The Conquest, or a Mail Companion

The hero of the following sketch, though now too wealthy to incur adventures such as the one I am about to tell, is, in other respects, so unchanged, that our fair Amalekites will readily guess who sat for this portrait, even if they have not previously heard the tale from the original’s own lips:-

Beneath the starlight, uneclipsed by gas (December, 1818) the Conquest night coach stopped to change horses, at its first stage out of London, in a dull little town, whose name I spare; nor shall I say whither the vehicle was bound; enough that its journey was to last from nine till twelve, three dark and drowsy hours.

“Ve takes up ‘tother hinside here,” said coachee, come, marm,”

An elderly man led to the steps of this equipage a weeping female, in flimsy, spoilable array. While her luggage was hoisted he placed a large heavy flail basket on the seat, saying, “Well, Ethelinda, you won’t be quite alone. Sir, any attentions you”-

“I’ll take every care of the lady!” replied a free voice, as the capped, cloaked, and comfortered personage, who sat with back to the horses, held out a thickly-gloved hand, to help and hasten Ethelinda’s entrance. She sobbed “good by,” and was driven off; but soon, over her tear-wiping kerchief, strove to ascertain whether her fellow passenger was likely to afford her one of those stagified romances of which she had read and dreamt, long and often. Brief, fleeting, “few and far between,” as were the glimmerings that aided her feminine scrutiny, they, by degrees, informed her that her opposite neighbour was still young, not too tall, with a dark and bright complexion, prominent profile, black curls, and short whiskers, deep set, swarthy eyes, that seemed to light up the obscure, as would those of a dog or cat, yet very steadfast withal.

“As an old traveller,” said, at length, the proprietor of these noticeable orbs, “I always take this side, because women usually prefer the other; but now with your leave, I’ll cross, that my cloak may have the honour of falling at your feet; no matter how we look, on these occasions, so we are but warm enough.”

The interminable, fur-lined folds, so concealed the figure of their wearer, that not even the tip of a boot could be seen. They were now officiously adjusted round the knees of Ethelinda, and a large shawl wrapped over her shoulder, by this beau galant.

“Apparently,” he resumed, “ma’amselle is unused to the road.”

“Quite, Sir, I assure you,” sighed Ethelinda, to public conveyances. Next to one’s own carriage, which can’t always be spared, a postchaise is best; but to travel all night by the mail –”

“Our leathern convenience has not even that dignity,” said the stranger, fixing his peculiar eyes upon her; “yet many gentlewomen now go about alone, by stage; ‘tis economical, and avoids fuss.”

“True,” coincided the damsel errant, “but — really — for a young, a single lady — to be thrown — unprotected — with an unknown —”

“Nay,” laughed her hearer, “that unknown is bound to protect her. If, during our trip, any intruders arrive to mar the, tête á-tête, they shall not obtrude their flatteries on you while I am by, even if so inclined, which ‘tis just possible they might not prove.”

Ethelinda felt she knew not how; and called herself “faint.”

“What d’ye mean?” asked her new friend, “on this side? Why — hah! you heroines are always unpoetical. Let me drop some Eau de Cologne on your handkerchief, the only thing to use and, here, take a cayenne lozenge, my dear!”

“You are very good,” faltered Ethelinda, between love and fear.

“I,” continued the other, “can’t, even at sea, forgive the ‘inglorious slaves,’ as Byron calls them — who that could sketch or scribble but would be well to gaze, listen, breathe, sing, dance, on deck? I’m a capital sailor, and shipboard always gives me an appetite, even for the homeliest fare!”

‘‘Indeed? Perhaps then —even”— hesitated Ethelinda, half turning towards her panier, but the hardy tar rattled on.

