On the evening of December 23rd, Alec comes in from the cold to a nice warm kitchen, looking forward to a hot fire, a delicious meal, and his lovely wife’s company. He gets two out of three, and in place of the third, a note propped up against his plate:
Gone to bed early. Enjoy your supper, make sure to warm your feet properly by the fire (those poor feet!), and do not wake me up.
[Several charmingly lopsided hearts],
He takes a moment to marvel at just how easily they’ve taken to wedded bliss – why, with a note like that, you’d think they’d been married years instead of months – then another moment to wonder what on earth this is about. It’s barely dark outside, and Janet has never been particularly early to bed before. (Well. Not for sleeping purposes and not without him, at least.) It only takes a moment to wonder, though, because he knows perfectly well what tomorrow is. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, and with Christmas Eve comes the traditional King Family Christmas Eve Supper.
“Ah,” he says aloud.
He eats quickly, skips the fire, and goes up to the bedroom. Sure enough, in the darkness he can just make out a Janet-shaped lump in their bed. He thinks of the stern line beneath ‘do not wake me up’ and the series of hearts, and feels a little too guilty to just tromp on in demanding an explanation.
So instead, he changes into his nightshirt as clumsily and loudly as possible. Perhaps he feigns a stubbed toe or two.
Finally, an irritated sigh: “I can hear you, Alec.”
“Can you?” he asks very innocently. “I’m sorry, my dear.”
“Please!” Even the pillows seem to huff indignantly as she hoists herself up into a sitting position. “As if I don’t know just what you’re doing.”
“I’m not entirely in the dark myself, I’ll have you know. Figuratively speaking.”
That gets a laugh out of her. “Oh, get over here before you break a leg.”
“If you insist,” he obliges, pleased. He climbs under the bedcovers next to her and kisses her hello (it’s been a good two hours at least since he saw her last, which is nothing short of unacceptable), wrapping an arm around her shoulders as she snuggles against him. “Now. Might this have anything to do with a certain sister of mine?”
“That Olivia,” Janet mock-frets, “she’s a terror.”
“No denying that,” Alec says, “but I was thinking more along the lines of a certain older sister of mine.”
“Tomorrow is a busy day,” Janet says, very loftily. “I’d like to be properly rested, that’s all.”
“You’ll be properly rested ‘til next Tuesday if you go to bed now,” he teases, kissing her hair.
She turns suddenly wistful. “I wish that were true.”
“If this is about Hetty …”
“Are you sure?”
“Oh, of course it’s about Hetty!” Janet erupts. “That woman acts as if my marrying you was the most horrible shock of her life, never mind that we courted for positively years beforehand. She must have known this was coming! She might have resigned herself to the fact that I’d be a part of this clan ages ago. But no. No, no, no. Heaven forbid Janet Ward soil the good King family name with all her Ward-ish ways – why, perish the very thought. You’d think I was Jezebel herself, the way she goes on!”
He’s struck by the urge to laugh – sometimes he thinks she’s never lovelier than when she’s fuming – but the disheartened expression that follows her rant is enough to quell the impulse. He suspects any woman he chose to marry would be subjected to the wrath of Hetty, at least a little, but there’s no denying that a more docile, quiet, obliging woman would have had it much easier. There’s something obstinate and radiant to Janet that Hetty has always found particularly offensive. Perhaps it’s because while Hetty has her own fair share of obstinateness, no one would think to call her radiant – not so long as words like ‘formidable’ are around instead.
“Janet, my darling?”
“Alec, my darling?”
“I happen to have known Hetty for awhile,” Alec tells her. “And in that time, I’ve observed that when she’s at her most … difficult—” Janet gives an indignant ha!; “—it’s usually because she’s intimidated.”
“Really,” Janet says, sounding tempted by the idea.
“Really,” Alec promises. “And the only person I’ve ever seen her more difficult around than you is Rachel Lynde.”
“Well, thank you for that lovely comparison,” Janet scoffs, but he can tell she’s feeling heartened.
“You’re welcome,” he says chivalrously.
