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CHAPTER IV - THE STAGE COACH.
"Let the steam-pot hiss till it's hot;
Give me the speed of the Tantivy trot."
Coaching Song, by R.E.E. Warburton, Esq.
"Now, sir, time to get up, if you please. Tally-ho coach for Leicester'll be round in half an hour, and don't wait for nobody." So spake the boots of the Peacock Inn Islington, at half-past two o'clock on the morning of a day in the early part of November 183-, giving Tom at the same time a shake by the shoulder, and then putting down a candle; and carrying off his shoes to clean.
Tom and his father arrived in town from Berkshire the day before, and finding, on inquiry, that the Birmingham coaches which ran from the city did not pass through Rugby, but deposited their passengers at Dunchurch, a village three miles distant on the main road, where said passengers had to wait for the Oxford and Leicester coach in the evening, or to take a post-chaise, had resolved that Tom should travel down by the Tally-ho, which diverged from the main road and passed through Rugby itself. And as the Tally-ho was an early coach, they had driven out to the Peacock to be on the road.
Tom had never been in London, and would have liked to have stopped at the Belle Savage, where they had been put down by the Star, just at dusk, that he might have gone roving about those endless, mysterious, gas-lit streets, which, with their glare and hum and moving crowds, excited him so that he couldn't talk even. But as soon as he found that the Peacock arrangement would get him to Rugby by twelve o'clock in the day, whereas otherwise he wouldn't be there till the evening, all other plans melted away, his one absorbing aim being to become a public school-boy as fast as possible, and six hours sooner or later seeming to him of the most alarming importance.
Tom and his father had alighted at the Peacock at about seven in the evening; and having heard with unfeigned joy the paternal order, at the bar, of steaks and oyster-sauce for supper in half an hour, and seen his father seated cozily by the bright fire in the coffee-room with the paper in his hand, Tom had run out to see about him, had wondered at all the vehicles passing and repassing, and had fraternized with the boots and hostler, from whom he ascertained that the Tally-ho was a tip-top goer - ten miles an hour including stoppages - and so punctual that all the road set their clocks by her.
Then being summoned to supper, he had regaled himself in one of the bright little boxes of the Peacock coffee-room, on the beefsteak and unlimited oyster-sauce and brown stout (tasted then for the first time - a day to be marked for ever by Tom with a white stone); had at first attended to the excellent advice which his father was bestowing on him from over his glass of steaming brandy-and-water, and then began nodding, from the united effects of the stout, the fire, and the lecture; till the Squire, observing Tom's state, and remembering that it was nearly nine o'clock, and that the Tally-ho left at three, sent the little fellow off to the chambermaid, with a shake of the hand (Tom having stipulated in the morning before starting that kissing should now cease between them), and a few parting words:
"And now, Tom, my boy," said the Squire, "remember you are going, at your own earnest request, to be chucked into this great school, like a young bear, with all your troubles before you - earlier than we should have sent you perhaps. If schools are what they were in my time, you'll see a great many cruel blackguard things done, and hear a deal of foul, bad talk. But never fear. You tell the truth, keep a brave and kind heart, and never listen to or say anything you wouldn't have your mother and sister hear, and you'll never feel ashamed to come home, or we to see you."
The allusion to his mother made Tom feel rather choky, and he would have liked to have hugged his father well, if it hadn't been for the recent stipulation.
As it was, he only squeezed his father's hand, and looked bravely up and said, "I'll try, father."
"I know you will, my boy. Is your money all safe?
"Yes," said Tom, diving into one pocket to make sure.
"And your keys?" said the Squire.
"All right," said Tom, diving into the other pocket.
"Well, then, good-night. God bless you! I'll tell boots to call you, and be up to see you off."
Tom was carried off by the chambermaid in a brown study, from which he was roused in a clean little attic, by that buxom person calling him a little darling and kissing him as she left the room; which indignity he was too much surprised to resent. And still thinking of his father's last words, and the look with which they were spoken, he knelt down and prayed that, come what might, he might never bring shame or sorrow on the dear folk at home.
