Authors: Jean Stubbs
© Jean Stubbs 1981
Jean Stubbs has asserted her rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
First published in 1981 by Macmillan London Limited
This edition published in 2015 by Endeavour Press Ltd.
To my family
How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,
When thou at the random grim forge, powerful admist peers,
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!
Gerard Manley Hopkins
By midnight there were only two travellers still waiting in the parlour of The Royal Oak at Market Street, Manchester. But a lanky lad made up the fire on the broad hearth, and brought fresh candles, so they were comfortable enough. Both had journeyed some distance already — the threadbare clergyman from Preston and the dandified young giant from Millbridge — and were understandably weary. Still, the landlady had conjured up salt fish, boiled mutton and capers, with apple tart to follow, and they had washed it down with strong beer before finding a quiet place in the chimney corner. There, Parson Peplow ordered brandy and hot water, a clay pipe and tobacco, prepared to smoke and talk until the coach should depart for London. He was a short, cheerful man dressed in dusty black, with a grey bag-wig and pebble glasses. Life had been niggardly in regard to wealth, but he constantly enriched himself by study of his fellow men, and found his unknown companion a delightful mixture of contradictions.
The young fellow was very fine in his plum-coloured suit and plum velvet waistcoat, the white stock fashionably tied, yet he wore his own black hair plainly ribboned at the nape of his neck. When he stepped down from the Yorkshire coach he had greeted the landlady courteously and formally, and then a moment later was chatting to the ostlers about horses as though he were one of themselves. He did not spit on the floor, wipe his nose on his sleeve or make disagreeable noises over his food, but he ate without any of the finicking manners customary in a gentleman. His great shoulders and sturdy limbs, his broad hands and deep chest suggested that he was used to heavy labour. His quick dark glance showed an intelligence above the ordinary, and he was handsome enough to have all the serving-wenches running round for him at supper. Nor did he lack money and some genteel connections, for when he took out his watch to tell the time it was of an older age than this, and beautifully wrought in silver.
A proper conundrum, thought Parson Peplow. Age about six-and-twenty. Son of a small landowner, used to working his father’s estate. Good blood on one side and honest ancestors on the other. His mother, or some close female, loves him dearly and sees to his linen and comforts. And the journey to London? Not business, more likely an affair of the heart. He’d rather consult with the fire than with me.
So the clergyman turned his attention to the landlady, who had that moment entered to bring his order herself.
‘This is most kind, ma’am,’ cried Parson Peplow. ‘I thought it wise to warm myself with spirits before the journey, which I understand to be arduous though swift.’
‘Well, sir, when you think that twenty year ago the coach used to leave from here regular, Mondays and Thursdays, and take three and a half days to get to London, and now the Mail reckons to do it in less than half the time, I ask you, sir,
allowing for the roads being better, can you stop at all the places as you used to? So best to warm up afore you start, like you say.’
She was moving about the room as she spoke, setting it to rights. Now she stopped by the young man and asked him if he wouldn’t take a little something to keep out the cold.
‘For it’s raining fit to burst outside,’ she added, ‘and once the Mail gets going it don’t stop until Ashbourne, and even then you won’t get breakfast, sir. Derby’s the breakfast stop, and it’ll be a half after ten in the morning, and you’ll be clemmed by then.’
‘I thank you, ma’am. I’ll take brandy and water with this gentleman.’
‘That’s right,’ she said, satisfied. Then raised her voice and called the lanky lad, and addressed herself again to the travellers. ‘With the Mail having to be on time,’ she continued, ‘they don’t even stop for a meal if they’re late. Which is inconvenient. And you’re best advised to carry victuals and drink, so should I be making up something for the journey?’
‘I thank you, ma’am,’ cried Parson Peplow, beaming upon her kindness, ‘but my good wife has seen I shall not want,’ and he indicated a stout wicker basket by his side.
‘And I also am well provided for, ma’am,’ said the young man, ‘for my mother has done likewise. I thank you,’ and he pointed to a similar basket, and smiled as if at a private joke.
