The Uncommercial Traveller, by Charles Dickens

CHAPTER XXIV— AN OLD STAGE-COACHING HOUSE

Before the waitress had shut the door, I had forgotten how many stage-coaches she said used to change horses in the town every day. But it was of little moment; any high number would do as well as another. It had been a great stage-coaching town in the great stage-coaching times, and the ruthless railways had killed and buried it.

The sign of the house was the Dolphin’s Head. Why only head, I don’t know; for the Dolphin’s effigy at full length, and upside down — as a Dolphin is always bound to be when artistically treated, though I suppose he is sometimes right side upward in his natural condition — graced the sign-board. The sign-board chafed its rusty hooks outside the bow-window of my room, and was a shabby work. No visitor could have denied that the Dolphin was dying by inches, but he showed no bright colours. He had once served another master; there was a newer streak of paint below him, displaying with inconsistent freshness the legend, By J. MELLOWS.

My door opened again, and J. Mellows’s representative came back. I had asked her what I could have for dinner, and she now returned with the counter question, what would I like? As the Dolphin stood possessed of nothing that I do like, I was fain to yield to the suggestion of a duck, which I don’t like. J. Mellows’s representative was a mournful young woman with eye susceptible of guidance, and one uncontrollable eye; which latter, seeming to wander in quest of stage-coaches, deepened the melancholy in which the Dolphin was steeped.

This young woman had but shut the door on retiring again when I bethought me of adding to my order, the words, ‘with nice vegetables.’ Looking out at the door to give them emphatic utterance, I found her already in a state of pensive catalepsy in the deserted gallery, picking her teeth with a pin.

At the Railway Station seven miles off, I had been the subject of wonder when I ordered a fly in which to come here. And when I gave the direction ‘To the Dolphin’s Head,’ I had observed an ominous stare on the countenance of the strong young man in velveteen, who was the platform servant of the Company. He had also called to my driver at parting, ‘All ri-ight! Don’t hang yourself when you get there, Geo-o-rge!’ in a sarcastic tone, for which I had entertained some transitory thoughts of reporting him to the General Manager.

I had no business in the town — I never have any business in any town — but I had been caught by the fancy that I would come and look at it in its degeneracy. My purpose was fitly inaugurated by the Dolphin’s Head, which everywhere expressed past coachfulness and present coachlessness. Coloured prints of coaches, starting, arriving, changing horses, coaches in the sunshine, coaches in the snow, coaches in the wind, coaches in the mist and rain, coaches on the King’s birthday, coaches in all circumstances compatible with their triumph and victory, but never in the act of breaking down or overturning, pervaded the house. Of these works of art, some, framed and not glazed, had holes in them; the varnish of others had become so brown and cracked, that they looked like overdone pie-crust; the designs of others were almost obliterated by the flies of many summers. Broken glasses, damaged frames, lop-sided hanging, and consignment of incurable cripples to places of refuge in dark corners, attested the desolation of the rest. The old room on the ground floor where the passengers of the Highflyer used to dine, had nothing in it but a wretched show of twigs and flower-pots in the broad window to hide the nakedness of the land, and in a corner little Mellows’s perambulator, with even its parasol-head turned despondently to the wall. The other room, where post-horse company used to wait while relays were getting ready down the yard, still held its ground, but was as airless as I conceive a hearse to be: insomuch that Mr. Pitt, hanging high against the partition (with spots on him like port wine, though it is mysterious how port wine ever got squirted up there), had good reason for perking his nose and sniffing. The stopperless cruets on the spindle-shanked sideboard were in a miserably dejected state: the anchovy sauce having turned blue some years ago, and the cayenne pepper (with a scoop in it like a small model of a wooden leg) having turned solid. The old fraudulent candles which were always being paid for and never used, were burnt out at last; but their tall stilts of candlesticks still lingered, and still outraged the human intellect by pretending to be silver. The mouldy old unreformed Borough Member, with his right hand buttoned up in the breast of his coat, and his back characteristically turned on bales of petitions from his constituents, was there too; and the poker which never had been among the fire-irons, lest post-horse company should overstir the fire, was NOT there, as of old.