Indeed, the Squire's last words deserved to have their effect, for they had been the result of much anxious thought. All the way up to London he had pondered what he should say to Tom by way of parting advice - something that the boy could keep in his head ready for use. By way of assisting meditation, he had even gone the length of taking out his flint and steel and tinder, and hammering away for a quarter of an hour till he had manufactured a light for a long Trichinopoli cheroot, which he silently puffed, to the no small wonder of coachee, who was an old friend, and an institution on the Bath road, and who always expected a talk on the prospects and doings, agricultural and social, of the whole country, when he carried the Squire.
To condense the Squire's meditation, it was somewhat as follows: "I won't tell him to read his Bible, and love and serve God; if he don't do that for his mother's sake and teaching, he won't for mine. Shall I go into the sort of temptations he'll meet with? No, I can't do that. Never do for an old fellow to go into such things with a boy. He won't understand me. Do him more harm than good, ten to one. Shall I tell him to mind his work, and say he's sent to school to make himself a good scholar? Well, but he isn't sent to school for that - at any rate, not for that mainly. I don't care a straw for Greek particles, or the digamma; no more does his mother. What is he sent to school for? Well, partly because he wanted so to go. If he'll only turn out a brave, helpful, truth-telling Englishman, and a gentleman, and a Christian, that's all I want," thought the Squire; and upon this view of the case he framed his last words of advice to Tom, which were well enough suited to his purpose.
For they were Tom's first thoughts as he tumbled out of bed at the summons of boots, and proceeded rapidly to wash and dress himself. At ten minutes to three he was down in the coffee-room in his stockings, carrying his hat-box, coat, and comforter in his hand; and there he found his father nursing a bright fire, and a cup of hot coffee and a hard biscuit on the table.
"Now, then, Tom, give us your things here, and drink this. There's nothing like starting warm, old fellow."
Tom addressed himself to the coffee, and prattled away while he worked himself into his shoes and his greatcoat, well warmed through - a Petersham coat with velvet collar, made tight after the abominable fashion of those days. And just as he is swallowing his last mouthful, winding his comforter round his throat, and tucking the ends into the breast of his coat, the horn sounds; boots looks in and says, "Tally-ho, sir;" and they hear the ring and the rattle of the four fast trotters and the town-made drag, as it dashes up to the Peacock.
"Anything for us, Bob?" says the burly guard, dropping down from behind, and slapping himself across the chest.
"Young gen'lm'n, Rugby; three parcels, Leicester; hamper o' game, Rugby," answers hostler.
"Tell young gent to look alive," says guard, opening the hindboot and shooting in the parcels after examining them by the lamps. "Here; shove the portmanteau up a-top. I'll fasten him presently. - Now then, sir, jump up behind."
"Good-bye, father - my love at home." A last shake of the hand. Up goes Tom, the guard catching his hatbox and holding on with one hand, while with the other he claps the horn to his mouth. Toot, toot, toot! the hostlers let go their heads, the four bays plunge at the collar, and away goes the Tally-ho into the darkness, forty-five seconds from the time they pulled up. Hostler, boots, and the Squire stand looking after them under the Peacock lamp.
"Sharp work!" says the Squire, and goes in again to his bed, the coach being well out of sight and hearing.
Tom stands up on the coach and looks back at his father's figure as long as he can see it; and then the guard, having disposed of his luggage, comes to an anchor, and finishes his buttonings and other preparations for facing the three hours before dawn - no joke for those who minded cold, on a fast coach in November, in the reign of his late Majesty.
I sometimes think that you boys of this generation are a deal tenderer fellows than we used to be. At any rate you're much more comfortable travellers, for I see every one of you with his rug or plaid, and other dodges for preserving the caloric, and most of you going in, those fuzzy, dusty, padded first-class carriages. It was another affair altogether, a dark ride on the top of the Tally-ho, I can tell you, in a tight Petersham coat, and your feet dangling six inches from the floor. Then you knew what cold was, and what it was to be without legs, for not a bit of feeling had you in them after the first half-hour. But it had its pleasures, the old dark ride. First there was the consciousness of silent endurance, so dear to every Englishman-of standing out against something, and not giving in. Then there was the music of the rattling harness, and the ring of the horses' feet on the hard road, and the glare of the two bright lamps through the steaming hoar frost, over the leaders' ears, into the darkness, and the cheery toot of the guard's horn, to warn some drowsy pikeman or the hostler at the next change; and the looking forward to daylight; and last, but not least, the delight of returning sensation in your toes.
