A Very Small Pond
This self-contained story is the first main chapter from my work-in-progress, The Descent of Chloe Jackson. It’s available free as an ebook, PDF or online to all members of my Readers’ Club.
It’s 1896. The dawn of the motor age. Sarah Quicke, the wilful daughter of the Rector of All Saints, Harnham, plans her escape from the weary confines of village life.
A Very Small Pond
(Chapter 2 of The Descent of Chloe Jackson)
Paul C. Mercer
The church bells rang the half hour, calling Sarah’s attention back to the picturesque Norman church she was supposed to be painting. She compared it briefly to the image on her easel, and frowned. She had no real interest in ecclesiastical architecture.
A waggoner was watering his team at the horse trough on the other side of The Green. They would have made a delightful subject, but she wasn’t interested in old men and horses either. Not right now. Right now, she was interested in Mr Lanie.
All she could see was his head, looming above a crooked gravestone by the lychgate, the one ‘Sacred to the Memory of Henry Collard.’ She adjusted her seat and easel for a better view. He was talking to the other engineer, the old man with the stiff leg. She could hear them laughing; his younger, stronger voice echoing off the flint stonework.
She lost sight of him behind the stone, ‘Also of Ann, wife of the above.’ All the stones on that side of the church leant a little. Lines of Collards, and Pritchards and Pullens; all of them stooping endearingly to the left. Old friends.
She wet her brush, and agitated the little block of burnt umber, giving herself far more than she needed for the tiny sliver of shadow clinging to the base of the church tower.
What if he and the man with the limp went off somewhere together? She’d just have to be patient, and try again next Sunday. And the Sunday after. If necessary, she would paint the church from every angle, and through every season. Eventually he would revert to his regular habit, and she would be there, by happy coincidence.
She heard him bid his colleague farewell, and knew without looking up exactly where he would be, and what route he would take. Each Sunday he left his lodgings above The Royal Oak, crossed The Green, and came in through the old lychgate by Henry Collard’s stone. He passed the church on the south side, and left by the gap in the wall at the crab apple tree, then up the hill towards the hospital. She had observed him for the last five weeks now, and his routine was invariable.
She risked a glance; after all, he was walking past the church, and one couldn’t pretend to sketch without taking a good look at one’s supposed subject. He was just past ‘Nathaniel Moon of this Parish,’ and he had definitely seen her. He couldn’t possibly pass without acknowledging the Rector’s daughter, even if he only raised his hat in her direction. If he didn’t stop, she would risk a ‘Good afternoon,’ but no more. It would be unseemly to call after him.
‘Good day, Miss Quicke.’ He removed his hat.
Her smile was perfectly judged. ‘Good afternoon, Mr…’ She left the query hanging, though she already knew his name, his calling, and every other personal detail that could be discovered by careful and discreet inquiry. More importantly, he knew her name too, presumably by dint of careful and discreet inquiries of his own. So much for Agnes’ suggestion that he hadn’t noticed her.
‘Lanie. Francis Lanie.’
She was mortified by the warm, red flush she knew was creeping up her neck, but she stuck hard to the perfectly judged smile.
‘May I see?’ He took half a step towards her side.
This had always been the disadvantage of her plan. Despite all her mother’s efforts, and years of classes with Mr Dilly, her watercolour sketches had all the subtlety of a potato print. Still, Mr Lanie was an engineer, not a gentleman; he probably wouldn’t be that discerning. She turned her easel towards him.
He took a moment. He glanced over his shoulder at the view she had captured, and turned back to her work. ‘Practice makes perfect, as they say.’
Was he teasing her? It hurt a little; not that she’d ever had any illusions about her skill with a brush. But, on the other hand, teasing was good; it implied intimacy. She smiled. A more genuine smile. And she led him on to prepared ground, ‘Do you draw, Mr Lanie?’
‘I am an engineer. My drawings are accurate representations of their subject.’
‘And mine is not?’ She feigned outrage.
‘That is not what I meant.’
‘You are very cruel.’
Was that a blush? His complexion was fairer than hers, and she could swear that he too had coloured beneath the sparse reddish whiskers. ‘I believe I have seen you at church, more than once,’ she said.
