At midday the coach stopped at an inn where a new team would be put to, in preparation for the next stretch of road. Groaning in relief at the prospect of a brief respite, the passengers poured out of the vehicle and into the tavern.
Catherine carried her tapestry carpetbag, afraid to leave it in the coach. The bag was a weighty affair containing a nightgown, undergarments and stockings, an assortment of combs and pins and a hairbrush, a shawl, and a voluminous novel with a mischievous inscription from Beatrix … “This story is guaranteed to entertain Miss Marks without improving her in the least! With love from the incorrigible B.H.”
The inn appeared moderately well appointed but hardly luxurious, the kind of place that stablemen and workingmen frequented. Catherine glanced disconsolately at a wooden yard wall covered with posting bills, and turned to watch a pair of ostlers change the team.
She nearly dropped the carpetbag at the side of the carriage yard as she felt a rustle of independent movement within. Not as if something had shifted around … it was more like … something was alive in there.
Her heartbeat became rapid and disorganized, like the bobbing of small potatoes in boiling water. “Oh no,” she whispered. Turning to face the wall, trying desperately to keep the bag out of view, she unlooped the fastener and opened the bag a mere two inches.
A sleek little head popped out. Catherine was aghast to behold a familiar pair of bright eyes and a set of twitching whiskers.
“Dodger,” she whispered. The ferret chattered happily, the corners of his mouth curling in his perpetual ferret smile. “Oh, you naughty boy!” He must have slipped into the bag while she had been packing. “What am I to do with you?” she asked in despair. Pushing his head back down into the bag, she stroked him to keep him quiet. There was no choice but to take the dratted creature all the way to London, and give him into Poppy’s keeping until he could be returned to Beatrix.
As soon as one of the ostlers shouted, “All ready!” Catherine went back into the coach and settled the carpetbag at her feet. Opening the top once more, she peeked at Dodger, who was coiled in the folds of her nightgown. “Be quiet,” she said sternly. “And don’t cause trouble.”
“I beg your pardon?” came the matron’s voice as she entered the carriage, her hat plume trembling with indignation.
“Oh, ma’am, I wasn’t speaking to you,” Catherine said hastily. “I was … lecturing myself.”
“Indeed.” The woman’s eyes narrowed as she plopped into the opposite seat.
Catherine sat stiffly. She waited for a telltale rustling of the carpetbag or a betraying noise. However, Dodger remained quiet.
The matron closed her eyes and lowered her chin to the high, mounded shelf of her bosom. In a matter of two minutes, she appeared to be dozing again.
Perhaps this wouldn’t be difficult after all, Catherine thought. If the woman remained asleep, and the gentlemen resumed their newspaper reading, she might be able to smuggle Dodger to London unnoticed.
But just as Catherine allowed herself to teeter on the brink of hope, the entire situation went tumbling out of her control.
Without warning Dodger poked his head out, surveyed his interesting new surroundings, and slithered from the bag. Catherine’s lips parted in a silent cry, and she froze with her hands arrested in midair. The ferret ran up the upholstered seat to the matron’s beckoning hat. A nibble or two, and his sharp teeth had severed a cluster of artificial cherries from the hat. Triumphantly he scrambled down the seat and leaped into Catherine’s lap with his prize. He did a happy ferret war dance, a series of hops and wriggles.
“No,” Catherine whispered, grabbing the cherries from him and trying to shove him back into the carpetbag.
Dodger protested, squeaking and chattering.
The woman spluttered and blinked, waking irritably at the noise. “Wha … what…”
Cat went still, her pulse thundering in her ears.
Dodger streaked up around Cat’s neck and hung limply, playing dead.
Like a scarf, Cat thought, struggling to repress a burst of demented giggles.
The matron’s indignant gaze arrowed to the bunch of cherries in her lap. “Why … why, those are from my hat, aren’t they? Were you attempting to steal those while I was napping?”
Catherine sobered immediately. “No, oh no, it was an accident. I’m so—”
“You ruined it, and this was my best hat, it cost two pounds and six! Give it back to me at—” But she broke off with a strangled sound, her mouth rounding into a calcified O as Dodger leaped to Catherine’s lap, seized the cherries, and disappeared into the safety of the carpetbag.
The woman screamed with earsplitting force, exiting the coach in a full-rigged tumult of skirts.
Five minutes later, Catherine and the carpetbag had been unceremoniously ejected from the coach. She stood at the verge of the carriage yard, assaulted by a concurrence of strong smells: dung, horses, urine, combining queasily with scents of cooked meat and hot bread coming from the tavern.
The coachman mounted to the box, ignoring Catherine’s outraged protests.
“But I paid to go all the way to London!” she cried.
“You paid for one passenger, not two. Two passengers get half the journey.”
Incredulously Catherine looked from his stony expression to the carpetbag in her hand. “This is not a passenger!”
“We’re a quarter hour behind time because of you and your rat,” the coachman said, squaring his elbows and cracking the whip.