Even at Tom Coachman's cautious pace, the ancient travelling carriage, with its huge wheels and worn, old-fashioned springs, jolted horridly over the frozen ruts in the road. Miss Gracechurch breathed a sigh of relief as the spires of Oxford rose around them in the winter dusk.
Jane pulled her hand from her feather-filled muff, reached across the threadbare, once-green velvet seat and patted her governess's arm. "You can soon rest your aged bones, Gracie dear."
"Heavens, you make me sound as if I am approaching the grave. At six-and-thirty, I am younger than this dreadful vehicle."
"Yes, and see how far it has brought us, despite your misgivings. Two hundred miles from Hornby and only sixty to go to London."
"Wi' this hard frost, 'tain't like to rain, neither, my lady," put in the young abigail, Ella, hugging her cloak of grey duffle about her. "Pa said he can't promise the roof won't leak."
"Old Tom has done wonders to get it moving at all," said Jane, laughing.
As they turned into the yard of the Golden Cross, a wheel caught on some obstruction, then jerked free. The carriage continued for a few feet and drew to a halt before, like a rheumatic dog, it groaned and sank slowly and awkwardly onto its haunches.
"Mercy me!" squawked Ella, dropping her tatting to grab the strap. It broke off in her hand and she landed in Miss Gracechurch's lap. The bandboxes that had shared the seat with her tumbled to the floor.
Young Thomas appeared at the window, the smartness of his new maroon livery marred by the green and white muffler Jane had insisted he wear. He wrenched open the door. The lower hinge gave way and it sagged drunkenly.
"My lady!" he cried, "Ye're not hurt? Oh, lor'!" He seized his flustered sister round the waist and hoisted her out in a flurry of red flannel petticoats. Her round, pink cheeks took on a cherry hue in the icy air.
Miss Gracechurch straightened her bonnet, her smooth oval face no whit discomposed. "Well, my dear," she said to Jane, "I fear you were a trifle over-optimistic."
"Just a trifle," agreed Jane wryly as a splintering sound announced the demise of a wheel. The carriage tilted to the side. "Perhaps we had best extract ourselves before the roof comes down."
The stress of its new configuration had already parted one corner of the roof from the wall panels. Through the gap, a star winked down from the dusk-blue sky. Jane chose to regard it as a good omen.
Thomas leaned in and removed the bandboxes from around Miss Gracechurch's feet. He let down the steps, but their angle made them useless. To yells of encouragement from the crowd of ostlers, waiters, and passers-by, he lifted down first the governess and then his mistress. Jane had scarcely set foot on the cobbles when the glass in the far window shattered, spraying the interior with shards.
Old Tom stood there shaking his head, his weathered face gloomy above the green and white muffler matching his son's. "I warned 'e, m'lady. I warned 'e. T'rear axle jus' fell to pieces, jus' like that."
"How very fortunate," said Jane, "that it did not choose to do so miles from anywhere."
By then the landlord had appeared to send his servants scurrying about their business. He was less inclined to think it fortunate that the carriage had chosen the yard of the Golden Cross to expire in. "Irate" would more nearly have described his sentiments, but Miss Gracechurch took charge with her usual quiet competence.
"Lady Jane's coachman and footman will see to the proper disposal of the remains," she assured him in her light, clear voice. "In the meantime, we require a private parlour, a bedchamber for two, and accommodations for the two menservants and her ladyship's abigail. We shall dine at seven."
The scowl vanished from the innkeeper's face. Bowing, he ushered them into the inn and a few minutes later they were taking off their bonnets before a cheerful fire in a comfortable chamber.
"You were splendid, Gracie dear," said Jane, setting her bonnet carefully on the dressing table. Of royal blue velvet with a matching ostrich plume, it had been fashioned by the only milliner in Lancaster, after a design from La Belle Assemblée. It was quite the smartest she had ever owned. "After we scattered debris all over the premises on our arrival," she went on, "I expected a rough-and-tumble before the innkeeper would allow us to stay here."
"I beg you will not copy your brother's speech, Jane. Your mama will turn me off without a reference if she hears boxing cant issuing from your lips. As for mine host, the judicious mention of a title of nobility frequently clears the way of such difficulties, as I have told you before."
"It is sadly lowering--is it not?--that he did not relent for the sake of our pretty faces and charming smiles, but only because Papa is the Marquis of Hornby."
Miss Gracechurch laughed, her brown eyes lighting with amusement. Jane wished her own eyes were brown, not a commonplace, insipid blue. Their hair was amazingly similar in colour, a sadly dull, dark blond shade, but whereas the governess was forever trying to banish the delightful wisps and curls that escaped her severe coiffure, Jane's tresses refused to be coaxed into such frivolity. Straight they were, and straight, for all Ella could do, they would remain.
At least, after years of worry, Jane had at the age of eighteen attained the same height as Gracie. Though it was somewhat above average, she considered it the perfect height for an elegant female. Miss Gracechurch, even in her requisitely drab governess gowns, was the most elegant female of Jane's admittedly small acquaintance.
