Written For: alestar in Yuletide 2019
Betaed by: kalypsobean
"If we could but get the funding, Mrs. Doolittle, so much more might be accomplished," Freddy said earnestly. "Your contributions, both financial and practical, do so much good, and of course your greatest contribution is the time you and your husband give to veterans who cannot pay for your services, but unfortunately the scale of the situation—"
"Yes, yes, the number of men who returned with severe wounds is alarming, and their needs are many and great," Eliza said. "You would think that the thanks of a grateful nation would extend to paying for treatment for the injuries taken in the service of that nation."
"I sometimes think they would prefer if we had died, so that they could take out our pictures once a year on Armistice Day, and not have to deal with the inconvenient reality of our survival." It was a touch of the old, romantic, dramatic Freddy she had first met over a decade ago, although of course far bitterer than anything that young fop could have imagined.
"Perhaps I should mention the subject to my father," Eliza mused. "Much as he hates it, he needs respectable causes to mix in with his disreputable ones, if he wants to get anyone else in Parliament to actually work with him. And one can hardly get more respectable than poor veterans in need of medical care and other aid."
"It cannot hurt," Freddy said, "although far too many politicians are willing to give flowery speeches in public, and then tighten the purse strings in private. I begin to understand your preference for actions over words."
"Mm," Eliza said, making a note to write to her father. "Now, about—"
Freddy twitched at the sound of her husband's stentorian bellow, and he turned pale so quickly she was afraid he might faint. Repeated calls did not help, but roaring back at her husband to be quiet would hardly be any better. Freddy, like so many veterans of the Great War, did not handle startlement well.
"Eliza, where are you, that great clod Bloxham was unbearable, he's the son of a grocer, he's no call to treat me like the help!" Henry strode through the door of the drawing room like a motorbus through Picadilly, coming to a crashing halt when he saw she was not alone. "Freddy," he said, wrinkling his nose. "I didn't know you were visiting."
"You are setting a poor example for the children," Eliza said firmly.
"I most certainly am not," Henry scoffed, flopping into one of the armchairs by the fireplace. He swung his legs up over the arm of the chair, twisting his body in a position that might have been leonine in a more graceful man, and he pouted. He would not call it that, but in that moment he might have been any one of their four offspring.
Eliza stared at him for a few seconds. Long experience had taught her that while immediately answering such a flat denial would only bring a round of squabbling to rival the worst the children were capable of, pinning his attention and then speaking firmly had a high rate of success. "You were shouting down the house. This is not a fishmarket, and you are not a fishmonger, though you may bellow like one. And then you were rude to a guest."
"Freddy?" Henry said incredulously. "I'm to be polite to Freddy Eynsford-Hill in my own home?" He shifted his shoulders slightly and sagged further down in the chair, a sure sign that he knew he was in the wrong but determined to be so. It was a legacy of his mother constantly demanding that he sit up straight. In Henry's mind, Eliza knew, sullen defiance and slouching were inextricable.
"Yes," Eliza said. "To his face and behind his back, both. Certainly whenever the children are present."
"Are the children present?" Henry frowned; he'd probably lost track of time and hadn't realized they were home from school. He peered around the room and found Aurelia in the windowseat with a book, Emily playing with her stuffed dog on the floor by Eliza's feet, and Edward and Andrew playing chess in the corner. All had stopped what they were doing to watch their father's dramatic entrance. "Shouldn't you be in school?" he asked.
"It's over for the day, father," Andrew pointed out.
"I should be going," Freddy said, as if he hadn't noticed the awkwardness. "We've covered the main points, and in any case Anne will fuss if I'm not home for dinner."
Normally, Eliza would say that he shouldn't let Henry drive him off, but they were mostly finished, and she could see how his hands were trembling on the head of his cane. "I shall definitely contact my father about funding, and if there's anything else I can do for your organization, please let me know."
