Once again we are beholden to the current executors of the Knolly estate for letting us publish this, the second package of the great man's journals and memoirs.
Sleepless and Unsettled Part 6
Leaving Elspeth waving at the door, I briefly thought 'Should I stay or should I go? If I go there will be trouble, if I stay it will be double'. The thought (despite the poetry) didn't last long - after all, I hadn't been out alone with this pair of rogues for many a year and I satisfied myself that this had led to Elspeth's concern.
With Sag Aloo in charge of the driving and Sol-Tan electing to take his seat beside him, there was nowhere else for me to sit but inside. This suited me just fine; there would be plenty of time for idle banter whilst waiting for a reply from Bertie. The luncheon had left me quite full, and with the lack of a good night's sleep, I dozed off as soon as I had made myself comfortable. I drifted off, safe in the knowledge that I had trusted eyes and ears about me on this short journey back into Marlborough.
A light drizzle had just started as I awoke to the ex-Master of the Horse calling out 'Whoa there!' in his native tongue and scaring a passer-by in the process. The Post Office was pretty much in the centre of the extremely wide High Street - one of the widest in the whole country, I'm led to believe. The carriage door was opened with a flourish.
'So, my friends! Where are we going to wait after I've sent my message?'
'Sol -Tan and I decided this over your snoring,' Sag Aloo said as he jerked his thumb over his shoulder. 'We didn't think you'd been in there for a while and there's good stabling too.'
I looked over to where he was indicating. Almost diagonally opposite from the Post Office was The Castle and Ball, an inn that I had frequented much in my youth. (Truth be told, most of the inns within walking distance of the Hall had benefited from my patronage at sometime or other.) The inn seemed to dominate the centre of the wide town street and was always my favourite; it had so much history and was the sort of hostelry I could imagine myself owning had things turned out differently.
'That would seem a mighty fine idea,' I said. 'I'll meet you over there as soon as my business is concluded here.'
The pair smiled, 'Shall we order for you?' asked Sol-Tan over his shoulder as my escorts ran to the appointed hostelry.
I nodded and called: 'Please do and try and get a spot by the fire. It seems to be getting a little chilly now.' And with that I turned and went into the Post Office.
I had thought that I would be the only customer at this time of day. Sadly, this was not the case, and to compound matters, only a single counter was in use. There seemed to be some sort of argument going on between an elderly woman and the Post Master. The little bell that rang over the door as I entered didn't even break their stride. Oh well, I thought - at least I would have time to compose my message.
Above the shelf that was used by customers to put pen to paper, and alongside the pigeon holes containing numerous forms was a brightly coloured poster proclaiming the latest advancement in communications. Balloon Mail! A ridiculous concept that had found favour during the Franco-Prussian war and was still trying to find a market twenty years later. How can you have a reliable mail service when one has to rely of the vagaries of the prevailing winds? Speed, accuracy and a prompt reply was of the essence and as such, my requirements ruled out pigeon post or a mail coach - hence I opted to send a telegram to Hobbes and hang the expense! I took my time in preparing a concise yet informative message to Hobbes and Bertie. I would inform them that I would not be back in London until tomorrow and that they should alert Mr Maxim to this fact. I would also request news of any deviations from our planned departure time. I then decided to pen an additional message to Biggfat, just to keep him abreast of developments. I knew that I would be scolded for sending business messages in plain text, but I could not see any harm in what I had written should anyone intercept.
There came a polite cough. I turned to see the Post Master wave at me, the elderly woman having now gone. Strange! I hadn't noticed the argument end or the sound of the bell as she left the premises, engrossed as I was in my wordsmithery.
'Why, it's young Mr Knolly isn't it?' Asked the politely-coughing gentleman.
'Oh! Not so young anymore, Mr....?'
'Clifton. Patrick Clifton.'
'I didn't recognise you, my good man! So you don't do the delivery any more?'
