Nyer, that got your attention didn't it!
Historical novel close to completion (currently 75K). These are the much-revised first and second chapters. If you don't have a review comment to make as such, please would you just leave a smiley of some sort to indicate your reaction?
George opened the door of the Tally-Ho coach and raised one hand to the brim of his hat. He was damned if he’d stand bareheaded for his passengers in the rain.
‘End of the stage, gentlemen, I leave you here.’
‘Ten minutes late!’ snapped one of the businessmen, shutting his watch.
‘Yes sir. We’ll be back to time when the snow’s washed away.’ George unfolded the steps. ‘Mind how you go, now.’
The stableman lifted a narrow iron ladder from under the boot of the coach, and fixed it for a couple of outsiders, cold and sodden, to climb down from the roof. George moved into position and touched his hat again. Perquisites for the driver were not compulsory, but he always smiled and reminded passengers that they were customary.
‘Thank you kindly, sir.’
They dropped the expected silver into his glove, and hurried away into the warmth of the inn.
The money dealt with, George turned to his horses. Both mares were steaming, and sweat ran in streaks through the mud on their legs. Daisy had skidded on a slick patch despite her frost-nails, and the weight of the coach had dragged her off her feet. He’d eased her home, limping, with one hock oozing blood, and Beauty doing the work of both. They were still breathing hard as the ostlers led them in to their stalls. And then his passengers complained of being ten minutes late! He compressed his lips to a thin line, and turned away.
Across the yard in the Feathers coach office, he pulled off a glove and opened his wallet to find the waybill.
‘Here y’are, Nutt, better take it while it’s still readable.’ The clerk waved the paper away, his attention fixed on the stout gentleman buying tickets.
‘Afternoon, Mr Mulvey.’ George raised his hat this time. Mulvey was a shipbuilder with a thriving business, and he tipped freely.
‘Good afternoon, Davenport,’ said Mulvey.
‘Shocking wet day, sir.’
‘Any sign of it easing, d’ye think? How’s the view over Wales?’
‘Thick with rain, sir, and a lot of snow still to melt.’
‘I’m glad I have inside seat on this evening’s Mail. Mrs Mulvey wants to visit Eliza and the grandchildren, but I keep telling her it’s too cold to travel. I hope it may improve soon.’
‘I hope so too, sir.’
Mulvey nodded, and George recognised that the conversation was over. He gave his professional smile and stood back.
He stripped-off the other glove and straightened the leather, and while Mulvey continued to chat to Mr Nutt, he stood in front of the fire and eased a finger round his wet neck-cloth. Two other young men came hurrying through the doorway from the street, where rainwater cascaded off the eaves, undercut the shovelled heaps of snow along the road-sides and poured down the gutters towards the swollen Dee. The thaw would bring the worry of flooded roads but, with luck, it signalled an end to managing the horses over frost and snow. When he got back to the stables he must report Daisy’s injury.
Mr Nutt dipped his pen and asked Mr Mulvey, ‘When will you return, sir?’
‘Tomorrow morning, if you please. Yes,’ in answer to the clerk’s questioning eyebrows, ‘inside.’ He paid the deposit for the tickets, then with a nod to George he took up his umbrella and set off up Bridge Street.
The clerk blotted the ink and turned back the page to book-in the two young men, who wanted to reach Liverpool that evening. George guessed that in spite of the weather they would take the cheapest tickets for the roof-seats. While he waited, a coal-cart plodded past and up the hill, the horse rain-streaked and resigned, the driver hidden under sacking. George watched it with indifference. It was a long time since he had escaped from that level of misery. The coins in his pocket assured him of a change of clothes, food and fire and a warm bed.
The young men completed their booking and left, and the porter threw their bags on top of a heap awaiting the Vesuvius coach, then disappeared through the yard door.
‘Well, George,’ said Mr Nutt, at last, and peeled the waybill off the counter. He squinted at the smeared ink that detailed deposit-paid passengers who had booked at Woodside, and the pencil notes that were supposed to show the ‘over-the-shoulder’ fares – passengers who had only travelled on the middle part of the route. George gave him the wallet, containing twenty-two shillings for his booked passengers. He didn’t mention that most of the shouldered fares sat with his perks in the pocket of his greatcoat, and Mr Nutt was accustomed not to enquire too closely.
