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   Chapter 2 THE ROAD.

Ask Mamma By R. S. Surtees Characters: 14279

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

IT was on a cold, damp, raw December morning, before the emancipating civilisation of railways, that our hero's father, then returning from a trading tour, after stamping up and down the damp flags before the Lion and Unicorn hotel and posting-house at Slopperton, waiting for the old True Blue Independent coach "comin' hup," for whose cramped inside he had booked a preference seat, at length found himself bundled into the straw-bottomed vehicle, to a very different companion to what he was accustomed to meet in those deplorable conveyances. Instead of a fusty old farmer, or a crumby basket-encumbered market-woman, he found himself opposite a smiling, radiant young lady, whoso elegant dress and ring-bedizened hand proclaimed, as indeed was then generally the case with ladies, that she was travelling in a coach "for the first time in her life."

This was our fair friend, Miss Willing.

The Earl and Countess Delacey had just received an invitation to spend the Christmas at Tiara Castle, where the countess on the previous year had received if not a defeat, at all events had not achieved a triumph, in the dressing way, over the Countess of Honiton, whose maid, Miss Criblace, though now bribed to secrecy with a full set of very little the worse for wear Chinchilla fur, had kept the fur and told the secret to Miss Willing, that their ladyships were to meet again. Miss Willing was now on her way to town, to arrange with the Countess's milliner for an annihilating series of morning and evening dresses wherewith to extinguish Lady Honiton, it being utterly impossible, as our fair friends will avouch, for any lady to appear twice in the same attire. How thankful men ought to be that the same rule does not prevail with them!

Miss Willing was extremely well got up; for being of nearly the same size as the countess, her ladyship's slightly-worn things passed on to her with scarcely a perceptible diminution of freshness, it being remarkable how, in even third and fourth-rate establishments, dresses that were not fit for the "missus" to be seen in come out quite new and smart on the maid.

On this occasion Miss Willing ran entirely to the dark colours, just such as a lady travelling in her own carriage might be expected to wear. A black terry velvet bonnet with a single ostrich feather, a dark brown Levantine silk dress, with rich sable cuffs, muff, and boa, and a pair of well-fitting primrose-coloured kid gloves, which if they ever had been on before had not suffered by the act.

Billy-old Billy that is to say-was quite struck in a heap at such an unwonted apparition, and after the then usual salutations, and inquiries how she would like to have the window, he popped the old question, "How far was she going?" with very different feelings to what it was generally asked, when the traveller wished to calculate how soon he might hope to get rid of his vis-à-vis and lay up his legs on the seat.

"To town," replied the lady, dimpling her pretty cheeks with a smile. "And you?" asked she, thinking to have as good as she gave.

"Ditto," replied the delighted Billy, divesting himself of a great coarse blue and white worsted comforter, and pulling up his somewhat dejected gills, abandoning the idea of economising his Lincoln and Bennett by the substitution of an old Gregory's mixture coloured fur cap, with its great ears tied over the top, in which he had snoozed and snored through many a long journey.

Miss Willing then drew from her richly-buckled belt a beautiful Geneva watch set round with pearls, (her ladyship's, which she was taking to town to have repaired), and Billy followed suit with his substantial gold-repeater, with which he struck the hour. Miss then ungloved the other hand, and passed it down her glossy brown hair, all smooth and regular, for she had just been scrutinising it in a pocket-mirror she had in her gold-embroidered reticule.

Billy's commercial soul was in ecstacies, and he was fairly over head and ears in love before they came to the first change of horses. He had never seen sich a sample of a hand before, no, nor sich a face; and he felt quite relieved when among the multiplicity of rings he failed to discover that thin plain gold one that intimates so much.

