Mrs. Bennet is on her way to Newcastle to visit her daughter Lydia, but an accident with her coach causes her to end up at Hartfield during a snowstorm…
Mrs. Bennet was still fuming over her husband’s refusal to allow her to go to Pemberley for Christmas. Why, her own brother had been invited, so why should she not go as well? She was sure that Elizabeth, always her favorite daughter, would be delighted to see her and show her Pemberley. Jane and Bingley could do without her at Netherfield…after all, she saw them constantly! Well, Mr. Bennet could enjoy Christmas with them and spend the rest of the holiday alone in his bookroom, as he did every other day of the year! If she had not left him a note on his desk he would probably not even notice that she was gone!
She could not quite make herself disregard her husband’s clear orders, however, so she had decided (on her own, and without telling him) to spend Christmas in Newcastle with her dear Lydia and her handsome husband, Wickham. It was true that her marriage to Wickham was nothing compared to Jane’s and Elizabeth’s marriages (only an Ensign in the Regulars, after all), but she was still, deep down, the favorite of her daughters. And perhaps they might just pass by Pemberley on their way back to Hertfordshire and stop in for a visit…no, a stay of several nights to fortify themselves for the rest of the trip home! Yes, indeed! Lizzie would insist and Mr. Darcy…her fantasy stuttered for a moment there. Mr. Darcy, while the loveliest son-in-law one could imagine, made her a little…nervous. He was much nicer than she would have thought he could be, but his formidable wealth and education made her feel a little disconcerted…perhaps she should not visit Pemberley until invited……….Well, she would worry about that later.
And she was sure that the snow was just going to be a dusting and would not hinder her travel in the least. Cotton, the new coachman Mr. Bennet had hired to go with the lovely new carriage they could now afford since marrying off three of their daughters, was a fussy old woman with all his worried looks and comments about the weather looking “quite ominous” and “making up for a right blizzard.” What nonsense! This trip would teach him to follow the orders of his mistress and not imply that perhaps Mr. Bennet should be consulted before leaving!
The carriage was bowling along the road and making good time towards the main trunk road north and the white fields looked lovely out the window, but it was a good thing she had a hot brick under her feet and a warm rug over her legs or she would be a little chilly…well, cold, actually. They had been on the road since before noon, about an hour after Mr. Bennet had left Longbourn to make a call on Jane. Mrs. Bennet had seen her chance to leave without an argument and had pleaded a slight catarrh to excuse herself from calling on the Bingleys with him.
A noise from the seat in front of her caught her attention. Her maid, Sally, was sniffling into her handkerchief and dabbing her eyes.
“Sally! What in the world is the matter with you? Stop making that noise!”
“Yes’m. I’ll try.” The girl gave another disconsolate sniff and straightened up on the seat.
Well, it was no wonder, Mrs. Bennet thought. She was just the scullery maid promoted to upstairs maid last month by Hill, the housekeeper. She was Hill’s niece and was a willing enough servant, but she was barely eighteen and hardly what one would expect for an upstairs maid, let alone a lady’s maid. But, no doubt she would learn. After all, Hill was a very capable housekeeper and would not introduce a relative into the house where she was employed if she was not confident of her abilities.
She had just finished this reassuring line of thought when she was jarred heavily and tumbled against the side of the coach, with Sally on top of her. Her first thought was to yell at Cotton for being so careless of his passengers, but she quickly realized that more than a rough spot in the road had caused their current situation. She and Sally were lying on the floor and the carriage was tilted alarmingly.
Before she could start screaming, Cotton appeared at the door and was able to open it slightly.
“Madam! Are you hurt? I am so sorry, madam! Let me help you out! James has the horses’ heads and it is quite safe to come out!”
He assisted Sally first, pulling her forcibly through the door so she was no longer atop her mistress. Mrs. Bennet had a brief moment while he was helping her maid to make sure that her nether parts were adequately covered and she was not going to emerge in an undignified manner, then he was back, gently helping her to slide out the door, which was jammed against the road in a perplexing manner.
“What has happened, Cotton? Is the carriage damaged? I knew this was not the correct carriage for Mr. Bennet to buy! It is far too small. I am sure the axle was faulty and caused this!”