While he counted the money, George leaned on the desk and assumed an expression that he believed to be cheerful and innocent. ‘Is old Jones about, d’ye know? I’d like a word with him.’
The clerk looked at him, unimpressed. ‘Mister Jones is above stairs with Mr Herbert, but whether he is free to speak to you, I cannot say.’ He closed the cashbox with a click, and this time, turned the key.
‘Thank you very much, Mr Nutt. See you tomorra.’
George strolled out by the street door, and up the steps to the sheltering overhang of the Row and the main door of the Feathers Inn. Up another floor to the proprietors’ office. Outside the door, he straightened his coat, and knocked.
‘Yes!’ Mr Jones and Mr Herbert were sitting at a table under one of the Inn’s broad windows. Rain ran down the diamond-panes of glass, and an unlit lamp stood among the papers, ready against the fading of the afternoon light. Their fire was much bigger than Mr Nutt’s. George took off his hat, and waited.
‘Ah. Davenport,’ said Mr Jones, with so little surprise that George knew they had been discussing him.
‘Good afternoon, sir. I wondered if I might have a word with you.’
Herbert looked meaningfully at Jones. ‘About?’
‘Well, sir, I only drive two hours to the ferry, and two hours back.’
‘Not lucrative enough, eh?’
‘No, sir,’ said George, neutrally. He knew Jones and Herbert were aware of shouldering, and that like all wise proprietors they turned a blind eye. A coachman could keep his perquisites if the coach did enough business to conceal the rake-off, and George’s smart driving and appearance attracted custom. Herbert spread his hands on his knees and chuckled.
‘How long have you been driving for us?’
‘Five months, sir.’
George had planned an economical answer. He wouldn’t mention the perks that enabled him to buy gloves and neck-cloths, waistcoats, boots and a heavy apron against the winter weather, and he wouldn’t complain of the frustrations, passing gentry who were ruining top-quality horses, having to give way to the Royal Mail, bottling up his impatience to handle a four-in-hand team once more. Such things mattered only to him.
Both men were watching him, so he replied, ‘It’s a good turnpike, with easy hills. Even pair-coaches have no difficulty making the times.’ He smiled, to take the sting out of it. ‘Given reasonable weather.’
‘You don’t seem to wear down the horses,’ said Jones, shifting paper on the table. He almost sounded disappointed. ‘You’ve had no accidents with us, have you?’
‘I’ll arrange one if it would amuse you,’ said George with a grin. He realized that Jones and Herbert had both raised their eyebrows in astonishment, and he straightened his face. If he was lucky, Daisy’s leg would mend fast. ‘I’m sorry, sir.’
‘I should think so, man. It was a poor subject for a joke.’ With an air of getting down to business, Jones said, ‘You know that Yates had to take to his bed.’
Accident or relentless bad weather might kill a driver at any time, but George had never missed a day’s driving through illness. In the fullness of his strength and youth he could face the risks and make a sport of them. Johnnie Yates, by contrast, was the far side of forty, but a tough horseman and a good timekeeper, ideal for the London to Woodside Mail. Also, he had a wife and family depending on him. He must be very ill to admit he couldn’t work.
‘Yes, sir. Very sorry to hear it, sir.’
‘We were discussing your suitability as his replacement, at any rate until he is recovered.’
‘Always ready for more, sir,’ said George. Back to driving four horses! He held onto the solemn face he’d put on for Johnnie, and hoped it concealed his glee.
‘The customers seem to like you,’ said Jones. ‘The time of arrival of your Tally-Ho leaves you available for the Mail.’
‘Yes, sir. Should I be returning to Chester in the evening, sir, or remain at Birkenhead?’
‘You’re not a married man, are you, Davenport?’ asked Herbert. ‘Or attached in any way?’
George thought of Lucy, but he said, ‘No, sir.’
‘We expect to offer you three runs. One day you’ll do a return run, to Woodside and back with the pair coach, then you’ll drive the Mail to Woodside at a quarter before five. You come back the next morning with the Mail from Woodside. You would have the afternoon, from say two o’clock till five, to take your dinner, and so on.’
