CHAPTER ONE: Encounter in a Storm
Saturday, 24th December 1814
Steventon Parsonage, Hampshire
“Jane,” said my mother over the lolling head of the parson slumbering beside her, “be so good as to shift your bandbox and secure my reticule. I cannot manage the hamper with one hand, to be sure.”
“No, indeed.” I pressed my bandbox—already crushed from the confines of the stage, which was crowded beyond bearing—into my friend Martha’s lap, and seized my mother’s purse. She had netted it from silk, an effort demanding considerable invention and time; none of us should hear the end of it if Mrs. Austen’s work were ruined, well before it could be universally admired. I braced my booted feet against the unsteady coach’s floor and cradled the reticule as tenderly as a newborn babe.
My mother’s hamper was a sturdy article, its contents swaddled in linen. She had provided herself with a nuncheon of cold brawn, cheese and bread, and was determined to partake of it when we quitted the coach at Basingstoke. I doubt that any of our party had the stomach for brawn—which is invariably strong in both taste and smell—after swaying together for more than fifteen miles. Martha appeared faint and my sister Cassandra has never borne well with public conveyances since the overturning of our chaise a decade ago in Lyme. For my own part, a medicinal glass of mulled wine seemed in order: My feet were become as insensible as ice, for the interior of the carriage was almost as frigid as the air without.
The odor of pickled boar’s head wafted to my nostrils; Mamma had determined to inspect the hamper’s contents. She was inordinately fond of brawn; it was just such a dish as recalled the festivities of her girlhood, when meals were less elegant and more English. I reflected that the increase in the numbers of French among us—due to the horrors of the guillotine and Buonaparte—has done much to improve the British palate in recent years.
“Lord,” whispered Cassandra hurriedly, one gloved hand over her pinched nostrils. She was seated on my left, closer to the hamper than Martha or I.
“Never fear,” I murmured. “A quarter-mile at most shall end the agony.”
We wallowed through the rutted outskirts of Basingstoke, the stage lurching as though at sea. We ought to have been six within, but the coachman’s avarice had persuaded him to add two more to his complement, burly fellows of the prosperous yeoman class. These were snoring within moments of our departure. Their personal cleanliness did not appear remarkable. Martha huddled against my right shoulder, Cassandra my left; and in short, we were quite crushed from the moment of quitting Alton.
The coach windows were fogged with damp, and a light snow had begun to fall; but if I narrowed my eyes and peered over my sister’s shoulder I could just discern a pair of ostlers, poised at the entrance of the Angel’s coaching yard with a fresh change of horses.
With a harsh halloo and a blare of his horn, the coachman turned into the yard and pulled up his strengthy beasts. The ostlers were at their heads in a moment. The coach door was pulled open, admitting a welcome blast of air, icy and tinged with the smell of horses. I drew a shuddering breath and waited for the burlier folk to quit their seats. Next to me, Martha heaved an unhappy sigh.
“I cannot bear the thought of continuing on alone to Bath,” she said. “Perhaps I ought to have accepted my sister’s invitation, and passed the Christmastide with all of you at Steventon.”
Martha’s sister, Mary, is my brother James’s wife. It was to spend Christmas among our friends and relations in Steventon that we had ascended the stage this morning. Martha, however, was fortunate in a pressing invitation to Bath—and must bear all the indignities of a public conveyance until well past nightfall. We were to transfer to private accommodation here in Basingstoke for the final four miles of our journey. James had promised to send a man for us. I glanced at the lowering sky—the fall of flakes only increasing—and fervently hoped that my brother had elected a closed carriage over his usual donkey cart.
“Pray take the hamper, Jane,” said my mother briskly, holding out her hand for her reticule. “I am sure the good man at the Angel will overlook our nuncheon, provided we offer custom in another quarter. I shall order hot lemonade, to throw off the cold.”
At a few pence per draught, this should hardly supply the loss of a fine dinner in a private parlour—but Mr. Fitch, the Angel’s publican, was unlikely to expect much from us in any case. Four ladies of shabby-genteel appearance, ranging in age from thirty-nine to seventy-five and traveling upon the common stage, are unlikely to loosen their purse-strings. Even if the purse is netted of silk.
Martha was already supplied with a steaming mug of what I suspected to be mulled wine; as the coachman would stay only for the change of horses, she could not spare a moment for the Angel’s interior. I gave her a swift hug and wished her joy of the Christmas season in Bath, which was likely to be far more festive than our own; considered briefly the madcap notion of abandoning the brawn in the stable yard and stowing away in the coach with my friend; then turned resolutely and trudged after my family.
Novelists, I reflected, are rather apt to pass in silence over the rigours of travel. Our heroines are generally accommodated in private carriages, complete with fur lap robes, enormous muffs, and hot bricks to their feet; they travel post, with private teams of horses at every stage; and invariably are pursued by a rogue so handsome and dangerous as to render them insensible for the better part of the journey. I should dearly wish to be insensible for the remainder of mine.
“Miss Austen, ma’am?”
I glanced up from the muddy ruts, already turning grey with snow. A man in nankeen breeches, heavy boots, and a worn sailor’s jacket: James’s man, no doubt.
