This one shot was written for the A Happy Assembly May/June 2016 Playground theme, "Parents." It was beta'd by AHA users Skydreamer and SMAW, with additional input from Karen1220 and Pimprenelle.
Thanks to the guest reviewer who caught an important error. It has been fixed.
To Be a Man
August came too quickly for Elizabeth's liking. In May, when she and Darcy had finally agreed the event should take place in August, summer's end had seemed so far away. What could generously be called a debate had raged on for nearly four months at that point. He was eager to get on with it, she insisted on delays. In the end, there was no reason to dawdle beyond her own feelings. Selfishness did not make for a strong argument. She relented, with at least the satisfaction of knowing August was many months away.
Where had the time gone?
The resolution to their argument had come forcefully. By May, it was clear they could expect a confinement in October. Darcy would accept no more hesitation. It must be done before Elizabeth was brought to bed. Once that much had been decided, he further insisted that it must be done before she was too large and too miserable to host. There was a degree of fatalism in his sense of planning, an idea in his mind that she did not appreciate the risk now presented by the very notion of October.
Although their individual feelings did not align, they could agree that August was the ideal month for a house party. Now that the day itself was nearly upon them, it would not be much longer before a veritable fleet of carriages brought dozens of people. How to accommodate them all was not a question, nor was how to afford such a large gathering. Pemberley had rooms to spare. Months to plan meant months to save. No, the only difficulty was the delicate sensibility of women.
"It is not a very sad occasion, is it, Lizzy?"
Lady Daphne Fitzwilliam was that rare specimen-a noble child without brothers or sisters.
"I have no brothers myself, of course, so I do not really know how the girls are feeling, but I do understand that it is rather upsetting for them."
"I had no brothers, either," Elizabeth replied wryly. "The circle of sisterhood remained quite intact in my family."
Lady Daphne shrugged. Then she said, "I do not know how you have managed to plan for such a large party! So many people are coming! More than I have ever seen at Pemberley! My father, too! He never visits anyone if he can help it, but I think you have fitted up his rooms very well. He shall be looking for something to be dissatisfied by and I dare say he shall not find anything."
"Thank you, dear. May I never tire of hearing praise!"
Lady Daphne laughed. "Compliments and praise never take you by surprise!"
Now sixteen years old, Lady Daphne had been spending her summers at Pemberley for many years. Her father, the Earl of _, never accompanied her on these visits. The Earl and the Countess could barely tolerate one another and no one was pleased that the single child they had managed to produce was female. They were happy enough to leave the minding of their daughter to anyone else who cared to do it. Having herself grown up in a home where the master and his wife had no respect for one another, Elizabeth had always offered asylum to Lady Daphne.
The occasion being what it was, even the Earl himself would not dare be absent. As much as it was a mournful occasion for women, men-even men without sons of their own-looked on such things with great anticipation. Lady Daphne's Pemberley summer would be infringed upon by her father for a fortnight. The Countess had refused to come. The girl was too well-bred to say anything about dreading her father's visit. Elizabeth wondered and worried how Lady Daphne was to bear it with all the worry that her heart could spare from her own children.
"Shall you come to the nursery to see Fitzwilliam?"
"Oh, no!" Lady Daphne smiled. "I wish to be surprised!"
Upon returning to his mother, Fitzwilliam fisted his hands in his skirt and said, "I wish to wear my suit!"
If Elizabeth had thought the weight on her heart would lift, just a bit, when he reappeared in his gown and petticoats, she was wrong. He was his father's boy now, opinionated and not suffering disappointment well. Trousers and jackets, shirts and sashes, gloves and stockings had all been made for Fitzwilliam, yet he was not to wear them. Worse still, he was to try them on, prove to his mother and the tailor that they fit properly and then return to restrictive gowns as if he had never felt the freedom and comfort of a skeleton suit. "I am sorry, darling, but you cannot wear your suit every day until after the breeching ceremony. Papa is looking forward to it and everyone is coming to see you look so smart in your suit."
