Copyright
E.V. Lucas.

The Slowcoach online

. (page 1 of 12)
Online LibraryE.V. LucasThe Slowcoach → online text (page 1 of 12)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


THE SLOWCOACH


BY

E. V. LUCAS.




CONTENTS

CHAPTER 1: THE AVORIES
CHAPTER 2: THE SOUND OF MYSTERIOUS WHEELS
CHAPTER 3: THE THOROUGH EXAMINATION
CHAPTER 4: THE ITEMS
CHAPTER 5: DIOGENES AND MOSES
CHAPTER 6: THE PLANS
CHAPTER 7: MR. LENOX'S YOUNG BROTHER
CHAPTER 8: THE FIRST DAY
CHAPTER 9: THE FIRST NIGHT
CHAPTER 10: THE ADVENTURE OF THE SECOND CARAVAN
CHAPTER 11: THE WAYSIDE FRIEND
CHAPTER 12: STRATFORD-ON-AVON
CHAPTER 13: THE ADVENTURE OF THE YOUNG POLICEMAN
CHAPTER 14: THE ADVENTURE OF THE LITTLE OLD LADY
CHAPTER 15: THE ADVENTURE OF THE RUNAWAY PONIES
CHAPTER 16: THE BLACK SPANIELS
CHAPTER 17: THE ADVENTURE OF THE LOST BABY
CHAPTER 18: THE ADVENTURE OF THE OLD IRISHWOMAN
CHAPTER 19: THE LETTER TO X
CHAPTER 20: THE ADVENTURE OF THE LINE OF POETRY
CHAPTER 21: COLLINS'S PEOPLE
CHAPTER 22: THE ADVENTURE OF THE GIANT
CHAPTER 23: THE MOST SURPRISING ADVENTURE OF ALL
CHAPTER 24: THE END



CHAPTER 1

THE AVORIES

Once upon a time there was a nice family. Its name was Avory, and it
lived in an old house in Chiswick, where the Thames is so sad on grey
days and so gay on sunny ones.

Mr. - or rather Captain - Avory was dead; he had been wounded at Spion
Kop, and died a few years after. Mrs. Avory was thirty-five, and she
had four children. The eldest was Janet, aged fourteen, and the
youngest was Gregory Bruce, aged seven. Between these came Robert
Oliver, who was thirteen, and Hester, who was nine.

They were all very fond of each other, and they rarely quarreled. (If
they had done so, I should not be telling this story. You don't catch
me writing books about people who quarrel.) They adored their mother.

The name of the Avories' house was "The Gables," which was a better
name than many houses have, because there actually were gables in its
roof. Hester, who had funny ideas, wanted to see all the people who
lived in all the houses that are called "The Gables" everywhere drawn
up in a row so that she might examine them. She used to lie awake at
night and wonder how many there would be. "I'm sure mother would be the
most beautiful, anyway," she used to say.

History was Hester's passion. She could read history all day. Here she
differed from Robert Oliver, who was all for geography. Their friends
knew of these tastes, of course, and so Hester's presents were nearly
always history books or portraits of great men, such as Napoleon and
Shakespeare, both of whom she almost worshipped, while Robert's were
compasses and maps. He also had a mapmeasurer (from Mr. Lenox), and at
the moment at which this story opens, his birthday being just over, he
was the possessor of a pedometer, which he carried fastened to his leg,
under his knickerbockers, so that it was certain to register every time
he took a step. He kept a careful record of the distance he had walked
since his birthday, and could tell you at any time what it was, if you
gave him a minute or two to crawl under the table and undo his clothes.
He could be heard grunting in dark places all day long, having been
forbidden by Janet to undress in public.

Robert's birthday was on June 20, Hester's on November 8, and Janet's
on February 28. She had the narrowest escape, you see, of getting
birthdays only once in every four years; which is one of the worst
things that can happen to a human being. Gregory Bruce was a little
less lucky, for his birthday was on December 20, which is so near to
Christmas Day that mean persons have been known to make one gift do for
both events. None the less, Gregory's possessions were very numerous;
for he had many friends, and most of them were careful to keep these
two great anniversaries apart.

Gregory's particular passion just now was the names of engines, of
which he had one of the finest collections in Europe; but a model
aeroplane which Mr. Scott had given him was beginning to turn his
thoughts towards the conquest of the air, and whereas he used to tell
people that he meant to be an engine driver when he grew up, he was now
adding, "or a man like Wilbur Wright."

