Authors: Robert Neill
Tags: #historical fiction
© Robert Neill 1965
Secretary-Extraordinary of the Cumbrian Literary Group:
in whose debt, for friendship, talk, wine, lie so many of us here:
I, to my delight, not least.
I am indebted to librarians, as authors so often are. The County Librarian of Cumberland and his staff went to great trouble to provide me with all I needed; and the Borough Librarian of Cheltenham, Mr. H. G. Fletcher, gave truth and detail to my picture of the Regency spa by lending me contemporary maps and guide-books. Both libraries showed an expert knowledge of what was to be had, and were very willing to let me profit from it.
The earlier history of the Wickham family, who appear in this book, may be read in my novel
So Fair A House.
A girl driving a curricle! It was preposterous, scarcely to be believed. In Hyde Park, in the blaze of the afternoon sun! If ever there was a carriage made for men, a mad, dangerous, difficult thing, it was surely a curricle--and here it was, sleek and fast and open, two wheels and two horses, a spanking pair of greys. And here
was, a girl, hardly old enough to be a woman, and not merely driving it but alone in the thing! The Park was aghast; and Hyde Park, in that September of 1815, meant the Town, the
everyone who mattered and some hundreds who did not. They were all there to see her.
She had come from Park Lane, coming quietly through the Chesterfield Gate and turning down to where the westward roads diverged north and south of the Serpentine water. The road to the north was not fashionable. It was all but deserted, and the throng was south of the water, on the King’s Private Road as it was properly called, the
Route du Roi,
which had once led to his palace at Kensington and was now called Rotten Row. Here were the
the fashion, riding their fine blood horses, or driving their phaetons and gigs. Some even chose to walk, parading in the sun, showing themselves and seeing the others; and what they saw was the curricle.
It was meant to be seen. It was gleaming and twinkling in the sun, red and yellow and silver, blue sky above, greys trotting lazily. Its driver twinkled too, slim and young, charming in lavender-blue. She was sitting perfectly, exactly in the centre, head erect and elbows in, wrists flexing gently to the pull of the reins, a pair in each hand and two fingers free for the whip. She was confidence and impudence, and scandalously without a hat, to show a head of golden hair and a taut young face, brown and smiling. It was an infectious smile, and old Colonel Ashley, sitting in his tilbury with his wife, seemed to forget his years. He slapped delightedly at his thigh.
‘Venus alive, by God!’ he said.
She was certainly alive. She was brimming with life, and as she came closer she broke suddenly into a laugh, white teeth flashing as she lifted her whip in cheerful greeting. The Colonel leaned forward, lifting his hat as the curricle went slowly past. A little head tossed mischievously, and some other hats rose promptly. Half a dozen gentlemen edged forward, thinking this charmer worth the catching.
But she was not to be caught that way, and suddenly, as she came to a gap in the fence, she pulled her horses off the road into a path that led to the other road beyond the water. The move brought her more into view. She could be seen now by others along the Row, and she was in no hurry. She was letting her horses walk, and as she came to the Serpentine she stopped them altogether, sitting utterly still with the sun on her face and hair. Then the white reins flicked, and in an instant the greys were off, fiery and delighted as they found their trot. On the less fashionable road they had room to move, and since it diverged only slightly from the Row the curricle was running past the crowd. The effect was startling.
‘Good God!’ said Admiral Wharton.
‘The damned thing’s yellow,’ said the Earl of Hildersham.
It was. They could really see it now, panels of primrose picked out with lavender, bright-red wheels with hubs of silver, dashboard and hood of milk-white leather. The harness was of the same, with silver furniture, and at the rear, on the seat between the great C-springs, sat the groom who completed the equipage. He was as smart as the rest of it, frock-coat in lavender with silver buttons, snow-white buckskins, top boots in yellow, tall black hat with primrose ribbon; a slim little fellow, sitting erect with folded arms and some smiling glances at the crowd. His weight had been allowed for. The curricle was perfectly balanced, and the trot became faster as if the greys could hardly feel its weight. A plume of dust began to rise behind the wheels, and the girl leaned forward a little in her seat as her hands tightened on the reins. These were not horses to forget.
‘Two bits of blood,’ said Sir John de la March.
‘Three bits,’ said the Earl of Hildersham.
He was sitting his chestnut mare at the side of the riflegreen phaeton that contained his wife, but he was hardly looking at her. He was a big handsome fellow, twenty-six years old, with a buoyant laugh and a fine deep voice that matched his weight--a hundred and ninety pounds, and none of it was fat. His wife threw him a suspicious glance and then resumed her own inspection of the curricle and its driver-- particularly its driver; noting again the high-waisted gown of primrose muslin, the lavender pelisse, the hatless head, the short-cropped hair in carefully careless curls. This detail her ladyship found ominous. It was a year behind the fashion, but it suited that head perfectly; which meant that the chit knew what she was doing.
At that moment she did some more of it. The trotting greys had taken her abreast of the lake, so that it would now lie between her and the greater length of Rotten Row, where most of the riders were. A hundred gentlemen were watching, and suddenly she turned for an instant in her seat, tossing her head defiantly and waving her whip at them. It was an obvious invitation, and then she turned to the horses, shoulders braced, feet firm on the dashboard as the reins shook and she called on the greys in earnest.
‘Tally ho!’ bawled Hildersham, and put his horse at the fence in front of him. Then he was away at a gallop, leading the field as other horses, all along the Row, began to leap the fence. Mr. Liddell’s piebald was the first. Sir John de la March came thrusting after him, and Captain Curry of the Blues. Captain Grant, Royal Navy, who was riding with Admiral Wharton, found himself somehow across the fence in loyal pursuit of his senior officer. Jack Lawson, a noted buck, came pounding after him, and Sir Michael Murphy, pressing it hard for the honour of Ireland. Colonel Ashley was dancing in his tilbury, and forgotten wives knew exactly where to put the blame.