“Now one has nothing to put up with on land in that regard. Inns would lose — what now they have a right to expect – our custom, if they did not furnish good refreshments; though they charge highly for the accommodation but persons of our caste, my love, could not, of course, be either so stingy, or so vulgar as to burden ourselves with substantial cates, such as nobody can require during the hours usually devoted to rest; one might as well lie with sandwiches and Maderia, cake and Cognac, under one’s pillow.” He adjusted his stock, and drew up his collar in spite.

Poor Ethelinda actually feared that awful eye through dunnest night (wicker-work and brown paper) had seen — or that Roman nose smelt — the hoard of cold pork, gingerbread, and “ardent spirits diluted,” which now she dared not offer to Monsieur, nor taste herself, nor even own.

“Still,” pursued the provoking one, “that I may not lose your conversation by a doze, I must resort to ma tabatiere, if you please. I promise not to smoke.”

He explained the mystic phrase by taking a pinch of snuff from a small silver box, as the lady tittered forth.

“No, pray don’t smoke, sir; for though pa sometimes indulges in a cigar, ma and I never let him bring it into the drawing-room.”

“Well,” rejoined the incognito, “to-morrow I shall be in the atmosphere of home, with which tobacco’s fumes may blend, and no lady’s leave asked.”

“Bless me,” exclaimed Ethelinda (we may guess how sincerely) “I hoped you were — at least — a married man.”

“Not I, though, perhaps, every man should marry at my age.”

“La! sir, you make me curious — to know the age when a gentleman ought to take a wife.”

“Oh, if you want to know my years, child, I am nearly six and twenty, which, I presume, is full ten years older than am at liberty to call you, eh? Come, ladies are invariably candid on this subject.” He brushed up his curls maliciously.

“I will be so at any rate, sir; I am just of age, so all I have is at my own disposal.”

“Ha! then beware of fortune hunters! Talking of hunters, oh that I were exercising my limbs on the back of mine instead of being cramped in here! Do you ride?”

“Donkeys, by the sea-side, sometimes.”

“Ay, at Margate your very fine folks quiz that place unjustly. I’ve had many a capital swim there, and such walks! I’m a desperate peripatetic; are you?”

“Sir, I —” Ethelinda did not know.

“Nay, don’t be ashamed! Remember Queen Caroline was a pedestrian, as well a Davie Deans’ bairn.”

Whether she was that unintelligible something, or which Queen Caroline was meant, the half-frightened, half-affronted maiden could not tell; but, resolving to tax her taxer’s generosity, said,

“I should not be ashamed of owning anything that was true to a perfect gentleman like yourself.”

“You are too civil,” he laughed, “I fear I shall disappoint you before we part, or on better acquaintance.”

“Sir,” faintly articulated Ethelinda but the gentleman seeing, at the inn door where now they stopped, a couple of fine spaniels was whistling to them instead of heeding the lady.

“They remind me of my own dogs,” he cried; “have you so much as a bit of biscuit with which to coax ‘em near us?”

Ethelinda reluctantly produced a slice of pig-impregnated bread from her store, with which the merry wayfarer fed the animals from a manly, yet neither a large nor a coarse hand, decked with many a ring. Again they started, and he now enquired,

“Do you go all the way to ——?”

“Not quite. I am about to stay some time with a friend of pa’s. But — you will excuse me —how very well you whistle! I am so fond of music; are not you?”

This was saying anything to blink the question.

“When ‘tis music indeed,” replied he of the forage caps “I love, though I but imperfectly understand it; yet hate to have my ears bored by Misses who attempt French and Italian songs knowing as little of the sound as the sense, in every way. From the very parlours behind shops issue the discords of these would-be cantatrice’s.  If tradesmen’s daughters are to gain their bread by teaching, let them be thoroughly taught first. But tell me — I know most families on this road — the friend you visit the rich Mrs. D__, the fashionable Lady Y__, that charitable spinster Miss F__, or the so-called CLEVER Mrs. M__?”

“So-called!” repeated Ethelinda, unguardedly. “Is she not clever, then? I heard that she was very severe.”

