Rodney Stone

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The brighton road

My uncle and I were up betimes next morning, but he was much out of temper, for no news had been heard of his valet Ambrose.  He had indeed become like one of those ants of which I have read, who are so accustomed to be fed by smaller ants that when they are left to themselves they die of hunger.  It was only by the aid of a man whom the landlord procured, and of Fox’s valet, who had been sent expressly across, that his toilet was at last performed. “I must win this race, nephew,” said he, when he had finished breakfast; “I can’t afford to be beat.  Look out of the window and see if the Lades are there.” “I see a red four-in-hand in the square, and there is a crowd round it.  Yes, I see the lady upon the box seat.” “Is our tandem out?” “It is at the door.” “Come, then, and you shall have such a drive as you never had before.” He stood at the door pulling on his long brown driving-gauntlets and giving his orders to the ostlers. “Every ounce will tell,” said he.  “We’ll leave that dinner-basket behind.  And you can keep my dog for me, Coppinger.  You know him and understand him.  Let him have his warm milk and curaçoa the same as usual.  Whoa, my darlings, you’ll have your fill of it before you reach Westminster Bridge.” “Shall I put in the toilet-case?” asked the landlord.  I saw the struggle upon my uncle’s face, but he was true to his principles. “Put it under the seat - the front seat,” said he.  “Nephew, you must keep your weight as far forward as possible.  Can you do anything on a yard of tin?  Well, if you can’t, we’ll leave the trumpet.  Buckle that girth up, Thomas.  Have you greased the hubs, as I told you?  Well, jump up, nephew, and we’ll see them off.” Quite a crowd had gathered in the Old Square: men and women, dark-coated tradesmen, bucks from the Prince’s Court, and officers from Hove, all in a buzz of excitement; for Sir John Lade and my uncle were two of the most famous whips of the time, and a match between them was a thing to talk of for many a long day. “The Prince will be sorry to have missed the start,” said my uncle.  “He doesn’t show before midday.  Ah, Jack, good morning!  Your servant, madam!  It’s a fine day for a little bit of waggoning.” As our tandem came alongside of the four-in-hand, with the two bonny bay mares gleaming like shot-silk in the sunshine, a murmur of admiration rose from the crowd.  My uncle, in his fawn-coloured driving-coat, with all his harness of the same tint, looked the ideal of a Corinthian whip; while Sir John Lade, with his many-caped coat, his white hat, and his rough, weather-beaten face, might have taken his seat with a line of professionals upon any ale-house bench without any one being able to pick him out as one of the wealthiest landowners in England.  It was an age of eccentricity, but he had carried his peculiarities to a length which surprised even the out-and-outers by marrying the sweetheart of a famous highwayman when the gallows had come between her and her lover.  She was perched by his side, looking very smart in a flowered bonnet and grey travelling-dress, while in front of them the four splendid coal-black horses, with a flickering touch of gold upon their powerful, well-curved quarters, were pawing the dust in their eagerness to be off. “It’s a hundred that you don’t see us before Westminster with a quarter of an hour’s start,” said Sir John. “I’ll take you another hundred that we pass you,” answered my uncle. “Very good.  Time’s up.  Good-bye!”  He gave a tchk of the tongue, shook his reins, saluted with his whip; in true coachman’s style, and away he went, taking the curve out of the square in a workmanlike fashion that fetched a cheer from the crowd.  We heard the dwindling roar of the wheels upon the cobblestones until they died away in the distance. It seemed one of the longest quarters of an hour that I had ever known before the first stroke of nine boomed from the parish clock.  For my part, I was fidgeting in my seat in my impatience, but my uncle’s calm, pale face and large blue eyes were as tranquil and demure as those of the most unconcerned spectator.  He was keenly on the alert, however, and it seemed to me that the stroke of the clock and the thong of his whip fell together - not in a blow, but in a sharp snap over the leader, which sent us flying with a jingle and a rattle upon our fifty miles’ journey.  I heard a roar from behind us, saw the gliding lines of windows with staring faces and waving handkerchiefs, and then we were off the stones and on to the good white road which curved away in front of us, with the sweep of the green downs upon either side. I had been provided with shillings that the turnpike-gate might not stop us, but my uncle reined in the mares and took them at a very easy trot up all the heavy stretch which ends in Clayton Hill.  He let them go then, and we flashed through Friar’s Oak and across St. John’s Common without more than catching a glimpse of the yellow cottage which contained all that I loved best.  