Alicia hung on more tightly to the leather strap as the coach lurched into and out of an even deeper rut than usual. Beside her, Tess struggled to sit upright, clutching Peppy, her little white dog. On the opposite seat, Matty, Tess's young maid, tried to prevent Tess's expensive dressing case from falling to the floor. It appeared there was no turnpike road between Tonbridge and their destination, for they had been travelling by badly made lanes ever since leaving the town. The horses moved at walking pace, the carriage creaking and swaying unevenly.
'Who would believe the roads could be so bad,' said Tess. It was the first time either of them had spoken for some minutes; both Alicia and Tess had long since run out of things to say about their journey, or what might await them at the end of it.
'This is the country,' Alicia reminded her friend, 'not Bath or Bristol or London.'
'Yes, and I have been wishing for the last two hours that I had never left Bristol!'
Alicia did not blame Tess for sounding irritable. This was their fourth day of travel. Twenty hours crowded with strangers in the mail coach had been broken by a poor night's sleep in Newbury. Then a night in London, sharing a bed in a room above an inn yard, their sleep again disturbed by the sounds of horses' hooves and carriage wheels moving over the cobbles and the loud voices of coachmen and ostlers. Another day in a public coach had brought them to Tonbridge, where they had spent the night, before setting out on the last part of their journey in a hired carriage. They had thought of hiring a private conveyance for the whole journey, but Tess had been nervous about travelling such a long distance with a strange driver, especially as the times were so uncertain.
'We must surely be nearly there,' Alicia said. 'It's more than two hours since we left Tonbridge. Mr Martin told me Brookden is ten or twelve miles from there. Even on these roads, it can't take much longer.'
'I hope not,' Tess replied. 'I'm longing for a cup of chocolate. And a blazing fire. And then a comfortable bed. I declare that mattress at the Crown last night was stuffed with rocks.'
'There may not be any chocolate,' Alicia said. 'I have the impression my grandfather was a port and brandy man.'
'There will be,' said Tess. 'I brought some with me. And some tea. I spent a week in the country once, I know what it's like. You laughed at me for bringing so much luggage, but you'll thank me yet.'
Alicia looked out of the carriage window again. The lane wound its way between small fields, thick hedgerows and woodland. The ground was covered with fallen leaves and there was a hint of mist between the trees. The late autumn afternoon was overcast; it had rained earlier, and soon it would be dark. The dreary surroundings were dampening even Alicia's usual optimism. Her anticipation was no longer focused on seeing her house for the first time, but only on reaching the end of the journey. Town bred, she had little idea of what to expect in the country. Other than that their destination lay in a wild and remote part of Kent, a county to which she and Tess were both complete strangers, Alicia had been able to discover very little in the months since she had first heard of her grandfather's death and her consequent inheritance. Several of those to whom she had mentioned it had advised her to sell or let the house, but Mr Martin the attorney had told her in one of his earliest letters that this would be difficult. The hose was old and in a remote location, and there was insufficient land to sell it as a farm.
Tess was also looking out of the window.
'Do you think the driver really knows the way?' she asked. 'I'm beginning to think we shall drive on for ever and never arrive!'
'The landlord at the Crown said he was a very reliable man,' replied Alicia.
'He also said it was a very comfortable coach,' Tess retorted, 'and look at it!'
'Well, I don't suppose - ' Alicia began, then broke off. 'We've passed that inn before, I remember that odd-shaped tree next to it. We are lost!'
They were both too tired to react with anything other than resignation. Alicia reached up and pulled the cord to stop the carriage. The horses ambled to a halt, but the driver did not climb down from his seat to come and see what was wanted. Alicia forced down the grimy window and looked out and up to the driver's seat. She could see only his shoulder and the brim of his hat, pulled well down over his face. Opening the door of the coach, she climbed down into the road. Her limbs were stiff from sitting; she made the long step down awkwardly, unable to spare a hand to hold up her skirts. Her feet sank into sticky clay, which clung to her shoes. Lifting the hems of her coat, gown and petticoat above her ankles, she took a few steps to look up into the driver's face.
'Are we lost?' she called up to him.
'Maybe,' he replied.
'What do you mean, maybe? Do you know the way or don't you?'
'I'm not from these parts myself.'
'Well, why don't you go and ask in that inn we've just passed? Ask if there's someone who will come with us to show us the way.'
'Can't leave the horses,' the driver replied. His manner was not rude or surly, merely uninterested.
'I'll go and ask then,' said Alicia, impatiently. She turned back to tell Tess what she intended.
'Do you think you should go in there, Allie?' Tess asked doubtfully, looking back at the inn. 'It looks a rough sort of place.'
'One of us has to do something, and the driver will not go.'
'Perhaps if we drive on, we may come to a village where we may ask for help at a respectable house.'
'And perhaps we may not. We have not seen a village since we left Tonbridge, only farmhouses and cottages.' Not waiting to argue the matter any further, Alicia turned and began to pick her way back along the lane to the inn.
Moisture still dripped from the branches after the earlier rain, and the trees seemed to crowd in on the narrow lane. There was a moment when, due to a slight bend in the lane and the overhanging branches, Alicia was out of sight of both the carriage and the inn. She felt alone and uneasy, and for a moment hesitated, tempted to hurry back to the carriage and take up Tess's suggestion that they drive on until they came to a respectable house. Then she told herself not to be so foolish. In allowing herself to be unnerved by a few trees and a fading light, she was behaving like a female in one of the romances Tess was so fond of. There was nothing to fear, and if she did not seek help, they might very well be benighted.
The inn was a small, ancient, dilapidated building with a yard and some outhouses at one side. The tiled roof sagged alarmingly, the casement windows were small and low. A faded sign told Alicia that this was the Red Lion. She went up to the door, opened it, and found she had stepped into a narrow passage. On her right, a door stood slightly ajar; the sound of men's voices, occasionally raised in raucous cheers and laughter, suggested that this was the taproom. A flight of stairs rose in front of Alicia, and beyond them the passage was in deep shadow. She hesitated, uncertain about entering the taproom, but there was no sound or light to suggest that there was anyone elsewhere in the building. As she stood there, a voice was raised above the general hum of conversation beyond the half open door.
'I say we chase 'em out right now, them and others like 'em. In France - ' Alicia could not hear the rest of what he said; it was lost in the noise as some men cheered and banged on tables in approval, and others, who had evidently heard it too many times before, shouted the man down.
'That Miss Celia's not so bad,' another man said, when the noise had died down. 'She helps out my old Ma with food and such, on top of what the parish gives her.'
'And if we all had our rights, your old woman wouldn't need helping out,' the first voice said. 'We'd all have a bit of land and be able to keep ourselves, and no need for rich folks' charity.'
'Ay, you're right there, Will.'
'What call to they have for a fine house, and horses and all, when the likes of us can scarce scrape together sixpence for a loaf of bread?' There was another chorus of agreement. Alicia began to feel uncomfortable. This was dangerous talk. Revolution had been raging across the Channel for more than three years and many Englishmen were infected with the same spirit, so that every day brought new reports of riot, sedition and attacks on property, while war with France seemed to be approaching nearer and nearer.
Another voice spoke.
'Enough of that, Will. It's not what we're here for. Jem, go watch at the door. We want no unfriendly ears listening.'
There was a scrape along the floor, as if someone was pushing back a chair to stand up. Alicia moved quickly. She could not be caught here listening. She pushed the door wide and entered the room.
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