The stagecoach door banged shut and the guard gave a final blast of his horn. Willemina Culpepper only just managed not to wriggle with excitement. It was finally happening. Her journey had begun and in a few short seconds the miles would start to roll away beneath the carriage wheels. Willie let out a tiny sigh of happiness. She wanted to bounce in her seat and say to her fellow passengers, Oh, isn’t it so marvelous to be traveling again! But she was twenty-five years old, and twenty-five-year-old ladies didn’t wriggle or bounce or blurt out remarks to utter strangers. And, sadly, none of these strangers appeared to share her enthusiasm for travel. The stout matron alongside her sighed and muttered as she rummaged through her reticule. Dawn wasn’t quite yet upon them. The carriage was full of shadows, only the faintest of illumination coming from the lamps outside, but there was enough light to see the matron dab the contents of a small vial onto her handkerchief. A scent wafted its way to Willie’s nose. Lavender. It mingled with the other smells in the narrow confines of the carriage: perspiration old and new, tobacco, ale, and for some reason that Willie couldn’t fathom, marmalade. The stout matron pressed the handkerchief to her nose and closed her eyes. A poor traveler, Willie deduced.
With a loud clatter of iron-shod hooves on cobblestones the stagecoach lurched into motion. “Late,” the other female in the stagecoach muttered. “Two whole minutes late already!” She was as thin as the matron was stout, her mouth pinched shut in a way that gave it wrinkles all the way around. The stout matron sighed. So did the thin woman. Two different sighs. One longsuffering, one annoyed. Willie bit back a smile. Not at the stout matron’s discomfort or the thin lady’s irritation, but a smile of gladness that she was in this carriage with them, that she was moving again. She turned her attention to the final passenger.
It was from him that the smells of tobacco and ale came. He wasn’t sighing like the matron and the thin woman; he was already asleep, his chin pillowed in the folds of a rather dirty muffler. The stagecoach navigated the tight corner onto the street, swaying ponderously as it did so. The matron moaned and pressed the scented handkerchief more closely to her nose. Willie didn’t mind the swaying in the slightest. She would have preferred to be up on the roof, where the swaying was at its worst, but respectable young ladies didn’t travel on the roofs of stagecoaches, where their faces might become dusty and sunburned and their hair windswept, and where every Tom, Dick, and Harry might gawp up at them. But even if she couldn’t be on the roof, her heart beat as fast as the horses’ hooves, a quick tempo of anticipation and happiness. Today, she was in London. Tomorrow, it would be Owslebury. And next month, she was off to the continent again! Willie couldn’t quite prevent a squirm of excitement.
Fortunately, no one noticed. The coach halted at the Bell and Crown, its final stop in London, and three more passengers came aboard: a woman and her young son, and a soldier. The soldier was wearing the familiar green uniform of the Rifle Brigade, with the epaulettes of a lieutenant. Willie’s breath caught in a moment of pure homesickness. Although, could it be called homesickness when it wasn’t a single place she missed, but many? She missed Egypt and South Africa and even the disaster that had been South America, and most of all she missed the people who’d been in those places. Men like her father. Men like the officer now settling himself opposite her. Men who’d worn uniforms. Men who’d trained and fought and endured hardship, who’d laughed and joked and lived with enthusiasm because they knew that death might be just around the corner. Willie released a silent sigh.
How she missed the army. Missed the people and the purpose, the busyness, the travel and the places, and yes, even the discomfort of being on campaign, the heat and the cold, the mud and the rain. But not the deaths. She didn’t miss those. What she did miss was the sense that every minute of every day was to be treasured, even if it contained sleet or choking dust or saddle sores, because today one was alive and tomorrow one might not be. “Three minutes late, now,” the thin woman said, as the guard secured the door. That was another thing she missed: the stoicism of army life—and the jokes that went with that stoicism. Here in England, people complained if it rained, or if their shoes got muddy, or if a stagecoach was three minutes behind schedule. Soldiers didn’t complain about the little annoyances of life; they joked about them. A lot.
