The Romany Rye, by George Borrow

Chapter 24

An Inn of Times Gone by — A First-Rate Publican — Hay and Corn — Old-Fashioned Ostler — Highwaymen — Mounted Police — Grooming

The inn of which I had become an inhabitant was a place of infinite life and bustle. Travellers of all descriptions, from all the cardinal points, were continually stopping at it: and to attend to their wants, and minister to their convenience, an army of servants, of one description or other, was kept — waiters, chambermaids, grooms, postillions, shoe-blacks, cooks, scullions, and what not, for there was a barber and hair-dresser, who had been at Paris, and talked French with a cockney accent, the French sounding all the better, as no accent is so melodious as the cockney. Jacks creaked in the kitchens turning round spits, on which large joints of meat piped and smoked before the great big fires. There was running up and down stairs, and along galleries, slamming of doors, cries of ‘Coming, sir,’ and ‘Please to step this way, ma’am,’ during eighteen hours of the four-and-twenty. Truly a very great place for life and bustle was this inn. And often in after life, when lonely and melancholy, I have called up the time I spent there, and never failed to become cheerful from the recollection.

I found the master of the house a very kind and civil person. Before being an innkeeper he had been in some other line of business, but, on the death of the former proprietor of the inn had married his widow, who was still alive, but being somewhat infirm, lived in a retired part of the house. I have said that he was kind and civil; he was, however, not one of those people who suffer themselves to be made fools of by anybody; he knew his customers, and had a calm clear eye, which would look through a man without seeming to do so. The accommodation of his house was of the very best description; his wines were good, his viands equally so, and his charges not immoderate; though he very properly took care of himself. He was no vulgar innkeeper, had a host of friends, and deserved them all. During the time I lived with him, he was presented, by a large assemblage of his friends and customers, with a dinner at his own house, which was very costly, and at which the best of wines were sported, and after the dinner with a piece of plate, estimated at fifty guineas. He received the plate, made a neat speech of thanks, and when the bill was called for, made another neat speech, in which he refused to receive one farthing for the entertainment, ordering in at the same time two dozen more of the best champagne, and sitting down amidst uproarious applause, and cries of ‘You shall be no loser by it!’ Nothing very wonderful in such conduct, some people will say; I don’t say there is, nor have I any intention to endeavour to persuade the reader that the landlord was a Carlo Borromeo; he merely gave a quid pro quo; but it is not every person who will give you a quid pro quo. Had he been a vulgar publican, he would have sent in a swinging bill after receiving the plate; ‘but then no vulgar publican would have been presented with plate;’ perhaps not, but many a vulgar public character has been presented with plate, whose admirers never received a quid pro quo, except in the shape of a swinging bill.

I found my duties of distributing hay and corn, and keeping an account thereof, anything but disagreeable, particularly after I had acquired the good-will of the old ostler, who at first looked upon me with rather an evil eye, considering me somewhat in the light of one who had usurped an office which belonged to himself by the right of succession; but there was little gall in the old fellow, and, by speaking kindly to him, never giving myself any airs of assumption; but above all, by frequently reading the newspapers to him — for, though passionately fond of news and politics, he was unable to read — I soon succeeded in placing myself on excellent terms with him. A regular character was that old ostler; he was a Yorkshireman by birth, but had seen a great deal of life in the vicinity of London, to which, on the death of his parents, who were very poor people, he went at a very early age. Amongst other places where he had served as ostler was a small inn at Hounslow, much frequented by highwaymen, whose exploits he was fond of narrating, especially those of Jerry Abershaw, 139 who, he said, was a capital rider; and on hearing his accounts of that worthy I half regretted that the old fellow had not been in London, and I had not formed his acquaintance about the time I was thinking of writing the life of the said Abershaw, not doubting that with his assistance I could have produced a book at least as remarkable as the life and adventures of that entirely imaginary personage, Joseph Sell; perhaps, however, I was mistaken; and whenever Abershaw’s life shall appear before the public — and my publisher credibly informs me that it has not yet appeared — I beg and entreat the public to state which it likes best, the life of Abershaw, or that of Sell, for which latter work I am informed that during the last few months there has been a prodigious demand. 140 My old friend, however, after talking of Abershaw, would frequently add, that, good rider as Abershaw certainly was, he was decidedly inferior to Richard Ferguson, 141 generally called Galloping Dick, who was a pal of Abershaw’s, and had enjoyed a career as long, and nearly as remarkable, as his own. I learned from him that both were capital customers at the Hounslow inn, and that he had frequently drank with them in the corn-room. He said that no man could desire more jolly or entertaining companions over a glass of ‘summat’; but that upon the road it was anything but desirable to meet them; there they were terrible, cursing and swearing, and thrusting the muzzles of their pistols into people’s mouths; and at this part of his locution the old man winked, and said, in a somewhat lower voice, that upon the whole they were right in doing so, and that when a person had once made up his mind to become a highwayman, his best policy was to go the whole hog, fearing nothing, but making everybody afraid of him; that people never thought of resisting a savage-faced, foul-mouthed highwayman, and if he were taken, were afraid to bear witness against him, lest he should get off and cut their throats some time or other upon the roads; whereas people would resist being robbed by a sneaking, pale-visaged rascal, and would swear bodily against him on the first opportunity; adding, that Abershaw and Ferguson, two most awful fellows, had enjoyed a long career, whereas two disbanded officers of the army, who wished to rob a coach like gentlemen, had begged the passengers’ pardon, and talked of hard necessity, had been set upon by the passengers themselves, amongst whom were three women, pulled from their horses, conducted to Maidstone, and hanged with as little pity as such contemptible fellows deserved. ‘There is nothing like going the whole hog,’ he repeated, ‘and if ever I had been a highwayman, I would have done so; I should have thought myself all the more safe; and, moreover, shouldn’t have despised myself. To curry favour with those you are robbing, sometimes at the expense of your own comrades, as I have known fellows do, why it is the greatest —’

