Three years ago, on a chilled night of mid-December, with a rather solemnly looking waxing moon in the clouded sky and beneath the smattering of twinkling stars, I trudged along the silent and lonely road towards my destination. Usually, as my companion had told me, around this time of the year a nebulous fog streams through the vales and meadows of the rugged countryside, marked lightly by the uncivilized hills and an unruly network of country roads, which were almost impassible after heavy rains. This time, however, it was not so. Running amidst them, I found, to my pleasant surprise, a contorted network of single lane roads and myriad walking trails, some well defined and tractable, while others, left out to fade away over time, atrophied through a lack of use.
My job as an insurance agent had led me to many a distant places and sometimes proved to be a stimulating way of meeting magnificent people and their distinct ways of life imbued with myriad customs. Which, sometimes would seem rather quaint and icky for my sensibilities and tastes- to put it more politely. I was besotted, since my younger years, by this deep desire to explore and understand those essential ways in which the human settlements worked and interacted. I had been given a lead to follow a client to a distant part of Peramia, a city in somewhat south-west of where I work. Upon reaching the platform, I was escorted to a wagon station and I boarded a carriage that would lead me to the edge of the city and a few miles henceforth. However, the coachman held back from talking me to the doorsteps of my journey’s end. I was reminded of the time, when I was just shy of being twenty and had read Bram Stoker’s – Dracula, lying in my bed with a wall lamp that lit gently all through the night. There was an uncanny resemblance to the very beginning of that harrowing journey of a young solicitor named Jonathan Harker to his destination in Carpathian mountains, which ensconced within its icy heights, the castle of Count Dracula. I chuckled to myself and shook of the unnecessary workings of my mind that were spinning these tales of similarity and setting within me a faint trembling of an unknown trepidation and a set of cold feet.
“I say, how about I give you double the fare, you would normally charge and you drive me to the address? It is getting rather late in the afternoon and I would like to be there as soon as possible.” I almost implored him with my last sentence.
“Nay..nat worthit…. dese days ther arr highwaymen abound on dose roads.. an dey waylay da coaches an’ sumtaimes…I hierd ..dey kill…yes… yu go alone?! yes..or yu staiy ‘ere at a otel…pay a few pennies… an tumorro make ur jurney. dat way yu live another day …perhaps.” He quipped and grinned to show his soiled teeth.
The Horse carriage from the nearest station would take an hour and a half to reach the nearest port to my destination, and that too depending upon the haste of the coachman and a smooth journey with no hapless encounters. Had I not been under the pressing need of returning to my home the day after, for my first marriage anniversary, I would have gladly stayed at some place for the night and had begun my journey the next day. I had promised my doting wife, the sweetness of my life to a day full of surprises and things done together and a dinner at the finest dining halls of the city. I could not, under any circumstances, have retracted from my promise to her. I must make a journey today; and if need be, I shall walk right through a forest to finish my job and return to keep my promise. I jumped up in the carriage and the coachman shrugged his shoulders and gave me a piteous look, as if, he wanted me to acknowledge the mistake I was making. We were four people sitting inside, when the coachman whistled and pulled at the harness connected to the horses.
“Gidy up!!…” He shouted as he tugged at the reins.
The stagecoach shuddered into motion with a jerk and the wheels began to roll with a well known creaking sound. We were all men and no women; and I thanked my destiny for not playing a sadistic joke on me with that likeness to Bram Stoker’s gothic fiction, as it had begun to look. Still, an unease was present in the coach cabin that touched every thought and seemingly bent it in same direction. The journey had begun with little cheer and my companions were staring silently at the road ahead, as if wishing it to be safe and free of any hurdles. We were two miles into our journey, when we saw a returning coach and its coachman waved at us and wished us a safe journey. He would be the last one we would see for the rest of the miles that lay before us. The dusk would be spreading its wings soon enough. The cheerless and icy cold winds were blowing outside the carriage and some occasional drafts would sneak in through the rifts in the cabin wood.
“The winters are a bad time to travel…” One of the men shook his head.
The pale orange sun was biding a sad goodbye to us and was dipping towards a faraway horizon. I looked out of the window and dreamed of the time I would be spending with my wife to cheer myself up. The dust blew as the coach sped along the horse-tracked road, off to its last journey of the day.
[to be continued…]