“No, no, madam, the axles appear to be sound. There was a patch of ice under the snow and we have slipped into the ditch. Fortunately, it is not a deep one, but we will need to get help from the town we just passed through to pull it out. Perhaps we could ask for help at that house.” He nodded his head towards a pleasant-appearing house visible behind an attractive wicket gate.
Mrs. Bennet was relieved. She had had a sudden, jarring vision of her lifeless body being carried back to Longbourn and her husband shaking his head and saying to every mourner, “I told her not to travel in this weather, but she would not listen to me!”
She shook out her rumpled skirts and realized that the snowfall was much heavier than she had thought. Her feet were completely covered with the stuff and getting unpleasantly wet and cold…and it was continuing to fall steadily.
“Come, Sally! We shall seek shelter.” And she marched up to the door of the house and rang the bell.
A well padded housekeeper came to assist the footman with their wraps, tut-tutting at their state and the terrible weather as Mrs. Bennet told of their accident.
“Do not worry, madam. I will show you to the parlor where there is a nice fire and we will see what master suggests about your carriage.” She gave the footman a warning glance as she said this, but Mrs. Bennet did not notice, so happy was she to have landed in a respectable house (especially since a prolonged stay at an inn would make uncomfortable inroads into the money she had taken from Mr. Bennet’s wallet when he was not looking).
The housekeeper opened a door off the entry and announced, “Mrs. Bennet, sir. They have had an accident on the road.” She turned back to Mrs. Bennet. “I will take your maid to the kitchen, Madam, while the men bring your luggage in and light the fire in your room.”
The gentleman sitting in the chair by the fire jumped up at her words. “Oh dear! What a terrible night to be out, Mrs. Bennet! Indeed, indeed, come by the fire for I’m sure you must be frozen!” He turned to the housekeeper. “Mrs. Stout, some warm barley water for our guest, please. We must not waste a minute or she will surely be ill!”
Mrs. Bennet stared at her host, a man of close to her own age, but with a shawl over his shoulders and a lap robe at his feet where it had landed when he sprang up on her entrance. She smiled kindly at him, he was trying to be helpful, of course, and must certainly be much older than he looked, so she raised her voice and spoke slowly. “Thank you, Mr. Woodhouse, I would enjoy some refreshment, but perhaps tea would be more refreshing.”
“Oh, no, no! Tea would be too inflammatory in your weakened condition…after the hardships you have endured! I shudder,” he shuddered to illustrate his horror, “to think of that suffering. The only possible way to prevent illness is some nice warm barley water followed by a light dinner of gruel, not too thick. That will set you up marvelously and most assuredly will prevent illness!”
Mrs. Bennet was struck dumb. He was serious! Her husband, admittedly careless of his health and the health of his family, would have stared to hear such invalid food offered eagerly to benighted travelers! Warmed wine or a glass of negus would have been much more hospitable, but the poor man did not seem to be trying to scare them away or annoy them…
“Sit down, sit down, my dear lady. You must be horrified to be in such exigent circumstances! But why are you traveling in such bitter, snowy weather? It is madness to be outside at all this time of year!”
“I am going to visit my youngest daughter for Christmas.”
“Most inadvisable in this weather. Whyever did you undertake it? Surely not an emergency of some sort, I trust!”
“No, no! I just wished to see her. Her husband is in the Regulars and is posted in Newcastle, so I thought that I could help her feel more at home by having her mother with her.” Even to herself this sounded like a weak reason to set out in a snowstorm.
Mr. Woodhouse stared at her a moment, his mouth hanging open. “I trust I misheard you, madam! Surely your husband did not let you set out on such a long trip alone, or at all in such a snowstorm!”
She fussed with her skirts, rearranging the hem to dry more quickly in the heat from the fire. “Well, no, he did not. He did not know I was going. He was gone to London on business overnight and I decided on the moment to undertake the trip.”
His eyes were open wide. He put his hand to his ear. “I must have misheard you. I apologize. My hearing is not what it used to be. Did you say you are headed for Newcastle?”