Pursuing my researches in the Dolphin’s Head, I found it sorely shrunken. When J. Mellows came into possession, he had walled off half the bar, which was now a tobacco-shop with its own entrance in the yard — the once glorious yard where the postboys, whip in hand and always buttoning their waistcoats at the last moment, used to come running forth to mount and away. A ‘Scientific Shoeing — Smith and Veterinary Surgeon,’ had further encroached upon the yard; and a grimly satirical jobber, who announced himself as having to Let ‘A neat one-horse fly, and a one-horse cart,’ had established his business, himself, and his family, in a part of the extensive stables. Another part was lopped clean off from the Dolphin’s Head, and now comprised a chapel, a wheelwright’s, and a Young Men’s Mutual Improvement and Discussion Society (in a loft): the whole forming a back lane. No audacious hand had plucked down the vane from the central cupola of the stables, but it had grown rusty and stuck at N-Nil: while the score or two of pigeons that remained true to their ancestral traditions and the place, had collected in a row on the roof-ridge of the only outhouse retained by the Dolphin, where all the inside pigeons tried to push the outside pigeon off. This I accepted as emblematical of the struggle for post and place in railway times.

Sauntering forth into the town, by way of the covered and pillared entrance to the Dolphin’s Yard, once redolent of soup and stable-litter, now redolent of musty disuse, I paced the street. It was a hot day, and the little sun-blinds of the shops were all drawn down, and the more enterprising tradesmen had caused their ‘Prentices to trickle water on the pavement appertaining to their frontage. It looked as if they had been shedding tears for the stage-coaches, and drying their ineffectual pocket-handkerchiefs. Such weakness would have been excusable; for business was — as one dejected porkman who kept a shop which refused to reciprocate the compliment by keeping him, informed me — ‘bitter bad.’ Most of the harness-makers and corn-dealers were gone the way of the coaches, but it was a pleasant recognition of the eternal procession of Children down that old original steep Incline, the Valley of the Shadow, that those tradesmen were mostly succeeded by vendors of sweetmeats and cheap toys. The opposition house to the Dolphin, once famous as the New White Hart, had long collapsed. In a fit of abject depression, it had cast whitewash on its windows, and boarded up its front door, and reduced itself to a side entrance; but even that had proved a world too wide for the Literary Institution which had been its last phase; for the Institution had collapsed too, and of the ambitious letters of its inscription on the White Hart’s front, all had fallen off but these:

L Y INS T

— suggestive of Lamentably Insolvent. As to the neighbouring market-place, it seemed to have wholly relinquished marketing, to the dealer in crockery whose pots and pans straggled half across it, and to the Cheap Jack who sat with folded arms on the shafts of his cart, superciliously gazing around; his velveteen waistcoat, evidently harbouring grave doubts whether it was worth his while to stay a night in such a place.

The church bells began to ring as I left this spot, but they by no means improved the case, for they said, in a petulant way, and speaking with some difficulty in their irritation, WHAT’S-be-come-of-THE-coach-ES!’ Nor would they (I found on listening) ever vary their emphasis, save in respect of growing more sharp and vexed, but invariably went on, ‘WHAT’S-be-come-of-THE-coach-ES!’ — always beginning the inquiry with an unpolite abruptness. Perhaps from their elevation they saw the railway, and it aggravated them.

Coming upon a coachmaker’s workshop, I began to look about me with a revived spirit, thinking that perchance I might behold there some remains of the old times of the town’s greatness. There was only one man at work — a dry man, grizzled, and far advanced in years, but tall and upright, who, becoming aware of me looking on, straightened his back, pushed up his spectacles against his brown-paper cap, and appeared inclined to defy me. To whom I pacifically said:

‘Good day, sir!’

‘What?’ said he.

‘Good day, sir.’

