Jane Austen on Driverless Cars

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Here faithfully I share an excerpt with you from “Wholesome Equipage”. While you might think that its authenticity is several degrees beyond phantasy, I hope you can put your usual cynicism to one side and merely appreciate Austen’s affinity with advanced driver assistance systems.

Miss Lucy Chase was now settled at Craven Cottage with tolerable comfort to herself. In such a high situation, the cottage afforded a general view of the valley below, which pleased her greatly.

Early on the morning of her second day, she heard the sounds of someone at the end of the garden. To her surprise on looking from the window of the cottage’s privy, she perceived the fine and handsome figure of Mister John Wallace of Selhurst Park whom she had met only two days prior. Once again as she had thought before, every circumstance belonging to him was interesting and yet that he should be present this morning, clearing his throat and pointing to a horse and carriage seemed curiously impolite. Regardless, Lucy quit the privy and stepped from the cottage to address the man whom she considered she would one day marry.

“Upon my soul, Miss Lucy, your complexion is much maligned. Are you not well?” spoke Mister Wallace, the countenance of his voice hurried and hinting at a regular fear of contagion.

“I’ve been better, Mister Wallace. Why only this very morning I have several times been incommoded by the agonies of green apple soup,” said she with a good-humoured smile.

A short pause succeeded this speech and on being regaled this news, Wallace wished only unto himself that the reason for her absence had remained a matter of great curiosity, and shook his head to rid his mind of its feverish images. “Perhaps you should be in bed,” he told her, trying hard by politeness to restrain his lamentation and complaint. However, his conjecture was of no avail and she merely blushed at the hint, this being the moment that she doubted not their being engaged to each other by the end of the day.

Having joined him at last, the poor wench announced her arrival with modesty declined, resulting from a malodour by which Wallace was made doubly certain of her ailment.

“What’s this then?” asked Lucy exultingly. “A horse, I am sure.”

“Indeed, a stallion Miss Lucy and pulling a Hackney carriage.”

“An admirable show, Mister Wallace. Were it essential to the plot, I might kiss you this instant,” she exclaimed.

This caused Wallace to consider his presence at the cottage to be misguided beyond belief. Indeed, if it were possible, the regret of his decision to visit someone so unwell in mind and body was now bringing a nausea and faintness upon his own countenance. If there was soon to be no general engagement in matters of any sense, he might leave without a word of farewell or be brought suddenly to the ground.

“Goodness is that the time?” he asked, steadying his back against his horse’s derrière. Yet, his question was unheard by Lucy who had taken to stroking the horse by way of being happy.

After a twenty minutes’ interval of earnest thought, she came to Wallace again, and said with great suspicion, “Where, I dare ask, did you find the kale for such a beast and wholesome equipage?”

“Ah, that I cannot say,” he replied; and with a forced air of vagueness presently added, “Let us just say that it is thanks to a certain mail coach on its way to Barnet by way of its occupants now deceased that I owe this fortune.”

“Those poor people, I wonder how they died?”

“I am sure consumed by great disappointment.”

At this, Lucy too leaned her back against the horse and turned her sick face towards Wallace, which at last coloured as she spoke. “Oh, Mister Wallace, your frank way with words sends my velvet leaves into a frenzied squirm.”

At this, Wallace saw her almost run for the cottage under the violent affliction of her previous ailment. “My dear Lucy,” said Wallace as he turned to his carriage, “of these signs of amour you must desist. You are unwell and I shall not keep you. Let me tell you instead of my intention for this horse and carriage, and then I will leave on account of urgent employment elsewhere.”

And under that trifling pretext of employment elsewhere, Mister Wallace quickly launched into his splendid notion of a carriage of passengers pulled by learned horse alone, to this end there being no need for a coachman, or footman or even postilion. A saving indeed might be had in the cost of travel, but so too would it lessen the errors of the jehu, the more careless and belligerent coachman. And in so explaining his idea, his heart seemed more than usually open to every feeling of certainty that the only form of carriage in which happiness was attainable might be found in the driverless kind.

Lucy listened but the vacancy of her stare fixed so wantonly on Wallace seemed to denote how little she understood him or cared for such matters. When he finally came to a stop a silence fell upon them both. She was first to speak. “So, what decision has the horse been taught to make should it find itself about to endanger a place quite full of company? Does it sacrifice itself and its passengers for the sake of the many?

“A question indeed!” Wallace replied, trying to laugh off the subject. “Let me think on it for a moment.”

“Or will it be trained to know self-preservation as its greatest asset?”

“It will be trained in what is right,” Wallace replied with a sigh, and before a chance further was granted him to rejoice loudly in a rare glimpse of blue sky, more questions followed, possessing such a degree of archness that Wallace began to feel quite under oath.

“Right? Why, on whose account?” Lucy asked, in truth her questioning borne only from idle curiosity.

“Well, mine! Of course!”

While Lucy still held Wallace’s opinion in high esteem and evident wonder, it seemed reasonable to her that had such common issues not proved insurmountable there would already be driverless carriages on every byway. With a sweetness of address which always attended her, she enquired further, “And what course might the horse run, Mister Wallace, when approaching a second horse, or a third? What if there is only one person in its way, or several? Pray, what if that one life belonged to a great healer and the several were convicts to the worst degree, what then?

Thrown into no little alarm by Miss Lucy’s incessant ridicule, Wallace rose to his carriage without saying a word and in the most melancholic mood. His countenance gave rise to varied conjectures which to Lucy’s mind involved some form of assault on her face. “Miss Lucy,” cried he, “you are now using me unkindly and trying to convince me against my will. But it will not do. You will find me as stubborn as you are sick!”

“But all I wanted to know is this – should the felicity of death be rendered necessary for the sake of such a plan?”

“Well, perhaps people are just meant to die!” said Wallace, his manly beauty and politeness quickly yielding to the rigor and bloating of fury. “Here,” he cried as he threw to her a small piece of paper, “I enclose a diagram. It’s all about being consistent, staying safe and encouraging buyers.” In this state of his spirits, he gave her a slight bow and turned his horse to walk away.

Lucy caught the piece of paper and read its contents.

“Tis a pity, my lady,” said Wallace, very seriously, “that you were so full of questions with no room for congratulation. I was going to give you my horse.”

Before Lucy could reply, the horse after little observation saw that another horse at the foot of the hill was a mare in heat and suddenly set off down the road at great speed. Made untamed and lawless by the promise of conquest, Wallace’s horse fast descended the steep drop in pursuit, ignoring its driver’s falsetto entreaties. As the carriage hit a hole in the road it lost a wheel and began on a trajectory of great venture. Thereafter, the horse, freed of its harness followed its infatuation to an odious conclusion while the carriage continued unfettered toppling thrice by itself and discharging frippery, civility and Mister Wallace from all sides. Miss Lucy watched in awe as the man himself then came to ground upon his head and was fatally wounded.

Though she was want to stay and watch, a ridicule so justly annexed to sensibility began to rise within her and it was only right that she might allow only those closer to him to behold Wallace’s body as an object of interest. In any case, green apples had begun to gurgle within her again and with the promise of more extraordinary dispatches she was right to return to the cottage’s privy. Thus, rather astonished by quite such a morning Miss Lucy made her way back to the cottage and in doing so thought to herself that a horse with an agenda was as dangerous as any man.

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