Then the break of dawn and the sunrise, where can they be ever seen in perfection but from a coach roof? You want motion and change and music to see them in their glory - not the music of singing men and singing women, but good, silent music, which sets itself in your own head, the accompaniment of work and getting over the ground.
The Tally-ho is past St. Albans, and Tom is enjoying the ride, though half-frozen. The guard, who is alone with him on the back of the coach, is silent, but has muffled Tom's feet up in straw, and put the end of an oat-sack over his knees. The darkness has driven him inwards, and he has gone over his little past life, and thought of all his doings and promises, and of his mother and sister, and his father's last words; and has made fifty good resolutions, and means to bear himself like a brave Brown as he is, though a young one. Then he has been forward into the mysterious boy-future, speculating as to what sort of place Rugby is, and what they do there, and calling up all the stories of public schools which he has heard from big boys in the holidays. He is choke-full of hope and life, notwithstanding the cold, and kicks his heels against the backboard, and would like to sing, only he doesn't know how his friend the silent guard might take it.
And now the dawn breaks at the end of the fourth stage, and the coach pulls up at a little roadside inn with huge stables behind. There is a bright fire gleaming through the red curtains of the bar window, and the door is open. The coachman catches his whip into a double thong, and throws it to the hostler; the steam of the horses rises straight up into the air. He has put them along over the last two miles, and is two minutes before his time. He rolls down from the box and into the inn. The guard rolls off behind. "Now, sir," says he to Tom, "you just jump down, and I'll give you a drop of something to keep the cold out."
Tom finds a difficulty in jumping, or indeed in finding the top of the wheel with his feet, which may be in the next world for all he feels; so the guard picks him off the coach top, and sets him on his legs, and they stump off into the bar, and join the coachman and the other outside passengers.
Here a fresh-looking barmaid serves them each with a glass of early purl as they stand before the fire, coachman and guard exchanging business remarks. The purl warms the cockles of Tom's heart, and makes him cough.
"Rare tackle that, sir, of a cold morning," says the coachman, smiling. "Time's up." They are out again and up; coachee the last, gathering the reins into his hands and talking to Jem the hostler about the mare's shoulder, and then swinging himself up on to the box - the horses dashing off in a canter before he falls into his seat. Toot-toot-tootle-too goes the horn, and away they are again, five-and-thirty miles on their road (nearly half-way to Rugby, thinks Tom), and the prospect of breakfast at the end of the stage.
And now they begin to see, and the early life of the countryside comes out - a market cart or two; men in smock-frocks going to their work, pipe in mouth, a whiff of which is no bad smell this bright morning. The sun gets up, and the mist shines like silver gauze. They pass the hounds jogging along to a distant meet, at the heels of the huntsman's back, whose face is about the colour of the tails of his old pink, as he exchanges greetings with coachman and guard. Now they pull up at a lodge, and take on board a well-muffled-up sportsman, with his gun-case and carpet-bag, An early up-coach meets them, and the coachmen gather up their horses, and pass one another with the accustomed lift of the elbow, each team doing eleven miles an hour, with a mile to spare behind if necessary. And here comes breakfast.
"Twenty minutes here, gentlemen," says the coachman, as they pull up at half-past seven at the inn-door.
Have we not endured nobly this morning? and is not this a worthy reward for much endurance? There is the low, dark wainscoted room hung with sporting prints; the hat-stand (with a whip or two standing up in it belonging to bagmen who are still snug in bed) by the door; the blazing fire, with the quaint old glass over the mantelpiece, in which is stuck a large card with the list of the meets for the week of the county hounds; the table covered with the whitest of cloths and of china, and bearing a pigeon-pie, ham, round of cold boiled beef cut from a mammoth ox, and the great loaf of household bread on a wooden trencher. And here comes in the stout head waiter, puffing under a tray of hot viands - kidneys and a steak, transparent rashers and poached eggs, buttered toast and muffins, coffee and tea, all smoking hot. The table can never hold it all. The cold meats are removed to the sideboard - they were only put on for show and to give us an appetite. And now fall on, gentlemen all. It is a well-known sporting-house, and the breakfasts are famous. Two or three men in pink, on their way to the meet, drop in, and are very jovial and sharp-set, as indeed we all are.
