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The Third Person Singular by Lucy Hardy

 

“You remember the old coaching days, granny?”

“Indeed I do,” replied the old lady, with a smile, “for one of the strangest adventures of my life befell me on my first stage-coach journey. Yes, you girls shall hear the story; I am getting into my 'anecdotage,' as Horace Walpole calls it,” and granny laughed with the secret consciousness that her “anecdotes” were always sure of an appreciative audience.

“People did not run about hither and thither in my young days as you girls do now,” went on the old lady, “and it was quite an event to take a coach journey. In fact, when I started on my first one, I was nearly twenty years old; and my father and mother had then debated a good while as to whether I could be permitted to travel alone by the stage. My father was a country parson, as you know, and we lived in a very remote Yorkshire village. But an aunt, who was rich and childless, had lately taken up her residence at York, and had written so urgently to beg that I might be allowed to spend the winter with her, and thus cheer her loneliness, that it was decided that I must accept the invitation. It was the custom then for many of the local country gentry to visit the great provincial towns for their 'seasons' instead of undertaking the long journey to the metropolis. York, and many another country town, is still full of the fine old 'town houses' of the local gentry, who now go to London to 'bring out' their young daughters; but who, in the former days, were content with the gaieties offered by their own provincial capital. Very lively and pleasant were the 'seasons' of the country towns in my youth; and I think there was more real hospitality and sociability found among the country neighbours than one meets with in London society nowadays. I, of course, was delighted at the prospect of exchanging the dull life of our little village for the gaieties of York; but when it actually came to saying good-bye to my parents, from whom I had never yet been separated, I was half inclined to wish that Aunt Maria's invitation had been refused. Farmer Gray, who was to drive me to the neighbouring town, where I should join the coach, was very kind; and pretended not to see how I was crying under my veil. We lumbered along the narrow lanes and at length reached the little market town where I was deposited at the 'Blue Boar' to have some tea and await the arrival of the mail. I had often watched the coach dash up, and off again, when visiting the town with my father; but it seemed like a dream that I, Dolly Harcourt, was now actually to be a passenger in the conveyance. The dusk of a winter's evening was gathering as the mail came in sight, its red lamps gleaming through the mist. Ostlers prided themselves upon the celerity with which the change of horses was effected, and passengers were expected to be equally quick; I was bustled inside (my place had been taken days previously) before I had time to think twice. Fortunately, as I thought, remembering the long night journey which lay before me, I found the interior of the coach empty, several passengers having just alighted; but, as I settled myself in one corner, two figures hurried up, a short man, and a woman in a long cloak and poke-bonnet, with a thick veil over her face.

“'Just in time,' cried the man. 'Yes, I've booked two places, Mr. Jones and Miss Jenny,' and the pair stumbled in just as the impatient horses started.

“'Miss Jenny.' Well, I was glad that I was not to have a long night journey alone with a strange man. I glanced at the cloaked and veiled figure which sank awkwardly into the opposite corner of the vehicle, and then leaned forward to remove some of my little packages from the seat; in so doing I brushed against her bonnet.

“'I beg your pardon, madam,' I said politely; 'I was removing these parcels, fearing they might incommode you.'

“'All right, all right, miss,' said the man, a red-faced, vulgar-looking personage; 'don't you trouble about Jenny, she'll do very well;' and he proceeded to settle his companion in the corner rather unceremoniously.

“'Is she his sister or his wife, I wonder,' I thought; 'he does not seem particularly courteous to her;' and I took a dislike to my fellow-passenger on the spot. He, however, was happily indifferent to my good or evil opinion; pulling a cap from his pocket, he exchanged his hat for it, settled himself comfortably by his companion's side, and, in a few moments, was sound asleep, as his snores proclaimed. I could not follow his example. I felt terribly lonely, and not a little nervous. As we sped along at what appeared to my inexperience such a break-neck rate (ten miles an hour seemed so then, before railways whirled you along like lightning), I began to recall all the dismal stories of coach accidents, and of highwaymen, which I had read or heard of during my quiet village existence. Suppose, on this very moor which we were now crossing, a highwayman rode up and popped a pistol in at the window. I myself had not much to lose, though I should have been extremely reluctant to part with the new silk purse which my mother had netted for me, and in which she and father had each placed a guinea—coins not too plentiful in our country vicarage in those days. And suppose the highwayman was not satisfied with mere robbery, but should oblige me to alight and dance a minuet with him on the heath, as did Claud Duval; suppose—here my nervous fears took a fresh turn, for the cloaked lady opposite began to move restlessly, and the man, half waking, gave her a brisk nudge with his elbow and cried sharply,—

“'Now, then, keep quiet, I say.'

