Sketches of London: Early Coaches

We have of­ten won­dered how many months’ in­ces­sant trav­el­ling in a post-chaise it would take to kill a man; and won­der­ing by anal­ogy, we should very much like to know how many months of con­stant trav­el­ling in a suc­ces­sion of early coaches, an un­for­tu­nate mor­tal could en­dure. Break­ing a man alive upon the wheel, would be noth­ing to break­ing his rest, his peace, his heart—every­thing but his fast—upon four; and the pun­ish­ment of Ix­ion (the only prac­ti­cal per­son, by-the-bye, who has dis­cov­ered the se­cret of the per­pet­ual mo­tion) would sink in­to ut­ter in­sig­nif­i­cance be­fore the one we have sug­ges­ted. If we had been a pow­er­ful church­man in those good times when blood was shed as freely as wa­ter, and men were mowed down like grass, in the sa­cred cause of re­li­gion, we would have lain by very qui­etly till we got hold of some es­pe­cially ob­sti­nate mis­cre­ant, who pos­i­tively re­fused to be con­ver­ted to our faith, and then we would have booked him for an in­side place in a small coach, which trav­elled day and night: and se­cur­ing the re­main­der of the places for stout men with a slight ten­dency to cough­ing and spit­ting, we would have star­ted him forth on his last trav­els: leav­ing him mer­ci­lessly to all the tor­tures which the wait­ers, land­lords, coach­men, guards, boots, cham­ber­maids, and oth­er fa­mil­iars on his line of road, might think prop­er to in­flict.Who has not ex­pe­ri­en­ced the mis­eries in­evit­ably con­se­quent upon a sum­mons to un­der­take a hasty jour­ney? You re­ceive an in­ti­ma­tion from your place of busi­ness—wher­ever that may be, or what­ever you may be—that it will be nec­es­sary to leave town with­out delay. You and your fam­ily are forth­with thrown in­to a state of tre­men­dous ex­cite­ment; an ex­press is im­me­di­ately dis­patched to the wash­er­wo­man’s; every­body is in a bus­tle; and you, your­self, with a feel­ing of dig­nity which you can­not al­to­geth­er con­ceal, sally forth to the book­ing-of­fice to se­cure your place. Here a pain­ful con­scious­ness of your own un­im­por­tance first rushes on your mind—the peo­ple are as cool and col­lec­ted as if no­body were go­ing out of town, or as if a jour­ney of a hun­dred odd miles were a mere noth­ing. You enter a mouldy-look­ing room, or­na­men­ted with large post­ing-bills; the great­er part of the place en­closed be­hind a huge, lum­ber­ing, rough counter, and fit­ted up with re­cesses that look like the dens of the smal­ler an­i­mals in a trav­el­ling me­na­ger­ie, with­out the bars. Some half-dozen peo­ple are ‘book­ing’ brown-pa­per par­cels, which one of the clerks flings in­to the afore­said re­cesses with an air of reck­less­ness which you, re­mem­ber­ing the new car­pet-bag you bought in the morn­ing, feel con­sid­er­ably an­noyed at; port­ers, look­ing like so many At­lases, keep rush­ing in and out, with large pack­ages on their shoul­ders; and while you are wait­ing to make the nec­es­sary in­quir­ies, you won­der what on earth the book­ing-of­fice clerks can have been be­fore they were book­ing-of­fice clerks; one of them with his pen be­hind his ear, and his hands be­hind him, is stand­ing in front of the fire, like a full-length por­trait of Na­po­leon; the oth­er with his hat half off his head, en­ters the pas­sen­gers’ names in the books with a cool­ness which is in­ex­press­ibly pro­vok­ing; and the vil­lain whis­tles—ac­tu­ally whis­tles—while a man asks him what the fare is out­side, all the way to Holy­head!—in frosty weath­er, too! They are clearly an iso­lated race, ev­i­dently pos­sess­ing no sym­pa­thies or feel­ings in com­mon with the rest of man­kind. Your turn comes at last, and hav­ing paid the fare, you tr­em­blingly in­quire—‘What time will it be nec­es­sary for me to be here in the morn­ing?’