Most children have wanted to fly ever since "Peter Pan" began, and, as
I dare say you have heard, some have tried from the nursery window,
with perfectly awful results, having neglected to have their shoulders
first touched magically; but Gregory Bruce Avory wanted to fly in a
more regular and scientific manner. He wanted to fly like an engineer.
To his mind, indeed, the flying part of "Peter Pan" was the least
fascinating; he preferred the underground home, and the fight with the
Indians, and the mechanism of the crocodile. For a short time, in fact,
his only ambition had been to be the crocodile's front half.

Janet, on the other hand, liked Nana and the pathetic motherly parts
the best; Robert's favourite was Smee, and often at meal times he used
to say, "Woe is me, I have no knife"; while Hester was happiest in the
lagoon scene. This difference of taste in one small family shows how
important it is for anyone who writes a play to put a lot of variety
into it.

Janet, the eldest, was also the most practical. She was, in fact,
towards the others almost more of a younger mother than an elder
sister. Not that Mrs. Avory neglected them at all; but Janet relieved
her of many little duties. She always knew when their feet were likely
to be wet, and Robert had once said that she had "stocking changing on
the brain." She could cook, too, especially cakes, and the tradesmen
had a great respect for her judgment when she went shopping. She knew
when a joint would be too fat, and you should see her pointing out the
bone!

Janet was a tall girl, and very active, and, in spite of her
responsibilities, very jolly. She played hockey as well almost as a
boy, which is, of course, saying everything, and her cricket was good,
too. Her bowling was fast and straight, and usually too much for
Robert, who knew, however, the initials of all the gentlemen and the
Christian names and birthplaces of most of the professionals. Gregory
could not bear cricket, except when it was his own innings, which he
seemed to enjoy during its brief duration. Hester thought it dull
throughout, so that Janet had to depend upon Robert and the Rotherams
for the best games.

Janet had very straight fair hair, and just enough freckles to be
pretty. She looked nicest in blue. Hester, on the contrary, was a dark
little thing, whose best frock was always red.

As for the boys - it doesn't matter what boys are like; but Gregory, I
might say, usually had black hands: not because he was naturally a
grubby little beast, but because engineers do. Robert, on the contrary,
was disposed to be dressy, and he declined to allow his mother or Janet
to buy his socks or neckties without first consulting him as to colours.

Among the friends of the family must be put first Uncle Chris, who was
Captain Avory's brother and a lawyer in Golden Square. Uncle Chris
looked after Mrs. Avory's money and gave advice. He was very nice, and
came to dinner every Sunday (hot roast beef and horse radish sauce).
There was an Aunt Chris, too, but she was an invalid and could not
leave her room, where she lay all the time and remembered birthdays.

Next to Uncle Chris came Mr. Scott, who was a famous author and a very
good cricketer on the lawn, and Mr. Lenox, who was private secretary to
a real lord, and therefore had lots of time and money. Both Mr. Scott
and Mr. Lenox were bachelors, as the best friends of families always
are; unless, of course, their wives are invalids.

Gregory, who was more social than Robert, also knew one policeman, one
coachman, three chauffeurs, and several Chiswick boatmen extremely
intimately. Robert's principal friend outside the family was a bird
stuffer in Hammersmith; but he does not come into this story.

The Avories did not go to boarding school, or, indeed, to any school in
the ordinary way at all; Mrs. Avory said she could not spare them.
Instead they were visited every day except Saturdays by Mr. Crawley and
Miss Bingham, who taught them the things that one is supposed to
know - Mr. Crawley taking the boys in the old billiard room, and Miss
Bingham the girls in the morning room. At some of the lessons - such as
history - they all joined. The classes were attended also by the
Rotherams, the doctor's children, who lived at "Fir Grove," and Horace
Campbell, the only son of the vicar. So it was a kind of school, after
all.

Horace Campbell had always intended to be a cowboy when he grew up, but
a visit to a play called "Raffles" was now rather inclining him to
gentlemanly burglary. William Rotheram, like Gregory, leaned towards
flying; but Jack Rotheram voted steadily for the sea, and talked of
little but Osborne.

Mary Rotheram played with a bat almost as straight as "Plum" Warner's,
and she knew most of the old Somersetshire songs - "Mowing the Barley,"
and "Lord Rendal," and "Seventeen come Sunday" - by heart, and sang them
beautifully. Gregory, who used to revel in Sankey's hymns as sung by
Eliza Pollard, the parlourmaid, now thought that the Somerset music was
the only real kind. Mary Rotheram had a snub nose and quantities of
freckle and a very nice nature.