‘I’m installing the new engine at the mill. Well, I’m assisting Mr Jacobs.’ He waved an arm in the general direction the older man had taken. ‘We had some delays, but we’re nearly done.’
‘Oh,’ she said, her face the image of maidenly disappointment.
Too much? She watched him closely, as he reddened further. No, just enough.
He worried at the hat in his hands, nervously pulling and twisting it. A good sign, she thought.
‘We’ll be staying ‘til the end of August, for commissioning. And probably return later in the year, once it’s bedded down.’ He glanced around, as if expecting the dark spectre of her father to emerge from the church at any moment.
‘So, we will have plenty of time to get to know one another.’ She was horribly forward, but someone had to be. ‘You can tell me all about your engine; I have always been fascinated by engines. What colour is it?’
The poor young man looked completely out of his depth. ‘Red. It is a red engine. Horizontal, dual cylinder.’
‘I would love to see it. I have never been inside the mill.’
‘Oh, it’s no place for a lady.’ She could see him falter as he remembered who he was talking to. ‘I mean, a young lady like yourself, Miss Quicke.’
She was losing him.
He replaced his hat, ‘I must be on my way.’
‘Where do you go?’
The hat came off again. He paused, aware of her strategy or perhaps simply puzzled by the question.
She plunged ahead, thinking only to keep him from leaving. ‘Every week, I see you. I wonder if you call upon somebody? Anybody?’ This was never part of the plan; to reveal herself, her doubts, her uncertainties.
‘I fear I’ve not been introduced to anybody in Harnham.’
Thank Goodness for that. She didn’t say it out loud, of course. But she didn’t need to. He knew. She could see that he knew. She could barely pay attention to what he was saying.
‘I walk in the woods. Alone. It is very pleasant. There are antique earthworks, monuments.’ He wrung the hat, and avoided looking at her; he was clearly calculating a strategy of his own. ‘Do you know the woods, Miss Quicke? There is a long barrow I have come across which is well worth a short excursion.’
And there it was.
‘I should like to see that very much.’
He didn’t reply immediately. All her dreams of Manchester, and the world beyond tiny, parochial Harnham, hung in the balance.
And then, before the balance had a proper chance to tip either way, she saw a change in him. The abashed, awkward young man in front of her stood a little taller, charged by an emotion she didn’t expect to see. A low snarling, coughing sound came from behind her, and she realised with disappointment that his excitement had nothing to do with her. He was on tiptoe now, to see better over the low churchyard wall behind her, and onto The Green.
She turned to follow his gaze and saw nothing immediately untoward. Two gentlemen brought their carriage to an abrupt halt beside the lychgate, their heads and shoulders just visible over the wall. But there was something unusual; a grinding, mechanical reverberation that continued for a moment, breaking the peace of the quiet churchyard, and then stopped. And there was something missing.
‘A horseless carriage.’ Mr Laney whispered the words, with a reverence she’d never heard from her father in seventeen years of attending his services.
She followed him, past Nathaniel Moon of this Parish and right up behind one of the eighteenth-century Pritchards. He stood, one hand rested on the weathered, carved skulls. She joined him, and watched as the two gentlemen – and they were indisputably gentlemen – climbed down and began poking and prodding the mechanical beast.
There was something unnatural about it. From behind there was nothing to see; just an oddly proportioned, four-wheeled carriage; blacked steel, dark wood and darker leather, a padded bench wide enough for two, and a wooden one, back-facing, above the tail board. But, from the side or the front, it was like nothing she’d ever seen. Where the shafts should be, there was nothing. A black metal box hunched over the front wheels, like Cook’s iron range lifted from the hearth and strapped before the coachman’s shins. It took Sarah a moment to realise what was wrong with the aristocratic coachmen; neither of them carried a whip.
‘It’s French,’ Mr Lanie whispered. ‘Internal combustion.’
‘What’s it for?’
He turned to her, still unwilling to take his eyes off the ugly machine on the other side of the wall. ‘A couple of years ago, in France, they drove one of these all the way to Paris and back from… somewhere, I forget. Hundreds of miles.’
‘Don’t you think it’s beautiful?’
