Authors: Georgette Heyer
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency, #General
At no time during the twenty-four hours was the Bull and Mouth Inn a place of quiet or repose, and by ten o'clock in the morning, when the stage-coach from Wisbech, turning top-heavily out of Aldersgate, lumbered into its yard, it seemed, to one weary and downcast passenger at least, to be crowded, with vehicles of every description, from a yellow-bodied post-chaise to a wagon, with its shafts cocked up and the various packages and bundles it carried strewn over the yard. All was bustle and confusion; and for a few minutes Miss Malvern, climbing down from the coach, was bewildered by it, and stood looking round her rather helplessly. Until the guard dumped at her feet the small corded trunk which contained her worldly possessions and advised her to look sharp to it, no one paid the least attention to her, except an ostler leading out two horses, and adjuring her to get out of the way, and one of the inevitable street-vendors who haunted busy inn-yards, begging her to buy some gingerbread. The guard, assailed by demands from several anxious travellers to have their bags and bandboxes restored to them immediately, had little time to spare, but Miss Malvern's flower-like countenance, and her air of youthful innocence, impelled him to ask her if anyone was meeting her. When she shook her head, he clicked his tongue disapprovingly, and expressed a hope that she might at least know where she was a-going to.
A gleam of amusement lightened the shadows in Miss Malvern's large grey eyes; she replied, with a tiny chuckle: 'Oh, yes! I do know that!'
'What you want, missy, is a hack!' said the guard.
'No, I don't: I want a porter!' said Miss Malvern, speaking with unexpected decision.
The guard seemed to be inclined to argue this point, but as a stout lady was tugging at his coat-tails, shrilly demanding to know what he had done with a basket of fish consigned to his care, he was obliged to abandon Miss Malvern to her fate, merely shouting in stentorian accents for a porter to carry the young lady's trunk.
This summons was responded to by a burly individual in a frieze coat, who undertook, for the sum of sixpence, to carry Miss Malvern's trunk to the warehouse of Josiah Nidd & Son, Carriers. Since this establishment was situated a bare quarter of a mile from the Bull and Mouth, Miss Malvern had a shrewd suspicion that she was being grossly overcharged; but although an adventurous youth spent in following the drum had accustomed her to haggling with Portuguese farmers and Spanish muleteers, she did not feel inclined to embark on argument in a crowded London inn-yard, so she agreed the price, and desired the porter to lead her to the warehouse.
The premises acquired some years earlier by Mr Nidd and his son had originally been an inn, of neither the size nor the quality of the Bull and Mouth, but, like it, provided with a galleried yard, and a number of stables and coach-houses. Occupying a large part of the yard was an enormous wagon mounted on nine-inch cylindrical wheels, and covered by a spreading tilt. Three brawny lads were engaged in loading this vehicle with a collection of goods ranging from pack-cases to farm implements, their activities being directed, and shrilly criticized, by an aged gentleman, who was seated on the balcony on one side of the yard. Beneath this balcony a glass door had once invited entrance to the coffee-room, but this had been replaced by a green-painted wooden door, flanked by tubs filled with geraniums, and furnished with a bright brass knocker, indicating that the erstwhile hostelry had become a private residence. Picking her way between the piles of packages, and directing the porter to follow her, Miss Malvern went to it, lifting its latch without ceremony, and stepping into a narrow passage, from which a door gave access into the old coffee-room, and a flight of uneven stairs rose to the upper floors. The trunk set down, and the porter dismissed, Miss Malvern heaved a sigh of relief, as of one who had accomplished an enterprise fraught with peril, and called: 'Sarah?'
No immediate response being forthcoming, she called again, more loudly, and moved to the foot of the stairs. But even as she set her foot on the bottom step, a door at the end of the passage burst open, and a lady in a flowered print dress, with an old-fashioned tucker round her ample bosom, and a starched muslin cap tied in a bow beneath her chin, stood as though stunned on the threshold, and gasped: 'Miss Kate! It's never you! Oh, my dearie, my precious lambkin!'