—‘Six o’clock,’ replies the whist­ler, care­lessly pitch­ing the sov­er­eign you have just par­ted with, in­to a wooden bowl on the desk. ‘Rather be­fore than arter,’ adds the man with the semi-roas­ted un­men­tion­ables, with just as much ease and com­pla­cency as if the whole world got out of bed at five. You turn in­to the street, ru­mi­nat­ing as you bend your steps home­wards on the ex­tent to which men be­come hard­ened in cru­elty, by cus­tom.If there be one thing in ex­is­tence more mis­er­able than an­oth­er, it most un­ques­tion­ably is the be­ing com­pelled to rise by can­dle­light. If you have ever doubted the fact, you are pain­fully con­vinced of your er­ror, on the morn­ing of your de­par­ture. You left strict or­ders, overnight, to be called at half-past four, and you have done noth­ing all night but doze for five min­utes at a time, and start up sud­denly from a ter­rif­ic dream of a large church-clock with the small hand run­ning round, with as­ton­ish­ing ra­pid­ity, to every fig­ure on the dial-plate. At last, com­pletely ex­hausted, you fall grad­u­ally in­to a re­fresh­ing sleep—your thoughts grow con­fused—the stage-coaches, which have been ‘go­ing off’ be­fore your eyes all night, be­come less and less dis­tinct, un­til they go off al­to­geth­er; one mo­ment you are dri­ving with all the skill and smart­ness of an ex­pe­ri­en­ced whip—the next you are ex­hi­b­it­ing à la Ducrow, on the off-lead­er; anon you are closely muf­fled up, in­side, and have just re­cog­nised in the per­son of the guard an old schoolfel­low, whose fu­ner­al, even in your dream, you re­mem­ber to have at­ten­ded eigh­teen years ago. At last you fall in­to a state of com­plete ob­liv­ion, from which you are aroused, as if in­to a new state of ex­is­tence, by a sin­gu­lar il­lu­sion. You are ap­pren­ticed to a trunk-maker; how, or why, or when, or where­fore, you don’t take the trou­ble to in­quire; but there you are, past­ing the lin­ing in the lid of a port­man­teau. Con­found that oth­er ap­pren­tice in the back shop, how he is ham­mer­ing!—rap, rap, rap—what an in­dus­tri­ous fel­low he must be! you have heard him at work for half an hour past, and he has been ham­mer­ing in­ces­santly the whole time. Rap, rap, rap, again—he’s talk­ing now—what’s that he said? Five o’clock! You make a vi­o­lent ex­er­tion, and start up in bed. The vi­sion is at once dis­pelled; the trunk-maker’s shop is your own bed­room, and the oth­er ap­pren­tice your shiv­er­ing ser­vant, who has been vainly en­deav­our­ing to wake you for the last quar­ter of an hour, at the im­mi­nent risk of break­ing ei­ther his own knuck­les or the pan­els of the door.You pro­ceed to dress your­self, with all pos­si­ble dis­patch. The flar­ing flat can­dle with the long snuff, gives light enough to show that the things you want, are not where they ought to be, and you un­dergo a tri­fling delay in con­se­quence of hav­ing care­fully packed up one of your boots in your over-anx­i­ety of the pre­ced­ing night. You soon com­plete your toi­let, how­ever, for you are not par­tic­u­lar on such an oc­ca­sion, and you shaved yes­ter­day even­ing; so mount­ing your Pe­ter­sham great-coat, and green trav­el­ling shawl, and grasp­ing your car­pet-bag in your right hand, you walk lightly down-stairs, lest you should awaken any of the fam­ily, and after paus­ing in the com­mon sit­ting-room for one mo­ment, just to have a cup of cof­fee (the said com­mon sit­ting-room look­ing re­mark­ably com­fort­able, with every­thing out of its place, and strewed with the crumbs of last night’s sup­per), you undo the chain and bolts of the street-door, and find your­self fairly in the street.A thaw, by all that is mis­er­able! The frost is com­pletely bro­ken up. You look down the long per­spec­tive of Ox­ford-street, the gas-lights mourn­fully re­flec­ted on the wet pave­ment, and can dis­cern no speck in the road to en­cour­age the be­lief that there is a cab or a coach to be had—the very coach­men have gone home in de­spair. The cold sleet is driz­zling down with that gen­tle reg­u­lar­ity, which be­to­kens a du­ra­tion of four-and-twenty hours at least; the damp hangs upon the house-tops and lamp-posts, and clings to you like an in­vis­i­ble cloak. The wa­ter is ‘com­ing in’ in every area, the pipes have burst, the wa­ter-butts are run­ning over; the ken­nels seem to be do­ing matches against time, pump-han­dles de­scend of their own ac­cord, horses in mar­ket-carts fall down, and there’s no one to help them up again, po­lice­men look as if they had been care­fully sprin­kled with pow­dered glass; here and there a milk-wo­man trudges slowly along, with a bit of list round each foot to keep her from slip­ping; boys who ‘don’t sleep in the house,’ and are not al­lowed much sleep out of it, can’t wake their mas­ters by thun­der­ing at the