It was a warm day in early Autumn and Miss Elizabeth Bennet was in flight from her home. The allure of the woods around her father's house was more than enough to tempt her away from her mother's continuing transports on the leasing of the neighbouring property, Netherfield. She did not think she could support another afternoon listening to the way her mother converted her own wishes into certainties and then shared these certainties with their neighbours, in a manner lacking both sense and propriety.
As she tramped happily through the fallen leaves, revelling in the first dry day after several days of incessant rain, she wondered what her mother would do if this Mr Bingley were unprincipled or riddled with some dreadful disease. She had barely determined that a mistress would probably not be an obstacle in her mother's mind, but that leprosy just might be, when her thoughts were interrupted by dreadful noises from the road which lay about 20 yards away from her through the trees.
She had been half-conscious of the sodden plodding of draft horses and the creaking of a large cart, but that familiar rural noise was suddenly replaced with a loud, creaking, tearing noise, a crash and then the sounds of terrified horses.
Without a second thought, she ran through the trees towards the road to find a scene of terrible destruction. A great wagon, full of gravel had broken either a wheel or the front axle. The cart had slumped on to one front corner, throwing the entire load forward, breaking boards and burying the driver to the waist in stones. The horses were trapped and the sounds they made and their desperate rearing and plunging were both affecting and dreadful.
For half a minute she stood, appalled but, rallying herself quickly, she turned to run for help. Before she could do so, a magnificent carriage and four appeared perhaps fifty yards away and approaching at speed. With relief, she ran down to the road and hailed the coachman.
The coach halted rapidly and a gentleman leapt from it, almost before it had stopped, and briefly surveyed the scene. As one of his footman came to the head of the magnificent matched bays, the gentleman and his coachman ran forward and in a few minutes succeed in first calming and then unharnessing the horses and turning them into a nearby field. Turning to Elizabeth, he removed his hat, and, obviously recognising Elizabeth as a gentlewoman, bowed and said, "We shall need more men, madam, where is the nearest place to summon them?"
Elizabeth pointed over the fields. "My father's house and the Home Farm are over there, the building with the red roof. A little over a mile cross country, perhaps two by road."
The gentleman turned and called over his shoulder, "Young Tom, take one of the leaders and ride to the house over there, we need as many men as possible with spades." Behind him, Elizabeth saw one of the two footmen and the coachman begin to unharness one of bays as the other footman approached with two shovels, of the type normally used when the coach became bogged down.
"I beg your pardon, Miss.....?" He was shrugging out of his greatcoat as they spoke, his words hurried but perfectly composed.
"Bennet." In the circumstances it seem ridiculous to stand on ceremony.
"Miss Bennet. Fitzwilliam Darcy, at your service." He looked at her closely. "You are obviously not unduly alarmed - might I ask you to see to the carter's lad while Hopkins and I see what we can do for the driver?" He pointed behind her and she turned to see a boy of perhaps ten years, lying unconscious, one arm lying at an odd angle on the ground. As she hurried towards him, she saw a bay being ridden across the fields.
She knelt beside the poor boy, careless of the mud which immediately struck through the knees of her dress. His pulse was strong but he was obviously going to be in considerable pain when he awoke and lying in the wet and filth of the road was not going to do him any good. She turned towards the cart to see Mr Darcy and his footman trying to dig the gravel away from the carter but, such was the position of the cart and its load that, the more they shovelled away, the more slid down from the back of the cart and he was forced to call a halt and direct his man to start digging out the load from the back.
"Mr Darcy?" He was on his knees too, attempting to assess the extent of the carter's injuries, but he turned at her call. "I shall need something to protect the boy from the mud."
He nodded and called out "Tom Coachman, break out one of the seats." He turned back to her. "You had better wrap him in my greatcoat until we can get a surgeon. There was a town about two miles back - is there one there?" She assured him there was and then assured him of her willingness to ride into Meryton to fetch Mr Mason. She was a little taken aback when she realised that she would have to ride on the box next to the coachman in order to direct him, but, refusing to be missish, she allowed the gentleman to help her to her lofty seat and, once they had used the nearby field to turn the equipage around, found that she rather enjoyed the ride even if she did feel a trifle unsafe. She was also well aware that her mother would be outraged at her conduct, driving through the village on the box of a strange coach but she was convinced that her father would support her actions, even if he would probably do little to protect her from her mother's reproaches.
