Dreads and Drolls, by Arthur Machen

More Inns

There is a certain “framework” to one of Dickens’s Christmas Stories which, I suppose, is not as well known as many of his occasional works. It is called “Somebody’s Luggage,” and is, as a framework, tolerably artificial. The scheme of it is, that a certain unknown traveller comes to an old fashioned London Inn, situated (I gather) in Holborn or the Strand, writes a great deal in the coffee-room, sends the porter on errands to publishing quarters, stays a night, and vanishes the next evening, leaving all his luggage behind him. Christopher, the head waiter, a most delightful character, becomes curious about this abandoned luggage. He buys it from the proprietress for the amount of the unknown’s bill, and discovers that the luggage is full of manuscripts.

“He had crumpled up this writing of his everywhere, in every part and parcel of his luggage. There was writing in his dressing-case, writing in his boots, writing among his shaving tackle, writing in his hat box, writing folded away down among the whalebones of his umbrella.”

Christopher first of all disposes of the luggage to a dealer not far from St. Clement Danes in the Strand. “On my remarking that I should have thought these articles not quite in his line, he said; ‘No more ith a manth grandmother, Mithter Chrithtoper; but if any man will bring hith grandmother here, and offer her at a fair trifle below what the’ll feth with good luck when the’th thcoured and turned — I’ll buy her.’”

And then Christopher disposes of the Writings to the Editor of the All the Year Round, otherwise Mr. Dickens, and the Christmas Number begins with the manuscript that was found in the traveller’s boots — and I am afraid that it had been better to have left it in his boots.

But what concerns me for the moment with “Somebody’s Luggage,” is the Bill of the man who went away. It is entered under the heading: “Coffee Room, No.4 — the number of the box occupied by the traveller — Feb. 2nd, 1856.” It contains some curious items.

Item £ s. d.
Pen and Paper 6
Port Negus 2 0
Ditto 2 0
Pen and Paper 6
Tumbler Broken 2 6
Brandy 2 0
Pen and Paper 6
Anchovy Toast 2 6
Pen and Paper 6
Bed 3 0
Feb. 3rd £ s. d.
Pen and Paper 6
Breakfast 2 6
Broiled Ham 2 0
Eggs 1 0
Watercresses 1 0
Shrimps 1 0
Pen and Paper 6
Blotting Paper 6
Messenger to Paternoster Row and back 1 6
Again, when No Answer 1 6
Brandy, 2s. Devilled Port Chop, 2s 4 0
Pens and Paper 1 0
Messenger to Albemarle Street and back 1 0
Again (detained), when No Answer 1 6
Salt-cellar broken 3 6
Large Liqueur glass Orange Brandy 1 6
Dinner, Soup, Fish, Joint, and Bird 7 6
Bottle old East India Brown 8 0
Pen and Paper 6
Total £2 16 6

The oddest item is the charge for breakfast. Nominally this was half-a-crown, but this sum covered, it is evident, merely the tea or coffee, the bread and toast and the butter. Everything else is an extra, and these bring the total up to seven-and-sixpence; the profits to the establishment amounting to about 1000 per cent. or more; since I do not believe that the water-cress cost more than a penny. The breakages were also charged excessively, but the bed is cheap at three shillings, and the dinner most reasonable — provided that the dishes were good of their kind. Unfortunately, it is impossible to compare Christophers’ inn with any hotel of our day, since the old kind has ceased to exist, save, perhaps, in a few old hostelries, lingering in small out-of-the-way country towns.

I have stayed at all sorts of houses of entertainment in my day in all parts of this island. I have lodged at small country “pubs” and have been very comfortable; I have stayed at Palatial Hotels in big towns and have been hideously uncomfortable. I remember especially one of these latter. It had a Louis Quatorze, or Quinze, or Seize Tea room, furnished with the utmost luxury. There was marble everywhere, and hot air and cold air, and bathing arrangements that recalled the later Romans at their worst. And they kept me waiting twenty-five minutes for the bacon and eggs at breakfast; and when this rare and exotic dish did appear it was by no means excellent.