She started forward, holding out her plump arms, and Miss Malvern, laughing and crying, tumbled into them, hugging her, and uttering disjointedly: 'Oh, Sarah, oh, Sarah! To be with you again! I've been thinking of nothing else, all the way! Oh, Sarah, I'm so tired, and dispirited, and there was nowhere else for me to go, but indeed I don't mean to impose on you, or on poor Mr Nidd! Only until I can find another situation!'
Several teardrops stood on Mrs Nidd's cheeks, but she said in a scolding voice: 'Now, that's no way to talk, Miss Kate, and well you know it! And where else should you go, I should like to know? Now, you come into the kitchen, like a good girl, while I pop the kettle on, and cut some bread-and-butter!'
Miss Malvern dried her eyes, and sighed: 'Oh, dear, would you have believed I could be so ticklish? It was such a
journey-six of us inside!-and no time to swallow more than a sip of coffee when we stopped for breakfast.'
Mrs Nidd, leading her into the kitchen, and thrusting her into a chair, demanded: 'Are you telling me you came on the common stage, Miss Kate?'
'Yes, of course I did. Well, you couldn't expect them to have sent me by post, could you? And if you're thinking of the Mail, I am excessively glad they didn't send me by that either, because it reached London just after four o'clock in the morning! What
I have done?'
'You'd have come round here straight! For goodness' sake, dearie, what's happened to bring you back in such a bang, with never a word to me, so as I could have met you?'
'There was no time,' explained Kate. 'Besides, I couldn't have got a frank, and why should you be obliged to pay for a letter when you were going to see me immediately? I've been turned off, Sarah.'
?' repeated Mrs Nidd terribly.
without a character, said Kate, with an irrepressible twinkle. 'At least, Mrs Grittleton wouldn't have given me one, but Mr Astley assured me his wife would, and was very sorry to lose me. Which, indeed, I expect she is, because we dealt very well together, and I did make the children mind me.'
'And who, pray, may this Mrs Grittleton be?' said Mrs Nidd, pausing in the act of measuring tea-leaves into a large pot.
'A griffin,' replied Kate.
'I'd griffin her! But who
she, love? And what had she to say to anything?'
'She is Mrs Astley's mother. She had everything to say, I promise you! She took me in dislike the moment she saw me. She said I was too young to have charge of her grandchildren, and she told poor Mrs Astley that I had
Oh, yes, and that I was sly, and designing! That was because her detestable son tried to kiss me, and I slapped his face. Though why she should have thought that was being designing I can't conceive! Oh, Sarah, you never saw such a moon-calf! He is as silly as his sister, and not by half as agreeable! She may be a wet-goose-which, indeed, she is!-but the most amiable creature! And as for
being too young to have the charge of the children,
was a great deal too young to
three children! Why, she's no more than three years older than I am, Sarah, and
a featherhead! And now she has miscarried of a fourth child, and Mrs Grittleton set it at my door! And, I must say, I thought it pretty poor-spirited of Mr Astley not to have turned
out of the house, because he told me she never came to stay with them but to make trouble, and as for young Grittleton—' She broke off, with a gurgle of laughter. The
he said about him, Sarah! I couldn't but laugh! And the odious creature's intentions were most honourable! He made me an offer! That, of course, was what threw Mrs Grittleton into such a pelter, for, try as I would, I couldn't make her believe that nothing could prevail upon me to marry her detestable son. She ranted like an archwife, and scolded poor Mrs Astley into such a pucker that she fell into strong convulsions, and miscarried. So Mr Astley saw nothing for it but to send me away. I own, he behaved very handsomely, for he paid me for the whole year - not merely the six months I had truly earned! - and sent me to the coach-stop in his own carriage; but, considering he told me himself that he held me blameless, I can't but think it was very poor-spirited of him not to have sent Mrs Grittleton packing instead of me!'
'Poor-spirited?' ejaculated Mrs Nidd, removing the lid from one of the pots on the fire, and viciously stirring its contents, 'ay, and so you may, and so they are - all of 'em! Anything for peace and quiet, that's men!' She replaced the lid on the pot, and turned to look down at her nursling, trouble in her face. 'I'm not saying you should have accepted that young Grittleton's offer, but - oh, dearie me, what's to be done now?'