She leans in to kiss him, but freezes inches from his mouth to muse, “Does this make you Thomas Lynde, then?”
“I can only dream of aspiring to those sideburns,” Alec says solemnly.
“One day, maybe,” Janet rhapsodizes with a perfect straight face. “And how lucky I’ll be to kiss you then.”
“The luckiest woman in all of Avonlea,” Alec agrees, brushing his thumb across her cheek. “Save Rachel Lynde, of course.”
“Of course.” With an air of great self-sacrifice, she clasps her hands behind his shoulders and concludes, “Until then, I’ll just have to settle.”
“Poor you,” he says and kisses her.
“Poor, poor me,” she concurs and kisses him. And kisses him, and kisses him.
Morning comes far too soon, even in spite of her ten solid hours of sleep. (Well. Perhaps not quite ten. Alec interfered a little.) She opens her eyes and regards the sight of the room around her with unholy dread. It’s not fair in the slightest; this room has never given her anything besides happy memories. It’s a shame to have it tainted by the horrendous day that stretches out before her.
She sits up but can’t quite motivate herself to face the cold floor against her bare feet just yet. Instead, she wraps her arms around her knees and sits there like a scared child.
“I’m not afraid of Hetty King,” she announces to the room, deciding it can’t do any harm to hear it aloud.
“Good, good,” Alec murmurs from beside her – in spite of the fact that he’s face down against his pillow and all but fast asleep. “I think she may be a little afraid of you, though.”
Oh, the darling man.
“I do love you,” she says, and presses a kiss to his shoulder, “even if your sideburns are quite inadequate.”
“Mmmmfhghhhhh,” Alec responds with utmost affection.
Janet is dressed and downstairs before the sun even thinks of rising in the sky.
Hetty is there already, standing in the middle of her kitchen (her new kitchen, yes, all right, but still her kitchen) and stirring furiously. Janet cannot begin to imagine what demands stirring so urgently that it can only be done at four o’clock in the morning.
“Sleeping in, are you?” Hetty demands, arching the most judgmental and superior of eyebrows. “Well. I suppose that in some families, holidays might be seen as an excuse for rampant relaxation.” The ‘r’s of ‘rampant’ and ‘relaxation’ roll themselves so grandly that they must imagine they’re being featured in a Shakespeare soliloquy.
Rage bubbles up inside of her.
I think she may be a little afraid of you, though, she remembers in Alec’s dear voice. It steadies her very well.
“It is so hard to get oneself up in the morning sometimes,” Janet agrees lightly. “I suppose it’s much easier for you, without any bedfellows to detain you.”
Hetty scoffs something that sounds a bit like “Piffle!”, but Janet notes with satisfaction that she does seem to redden a bit. Then again, that could be the fault of the vigorous stirring. Feeling rather more at ease, Janet helps herself to some toast and tea.
“In a few hours, Ruth and Olivia will be over from Rose Cottage,” Hetty reports. “They tend to dilly-dally until around six, and the last thing I need is dilly-dalliers cluttering up my kitchen on the day of the King Family Christmas Eve Supper.”
“Oh, of course, of course,” Janet agrees by default – it’s the best way to withstand most conversations with the woman – and then it hits her. “Your kitchen?”
“I think we can agree that one of us has spent more time here than the other,” Hetty sniffs.
“Yes,” Janet agrees, and smiles to hide the seething, “and I think we can also agree that one of us lives here now as the woman of the house, and will continue to do forever.”
“Forever?” Hetty scoffs. “Aiming rather high, don’t you think?”
“No higher than you would, I’m sure,” Janet says saccharinely.
“I usually allow Ruth and Olivia to combine their efforts and make one of the pies,” Hetty reports, eyeing Janet with the fierce precision of an animal poised to strike. “That way they have an occupation, but they remain out of my way.”
“Ruth and Olivia are both perfectly accomplished in the kitchen,” Janet points out, baffled.
“Yes,” Hetty agrees. “Both perfectly accomplished enough for every other day of the year. But this is the King Family Christmas Eve Supper.”
