I have a tendency to become absorbed in the lives of my bit parts — those minor characters who walk on stage and walk off again. Enter, messenger, stage left. Exit, messenger, stage right. But I want to know! Who are they? What are they like? Why are they that way?
I’d like to think it adds texture, even if little of it reaches the page. But whether or not, I can’t help but dream up little backstories for the street sweeper and the third footman and the serving girl in the tobacco shop.
What do other authors do? Why not show me in the comments. An excerpt with a walk-on part, please, and I’ll show you mine. This is from The Realm of Silence, and my hero and heroine are meeting with an anxious innkeeper. In my mind, Mr Withers has children of his own, all grown now. His dear departed wife would have insisted that he help this worried mother as if the missing child was one of their own grandchildren.
At Doncaster, the Ship and Anchor rewarded Susan with the information she and Gil sought. It was possible that a French governess and her charges had stayed the night, and did Madam by any chance know the name of those charges?
“Why do you ask?” Susan wondered.
The clerk, an earnest young man with thinning hair and a face set in lines of anxiety cast his gaze around the room, as if for inspiration, and an older man cut short his conversation with an aproned maid and limped over to speak to them. This man was altogether more prosperous looking; no less neat and his equally subdued clothing of higher quality cut, fabric, and stitching.
“Is there a problem, Clemowes? May I be of service, madam? I am the proprietor, Mr Withers.”
“I am seeking some information, Mr Withers,” Susan explained.
“This lady was asking after the French lady, sir, and the young lady and gentleman.”
Withers pulled his spectacles down his nose to regard her over the top, then appeared to make up his mind. “Clemowes, you have the helm. Madam, would you be so good as to step into my office.
Gil came in from ordering the next change of horses, and followed them as she and Withers crossed the inn’s entry hall through a door hidden in the panelling.
The office was small, with barely enough room for the desk, shelves neatly stacked with file boxes and books, and three upright chairs; one behind the desk and two in front. “If you would be kind enough to be seated, Mrs— Er—, I will explain.” Withers squeezed between the desk and wall of shelves, and faced them with his hands on his own chair, standing until Susan had selected her chair and lowered herself into it. Like the man himself, it was serviceable but not ostentatious.
Gil ignored the remaining seat to stand behind her, his silent presence an unaccountable comfort.
Withers tidied an already neat stack of papers then more perfectly aligned an ink pot on its tray.
If he would not begin the conversation, Susan would. “I asked your clerk about the French woman and her two charges, Mr Withers. In return, he asked me an impertinent question. I trust you do not intend to follow that example.”
Mr Withers grimaced. “It is an odd circumstance, madam, but I could not be easy in my mind if I did not follow the instructions I was given, as Mr Clemowes has followed mine.”
“And those instructions are?”
“First, madam, would you indulge me by naming at least one of the young people? Even just a first name? I would not insist, but yours is not the first enquiry, and the previous fellow did not appear to be aware of… But never mind.”
Susan glanced up over her shoulder, and Gil nodded his agreement. “I am seeking Amelia, known as Amy, and Patrice, known as Pat. Pat is travelling as a male.”
Mr Withers let out his breath in a sigh, and opened a drawer to his right. “Then you are the rightful recipient of this note, madam, left for me by one of the young ladies. I might add that the note was wrapped in another, addressed to me as innkeeper. Before I hand it over, I must ask for the full name of one or both of the young ladies.”
“Amelia Susanna Elizabeth Cunningham and Patrice Grahame,” Susan told him, and Mr Withers passed her the folded piece of paper, and another that he said was the note to him. Gil reached over her shoulder to abstract that one from the innkeeper’s hand.
Susan recognised her daughter’s neat schoolgirl hand on the single sheet, clearly torn from a lined notebook, with some commonplace about the weather written in ink at the top and crossed out in pencil, and a pencil-written message taking the rest of both sides of the paper.
“To our rescuer,” she read. “We suspect Mlle Cornilac of being a French spy. She caught us following her and has forced us to go with her. We don’t know our destination, but the post-chaise is booked for Newcastle, and she has inquired about accommodation in York. We will be staying at The White Rose. Ask there for a further message.
“Look for a lady with a French accent accompanied by a girl in the costume of our school, and a boy. Amy is the girl and Pat is the boy.
“Please let Amy’s mama and Pat’s aunt know that Mlle has not hurt us, and we are both quite safe. But she is very clever, so when we seek help, she turns it so people do not believe us. If we get the chance, we will escape.
“Yours faithfully, Amelia Cunningham and Patrice Grahame.”
Susan handed Gil the letter and read the note to Mr Withers. “To the innkeeper. Please keep the enclosed note safe and give it only to someone who asks after us and who knows our names. This is not a game. Our lives could be forfeit if you fail.”
Like the other note, it was signed with both girls’ names.
“Clever girls,” Gil murmured, making Susan smile.
“It is true, then?” Mr Withers flushed a little. “I must beg your pardon, Mrs Cunningham. I took the liberty of reading the enclosure in order to be certain I was not caught up in some child’s prank. It is Mrs Cunningham, is it not? The eyes. One cannot mistake the relationship. And you would be Mr Cunningham, sir, I take it.” He bowed to Gil, as well as he could while still seated.
Gil accepted the name without demur. “Why York? It is but four or five hours away.”
“A delay with the post chaise.” Mr Withers colour deepened as he explained that the post chaise lost a wheel not thirty minutes after leaving Doncaster, and that the passengers had been left in a farm cottage while the post boy rode back for an alternative equipage. With nothing available but Mr Withers’ own gig, he had himself fetched them and brought them back to the Ship and Anchor to wait for either the repair of the broken wheel or the next post chaise to return from its travels. The note had been discovered after the party’s second departure from the inn.
Gil nodded at the conclusion of the saga. “So they did not leave until early afternoon. Good. That helps us, Susan. Now, Mr Withers, we cannot delay. We have but another three hours of daylight and I wish to be as close to York as I can before we stop for the night. We will take some refreshment, and will you join us, sir, to answer some further questions?”
Within thirty minutes, they were on their way, warmed as much by the news of the girls as by the warm stew and the pint of ale inside them. Thanks to the accident with the post chaise, they were catching up faster than they’d hoped.