Except Mama, and she did not want to think about Mama.
"We shall have to hire a carriage to take us to London," she said, unfastening her blue velvet pelisse as the fire's warmth penetrated.
"My dear, I very much doubt I brought enough money with us for so great an expense. You may think it foolish of me, since our vehicle was known to be less than trustworthy, but I did not like to be responsible for a large sum while on the high road and staying at public inns."
"Highwaymen, pickpockets, and thieving chambermaids, as in all the best novels?"
"They do exist, so do not laugh at me, you odious child. I wish I had succeeded in persuading you to wait for Lady Hornby to send her carnage to Lancashire. Now we shall have to apply to your parents for assistance anyway, as I had planned should we find ourselves in the briars."
"No! I will not wait meekly here until Mama finds a moment between parties, or Papa between Government meetings, to attend to our needs. She has already put me off twice with feeble excuses. I have missed two Seasons! At twenty, I am nearly at my last prayers."
"You have a year or two before you need consider yourself an ape-leader, my dear. Even elderly ladies of twenty are occasionally fortunate enough to find husbands."
"You may tease, Gracie, but I will not wait any longer. We shall take the stage coach."
"Impossible," said Miss Gracechurch, calm but firm. "The reverse of the many advantages of noble birth is that a course of action perfectly unexceptionable for a nobody is unacceptable for Lady Jane Brooke."
Jane had expected an outright rejection of the stage, which was why she had suggested it first. "The Mail, then," she next proposed. "That is more respectable than the stage, and faster, too, is it not?"
"We need not mention my title. Jane Brooke is not an unusual name, so it will not draw attention, and no one in Society need know that I travelled by Mail. After all, the other passengers are scarce likely to turn up later at Almack's to confront me."
"True. Nonetheless, I cannot like it."
Sensing a weakening, Jane redoubled her efforts. Ella, when she brought in hot water for washing, added her mite in loyal support of her mistress. By the time they went down to dinner, Miss Gracechurch had capitulated.
Thomas, waiting in the parlour, was sent to put their names on the way-bill. "Reserve seats for three," Miss Gracechurch instructed him. "You and your father will have to follow later, with the trunks, after you have disposed of the sad remains."
"And do not forget to say that I am Miss Brooke," Jane reminded him as he departed.
"Aye, miss." He grinned at her over his shoulder.
The parlour was small but cosy, with a table for two set in front of the fireplace. In need of exercise, Jane strolled about the room. She paused to examine a watercolour of Magdalen Bridge, but her mind was elsewhere.
"Ella shall pack away my new pelisse and bonnet," she decided. "They are too fine for plain Miss Jane Brooke who travels by the Mail. I do not wish to seem above my company."
"Small danger of that," said Miss Gracechurch, warming her hands at the fire. "Indeed, I fear Lady Hornby will consider you by far too democratic in your notions."
"When we reach St. James's Place I shall be properly high in the instep," she promised. "I shall never call you my dear Gracie, nor laugh and chatter with Ella. Mama shall see how well you have brought me up."
"I hope so, my dear. If you will only remember to think before you speak!"
Thomas returned in time to serve dinner. He reported that the only places available on the morrow were two inside seats and one outside on the London-bound Manchester Mail, passing through Oxford at four in the afternoon.
"And arriving in London in the small hours of the morning," Miss Gracechurch groaned.
The next morning they spent walking about Oxford, having purchased a guide to the colleges. In the afternoon, carrying the small amount of baggage permitted, they arrived at the Mitre in good time and were ushered into the waiting room. Jane was enveloped in the cinnamon-brown kerseymere cloak and hood that had been her best before the purchase of the blue velvet pelisse. Though of excellent quality, for her father never begrudged sufficient funds, the cloak was suitable for the country with little pretense to fashion.
Miss Gracechurch was her usual quietly elegant self, but Ella looked like an overstuffed doll. She had donned every petticoat she possessed and borrowed both her brother's and her father's green-striped mufflers to wrap about her head. Two youthful gentlemen taking a late luncheon at a table in one corner of the room burst into laughter when they saw her.
"Not to worry, sweetheart," cried the shorter of the pair, nudging the other. "We'll keep you warm."
Miss Gracechurch frowned at them. The other quickly said, "Don't mind Hancock, ma'am. He's a bit above himself just now but he's really quite harmless."
"No offence meant, miss," Mr. Hancock assured Ella, standing up to reveal a glimpse of a pink and blue waistcoat between the huge brass buttons on his blue coat. He bowed politely to Jane and Miss Gracechurch and went on with an irrepressible grin, "I wager you are waiting for the Mail, as we are?"
"I say, old chap, not at all the thing to ask a lady when you haven't even been introduced."
"You introduced me," said his friend. "Near as makes no difference. I'll return the favour. Pray allow me to present the Honourable Aloysius Reid, ma'am. We have both been rusticated for the rest of term."