A great contrast to this was the Bell at Driffield, in that part of Yorkshire splendidly called the High Wolds. It is an extraordinary country; a great part of it ploughland when I visited it about eight years ago. The fields are huge; some of them, I believe, a hundred acres in extent. There are hardly any trees; they want to grow corn (they told me) not trees. The hedges are about three feet high by a foot broad, and if a hedge shows signs of becoming luxuriant, it is torn up. No weeds were suffered to grow in these hedgerows; not a flower appeared. But the lie of the land was the strangest thing about this strange region. It rose up before you with a great surge and swell; not precipitously, but gently and yet mightily, climbing up and up to the sky line; the white road rising perhaps for three or four miles, and in such a way that one felt that there must be a sudden and tremendous descent on the other side. Indeed I was strongly reminded of the Graveyard Scene in Sir John Martin Harvey’s production of “Hamlet,” the finest piece of scenic illusion that I have ever seen, where there was just such a gradual upward surge of the stage to the panorama cloth of the sky, with the like imperative suggestion that beyond the line of meeting, a thousand feet of sheer, precipitous cliff fell to the sea. But the Wolds were as deceptive as the theatre. The summit of the long wave gained, there was no violent, abrupt fall. The land went slowly down as it had slowly ascended; and then, far away, rose again into another climbing billow, marked by the white chalk road.

But the Bell at Driffield. It is a small, old coaching inn, and I did not suppose that its resources would be very varied. So when the landlord asked me on my first evening there what I would like for breakfast, I said, “Oh, bacon and eggs, I suppose.” Instantly my host was roused. His manner became combative, his chin advanced with a sort of side-toss, peculiar to Yorkshire. And he said:

“Ah don’t know about that. What about devilled kidneys?”

I assented gladly. Next morning, the devilled kidneys came and were admirable. Soon after they were served, the landlord came into the coffee-room. I expressed my high approval of the kidneys. He pointed to the sideboard, on which were a magnificent ham, just cut, and two plump fowls, golden brown from the roasting.

“Now mind you help yourself, Mr. Machen,” said he, in an admonitory manner; implying that he would think very little of me if I did not help myself. “And if there’s anything else you would fancy, I hope you’ll mention it.”

I left early the next day, and bid good-bye to this good host of the Bell. He relaxed a little.

“Coom again, Mr. Machen, coom again. Coom next time for your pleasure, not for your business. As far as I know, you can get oop when you like, and go to bed when you like, and do anything you like for that matter.” And he wagged a genial finger at me, as if he would say that he had imparted the great secret of life. Driving to the station, I found myself thinking of Shenstone’s lines. I quote from memory:

Whoe’er hath travelled life’s dull round,

    Whate’er his fortunes may have been,

Must sigh to think he still has found

    His warmest welcome at an inn.

I have other good inns of pleasant and grateful memory. It is a great thing to stay at the Swan at Wells in summer weather; to look out across the street over the green turf of the close, to see the marvellous imagery of the west front of the cathedral against a sky of such a glowing and luminous blue as one only sees in the west. The inn at Dunster, too, the Luttrell Arms; that has a warm welcome and one of the loveliest prospects in England to commend it. And the Vine at Stafford has an old and flourishing vine making all its front green and living; and within there is the most delightful bar parlour, shaped like a boat. Here the boots brought a bag of list slippers at ten o’clock at night, and we all suited ourselves with slippers, as men who are too comfortable to stir in a hurry. We sat up talking to one another, and to the landlady and her daughter, who sat in the boat-shaped room with us in the old, friendly fashion. It was two o’clock in the morning before we stirred. The next morning, the landlady apologised for keeping me up so late. “But really,” she said smiling, “when one once embarks on these literary conversations, time seems to fly.” I agreed that literature was an absorbing subject; but what I remembered chiefly was some very old bottled ale which, to quote Mr. Bob Sawyer on the brandy at the Blue Lion, Muggleton, was too good to leave in a hurry.

How I wish somebody would open a Bell or a Swan, or a Luttrell Arms, or a Vine — in London!

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/machen/arthur/dreads-and-drolls/chapter24.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38