She was, however rather relieved to make the return journey inside the coach with Mr Mason on the box. The inside was quite the most luxurious she had ever seen, even with one of the seats missing. In a net beside her she could see a number of books and, by craning her neck, she could make out some of the titles: Boswell's Life of Johnson, two volumes of Gibbon's Decline and Fall and Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads and other poems. She had read all but the last and dearly wished for an opportunity to take a peek, however, such was the speed of their journey, she could not be sure she would not damage the obviously costly volume.
When they arrived at the scene of the accident she found that her father had arrived with Jesse, Mr Hill and some of the men from the farm. They had managed to shift most of the load off the cart but at some stage, the gravel had shifted forward and Mr Darcy and the returned "Young Tom" were holding it back with the aid of a board broken from the wagon. As she alighted from the coach, she could hear his deep voice talking to the carter.
"Look at me, Matt Walker, look at me." He was saying. "You were telling me about your girl." She heard the the hoarse voice of the trapped man and realised that Mr Darcy was talking to him to keep him conscious.
She hurried towards the boy, followed by Mr Mason. The lad was now lying on the missing coach seat, its fine leather ruined by the mud. The greatcoat still covered him. He was conscious and, though he must have been in great pain, he said nothing as the surgeon looked him over and then splinted his broken arm. When he was complimented on his bravery, he grinned in tired triumph and opened his uninjured hand to reveal a gold coin. "Master give me an 'ole guinea not to cry out and I didn't neither."
They covered him up and Elizabeth stayed with him as the surgeon went over to the driver who seemed to be on the brink of being freed. She helped the boy tuck the coin in an inner pocket and then knelt beside him. In the manner of Mr Darcy, she talked to him, trying to distract him from his pain until he could be moved.
Over his head, she watched as enough of the gravel was removed that they could attempt to lift the wagon off its driver. Levers were placed and with a good deal of effort, and rather more bad language than Mr Bennet liked to hear in the presence of his daughter, the carter was dragged free. There was a flurry of activity and her father's men closed round the carter as the surgeon worked on him for several minutes before declaring that there was little more he could do in the middle of the road and that at least one leg was so badly crushed it would have to come off. Above the injured man's protests, she could hear Mr Darcy assuring him that he would be looked after and that he could count on a job on his estate, no matter how badly he was hurt. As they carried him off to one of her father's farm carts, she could hear the carter shouting, "You promise, master? You promise me?" and the steady reply, "I promise, Walker, a proper job, on a proper wage and I'll come and dance at your wedding."
The boy too was lifted onto the cart, complete with the carriage seat, and Mr Darcy reclaimed his greatcoat, only to grimace at its state and re-cover the boy. He offered Elizabeth his hand and she got to her feet as her father came over. They had obviously introduced themselves because her father invited him to come over to Longbourne to clean up and take some refreshment.
"I think not, if you'll excuse me. I am on my way to stay with my friend Bingley, at Netherfield, and was expected some hours ago. I feel I ought to be on my way as soon possible. If I may, I'll call tomorrow to see about Walker and young Peter. I have assured Mr Mason that I will be responsible for his fees and we can arrange for their future care then." They shook hands and he turned to Elizabeth. "May I also thank you for your invaluable assistance, Miss Bennet?" She held out her hand and he bowed over it. "It is a refreshing change indeed to meet such an intrepid young lady."
She looked at him sharply, alert for signs of mockery, for she had just begun to realise how far she had trespassed beyond the bounds of everyday propriety but he appeared to be all sincerity, so she curtseyed and stood by her father as the wagon was heaved out of the way and coach, now reunited with its full complement of horses, was manoeuvred past it and up the road towards Netherfield.