The Journey by Daisy Wood
The rain had been pouring relentlessly now for some hours. Derwa pulled her cloak tight around her and drew her eyes from the countryside that sped past like a floating dream. As the stagecoach bounced and jolted over the ruts and myriad of deep puddles on its way to Exeter, she allowed her eyes to sweep slowly over, and observe, the other three occupants that shared her confinement.
One in the far corner, and elderly gentleman - for he was certainly a gentleman she could tell just by the quality of his clothes - was engrossed in his own thoughts, twisting the cane he held between his legs with his right hand. From where she sat Derwa could see it was a fine piece of wood, highly polished, with what looked to be a Duck’s head in silver fastened securely on the top; where one’s hand could rest comfortably upon. He had been silent since he boarded at Salisbury.
The other, an elderly woman of some ample proportions sat opposite her. She, Derwa discerned, was also from money. Her dress was of a heavy silk, purple in colour, and over this she wore a thick woollen cape which appeared to be lined in some sort of fur. Sitting quietly on her lap was a small dog, the like of which Derwa had never before seen. Its hair was golden in colour and very long, so much so, that the hair on its head had been scooped up into a bright pink bow in between the animal’s ears. The young girl sitting to the right of Derwa was no doubt the maid or companion of this woman. She was a little older than herself, with soft rounded cheeks, her eyes cast downwards, not wanting to engage in any sort of conversation Derwa thought.
Derwa watched fascinated as the older woman stroked and petted the dog. Her wrinkled hands displaying many large gold rings, in fact the ring on the middle finger of the hand that fed the dog tit-bits, sported a huge purple stone, similar to the colour of the woman’s dress.
Derwa closed her eyes and sighed quietly to herself. Under the confines of her cloak she stroked her own fingers… bare of any rings. Not for long though, as she was on her way to meet her uncle, who had found a suitable husband for his niece of 23 years.
‘Where is your chaperone my young lady?’
Derwa opened her eyes wide.
‘Where is your chaperone?’ repeated the woman opposite.
Derwa sat up straight and composed herself.
‘She fell ill Milady, and had to stay in Salisbury with family.’
The woman leaned forward, almost suffocating the dog, who jumped to the side and curled up beside his mistress on the seat.
‘Why did you not stay there? Wait for a suitable person to accompany you?’
The woman was staring at her intently now, and Derwa had to think quickly.
‘I am on my way to meet with my Uncle in Exeter Milady.’
‘And…..’ responded the woman quickly, making Derwa jump.
Should she disclose to her that she was on her way to meet with her perspective husband? She knew nothing of the woman, that she should divulge such secrets.
The Woman narrowed her eyes and shook her head lightly. ‘Mmmm… you are reticent, no? to tell a strange old woman your secret no?’
By now the elderly gentleman in the other corner had awoken from his thoughts and was eyeing them quizzically over his spectacles.
Derwa looked from one to the other, weighing up in her mind that to tell the truth would be the best, for at this moment the woman – whose face was just inches from her own - had it in her mind that she was bound for some secret assignation, and not of the respectable kind.
‘It is not as you think Milady…’
The woman pulled back a little and looked down her nose.
‘I assure you…’ Derwa paused ‘…I am on my way to meet with my future husband.’ There it was out. ‘My Uncle has arranged this, and will be waiting for me at the Mermaid Inn. I am to meet with him the next day, and if we are agreeable, then to discuss the wedding contract.’ Derwa let out the breath she had been holding,
‘And who might your uncle be young mistress?’ The woman, she could tell was still not satisfied with the explanation.
At this point Derwa looked to her right to the gentleman who had turned slightly and was listening attentively now.
‘He is the lawyer Thomas Willcocks of Exeter...’
‘And you?’ interrupted the woman yet again.
It was at this point that the elderly gentleman spoke,
‘If I may be so bold Milady.’ He nodded his head here to the woman and Derwa. ‘I know this young lady’s uncle.’
There then followed a silence where both women rested their eyes on him in askance.
‘Let me explain myself… ‘
The elderly woman sat back smoothing her dress, then retrieving her dog from the seat, she commenced once more with feeding him biscuits.
‘I am bound myself to the Assizes in Exeter, which sits two days from now. No doubt your uncle will also be present there, as there are many awaiting judgement at this time.’
Derwa was relieved that the interrogation from the woman had stopped. Her hands were shaking slightly, and she was sure that her face was still displaying a rosiness, which was not due to her complexion.
‘Sir, I know nothing of my uncle’s business, only that he is a Lawyer. I have resided with my aunt and uncle since my own parents died when I was small.’ She looked from one to the other now. ‘My father was his brother…’ her voice trailed away. At this point she felt totally humiliated and very disconcerted by these people.