Jennie, despite her tear-streaked face, beamed. "Like this, you are you!"
Fitzwilliam's frown furrowed deeper. "I wish to wear it now!"
His sister howled. "No! You shall be a boy when you do that!"
"I am already a boy!"
Jennie wrinkled her nose. "Not really."
"Truly, your brother has always been a boy." Despite the solemnity of the occasion, looked upon with dread by so many of them, it was a struggle for Elizabeth to hide the laughter in her words. The proud distinction of a male child was felt only by adults. To children in the nursery, a little boy not yet out of his skirts was no different from a sister.
Fitzwilliam's rite of passage struck all the children as an inherently unjust thing, though for different reasons. A boy's dissatisfaction with a breeching ceremony was all in the waiting for it. The dissatisfaction of the girls would remain. Three daughters in the house promised that the domestic sphere of womanhood would remain spirited even after their brother had vacated it. Still, the older girls recognised the great disparity in expectations-they were to remain forever children, dependent on their father until they were old enough to depend upon their husbands. They would never trade their gowns for the freedom to run, to ride, to do twenty other things beside in breeches. Like her mother, Jennie looked on Fitzwilliam's transition with sorrow.
Anne was angry. "No one comes to visit when I get new clothes."
Though she was not insensible to the powerless position of girls, Elizabeth was really grateful she could keep her daughters at home longer than she could ever hope to keep her son. "Do not compare the lives of boys and girls, Anne. You shall only make yourself unhappy."
"It is not fair."
"Your brother is to inherit Papa's estate. He must learn to be a man like Papa."
Evidently, Anne had given this some thought. "Eliza is the oldest and the smartest. She should inherit Pemberley."
"Though I am certain Eliza appreciates your battling on her behalf, all papas want a son to inherit their estate, even sons that have three older sisters."
Anne scoffed. "Fitzwilliam is not even six!"
"He is nearly so."
"I am nine!"
"That makes you more qualified to ride and shoot with Papa?"
"I should say so! And Eliza is eleven!"
"Think of how lonely you should be if Papa took Eliza to do all of his important duties and left you behind in the nursery."
Anne considered this. "Eliza has always been here, longer than me. I should miss her very much. Daphne says you will probably send Fitzwilliam away soon. If he is going to be a boy now, I suppose we shall not miss him."
"I shall miss him!" Jennie cried. Though the sight of Fitzwilliam demonstrating the fit of his suit had caused her to tearfully cleave to her mama, she threw her arms around her brother now. In no mood to be smothered, Fitzwilliam pushed her off and declared that he would never miss Anne, no matter how far away he went.
After Fitzwilliam's breeching ceremony, life in the nursery would change. He would not only dress differently, but he would leave behind the girlish games of youth and begin to learn what a man must know. His father would teach him to ride, to shoot, to be the master of an estate. School would follow, and eventually, Cambridge. The amity of her two youngest children, Jennie at seven and Fitzwilliam at nearly six, would necessarily come to an end. Elizabeth was no more ready to surrender Fitzwilliam to his father's care than his sisters were. Anne was lashing out, but she was more angry with change than with her brother. Her eldest and namesake had quietly withdrawn from the scene, likely finding Lady Daphne's company preferable.
"You should not wish to be a boy so much," Anne was insisting. "Darcy, and George, and Dick are boys." A comparison to Dick Wickham was the most heinous insult in Anne's vocabulary. "The last time Dick Wick was here, he threw my doll into the lake!"
"Anne, this is a very important day in Fitzwilliam's life. You must congratulate him."
The defiant girl crossed her arms. Anne firmly informed her mother, "It is not his day yet."
Like other days, little Fitzwilliam's big day dawned.