‘God damn the bitch!’ said the Countess of Hildersham, and spoke for a score of well-bred ladies.
Already the field was stringing out, for the riders had to round the eastern side of the lake before they could gain the road at all, and the girl was waiting for nobody. The curricle was darting now through the trees on the further bank, seen only at moments, but the speed of the greys was unmistakable. They had been given their heads, with just enough rein to keep them on the road, and the beautifully built curricle was following perfectly. Then, for one short moment, they had a touch of the whip, and they leaped away as if the curricle was nothing. From the other bank it looked like a gallop, and old Colonel Ashley was up on the seat of his tilbury, tottering dangerously while his wife clutched frantically at him.
‘Going like the devil!’ he crowed. ‘They won’t catch her. They won’t do it.’
Hildersham was round the lake by now, with Sir Michael Murphy at his heels, and Captain Curry of the Blues. Others followed, and all they could see as they gained the road was a streak of red and primrose swaying round a distant bend, with a rolling cloud of dust to tell the speed of it. Sir Michael halloo’d as if in the hunting field---where he often was--and Captain Curry spurred his charger. They were going hell-for-leather now, heads down, and hooves thundering everywhere.
‘General chase!’ yelled Admiral Wharton, leading the Rear Division, and his black flung stones in the face of Captain Grant, late of the
frigate. Sir John de la March had lost his hat, and Mr. Liddell’s piebald picked a stone and came limping to a stop. Then Captain Grant came likewise to a stop, but for a different reason. He was the least experienced rider. Of the twenty-nine years in his life he had spent the last fifteen at sea, which had not taught him much about horses. But it had taught him some other things, and now he began to think professionally about this. Pursuit, he thought, must be the same by land or sea. The same considerations would apply, and he began to ask what course the chase would steer--by which he meant the curricle. The road was running to the west, but he knew that it soon curved broadly to the north, leaving the water and taking a wide sweep across the Park to the Ring, which had once been the parade of fashion and was now abandoned. But the road ran past the Ring, and then curved again, running north-eastward to the Cumberland Gate at the extreme corner of the Park, and by the time the curricle reached the gate it would really have traversed three sides of a square. It could therefore be intercepted. To a frigate captain that was obvious, and with decision once made he acted promptly. He took a glance at the westering sun and another at his watch, and then pulled his horse from the road, pounding across the grass on a course he judged to be north by east. That, he thought, should be about right.
Flying hooves and whirling wheels. Dust cloud seething behind the curricle. Going like the devil, as the Colonel said. Hildersham in the lead, three lengths clear, gaining a little but not enough. On and on. Curricle past the Ring---primrose panels gay in the sun--milk-white reins, straining greys--firm little hands, muslin gloves--eyes intent, wind in hair--on and on--groom behind with folded arms-- swaying springs, scampering hooves--greys of Medusa’s breed.
Chestnut mare in the dust behind--like all the devils now --catch as catch can. Turn to the east--thundering greys on a straight white road--brown face laughing--the gate in sight. Then a horseman from the grass, out of the sun. Swirl of dust as he gains the road.
Captain Grant had done it as nicely as he had been known to do at sea. He had made his interception just opposite the Tyburn turnpike, a little before the gate, and before he quite knew what had happened he was riding beside the curricle, wondering how his horse would take the hiss and clatter of its wheels. But the clatter eased, and he saw the reins tighten as the girl pulled back the greys. She was not looking at him. She was giving her whole thought to the excited horses, leaning back, feet pressing on the dashboard as she brought them into control again. Speed began to fall. The swaying springs were steadier, and the clatter dropped to a crunch and a pleasant jingle of harness. For the moment he could see her in profile, and to his eager eyes she was a blaze of colour, golden head and brown young face, primrose muslin and lavender gloves, all against the blue of the sky, and with it a sense of something delicate and fragrant. It took his breath away, and for an instant he was aware of his own conventional clothes, his tall black hat, brown riding frock, breeches, and top boots. He was no match for her gaiety. Then, as if satisfied now with the horses, she turned and looked straight at him, and the effect was devastating. He had seen little of women, but not even imagination, in the lonely years at sea, had ever reached to this, and he was speechless on his horse as he looked into deep-blue eyes in the clear young face. She broke into a laugh, a happy carefree laugh that invited anything, and then, in one impulsive movement, she snatched a rose that was pinned to her breast and flung it to him. Incredibly he caught it, and when he turned to her again she had her eyes on the horses as she pulled them further back. They came to a gentle trot, and he had still not spoken when a sweating chestnut broke through the dust behind and the Earl of Hildersham came boisterously up.
There was nothing mute about Hildersham. He was younger than Grant, but much more used to this sort of thing. He looked at Grant, wondered perhaps who he was, saw the rose, guessed its meaning, and then raised his hat. He saluted both of them and seemed happy to do it. Then he came to the near side of the curricle and waved his hat again. For an instant the girl turned her head. The blue eyes looked at his, and mischievous amusement came into her smile. Then, very deliberately, with no sign of haste, she disengaged another rose, much smaller than the first, and held it before her while she looked disparagingly at it. He stretched out his hand, but she was still in no hurry. She gave attention to the greys again, bringing them to an even lazier trot, before she held it out to him, a deep-red rose in a lavender glove. He took it gallantly, looked ruefully at it, then broke into a smile as he held it for Grant to see.
‘First prize to you, sir. And my congratulations. May I know your name?’