Mrs Darcy and Mrs Collins (Part One)

This was Part One of the 2011 Christmas Special. It follows on from the 2010 Christmas Special (sort of).

In a mews near Sloane Square, the woman checked the address on the piece of paper in her hand. Having established to her satisfaction that she was indeed in the correct place, she pushed the stable door open a fraction.

‘Hello?’ came a voice from the interior. ‘Who goes there?’

The woman applied more weight to the door and squeezed in. ‘’Tis I, Elizabeth Collins,’ she said.

‘Ah, Mrs Collins!’  said Sir Humphry Davy. ‘How wonderful to see you again. Were you followed?’

‘I do not think so,’ she replied. ‘Who on earth would do such a thing, and why?’

‘We have reason to believe that Mrs Darcy — ’

‘Charlotte? Surely not — ’

‘Yes, we believe Mrs Charlotte Darcy has got wind of our plans,’ said a new voice, emerging from the shadows. ‘And for obvious reasons, she would prefer them not to succeed.’

‘Mr Wickham!’ exclaimed Elizabeth. ‘I am surprised to find you here as well.’

‘Lieutenant Wickham is an essential part of our present endeavour, Mrs Collins,’ said H. ‘Or rather Jennifer is.’

He nodded towards the far end of the laboratory where a fine grey horse was being led in by a group of technicians. The look on its face was a peculiar mixture of alarm, panic and sullen resignation.

‘What part will she be playing, Sir Humphry?’ said Elizabeth.

‘A vital one,’ said H. ‘Let me try to explain.’ He paused for a moment, seemingly unsure as to where to begin. ‘Ever since we received your missive to the Department following the events of last Christmas, we have been trying to fathom what may have caused the unfortunate change in your circumstances.’

‘As I understand it,’ interjected Wickham, ‘’Tis all to do with alternate realities.’

‘Indeed,’ said H, ‘’Tis a theory proposed by an excitable young colleague of mine, Master Barnabas Coxcomb, although I must confess he is a difficult man to extract much in the way of detailed information from, beyond the assertion that science is really, really amazing. Still, I suppose things can only get better.’ He gave a brief sigh before continuing. ‘However, my understanding is that at some point in the past, Mr Collins — your husband — ’

‘My present husband, yes — ’

‘ — must somehow have gained access to some vital information that has enabled him to manipulate events so as to cause you to end up as his wife rather than your friend Charlotte. At some point in the past, your timeline has split into two separate and yet entirely self-consistent paths, and everything else in reality has adjusted in order to fit around this. Unfortunately, it seems we are now travelling along the wrong path, wherein your matrimonial arrangements have been altered to the benefit of the said Mr Collins.’

‘Great heavens!’ exclaimed Elizabeth, ‘You gentlemen are causing my head to spin with your science! But what about all the stuff with the ghosts and visions?’

‘We think that was simply your brain trying to provide you with a plausible explanation for your change of circumstances. I take it you are not happy with the present state of affairs?’

‘I most certainly am not,’ said Elizabeth with some feeling. ‘Can you imagine what it is like being married to that man? I am truly wretched. My only solace is in the works of Lord Byron.’

‘Ah, Lord Byron,’ said H. ‘A truly great writer. Have you read the Ballad of Nell the Inuit?’

‘I have indeed. ’Tis a most extraordinary work. However, we stray from the subject. Is there anything that can be done to return ourselves to the correct path?’

‘As a matter of fact we can. I have in my possession a most extraordinary device: a Fuchs capacitor, which I acquired at the same time as the man’s dirigible. We can use this to send you back — ’ here he paused for dramatic effect ‘ — to the past!’

‘How extraordinary! I have never heard of such a thing! How does it work?’

‘Ah, the great man’s inventions are notoriously hard to fathom,’ said H. ‘There used to be a saying when he was alive: “How does it work? Fuchs knows.”’ He paused. ‘All we know is that it does. Provided you are travelling at 88 miles per hour at the time, of course.’

‘But how on earth can Jennifer go that fast? No horse alive can — ’

H held up his hand. ‘Do not worry, my dear Mrs Collins. I have found a way around that problem too. I have obtained some powder from the mysterious Franco-Japanese pharmacologist Monsieur de l’Orient that will assist Jennifer in achieving the desired speed.’

Elizabeth noticed that one of the technicians was holding the horse’s mouth open whist one of the others was pouring a curious white powder down her throat. The rest were doing their to restrain the animal.

‘I think you’d better be getting ready,’ said H, nodding in the direction of Jennifer. ‘We have triangulated the date of the pivotal event with as much accuracy as we can manage and configured the Fuchs capacitor accordingly. The rest is up to you.’

Elizabeth looked at him in some alarm. ‘I have to go as well?’

‘Your involvement is also essential, Mrs Collins. Look after her, Wickham! This venture is fraught with danger.’ Indeed, Jennifer’s eyes were now bulging and she was straining furiously against her restraints. Wickham was already climbing into the saddle as Elizabeth got there. He grabbed her by the arms and swung her on board.

‘Hold on tight, Mrs Collins, this is going to get a little bumpy!’

She had barely positioned herself behind the Lieutenant when the beast bolted and smashed her way out through the doors of the laboratory into the mews, picking up speed all the time. Carriages and pedestrians threw themselves out of the way as the deranged animal hurtled on through the streets of London at an ever-increasing velocity towards the East End and London Docks. Elizabeth abandoned all attempts at decorum and flung her arms around Wickham, sinking her fingernails deep into his frogging.

‘Look out!’ she cried, seeing ships’ masts ahead. ‘We’re about to go straight into the water! I said, we’re going to — ’

But suddenly sparks began to crackle all around them and London Docks vanished, to be replaced by teeming streets and cries of ‘Treaty of Basel Latest!’ and ‘Haydn’s 102nd — The Critics’ Verdict!’

‘Can we stop now, please?’ shouted Mrs Collins as the horse thundered on.

‘I don’t know how!’ replied Wickham.

‘What?!’ But Wickham failed to reply because an instant later, Jennifer screeched to a halt and keeled over on the spot, frothing at the mouth.

‘Is she dead?’ said Elizabeth as they extricated themselves from the saddle.

‘I hope not,’ said Wickham. ‘Because we’ll need her to get back.’

‘But how?’ said Elizabeth, pointing in horror to the debris scattered on the ground. The Fuchs capacitor had been smashed beyond repair.

To be continued…

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