Anticipation surged through the air at Pemberley, reverberating off the assembled guests. The house was fuller than it had ever been. Elizabeth's four sisters had all arrived, bringing with them a total of three husbands and ten children. The Bennet grandchildren ranged from twelve year old Darcy Wickham to two year old Charles Bingley. Georgiana brought her husband and daughters to her ancestral home. General Fitzwilliam and his sons accompanied the Earl. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet arrived, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner had come. Lady Catherine de Bourgh and her daughter were settled before the modest equipage of the Collins family rolled up the drive. Maids and valets and companions and nurses made the number in the servants' hall swell.
Fitzwilliam could boast that thirty-five people had come to see him become a man.
It had been some years since the last breeching ceremony in the family. Lydia's youngest, Dick, had surrendered his gowns seven years ago, when he was three. He was the third son, heir to nothing except low expectations. The ceremony had been brief, the father bored and the budget strained. Dick had worn the cast off clothing of his older brothers and that had been the end of it. The extended family of anyone was always thirsty for sons. It had been a long time since a little boy had been properly celebrated. Fitzwilliam's large inheritance, noble connections and status as the first and only boy of his line required a grand ceremony.
He thrived on the people, on the attention. Fitzwilliam was pleased to accept the congratulations of anyone who cared to give them and his little face scowled at the cousins and sisters who withheld kudos. Still, it was impossible for any boy's sour expression to remain. Not teasing older cousins, jealous sisters or ignorant younger cousins could change the fact that Fitzwilliam's hair was to be cut, Fitzwilliam was to be dressed by Papa's valet and Fitzwilliam would shake the hands of the assembled adults like a very grown up man.
The ceremony began with the barber from Lambton cutting his hair. With his shoulders squared and his chest proudly puffed out, Fitzwilliam's long, girlish hair was shorn before his entire family. He was so still. What concentration it must take for a little boy to sit so still and so erect for the duration of an entire hair cut!
It was wrong of her to cry.
His mother should not pay Fitzwilliam's careful dignity the disrespect of her tears. But he was so mature. His bearing showed how seriously he took his breeching ceremony. When he hopped down from his stool and disappeared behind the lacquered folding screen, Elizabeth allowed herself a moment to press the heels of her hands into her eyes, to clear the mist away when her son would not see.
His father's valet would not always be the person to help him dress. It was a special occasion and so Mr. Hamley was behind the screen with him, taking Fitzwilliam out of his gown and petticoats and helping him into his suit. Snippets of conversation rose among the adults while they waited. What colour would his suit be? That his clothes were new was certain, but how fine were they? How many suits had been made? Would there be time for shooting when this was over?
The wait was interminable. Elizabeth could hardly decide if she wished to see him as soon as possible or relish every second he was behind the screen and still her sweet baby boy. Tears pricked at her eyes again. She dashed them away with quick fingers, hoping no one had seen.
Her husband at her side murmured softly, "This is a proud day."
The suit they had chosen for the ceremony was blue. Elizabeth had seen him in it before, when he was trying it on, but not with his hair cut short and his new shoes on. The picture was complete. Her smile erupted into a laugh. Fitzwilliam met her eyes and his noble bearing faltered long enough to grin.
Fitzwilliam took a deep breath and with one more glance to his mother for encouragement, he strode to the Earl and shook his hand. To Lady Catherine, and shook her hand. He went to Uncle and Aunt Bingley, and shook their hands. To Grandmother and Grandfather Bennet, and shook their hands. To all the assembled guests, Fitzwilliam, the courteous little gentleman he was, shook everyone's hand.
And finally, Jennie could admit her brother, at nearly six years old, was really a boy.
"It went off rather well. I was very pleased."
The ceremony itself had been a success, but hosting proved to be more of a strain than Elizabeth usually found it to be. She had wanted to be with her son. Having so many guests in the household prevented her from being with him nearly as much as she wished. By the time the guests had retired, all of the children had long been in bed. There was nothing for Elizabeth to do but admire the lock of Fitzwilliam's hair that she had been able to keep.