‘I feel we have been too harsh and quick to judge this young lady…’ he looked across at her now with a gentle smile on his lips. ‘…you must forgive our forwardness my dear, but I assure you it was with your best interest at heart. These routes are notorious for highwaymen…’ he paused slightly to clear his throat. ‘…and I do find it a little remiss of your family to have allowed you to travel un-chaperoned, if I may say so.’
The elderly woman closed her eyes and nodded in agreement.
Derwa said nothing in response but inclined her head slightly. She knew they were right. Had her aunt not remonstrated with her, that such practices were not appropriate for a young woman of her standing. She had rung her hands in despair, saying that her uncle would be outraged at his wife if she allowed her to travel alone, and did Derwa not realise that there were another four children in the house, and her aunt could not just leave them.
‘I think maybe that you are a very wilful young lady. If you had been in my charge…you would never have left Salisbury.’ The tone of the woman’s voice told Derwa everything that she was thinking.
There followed a short silence where all occupants were left to their own thoughts. Throughout the whole conversation the maid beside her had remained quiet, and as Derwa glanced sideways she saw that the girl had her head down and was looking fixedly at her fingers. Derwa gave a thought to what her life must be like with this woman opposite – not very pleasant from what she had observed. She herself would never have kept her tongue.
‘If I may suggest…’ broke in the elderly gentleman, ‘…I think it would be fitting, as we are to be enclosed in this coach for some days…’ here he waved his hand slightly, ‘…that we all introduce ourselves. Milady would you care to go first.’ He offered his hand here in a friendly gesture.
The woman shrugged her shoulders slightly. ‘Very well, I am Lady Fortescue, my husband was Lord Fortescue.’ She offered no explanation or name to her companion.
‘And you mistress?’ enquired the gentleman.
‘Sir, I am Mistress Derwa Willcocks.’
The gentleman then turned his gaze to the other young girl, who still had her chin resting on her chest. ‘And you mistress…’
His voice was interrupted by Lade Fortescue. ‘She is my companion.’ Her abrupt response stopped all talk for some moments.
‘Ladies, if I may, I am James Milton, Lawyer to the Courts of Justice in London – at your service.’ saying this he bent his body forward, his hand resting on his chest in a formal gesture of respect. ‘As we are stopping soon to The George Hostelry in Mere, I would request the pleasure of your company, to partake of a light Luncheon with me. If it so pleases you all that is?’ He waited here, looking in turn to everyone for their response.
Lady Fortescue retrieved a handkerchief from a small purse she had attached to her clothing, wiping her brow, and dabbing her neck.
‘Mr Milton, I thank you most kindly for this gesture. I fear I am in dire need of such sustenance at this present time. We have many miles to go before we reach Exeter.’
‘And your companion….?’
‘Will find her food in the kitchen there…’
Derwa looked towards Mr Milton and raised her brows.
‘Miss Willcocks, you will join us also?’ added Mr Milton.
Derwa thought about the money her aunt had given her. These people would eat well, and her meagre funds would not afford such extravagance.
Mr Milton read her thoughts quickly and smiled. ‘It will be at my expense, if you will allow me to do so?’
Derwa nodded her head warily. ‘I thank you kindly sir. That is most generous of you.’ She had hoped that the journey would be a quiet one, with no questions asked, each person keeping to their own thoughts. She had not bargained for being drawn into such company.
As she looked out of the window she noticed that the rain had stopped. Though dark clouds still scuddered across the sky, there were small intermittent breaks of blue which appeared like sapphires amongst the grey. She sighed deeply, then taking a small book of poetry from the carpetbag at her feet she tried to read.
The Luncheon in Mere had gone without incident, and now the coach sped on through the countryside - which seemed to change like the weather; it was now sunny - to their next stop in Yeovil. There they would spend the night at The Castle Inn. The food had quietened everyone’s tongue, and as she looked to Lady Fortescue, she saw that her head had fallen back onto a small pillow, and she was now snoring quietly. Her dog lay stretched full length on her lap, with the tip of his pink tongue showing between his front teeth, while his stomach rose and fell like a small pair of bellows as he breathed. The young girl beside her – whose name they still did not know – had also fallen asleep, her chin still upon her chest, as her head lolled from side to side with the movement of the coach. Mr Milton was comfortably sitting in the other corner his head resting between the back and the side of the coach, while both his hands lay on the top of his cane. Derwa gave one last look outside, then gave herself up to her book once more.
It was when they arrived at Yeovil that things became complicated. Her uncle in his wisdom had procured Derwa a room there for herself and companion. Now though, she was alone…at which Lady Fortescue became very alarmed. They had entered The Castle Inn, and while their luggage was being transported to their designated rooms, Mr Milton had taken it upon himself to be the spokesperson. As he was handed the three keys by the landlord, Lady Fortescue pushed herself forward.
‘Mr Milton sir, a word if you would be so kind,’
Mr Milton thanked the landlord, then made way for the next person.
