The Carriage to Yorkshire [Uskweirs #9]

This chapter sees Amelia and Elizabeth traveling cross-country together, killing time, reading books, and having enough quiet time to figure a few things out. It’s one of those chapters where there aren’t big sweeping plot developments, but that leaves more space for the characters to breathe and grow. Sometimes it’s the little transitional chapters that are the most fun to write, and hopefully pretty fun to read, as well!

October 1812

“Father Father Father Father,” gabbled Elizabeth as she burst into the library with all her usual delicacy.  Amelia looked up from the window seat where she was reading.  In the other girl’s hands fluttered a short pile of post, topped with the bouncing pages of an opened letter.

Lord Ashbourne barely lifted an eyebrow from his own book.  “Yes, my dear?”

“We’ve had a letter.  I’ve had a letter,” Elizabeth said in a rush, and absently dropped the unopened post on his writing desk.  “From Francis Harcourt.”

“Good to hear he’s literate,” the viscount murmured, nudging through his own post with distaste.  “I did expect to see more of him, but he’s been rather scarce.”

“You know he’s been attending to his sick mother in Yorkshire,” his daughter pouted.  “And he has written.  He’s written five times in four months.”

“And you’ve written…?”

“I’m not sure how many times,” Elizabeth demurred, although Amelia knew from late night chats, including the evening before, that she did and the number was 12.  “But in this letter, he’s invited us to visit.  His friends are giving a house party, and he’s spoken of me so often that they wish to make my acquaintance.”

“Invited us.”

“Yes.”

“To Yorkshire.”

“Yes.”

“In October.”

“Yes.”

“Like hell I’m traveling to Yorkshire in October.  The roads will be abominable.”  Ashbourne turned his attention back to his book.

“Father!” Elizabeth all but wailed, dashing the open letter against her thigh.

He waved her off, unmoved.  “Take Amelia.”

Elizabeth fell suddenly quiet, glancing over to Amelia, then back to Ashbourne.  Her voice quavered with skeptical hope.  “To Yorkshire?  In the carriage?”

“She can chaperone you, you can chaperone her,” the viscount suggested reasonably.  “It’s Yorkshire, not London, so I imagine you should both be sufficient for each other.  Yes?”

She bit her lip.  “I mean… it is just the country.”

Ashbbourne muttered.  “Because pretty young things can’t get up to exactly the same kinds of trouble in the country as in the Town.  I swear the rules of polite society make no sense.”

Before he could reconsider or worse, launch into a diatribe, Elizabeth dashed forward to throw her arms around him.  “Yes, Father, I think it’s a splendid plan.  Thank you!”

Ashbourne accepted his daughter’s embrace with no small measure of pleasure, and sent a smirk over her shoulder to Amelia.  “Now you see the full genius of my plan unfold.  Invite you to stay with us, and now I don’t have to go to fucking Yorkshire in October.”

“This is a terrible plan,” Amelia observed as she watched Uskweirs shrink away in the rear window of the carriage.

Sitting opposite her, Elizabeth was vibrating hard enough to rattle the carriage apart.  Wide-eyed, she said, “Nonsense.  This is fabulous.  And you said you would go.”

“I am having second thoughts,” Amelia confessed, and gestured down the length of her body.  “Am I really ready for a whole house party?”

“You’ve been to a half-dozen house parties en femme.”

“At Uskweirs,” Amelia pointed out.  “This won’t be our people.”

“Aw, you called us ‘our people.’  Besides, you went to Bath.”

“A dinner party for eight is a very different animal than a house party for fifty.”

“It’s been months, Amelia,” her carriagemate said reasonably.  She ticked her points off on her fingers.  “You’ve been taking horse potion for months,” (because ever since Gŵil Awst she’d been calling it that) “you’ve been dressing yourself and applying your cosmetics for months, you’ve grown your hair out for months, you’ve been practicing your voice for months.  I don’t even remember what you used to look like.”

Amelia scrutinized her hazy reflection in the window.  “I do,” she murmured, even if she had to admit she did look different.

Elizabeth swatted her knee.  “But more importantly, nobody in Yorkshire does.”  When her friend didn’t respond, she elaborated: “You don’t know anybody in the North.  No one is going to recognize you.  And if you do trip yourself up—which you won’t, but even if you do—then you don’t care, because, again, you don’t know anybody there.”

“But word will spread.  Gossip flies faster than… whatever the second half of the aphorism is.”

Elizabeth snorted performatively.  “Word will spread.  ‘Oh, I was at a party and there was a girl who sneezed and it sounded like a man sneezing.  What was her name?  I can’t recall.’  It won’t come back to you because, once more, you don’t know anybody there and they don’t know you.”

Amelia picked up her book.  “I am choosing to be mollified because this conversation is tedious.”

“And also because I’m in the right.”

