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Jack Henley, the beloved only son of Sir Geoffrey Henley, Baronet, stood stiffly erect under the scrutiny of his venerable parent's eye. The clock on the library mantle ticked loudly, while Lady Henley, Jack's mother, seated in her chair by the fire, occasionally emitted a gentle sob from the depths of her handkerchief.
Jack tried not to shift uncomfortably under his father's stern gaze. He dug the heels of his boots further into the Turkish carpet, but his hands were clutched tightly behind his back, in a manner which belied the boldness of his stance.
It was an unpleasant moment for a bright, young gentleman of twenty-six, who had always basked in the glow of his parents? approval. For once, his youthful good looks, his fine, light brown hair, dancing blue eyes, and strong carriage, had done nothing to predispose Sir Geoffrey to leniency. His penetrating stare gave Jack a strong urge to hang his head.
"Well," prompted Sir Geoffrey finally, dropping the word like a stone into the silence. "What do you have to say for yourself?"
There was nothing that could be said to excuse him, Jack knew, but he continued to regard his father unflinchingly. "I can only give you my apologies, Father, and ask for your forgiveness." He felt an unfamiliar tightness beneath the knot of his cravat.
"Harrumph!" snorted Sir Geoffrey. Jack knew that his straightforward answer had not displeased his father, but Sir Geoffrey would never let that be known. "And I suppose we are to receive assurances that this will be the end of your outrageous behaviour?"
Jack hitched his chin a bit higher. "I had better not venture to supply them, sir, for fear of disappointing you again."
Sir Geoffrey's eyes flashed from beneath their grizzled brows. "If you think to impress me with your honesty, sir, you have mistaken your mark!?
Jack winced. He had never known his father to be so beside himself, especially not with his only son.
His father did not speak again until he had regained control of his temper. When he did, his words kindled feelings of consternation in his listeners? breasts.
"I have no intention," he began, in a quiet voice, dripping with acid "of allowing you to disappoint me again?as you so ably put it." This last was said with a heavy touch of irony.
"Sir?" Jack said, at a loss for his meaning.
Lady Henley's sobs changed to a whimper.
Sir Geoffrey gave him a piercing glance, this time with so little pleasure in his expression that Jack had his first real moment of worry. "I have decided to pay your debts--all 6,000 pounds,? he underscored. "But I do not intend to send you back to London to waste your time and energy running up more."
He paused to look at his son, then continued, speaking fiercely "You know the pride I take in being the first Henley to bear the title ?baronet." Our family is an old and honoured one in this county, but it is entirely through my own efforts that we enjoy our present comfortable position!" He slapped his hand down suddenly on the top of his massive walnut desk.
Lady Henley's head jerked up from her handkerchief and she uttered a startled shriek.
Sir Geoffrey went on, his tone full of regret "With the start I had given you, Jack, I had hoped to see you, one day, made a peer. It is not my wish to watch you drink and gamble my fortune away before I hand it over to you and take my place underground!?
His conscience truly touched for the first time, Jack was prompted to speak, but he was cut off before a word had left his lips.
"Enough!" said Sir Geoffrey, waving an impatient hand. "I do not want any more of your assurances! We have gone past the time for that. And after you hear what I have to say," he added, wryly "you may not be so anxious to comfort me."
Jack forced his shoulders back and prepared to bear the worst.
Sir Geoffrey delivered his son's sentence in a low, firm tone "I shall make you no further allowance as my heir."
Lady Henley gasped. Jack felt his cheeks turn pale with surprise. He had not expected things to go this badly. He knew he had been extravagant and wild, but so were all his friends, and they eventually came about. What he had expected, was for his father to insist upon a few months? rustication, or at most, a reduction in his allowance. But to cut off completely his only child and heir ...
He saw that Sir Geoffrey was waiting for his response. He firmed his jaw and said "Yes, sir."
"But Sir Geoffrey!" Lady Henley protested tearfully. "Our poor boy will starve!?
"He is not a poor boy!" Sir Geoffrey retorted. "I hope to discover that he is a man. And, of course, he will not starve. He will do what many other men have done before him?he'll work for his living."