‘My Dear Lady Fortescue, what is it that troubles you?
Lady Fortescue look straight at Derwa. ‘She does sir…we cannot possibly allow her to occupy a room in this establishment – alone.’
Mr Milton rubbed the stubble on his chin in thought. ‘How remiss of me, I had not given that much thought.’
‘Of course, you had not.’ snapped Lady Fortescue. ‘You are a man!’ her voce had risen slightly and people nearby had stopped to listen. Grabbing both Mr Milton’s arm and that of Derwa, she pulled them to one side.
‘She must share my room. It is the only way. If we let her sleep alone all of her chances of a good marriage will disappear…’ she watched as Mr Milton registered what she was implying.
‘You are perfectly right Milady. I admire your forethought in this matter.’
Derwa by this time was enraged that they should be arranging this without consulting her first. Lady Fortescue had seen the look of indignation on Derwa’s face, and shot her a piercing look.
‘Young lady, if you do not want your reputation to be in tatters you will do as you are told.’
Derwa opened and shut her mouth several times. She was very angry now, but as her aunt had warned her several times, to keep her mouth shut, before her foot was placed firmly into it, with disastrous consequences.
The stagecoach was now wending its way to Honiton, where they would stop for lunch. Breakfast had been a very quiet affair. While her companions had partaken of a hearty dish of eggs, and an assortment of meats, Derwa herself had eaten just fresh baked bread, butter and honey. She looked out once more at the changing scenery, sometimes passing through dense woodland, while other times showing an expanse of flat grassland that seemed to stretch for miles. She had not slept much the previous evening. The maids had hastily made her up a truckle bed at the foot of Lady Fortescue’s, and Derwa had lain there listening to the noise of the taproom below, and the soft snoring of her room companion. At one point in the night, the dog – who no doubt was also troubled by the snoring – came down from his mistress’ bed, planting himself firmly on the feet of Derwa. After server turns, and feet pounding, he lay down, placed his head on his paws and slept. She hadn’t minded the dog, in truth it was comforting.
Their next stop was for lunch at The George in Honiton, which was a repeat of the previous day where Mr Milton paid the bill. Derwa made a mental note to tell her uncle when she reached Exeter, to repay him for his kindness.
Derwa turned her gaze from the window to look at the young girl beside her. looking around her she made sure that her companions were safely asleep, before talking to the young woman.
‘What is your name?’ Derwa spoke in a hushed tone.
The girl’s eyes darted to her mistress.
‘It is fine.’ encouraged Derwa ‘She is sleeping, can you not hear her snoring?’ the last statement caused both women to giggle lightly.
‘Ann.’ came the soft reply.
‘How long have been in her employ?’
Again, the girl looked upwards to the sleeping woman. Still watching her she replied. ‘Three years.’
Derwa sighed. ‘She is a force to be reckoned with...’
‘But she has a good heart, and if you keep your place…’
It was then that Lady Fortescue roused from her slumber, and both girls resumed their usual pose.
It was just before 5 o’clock when the coach pulled into The Angel in Ilminster. When the stagecoach doors opened, its travellers descended weary and sore. Derwa knew that no matter she had to stay in the same room as Lady Fortescue, she would sleep this night.
It was while they were at their breakfast the following morning that Derwa noticed a suspicious man looking around the stagecoach that was now awaiting its travellers to continue on the last leg of their journey to Exeter. She thought it strange that he was peering inside then walking around the back. When the two drivers appeared, he began to speak with them, indicating to Derwa that he would be sharing their carriage.
Lady Fortescue looked across at the man who now occupied the seat opposite Mr Milton. Her face showed clearly the disapproval she felt on having to share the coach with such a man. The man in question sported a faded green woollen coat, brown breeches and boots which were in need of a good clean. His tricorn hat had seen better days, and when he smiled he seemed to be missing a front tooth.
The coach had been travelling some 2 hours when it suddenly stopped causing it occupants to nearly lose their seats. With quick reflex the man in the green coat grabbed the cane that Mr Milton had between his legs and threw it from the open window. Then retrieving a pistol from his pocket, he waved it, indicating that they should all congregate to one side of the coach.
Derwa looked outside and saw two men with kerchiefs around their faces also supporting pistols which were trained onto the drivers.
The man waved the pistol once more. ‘If you would be obliging me, and stepping down from this coach, we can be a getting this over with without fuss.’ He nodded his head to Derwa to open the door.
Mr Milton descended first, helping Lady Fortescue down, then Derwa, and finally Ann.
‘You will hang for this!’ exclaimed Mr Milton.
The man turned his eyes on him. ‘Oh yes, and who be a saying this then.’ With that he placed his pistol under Milton’s nose and poked.
Mr Milton was outraged at this. ‘How dare you sir, by tonight your face will be displayed in every town from here to London.
