It is a Saturday afternoon of blue and yellow autumn time, and the scene is the High Street of a well-known market-town. A large carrier’s van stands in the quadrangular fore-court of the White Hart Inn, upon the sides of its spacious tilt being painted, in weather-beaten letters: ‘Burthen, Carrier to Longpuddle.’ These vans, so numerous hereabout, are a respectable, if somewhat lumbering, class of conveyance, much resorted to by decent travellers not overstocked with money, the better among them roughly corresponding to the old French diligences.
The present one is timed to leave the town at four in the afternoon precisely, and it is now half-past three by the clock in the turret at the top of the street. In a few seconds errand-boys from the shops begin to arrive with packages, which they fling into the vehicle, and turn away whistling, and care for the packages no more. At twenty minutes to four an elderly woman places her basket upon the shafts, slowly mounts, takes up a seat inside, and folds her hands and her lips. She has secured her corner for the journey, though there is as yet no sign of a horse being put in, nor of a carrier. At the three-quarters, two other women arrive, in whom the first recognizes the postmistress of Upper Longpuddle and the registrar’s wife, they recognizing her as the aged groceress of the same village. At five minutes to the hour there approach Mr. Profitt, the schoolmaster, in a soft felt hat, and Christopher Twink, the master-thatcher; and as the hour strikes there rapidly drop in the parish clerk and his wife, the seedsman and his aged father, the registrar; also Mr. Day, the world-ignored local landscape-painter, an elderly man who resides in his native place, and has never sold a picture outside it, though his pretensions to art have been nobly supported by his fellow- villagers, whose confidence in his genius has been as remarkable as the outer neglect of it, leading them to buy his paintings so extensively (at the price of a few shillings each, it is true) that every dwelling in the parish exhibits three or four of those admired productions on its walls.
Burthen, the carrier, is by this time seen bustling round the vehicle; the horses are put in, the proprietor arranges the reins and springs up into his seat as if he were used to it–which he is.
‘Is everybody here?’ he asks preparatorily over his shoulder to the passengers within.
As those who were not there did not reply in the negative the muster was assumed to be complete, and after a few hitches and hindrances the van with its human freight was got under way. It jogged on at an easy pace till it reached the bridge which formed the last outpost of the town. The carrier pulled up suddenly.
‘Bless my soul!’ he said, ‘I’ve forgot the curate!’
All who could do so gazed from the little back window of the van, but the curate was not in sight.
‘Now I wonder where that there man is?’ continued the carrier.
‘Poor man, he ought to have a living at his time of life.’
‘And he ought to be punctual,’ said the carrier. ‘”Four o’clock sharp is my time for starting,” I said to ‘en. And he said, “I’ll be there.” Now he’s not here, and as a serious old church-minister he ought to be as good as his word. Perhaps Mr. Flaxton knows, being in the same line of life?’ He turned to the parish clerk.
‘I was talking an immense deal with him, that’s true, half an hour ago,’ replied that ecclesiastic, as one of whom it was no erroneous supposition that he should be on intimate terms with another of the cloth. ‘But he didn’t say he would be late.’
The discussion was cut off by the appearance round the corner of the van of rays from the curate’s spectacles, followed hastily by his face and a few white whiskers, and the swinging tails of his long gaunt coat. Nobody reproached him, seeing how he was reproaching himself; and he entered breathlessly and took his seat.