hoisted him to their shoulders.
“One, two, three,” D’Arcy whispered, and the servants flung open the doors.
Now thrice welcome Christmas,
Which brings us good cheer,
Minced pies and plum-porridge,
Good Ale and strong beer;
With pig, goose and capon,
The best that may be,
So well doth the weather
And our stomachs agree!
A shout and laughter went up as, chanting and swinging their lanterns, they marched into the drawing room. “Oh, look at them!” Aunt Matlock laughed to Lady Anne, “Have you ever seen the like?”
“Oh, Good Lord! What have we agreed to, Darcy?” Lord Matlock groaned to his brother-in-law. “’Pon my word; it’ll come to no good!”
“Marvellous!” Darcy called out, laughing and clapping his hands. “Marvellous!”
Encouraged, the boys continued circling the room.
Observe how the chimneys
Do smoke all about,
The cooks are providing
For dinner no doubt;
But those on whose tables
No victuals appear,
Oh may they keep Lent
All the rest of the year!
With holy and ivy
So green and so gay;
We deck up our houses
As fresh as the day,
With bays and rosemary
And laurel complete,
And everyone now
Is a king in conceit.
With that last line, Father Christmas and Black Peter set down His Lordship in the centre of the room, a lantern on either side of him. Lord Misrule bowed to the general applause but then motioned everyone quiet for the last verse.
But as for curmudgeons,
Who will not be free,
I wish they may die
On a three-legged tree.
Black Peter and Father Christmas solemnly bowed to Misrule and then helped him from his throne.
“But as for curmudgeons,” His Lordship repeated in a now ominous tone, “who will not be free, I wish they may die on a three-legged tree! Father Christmas! You who can see into all men’s hearts; be there any such here in this place tonight?”
“I regret it most keenly, My Lord, but it is so!” Father Christmas shook his head sorrowfully. “Black Peter, to your task!” At this command, Black Peter darted forward and executed a somersault that landed him precisely at the skirt hems of his mother and Aunt Matlock.
“Oh!” shrieked Lady Matlock in surprise as he rose before them. “What an excessively dirty Black Peter you are! Anne, what do you think? Have we behaved well enough this past year to pass the scrutiny of Father Christmas?”
Black Peter shook the bells at his cap’s end at his aunt and then cocked his head at Lady Anne, awaiting her response. Her fingers lay upon her lips, but the laughter they suppressed was alive in her eyes.
“We shall certainly learn the answer shortly, Cecelia! Well, Black Peter, what is the verdict?”
Pulling out a small sack from his belt, Black Peter opened it with a flourish and peered inside. An expression of consternation washed over his face as he looked from Lady Anne to Lady Matlock.
“Oh, my dear,” said Lady Matlock, “this does not bode well.”
Black Peter shook his bells again at her and then reached into the sack. Suddenly, two oranges appeared in the air and, accompanied by their delighted squeals, fell neatly into the ladies’ laps.
“Bravo!” called Mr. Darcy, clapping again. “Excellent, Black Peter!” With a curt bow in his direction, Black Peter skipped back to his companions.
“The ladies have pleased you, Father Christmas!” Misrule nodded approvingly. “But the ladies usually do. Now, sir, what of the men? It must be that this curmudgeon lies in their company.”
“Black Peter, to your task!” commanded Father Christmas again. Black Peter shrank back and shook his bells violently. “To your task, sir!” Father Christmas cuffed his errant servant, who fell from the “blow” and rolled to the feet of his father and uncle to much laughter from the audience. Up he rose, blinking furiously and weaving from leg to leg as if concussed, then reached into his sack. “Oh!” cried the ladies as, again, an orange rose into the air.
“Well, well, Black Peter; bravely thrown!” Mr. Darcy displayed the orange on the tips of his fingers. “I believe that leaves only— ”
“Hear, hear now!” Lord Matlock began to protest, but before he could finish, another object flashed into the air. “Coal! Now, really!” Black Peter skipped back to Father Christmas, shaking his bells vigorously.
“Matlock!” Misrule shook his sceptre at his father. “Give an account to Father Christmas of your plans for improvement! How shall you reform your ways in the year to come, sir?”
Lord Matlock rose from his chair. “My lord, you have mistaken me for someone else,” he complained, “for I am quite virtuous, as these assembled here will attest. I am, sir, in no need of reform.”
Shouts of laughter arose from the other adults. Lord Matlock settled back into his chair.
“A paragon, indeed,” declared Misrule, “but, the laughter I hear declares your claim counterfeit! Come, sir, your plans for reformation are required of you!”
“Yes, your plans!” urged Mr. Darcy.
“Reforms, reforms!” cried the ladies.
Lord Matlock rose again and held up his hands for quiet. “In the face of betrayal on all sides—
Disapproving “Oh’s!” and “Bad form, Matlock!” interrupted him.
“In the face of betrayal, I say, I will comply.” He took a deep breath and in penitent tone announced, “I will hereafter refrain from wearing mismatched stockings.”
An uproar ensued, the adults and the boys all calling down objections upon him. “Unacceptable! Unacceptable” bellowed Richard Misrule at his father.
“Untenable!” cried Lady Matlock. “Without his valet, Matlock cannot distinguish his pinks from his purples!”
“What! My own wife, my own family!” Lord Matlock, put a hand to his heart. “Oh, I am seriously misused!”
Everyone was laughing. Darcy’s stomach ached from it. He looked at his family. His father was laughing, Richard was beside himself, his aunt was sunk back in her chair giggling. Most of all, his dear mother, with tears of laughter streaming down her face, had, for the moment, truly forgotten her troubles and pain. There was no pretence. There was no falsity. Rather, there was joy; joy in the companionship of family and love, great love, holding them all together.
Darcy stood there in his Black Peter regalia of tattered cloth and bell-tasselled cap and took in the noise and joyful chaos around him. This is how he would remember his mother: hands to her face as she looked about the room, her eyes twinkling and spilling over with mirth and good-will. He felt the crushing sadness of the past week lift just a little. This is what Lady Anne had wanted and Darcy was satisfied.