Twilight was falling as the Royal Equine Club cart stuttered to a halt on the outskirts of the village. The driver turned around to address the passengers squatting in the back.
‘Right, this is where we stop. I shouldn’t really be taking you this far anyway, seeing as yer membership doesn’t seem to start for another 15 years. If yer ’orse still won’t go in the morning – ’ here he indicated the prone form of Jennifer ‘ – you’ll need to send for an ’Ome Start.’
‘Well, thank you my good sir,’ said Wickham. ‘This is most appreciated. Isn’t it, Mrs Collins?’
‘Er … yes,’ said Elizabeth. ‘What are we going to do now?’ she hissed at Wickham as he helped her down from the cart.
‘I have a plan,’ said Wickham, watching as the driver tipped the back up, depositing Jennifer on the road between them.
‘Giddy up,’ said Elizabeth, half-heartedly. Jennifer stretched, attempted to get to her feet and gave up again. ‘This isn’t going well, is it?’ she said to Wickham. ‘Our Fuchs capacitor whatsit is broken beyond repair and we haven’t even got a working horse.’
‘She’ll be fine in the morning. Probably. We just need to find something to cover her with to keep her safe whilst we locate your – er – future husband.’ Elizabeth grimaced. ‘But wait,’ said Wickham. ‘There’s someone coming. Get down!’
‘Too late! She’s seen us!’
‘Hello there!’ called a female voice, approaching them. ‘Are you local? I seem to be a bit lost.’ She scrutinised them for a moment. ‘Great heavens! It’s Mr Dickham!’
‘Wickham,’ said Wickham. ‘It’s that Austen woman!’ he whispered to Elizabeth.
‘Who?’ said Elizabeth.
‘And Mrs Arsey,’ said Jane Austen.
‘I beg your pardon? I am Mrs Collins.’ She turned to Wickham. ‘Who is this woman?’ she hissed.
‘Don’t you remember?’ whispered back Wickham. ‘Ah. Of course. Different timeline. When you were Mrs Darcy. She’s – ’
‘Mrs Collins?’ queried Miss Austen, ‘You were most definitely Mrs Arsey last time we met. I’m writing a book about you, you know. And that Mr Dickham there.’
‘But wait a minute,’ said Wickham. ‘How did you get here?’
‘I could ask you the same question.’
‘Yes, but I asked it first.’
Miss Austen shrugged. ‘I borrowed a time machine thingy.’
‘Yes. Borrowed. You see I need to know more about Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s family. Specifically her brother Sir Christopher. He has advertised for a Nanny, and I’m intending to apply for the job.’ She tapped her nose in a meaningful manner.
‘Christopher de Bourgh?’ said Elizabeth. ‘So you came travelling all this way – ’
‘ – through light years of time,’ said Miss Austen.
Elizabeth frowned. ‘I fear I am unfamiliar with that unit of measurement,’ she said. ‘Although if the truth were told, there is much of science that baffles me. That’s a most becoming red dress you’re wearing, by the way.’
‘Why, thank you. I understand he – ’
‘That’s it!’ exclaimed Wickham suddenly.
‘That’s what?’ said Elizabeth.
‘That’s how he managed to switch things around. Miss Austen comes here in search of Christopher de Bourgh, gets engaged as a Nanny, young Collins is visiting for Christmas, comes under her charge, she tells him everything about what’s going to happen – ’
‘ – and so he changes his tactics completely when he comes courting and wins me over so I become Mrs Collins instead of Mrs Darcy! Great heavens, Mr Wickham! You’re right!’
‘Excuse me,’ interjected Miss Austen, ‘But can one of you please explain what on earth you’re talking about?’
There was a pause. ‘Well,’ said Wickham, ‘It’s a bit like this – ’
‘Sssh!’ hissed Elizabeth, ‘There’s someone else coming.’
‘Good Lord,’ said Wickham. ‘It’s Collins! I’d recognise that hair anywhere.’
‘Collins?’ said Miss Austen. ‘Young Master Collins? But this is fascinating! I must speak to him!’
‘Wait!’ cried Elizabeth. ‘You mustn’t do that. It could … it could … I don’t know … it could be very bad … I think. Help me out here, Wickham?’
But Wickham’s mind seemed to be elsewhere. ‘Where’s Jennifer?’ he said suddenly.
‘Jennifer?’ said Miss Austen.
‘Yes, Jennifer,’ said Elizabeth. ‘Our horse. She’s gone.’
‘Ah, there she is,’ said Wickham, peering out across the fields. ‘Trying to get into that funny blue box. Although it’s far too small for him to … oh.’ He paused for a moment. ‘Well, that was unexpected,’ he said.
‘That’s no box,’ said Miss Austen, gathering up her skirts. ‘That’s my time machine! Come on!’
It was indeed a most peculiar device. ‘This is the work of the devil indeed,’ said Elizabeth once they were inside. ‘Indeed, ’tis bigger on the inside than – ’
‘ – on the outside?’ said Miss Austen. ‘Yes, that is indeed very queer. And yet one could say the same of a novel, couldn’t one?’
There was a prolonged silence whilst they contemplated Miss Austen’s assertion.
‘Up to a point,’ said Wickham eventually. ‘But Miss Austen, may I enquire as to precisely how you acquired this machine?’
Miss Austen sighed. ‘It appeared one day outside my house in Bath. A man emerged and told me his name was Mr Muppet or something like that and he was looking for interesting people to take part in an event he called ‘a Christmas Special’. He said they’d already tried someone called Kylie and some Jenkins woman and wanted to find someone a bit more real this time. Anyway, I thought if he could travel through time to find me I could use the same machine to research my book.’
‘So you stole it?’
‘Miss Austen,’ said Elizabeth. ‘I think you need to return it to poor Mr Muppet. I now know what it feels like to be stranded in the wrong time. He must be terribly worried. And besides, bad things can happen when you travel in time – as sure as my name is Mrs Darcy.’
Wickham looked at her. ‘Mrs Darcy?’
‘Yes, Mrs Darcy. ’Tis my name, is it not?’ Her hand shot to her mouth. ‘Great heavens! It is working! Order has been restored! Quick – we must get back to our own time before anything goes wrong!’ Indeed, everything was perfectly well again – the only minor inconvenience being that she had mislaid her copy of Lord Byron’s poems in the rush to get to the time machine. Although now she came to think about it, she had no idea why she had come to be in possession of a book by that revolting man in the first place.
‘Hurrah!’ said Wickham. He turned to Miss Austen. ‘So then. How do you fly this thing?’
Elizabeth Darcy awoke from her afternoon nap to find Dench looming over her.
‘Begging your pardon, ma’am, but you have a visitor.’
‘Dear me!’ said Elizabeth, smoothing down her skirts. ‘Do send them in.’
The newcomer was male, elegantly coiffed and with a strong scent of pomade and a definite air of familiarity about him. He strutted in like a peacock, bowed and took Elizabeth’s hand.
‘Great heavens!’ said Elizabeth, her heart fluttering unexpectedly. ‘And who might you be, sir?’
‘Some call me mad,’ said the man, kissing her hand, ‘some call me bad’, he kissed it again, ‘and yet others say that I am dangerous to know.’ He kissed her hand a third time before releasing it. ‘But you may simply know me as Mr Collins…’