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'I'm so dreadfully cold, Miss Flint! Have we very much further to go?'
'Not far now, Lydia, my dear,' replied Sophie, in as cheerful a tone as she could muster, given that she too was feeling chilled to the bone. Putting aside her own discomfort, she reached across her charge and tucked the travelling rug more snugly around the girl, before peering through the misted glass of the carriage window at the snow-blanketed scene beyond. 'We do seem to be running a little late, but I imagine that this unexpected fall of snow must have required our coachman to lessen his normal speed somewhat.'
'Been crawling along like a slug for the past half an hour or so,' grunted the stout, ruddy-faced man opposite. 'Should never have left the Reading stage at all, in my opinion. I warned him that the weather was going to worsen before the day was much older, but would he pay any heed to the worldly wisdom of an old sailor? Not a bit of itand now see where we are!'
'Hold hard, sir!' exclaimed the elderly gentleman seated at Sophie's right, the clerical collar at his neck clearly indicating his profession. 'One has to remember that these stagecoach drivers are under contract to adhere pretty strictly to the advertised timetables! The poor fellow is seemingly doing his best in what must be the most trying of weather conditions. Surely we should all be applauding his efforts, rather than seeking to find fault with him!'
A low moan emanating from the far corner then directed all eyes towards the couple who occupied the carriage's two remaining seats. As a self-conscious flush covered his cheeks, the young man pulled the woman more closely to him, before saying, 'I am sure that it cannot have escaped your notice that my wife is in a somewhaterdelicate condition! We had expected to arrive at our destination in Maidenhead with more than enough time to spare but now I feel bound to advise you that it is becoming vital that we reach shelter with all possible speed!'
Since none of the carriage's other occupants could have failed to observe the young woman's advanced state of pregnancy upon boarding the stage at Bath, it was hardly surprising that her husband's words were greeted with a rather ominous silence.
'Fear not, dear lady,' said the reverend gentleman bracingly, leaning forward to give the young woman a reassuring pat on her knee. 'You may be sure that our doughty driver will do whatever is necessary to bring us all safely to the Maidenhead stage well before'
With a juddering creak the coach slithered slowly to a halt, leaving the rest of the clergyman's intended words of comfort unspoken. The unmistakable sound of the guard clambering down from his perch caused all six passengers to eye one another in varying degrees of alarm. Seconds later, the wrenching open of the nearside door brought about a concerted gasp of dismayed protest as a brisk flurry of snow whirled into the carriage, covering its occupants in a fine layer of ice cold crystals.
'Sorry about that, sirs and madams,' puffed the guard, as he pulled himself up and dragged the door shut behind him. 'Come to inform you that we have hit a bit of a snag. Seems that this snowstorm's a good deal worse than we expected!'
Ignoring the florid ex-captain's grunted, 'Told you so!' he went on, 'Looks to be buildin' up into a fair old blizzard, it do! Driver can't see a blessed thing and the horses is getting fair spooked!'
'You're surely not suggesting that you intend for us just to sit here and weather the thing out?' demanded the young father-to-be. 'My wife is already in a really bad way and I fear that we may well be needful of the services of a midwife before very much longer!'
Cutting through the perturbed silence that followed these disquieting words, the sudden forward lurch of the carriage brought a gleam of satisfaction to the guard's wizened features.
'Peckers up, folks!' he crowed, as he reached again for the door handle. 'Looks like Old Jim's decided to try retracing our steps! Said he'd caught sight of a roadside inn of some sort a while back, so he must be aiming to take shelter there. Just until this infernal wind dies down, at any rate, if we can find the place!'