She turned to look at it again. It was still ugly. Whatever it was that he saw, she certainly didn’t. A small crowd was beginning to gather on The Green, keeping their distance while the two gentlemen, one older and one younger, tugged and heaved at something behind the nearest rear wheel. She was quite certain she heard language of the most profane kind.
‘It seems to be broken,’ she said.
‘It’s thrown the drive chain on this side. I could probably fix it.’ His eyes were fixed firmly on the carriage, and not on her.
She chided herself; she had thought of little else over the past few weeks, but him. His bright intelligence, his exotic Northern voice, and those calloused, oil-stained hands that Agnes said were the hands of a labourer. Sarah had plotted, and schemed, ignored the advice of her friends, and defied what she knew would be the will of her father.
True, he was no gentleman. And The Reverend Mr Quicke would be furious at the merest suggestion of an alliance. But she would have married her engineer in Gretna, if needed, and gone to live with him in Manchester, or India, or wherever his glorious career took him. They would have begun poor, but they would have found riches together. Mr and Mrs Francis Lanie, of Manchester and Calcutta.
But now, after being uncommonly rude about her watercolours, now he had the effrontery to ignore her very presence, in favour of a broken-down machine.
She examined his profile. His chin was surprisingly weak.
‘Introduce me,’ he said, removing his hat once more, and wiping his hands down the side of his Sunday-best trousers.
It was impertinent, at best. But she had no grounds to refuse him.
With Mr Lanie at her heel, she stepped around the Pritchard grave; it was James Pritchard, she noted, died 1774. They passed through the lychgate and approached the gentlemen and their remarkable carriage. She could see the wheels now, though it still looked like a beetle. There was a whiff of something in the air, like a guttered oil lamp, but it was not overwhelming. The gentlemen straightened from their efforts and dusted themselves down, acknowledging her status above that of the common crowd now several dozen strong on The Green.
‘Good afternoon, Miss,’ growled the older man, his genial expression belying the gruffness of his voice. The younger man merely observed, but did so with more interest than Mr Lanie was showing for anything other than the horseless carriage. She ignored him.
‘Sarah Quicke. My father is Rector of All Saints.’
‘Sir Evelyn Ellis.’ He turned to introduce his companion, ‘My nephew, Mr Thomas Willoughby.’
Sir Evelyn sported a large white beard, and a countenance, she thought, not unlike The Prince of Wales. He was sweating profusely from his efforts to mend whatever was wrong with his carriage, and waved a peculiarly floppy hat in front of his face in the vain hope of exciting a breeze. His nephew was younger than he first looked. Tall, broad-chested and arrogant, but probably no older than her, for all his assumed superiority.
‘What a marvellous machine.’ She sounded just like her mother. ‘But you seem to be having some difficulties.’
‘She’s thrown a drive chain.’ Mr Willoughby stood back to give her a clearer view of whatever the ‘drive chain’ was. All she saw was the EE monogram stencilled on the side of the carriage box seat, and the heraldic crest.
‘I don’t suppose there’s a forge, or a workshop nearby,’ Sir Evelyn asked. ‘Walking distance, preferably.’ He grinned.
‘I believe we can do better than that.’ She turned, to find Mr Lanie backing into the shadow of the lychgate. She beckoned him, and he came forward, eyes lowered like a common fieldworker. ‘This young man is an engineer, from the paper mill. Mr Francis Lanie.’
‘A Godsend. Well met, Mr Lanie.’
‘Sir Evelyn. Mr Willoughby.’ Her young man was overwhelmed, exhibiting an acute awareness of his own social inferiority.
Sarah couldn’t help but examine the wiry engineer with his Sunday-scrubbed hands, and compare him to the handsome young aristocrat with black grease on his fingers. Mr Lanie had half a dozen years on Mr Willoughby, but Willoughby was six inches taller. And wonderfully blond. The arrogance was forgivable.
But Mr Lanie was her trump card. And he was standing like a dumb brute.
‘Mr Lanie identified the cause of your problems from the far side of that wall,’ she said.
‘I did.’ Mr Lanie seemed to wake from his trance. ‘May I…?’