“This was a strange manner in which to address a lady. Could this man be sober, I thought, and a shiver ran through me at the idea of being doomed to spend so many hours in company with a possibly intoxicated, and certainly surly man. How rudely he addressed his companion, how little he seemed to care for her comfort! As I looked more carefully at the pair (the rising moon now giving me sufficient light to do this) I noted that the man's hand was slipped under the woman's cloak, and that he was apparently holding her down in her seat by her wrist. A fresh terror now assailed me—was I travelling with a lunatic and her keeper? I vainly tried to obtain a glimpse of the woman's countenance, so shrouded by her poke-bonnet and thick veil.

“The man was speedily snoring again, and I sat with my eyes fixed on the cloaked figure, wondering—speculating. Poor thing, was she indeed a lunatic travelling in charge of this rough attendant? Pity filled my heart as I thought of this afflicted creature, possibly torn from home and friends and sent away with a surly guardian; who, I now felt sure, was not too sober. Was the woman old or young, of humble rank or a lady? I began to weave a dozen romantic stories in my head about my fellow-passengers, quite forgetting all my recent fears about the 'knights of the road.' So sorry did I feel for the woman that I leant across and addressed some trivial, polite remark to her, but received no reply. I gently touched her cloak to draw her attention, but the lady's temper seemed as testy as that of her companion; she abruptly twisted away from my touch with some inarticulate, but evidently angry exclamation, which sounded almost like a growl. I shrank back abashed into my corner and attempted no more civilities. Would the coach never reach York and I be freed from the presence of these mysterious fellow-passengers? I was but a timid little country lass, and this was my first flight from home. It was certainly not a pleasant idea to believe oneself shut up for several hours with a half-tipsy man and a lunatic; as I now firmly believed the woman to be. I sat very still, fearing to annoy her by any chance movement, but my addressing her had evidently disturbed her, for she began to move restlessly, and to make a kind of muttering to herself. I gradually edged away towards the other end of the seat, so as to leave as much space between myself and the lady as possible, and in so doing let my shawl fall to the floor of the coach. I stooped to pick it up, and there beheld, protruding from my fellow-passenger's cloak, her foot. Oh horrors! I saw no woman's dainty shoe—but a hairy paw, with long nails—was it cloven ?

       * * * * *

“The frantic shriek I gave stopped the coach, and the guard and the outside passengers were round the door in a moment. For the first time in my life I had fainted—so missed the first excited turmoil—but soon revived to find myself lying on the moor, the centre of a kindly group of fellow-travellers, who were proffering essences, and brandy, and all other approved restoratives; while in the background, like distant thunder, were heard the adjurations of the guard and the coachman, who were swearing like troopers at the other—or rather at the male, inside passenger. Struggling into a sitting position, I beheld this man, sobered now by the shock of my alarm, and by the vials of wrath which were being emptied upon him, standing in a submissive attitude, while beside him, her cloak thrown back and her poke-bonnet thrust on one side, was the mysterious 'lady'—now revealed in her true character as a performing bear. It seemed that a showman, desirous of conveying this animal (which he described as 'quiet as an hangel') with the least trouble and expense to himself, bethought him of the expedient of booking places in the coach for himself and the bear, which bore the name of 'Miss Jenny'; trusting to her wraps and to the darkness to disguise the creature sufficiently. I will not repeat the language of the guard and coachman on discovering the trick played; but after direful threats as to what the showman might 'expect' as the result of his device, matters were amicably arranged. The owner of the bear made most abject apologies all round (I fancy giving more than civil words to the coach officials), I interceded for him, and the mail set off at double speed to make up for lost time. Only, with my knowledge of 'Miss Jenny's' real identity, I absolutely declined to occupy the interior of the coach again despite the showman's assertions of his pet's harmlessness; and the old coachman sympathising with me, I was helped up to a place by his side on the box, and carefully wrapped up in a huge military cloak by a young gentleman who occupied the next seat, and who was, as he told me, an officer rejoining his regiment at York. The latter part of my journey was far pleasanter than the beginning; the coachman was full of amusing anecdotes, and the young officer made himself most agreeable. It transpired, in course of conversation, that my fellow-traveller was slightly acquainted with Aunt Maria; and this acquaintanceship induced him to request that he might be permitted to escort me to her house and see me safe after my disagreeable adventure. I had no objection to his accompanying myself and the staid maidservant whom I found waiting for me at the inn when the coach stopped at York; and Aunt Maria politely insisted on the young man's remaining to partake of the early breakfast she had prepared to greet my arrival.”

“Well, your fright did not end so badly after all, granny,” remarked one of her listeners.

“Not at all badly,” replied the old lady with a quiet smile; “but for my fright I should never have made the acquaintance of that young officer.”

“And the officer was——”

“He was Captain Marten then, my dears—he became General Marten afterwards—and was your grandfather.”

 
 
 

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