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Chapter 15

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 a 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.

Charles Dickens