A Ride on the Eastern Belle. Chapter One, The Outsider

CHAPTER ONE. THE OUTSIDER

The battered old coach pulled up at the town’s staging post with the creak of rusty springs and a shout from the driver.  The four horses that had pulled the carriage for forty miles across the marshy countryside bowed their heads and shuffled their feet on the dusty street. Three passengers stepped down from the coach, stretched, rubbed their knees, and waited for their bags to be unloaded from the roof of the carriage.

The driver climbed onto his seat and began to loosen the straps that held the passenger’s luggage in place.

On the coach, Maisie Stamford stayed in her seat and watched her fellow travellers pick up their belongings and make their way across the dusty road to the long row of timber buildings that lined that side of the street.

Two of the passengers had relatives waiting for them. They were greeted with hugs and tears. The third, an elderly gentleman, polished his spectacles on his handkerchief and looked up and down the street as if uncertain which way to go.

Maisie waited patiently. She had learned to be patient over the years. Outside on the pavement, a large, middle aged woman, wearing a flat hat with a rose pinned to the brim, tapped her foot and berated the driver for taking so long to get to Maisie’s belongings. The driver did his best to ignore her. Her trunk was strapped across two rails along with Maisie’s wheelchair.

A young man of about twenty, who worked at the staging post, hurried across the pavement to help the driver offload the trunk. The chair was placed at the side of the open carriage door and the young man climbed into the coach, He smiled and nodded his head in greeting before he swept her up in his arms, backed out of the carriage, and deposited her in the chair.

‘Thank you,’ said Maisie, to both the driver and the young man.

The driver nodded, touched his hat with his fingers and looked to the large woman, hoping for a reward.

The woman ignored him, turned the wheelchair around and set off down the dusty street. She hadn’t gone far before she ran out of breath.

‘Goodness me, girl, have you been eating rocks?’

Maisie shook her head. ‘I don’t think I’m any bigger than I was the last time I saw you, Aunt Martha. Mother said she thought I was getting rather thin.’

Martha crossed herself. ‘My poor sister, God rest her soul.’  She pushed the chair over to the market where a steep wooden ramp led up to the boardwalk, then she pulled on the brake and stomped back towards the stagecoach office.

The market was busy as the townsfolk often left it late to shop, hoping for bargains on cut priced fruit and vegetables that had wilted in the oppressive heat. Martha’s chair was parked in front of a fruit stall. Its owner boasted about the quality of his wares.

‘Strawberries! Ripe Strawberries. Apples, Cherries, get your lovely cherries. Treat your old fellah, and he’ll treat you right.’

Maisie looked hungrily at the piles of fruit on the costermonger’s barrow. All she had eaten since her journey began was a crust of hard bread and an even harder lump of cheese.

As she was salivating, a boy of about her own age stopped in front of her. He studied the fruit and prodded at the apples to check their firmness. When the costermonger moved to the other end of his barrow to weigh out a pound of cherries, the boy grabbed two apples and held them behind his back.

‘Hey, you! I saw that, put ‘em back before I have you up for thievery.’

The boy shrugged his shoulders and pretended innocence. The costermonger stormed towards him, his fists raised.

‘Maisie suddenly felt a weight in her lap. She looked down to find the two, stolen apples lying there. The boy began to back away as the fruit seller got closer.

‘Come here you little thief.’

‘I ain’t got nothing. Honestly mister.’

Maisie grabbed the apples and pushed them down the side of her chair as the furious man got hold of the boy by the collar of his shirt.

‘Come on, show me what you’ve got behind your back,’ he snarled.

The boy stuck his hands out in front. ‘See, I ain’t got nothing. I told you.’

The fruit seller searched the boy’s shirt, felt the waistband where his dirty white shirt was tucked in, and ran his hands down the boy’s legs to make sure he hadn’t secreted them in his trousers. Finally he admitted defeat. He cuffed the boy around the ear and pointed down the street.

‘Away with you, and if I ever see you near my stall again I’ll bring out the birch rod.’

The boy stepped off the duckboards and turned with a smirk. He looked around the dirty street with a confused look on his face.

‘Shhh,’ whispered Maisie with her finger to her lips. She nudged herself sideways so that the boy could see the fruit stuck between her hip and the side of the wheelchair. The boy’s smile became a grin.

‘Fancy a stroll, Miss?’ he asked.

Masie looked down the street to where her aunt was still berating the young man at the staging post. ‘I’m with her, unfortunately,’ she said.

‘Ah, old grumpy drawers herself, you must be her niece. I heard you were going to pay a visit.’ The boy turned the wheelchair around and pushed it up the ramp to the boardwalk. ‘I expect she’d like you delivered to General Store, Miss.’

Maisie looked over her shoulder to make sure they were out of sight of the market trader and handed one of the apples to the boy.

‘I’m Maisie,’ she said.

‘I’m Tom, and I’m sure I dropped two apples,’ he said.

‘Finders, keepers, Tom,’ said Maisie and bit into her share.

Aunt Martha, having failed to persuade the owner of the staging post to allow his employee to assist her with the wheelchair, stomped along the street towards the market. Maisie called to her from the boardwalk.

‘I’m here, Aunt Martha, this kind young man has offered to push me to the store.’

Aunt Martha turned on her heel, surprisingly nimbly for a woman of her size. ‘There’s a trunk at the staging post,’ she said. ‘Make sure you deliver that too.’

Tom deposited Maisie on the duckboards outside the General Store then ran back to the staging post and dragged a large, leather trunk down the street and rested it beside her.

‘Blimey, Maisie, What you got in there, rocks?’

‘All my things,’ replied Maisie. ‘I’ve come here to stay, forever.’

‘You won’t like, it,’ said Tom, ‘nothing ever happens here, except… Hey, maybe your aunt will pay for you to go on the summer trip. Milton Nightstorm will be here on the Eastern Belle in a few weeks. All the kids go on it.’

Before Maisie could ask what an Eastern Belle was, Aunt Martha stomped out onto the boardwalk.

‘You got it this far, you might as well get the thing inside,’ she pointed to the trunk.

Tom touched his forelock and dragged the leather box through the shop and into the back room. Aunt Martha followed him in, pushing Maisie in the chair.

Tom waited in the parlour in case a tip was in the offing. It wasn’t.

‘Don’t just stand there like a lummox, Tom Harris, get yourself off home, I’m sure your father can find plenty for you to do.’

Tom winked at Maisie and walked back through the shop, closely followed by Aunt Martha.

In the parlour Maisie nodded her head and smiled at Lucy who glared at her maliciously. ‘Whatever is the matter?’ she asked.

‘She’s sacked me. She says she doesn’t need me now you are here,’ snarled Lucy. ‘My Dad will blame me, but you’re the one to blame. You’ve taken my job.’

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