'Not anymore sir. It's a younger man's game that one, and I can't outrun the dogs anymore. So, you want to send these messages via balloon?' He asked expectantly.
I could see the expectation behind the fellow's grin. It was obvious that this balloon mail malarkey was his latest venture.
'I'm afraid not, Patrick. I need a reply today, so they need to go as telegrams.'
His face fell. 'As you are sir. Your Aunt has an account - shall I put the cost on that?'
'Good idea!' I could almost see the smile on Biggfat's face at this token reduction in expenses. 'I shall be over in the Castle, so I'll come back in an hour or so.'
'Oh, don't worry sir. I shall send the boy over when you get a reply.'
The Castle and Ball seemed to have changed very little since my youth. The only change that I noticed was that it seemed brighter and better lit than I remembered. I spied my chums nursing their favourite tipples over by the fireside - excellent! All was tickety-boo. As I took off my coat, I shook off the rain drops and eyed the current clientele. There were a few customers at the bar and one or two sitting in what looked like their regular spots.
'Sol- Tan, tell me .... is that Old Isaac over there?' I whispered.
He nodded and chuckled at an old memory that must have just played before him.
Old Isaac (well, he seemed old to me, although I’m sure he was only in his sixties) the town crier, was sitting in the corner by the window. He nodded at me as I hung my coat. I’m not certain if he knew me, although he had chased Bertie and me many a time when he’d been a member of the local constabulary.
'Bell-ringers, psalm-singers and band players, being amongst the biggest rogues in the Parish!' was one of his more famous rantings. I'm still not entirely sure into which category we fitted ....
I settled myself into my chair and raised my glass to my colleagues.
'So chaps, what's going on with my Aunt, eh? You all seemed fine at my birthday bash.'
'I'm afraid, Mr Knolly, sir, that your Aunt has not been the same since the old Queen passed away,' said Sag Aloo.
'Well that’s understandable. I mean, there’s not much call for dead monarch impersonators these days, is there?'
'Sir, you will pardon me for saying, that I think your Aunt sees Her Majesty's death as a sign of things to come rather than just a revenue source that has dried up.' said Sol-Tan in a patient manner as Sag Aloo rolled his eyes and sipped his drink. I looked from one to the other, the pair of them were deadly serious. I changed my tone.
'Silly me, of course. How stupid of me not to notice.'
'Your Aunt is also very concerned about you,' continued Sag Aloo. 'You are - after all - her only true heir and you live a somewhat dangerous life style.'
'... and you are soon to become a father.' Added Sol-Tan.
I took a sip of my half pint of porter and mulled over this. Recent events now seemed to make sense; my Aunt's tete-a-tete with Biggfat at my birthday celebration, her later visit to his office, her not wishing to discuss my Uncle's disappearance. Poor Auntie Lettice! Time was moving on and she was unable to control it; indeed, the only control she seemingly had was over her girls.
All of a sudden from behind me, a voice I had not heard for many years reverberated around the inn; it shook me from my current train of thought and almost shook me from my chair!
'I know them shoulders and that hair anywhere!' Rasped the voice.
My drinking colleagues were grinning from ear to ear.
'She's still alive?' I asked quietly. As one, Sag Aloo and Sol-Tan nodded.
'You knew she'd be in here?' I asked. They nodded once more. The rascals!
'Mr Knolly, sir,' said Sol-Tan. 'You are quite safe. She is married to the owner now.'
Thanking Heaven for that fact! I turned slowly in my seat, not knowing what I would see before me (and quite nervous to boot). I was certain that Molly of Treacle Bolly would not be as I kept her in my mind's eye.
And there she was. 'Oh dear.' I thought, as my nervousness at seeing her was proved somewhat right. However, I believe (and maybe this was something to do with the excellent porter) that the vision before me was not as bad as it might have been. Time had been kinder than gravity on Molly Saunders - or as she now introduced herself - Mrs Mary Spendlove.....