Verity Fair, or: "The effects of excessive precipitation on the London-to-Bath stage"

To watch the YouTube trailer I made for this story, enter the Youtube web address and append: /watch?v=0G_IPX-wYbM

(sorry it won't let me save the whole address here)

First Chapter

- Which recounts a series of unfortunate events -

A shimmering curtain of rain was draped over the window of the Bath-bound stagecoach; and due to the dense accumulation of passengers within, the inner side of the pane was rapidly fogging over. The forehead of Miss Verity Cumpton rested against it. She was making a great pretence of being captivated by the landscape; but was in fact so absorbed in her own thoughts that her staring eyes registered very little of the wet, foggy mess without.

She was travelling in the company of her aunt and uncle, en route to 'her fair share of the amusements offered by a Bath season'; unfortunately for herself, her natural shrewdness instantly penetrated this thin veil to see the actual motive: Miss Cumpton was to be advertised on the Bath Marriage Mart this season. As the eldest of a family of daughters, it was clearly her duty to marry well. The state of the family finances might easily be estimated by anyone familiar with their chosen mode of travel.

When the demise of Mr Cumpton should come to pass, his living would be bestowed upon another rector; and the Misses Cumpton and their amiable mother would be left with no home, no income, and no prospects.

Fortunately, in Mrs. Rupert Bingham, Verity was blessed with a busy aunt who rather thought that she could introduce the young lady at the Bath assemblies. The opportunity was gratefully seized by the Cumptons, and immediately Mr. Bingham had harrumphed his assent to the scheme, the whole party was bundled onto the stage.

These gloomy reflections boded ill indeed for the success of the trip; and this was not yet all: before even the first stage was reached, it had begun to rain heavily, as if in sympathy to Miss Cumpton's plight – depriving the coachman of much of his sight, reducing the roads to a muddy wash reminiscent of a river, and altogether making for a most uncomfortable journey.

Her fellow passengers, too, had much to try them. Opposite Miss Cumpton was seated a gaunt young clergyman who fretted continually that, due to the unnatural rains, he would never reach in time the parish which had offered him its curacy. Next him, a formidable farmwoman, whose sheer bulk took up a seat and a half, continually nudged him in the ribs (by accident, but with a surprisingly sharp elbow) in her industrious efforts to cure her ten-year-old son of his nausea. She received, throughout, a volley of counsels on the subject, rendered in the shrill voice of Mrs. Bingham, seated opposite her. This latter lady's husband, utterly unperturbed by these goings-on, added to the general cacophony a rich, persistent snoring.

The previous stage had seen the addition to this quaint little club of three noisy young bucks who, despite the rains, had taken their seat upon the carriage roof where they sheltered behind the travellers' trunks, huddled in their greatcoats.

That same stage had also introduced into the party a tall, thin spinster lady of uncertain years, and her little maid. The spinster had shown herself severely disappointed to find the coach so crowded, and herself seated by a retching little boy. She herself, she soon informed the company, was no stranger to the evils of travelling-sickness; but so far from consoling mother and son with advice or kind comforts, she announced that the boy's pallid, indeed greenish, complexion was inspiring equal nausea in herself. Hereupon the young curate promptly offered her his place; but Nay, she exclaimed, she was persuaded the sickness was caused by her sitting with her back to the direction in which they were driving. She exchanged seats with her little maid, but soon began to mutter that the roof above her leaked. Mr. Bingham, awakened by the prods and hisses of his wife, dutifully offered to switch seats; but Nay, the maiden lady must sit by a window. Miss Cumpton, correctly surmising that hers was the coveted seat, feigned sleep.

Suddenly, in the midst of the confusion, the coach gave a jolt and a lurch and began to rattle on at a fearful pace, bouncing over ruts and splashing through puddles.

The spinster gave a startled shriek, and, "What was that?" demanded Miss Cumpton.

"I rather fancy, madam," replied the gaunt curate opposite, "that our driver has surrendered the reins to one of the bucks on the roof. I believe it is considered sport amongst their set."

The farmer's wife, whose son had quietly fainted away, cried, "Lord-a-mussy! We shall end in the ditch!" to which the curate calmly answered, "Yes, I rather think we shall."

The assembled ladies all began to scream; Mr. Bingham turned red and bellowed; and the farmwoman clasped the inert body of her child to her formidable bosom. So the party remained for several long minutes; then from without came a chorus of shouts, a frightful crash, and the coach was upended in a deep ditch.

Miss Cumpton's window was shattered, spraying the company with shards of glass; and through the opening entered a keen wind, quantities of precipitation, and the sound of terrible, inhuman screams.

The impact had smashed the carriage lanterns, and all struggled to find their bearings in the dark.

"Open the doors on the other side," ordered the curate when he had found his, slightly breathless as he struggled out from behind the bulk of the farmwoman and her son. The spinster, who was nearest the door, was prostrate with shock; so he addressed himself to Mr. Bingham beside her: "Sir, see if those doors will open, and please to assist the ladies out?"

And so, with an humph and an oath, Mr. Bingham, who had not seen such exertion in years, heaved himself out of the coach; and so the passengers helped each other out and stood, cut and bruised, in the streaming rain, on the Bath road, beside the wreckage. They could dimly perceive the outlines of the three young blades that, having leapt off the coach as it fell, and landed softly on crushed band-boxes, appeared unscathed; of the coachman, helping his horses (which had been miraculously saved) out of the ditch; and of a stranger. This latter gentleman, having cursorily examined his felled and screaming pair, was heard to ask the driver for his gun. The shot was fired, the screaming abated; and the stage-coach party flocked to the clergyman for counsel.

From the driver they had received the information that the blood who had taken the reins had been unable to avoid collision with the unknown gentleman's curricle when it appeared, causing the great misadventure (which the threesome apparently considered famous sport). More to the point, the worthy coachman was also able to tell them of a tolerable wayside inn, less than a mile away by his experienced calculations, which might contrive to put them up for the night.

And so the party assumed the trudge to that hostel; led by the Reverend Mr Shipley, as he introduced himself, who had offered his arm to Miss Cumpton, carried her bandboxes and inquired concernedly after her cuts; and with the coachman and the stranger bringing up the rear, one leading a team of sturdy unharmed horses, the other a single, crippled one.

The inn-folk at the 'Wildwood Flower' were soon roused, feeling deep sympathy for the travellers' plight. Mrs. Flowers somehow contrived to put them all up: eventually all were fed; their cuts were dressed; and all retired to their bedchambers – shared with one or two of their fellow passengers, but all, indeed, with clean sheets.

In the hours that followed, all was quiet and restful – until, at five minutes to eight o'clock on the following morning, Hildebrand Fullerton, Baron Ascerley, was found dead in his bed.