A TALE OF MYSTERY
“I’ll cross it, though it blast me!” —Hamlet.
IT was a rainy Sunday, in the gloomy month of November. I had been detained in the course of a journey by a slight indisposition, from which I was recovering, but I was still feverish, and was obliged to 132keep within doors all day, in an inn of the small town of Derby. A wet Sunday in a country inn! whoever has had the luck to experience one can alone judge of my situation. The rain pattered against the casements; the bells tolled for church with a melancholy sound. I went to the window in quest of something to amuse the eye; but it seemed as if I had been placed completely out of reach of all amusement. The windows of my bedroom looked out among tiled roofs and stacks of chimneys; while those of my sitting-room commanded a full view of the stable-yard. I know of nothing more calculated to make a man sick of this world than a stable-yard on a rainy day. The place was littered with wet straw that had been kicked about by travellers and stable-boys; in one corner was a stagnant pool of water surrounding an island of muck; there were several half-drowned fowls crowded together under a cart, among which was a miserable, crestfallen cock, drenched out of all life and spirit; his drooping tail matted as it were into a single feather, along which the water trickled from his back. Near the cart was a half-dozing cow, chewing the cud, and standing patiently to be rained on, with wreaths of vapour rising from her reeking hide; a wall-eyed horse, tired of the loneliness of the stable, was poking his spectral head out of a window, with the rain dripping on it from the eaves; an unhappy cur, chained to a dog-house hard by uttering something every now and then between a bark and a yelp; a drab of a kitchen wench tramped backwards and forwards through the yard in pattens, looking as sulky as the weather itself; everything, in short, was comfortless and forlorn, excepting a crew of hard-drinking ducks, assembled like boon companions round a puddle, and making a riotous noise over their liquor.
I was lonely and listless, and wanted amusement. My room soon became insupportable. I abandoned it and sought what is technically called the traveller’s room. This is a public room set apart at most inns for the accommodation of a class of wayfarers called travellers or riders; a kind of commercial knights-errant who are incessantly scouring the kingdom in gigs, on horseback, or by coach. They are the only successors, that I know of at the present day, to the knights-errant of yore. They lead the same kind of roving, adventurous life, only changing the lance for a whip, the buckler for a pattern-card, and the coat of mail for an upper Benjamin. Instead of vindicating the charms of peerless beauty, they rove about spreading the fame and standing of some substantial tradesman or manufacturer, and are ready at any time to bargain in his name; it being the fashion nowadays to trade instead of fight with one another. As the room of the Hostel, in the good old fighting times, would be hung round at night with the armour of wayworn warriors, such as coats of mail, falchions, and yawning helmets; so the traveller’s room is garnished with the harnessing of their successors; with box-coats, whips of all kinds, spurs, gaiters, and oilcloth-covered hats.
I was in hopes of finding some of these worthies to talk with, but was disappointed, there were, indeed, two or three in the room, but I could make nothing of them. One was just finishing his breakfast, quarrelling with his bread and butter, and huffing the waiter; another buttoned on a pair of gaiters, with many execrations at “Boots” for not having cleaned his shoes well; a third sat drumming on the table with his fingers, and looking at the rain as it streamed down the window-glass; they all appeared infected by the weather, and disappeared, one after the other, without exchanging a word.
I sauntered to the window, and stood gazing at the people picking their way to church, with petticoats hoisted mid-leg high, and dripping umbrellas. The bell ceased to toll, and the streets became silent. I then amused myself 134with watching the daughters of a tradesman opposite; who, being confined to the house, for fear of wetting their Sunday finery, played off their charms at the front windows to fascinate the chance tenants of the inn. They at length were summoned away by a vigilant vinegar-faced mother, and I had nothing further from without to amuse me.
What was I to do to pass away the long-lived day? I was sadly nervous and lonely; and everything about an inn seemed calculated to make a dull day ten times duller. Old newspapers smelling of beer and tobacco smoke, and which I had already read half-a-dozen times. Good-for-nothing books, that were worse than the rainy weather. I bored myself to death with an old volume of the Lady’s Magazine. I read all the commonplace names of ambitious travellers scrawled on the panes of glass; the eternal families of the Smiths, and the Browns, and the Jacksons, and the Johnsons, and all the other sons; and I deciphered several scraps of fatiguing inn-window poetry that I have met with in all parts of the world.
