Ventriloquist on a Stage Coach

by Henry Cockton

 

NOW then, look alive there!" shouted the coachman from the booking-office door, as Valentine and his Uncle John approached. "Have yow got that are mare's shoe made comfor'ble, Simon!"

"All right, sir," said Simon, and he went round to see if it were so, while the luggage was being secured.

"Jimp up, genelmen!" cried the coachman, as he waddled from the office with his whip in one hand and his huge way-bill in the other; and the passengers accordingly proceeded to arrange themselves on the various parts of the coach,—Valentine, by the particular desire of Uncle John, having deposited himself immediately behind the seat of the coachman.

"If you please," said an old lady, who had been standing in the gateway upwards of an hour, "will  you be good enow, please, to take care of my darter?"

"All safe," said the coachman, untwisting the reins. "She shaunt take no harm. Is she going all the way?"

"Yes, sir," replied the old lady; "God bless her! She's got a place in Lunnun, an' I'm told—"

"Hook on them ere two sacks o' whoats there behind," cried the coachman; "I marn't go without 'em this time.—Now, all right there?"

"Good by, my dear," sobbed the old lady, "do write to me soon, be sure you do,—I only want to hear from you often. Take care of yourself."

"Hold hard!" cried the coachman, as the horses were dancing, on the cloths being drawn from their loins. "Whit, whit!" and away they pranced, as merrily as if they had known that their load was nothing when compared with the load they left behind them. Even old Uncle John, as he cried "Good by, my dear boy," and waved his hand for the last time, felt the tears trickling down his cheeks.

The salute was returned, and the coach passed on.

The fulness of Valentine's heart caused him for the first hour to be silent; but after that, the constant change of scene and the pure bracing air had the effect of restoring his spirits, and he felt a powerful inclination to sing. Just, however, as he was about to commence for his own amusement, the coach stopped to change horses. In less than two minutes they started again, and Valentine, who then felt ready for anything, began to think seriously of the exercise of his power as a ventriloquist.

"Whit, whit!" said Tooler, the coachman, between a whisper and a whistle, as the fresh horses galloped up the hill.

"Stop! hoa!" cried Valentine, assuming a voice,  the sound of which appeared to have travelled some distance.

"You have left some one behind," observed a gentleman in black, who had secured the box seat.

"Oh, let un run a bit!" said Tooler. "Whit! I'll give un a winder up this little hill, and teach un to be up in time in future. If we was to wait for every passenger as chooses to lag behind, we shouldn't git over the ground in a fortnit."

"Hoa! stop! stop! stop!" reiterated Valentine, in the voice of a man pretty well out of breath.

Tooler, without deigning to look behind, retickled the haunches of his leaders, and gleefully chuckled at the idea of how he was making a passenger sweat.

The voice was heard no more, and Tooler, on reaching the top of the hill, pulled up and looked round, but could see no man running.

"Where is he?" inquired Tooler.

"In the ditch!" replied Valentine, throwing his voice behind.

"In the ditch!" exclaimed Tooler. "Blarm me, whereabouts?"

"There," said Valentine.

"Bless my soul!" cried the gentleman in black, who was an exceedingly nervous village clergyman. "The poor person no doubt is fallen down in an absolute state of exhaustion. How very, very wrong of you, coachman, not to stop!"

Tooler, apprehensive of some serious occurrence, got down with the view of dragging the exhausted passenger out of the ditch; but although he ran several hundred yards down the hill, no such person of course could be found.

"Who saw un?" shouted Tooler, as he panted up the hill again.

"I saw nothing," said a passenger behind, "but a boy jumping over the hedge."

Tooler looked at his way-bill, counted the passengers, found them all right, and, remounting the box, got the horses again into a gallop, in the perfect conviction that some villanous young scarecrow had raised the false alarm.

"Whit! blarm them 'ere boys!" said Tooler, "'stead o' mindin' their crows, they are allus up to suffen. I only wish I had un here, I'd pay on to their blarmed bodies; if I would n't—" At this interesting moment, and as if to give a practical illustration of what he would have done in the case, he gave the off-wheeler so telling a cut round the loins that the animal without any ceremony kicked over the trace. Of course Tooler was compelled to pull up again immediately; and after having adjusted the trace, and asking the animal seriously what he meant, at the same time enforcing the question by giving him a blow on the bony part of the nose, he prepared to remount; but just as he had got his left foot upon the nave of the wheel, Valentine so admirably imitated the sharp snapping growl of a dog in the front boot, that Tooler started back as quickly as if he had been shot, while the gentleman in black dropped the reins and almost jumped into the road.

