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A Night on the Road by Margaret Watson

 

The summer holidays had begun, and I was to travel home alone from Paddington to Upperton.

I was quite old enough to travel alone, for I was fourteen, but it so happened that I had never taken this journey by myself before. There was only one change, and at Upperton the pony-cart would be waiting for me. It was all quite simple, and I rather rejoiced in my independence as my cab drew up under the archway at Paddington. But there my difficulties began.

There was a raging, roaring crowd going off for holidays too. The cabman demanded double the legal fare. It was a quarter of an hour before I could get a porter for my luggage, and then I had almost to fight my way to the ticket-office. When at last I had got my ticket the train was due out.

“Jump in anywhere,” said the porter; “I'll see that your luggage goes.”

The carriages were crammed full. I raced down the platform till I saw room for one, and then tore open the door, an sank into my seat as the train steamed out of the station.

I looked round for sympathy at my narrow escape, but my fellow-travellers were evidently one party. They looked at me coldly, as at an unwelcome intruder, and drew more closely together, discussing the day's doings; so I curled up in my corner and gave myself up to anticipations of the holidays.

These were so engrossing that I took no count of the stations we passed through. I was just picturing to myself the delights of a long ride on the pony, when, to my amazement the stopping of the train was followed by the loud exhortation:

“All change here!”

“Why, where are we?” I asked, looking up bewildered.

“At Lowford,” replied one of my fellow-passengers.

But they gathered up their parcels, and swept out of the carriage without a question as to my destination.

I seized on a porter.

“How did I get here?” I asked him; “I was going to Upperton. What has happened?”

“Upperton, was you?” said the man. “Why, you must ha' got into the slip carriage for Lowford. I s'pose 'twas a smartish crowd at Paddin'ton.”

“It was,” I replied, “and I hadn't time to ask if I was right. I suppose my luggage has gone on. But what can I do now? How far is it to Upperton? Is there another train?”

“Well, no, there ain't another train, not to-night. It's a matter of fifteen mile to Upperton by the road.”

“Which way is it?”

“Well, you couldn't miss it, that goes straight on pretty nigh all the way. You've only got to follow the telegraph-postes till you comes to the “Leather Bottle,” and then you turns to the right.”

“I know my way from there.”

“But you could never walk all that way to-night. You'd better by half stay at the hotel, and go on by rail in the morning.”

“I'll wire to them at home to drive along the road and meet me, and I'll walk on till they do.”

“Well, it's fine, and I dessay they'll meet you more'n half way, but 'tis a lonely road this time o' night.”

“I'm not afraid,” said I, and walked off briskly.

I bought a couple of buns in a baker's shop, and went on to the telegraph office—only to be told it was just after eight o'clock, and they could send no message that night.

I turned out my pockets, but all the coins I had were a sixpenny and a threepenny piece—not enough to pay for a night's lodging, I was sure. The cabman's extortion, and a half-crown I had given to the porter at Paddington in my haste, had reduced me to this.

What should I do? I was not long deciding to walk on. Perhaps they would guess what had happened at home and send to meet me. The spice of adventure appealed to me. If I had gone back to the porter he would probably have taken me to the hotel, and they would have trusted me. But I did not think of that—I imagine I did not want to think of it. I had been used to country roads all my life, and it was a perfect evening in late July.

My way lay straight into the heart of the setting sun as I took the road. In a clear sky, all pale yellow and pink and green, the sun was disappearing behind the line of beech-covered hills which lay between me and home, but behind me the moon—as yet only like a tiny round white cloud—was rising.

I felt like dancing along the road at first. The sense of freedom was intoxicating. The scent of wild honeysuckle and cluster roses came from the hedgerows. I ate my buns as I walked along; I had made three and a half miles by the milestones in the first hour, and enjoyed every step of the way.

“If they don't meet me,” I thought, “how astonished they will be when I walk in! It will be something to brag of for many a day, to have walked fifteen miles after eight o'clock at night.”

The daylight had faded, but the moon was so bright and clear that the shadows of my solitary figure and the “telegraph-postes” were as black and sharp as at noonday. Bats were flitting about up and down. A white owl flew silently across the road. Rabbits were playing in the fields in the silver light. It was all very beautiful, but a little lonely and eerie. I hadn't passed a house for a mile.