Mr Willoughby stepped aside with an air of amusement, while Sir Evelyn led Mr Lanie to the object of his veneration with a benevolent smile.
‘It’s a Panhard,’ said Mr Lanie.
‘The Panhard,’ Sir Evelyn emphasised.
‘My uncle brought her over last year. The first in all England,’ Mr Willoughby explained to Sarah.
‘Twin cylinder, four horse-power,’ added Sir Evelyn. ‘She’s been timed at twenty-five miles per hour. We got her up Priest Hill in Windsor faster than a man can walk. Petroleum oil in here, water for the radiator under there.’
‘She is the most beautiful creature I have ever seen,’ announced Mr Lanie, to Sir Evelyn’s great delight.
But Sarah was unimpressed with the carriage, and with Mr Lanie. ‘I think she looks like a very large, black beetle.’
‘So, she does,’ cried Sir Evelyn. ‘A very large, beautiful, black beetle. But a poorly one, much in need of our assistance. What we need, young man, is a stout iron bar. Something with some leverage, to get that chain back in place.’
Mr Lanie was gone for no more than ten minutes, but it felt longer.
Sir Evelyn sat beneath the shade of the lychgate. Mr Willoughby stood by the vehicle. He didn’t say so, but he clearly felt his uncle’s investment – ‘Two hundred pounds, plus the expense of shipping her across the Channel’ – warranted some protection from the Harnham villagers, particularly those who had come out from The Royal Oak for a gawp, and showed no sign of going back inside. Indeed, Mr Belling was out on The Green himself, topping up his regulars from a large ceramic jug.
Sarah retrieved her chair, easel and paints from the churchyard, and returned to the horseless carriage.
‘Will you paint us?’ Mr Willoughby reached for the sketch pad, and, before she could stop him, he flipped over the front cover and held the offending sketch at arm’s length. She put on a bold front, but he handed it back with a sly grin, ‘Perhaps not.’
The grin was infectious. ‘We all have our different talents. I play the pianoforte remarkably well. What can you say for yourself?’
‘Uncle says I shall make an excellent loafer. That’s what he is, and I daresay it’s a great deal more fun than all the serious stuff my father does.’
She looked over at Sir Evelyn, who was by now stretched out upon the bench, his peculiar hat pulled over his face. She returned her attention to the vehicle, and its interesting guardian. ‘It’s nothing but a small traction engine, really. I don’t suppose it could even haul a wagon.’
‘You’d better not let my uncle hear you talking like that.’
‘Well, honestly, what is it good for, apart from loafing?’
‘You can’t imagine yourself, driving into Canterbury for the theatre? No need to call your groom, ready the horses or discover which tavern your coachman’s frequenting. Or you might have a sudden urge for a picnic at… wherever you take your picnics in Kent?’
‘Wye Downs,’ though they hadn’t been for years. She had an unexpected vision of herself and Mr Willoughby, sat on the ground on a perfect tablecloth, overlooking a perfect view of the Devils’ Kneading Trough. There were picturesque lambs in the field, and tiny rabbits, and an ugly horseless carriage.
‘Where do you take your picnics?’ she asked.
‘Wherever I like. With whomever I like.’
‘Just so long as he’s got his uncle to drive him.’ The floppy hat hadn’t moved, but the deep voice boomed from the lychgate. ‘Do you think I let him drive?’
She thought the younger man would be embarrassed, but not a bit of it. ‘There’s no challenge: press a pedal, pull a lever, turn the handle. I can drive her, but I choose not to.’
‘He’s never been above ten miles per hour.’ boomed the hat.
In the event, Sarah felt that Mr Lanie returned sooner than he ought to.
He brought with him a selection of iron rods and bars of various shapes and sizes, and a similarly varied selection of men from the mill. Even on a Sunday there were, apparently, plenty of men working who would rather not. Mr Lanie led them over, grinning like an excited child, and urging them all to take a closer look.
‘But not too close,’ warned Mr Willoughby.
His uncle stirred on the bench, removed his hat from his face, and sat up. He hauled himself to his feet, ‘Let’s see what you’ve got.’ He examined the makeshift tools, and picked out a three-foot length of hard iron with a slight kink towards one end. Sarah had no idea what it might be used for at the mill, but Sir Evelyn seemed to think it would fit his purpose. ‘If we brace this under the chassis, pick up the chain, and perhaps if we get two or three of these fellows to push her gently forwards.’
