“It’s so very exciting, Augusta! I cannot help but think the house will be lovely!”
Augusta Penworth smiled at her friend’s excitement. For the past year she’d been sharing a small house in London with Mrs. Rachel Wilmont, a widow who happily enjoyed her husbandless state. It had been only a month earlier when Rachel had received a letter from her cousin with news of a property to let on their estate near Bath. They had both longed to get away from town, out of the city and back into the countryside. The promise of a small cottage on a beautifully landscaped estate, far from the painful reminders of her past, had seemed an answer to their prayers.
But over the course of their journey, Augusta’s own excitement had faded as every step of the way had been beset by difficulty. It had rained nonstop since they’d left London, one downpour bleeding into another made the roads nearly impassible in certain places and forcing them to travel at a snail’s pace. A broken wheel, a lame horse, a driver fallen ill—one minor disaster after another had made their journey interminable. They’d had to hire another coach at the last inn and while it was just as shabby as the first, it was significantly less clean. As if the very heavens were conspiring against them, as they were setting out from the inn that morning, the small break in the rain that had come during the night ended in dramatic fashion. Great torrents of water had lashed the carriage as they traveled on, along with occasional bolts of lightning and the roll of thunder. How Rachel could maintain her enthusiasm was simply beyond Augusta’s ken.
“I’m sure it will be very fine,” Augusta agreed, though her tone betrayed her growing lack of enthusiasm.
Rachel rolled her eyes. “You could at least attempt to feign a bit of elation at having our fondest wish granted, Augusta! From the very day we met you’ve spoken quite animatedly of your desire to leave London and now that we have you’re practically in a doldrum!”
“And if the misfortunes we have faced on this journey is any indication of what this change of locality will bring us then I say in a doldrum is exactly where I should be,” Augusta replied with tart amusement. She’d grown inordinately fond of Rachel in the time they’d shared her small house, but at times she had to wonder just how far removed from the reality of their existence Rachel truly was.
“Oh, pish! We’ve had a few minor setbacks, that is all,” she stated with a nod of her head that set her pretty curls to bouncing. “Do you regret leaving the city, Augusta? Isn’t living in the country what you said you wanted?”
Still marveling at the fact that Rachel’s hair had remained perfectly curled beneath her bonnet while she herself resembled nothing so much as a drowned rat, Augusta sighed. “It is and I do want to be away from London and all the misery that it holds for both of us, not to mention the less than genteel poverty we have endured as neither of us receives the sort of generous annuity required to live there comfortably. Still, I cannot help but wonder at the remarkably reasonable rents that are being asked for this house. What if we are we trading one hovel for another?”
“My cousin would not have recommended it to us were it a hovel,” the other woman insisted. “Can you not allow yourself to feel any excitement or hope? Are you still so bitter, Augusta, that the very idea of good things coming into your life is anathema to you?”
Is that truly how she appeared? It wasn’t bitterness, she reasoned, but rationality. Pretending the world was a fine place filled with rainbows and sunshine, kindness and goodwill, did not make it so, and she’d accustomed herself to the idea that difficulty and struggle were simply a part of her daily life. It was realism and not bitterness that dictated her interpretation of their current situation. “No, Rachel. It isn’t bitterness at all, but if I were a superstitious person, this journey would surely fall under the category of bad omens. It’s practically a harbinger of doom!”
Rachel’s lips curved upward in a slight smile. “It has been a difficult journey, but it will all be worth it in the end. I promise! We’ll have a lovely visit with my cousin at her husband’s estate and then make our way to our new home. A house party, Augusta—just think of it! Neither of us has had such gay entertainment in years!”
Augusta had been thinking of it, more than she’d like to admit. She’d thought of it as she examined every remaining gown in her meager wardrobe. Those clothes had once been so fine, purchased before her grandfather’s death and with what she hadn’t realized at the time was the very last of his fortune. All of it had been done in the hopes of landing her a husband who would care for her after he was gone and she all alone. Like so many things her grandfather had done in his life, that venture had been an epic failure. Now those gowns were sad— threadbare and years out of fashion. Hopefully, in the country and with most of the nobility and gentry gone into town for the Season, she would not look so dreadfully out of place.