The day continued lowering and gloomy; the slovenly, ragged, spongy clouds drifted heavily along in the air; there was no variety even in the rain; it was one dull, continued, monotonous patter, patter, patter; excepting that now and then I was enlivened by the idea of a brisk shower, from the rattlings of the drops upon a passing umbrella. It was quite refreshing (if I may be allowed a hackneyed phrase of the day) when in the course of the morning a horn blew, and a stage-coach whirled through the street, with outside passengers stuck all over it, cowering under cotton umbrellas; and seethed together, and reeking with the steams of wet box-coats and upper Benjamins.
The sound brought out from their lurking-places a crew of vagabond boys and vagabond dogs, with the carroty-headed hostler and the nondescript animal ycleped Boots, and all the other vagabond race that infest the purlieus of 135an inn; but the bustle was transient; the coach again whirled on its way; the boy, and dog, and hostler, and Boots, all slunk back again to their holes; and the street again became silent, and the rain continued to rain on. In fact there was no hope of its clearing up; the barometer pointed to rainy weather; mine hostess’s tortoise-shell cat sat by the fire washing her face and rubbing her paws over her ears; and on referring to the almanac, I found a direful prediction from the top of the page to the bottom through the whole month, “expect—much—rain—about—this—time.”
I was dreadfully hipped. The hours seemed as if they would never creep by. The very ticking of the clock became irksome. At length the stillness of the house was interrupted by the ringing of a bell. Shortly after I heard the voice of a waiter at the bar, “The Stout Gentleman in No. 13 wants his breakfast. Tea and bread and butter, with ham and eggs; the eggs not to be too much done.”
In such a situation as mine every incident is of importance. Here was a subject of speculation presented to my mind, and ample exercise for my imagination. I am prone to paint pictures to myself, and on this occasion I had some material to work upon. Had the guest upstairs been mentioned as Mr. Smith, or Mr. Brown, or Jackson, or Mr. Johnson, or merely as the gentleman in No. 13, it would have been a perfect blank to me. I should have thought nothing of it. But “the Stout Gentleman!”—the very name had something in it of the picturesque. It at once gave the size, it embodied the personage to my mind’s eye, and my fancy did the rest. “He was stout, or, as some term it, lusty; in all probability therefore he was advanced in life; some people expanding as they grow old. By his breakfasting rather late, and in his own room, he must be a man accustomed to live at his ease, and above the necessity of early rising; no doubt a round, rosy, lusty old gentleman.”
There was another violent ringing; the Stout Gentleman was impatient for his breakfast. He was evidently a man of importance, “well-to-do in the world,” accustomed to be promptly waited upon, of a keen appetite, and a little cross when hungry. “Perhaps,” thought I, “he may be some London alderman; or who knows but he may be a member of Parliament?”
The breakfast was sent up, and there was a short interval of silence; he was doubtless making the tea. Presently there was a violent ringing, and before it could be answered, another ringing, still more violent. “Bless me! what a choleric old gentleman!” The waiter came down in a huff. The butter was rancid, the eggs were overdone, the ham was too salt. The Stout Gentleman was evidently nice in his eating. One of those who eat and growl and keep the waiter on the trot, and live in a state militant with the household.
The hostess got into a fume. I should observe that she was a brisk, coquettish woman; a little of a shrew, and something of a slammerkin, but very pretty withal; with a nincompoop for a husband, as shrews are apt to have. She rated the servants roundly for their negligence in sending up so bad a breakfast; but said not a word against the Stout Gentleman; by which I clearly perceived he must be a man of consequence; entitled to make a noise and to give trouble at a country inn. Other eggs and ham and bread and butter were sent. They appeared to be more graciously received; at last there was no further complaint, and I had not made many turns about the traveller’s room when there was another ringing. Shortly afterwards there was a stir, and an inquest about the house. “The Stout Gentleman wanted the Times or the Chronicle newspaper.” I set him down, therefore, for a whig; or rather, from his being so absolute and lordly where he had a chance, I suspected him of being a radical. Hunt, I had heard, was a large 137man. “Who knows,” thought I, “but it is Hunt himself?”
