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The stagecoach lurched, then with what seemed infinite slowness, toppled on to its right-hand side. precipitating Antonia into the lap of the portly bank clerk next to her. Clutching wildly at his lapels only served to take both of them on to the floor of the coach, where they were shortly joined by a curate, a basket of apples and a small child who promptly set up a piercing wail.
‘Donna?’ Antonia attempted to lever herself upright from the mass of tumbled humanity. ‘Oh, I do beg your pardon, sir,’ she apologised, removing her elbow from the clerk’s midriff. ‘Donna, there you are, thank goodness. Are you unhurt?’
‘A little shaken, my dear, but otherwise without injury, I believe.’ Miss Maria Donaldson rose into Antonia’s view over the heap of bodies, patting her neatly-coiled hair into place. Her pince-nez were already firmly back in position on the tip of her nose. ‘But I believe we should alight as soon as may be.’ She turned to the red-faced farmer wedged next to her. ‘If you could force open the door, sir, I believe I could climb through.’
It seemed the best solution. Antonia certainly could not move until someone had enough space to remove their booted foot from her skirts. After considerable upheavals, the farmer managed to boost Donna’s slight frame through the door and on to the sloping side of the coach. Sensing escape, the small child set up a fresh wail and, to Antonia’s relief, was handed up to his mother who followed Miss Donaldson into the spring sunshine.
Antonia was the last out and joined her fellow passengers, shaken, bruised, but largely unhurt, who assembled on the rutted road to view the wreck of their conveyance. The driver and guard unhitched and calmed the horses, but further useful activity then seemed beyond them. The driver removed a filthy hat the better to scratch his equally dirty hair, the guard helpfully kicked the nearest wheel and the men amongst the passengers stood around sucking their teeth in contemplation of the depth of the ditch into which the coach had fallen.
‘Really, my dear Antonia,’ Donna murmured gently. ‘I have never been able to understand why men feel that giving something a sharp kick will restore it to working order.’
Antonia laughed. ‘It never works, but I think it must make them feel better. Come, let us see if our luggage is still safely strapped on behind.’
‘Your elbow has come through the sleeve of your gown,’ Donna observed as they turned from their scrutiny of the large luggage basket at the rear of the stagecoach and its tumbled contents. ‘Is your pelisse still in the coach?’
‘It must be,’ Antonia responded indifferently. She tried twitching together the hole in the threadbare linen sleeve but it only gaped again. ‘It proves I was right to wear this old gown for the journey. I have too few good dresses to damage like this.’
She set her straw bonnet straight on her head, tucked in a straggling curl and retied the ribbons under her chin. ‘l think we will achieve little by waiting here until the coachman finally realises he must send for help. The last fingerpost said Rybury was only three miles further on. If we take our pelisses and the small valises from the coach, we can walk and at least wait for our luggage in comfort at the inn.’
The curate, an energetic young man, kindly climbed back into the coach and handed out their things. He was just scrambling out again when, with a thud of hooves on the wet chalk, two horsemen rounded the bend and reined in at the sight of the shambles in their path.
‘Your Grace!’ exclaimed the curate.
A duke? Here? Antonia put down her valise and prepared to be entertained. She had never seen a duke before.
The curate, who had regained the ground, was obviously on familiar terms with the man who sat astride a tall chestnut gelding. ‘This is Providence indeed, Your Grace, if you would be so kind as to instruct your groom to get help to right the coach.’
‘Mr Todd.’ The Duke nodded to the clergyman, dismounted and tossed his reins to his groom before striding over to regard the wreck. ‘Has anyone been hurt?’ He turned to survey the ill-assorted group of passengers.
Antonia encountered the brief scrutiny of a pair of dark brown eyes before they moved on to as swiftly peruse, and dismiss, the small figure of her companion. She found herself colouring, with what had to be indignation, at such a cursory survey. Very well, she was shabbily dressed, and undoubtedly not at her best after a long coach journey and being tossed around in the toppling coach, but she was not used to being dismissed with such a complete lack of interest by gentlemen.
He is a duke, she reminded herself as she watched the tall, rangily elegant figure as he stood, hands on hips, regarding the stage coach and the ditch. Doubtless dukes do not find the common herd as fascinating as we find them.
He was unconventionally bareheaded, the light breeze ruffling his dark blond hair which was, she decided, in sore need of his barber’s attention. He might appear careless of his dress, but cut and cloth were of the finest and the burnished leather of his long boots spoke of a man who need not, unlike lesser mortals such as herself, watch every penny.
Mr Todd the curate trailed after him, explaining the circumstances of the accident and the fortunate fact that no one had been injured. The groom nudged his own hack forward. ‘Shall I ride to the village for help, Your Grace?’
‘No need, Saye. We passed Shoebridge and Otterly hedging the Long Meadow back around the bend a few minutes ago. Fetch them and we will have enough men to right the thing.’
As the groom cantered off, the Duke turned to the coachman and guard who shuffled to attention, recognising authority when they saw it. ‘You-hitch the horses up on long traces, and you two, fetch cut poles from that pile there.’
‘Which duke is he?’ she asked Mr Todd.
‘Marcus Renshaw, Duke of Allington,’ the curate whispered back. ‘I had heard that he has decided to oversee improvement works at his estate here and to hold a house party at Brightshill. Normally he visits one of his other country houses, so it is quite a novelty for us to have him here for long.’
Antonia watched Allington take command, organising and ordering until the male passengers were marshalled into an obedient team, some levering up the wheel, others with their shoulders to the rear of the vehicle. With the addition of two sturdy hedgers and with Saye at the horses’ heads, the stranded coach began to teeter upright, then stuck again in the soft soil of the bank top.
‘I fear we cannot do it, Your Grace,’ Mr Todd gasped, brushing hopelessly at the mud smearing his clerical black. ‘We must summon more help from the village.’
Without reply, the Duke stripped off his buff coat, rolled up his sleeves, and applied his shoulder to the coach. Either he was very strong, Antonia mused, or the sight of a duke exerting himself galvanised the other men. Whichever it was, when he said, ‘Now!’ they strained themselves to the utmost and heaved. Seconds later, with a shuddering crash, the vehicle once more stood on four wheels.
The coachman and groom re-hitched the team, the grateful passengers picked up their luggage and began to climb aboard and the Duke, fending off the flustered attempts of the curate to brush down his coat, remounted and rode off.
‘How very gratifying,’ Antonia remarked waspishly, pausing on the step of the coach to regard his retreating back, ‘to have the leisure to ride round the countryside setting we lesser mortals to rights.’