A second blast of icy weather billowed into the carriage as, once again, the door was thrown open and the guard stepped out to face the harsh elements beyond. Although it was not yet five o'clock in the afternoon, the combination of badly misted windows and thickly swirling snow made it well nigh impossible for any of the passengers to make out exactly what was happening outside the vehicle. Eventually, however, it became apparent that, despite the fact that the turnpike was already inches deep in snow, the driver and his mate had managed to persuade their trepid team of horses into executing a complete turnabout and, now that they no longer found themselves trying to battle against the oncoming blizzard, the edgy foursome seemed to have calmed down at least enough to allow themselves to be led through the snowy wasteland back in the direction from which they had just come.
Throughout the entire manoeuvre the seventeen-year-old Lydia Crayford, her eyes wide with apprehension, had been clutching at Sophie's arm.
'Oh, Miss Flint!' she wailed, as the carriage began to inch its way forward once more. 'Now we will be even later than ever! I cannot begin to imagine what Mama will say when we fail to arrive at the Swan at eight o'clock, as instructed!'
Having borne the brunt of her employer's vituperation on more than one occasion during her six month tenure as governess to the Crayfords' two younger offspring, Sophie had no need to exercise her imagination over the matter. She had little doubt that any blame for returning Lydia late to the bosom of her family would be placed squarely at her door, despite the fact that the assignment upon which she had been dispatched could hardly, in the normal way, have been considered as forming part of her accustomed duties.
Having received urgent notification of a suspected outbreak of chickenpox at the highly regarded Bath seminary at which her stepdaughter boarded, Mrs Crayford, disinclined to allow the event to interfere with her own busy social calendar, had done her utmost to try to persuade her stepson Arthur to take on the task of posting down to Bath to fetch his sister back to the safety of her own home. When that young dandy had flatly refused to be seen 'carting about the countryside with a blessed schoolgirl in tow' Mrs Crayford had simply delegated the undertaking to her own children's governess.
Furnishing Sophie with the cost of one return and one single ticket, plus a shilling or two for any necessary refreshments, she had sent her off to the staging post in Lad Lane, with instructions to board the evening coach to Bath, collect Lydia without delay and bring her back home on the early morning stage.
'That way there will be no need for you to put up overnight,' she had informed Sophie grandly, as she had handed her the five guineas that were intended to cover the full cost of the trip. 'You will have ample time to catch up on any lost sleep on the way. Roberts will be at the Swan at eight o'clock tomorrow evening to meet you. Kindly return here with all speed, for I shall require the barouche to take me on to the Messinghams' rout at nine o'clock.'
Now, wearily reflecting on her mistress's parsimony, Sophie loosened the drawstring of her reticule and, with considerable perturbation, calculated the extent of the small change therein. There was barely enough left for a decent meal between the two of them, let alone an overnight stay! It was to be hoped that Lydia had brought some money with her, otherwise they were going to find themselves deeply embarrassed, always assuming that they eventually succeeded in reaching the shelter the driver sought!
Suddenly conscious that the conveyance had veered sharply to the right, and was now running down a steep incline before eventually coming to a halt, she leaned across her charge and pressed her nose against the win-dowpane. Through the swirl of the thickly falling snow-flakes she could just make out a pair of squat buildings, huddled together in a small hollow just off the side of the post road. Her heart sank, for it was clear that the 'inn' to which the guard had referred was little more than a hedge tavern or local alehouse, and most definitely not the kind of place that would be likely to meet with Mrs Crayford's approval, should it prove necessary to inform her of their unscheduled stop.
Scarcely more than a minute or two had elapsed, however, before the unwelcome sound of raised voices met the ears of the waiting passengers, causing a good many troubled glances to be shared between them. Captain Gibbons frowned and shook his head.
''Tis naught but a den of thieves!' he scoffed, as he peered through the glass. 'Won't be catching me going in there, that's for sure! Strip you of every penny-piece you own and throw you to the wolves as soon as look at you, that sort would!'
'Except that it would seem that we really have very little choice in the matter,' returned Sophie tartly, as she rose from her seat. 'Either we choose to take our chances inside or we stay out here and freeze to death! Come along, Lydia!'