"Your expertise is more than enough," Freddy said. "Good day, Mrs. Higgins. Professor." With gracious nods to both of them he left, leaning on his walking stick more than he usually did.
"Freddy," Henry said with distaste as soon as the front door had closed on him. "What does he want now, more charity cases to fob off on us?"
"You like working with veterans who have developed speech impediments or vocal wounds," Eliza pointed out. "It's a much more interesting challenge than teaching parvenus like Bloxham how to pretend they've always been upper-class."
"Yes, but it doesn't pay well," Henry pointed out.
"And the parvenus pay more than enough to cover the time we spend on charity cases," Eliza said. "What is it really? You've been like a bear with a sore head about Freddy for months, and frankly I'm sick of it."
"I'm volunteering my valuable time, and I don't like how he keeps asking for more."
"Not from you," Eliza pointed out. "And mostly he's asking for organizational help. I'd send him to your mother, if her health were better."
"Mother would have had him settled weeks ago," Henry grumbled.
"Possibly, but she has many more decades of experience organizing charities than I do, and a great many more contacts."
"Then Freddy should go find someone else to bother for help, someone like Mother who's spent the last fifty years organizing everyone else's lives," Henry shot back.
Eliza sat bolt upright as enlightenment dawned. "You're jealous!" she said in astonishment.
"No I'm not!" Henry said, voice climbing querulously.
"You," Eliza said, enunciating very clearly, "are jealous of Freddy Eynsford-Hill."
"Why would Papa be jealous of Mr. Eynsford-Hill?" Emily asked.
"Because Mr. Eynsford-Hill is more handsome than he is," Edward answered her.
"He is not!" Henry declaimed. "His profile is insipid."
Aurelia snickered at Henry's words.
"Aurelia, you shouldn't snicker, it's not polite," Eliza said. "And Henry, you shouldn't lie to your children. Or to yourself. Freddy is far more handsome than you are, but if that were important to me, I'd have married him instead of you."
"Was that an option, mother?" Emily asked, closing her book with a finger to hold her place.
"It certainly was," Eliza said. "He asked me before your father did. And I certainly considered it; besides his looks, he would have been far easier to live with than your father is."
"Then why did you marry me, if I am such a trial?" Henry said, with a mixture of curiosity and sarcasm.
"Because I don't have to hold back with you," Eliza said simply.
"Hah!" Henry said, sitting up straighter. "And yet you complain about my manners!"
"One can be assertive without being rude; your mother is the most forceful person I know, and her manners are impeccable," Eliza said. She turned to Emily, who at fourteen was beginning to notice men, and explained further. "You see, it is very unpleasant to live with someone who steamrolls over you, who dominates you, who controls you, even if they are not trying to hurt you. And when two people are not equals in that way—when one is always the leader and the other is always the follower, or when one is stronger and more forceful than the other—it is not healthy for either. At the time, Freddy was pleasant, but … easily led, shall we say. If he had any great depth of thought or character, he never showed them to me. I could have always had my way with very little effort, which would have been pleasant for me, but perhaps not good for me. And certainly not good for him."
"Whereas with me," Henry said, "you knew I would never let you have your way without a fight."
"With you the question was, could I get you to stop being a bully and a tyrant," Eliza said, turning back to him. "Fortunately, your bark is worse than your bite, and once you knew that I would simply leave if your conduct became intolerable, you amended your ways. I can keep you from running me over like a motor-bus, and I certainly don't have to worry about dominating you. If you'd kept treating me as you did when we first met, I'd have married Freddy and learned to be gentler."
"Mr. Eynsford-Hill doesn't seem shallow to me," Andrew said.
That was probably the source of Henry's jealousy, Eliza realized. Henry had been amused at Freddy's puppy love when they were first married. "He's changed quite considerably since he asked me to marry him," Eliza said. "He is much quieter and more thoughtful since he came home from the war."
"The Army was the making of him," Henry proclaimed, an opinion he had picked up from Colonel Pickering.
