The Darcy's Gift
Elizabeth Darcy woke with a start. Wrenching off her cap, she rubbed her hand through the now loosened hair, and then felt for her sleeping husband beside her before allowing reality to seep in. It was a dream. She was in the master’s bedchamber at Pemberley, surrounded by the luxury to which she had so readily become accustomed to - well-fed, well-sheltered, and secure. Again, she reassured herself that this was her reality and that of the dream world just fantasy. But it had seemed so very real! And again, was the dream so terrible? It had certainly been shocking - jarring in the extreme - but not truly the stuff of nightmares. In fact, in many ways it was a comforting vision of love. Should the walls of Pemberley crumble and all the protection of Darcy’s great fortune disappear, she would still have the man, and he was by far the most important element to her happiness. If anything, the dream proved it. She snuggle back into the down bedding, wrapping her arms around her husband, who in his sleep returned the embrace, a slight smile gracing his handsome face.
The dream remained so vivid, not slipping away with consciousness as they are so apt to do, but clearly imprinted in her mind. Like a personal theater, she could rewatch it again and again, moment by moment, with perfect clarity. It began with her alone, or, at least a thinner, more disheveled version of herself, dressed in garb far worse than any she had ever donned, even in her less prosperous days at Longbourn. She sat at a worn table in a strange, dingy apartment, the weak fire in the grate not doing its duty against the penetrating cold of the room. Before her was a box of odd coins, farthings and pennies and pence, which she counted repeatedly, her math frustratingly accurate each time. It simply would not do. A flood of memories, of a kind which her true self could never have experienced, but which her dream self recalled with painful accuracy, of scrimping and saving for months for his meager collection of funds, overcame her - bargaining with the grocer, stretching the soup, and dodging the butcher’s bills. Three times she counted the small pile, and three times she received the same result. It was not enough, and the next day would be Christmas.
Although Elizabeth had never known herself to behave thusly, she had also never known such privation, and to the Elizabeth of the dream it seemed clear that there was nothing more to be done but to flop down on a shabby little couch and howl. And so she did. The real Elizabeth reflected that, for the vast many, life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles by far predominating, and she blessed her good fortune in not being amongst them.
But the mistress of the sad little apartment was not so lucky as that of Pemberley, and as she gradually subsided from the sobbing stage to the more common sniffling, took a critical look at her surroundings: her cheep, furnished lodgings. Though not precisely of a beggarly description, it did illustrate that the inhabitants therein were not far above the ranks of mendicants.
Despite the impermanence of appearances, the enduring presence of the residents was attested to by a card above the above the letter-box in the vestibule below, the size of which denied its practical use, as no letter would go into it, bearing the name “Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy”.
The card was a relic of of former prosperity, when more regular employment was readily available and taxes were lower. But with protracted war came an onslaught of new tariffs, while those suffering in the country fled to London for work, making jobs harder to come by. Despite the wails that had only just ceased to echo against the thin walls, Elizabeth’s spirits were generally high and inclined towards amusement and jest, and she had enjoyed a hearty (and much needed) laugh with her husband upon suggesting that they contract the title on the card to a modest and unassuming D, as befit their current circumstances. Yet whenever Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy came home to his sad quarters he was called “Will” (a name which the true Elizabeth had never thought to apply to her stately husband) and greatly hugged by Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy, which seemed a very good thing in the mind of the real-life counterpart to the dream wife.
The fantasy Elizabeth finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with her handkerchief. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray yard. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had almost nothing with which to buy Will a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. So little with which to buy a present for Will. Her Will. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and splendid - something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Will.
There was a pier glass next to the window of the room. Perhaps you have seen a pier glass in poorly furnished lodgings? A very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly accurate conception of his looks. The dream Elizabeth, far more slender than even her real self, had mastered the art.
Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. Her fine eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its color within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.
Now, there were very few possessions of the Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcys in which they both took pride. One was Will's gold watch that had been his father's and his grandfather's. Another was Elizabeth's hair (surprisingly luscious in the dream, in stark contrast to all that was pitiful around her) which fell about her rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It was unnaturally long, reaching almost to the floor, making itself a garment for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.
On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat, as familiar in the dream as the wedding band that graced her waking self’s finger. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the stairs to the street.
Where she stopped the sign read: “Hair Goods of All Kinds”. One flight up Elizabeth ran and collected herself, panting. There stood the proprietress, large, too white, and chilly.
"Will you buy my hair?" asked Elizabeth.
"I buy hair," was the reply. "Take your hat off and let's have a sight at the looks of it."