Never have I travelled at such a pace, and never have I felt such a sense of exhilaration from the rush of keen upland air upon our faces, and from the sight of those two glorious creatures stretched to their utmost, with the roar of their hoofs and the rattle of our wheels as the light curricle bounded and swayed behind them. “It’s a long four miles uphill from here to Hand Cross,” said my uncle, as we flew through Cuckfield.  “I must ease them a bit, for I cannot afford to break the hearts of my cattle.  They have the right blood in them, and they would gallop until they dropped if I were brute enough to let them.  Stand up on the seat, nephew, and see if you can get a glimpse of them.” I stood up, steadying myself upon my uncle’s shoulder, but though I could see for a mile, or perhaps a quarter more, there was not a sign of the four-in-hand. “If he has sprung his cattle up all these hills they’ll be spent ere they see Croydon,” said he. “They have four to two,” said I. “J’en suis bien sûr.  Sir John’s black strain makes a good, honest creature, but not fliers like these.  There lies Cuckfield Place, where the towers are, yonder.  Get your weight right forward on the splashboard now that we are going uphill, nephew.  Look at the action of that leader: did ever you see anything more easy and more beautiful?” We were taking the hill at a quiet trot, but even so, we made the carrier, walking in the shadow of his huge, broad-wheeled, canvas-covered waggon, stare at us in amazement.  Close to Hand Cross we passed the Royal Brighton stage, which had left at half-past seven, dragging heavily up the slope, and its passengers, toiling along through the dust behind, gave us a cheer as we whirled by.  At Hand Cross we caught a glimpse of the old landlord, hurrying out with his gin and his gingerbread; but the dip of the ground was downwards now, and away we flew as fast as eight gallant hoofs could take us. “Do you drive, nephew?” “Very little, sir.” “There is no driving on the Brighton Road.” “How is that, sir?” “Too good a road, nephew.  I have only to give them their heads, and they will race me into Westminster.  It wasn’t always so.  When I was a very young man one might learn to handle his twenty yards of tape here as well as elsewhere.  There’s not much really good waggoning now south of Leicestershire.  Show me a man who can hit ’em and hold ’em on a Yorkshire dale-side, and that’s the man who comes from the right school.” We had raced over Crawley Down and into the broad main street of Crawley village, flying between two country waggons in a way which showed me that even now a driver might do something on the road.  With every turn I peered ahead, looking for our opponents, but my uncle seemed to concern himself very little about them, and occupied himself in giving me advice, mixed up with so many phrases of the craft, that it was all that I could do to follow him. “Keep a finger for each, or you will have your reins clubbed,” said he.  “As to the whip, the less fanning the better if you have willing cattle; but when you want to put a little life into a coach, see that you get your thong on to the one that needs it, and don’t let it fly round after you’ve hit.  I’ve seen a driver warm up the off-side passenger on the roof behind him every time he tried to cut his off-side wheeler.  I believe that is their dust over yonder.” A long stretch of road lay before us, barred with the shadows of wayside trees.  Through the green fields a lazy blue river was drawing itself slowly along, passing under a bridge in front of us.  Beyond was a young fir plantation, and over its olive line there rose a white whirl which drifted swiftly, like a cloud-scud on a breezy day. “Yes, yes, it’s they!” cried my uncle.  “No one else would travel as fast.  Come, nephew, we’re half-way when we cross the mole at Kimberham Bridge, and we’ve done it in two hours and fourteen minutes.  The Prince drove to Carlton House with a three tandem in four hours and a half.  The first half is the worst half, and we might cut his time if all goes well.  We should make up between this and Reigate.” And we flew.  The bay mares seemed to know what that white puff in front of us signified, and they stretched themselves like greyhounds.  We passed a phaeton and pair London-bound, and we left it behind as if it had been standing still.  Trees, gates, cottages went dancing by.  We heard the folks shouting from the fields, under the impression that we were a runaway.  Faster and faster yet they raced, the hoofs rattling like castanets, the yellow manes flying, the wheels buzzing, and every joint and rivet creaking and groaning, while the curricle swung and swayed until I found myself clutching to the side-rail.  My uncle eased them and glanced at his watch as we saw the grey tiles and dingy red houses of Reigate in the hollow beneath us. “We did the last six well under twenty minutes,” said he.  “We’ve time in hand now, and a little water at the Red Lion will do them no harm.  Red four-in-hand passed, ostler?” “Just gone, sir.” “Going hard?” “Galloping full split, sir!  Took the wheel off a butcher’s cart at the corner of the High Street, and was out o’ sight before the butcher’s boy could see what had hurt him.” Z-z-z-z-ack! went the long thong, and away we flew once more.  It was market day at Redhill, and the road was crowded with carts of produce, droves of bullocks, and farmers’ gigs.  It was a sight to see how my uncle threaded his way amongst them all.  Through the market-place we dashed amidst the shouting of men, the screaming of women, and the scuttling of poultry, and then we were out in the country again, with the long, steep incline of the Redhill Road before us.  My uncle waved his whip in the air with a shrill view-halloa. There was the dust-cloud rolling up the hill in front of us, and through it we had a shadowy peep of the backs of our opponents, with a flash of brass-work and a gleam of scarlet. “There’s half the game won, nephew.  Now we must pass them.  Hark forrard, my beauties!  By George, if Kitty isn’t foundered!” The leader had suddenly gone dead lame.  In an instant we were both out of the curricle and on our knees beside her.  It was but a stone, wedged between frog and shoe in the off fore-foot, but it was a minute or two before we could wrench it out.  When we had regained our places the Lades were round the curve of the hill and out of sight. “Bad luck!” growled my uncle.  “But they can’t get away from us!”  For the first time he touched the mares up, for he had but cracked the whip over their heads before.  “If we catch them in the next few miles we can spare them for the rest of the way.” They were beginning to show signs of exhaustion.  Their breath came quick and hoarse, and their beautiful coats were matted with moisture.  At the top of the hill, however, they settled down into their swing once more. “Where on earth have they got to?” cried my uncle.  “Can you make them out on the road, nephew?” We could see a long white ribbon of it, all dotted with carts and waggons coming from Croydon to Redhill, but there was no sign of the big red four-in-hand. “There they are!  Stole away!  Stole away!” he cried, wheeling the mares round into a side road which struck to the right out of that which we had travelled.  “There they are, nephew!  On the brow of the hill!” Sure enough, on the rise of a curve upon our right the four-in-hand had appeared, the horses stretched to the utmost.  Our mares laid themselves out gallantly, and the distance between us began slowly to decrease.  I found that I could see the black band upon Sir John’s white hat, then that I could count the folds of his cape; finally, that I could see the pretty features of his wife as she looked back at us. “We’re on the side road to Godstone and Warlingham,” said my uncle.  “I suppose he thought that he could make better time by getting out of the way of the market carts.  But we’ve got the deuce of a hill to come down.  You’ll see some fun, nephew, or I am mistaken.” As he spoke I suddenly saw the wheels of the four-in-hand disappear, then the body of it, and then the two figures upon the box, as suddenly and abruptly as if it had bumped down the first three steps of some gigantic stairs.  An instant later we had reached the same spot, and there was the road beneath us, steep and narrow, winding in long curves into the valley.  The four-in-hand was swishing down it as hard as the horses could gallop. “Thought so!” cried my uncle.  “If he doesn’t brake, why should I?  Now, my darlings, one good spurt, and we’ll show them the colour of our tailboard.” We shot over the brow and flew madly down the hill with the great red coach roaring and thundering before us.  Already we were in her dust, so that we could see nothing but the dim scarlet blur in the heart of it, rocking and rolling, with its outline hardening at every stride.  We could hear the crack of the whip in front of us, and the shrill voice of Lady Lade as she screamed to the horses.  My uncle was very quiet, but when I glanced up at him I saw that his lips were set and his eyes shining, with just a little flush upon each pale cheek.  There was no need to urge on the mares, for they were already flying at a pace which could neither be stopped nor controlled.  Our leader’s head came abreast of the off hind wheel, then of the off front one - then for a hundred yards we did not gain an inch, and then with a spurt the bay leader was neck to neck with the black wheeler, and our fore wheel within an inch of their hind one. “Dusty work!” said my uncle, quietly. “Fan ’em, Jack!  Fan ’em!” shrieked the lady. He sprang up and lashed at his horses. “Look out, Tregellis!” he shouted.  “There’s a damnation spill coming for somebody.” We had got fairly abreast of them now, the rumps of the horses exactly a-line and the fore wheels whizzing together.  