Eliza considered the way Freddy's hands sometimes shook, and how he flinched at loud noises that came unexpectedly, and the haunted look she sometimes caught in his eyes if he thought no one was looking at him. "No," she said soberly, "I think it was the breaking of him."
After dinner that evening, Eliza worked on her plans for the next day's clients, while Henry helped the children with their schoolwork, their education being far more like his had been than Eliza's.
"I still think we should send the boys to school, at least, even if we keep the girls here," Henry said as he got ready for bed that evening.
"What can they learn there that they can't learn from the perfectly good school they go to now?" Eliza asked, laying her gown neatly on the dressing room chair for Susan the maid to take care of in the morning. "Or from you?"
Henry grumbled, because he knew better than she did that the school the boys attended was as strong academically as any of the more prestigious schools they could have sent the boys to, and it was almost as distinguished. The difference was, in their current school the boys could live at home instead of boarding. "They could make good connections," he said at last, grasping at straws.
"Hah!" Eliza said as she climbed into bed. "That's rich, that is. How many connections did you make at school that were of any lasting value?"
Henry grumbled some more and climbed into bed beside her.
"Besides," Eliza said, "you'd miss them as much as I would, and you'd hate being outnumbered by women."
"True," Henry said at last. "Bloxham's going to send his boys to Eton and his girls to Cheltenham. He was bragging all about it. The blasted fool had never even heard of Tonbridge." Henry sniffed at this slight to his old school.
"You're one to talk about foolishness, wanting to send our boys away to school just because a fatuous idiot who made a fortune during the war is a snob," Eliza said. "Not to mention being jealous of Freddy, of all people."
"Oh, Eliza, must we go into that again?" Henry said, running a hand down his face. "I know I'm an old fool, you needn't rub it in."
Eliza paused and looked at him, really looked. He was so familiar to her, she knew his face better than anything in the world, and yet it suddenly struck her how old he was. When they'd married, he'd seemed ageless, powerful, in the prime of his life. And that was how she'd always thought of him; his force of personality had certainly not diminished. But he was in his seventies, now, and his face was deeply creased with age. Though his hair was receding, it was almost as dark as ever.
"I knew you were almost thirty years older than I am when I married you," she said at last. "If I'd wanted a younger man, I could have had one then. Freddy, or some other chap your mother could have found for me. I chose you, and you know how stubborn I am. You're mine, now, and I'm not about to give you up."
Henry sighed. After a few seconds he turned off the lamp on his side of the bed and slid down under the covers. Eliza followed suit, and waited to see if he'd say anything. In bed, in the dark, he was sometimes willing to be more honest than during the daylight hours.
"I feel old, Eliza," he said at last, staring up at the ceiling. "Old, and useless. I look at the men we treat, the veterans, and I'm glad Edward and Andrew are the age they are. If they'd been born a decade earlier ... All those young men chewed up at the front and spat out with their lives destroyed, and for what? So idiots like Bloxham could make their fortune in the munitions factories? So all of Europe could be laid waste? And then I read the papers and look at the fashions and the books and plays and art that are being made these days, and I don't understand it. It's all so different. All the rules of how things work that I've known all my life, they just don't seem to apply any longer." He fell silent.
Eliza waited to see if he would say any more. When it was clear he wasn't going to, she spoke. "You never liked the rules anyway."
"But I knew what they were, and how to break them," Henry said. "Now … you understand things much better than I do. You fit better than I do. You could bob your hair and go find a man who fits better than this old Victorian relic lying next to you."
"I'm not that much younger than you are, dear," Eliza pointed out dryly. "I doubt there are very many forty-year-old mothers of four with bobbed hair and short skirts in the dance halls even these days. And while I could throw you over and find a younger man, why would I want to? I've got you trained just the way I want, and I'd have to start all over again. You're mine, and you may not fit the world very well but then you never did—and you fit me quite nicely."
Henry reached over and took her hand. Eliza snuggled closer to him, and they fell asleep like that.