"Tea or coffee, sir?" says head waiter, coming round to Tom.
"Coffee, please," says Tom, with his mouth full of muffin and kidney. Coffee is a treat to him, tea is not.
Our coachman, I perceive, who breakfasts with us, is a cold beef man. He also eschews hot potations, and addicts himself to a tankard of ale, which is brought him by the barmaid. Sportsman looks on approvingly, and orders a ditto for himself.
Tom has eaten kidney and pigeon-pie, and imbibed coffee, till his little skin is as tight as a drum; and then has the further pleasure of paying head waiter out of his own purse, in a dignified manner, and walks out before the inn-door to see the horses put to. This is done leisurely and in a highly-finished manner by the hostlers, as if they enjoyed the not being hurried. Coachman comes out with his waybill, and puffing a fat cigar which the sportsman has given him. Guard emerges from the tap, where he prefers breakfasting, licking round a toughlooking doubtful cheroot, which you might tie round your finger, and three whiffs of which would knock any one else out of time.
The pinks stand about the inn-door lighting cigars and waiting to see us start, while their hacks are led up and down the market-place, on which the inn looks. They all know our sportsman, and we feel a reflected credit when we see him chatting and laughing with them.
"Now, sir, please," says the coachman. All the rest of the passengers are up; the guard is locking up the hind-boot.
"A good run to you!" says the sportsman to the pinks, and is by the coachman's side in no time.
"Let 'em go, Dick!" The hostlers fly back, drawing off the cloths from their glossy loins, and away we go through the market-place and down the High Street, looking in at the firstfloor windows, and seeing several worthy burgesses shaving thereat; while all the shopboys who are cleaning the windows, and housemaids who are doing the steps, stop and look pleased as we rattle past, as if we were a part of their legitimate morning's amusement. We clear the town, and are well out between the hedgerows again as the town clock strikes eight.
The sun shines almost warmly, and breakfast has oiled all springs and loosened all tongues. Tom is encouraged by a remark or two of the guard's between the puffs of his oily cheroot, and besides is getting tired of not talking. He is too full of his destination to talk about anything else, and so asks the guard if he knows Rugby.
"Goes through it every day of my life. Twenty minutes afore twelve down - ten o'clock up."
"What sort of place is it, please?" says Tom.
Guard looks at him with a comical expression. "Werry out-o'the-way place, sir; no paving to streets, nor no lighting. 'Mazin' big horse and cattle fair in autumn - lasts a week-just over now. Takes town a week to get clean after it. Fairish hunting country. But slow place, sir, slow place-off the main road, you see - only three coaches a day, and one on 'em a two-oss wan, more like a hearse nor a coach - Regulator-comes from Oxford. Young genl'm'n at school calls her Pig and Whistle, and goes up to college by her (six miles an hour) when they goes to enter. Belong to school, sir?"
"Yes," says Tom, not unwilling for a moment that the guard should think him an old boy. But then, having some qualms as to the truth of the assertion, and seeing that if he were to assume the character of an old boy he couldn't go on asking the questions he wanted, added - "That is to say, I'm on my way there. I'm a new boy."
The guard looked as if he knew this quite as well as Tom.
"You're werry late, sir," says the guard; "only six weeks to-day to the end of the half." Tom assented. "We takes up fine loads this day six weeks, and Monday and Tuesday arter. Hopes we shall have the pleasure of carrying you back."
Tom said he hoped they would; but he thought within himself that his fate would probably be the Pig and Whistle.
"It pays uncommon cert'nly," continues the guard. "Werry free with their cash is the young genl'm'n. But, Lor' bless you, we gets into such rows all 'long the road, what wi' their peashooters, and long whips, and hollering, and upsetting every one as comes by, I'd a sight sooner carry one or two on 'em, sir, as I may be a-carryin' of you now, than a coach-load."