Jack swallowed, and his mind raced furiously. None knew better than he that he had not prepared himself for any gentlemanly career at university. Why should he, when he was destined to inherit a comfortable baronetcy? Only younger sons were faced with the choice of Church, law, or army, and Jack had given no consideration to their plight, except when one of his particular cronies had chosen such a path and could no longer take part in their sport.
His mother knew this as well as he. "But Jack isn't fit to do anything, Geoffrey!" she cried.
Her unhappy choice of words brought the two men's eyes together in amusement for the first time that day. Sir Geoffrey?relieved to see the spark of humour still alive in his son despite his pronouncement?was softened.
"Nonsense, Maria!" he said in a kinder tone. "Jack is as well able to care for himself as any man?better than most, I'll wager!?
�Jack raised one brow. Considering the announcement his father had just made, he found this expression of confidence somewhat less than convincing.
�But Sir Geoffrey had not finished. "I hope we shall learn that Jack is as suited to take my place?ultimately?as I believe him, at heart, to be." He paused and looked his son over once again. A glimmer of pride lit his eyes as he beheld Jack's vigorous form.
"I do not mean to cast you off forever, Jack, nor am I sending you out to find your own position. I realize, as you must, too, that you are unqualified for any of the nobler pursuits." He smiled, as he pictured his scapegrace son in a parson's surplice. "But you do have talents which can earn you sufficient income, at least to keep you alive."
Sir Geoffrey glanced at his son again, before answering his puzzled look. This time, he allowed a trace of grim amusement into his expression. "I have secured a place for you as coachman on the London to Birmingham mail," he stated flatly.
Lady Henley gave a distressed cry. Jack started. Nothing could have been more unexpected. But before Jack could open his mouth to pose any questions, his mother began to wail.
"A coachman!" she cried in anguish. "A common coachman! Geoffrey, how could you? We shall all be disgraced! ?
"It's quite all right, Mother," said Jack, amazed to find that his own spirits were rapidly recovering from the jolt. He went to her side and, putting an affectionate arm around her shoulders, presented her with his own lace-trimmed handkerchief. "I don't suppose anyone will have to know about it. It's not likely I'll run into any of your friends on the box, you know."
Lady Henley buried her face in the dry handkerchief and sobbed.
"That is quite enough now, Maria," said Sir Geoffrey gruffly, secretly ashamed to have caused her so much distress. "If Jack can take the news like a man, I see no reason for you to carry on in such a fashion. And it won't be forever, I assure you."
Jack looked up at this. His eyes held a question which caused Sir Geoffrey's confidence to falter for the first time. "I have no wish for my son to remain a coachman all his days," he said irritably, to hide his feelings. "As soon as Jack proves to me that he has mended his ways, and I am certain that he is worthy of my regard once again, I shall be happy to call him back into the family. But I cannot stand by and watch while he hastens to his ruin and takes the family honour with him. A good dose of hard work may be just the thing.
"And it strikes me as fitting that Jack should recoup some of the blunt he has undoubtedly thrown away on bribing the ostlers to secure him the box seat and the coachman to let him drive."
Jack suppressed his quick smile. "Touché," he acknowledged silently. Now that he understood his father's reasoning, Jack's feelings were considerably relieved. He could not question Sir Geoffrey's affection for him, and this alone had done much to remove the sting of his punishment.
On the past few years, which he had spent in such idle pursuits as only London could offer, he was able to turn his back with no regrets. In truth, he realized, the amusements of Town, the gambling, the parties, and the drinking, had begun to pall. It was only now when he was presented with such a strange and entirely new challenge that he could understand their emptiness. He found that his heart was beating with an excitement he had never known.
Turning to his father with an open smile, he asked "When and where am I to report?"
Sir Geoffrey looked at him and breathed an inner sigh of relief. His own belaboured spirits rose, too. "Tomorrow week," he said "you will report to Mr. Waddell of the Castle Hotel in Birmingham ." He stretched a hand to his only son, which was immediately seized and held. "You will not disappoint me this time," he said with a trace of hoarseness.
"I sincerely hope not, sir," said Jack, giving his father's hand a firm squeeze.
