After settling herself and Adelaide at the Rose and Crown Inn, Elizabeth ordered them both the luxury of a hip bath and changed into a fresh frock. The Gardiners’ had given her coin for her troubles, but Elizabeth wished to find work as quickly as possible. She would not impose herself further upon their charity by writing to ask for assistance.
“Miss Bennet?” Adelaide ventured, seeing Elizabeth gathering her outside wear.
“Wilson,” Elizabeth said. “Mrs. Wilson.”
“Yes’m,” Adelaide said, clutching her hands. “Mrs. Wilson? Mrs. Gardiner said I was to accompany you on your trip and—”
“And we have arrived. This is the countryside, and I am well used to walking in the countryside. I will not be long.”
Adelaide looked aghast. “On your own, Miss?” She looked down at her hands. She was a maid, not a proper lady’s companion. It was not her place to contest her assigned mistress. At the same time, she had been tasked with Elizabeth’s virtue.
“I am a widow making a call to the parson,” Elizabeth reassured her. “My virtue is well in hand. Can you can see to things here? We will need a proper dinner. And supper.”
“Thank you,” Elizabeth said, ending the conversation. As soon as she found work, she would send Adelaide back to London with assurances that Elizabeth was well settled.
The day was chilly and gray. It had, at least, ceased raining, and patches of light brightened some of the clouds, giving the afternoon a hint of promise which restored Elizabeth’s optimism. The ground was damp as Elizabeth walked the main road alongside the wheel ruts.
At the town center stood the church, an impressive edifice of stone towering a full story over the smaller shops surrounding it. Elizabeth hoped the parson or his wife would be in attendance, or at least nearby, as one would be likely to know which households might be in need of a governess within the village and surrounding area. As Elizabeth passed the milliner, she noted a young maid standing at the curb in front of a carriage, having an animated conversation with a footman. She twisted a curl from beneath her bonnet, looking up at the footman with a flirtatious smile.
Elizabeth averted her gaze.
She entered the church, and finding the parson absent, resolved to return in the morning with the hope someone would be in attendance who could help her. Elizabeth’s natural amicability prevailed over her disappointment, and as she left the church, she smiled at the weak sunlight that had pierced some of the afternoon’s oppressive clouds.
Mrs. Gardiner had given Elizabeth a letter of introduction to former neighbors and friends in the area, and Elizabeth hoped calling upon them would improve her prospects. For now, she would enjoy a meat pie.
But as she retraced her steps to the Inn, an unsavory scene arrested her attention. A girl, perhaps eleven or twelve, stood with her back to a stone wall between two shops. In front of her were two young men. Their clothing was shabby and disheveled. The young girl’s dress was finely made in a pale yellow muslin. Aside from a smudge of dirt on her cheek, she was neat and clean. She fisted her gloved hands as she said something to the two young men.
The older of the pair laughed.
Elizabeth, recognizing the danger of the situation, strode over to them. “Excuse me? Might I ask your business with this young lady?”
The two men turned to Elizabeth. Noting the fabric and fine cut of her frock and the confidence of her bearing, the smaller of the two men stepped back. “Apologies, ma’am. This young lady was lost.”
“I thank you for offering aid, but it is no longer required.” Elizabeth strode towards the young girl and linked their arms together.
The girl was short and stocky of build with disheveled blond curls. Her features were strong, the sort that overpowered a child but grew more handsome with age. “I did not need any help,” she whispered, but her hand was shaking as Elizabeth walked her away from the two men.
Elizabeth said, “You should not be walking alone.”
“You are walking alone,” the girl retorted.
She made a point. Elizabeth had abandoned her own chaperone to walk on her own, and she’d made a habit of long, solitary walks since she was near this child’s age. Though she had never ventured unaccompanied to the village.
“It is true. But I am now one and twenty.” Or almost such. “When I was two and ten,” Elizabeth glanced down at the young woman, who averted her gaze. “I did not venture to town on my own without the company of my mother or sisters. Have you any sisters?”
“She is away. In Oxfordshire.”
“You must be very lonely without her. I have four sisters. The eldest is Jane, and I miss her terribly.” Elizabeth swallowed. Jane, having no success crossing paths with Mr. Bingley, let alone recapturing his interest, had left town a week before Elizabeth.
“Georgiana would rather play piano and play court to—” The young girl shook her head. “I cannot talk of that.” She blushed. Elizabeth, sympathetic to the girl’s mortification, having experienced an unfair degree with her mother and two youngest sisters, changed the subject. “I am Elizabeth… Elizabeth Wilson.”