He seemed to consider about that, and not to agree with me. — ‘Was you a looking for anything?’ he then asked, in a pointed manner.

‘I was wondering whether there happened to be any fragment of an old stage-coach here.’

‘Is that all?’

‘That’s all.’

‘No, there ain’t.’

It was now my turn to say ‘Oh!’ and I said it. Not another word did the dry and grizzled man say, but bent to his work again. In the coach-making days, the coach-painters had tried their brushes on a post beside him; and quite a Calendar of departed glories was to be read upon it, in blue and yellow and red and green, some inches thick. Presently he looked up again.

‘You seem to have a deal of time on your hands,’ was his querulous remark.

I admitted the fact.

‘I think it’s a pity you was not brought up to something,’ said he.

I said I thought so too.

Appearing to be informed with an idea, he laid down his plane (for it was a plane he was at work with), pushed up his spectacles again, and came to the door.

‘Would a po-shay do for you?’ he asked.

‘I am not sure that I understand what you mean.’

‘Would a po-shay,’ said the coachmaker, standing close before me, and folding his arms in the manner of a cross-examining counsel — ‘would a po-shay meet the views you have expressed? Yes, or no?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then you keep straight along down there till you see one. YOU’LL see one if you go fur enough.’

With that, he turned me by the shoulder in the direction I was to take, and went in and resumed his work against a background of leaves and grapes. For, although he was a soured man and a discontented, his workshop was that agreeable mixture of town and country, street and garden, which is often to be seen in a small English town.

I went the way he had turned me, and I came to the Beer-shop with the sign of The First and Last, and was out of the town on the old London road. I came to the Turnpike, and I found it, in its silent way, eloquent respecting the change that had fallen on the road. The Turnpike-house was all overgrown with ivy; and the Turnpike-keeper, unable to get a living out of the tolls, plied the trade of a cobbler. Not only that, but his wife sold ginger-beer, and, in the very window of espial through which the Toll-takers of old times used with awe to behold the grand London coaches coming on at a gallop, exhibited for sale little barber’s-poles of sweetstuff in a sticky lantern.

The political economy of the master of the turnpike thus expressed itself.

‘How goes turnpike business, master?’ said I to him, as he sat in his little porch, repairing a shoe.

‘It don’t go at all, master,’ said he to me. ‘It’s stopped.’

‘That’s bad,’ said I.

‘Bad?’ he repeated. And he pointed to one of his sunburnt dusty children who was climbing the turnpike-gate, and said, extending his open right hand in remonstrance with Universal Nature. ‘Five on ’em!’

‘But how to improve Turnpike business?’ said I.

‘There’s a way, master,’ said he, with the air of one who had thought deeply on the subject.

‘I should like to know it.’

‘Lay a toll on everything as comes through; lay a toll on walkers. Lay another toll on everything as don’t come through; lay a toll on them as stops at home.’

‘Would the last remedy be fair?’

‘Fair? Them as stops at home, could come through if they liked; couldn’t they?’

‘Say they could.’

‘Toll ’em. If they don’t come through, it’s THEIR look out. Anyways, — Toll ’em!’

Finding it was as impossible to argue with this financial genius as if he had been Chancellor of the Exchequer, and consequently the right man in the right place, I passed on meekly.

My mind now began to misgive me that the disappointed coach-maker had sent me on a wild-goose errand, and that there was no post-chaise in those parts. But coming within view of certain allotment-gardens by the roadside, I retracted the suspicion, and confessed that I had done him an injustice. For, there I saw, surely, the poorest superannuated post-chaise left on earth.

