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   Chapter 52 A NIGHT DRIVE.

Ask Mamma By R. S. Surtees Characters: 18504

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


PEOPLE who travel in the winter should remember it isn't summer, and time themselves accordingly. Sir Moses was so anxious to see Monsieur Rougier off the premises, in order to stop any extra hospitality, that he delayed starting for Lundyfoote Castle until he saw him fairly mounted on the gift grey and out of the stable-yard; he then had the mare put to the dog-cart, and tried to make up for lost time by extra speed upon the road. But winter is an unfavourable season for expedition; if highways are improving, turnpikes are getting neglected, save in the matter of drawing the officers' sinecure salaries, and, generally speaking, the nearer a turnpike is to a railway, the worse the turnpike is, as if to show the wonderful advantage of the former. So Sir Moses went flipping and flopping, and jipping and jerking, through Bedland and Hawksworth and Washingley-field, but scarcely reached the confines of his country when he ought to have been nearing the Castle. It was nearly four o'clock by the great gilt-lettered clock on the diminutive church in the pretty village of Tidswell, situated on the banks of the sparkling Lune, when he pulled up at the sign of the Hold-away Harriers to get his mare watered and fed. It is at these sort of places that the traveller gets the full benefit of country slowness and stupidity. Instead of the quick ostler, stepping smartly up to his horse's head as he reins up, there is generally a hunt through the village for old Tom, or young Joe, or some worthy who is either too old or too idle to work. In this case it was old bow-legged, wiry Tom Brown, whose long experience of the road did not enable him to anticipate a person's wants; so after a good stare at the driver, whom at first he thought was Mr. Meggison, the exciseman; then Mr. Puncheon, the brewer; and lastly, Mr. Mossman, Lord Polkaton's ruler; he asked, with a bewildered scratch of his head, "What, de ye want her put oop?"

"Oop, yes," replied Sir Moses; "what d'ye think I'm stopping for? Look alive; that's a good fellow," added he, throwing him the reins, as he prepared to descend from the vehicle.

"Oh, it's you, Sir Moses, is it," rejoined the now enlightened patriarch, "I didn't know you without your red coat and cap;" so saying, he began to fumble at the harness, and, with the aid of the Baronet, presently had the mare out of the shafts. It then occurred to the old gentleman that he had forgotten the key of the stable. "A sink," said he, with a dash of his disengaged hand, "I've left the key i' the pocket o' mar coat, down i' Willy Wood's shop, when ar was helpin' to kill a pig-run, lad, doon to Willy Wood," said he to a staring by-standing boy, "and get me mar coat," adding to Sir Moses, as the lad slunk unwillingly away, "he'll be back directly wi' it." So saying, he proceeded to lead the mare round to the stable at the back of the house.

When the coat came, then there was no pail; and when they got a pail, then the pump had gone dry; and when they got some water from the well, then the corn had to be brought from the top of the house; so, what with one delay and another, day was about done before Sir Moses got the mare out of the stable again. Night comes rapidly on in the short winter months, and as Sir Moses looked at the old-fashioned road leading over the steepest part of the opposite hill, he wished he was well on the far side of it. He then examined his lamps, and found there were no candles in them, just as he remembered that he had never been to Lundy-foote Castle on wheels, the few expeditions he had made there having been performed on horseback, by those nicks and cuts that fox-hunters are so famous at making and finding. "Ord dom it," said he to himself, "I shall be getting benighted. Tell me," continued he, addressing the old ostler, "do I go by Marshfield and Hengrove, or--"

"No, no, you've no business at noughter Marshfield nor Hengrove," interrupted the sage; "veer way is straight oop to Crowfield-hall and Roundhill-green, then to Brackley Moor and Belton, and so on into the Sandywell-road at Langley. But if ar were you," continued he, beginning to make confusion worse confounded, "ar would just gan through Squire Patterson's Park here," jerking his thumb to the left to indicate the direction in which it lay.

"Is it shorter?" demanded Sir Moses, re-ascending the vehicle.