“We’ll stick out like sore thumbs, you and I,” Augusta warned. “You at least have the benefit of being a relation to the hostess. I haven’t even that. Society women can be impossibly brutal, Rachel… I don’t think you understand just how vicious they can be.” Augusta’s voice was pitched low as she strained to control the pain of memories still fresh in her mind.
Rachel clasped her hands together in her lap, looking all that was prim and proper. “My cousin would never invite us to stay if we were only to be objects of ridicule. I cannot believe that she would allow such viperous individuals to sully our stay with her. Please, have some hope, Augusta! Have some faith! Allow yourself to enjoy the beautiful scenery and to appreciate the fact that we are well away from London with all its ugly memories and our less than genteel poverty there!”
Augusta sighed as the carriage lumbered on, hitting a particularly deep rut in the road that nearly jolted her off the seat. Rubbing her abused hip after it connected rather painfully with the carriage wall, she said, “Fine. But I am reserving the right to say I told you so!”
“About the journey, the house party, our new rental property, or… I forget now how many dire warnings you’ve issued,” Rachel stated with a mock frown.
Augusta rolled her eyes. “Any and all of those things, Rachel. Mark my words!”
At that moment, an ominous crack sounded and the carriage began to list alarmingly to one side.
“Do not say it yet!” Rachel shouted as the vehicle bounced along the roadway.
Their reticules and the sewing basket that Rachel kept with her always were spilling out inside the vehicle, small items rolling over the floor. From the window, Augusta could see several of their bags falling from where they’d been stowed behind the carriage, crashing to the muddy road. Their meager but precious belongings littered the roadway as the vehicle finally came to a rest nearly on its side.
“What on earth happened?” Rachel asked as she picked herself up from the dirty floor of their hired conveyance.
“I would imagine we’ve a broken yet another wheel on yet another carriage. If we’re lucky it will be only the wheel… If we are unlucky it will be the axle. Therefore, it is undoubtedly the axle,” Augusta stated grimly.
Rachel said nothing in response to that, but her lips firmed and her expression was telling enough.
Augusta did not utter the ‘I told you so’ that hovered on her lips. Instead, she rose to her feet and managed to get to the door of the carriage and push it open. What she saw made her gasp.
“What is it?” Rachel demanded.
Augusta didn’t answer immediately. The carriage was poised on the brink of utter disaster. Perched on a small ledge with a rushing, rain-swollen stream only a few feet below them, their unfortunate accident had the potential to become an actual tragedy. With all the rain, the stream was moving swiftly and the small bit of muddy bank separating their damaged vehicle from the waterway was being washed away by every raindrop that fell.
Rachel rose and moved toward her. “What is it, Augusta?”
The carriage began to tip alarmingly. The broken wheel sinking deeper into the muddy bank that had only inches to spare before they plunged into the brisk water.
“Sit down, Rachel! On the far side of the carriage… we need to keep as much weight as possible over there.”
“Tell me what’s happening!”
Augusta turned her head, cautious of every movement and how it might unbalance the conveyance. “We’re precariously close to the edge of a steep embankment. I fear any sudden movements or shifting too much weight to this side of the carriage might send the whole thing toppling down into the water. Now, stay where you are and I’m going to ease toward the door over there and get out.”
“It’s so high! With the carriage tipped up, you’ll have to jump down and you will break your ankle or twist it at the very least,” Rachel insisted.
“I’m wearing sturdy boots,” Augusta stated firmly as she backed slowly away from the listing side of the carriage and towards the opposite door. “I will be fine, I assure you. Our driver must be injured or he would have already called out to check on us.”
“Oh, dear,” Rachel said, wringing her hands. “What if he isn’t injured at all? What if the unthinkable has happened?”
“The coachman isn’t dead, Rachel! The accident was not that serious!”
“I didn’t mean that! What if this was all some elaborate ploy, Augusta? What if we’ve been stranded here to be set upon by unscrupulous parties? This could be the rendezvous point!” Her tone was rising toward hysteria as she undoubtedly envisioned half a dozen horrible ends that involved harems and bell towers.