“You can’t mean to tell me that you mean to prepare the entire meal by yourself!”
“It wouldn’t be the first time.” Hetty looks a bit like a turkey puffed up so proudly, Janet decides. A tall, thin turkey. Perhaps they ought to eat her for Christmas Eve supper.
“Oh, really,” Janet says, putting a hand to her hip. “And when did you last accomplish this marvelous feat?”
“Last year. If I recall correctly, Alec invited you over to dine. And you were especially fond of the candied yams, Janet Ward. A specialty of mine, I’ll have you know.” No one’s eyebrows ought to be able to arch that high without flying clear up into their hair.
“Janet King,” Janet says, her blood boiling, “and may I inform you, Hetty dear, that you needn’t tax yourself nearly so much ever again, as the King Family Christmas Eve Supper is now every bit as much my responsibility as it is yours.”
“Merciful heavens, no! I would hardly force that kind of pressure upon someone of your youth and inexperience,” Hetty says, each word dagger sharp, “Janet, dear.”
“Truly, I don’t mind,” Janet retaliates with deadly sweetness, “dear … dear … dear Hetty.”
Alec wakes at seven thirty to the sound of his wife screaming. He scrambles downstairs just in time to see Hetty swatting at Janet’s head with a dish towel. It turns out this isn’t an attempt at combat, at least according to Hetty: no, no, there was just a bit of bother with a bit of fire.
“You caught her hair on fire?” Alec surmises, jaw dropping.
“Oh, don’t be melodramatic, Alec,” Hetty scolds. “The way you’re going on, you’d think her whole head erupted in flames! It was a – a perfectly innocent and understandable accident! If anything, she shouldn’t have been leaning in so close!”
Alec turns to Janet, wondering if perhaps he was wrong to encourage her. Hetty appears to be in rare form, even for Hetty. “Are you sure you’re all right?” He runs his fingers against the lock of lightly singed hair that’s escaped her bun.
“Yes, yes, dear, I’m fine,” Janet says, brushing his hand away and pulling her hair back into place. Her eyes shift from him to Hetty; there’s a distinctly dangerous glint in them. “Absolutely fine.”
Alec decides to spend the day in the barn.
Hetty comes out of the house not a half hour later, striding with utmost dignity and covered in raw eggs.
“Pay me no mind, Alec,” she instructs with all the grandeur of a queen. “I am only out here to fetch a few more eggs.”
An hour after that, Janet steps into the barn. There’s flour streaked across her cheek, but other than that, she looks quite normal. Worryingly tranquil, in fact.
“How are things inside?” Alec asks, unable to keep all the concern out of his voice.
“Just lovely,” Janet reports, still the picture of serenity. She nears him and tugs lightly on his scarf. “Might I borrow this for a minute?”
“All right,” he says suspiciously, wondering if he will regret this when his wife uses his scarf to strangle his sister.
“You won’t get too cold?”
“No, no,” he says, bemused. “Go ahead.”
She unwinds the scarf from his neck, carries it with her to the far corner of the barn, brings it to her mouth, and screams into it. A long, magnificent, uninterrupted scream that Alec begins to believe (as it carries on and on and on and on) might last for the rest of time.
The cows start mooing in alarm. Alec would rather like to join them.
And then, quite suddenly and neatly, she stops, comes back over to him, wraps the scarf around his neck, and kisses him on the cheek.
“Um,” he says, staring down at the great and redoubtable creature he married.
“Thank you, Alec darling,” she says, and leaves.
He stares dumbly after her.
At noon, great black plumes of smoke spill out of the kitchen window. A ball of fire follows after. Closer inspection, in the form of poking it with a rake, reveals it to be a blackened but no doubt once-exquisite apple pie.
The next thing out the window is the Christmas goose.
Hetty and Janet come out to retrieve it. It involves a great deal of falling over in the snow, and then a bit of goose tug-of-war. Alec retreats into the barn before they can catch him watching. It seems like the sort of problem best worked out among themselves, he likes to think.
