Beneath a gray and weeping sky, a Royal Mail stagecoach trundled north towards Derbyshire. Miss Elizabeth Bennet wished to pretend it was all a grand adventure, but three days being jounced about until her muscles and teeth ached and three nights in tiny coaching inn rooms with the thin, ill-tempered maid Mrs. Gardiner had insisted Elizabeth bring as a chaperone, had robbed Elizabeth of her sense of wonder. Her eyelids were stiff, her hair itched, and she stank.
Across from Elizabeth sat a white-haired, plump woman with spectacles on her nose and a book in her lap. She traced the text with her index finger as she read, pausing occasionally to take a sip from her hip flask or glance out the window at the patchwork fields.
Elizabeth glanced over at her, and then, fearing rudeness, turned her attention back to the pillow on her lap. Gripping the needle between her thumb and forefinger, she sewed. Beside her on the bench, the maid turned chaperone, Adelaide, slept with her head tipped back, mouth parted and snoring like an angry cricket.
“Is it your first time in a public coach?” the woman across from her asked.
Was it so obvious? Elizabeth stabbed the needle into the pillow. “Yes.”
“It is not so terrible.” The woman closed her book and placed it on the bench beside her. She lifted her hip flask and took a sip. “Have you and your… friend,” she glanced at Adelaide. “Come up all the way from London?”
“Long journey. You must be exhausted.” The woman held out her hip flask. “Have a taste. It will warm your bones.”
Elizabeth hesitated. She was not in the habit of accepting refreshments from strangers. “What is it?”
“My special mix for long trips. Go on, then.”
Elizabeth glanced over at Adelaide, but the maid did not stir. A fine protector. But Elizabeth was thirsty, and she appreciated the offer of friendship. She took the flask and sipped cautiously.
Liquid fire burned down her throat. Elizabeth coughed, blinking rapidly.
The old woman chuckled. “My specialty. Tea with a touch of lavender and a healthy dollop of gin.”
“It is bracing,” Elizabeth said, handing the flask back. Now that the initial burn had passed, the drink had warmed her, or at least distracted her from the chill, damp air and Elizabeth’s own nerves.
“Are you visiting family up north?”
“In Lambton. And I am hoping to find work as a governess or a lady’s companion.”
Elizabeth’s hands shook. She was really doing this, putting her life and her prospects behind her and seeking work.
After rejecting Mr. Collins’ proposal, life at Longbourn had become intolerable. If her aunt and uncle had not visited and yielded to Elizabeth’s entreaties to take her with them to Town, she might have buckled, not to Mr. Collins, who had already wed Charlotte, but to another fool with a good income whom Elizabeth did not admire.
No, it was better she left. The life of a governess was uncertain, and for many unhappy, but if Elizabeth could not marry for love, she would not marry at all. And if she was not to marry, then she needed to provide for herself. She refused to be a burden to her family.
“Lambton! Why, that is my destination. My niece is with child, and I wished to give her some aid, what with her husband being away with Wellington’s men. Have you any brothers on the front? We might pray, together.”
Elizabeth was touched. “I have no brothers, but if you wish to pray…” Elizabeth had prayed enough this past month for guidance or at least comfort. Perhaps God had guided her here.
“In a bit, perhaps. You are not so fond of embroidery, are you, Miss—?”
Elizabeth bit the inside of her cheek. As tired and sore as she was from the days of travel, once she left this coach, her future became even more uncertain. “Elizabeth,” she said.
The maid snorted and rubbed her hand over her cheek. Drool glistened from the corner of her mouth.
“Elizabeth Ben—” No. Once she left this coach, Miss Elizabeth Bennet would disappear. Best to begin now.
“Mrs. Elizabeth Wilson,” Elizabeth declared. Wilson was her aunt’s maiden name and the one she had chosen to begin her new life.
The old woman’s eyebrow twitched. “Mrs. Wilson,” she said, smiling with one missing tooth. “Evelyn. Mrs. Evelyn Johnson. It is a pleasure to meet you.”
The carriage jerked.
“Huh?” Adelaide rubbed her eyes. The carriage jerked again. Elizabeth gripped the seat as ahead, the driver, astride one of the heavy draft horses, pulled back on the reins, shouting. The horses turned left, slowing beside a carriage which appeared to have tipped onto its side. The horses were gone.
“Goodness! I had not believed the rumors!” Mrs. Johnson exclaimed.
Elizabeth swallowed. She peered out the side window. A footman hopped down from the coach. He held a coach gun in hand as he approached the downed carriage.
Adelaide said, “Cor! Mrs. Gardiner said no such thing of us being robbed.”
“Perhaps there was an accident,” Elizabeth suggested.
“Humph! What accident run off with the horses?”
Adelaide made an excellent point.
The footman returned, shaking his head as he walked back. He spoke briefly to the driver and then walked towards the back of the coach. Elizabeth stood.
“What are you doing?” Adelaide said as Elizabeth opened the stagecoach door.
“Finding out what is going on,” Elizabeth said. A cold wind swept into the carriage. “Excuse me,” Elizabeth shouted to the footman as he passed. “What happened?”
“Nothing to concern yourself with, Miss.”
“Was anyone hurt?”
“No. It is empty.”
An empty carriage, no horses, and rumors of highwaymen. Elizabeth shivered.
“We’ll be on our way again, Miss, if you would like to get settled in.”
Elizabeth thanked him and pulled the door shut.
“Cor,” Adelaide said again as the coach rumbled forward. “They gon’ report it at the next station?”
“I suppose,” Elizabeth said, seating herself again on the bench. As the driver guided the horses, Elizabeth reached up to the shawl around her shoulders and clasped it around her.
Mrs. Johnson took another swig from her flask. “Lambton is a quiet town. You were looking for work as a governess, you said?”
Elizabeth nodded. Thoughts of the empty carriage had driven away fears about her future employment.
“Try the Darcy house,” Mrs. Johnson advised, holding the flask out again.
“Darcy?” It could not be the same odious Darcy who had mocked her and then danced with her with all the warmth of a plasterwork. Though Jane, or perhaps their mother, had mentioned Mr. Darcy’s estate was in the North.
“At Pemberley. The youngest Darcy girl has been quite the terror since their father’s passing, my niece says. She is just eleven and since last summer has driven away three young governesses on her own.”
Pemberley. That was the name of Mr. Darcy’s estate. Elizabeth had little doubt Mr. Darcy’s sister was a terror. She would be following in the family tradition.
“Thank you,” Elizabeth said, resolving to find work elsewhere. Highwaymen. Monster children, and now this.
“I would not have suggested it, love, but you were so fierce just then with the footman.” Mrs. Johnson held the flask out again, and Elizabeth took it. Mrs. Elizabeth Wilson needed a taste of courage.