Augusta did not roll her eyes. The urge was intense and far more tempting than she cared to admit, but somehow she refrained. “It’s a disabled carriage, Rachel. Nothing more. And if I see you with another of those gothic novels in your hands, I will take it from you and smack you on the head with it!”
Rachel made a sound of distress. She was so taken by her own fanciful worries that nothing Augusta said in that moment would sway her anyway. Augusta opened the carriage door and looked down at the road. It was higher than she’d imagined, and the steps were of no use to her. They’d been damaged by the broken pieces of the wheel flying off and were now a ruin. She’d have to jump down from the height of the carriage, and tilted at an angle as it was, the jump was no less than five feet, not much less than her own height.
Easing to the floor, scooting forward until only her bottom rested on the edge of the carriage reduced the height of the jump by half, making it much less terrifying. It was now only moderately alarming, she thought sarcastically. Pushing off with her hands, Augusta landed with a squelch as her boots sank into the mud. She tipped forward but managed to right herself by grabbing onto the coach.
Extricating herself from the oozing mud was no easy task. Finally free but covered in muck, she made her way to the front of the carriage and found their driver still slumped in the seat, tied to it with a length of rope.
“What in the world?” she exclaimed aloud. The man’s only reply was a snore and a muttered name in his sleep as he clutched a now empty bottle in his hand.
He wasn’t injured at all. As the scent of spilled brandy reached her, she realized with no small amount of ire that he was utterly foxed.
“Is he hurt?” Rachel called from inside.
“Not yet,” Augusta replied sharply. “Don’t move from that spot, Rachel. I may be able to use the horses to pull the carriage to a safer spot!”
Rachel gasped again, but said nothing in protest. She was terrified of horses and riding.
Moving carefully, Augusta stepped far enough down the embankment to reach the two horse team that had been pulling the carriage. The poor beasts were exhausted as the vehicle had been intended for a four horse team rather than two. Unfortunately, they’d had no other option within their meager budget at their last posting inn.
Checking the animals over, she discovered that they were unscathed. But as they pawed at the earth, their hooves were tearing at the mud beneath them, creating an utter mess. If she could get them to move forward up the hill a bit, the carriage would be pulled safely away from the edge.
Patting the agitated animals on the nose, she whispered soothingly. “There, there you poor things. I know… I know. Let’s all get out of here, shall we?”
The horses whinnied in response. She took it to be accord, but realized that could very well be wishful thinking on her part. While it had been ages since she’d been able to spend any time around such noble beasts, she’d learned long ago that they all had their own character and many of them took great joy in being contrary.
Retrieving the reins that had slipped from their foxed driver’s hands, Augusta marveled at the fact that he dropped them but managed to hold onto his bottle. She lifted them and began to tug the team forward. Every inch was a battle. The mud sucked at their hooves and at the stubborn wheels of the carriage. They were all mired in it as they trudged ahead, presumably toward safer ground.
When the carriage itself finally began to lurch forward, Augusta breathed a sigh of relief. They just needed a bit of room between themselves and that rushing stream.
Her relief was short lived. The carriage lurched again, the broken wheel bumping over a stone and landing with a heavy thud that produced a scream for Rachel.
That scream, along with the rest of the excitement, proved too much for the horses. They began to prance excitedly. Before she could utter a single soothing word, lightning cracked across the sky, striking a tree not far from them. The horses attempted to rear, and the carriage, ill kept and already coming to pieces, could not withstand the strain. Whatever the apparatus was that connected the horses’ harness to the carriage gave way with a crack and the horses bolted forward.
Without a second to spare, Augusta dove aside, landing with a splat in the mud as the horses raced past her.
Sitting there on the sodden ground, both her dignity and her backside bruised and battered, Augusta took stock of her present situation. She’d narrowly escaped death. She was covered from head to toe in mud and heaven only knew what else. They were on their way to a home neither of them had set eyes on based solely on the words of a cousin that Rachel had exchanged a total of six letters with in the last decade by way of an extended house party at an estate so fine she knew they’d be as likely to blend as a sow at Court. It seemed at that point that the only reasonable thing to do was sob.