"The Gables" had a large garden, with a shrubbery of evergreens in it
and a cedar. It was not at all a garden-party garden, because there was
a well-worn cricketpitch right in the middle of the lawn, and Gregory
had a railway system where the best flowers ought to be; but it was a
garden full of fun, and old Kink, the gardener, managed to get a great
many vegetables out of it, too, although not so many as Collins thought
he ought to.

Collins was the cook, a fat, smiling, hot lady of about fifty, who had
been with Mrs. Avory ever since she married. Collins understood
children thoroughly, and made cakes that were rather wet underneath.
Her Yorkshire pudding (for Sunday's dinner) was famous, and her horse
radish sauce was so perfect that it brought tears to the eyes.

Collins collected picture postcards and adored the family. She had
never been cross to any of them, but her way with the butcher's boy and
the grocer's boy and the fishmonger's boy was terrible.

She snapped their heads off (so to speak) every morning, and old Kink
spent quite a lot of his time in rubbing from off the backdoor the
awful things they wrote about her in chalk.

The parlourmaid was Eliza Pollard, who had red hair and a kind heart,
but was continually falling out with her last young man and getting
another. She told Hester all about it. Hester had a special knack of
being told about the servants' young men, for she knew also all about
those of Eliza Pollard's predecessors.

The housemaid was Jane Masters, who helped Eliza Pollard to make the
beds. Jane Masters did not hold with fickleness in love - in fact, she
couldn't abide it - and therefore she was steadily true to a young man
called 'Erb, who looked after the lift at the Stores, and was a
particular friend of Gregory's in consequence. No man who had charge of
a lift could fail to be admired by Gregory.

Finally - and very likely she ought to have come first - was Runcie, or
Mrs. Runciman, who had not only been the nurse of all the Avories, but
of Mrs. Avory before them, when Mrs. Avory was a slip of a girl named
Janet Easton. Runcie was then quite young herself, and why she was
suddenly called Mrs. no one ever quite knew, for she had never married.
And now she was getting on for sixty, and had not much to do except
sympathize with the Avories and reprove the servants. She had a nice
sitting room of her own, where she sat comfortably every afternoon when
such work as she did was done, and received visits from her pets, as
she called the children (none of whom, however, was quite so dear to
her as their mother), and listened to their adventures.

On those evenings on which he came to "The Gables" Mr. Lenox always
looked in on her for a little gossip; and this was called his "runcible
spoon" - the joke being that Mr. Lenox and Runcie were engaged to be
married.

And now you know the Avory family root and branch.



CHAPTER 2

THE SOUND OF MYSTERIOUS WHEELS

One day in late June the Avories and the Rotherams and Horace Campbell
were sitting at tea under the cedar talking about a great tragedy that
had befallen. For Mrs. Avory had just heard that Mrs. Dudeney - their
regular landlady at Sea View, in the Isle of Wight, where they had
lodgings every summer for years and years, and where they were all
ready to go next month as usual - Mrs. Avory had just heard that Mrs.
Dudeney had been taken very ill, and no other rooms were to be had.

Here was a blow! For the Rotherams always went to Sea View too, and had
a tent on the little strip of beach under the wood adjoining the
Avories', and they did everything together. And now it was very likely
that the Avories would not get lodgings at all, and certainly would not
get any half so good as Mrs. Dudeney's, where their ways were known,
and their bathing dresses were always dried at once in case they wanted
to go in again, and so on.

They were all discussing this together, and saying what a shame it was,
when suddenly the unfamiliar sound of the opening of the old stableyard
gates was heard, and then heavy wheels scrunched in and men's voices
called out directions, such as, "Steady, Joe!" "A little bit to the
near side, Bill!" and so forth.

Now, since the stable yard had not been used for years, it was no
wonder that the whole party was, so to speak, on tiptoe, longing to run
and investigate. But Mrs. Avory had always objected very strongly to
inquisitiveness, and so they stayed where they were and waited
expectantly. And then, after a minute or so, Kink came up to the table
with a twinkle in his old eye and a letter in his old hand.

"Didn't we hear the sound of a carriage?" Mrs. Avory asked.

"Did you, mum?" said old Kink, who was a great tease.

"I'm sure there were wheels," said Mrs. Avory.

Kink said nothing.

"Of course there were wheels," said Robert. "Don't be such an old
humbug."

But Kink only twinkled.

"It's only coals," said Gregory; "isn't it?"

"The first I've heard of coals`" said Kink.

"Kinky dear," said Janet, "is it something awfully exciting?"

"Nothing very exciting about a house, that I know of, Miss Janet," said
Kink.

"A house!" cried Janet. "It couldn't have been a house!"