Whatever disadvantages old stage coaches possessed, and their name certainly was legion, it must be admitted that in a case of this sort their slowness was a recommendation. The old True Blue Independent did not profess to travel or trail above eight miles an hour, and this it only accomplished under favourable circumstances, such as light loads, good roads, and stout steeds, instead of the top-heavy cargo that now ploughed along the woolly turnpike after the weak, jaded horses, that seemed hardly able to keep their legs against the keen careering wind. If, under such circumstances, the wretched concern made the wild-beast-show looking place in London, called an inn, where it put up, an hour or an hour and a half or so after its time, it was said to be all very well, "considering,"-and this, perhaps, in a journey of sixty miles.

Posterity will know nothing of the misery their forefathers underwent in the travelling way; and whenever we hear-which we often do-unreasonable grumblings about the absence of trifling luxuries on railways, we are tempted to wish the parties consigned to a good long ride in an old stage coach. Why the worst third class that ever was put next the engine is infinitely better than the inside of the best of them used to be, to say nothing of the speed. As to the outsides of the old coaches, with their roastings, their soakings, their freezings, and their smotherings with dust, one cannot but feel that the establishment of railways was a downright prolongation of life. Then the coach refreshments, or want of refreshments rather; the turning out at all hours to breakfast, dine, or sup, just as the coach reached the house of a proprietor "wot oss'd it," and the cool incivility of every body about the place. Any thing was good enough for a coach passenger.

On this auspicious day, though Miss Willing had her reticule full of macaroons and sponge biscuits, and Fine Billy the first had a great bulging paper of sandwiches in his brown overcoat pocket, they neither of them felt the slightest approach to hunger, ere the lumbering vehicle, after a series of clumsy, would-be-dash-cutting lurches and evolutions over the rough inequalities of the country pavement, pulled up short at the arched doorway of the Salutation Inn-we beg pardon, hotel-in Bramfordrig, and a many-coated, brandy-faced, blear-eyed guard let in a whole hurricane of wind while proclaiming that they "dined there and stopped half an hour." Then Fine Billy the first had an opportunity of showing his gallantry and surveying the figure of his innamorata, as he helped her down the perilous mud-shot iron steps of the old Independent, and certainly never countess descended from her carriage on a drawing-room day with greater elegance than Miss Willing displayed on the present occasion, showing a lettle circle of delicate white linen petticoat as she pr

otected her clothes from the mud-begrimed wheel, and just as much fine open-worked stocking above the fringed top of her Adelaide boots. On reaching the ground, which she did with a curtsey, she gave such a sweet smile as emboldened our Billy to offer his arm; and amid the nudging of outsiders, and staring of street-loungers, and "make way"-ing of inn hangers-on, our Billy strutted up the archway with all the dignity of a drum-major. His admiration increased as he now became sensible of the lady's height, for like all little men he was an admirer of tall women. As he caught a glimpse of himself in the unbecoming mirror between the drab and red fringed window curtains of the little back room into which they were ushered, he wished he had had on his new blue coat and bright buttons, with a buff vest, instead of the invisible green and black spot swansdown one in which he was then attired.

The outside passengers having descended from their eminences, proceeded to flagellate themselves into circulation, and throw off their husks, while Billy strutted consequentially in with the lady on his arm, and placed her in the seat of honour beside himself at the top of the table. The outsides then came swarming in, jostling the dish-bearers and seating themselves as they could. All seemed bent upon getting as much as they could for their money.