‘Oh, I do not doubt you sir, but, half the country already be a knowing my face.’ Here he laughed. ‘But, I be like the mole sir, only rearing my head when I be in need of sustenance.’ he now walked up and down in front of them, weighing up what he could take as booty. Taking off his hat he waved it under Lady Fortescue’s nose.
‘Ladies first…I will be relieving you of your little trinkets if you be pleased to place them in my hat.’
Derwa stepped in front of him pushing him backwards. ‘`How dare you!! You blaggard! We will give you nothing!! Derwa’s voice resonated around the countryside.
‘My, my, you be a feisty one.’ He stepped close, his nose touching hers. ‘And, what do you be offering me?’ the tone of his voice, and the insinuation it implied, made Derwa stiffen. Mr Milton grabbed Derwa by the arm and pulled her quickly behind him.
‘Oh, so you be wanting a fight then sir, well I can be giving you one.’ With that, he raised his pistol and his Mr Milton soundly on the side of his head. Derwa heard the crack as Mr Milton fell to his knees.
Derwa’s temper by this time was about to boil over, it was just as she was about to slap the man, that they heard many horses’ hooves hitting the earth, and before the man had a chance to turn he was hit on the head and knocked to the floor. All was mayhem for several minutes, with punches flying, causing the three women to crouch low around the body of Mr Milton, who was holding his head, which was bleeding profusely, with his handkerchief. As the men were gathered up, their hands tied, the tall man who had administered the blow to the highwayman, came towards Derwa. Taking his hat from his head he bowed low.
‘Mistress, you are a very brave young woman…but, a foolish one. He would have shot you without a thought. The man has killed many people.’ He turned to look at the man in question, who was struggling hard to free himself.
Derwa raised her chin up in defiance and looked into the tall man's face. A pair of bright blue sparkling eyes met her gaze, and before she could reply, she was pulled back by Lady Fortescue.
‘Please forgive my ward sir, she is very headstrong.’
The tall man took of his hat and bowed respectfully to all present. ‘That man stole my wallet while I was eating my lunch. No man steals from me Milady, and gets away with it. I saw him board your coach and followed. I now suggest that you continue your journey to Exeter, I will deal with these men.’
Turning, one of his own men gave him the cane that had been thrown from the window. ‘Mr Milton sir, I believe this is yours.’ Saying this he assisted Mr Milton in standing. Looking to the two drivers, he nodded. ‘Gentlemen, you may resume your journey.’
When they finally reached Exeter, Derwa was more than grateful to see her uncle waiting. Explanations were given and received, when Derwa said goodbye to her travelling companions. Lady Fortescue’s parting words were.
‘Thank you, but try to kerb your tongue young lady, it will bring you trouble.’
Mr Milton took her hand and kissed her fingers. ‘You are a feisty young woman, of that there is no doubt. Whoever your husband is, he is a very lucky man.’
Her Uncle looked from one person to the other. ‘I will explain all Uncle, when we get to the Inn’.
When the final story had been told over dinner, Thomas Willcocks experienced a myriad of emotions, fear and anger being two, but there was also relief in the fact that his ward had come through the experience unharmed.
‘Derwa, tomorrow I will take you to meet with your intended husband.’ He paused and eyed her cautiously. ‘I would ask you to given me your word, that you will not act in haste, and you will hear the gentleman out, before you make any decision.’
Derwa knew exactly what he was saying. He may not be the kind of gentleman that Derwa would choose for herself, but knowing her Uncle he had had the man vetted well, before even proposing such a match.
‘Uncle, I know that I test your patience too often, but, I promise, I will not do or say anything, till after the meeting.’ She looked into her Uncles eyes, and her thoughts relayed everything unspoken that she was thinking.
Her uncle sighed. ‘Derwa, my dear child, I would never give you to a man, that you did not wish for.
Derwa was now standing with her uncle in the drawing room of her prospective husband’s home. It was a grand house, and looking about her now, the drawing room exuded an aura of peace and warmth. She only hoped the same would come from the gentleman she was about to meet. Breathing deeply, she put her hand up to her bonnet, then smoothed her dress down, before she clasped her hands in front of her.
Her uncle smiled ‘Derwa, my child you look beautiful, and I only hope that I can find a match such as this one for my daughters when the times comes. He is a good man, Derwa.’
As the door opened she looked straight into the bright blue eyes of the man that had saved them. As he advanced towards her he had a secret smile on his face. Bowing low over her hand he kissed her fingers. Derwa blushed.
‘Alexander Devereux, your servant, Mistress’.
Her uncle looked to both of them puzzled.
‘Have you met before?’
Devereux straitened, still keeping hold of her hand. ‘No sir, but, I can tell by her smile that our marriage will be a lively one’.
Derwa smiled again, and nodded, feeling his hand squeeze hers gently. She knew the intonation of the gesture, he was saying – please, do not give me away.