"Yes." She tucked the lock of his hair into a keepsake box in her dressing room. The rest of the clippings had been distributed among the guests as souvenirs. "I shall not pretend to-day was not difficult for me. I know he must grow up, but I cannot help but feel I have lost him. You shall have the run of him now! You will understand how wonderful he truly is."
Darcy smiled. "I will ask you not to think I did not know."
"You might have known, but now you will really understand him. I am jealous, I suppose. The girls and I shall miss having him in the nursery as often."
"They took it well," Darcy added. "I admit, I had my concerns they would not."
"Thank Daphne. So many cousins in the house will keep all the children entertained, but dear Daphne took care to ensure the girls did not feel neglected."
"What a shame it is her parents do not value her." With every passing summer Lady Daphne spent at Pemberley, it seemed more and more a shock to Darcy that his cousin had not yet learnt to see her worth. "I imagine she was too occupied by the girls to help as hostess."
"I do not begrudge her that," Elizabeth replied. With her confinement only two months away, she was large, but the exhaustion she felt at the idea of hosting was emotional, not physical. The needs of her guests were entirely at odds with her own need to be with her son. "Let us remember Daphne is not yet out. I should be happy to have her serve as hostess at Pemberley when she is a bit older if I am indisposed, but for now, she is still only learning. Her time was better spent with the girls to-day."
"I hope _ appreciates your tutelage. To observe you, I am sure, is more educational for Daphne than the seminary he has her attend." Elizabeth flushed happily at the praise. Darcy continued, "Your planning has particularly impressed Fitzwilliam. He hopes you will assist him when it comes to be Albert's turn."
Elizabeth frowned. "I should be delighted, but Bertie is so young. His breeching ceremony cannot be soon."
Darcy shrugged. "A mother's judgement is ideal at such times, but Fitzwilliam has no one to judge but himself. He shall have no wish to delay."
"I have observed how appallingly eager men are for their sons to grow up. I am not unique among mothers in that I wish for my babies to stay small. I can assure you, Mrs. Fitzwilliam would not let him put Bertie in trousers at three! If it falls to me to insist that he let his children have their childhood, so be it!"
"Lewis appears to be growing well."
"I am pleased to host all of our guests, but I am especially pleased General Fitzwilliam is come. His boys need more women than a wet nurse to dote on them, the dears. Thankfully, with all my sisters we have women in abundance!"
With a raised eyebrow, Elizabeth advised him, "Whatever it is you wish to say, I would prefer that you did."
"If you wish to rest, pray do not be afraid to say so. If Daphne cannot be hostess, as you say, we have women in abundance. Georgiana will be happy to do it."
"I shall keep that in mind, but you need not worry. You will take the men shooting, the children will play. I have only the ladies to host and that is not so demanding. A woman in my condition can withstand it, as you well know."
He pressed his lips into a thin line. Mrs. Fitzwilliam's death in childbirth was a recent wound for them all. As a woman, it was Elizabeth's lot to forge onwards in the deliverance of babies. It was a duty impossible to shirk, even should one wish to. Husbands were another matter. When it came to the need for sons or warming their wives' beds, they seemed insensible to the danger. Darcy's anxiety grew and ebbed in correlation to her belly. "It is not only Mrs. Fitzwilliam's fate that gives me cause for concern," he said. "I know you have not forgotten. Pray do not behave as though you have."
"You are inconstant. I remember too well when I do not wish to put my son in breeches and not well enough when I tell you I do not need to rest."
"He was ready long before to-day. You saw how well he comported himself." Darcy sighed and turned away for a moment before looking back at her.
Protectively, Elizabeth folded her arms over her belly. It had been three years since she gave birth to a little boy born dead. Her body had been enough to nurture Elizabeth, to nurture Anne and Jane and Fitzwilliam. She could not understand why she had failed her fifth child. She still did not know what she had done wrong, what dire mistake she must avoid to protect and nurture this child. Like all of her babies, he trusted her, depended on her.
What had she done wrong?