Then I heard wheels behind me.

If it were some kind person who would give me a lift!

But I heard a lash used cruelly, and a rough, hoarse voice swearing at the horse.

I hurried on, but of course the cart overtook me in a minute.

The man pulled up. He leaned down out of the cart to look at me, and I saw his coarse, flushed face and watery eyes.

“Want a lift, my dear?” he asked.

“No, thank you,” I answered, “I much prefer walking.”

“Too late for a gal like you to be out,” he said; “you jump up and drive along o' me.”

“No, thank you,” I repeated, walking on as fast as I could.

He whipped his horse on to keep pace with me; then, leaning on the dashboard, he made as though he would climb out of the cart. But just at that moment a big bird rustled out of the hedge—the horse sprang aside, precipitated his master into the bottom of the cart, and went off at a gallop. Very thankful I was to see them disappear into the distance!

I was shaking so with fear that I had to sit down on a stone heap for a while.

I pulled myself together and started on again, but all joy was gone from the adventure—there seemed really to be too much adventure about it.

Three miles, four miles more I walked; but they did not go as the first miles had gone. It was eleven o'clock, and I was only halfway; at this rate I could not be home before two in the morning. If they had been coming to meet me they would have done so before this. They must have given me up for the night, every one would be in bed and asleep, and to wake them up in the small hours would frighten them more than my not coming home had done.

Moreover, the long road over the hill and through the woods was before me. The thought of the moonlit, silent woods, with their weird shadows, was too much for me; I looked about for a place of refuge for the night.

I soon found one.

A splendid rick of hay in a field close to the road had been cut. Halfway up it there was a wide, broad ledge—just the place for a bed. I did not take long to reach it, and, pulling some loose hay over myself in case it grew chilly at dawn, I said my prayers—they were real prayers that night—and was soon asleep in my soft, fragrant bed.

The sun woke me, shining hot on my nest. I looked at my watch, it was six o'clock. Thrushes and blackbirds were singing their hearts out, swallows were darting by, high in air a lark was hovering right above my head, with quivering wings, singing his morning hymn of praise. I knelt, up there on the hayrick, and let my thanks go with his to heaven's gate.

I had never felt such a keen sense of gratitude as I did that summer morning: the dangers of the night all past and over, and a beautiful new day given to me, and only seven miles and a half between me and home.

'Tis true that I was very hungry, but I started on my way and soon came to a cottage whose mistress was up giving her husband his breakfast. She very willingly gave me as much bread-and-butter as I could eat, and a cup of tea. I did not quarrel with the thickness of the bread or the quality of the butter, or even with the milkless tea—I had the poor man's sauce to flavour them.

When she heard my story, the woman overwhelmed me with pity and regrets that I had not reached her house overnight and slept there. But I did not regret it. I would not have given up my “night on the road” now it was over for worlds.

She was grateful for the sixpence I gave her—having learnt wisdom, I reserved the threepenny bit—and I went on.

The air was delicious, with a spring and exhilaration in it which belongs to the early morning hours. The sunlight played hide-and-seek in the woods. Patches of purple heath alternated with lilac scabious and pale hare-bells. The brake ferns were yellow-tipped here and there—a forewarning of autumn—and in one little nook I found a bed of luscious wild strawberries. My heart danced with my feet, and I wondered if the tramps ever felt as I did, in the summer mornings, after sleeping out under a hedge.

I reached home by nine o'clock, and then there was a hubbub, and a calling out of, “Here's Muriel!” “Why, Muriel, where have you sprung from?” “What happened last night? We were so frightened, but they told us at the station that it was an awful crowd at Paddington, and you must have missed the train, and of course we thought you would go back to Miss Black's, but you ought to have wired.”

It was ever so long before I could make them believe that I had been out all night, and slept in a hayrick; and then mother was almost angry with me, and father told me if ever I found myself in such a predicament again I was to go to a respectable hotel and persuade them to take me in. But he said he would take very good care that no child of his should ever be in such a predicament again. But I could not be sorry, the beginning and the end were so beautiful.

 
 
 

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