And, holding out her hand, she proceeded to pull the decidedly unenthusiastic Lydia to her feet. Opening the door to the elements, the pair stepped down from the carriage, only to find themselves up to their ankles in several inches of freshly fallen snow. After her initial gasp of shock, Sophie, gritting her teeth, turned back to face the others and advised the young father-to-be that he had better be prepared to carry his wife, since she doubted that the young woman would be able to manage the somewhat treacherous terrain without some sort of assistance.
Determinedly ploughing her way through the rapidly drifting snow towards the building's lighted doorway, Sophie, keeping Lydia's hand firmly in her own, did her best to reassure her shivering companion that she would soon be warm and dry again. Upon reaching the shabby dwelling-place, however, it became clear that the driver was having difficulty in persuading the landlady to provide his passengers with the necessary shelter.
'Oh, miss!' breathed the elderly woman as, with a sigh of relief, she caught sight of the two young women approaching. 'Please tell your driver here that I'd be only too glad to help you all if I could but, as I keep tellin' him, neither the potman nor the young skivvy who usually helps me have shown uphardly surprisin', I dare say, what with this sudden fall of snow! But even so, miss, I just don't have the facilities for puttin' folks such as you up!'
'You have no rooms at all?'
'Well, it's true that we do have three small bedrooms, miss, but none of them fit for the likes of you and your companions. Plus there's no fires lit, and none of the beds are made up, and without any help I'm just not in a position to assist you, much as I would like to oblige.'
'Three rooms will do very nicely,' said Sophie, eying the woman steadily. 'The young lady who is in the process of alighting from the coach at this very minute is due to give birth at some time in the very near future unless you wish me to direct her towards your stable in the time honoured fashion?'
'Lord bless us, no, miss!' exclaimed the woman, clapping a hand to her mouth in dismay. 'I'll just go and look out some sheets and blanketswe don't get that many paying guests around these partsit's only the lack of help that's bothering me, not being as young and fettle-some as I once was!'
A sudden smile lit up Sophie's face. 'Well, then, let me assure you that I'm perfectly fettlesome and only too willing to lend you a hand,' she said decidedly. 'If we could just get Mrs Lucan into bed first, we can take our time sorting out the rest of the party.' Then, with a nod at her young companion, she added, 'Come along, Lydia, I dare say that we will be able to find something useful for you to do, too!'
'But I have the most fearful headache and I do not even know how to make beds!' complained the youngster, as she trundled sullenly after the governess. 'I cannot think what Mama will say when she hears about this!'
Since she preferred not to dwell too heavily on what her mistress might or might not have to say about the matter, Sophie chose not to reply, and applied herself, instead, to helping the inn's landlady extract a number of sheets and pillowcases from a large linen press on the first floor landing.
Quilts and blankets for the bed allocated to the young couple expecting the baby were found in a shabby ottoman at the foot of the room's half-tester and, while Sophie proceeded to instruct her none-too-willing charge in the niceties of bed-making, both the landlord and his wife, Webster by name, set themselves to lighting all the bedroom fires.
Consequently, when the somewhat out of breath Jack Lucan shuffled through the doorway, bearing his whimpering wife in his arms, the first of the three small bedrooms was already beginning to lose its original chill and, since Mrs Webster had also had the forethought to fetch up a couple of hot bricks from the kitchen range, the young woman was slightly overcome to discover that the bed itself was as warm and as cosy as it was possible to be, given the unusual circumstances.
Discovering that both of the two remaining rooms were even smaller than that which had been assigned to the Lucans, Sophie elected to commandeer the smallest of them for Lydia's use, it being furnished with only a single bed and a marble-topped commode, leaving just enough room at the foot of the bed for the straw pallet that the highly apologetic landlord had managed to locate from somewhere or other. Reassuring Mr Webster that such a makeshift bed would serve her perfectly well for the enforced overnight stay, Sophie then brought a relieved smile to the man's face by adding that she had frequently been obliged to bed down in far less salubrious conditions during her recent travels with her soldier father.