* * * *
One week later, Jack Henley, dressed in some serviceable breeches and a plain cotton shirt and waistcoat, for whose purchase he had been obliged to sell his gold fob, presented himself in the offices of the Birmingham mail. There he met with Mr. Waddell--stagecoach proprietor and mail contractor, and holder of the ancient and honourable office of Deputy Postmaster--who informed him of his weighty duties.
"Your ground," Mr. Waddell told him as they stepped outside to the yard "will be from Oxford to Birmingham. That's over fifty miles. If you do it properly, I'll pay you ten shillings sixpence a week, but it is a long ground so you might reasonably expect to pick up another shilling from each passenger. But mind," he added sternly, stepping aside to allow a coach to clatter past him "not one word beyond the first solicitation, even should you receive nothing by way of a courtesy. That's the absolute order of the General Post Office."
Jack promised to abide by this rule, wondering at the same time whether he would ever bring himself to ask for the first shilling. But Mr. Waddell was now pointing to a man who was descending from one of the coaches.
"And you must not expect to wear the G.P.O. livery," he continued, indicating the scarlet uniform in which the man was attired. "That's for the guard alone as representative of the Royal Mail. Some drivers are awarded it," he said fairly "but only after years of faithful service. It's too early yet to be talking of that. You can be glad, at least, that the G. P. O. now sees fit to provide you with a uniform--it was not always the way. You'll have a hat, a coat of many capes, and a skin rug to warm your knees in case of bad weather. We'll take your measurements today and send them along to London ."
Jack thanked him and hoped he sounded sufficiently grateful, but he must not have, for Mr. Waddell directed a serious look at him.
"I'll give you fair warning, young man," he said. "You'll be fined if your coach is late to any of its destinations, no matter what the cause. And I suggest you think twice before letting any of the passengers drive the coach, for you just might find yourself in a ditch with hell to pay. You've got a tough ground what with all the young gentlemen going up to university. And those young jackanapes will do anything for a lark. Well-breeched, most of ?em, and leaky as sieves when they climb on board. But just you mind the rules and you'll be all right."
Jack wondered if Mr. Waddell even suspected that Jack was one of the young jackanapes to whom he referred, for he had certainly done his share of bribing the ostlers. Once the seat on the box was gained, it was a fairly easy task to talk the driver into giving one the reins for a spell. But Jack had not realized, when he had done it, that he had been asking the coachmen to put their meagre incomes at risk. Just now, he was learning to have more respect for the simple comforts that income could provide.
But Mr. Waddell had not finished with him yet, having saved his most fearful warning for last. "I will caution you, too, not to shoulder any passengers whose names do not appear on the waybill in order to pocket their fares for yourself. The company has spies, and they will be quite ready to report you for the slightest infraction of the rules. And for this offence, if you are convicted, you might be transported for a period of seven years."
After this last bit of advice, Jack was glad that the dire warnings appeared to be at an end. Mr. Waddell turned from him and called to a squarely built man dressed in the scarlet livery, who came over to be introduced.
"This is Davies," Mr. Waddell said. "He'll be the guard assigned to you for most of your ground. Even though the coaches are the property of the contractors and not the Post Office, it's his job to see the coach arrives. He'll give the word to go, keep you to your speed and take action if there is a breakdown. He carries the timepiece in his shoulder pouch and will report the time at each stop along the road. That way, if you don't keep to your schedule, we'll know about it and can take the proper steps."
He clapped Jack on the back and added these final words: ?Good luck to you, lad. You can count on Davies here. He'll keep you to your work."
Jack thanked Mr. Waddell and then examined the sober-looking fellow who was henceforth to be responsible for his conduct. He was relieved to find that Davies had an intelligent look about him, not like the sort of man who would fire his weapon for the pleasure of it, as so many were wont to do. Just now, he was giving Jack a careful scrutiny, too, so that Jack had an almost irrational desire to impress him favourably. He held out his hand in a friendly gesture, and Davies, after a moment's hesitation, took it.
"Don't look to me like a fellow what's used to hard work," was all he said.
Jack smiled and granted him the right of it, but added "You needn't worry. I can handle the reins. And a fellow in my circumstances is happy to have the work." This answer seemed to satisfy the guard, for he simply nodded and got on with his duties.