"Good gracious!" exclaimed the gentleman in black, trembling with great energy; "How wrong, how very horribly wrong, of you, coachman, not to tell me that a dog had been placed beneath my feet."

"Blarm their carcases!" cried Tooler, "they never told me a dog was shoved there. Lay down! We'll soon have yow out there together!"

"Not for the world!" cried the gentleman in black, as Tooler approached the foot-board in order to open it. "Not for the world! un-un-un-less you le-le-let me get down first. I have no desire to pe-pe-perish of hydropho-phobia."

"Kip yar fut on the board then, sir, please," said Tooler, "we'll soon have the varmint out o' that." So saying, he gathered up the reins, remounted the box, and started off the horses again at full gallop.

The gentleman in black then began to explain to Tooler how utterly inconceivable was the number of persons who had died of hydrophobia within an almost unspeakable short space of time, in the immediate vicinity of the residence of a friend of his in London; and just as he had got into the marrow of a most excruciating description of the intense mental and physical agony of which the disease in its worst stage was productive, both he and Tooler suddenly sprang back, with their feet in the air, and their heads between the knees of the passengers behind them, on Valentine giving a loud growling snap, more bitingly indicative of anger than before.

As Tooler had tightly hold of the reins when he made this involuntary spring, the horses stopped on the instant, and allowed him time to scramble up again without rendering the slow process dangerous.

"I cannot, I-I-I positively cannot," said the gentleman in black, who had been thrown again into a dreadful state of excitement, "I cannot sit here,—my nerves cannot endure it; it's perfectly shocking."

"Blister their bowls!" exclaimed Tooler, whose first impulse was to drag the dog out of the boot at all hazards, but who, on seeing the horses waiting in the road a short distance ahead for the next stage, thought it better to wait till he had reached them. "I'll make un remember this the longest day o' thar blessed lives,—blarm un! Phih! I'll let un know when I get back, I warrant. I'll larn un to—"

"Hoa, coachman! hoa! my hat's off!" cried Valentine, throwing his voice to the back of the coach.

"Well, may I be—phit!" said Tooler. "I'll make yow run for't anyhow—phit!"

In less than a minute the coach drew up opposite the stable, when the gentleman in black at once proceeded to alight. Just, however, as his foot reached the plate of the roller-bolt, another growl from Valentine frightened him backwards, when falling upon one of the old horse-keepers, he knocked him fairly down, and rolled over him heavily.

"Darng your cloomsy carkus," cried the horse-keeper, gathering himself up, "carn't you git oof ar cooarch aroat knocking o' pipple darn?"

"I-I-I beg pardon," tremblingly observed the gentleman in black; "I hope I-I—"

"Whoap! pardon!" contemptuously echoed the horse-keeper as he limped towards the bars to unhook the leaders' traces.

"Now then, yow warmint, let's see who yow belong to," said Tooler, approaching the mouth of the boot; but just as he was in the act of raising the foot-board, another angry snap made him close it again with the utmost rapidity.

"Lay down! blarm your body!" cried Tooler, shrinking back. "Here, yow Jim, kim here, bor, and take this 'ere devil of a dog out o' that."

Jim approached, and the growling was louder than before, while the gentleman in black implored Jim to take care that the animal didn't get hold of his hand.

"Here, yow Harry!" shouted Jim, "yare noot afeared o' doogs together,—darng un, I doont like un."

Accordingly Harry came, and then Sam, and then Bob, and then Bill; but as the dog could not be seen, and as the snarling continued, neither of them dared to put his hand in to drag the monster forth. Bob therefore ran off for Tom Titus the blacksmith,  who was supposed to care for nothing, and in less than two minutes Tom Titus arrived with about three feet of rod-iron red hot.

"Darng un!" cried Tom, "this ere 'll maake un quit together!"

"Dear me! my good man," said the gentleman in black, "don't use that unchristian implement! don't put the dumb thing to such horrible torture!"

"It don't siggerfy a button," cried Tooler, "I marn't go to stop here all day. Out he must come."

Upon this Tom Titus introduced his professional weapon, and commenced poking about with considerable energy, while the snapping and growling increased with each poke.

"I'll tell you what it is," said Tom Titus, turning round and wiping the sweat off his brow with his naked arm, "this here cretur here's stark raavin' mad."