Down rippled the brown cascade.
"Three pounds," and the too white arm lifted the mass with a practised hand.
"Give it to me quick," said Elizabeth.
Oh, and the next hours tripped by on rosy wings as she ransacked imaginary stores for Will's present.
She found it at last. It surely had been made for Will and no one else. There was no other like it in any of the stores, and she had turned all of them inside out. It was a gold fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation - as all good things should do. It was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she knew that it must be Will's. It was like him. Quietness and value - the description applied to both. With that chain on his watch, Will might be properly anxious about the time in any company. Grand as the watch was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.
When Elizabeth reached home her intoxication gave way a little to prudence and reason. She heated her curling irons and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love - a mammoth task indeed.
Soon her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like the fashionable ladies with their Grecian pretensions, but most unlike the Elizabeth Darcy of the cold and dingy apartment. She looked at her reflection in the mirror long, carefully, and critically.
"If Will doesn't kill me," she said to herself, "before he takes a second look at me, he'll say I look like a truant school boy. But what could I do - oh! what could I do with so little?"
Will was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat near the door. Then she heard his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white for just a moment. She had a habit for saying little, silent prayers about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: "Please God, make him think I am still pretty."
The door opened and Will stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was a young man but looked far older than his years! He needed a new overcoat, and he was without gloves. The conscious Elizabeth studied the real man - whose formal bearing would undoubtedly be shattered by such a familiarity as being called “Will”, even by his wife - and seeing the perpetual prosperity written in his well-nourished checks, ran her hand lovingly through his hair.
Will stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Elizabeth, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.
Elizabeth went towards him, crying: "Will, darling, don't look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold because I could not live through Christmas without giving you a present. It will grow out again - you won't mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say `Merry Christmas!' Will, and let's be happy. You don't know what a nice - what a beautiful, nice gift I've got for you."
"You've cut off your hair?" asked Will, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet, even after the hardest mental labor.
"Cut it off and sold it," said Elizabeth. "Don't you like me just as well, anyhow? I'm me without my hair, am I not?"
Will looked about the room curiously.
"You say your hair is gone?" he said, with an air almost of idiocy.
"You needn't look for it," said Elizabeth. "It's sold, I tell you - sold and gone, too. It's Christmas Eve. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered," she went on with sudden serious sweetness, "but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall we eat, Will?"
Out of his trance, Will seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his wife in his arms before drawing a package from his overcoat pocket and throwing it upon the rickety table.
"Do not mistake me, Liz," he said, using a name as foreign to the real Elizabeth as Will would be to Darcy. "I don't think there is anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me love you any less. But if you will unwrap that package you may understand my shock."
Nimble fingers tore at the string and paper, and then came an ecstatic scream of joy, and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the master of the apartment.
For there lay The Combs - the set of combs that Elizabeth had long admired in a shop window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims - just the shade to wear in the beautiful, vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.
But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: "My hair grows so fast, Will!"
And then she leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, "Oh, oh!"
Will had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull, precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.
"Is it not lovely, Will? I hunted all over town to find it. You'll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it."
Instead of obeying, Will tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.
"Liz," said he, "let's put our Christmas presents away to keep for awhile. They're too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. And now suppose we dine?" And that’s when Elizabeth had awoken.
Not a bad dream, after all. In it she found assurance that no matter what hardships life might bring, the love she shared with Fitzwilliam would carry them through. Contented, her eyelids began to droop just when Darcy began to stir. His eyes still closed, but instinctively aware that Elizabeth slept not, he asked in the dark, “Lizzy? Are you awake?”
Smiling, she replied on the edge of sleep, “No Will. I am fast asleep.”
The unaccustomed appellation jolted Darcy into consciousness. “Will?” he questioned, but upon receiving no response from his now unconscious wife, he let the strange incident slip from his mind and returned to his slumber.
A few weeks later, on Christmas Day, the family gathered in Pemberley’s most elegant parlor to exchange a monstrously large pile of exquisitely wrapped presents. But the greatest gift Fitzwilliam Darcy received was a new gold watch and fob from his wife. Inside was inscribed: To Will at Christmas. May you never need to sell it. Your loving wife, Liz. He looked across the room in confusion at his mischievously grinning wife, who was surrounded by their loved ones, all joyously celebrating the holiday. The notion of ever being required to sell anything was completely foreign to both the master of the house, and to the scene of perfect opulence unfolding before him. Explanations would have to wait until later, and he expected it to be a good one.