Their first overnight stay was at the Randall’s house in Malvern.  Elizabeth’s mother, usually in residence there, was conveniently away, giving the two girls the run of the house.  The staff seemed happy to see Elizabeth and inclined to indulge her.  The cook had prepared all her favorites for their supper and the butler fetched wine bottles for them well into the night.

The next morning, Elizabeth was considerably more subdued in the seat opposite Amelia, wincing at the morning sunlight when it lanced into the carriage.  “Last night was a mistake.”

Amelia found it amusing to pretend her slight hangover did not exist, if only to magnify the weight of Elizabeth’s.  “You should have switched to lemonade and well water after midnight like I did.”  It wasn’t often that Amelia’s experience outweighed Elizabeth’s, and she wasn’t about to miss an opportunity to be wiser and more sophisticated.

“I do not often enjoy this degree of freedom,” Elizabeth mumbled.  “I didn’t want to waste it.”

“You may have enjoyed those freedoms a bit too much.”

Elizabeth pulled the shade closed.  “I regret nothing.”

Amelia closed one of the shades on her side of the carriage in sympathy, and then leaned close to the other side, its window shade still open to read.  She had guiltily packed up all five volumes of Traits of Nature, which she had put off even starting for more than a month, now.  With four days of travel there and four days of travel back, and with no histories or treatises to tempt her eye away, she had hoped she’d be able to finish the lot of them.

Thus far, the plan seemed to be working.  She was a few pages away from finishing the first volume, and from the light snoring coming from the other side of the carriage, she did not expect any interruptions for the rest of the morning.

The sun was setting, their carriage still half an hour out from their destination for the night, when they stopped at the side of the road.  Elizabeth fetched a jug and two earthenware mugs from the luggage and stepped back into the cabin with a grave expression.  “This is the real cost to be paid for our little trip.  We’ve no way to chill the horse potion, and… I believe I warned you, it’s so much worse when it’s warm.”

She filled both mugs and passed one over to Amelia, who reeled back in her seat and turned her face away when the smell hit her.  “Must we?”

“You can skip,” Elizabeth counseled, the fingers of her free hand poised above her nose.  “Grace does all the time.  But.  I can’t bring myself to risk it, so…”  She pinched her nose, brought the mug to her lips, and choked the concoction down.

“The things we do,” Amelia muttered, screwed up her courage, and did the same.

It was so, so much worse warm.

In Stafford, they were to stay with the Grosvenors, family friends of the Randalls.  Their hosts came out into the yard to greet them, and Amelia frowned softly at the two figures from the anonymity of the carriage.  “Are they business connections of your father’s or Uskwiers acquaintances?”

“You needn’t worry about that,” Elizabeth told her, a little shortly as she was collecting herself to open the door and get out of the objectively spacious but by now subjectively cramped carriage.  “If you haven’t seen them at Uskwiers, treat them as nothing more than social connections.”  She paused a moment, squinting out the window.  “And that goes double if you, hypothetically, can’t remember.”  She threw open the door.  “Aunt Vera!  It’s been so long!”

Aunt Vera and Sir Richard greeted them warmly, informed them that supper was at their leisure, and citing their own advanced age promptly went to bed, themselves.  The two girls had only each other’s company in the dining room and then retired upstairs to bedchambers that had clearly been brought out of mothballs earlier that morning.

Amelia’s room did feature a tall mirror and she found herself standing before it, transfixed.  Something about its unfamiliar frame turned her reflection, which should have been familiar, strange and fascinating.

Without pins or ribbons, her hair hung down around her face, now.  The tips hung even with her jawline.  She’d always known her hair was curly, but once it had been allowed to blossom it corkscrewed and twisted all over.

Her face had changed.  Perhaps that was only because her skin was so much thinner (and distressingly prone to bruising), but as she stared, stepping closer to the mirror’s surface, it became plain that that was not all.  The corners of her eyes had opened up, making them look bigger and wider.  Her cheekbones had gained new prominence.  Her lips seemed just the slightest bit fuller.  The sum effect was… significant.

Amelia rechecked that her door was locked before doffing her shift and standing before the mirror naked.  That thinner skin made changes here, too.  A few veins stood out bolder than they ever had.  And there were other changes.

She ran her hands down her sides, which had subtly shifted in ways she could never quite pin down.  Perhaps it was the more supple skin.  Perhaps something underneath had changed just slightly.  But her belly was rounder and softer.  Her waist was more pronounced.  Her hips, if she could call them that, curved ever so gently outward, ever so slightly higher than she expected them to.

She placed her hands underneath her bosom, which… projected, now.  She could not exactly lift what was there, but she could support the warm weight in her hands.  The same thought came to her that had come to her every few weeks for months, now: “These are real breasts.  I’m not just fooling myself.  What I had two weeks ago was sort of breast shaped, but these are… very breast shaped.”  She marveled at them, as she had marveled at them before, as she expected to marvel at them again.  No matter how “very breast shaped” they got, somehow they always seemed to become even more “very breast shaped” shortly thereafter.