‘So it is,’ interposed my friend the postillion, who chanced to be present at a considerable part of the old ostler’s discourse; ‘it is, as you say, the greatest of humbug, and merely, after all, gets a fellow into trouble; but no regular bred highwayman would do it. I say, George, catch the Pope of Rome trying to curry favour with anybody he robs; catch old Mumbo Jumbo currying favour with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Dean and Chapter, should he meet them in a stage-coach; it would be with him, Bricconi Abbasso, as he knocked their teeth out with the butt of his trombone, and the old regular-built ruffian would be all the safer for it, as Bill would say, as ten to one the Archbishop and Chapter, after such a spice of his quality, would be afraid to swear against him, and to hang him, even if he were in their power, though that would be the proper way; for, if it is the greatest of all humbug for a highwayman to curry favour with those he robs, the next greatest is to try to curry favour with a highwayman when you have got him, by letting him off.’

Finding the old man so well acquainted with the history of highwaymen, and taking considerable interest in the subject, having myself edited a book 142 containing the lives of many remarkable people who had figured on the highway, I forthwith asked him how it was that the trade of highwayman had become extinct in England, as at present we never heard of anyone following it. Whereupon he told me that many causes had contributed to bring about that result; the principal of which were the following: the refusal to license houses which were known to afford shelter to highwaymen, which, amongst many others, had caused the inn at Hounslow to be closed; the inclosure of many a wild heath in the country, on which they were in the habit of lurking, and particularly the establishing in the neighbourhood of London of a well-armed mounted patrol, who rode the highwaymen down, and delivered them up to justice, which hanged them without ceremony.

‘And that would be the way to deal with Mumbo Jumbo and his gang,’ said the postillion, ‘should they show their visages in these realms; and I hear by the newspapers that they are becoming every day more desperate. Take away the license from their public-houses, cut down the rookeries and shadowy old avenues in which they are fond of lying in wait, in order to sally out upon people as they pass in the roads; but, above all, establish a good mounted police to ride after the ruffians and drag them by the scruff of the neck to the next clink, 143 where they might lie till they could be properly dealt with by law; instead of which, the Government are repealing the wise old laws enacted against such characters, giving fresh licenses every day to their public-houses, and saying that it would be a pity to cut down their rookeries and thickets, because they look so very picturesque; and, in fact, giving them all kind of encouragement; why, if such behaviour is not enough to drive an honest man mad, I know not what is. It is of no use talking, I only wish the power were in my hands, and if I did not make short work of them, might I be a mere jackass postillion all the remainder of my life.’

Besides acquiring from the ancient ostler a great deal of curious information respecting the ways and habits of the heroes of the road, with whom he had come in contact in the early portion of his life, I picked up from him many excellent hints relating to the art of grooming horses. Whilst at the inn, I frequently groomed the stage and post-horses, and those driven up by travellers in their gigs: I was not compelled, nor indeed expected, to do so; but I took pleasure in the occupation; and I remember at that period one of the principal objects of my ambition was to be a first-rate groom, and to make the skins of the creatures I took in hand look sleek and glossy like those of moles. I have said that I derived valuable hints from the old man, and, indeed, became a very tolerable groom, but there was a certain finishing touch which I could never learn from him, though he possessed it himself, and which I could never attain to by my own endeavours; though my want of success certainly did not proceed from want of application, for I have rubbed the horses down, purring and buzzing all the time, after the genuine ostler fashion, until the perspiration fell in heavy drops upon my shoes, and when I had done my best, and asked the old fellow what he thought of my work, I could never extract from him more than a kind of grunt, which might be translated: ‘Not so very bad, but I have seen a horse groomed much better,’ which leads me to suppose that a person, in order to be a first-rate groom, must have something in him when he is born which I had not, and, indeed, which many other people have not who pretend to be grooms. What does the reader think?

139 Louis Jeremiah Abershaw, hanged on Kennington Common, August 3, 1795. The Bald-faced Stag near Kingston was his headquarters.

140 See Introduction.

141 See Camden Pelham’s ‘Life and Adventures of Galloping Dick.’ Philadelphia, 1863.

142 See p. 27, note.

143 Gaol (cant).

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 14:18