"There's all sorts of houses," said Kink; "there's houses on the ground
and there's houses on - "

"O Kinky," cried Hester, "I know!"

And she clapped her hands and absolutely screamed. "I know. It's a
caravan!"

"A caravan!" the children shouted together, and with one movement they
dashed off to see.

Old Kink laughed and Mrs. Avory laughed.

"It's a caravan right enough," he said. "And a very pretty one too, and
none of they nasty gypsies in it neither."

"But where does it come from?" Mrs. Avory asked, and in reply Kink
handed her the letter; but she had done no more than open it when Janet
ran back to drag her to see the wonderful sight.

Gregory, I need hardly say, was already on the box with the whip in his
hand, while all the others were inside, except Horace Campbell, who had
climbed on the roof, and was telephoning down the chimney. The men and
horse that had brought it were gone.

"Oh, mother," cried Hester, "whose is it? Is it ours?"

"I expect the letter tells us everything," said Mrs. Avory, and,
sitting on the top of the steps, she unfolded the letter, and, after
looking through, read it aloud.

This is what it said:

DEAR CHILDREN,

"It has long been my wish to give you a new kind of present, but I have
hitherto had no luck. I thought once of an elephant, and even wrote to
Jamrach about the idea - a small elephant, not a mountain - -but I gave
that up. Chiswick is too crowded, and your garden is too small. But now
I think I have found the very thing. A caravan. It belonged to a lady
artist, who, having to live abroad, wished to sell it; and it is now
yours. I tell you this so that mother need not be afraid that it is
dirty. It should reach you this week, and can stand in the old coach
house until you are ready to set forth on the discovery of your native
land. I should have liked also to have added a horse and a man; but you
must do that and keep an account of what everything costs, and let me
know when I come back from abroad. I shall expect some day a long
account of your adventures, and if you keep a logbook, so much the
better.

"I am,
"Your true, if unsettling, friend,
"X.

"P.S. - You will find a use for the enclosed key sooner or later, and if
you want to write to me, address the letter to 'X., care of Smithurst
and Wynn, Lincoln's Inn Fields, W.C.'"


For a while after the letter was finished the Avories were too excited
and thoughtful to speak, while as for the Rotherams and Horace
Campbell, however they may have tried, they could not disguise an
expression, if not exactly of envy, certainly of disappointment. There
was no X. in their family.

"May we really go away in it and discover England?" Robert asked.

"I suppose so," said Mrs. Avory.

"Then that makes Sea View all right," said Gregory. "Because this will
do instead."

The poor Rotherams! Sea View had suddenly become tame and almost
tiresome.

Mrs. Avory saw their regrets in their faces, and cheered them up by the
remark that the caravan must sometimes be lent to others.

"Oh, yes," said Janet.

"Do you think Dr. Rotheram would let you go?" she asked Mary.

"Of course he would," said Jack. "But I wish it was a houseboat."

The suggestion was so idiotic that everyone fell on him in scorn.

"But who is X.?" Mrs. Avory asked.

The letter was written in a round office hand that told nothing. Mr.
Scott was the most likely person, but why should Mr. Scott hide? He
never had done such a thing. Or Mr. Lenox? But neither was it his way
to be secret and mysterious. Nor was it Uncle Christopher's.

When, however, you have a caravan given you, and it is standing there
waiting to be explored, the question who gave it or did not give it
becomes unimportant.

Gregory put the case in a nutshell. "Never mind about old X. now," he
said. "Let's make a thorough examination!"



CHAPTER 3

THE THOROUGH EXAMINATION

It was a real caravan. That is to say, either gypsies might have lived
in it, or anyone that did live in it would soon be properly gipsified.
It was painted in gay colours, and had little white blinds with very
neat waists and red sashes round them. That is the right kind of
caravan. The brown caravans highly varnished are wrong: they may be
more luxurious, but no gypsy would look at them.

The body of it was green - a good apple green - and the panels were lined
with blue. Some people say that blue and green won't go together; but
don't let us take any notice of them. Just look at the bed of
forget-me-nots, or a copse of bluebells; or, for that matter, try to
see the Avories' caravan. The window frames and bars were white. The
spokes and hubs of the wheels were red. It was most awfully gay.

Inside - but the inside of a caravan is so exciting that I hardly know
how to hold my pen. The inside of a caravan! Can you imagine a better
phrase than that? I can't. If Coleridge's statement is true that poetry
is the best words in the best order, then that is the best poem: the
inside of a caravan!

