The Last Stage Coachman

Wilkie Collins

The Last Stage Coachman Page 02

To my utter astonishment, not, it must be owned, unmixed with fear, he suddenly turned his eyes towards my place of shelter, and walked up to me.

'That's the rail,' said he, between his set teeth.

'It is,' said I, considerably embarrassed.

'Damn it!' returned the excited Stage Coachman.

There was something inexpressibly awful about this execration; and I confess I felt a strong internal conviction that the next day's paper would teem with horrible railway accidents in every column.

'I did my utmost to hoppose 'em,' said the Stage Coachman, in softened accents. 'I wos the last that guv' in, I kep' a losing day after day, and yet I worked on; I wos determined to do my dooty, and I drove a coach the last day with an old hooman and a carpet bag inside, and three little boys and seven whopping empty portmanteaus outside. I wos determined my last kick to have some passengers to show to the rail, so I took my wife and children 'cos nobody else wouldn't go, and then we guv' in. Hows'ever, the last time as I wos on the road I didn't go and show 'em an empty coach -- we wasn't full, but we wasn't empty; we wos game to the last!'

A grim smile of triumph lit up the features of the deposed Coachman as he gave vent to this assertion. He took hold of me by the button-hole, and led the way into the house.

'This landlord wos an austerious sort of a man,' said he; 'he used to hobserve, that he only wished a Railway Committee would dine at his house, he'd pison 'em all, and emigrate; and he'd ha' done it, too!'

I did not venture to doubt this, so the Stage Coachman continued.

'I've smoked my pipe by the hour together in that fire-place; I've read 'The Times' adwertisements and Perlice Reports in that box till I fell asleep; I've walked up and down this here room a saying all sorts of things about the rail, and a busting for happiness. Outside this wery door I've bin a drownded in thankys from ladies for never lettin' nobody step through their band-boxes. The chambermaids used to smile, and the dogs used to bark, wherever I came. -- But it's all hover now -- the poor feller as kep' this place takes tickets at a Station, and the chambermaids makes scalding hot tea behind a mahuggany counter for people as has no time to drink it in!'

As the Stage Coachman uttered these words, a contemptuous sneer puckered in his sallow cheek. He led me back into the yard; the ruined appearance of which, looked doubly mournful, under the faint rays of moonlight that every here and there stole through the dilapidated walls of the stable. An owl had taken up his abode, where the chief oastler's bedroom had once rejoiced in the grotesque majesty of huge portraits of every winner of every 'Derby,' since the first days of Epsom. The bird of night flew heavily off at our approach, and my companion pointed gloomily up to the fragments of mouldy, worm-eaten wood, the last relics of the stable loft.

'He wos a great friend of mine, was that h'oastler,' said the Coachman, 'but he's left this railway-bothered world -- he wos finished by the train.'

At my earnest entreaty to hear further, he continued,

'When this h'old place wos guv'up and ruinated; the h'oastler as 'ud never look at the rail before, went down to have a sight of it, and as he wos a leaning his elbows on the wall, and a wishing as how he had the stabling of all the steam h'ingines (he'd ha' done 'em justice!) wot should he see, but one of his osses as wos thrown out of employ by the rail, a walking along jist where the train wos coming. Bill jumped down, and as he wos a leading of him h'off, up comes the train, and went over his leg and cut the 'os in two -- "Tom," says he to me when we picked him up; "I'm a going eleven mile an hour, to the last stage as is left for me to do. I've always done my dooty with the osses; I've bin and done it now -- bury that ere poor os and me out of the noise of the rail." We got the surgeons to him, but he never spoke no more, Poor Bill! Poor Bill!'

This last recollection seemed too much for the Stage Coachman, he wrung my hand, and walked abruptly to the farthest corner of the yard.

I took care not to interrupt him, and watched him carefully from a distance.

At first, the one expression of his countenance was melancholy; but by degrees, other thoughts came crowding from his mind, and mantled on his woe-be-gone visage. Poor fellow, I could see that he was again in imagination the beloved of the ladies and the adored of the chambermaids: a faint reflection of the affable, yet majestic demeanour, required by his calling, flitted occasionally over his pinched, attenuated features: and brightened the cold, melancholy expression of his countenance.

As I still looked, it grew darker and darker, yet the face of the Stage Coachman was never for an instant hidden from me. The same artificial expression of pleasure characterised its lineaments as before. Suddenly I heard a strange, unnatural noise in the air -- now it seemed like the distant trampling of horses; and now again, like the rumbling of a heavily laden coach along a public road.

Wilkie Collins

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