It was bad enough to suddenly be blinking in bright daylight after the darkness of the coach, but Lizzie found it impossible to bear Stephenson's scrutiny with equanimity. Fortunately a distraction occurred while she helped brace up Tilney.
"Reggie, we've brought him around once more," another young man cried from the front of the carriage where the horses stamped their hooves with what seemed to Lizzie's fanciful mind to be Gallic indignation.
Perhaps it was just her amplification of the bewildered scowl on poor Armand's face. As he hove into view supported on either side, she could hear him muttering a string of words that were unfamiliar to the young woman until he got to "fils" and "chienne" and then she turned away quickly to cough.
"Bertie! Brackley!" Tilney cried with delight. "I say, what a wonder."
"Tilney, old boy! 'Pon rep--did we shoot you? Heavens!" Bertie looked ready to drop the staggering Armand in his eagerness to see his friend, while Brackley gaped open-mouthed.
"Poor Armand!" Lizzie said. "How could you frighten him so?"
Stephenson looked at her rather more sharply. "I say, Bennett--"
"What the devil are you all doing here?" Tilney cut in, much to Lizzie's relief. "Aren't you all supposed to be on the sunny strands? Hugh!" he added, as another young man appeared leading their horses.
"Tare 'n hounds! Tilney, you've survived!" Hugh dropped the reins of the horses and made ready to clap his friend on the shoulder, until he noticed how Tilney winced. "Good god, man--did we wing you?"
Tilney laughed. "Anyone else along for the ride? I don't want to have to retell the tale each time."
"Eliot meant to come," Stephenson said with a familiar sort of lazy drawl, "But he caught a cold."
"He caught a Constance, you mean," Bertie said, crowing with laughter.
"As you have guessed, Bennett," Tilney said, the usual lopsided grin on his face, "All my friends are quite mad. You will have expected no less."
Stephenson laughed heartily at this. "That rotter Eliot has betrayed the brotherhood and fallen in love with a most unlikely lass."
"French, you mean?" Tilney said, an eyebrow arched.
"Luckily no," Hugh said. "Sir Eliot managed to come all the way to the land of the frogs and fall in love with an English woman."
"Reggie lost his heart, too!" Bertie said. "But fortunately he lost the girl as well."
Stephenson's looks glowered darkly and, for a moment, Lizzie thought he might truly explode in anger, but the look passed and he laughed genuinely enough, though the sound rang a little hollow in her ears. "Yes, the illness and the cure in one fell swoop."
"Right," Hugh sniffed. "That's why we had to set off in pursuit of her so quickly."
"I thought you were running to my aid," Tilney laughed.
"Well, we heard about you on the way," Stephenson admitted. "But we had set off in search of poor Alice."
"Alice!" Lizzie cried. Could it be--?