"W-h-o-y no, it's not shorter," replied the man, "but it's a better road rayther-less agin collar-like. When ye get to the new lodge ye mun mind turn to the right, and keep Whitecliffe Law to the left, and Lidney Mill to the right, you then pass Shimlow tilery, and make straight for Roundhill Green, and Brackley Moor, and then on to Belton, as ar toll'd ye afoor-ye can't miss yeer way," added he, thinking he could go it in the dark himself.

"Can't I?" replied Sir Moses, drawing the reins. He then chucked the man a shilling, and touching the mare with the point of the whip, trotted across the bridge over the Lane, and was speedily brought up at a toll-bar on the far side.

It seems to be one of the ordinances of country life, that the more toll a man pays the worse road he gets, and Sir Moses had scarcely parted with his sixpence ere the sound running turnpike which tempted him past Squire Patterson's lodge, ran out into a loose, river-stoned track, that grew worse and worse the higher he ascended the hill. In vain he hissed, and jerked, and jagged at the mare. The wheels revolved as if they were going through sea-sand. She couldn't go any faster.

It is labour and sorrow travelling on wheels, with a light horse and a heavy load, on woolly winter roads, especially under the depressing influence of declining day-when a gorgeous sunset has no charms. It is then that the value of the hissing, hill-rounding, plain-scudding railway is appreciated. The worst line that ever was constructed, even one with goods, passengers, and minerals all mixed in one train, is fifty times better than one of these ploughing, sobbing, heart-breaking drives. So thought Sir Moses, as, whip in hand, he alighted from the vehicle to ease the mare up the steep hill, which now ran parallel with Mr. Patterson's rather indifferent park wall.

What a commentary on consequence a drive across country affords, One sees life in all its phases-Cottage, House, Grange, "Imperial John" Hall, Park, Tower, Castle, &c. The wall, however, is the true index of the whole. Show me your wall and I'll tell you what you have. There is the five hundred-by courtesy, thousand-a year wall, built of common stone, well embedded in mortar, extending only a few yards on either side of the lodgeless green gate. The thousand-by courtesy, fifteen hundred-a year wall, made of the same material, only the mortar ceases at the first convenient bend of the road, and the mortared round coping of the top is afterwards all that holds it together. Then there is the aspiring block and course wall, leading away with a sweep from either side of a handsome gateway, but suddenly terminating in hedges. The still further continued wall, with an abrupt juncture in split oak paling, that looks as if it had been suddenly nipped by a want-of-cash frost. We then get to the more successful all-round-the-park alike efforts of four or five thousand a-year-the still more solid masonry and ornamental work of "Ten Thousand a Year," a Warren wall in fact, until at length we come to one so strong and so high, that none but a man on a laden wain can see over it, which of course denotes a Ducal residence, with fifty or a hundred thousand a year. In like manner, a drive across country enables a man to pick up information without the trouble of asking for it.

The board against the tree at the corner of the larch plantation, stating that "Any one trespassing on these grounds, the property of A. B. C. Sowerby, Esq., will, &c., with the utmost, &c.," enables one to jump to the conclusion that the Westmoreland-slated roof we see peering among the eagle-winged cedars and luxuriant Scotch firs on the green slope to the left, is the residence of said Sowerby, who doesn't like to be trespassed upon. A quick-eyed land-agent would then trace the boundaries of the Sowerby estate from the rising ground, either by the size of its trees, its natural sterility, or by the rough, gateless fences, where it adjoins the neighbouring proprietors.

Again, the sign of the Smith Arms at a wayside public-house, denotes that some member of that illustrious family either lives or has property in that immediate neighbourhood, and as everybody has a friend Smith, we naturally set about thinking whether it is our friend Smith or not. So a nobleman's coronet surmounting his many-quartered coat-of-arms, suggests that the traveller is in the neighbourhood of magnificence; and if his appearance is at all in his favour, he will, perhaps, come in for a touch, or a demi-touch, of the hat from the passers-by, the process being almost mechanical in aristocratic parts. A board at a branch road with the words "To Lavender Lodge only," saves one the trouble of asking the name of the place towards which we see the road bending, while a great deal of curious nomenclature may be gleaned from shop-fronts, inn-signs

, and cart-shafts.

