Miss Betty called him John Broom, but the people called him by the name he had earned.
And long after his black hair lay white and thick on his head, like snow on the old barn roof, and when his dark eyes were dim in an honoured old age, the village children would point him out to each other, crying, “There goes Lob Lie-by-the-fire, the Luck of Lingborough!”
A series of accidents had overtaken the Newbury mail from the hour that it started in the fine dewy morning, till the sun went down; and as the twilight deepened over the landscape it was still many miles from its destination.
The troubles began early in the day. One of the leaders cast a shoe, and had to be shod at the first village through which they passed. Farther on something went wrong with the harness, and later still a much more serious impediment to their progress arose—some accident happened to a wheel, so that the coach must needs go half-pace, in spite of the oaths of old Joe, the driver, whose boast it was that he had never reached Wancote later than midnight.
But this evening old Joe’s boasts were doomed to fall to the ground, for the coach could only crawl along, and the night was closing in fast.
The guard was engaged in a somewhat mysterious occupation, an occupation which, though only partially visible from the interior of the coach, caused a faint shriek to issue therefrom.
“What is he doing? What is it?” cried a woman’s voice.
“Nothing, madam; be easy, I entreat,” was the answer from within. “There is nothing to alarm, but rather to reassure, in his actions—he prepares his pistols and looks to their priming. Zounds! one must be ready for all contingencies with ten miles of unfrequented road ahead of us.”
The mail continued on its way, becoming slower and slower, as an ominous creaking of the injured wheel gave token that the pace must be reduced to a walk.
The curtain before the window was held back, and a gentleman from within addressed the guard.
“Will the wheel hold out, think you?” he said.
“It is impossible to assure your reverence that it will, and the night will be dark.”
The gentleman drew in his head with a little “Tut-tut” of consternation.
There were four occupants of the coach—two ladies and two gentlemen. Of the ladies one was young, perhaps nineteen, and one close upon forty. The younger was the parson’s daughter Elizabeth, otherwise Betty Ives. Her father, Mr. Ives, was bringing her home from Newbury, where she had spent the last six months with her aunt, Mrs. Primrose, seeing something of the gay world in the county town.
The father and daughter, who sat opposite to each other, bore a strong resemblance to each other. In the girl’s face the dark brows were more arched, the large blue eyes more tender, the firm mouth more sweet, and all tinted with the lilies and roses of a fresh country life, so beautifully blended on the peach-like cheeks that, even without her rare perfection of feature, the colouring alone would have made Betty beautiful.