"What do they do with the pea-shooters?" inquires Tom.
"Do wi' 'em! Why, peppers every one's faces as we comes near, 'cept the young gals, and breaks windows wi' them too, some on 'em shoots so hard. Now 'twas just here last June, as we was adriving up the first-day boys, they was mendin' a quarter-mile of road, and there was a lot of Irish chaps, reg'lar roughs, abreaking stones. As we comes up, 'Now, boys,' says young gent on the box (smart young fellow and desper't reckless), 'here's fun! Let the Pats have it about the ears.' 'God's sake sir!' says Bob (that's my mate the coachman); 'don't go for to shoot at 'em. They'll knock us off the coach.' 'Damme, coachee,' says young my lord, 'you ain't afraid. - Hoora, boys! let 'em have it.' 'Hoora!' sings out the others, and fill their mouths choke-full of peas to last the whole line. Bob, seeing as 'twas to come, knocks his hat over his eyes, hollers to his osses, and shakes 'em up; and away we goes up to the line on 'em, twenty miles an hour. The Pats begin to hoora too, thinking it was a runaway; and first lot on 'em stands grinnin' and wavin' their old hats as we comes abreast on 'em; and then you'd ha' laughed to see how took aback and choking savage they looked, when they gets the peas a-stinging all over 'em. But bless you, the laugh weren't all of our side, sir, by a long way. We was going so fast, and they was so took aback, that they didn't take what was up till we was half-way up the line. Then 'twas, 'Look out all!' surely. They howls all down the line fit to frighten you; some on 'em runs arter us and tries to clamber up behind, only we hits 'em over the fingers and pulls their hands off; one as had had it very sharp act'ly runs right at the leaders, as though he'd ketch 'em by the heads, only luck'ly for him he misses his tip and comes over a heap o' stones first. The rest picks up stones, and gives it us right away till we gets out of shot, the young gents holding out werry manful with the peashooters and such stones as lodged on us, and a pretty many there was too. Then Bob picks hisself up again, and looks at young gent on box werry solemn. Bob'd had a rum un in the ribs, which'd like to ha' knocked him off the box, or made him drop the reins. Young gent on box picks hisself up, and so does we all, and looks round to count damage. Box's head cut open and his hat gone; 'nother young gent's hat gone; mine knocked in at the side, and not one on us as wasn't black and blue somewheres or another, most on 'em all over. Two pound ten to pay for damage to paint, which they subscribed for there and then, and give Bob and me a extra half-sovereign each; but I wouldn't go down that line again not for twenty half-sovereigns." And the guard shook his head slowly, and got up and blew a clear, brisk toot-toot.
"What fun!" said Tom, who could scarcely contain his pride at this exploit of his future school-fellows. He longed already for the end of the half, that he might join them.
"'Taint such good fun, though, sir, for the folk as meets the coach, nor for we who has to go back with it next day. Them Irishers last summer had all got stones ready for us, and was all but letting drive, and we'd got two reverend gents aboard too. We pulled up at the beginning of the line, and pacified them, and we're never going to carry no more pea-shooters, unless they promises not to fire where there's a line of Irish chaps a-stonebreaking." The guard stopped and pulled away at his cheroot, regarding Tom benignantly the while.
"Oh, don't stop! Tell us something more about the peashooting."
"Well, there'd like to have been a pretty piece of work over it at Bicester, a while back. We was six mile from the town, when we meets an old square-headed gray-haired yeoman chap, a-jogging along quite quiet. He looks up at the coach, and just then a pea hits him on the nose, and some catches his cob behind and makes him dance up on his hind legs. I see'd the old boy's face flush and look plaguy awkward, and I thought we was in for somethin' nasty.