Amelia sighed, let herself get a little overwhelmed with emotion, and then chuckled at herself.  She’d been told this would happen, by people to whom it had happened, and yet somehow she was still surprised when it happened to her.  She put her hands on her hips and huffed at herself.  And then she started to turn, planning to find her nightgown, and one hand slipped off its hip while the other lifted up on its own and—

Her heart lurched.  Did she just—

Frowning in consternation, Amelia squared herself to the mirror again and stared.  She placed one careful hand on her side, cocked her hip and… made her heart skip a beat again.

Amelia was struck with the strangest sense of embarrassment.

Her own reflection was eliciting a lusty response… from herself.  This could not be right.

She did it again.

Once they had set off the next morning, Amelia tried to lose herself in her book again, to little success.  Finally she put the second volume aside and groaned, “I have an indelicate question.”

Elizabeth was all smiles.  “Oh, it’s been a while so you’ve had embarrassing questions for me.”

“Not embarrassing,” Amelia lied, “just… indelicate.”

“I’m all ears.”

“Have you ever…” Amelia began, halted, pressed on: “in the mirror.  Has your image ever… provoked your own libido?”

The other girl’s smile turned knowing.  “Oh, did Amelia have a diverting evening alone last night?”

Amelia rolled her eyes.  “I’m going to say yes just so you have the satisfaction of feeling like I’m embarrassed, which will hopefully make you more amenable to giving me my own answer.”

“You are embarrassed,” Elizabeth teased.  “Your cheeks are flushed beet red.  But in answer to your question, no, I haven’t.  But then I’ve no libidinous interest in the fairer sex.  So it stands to reason that my own image isn’t going to provoke anything.”

And then the girl, very uncharacteristically, dropped the subject and turned back to her book.  Amelia frowned softly at her own feet, scowled out the window, and then forced her attention onto the pages of Traits of Nature.

The roads were in fact abominable.  But when the carriage was stuck in a particularly deep rut filled with mud, Elizabeth and Amelia were lifted from the carriage door by the groom and deposited under a tree.  They huddled there under the umbrella while the groom, ankle-deep in sludge, single-handedly shoved the carriage while also knickering at the horses to pull.  The palms of Amelia’s hands itched to help, but she was also grateful, when it was over, to be lifted back up and placed on the lip of the now-liberated carriage, still clean and dry.

“Now I have a stupid question,” Amelia said, breaking the silence.

“No questions are stupid,” Elizabeth answered immediately, without even looking up.  Amelia wondered briefly if the other girl realized she was quoting her father.

“It’s stupid insofar as I think I know the answer, but I feel compelled to ask the question regardless.”

Elizabeth looked up now, with a gentle smile.  “I am familiar with that impulse.  Ask away.”

“Women like us,” Amelia began, and immediately regretted it.  “That is.  We direct a great deal of effort at fitting into roles which we were denied.”

The other girl looked a little skeptical.  “Yes?”

“And those roles are complex,” Amelia fumbled along.  “Elaborate.  There’s lots of bits and pieces to them, and perhaps not all of them are… appropriate to each and every one of us.”

“I’ve been telling you since the start that you don’t have to do any part of this that doesn’t feel like it fits right.”

Amelia groaned.  “Yes, but there are the parts that are obviously parts that can be discarded and there are parts that are more subtly interwoven into the fabric of the role.”

Elizabeth sighed and sat back in her seat. “Whatever this is, you’re devoting far too many words to it.  Spit it out.”

The new girl threw her arms to her sides, slapping the third volume of Traits of Nature against the seat cushion.  “I thought.  When I started, I thought that… beforehand, when I had looked at women it was envy.  I wanted what they had.  Call it femininity.”

Her friend bobbed her head.  “Right.”

“Which thanks to the incredible generosity of yourself and your father, I have… at least begun to acquire for myself.”  Here Elizabeth snorted at ‘begun’ and Amelia ignored her, pressing on.  “But I had assumed that part of that femininity… would be… an appreciation for the male sex.”

Her friend carefully schooled her expression and nodded.  “Go on.”

“That has not happened,” she explained flatly.  “And perhaps when I used to look at women, what I experienced was not always simply envy.”

Elizabeth’s face was the picture of attentive listening, but her eyes flashed.  She asked, “What else might you have been experiencing in that moment, Amelia?”

“You are toying with me,” the girl gasped, and pinched tears out of the corners of her eyes.

“Oh no, don’t cry, please don’t,” Elizabeth exclaimed, and crossed the carriage to sit next to Amelia, embracing her tightly.  “Pay no attention to my silly face.  It’s always ten times as wicked as my thoughts truly are.”