“Jem Harley, ma’am,” he said. “Rector sent me to fetch you. I’ve stowed the cart in the stables so’s to keep the nag warm.”
The cart. My heart sank.
Four miles through open country at a snail’s pace. In snow.
Having been pretty well-acquainted with James for nearly forty years, I ought not to have hoped for much else.
The man was holding out his hand for the hamper.
“Pray partake of the contents,” I urged as I handed him the basket. “I am sure you will need fortifying for the journey ahead.”
Dusk comes swiftly in late December, particularly when the sun is obscured by a heavy layer of cloud. Now that the snow was falling in earnest, the roads out of Basingstoke were grown deserted as more sensible people sought safety within doors. I am sure that our driver, Jem, could hardly see beyond the nose of his nag. He did not complain or mutter oaths, however; indeed, he uttered not a syllable, his head hunched between his shoulders and his gaze fixed on the road.
The unfortunate horse moved at a walk. Given the weight of our baggage and ourselves, I was surprised that it moved at all. It was nearly four o’clock, and growing dark. More prosperous travelers would have lit their carriage lamps before departing the Angel. But we had none to light.
“Ought not we to turn back, Jane?” Cassandra asked in a lowered tone. “James and Mary expect us every moment—they shall be in considerable suspense—and James has already laid out good money for the services of this man—but surely our present attempt is out of all proportion to what is required?”
She was huddled beneath one edge of the lap robe, which was so narrow as to prevent its being tucked beneath her; we had decided without comment to place our mother as warmly and securely as possible between us. Both Mamma and Cass kept their heads bowed, as though at Divine Service, to prevent the snow from stinging their cheeks. Cassandra’s feathers—so proudly set to trim her Christmas bonnet a few days ago—were sodden and draggling by the tip of her nose.
“James may lament the loss of his coin when he has sense enough to hire a closed carriage,” I retorted crossly. “His parsimony has long been cause for ridicule, but I refuse to allow it to finish us. Jem! Jem!”
Our driver turned his head.
“Pray pull up your horse. We—”
I broke off, mouth agape in dread, my eyes fixed upon the luminous spheres wavering over Jem’s shoulder. Carriage lanterns! At the same instant I caught the muffled beat of hooves, deadened by snow. The oncoming coachman could not perceive us for the whirl of flakes; our paltry conveyance was unlit, and moreover, should afford not the slightest protection from the impact of a coach and four. I rose from my seat, waving my arms in panic. Jem turned, espied the danger, and attempted too late to haul his nag into the hedge at the side of the road. He achieved only the most awkward of situations, his front wheels canted into the ditch, and the rear ones rising at an angle from the roadbed.
“Jane!” Cassandra cried. Her right arm clasped our mother to her bosom, her left braced them both against the mad tilt of the cart. Placed as we were, full against the hedge, it must be impossible to escape. We should all be killed
The crash, when it came, threw me violently on top of my relations and brought my face into abrupt contact with the hedgerow. The nag was screaming in alarm and the neighs of other horses were strident in my ears; a gout of snow had fallen from the hedge full on my bonnet. There was snow in the neck of my pelisse. But my throat was open in protest, which suggested I was not quite dead—nor did I appear to have suffered broken bones. I struggled to right myself against the yielding stuff that was Cassandra, and found purchase on my knees in the body of the cart.
The coach had come to a swaying halt some twenty yards further down the road. I could hear the coachman’s curses as he struggled to control his team; he must be driving four in hand, a remarkable feat in such weather. That augured a private conveyance. I glanced about—saw Cassandra drawing breath, her eyes wide with shock, and my mother’s eyes tightly closed, her lips moving in prayer.
“Are you hurt, ma’am?”
The hoarse inquiry was Jem’s. He had jumped down from the box and gone to his horse’s head; the beast was shuddering, but no longer attempting to throw over the traces.
“I shall do.” I gathered myself in a huddle on the canted seat beside my mother and observed that the rear corner of the cart had carried away, leaving only a splintered gap. The wheel, too, was a bent misery of iron on that side. We should go no further this e’en.
“Halloo-o, there! Are you injured? Is your equipage damaged?”
A deep voice, crackling with annoyance and leashed anger—but the voice of a gentleman, all the same. Its owner remained obscured by the storm.
“Nag’s all right,” Jem called, “but the cart’s done for. You’m torn the wheel right off.”
“Blast. What in the hell where you thinking, pulled up in the road without a spark of light?” The voice was approaching; I heard the quick sound of booted feet, careless of the slippery roadbed beneath them. “I’d have been damned well within my rights if I’d killed you.”
“Sir!” my mother cried in outrage. I doubt she had heard so many oaths uttered in a single sentence before. “Pray consider where you are!”
There was a groan, half exasperation, half amusement. “I fear I am in the middle of a frozen wilderness, madam, with a party of Amazons I have vastly incommoded.” A shape loomed out of the whirling snow: a tall beaver and a greatcoat sporting numerous capes. A gloved hand swept his hat from his head, and the tall figure bowed low. “Mr. West at your service. May I implore you to seek shelter in the far warmer interior of my carriage?”