‘Backwards, Sir. Backwards would be better.’
‘Yes, of course. Glad we have an engineer on board. Backwards then.’
She watched as Mr Lanie and Sir Evelyn cajoled three of the more sober onlookers to assist in the relocation of the wayward chain. It took no more than a minute, and she suddenly realised that, in less than one minute more, Sir Evelyn and Mr Willoughby would mount their great black beetle, and drive it out of Harnham, never to be seen again.
‘You must come to the Rectory, for tea.’
She hadn’t thought. She just spoke.
‘Father would never forgive me if I allowed you to leave without some refreshment.’ Much to her surprise, she realised that it was probably true; The Reverend Mr Quicke was ever at the beck and call of anyone with a heraldic device on the side of their carriage, horseless or otherwise. If word reached him that his youngest daughter had exchanged pleasantries with a Baronet – and a Baronet’s nephew – in full view of the village and less than a hundred yards from his own front door without offering them his hospitality, then she would have some explaining to do.
For a moment Sarah was certain she had made the most awful fool of herself. Sir Evelyn and Mr Willoughby would clearly much rather be on their way, and the thrown drive chain had already held them up by almost half an hour. But she saw, with relief, that good breeding breeds good manners; Sir Evelyn announced that a cup of tea would be most welcome.
It was excruciating. Mr Lanie had offered to mind the carriage, but Sir Evelyn insisted that the Rector must hear of how helpful the young man had been to a traveller in distress. And, then, of course, her Father would not be outdone in condescension by Sir Evelyn, and had insisted that Mr Lanie join the party for tea.
And here she was, trapped on the Rectory lawn with a cup of tea in her hand, Mr Willoughby to one side, and Mr Lanie on the other, while the Rector bored the Baronet on the subject of his latest rhododendron, which was, alack, no longer in flower. Agnes smirked from the other side of the lawn, where she and their two older sisters, Ellen and Selena, held back with their mother.
Sarah could not turn to Mr Willoughby without spurning poor Mr Lanie, but neither could she turn her back on the tall, blond, handsome aristocrat. It was quite a dilemma.
Mr Willoughby saved her. ‘Lovely garden,’ he said.
She had no choice, but to engage him in conversation. And if that left Mr Lanie dangling, well he had only himself to blame; if he was unhappy competing with a baronetcy, he should never have accepted father’s invitation. Or he should have found something of interest to say. That he was in competition, he could not doubt, but did he not recognise the value of the prize?
Sarah turned to Mr Willoughby, ‘It is only a small Rectory garden. I imagine you are accustomed to something on a grander scale.’
‘Perhaps. But nothing so charming.’
And he smiled.
Sarah was not entirely ignorant of the ways of the world. She had read several slim volumes that were not to be found on the bookshelves of the Rectory library, and she knew the meaning of the phrase ‘swept off her feet’. But there is a difference between knowing and feeling.
She had no words.
Nor did he. Presumably, he was equally at sea.
A small voice – Agnes’s voice, annoyingly – whispered in the back of Sarah’s mind, pointing out how unlikely such an alliance would be. Impossible, in fact. Any interest he might show in her was apt to have the kind of consequences usually reserved for the penultimate chapters of the aforementioned slim volumes. She refused to listen.
‘It must be very pleasant when the azaleas are in bloom,’ he said.
‘It is.’ She could only hope that his comprehension of the unspoken was as good as hers.
He smiled again, and she actually took a step backwards. She had no response, no contingencies. Mr Lanie’s ensnarement had been weeks in the planning; his prospects, domestic and professional, had been laid out in advance with military precision, but with Mr Willoughby she was lost in terra incognita without a guide or a plan.
All she felt was the sun on her face, and the presence of the man standing in front of her. It was overwhelming. She turned away, seeking refuge in the comforting and unchallenging northern tones of Mr Lanie who she could hear, as if through a mist, patiently explaining the difference between internal combustion and steam locomotion. She understood not one word in ten, but his enthusiasm was endearing.
