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The russet rooster surveyed his kingdom. The warm summer sun beamed gently down on chestnut coppice and neat hedgerow, hop-yard and barn, country house and cottage, corn mill and church. Riotous blooms twined along fences and stiles, beneath a sky of unclouded blue. Plump sheep and cattle munched lush meadow grass. In all, 'twas a picture pretty enough to pluck at any but the most jaded heartstrings, rural tranquillity perfect in every detail, including the rooster's harem clucking and sunning themselves beside a weathered wooden fence.
And then, around a distant bend, rattled a job-coach. It was drawn by nags that suffered greatly in comparison with the well-fed cattle that grazed thereabouts. Offended by the intrusion, the rooster drew himself up majestically and waddled to the edge of the road to survey the approaching coach. One astute glance led him to the conclusion that the job-horses were as short on nerve as on flesh. He awaited his moment. The job-coach drew nigh. The rooster took a deep breath, then erupted in an explosion of feathers and cockcrows beneath the near leader's startled nose. The outcome was inevitable. The frightened nags bolted, not to be brought under control again until the job-coach collided with a low-branched tree, tumbling its sole passenger into a ditch.
"Hang it!" cried Miss Tabitha Minchin, as she thus descended abruptly and painfully into a dry summer's accumulation of dust and dirt. Then she flushed guiltily. Miss Minchin's speech had been unfortunately influenced by the young gentlemen under her uncle's tutelage. She gingerly inspected herself for damage and found none, save for the quantities of nature's bounty with which she was nowfestooned. Ineffectually, she brushed herself. Then she contemplated the verge of the ditch and was somewhat disconcerted to find herself eye to eye with a vengeful-looking russet rooster. Tabby flapped her hands at it. "Shoo! Do go away, you silly fowl. Oh, Mr. Coachman! Do you think you might help me out of this ditch?"
The coachman's response was eerily disembodied, as well as brief and to the point. "No," he said. "I've got my hands full here, miss. I don't reckon to be chasing my nags all about the countryside."
In response to the man's rudeness, Tabby bit her lower lip. Much as her circumstances had changed of late, she had never before suffered so keen an awareness of just how far she'd come down in the world. Well, she could hardly stay in this ditch in hope that some Good Samaritan would arrive on the scene and nobly overlook the fact that she was a mere hired servant. Tabby eyed the side of the ditch. She had been a tomboy in her youth, which, at twenty years of age, lay not that far in the past. Tabby shooed away the rooster, less hostile now than outright curious. She took a deep breath, hoisted up her skirts, and climbed.
The scene that greeted Tabby on her emergence from the ditch did not elevate her spirits. Even to her inexpert eye it was evident that the job-coach had suffered severe damage to one of its wheels and would travel no farther for a while. "What am I to do?" she cried. "I'm expected in Brighton today. If I'm late, I don't know what will become of me!"
The coachman glanced over his shoulder at his rumpled and distinctly grimy passenger. Nothing in his expression indicated compassion for the plight of the niece of a deceased, and unfortunately impecunious, Cambridge don. "You may as well make up your mind to being late, then, miss," he said, not without satisfaction, because he resented her lack of concern for his own plight. The coachman had his own living to think of, and a broken wheel, and these stupid horses that still hadn't recovered from their fright. The lass looked so woebegone that he relented. "Mayhap the wheel's not so bad as she looks. There's a blacksmith shop hereabouts. And an inn." He pointed down the road. "Along there a ways. You go on and see if they can't put you up for the night."
For this night and how many others? Mentally, Tabby counted the little bit of money in her purse.
Since there seemed little point in arguing with the driver, Tabby retrieved her portmanteau from the stricken coach and set off down the dusty road. She reminded herself that her new employer had arranged for her transportation and therefore shouldn't be out-of-reason startled to discover that the rickety coach had broken down. One thing was certain: if the tenor of her trip thus far was any indication, Tabby needn't expect any special treatment in her new position as governess to the daughters of Sir Geoffrey Elphinstone.
The summer sun beamed gently down upon field and flower; birds sang and bees droned. It was a scene which had of late enchanted many city dwellers, there being a pugilistic encounter taking place in the neighborhood. So far were Tabby's heartstrings from being touched by the bucolic beauty of her surroundings that she scowled ferociously at a friendly butterfly. It must not be deduced from this that Tabby's disposition was disobliging. In general, Tabby was held to be a pretty-tempered little soul, and under better circumstances she might have enjoyed this outing very well, indeed. But her portmanteau was heavy, and her mourning clothes were hot, and Tabby was uncomfortably aware that there was a blister rising on her heel. She was additionally aware that she was in a dreadful pickle. She must get to Brighton. Perhaps there would be some sort of conveyance for hire at the inn. Tabby envisioned a bustling inn yard, with ostlers and waiters, chambermaids and boots and grooms bustling to and fro. Perhaps she might be fortunate enough to secure a place on the Brighton Mail. But mail-coach passage was even dearer than a stage, and surely one had to make reservations in advance?
Again Tabby mentally counted the scant coins in purse. They would not be enough to purchase even an outside seat. She must wait for the surly job-coachman to come back for her. If ever he did! Oh, what a wretched fix this was. Tabby blinked back tears as she thought of her gay and somewhat feckless uncle, so recently deceased of a putrid sore throat, which had resulted from a schoolboy's practical joke involving a rope ladder and a tub of cold water. How he would scold her for wallowing in self-pity. Tabby squared her shoulders and set off at a brisk if limping pace, a brave little figure in dusty black, wearing a crushed bonnet and hugging her battered portmanteau. Behind her, at a discreet distance, trailed the russet rooster, as if he felt in some degree responsible for her plight.