An excerpt from Snowbound at Hartfield.
What drives Miss Elizabeth Elliot out into the blizzard? And why is Colonel Fitzwilliam compelled to find her?
Oh, for a man’s greatcoat! Such a garment would have been far better armor against the weather than her own pretty cloak and muff. The wind tore at the edges, driving itself between her and the fur lining in an obscenely familiar sort of way. Elizabeth battled to pull it closer.
From one far too intimate interrogation to another. Why should she expect anything else, though? It seemed the only one who did not entirely ignore her, or treat her with suspicion was Fitzwilliam. In their brief—very brief acquaintance—they had exchanged more true intimacy than she had ever before shared with anyone. Certainly William Elliot had never been so honest with her.
She pulled her muff in tighter to her chest. That held back some of the wind.
Of all people for him to have taken up with—Penelope—her particular friend! Yes, men kept their mistresses, but well away from good company. Then it was tolerable enough—
No, No! She must not cry. Those tears had long since been shed. She forced her feet forward. Best to keep moving in the cold.
Nothing could change what had happened—only what was to come.
If Father did marry Miss Carteret, then perhaps there would be money to pay at least part of her dowry. Perhaps, that might make her a more attractive match for the colonel.
What was she thinking? Had she truly become so desperate? It was too soon. If only there were time to know him better. Even only a few weeks, it might be enough.
Wind swirled about her, scouring her face with bits of ice. Her cheeks ached and burned. Perhaps it would be best to return to the house.
She turned around and peered into the swirling white.
How odd. She must have gotten turned around. To the right and left, only more gray and white swirls.
Perhaps if she followed her steps. She retreated in her own footprints half a dozen steps before they faded into the same white that enveloped her.
She could not have gone so far from the house, could she?
Damp, aching, numbing cold penetrated her boots, seeping up her ankles into her legs. Moving. She had to keep moving. It was the only source of warmth she had. The house could not be far, and it had to be in the direction she now faced. She ducked her head into the wind and trudged on.
Fitzwilliam paced the vestibule. How long could it take to fetch a man’s coat?
His valet, coat over his arm, hurried toward him. Who was that in his wake?
“Sir, Miss Elliot’s abigail. She says she must speak with you.”
The lady’s maid curtsied. “Sir, pray forgive me, but Miss Elliot has been gone so long.”
“Gone? Gone where?” He forced back the urge to grab the woman by the shoulders and shake her for more information.
“She said she needed air. Demanded her cloak and went outside. But it has been far too long, and the storm has grown worse. I fear she cannot be warm enough and might even have lost her way.” She wrung her hands and refused to meet his eyes.
What kind of cruel joke was this? To meet a potential bride one day and to lose her to the weather the next? No, this was not to be borne.
He whipped his coat around his shoulders, his valet scrambling to help. “Tell Knightley and Darcy that I have gone for her. Do you know in which direction she set off?”
“From the garden doors, sir. She said she would stay close to the house.”
“Make sure there is plenty of warm water and a hot fire for when we return.” He pulled on his gloves and wound his scarf tightly.
Had she no idea of the danger she put herself in? Probably not. She had likely never encountered such a storm before.
The wind buffeted from all sides as he stepped out. A cloak would not be sufficient protection against it.
Hedges surrounded the gardens, so she probably was not too far. Even if she had found one of the gates, she would have recognized it and stayed within. Surely, she had that much sense, given how practical she had shown herself to be during their conversations.
On leaving the house, she would have turned right, as the right-handed were apt to do. If she moved along the house, the fence around the kitchen gardens would have stopped her. Chances were good that she would be contained on that side of the grounds.
Once he found her, if he followed the house and fences, he had a certain path back. The hedges would bring him back to the house. It would not do to add to the casualties.
He trotted along the side of the house, the screaming wind in his ears. The sky brightened and boomed. He dove for the ground, covering his head. Snow melted on his face, against his lips as he gasped for air.
He peeked up. Where were the flashes of gun fire, the stench of blood, the screams of broken men?
Snow, and beyond that, he knew, hedges and the lonely skeletons of bare trees and bushes surrounded him.
Hartfield. Not France.