* * * *
Jack's uniform duly arrived and before long he was installed on a black-and-maroon coach, tastefully adorned with the royal arms and the four stars of the orders of knighthood and perched on wheels of Post Office red. The days that followed were long and hard, but they were not, as a rule, unpleasant. Starting at Oxford at 3:42 in the morning and arriving in Stratford upon Avon at 8:42, they were allowed twenty minutes to eat breakfast and see to the changing of the horses as well as to the passengers. The end of the day came just before noon, in time for dinner in Birmingham .
Happily, Jack found that he and the older guard worked well together. Davies proved to be as steady as he looked, and within a short time Jack could show him that his self-confidence on the box was more than just youthful boasting. At each stop along the way, a boy was certain to be sent from the inn with a mug full of brandy and water for the coachman, which Jack shared freely with his guard. If it were Davies and there happened to be no passenger on the roof that day, the guard would sometimes join him, abandoning his lonely seat on the rear of the coach for a bit of conversation. When his tongue was sufficiently loosened he would relate some of his experiences as guard on the mail, and Jack listened much amused. Jack was impressed as well with the guard's honesty. He never accepted mail to carry that was not duly registered with the coach's proprietors, though he might have made a considerable fee by contracting for it on his own.
Jack was never alone, for generally there was an adventurous young man or even a female passenger to sit the box beside him and pass the time. And he was fully occupied in keeping his horses to their demanding pace of nine miles an hour or better. It was not in Jack's character to sit the box like the lofty individuals who so often ruled that spot. He took a certain pleasure in seeing that his passengers were comfortably seated and their baggage settled for the journey. These gentlemanly attentions were so seldom seen on the road that, at first, the passengers reacted suspiciously to them. But eventually, Jack's friendly manner calmed their natural tendency towards wariness and engendered in them a feeling of confidence. Before long, Jack had earned the reputation of being a courteous, trustworthy driver, and the women passengers, in particular, were grateful for his solicitous care.
And all the while, Jack, whether he knew it or not, was undergoing a curious change. At first, he had cheerfully drained every mug of brandy and water that was brought to him, which helped to warm him against the weather. But he found himself so weary by the end of the day that when he arrived at his Birmingham lodgings, he tumbled right into his bed. And worse, the next morning it was all the more difficult to drag himself out of bed in the dark to have the new horses in harness by the time the coach arrived from London . Soon he accepted the offered spirits with more caution and found that his work became easier for his temperance.
Before long, too, he was faced with the problem of young gentlemen out of Oxford asking to be allowed to handle the reins. More often than not they were three sheets to the wind and would have landed Jack's coach in the ditch had they been given the chance. Jack's initial response had been to let them drive for a distance, as he had been allowed by many a coachman, but he was made uncomfortable by Davies's disapproval. And the resulting screams from the passengers, when the horses were sprung, had a sobering effect.
Finally, on one particular occasion, when Jack was asked for the reins, his thoughts flew to that day's complement of passengers. There was an older woman who had given him a sweetly confiding smile upon mounting the steps, and a younger, nervous one with a newborn baby in her arms. So, on that occasion, Jack had smiled his winning smile and simply said no.
Three months were passed in this way without a major incident and Jack could be proud of his record. He was surprised to find that he did not miss the amusements of a gentleman's life, although there were days when a warm bath and the attentions of a valet would have been quite welcome. In fact, he settled rather quickly into the rhythm of his work and began to feel that there were advantages to being employed that he might never have realized if his father had not disowned him, however temporarily. From time to time he did wonder just when Sir Geoffrey would decide that he was worthy to be called his son again. But mail coachmen led a lordly life, after a fashion, for they were the kings of the road. All other traffic gave way for the mail, and it was the Royal Mail that carried the news of military victory to the provinces. All eyes would turn to see whether the coach carried the green laurels to signal another victory against Napoleon, and Jack was proud to be the herald of the Crown. He was not particularly eager to return to his old way of life.
It was in this happy frame of mind one morning at dawn that Jack pulled up in front of the inn in Shipston and espied a rather unusual customer.