‘So I’d sleep at Birkenhead three nights a week, sir?’ He could see that they expected him to ask.
‘Yes. There are some decent inns, though you might struggle to find a Temperance establishment,’ said Jones. Herbert lifted his glass of ale with a smile.
Recognising the unspoken question, George said, ‘Either would suit me equally well. I can find better uses for my wage than pissing it up the wall. Sir.’
Herbert laughed, saluted him, and drank. ‘We’ll try you this evening, then.’
That meant he’d have to disappoint Lucy. Oh well, it couldn’t be helped. He nodded his understanding. ‘Sir.’
‘You’ll have a guard of course. He’ll have come through from Birmingham with the Mail – Jackson, I think?’ Jones confirmed it, so Herbert went on, ‘You’ll be under his orders. You had better ask Ellis for a uniform coat. Yes. That will be all.’
George walked round to the inn-yard of the Feathers, and into the dimness of the stables and the warm, mealy-straw smell, like his grandmother’s breadmaking day. He draped his apron over the heelpost of an empty stall where a heavy coach-rug hung dripping, and went into the harness-room to find Will Ellis. Will was the head yard-porter, grey with the weight of managing the huge stables. From the equally huge tack room, Will organized his many subordinates to groom and and bed-down the horses, harness the teams to go out, wash the coaches and clean the stables.
‘Won’t you look the boy,’ said Will, on hearing of George’s promotion. ‘All dressed up in the Queen’s scarlet and gold-lace.’ He estimated George’s height. ‘I know there’s a coat that should be broad enough, but it might be short on you. I’ll have to see what else there is. Come in half an hour before the Mail and we’ll fit you up. Try not to lame any more horses, eh?’
He cast a severe eye over the boys who were saddle-soaping the team’s harness, then, satisfied that they were using plenty of elbow-grease, he went out to supervise the next coach.
George took off his coat and left it for old Tim, the porter, to dry and brush-off, then found a rag to wipe down his whip. When he was small, his grandfather had only let him loose with a warped old stick with a ruined thong which he’d had to practise with until his arm ached. When his grandfather finally allowed him onto the box of a carriage, it was only to work on his rein handling, with the reins thrown over a trestle and the old man below criticizing every hold. There he had to learn how those long ribbons of leather should be the most delicate of communicators, feeding back how the team were feeling, and how well they were going to behave. Sometimes bad-tempered horses would all be out to fight him, and then his hands should give away nothing; or maybe two out of the four would go sweetly so he must humour the others and persuade them to work as a unit. And just occasionally, said his grandfather, he would get four whose power ran beautifully balanced and could be directed with the finest of touches. And until he was fit to deal with all of those combinations, he wasn’t going near the box of a four-in-hand.
He rubbed grease into the whip-handle and the thong to feed the leather after the rain, and checked the binding of the goose quills that held the bow top. All was well, and he hung it beside its fellows.
He neither liked nor disliked using the whip – it was a tool, to be used when necessary and then used hard. He had found that his horses went forward better with a light hand on the reins, with kind encouragement and making each do its fair share of the work. It was just when they were tired that the reins could only turn their heads and not their bodies. Some of the older coachmen considered him soft, because he wouldn’t carry the ‘short Tommy’, a thick, vicious whip designed to punch the last ounce of effort out of an exhausted team. But for George a regular coaching whip was quite enough to shift the team sideways when the coach was in danger.
As he was leaving, Will Ellis came in carrying another wet, sweat-marked collar and harness.
‘Davey! There’s a set here to wipe-down and soap!’ The boy came running, and all but disappeared under the heavy leather that Will dumped on him. George grinned sympathetically, recalling his own apprenticeship to the trade.
Will shouted, ‘Thomas! Jimmy! Where are you! Get in here, there’s three more sides to clean!’ And to George, ‘Half an hour before the Mail. I’ll have a coat for you by then.’