The caravan was sixteen feet six inches long and six feet two inches
high inside. From the ground it stood ten feet. It was six feet four
inches wide. If you measure these distances in the dining room, you
will see how big it was, and you will be able to imagine yourselves in
it.

The woodwork was all highly varnished, and very new and clean. More
than halfway down the caravan were heavy curtains hanging across it,
and behind these was the bedroom, containing four beds, two on each
wall, on hinged shelves, that could be let down flat against the
wall-by day, when the folding chairs could be unfolded, and the bedroom
then became a little boudoir.

The floor space was, however, filled this afternoon with great bundles
which turned out to be gypsy tents and sleeping sacks. "For the boys
and Kink to sleep in," said Janet; "but we must be very careful about
waterproof sheeting on the ground first."

The rest of the caravan, between the door and the bedroom - about ten
feet - was the kitchen and living room. Here every inch of the wall was
used, either by chairs that folded back like those in the corridors of
railway carriages, or by shelves, racks, cupboards, or pegs. There were
two tables, which also folded to the wall.

The stove was close to the door, but of course, no one who lives in a
caravan ever uses the stove except when it is raining. You make the
fire out of doors at all other times, and swing the pot from three
sticks. (Hedgehog stew! Can't you smell it?) There were kitchen
utensils on hooks and racks on each side of the stove which was covered
in with shining brass, and rows of enameled cups and saucers, and
plates, and knives and forks. The living room floor was covered with
linoleum; the bedroom floor had a carpet. Swinging candlesticks were
screwed into the wall here and there. It was more like the cabin of a
ship than anything on land could ever be, and Jack Rotheram began to
weaken towards it.

In course of time other things were discovered, showing what a thorough
person X. was. A large India rubber bath, for instance, and a bath
sheet to go under it. A Beatrice oil stove and oil. An electric torch
for sudden requirements at night. A tea-basket for picnics. Quantities
of cart-oil. A piece of pumice stone (very thoughtful). There was also
a box of little India rubber pads with tintacks, the use for which (not
discovered till later) was to prevent the rattling of the furniture by
making it fit a little better. And in one of the cupboards was a bottle
of camphor pills, and a tin of tobacco labeled "For Tramps and Gypsies."

There was even a bookshelf with books on it: "Hans Andersen," "The
Arabian Nights," "Lavengro," "Inquire Within," "Mrs. Beeton,"
"Bradshaw" (rather cowardly, Robert thought), and "The Blue Poetry
Book." There was also "The Whole Art of Caravaning," with certain
passages marked in pencil, such as this:

"We pull up to measure the breadth of the gate, and if it be broad
enough, send forward an ambassador to the farm, who shall explain that
we would fain camp here, that we are not gypsies, vagabonds or
suspicious characters, that we will leave all as we find it, and will
not rob or wantonly destroy. And in case of need, he shall delicately
hint that we may incidentally provide good custom in butter, eggs,
milk, and half a dozen other things. Our ambassador must also, if it be
possible, secure a stall for the horse."

And this useful reminder:

"We must have water near at hand and a farm within reasonable distance,
and we should look for shelter from prevailing winds. We must avoid
soft ground, and it is a mistake to camp in long grass unless the
weather be particularly dry. We should be as far as possible from the
road if there is much traffic upon it. It is great advantage if there
is a stream or lake at hand for bathing. An old pasture field sloping
away from the road will often satisfy our requirements in low-lying
districts. And up among the moors we shall be content to take a piece
of level ground where we can find it. There will be nothing to disturb
us there."

And this excellent caravan poem:

"I love the gentle office of the cook,
The cheerful stove, the placid twilight hour,
When, with the tender fragrance of the flower,
And all the bubbling voices of the brook,

"The coy potato or the onion browns,
The tender steak takes on a nobler hue.
I ponder 'mid the falling of the dew,
And watch the lapwings circling o'er the downs.

"Like portals at the pathway of the moon
Two trees stand forth in pencilled silhouette
Against the steel-grey sky, as black as jet -
The steak is ready. Ah! too soon! too soon!"

So much (with one exception) for the inside of the caravan. Underneath
it were still other things, for a box with perforated sides swung
between the wheels, and this was the larger, always cool and shady
(except, as Janet remarked, on dusty days), and near it on hooks were a
hanging saucepan, a great kettle, two pails, and two market baskets, a
nose bag, and a skid. Close by was a place for oats and chaff.

A new set of harness was packed on the box, and it was so complete that
on each of the little brass ornaments that hang on the horse's chest


1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

Online LibraryE.V. LucasThe Slowcoach → online text (page 1 of 12)