"He turns his cob's head and rides quietly after us just out of shot. How that 'ere cob did step! We never shook him off not a dozen yards in the six miles. At first the young gents was werry lively on him; but afore we got in, seeing how steady the old chap come on, they was quite quiet, and laid their heads together what they should do. Some was for fighting, some for axing his pardon. He rides into the town close after us, comes up when we stops, and says the two as shot at him must come before a magistrate; and a great crowd comes round, and we couldn't get the osses to. But the young uns they all stand by one another, and says all or none must go, and as how they'd fight it out, and have to be carried. Just as 'twas gettin' serious, and the old boy and the mob was going to pull 'em off the coach, one little fellow jumps up and says, 'Here - I'll stay. I'm only going three miles farther. My father's name's Davis; he's known about here, and I'll go before the magistrate with this gentleman.' 'What! be thee parson Davis's son?' says the old boy. 'Yes,' says the young un. 'Well, I be mortal sorry to meet thee in such company; but for thy father's sake and thine (for thee bist a brave young chap) I'll say no more about it.' Didn't the boys cheer him, and the mob cheered the young chap; and then one of the biggest gets down, and begs his pardon werry gentlemanly for all the rest, saying as they all had been plaguy vexed from the first, but didn't like to ax his pardon till then, 'cause they felt they hadn't ought to shirk the consequences of their joke. And then they all got down, and shook hands with the old boy, and asked him to all parts of the country, to their homes; and we drives off twenty minutes behind time, with cheering and hollering as if we was county 'members. But, Lor' bless you, sir," says the guard, smacking his hand down on his knee and looking full into Tom's face, "ten minutes arter they was all as bad as ever."
Tom showed such undisguised and open-mouthed interest in his narrations that the old guard rubbed up his memory, and launched out into a graphic history of all the performances of the boys on the roads for the last twenty years. Off the road he couldn't go; the exploit must have been connected with horses or vehicles to hang in the old fellow's head. Tom tried him off his own ground once or twice, but found he knew nothing beyond, and so let him have his head, and the rest of the road bowled easily away; for old Blow-hard (as the boys called him) was a dry old file, with much kindness and humour, and a capital spinner of a yarn when he had broken the neck of his day's work, and got plenty of ale under his belt.
What struck Tom's youthful imagination most was the desperate and lawless character of most of the stories. Was the guard hoaxing him? He couldn't help hoping that they were true. It's very odd how almost all English boys love danger. You can get ten to join a game, or climb a tree, or swim a stream, when there's a chance of breaking their limbs or getting drowned, for one who'll stay on level ground, or in his depth, or play quoits or bowls.
The guard had just finished an account of a desperate fight which had happened at one of the fairs between the drovers and the farmers with their whips, and the boys with cricket-bats and wickets, which arose out of a playful but objectionable practice of the boys going round to the public-houses and taking the linch-pins out of the wheels of the gigs, and was moralizing upon the way in which the Doctor, "a terrible stern man he'd heard tell," had come down upon several of the performers, "sending three on 'em off next morning in a po-shay with a parish constable," when they turned a corner and neared the milestone, the third from Rugby. By the stone two boys stood, their jackets buttoned tight, waiting for the coach.
"Look here, sir," says the guard, after giving a sharp toottoot; "there's two on 'em; out-and-out runners they be. They comes out about twice or three times a week, and spirts a mile alongside of us."
And as they came up, sure enough, away went two boys along the footpath, keeping up with the horses - the first a light, cleanmade fellow going on springs; the other stout and roundshouldered, labouring in his pace, but going as dogged as a bull-terrier.
Old Blow-hard looked on admiringly. "See how beautiful that there un holds hisself together, and goes from his hips, sir," said he; "he's a 'mazin' fine runner. Now many coachmen as drives a first-rate team'd put it on, and try and pass 'em. But Bob, sir, bless you, he's tender-hearted; he'd sooner pull in a bit if he see'd 'em a-gettin' beat. I do b'lieve, too, as that there un'd sooner break his heart than let us go by him afore next milestone."
At the second milestone the boys pulled up short, and waved their hats to the guard, who had his watch out and shouted "4.56," thereby indicating that the mile had been done in four seconds under the five minutes. They passed several more parties of boys, all of them objects of the deepest interest to Tom, and came in sight of the town at ten minutes before twelve. Tom fetched a long breath, and thought he had never spent a pleasanter day. Before he went to bed he had quite settled that it must be the greatest day he should ever spend, and didn't alter his opinion for many a long year - if he has yet.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER V - RUGBY AND FOOTBALL.