It was a post-chaise taken off its axletree and wheels, and plumped down on the clayey soil among a ragged growth of vegetables. It was a post-chaise not even set straight upon the ground, but tilted over, as if it had fallen out of a balloon. It was a post-chaise that had been a long time in those decayed circumstances, and against which scarlet beans were trained. It was a post-chaise patched and mended with old tea-trays, or with scraps of iron that looked like them, and boarded up as to the windows, but having A KNOCKER on the off-side door. Whether it was a post-chaise used as tool-house, summer-house, or dwelling-house, I could not discover, for there was nobody at home at the post-chaise when I knocked, but it was certainly used for something, and locked up. In the wonder of this discovery, I walked round and round the post-chaise many times, and sat down by the post-chaise, waiting for further elucidation. None came. At last, I made my way back to the old London road by the further end of the allotment-gardens, and consequently at a point beyond that from which I had diverged. I had to scramble through a hedge and down a steep bank, and I nearly came down a-top of a little spare man who sat breaking stones by the roadside.

He stayed his hammer, and said, regarding me mysteriously through his dark goggles of wire:

‘Are you aware, sir, that you’ve been trespassing?’

‘I turned out of the way,’ said I, in explanation, ‘to look at that odd post-chaise. Do you happen to know anything about it?’

‘I know it was many a year upon the road,’ said he.

‘So I supposed. Do you know to whom it belongs?’

The stone-breaker bent his brows and goggles over his heap of stones, as if he were considering whether he should answer the question or not. Then, raising his barred eyes to my features as before, he said:

‘To me.’

Being quite unprepared for the reply, I received it with a sufficiently awkward ‘Indeed! Dear me!’ Presently I added, ‘Do you — ‘ I was going to say ‘live there,’ but it seemed so absurd a question, that I substituted ‘live near here?’

The stone-breaker, who had not broken a fragment since we began to converse, then did as follows. He raised himself by poising his finger on his hammer, and took his coat, on which he had been seated, over his arm. He then backed to an easier part of the bank than that by which I had come down, keeping his dark goggles silently upon me all the time, and then shouldered his hammer, suddenly turned, ascended, and was gone. His face was so small, and his goggles were so large, that he left me wholly uninformed as to his countenance; but he left me a profound impression that the curved legs I had seen from behind as he vanished, were the legs of an old postboy. It was not until then that I noticed he had been working by a grass-grown milestone, which looked like a tombstone erected over the grave of the London road.

My dinner-hour being close at hand, I had no leisure to pursue the goggles or the subject then, but made my way back to the Dolphin’s Head. In the gateway I found J. Mellows, looking at nothing, and apparently experiencing that it failed to raise his spirits.

‘I don’t care for the town,’ said J. Mellows, when I complimented him on the sanitary advantages it may or may not possess; ‘I wish I had never seen the town!’

‘You don’t belong to it, Mr. Mellows?’

‘Belong to it!’ repeated Mellows. ‘If I didn’t belong to a better style of town than this, I’d take and drown myself in a pail.’ It then occurred to me that Mellows, having so little to do, was habitually thrown back on his internal resources — by which I mean the Dolphin’s cellar.

‘What we want,’ said Mellows, pulling off his hat, and making as if he emptied it of the last load of Disgust that had exuded from his brain, before he put it on again for another load; ‘what we want, is a Branch. The Petition for the Branch Bill is in the coffee-room. Would you put your name to it? Every little helps.’

I found the document in question stretched out flat on the coffee-room table by the aid of certain weights from the kitchen, and I gave it the additional weight of my uncommercial signature. To the best of my belief, I bound myself to the modest statement that universal traffic, happiness, prosperity, and civilisation, together with unbounded national triumph in competition with the foreigner, would infallibly flow from the Branch.

Having achieved this constitutional feat, I asked Mr. Mellows if he could grace my dinner with a pint of good wine? Mr. Mellows thus replied.

‘If I couldn’t give you a pint of good wine, I’d — there! — I’d take and drown myself in a pail. But I was deceived when I bought this business, and the stock was higgledy-piggledy, and I haven’t yet tasted my way quite through it with a view to sorting it. Therefore, if you order one kind and get another, change till it comes right. For what,’ said Mellows, unloading his hat as before, ‘what would you or any gentleman do, if you ordered one kind of wine and was required to drink another? Why, you’d (and naturally and properly, having the feelings of a gentleman), you’d take and drown yourself in a pail!’

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:30