But we are leaving Sir Moses toiling up the hill alongside of his dog-cart, looking now at his watch, now at his jaded mare, now at Mr. Patterson's fragile park wall, thinking how he would send it over with his shoulder if he came to it out hunting. The wall was at length abruptly terminated by a cross-road intersecting the hill along a favourable fall of the ground, about the middle of it, and the mare and Sir Moses mutually stopped, the former to ease herself on the piece of level ground at the junction, the latter to consider whether his course was up the hill or along the more inviting line to the left.

"Marshfield," muttered he to himself, "is surely that way, but then that old buffer said I had no business at Marshfield. Dom the old man," continued he, "I wish I'd never asked him anything about it, for he has completely bewildered me, and I believe I could have found my way better without."

So saying, Sir Moses reconnoitered the scene; the balance of the fat hill in front, with the drab-coloured road going straight up the steepest part of it, the diverging lines either way; above all, the fast closing canopy around. Across the road, to the right, was a paintless, weather-beaten finger-post, and though our friend saw it had lost two of its arms, he yet thought the remaining ones might give him some information. Accordingly, he went over to consult it. Not a word, no, not a letter was legible. There were some upright marks, but what they had stood for it was impossible to decipher. Sir Moses was nonplussed. Just at this critical moment, a rumbling sound proceeded from below, and looking down the hill, a grey speck loomed in the distance, followed by a darker one a little behind. This was consoling; for those who know how soon an agricultural country becomes quiet after once the labourers go to their homes can appreciate the boon of any stirrers.

Still the carts came very slowly, and the quick falling shades of night travelled faster than they. Sir Moses stood listening anxiously to their jolting noises, thinking they would never come up. At the same time, he kept a sharp eye on the cross-road, to intercept any one passing that way. A tinker, a poacher, a mugger, the veriest scamp, would have been welcome, so long as he knew the country. No one, however, came along. It was an unfrequented line; and old Gilbert Price, who worked by the day. always retired from raking in the mud ruts on the approach of evening. So Sir Moses stood staring and listening, tapping his boot with his whip, as he watched the zig-zag course of the grey up the hill. He seemed a good puller, and to understand his work, for as yet no guiding voice had been heard. Perhaps the man was behind. As there is always a stout pull just before a resting-place, the grey now came to a pause, to collect his energies for the effort.

Sir Moses looked at his mare, and then at the carts halting below, wondering whether if he left her she would take off. Just as he determined to risk it, the grey applied himself vigorously to the collar, and with a grinding, ploughing rush, came up to where Sir Moses stood.

The cart was empty, but there was a sack-like thing, with a wide-awake hat on the top, rolling in the one behind.

"Holloo, my man!" shouted Sir Moses, with the voice of a Stentor.

The wide-awake merely nodded to the motion of the cart.

"Holloo, I say!" roared he, still louder.

An extended arm was thrown over the side of the cart, and the wide-awake again nodded as before.

"The beggar's asleep!" muttered Sir Moses, taking the butt-end of his whip, and poking the somnambulist severely in the stomach.

A loud grunt, and with a strong smell of gin, as the monster changed his position, was all that answered the appeal.

"The brute's drunk," gasped Sir Moses, indignant at having wasted so much time in waiting for him.

The sober grey then made a well-rounded turn to the right, followed by the one in the rear, leaving our friend enveloped in many more shades of darkness than he was when he first designed him coming. Night had indeed about closed in, and lights began to appear in cottages and farm-houses that sparsedly dotted the hill side.

"Well, here's a pretty go," said Sir Moses, remounting the dogcart, and gathering up the reins; "I'll just give the mare her choice," continued he, touching her with the whip, and letting her go. The sensible animal took the level road to the left, and Sir Moses's liberality was at first rewarded by an attempted trot along it, which, however, soon relaxed into a walk. The creaking, labouring vehicle shook and rolled with the concussion of the ruts.