He pushed up from the icy ground and dusted himself, shoving back a vague sense of cowardice and humiliation. Not the first time, thunder had sent him diving for cover.
Probably not the last, either.
What would Miss Elliot think of him for it? Would she deem him cowardly or perhaps merely daft? Most people’s responses were evenly split. Father thought him a coward. Mother, daft. Thankfully his sisters did not know, and his brother never remarked on it.
Darcy and Liza were the only ones who saw it otherwise. Their compassion was not condescending. They never questioned his reasons for reacting as he did. He did not know for certain, but Liza had probably tried to explain to Mother, but a countess did not often listen to those below her, even if they were related by marriage.
He trudged several more steps and, cupping his hands around his mouth, bellowed. “Miss Elliot!” in the lowest tones he could manage, tones less likely for the wind to carry away.
The wind roared a reply.
He resumed his trot, cheeks burning in the scouring wind. Snow had slipped inside his greatcoat and melted, trickling cold down his chest. Wet patches at his knees chilled and spread their misery along his legs. The familiar ache in his shoulder and thigh reminded him that he would pay for this adventure in the coming days.
He stopped at the hedgerow. “Miss Elliot! Miss Elizabeth Elliot!”
Why had he called her Christian name? Perhaps it would get her attention?
He set off again. Was that—no, wait—perhaps.
He took three steps away from the hedge. The snow was disturbed, trampled and swirled. Perhaps by a lady’s cloak.
Was that a voice? He could not risk losing his landmark if it was not.
“Call to me—Miss Elliot.” He held his breath.
“Fitzwilliam.” The cry was weak, close to the ground.
“Again!” He bellowed and closed his eyes, turning his head toward the sound.
Ahead and to the left. He counted steps.
“I am here.”
Ten more steps left.
A dark form, strewn with snow, lay crumpled before him.
Five more steps, running, heart pounding loudly enough to drown out the wind.
“Are you injured?” He knelt beside her.
She looked up at him, face red, shivering. Snow clung to her hood and muff—effective camouflage when she least needed it.
“I slipped and turned my ankle.” Her teeth chattered as she pushed herself up.
He hunkered down and opened his greatcoat, drawing her close and wrapping her in the heavy wool. She clung to him, shaking so hard that she nearly off-balanced him.
“Can you walk if I support you?”
“I think there is little choice.” Snow fell from her hood as she nodded into the hollow of his shoulder.
“Put your arm around my shoulder.”
She slid her arm along the inside of his coat, and he wrapped his around her waist. Holding her close and tight, he pushed them both upright.
She gasped but held fast. It was slow going, but she managed to match his steps.
He counted under his breath. Where was that damnable hedge?
He was off somehow—what had he missed? He paused and squeezed his eyes shut. She huddled closer.
Of course. His steps were shorter now with her.
Another dozen steps perhaps? He urged her into motion.
Ten steps brought them to the hedge.
He exhaled heavily. “Now we have a guide back to the house. I am not sure it is the shortest way, but it is the surest.”
She sniffled. “Thank you. I should not have come out.”
“No, you should not. Why did you?’
She cringed a little. “I could not tolerate a moment more of your Mrs. Darcy’s interrogations. She fancies me some horrid husband hunter, I think.”
Laughter welled in his belly and forced him to stop his march.
“Why is that so humorous?”
“A similar conversation with Darcy forced me out as well. That is when your maid shared the intelligence of your absence.”
“You cousin does not approve of me?”
“He is high-handed and meddling in affairs he does not understand. I did not seek his opinion, nor do I welcome it.”
“Fitzwilliam!” Why did Darcy choose that moment to appear?
“Here!” He turned and waved.
Darcy and two footmen carrying blankets rushed toward them.
“Go find Knightley, and tell him they are found.”
The smaller of the two men ran off, following the hedge back toward the house. They wrapped her in the blankets. Darcy and the footman linked arms to form a sort of chair to carry her back, with Fitzwilliam trailing behind them.
It should be him helping Darcy, not the footman. He sighed. Her arm around his shoulders had been pleasing.
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Photo credit for Austen in Autumn banner: Paul Lakin – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Autumn_in_England#/media/File:Almost_Autumn,_Cottingham_Park_IMG_8214_-_panoramio.jpg