September 5, 1815
What kind of maniac travels in time? Something I would wonder more than once before it was over, but never as urgently as that moment I regained consciousness on the damp ground. Grass tickled the back of my neck; I saw sky and treetops, smelled earth and rot. I had the feeling that follows a faint, or waking up in an unfamiliar bed after a long journey: uncertain not just where I was, but who.
As I lay there, I remembered that my name was Rachel. Body and mind snapped together and I sat up, blinking at my surroundings, which were indistinct and flatly gray scale, and rubbed my eyes. I reviewed known side effects of trips through wormholes: palpitations, arrhythmia, short-term amnesia, mood swings, nausea, syncope, alopecia. Changes in vision had not come up. Maybe this was new to science.
Wind rattled the leaves, counterpoint to a repetitive squeak that might have been some insect long extinct in my own time. I marveled at the 1815 air, moist and dense with smells I had no words for, reminded of the glass-domed habitat re-creations at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, where we used to go on field trips. Once, children, the whole world was like this.
Liam was about a meter away, same distance as in the air lock, but now facedown and ominously still. Arrhythmia can confuse a heart enough to stop it. And then what? Could I really be so unlucky as to lose my colleague at the start of the mission? I’d have to pose as a widow, the only sort of lone woman entitled to any protection and regard here—
“Are you all right?” I demanded; he did not answer. I slid closer and reached out to check his carotid, relieved to find a pulse. His breathing was fast and shallow, skin filmed in cold sweat. Past him, a clump of white trees, name forgotten, glowed in the gloom. My own heart was banging in my chest; I breathed slowly and stared at the white trees.
Birch! And another word came to me: dusk, something barely noticed in my own time, in a life illuminated by electricity. Natural light; we’d learned the vocabulary of that, along with waxing, waning, crescent, gibbous and the major constellations. I saw again in memory the steel-gray corridors of the Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics, as the year I’d spent there glided before me like a time-lapse video clip: the dancing and riding practice, the movement and music lessons, the endless reading. Our walk to the air lock, last checks, solemn handshakes with the rest of the Jane Austen Project Team.
I was here. We’d done it.
“Are you all right?” I asked again. Liam groaned but rolled over, sat up, and scanned our surroundings of field, birch, and hedgerow. The portal location had been chosen well; nobody was here.
“It’s dusk,” I explained. “That’s why it all looks like this.” He turned toward me, dark eyebrows arching in a question. “In case you were wondering.”
“I wasn’t.” His words came slowly, voice soft. “But thanks.”
I looked at him sideways, trying to decide if he was being sarcastic, and hoped so. In our time together at the institute preparing for the mission, something about Liam had always eluded me. He was too reserved; you never knew about people like that.
I stood, light-headed, straightened my bonnet, and took a few stiff steps, brushing dirt and grass off my dress and conscious of the swish of all my layers, the slab of banknotes beneath my corset.
Liam lifted his head, sniffing. He unfolded himself, rising to his feet with a surprising grace—in my experience tall men shamble—stretched his arms, repositioned his frizzy doctor’s wig, looked to the right, and froze. “Is that what I think it is?”
My eyes adjusting, I saw a road: a lane wide as a wagon, forking a little way off. And in the Y of the fork, a gibbet: a man-size iron frame, like a sinister birdcage, holding something that— “Oh.”
“So they really were everywhere,” he said. “Or we are just lucky.”
Now identifying one component of what I’d been smelling, I stared in dismay at the corpse, which seemed to gaze back at me, blank-socketed. Not freshly putrefying, not a husk, but in between, though in this light it was hard to say for sure. Maybe he’d been a highwayman; the people here displayed condemned men near the scenes of their crimes, as warnings to others. And maybe we would end up like him, if things went wrong.
I had forgotten to breathe, but the reek lingered in my nose. I’d been around dead people ever since medical school; I’d autopsied them, but not like this. On one occasion, though, during my volunteer stint in Mongolia, someone had been misidentified and had to be exhumed—
With that, I gagged and bent over, clutching my throat, seized by dry heaves. When they’d passed, I dried my eyes and straightened to find Liam peering down at me, brow furrowed.
“Are you all right?” His long hands, pale at the ends of the dark sleeves of his coat, lifted and fluttered in the fading light, like he was about to touch me but didn’t know where. Shoulder? Elbow? Forearm? What’s the least intimate part of your opposite-sex co-worker to grab if she’s in distress? Unable to decide, he brought his hands back down to his sides; despite the horror of the cadaver, this was funny.
