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My Grandmother's Adventure, A Story Founded on Fact

by Alfred H. Miles


My grandmother was one of the right sort. She was a fine old lady with all her faculties about her at eighty-six, and with a memory that could recall the stirring incidents of the earlier part of the century with a vividness which made them live again in our eager eyes and ears. She was born with the century and was nearly fifteen years old when Napoleon escaped from Elba, and the exciting circumstances that followed, occurring as they did at the most impressionable period of her life, became indelibly fixed upon her mind. She had relatives and friends who had distinguished themselves in the Peninsula war, in memory of one of whom, who fell in the last grand charge at Waterloo, she always wore a mourning ring.

But it was not at Waterloo that my grandmother met with the adventure which it is now my business to chronicle. It was a real genuine adventure, however, and it befell her a year or so after the final fall of Napoleon, and in a quiet, secluded spot in the county of Wiltshire, England, not far from Salisbury Plain; but as I am quite sure I cannot improve upon the dear old lady's oft-repeated version of the story, I will try and tell it as it fell from those dear, worn lips now for ever silent in the grave.

“I was in my sixteenth year when it was decided that, all fear of foreign invasion being over, I should be sent to London to complete my education and to receive those finishing touches in manners and deportment 'which a metropolis of wealth and fashion alone can give.'

“Never having left home before, I looked forward to my journey with some feeling of excitement and not a little of foreboding and dread. I could not quite make up my mind whether I was really sorry or glad. The quiet home life to which I had been accustomed, varied only by occasional visits from the more old-fashioned of the local country families, made me long for the larger life, which I knew must belong to the biggest city in the world (life which I was simple enough to think I might see a great deal of even from the windows of a boarding-school), and made me look forward with joyful anticipation to my journey; while the fear of flying from the humdrum that I knew, to discipline I knew not of, made me temper my anticipations with misgivings and cloud my hopes with fears. To put the matter practically, I think I was generally glad when I got up in the morning and sorry when I went to bed at night.

“My father's house stood about a hundred yards from the main road, some three miles west of Salisbury, and in order to take my passage for London, it was necessary that I should be driven into Salisbury in the family buggy to join the Exeter mail. I well remember the start. My carpet-bag and trunk had been locked and unlocked a great many times before they were finally signed, sealed, and delivered to the old man-servant who acted as gardener, coachman, and general factotum to our household, and when we started off my father placed a book in my hands, that I might have something with me to beguile the tedium of the journey. My father accompanied me as far as Salisbury to bespeak the care and attention of the guard on my behalf, but finding that the only other inside passenger was an old gentleman of whom he had some slight knowledge, he commended me to my fellow-passenger's protection, and with many admonitions as to my future conduct, left me to pursue the journey in his company.

“I was feeling rather dull after my companion had exhausted the commonplaces of conversation, and experienced a strange loneliness when I saw that he had fallen fast asleep in his comfortable corner enveloped in rugs and furs. Driven in upon my own resources I opened my book, and began to read, though the faint light of the coach lamp did not offer me much encouragement.

“The volume was one of 'Travel and Adventure,' and told of the experiences of the writer even in the lion's mouth. It recounted numerous hair-breadth escapes from the tender mercies of savage animals, and described them with such thrilling detail that I soon became conscious of those creepy sensations which are so well calculated to make us take fright at the least unusual circumstance. I had just got to a part at which a wounded lion had struck down his intrepid hunter and was standing with one paw upon his breast roaring his defiance to the four winds of heaven, when suddenly the coach pulled up with a suddenness that threw me into the arms of my companion and somewhat unceremoniously aroused him from his slumber. The next moment the coach rolled back a few paces and the next plunged forward a few more. Meanwhile, the shouts and cries of the outside passengers and the rumbling and clambering on the roof of the coach made it clear that something terrible had happened. Naturally nervous, and rendered doubly so by the narrative I had been reading, I concluded that all Africa was upon us and that either natives or wild animals would soon eat us up. My companion was no less excited than I was, excitement that was in no way lessened by his sense of responsibility for my welfare, and perceiving a house close to the road but a few yards in the rear of the coach, he hurried me out of the vehicle with more speed than ceremony, and in another moment was almost dragging me towards the door. As we alighted, our speed was suddenly accelerated by the unmistakable roar of some wild beast which had apparently leapt out of the leaves of the book I had been reading and was attempting to illustrate the narrative which had so thrilled my imagination. There was no mistake about it now; some wild beast had attacked the coach, and I was already, in thought, lying prostrate beneath his feet. The next thing that I remember was awakening in the presence of an eager and interested group gathered round a fire in the waiting-room of a village post-house.

“Many versions of the story were current for years among the gossips of the country-side, and they differed very materially in the details of the narrative. One said it was a tiger which was being conveyed to the gardens of the Zoological Society in London, another that it was a performing bear which had suddenly gone mad and killed its keeper while on its way to Salisbury Fair. Of course the papers published various accounts of it, and the story with many variations found its way into several books. As you know, I was not an eye-witness of the circumstances any further than I have described them, so I am dependent upon others for the true account of the facts. The fullest account that I have seen in print appeared in a book I bought many years after the event, and now if you will get me my spectacles I will read you the remainder of the story from that volume.

“'Not many years ago, a curious example of the ferocity of the lioness occurred in England. The Exeter mail-coach, on its way to London, was attacked on Sunday night, October 20th, 1816, at Winter's Law-Hut, seven miles from Salisbury, in a most extraordinary manner. At the moment when the coachman pulled up, to deliver his bags, one of the leading horses was suddenly seized by a ferocious animal. This produced a great confusion and alarm. Two passengers, who were inside the mail, got out, and ran in the house. The horse kicked and plunged violently; and it was with difficulty the coachman could prevent the carriage from being overturned. It was soon observed by the coachman and guard, by the light of the lamps, that the animal which had seized the horse was a huge lioness. A large mastiff dog came up and attacked her fiercely, on which she quitted the horse, and turned upon him. The dog fled, but was pursued and killed by the lioness, within about forty yards of the place. It appears that the beast had escaped from a caravan, which was standing on the roadside, and belonged to a menagerie, on its way to Salisbury Fair. An alarm being given, the keepers pursued and hunted the lioness, carrying the dog in her teeth, into a hovel under a granary, which served for keeping agricultural implements. About half-past eight, they had secured her effectually by barricading the place, so as to prevent her escape. The horse, when first attacked, fought with great spirit; and if he had been at liberty, would probably have beaten down his antagonist with his fore-feet; but in plunging, he embarrassed himself in the harness. The lioness, it appears, attacked him in front, and springing at his throat, had fastened the talons of her fore-feet on each side of his gullet, close to the head, while the talons of her hind-feet were forced into the chest. In this situation she hung, while the blood was seen streaming, as if a vein had been opened by a lancet. The furious animal missed the throat and jugular vein; but the horse was so dreadfully torn, that he was not at first expected to survive. The expressions of agony, in his tears and moans, were most piteous and affecting. Whether the lioness was afraid of her prey being taken from her, or from some other cause, she continued a considerable time after she had entered the hovel roaring in a dreadful manner, so loud, indeed, that she was distinctly heard at the distance of half a mile. She was eventually secured, and taken to her den; and the proprietor of the menagerie did not fail to take advantage of the incident, by having a representation of the attack painted in the most captivating colours and hung up in front of his establishment.'”

My dear old grandmother quite expected to see “the lions” when she reached London, but she was not quite prepared to meet a lioness even half way.


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