Have you ever wanted to read how a conversation would go between Darcy and Captain Wentworth? Have you ever wished Caroline Bingley might make the acquaintance of Sir Walter Elliot? Have you ever thought Mrs. Norris and Lady Catherine could be best buds? Then you’ll love March Madness where we combine characters from Jane Austen’s books in a way you may not have imagined or in ways you may have hoped. Find a comfy chair, grab a cuppa and a few biscuits, and join us for the fun!
Lady Catherine de Bourgh prided herself on the excellence of all that she chose to have about her: and woe betide the person who might dare to suggest that there was any thing amiss about her establishment, her gardens, or her carriage. Her carriage was the problem in this instance. Well built, of the very finest materials – but of a fashion of five and twenty years ago, so that the effect was imposing rather than suggestive of speed.
Four strong horses were required to draw the chaise, to say nothing of the outriders and their steeds; and the maroon-curtained equipage, with livery according, made an impressive appearance. In this countrified quarter of Surrey, there was no one to watch a Lady Catherine sweep by, other than a few gaping yokels; and by the same token, no one witnessed the encounter of a wheel with a particularly sharp stone, which had been thrown into the roadway by a horse pulling another carriage a few hours earlier.
The consequence was that the carriage listed and fell crashing into a soft ditch, the horses screaming as loudly as the ladies inside. That is, Miss Anne de Burgh and the two waiting-women screamed; Lady Catherine uttered not a sound as the carriage came majestically to rest. The outriders hurried to the chaise, the shaken coachman jumped down, and together they pried open the door, now uppermost as the lower was in the ditch. The ladies were helped to emerge, the young lady and the maids crying, but unhurt, apart from a few bumps and scrapes. Lady Catherine was silent, but Barrow the coachman, glancing at her face, perceived that she was in a steaming if unspeaking rage.
“Your Ladyship, are you hurt?” he inquired, trembling with real fear, from the knowledge that his job depended on the answer.
“I believe my arm is broken, Barrow,” she returned in clipped tones. “You must seek help at once. Is there a house near?”
“We are not much over a mile from the next town, which is Highbury, I believe, my lady. Shall I send the postilions to fetch help?”
“I said so, did I not, you idiot of a man,” she retorted, and pressed her lips together angrily, to banish pain. “Here – make us a place to sit while we wait, and take off your shirt.”
“To make some soft linen for a bandage,” she ordered. “And we have some bottles of wine, fetch me some of that.”
“The bottles is all broke, my lady,” reported one of the men.
“Fools. How did this happen, Barrow? Pray explain yourself at once.”
“I believe it was that sharp stone, there, that cracked the wood frame covering the metal wheel, if you see, ma’am.”
“You do not deserve to be driving a lady’s carriage such as this,” she pronounced, and then beckoned to the disheveled waiting women, who were too much fluttered to be of much use in binding up her arm.
In the shortest possible amount of time, the neat little equipage of the local apothecary Mr. Perry approached, and the dapper little man emerged to take charge of the case, with a capable air.
“Let us see. Ah, yes, this lady has a break in her arm. Lady Catherine de Bourgh, you say? Well, it appears to be a fairly uncomplicated matter, but will need setting, and nursing. I believe the best thing to do will be to take you directly to our vicarage. It is down this road, the near end of Highbury: that will be fastest, and you will receive the best care there.”
“But how shall I be conveyed?” Lady Catherine demanded.
“We have informed the ostler, and he will be here with a fresh carriage, in moments. You will be carried quite comfortably, I do assure you. Mr. Elton, our clergyman, has a capacious house, with all modern fittings.”
“Is there room for us all at the vicarage? I cannot be without my daughter and ladies.”
“For you and your daughter, certainly – the rest of the party might best be accommodated at the Crown Inn, in town. But here is John Ostler.”
Half an hour later, Lady Catherine was being helped into the vicarage. Her hostess, Mrs. Elton, came to the door, holding up her hands in amazement.
“Perry! What is all this? Who are these people? We are not an inn you know. If there has been some sort of accident you ought to have taken them to the Crown.”
“Young woman, do you know who I am?” intoned Lady Catherine indignantly.
“No; how should I? But by your disarray you look no better than you should be, and I assure you I will not be imposed upon. Be off, take them to the inn, it will suffice quite well for the needs of such common travelers as these.”
“It is Lady Catherine de Bourgh,” said Mr. Perry, sotto voce, “and her arm is broken. I thought you could not object to my treating her here, Mrs. Elton, as this is the nearest place to the site of the accident.”
“Lady Catherine de – ? You don’t say! Well, in that case, a common inn will not do at all, will it? My housekeeper will ready a room for her. Mrs. Hodges! Come at once and attend to her ladyship.”
Between the housekeeper and Perry, Lady Catherine was helped down the hall into a pretty, airy bedroom, all new furnished. Mrs. Elton, now excited at having a noble guest, never stopped chattering.
“I daresay this won’t be what you are used to, Lady Catherine, but I assure you this room is as large as the third guest room that my sister, Mrs. Suckling, has at her mansion at Maple Grove. She is married to a gentleman in a very great way, and their house is quite as large as that of many titled people.”
“Mrs. Elton, I am going to set her ladyship’s arm. Will you order more rags please, and some warm water.”