Less endearing was his audience. Her father and the Baronet had found common cause in a love of cricket, and were eagerly comparing notes on the first test at Lords; something to do with a ball passing through a famous beard, and a delightfully uncouth Australian. But the rest of her family were now gathered around Mr Lanie. Front and foremost stood Agnes, hanging from his every word.
Sarah could only watch, wounded by the betrayal and bewildered by the hypocrisy. Agnes caught sight of her, and smiled. It was too much.
Sarah turned back to Mr Willoughby, and found him gone. He had joined the gentlemen and was supplying batting averages to the conversation.
Fortunately, her tea was just the right temperature. The saucer shook slightly in her hand as she raised the cup delicately to her lips.
The ugly horseless carriage stood where they had left it. The drinkers from The Royal Oak had largely returned to the comfort of Mr Belling’s parlour, but they had been replaced by an entire class from the village Sunday School, released early by Mr Denton in honour of the wondrous machine. They were harder to restrain than their fathers, and the young lad Sir Evelyn had paid to keep his property safe was earning his sixpence.
The entire tea party had emerged from The Rectory and followed her father and Sir Evelyn back to The Green. Mr Willoughby had accompanied her mother, but her conviction that he would have preferred her own company was undermined by the undeniable fact that he did not once look in her direction. Had she been mistaken? Had his smile meant nothing? Had it been the condescending smile of a gentleman forced into polite conversation with, God forbid, a little girl? A little girl of no consequence?
She considered the possibility, and found it frighteningly credible.
She knew what Agnes would have to say on the matter. Her sisters had fluttered around Mr Lanie on the short walk from The Rectory to The Green; Ellen and Selena competing with each other and with Agnes for his bemused attention. Sarah had followed on, alone with her self-doubt, and a growing sense of grievance, only exacerbated by the occasional smug glance from Agnes. Where were her dreams of Manchester and Calcutta now? Or her all-too-brief illusions of a place by the side of a Baronet’s nephew?
The architect of her misfortunes waited for them at The Green, surrounded by excited young children and an equally excited Mr Denton. Sarah watched from a short distance as Sir Evelyn pointed out the carriage’s various features to her parents and sisters, while Mr Lanie provided additional commentary to Mr Denton, which he passed on dutifully, if a little inaccurately, to his young charges.
Mr Willoughby stood to one side and affected an expression of bored tolerance. More than once, she attempted to catch his eye, telling herself she did so only to demonstrate that his smile was equally affected.
On the third attempt, he saw her.
And she knew.
She was, indeed, that little girl of no consequence.
She was the third of four daughters of the unremarkable Rector of All Saints Church, in the remote Parish of Harnham, somewhere in Kent. A middling-sized fish in a tiny village pond. And, earlier in the day, she had imagined that it was she who was doing the fishing. What folly. She would spend her entire life in this shallow, weed-bound, stagnant pool.
She watched her family and their aristocratic visitors bustling around the carriage, together with Mr Lanie, Mr Denton, and his small army of small children; in fact, seemingly, everyone from the village who had not retired to The Royal Oak. Sir Evelyn hauled himself up onto the carriage seat. Her father and the family stood back. Mr Willoughby took a hand-crank from his uncle and stood to the front of the machine. Watched by a fascinated Mr Lanie, he inserted it in a small hole beneath the part that looked like a cooking range and, with a vigorous heave, turned it.
The machine burst into life with a crackling roar, black smoke shot out from somewhere beneath the carriage, and everybody leapt back. Sarah watched in disgust as Agnes made certain to grasp Mr Lanie by the arm, and beg him to assure her that it was perfectly safe. The great black insect shuddered noisily on the spot, as Mr Willoughby climbed up next to Sir Evelyn, and The Reverend Quicke officiously cleared the road in front of them.
Agnes still had her hand on Mr Lanie’s arm.
Mr Willoughby was stowing the hand-crank, and looking pleased to be off.
Everybody else was scurrying out of the way.
And Sarah found herself stepping out into the road. ‘Sir Evelyn?’ It was one last, insane throw of the dice. ‘Might I have a ride?’