As George walked toward his lodgings, a private coach was setting-down a family party. Porters ran out from the White Lion with barrows for the luggage. Two gentlemen handed down their ladies as though they could never be expected to carry anything more taxing than their reticules, while maids bundled shawls and footwarmers and fussed over skirt hems. George passed all this by, more interested in the horses. They were four nicely matched bays, sweating and splashed with mud as though from a long journey, but the owner-driver still seemed nervous about turning their quivering thoroughbred power through the arch into the inn-yard. George exchanged a wink with the ostlers, stepped over a mound of snow and went into the inn next-door.
The Boot reminded him of the village inn where he’d been brought up. Like a servant crooked with age, it clung unrepentantly to times and habits that its betters had discarded, and its tap-room aromas folded round him, beer, pipe-smoke, beef, work-sweated shirts and wet boots. Farrimond and Howell, whose coaches had come in an hour earlier, drew back their feet and let him through to the fire. They were big men, further thickened by driving in the cold for mile after mile with interludes of hot brandy-and-water. Both had changed into dry clothes, and dined, and now with glasses in hand they and their coat-tails occupied most of the space on the two settles.
George unbuttoned his coat and took a stance in front of the hearth.
‘What beautiful weather we’re having.’ He took off his scarf, folded it on the nearest bench, and unwound the damp neck-cloth from his throat. After the first chill as his skin dried, the warmth was wonderful. Thank goodness his boots had kept out the rain.
‘I’m glad to see the back of that frost,’ said Howell. ‘My horses all stood up, for once, and it’s a long time since that’s been the case.’
Farrimond swallowed brandy with the air of a man warming up for a long and argumentative evening. ‘I’d rather have dry cold than this rawness. You’ll be finished for the day?’
George shook his head. The landlady came hurrying and he trilled a sweet whistle at her, but she only gave him a sharp glance and said, ‘Oh, it’s you.’
‘It is, Mrs Hodgson.’ It occurred to him that if he was only going to use his room for four nights a week, maybe he could sweet-talk old Ma into a lower rate for it. He turned the full value of his smile on her. ‘Were you expecting another admirer? You’ll have to be very very kind to me or I’ll be jealous.’
‘Less of your sauce.’ She went round snatching up empty tankards from the tables.
Ma might let his room any night once he wasn’t there. He’d better talk to Mr Dixon on Northgate Street, and secure his cash in the bank.
‘If you’re hoping to see Lucy,’ said Ma, misreading his distraction, ‘she’s not here.’
‘I was thinking of ale,’ said George, automatically concealing his real thoughts. ‘Or tea, I’m not fussy.’
‘The tea-caddy’s locked,’ she said.
‘I bet the key’s hanging in your petticoats. Would you like me to look for it?’
‘Get away with you.’ She flapped an exasperated hand at him.
In spite of Ma’s denial, he could see Lucy in the shadows of the bar, with a finger to her lips, blonde curls nodding towards the back door. He kept a straight face. ‘In your own good time, Ma, of course. You know we all adore you.’
The landlady pushed her clutch of tankards at the pot-boy, and turned to George, hands on hips. ‘So which do you want? Ale or tea?’
‘I’ll have cocoa. I’ll just go and make room for it.’ He navigated round Howell’s thick legs towards the door. ‘Don’t forget the sugar, mind!’
In the back porch, cold little hands met his as Lucy stood on tiptoe to kiss him. That was more like a welcome. The dim rainy yard vanished in the warmth of her lips. He slid his hands round her waist, so slim and straight that he could almost span the wool of her bodice. Lower down, he knew, she was wrapped in petticoats. How could she still have cold hands, when she wore as many layers as he did?
‘Ooh, little cold paws. Slip ’em in here and get warm!’
‘Don’t be cheeky,’ she said, but she slid inside his coat all the same. He could feel her fingers stroking him through the heavy waistcoat. ‘Are you ready for your dinner? There’s ham ... or beef ... or brawn ... or a fine mutton pie …’
He sighed, trying to damp down his reaction to her hands. He would have to tell her about the Mail run. If he didn’t, she’d miss him at supper and the long evening would feed her disappointment, then overnight she’d grow angry, and there’d be a sharp argument the following day. That was the down side of girls. They all wanted to keep tabs on you.
‘I’ll have the mutton pie. Only, Lucy, love, I need to have it soon. I’ve to be back at the Feathers by half-past four.’