He had got upon a piece of township road, where each surveyor shuffled through his year of office as best he could, filling up the dangerous holes in summer with great boulder stones that turned up like flitches of bacon in winter. So Sir Moses rolled and rocked in imminent danger of an upset. To add to his misfortunes, he was by no means sure but that he might have to retrace his steps: it was all chance.

There are but two ways of circumventing a hill, either by going round it or over it; and the road, after evading it for some time, at length took a sudden turn to the right, and grappled fairly with its severity. The mare applied herself sedulously to her task, apparently cheered by the increasing lights on the hill. At length she neared them, and the radiant glow of a blacksmith's shop cheered the drooping spirit of the traveller.

"Holloo, my man!" cried Sir Moses, at length, pulling up before it.

"Holloo!" responded the spark-showering Vulcan from within.

"Is this the way to Lord Lundyfoote's?" demanded Sir Moses, knowing the weight a nobleman's name carries in the country.

"Lord Lundyfoote's!" exclaimed Osmand Hall, pausing in his work; "Lord Lundyfoote's!" repeated he; "why, where ha' you come from?"

"Tidswell," replied Sir Moses, catting off the former part of the journey.

"Why, what set ye this way?" demanded the dark man, coming to the door with a red-hot horse-shoe on a spike, which was nearly all that distinguished him from the gloom of night; "ye should never ha' coom'd this way; ye should ha' gone by Marshfield and Hengrove."

"Dom it, I said so!" ejaculated the Baronet, nearly stamping the bottom of his gig out with vexation. "However, never mind," continued he, recollecting himself, "I'm here now, so tell me the best way to proceed."

This information being at length accorded, Sir Moses proceeded; and the rest of the hill being duly surmounted, the dancing and stationary lights spreading o'er the far-stretching vale now appeared before him, with a clustering constellation, amid many minor stars scattered around, denoting the whereabouts of the castle.

It is always cheering to see the far end of a journey, distant though the haven be, and Sir Moses put on as fast as his lampless condition would allow him, trusting to his eyes and his ears for keeping on the road. Very much surprised would he have been had he retraced his steps the next morning, and seen the steep banks and yawning ditches he had suddenly saved himself from going over or into by catching at the reins or feeling either wheel running in the soft.

At length he reached the lodges of the massive variously-windowed castle, and passing gladly through them, found, on alighting at the door, that, instead of being late for dinner as he anticipated, his Lordship, who always ate a hearty lunch, was generally very easy about the matter, sometimes dining at seven, sometimes at eight, sometimes in summer even at nine o'clock. The footman, in reply to Sir Moses inquiring what time his Lordship dined, said he believed it was ordered at seven, but he didn't know when it would be on the table.

Being an ardent politician, Lord Lundyfoote received Sir Moses with the fellow-feeling that makes us wondrous kind cordiality, and dived so energetically into his subject, as soon as he got the weather disposed of, as never to wait for an answer to his question, whether his guest would like to take anything before dinner, the consequence of which was, that our poor friend was nearly famished with waiting. In vain the library time-piece ticked, and chimed, and struck; jabber, jabber, jabber, went his voluble Lordship; in vain the deep-toned castle-clock reverberated through the walls-on, on he went, without noticing it. until the butler, in apparent despair, took the gong, and gave it such a beating just outside the door, that he could scarcely hear himself speak. Sir Moses then adroitly slipped in the question if that was the signal for dressing; to which his Lordship having yielded a reluctant "Yes," he took a candle from the entering footman, and pioneered the Baronet up to his bedroom, amid a running commentary on the state of the country and the stability of the ministry. And when he returned he found his Lordship distributing his opinions amoung an obsequious circle of neighbours, who received all he said with the deference due to a liberal dispenser of venison; so that Sir Moses not only got his dinner in comparative peace, but warded his Lordship off the greater part of the evening.

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