My curiosity began to be awakened. I inquired of the waiter who was this Stout Gentleman that was making all this stir, but I could get no information. Nobody seemed to know his name. The landlords of bustling inns seldom trouble their heads about the names of their transient guests. The colour of a coat, the shape or size of the person, is enough to suggest a travelling name. It is either the tall gentleman, or the short gentleman; or the gentleman in black, or the gentleman in snuff colour; or, as in the present instance, the Stout Gentleman; a designation of the kind once hit on answers every purpose, and saves all further inquiry.
Rain—rain—rain! pitiless, ceaseless rain! no such thing as putting a foot out of doors, and no occupation or amusement within. By-and-by I heard some one walking overhead. It was in the Stout Gentleman’s room. He evidently was a large man by the heaviness of his tread; and an old man from his wearing such creaking soles. “He is doubtless,” thought I, “some rich old square-toes, of regular habits, and is now taking exercise after breakfast.”
I now read all the advertisements of coaches and hotels that were stuck about the mantelpiece. The Lady’s Magazine had become an abomination to me; it was as tedious as the day itself. I wandered out, not knowing what to do, and ascended again to my room. I had not been there long when there was a squall from a neighbouring bedroom. A door opened and slammed violently; a chambermaid that I had remarked for a ruddy, good-humoured face, went downstairs in a violent flurry. The Stout Gentleman had been rude to her.
This sent a whole host of my deductions to the deuce in a moment. This unknown personage could not be an old gentleman; for old gentlemen are not apt to be so obstreperous 139to chambermaids. He could not be a young gentleman; for young gentlemen are not apt to inspire such indignation. He must be a middle-aged man, and confoundedly ugly into the bargain, or the girl would not have taken the matter in such terrible dudgeon. I confess I was sorely puzzled. In a few minutes I heard the voice of my landlady. I caught a glance of her as she came tramping upstairs, her face glowing, her cap flaring, her tongue wagging the whole way.
“She’d have no such doings in her house, she’d warrant. If gentlemen did spend their money freely, it was no rule. She’d have no servant-maids of hers treated in that way, when they were about their work, that’s what she wouldn’t.”
As I hate squabbles, particularly with women, and above all with pretty women, I slunk back into my room, and partly closed the door; but my curiosity was too much excited not to listen. The landlady marched intrepidly to the enemy’s citadel and entered it with a storm. The door closed after her. I heard her voice in high windy clamour for a moment or two. Then it gradually subsided, like a gust of wind in a garret. Then there was a laugh; then I heard nothing more. After a little while my landlady came out with an odd smile on her face, adjusting her cap, which was a little on one side. As she went downstairs I heard the landlord ask her what was the matter; she said, “Nothing at all—only the girl’s a fool!” I was more than ever perplexed what to make of this unaccountable personage, who could put a good-natured chambermaid in a passion, and send away a termagant landlady in smiles. He could not be so old, nor cross, nor ugly either.
I had to go to work at his picture again, and to paint him entirely different. I now set him down for one of those Stout Gentlemen that are frequently met with swaggering about the doors of country inns. Moist, merry fellows, in Belcher handkerchiefs, whose bulk is a little assisted by 140malt liquors. Men who have seen the world, and been sworn at Highgate. Who are used to tavern life; up to all the tricks of tapsters, and knowing in the ways of sinful publicans. Free livers on a small scale, who call all the waiters by name, tousle the maids, gossip with the landlady at the bar, and prose over a pint of port or a glass of negus after dinner.
The morning wore away in forming these and similar surmises. As fast as I wove one system of belief, some movement of the unknown would completely overturn it, and throw all my thoughts again into confusion. Such are the solitary operations of a feverish mind. I was, as I have said, extremely nervous, and the continual meditation on the concerns of this invisible personage began to have its effects—I was getting a fit of fidgets.
Dinner-time came. I hoped the Stout Gentleman might dine in the traveller’s room, and that I might at length get a view of his person; but no—he had dinner served in his own room. What could be the meaning of this solitude and mystery? He could not be a radical; there was something too aristocratical in thus keeping himself apart from the rest of the world, and condemning himself to his own dull company throughout a rainy day. And then too he lived too well for a discontented politician. He seemed to expatiate on a variety of dishes, and to sit over his wine like a jolly friend of good living.
Indeed, my doubts on this head were soon at an end, for he could not have finished his first bottle before I could faintly hear him humming a tune, and on listening I found it to be “God Save the King.” ’Twas plain then he was no radical, but a faithful subject; one that grew loyal over his bottle, and was ready to stand by his king and constitution when he could stand by nothing else. But who could he be? My conjectures began to run wild. Was he not some personage of distinction travelling incog.? “God knows!” 141said I, at my wit’s end; “it maybe one of the royal family for aught I know, for they are all Stout Gentlemen!”