“I’m fine,” I said. “Just great. Let’s get out of here.” We had both turned away from the gibbet. I’m not superstitious, but I hoped our way to the inn wouldn’t lead past it. “North. If the sun set over there”—the horizon seemed brighter in one area—“then it must be that way.”
“Well, yes, because there’s Venus, right?”
“That bright object in the west?”
I repressed annoyance at not having noticed this myself. “Yes, exactly!”
We turned away, took a few steps, and then Liam stopped and whirled around.
“Mother of god. The portal marker.”
I cursed under my breath as I turned too. Could we almost have forgotten something so important? Two disturbances in the grass could only have been the outlines of our two bodies. Liam took the metal marker from an inside pocket of his coat and pushed it as far as it would go into the earth right between them, blue spiral top barely visible. “Spectronanometer?” he asked.
I fumbled for my device, which hung on a silver chain around my neck and resembled a blob of amber, and squeezed. It vibrated to life and beeped to signal proximity to the marker. As I pinched it off, I was shaking. The portal was precise, in time frame and geopositioning; we would never have found it again by chance. Liam had fished his spectronanometer out of another pocket–it resembled a small snuffbox, one that didn’t open—and stood pressing it. Nothing happened. He muttered, shook it, and tried again.
“Here.” I took the little silver object from him, positioned it in my hand, and tightened my grip slowly. It vibrated and beeped; I squeezed it off again and handed it back. “They’re temperamental.”
It was growing darker and colder; time to get moving. Yet we stood in silence at this spot, last link with where we’d come from. How much would happen before we stood here again, assuming we ever made it back?
“Come on,” I said at last. “Let’s go.”
As we started down the road, Liam’s stride was longer and I began to fall behind, though I’m normally a fast walker. Until now, indoors was the only place I’d worn my half boots, handmade products of the Costume Team. The soles were so thin I felt the gravel under my feet. And then, the intensity of everything: the smells of grass and soil, a far-off cry of an owl, it had to be an owl. The entire world seemed humming with life, a shimmering web of biomass.
The Swan loomed as a whitewashed brick building outlined by flickering lamps along its facade, with an arched passageway into a courtyard and stables beyond. As we drew closer I heard men’s voices, a horse’s whinny, a dog’s bark. Fear swooped up my spine like vertigo. I stopped walking. I can’t do this. I must do this.
Liam had stopped too. He shook himself and took a few long, audible breaths. Then he seized my elbow with an unexpectedly strong grip and propelled us toward the door under the wooden sign of a swan.
“Remember, let me do the talking,” he said. “Men do, here.”
And we were inside.
It was warmer but dim, timbered ceiling, air thick with smoke, flickering light from not enough candles, and a large fireplace. A knot of men stood by the fire, while others sat at tables with bread and mugs of beer, platters of beef, ham, fowl, and other less identifiable foods.
“Look at all that meat,” I whispered. “Amazing.”
“Shh, don’t stare.”
“Do you see anyone who looks like they work here?”
And he was upon us: a small man in a boxy suit, a dirty apron, and a scowl, wiping his hands on a dirty rag as he looked us up and down. “Are ye just come, then? Has someone seen to your horses, have they now?”
“Our friends set us down from their barouche a bit hence.” Liam had thrown his shoulders back and loomed over the man. “We are in want of rooms for the night, and a coach to town in the morning.” His inflection had changed, even his voice: a haughty lengthening of vowels, a nasal, higher-pitched tone. We’d done lots of improvisational work in Preparation, yet he’d never given me this eerie sense I had now, of his becoming an entirely different person.
“A barouche?” the man repeated. “I’ve seen no such equipage pass.”
“Had it passed here, they would have set us down at the door.”
This logic seemed sound, but the man surveyed us again, frown deepening. “À pied, is it?” It took me a moment to work out what he meant; nothing could have sounded less like French. “And not so much as a bag between the both of ye? Nay, we’ve no rooms.” A party of the three men nearest—rusty black suits, wigs askew—had stopped eating to observe us. “You could sup before you continue on your way.” He waved a hand at the room behind. “Show us the blunt first, though.”
Was our offense the presumed poverty of showing up without horses, or was something else wrong with our manners, our clothing, us? And if the first person we met saw it, what were our odds of survival here, let alone success? Liam had gone so pale, swaying a bit, that I feared he might faint, a known time-travel side effect.
Fear made me reckless. “William!” I whined, pulling on Liam’s sleeve and bracing myself under his elbow to shore him up. His eyes widened as he looked down at me; I heard his intake of breath. I went on in a stage whisper without a glance at the man, and if my mouth was dry, my accent was perfection: “I told you, Papa said this was a shocking inn. But if it has no rooms, perhaps it has horses. ’Tis moonlight! A chaise and four, or two, and we will be there by dawn. I said I would visit Lady Selden the instant we got to town, and that was to be last week, only you never can say no to Sir Thomas and his tedious gout.”