‘Hush, I’m telling you, aren’t I? Mr Herbert’s asked me to drive the Mail this evening.’
‘Oh.’ There it was, the disappointment, the mood of welcome broken. Now for the explanation.
‘I’ve to find lodgings at Woodside.’ He swung her slender body, using the movement to wheedle her, and her fingers gripped his back deliciously. ‘It’s a good thing for me, Lucy, love. Come on. You know how I’ve complained of not having enough work. You don’t mind, do you? I’ll be back tomorrow night.’
‘Of course I mind,’ she said. ‘It’s all you think about, your driving. But, it’s what you are, I suppose.’
‘Driving isn’t something you can do half-heartedly, my lovely. It’s a passion, nearly as big as a passion for pretty women.’ He kissed the tip of her nose. His tone was light, but he was satisfied that she read the determination in his face.
‘Well – if it’s only tonight…’
‘It’ll be three nights a week – ‘
‘Oh George!’ She pulled away, but he caught her, with a chuckle. It was done now.
‘You’ll get used to it, you’ll see.’
‘I know.’ She sighed, letting her hands rest in his.
‘That’s my good girl. Don’t work yourself into a lather.’ His merry mood bubbled up again. ‘You never know who might sit next to me on a Mail run. Y’know, like, gentry. Lords, even.’
‘You and your ambition!’
‘Ah, yes, but think of the clink I’ll pick up, too. It means ribbons and fol-de-rols for you, my lovely.’
‘Thank you kindly,’ she said. ‘Could I have some lace, then? Or that brooch in Mr Mottershead’s window, the one with the blue stones in it?’
‘Most certainly!’ He was delighted that the diversion had gone down so well. ‘I’ll buy it to match your pretty eyes.’
‘I hope it won’t be redeemed before you get there!’
‘We’ll see. Now – d’you think I should shave before I go? Better make a good impression. You’ll have to bring me some hot water. I must get out my dry gloves – and a fresh neck-cloth.’ He tilted up her chin and gave her another kiss. ‘Now I’ve got to rush to the bog-house, before I bust!’
Lucy lit her candle from the lamp burning at the foot of the stairs. ‘Goodnight, Mother.’
Ma Hodgson looked up from wiping tables, and nodded to her. ‘Go straight up now. Hurry past the landing, mind. Mr Farrimond’s had a few too many again.’ She called to the waiter, who was clearing the dining room. ‘Michael! Make sure young Tom washes-up before he goes to bed.’
Lucy took up her candlestick and began to climb the dog-leg stairs. Ma said the same things nearly every evening, and every evening as Lucy trod wearily up to bed Michael would answer, ‘Yes, M’m,’ as he carried the last of the plates to the scullery.
Lucy paused at the landing in spite of Ma’s advice. She had known the peculiarities of the timbered inn since childhood – the walls leaning subtly out of true, their candle-thrown shadows and even the floorboards sloping in different directions – and these days there was nothing to fear, certainly not John Farrimond, who was too far gone in his brandy to be any danger. She could hear him singing Rule, Britannia!, badly, as usual. Earlier in the evening, he’d been arguing with Mr Lloyd about the ‘little German Queen’ and her forthcoming Coronation. Lloyd had loyally supported the Queen, young and virtuous and likely to ensure a stable monarchy for many years to come. Farrimond had retorted, ‘Too young to be head of the country! Too fond of her Continental relatives! And far too fond of Lord Melbourne! And a woman! Wasn’t there any English Duke to sit on old William’s throne?’ And so on. Well – gentlemen in their cups often grew foolish, and said and did things publicly that they wouldn’t dream of when sober. From the other rooms there were faint bumps and coughs and snores, the regular weekday-evening sounds of coachmen settling to sleep. She and her mother would have to rise before dawn, to chivvy the maids and the kitchen boy, to re-kindle the fires and prepare breakfasts – to enable those men and their coaches to leave on time.
Somebody banged on a panel and growled, and Farrimond’s song stopped for a moment, then continued as a formless humming.
