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September 30, 2008
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Excerpt from Reluctant Widow by Georgette Heyer
It was dusk when the London to Little Hampton stage-coach lurched into the village of Billingshurst, and a cold mist was beginning to creep knee-high over the dimly seen countryside. The coach drew up at an inn, and the steps were let down to enable a passenger to alight. A lady, soberly dressed in a drab-coloured pelisse and a round bonnet without a feather, descended on to the road. While she waited for a corded trunk and a valise to be extricated from the boot, the coachman, finding himself to be some minutes ahead of his time-sheet, hitched up his reins, clambered down from the box, and in defiance of the regulations governing the conduct of stage-coachmen, rolled into the tap-room in search of such stimulant as would enable him to accomplish the remainder of the journey without endangering an apparently enfeebled constitution.
The passenger, meanwhile, stood in the roadway with her trunk at her feet, and looked about her in a little uncertainty. She was expecting to be met, but as her experience had taught her that the gig was more commonly employed for the purpose of picking up the new governess than the carriage used by her employers, she hesitated to approach the only conveyance she could perceive, which was a light travelling coach, drawn up on the opposite side of the road. While she stood looking about her, however, a servant jumped down from the box, and came up to her, touching his hat, and enquiring whether she would be the young lady who had come down from London in answer to the advertisement. Upon her assenting, he made her a little bow, picked up the valise, and led the way across the road to the travelling coach. She stepped up into it, her spirits insensibly rising at this unlooked-for-attention to her comfort; and was further gratified by the servant's spreading a rug over her knees and expressing the hope that she would not feel chilled by the evening air. The steps were put up, the door shut, the trunk bestowed on the roof, and in a very few moments the coach moved forward, bowling along in a well-sprung manner that formed a pleasing contrast to the jolting the stage-coach passenger had been enduring for several hours.
She leaned back against the squabs with a sigh of relief. The stage had been crowded, and her journey an uncomfortable one. She wondered whether she would ever become accustomed to the disagreeable economies of poverty. Since she had had every opportunity of inuring herself to these over a period of six years, it seemed unlikely. Dispirited, but determined not to give way to melancholy reflections, she turned her thoughts away from the evils of her situation, and tried instead to speculate upon the probable character of her new post.
It had been with no high hopes that she had set out from London earlier in the day. Her employer, seen once only in a quelling interview at Fenton's Hotel, had disclosed no hint of the kindly impulse that must have caused her to send her own carriage to meet the governess. Miss Elinor Rochdale had been misled into thinking her massive bosom as hard as her rather prominent eyes, and, had any other choice offered, would have had no hesitation in declining a post in her household. But no other choice had offered. There were too often young gentlemen at a susceptible age in families requiring a governess, and Miss Rochdale was too young and too well-favoured to be eligible, in the eyes of most provident Mamas, for the position.
Happily, however - for Miss Rochdale's savings were negligible, and her pride still too great to allow of her remaining longer as the guest of her own old governess - Mrs Macclesfield's only male offspring was a sturdy lad of seven. He was, by his mother's account, high-spirited, and of so sensitive a temperament that the exercise of the greatest tact and persuasion was necessary to control his activities. Six years earlier, Miss Rochdale would have shrunk from the horrors so clearly in store for her, but those years had taught her that the ideal situation was rarely to be found, and that where there was no spoiled child to make the governess's life a burden, she would in all likelihood be expected to save her employer's purse by performing the menial tasks generally allotted to the second housemaid.
Miss Rochdale tucked the rug more closely round her legs. A thick sheepskin mat upon the floor of the coach protected her feet from the draught, and she snuggled them into it gratefully, almost able to fancy herself once more Miss Rochdale of Feldenhall, travelling in her father's carriage to an evening party. The style of servant who had been sent to fetch her, and the elegance of the equipage, had a little surprised her: she had not supposed Mrs Macclesfield to have been in such comfortable circumstances. Upon first perceiving the coach, she had thought she had seen a crest upon the door-panel, but in the failing light it was easy to be mistaken. She fell to pondering the probable degree of gentility of the establishment ahead of her, and the various characters of its inmates, and since she was of a humorous turn of mind, soon lost herself in the weaving of several very improbable histories.