Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 59

The milestone — The meditation — Want to get up? — The off-hand leader — Sixteen shillings — The near-hand wheeler — All right.

In about two hours I had cleared the Great City, and got beyond the suburban villages, or rather towns, in the direction in which I was travelling; I was in a broad and excellent road, leading I knew not whither. I now slackened my pace, which had hitherto been great. Presently, coming to a milestone on which was graven nine miles, I rested against it, and looking round towards the vast city, which had long ceased to be visible, I fell into a train of meditation.

I thought of all my ways and doings since the day of my first arrival in that vast city — I had worked and toiled, and, though I had accomplished nothing at all commensurate with the hopes which I had entertained previous to my arrival, I had achieved my own living, preserved my independence, and become indebted to no one. I was now quitting it, poor in purse, it is true, but not wholly empty; rather ailing it may be, but not broken in health; and, with hope within my bosom, had I not cause upon the whole to be thankful? Perhaps there were some who, arriving at the same time under not more favourable circumstances, had accomplished much more, and whose future was far more hopeful — Good! But there might be others who, in spite of all their efforts, had been either trodden down in the press, never more to be heard of, or were quitting that mighty town broken in purse, broken in health, and, oh! with not one dear hope to cheer them. Had I not, upon the whole, abundant cause to be grateful? Truly, yes!

My meditation over, I left the milestone and proceeded on my way in the same direction as before until the night began to close in. I had always been a good pedestrian; but now, whether owing to indisposition or to not having for some time past been much in the habit of taking such lengthy walks, I began to feel not a little weary. Just as I was thinking of putting up for the night at the next inn or public-house I should arrive at, I heard what sounded like a coach coming up rapidly behind me. Induced, perhaps, by the weariness which I felt, I stopped and looked wistfully in the direction of the sound; presently up came a coach, seemingly a mail, drawn by four bounding horses — there was no one upon it but the coachman and the guard; when nearly parallel with me it stopped. ‘Want to get up?’ sounded a voice, in the true coachman-like tone — half querulous, half authoritative. I hesitated; I was tired, it is true, but I had left London bound on a pedestrian excursion, and I did not much like the idea of having recourse to a coach after accomplishing so very inconsiderable a distance. ‘Come, we can’t be staying here all night,’ said the voice, more sharply than before. ‘I can ride a little way, and get down whenever I like,’ thought I; and springing forward I clambered up the coach, and was going to sit down upon the box, next the coachman. ‘No, no,’ said the coachman, who was a man about thirty, with a hooked nose and red face, dressed in a fashionably-cut greatcoat, with a fashionable black castor on his head. ‘No, no, keep behind — the box ain’t for the like of you,’ said he, as he drove off; ‘the box is for lords, or gentlemen at least.’ I made no answer. ‘D— that off-hand leader,’ said the coachman, as the right-hand front horse made a desperate start at something he saw in the road; and, half rising, he with great dexterity hit with his long whip the off-hand leader a cut on the off cheek. ‘These seem to be fine horses,’ said I. The coachman made no answer. ‘Nearly thoroughbred,’ I continued; the coachman drew his breath, with a kind of hissing sound, through his teeth. ‘Come, young fellow, none of your chaff. Don’t you think, because you ride on my mail, I’m going to talk to you about ‘orses. I talk to nobody about ‘orses except lords.’ ‘Well,’ said I, ‘I have been called a lord in my time.’ ‘It must have been by a thimble-rigger, then,’ said the coachman, bending back, and half turning his face round with a broad leer. ‘You have hit the mark wonderfully,’ said I. ‘You coachmen, whatever else you may be, are certainly no fools.’ ‘We ain’t, ain’t we?’ said the coachman. ‘There you are right; and, to show you that you are, I’ll now trouble you for your fare. If you have been amongst the thimble-riggers you must be tolerably well cleared out. Where are you going? — to —? I think I have seen you there. The fare is sixteen shillings. Come, tip us the blunt; them that has no money can’t ride on my mail.’

Sixteen shillings was a large sum, and to pay it would make a considerable inroad on my slender finances; I thought, at first, that I would say I did not want to go so far; but then the fellow would ask at once where I wanted to go, and I was ashamed to acknowledge my utter ignorance of the road. I determined, therefore, to pay the fare, with a tacit determination not to mount a coach in future without knowing whither I was going. So I paid the man the money, who, turning round, shouted to the guard — ‘All right, Jem; got fare to — ’; and forthwith whipped on his horses, especially the off hand leader, for whom he seemed to entertain a particular spite, to greater speed than before — the horses flew.

A young moon gave a feeble light, partially illuminating a line of road which, appearing by no means interesting, I the less regretted having paid my money for the privilege of being hurried along it in the flying vehicle. We frequently changed horses; and at last my friend the coachman was replaced by another, the very image of himself — hawk nose, red face, with narrow-rimmed hat and fashionable benjamin. After he had driven about fifty yards, the new coachman fell to whipping one of the horses. ‘D— this near-hand wheeler,’ said he, ‘the brute has got a corn.’ ‘Whipping him won’t cure him of his corn,’ said I. ‘Who told you to speak?’ said the driver, with an oath; ‘mind your own business; ‘tisn’t from the like of you I am to learn to drive ‘orses.’ Presently I fell into a broken kind of slumber. In an hour or two I was aroused by a rough voice — ‘Got to — young man; get down if you please.’ I opened my eyes — there was a dim and indistinct light, like that which precedes dawn; the coach was standing still in something like a street; just below me stood the guard. ‘Do you mean to get down,’ said he, ‘or will you keep us here till morning? other fares want to get up.’ Scarcely knowing what I did, I took my bundle and stick and descended, whilst two people mounted. ‘All right, John,’ said the guard to the coachman, springing up behind; whereupon off whisked the coach, one or two individuals who were standing by disappeared, and I was left alone.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32