"I knew that he was," cried the gentleman in black, getting into an empty wagon which stood without horses just out of the road; "I felt perfectly sure that he was rabid."

"He 's a bull-terrier too," said Tom Titus, "I knows it by 's growl. It 's the worsest and dargdest to go maad as is."

"Well, what shall us do wi' th' warment?" said Tooler.

"Shoot him! shoot him!" cried the gentleman in black.

"O, I 've goot a blunderbus, Bob!" said Tom Titus, "yow run for 't together, it 's top o' the forge."

Bob started at once, and Tom kept on the bar, while Tooler, Sam, and Harry, and Bob held the heads of the horses.

"He 's got un; all right!" cried Tom Titus, as Bob neared the coach with the weapon on his shoulder. "Yow 'll be doon in noo time," he added  as he felt with his rod to ascertain in which corner of the boot the bull-terrier lay.

"Is she loarded?" asked Bob, as he handed Tom Titus the instrument of death.

"Mind you make the shot come out at bottom," shouted Tooler.

"I hool," said Tom Titus, putting the weapon to his shoulder. "Noo the Loord ha' marcy on yar, as joodge says sizes," and instantly let fly.

The horses of course plunged considerably, but still did no mischief; and before the smoke had evaporated, Valentine introduced into the boot a low melancholy howl, which convinced Tom Titus that the shot had taken effect.

"He 's giv oop the ghost; darng his carkus!" cried Tom, as he poked the dead body in the corner.

"Well, let 's have a look at un," said Tooler, "let 's see what the warment is like."

The gentleman in black at once leaped out of the wagon, and every one present drew near, when Tom, guided by the rod which he had kept upon the body, put his hand into the boot, and drew forth a fine hare that had been shattered by the shot all to pieces.

"He arn't a bull-terrier," cried Bob.

"But that arn't he," said Tom Titus. "He 's some'er aboot here as dead as a darng'd nail. I know he 's a corpse."

"Are you sure on 't?" asked Tooler.

"There arn't any barn door deader," cried Tom. "Here, I'll lug um out an' show yar."

"No, no!" shouted Tooler, as Tom proceeded to pull out the luggage. "I marn't stay for that. I 'm an hour behind now, blarm un! jimp up, genelmen!"

Tom Titus and his companions, who wanted the bull-terrier as a trophy, entreated Tooler to allow them to have it, and, having at length gained his consent, Tom proceeded to empty the boot. Every eye  was, of course, directed to everything drawn out, and when Tom made a solemn declaration that the boot was empty, they were all, at once, struck with amazement. Each looked at the other with astounding incredulity, and overhauled the luggage again and again.

"Do you mean to say," said Tooler, "that there arn't nuffin else in the boot?"

"Darnged a thing!" cried Tom Titus, "coom and look." And Tooler did look, and the gentleman in black looked, and Bob looked, and Harry looked, and Bill looked, and Sam looked, and all looked, but found the boot empty.

"Well, blarm me!" cried Tooler. "But darng it all, he must be somewhere!"

"I' ll taake my solum davy," said Bill, "that he was there."

"I seed um myself," exclaimed Bob, "wi' my oarn eyes, an' didn't loike the looks on um a bit."

"There cannot," said the gentleman in black, "be the smallest possible doubt about his having been there; but the question for our mature consideration is, where is he now?"

"I 'll bet a pint," said Harry, "you blowed um away?"

"Blowed um away, you fool!—how could I ha' blowed um away?"

"Why, he was there," said Bob, "and he baint there noo, and he baint here nayther, so you mus ha' blowed um out o' th' boot; 'sides, look at the muzzle o' this ere blunderbust!"

"Well, of all the rummest goes as ever happened," said Tooler, thrusting his hands to the very bottom of his pockets, "this ere flogs 'em all into nuffin!"

"It is perfectly astounding!" exclaimed the gentleman in black, looking again into the boot, while  the men stood and stared at each other with their mouths as wide open as human mouths could be.

"Well, in wi' 'em agin," cried Tooler, "in wi' 'em!—Blarm me if this here arn't a queer un to get over."

The luggage was accordingly replaced, and Tooler, on mounting the box, told the men to get a gallon of beer, when the gentleman in black generously gave them half a crown, and the horses started off, leaving Tom with his blunderbuss, Harry, Bill, Sam, and their companions, bewildered with the mystery which the whole day spent in the alehouse by no means enabled them to solve.