Birthing a stillborn son had nearly killed her. The memory of it had been impressed on Darcy greater than on herself. She knew it had happened. She was not so foolhardy to go forth with no fear. But for Elizabeth, the danger had passed in a haze of delirium. By the time she was properly herself again, her son's body was in the family crypt. He was gone before she knew what had happened. She had failed. He had been an innocent little child who knew nothing of the world but his mother, had trusted her, depended on her and she had failed him.
She held tighter to her babies. Her temperate Eliza, impertinent Anne, sweet Jennie, and Fitzwilliam. He was so much more hers than the girls. To look at his little face was to see herself reflected back. He was playful, sanguine, with her dark, dark eyes. She could not bear to see him leave her. To put on his breeches and ride away, to the hunt, to school. To leave behind his childhood and become the man that would be the master of these halls when her husband joined his dead son in the crypt.
"I was not ready," Elizabeth admitted. "I am so proud of Fitzwilliam." Her voice shook with tears. "I am. He did everything as perfectly as any parent could ever ask. But I cannot help but feel like I have lost him. The girls will stay where I can hold them, but life demands so much more from a boy. If he is not beyond my reach now, he very soon will be. I am not ready to let go of him."
Darcy put his arms around her. "It is not the right of any parent to ask their child to not grow."
"I know." Her shoulders shook. For guilt, for loss, for pride, she folded herself against her husband and wept.
By October, they had left Pemberley to settle in London for the confinement. Lady Daphne's term at seminary had begun. Eliza was anxious to follow her and learn the wisdom of schoolmistresses. Anne had almost gotten over the frog Dick Wick put in her frock during the summer. Jennie understood nothing about cricket but that it was the new pastime of her beloved brother and that was enough to fascinate them both. It was true Fitzwilliam spent less time with his sisters and had less interest in the games girls played now that the world of boyish pursuits had been opened to him, but he was far too young to be removed entirely from their day to day lives.
The Darcy children were opinionated and their house would never been free from arguments. But they had found a kind of peace. Something had changed-drastically-and they found a new balance. When the next thing changed, they would do it again.
The next thing was called Edward.
Edward Darcy was especially small, especially red and had been born with a full head of dark hair that Elizabeth was sure promised to fall off and leave him bald for at least a year. In the grand world Edward had been born into, he knew of one thing and one thing only: his mama. What little mastery of his own body he had was all in pursuit of his mother. When she spoke, he tried to lift his head to better hear her. The silly darling did not know he was not strong enough to hold his head up yet! Sometimes, he would press his little mouth against her neck, gaping wide. What he was
looking for was lower down. Elizabeth would adjust him against her breast, helping him find her nipple so that he could suckle.
She combed Edward's dark hair with her fingers whenever he ate. When Fitzwilliam was born, his eyes had been blue, but so dark a blue she knew he would have her eyes. She was not sure about Edward yet. She would have to wait and see.
"Shall you have Mama's eyes or Papa's eyes?" she murmured to him. "Fitzwilliam has Mama's, but your sisters all look like Papa." Elizabeth laughed, softly and carefully. Edward took no notice and continued to drink. "We must assure them that you are really a boy, lest they do not believe us. They need to be ready when you begin to wear trousers. I have been thinking, you know." He had heard her think, she was sure.
The door to her lying-in chamber opened, and softly clicked shut. Elizabeth's attention remained on her baby. "A long, long time ago, before there was an Edward, Mama had another little boy. He went away to a dark, cold place to remain a baby forever. We are all very sad he went there. I shall always be sad. Darling Edward, I am going to ask that you do something very, very difficult: grow up. It is hard to grow up, I know. There will be scrapes and bruises and arguments and Papa might even send you away to school! And I know terrible things happen in this world. You might not be able to. So I will only ask you to promise to try your very best to grow up."
Darcy said, "In that case, I expect I can have this one put in breeches earlier?"
Her palm cupping the tiny head that suckled at her breast, Elizabeth said, "No."