‘Sarah!’ Her father was shocked. Her mother stifled a smile, before falling into line with her husband. Ellen and Selena followed suit, but Agnes simply gave Sarah a pitying glance, as if to say, ‘Will you really debase yourself so far as to beg for his attention?’
Interestingly, Mr Lanie’s eyes had lit up at Sarah’s suggestion. He released himself from her sister’s grip, and took an eager step forward. She took courage from his evident desire, even if his innate deference prevented him from saying anything. She felt no such qualms.
‘Mr Lanie was so helpful to you. I am sure he too would value the experience.’
Sir Evelyn laughed. ‘Would you like to drive, Miss Quicke? It seems to me that you have a talent for the manipulation of levers.’
‘Sir Evelyn…’ her father interjected in concern.
‘Don’t worry, Mr Quicke. I have no intention of putting any young lady at the controls. But Mr Lanie deserves the chance of a gallop.’
‘Uncle?’ Mr Willoughby was shocked.
‘Oh, step down, Thomas, and we’ll give this young fellow the reins. I don’t doubt he’ll make more than your ten miles an hour.’
With reluctant good grace, Mr Willoughby surrendered his seat to Mr Lanie.
Sir Evelyn turned to Sarah, ‘No room up front, I’m afraid.’
‘That’s quite alright, Sir Evelyn. I shall sit on the box seat, next to Mr Willoughby.’
Mr Willoughby looked quite as surprised as his uncle, particularly when he found himself handing her up onto the carriage. She held on to his hand just a little longer than required, and made sure to thank him very kindly.
She moved across to give him plenty of room to sit next to her, but he hesitated. Sarah became aware that there were silent conversations happening all around to which she was not a party. Her mother and her sisters were sharing a mutual, unspoken astonishment at her impudence, but that was nothing new. The new and strange conversation was the one being held at a distance between Sir Evelyn and her father; a mutual understanding from which she was excluded. Mr Willoughby was in on it too, but in a more junior role. Sarah did not understand the silent exchange, but the outcome soon became evident. Mr Willoughby stood down. He was not to ride by her side. It was not to be considered.
‘I’m sure the Rector would value your commentary, Thomas,’ Sir Evelyn suggested.
‘Yes, indeed,’ her father caught on, ‘and, perhaps, your assistance keeping these young people out of the road.’ He waved vaguely in the direction of the Sunday School class, who did indeed seem quite willing to fall beneath the carriage wheels at the first opportunity.
Sarah found herself sitting alone on the box seat, her back to Sir Evelyn and Mr Lanie as the former explained what needed pushing and what needed pulling in order to persuade the beetle to move. Mr Lanie seemed to have an instinctive understanding of what was required, but they nonetheless remained stationary for an unconscionably long time. Sarah held her head up high, but the silent reproof of her entire family was becoming intensely irritating. She was very pleased when Mr Lanie pushed or pulled the final lever, and the beetle leapt out into the road.
She very nearly fell, and she most certainly cried out.
‘Steady, now, Mr Lanie,’ Sir Evelyn shouted above the noise of the machine. ‘Gently does it, or we shall lose Miss Quicke.’
Mr Lanie glanced over his shoulder at her, ‘My apologies.’ But the look on his face was one of sheer delight.
She grinned back at him and held on tight, ‘You have not lost me yet.’ And maybe that was true; there was something wonderfully authentic about his raw enthusiasm. Her right hand held on to the back of the seat against which he was braced, and, while he was probably unaware of the contact, she felt it keenly. Agnes was back on the grass verge fifty yards away, as was Mr Willoughby. Manchester and Calcutta had never seemed so close.
Three of the boys from Sunday School were running alongside and behind the carriage, but Mr Lanie had the beast in hand now, and the boys were falling behind. They hauled up over the bridge and took the long straight road through the water meadows. Sarah saw the cattle looking up, and pulling away nervously from this noisy intrusion into their tedious pastoral affairs. The last runner stood at the crest of the bridge and waved the dust from his eyes, as Mr Lanie drove them faster and faster, further and further from Harnham and its church and its Rectory and its fishpond of little people.