“Umph! if it be she to whom you go, I am surprised at your asking her character of me,” equivocated the stranger.

“Oh, sir, papa has long had her husband’s acquaintance, but I never yet saw her. Is she not extremely proud, satirical, strict, and —”

“She is a sworn foe to vanity, affectation, and deceit; so she ought to be, as she educates her own children — though, as the eldest of the four is now seven years old, she has just engaged an assistant, who was to have been on her post two days since.”

“Think, dear sir!” nearly wept Ethelinda, “how humiliating must such a situation be to a girl of any appearance and feeling, accustomed to all the comforts of home.”

“May be so, ma chère; but this person owns to thirty, is very plain, the daughter of an humble tobacconist, and leaves a home which is anything but comfortable. Waste not your sympathy in judging her feelings by your own. The character her father gave his customers to procure this place, and your account to me of yourself, marks the strongest possible contrast between my fair Ethelinda and Esther Humphries.”

The poor maiden burst into tears, sobbing out,

“Oh, sir, though I couldn’t resist the temptation of your politeness to make the most of the first and last such interview that I can ever hope to enjoy, yet, as soon as I found you were a friend of that lady’s, I resolved to trust.”

“Or rather, you knew that I must soon learn the fact. Well?”

“Well, sir, father only calls me Ethelinda, to quiz my liking for novels. Poor man because he saved and spared to give me a boarding-school education, he insists on my accepting this offer, and has vouched that I am fit for it; but, oh sir! it is a sad pilgrimage for me; no friend to read my heart, to rescue me at the precipice’s edge; I go a victim to the sacrifice, a bear to the stake —a beast to the slaughterer!”

“Ay, that’s something like,” commented her hearer; “but don’t cry so I’ll rescue you; you need not fear — you shall never be a governess!”

“Sir,” ejaculated Miss Humphries — visions of rank and matrimony still floating in her brain —  “How’ sir?”

“Quite honourably; you shall find a matron in my house, though it lacks one just now; but till you become a bride — tell me honestly — is it teaching or service you shrink from? What can you do to merit such a sanction?”

“Any thing — every thing! make gowns, caps, bonnets, wash lace, dress hair, keep accounts; — who would not rather be a lady’s maid than a governess?”

“Very few waning flirts, I should hope — but — hollo! coachman! remember where you put me down. Mr. M.’s__ the Nest — you know,” he craned from the window.

“I does, bless your voice,” shouted back the driver.

What! was this Mr. M. himself? — but no, he had said he was a bachelor. Ethelinda dared not speak; she peered over her companion’s shoulder, and listened to his panting breath, as a light flashed across the road. The carriage drew up, its door was opened, the steps fell; a servant, lantern in hand, came from the garden of a cottage ornée, followed by a gentleman, leaning on a stick. The gathered up cloak now betrayed the petticoat of a dark cloth habit, and the supposed hero leaped out, clamouring,

“Dear Frank! the ankle better? how are the youngsters? Bring in Humphries; boxes too, Matthew. Alight, my girl, and make yourself at home!”

So vanished Ethelinda’s fairy dream. Her conquest had been achieved by the equestrian Mrs. M., who had gone to town on business for her husband, as he had recently lamed himself in a hunting leap. Though she had no desire to be taken for a man, or her side curls for whiskers, she, would not undeceive the blunderers; especially as she suspected, from the locale at which the young lady joined her, that this might be the very female whose disposition, for her children’s sakes, she thought it her duty to ascertain.

Esther, though no longer lady’s maid, yet lives with Mrs. (now Lady) M., her own woman, to Sir Frank’s French cook, who yearly imports foreign snuff for his father-in-law, and Paris romances for the too susceptible Ethelinda. She still, though devoted to her mental, exemplary, and kind- hearted mistress, calls horse-riding, and its masculine costume, “dangerous and unmerciful for fine women.” I am, though not in her sense of the words, inclined to say so too.

I. H.

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