‘Well then, sirs,’ said the landlady, disappointed of her hospitality, ‘if there’s anything as you want, just call Jack. For the coachman’s in the kitchen with me, and I promised the guard as I’d keep an eye on him,’ and she nodded significantly. ‘Yes, sirs, I’ve known Jacob Sorrowcole since I was a girl. He’s been forty year on the stage-coaches, and he isn’t used to being sober and on time. But Mr Walters — that’s the guard — begged me, with the tears standing in his eyes, not to let him have another drop afore they started. And I swear I never did, but I think Mr Sorrowcole must have had a flask on him, and he’s a-snoring on the settle, fit to wake the dead.’
‘Dear me,’ said the clergyman, disturbed by the thought, ‘and they say the Mail averages ten mile an hour or more! I find that difficult to believe, mind you.’
‘Yet the Prince of Wales reckoned to drive a phaeton-and-four faster than that, good sir,’ the young man observed pleasantly.
‘He was always a boastful fellow. Still, we must move with the times — even though they do progress at ten mile an hour!’ And he laughed at his own jest.
The landlady having withdrawn to minister to Mr Sorrowcole, the two men looked into the fire for a while to find the next topic of conversation.
‘So we set off at two o’clock sharp, eh?’ said Parson Peplow, and studied a watch whose face was as plain as his own. ‘And are to be companions as far as Leicester, I believe?’
‘Allow me to introduce myself; sir. My name is William Howarth of Garth, near Millbridge, and I am travelling to London.’
‘And I am Simon Peplow, Parson of Inglethwaite near Preston, sir. Garth? Garth? I cannot quite recall the place. Millbridge, of course, is a thriving town. Or perhaps Garth is the name of your establishment?’
His evident curiosity both piqued and amused William Howarth, who nevertheless answered patiently.
‘Garth is a hamlet, some nine miles from Millbridge, and boasts no more than a hundred poor souls. My father owns a farm on the fells there, called Kit’s Hill, sir.’
‘Ah! A large farm, Mr Howarth?’
‘Large enough to keep them all working from dawn to dark, sir,’ said William drily, and to forestall further questions asked, ‘And did you say you were going to Leicester, sir?’
‘Yes indeed. For my sister has recently lost her husband, poor creature, and I journey to bring her solace — and the offer of a home with us, if so she desire. There is nothing greatly to be gained by travelling faster, but I am something of an adventurer in my humble way, Mr Howarth, and I confess to an interest in this new mail-coach. “Louisa,” I said to my good wife, “Louisa, I think I shall try the Mail!” “Do you think that is wise, Simon?” she said. “Why, my love, wise as Solomon and safe as houses!” I replied. But I dare say she will be relieved to know when I have arrived at Leicester, so I shall write to her directly. How long has the Mail been running, Mr Howarth, do you know?’
‘Up here, sir? Since the summer. The first essay, I believe, was from Bristol to Bath last August, and beat the ordinary stagecoach by an hour. I, too, confess to an interest — nay, a devouring curiosity — in all new ventures. But that is not why I have chosen to travel this way … ’
He appeared to regret the admission, since it brought Parson Peplow’s glasses to bear on him immediately, but he was saved by the entrance of his brandy and hot water.
‘Old Sorrowcole’s well away,’ the lanky lad confided, with a solemn shaking of the head. ‘The Post Office might lay the law down, sir, but it can’t lay down human nature. Mrs Alcock’s brewing coffee this minute to fetch him round afore the guard gets back!’
And having disturbed the parson’s peace of mind, and amused William, he departed.
‘I shall offer my assistance, sir, if you will excuse me for a moment,’ said William, escaping his amiable inquisitor. ‘The lady should not have to deal with a drunken fellow by herself.’
‘I will come with you, Mr Howarth. A commendable thought on your part.’
Mr Sorrowcole’s person was large enough to have concealed several flasks, and he must have imbibed them all. In spite of a cold compress on his forehead, and the ungentle attentions of Jack — who was trying to shake him awake — the arms of Morpheus held him in a close embrace. For though his snores changed into desperate snorts, and certain movements of his hands and legs suggested that he was reining in a team of horses down a steep hill, he did not rouse himself.
‘I dare say they’ll be training up new drivers,’ said the landlady hopefully, ‘but Mr Sorrowcole’s an old stager, and they was always heavy drinkers. Well, they’ve got to keep out the cold somehow, and if it isn’t brandy then it’s rum, and that’s all there is to it.’