I suspect that it shall be long, indeed, before I cease to think of the exquisite relief of that carriage—how opulent the dark blue velvet squabs and cushions appeared, after the careworn benches of Jem’s cart, and how loath my sister and I were to spoil its beauty with our dripping pelisses. Once the coach doors were closed, the warmth of several hot bricks was palpable at our feet; my mother uttered a deep sigh of relief.
“I have no notion whom that fellow may be, Jane—he is most vulgar in his expressions, to be sure, and where the tongue goes, the mind undoubtedly follows—but I cannot think death preferable to this brush with iniquity; and I confess I felt myself to be within mere moments of expiring, so frozen as my limbs were become. I could not bear to think of my dear girls cast alone into—what did he call it? A frozen wilderness?—and thus if your brother James showers us with reproaches when he learns all, I shall take the burden of blame upon myself, as a mother and a Christian.”
“Blast James,” I said crossly. “He is a damned fool. You see, Mamma? I have profited by my brief association with Mr. West, in the enlargement of my vocabulary.”
“You have been acquainted with such words this age, Jane,” my parent retorted sharply, “so do not attempt to bamboozle me. What are those men about, with all this to-ing and fro-ing? It grows excessively late, and I want my dinner.”
I surveyed the interior of the carriage, but no hamper betrayed its existence. The air was markedly devoid of odor, as well. The basket and its contents were vanished into a snowdrift.
“I believe,” Cassandra said hastily, “the men are determining what is to be done with the damaged cart.”
“Drive it entirely through the hedge,” I suggested, “so that it may do no harm to any unsuspecting person on Christmas Eve. The villagers might make merry with it, in the form of kindling.”
At that moment, the door nearest me was wrenched open and a dark head was thrust inside.
“Madam,” he said.
I found myself confronting Mr. West. His eyes were dark brown and capable of great expression—amusement, exasperation, and weariness evident in their depths. His countenance was hardly youthful—he might claim roughly my own years, indeed—but his features were fine-boned and beautifully proportioned. Something else I detected, however, as my cheeks warmed—the gentleman seemed accustomed to study the human form, and quite intently, as though it were in his charge to record every visible detail of those he surveyed. Mr. West appraised me with an attitude both intimate and detached. He anatomised me at a glance.
“Mr. West?” I said faintly.
His gaze broke from mine and travelled over my companions.
“I understand I have the pleasure of addressing a family party, by the name of Austen, and that you are bound for the parsonage in a village called Steventon.”
“Yes, indeed. My brother, Mr. James Austen, is rector of St. Nicholas church there.”
I must have looked my confusion.
“It is, after all, the season of St. Nicholas. My own road, unfortunately, lies elsewhere—as you must have divined, at perceiving my approach from the opposite direction to your own. I have come, indeed, from Bath . . .”
His position in the open doorway must be growing excessively uncomfortable, as the snow was driving harder than ever; certainly the draughts were no pleasure to those within.
“ . . . and I am expected this evening at The Vyne.”
“The Vyne!” Cassandra exclaimed. “Are you acquainted, then, with Mr. and Mrs. William Chute?”
“In a manner of speaking.” He inclined his head to her. “We have maintained a voluminous correspondence, but have yet to meet in the flesh. If I hope to do so before another twenty-four hours have passed, I must conclude our conversation and send you on your way.”
“You do not accompany us?” I said hurriedly.
A flicker of interest from those brown depths; and then their light was shrouded by half-closed lids. “I entrust you, rather, to my coachman. Tower is, as his name suggests, the epitome of strength. He has obtained the parsonage’s direction from your carter and has unharnessed two of my team. I shall take one horse and ride onward to The Vyne; your carter shall take the other, and lead his poor nag home. She has gone lame in her off rear.”
“But what of your baggage, sir?” my mother demanded. “What of your safety? We cannot possibly exile you from your own equipage, and in such weather! That is to be doing too much!”
“Not at all, ma’am. I shall regard it as a trifle.”
If I detected further amusement in his countenance, I did not betray him. I could well imagine that any man should prefer a brisk trot toward dinner and a fire, to a tedious seven-mile journey through snow seated on the box next to his own coachman. That Mr. West did not wish to embarrass us with his presence inside the carriage, I ascribed to an unexpected delicacy.
“Tower shall join me once he has set you safely down at Steventon parsonage, madam,” he informed Mamma. “It is only a matter of three miles, and the road to The Vyne not much longer again than that. The horses were changed at Reading, and may easily stand the distance.”
“You are very good, sir.”
He smiled wryly. “Having been nearly the death of you, I cannot be too solicitous of your security.” A last quicksilver glance at me, the ghost of a nod, and his head was withdrawn from the body of the coach. The door slammed to, and we heard the rap of his knuckles without; the wheels began to turn.
“Happy Christmas!” he shouted.
I peered through the sidelight. But it was already fogged with moisture, and the darkness obscured every outline; he was an indistinct figure bracketed by horses, with a whirlwind descending.
Happy Christmas, Mr. West, I mentally returned; and wondered what might bring a stranger to so wild a place as The Vyne at such a frigid time of year.