“Rose,” the girl said. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mrs. Wilson.”
They walked back along the side of the road, skirt hems dragging against the damp grass, which muffled the sound of their footfalls. “Whereabouts do you live? Was it a long walk?”
Judging by Rose’s dress and manners, Elizabeth doubted she had walked very far on her own. She had a smudge of dirt on her cheek, but the pale yellow muslin of her frock was mostly clean, and a family with the wealth to afford their daughter such a fine dress would not allow her so much freedom to gallivant on her own about the countryside.
Even as eccentric as her own family’s habits were, much of Elizabeth’s freedom had been due to a surfeit of siblings and a mother who, while she often accompanied them on excursions, was also easily distracted, allowing the girls greater independence provided they kept a watchful eye on each other.
Lastly, it did not escape Elizabeth that Rose had only shared her given name. A girl with permission to run wild would not have hidden her identity. But Rose’s safety was of greater import than proving the young girl a liar.
“I think you for your help,” Rose said, pulling her away. “But I have no need of further companionship, Mrs. Wilson.”
“Who were those young men?”
“Village boys.” Rose stepped away, glancing back the way they had come.
Elizabeth said, “I had thought to stop for a meat pie before returning to my room at the inn. You may not wish companionship, but it has been a little lonely for me, as this is my first time so far from home with no family at my side. If you would oblige me, Miss Rose, I would be grateful for your company.”
“Of course. I suspect we have much in common. We both like walking.”
Rose’s lips twitched. “I suppose.”
“And I suppose we both would enjoy a meat pie. Are they very tasty at the shop?”
Rose nodded. “My last governess felt it inappropriate for me to have such a snack between meals.””
“Pish! You are growing. And active. A meat pie should cause you no lasting harm.”
Rose laughed. Elizabeth held out her arm, and the girl took it again. They walked together along a stone wall enclosing a small field with sheep and past the church.
“Why are you so far from your family?” Rose gasped, her eyes widening, “Are you seeking your fortune?”
Her fortune? Young Rose had an interest in novels, an interest in which Elizabeth doubted her previous governess had approved.
If she had even known.
While some, including Mary and Meryton’s parson, felt novels had an adverse effect on a growing mind, Elizabeth had never held such notions. Her mother had never read a novel, indulging in only scandal sheets and Burke’s peerage, and yet she was often silly. Jane read novels while Lydia, the least practical of Elizabeth sisters, read nothing at all. Elizabeth quite enjoyed a good novel and found no shame in it.
Elizabeth said, “I was hoping to find work as a lady’s companion or governess.”
“You do not act at all like a governess.”
Elizabeth bit her lower lip. “How does a governess behave?”
“She is strict. She dislikes reading unless it is for one’s own edification, which means overly moral and deadly dull. She insists upon hours and hours at the pianoforte. She does not approve when one climbs trees or searches for treasure.”
“And she does not approve of meat pies between meals, as you have said. That all sounds quite terrible. I much enjoy climbing trees.”
“You do?” Rose leaned closer to her. “I think Georgiana might have once approved of climbing trees, but I was too small, and then… I— You should tell no one of your fondness for climbing trees, if you wish to be a governess,” Rose declared. “Perhaps you are better suited as a lady’s companion. Though ladies also do not approve of climbing trees in my experience.”
Elizabeth laughed. “I believe this is much dependent on the lady. The truth of it is a lady never admits to climbing trees, at least not in company.”
Rose nodded solemnly. “Just as one does not admit to doing cartwheels or exploring or any exercise beyond dancing.”
“Do you dance?”
“I am not yet allowed until I have a better mastery of Latin, but Georgiana has showed me some of what she has learned.”
Elizabeth understood why Rose had little fondness for governesses. Elizabeth, free to pursue her own interests, had approached Latin at first as a way of growing closer to her father, and after had fallen in love with their tales of gods and heroics. Perhaps if Rose could gain more enjoyment from her lessons, she would retain them. In Elizabeth’s experience, knowledge was more easily acquired through enjoyment.
They stopped at the shop, sharing a meat pie hot from the oven. By time Elizabeth and Rose had finished their snack, and were licking hot juices from their fingers, the pair had become fast friends.
But as they stepped out of the shop, a delicate blonde woman of about two and thirty years came dashing down the road. “Rosalind!”
Rose muttered, “Drat!”