Mr. Reid jumped up and bowed. A tall, lanky, soberly dressed youth, he was horrified by his friend's lack of discretion. Jane took pity on him.
"How do you do, Mr. Reid, Mr. Hancock. Yes, we are taking the Mail to London. My name is Jane Brooke, and I am travelling with Miss Gracechurch."
The gentlemen bowed again, and Miss Gracechurch nodded stiffly before drawing Jane away. "My dear, it is most improper to introduce yourself to strangers in such a manner."
"Mr. Reid seemed so downcast, I could not snub him, and after all they do not know who I am."
"I can only hope they never find out!"
"What did Mr. Hancock mean, that they have been rusticated?"
"They must be undergraduates who were caught in some doubtless disgraceful scrape, and they have been suspended from their studies."
Jane decided regretfully that decorum forbade her to enquire as to the nature of the scrape. Nonetheless, when Mr. Reid ventured a tentative remark about the weather, she responded in her usual friendly manner, casting a half guilty, half laughing glance at her governess.
A waiter came to warn them that the Mail was due in a few minutes. The young men put on their greatcoats, Mr. Reid's with three capes, Mr. Hancock's with half a dozen that made him look as broad as he was tall. They all went outside, where a team of four powerful horses stood ready, snorting and tossing their heads. Jane heard in the distance the tantara of the post horn and moments later the Royal Mail thundered into view.
She had no time to admire the smart red, black and gold coach. Everything happened at once: ostlers rushed to change the team; two passengers hurried to descend from within, a third from the coachman's box-seat; bags and parcels were retrieved from the front boot, others tossed in their place; the guard exchanged his sack of mail for another, which he deposited in the hind boot beneath his seat; Messrs. Hancock and Reid boosted Ella up to the roof and followed her; without quite knowing how she got there, Jane found herself sitting beside Gracie in the coach, catching her breath.
The post horn sounded again and they were on their way. "Heavens!" Jane favoured their fellow travellers with a sunny smile. "Now I know what is meant by 'post-haste.'"
The gentleman seated diagonally opposite returned her smile and raised his glossy beaver politely. His dark hair was touched with grey at the temples, lending a distinguished air to a rather long face with intelligent eyes. Jane like the look of him at once.
"Post-haste!" said the stout, red-faced man beside him in a belligerent tone. "Fast enough, happen, but for convenience and efficiency there's nowt like a private carriage for them as has the brass. I keep my own carriage, like any gentleman, and think it no extravagance."
Jane found herself absolutely unable to resist asking, "Then why are you on the Mail, sir?"
Mr. Josiah Ramsbottom's carriage, it transpired, was being reupholstered in long-wearing Northampton leather, at great cost. Mr. Ramsbottom was only too eager to provide details of that cost in pounds, shillings, and pence. Mr. Ramsbottom, a Manchester cotton merchant, was a self-made man and proud of it.
The other passenger was less forthcoming, but despite Gracie's unobtrusive protests Jane succeeded in discovering that he was a lawyer returning to London after visiting a client. Once the ice was broken, Mr. Selwyn readily entered into a conversation about Oxford, where he had attended Jesus College. Having walked about the town, Jane had many questions for him. She was pleased when Miss Gracechurch set aside her scruples and joined in.
Mr. Ramsbottom declared that he had no opinion of book-learning and fell mercifully silent but for the odd interjection on the well-known poverty of scholars.
Happily occupied, Jane was surprised when the coach stopped at Crowmarsh Gifford to change horses. She let down the window, leaned out, and called, "Ella, are you all right up there? You are not excessively chilled?"
"No, my ... miss," Ella called back, "'cepting my nose. I'm squeezed in cosy atween the young gentlemen."
"Very cosy, miss, I assure you," came Mr. Hancock's jaunty voice.
"You get a nice view from up here, miss," said Ella. "Right pretty it is, with the river and that. There's little sort o' curls o' mist dancing on the river."
Jane wished she had paid more attention to the scenery, though it would have been difficult with the windows steamed up. Perhaps she could step out for a moment--but no, the guard sounded the tantara on his yard of tin and they were off again.
Mr. Ramsbottom at once engaged her in a discussion of different types of cotton goods, their qualities and especially their prices. He was surprisingly interesting, and the information would have been useful, she thought, had she really been plain Miss Brooke who travelled by the Mail. Miss Gracechurch and Mr. Selwyn were talking about the education of women. Jane would have liked to listen, but that would have meant snubbing poor, vulgar Mr. Ramsbottom.
Her attention divided, she was vaguely aware that the coach had slowed, moving nearer a walking pace that its usual headlong dash. She rubbed at the window but the condensation seemed to be on the outside now.
"What's up?" enquired Mr. Ramsbottom, wiping the window beside him with a large, red, white-spotted handkerchief. "We ain't going post-haste now."
At that moment the coach lurched. Ella screamed. Several male voices swore. Wood creaked, cracked, and snapped. The coach gently tilted to one side and came to rest with the window pressed against a leafless, spiky hawthorn hedge.
"Not again!" Jane groaned.