She turned in her seat, still surprised to see no sign of horses in the traces. In fact, no trace of the traces either. Dear Mr Lanie was sweating atrociously, his face a delightful combination of furious concentration and childlike delight. Sir Evelyn beamed, and then frowned as he saw the curve of the road ahead, and the turn into Crabbe Hill.
‘Whoa, there, Lanie!’ he shouted. ‘Brake, Man, brake!’ Mr Lanie hesitated, and Sir Evelyn reached across him and hauled on the long lever by his side. The carriage skipped and plunged and threatened to turn fully sideways before catching in a deep rut and coming to an abrupt halt. Sarah was thrown back, and then forward, and back again until she found herself upright and miraculously safe. The carriage continued its noisy juddering; its vibrations hiding the nervous palpitations of her heart, and the shaking of her limbs. Sir Evelyn’s peculiar hat lay improbably on the box seat next to her, as if he had calmly placed it there for safekeeping.
The mechanical heartbeat came to a halt.
Sarah turned carefully in her seat, to find Mr Lanie and the hatless Sir Evelyn sharing the horrifying possibility that they had contrived to assassinate the Rector’s daughter. For a brief moment, there was what is known as a stunned silence.
It was broken by the arrival of Mr Ware and his wife. Their buggy pulled around the corner of Crabbe Hill into the precise spot through which Sir Evelyn’s carriage would have driven had he not pulled them up. The elderly couple were completely unaware of how close they, their grey gelding and their buggy had come to annihilation. Indeed, Mr Ware’s vision was so poor these days that he failed to notice anything unusual about the horseless carriage in the centre of the road. He pulled to one side to get past, and his wife, whose vision was famously acute, stared in speechless wonder as her husband politely raised his hat in their general direction. Mr Lanie raised his in return. Sir Evelyn was temporarily disconcerted, until Sarah plucked his hat from the box seat, and handed it to him. He placed it on his head, and immediately raised it at the astonished Mrs Ware. ‘Good afternoon, Ma’am. Sir. Capital weather.’
Sarah and Mr Lanie stifled their laughter only until the Wares were at a safe distance, and Sir Evelyn’s broad grin gave them permission. The three of them; Baronet, engineer and Rector’s daughter, sat on the squat horseless carriage in the middle of the dusty road and laughed loud enough to disturb the cows once more. Sir Evelyn wiped his face with his floppy hat, and then reached under his seat and passed the hand-crank to Mr Lanie. ‘I think I shall drive us back.’
Mr Lanie seemed to derive almost as much pleasure from cranking the engine as he had from driving and steering the carriage. The return journey should perhaps have been a disappointment, but Sarah felt an unexpected calm as they trundled back towards the bridge at a moderate speed. She had her back to Harnham, of course, and was free to cast her eyes over the meadows, the cattle, and the steep hill up towards the woods which looked over the valley, and which all but hid the hospital up on the Downs. It wasn’t that she hated this little world of hers. She knew perfectly well that Mr Lanie’s Manchester was black with soot, and Calcutta rife with disease. Mr Willoughby would probably inherit a grand house in the country, but the view from its fine windows would not be so very different from the view across the water meadows here in Harnham.
Anyway, Mr Willoughby was never likely to whisk her away on his uncle’s horseless carriage. She knew that.
And Mr Lanie was sweet, but, honestly, he would have spent the afternoon hidden behind that gravestone if she hadn’t pulled him forward.
The carriage lurched up and over the bridge, and circled The Green before drawing up once more by the lychgate, where her father and the others stood waiting.
Thank you so much for sticking with Sarah and her non-suitors right through to the end. I hope you enjoyed it.
Sarah’s story is just one of thirty such stories in my Work-in-Progress, The Descent of Chloe Jackson. There’s another one, Your Affectionate Friend, available on the website.
Members of my Readers’ Club can also find a third story, A Yellow Scrap of Paper right here.
There’ll be other Readers’ Club Freebies from time to time and maybe another Reading Week for everyone in the Summer.
One day, it’ll all come together and look something like this…
In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the newsletters and please do keep in touch. It’s a long and laborious journey ahead of me, and it’d be nice to have friends come along for the ride.
As always, please share these stories with all your book-loving friends, and encourage them to join our adventure.