shop-door, and cry with the cold—the com­pound of ice, snow, and wa­ter on the pave­ment, is a cou­ple of inches thick—no­body ven­tures to walk fast to keep him­self warm, and no­body could suc­ceed in keep­ing him­self warm if he did.It strikes a quar­ter past five as you trudge down Wa­ter­loo-place on your way to the Golden Cross, and you dis­cov­er, for the first time, that you were called about an hour too early. You have not time to go back; there is no place open to go in­to, and you have, there­fore, no re­source but to go for­ward, which you do, feel­ing re­mark­ably sat­is­fied with your­self, and every­thing about you. You ar­rive at the of­fice, and look wist­fully up the yard for the Birm­ing­ham High-fli­er, which, for aught you can see, may have flown away al­to­geth­er, for prepa­ra­tions ap­pear to be on foot for the de­par­ture of any ve­hi­cle in the shape of a coach. You wan­der in­to the book­ing-of­fice, which with the gas-lights and blaz­ing fire, looks quite com­fort­able by con­trast—that is to say, if any place can look com­fort­able at half-past five on a win­ter’s morn­ing. There stands the iden­ti­cal book-keep­er in the same po­si­tion as if he had not moved since you saw him yes­ter­day. As he in­forms you, that the coach is up the yard, and will be brought round in about a quar­ter of an hour, you leave your bag, and re­pair to ‘The Tap’—not with any ab­surd idea of warm­ing your­self, be­cause you feel such a re­sult to be ut­terly hope­less, but for the pur­pose of pro­cur­ing some hot brandy-and-wa­ter, which you do,—when the ket­tle boils! an event which oc­curs ex­actly two min­utes and a half be­fore the time fixed for the start­ing of the coach.The first stroke of six, peals from St. Mar­tin’s church steeple, just as you take the first sip of the boil­ing liq­uid. You find your­self at the book­ing-of­fice in two sec­onds, and the tap-waiter finds him­self much com­for­ted by your brandy-and-wa­ter, in about the same pe­ri­od. The coach is out; the horses are in, and the guard and two or three port­ers, are stow­ing the lug­gage away, and run­ning up the steps of the book­ing-of­fice, and down the steps of the book­ing-of­fice, with breath­less ra­pid­ity. The place, which a few min­utes ago was so still and quiet, is now all bus­tle; the early ven­dors of the morn­ing pa­pers have ar­rived, and you are as­sailed on all sides with shouts of ‘Times, gen’lm’n, Times,’ ‘Here’s Chron—Chron—Chron,’ ‘Her­ald, ma’am,’ ‘Highly in­ter­est­ing mur­der, gen’lm’n,’ ‘Cu­ri­ous case o’ breach o’ prom­ise, ladies.’ The in­side pas­sen­gers are al­ready in their dens, and the out­sides, with the ex­cep­tion of your­self, are pac­ing up and down the pave­ment to keep them­selves warm; they con­sist of two young men with very long hair, to which the sleet has com­mu­ni­cated the ap­pear­ance of crys­tal­lised rats’ tails; one thin young wo­man cold and peev­ish, one old gen­tle­man ditto ditto, and some­thing in a cloak and cap, in­ten­ded to rep­re­sent a mil­i­tary of­fi­cer; every mem­ber of the party, with a large stiff shawl over his chin, look­ing ex­actly as if he were play­ing a set of Pan’s pipes.‘Take off the cloths, Bob,’ says the coach­man, who now ap­pears for the first time, in a rough blue great-coat, of which the but­tons be­hind are so far apart, that you can’t see them both at the same time. ‘Now, gen’lm’n,’ cries the guard, with the way­bill in his hand. ‘Five min­utes be­hind time al­ready!’ Up jump the pas­sen­gers—the two young men smok­ing like lime-kilns, and the old gen­tle­man grum­bling au­di­bly. The thin young wo­man is got upon the roof, by dint of a great deal of pulling, and push­ing, and help­ing and trou­ble, and she re­pays it by ex­press­ing her sol­emn con­vic­tion that she will nev­er be able to get down again.‘All right,’ sings out the guard at last, jump­ing up as the coach starts, and blow­ing his horn di­rectly af­ter­wards, in proof of the sound­ness of his wind. ‘Let ’em go, Harry, give ’em their heads,’ cries the coach­man—and off we start as briskly as if the morn­ing were ‘all right,’ as well as the coach: and look­ing for­ward as anx­iously to the ter­mi­na­tion of our jour­ney, as we fear our read­ers will have done, long since, to the con­clu­sion of our pa­per.

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