“What do you mean she came out of nowhere?”
“That’s what the driver said. He said his horses suddenly bolted and then he saw her. If it wasn’t for the young man, she would have been killed.”
“That’s extraordinary. And the young man?”
Yes, the young man, who was he, I thought. I could see him holding my hand. He had brown hair and brown eyes and his coat was brown and his skin was brown, not like mine, but the brown of a working man.
The second voice, an older woman’s voice, said, “A farmer. That’s all I know. He brought her here, carried her the whole way. Mrs. Goddard will know his name.”
“I repeat, it’s extraordinary,” said the first voice, that of a younger woman. She laughed. “We don’t get that much excitement in Highbury. But her clothes, what do you make of that.”
“Oh, as to that, I have a theory, Miss Woodhouse. Yes, a definite theory that I think you will find explains all.”
“Please tell, Miss Bates,” the younger woman commanded.
“She is an Indian princess. And she has been kidnapped.”
Hearing this, I laughed, or maybe I coughed or gurgled. Anyway, I made some kind of sound.
“She is awake!” the older voice cried.
I could hear the two women come nearer and then I felt a cool hand on my forehead. I was in a bed, and I could feel the weight of a body pressing on the mattress. I opened my eyes and saw a young woman looking down at me. She was very pretty and blonde, with intricate curls framing her face. She seemed to be wearing an old-fashioned nightgown.
“You are, you’re awake,” the younger woman said. “Please, tell us your name.”
“I’m Harry,” I said, although when I said it, I felt a stab of pain in my jaw, and my words came out slurred.
“M’hari, see, that is an Indian name,” the older woman said.
The younger woman’s forehead wrinkled, and she said, “No, Miss Bates, I think she said, ‘I’m Harry.’”
“Harry? The poor child has struck her head.”
“Harriet,” I said, to solve the confusion. I reached up to touch my jaw, but the young woman pulled my hand away.
“You have a nasty bruise there. Perhaps it’s best not to talk right now … Harriet? Maybe just nod your head?”
I nodded my head slightly.
“Harriet. Yes, a good English name, Miss Bates.” I turned my head to look at the other woman. She looked like she was in her forties and wore glasses. She had brown hair and a sort of mousey look. She was also dressed in a nightgown.
“Now, I am Miss Woodhouse. And this is Miss Bates. We can learn your last name later.”
“Smith,” I said, but I winced with the pain and I felt my face flush again.
“Smith,” Miss Woodhouse repeated, and laughed. “Well, this is certainly one of the most memorable introductions I can remember. Oh, but you are flushed. Miss Bates, if you would be so kind as to hand me that cloth.”
I closed my eyes again and heard the sound of a wet rag being squeezed and then I felt cold on my forehead.
“We’ve overtaxed, the poor thing,” Miss Bates said.
“I think you’re correct. Would you like to sleep, Miss Smith?”
“Very well, we’ll let you gather your strength. But someone will be nearby if you need anything.”
I heard the two women leave the room and then the sound of a door being closed. But I could still hear their voices.
“It’s seems unlikely an Indian princess would be named Harriet Smith.”
“Perhaps she’s traveling incognito. And what about her clothes? And her dusky complexion?”
“She is dark complected. But why do you think she’s a princess?”
“The jewelry she’s wearing. That bracelet is gold. And her earrings, diamonds I’m sure.” Miss Bates lowered her voice. “And pierced ears, very Oriental, like her clothes. I’m sure they are pyjamas.”
I listened to Miss Bates spin her theories and at the time they all made perfect sense and they lulled me to sleep.
I woke again to strong sunlight hitting my face and bird song filling my ears. Looking out through the open windows, I saw green leaves.
“I’ve slept through winter,” I said, feeling pain in my jaw again, but not as intense as before. I got up in bed and pushed aside the heavy coverings. My body ached but I felt clear headed, even though I was clearly out of my mind.
“Hello, is anybody there?” I called out. I heard footsteps and the door opened. A woman I didn’t recognized looked in.
“Awake at last, Miss Smith?” asked a large woman with white hair, who like everyone else in my hallucinations was wearing a nightgown.
“Yes, I’m sorry, who are you?” I decided I should get out of bed and slowly swung my feet to the side.
“I’m Mrs. Goddard,” the woman said, as she rushed in to help me.
“Thank you. Could you tell me where the bathroom is?”
“What dear, you want to take a bath? Now?”
“No, the toilet.”
“Of course. Hold my arm — steady now — and I’ll take you to it.”
Well that was positively medieval, I thought to myself after using the toilet. I must be somewhere in the country. Or the third world.
“Excuse me, but where am I. I’m not still in London.”
“No, you’re in Highbury. Here, sit down.” We were in the kitchen, or what would be the kitchen of a living history museum.
“And where is Highbury?”
“In Surrey,” she answered.
“And how did I get here?”
“We don’t know. We were hoping you could tell us.” A small boy dressed like David Copperfield entered the kitchen. “Jem,” she said, “run to Miss Bates’ house and tell her Miss Smith is up.”
The boy turned sharply toward the door. “And then run to Hartfield and leave word for Miss Woodhouse that Miss Smith is up.”
Surrey, I thought to myself, that’s practically London. Take the M4 to the M25 or the train in 30 minutes.
Mrs. Goddard turned back to me. “Now, you’ve been sleeping for two days, Miss Smith. What would you say to a nice bowl of gruel?”
Yes, definitely England, I thought.
“You’ll want something to give you strength. Everyone will want to talk to you. You’re the most interesting thing to happen in Highbury,” Mrs. Goddard said. Then she walked out of the room and called out, “Martha!”
She reentered and a few seconds later a young girl, also wearing a nightgown, also entered.
“Martha, would you make a nice gruel for our guest?”