She stiffened. “Yes, I did. What of it? Surely I may visit my daughter when I wish!”
“Oh, of course, of course! But in the winter, in a snowstorm…well, surely you would cancel such a long trip under those circumstances! I would not advise any travel in the snow, let alone several weeks of travel, especially for a woman alone!” He reached for the bell to call a servant.
Mrs. Bennet felt the blood drain from her face. “Several weeks? Did you say several weeks?”
“Yes, of course! As I seem to recall, Newcastle is very far north…almost to the Scottish border.”
She managed to clear her throat and speak, “Well, of course it is. I would not go off on such a trip on a whim! The idea!”
“Of course you would not! I just knew I had misunderstood you! My apologies! But, we must get you to bed immediately with several heated bricks to warm you! No, don’t thank me,” he said as she started to protest, “it is no bother. No effort is too much when a guest’s health is at risk, madam!” The footman entered and he went on, “James, make sure Mrs. Bennet’s room has a good fire and put several warmers in her bed. And make sure she has at least three bricks to keep her warm while she sleeps. she is exhausted from her very difficult travels and must have the greatest care taken. No meats, no wine! Thin gruel only to warm her without inflaming her constitution! Perhaps a bit of custard to finish off.” He turned back to his guest, whose eyes were bulging with horror. “Do not worry, madam! If our efforts will at all avail we shall have you feeling quite yourself by morning. The maid will check your fire during the night to make sure it is warm enough in your room.” He took her hand and led her to the door. “I feel myself to be on the verge of an ague just hearing about the horrors of your circumstances today! James, bring my gruel as soon as Mrs. Bennet is settled.”
The footman bowed slightly to Mrs. Bennet and led her towards the stairs. “This way, madam. I’m sure your room is ready now.”
Mrs. Bennet closed her gaping mouth and followed the servant, unable to think of a single response to her host’s somewhat misplaced solicitude.
Sally was waiting for her in their bedroom and there was a fire crackling in the grate. The bed looked very comfortable and there was even a trundle bed for Sally. Her nightgown was laid out near the fire to warm and Sally was just putting the warming pans under the covers. When the footman had closed the door, Mrs. Bennet spoke.
“Sally, I think we are in a madhouse! That man wants to feed us barley water and gruel, as if we were deathly ill! Surely his wife will not starve us!”
“Mr. Woodhouse is a widower, madam. His youngest daughter and her husband live here ordinarily, but they have gone to visit her husband’s estate today. The servants are not sure if they will make it back tonight. I’m sure Mr. Woodhouse is worrying about them traveling.”
“Perhaps that explains his concern, but I hope we are not to be starved!”
Just then there was a light tap on the door and the housekeeper carried in a large tray. When she lifted the covers off the dishes Mrs. Bennet was so relieved to see slices of roast beef and a hearty pudding, as well as vegetables and cheese to finish their meal that she felt lightheaded and clutched the small strand of pearls at her neck.
The housekeeper saw her reaction and smiled. “Mr. Woodhouse is against heavy meals, but Miss Emma…I mean Mrs. Knightley…makes up the menu and they always have excellent meals here.”
When she was gone Mrs. Bennet tucked into the hearty fare and, as she was wiping her hands afterwards, said, “We will retire as soon as we can so we can be out of here as soon as possible in the morning! Mr. Woodhouse is a kind enough gentleman but his notions of hospitality would kill us if we stayed too long!”
Sally swallowed and said, “Yes’m. Ummm, madam, will we be going on to Newcastle? The box boy said he has an aunt who lives there and it takes a week or more to get there on the coach!”
“No, we will return to Longbourn as soon as we can.” She did not meet Sally’s eyes. “The weather is clearly much worse than that fool Cotton thought it would be and we cannot go further. I just hope that we are not trapped here for a week!”
“Yes ma’am. I will have our things packed as soon as maybe in the morning.” She smiled to herself when her mistress released her to go to dinner in the kitchen and clutched the tiny wooden cross in the pocket of her apron. She thought, “Thank the Lord we broke down just here, my girl. I must light an extra candle at church when we get home…perhaps we will be there for Christmas!”