A Generation's Secrets
By their nature, children are selfish creatures. They cannot help it, of course, when they come into the world helpless to do anything for themselves, and instead require great amounts of care and assistance merely to survive. They may only learn to sympathise, to think well of others beyond themselves and their nearest relations, after they have grown much older. For boys, the age at which such developments occur may be deemed to be their school years, although if they are ineffectively educated in such matters they may be left to think meanly of those beyond their own family circle until corrected as late as the age of eight and twenty.
Children at the age of four are still some years from any endeavours in such education. It is to be considered an accomplishment that they can put food into their own mouths, use chamber pots with some degree of efficacy, and not commit accidental self-murder when left alone for five minutes altogether; developing sympathy or even some understanding of more adult emotions is not to be expected of them. They live in a world of toys and play and happiness, and cannot understand such adult topics as society, etiquette, or death. In particular, they cannot be expected to observe mourning for a relation they have hardly known, and they have no understanding as to why said mourning should mean the end of such favoured activities as pony-riding.
Thus it was that Elizabeth Darcy's oldest sons were absent from the nursery as she sat with her youngest, Charles, who had proven to be most selfish of all – although not by choice, for neither his birth nor the illnesses that followed had been of his own doing. She was alone, save the child; in addition to the two ponies purchased for their twin boys, James and George, her husband had also determined it best to purchase a third, which could at present be used by George Nichols, the son of their nurse, and also made available for visiting cousins once the ponies were taken to their permanent home in Pemberley's stables. As for their nurses, Mrs. Nichols had gone with her son and charges. for as a widowed farmer's wife, she was able to be of more assistance in holding bridles and other such equestrian matters than most nurses. The under-nurse, Miss Sawyer, meanwhile, had taken on the task of going to the apothecary for more of little Charles's draught.
Elizabeth did not mind the time alone with her youngest son. After those first fraught months of wondering whether he was going to survive the birth – that event comparably easy for her, having been attended by Dr. Whittling here in town and with only one child to bear this time – and then the later bout of whooping cough that had rapidly struck every boy in the nursery but most severely impacted the youngest and weakest in health among them, she had spent great portions of the previous year worried over his survival. All of the children had survived, thank God, but the happiness the Darcys had anticipated from their planned trip to Malta had been replaced by those tense weeks of worrying over all of their sons, their travel postponed and then finally cancelled. There had been some happiness in those weeks they had spent at Rosings before Christmas, yet even that had been short-lived. The only blessing, Elizabeth thought, was that all of her boys were fairly healthy now, her sons and their father. And that was much to feel blessed over, when she had seen it denied another.
Footsteps in the hallway indicated the return of the riding party, the rapid scurrying of feet audible first and then the sounds of Darcy's long stride. James, George, and George all tumbled into the room, gazed at Elizabeth, and bowed. This was a recent teaching of Darcy's to his sons, and George Nichols had rapidly come to mimic them. He made his bow with wide eyes, having had Elizabeth's rank and position as his mother's employer thoroughly instilled in him by Mrs. Nichols. James, meanwhile, made his bow with such an impish, mischievous expression that Elizabeth was again left wondering whether some ancestor of Darcy's had contributed some of this to the boy, for it could not all have come from her. George's bow was marked with his usual solemnity, which was impossibly endearing on the countenance of a boy of four years of age.
They were not fully breached, but they had been dressed in nankeen trousers for their ride and they more often than not succeeded in using the chamber pot within the nursery. They had learned this at an earlier age than most, thankfully; while George Nichols had learned his bows from them, they had learned this convenience from watching him, a boy half a year older than they were; Elizabeth thought it likely they would be fully breached well before most children of their age.
They all possessed great energy, but the riding of a pony could entirely dissipate that energy and thus once the boys had been changed from their trousers, they were laid down for a nap. Sawyer returned while this was occurring, and she aided Elizabeth in giving Charles his draught before he was also laid down for a nap.
During all of this their father watched silently from the edge of the nursery. There had been some worry on his part in being seen in Hyde Park occupied with riding lessons while he was dressed in mourning. He always took them out well before the fashionable hour, however, and Elizabeth doubted that anyone could look at his sombre mien and believe he was not taking mourning seriously.
She approached him and quietly took up his arm to exit the nursery, no words needed between them for her to understand his thoughts. Such things as they had been through were those that could strain any marriage, but instead, mutual comfort amid fear and sadness had strengthened theirs. Elizabeth would never forget all those times he had held her tight in this very hallway, nor that night when he had carried her – nearly hysterical from fear and exhaustion, having stayed up three nights in a row to watch over Charles – down these stairs, laying her down in bed and telling her she must take a laudanum draught, that worry would not save the child but if she kept on like this, she would damage her own health. Such were his words, but after she had awakened and hurried back to the nursery, she had found he had replaced her in vigil over the baby.
Yes, their marriage had grown stronger, yet they had not suffered that ultimate test, thank God. Charles had lived, and his mother had thought the family due to enter happier times, even if they could not travel as they had wished to. She had been wrong, however, and the black hem fluttering about her ancles as the Darcys descended the stairs was one of her innumerable reminders.