'I must find myself another situation, of course,' responded Kate. 'I mean to visit the registry office this very day. Only—' She paused, eyeing Mrs Nidd uncertainly.
'Only what?' demanded that lady.
'Well, I have been thinking, Sarah, and, although I know you won't agree with me, I believe I should be very well advised to seek a situation in - in a
'In a—Never while I'm alive!' said Mrs Nidd. 'The Lord knows it went against the pluck with me when you hired yourself out as a governess, but at least it was genteel! But if you're thinking of going out as a cook-maid, or—'
'I shouldn't think anyone who wasn't all about in her head would hire me!' interrupted Kate, laughing. 'You know I can't bake an egg without burning it! No, I believe I might do very well - or, at any rate, tolerably well! - as an abigail! In fact, I daresay I could rise to be a
Then, you know, I should be a person of huge consequence, besides making my fortune. Mrs Astley's housekeeper has a cousin who is dresser to a lady of fashion, and you wouldn't
how plump in the pocket she is!'
'No, I wouldn't!' retorted Mrs Nidd. 'And even if I did—'
'But it is perfectly true!' insisted Kate. For one thing, a first-rate dresser commands a far bigger wage than a mere governess - besides being a person of very much more consequence! Unless, of course, the governess should be excessively well educated, and able to instruct her charges in all the genteel accomplishments. And even then, you know, nobody slides sovereigns or bills into her hand to win her favour!'
'Well, upon my word! —' uttered Mrs Nidd explosively.
Kate's eyes danced. 'Yes, isn't it shocking? But beggars can't be choosers, and I've made up my mind to it that to make my fortune - or, at any rate, to win an independence! - is of more importance than to preserve my gentility. No, no, listen, Sarah! You must know that I
no accomplishments. I can't speak Italian, or play the piano - far less the harp! - and even if people wished their children to be instructed in Spanish, which they don't, I don't think they would wish them to learn
Spanish, which is all I know! On the other hand, I can sew, and make, and dress a head to admiration! I did so once for Mrs Astley, when she was going to a ball, and her woman had made a perfect botch of her hair. So—'
'No!' said Mrs Nidd, in a tone which brooked no argument. 'Now, you drink your tea, and eat your nice bread-and-butter, and no more nonsense! If ever I listened to such a pack of skimble-skamble stuff!—And I don't want to hear any more about
on me and Nidd, for there's no question of that, and I take it unkindly of you to say such a thing, Miss Kate!'
Kate caught her hand, and nursed it to her cheek. 'No, no, Sarah! You know better! How infamous it would be if I were to foist myself on to you! When I think of all you have to do, with old Mr Nidd living here, and all those grandsons of his to feed, and house, I feel it's quite shameless of me to come to you even for a short visit! I couldn't stay here for ever, dear, dearest Sarah! You must own I could not!'
'No, you couldn't,' acknowledged Mrs Nidd. 'It wouldn't be fitting. Not but what there's only three grandsons, and one of them lives with his ma - that's Joe's sister Maggie, and the most gormless creature you ever did see! Still, there's no harm in her, and I'm bound to say she's always ready to come and lend me a bit of help - if help you can call it! But a carrier's yard is no place for you, dearie, and well do I know it! We'll think of something, never you fear!'
'I have thought of something!' murmured Kate wickedly.
'No, you haven't, Miss Kate. You're puckered, with that nasty stage-coach, and all the uproar that was kicked up by that Mrs Brimstone, or whatever she calls herself, and you'll feel different when I've got you tucked into bed, which I'm going to do the minute you've drunk up your tea. You'll have your sleep out, and when you wake up you shall have your dinner in the parlour upstairs, and we'll see what's to be done.'
Kate sighed. 'I
very tired,' she confessed, 'but I shall be happy to eat my dinner
, with the rest of you. I don't wish—'
'An ox-cheek, with dumplings!' interrupted Mrs Nidd. 'I daresay! But it ain't what I wish, Miss Kate, and nor it isn't what Nidd or the boys would wish neither, for to be sitting down to their dinner in company with a young lady like yourself would put them into such a stew, minding their manners and that, as would turn them clean against their vittles! So you'll just do as Sarah tells you, dearie, and—'