By the time afternoon rolls ‘round, his youngest sisters can’t take it anymore, and come out to the barn seeking his help.
“It’s no use for us to try and calm them down,” Olivia reports tearily. “They’re going to kill each other.”
“Don’t be silly, Olivia, they’re not going to kill each other,” Ruth soothes. “Maim each other severely at most.”
“Oh, Alec, help!” Olivia begs. “You know you’re the only one Hetty will even begin to listen to.”
“Though she may be so angry at you for marrying Janet that she’ll never acknowledge you again as long as you live,” Ruth speculates, inspiring a new wail of distress from Olivia.
“Thank you, Ruth,” Alec says, beleaguered. He takes a moment to resign himself to his fate, then follows his sisters back into the house.
If one ignores the faintly persisting scent of smoke, the kitchen actually smells like it ought to – that is to say, like a promise of a wonderful meal to come. And in the middle of the fearsome mess of pots and pans, abandoned pie crusts and half-peeled potatoes, stand Hetty and Janet, hugging weepily.
“Oh, Hetty, all I want is to be embraced into this family,” Janet cries. “I love your brother so, and I’m so fond of your siblings, and I would be fond of you too, if you’d only let me.”
“And I must admit, Janet, I was – I was intimidated at the thought of another grown woman in this family,” Hetty professes. “How foolish I was! Please, do say you’ll forgive me.”
“Only if you forgive me!”
“Of course – of course – there’s nothing to forgive!”
“Not even the eggs?”
“Well – perhaps the eggs a little – oh, never mind it—”
“But they were just at each other’s throats moments ago,” Olivia says wonderingly, her eyes wide.
“Then I’d say our timing has been absolutely impeccable,” Alec replies.
“Ruth, Olivia, there you are!” Hetty says, spotting them at last. She and Janet part, but keep standing with their arms around each other as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, rather than the strangest. “I can’t quite believe the pies will be done by the new year, at the rate you two are going. Too much cowering, not nearly enough baking.”
“Pies?” Olivia repeats, awed.
“You mean,” Ruth says, “we get to make more than one?”
“If you think you can,” Hetty replies, the sparkle in her eyes contradicting the firm line of her mouth. “Dawdling the way you are.”
The girls rush happily into the kitchen. Alec leans against the doorframe and takes it in. A new future seems to stretch out before them all, infinitely more peaceful.
“Alec, do get in here and see that these potatoes are mashed by New Year’s,” Janet orders with a Hettyish edge to her voice, her eyes mischievous and bright.
“Yes, ma’am,” he says wisely.
“Everything’s delicious,” praises Roger that evening as they all sit around the table. “It was worth the trip home for this meal alone, just as I knew it would be. You’ve outdone yourself again, Hetty.”
“Actually,” Hetty says in the stiffly formal tone that always accompanies conceding some of her power, “I must give credit where credit is due.” Janet beams. “Alec mashed the potatoes.”
Janet’s fork stills dangerously on its way to her helping of candied yams.
“And Janet rose to the entire task most admirably,” Hetty finishes – kindly, for her. The whole table seems to breathe a surreptitious sigh of relief. “Half the credit is hers.”
“And the pies just made themselves, I suppose?” Ruth demands cheekily.
“And the beautiful pies are Ruth and Olivia’s works of art,” Janet responds graciously, her smile in full radiant bloom now. “I must say, we King women are quite a force to be reckoned with when we work together.”
“And God help the fool who tries to interfere,” Roger surmises.
“Hear hear,” Hetty says grandly, and she and Janet clink glasses across the table.
“The candied yams are divine as ever, Hetty,” Janet praises.
“And you’d never know the goose was nearly torn in half out in the yard,” Alec remarks dryly.
“Oh, hush, Alec,” Janet orders.
“Merry Christmas to all,” Hetty proclaims.
“And to all a good fight,” Alec mutters to Janet, quiet enough to keep it for her ears only. The corner of her mouth twitches; she kicks him affectionately under the table, and her ankle stays nestled against his for the rest of the meal.