Liam looked from me to the man and drawled: “My sister’s word is law, sir. Should there be coach and horses, I would be happy to show the blunt, and to see what I hope will be the last of this inn.” He produced a golden coin, one of our authentic late-eighteenth-century guineas, flipping it into the air and catching it.
I held my breath. What if the inn had no horses in shape to go, no spare carriages? It happened, animals and vehicles being in constant transit from one coaching inn to another. And now we were robbery targets, with Liam waving around gold.
The man looked from me to Liam; his eyes returned to me. I raised my gaze to the ceiling with what I hoped was an expression of blasé contempt.
“I’ll have a word in the yard, sir. Would you and the lady take a seat?”
It was colder, the waxing gibbous moon up, before we were in the post chaise, which was tiny and painted yellow, smelling of the damp straw that lined its floor as well as of mildew and horse. We’d drunk musty red wine and picked at a meat pie with a sinister leathery texture as we sat in a corner of the room feeling the weight of eyes upon us and not daring to believe, until a porter came to lead us to it, that there was actually going to be a chaise.
Our postilion swung himself onto one of the horses, and a large man wearing two pistols and a brass horn gave us a nod and climbed into the boot at the back. He had cost extra, nearly doubling the price of the journey—but it was no night to encounter highwaymen.
“You were good back there,” Liam said in his usual voice, so quiet I had to lean in to hear him as we creaked out from the yard. One seat, facing forward, was wide enough for three slender people. Drafty windows gave a view of the lanterns on each side, the road to London ahead of us, and the two horses’ muscular rumps. “Fast thinking. I know I told you not to talk, but—”
“A hopeless request. You know me better than that by now.”
He made a sound between a cough and a laugh and said after a pause, “So you really never acted? I mean, before this?”
I thought of the unscripted workshops we’d done together in Preparation: imagining meeting Henry Austen for the first time, say, or buying a bonnet. “Why would I have?”
We were bumping down the road, moon visible above the black tree shapes, the world beyond the lanterns’ glow spookily monochrome and depthless to the eye, but rich with smells. The Project Team’s guidance had been for us to spend the first night near the portal site, in Leatherhead, recovering from the time shift before braving town. Materializing in London, dense with buildings and life, was risky. Traveling by night was risky too, but here we were. I wondered what else would not go according to plan.
I don’t know how long I was asleep, but I woke up shivering. Liam was slumped with his head against the window, wig slid sideways, snoring. I pulled my shawl tighter around myself, coveting his waistcoat, neckcloth, and cutaway jacket—a light weight, but wool—and Hessian boots, the tall kind with tassels.
I had lots of layers too, but they lacked the heft of menswear: a chemise first, then a small fortune in coins, forged banknotes, and letters of credit in a pouch wrapped around my torso, topped by a corset, a petticoat, a frock, and a shawl, synthetic re-creation of a Kashmir paisley. I had a thin lace fichu around my shoulders, over-the-knee knitted cotton stockings, dainty faux-kid gloves, and a straw bonnet, but no underpants; they would not catch on until later in the century.
The darkness was becoming less dark. I stared out; when did countryside turn urban? We had pored over old maps, paintings, and engravings; detailed flyover projections in 3-D had illuminated the wall screens of the institute. Yet no amount of study could have prepared me for this: the smell of coal smoke and vegetation, the creaking carriage, the hoofbeats of the horses like my own heartbeat. And something else, like energy, as if London were an alien planet, its gravitational field pulling me in.
Anything could happen to a person in Regency London: you could be killed by a runaway carriage, get cholera, lose a fortune on a wager or your virtue in an unwise elopement. Less dangerously, we hoped to find a place to live in a fashionable neighborhood and establish ourselves as wealthy newcomers in need of guidance, friends, and lucrative investments—all with the aim of insinuating ourselves into the life of Henry Austen, gregarious London banker and favorite brother of Jane. And through him, and the events we knew were waiting for them both this autumn, to find our way to her.
I eased next to Liam, the only warm object in the cold carriage, my relief at getting away from the Swan curdling to anxiety about everything that lay ahead. Queasy as I was from the bumping carriage, with the stink of horse and mildew in my nose, with the gibbet and the meat pie and the innkeeper’s rudeness still vivid, the Jane Austen Project no longer seemed amazing. What I’d wanted so badly stretched like a prison sentence: wretched hygiene, endless pretending, physical danger. What had I been thinking?