Pork was the repast. Pork in varions shapes: roast at the top, boiled at the bottom, sausages on one side, fry on the other; and Miss Willing couldn't eat pork, and, curious coincidence! neither could Billy. The lady having intimated this to Billy in the most delicate way possible, for she had a particular reason for not wishing to aggravate the new landlord, Mr. Bouncible, Billy gladly sallied forth to give battle as it were on his own account, and by way of impressing the household with his consequence, he ordered a bottle of Teneriffe as he passed the bar, and then commenced a furious onslaught about the food when he got into the kitchen. This reading of the riot act brought Bouncible from his "Times," who having been in the profession himself took Billy for a nobleman's gentleman, or a house-steward at least-a class of men not so easily put upon as their masters. He therefore, after sundry regrets at the fare not being 'zactly to their mind, which he attributed to its being washing-day, offered to let them have a the first turn at a very nice dish of hashed venison that was then simmering on the fire for Mrs. B. and himself, provided our travellers would have the goodness to call it hashed mutton, so that it might not be devoured by the outsiders, a class of people whom all landlords held in great contempt. To this proposition Billy readily assented, and returned triumphantly to the object of his adoration. He then slashed right and left at the roast pork, and had every plate but hers full by the time the hashed mutton made its appearance. He then culled out all the delicate tit-bits for his fair partner, and decked her hot plate with sweet sauce and mealy potatoes. Billy's turn came next, and amidst demands for malt liquor and the arrival of smoking tumblers of brown brandy and water, clatter, patter, clatter, patter, became the order of the day, with an occasional suspicious, not to say dissatisfied, glance of a pork-eating passenger at the savoury dish at the top of the table. Mr. Bonncible, however, brought in the Teneriffe just at the critical moment, when Billy having replenished both plates, the pork-eaters might have expected to be let in; and walked off with the dish in exchange for the decanter. Our friends then pledged each other in a bumper of Cape. The pork was followed by an extremely large strong-smelling Cheshire cheese, in a high wooden cradle, which in its turn was followed by an extremely large strong-smelling man in a mountainous many-caped greatcoat, who with a bob of his head and a kick out behind, intimated that paying time was come for him. Growls were then heard of its not being half an hour, or of not having had their full time, accompanied by dives into the pockets and reticules for the needful-each person wondering how little he could give without a snubbing.

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Quite "optional" of course. Billy, who was bent on doing the magnificent, produced a large green-and-gold-tasseled purse, almost as big as a stocking, and drew therefrom a great five-shilling piece, which having tapped imposingly on his plate, he handed ostentatiously to the man, saying, "for this lady and me," just as if she belonged to him; whereupon down went the head even with the table, with an undertoned intimation that Billy "needn't 'urry, for he would make it all right with the guard." The waiter followed close on the heels of the coachman, drawing every body for half-a-crown for the dinner, besides what they had had to drink, and what they "pleased for himself," and Billy again anticipated the lady by paying for both. Instead, however, of disputing his right so to do, she seemed to take it as a matter of course, and bent a little forward and said in a sort of half-whisper, though loud enough to be heard by a twinkling-eyed, clayey-complexioned she-outsider, sitting opposite, dressed in a puce-coloured cloth pelisse and a pheasant-feather bonnet, "I fear you will think me very troublesome, but do you think you could manage to get me a finger-glass?" twiddling her pretty taper fingers as she spoke.

"Certainly!" replied Billy, all alacrity, "certainly."

"With a little tepid water," continued Miss Willing, looking imploringly at Billy as he rose to fulfil her behests.

"Such airs!" growled Pheasant-feathers to her next neighbour with an indignant toss of her colour-varying head.

Billy presently appeared, bearing one of the old deep blue-patterned finger-glasses, with a fine damask napkin, marked with a ducal coronet-one of the usual perquisites of servitude.

Miss then holding each pretty hand downwards, stripped her fingers of their rings, just as a gardener strips a stalk of currants of its fruit, dropping, however, a large diamond ring (belonging to her ladyship, which she was just airing) skilfully under the table, and for which fat Billy had to dive like a dog after an otter.

"Oh, dear!" she was quite ashamed at her awkwardness and the trouble she had given, she assured Billy, as he rose red and panting from the pursuit.

"Done on purpose to show her finery," muttered Pheasant-feather bonnet, with a sneer.

Miss having just passed the wet end of the napkin across her cherry lips and pearly teeth, and dipped her fingers becomingly in the warm water, was restoring her manifold rings, when the shrill twang, twang, twang of the horn, with the prancing of some of the newly-harnessed cripples on the pavement as they tried to find their legs, sounded up the arch-way into the little room, and warned our travellers that they should be reinvesting themselves in their wraps. So declining any more Teneriffe, Miss Willing set the example by drawing on her pretty kid gloves, and rising to give the time to the rest. Up they all got.

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