Other than her duties, Lucy seldom thought much about the coachmen. Home one day and away the next, few of them were married but they were no catch, as they all looked older than they were. Heavy, curled fingers, fat backs, fat faces. When her mother wasn’t watching, they flirted and gave her silver. She smiled emptily and bobbed a curtsey. She knew, though, precisely, how long it would take to tiptoe down from her bedroom - then round this corner and up those two steps and down three – to George’s door. Only not tonight. Tonight she wouldn’t lie awake in her tiny square of privacy, beyond the other maids’ shared rooms, waiting until her mother had peeped in and gone away and it was safe to get up. Tonight, everything was dreary again. She couldn’t wrap herself in a bedgown and whisk barefoot down the uncreaking oak to slide into the warmth of George’s bed, because tonight George wasn’t there. George had driven the Mail to Woodside Ferry. So she would wash, and pray, and just be thankful that her mother’s bedroom was too small for her to share it.
It had been a sharp, sunny October afternoon when George had first appeared. How slender and youthful he had looked in the doorway of the Boot, in spite of his old-fashioned caped coat, his whip and low-crowned beaver hat. When he strolled to the bar and asked for ale she had had to stop herself hurrying, in her eagerness to serve him, and after he’d taken the edge off his thirst, there was something appealing in the way that he didn’t wander off, like most coachmen did, to find a table, but stayed at the bar with his warm brown eyes flickering over her.
‘Have you come far?’ she asked. It was something she would hardly bother to ask the other men, but his attention was flattering, and she was too eager to stay quiet.
‘The Manchester coach, from Buxton.’
‘They say it’s very popular, taking the waters there.’
‘Oh, the place is handsome enough, but it’s like any spa town, full of old tabbies. I’d rather cuddle up with a nice lively judy like you.’
‘Thank you kindly, sir,’ she said. ‘Your visit was obviously good for your health.’ She bit her lip, inviting him to laugh.
‘I wasn’t taking a cure, saucy. I was driving a coach.’
‘Silly me,’ she said, reaching towards the pale snakey loops of whipthong that lay on the bar. ‘As if I couldn’t have guessed.’
His eyes smiled, although the chiselled lips remained still. She didn’t know what had amused him, her questions, or her curiosity about the whip. Both, perhaps.
‘I drove the manufacturers and the commercial gents, and their wives and families. All they want is that you keep up to time.’
‘Well, that isn’t so odd, surely.’
‘They tip all right. But they’re not gentry. They don’t care whether you can drive in style. You just carry ’em all to Buxton in one piece and tell them about the scenery and the places they should visit. So I’d tell ’em first of all that they should admire the Crescent. After that, I’d say they should send their ladies to visit St Anne’s Well.’
‘What’s so special about that?’
‘It gives hot water – so that’d save you heaving cans upstairs for shaving, wouldn’t it! And I always told ’em that even in bad weather they could take exercise under cover in the riding house.’
She laughed at that. ‘But they’d never go anywhere, just riding round and round!’
‘Exactly. People with money, they ride for amusement. Or to be seen.. If they aren’t really riders, I make ’em feel they’re real goers, y’know! Flatter ’em into tipping better.’ She understood that, all right. ‘You know, if I drove on a fashionable road, like London to Brighton, I bet I could make seven hundred pounds a year –’ She remembered how he had glanced at her at that point, as though testing her reactions. Perhaps some girls were keener on his money than his stories. Well, that didn’t matter. Her interest went deeper.
‘Wench!’ That was Farrimond, shouting from the fireside. ‘Fetch us brandy, will you?’ She sighed and excused herself while she went to serve. When she came back the young man was looking into an empty mug.
‘Shall I fill that up for you, sir?’
‘George,’ he said. ‘Call me George,’ and when she reached for the mug he wouldn’t release it until she’d repeated his name.
While she poured the ale she went on chatting. ‘Why did you leave Buxton? Didn’t you have a good place?’
‘It’s the end of the season. The Peak District gets too much weather for my liking so I’ve come back home for the winter.’
‘Home?’ she prompted, as she gave him the full mug.
‘Wirral. Born and brought up on the Chester road. Now let me ask you something, my lovely bird. You’re too pretty to be called Wench. What’s your name?’