‘Sober and on time,’ mused Parson Peplow. ‘When I was a boy the stage-coach had only just been thought of, and folk travelled by wagon. Now this worthy old fellow is seeing the last of his ways and days depart!’
‘Well, true as God’s my judge, sir, you can set your clock by the Mail, but there’s many an ale-house has lost custom through them not stopping. And the bye-letters and cross-post letters are in a right mess, along of the Mail being so quick. For if you don’t catch it on the hour then you wait another day. Whereas the stage-coach don’t mind being late, and stops to water the horses and wet everybody’s throats, and will turn off the main road, and set folk down and pick them up wherever needful. Oh, it don’t matter if folk live in a big town, but little places must take their chance, and I say there’s deal of goodwill being lost. Not to speak of the government putting up the price of postage to pay for it all! And then the staff and the stabling we have to keep, for it’s only five minutes to change the horses, and fifteen to feed the travellers, and then off like maniacs with the horn blowing. And no tolls to pay at the turnpikes, and everybody on the road to make way, make way.’
‘Let me dash some water down his neck,’ Jack suggested, with great relish. ‘That’ll fetch him to, Mrs Alcock.’
‘And wet all his clothes, and him going out on the box for the next twenty-seven hours or more? He’ll catch his death!’
‘I think that if I hold him upright, ma’am,’ said William Howarth, who had been considering the problem, ‘you could pour the coffee down his throat, a little at a time. And I think he should be brought away from the fire, which is inducing sleep.’
‘It is a half after one o’clock,’ Parson Peplow reminded them. ‘Let us try to walk him up and down. I feel that his slumbers are largely due to the comfort and warmth in which he finds himself; as my young friend says. Here, I will take one arm, Mr Howarth, if you do but take the other … ’
So, unevenly, between a tall man and a short one, Jacob Sorrowcole once more learned to walk, and was making his twentieth turn round the kitchen when a thin harassed fellow entered the room. He did not so much wear his scarlet uniform, gold-frogged and of a military cut, as it wore him. His leather top-boots were glistening with mud and rain. The cockade in his hat seemed wilted. He had been through too much already, and would soon be going through more.
‘Oh my Lord!’ he whispered, as he saw the coachman.
‘No great harm, Mr Walters,’ said the landlady, soothing, ‘Mr Sorrowcole just fell asleep afore the kitchen fire. He’s right as rain, aren’t you, Mr Sorrowcole? Here, let me help you into your things.’
Whereupon she began to clothe him with coats and wind him into mufflers, until he looked like an enormous swaddled baby with a crimson face and three chins.
‘Don’t I keep on telling you as every minute counts?’ Mr Walters demanded of the erring driver. ‘Haven’t I said as we’re supposed to set an example? I’m wearing the King’s uniform, ain’t I … ?’
Here Mr Sorrowcole made a diversion by shaking himself free of his supporters, shaking his fist, and crying, ‘And where’s my uniform then? Tell me that!’
‘You’ll get your uniform,’ said the guard, inspired, ‘when you behave yourself. Falling asleep afore the kitchen fire, while I’ve been out in the cold and the wet, chivying the Warrington mail and waiting for the Chester bag, checking my timepiece ready for two o’clock sharp. And you call yourself a King’s Messenger!’
Here Mr Sorrowcole drew himself up to his full height, which was not very great but more than redeemed by his width, and announced that he could drive a team blindfold through a blizzard and was ready for owt.
‘That’s more like it!’ said the guard, mollified. ‘I’ll tell you something else as well, Jacob. There’s many a one is saying as the Mail won’t keep to time in the winter. An hour late they say, along of the weather. Now be that as it may, Jacob, a drop of rain shan’t stop us. I want us to be drawing up at St Martin’s-le-Grand by a twenty past five o’clock tomorrow morning. On time, Jacob. On time.’
The old coachman clapped his hat upon his head, reached for his long whip which was propped against a corner of the kitchen dresser, and stood to attention. Relieved, the guard checked that his pistols and blunderbuss were primed, his leather bag full of powder and shot, his watch ticking away in its pouch and his posthorn hanging by his side. Portentously, he locked the iron mail-box, saying under his breath reverently as he did so, ‘King’s Regulations!’