The weather continued rainy. The mysterious person kept his room, and, as far as I could judge, his chair; for I did not hear him move. In the meantime, as the day advanced, the traveller’s room began to be frequented. Some who had just arrived came in buttoned up in box coats; others came home who had been dispersed about the town. Some took their dinners, and some their tea. Had I been in a different mood, I should have found entertainment in studying this peculiar class of men. There were two, especially, who were regular wags of the road, and up to all the standing jokes of travellers. They had a thousand sly things to say to the waiting-maid, whom they called Louisa, and Ethelinda, and a dozen other fine names, changing the name every time, and chuckling amazingly at their own waggery. My mind, however, had become completely engrossed by the Stout Gentleman. He had kept my fancy in chase during a long day, and it was not now to be diverted from the scent.
The evening gradually wore away. The travellers read the papers two or three times over. Some drew around the fire, and told long stories about their horses, about their adventures, their over-turns, and breakings-down. They discussed the credits of different merchants and different inns, and the two wags told several choice anecdotes of pretty chambermaids and kind landladies. All this passed as they were quietly taking what they called their “nightcaps,”—that is to say, strong glasses of brandy and water with sugar, or some other mixture of the kind; after which they one after another rang for “boots” and the chambermaids, and walked up to bed in old shoes, cut down into marvellously uncomfortable slippers.
There was only one man left; a short-legged, long-bodied, plethoric fellow, with a very large sandy head. He sat by 142himself, with a glass of port wine negus and a spoon, sipping and stirring until nothing was left but the spoon. He gradually fell asleep, bolt upright in his chair, with the empty glass standing before him; and the candle seemed to fall asleep too, for the wick grew long and black and cabbaged at the end, and dimmed the little light that remained in the chamber.
The gloom that now prevailed was contagious. Around hung the shapeless and almost spectral box-coats of departed travellers, long since buried in deep sleep. I only heard the ticking of the clock, with the deep-drawn breathing of the sleeping toper, and the dripping of the rain, drop—drop—drop, from the eaves of the house.
The church bells chimed midnight. All at once the Stout Gentleman began to walk overhead, pacing slowly backwards and forwards. There was something extremely awful in all this—especially to me in my state of nerves. These ghastly great-coats, these guttural breathings, and the creaking footsteps of the mysterious being. His steps grew fainter and fainter, and at length died away. I could bear it no longer; I was wound up to the desperation of a hero of romance. “Be he who or what he may,” said I to myself, “I’ll have a sight of him!” I seized a chamber candle and hurried up to No. 13. The door stood ajar. I hesitated—I entered—the room was deserted. There stood a large, broad-bottomed elbow-chair at a table, on which was an empty tumbler and a Times newspaper, and the room smelt powerfully of Stilton cheese.
The mysterious stranger had evidently but just retired. I turned off to my room sorely disappointed. As I went along the corridor I saw a large pair of boots, with dirty, waxed tops, standing at the door of a bed-chamber. They doubtless belonged to the unknown; but it would not do to disturb so redoubtable a personage in his den; he might discharge a pistol or something worse at my head. I went 143to bed therefore, and lay awake half the night in a terribly nervous state; and even when I fell asleep I was still haunted in my dreams by the idea of the Stout Gentleman and his wax-topped boots.
I slept rather late the next morning, and was awakened by some stir and bustle in the house, which I could not at first comprehend; until getting more awake, I found there was a mail coach starting from the door. Suddenly there 144was a cry from below: “The gentleman has forgot his umbrella; look for the gentleman’s umbrella in No. 13.”
I heard an immediate scamper of a chambermaid along the passage, and a shrill reply, as she ran, “Here it is! here’s the gentleman’s umbrella!”
The mysterious stranger then was on the point of setting off. This was the only chance I should ever have of knowing him. I sprang out of bed, scrambled to the window, snatched aside the curtains, and just caught a glimpse of the rear of a person getting in at the coach-door. The skirts of a brown coat parted behind, and gave me a full view of the broad disc of a pair of drab breeches. The door closed. “All right,” was the word; the coach whirled off—and that was all I ever saw of the Stout Gentleman.