‘Ah-ah – George, remember?’ His grin warmed her again, and she smiled back. But then, fearing she had been too daring, she busied herself wiping the bar. She still had to ask the most important question.
‘Will you be staying long?’
‘Just till spring.’ And in that moment of disappointment, he leaned forward and said, ‘But this looks like a snug place to settle. I don’t want anything fancy, only a bed to myself – then y’see, whatever I find in it, I’ve only myself to blame, haven’t I? Do you have a room for me?’
She raised her eyes, to find him smiling at her, so close that she could hear him breathe. And he winked at her.
‘Go on, fix me up, Lucy my darling.’
He took her hand then and pressed a half-crown into her palm, folding her fingers over it with his own. She blushed. She wondered, for a moment, whether he thought he was buying her, if perhaps he was used to buying people and she ought to be ashamed. But she was not. Her whole being responded to that warm touch.
Then her mother had come in from the kitchens and started to discuss the terms for his room.
‘A single room? There’s only one available. Most of the coachmen share, two or three to a room. Oh! well if you insist, you’ll have to find the price ...’ Mrs Hodgson paused, but he had drawn out a handful of silver and looked at them both with that half-smile. Lucy was happily star-struck, but pretty sure that for her mother his ready cash would be a stronger lure. And she was right. ‘Very good, in that case, you’ll be be welcome – sir – nice view of the Exchange and the Cathedral tower – and should I send Jimmy to carry your bags?’
So he took up residence on the middle floor of the Inn.
At first he would come in from his afternoon coach, change his wet clothes and come down to eat, and then go out to walk, ‘breathing himself’ as he put it, before dark. Some nights he persuaded other coachmen and guards to visit the theatre, and then he required his shaving water early and dressed like a gentleman.
‘He won’t stay,’ said her mother. ‘Too high in the instep. Too lively. Too free with his cash.’
Other evenings, he laughed and joined in the banter and sang, Lucy thought, very well – the rough comedy of the tavern as well as rustic ballads or sentimental songs such as ‘She wore a Wreath of Roses.’ Farrimond tended to boast of bad turns revenged or opportunities seized, and that would lead to politics, and then Howell, who had recently been to a Chartist meeting about Equal Representation, would bring up the rights of the working man. Such arguments only ended when the brandy put Farrimond to sleep. Lucy was intrigued by the way George listened and smiled, as though their attempts at adult conversation amused him. But mostly the talk was of horses and harness and coaches; roads, foul weather, jokey recollections of mishaps and lucky escapes.
When the winter came, there was far more snow than the mild coastal Wirral normally saw and he stopped walking out after his day’s driving and hung around, watching her, teasing while she worked. He could mimic other people with wicked accuracy, and needled her sometimes beyond mere amusement until she was close to tears, but she delighted in learning his likes and dislikes – didn’t like cabbage or gin, did like apples, sherry, and cocoa. She encouraged him to tell her stories about aristocratic customers and interesting places. When she asked about his past he gave her that half-smile and began to voice the thoughts of the beer mugs and plates she was clearing from the tables. He was equally likely to hold a conversation with the cat on the hearth. She didn’t know what to do with him then, except to giggle.
She didn’t want to hear about his plans for the future. It was foolish to adore such a bird of passage, but the craving for love made her ignore the voice of common sense.
She brushed her hair and plaited it for the night, and fastened the end with the blue ribbon, the first present George had ever given her, that snowbound Christmas. Of course, he’d given Christmas boxes to all the staff, the waiters, the boys and the maids, but she was sure none of them had received more than a silver shilling, whereas she had a whole crown. She knew very well that no girl should risk her reputation, but the signs were hopeful; they might, with encouragement, lead her out of service and into marriage, and her own home. She had worn the ribbon in her hair that night when she first tiptoed down the stair to knock at his bedroom door.
She kissed the ribbon now and knelt by her bedside, resuming the devotions she so often neglected, with a plea for forgiveness for her sinful behaviour. The plea, though, was only half-hearted. She was overwhelmed by her longing for George, perhaps more because he was sleeping so far from her. She prayed that he was already dreaming of her, as she intended to dream of him.
Last edited by Sue
on Tue Jan 03, 2012 1:35 pm, edited 3 times in total.