Amelia pressed her cheek against Elizabeth’s neck and relaxed into her arms.  “We both know that isn’t the case.  Your thoughts are always wicked.”

The wicked thinker herself giggled.  “And my stupid face always puts them on display, magnified for all to see.  But ignore that for a moment, and tell me what you wanted to say.”

Her thoughts and emotions were a tangle all coiled up beneath her sternum, and she imagined them rising up to her throat and splitting her mouth open to escape her body.  “Lust,” she gasped, “it’s lust, not envy.  Or both, usually.  Or sometimes.”

Elizabeth petted her hair. “There we go.  Not that hard, was it?”

“That was very hard,” she grumbled, and righted herself a little within the circuit of her friend’s arms.  “But.  Women like us.  Sometimes we… retain a man’s interest in women?”

“Eugh, I think that’s the worst possible way to frame it,” came the answer, and then Elizabeth loosed a sigh full of compassion.  “Oh, did you think… did you think it made you any less a woman?”

“It occurred to me,” Amelia allowed, feeling stupid.  However her question remained unanswered.  “But.  You know more of us.  Are there women like us who…”

“You’ve met Miss Woods and Miss Pirie,” Elizabeth pointed out with slight indignity.

With a sickening lurch, Amelia realized that she had discounted the teachers because their avowed lusts had been for each other.  Their attraction was to femininities which had been constructed, femininities which she had, treacherously, presumed to be different and lesser.  What did she really think of her own constructed femininity, she wondered, and then worried.  Did Elizabeth realize what traitorous thoughts were apparently living in her head?  Ashamed, she hid the thought away from herself.

She mumbled something that even she didn’t understand, and Elizabeth squeezed her tighter.  “Shhh, don’t worry your head too much.  It all gets rather confusing sometimes.  But you’ll make it through.”

Amelia mumbled some more, cried, apologized, and at some point fell asleep.

Their last overnight stop was a modest parsonage in Mansfield.  Their host and hostess were gracious, the supper filling, and the conversation diverting until well into the night.

The girls shared the sole guest room, and when it came time to climb into bed, Amelia hesitated.  “It feels strange sharing a bed with you when you know… where my interests lie.”

Eyes half-lidded, Elizabeth snorted.  “We’ve shared a bed countless times, and I’ve known you were a lesbian for months.  I don’t see how this evening should be any different.”

Amelia forced her body into motion and gingerly pulled the bedclothes over herself.  Of course the other girl had known before even Amelia did.  “How could you tell I was…?”

“You’re not subtle,” Elizabeth murmured.

“But you’re… not,” she whispered, trying to settle her head into the pillow roll.  “A lesbian.”  The word wasn’t new to Amelia, but she had only heard it used with disdain.  Perhaps she could try using it as cavalierly as Elizabeth did.

The other girl sighed dreamily.  “Alas.  I am cursed to fancy only men, in all their multitudinous foibles and frustrations. Pray for me.”  And then she was asleep.

Amelia did as she was told, and was shortly dreaming, as well.

Halfway through the next day, it became clear that Amelia could start the fifth and final volume of the novel, but she would not finish it by the time they arrived.  The last thing she wanted to do was to carry a half-read book into a house party, her attentions constantly torn between being a gracious guest and sneaking away to steal an hour reading.  And this book would be hanging on her mind.

She started the fifth volume, anyway.

“It’s strange,” she observed at a chapter break.  “I’ve never been one for novels, but this one has… captivated me.  I am utterly focused on poor Adela and Lady Delacour and Lady Rosalvan, and all their piteous overthrows.”

Elizabeth, having exhausted her own reading already, looked over from the window with a slight smile.  “Perhaps this is the first novel you are reading where you feel comfortable focusing your attentions on the characters to whom you experience the most sympathy.”

“I don’t follow?”

“The women,” her friend pointed out.  “You listed off three women, and none of their lovers.  Is it really any surprise if you find the struggles of male characters less engaging?”

Amelia looked back down at her book, frowning softly.  “An intriguing theory,” she muttered, feeling slightly and queerly ashamed.  Had she been reading novels incorrectly this entire time?  What had she missed before?  Should she go back and reread them?

Before she plunged back in, she considered the short stack of four discarded volumes at her side.  “It’s a shame there are no literary heroines who romance other heroines.  I think I’d like to see that, if only to imagine what it might be like.”

“Mmm,” Elizabeth murmured.  “Perhaps you should write your own.”  Which struck Amelia as an unfair challenge, considering that Elizabeth herself was perfectly happy reading about women swept off their feet by the sole gentleman of good character in their acquaintance.

Even though all the fictional women in her book pined only for men, they kept Amelia company for the rest of the day.  Their carriage passed through Ripon and onto the grounds of the local manor house, a blocky amber square thing set amidst stunning landscape, just as the sun set.

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