Willie did miss the jokes. “All aboard the coach to Southampton!” the guard cried, and gave a blast of his horn. Willie’s heart lifted, while the stout matron sighed into her handkerchief and the thin woman looked at her timepiece and tutted sourly and the man with the dirty muffler snored faintly in his corner. The mother was fussing over her young son, settling him carefully on her lap, and the lieutenant was taking almost as much care with the covered basket he was carrying. He held on to it firmly, as if something breakable were inside. The lieutenant glanced up, caught her gaze, and smiled cheerfully. “Good morning.” “Good morning,” Willie said. She wanted to say more, wanted to say, Tell me how things are with the Rifle Brigade. How’s Colonel Barraclough? How’s Charles Pugsley? What’s it like in France right now? She would have asked those questions under other circumstances, but there was enough dawn light now leaking into the carriage to see the obvious appreciation in the lieutenant’s gaze, and Willie had learned years ago that when men looked at her like that it was best not to encourage them.
It had been true when her father was alive and was doubly true now that he was dead. She was a female, she was alone, and she was on a public stagecoach, and as much as she wished to talk about the Rifle Brigade with this lieutenant, it was wisest not to. Willie smiled politely at him as the stagecoach rolled out of the Bell and Crown’s yard, springs creaking, wheels rattling, harness jingling jauntily. She turned her attention to the window and the glimpses of London it afforded—brick and stone façades, windows and doors. Dawn was pink above the roof tops. Her heart beat a happy rhythm. It’s started. I’m on my way. A tiny, shrill squeaking drew her attention. Not the squeaking of springs or wheels or harnesses, but a squeaking that sounded alive, and not only alive but inside the carriage.
A mouse? Mice didn’t scare Willie, but she didn’t particularly wish to be in a stagecoach with one. Not once her fellow passengers realized there was a rodent aboard. The thin lady would undoubtedly have the vapors. Probably the stout matron, too. She cocked her head, trying to determine the location of the sound . and realized that it came from directly opposite her. More precisely, from the basket that sat on the lieutenant’s lap. The covered basket that he held so firmly and so carefully. There wasn’t something breakable inside, she realized. There was something alive.
The sound came again, high-pitched, more mew than squeak. Willie glanced at the lieutenant. Their eyes met again in the half-light, and he gave her a wide, cheerful smile. He reminded her so much of the young officers who’d been under her father’s command that her heart gave another great pang of homesickness. “Your basket is making noises,” the little boy seated on his mother’s lap observed. “So it is,” the lieutenant agreed. “What’s in it?” There was just enough light for Willie to see the lieutenant wink at the boy. “Baby monsters.” There was also enough light to see the little boy’s eyes grow wide. “Monsters?” “Monsters with teeth as sharp as needles,” the lieutenant said, with utmost gravity.
“And claws that would tear your clothes to shreds.” “Oh,” the little boy said. The lieutenant lowered his voice and said in thrilling accents, “I daren’t let them out of the basket for fear of the havoc they would wreak.” The boy’s eyes were now as round as saucers. “Do you want to know what type of monster they are?” the lieutenant asked. The boy nodded cautiously. The lieutenant winked at him again and laughed, a merry sound. “They’re kittens, my young friend.” The little boy laughed, too, a trill of delight. “Kittens?” “A kitten apiece for my niece and nephew.
” “Can I see them?” the boy asked eagerly. “When we stop,” the lieutenant said. “Kittens and carriages don’t mix.” He smiled at the boy’s mother. “And only if your mother allows.” There was enough light, too, to see the boy’s mother blush upon receipt of that smile, as well she might; the lieutenant was a good-looking man, with his fair hair and his easy smile and his green rifleman’s uniform. Quite dashing, in fact. But Willie had grown up following the drum. She had met a great many officers, handsome and otherwise, and she knew better than to judge men by their smiles. The lieutenant certainly looked attractive, but she knew nothing of his character.
Except that he was cheerful. And he liked to joke. And he gave kittens as presents to his nephew and niece. THEY CHANGED horses at Twickenham and again at Chertsey, and stopped for a meal at Bagshot. The lieutenant was first out. He set his basket on the cobblestones, then helped the stout matron, the thin lady, and the mother and her son to descend. When he held up his hand to Willie, she took it, even though she was perfectly capable of climbing down from a stagecoach by herself. It would have been discourteous not to. The lieutenant was even more handsome in full daylight than he’d been in the gloom of the coach. His eyes were a warm, laughing brown with flecks of gold.
Those laughing eyes and that charming smile and the smart green uniform made her heart flutter a bit. But only a very tiny bit. “Can I see the kittens now?” the little boy asked. “Please?” “Certainly,” the lieutenant said. “Anyone who wishes may make their acquaintance.” His smile included Willie. Willie decided that she would quite like to see the creatures. Purely because she liked kittens. It had absolutely nothing to do with the lieutenant’s eyes or his smile.