“Hodges, see to it at once. Lady Catherine de Bourgh – I don’t know the name. I must look you up in the Peerage. There is one at Hartfield, I know, though I assure you it is just as well you have not been taken there. The haughty manners of Miss Woodhouse, would not please you at all; and her father is quite eccentric. She might order decent vituals for you, but he would never allow you to eat them. It will be another thing entirely, here, Lady Catherine, I can tell you. I will send to the butcher for all the pheasants he has on hand.”
Lady Catherine did not answer, as Mr. Perry was attending to her arm, and beads of perspiration stood out on her forehead. As soon as she could speak, she looked Mrs. Elton up and down, taking in her person, costume, and importunate manners. She gave a disapproving sniff.
“I suppose this room will suffice for myself and my daughter. We usually prefer separate chambers, but we will make allowances. My waiting women can have another room. I shall need their services, but a servant’s room will do for them. We do not require any thing over elaborate for dinner; a light dinner is all the repast that we can take after our ordeal. Will you see to that at once. Some country ham and eggs, perhaps, or cold meat. The pheasants will be too rich, and you need not order them until tomorrow.”
Awed at speaking to a real ladyship, Mrs. Elton curtseyed and ran away to consult with the cook. Lady Catherine looked at Anne and shrugged. “Ill bred and vulgar, as you might expect in the country. But the house is clean, I see, and I believe this Mr. Perry is correct in his judgment. I expect that we will be comfortable enough here, for however long it takes my injuries to mend. But what a bore. We are expected at Pemberley, and I know Darcy and his wife will be most concerned at this delay.”
“And your injury, Mama,” added Anne. “Darcy is so very attached to you! He will be so distressed to hear of your misfortune!”
“Yes,” said her mother complacently, “he will. I have been so anxious to make good speed, and take him and his wife somewhat by surprise. How else can we know what has befallen Pemberley. Mrs. Darcy will have more time to prepare now, and put on a better showing. Still, the delay, unpleasant as it is, cannot be helped. I wish we were not so sunk in a nasty little backwater as this, however.”
“I believe you will like Highbury,” said Mr. Perry mildly. “It is a nice town, with two or three very fine houses in the neighborhood, and very civil people.”
“This Mrs. Elton is not a very good specimen,” she observed. “She a clergyman’s wife! It is hardly to be believed. I suspect she is not even a lady. I detect a Birmingham accent. Trade, I am sure.”
“Ah, true enough, indeed,” Mr. Perry agreed, “but her housekeeping is first rate, and her kitchen and offices all the very latest thing. The Eltons do themselves very well, and you will be comfortably lodged, much more so than if you were at the inn. It is so noisy there, with the gentlemen and their card parties.”
“What are the great houses of which you speak?”
“There is Hartfield, seat of the Woodhouses, the most ancient, though untitled, family of the neighborhood, of whom Mrs. Elton spoke, madam. Then there is Donwell Abbey, in the adjacent parish; a larger abode, the home of Mr. Knightley. But it is rather out of the way of the town, and might be inconvenient.”
“Woodhouse, Woodhouse. That rings a bell. I was at school with a girl who married a Woodhouse, of Surrey. Isabella Carstairs was her name, but I have not heard of her these twenty years.”
“Ah, yes, that would be the late Mrs. Woodhouse. Her daughter Emma, a very pretty young lady, keeps house for her father now. It is a small world, my lady, is it not?”
“My circle of connections is extensive,” Lady Catherine informed him loftily, “as is often the case among the aristocracy. What are these Woodhouses like? Are they genteel? Would they not, in your judgment, make superior hosts to these Eltons?”
“Why, I daresay they might; they are very kind and decent people, some of my oldest friends,” he answered, honestly but perplexed by her questions. “Mr. Woodhouse is rather a valetudinarian, and very attentive to matters of health; I attend him several times a week. However, you are not in a state to be moved, and I believe you would be well advised to remain here for the time being.”
“I suppose you are right,” she nodded, and leaned back on the pillows of the four-poster bed where she had been laid, as Mrs. Elton bustled back into the room.
“Cook is dishing you up a basin of the best turkey broth, my lady,” she said importantly, “and a baking of bread. We have very fine butter here, and do nothing by half measures. Only the best victuals at our table, though we do have a care to economy.”
Lady Catherine assented to the broth, after making a close inquiry as to its ingredients. When she had answered to Lady Catherine’s satisfaction, Mrs. Elton had questions of her own, and no hesitation about asking them.
“Tell me, your Ladyship, is your husband a knight? Were you presented at court upon your marriage? Do you know the princesses?”
For a moment Lady Catherine did not seem inclined to answer such impertinence, but then she nodded. “Sir Lewis de Burgh was of a very noble family, but he is dead,” she grudgingly replied. “Now if you will serve me the soup, and hold your tongue, I will be much obliged.”
Mrs. Elton was chagrined, and seemed inclined to ignore Lady Catherine’s rudeness, in hopes of finding out more; but her persistence resulted in Mr. Perry’s stepping in.
“Lady Catherine must needs get some rest, my dear Mrs. Elton,” he explained gently, and she was unwillingly persuaded to leave the room.
“Dreadful woman!” the patient exclaimed, as soon as the door shut behind Mrs. Elton. “I may be comfortable enough here, in body, but my character is not accustomed to be exposed to such low manners. Tomorrow, Perry, you must arrange to have me removed to Hartfield, no matter what. I am sure that such old connections as the Woodhouses will be most pleased to receive me.”