There was not six inches to spare in the breadth of the road, and every instant I expected to feel the jar of a locking wheel.  But now, as we came out from the dust, we could see what was ahead, and my uncle whistled between his teeth at the sight. Two hundred yards or so in front of us there was a bridge, with wooden posts and rails upon either side.  The road narrowed down at the point, so that it was obvious that the two carriages abreast could not possibly get over.  One must give way to the other.  Already our wheels were abreast of their wheelers. “I lead!” shouted my uncle.  “You must pull them, Lade!” “Not I!” he roared. “No, by George!” shrieked her ladyship.  “Fan ’em, Jack; keep on fanning ’em!” It seemed to me that we were all going to eternity together.  But my uncle did the only thing that could have saved us.  By a desperate effort we might just clear the coach before reaching the mouth of the bridge.  He sprang up, and lashed right and left at the mares, who, maddened by the unaccustomed pain, hurled themselves on in a frenzy.  Down we thundered together, all shouting, I believe, at the top of our voices in the madness of the moment; but still we were drawing steadily away, and we were almost clear of the leaders when we flew on to the bridge.  I glanced back at the coach, and I saw Lady Lade, with her savage little white teeth clenched together, throw herself forward and tug with both hands at the off-side reins. “Jam them, Jack!” she cried.  “Jam the - before they can pass.” Had she done it an instant sooner we should have crashed against the wood-work, carried it away, and been hurled into the deep gully below.  As it was, it was not the powerful haunch of the black leader which caught our wheel, but the forequarter, which had not weight enough to turn us from our course.  I saw a red wet seam gape suddenly through the black hair, and next instant we were flying alone down the road, whilst the four-in-hand had halted, and Sir John and his lady were down in the road together tending to the wounded horse. “Easy now, my beauties!” cried my uncle, settling down into his seat again, and looking back over his shoulder.  “I could not have believed that Sir John Lade would have been guilty of such a trick as pulling that leader across.  I do not permit a mauvaise plaisanterie of that sort.  He shall hear from me to-night.” “It was the lady,” said I. My uncle’s brow cleared, and he began to laugh. “It was little Letty, was it?” said he.  “I might have known it.  There’s a touch of the late lamented Sixteen-string Jack about the trick.  Well, it is only messages of another kind that I send to a lady, so we’ll just drive on our way, nephew, and thank our stars that we bring whole bones over the Thames.” We stopped at the Greyhound, at Croydon, where the two good little mares were sponged and petted and fed, after which, at an easier pace, we made our way through Norbury and Streatham.  At last the fields grew fewer and the walls longer.  The outlying villas closed up thicker and thicker, until their shoulders met, and we were driving between a double line of houses with garish shops at the corners, and such a stream of traffic as I had never seen, roaring down the centre.  Then suddenly we were on a broad bridge with a dark coffee-brown river flowing sulkily beneath it, and bluff-bowed barges drifting down upon its bosom.  To right and left stretched a broken, irregular line of many-coloured houses winding along either bank as far as I could see. “That’s the House of Parliament, nephew,” said my uncle, pointing with his whip, “and the black towers are Westminster Abbey.  How do, your Grace?  How do?  That’s the Duke of Norfolk - the stout man in blue upon the swish-tailed mare.  Now we are in Whitehall.  There’s the Treasury on the left, and the Horse Guards, and the Admiralty, where the stone dolphins are carved above the gate.” I had the idea, which a country-bred lad brings up with him, that London was merely a wilderness of houses, but I was astonished now to see the green slopes and the lovely spring trees showing between. “Yes, those are the Privy Gardens,” said my uncle, “and there is the window out of which Charles took his last step on to the scaffold.  You wouldn’t think the mares had come fifty miles, would you?  See how les petites cheries step out for the credit of their master.  Look at the barouche, with the sharp-featured man peeping out of the window.  That’s Pitt, going down to the House.  We are coming into Pall Mall now, and this great building on the left is Carlton House, the Prince’s Palace.  There’s St. James’s, the big, dingy place with the clock, and the two red-coated sentries before it.  And here’s the famous street of the same name, nephew, which is the very centre of the world, and here’s Jermyn Street opening out of it, and finally, here’s my own little box, and we are well under the five hours from Brighton Old Square.”

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